Questioning authenticity and plausibility: Sappho, Anacreon, Theognis & the Transmission of Greek Poetry

From William A. Percy
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It is often the case that writers are appreciated as much for who they are as for what they wrote. Such “vulgarity of ‘human interest’,” as Nabokov once referred to it[1] , can sometimes lead to even cult like worship of a writer, occasionally growing so fierce that it is their character and biography– or at least such as they are imagined– which become more prominent than their actual work. As Mary Lefkowitz has noted, "Criticism of creative art seems curiously dependent on biography."[2] Classics has a bizarre relationship with this dependence: the abundance of biographical writing and character study about ancient writers belies the extreme paucity of biographical information for these people. Often we lack anything verifiable proving that these “writers” ever existed, an issue most obvious with Homer. Lefkowitz has masterfully laid out the case for the extent of speculation and out and out fiction in such “biographies” in her seminal work, The Lives of the Greek Poets.[3] The effusive stream of biographical information, private papers, and more reliable anecdotal evidence of modern authors, particularly from the nineteenth century on, has fueled a sort of retroactive need to implant biographies of ancient authors in a way which can only be artificial and unfounded, Lefkowitz has shown.

This need for biographies also stimulates the need to consolidate, clarify and expand these writers’ corpuses. The more poems attributed to an author, the better, particularly for those who still wish, in spite of Lefkowitz’s Lives, to draw biographical information from the poetry itself. But how do we attribute works to a particular person? What guarantees their authenticity? Of course we have a number of poems whose authorship can be verified with at least some relative certainty when their lines are quoted by another ancient writer, but this is no sure guarantee, as proved my misquotes. For many other poems we have to rely on the, at best, far more imperfect science/art of philology. The relatively recent discoveries from Oxyrhynchus have yielded what appear to be newly discovered works from famous writers and has birthed in the last century or so a whole new round of textual analysis, and so classical philology continues to have a role to play in dribs and drabs as the good classicists at Oxford sort through all those papyri.



Notes

  1. Lecture on Anna Karenina, in Lectures on Russian Literature. Harcourt, Inc, 1981. p. 138
  2. Heroines and Hysterics. Duckworth Press, 1981. p. 59
  3. John Hopkins, 1981
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