STESICHORUS IN CONTEXT

Edited by P.J. Finglass and Adrian Kelly

CUP (2015) h/b 211pp £69.99 (ISBN 9781107645660)

It has been a good half century or so for Stesichorus: Helen, famously so infuriated by his badmouthing that she blinded him until he retracted everything in his Palinode, has evidently been in a good mood. The 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s saw a number of important papyrus finds, in most cases in time for Denys Page to give them a healthy going-over for inclusion in Poetae Melici Graeci. That allowed us to see, for instance, the sensitivity with which Stesichorus told of Geryon confronted by Heracles, humanising the monster and evoking genuine sympathy. The 2010s are now proving a good decade as well, with a new edition in 2014 by Finglass and Davies (intr. and text by Finglass, contributions by Davies to the comm.) and now this fine collection, springing from an Oxford conference in 2012. The editors have collected a first-rate cast list, and there is not a dud among the essays.

‘Stesichorus in context’: a good aspiration, but it is so difficult to know what that context was, historical, social, and particularly literary. Most of the ancient comments relate him one way or another to Homer; but we know so little of what came between Homer and Stesichorus, and there is a constant danger of what Adrian Kelly here calls the WYSIATI fallacy, ‘what you see is all there is’. But Kelly still argues that we can detect something new in Stesichorus’ relation to the Iliad and Odyssey, not just brief gestures towards the high spots but a sustained intertextual engagement.

Chris Carey similarly identifies something new in the relation to the epic cycle, very likely at the stage when those poems were coalescing into a textual form; he notes that Stesichorus prefigures the tragic convention of favouring themes from the cycle rather than those of the Iliad and Odyssey themselves. Martin West—whose sudden death this summer was such a shock—is also good at identifying where the ‘lyric epic’ of Stesichorus differs both from Homer and from the other lyric poets. And Patrick Finglass puts his finger on several features showing Stesichorus’ distinctive skill in building a narrative, often avoiding the obvious emphases or climaxes.

Athenaeus thought of Stesichorus as a love poet, and Ian Rutherford explores ‘Stesichorus the romantic’. ‘Sweet’ is another epithet, and Richard Hunter examines this in wondering how much Stesichorus looms in the background of another Helen poem, Theocritus 18: there are insightful things along the way about Alcman, Sappho, Alcaeus, Plato, and not least the Odyssey. Laura Swift skilfully disentangles the role of Stesichorus’ management of the myths in the background of tragedy, with very good comment about, say, the differences between Stesichorus and Aeschylus in treating Clytemnestra’s sinister dream of a snake-like Orestes. And maybe she is right to think that some at least of the audience would know enough of Stesichorus to notice the differences: in an admittedly speculative piece, Ewen Bowie traces the evidence for ‘Stesichorus at Athens’, even finding a role for Hippocleides—yes, him, the man with the legs dancing in the air (Hdt. 6.129).

So there is a lot of high-class detective work here, enough to engage non-specialists as well as connoisseurs. Part of the interest comes from seeing these master-detectives come to different conclusions, for there is still so much that we do not know. Were the poems performed by chorus or soloist? Most of the contributors favour the choral view, but West favours the soloist. One extensive fragment is usually attributed to Ibycus but West thinks that it is Stesichorus; in both these cases the odds seem to me about 50-50.

All these blanks make the last piece particularly interesting, where Gerson Schade gives a quick tour of the ways in which writers of earlier generations have dropped Stesichorus’ name despite knowing even less than we do: Schade thinks aptly of Pierre Bayard’s best-selling ‘How to talk about books you haven’t read’. It is Anne Carson, rightly given a large share of the chapter, who provided some genuine engagement with the poetry itself, available of course to her in greater quantity than to her predecessors. It is that poignant treatment of Geryon that she treats so well, finally providing ‘an allusive, dense, and emotional interplay between texts more than two and a half millennia apart’, the final words of the book. One earlier author, though, does stick in the memory: one Scipione Bargagli (1540-1612), who allows an anonymous lady to muse on the unwisdom of ever becoming involved with a poet. They either pretend something has happened when it was nothing really, or give you a terrible time in their verse if you say no. The girlfriends of the Latin love poets must have felt the same way.

Christopher Pelling—Christ Church, Oxford

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