Tuesday, December 11, 2018


David Fearn, Pindar's Eyes: Visual and Material Culture in Epinician Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. x, 318. ISBN 9780198746379. $99.00.

Reviewed by Gianfranco Adornato and Stefano Fanucchi, Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa (gianfranco.adornato@sns.it; stefano.fanucchi@sns.it)

Version at BMCR home site


Material culture and historical context have been largely re-evaluated in the study of Greek choral lyric poetry. Author of many important contributions in this field, such as a remarkable monograph on Bacchylides,1 Fearn is now offering a monograph focused on the other great lyric voice, Pindar.

The complexity of Pindar's attitude to material culture guides Fearn to switch focus from the influence of material culture itself to the poet's perspective on it. Fearn observes that many 'new historicist' books face the influence of material culture in quite a mechanical way (pp. 4–5 and n. 11). Historical and archaeological frames do not influence the author as a tabula rasa; material and visual culture is rather reshaped by Pindar in order to involve his audience in an aesthetic reflection about the potentialities of poetry.

The introduction and theoretical bases of the book (Eye and 'I's, pp. 1–16) are followed, as in many Pindaric monographs,2 by some chapters devoted to exemplary texts. Ch. 1 (pp. 16–89) moves from the well-known statement of Nemean 5's proem about sculpture and poetry. Fearn argues that this proem is not a negative representation of sculpture as a rival of poetry on the market of commissioned praise: Pindar deals with interactions between poetry and sculpture as different but not mutually exclusive ways of celebration. Ch. 2 (pp. 90–167) argues that Nemean 8 pictures an experience of contact with divinity in a way both suitable to Aeginetan rituality and general enough to be applied to the experience of other audiences and other addressees, not only to the Aeginetan context and the victor. In Ch. 3 (pp. 168–228), the descriptions of the golden lyre and Mount Aetna in Pythian 1 are interpreted as a hint at the problem of the position of the poem in its context: the passage would imply a reflection on the device of ekphrasis and its reception among the public and the patron. Ch. 4 (pp. 229–71) compares Pindar's attitude to material culture with Simonides' and Bacchylides' poems: Fearn argues that Simonides aims to solicit his audience's reflection about its own attitudes to different media in a way similar to Pindar, while Bacchylides uses visual nuances in order to highlight his narrative ability.

We could say that the limits of new historicist scholarship have led Fearn to a 'new structuralist' critical model, aimed at detecting the embedding of history and visuality into the composition of the poem and its relation with the public. Compare the 'old structuralist' approach of Elroy Bundy, who refused the illogicalities and the excesses of the 'old historicist' critic and switched critical focus from the biography of Pindar to Pindar's approach to the encomiastic function of his poetry. In this case, we do not have a refutation of historical studies: the influence of the historical context on Pindar is not denied. However, in Fearn's view Pindar is not to be levelled down to his historical and local contexts and archaeological materiality: not only does he interpret those contexts, but he also focuses in a metapoetic way on visuality itself in a complex relation with his public. 'Material culture' means not only real monuments, but also (and especially) an approach to celebration and memory by visual devices, whose potentialities and limits Pindar discusses. As the title reveals, this book focuses on the 'eye' of the author more than on what is seen by him.

In such an approach, Pindar does not emerge as a passive receiver of guidelines dictated by his commissioners, nor as a poet who assimilates mechanically the historical problems of his age.3 Accordingly, his public is not to be identified with patrons and communities, but also as a subject sensitive to multiple communicative inputs from visual devices and poetry. Pindaric poetry, in Fearn's view, deals with issues of communication and implications for the encomiastic 'programme' and guides his audience in a reflection on it.

Pindar emerges as a true poetic personality, and this is one of the merits of this book: Bundy and his followers have been more interested in detecting the encomiastic function and rhetorical devices, while many new historicist books have often underrated his original reworking of historical trends. It has been a while since Gilbert Murray stated that Pindar "was a poet and nothing else",4 denying him the same depth of thought recognized in tragic poets. However, nowadays the choral singer is still considered as an artisan able to find beautiful words for thoughts belonging to someone else,5 rather than as a poet able to reshape political, aesthetic and moral issues in an original way.

Fearn makes a great contribution in overcoming this trend in Pindaric scholarship, even though he is not always successful in demonstrating the complex attitude of Pindaric poetry from the point of view of material culture. Sometimes, he chooses texts where material culture is not so relevant. Reference to it is often inferred from overly implicit signals, such as richness of visual details, and, most of all, the use of ekphraseis. With the aid of much theoretical bibliography on this topic, Fearn argues that the use of ekphrasis can be interpreted as a hint to the problem of future de- and re-contextualizing of the poem. In the case of Pythian 1, the ekphrasis about Typhon and Mount Aetna would problematize the adherence of the poem to the present context and its encomiastic function. In the case of Simonides PMG 543, the 'opening' sentence λάρνακι ἐν δαιδαλέᾳ would have an "ecphrastic potential" which is frustrated by the absence of actual ekphrasis. Thanks to this "ecphrastic framing", the scene of Danae and Perseus would be ambiguous: are they the content of the box or are they rather a crafted-work, a decoration? This would point to an ambiguity in lyric poetry between vivid decorativeness and communicative efficacy (pp. 233–6). We have some doubt that the description of these passages as ekphraseis is appropriate. Especially in the case of Simonides, the whole argument about the ecphrastic framing is heavily influenced by the fragmentary conditions of the text. We do not know anything about genre and occasion and cannot detect how exactly the myth was introduced and related to the rest of the poem. What is more, would the simple use of ekphrasis really be sufficient to indicate a metapoetic reflection on the aesthetic implications of this device? Without more explicit signals, this is quite a difficult argument to make. Nor is the richness of visual effects sufficient to trigger a metapoetic reflection, as Fearn thinks about the eagle passage from Bacchylides' Ode 5, interpreted as a vivid sign of the poem as agalma (p. 250). It is correct to observe in the metaphors of seeing (l. 8) and weaving (ll. 9–10) a description of the epinician as a valuable object, but the length and elaborate diction of the subsequent eagle-passage is not sufficient per se.

