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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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Introduction: Text, Voice, and Audience


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Narrative Form

An ancient commentator on Theocritus noted that his bucolic poetry displays a charming mix of narrative and mimesis:

Πᾶσα ποίησις τρεῖς ἔχει χαρακτῆρας, διηγηματικόν, δραματικὸν καὶ μικτόν. τὸ δὲ βουκολικὸν ποίημα μῖγμά ἐστι παντὸς εἴδους καθάπερ συγκεκραμένον· διὸ καὶ χαριέστερον τῇ ποικιλίᾳ τῆς κράσεως, ποτὲ μὲν συγκείμενον ἐκ διηγηματικοῦ, ποτὲ δὲ ἐκ δραματικοῦ, ποτὲ δὲ ἐκ μικτοῦ, ἤγουν διηγηματικοῦ καὶ δραματικοῦ, ὁτὲ δὲ ὡς ἂν τύχῃ.

All poetry has three [narrative] types: narrative, dramatic, and mixed. Bucolic poetry is a mixture of every form like an alloy; wherefore it is made rather more charming by the variety of its mixture; sometimes it is composed from narrative sometimes from dramatic and other times from a mixture of both, that is to say from narrative and dialogue—whenever and however the occasion may have it.1 ← 1 | 2 →

Theocritus’ poetry readily confirms the observation. The bucolic poems display a striking range of narrative forms. Idyll 1 has a dramatic façade, but within its mimesis the goatherd offers an extended narrative ecphrasis while Thyrsis’ embedded song is divided into irregular sets of verses interspersed with refrains that fit uneasily within the poem’s mimetic framework.2

Idyll 7 offers an elaborate first person retrospective narrative. Within this account of his trip to the Thalysia of Demeter in Cos, Simichidas recollects his encounter with the mysterious goatherd/master of bucolic song, Lykidas, with whom he exchanges a bucolic song. The inset songs spin an elaborate web of narrative relations, particularly Lykidas’ song. Within his propemptikon for his beloved Ageanax, Lykidas imagines a future celebration of Ageanax’s safe arrival in Mytilene. When he has reached harbor, Lykidas will recline, drink, and enjoy...

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