Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 23.

Grace M. Ledbetter, Poetics Before Plato: Inspiration and Authority in Early Greek Theories of Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. Pp. xiv + 128. ISBN 0-691-09609-0. US$16.95.

Matthew Wright,
Classics, University of Exeter

It has been said that the history of Western literary criticism is 'a series of footnotes to Plato'.[[1]] This important new study, however, attempts to clarify our perception of criticism before Plato, arguing that Plato himself should be seen as developing and reacting to an existing critical tradition. If we are to understand Plato, then we will first have to get to grips with the earlier material.

But what did Plato himself say about poetry? His writings have often seemed problematic and contradictory to those seeking to extract a coherent set of views. Ledbetter approaches the problem by making a clear distinction between Socratic and Platonic poetics: she argues that the earlier dialogues (Ion, Protagoras, Apology) preserve Socrates' own views, in contrast with the later, and more distinctively Platonic, views encountered in the Republic.

Ledbetter's two-fold aim, then, is first to elucidate pre-Platonic theories of poetry, before moving on to discuss Socratic (but not Platonic) poetics. Since there are no surviving treatises or theoretical discussions which pre-date Plato, these early theories, as Ledbetter presents them, take the form of those self-conscious reflections on poetry and the figure of the poet which are found within early Greek poetry. Such reflections do not amount to a single early Greek view of poetry, but, argues Ledbetter, they are united by a common aim, namely 'to minimize interpretation by poetry's audiences in an effort to maintain the poet's authority over his work' (p. 2). By contrast, Ledbetter claims that Socrates challenges the poets' authority and problematizes issues of interpretation -- but that, unlike Plato in the Republic, Socrates does not deny the value of poetry altogether. This argument is vigorously developed over five chapters: after a brief introduction, a chapter each is devoted to Homer, Hesiod, and Pindar, and the final two chapters are concerned with the Socratic dialogues.

The influence of Auerbach's Mimesis[[2]] is clearly seen in Ledbetter's study of Homer, which concentrates not on Homer's view of poetry as such, but rather on the question 'how does Homer want his poetry to be viewed?' (p. 13). According to Ledbetter, Homer presents his own poetry as a pleasurable source of knowledge, which is transmitted directly from inspired poet to audience without the need for interpretation. The extent and origin of Homer's own authoritative knowledge, and his precise relationship with the Muses, is left 'deliberately ambiguous' (p. 18); what matters is simply that we should be charmed into accepting what Homer says. On occasion, indeed, Homer depicts the effect of poetry on its audience: those who have listened go away delighted and more knowledgeable than before (for example, Od. 12.188).

However, the picture is complicated by the fact that a variety of poets -- and audiences -- are depicted, in rather different ways, within the Homeric poems. We encounter (for instance) Phemius, Circe, the Sirens, Odysseus, and Penelope as producers or consumers of poetry, but not all their poems are truthful, and not all bring pleasure. Perhaps (it has been suggested) the concept of literary fiction is emerging here; or perhaps the authority of epic poetry is being undermined; or perhaps Homer is contrasting genuinely inspired poets with uninspired ones. Either way, there is an internal contradiction: as Ledbetter concludes, 'the Homeric poems . . . would unavoidably seem to invite the very sort of interpretation discouraged by Homeric poetics' (p. 39).

Hesiod and Pindar are read by Ledbetter 'against the background of' Homer (p. 59). Like the Iliad and Odyssey, their poems seem to foreground their own status as authoritative knowledge. However, they each present the role of the poet in different ways, which seem calculated to fend off criticism or competition. In Hesiod, as in Homer, the voice of the poet merges with that of the Muses, but a certain distance is maintained, since Hesiod does not guarantee the truth-value of his own poetry. The Muses may transmit truth or falsehood (as in the often-quoted lines Theog. 27f.), the poet simply passes it on to his audience. Slightly different again is Pindar, who (Ledbetter claims) presents the Muse as an oracle and the poet as her interpreter -- a theory relying heavily on a single fragment (fr. 150). Unlike the poet-figure of Homer or Hesiod, Pindar mediates between the Muses and his audience. Thus Pindar suggests a criterion according to which poets can challenge one another's authority -- the superior poet is the better interpreter of the Muses' messages (p. 77).

