Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Mark Heerink, Echoing Hylas: A Study in Hellenistic and Roman Metapoetics. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison; London: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2015. Pp. xii, 243. ISBN 9780299305406. $65.00 (hb).

Reviewed by Sarah J. Harden, Winchester College (sjh@wincoll.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This book, which is based on the author's doctoral thesis, examines the treatment of the Hylas myth in Hellenistic and Roman poetry from a metapoetic perspective. Its scope is broad, with individual chapters devoted to the detailed discussion of the myth in different authors; the main focus points are Apollonius of Rhodes, Theocritus, Propertius, Valerius Flaccus and Statius, although there is constant close reference to many other authors, most frequently Callimachus, Virgil and Ovid (of which more later).

The introduction makes clear that the Hylas myth, despite a rich history of interpretation, has thus far lacked a coherent metapoetic reading. The association of echo with the Hylas myth from its earliest appearance in literature is elegantly and persuasively shown to signal a likely metapoetic function for the myth more generally. The argument about the etymological significance of Hylas' name (which Heerink says is derived from the word ὕλη in its sense of 'poetic subject-matter', p. 9) is marred by a lack of acknowledgement that Hylas is not from the same root as ὕλη (the proper noun has a short upsilon and is more likely etymologically linked to ὑλάω 'I howl'); an appeal to folk etymology would easily rehabilitate the argument, but such a distinction between modern etymology and ancient practice is not explicitly drawn by Heerink. Nonetheless, the introduction does make clear that we should at least seriously consider the possible metapoetic resonances of the myth. Heerink splits the book into two parts and clearly sets out the main thesis of each. The chapters on Apollonius and Theocritus will argue that these poets used the figure of Hylas 'to explore and express ideas that were central to their poetical agendas. By contrasting the boy Hylas with the symbol of epic poetry par excellence, Hercules, they positioned their own poetry in the literary tradition' (p. 6). The second part of the book, on the Latin poets, aims to investigate how Hylas as a vehicle of 'Callimachean' poetics was received and used by Roman poets.

A portion of the introduction defines what is meant by 'Callimachean' poetics as the practice of the Hellenistic poets working in Alexandria under the Ptolemies, characterised (among other attributes) by their learning, self-consciousness in the face of literary tradition, and their desire for originality. The term 'Callimachean' is adopted because 'Callimachus is the most famous and explicit representative of this new, self-conscious poetic avant-garde'. Heerink himself admits the term 'Hellenistic' or 'Alexandrian' would also have been appropriate, and indeed it would seem misleading to use the term 'Callimachean' when in fact, as proves to be the case throughout the book, the influence of the other Alexandrian poets is clearly seen in the later works. The introduction ends with a brief and well-argued defence of the presence of metapoetic elements in ancient works and a statement of the value in examining a single metapoetic myth across many texts: this will provide 'a diachronic study of self-reflexive discourse' as metapoetic analysis of later texts will potentially shed further light on metapoetic elements in the earlier texts, an approach used most notably by Hardie (1993) with regard to Virgil and his epic successors and which here provides many fruitful readings of earlier Greek texts based on later Greek and Latin treatments of the Hylas myth (see detailed discussion below).1

Chapter 1, focusing on Apollonius of Rhodes, argues that the myth of Hylas is an allegorical representation of Apollonius' relationship with his poetic predecessor, Homer. Hylas, the young boy who comes to maturity during the course of the story, is equated with Apollonius (argues Heerink) while Heracles, the old-style epic hero, is equated with Homer. Heerink notes that the heroism of Heracles becomes increasingly unfit for purpose within the Argonautica, exploring the metapoetic (and humorous!) implications of the older hero almost sinking the Argo because he is too heavy for the ship to carry: this is persuasively depicted as representing allegorically the tension between the grand, archaic epics and Apollonius' more delicate 'Callimachean' version.

Using the well-established pattern of epic characters functioning as mirrors for the poet within the text (Odysseus' Apologoi in the Odyssey and Achilles' lyre-singing in the Iliad are both given as examples), Heerink seeks to link not just Hylas with the poet but also Jason, as a new style of epic hero characterized by his attractive appearance and way with words; he succeeds in his mission partly because of his erotic appeal to Medea, and Apollonius succeeds as a poet by writing a different kind of epic, one with a more elegiac theme and Callimachean aesthetics.

In a detailed discussion of the metapoetic significance of the spring in the Hylas story and the golden fleece as described at Arg. 4.166-73, Heerink argues persuasively that both spring and fleece can be read as metapoetic ciphers for the poem itself: a Callimachean epic influenced by, but independent of, Homeric epic. Hylas' maturation from the pederastic affair with Heracles to the heterosexual union with the nymph symbolises Apollonius' maturation as a poet, and this does not constitute a rejection of Homer, but rather a bid for originality within the inherited genre.

