Monday, May 30, 2016


P. J. Finglass, Adrian Kelly (ed.), Stesichorus in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xii, 220. ISBN 9781107069732. $110.00.

Reviewed by Pauline LeVen, Yale University (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

What Anne Carson says of Stesichorus' monster Geryon in her Autobiography of Red goes for the poet himself: "there is no person without a world" (XXVII, Mitwelt). With the intense scholarly activity that has surrounded Stesichorean poetry in the last two decades, and with excellent recent editions of Stesichorus' fragments and testimonia now available, it is only natural to hope for a volume that will unveil more of the intriguing world of the Sicilian poet.1 Patrick Finglass and Adrian Kelly's edited volume, Stesichorus in Context, makes a step into that direction, but the promise of the title remains only partially fulfilled.

The book is structured around three ideas based on ancient claims about Stesichorus: first, that Stesichorus is "supremely Homeric" (Ὁμηρικώτατος, On the Sublime 13.3); second, that there is more to his narrative technique than Quintilian's remark "[Stesichorus] is redundant and diffuse" (redundat atque effunditur, Inst. 10.1.62); finally, that even though a character in a fifth-century comedy declares that "it is old- fashioned to sing Stesichorus' works" (τὰ Στησιχόρου... ἀρχαῖον ἀείδειν, Eupolis, fr. 148 PCG), the poet's influence can be traced throughout centuries, from the mid-sixth century BCE to our days. 
 First, Stesichorus and epic. In his choice of epico-Doric dialect and dactylic meter, his use of images, his thematic choices, and perhaps also in his mode of performance, it is clear that the lyric poet recalls, reworks, or plays with the archaic epic tradition. For Adrian Kelly (chapter 2), Stesichorus introduces a break in literary history in the way he uses Homeric language and allusions. While Sappho, Alcaeus, and Alcman merely relied on their listeners' acquaintance with Homeric formulae, knowledge of marquee episodes, or ability to recognize stock scenes, Stesichorus requires his audience to have a thorough knowledge of the details of the Homeric text to be able to enjoy the effects of his own lyric. Chris Carey (chapter 3) discusses Stesichorus' relationship with the larger archaic hexameter epic tradition, both in terms of themes and performance context. On Carey's reading, too, Stesichorus marks an "evolutionary leap" in literary history (p. 54), as he combines elements from different strands of the heroic narrative tradition, both Homeric epic and the Cycle, into a creative synthesis. Stesichorus' new type of lyric narrative could have been associated with the growth of competitions "along the lines of the rhapsodic contests or the dithyrambic competitions in Athens," which could have "form[ed] part of the cultural amalgam from which tragedy eventually emerged as distinct performance mode" (p. 53). M. L. West's attention is on the notion of genre itself (chapter 4). Distinguishing between formal criteria (meter and dialect) and other markers (thematic, stylistic, context of performance), West speculates on the type of tradition that might lie behind the Stesichorean production: the poet could be representing a form of "lyric epic" typical of Southern Italy, combining very familiar traits of epic narrative with unique forms of lyric address, as well as "individual introductions and concluding sections, in architectonic musical structures with large, repeating strophes, varied by epodes at every third stop" (p. 78).

Two main aspects of Stesichorean poetics are treated in the shorter second part of the book. In chapter 5, Patrick Finglass considers three Stesichorean poems, the Thebais, Cycnus and Helen, from which "enough survives to allow some controlled speculation concerning the content and shaping of the works in question" (p. 96). In those poems, the interplay between speech and narrative, methods of characterization, and the overall shaping of the plot to achieve emotional effect attest to the fact that Stesichorus is a "master of narrative" (the title of the chapter). Chapter 6 (Ian Rutherford) investigates a lesser-known side of Stesichorus. A handful of poems usually confined to the dubia and spuria of the poet (the Rhadine, the Calyce, and the Daphnis) offer a different view of the narrative art of the poet. Without arguing for the authenticity of these pieces, Rutherford considers what this tradition of a "romantic Stesichorus" adds to our understanding of the heroic poet. The poems could have had a link to a local cult, but they could also have "anticipated Greek romance after all" (p. 108).

Lastly, Stesichorus' reception. Ewen Bowie (chapter 7) inquires into the entangled relationships between performance and politics over the course of 150 years and focuses on three representative moments of Stesichorean poetic presence in Athens: in the 420s (where Aristophanic parody suggests that Stesichorus' Oresteia and other bits were known, perhaps through sympotic performance); in the "already lively agonistic culture" of the 480s; and in the mid sixth century, when performances of Stesichorus in Attica might have been promoted by Hippocleides, Miltiades and other Philaids, "outward-looking members of the elite." Laura Swift's chapter (chapter 8) examines the presence of Stesichorus in fifth-century tragedy and describes possible verbal and thematic links between Stesichorean and tragic passages of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Stesichorean influence is particularly important for characterization (especially of female characters), and for highlighting significant themes in the tragic treatment of myth. In chapter 9, Richard Hunter deals with ancient testimonia about Stesichorus' "sweetness" (γλυκύτης, a term used by Hermogenes). For Hunter, it is not so much the use of epithets that contributes to the "sweet" quality of the poet's style but the choice of erotic plots. A specific case of such Stesichorean "sweetness" is examined in Theocritus' subtle reworking (among other sources) of Stesichorus' Helen in Idyll 18. In chapter 10, Gerson Schade provides a survey of readings of Stesichorus from Pierre de Ronsard to Anne Carson. Much before papyri of the poet's compositions were discovered in the latter part of the twentieth century, Stesichorus' name was deemed "worthy of mention" (p. 164) by French Renaissance poets, Italian humanists, and decadentismo figures, who engaged with Stesichorus via Plato's description of the poet's palinode in the Phaedrus and Horace's palinodes. The last part of the chapter provides readings of the "allusive, dense, and emotional interplays" (p. 185) between Stesichorus' monster Geryon and Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red.

