Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 25.

John T. Hamilton, Soliciting Darkness: Pindar, Obscurity, and the Classical Tradition. Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 47. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. Pp. xii + 348. ISBN 0-674-01257-7. UK£17.95.

W. J. Henderson,
University of Johannesburg

The author's aim is stated in the introduction, 'Through a Tradition Darkly' (pp. 1-11): to pay 'attention to a long tradition . . . that has insisted on the darkness of its model, that has persistently identified the most revered of Greek lyricists as the most difficult to understand' (p. 1). Pindaric scholarship has been devoted to dispelling this reputation, ascribing the 'darkness' in his work to 'insufficient knowledge, poor methodology, or even perverse hagiography' (p. 2). The problem, however, is not only a matter of elucidation to reach some 'inner meaning', but a case of obscurity being a 'constitutive element'. Obscurity is not a negative aspect, a problem of reception, but 'attests to the effectiveness of what is impenetrably complex' (pp. 4f.). The author therefore intends to discuss the epinikia as models of obscure poetry, and offer a poetics of obscurity.

Part One: 'Poetry, Life, and War: Pindar and Representations of Resistance' (pp. 13-73), surveys Pindar's changing reputation in antiquity and in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Chapter 1 ('Untimely Citations', pp. 15-35) discusses Spengler's rejection of the Humanistic view of Classics as a universal model for other times and nations in favour of the Historicist acceptance of a discontinuity between the ancient and modern worlds. Pindar's strangeness was to be expected: already regarded as old-fashioned in antiquity, he belonged to a remote past, his poems anachronistic, out of touch with reality, irrelevant, and obscure. The philology developed by eighteenth-century scholars (Wolf, Berhardy, Wilamowitz) offered a key into that past.

Chapter 2, 'Beneath the Sign of Mars' (pp. 36-55), deals with the effects of World War I on Pindaric scholarship. Pindar's perceived difficulty was due to the intellectual limitations of the age. He was also irrelevant to the war-situation, and in the debate about zoe ('bare life') and bios ('way of life, lifestyle'), Pindar offered the latter: a heroic tradition dating back to Homer, whereas the new generation of writers chose the former.

Chapter 3, 'Ecce Philologus' (pp. 56-73), continues the account of the Humanism versus Historicism debate in the nineteenth century. Hölderlin's translations of Pindar's poetry revived the concept of the poet as vates ('priest'), setting Dionysian frenzy above Apollinian reason, and promoting an intuitive, revelationary approach to antiquity. Pindar emerged as a 'paradigmatic prophet-hero' (p. 60). The 'Third Humanism' under Jaeger opposed the Romantic view of the Classical past à la Winkelmann, the scepticism of Spengler, and the historical method that naïvely believed it could reconstruct the past 'as it really was'. Nietzsche believed we could never be free of the past; it was part of a continuity; and Pindar's obscurity was not a deficiency, but the very ground for an affirmation of life. He criticised Classical scholarship practised for its own sake, without regard for its applicability.

Part Two: 'Arts of Digression' (pp. 75-148) is concerned with lyric composition. Chapter 4, 'Woven Song' (pp. 77-96), discusses poetic composition as a process of weaving together various, opposing threads, encapsulated in the term poikilia. The blending of praise and non-praise, light and dark, praise of human athletic achievement and recognition of its divine origin, results in irreconcilable disunity and obscurity.

Chapter 5, 'Horace's Apiary' (pp. 97-129), focuses on Horace's view of Pindar's poetry vis-à-vis his own. Horace's representation of Pindar's poetry as a rushing stream (Odes 4.2) influenced eighteenth-century German poets, and became a justification for lyric obscurity. But Horace had also portrayed Pindar as a swan and himself as a bee, thereby conceiving other types of lyric poetry, and creating space for new, original composition within an overwhelming tradition.

Chapter 6, 'Reforming the Epinicia' (pp. 130-48), traces Pindar's reception in the Renaissance and Reformation in the sixteenth century: the editions of Manutius, Callierges, and Wiesendanger (Ceporinus), the works of Erasmus, Zwingli, Lonicerus and Melanchthon. Both Renaissance and Reformation scholars regarded Pindar as a great, though notoriously incomprehensible, poet, understood by few. A long tradition of Biblical exegesis allowed for the unknown and unknowable, open to multiple meanings and interpretations. Inscrutable passages increased their value, preserving understanding for initiates. Pagan poetry was redeemed through excerpted gnomic material (sententiae); the universal truths in Pindar reflected an anima naturaliter christiana. The more sensuous, dithyrambic and mythic Pindar, likened by Horace to a rushing stream, was ignored until the French Pléiade movement.

