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Greek Literature.

No doubt where this batch of reviews must start -- with a fat tome by Martin West, (B)(**) The East Face of Helicon,(1) which compiles a massive catalogue of parallels (of language, theme, motif, story-pattern, etc.) between early Greek poetry/myth, from Homer to Aeschylus, and a web of literatures (Anatolian, Hebrew, Mesopotamian, and Syrian) which West brackets, without punning of course, as `West Asiatic'. Extensive trading contacts between Greece and the Near East go back a millennium and more before Homer, and with material goods and technical skills travelled a cultural influence -- on religion, language, music, and much else -- which West contends was `pervasive at many levels and at most times' (59). Parts of West's argument have been broached by others, especially the affinities between Greek and Near Eastern epic both in general poetic terms (similes, treatment of gods, `genre scenes', etc.) and in certain particulars, not least the connections between the Achillean heart of the Iliad and the Gilgamesh epic. But West's supersedes all previous treatments in its sheer wealth and range of detail: his central thesis, taken as a claim of multiple strands of Asiatic influence on archaic Greek culture, seems to me resoundingly demonstrated. Accumulation is, however, both the strength and, in a sense, the weakness of this book. West knows that despite, or even because of, the staggering erudition displayed here (including his own translations from more than half-a-dozen languages), he will leave some readers frustrated by his inclination to lump together `parallels' of every kind and degree of significance. His book is a mixture of the intriguing and the lightweight (e.g., similarities of natural imagery which need not betoken influence at all). This may seem a churlish response to such bravura scholarship, but it is surely surprising that West never broaches the question of how, if at all, his material might affect our interpretation of Greek literature, even though he unwisely endorses the misconceived claim that Hellenists need to know about West Asiatic literature in the same way that Latinists need to know Greek (xi). After the substance of this book has been sifted, and some of its historical claims tested by specialists, we will still need a more explicitly reasoned account of the relationship between the east and west faces of Helicon: after all, even West concedes that the Muses seem to have been a purely Greek creation (170). There is scarcely any reference to Near Eastern matters in Peter Jones's enterprising and useful anthology, Homer, German Scholarship in Translation,(2) a book which tends to confirm that while for much of the twentieth century Homeric scholars in the English-speaking world were obsessed with Parry's model of oral poetry, their German counterparts maintained a broader, more humane approach to the nature of the epics, treating them (as the Greeks did) more as unified works than as objects of speculative analysis. The ten items included, dating from the 1920s to the 1970s (with Schadewaldt and Reinhardt rightly prominent), cover Homeric `sociology', speeches, similes, various characters/episodes, and the relationship between the two epics. Jones's introduction further enhances the volume's value. Instead of merely summarizing, he takes the opportunity to offer his own brisk, forceful survey of the issues, with a good deal of bibliographical guidance (and just an occasional lapse into a slightly schoolmasterly, no-nonsense approach to the poet's `workshop'): his main emphases fall on `narrative strategy' and on the relative freedom of the poet -- oral techniques notwithstanding -- to invent, vary, and modify. The book will certainly allow teachers and students to develop a richer sense of the history of modern Homeric criticism. One grumble: the translations, though accurate, are sometimes ponderous in their retention of quasi-Germanic syntax. That a Parry-centred approach to Homer has ceased to be obligatory among Anglophone scholars is confirmed by Robert Rabel's (B)Plot and Point of View in the Iliad,(3) which has very little to say about oral tradition/technique. Rabel claims support from Aristotle's Poetics, dubiously in my judgement, for a double distinction between `poet' (the speaker of prologues):, Muse-narrator (responsible for the narrative proper), and the characters who speak. The narrator's point of view differs from the characters', Rabel argues, in its implicitly radical critique of the limitations/blindness of their heroic commitments. But in addition, the `poet' is ironically detached from the Muse-narrator: rather than endorsing the latter, he presents a `purely oppositional arrangement of perspectives' and realizes the impossibility of any definitive perspective of his own (as meaning ultimately depends on point of view itself). But what does it tell us to say that the poet's point of view shows us that there is nothing other than different points of view? Rabel's argument strikes me as contrived and self-defeating, which is a shame, since his analysis of the poem itself contains a good deal of humane, sensitive criticism, especially on the psychological fluctuations within the behaviour of heroes. But Rabel's shaping thesis founders on an ultimately reductive dichotomy between meaning as `preexistent' and as `constructed'. Modern verse translations of Homer have been dominated by three Americans, Lattimore, Fitzgerald, and Fagles. The latter has now added an (B)(*)Odyssey.(4) to his well-received Iliad of 1990. Fagles's verse-technique, which uses a line of variable length, is more supple than either Lattimore (with his consistently longer lines, fuller style, and frequent enjambement) or Fitzgerald (whose typically shorter, sometimes flat, verses tend towards the compressed). Lattimore will continue to be preferable for readers who want something closer to the original -- formulaic epithets included -- or who want to compare a verse translation regularly with the Greek. Fagles's extra freeness means that his rendering fails to keep step with the Greek line-numbers, but it has the advantage of making possible a crispness that lends itself more readily to sustained reading. It is good, when all is said and done, that students should have alternatives; they should be encouraged to read Fagles alongside his American predecessors, as well as to consider why, despite the compromises that modern English inevitably imposes on verse translators, it remains vital to resist the prosification of ancient poetry. This new version has the added bonuses of a long, helpful introduction and notes by Bernard Knox, together with maps and a set of genealogical diagrams. From the 1960s to the 1990s the interpretation of Sappho's poetry has become a kind of melting-pot for applications of feminist criticism and for arguments over the relationship between modern and ancient categories of sexuality and gender. This development is traced in the first of a pair of new collections edited by Ellen Greene, (B)Reading Sappho,(5) which brings together an interesting selection of criticism from this period (mostly journal articles), while a companion volume, (B)Re-Reading Sappho,(6) concentrates on the influence of `Sappho' (inverted commas covering the degree of mythologization involved) from antiquity to the present