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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Role of Rhetoric in Theocritus' Idyll V

The studies of rhetoric and poetics have closely interrelated histories. In antiquity the distinction between verse and prose was often far from rigid, and the early composition of rhetorical technai and their inclusion in the educational trivium led to their often assuming the role of real general theories of literature. [1] The process was continuous and cumulative throughout European history until a few centuries ago. Indeed, the chief medieval critical theorists (like Geoffrey of Vinsauf and Matthew of Vendôme) write wholly about poetry but with an agenda, a vocabulary, and a conceptual foundation all borrowed directly from rhetorical thought. Even among the Greeks themselves, there is no clear line to distinguish the two fields: examples meant to serve the needs of orators are frequently drawn from Homer or other poets (the so-called “Gorgianic figures” have an explicitly poetic origin, for example) and, on the other hand, poets borrowed back from the exhaustive inventories of literary devices compiled by authors who were primarily concerned to meet the needs of speech-makers,

This interdependence of rhetoric and poetry is not the product only of the historical circumstance that rhetorical handbooks were written before poetry as such received much speculative attention: it is also the outgrowth of specifically Greek poetic practice. Beyond the fact that self-consciously cadenced prose was much admired, thus compromising the main criterion marking it off from verse, the ancient (and medieval) poets had a view of their art that caused it to be amenable to approaching rhetorical guidelines. The overriding concern for the reader (related to persuasion as a goal in properly rhetorical texts and to communication -- often of pathos -- for the poetic) [2] and the conviction that the job of the poet is to sway and instruct as well as to delight caused the two to coalesce more naturally in antiquity than they may seem to do for readers who are under the influence of romantic ideas that deny the importance of the artist's relation to his audience.

Beyond this, the ancients also held a highly conventionalized view of literature that stressed the importance of intertextuality and the significance of topoi and genre for the understanding of any single text. Inasmuch as rhetorical handbooks set down formal expectations and catalogued acceptable figures of speech and thought they tended to create their own anticipatory hermeneutic apparatus. Although their formulations were originally drawn from inductive examination of existing admired texts, they were then applied in new writing by authors bearing prior commentaries in mind in ways that would be unintelligible without the reader's being privy to the convention involved. It is this very heavy conventionality that makes much ancient and medieval poetry difficult to read and understand today, and it is specifically the task of rhetorical studies to illuminate that particularly troublesome blind spot. I regard Theocritus as one of those poets who wrote what might be called meta-rhetorical poetry, poetry in which --the devices and conventions of writing become more than ornamental or supportive of a theme; they become the theme itself.

This rhetorical rereading of a Theocritean idyll is today all the more necessary in light of the general revaluation of rhetoric which might be regarded as having begun with the work of Curtius and Zumthor in the 1940s and which has continued through Barthes’ rhetoric course at the College de France and other contemporaries who have perceived a deep affinity between the way that rhetoric has traditionally viewed linguistic artifacts and the newly evolving attitudes of today's critical avant-garde. A grand succession of theorists, the high-road really of European tradition, has consistently viewed literature as a self-contained object, primarily referring to other texts, highly artificial and only in ways that are either playfully trivial or highly conflicted and ambiguous attempting to “imitate” nature. Recovery of the implications of rhetoric for poetry will shed light on this theoretical question and on Theocritus’ position on the issue as it was posed in his day: in the Callimachus versus Apollonius controversy. [3]

I have selected Theocritus' Idyll V for examination with a certain arbitrariness -- any of his works or of those other poems associated with his name would do equally well. I believe that an analysis of the rhetorical code expressed in that poem will reveal that that code coexists with the semantic and acoustic codes, and, further, that the rhetorical code is the most significant of the three, [4] although it is the one most easily discounted or ignored completely. The choice of Theocritus is not, however, arbitrary. He is one of the Greek poets in need of resuscitation today. Though his name is secure thanks to the genre that he seems to have fathered, he is rarely read with pleasure and more rarely with understanding. As an Alexandrian poet he was highly self-conscious about his work and was probably familiar with much other poetry as well as literary theory and school-knowledge. His dramatic Idylls might very well be analyzed as little epideictic set-pieces, but in this paper I intend to concentrate on his tropes, figures of speech and thought. Though the whole procedure for planning discourse was adopted from rhetoric to poetry, it was the figures that are most relevant to this poetry. Rather than draw up a complete list of the rhetorical figures in Idyll V, I intend to isolate those few which seem to me most significant for defining the theme of the poem, for it is these which are most relevant to all poems which are similarly saturated with rhetorical learning.