Chapter 2, on Theocritus, argues that Idyll 13 should be read as an 'allegory describing the type of poetry that Theocritus is credited with inventing: bucolic' (p.54) and that the figures of Hylas and Heracles operate as symbols of Callimachean poetry and the heroic-epic tradition respectively. The chapter opens with a long discussion of the problems with defining bucolic as a genre, the relationship between bucolic and epic poetry and the prevalence of metapoetic elements in bucolic before moving on to the Hylas episode in Idyll 13, the analysis of which is incredibly detailed and claims allusion to a dizzying array of other texts. Indeed, the sheer amount of intertexts adduced for this slim episode at times makes the argument hard to follow. For instance, the discussion of the 'Callimachean' nature of the spring in two and a half lines of Idyll 13 references not just Callimachus' Hymn to Apollo and Epigram 28 but also Idyll 7, Propertius 1.20 and Iliad 13; the relevance of this latter intertext to the main argument is not clear at all. The detailed discussion of Polyphemus in Idyll 11 also obfuscates the thrust of the argument, which is that we should read Hylas and Heracles as allegories for Theocritus and Homer. Their father-son pedagogical relationship, as portrayed in Idyll 13, is read as Theocritus' statement of homage to Homer and independence from him: as Hylas develops away from Heracles into a heterosexual relationship, so Theocritus is creating a new genre that has its roots in the bucolic elements of the Iliad.

Chapter 3 sees a shift to Latin poetry and to poem 1.20 of Propertius. This chapter too has a huge amount of detailed textual analysis and quotation that makes the argument hard to follow. The claims for intertextuality become rather dizzying. For instance, regarding Propertius 1.20.21-22 we are told that '[a]t first sight, Propertius seems to allude to both Apollonius and Theocritus, whose descriptions allude to each other'. This is then developed into an instance of intra-textuality with Propertius 1.11.14 (pp. 106-7); however, it is not clear how a description of the Argonauts making their beds can really have a metapoetic function within the poem. Telling the same myth will necessarily mean that some parts of it are similar to previous versions without any active allusion taking place: no retelling has to include every detail, and thus any repetition requires careful examination as to why the poet included it.

Despite some elegant ideas (the spring in Propertius 1.20 is certainly Callimachean; there is brilliance in Heerink's suggestion that Propertius has 'elegized' the Argonauts Zetes and Calais, who hassle Hylas for kisses as he tries to go about his business), the overly detailed discussion, which involves many passages all apparently alluding simultaneously to one another, obscures a clear sense of where the argument is going: so, on pp. 109-10, the metapoetic significance of the Hylas myth in Propertius 1.20 gets lost in a discussion of Virgil Eclogue 6 and Lucretius; Ovid is also brought into the discussion. The sheer range of evidence adduced makes it hard for the reader to follow with ease Heerink's argument that Propertius uses the Hylas myth to show his elegiac mastery in respect of his poetic rivals Virgil and Gallus.

Chapter 4 turns to Valerius Flaccus and Statius. Here the policy of using Loeb translations has resulted in the use of very dated English: these should have been adapted or replaced with more modern versions. The central argument of the section on Valerius Flaccus is that he uses the Hylas episode to show that he can imitate Virgil only to a certain extent. As in other chapters, a clever and persuasive reading of the Hylas episode is obscured by extensive digressions on the Aeneid: while the earlier epic may be an important model for the Argonautica, the parallels could have been drawn with more concision. The suggestion that Valerius Flaccus' Hylas is initially depicted as a successful epic hero (via the motif of the stag- hunt, certainly an allusion to the hunt of Ascanius in Aeneid 7, as Heerink observes, p.157) but transformed during the myth into an elegiac hero, is persuasively argued with close reference to the erotic language used in the description of the spring. Moreover, Heerink also shows that Valerius Flaccus playfully retains some of the earlier bucolic elements of the myth, thus taking on all of his poetic predecessors simultaneously: a true poetic tour de force. I am less persuaded that the elegiac and bucolic elements in the Argonautica are aimed at reversing a supposed shift in the Aeneid: 'Valerius' Hylas episode inverts Virgil's move in the Aeneid from bucolic and elegiac poetry to epic by transforming the initially epic Hylas simultaneously into a bucolic and elegiac symbol' (p. 125). The early books of the Aeneid contain plenty of 'epic' material (the fall of Troy, Aeneas' Odyssey-like journey, the storm that opens the poem) and any such shift within the earlier epic needs to be demonstrated, not assumed. The rest of the discussion on Valerius Flaccus centres on the possibility that his Hylas is intertextually linked with the figures of Narcissus and Hermaphroditus in Ovid's Metamorphoses. The links between the two poems are tenuous and the focus shifts from the Hylas myth onto extended discussion of Ovid, once more distracting from the main argument. Heerink wishes to show that Valerius Flaccus is using two metapoetic scenes from the Metamorphoses to align himself with Ovid in producing an 'elegized Aeneid', but the links between the passages do not seem sufficient to allow him to do this with any degree of certainty.

The discussion turns to Statius, who treats the Hylas myth in a short passage of just four lines that, according to Heerink, functions as a mise-en-abyme of the construction of the Thebaid itself. This metapoetic reading depends on establishing an intra-textual relationship between the brief description of Hylas following Heracles and the programmatic and explicitly metapoetic prologue and epilogue to the Thebaid. But the textual links again are strained, as is the argued allusion to Aeneid 2, which has to be filtered through two passages of Valerius Flaccus to work at all. This brief passage of Statius seems unlikely to have the metapoetic significance that Heerink argues it has here.

This book contains much of value: there are many excellent close readings from a wide range of texts and important conclusions are drawn about the metapoetic significance of the Hylas myth for both Hellenistic and Roman poets. Scholars of literature in both Greek and Latin will find that it opens up many avenues of fruitful research, particularly with regard to the potential metapoetic nuances of myths within poetry. The language is very clear and the book is excellently presented, with an index locorum and a very helpful general index.


1.   Hardie, P. R. (1993) The Epic Successors of Virgil: A Study in the Dynamics of a Tradition, Cambridge.

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