century, including literary reaction (from Catullus to Sylvia Plath), translation, and models of interpretation. What emerges most consistently from the two volumes is, first, the wide variety of historical images that have been created of Sappho, and secondly the preoccupation of a majority of modern critics with the task of locating/defining a special, `dissenting' female voice in the fragments (though beyond that textual level there remains considerable disagreement about how far such a voice can be related to realistic possibilities of either Sappho's biography or her social world). These taro volumes will certainly become central resources in Sappho studies. As I noted in my last batch of reviews, much current writing on Greek poetry emphasizes the original context of performance, attending closely to factors such as occasion, patronage, and audience. This trend is continued by a new collection, Poet, Public, and Performance in Ancient Greece,(7) which stems from a conference in honour of Bruno Gentili (whose book Poetry and its Public in Ancient Greece was something of a path-breaker in this respect). The topics covered include Homer, Simonides (the new Plataea elegy), Theognis, the `wisdom' genres of proverbs, maxims, and apophthegms, tragedy (Bacchae and Ion), the behaviour of Athenian theatre-audiences (an interesting piece by Wallace), and Aristotle's attitudes to the theatre. The pieces are mostly on the short side, the quality extremely mixed, and the interpretation of `performance' too various to make the volume more than the sum of its parts. Performance is also a recurrent emphasis in the attractive (B)(*)The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy,(8) which not only contains chapters on Dionysiac festivity (Easterling), the theatre audience (Goldhill), pictorial `evidence for performance (Taplin), and formal conventions (Easterling), but devotes a whole third of its bulk to treatment of the `reception' of tragedy, in antiquity itself (Easterling again), the Renaissance (Burian), and modern times (Macintosh). It needs saying that this is not really a companion to individual plays and playwrights, which receive only intermittent attention, but to the original cultural context, the afterlife, and the ongoing interpretation of the genre. Moreover, the overall perspective is somewhat Cantabrigian: witness, near the outset, Cartledge's confident overstatement that tragedy was a `major' ingredient of the `political foreground' of Athens (3). There is a good deal throughout about ideological values, but very little about, say, pity (which Athenians thought fundamental to their experience of tragedy). The book's overall critical tendency is put in a kind of context by its own final chapter, an analysis of modern critical approaches (Goldhill) whose emphases correspond to The Companion's concerns with performance and cultural-cum-anthropological analysis. In all, this book will be a valuable reference-point for the next generation of students of tragedy. Its scholarship is generally reliable (though both Cartledge and Hall wrongly, and rather revealingly, suggest that all fifth-century tragic actors were Athenian); there is a Glossary, Chronology, and good index. If the view of tragedy as ideologically charged has moved towards the centre of modern criticism, Sophie Mills's (B)(**) Theseus, Tragedy and the Athenian Empire(9) represents a particular case-study. In the late archaic and classical periods the Athenians `refurbished' the figure of Theseus, playing down some of his negative features (e.g., his treatment of Ariadne), promoting him at the expense of the more panhellenic hero Heracles, and turning him eventually into an embodiment of Athens' own (idealized) self-image as a civilization characterized by justice, piety, generosity, loyalty to friends, etc. Mills explores this whole story in meticulous detail, examining in the process all Theseus' appearances in extant tragedy as well as the evidence for his role in lost plays. Mills sees Athenian manipulation of the Theseus myth for self-aggrandisement as parallel to the city's imperialist expansionism in the fifth century. At the same time, she does not altogether reduce the tragic Theseus to a function of propaganda: his virtues in a play such as Euripides' Hercules Furens are none the less tested within a context of `complexity, uncertainty and suffering'. This is a fine book, packed with carefully documented observations on the relationship between tragedy, myth, and politics in Athens. One of Mills's plays, the Oedipus Coloneus, is the subject of a new monograph by Joseph Wilson, (B)The Hero and the City.(10) Whereas Mills reads the play as partly about Theseus/Athens as a haven of civilized morality, Wilson regards the praise of Theseus as reflecting badly on (democratic) Athens itself: Sophocles is delivering some `final lessons' on the failures of the contemporary city. Wilson writes in deliberate reaction against `theory-driven, jargon-fiddled discourse' (viii), but the result of this aim is unfortunately a kind of writing that turns too easily into opinionated, quasi-journalistic glibness (e.g., `Aeschylus wrote of ideas, Euripides of people; Sophocles managed to do both', 3). Wilson's main idea is that Oedipus is a hero (not a suppliant) who receives proper recognition only from another hero, Theseus. For all his faults, including some special pleading over his incest (but Wilson's own case here, 150-1, is pedantically strained), Oedipus represents a greatness that is meant to show up the shortcomings of mediocre humanity. But much of this book is marred by a somewhat Kittoesque assertiveness which reduces critical issues to right/wrong answers, and which is scarcely justified by the author's own often unconvincing scholarship (including a bizarre interpretation of the Sphinx's riddle which the author tested by tying his own legs together, 15 n. 31!). Now that Apollonius Rhodius has become not only the subject of a substantial scholarly industry, but also an author widely prescribed in Classical Civilization courses, it is good to see the choice of translations of the poem expanded by Peter Green's (B)(*)The Argonautika.(11) Green uses a kind of free verse, typically lines of five/six beats. He achieves considerable narrative fluency, and should be no harder for students to read than Hunter's World's Classics prose (which Green finds `flat and businesslike'); at the same time he often manages, unlike Barbara Fowler's 1990 verse translation, to keep something of the interplay between verse-structure and sentence-structure in the original. What Green cannot find, inevitably, is an English equivalent to Apollonius' self-conscious reworking of Homeric language. Green's introduction reconsiders matters biographical, cultural, and mythical, and unfashionably reasserts belief in the `quarrel' between Apollonius (a religious archaizer, reacting against contemporary scepticism) and Callimachus. The glossary is extremely thorough; the maps look good but have flaws (check, e.g., Salamis and Aigina on map 1). Green's 160-page commentary, which covers many aspects of the poem with a fresh touch, is unfortunately omitted from the paperback: it would have been preferable to shorten the paperback introduction, and include a selection of notes. But this remains a very substantial enterprise, which should boost. Apollonius' current standing even further.