This brings me back to where I started and to the title of the book: Stesichorus in Context. What is meant by context exactly, or what context is meant? It is difficult to know what the editors intended, since there is neither introduction nor conclusion highlighting a specific direction for the volume. The first chapter, as a matter of fact, does not make any claim about the ambition or goals of the book: instead, Finglass offers an overview of "the state of Stesichorean studies" (that is, a survey of the ways Stesichorus' text came to be known to the public, from Athenaeus' quotations to the most current editions of the poet) and Kelly provides a summary of the chapters collected in the volume. Yes, the cast of contributors is impressive, the scholarship impeccable, and each chapter thorough and illuminating on its own. But as a whole, the volume provides an approach to Stesichorus in contexts (plural), or even a sample of brilliant Stesichorean scholarship in a twenty-first century context, rather than the sense of a world.

It is all the more surprising not to find a line of investigation clearly articulated, as many of the chapters are actually in dialogue with each other — without stating it explicitly or making systematic cross-references. Several threads run through the volume and I see them as follows: the first is the question of the nature and position of the Stesichorean poetic production within archaic performance culture. There is no need of course to return to older meditations on the issue of the solo/choral nature of the corpus of the lyricist named "the-one-who-sets-up-the-chorus." But several contributors reflect on the question of the poet's mode of performance. I would have liked to know, in particular, how West's suggestion that performance of "hexameter epic by citharodes" (p. 77) influenced Stesichorus' invention of "lyric epic" squares with Carey's idea of "competitions in epic-lyric (either choral or citharodic) along the lines of the rhapsodic contests or the dithyrambic competitions in Athens." Are both scholars imagining the same roots for the performance context that lead to the type of poetry Stesichorus composed? Are their different scenarios compatible? The white elephant in this admittedly dark room is the citharodic nome: how do Stesichorus' lyric-epic compositions relate to that genre that will become so important? Finally, if some sort of musical competition scenario is indeed the context that we are to imagine for Stesichorus' compositions, can't we supplement Kelly's claim about Homeric intertextuality with insights from that context of performance (i.e. what audiences are we to imagine for Stesichorus' very learned use of Homer—a festival audience? How large/select a festival audience?)

The second thread running through several chapters is the Sicilian element: to what extent does Stesichorus provide a link between a Western lyric tradition (marked by the names of Xanthus and Xenocrates) and mainland Greek tradition of (sympotic?) performance of Sicilian poetry? In a different vein, how truly Sicilian are the erotic / pastoral themes attributed to the poet? The former two questions are tackled by West and Carey, the latter hinted at by Rutherford and Hunter. Given recent scholarly attempts to have a less Athenocentric view of Greek poetry and performance, surely more can be said (or examined more systematically) about Stesichorus' pivotal position between traditions. In that regard, the lack of a chapter on the testimonia devoted to the poet and his origins is all the more striking.

The last recurring thread is the question of Stesichorean poetics: both Finglass and Rutherford go some way toward suggesting the range of the poet's artfulness (especially with remarks on characterization (p. 86) and fictionality (p. 106)), but additional insights can be gleaned from other chapters. Carey for example has fascinating comments on focalization (p. 59), Swift on imagery (p. 130), and Schade on the poet's "intense, cinematic detail[s], as if [a scene] was being filmed or photographed in close-up" (p. 182). Bowie's reference (p. 113) to a scholiast's comment on the practice of "interweaving" as something Stesichorean gives us a better sense of what makes the poet so rewarding to read, as do Hunter's remarks (p. 154-8) on the originality of the Stesichorean Helen (via a reading of Gorgias and Theocritus). But it takes work from a reader to gather all these gems from different chapters, and it would take much more to see how they might work together in an actual continuous reading of the fragments.

Many of these questions, of course, cannot find an easy answer, but openly acknowledging that most of the contributors in the volume reflect on the same set of underlying issues would go some way towards providing a more solid context for reading Stesichorus. As things stand, there is much to be gained from this learned volume, but we are still some distance away from encountering the world of the poet.

Table of Contents

1. The state of Stesichorean studies - P. J. Finglass and Adrian Kelly
Part I. Stesichorus and Epic:
2. Stesichorus' Homer - Adrian Kelly
3. Stesichorus and the Epic Cycle - Chris Carey
4. Epic, lyric, and lyric epic - M. L. West
Part II. Stesichorean Poetics:
5. Stesichorus, master of narrative - P. J. Finglass
6. Stesichorus the romantic - Ian Rutherford
Part III. Reception and Influence:
7. Stesichorus at Athens - Ewen Bowie
8. Stesichorus on stage - Laura Swift
9. Sweet Stesichorus: Theocritus 18 and the Helen revisited - Richard Hunter
10. Stesichorus' readers: from Pierre de Ronsard to Anne Carson - Gerson Schade


1.   The most recent edition of the fragments is M. Davies, P. J. Finglass, Stesichorus: The Poems. Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries, 54. Cambridge: 2014 (on which see BMCR 2015.10.40). For the testimonia, M. Ercoles, Stesicoro: le testimonianze antiche. Bologna: 2013.

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