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Reading Voices

Five Studies in Theocritus’ Narrating Techniques


J. Andrew Foster

This book is a study of Theocritus’ narrating techniques, intertextual practices, and the relationship between them. By a close, careful description and analysis of these features as particularly deployed in Idylls 6, 11, 13, 24, and 15, J. Andrew Foster provides detailed readings of these specific poems, demonstrating how each poem’s narrative structure and its intratextual and intertextual affiliations interact to characterize the voices and audiences expressed and imagined by the discourse. Within these poems Theocritus especially orchestrates polyphonic voices speaking to diverse fictional, ideal, and actual audiences and so authorizes a range of responses to speech-in-text. His densely allusive poems exhibit an iterative aspect and resistance to closure that particularly encourage his readers to help compose larger metanarratives in which such resolution can be achieved or the particular episode can be better understood. The interplay between the referential systems inscribed within these poems and their rhetorical structure exemplifies how Theocritus encourages his poetry to be incorporated into a wider literary discourse by which that wider literary landscape is transformed. Within these experiments in narration and reception, Theocritus exhibits an intense engagement with the literary past and his critical present whose receptions and authority are continually problematized. These readings will serve as a springboard into the wider ongoing study of the problems of poetic voice, authority, and literary innovation within Theocritus’ poetry in particular and Hellenistic poetry in general.
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Conclusion: Voices Heard and Read

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Theocritus’ compositional techniques have been a source of pleasure and critical interest from the outset of his poetry’s critical life. Beyond the earliest (peripatetic?) critic’s admiration of his formal variations of narrative and mimesis, the abiding fictional worlds presumed to exist behind the brief, particular glimpses given within his poems, Theocritus’ rhetorical practice instigates a speculative venture on the part of the reader. Like Callimachus’ densely allusive hymns and his Aetia saturated with literary references, or Apollonius’ voyage into remotest regions of heroic legend, epic tradition, and prosaic wisdom, Theocritus’ poems demand a reader willing to become complicit in his compositional endeavors. Theocritus exploits the interplay of brevity, narrative framing and inter- and intratextual affiliation to invite the reader to compose the larger interpretive framework for appreciating any particular poem.

In Idyll 6 the primary narrator, Daphnis, Damoitas, Polyphemos, and his interlocutor simultaneously articulate an erotic escapade and a proleptic account of the Kyklops’ epic blinding as Daphnis and Damoitas innocently enjoy their rustic singing match. Idyll 11’s extended frame, which explicitly contemplates the reception of its contents, creates and subverts a normative reception of the Kyklops’ song not only by undermining Polyphemos’ viability ← 233 | 234 → as an exemplar of song’s power to cure love’s ills, but also by intimating that Nicias and Theocritus are not seriously interested in imparting or receiving erotodidaxis. Theocritus more explicitly purports to teach at the outset of Idyll 13, but how much there actually is to be learned from Herakles’ loss of Hylas becomes a peripheral concern as Theocritus inscribes within his mini-Argonautica multiple frames of interpretive reference and explores the limits of Herakles’ polyvalence and the use of interpretive paradigms. In Idyll 24 the primary narrator, Alkmene, and Teiresias compose a comically revised Heracliscus while they embellish Pindar’s celebration of Herakles’ incipient heroism with a darker vision of the hero’s future. It is through the voices of the matron and the prophet that Theocritus offers a strikingly clear index of his own compositional predilections as he openly contests Pindar’s story-telling prowess in his retelling of a renowned tale. In perhaps the boldest experiment in narrative framing and collaborative metanarrative composition, Gorgo, Praxinoa, and the Argive hymnist not only enact their celebration and enjoyment of queen Arsinoe’s Adonia, they also unwittingly collaborate to inscribe within Idyll 15 an elaborate allusive and intertextual description of the queen and her hospitality.

By his studied use of narrative frames and multiple references, Theocritus habitually accentuates the polyvalency of his poetry. In addition to creating a hierarchy of internal and external narrators, the poet constitutes distinct internal and external audiences whose relationships to the narratives composed differ significantly. Idyll 6 accentuates the divide between audiences and speakers. Daphnis and Damoitas remain ensconced in their locus amoenus, which precludes an intertextual anxiety. Aratos is an intratextual fragment who may or may not find a message of hope—or despair—within the herdsmen’s mimetic play. The primary narrator of Idyll 11 is an unstable persona offering wisdom whose value is difficult to estimate. Does the Kyklops find a cure in song? Does Theocritus seriously proffer music as cure for love’s ills? Is Nicias an addressee in need (or capable) of instruction? The intertextual resonance with the Kyklops’ extra-bucolic lives, his bucolic typology as a doomed lover, and Theocritus’ and Nicias’ intratextual personae all militate against a straightforward reception of the Kyklops’ song as a salve for Eros’ injuries while recasting the unrequited Kyklops as a victim to be consoled rather than a monster to be destroyed.