(1.) The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. By M. L. West. Oxford U.P., 1997. Pp. xxvi + 662. 50.00 [pounds sterling].

(2.) Homer, German Scholarship in Translation. Translated by G. M. Wright and P. V. Jones. Oxford U.P., 1997. Pp. vii + 346. 45.00 [pounds sterling].

(3.) Plot and Point of View in the Iliad. By Robert J. Rabel. University of Michigan Press, 1997. Pp. xi + 251. 35.00 [pounds sterling].

(4.) Homer, the Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1997. Pp. 543. Paper 12.99 [pounds sterling].

(5.) Reading Sappho, Contemporary Approaches. Classics and Contemporary Thought Vol. II. Edited by Ellen Greene. University of California Press, 1996. Pp. xiii + 303. 32.00 [pounds sterling].

(6.) Re-reading Sappho, Reception and Transmission. Classics and Contemporary Thought Vol. III. Edited by Ellen Greene. University of California Press, 1996. Pp. xiii + 254. 32.00 [pounds sterling].

(7.) Poet, Public, and Performance in Ancient Greece. Edited by Lowell Edmunds and Robert W. Wallace. Johns Hopkins U.P., 1997. Pp. xv + 169. 31.00 [pounds sterling].

(8.) The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Edited by P. E. Easterling. Cambridge U.P., 1997. Pp. xvii + 392, with 33 illustrations. Hardback 40.00 [pounds sterling], paperback 14.95 [pounds sterling].

(9.) Theseus, Tragedy and the Athenian Empire. Oxford Classical Monograph. By Sophie Mills. Oxford U.P., 1997. Pp. ix + 293. 45.00 [pounds sterling].

(10.) The Hero and the City: an Interpretation of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus. By Joseph W. Wilson. University of Michigan Press, 1997. Pp. ix + 208. 29.95 [pounds sterling].

(11.) Apollonios Rhodios, The Argonautika. The Story of Jason and the Quest for the Golden Fleece. Hellenistic Culture and Society Vol. XXV. Translated, with Introduction, Commentary, and Glossary, by Peter Green. University of California Press, 1997. Pp. xvi + 474 and xvi + 301, with 5 maps. Cloth $60.00 with commentary, paper $13.95 without commentary.

((*) denotes that a book is specially recommended for school libraries; (**) that it is suitable for advanced students only; (B) that a bibliography is included.)
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Greece & Rome
Article Type:Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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