Ledbetter interprets the Socratic poetics of Ion, Apology and Protagoras as a challenge to the other three poets discussed. Here, as before, the interpretation of poetry is seen as being at the heart of things -- but it has nothing to do with inspiration. Ledbetter's Socrates (unlike Plato in the Republic) allows that poetry may harbour truth or wisdom, but he significantly rejects the poet's claim to possess authority over the meaning of his poetry. Who, then, is qualified to interpret poetry, and how should one interpret it? Ledbetter suggests that the Protagoras provides a partial answer to such questions. Socrates' notorious interpretation of Simonides in that dialogue is seen as a model of what not to do. In other words, it is so anti-Socratic that it shows by implication what a genuinely Socratic interpretation would look like. A Socratic approach would take the form of 'dialogic inquiry' into the meaning of poetry (p. 115), ignoring the (irrecoverable) intentions of the poet. Thus Socrates does not, as many have claimed, reject the possibility of interpretation; and poetry can after all be included in the subject matter of philosophical inquiry.

One seldom finds oneself wishing that an academic book had been longer. At a mere 128 pages, Ledbetter's book is far less prolix than most:[[3]] her writing is admirably concise and clear, and the argument hangs together very neatly -- perhaps a little too neatly. In fact, the reader may wish that a number of questions had been pursued at more length.

Why, for example, should one restrict early Greek poetry to Homer, Hesiod and Pindar alone? Comparable passages of self-conscious reflection, dealing with similar issues of truthfulness and authority, can be found in the work of other contemporary poets, but there is little hint of how the theories of other writers correspond to the three poets discussed. Even Homer, Hesiod and Pindar are not milked dry -- especially those passages which do not seem to conform to their author's overall view of poetry. And what actually happens if one reads the poets in the way they encourage us to read them? Apart from a short discussion of Homer (pp. 34-39, 'Does the theory apply to the poem?'), this area remains unexplored. Do the theoretical passages cause other passages, or the meaning of the poems as a whole, to appear in a different way? And how are we to explain the differences between the three poets? Should we approach all three in the same way? What about the concept of literary genre and its implications for truth and authority?

These are not purely literary questions to be considered in the abstract. However, Ledbetter's literary-philosophical approach often gives the impression that Homer, Hesiod, and Pindar were writing in a vacuum. Individual texts and their meanings are discussed, but little attention is paid to the literary scene in a broader sense, or the society in which these texts were written -- which means that Ledbetter is not telling the whole story. In archaic and classical city-states, poetry was written primarily for performance in a variety of contexts charged with social, political, and religious significance. Recent scholarship has shown that, rather than thinking purely of texts and readers, we need to think in terms of a dynamic culture of performance, in which rival poets compete for prestige.[[4]] All of this has inevitable consequences for the issues of poetic self-presentation and authority with which Ledbetter is concerned.

The need for more context is most obvious in Ledbetter's treatment of Homer. Like other poems, the Homeric epics are treated as texts for reading rather than performing -- the question under discussion is 'how Homer wanted to be read' (p. 10; my italics), and 'the reader' is mentioned repeatedly (pp. 11, 14, 39 etc.). More curiously, the Iliad and the Odyssey are treated as if they were a single, unitary work with a single, coherent view of poetry (for example, Ledbetter refers to 'the poem', p. 34). And there is nothing at all on the circumstances of Homeric composition. Are the two epics by the same author? How did they come into being? Knotty problems, to be sure, but (as before) they have a crucial bearing on the main argument. How might a living, oral poetic tradition comment on itself? Would one not expect a variety of (perhaps conflicting) views about the nature of poetry or authority? Can we talk of the figure of the poet without at least considering the Homeric Question -- or (for that matter) the narratological aspects of poetic self-representation within the poem?[[5]]

These and other messy questions make it hard to be entirely satisfied by Ledbetter's neat and tidy view of early Greek poetics. Nevertheless, her central argument, and her view of Platonic poetics, is certainly worth taking seriously.


[[1]] P. Murray, Plato on Poetry (Cambridge 1996) 1, adapting A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York 1930) 63.

[[2]] Erich Auerbach (tr. Willard R. Trask), Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton 1953).

[[3]] It is also carefully produced and edited. Misprints are few and trivial: 'it's' for 'its' (p. 47 line 4); 'the' for 'to' (p. 51 line 16); 'Pinder' for 'Pindar' (p. 74 line 22); 'Homer'' for 'Homer's' (p. 89 line 21). Greek is quoted sometimes in the original, sometimes in transliterated form, and sometimes in English translation (for no very obvious reason).

[[4]] For a very different perspective on the same sort of material, compare A. Ford, The Origins of Criticism (Princeton 2002). On ancient performance culture in general, see P. Murray and P. Wilson (edd.), Music and the Muses (Oxford 2004).

[[5]] As explored by (for example) Irene de Jong, Narrators and Focalizers (Amsterdam 1987); A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey (Cambridge 2001).