Some conclusions are better reached by other instruments than by remarks on visual culture. In the case of Pythian 1, Fearn challenges the traditional view of this ode as a triumphal song and detects the complex relationship of it with its encomiastic function by observing that Hieron is not simply equated with Zeus (pp. 182–3, 210–1 and n. 99). Rather, the ode describes Hieron's politics and his adherence to the will of the gods as not completely established (pp. 180–1, 195–8, 203, 209–10). The overall tone of the ode, richer in optative prayers than in triumphal statements, is good ground for it. Equally interesting are Fearn's pages about the contrast between the cyclical time of gods and nature and historical time, but this is better argued with reference to the multiple temporal levels of the ode (pp. 169–70, 180, 203–4) than to the improbable implications of ecphrastic devices. This is not implied by the ekphrasis per se, but by the selection of contents and their disposition in the ode.

Another central issue concerns the openness of Pindar's poetry in its approach to his public. Fearn argues that in Nemean 5 Pindar deals with interactions between poetry and sculpture as different but not mutually exclusive ways of celebration (p. 34). Pindar's attitude is not to be considered as prescriptive or reactionary, but nuanced and aimed at allowing space for different reactions and reflections in his public (pp. 23 with fnn. 28, 35). But to interpret the poem simply as offering many options to the audience, leaving to them the judgement about the value of the different media, is to fail in balancing interpretative openness with the poet's authority in guiding his public. Further, Fearn partially fails in his attempt to demonstrate that Pindar is not devaluing sculpture with respect to poetry: actually, he sometimes comes back to this assertion (pp. 27, 32–3). Fearn reads the entire epinician in the light of the proem, while the sculpture image is only one of its features.

Much more successful is Fearn's study of this topic in Nemean 8. Two important results are reached here: 1) interpretative openness receives a motivation, i.e. the necessity of reaching other audiences; 2) this openness is balanced by the authority of the poet in guiding his public: see Fearn's reading of the Ajax myth and its epic resonances (pp. 138–44) and the parallel between Ajax and the lyric 'I' as victims of denigration (p. 143: "The genius of Pindaric lyric here is to turn in on itself and refer back to its own lyric authority and heritage as the only firm context available"). The argument is developed through many insightful pages, such as the reading of the proem, which reworks topoi of erotic poetry without applying them to a specific object of desire (pp. 93–104); the interpretation of Pindar's approach to Aeacus, where the ritual is described beyond the single moment of the rite (pp. 110–24); and Pindar's evasiveness in his deictic references (pp. 127–8).

This chapter is also well balanced and illuminating in its interpretation of Pindaric text. In other cases, Fearn's argumentation is affected by some over-interpretations. We have already discussed the case of PMG 543.1: here, we will deal with two other cases. In Ch. 1, Hippolyta's deceiving words (Nem. 5.26–32) would prefigure the reception of poetry and its ambivalence (ll. 42–4). This interpretation is due to a comparison with the δεδαιλμένοι ψεύδεσι ποικίλοις μῦθοι (Ol. 1.28–34). But in that passage, the reference to future reception is made more evident, due to its position just after the statement on θαύματα (Ol. 1.28) and before that on "future days" which reveal truth (ibid. 30–4). In Ch. 3, the concluding remark about the characterization of time as 'monstrous' is grounded on a highly unlikely link between ἑρπετόν ("monster, beast"), referring to Typhon at l. 25, and the description of future time as "creeping forward" (l. 57 προσέρποντα). Actually, the use of ἕρπω in statements concerning the future is common in Pindar (Nem. 4.43; Nem. 7.67–8; Pae. 2 [fr. 52b M. = D2 Rutherford], 26–7).

To conclude: the book is rich in insightful and enjoyable analyses, such as the reading of Nemean 8, and some general observations about Pindar's poetic personality which makes Fearn's approach thought-provoking and ground-breaking in Pindaric scholarship. Equally thought-provoking, but sometimes quite unbalanced and lacking, are some of Fearn's interpretations of exemplary texts, where reference to visual culture is not always necessary to reach his interpretative goals. Fearn's book is a valuable study of the complex Pindaric attitude to visual culture, but it still leaves open further opportunities to investigate this topic.


1.   D. Fearn, Bacchylides. Politics, Performance, Poetic Tradition, Oxford 2007 (reviewed by G.B. D'Alessio in BMCR 2008.11.14).
2.   Compare e.g. G. W. Most, The Measures of Praise. Structure and Function in Pindar's Second Pythian and Seventh Nemean Odes, Göttingen 1985; E. Krummen, Pyrsos Hymnon, Berlin; New York 1990; B. Currie, Pindar and the Cult of Heroes, Oxford 2005.
3.   See K. Morgan, Pindar and the Construction of Syracusan Monarchy, Oxford 2015, 87–132.
4.   G. Murray, A History of Ancient Greek Literature, New York 1900, 112 (see his overall depiction of Pindar at pp. 111–6).
5.   See B. K. Braswell, A Commentary on the fourth Pythian Ode of Pindar, Berlin; New York 1988, 30.

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