Nicias is again exhorted to contemplate the erotic misadventures of a heroic figure in Idyll 13, but Herakles’ vain pursuit of the abducted Hylas offers no promise of a palliative cure. The brief exemplification of Eros’ irresistible ← 234 | 235 → power becomes an extended meditation upon the interplay of literary models, literary reference and self-reference, and fictionalized reception contexts in the presentation of narrative as an interpretive paradigm. Within Idyll 24, Alkmene and her household cannot detect the hints of tragedy embedded within Teiresias’ vision of Herakles’ future, but are buoyed by the internally unambiguous vision of Herakles’ future accomplishment, even divinity. The salve for a mother’s distress becomes a source of wistful reflection for the reader bound by the constraints of established tradition. Gorgo, Praxinoa, and the Argive singer are not in a position to appreciate the intertextual connections between their speech, but hardly leave Arsinoe’s festival empty-handed. They become first-hand witnesses of a spectacle that projects the queen’s extraordinary wealth, power, and largess. The allusive interplay inscribed within their discourse becomes a textual echo of their visual feast.

In each of these poems the external reader enjoys a perceptual and literary panorama from which the internal characters are excluded. This compositional technique underscores the potential for discontinuous receptions between the various audiences constructed by their discourses. The poet introduces overt and covert allusions and so invites the reader to draw inter- and intratextual connections between his poems and other narratives by which she can augment and reinterpret the discourse presented to the internal audiences.

In addition to specific allusions, Theocritus repeatedly manipulates more general rhetorical features of the Idylls such as their imagery, their narrative sequence, and their descriptive details to direct the external reader to a literary template larger than the one available to the internal auditors. The visual imagery of Daphnis’ and Damoitas’ songs relentlessly reiterates a vision of Polyphemos’ future epic blinding. The sound of the Kyklops’ whistle portends ominously as do his vain wishes in Idyll 11 that set him on the path to epic suffering. The descriptive landscape of Idyll 13 that inscribes the Symplegades within the Mysian Nymphs’ locus amoenus, or the conversion of the Argo to a literal “symposium at sea,” interweave epic and erotic narrative models which permit the reader to assimilate Theocritus’ and Nicias’ fictionalized lives to “epic” discourse, which itself is transformed through its deft emulation of Apollonius’ narrative. The textiles adorning Aphrodite’s and Adonis’ apartment point to epic palaces and their regal mistresses. Teiresias orders that the invading serpents be cremated in a manner that eerily parallels Herakles’ tragic demise. These are but a few cues that Theocritus provides for the external reader to embellish the immediate scene and thereby compose a larger edifice into which the immediate discourse can be situated. ← 235 | 236 →

Theocritus’ narrative techniques and allusive practices actively encourage, even insist that the reader compose the larger narrative contexts in which these brief vignettes can be located. And yet, Theocritus hardly proscribes a unified vision for his characters and “plots.” Discontinuity and ambivalence surround the figures and outcomes adumbrated within his mimesis. Polyphemos, Arsinoe, and Herakles become overlaid with conflicting and even ominous images drawn from the narrative supplements suggested by the poems’ discourse. There is no one fixed metanarrative composition in which each is permanently situated, but each is to be reread in light of the ongoing literary activities of Theocritus himself, the contemporaries he emulates, and the successors his poetry envisions.1

The external audience may be better attuned to the literary aspects of the poems such as the irony of Idyll 6’s visual imagery, the ambiguous image of Arsinoe created by allusions to Kirke and Helen in Idyll 15, or the tragic undertones struck in Idyll 24 by describing a triumphant infant as “tearless,” but his erudition also seems to bar him from sharing in the pleasures of the dramatic moment. Gorgo’s and Praxinoa’s day at the palace provides them a delightful respite from their daily routine. Daphnis and Damoitas gladly play out their flirtations during their midday repose. Teiresias’ prophecy relieves Alkmene of her fears for baby Herakles’ future. The internal characters enjoy an immediate emotional gratification uncluttered by wider textual considerations. The external reader cannot replicate their experience. The poet does not openly privilege either the internal audience’s direct, dramatic experience or the external audience’s reflective, textual impressions. Rather he revels in the discrepancies arising between them.

By continually problematizing the presentation and reception of their discourse, Idylls 6, 11, 13, 24, and 15 are indicative of a poetic program that does not passively adapt “tradition” for the sake of a few novel effects for an audience for whom “Homer is enough” (λις πντεσσιν Ομηρος [16.20]). Theocritus actively shapes his literary antecedents in a manner by which his own poetic work and compositional practice become normative strategies for the writing and reading of poetry within the Alexandrian provenance. Theocritus winks and nods and invites his reader to make a complicit gesture toward their ongoing poetic collaboration. By following Theocritus’ intertextual and ← 236 | 237 → intratextual lead, the reader does as much as the poet himself to create the differences between the internal and external receptions of his poems’ discourse. The poet authorizes any number of potential presentations and receptions of the stories latent in his precise composition of narrative frames and suggestions of narrative supplements to be incorporated into a larger discourse by his audiences’ own creative impulses and particularly its imagined expertise in Theocritus’ own poetry. By his studied composition and manipulation of voices and audiences, Theocritus not only recasts, as he enlarges, what he has received from his predecessors, but he also ensures that his own poetry becomes a model to be appropriated, resisted, and transformed, part of the tradition to be enshrined, subverted, and continually made new.

1. Theocritus surely realized that Idylls 6 and 11 would be read in relation to one another; whichever came second, the poet himself knew the other one already existed, and so each can serve as hermeneutic for the other. See supra 24–6.