Before turning to these figures, though, it is necessary to briefly sketch the general character of the poem. It describes an amoebaean competition between Comatas, a goatherd, and Lacon, a shepherd. As fictional speech put into the mouths of conventional characters it reminds one of the practice of writing epideictic showpieces in fictional personae. As a contest in language between two rivals complete with a judge and a decision, it places their use of words squarely in the agonistic atmosphere appropriate to the assembly or the courtroom in which rhetoric was so much at home. I will concentrate my attention on the words of this singing-match itself.

The very first pair of couplets Comatas and Lacon exchange constructs a conceptual pattern highly typical of rhetoric yet never analyzed by writers on poetry. Here it is clear that the argument does not proceed in either a logical or narrative straight line with a conclusion that follows from, and marks an advance over what had preceded. Rather, Theocritus is concerned only with the relationship between the parts — truly a case of a structuralist poem. It is purely formal, like the technopaignia so closely associated with pastoralism (poems in the shape of a wing, an egg, a pipe, altar, etc.). The purpose of these opening couplets is to build a pattern with an almost geometric sense of elaboration. The first few words set up the initial terms of an analogy: the Muses are said to stand in a certain relation to the author. But the reader feels as though the specific content is only secondarily significant. The fact that the sentence describes a love-relation is decorative, although it accumulates over the poem as a whole to the point that it constitutes an insistent recurrence which assumes importance by determining the limits of the whole rather like the border on a piece of fabric or pottery.

Just past the end of the first line the first full statement of relationship is established.

(ll. 80-81) Muses : Comatas :: Muses: Daphnis (Comatas claims superiority)

The poet reinforces this simple assertion with another relation that contributes the whole coercive force of sympathetic magic.

(ll. 82-83) Apollo: Lacon:: poetry: goat sacrifice (Lacon claims superiority)

Comatas’ response is to brag that he is rich in both goods and love.

(ll. 84-85) many goats: Comatas:: maiden’s love: Comatas (Comatas claims superiority)

Not to be outdone, Lacon claims equal ego-success.

(ll.86-87) much cheese: Lacon:: boy’s love: Lacon (Lacon claims superiority)

Line 88-89 expand on the previous claims of sexual attractiveness, the one to a woman, the other to a man. The two herdsmen then go on to compete mentioning particular objects, beasts, plants, and acts of love-making in an effort to bolster their cases. It is a lush texture of rhythms, images, and ideas.

What is the point of such a passage as this? It clearly has no real narrative or descriptive viability; the scene and the language are altogether artificial and convention-bound. The implication of contractual arrangements with the deities and the chain of equivalences “excellence=love=wealth=sex=divine favor=poetry” are established, but these were commonplaces in the poet’s culture. Here surely is the "incantatory" magic-like development of repetition for its own sake that led to both the fascination and the suspicion rhetoric attracted. Formal play leads the composition here as in a fugue. What is the status of the category of truth in this fragment of poetry? Is there any significance to Comatas’ eventual victory? Are their claims true? Might either exist apart from the other? This poetry seems to me imperiously indifferent to content and concerned primarily with the melodious possibilities of mental play itself.

It is my contention that these structural relationships are the poem's subject. The aesthetic appeal (for those to whom it appeals) is based on the symmetries and surprises of a system of formal play maintained through a complex series of metamorphoses through the entire poem. To refer to this sort of poetry as play, however, does not exhaust its potential. In poetry such play is often anathematized as decadent, but in the case of Theocritus it is subtle and coherent enough to support semiotic analysis as a series of codes open to bearing any number of messages though tinted with their own thematic coloration and quite demanding in their internal formal requirements. Besides, the thematic always lingers on: the preoccupations of pastoral — otium, the locus amoenus, the problematic sexuality of the livestock juxtaposed with the often conflicted relations among the shepherds – these concerns do not vanish altogether, even the difference between heterosexual and homosexual love. All these values and tensions are manifested in a well-designed pattern which itself affirms the “natural” values that correspond to the natural landscape.

Once such exacting symmetries are developed in the content of the poem, the prosodic form itself assumes a new significance. The nice antiphonal balance of concepts corresponds to the precisely predictable units of language allowed by the meter. For the remainder of the singing-match the momentum of these analogies in which the relations are almost too exact will be maintained and supported by the elegiac couplets. [10]

Another instance of form becoming content, of the rhetorical color itself emerging into the foreground through the play of its internal system of relationships, may be traced through the poem’s use of hyperbole. Now a certain provocative hyperbole is latent in the whole situation. The pretense of super-attractive, poeticizing rustics is the poem's ubiquitous invitation to “pretend” by idealizing, enhancing, formulating a pleasing reality that can be made only of words, but which as words possesses unlimited potential. The stanzas I have already considered clearly partake of hyperbole since, in the spirit of what the Occitanian writers would have called a gab (and which shares its basic antiphonal form with Bo Diddley’s “Say Man”), the speakers claim extraordinary relations with divinity, art, and lovers, as well as animal husbandry.