Part Three: 'Poetica Obscura' (pp. 149-306) covers the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in France, Germany, and England. Chapter 7, 'Between Ancient and Moderns' (pp. 151-84), discusses the views of the 'Ancients', for whom Classical Antiquity was the summit of human achievement, and therefore a paradigm for the present, from which it differed in quality; and the 'Moderns', for whom Classical Antiquity differed only quantitatively from the present, since human nature was fundamentally unchanged. Gottsched attacked poets who presumed to write like Pindar, mutilating their own language as they assumed he had his. 'Pindaric' became a generic term for obscure poetry as poets imitated broken form without sublime content and powerful feeling. Addison and Johnson attacked the excesses of baroque poetry, in particular the Pindaric odes of Cowley, who, assuming the role of the low-flying Daedalus, reconstituted Pindar's poetry, even amplifying it with explanatory or alternative material to bridge the abrupt transitions and elipses.

Chapter 8, 'Voices from Within and Without' (pp. 185-211), is devoted to poets of the eighteenth century who, in reaction to the rigidity of Classicism and Rationalism (the 'voices from without'), turned to a poetics of inspiration (the 'voices from within'): Klopstock, Collins, Gray, and Ecouchard-Lebrun.

In Chapter 9, 'Poetics of Obscurity' (pp. 212-36), the theme of Begeisterung in eighteenth-century German Bildung is continued with the work of Lessing, Berman, and Hamann, whose work revolved around the theory and practice of translation as a courageous process of reaching the Other. Translation of the Bible and Pindar became linked: both had oracular pronouncements and hidden meanings protected from the profane. Final understanding was unattainable; darkness was the essential meaning of a work of genius. This reversed the usual process in which obscurity preceded the light of knowledge; now darkness arrived at the point of knowledge. In Herder's aesthetics, this core of obscurity was termed the fundus animae, containing obscure knowledge (cognitio obscura) as the foundation of truth. The ode was then the original poem, the closest to nature, and Pindar the timeless exemplar, able to traverse past, present and future.

Goethe dominates Chapter 10, 'The Wanderer's Song' (pp. 237-65). The German poets and theorists of the Sturm und Drang-movement regarded Pindar as a paradigm of genius. Goethe's response to the antiquity of Pindar and the long tradition was to dismember Pindar's verse and in a cento-procedure create something new.

Chapter 11, 'Foreign Rhythms' (pp. 266-81), lingers in the eighteenth century. Von Humboldt's encounter with Pindar revolved around translating him. Imagination, not reason and perception, enabled the poet to create and the interpreter to understand. He studied the metres of Pindar's verse, previously considered 'free', and tried through translation to enlarge and enrich the expressivity of the German language, even imposing Greek quantitative metrics on to the accented rhythm of spoken German.

Chapter 12, 'Remnants Gone Over' (pp. 282-306), is devoted to Hölderlin's interaction with Pindar. In his idealism he regarded Pindar's poetry as 'das Summum der Dichtkunst', since it fused tragedy and epic in the lyric mode. Greek art could not be imitated, only studied, but a fusion of one's own with the foreign could achieve flexibility, for example in the use of quantitative metre. A short epilogue (pp. 307f.) discusses Pindar's ninth Pythian ode.

This is a multi-faceted and wide-ranging account of how Pindar has been read, understood, and imitated (or counter-imitated) in various periods and regions. The discussions of the illustrative texts are generally sound and informative, though, certainly in the case of Pindar, not new. Pindar will, of course, continue to be re-invented by each generation and scholarship will continue to explore, rediscover, and restate what is 'in the text' in an effort to achieve ever-greater clarity and understanding, and convince itself that this has been done. This study reconfirms the difficulty of ever completely comprehending an ancient text, or indeed any great poetry.

