Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 26.

Andrew Ford, The Origins of Criticism: Literary Culture and Poetic Theory in Classical Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. Pp. 376. ISBN 0-691-07485-2. $45.00.

Ruth Scodel
Classical Studies, University of Michigan

This is an important and valuable book that with learning and thoughtful attention re-imagines the story of how the Greeks thought about poetry. Ford convincingly argues that because archaic poetry was socially located in particular occasions, comments about song in the archaic period should not be read as if poetry were already an independent field of study, and as if particular evaluations always implied poetic norms. Defining criticism as praise or blame of performance, he argues that Xenophanes' poetic criticisms of poetry about the gods, for example, should not be isolated as philosophical, but belongs with his other injunctions about symposiastic behavior: singing good songs belongs with not becoming excessively drunk or holding a symposium in a dirty room. Similarly, Ford stresses that poets like Simonides and Pindar compare their products to works of art because they are claiming superiority for their art as a way of spreading fame. Because archaic poetry is tightly bound to immediate, social, and competitive needs, so is criticism. Indeed, in praising or blaming the poetic performance, the critic is engaging in a social performance of his own, itself potentially subject to praise and blame. Criticism is therefore profoundly rhetorical and social, and needs to be understood as practice. Allegorical interpretation, for example, unites critic and audience as an elite group. By the fourth century, however, poetry has been separated from its original performance contexts and become available as an object of discussion and debate for itself; criticism in a modern sense is the result. The book defines this transformation, and seeks to understand how it came about. It is thus right in the center of recent work on archaic poetry, with its emphasis on performance and particular occasions; but its application of such thought to poetics is original. Throughout, the book is clear, thorough, lively, and fair in its engagements with earlier work on the topic, and this qualities make it unusually enjoyable to read.

Ford gives special importance to literacy in transforming the understanding of poetry; as a written text, the song could have left its performance context to become a real object. But he does not assume that literacy alone caused the transformation of songs to poetic texts, recognizing that even in the archaic, oral context, poems could be discussed as fixed texts, and that the existence of written texts does not by itself entirely explain the development of thinking about poetry. He discusses the place of Democritus and Gorgias -- whom he sees as compatible -- and their attempts to understand the power of poetic language in materialist terms, and the importance of the sophists, who as professional teachers both provide models for using poetry in sophisticated social performance and who make the poets a usable past for themselves. By the way, he has an interesting discussion of anthologizing as a mechanism for making earlier poetry useful in the democratic city. His discussion of Plato emphasizes the materialistic side he has already analyzed in Democritus and Gorgias (the chapter is called 'Literary Culture in Plato's Republic: The Sound of Ideology', pp. 209-26). For Plato, culture is a physical environment that impresses itself on the young, and poetry is a mechanism that transmits this harmful ideology.

Ford then argues that poetry as literature is a back- formation from artistic prose. This is not, in his view, a paradox. Rather, the process of creating rhetoric, of trying to define a verbal art that did not depend on the divine or special knowledge, but was a teachable craft, not surprisingly created a new problem for poetry. Literature was invented as prose, and only then could poetry become literature. Once prose began to articulate its claims, poetry needed a territory that distinguished it by more than meter. Plato contributed not only mimesis, but the definition of genres by formal criteria instead of those of performance. Finally, he argues, Aristotle understands poetry as a unique area of study, with individual genres each with its own possibilities. The most significant change is that 'ethical and religious criteria are replaced by technical appropriateness' (p. 263). Finally, he claims that poetic contests did not aim at evaluating works of literature as literature, but that the judge of poetry was primarily 'a political authority and spokesman for social order' (p. 292), whether in the contest of Homer and Hesiod or in the Athenian Dionysia. Only in Plato and Aristotle do we see the beginnings of a distinction between form and content, and the possibility of judging poetry by rules that do not focus on their social value.

There is, of course, much here with which one could disagree. Although it is a rich account, and the story it provides is compelling, such a unidirectional narrative may oversimplify. Ford offers, in fact, an Aristotelian story, with a beginning (archaic socially evaluated performance), a middle (Gorgias, Democritus, sophists, literacy, artistic prose), and Aristotle himself as the telos. It is hard not to feel that he undervalues the specifically aesthetic until he reaches Aristotle, and that he then overvalues it to produce an elegant contrast. Aristotle's Poetics certainly defines tragedy as a genre with its own rules, by which it should be judged, and he treats some forms of criticism as basically irrelevant, since some mistakes are accidental, while others are 'about the art' (1460b16). Nonetheless, his very definition of the genre has ethical implications (tragedy must be serious, for example), and his criteria for evaluating it are obviously ethical (a plot that shows good people falling into bad fortune is miaron). Social and ethical criteria never lose their importance in ancient criticism. In contrast, the book tends to understate the presence of criteria for judging poetry before the fourth century that are not social/ethical. He does not discuss Dionysus' moment of aporia as he must make a judgment (Frogs 1413: 'I think one wise, I enjoy the other'), where it seems clear that Dionysus is not only a judge of social order, but experiences different kinds of response that do not cohere with each other. Ford suggests that Aristophanes' literary scenes 'usually present advanced criticism as high-falutin' nonsense' (p. 280) -- maybe, but the Aristophanic joke often seems to cut both ways. The Socrates of Clouds may be ridiculous, but so is Strepsiades in his complete ignorance of metrics. The book mentions 'New Music' only briefly, in connection with Plato's support of generic restrictions, but Aristophanes' parodies of 'New Music' and its accompanying poetic forms clearly has an aesthetic as well as a social side. The two are profoundly intertwined from the start.

Ford rightly says that in Pindar's comparisons of his poems to elaborately wrought luxury goods 'artful design is only one aspect of the symbol's relevance' (p. 118), but then seems to imply that it is really not an aspect at all, but that the comparison to objects either differentiates song's power to circulate from static things, or defines song within the system of guest-friendship. It is true, as Ford argues, that Pindar compares his songs to artifacts without making himself an artisan. Yet it seems as if Pindar wants to mystify his own position, not his poems' similarities to and differences from beautiful objects, which includes their complex form. And it seems absurd to follow A. P. Burnett, as Ford does (p. 123), in claiming that a victory ode 'was never produced again' after its first performance[[1]] -- victory songs are clearly intended to be remembered, quoted, sung on different occasions. That is what they are for. When Bacchylides says that 'the light of mortals' arete does not disappear with the body, but the Muse care for it (3.90-92),' he is not talking about a single grand performance.

The book can provoke thought even where it does not treat a topic extensively. Our texts claim in general that poetic performance gives pleasure and distracts from sorrow, but they do not stress this in explicitly critical contexts until Aristophanes, who repeatedly mentions performances deficient in pleasure (Ach. 9-12, for example). At many a symposium and festival there must have been performances that were perfectly appropriate but just not as good as others, but archaic poetry emphasizes success rather than failure, and does not convey what made some poems more enjoyable than others. When Theognis imagines how people will praise him (21-24), he surely imagines a fame based, at least in part, on aesthetic excellence. Charis needs more attention than it receives here. So do the criticisms implicit in poetic re-workings, especially those of Euripides.

Nobody could fairly demand, though, that one book discuss everything. This one will be indispensable in all future study of archaic and classical Greek poetics, and we should be very grateful for it.


[[1]] A. P. Burnett, The Art of Bacchylides Cambridge, Mass. 1985) 76.