The device is exploited, in fact, throughout. For example, lines such as 124-127 are balanced as ostentatiously as those opening the singing-match, but they more obviously appeal to a taste for witty and extravagant exaggeration. Indeed, here there can be no question of hyperbole arising naturally from the exuberance of language under certain emotional occasions as it does in everyday experience — for Theocritus this systematic hyperbole is a major recurrent signifier of his whole system. The smooth texture of the verse, the obtrusively recondite character of his lexical choices, the blessedness of the pastoral hillside in so many ways correspond to the hyperbolic quality of the poetic assertions.

Another direct analogue for this hyperbole is the extraordinary plenitude of images. Whether one views this specifically as expolitio or simply as amplificatio with a vengeance, it is clearly an integral part of Theocritus' world. One may note, for instance, lines 92-97 in which ten different plants are named. Each has a role in fleshing out a series of ephemeral sign systems which arise and instantly recede under the pressure of new terms arriving in the following lines, leaving only the impression of perfect accord and a setting so fertile and full that its flora and fauna come to the lines teeming with tropical growth. [12] Here once again, a rhetorical figure has assumed such
prominence in the text that it has become the content. More important than the specific plants which are mentioned in these lines cited above is the fact that a great many are named and that each fills a pigeon-hole in the abstract scheme that provides the framework and the excuse for the passage.

Before commenting on what seems to me the raison d'etre for this poetic practice, I wish to indicate one further dimension of the penetration of the Theocritean poetic corpus with rhetorical devices. His language is “artificial,” a strange Dorian dialect that has occasioned much scholarly discussion. Further, the text foregrounds its own surface through an exceedingly free use of musical acoustic devices. One critic has described the poet's “very marked preference for alliteration and assonance” citing also the testimony of Hermogenes and Demetrius to the same effect. [13] The point is sufficiently obvious that a few examples will serve to illustrate what sort of effects Theocritus chooses. Homoeoptoton and homoeoteleuton are common [14] especially in certain locations: thus, for instance, they may reinforce the enjambment between lines (note the pattern of short and long o sounds at the end of line 82 and the beginning of 83). Like vowel sounds may also bind a couplet into a more tangible unit by reproducing at its end the same sound with which it began (as in lines 88-89, 128-129, and others), or they may simply accumulate within a line with a force approaching that of the Old English alliterative pattern (see, for instance, 1. 96 which is spoken by Comatas — the very same sound pattern is repeated for Lacon in 122).

There are many other rhetorical figures in Theocritus' poem, but my concern is less with their description and isolation than with their interpretation. What is the reader to make of these preferences already discernible in Idyll V for unreal symmetry in collatio comparison, a fantastic fondness for hyperbole, a tendency to uncontrolled amplificatio in the enumeration of parallel evidence, and at the same time a rich concentration of purely acoustic musical effects? To think one may dismiss this poetry with the label of “art for art's sake” is, I think, mistaken. What, then, do these habits of composition do other than the admittedly important end of amusement?

As I have suggested, this use of rhetorical devices in pastoral poetry renders the verse unusually open in a calculated way, polysemous by design as it is interested in depicting relationships, structure, and patterns rather than things. This receptivity to multiple interpretation is clear in the varied interpretive possibilities critics have advanced in discussing Theocritus. Many readings may be roughly classified by their tendency to use either form or content as primary data: content-based readings include those that think of the pastoral as Utopia (Marxist and Freudian readings are subvarieties here), and for form those that view the pastoral as the archliterary artificial set-piece. I believe a new possibility more in keeping with everything in Theocritus is available to the critic who can unite the two directions through a revaluation of the role of rhetorical figures which will also foreground the relevance of the pastoral to current critical debate. It would be a reading that takes semiotics into account in understanding Theocritus’ elevation of form to the level of content (cf. Eco's notion of the aesthetic text’s “semiotic redemption of its basic matter” [15]). The fact that the herdsmen are poets should be enough to justify this sort of view of pastoral as literary criticism, but the case is strengthened by the prominence of rhetorical figures I have been discussing. It is this striking density of figures in the text that has caused its pejorative characterization as derivative, effete, epigonistic scholarly dilettantism, but which in this new light allows these formal characteristics to become content. If the narrative line contains, not events or ideas, but relations and patterns of figures, then the meaning of the entire hypersign (to use Corti’s term) must refer to these figures as well. Although the text does develop thematic concerns which are altogether real (about love and work and death and nature, for instance) these are highly refracted, indirect, and problematized. They are not nearly so prominent as the essential implication of the poem which implies a claim for the possibilities of language for resolving or mediating contradictions in general, a possibility most nakedly apparent when the language is mercilessly self-focusing, when its powers are directed toward self-commentary and self-praise, at constructing what may be called a myth of literature, a myth of language. This poetry inclines decisively away from any sort of Platonic mimesis: thus the futility of polemicizing over whether the herdsmen are in any sense like real ones or whether they are Alexandrian snobs pretending. It tends rather toward a more Gorgianic concept of producing effective discourse which will attain its ends without claiming any correspondence between its data and lived experience.

