Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Anne L. Klinck, Woman's Songs in Ancient Greece. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008. Pp. xxii, 290. ISBN 9780773534483. $85.00. ISBN 9780773534490. $32.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Mary R. Lefkowitz, Wellesley College

Table of Contents

Klinck, professor emerita at the University of New Brunswick, is the author of a book on old English elegy and editor of An Anthology of Ancient and Medieval Women's Song, with texts and translations of selections from Alcman, Sappho, Aristophanes, Euripides, and Theocritus, prefaced by brief introductions.1 The present anthology is a "collection and study based on voice and performance rather than authorship." The poems and passages selected are "expressions of a sense of female community. They represent a constructed rather than an essential femininity--constructed differently by male and female authors" (ix-x). The inclusion of passages from poems by male writers allows readers to hear female voices in the kinds of extreme situations that no surviving ancient Greek woman writer chose to describe.

Unlike Klinck's earlier volume, this anthology seems to be primarily intended for readers who know at least some Greek and who wish to have some contact with the original texts. For the convenience of those readers, Greek texts of the selections discussed have facing English translations, plus explanatory notes in which Greek words are cited in transliteration. A general introduction and introductory sections before each chapter provide surveys of relevant issues and scholarship which assume that readers already have some background in Greek literature, if only in translation. Such readers (including advanced undergraduates) will find in this book a well-informed and useful guide to the many complex issues involved in understanding the nature and function of women's songs. Experienced scholars also will find Klinck's discussion of the texts stimulating and informative.

The general introduction begins with a judicious discussion of various theories of performance put forth in the last fifty years. Klinck argues that oral transmission might have made it possible for audiences to fail to make a distinction between author and performer, and perhaps even to forget about the author altogether. But can we know what any audiences thought, given the almost total lack of any contemporary information about reception? Klinck rightly warns against taking traditional and modern designations of genres too seriously, or drawing too sharp a distinction between public and private. Klinck uses the term gynaikeia mele to describe poetry either by anonymous or female or male authors with women-voiced speakers who warn about the dangers of passion and other forms of excess, and briefly notes how the tradition continued in Western Europe; readers who wish to know more will need to refer to her earlier anthology.2 Klinck sees ancient Greek maiden-song as a genre that was particularly acceptable in a male-dominated culture, because of the modesty and piety voiced by the girl speakers.3 She surveys the role of the "innocent, unheroic" female choruses in Greek drama, and briefly describes the learned and self-conscious depictions of women's life in the poetry of the Hellenistic period. In conclusion, Klinck makes a general distinction between the spontaneous and communal character of women's writing (and songs written by men for maidens) and the more dangerous femininity portrayed in works by men.

The anthology is weighted toward songs written by women and by men for women's choruses. Texts are presented in chronological order: most of Alcman, followed by most of Sappho and of Corinna, then Pindar's partheneia, and fragments of other lyric poetry, including Simonides on Danae. Klinck then offers lyric passages from drama: Electra's opening monologue and exchanges with the chorus and Orestes from Sophocles' drama (though not the urn speech), then from Euripides the first and second stasima of the Hippolytus and the third and terrifying fourth stasima of the Bacchae. These selections, with their emphasis on piety and morality, provide good illustrations of what Klinck would call "constructed" notions of female character and, in case of the chorus of Asian Bacchants, of considerable emotional excess. Klinck's translations are occasionally too anodyne. For example, "what is lovely is always dear," seems far too polite for the refrain ho ti kalon philon aei (Eur., Ba. 881, 901), because in this passage the chorus is singing about the gratification that comes from defeating one's enemy. The final chapter presents some of Nossis' epigrams, Theocritus' Epithalamion for Helen, and Bion's Lament for Adonis, selections that describe the communal behavior of women.

It is all too easy to second-guess the compilers of anthologies, but Erinna's Distaff (Supp.Hell. 401) would logically have belonged in this collection, even though it is composed in dactylic hexameter, like the passages that Klinck includes from Theocritus and Bion. As long as Klinck was including non-lyric verses, she might also have added some passages from tragedy in which women speak in iambic trimeter about womanly virtues: e.g., Andromache's speech about being a good wife (Eur., Tro. 643-58) or Jocasta's speech recommending equality in government (Phoen. 531-48), or Praxithea's patriotic speech from Euripides' Erechtheus (TrGF 5.1, 360).4 In ancient Greek poetry at least, women could act as wise advisors to men.


1.   Anne L. Klinck, ed., An Anthology of Ancient and Medieval Woman's Song (Gordonsville, VA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
2.   See Klinck 2004 (n.1) 1-15.
3.   One wonders if the content was similar in the informal girls' wedding songs alluded to in Pindar, Pyth. 3. 16-19, or the relayed "Sapphic conversations" (Posidippus IX 2) and "the Sapphic songs, divine melodies" accompanying the dirges sung for a dead girl (Posidippus VIII.24), where Sapphoia presumably means "in the style of Sappho," songs by women for women.
4.   For other possibilities, see e.g., "Men's Words in Women's Mouths" in Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant, eds., Women's Life in Greece and Rome, Ed. 3 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 10-15, 367-69 (not included in Klinck's bibliography).

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