The book is sadly marred by weak structuring and careless editing. The difficulties of theme and texts are compounded by a narrative that takes the reader back and forth in time and space. The titling of parts and chapters does not help much. Unforced errors abound: omission of references to ancient sources; incorrect Greek accents, breathings, and text (for example: p. 18, PO/LIOS instead of PO/LEWS; p. 19, A/MARUGA/ . . . O/) TI ... DO/MEN instead of A(MARUGA/ . . . O(/ TI ... DO/MEN E)MI\N TEI/+N; p. 179, iota subscript omitted in FERSEFO/NA; incorrect Latin (e.g. res non necessita, p. 4; tollere for tolli, p. 223); incorrect English (for example: p. 26, 'Pindar's poetry can no longer be read because their' instead of 'its'; p. 47, 'separates and opposes himself to' instead of 'separates himself from and opposes himself to'; p. 277, 'the sensuousness of Pindar's words enable' instead of 'enables'; pp. 277 and 280, 'aulic' instead of 'auletic'); imprecise translation (for example: p. 5, doctissimis utriusque linguae autoribus [sic] as 'other authors of the language' instead of 'authors learned in both [i.e. Greek and Latin] languages'; p. 298, Deipnosophistai as 'Learned Banquet' instead of 'Learned Banqueters'; and spelling- or typing-errors (for example: p. 16, Alterthumswissenschaft; p. 277, n. 9, Dionysus for Dionysius; pp. 131, 136, and 328, Cepronius for Ceporinus; p. 332, Fraenkel for [Hermann] Fränkel).

More serious is the construction of arguments and conclusions on the forced, dubious or false connections of similar words: p. 44, tectum ('covering', 'roof', from tego) and textum ('text', from texo); p. 125, examen ('swarm') and examinare ('to examine'); p. 128, in saltibus ('in wooded haunts', Lucr. DRN 3.11) and saltus ('leaping'), actualising the 'skipping from one line to the next'; p. 183, 'Latona' and latere ('to hide', with a long 'a'); pp. 223f., dis (abl. plur. of deus) and DI/S ('two' in Greek); p. 227, os ('mouth', with a long vowel) and os ('bone', with a short 'o') and oscillates (from obs-scillo, 'swing').

There are instances of forced interpretation. The phrase 'soliciting darkness' (soli, from sollus, whole + citare, shake up) is defined as a process which 'loosens the form-giving context that maintains a literary heritage and therefore grounds authoritative interpretations' (p. 10). Vergil's swarming bees (Georg. 4.103-05) are linked 'to a type of play that can produce nothing but useless poetry', alluding to Catullus' literary 'play' (50.1 -- 3, pp. 125f.); and then understood 'as excessive culling' in contrast to the activities of the Horatian bee (p. 126). The statement 'Thus Virgil could foretell the birth of Christ in his fourth Eclogue without naming Him' (p. 133) still assumes that Ecl. 4 was Messianic. The SUNETOI/ at Pind. Ol. 2.85 are defined as those 'attentive to swift arrows, where they are thrown, and even how they are recombined' (pp. 196, 198), as if I(/HMI retains its sense of 'hurl' in SUNI/HMI. The link between nubes (cloud) and nuptiae ('marriage', pp. 227, 230) is only indirect, each independently derived from a process involving veiling or covering up. Few would regard the Marsyas myth as something 'which reminds us that art's beautiful, Apollonian form rests upon the gory study of anatomized corpses' (pp. 278-80). Apollo's title Loxias bears no relation to 'god of distance' (pp. 280, 307), but to 'the Slanting One' (referring to the path of the sun) or 'the Oblique One' (referring to the ambiguous oracles). Latin trans probably derives from Greek TE/RMA, but the following deduction looks suspect: 'For in the Greek word for "goal", in the TE/RMA, lies also the radical trans-, denoting now the stone towards which one races, that which defines the passage as a passage'; also dubious is the connection with Hölderlin's use of 'hängen' with cunctari ('to delay', 'to doubt') to connote 'the fear of the transe implicit in translation' (p. 305). Pindar, Pyth. 9.77f. is forced into the author's thought-system and misinterpreted (p. 308). In the preceding line, Pindar has stated that great deeds always generate many stories; therefore BAIA/ means 'a few themes or topics', not 'these tiny bits of time'; E)N MAKAROI=SI means 'among great themes', not 'among the great'; A)KOA\ SOFOI=S means 'a hearing fit for an intelligent audience', not '. . . for the poets'.[[1]]

There is also incomplete or inaccurate information. The observation that Pindar is sui generis, without other examples surviving from Antiquity (pp. 161f.), takes no account of the British Museum papyrus of Bacchylides' epinikia, published in 1897; and the author persists with the interpretation of Stephanus' apud vulgus for TO\ PA/N (Pind. Ol. 2.85) despite the recent scholarship he himself cites (p. 229). The inaccuracies extend to the bibliography: works referred to in the text or notes, but omitted in the works cited; works referred to by different dates, or without dates; incorrect alphabetical order; contributions in larger works without page numbers.


[[1]] See D. C. Young, 'Pindar, Aristotle, and Homer: A Study in Ancient Criticism', ClAnt 2 (1983) 156-170.