The same opposition exists on the level of language. Again Theocritus is consistent with modern semiotics as well as with Gorgias in his implicit assumption that the association between signifier and signified is never wholly adequate, but rather is always arbitrary. In this self-reflexive reading of Theocritus, it becomes apparent at what end all the hyperbole is really aimed, and what cosmos possesses the incredible symmetries projected onto the verse. These apply primarily to language and to literature. It is there that all things are possible and the restrictions that so stubbornly adhere to the material creation no longer apply. Apart from the fact that this view of his poetry allows us to understand better, I think, what Theocritus was writing about, it also illuminates his position in the famous contention between Callimachus and Apollonius over the proper length of a “modern” poem. The fact that Theocritus is the most prominent of the exemplars of the school that advocated shorter poems has led many to take Idyll VII, line 45-47 as his poetic credo.

[Greek text omitted]

(For much I hate the builder who seeks to raise his house as high as the peak of mount Oromedon, and much those cocks of the Muse . . . )

One must question, however, on the basis of the foregoing discussion whether it is solely out of deference to the unrivalable example of Homer that Theocritus takes his position. [17] Rather his compass has shrunken precisely because the generous “realism” of epic in which everything is transparently meaningful is inappropriate to a language grown conscious of itself which tends to rely instead on internal interrelationships and self-reflexive meditation to generate meaning. The fact that Apollonius’ epic has come down to us with a reputation for learned over-refinement not so very different from Theocritus’ may itself suggest which of the two poets more accurately recognized the sort of discourse he was producing.





1. Often rhetorical concepts dominate even those treatises in which they do not have total hegemony, e.g. On the Sublime which claims (Ch. 17) that rhetorical devices are themselves inherently conducive to sublimity.

2. A mediating, transitional category is, of course, epideictic oratory.

3. In spite of his willfully obtuse comments about medieval literature in The Role of the Reader, Eco has a most illuminating discussion of the general rhetorical procedure in the European tradition in Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), p. 276-288.

4. The three codes with very little adjustment might be accommodated to those of Pound's ABC of Reading: melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia.

5. A search of the last twenty-five years in L'Annee Philologique reveals not a single article on the role of rhetoric in Theocritus.

6. Indeed, this particular idyll has not only a contest, but a judge and a decision, thus approximating a judicial setting quite closely, though the content fits more closely the epideictic “laudes — vituperations” as the participants praise themselves.

7. It is one of the special attributes of this idyll that those “golden age” pastoral assumptions are not only evoked but also questioned by the violence of the earlier sexual encounter between Lacon and Comatas which assumes the form of a prefiguration of the current sublimated contest.

8. In this it resembles those long series of almost identical poems in the Greek Anthology in which one poet after another tried to perfect the statement of certain popular topoi by altering only a few words of earlier versions.

9. The entire poem lends itself very tidily to analysis as Levi-Straussian antinomies.

10. Another example of the almost incredible Greek openness to an appreciation of symmetry for its own sake is the correspondences of strophe and antistrophe in the choruses of tragedy most of the effects of which are entirely lost on modern listeners no matter how fluent their Greek.

11. These three objects of their attention may be conflated by those readers who view the whole poem as a description of the process of sublimation of sexuality resulting in song.

12. I am reminded of the catalogues of the voice from the whirlwind in Job where the world of nature is emphatically not purely verbal, but rather is a second-hand representation of the grandeur of God.

13. Steven Walker, Theocritus (Boston: Twayne), p. 131.

14. Alliteration is quite common as well. One notable example is line 110 in which the t-sounds refer to each other and to the sound of cicadas.

15. Eco, p. 268.

16. This was the occasion for Callimachus' memorable comment “A big book is
a big evil.”

17. Feigned modesty, of course, is itself a topos. It appears, for example, in lines 39-41 of the same poem.

18. I am thinking of something close to the concept of epic realism in Lukacs, though I do not mean by this reference to imply that I subscribe to his methodology.

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