Chapter 8

Epilogue: Dead Poets and Recomposed Performers

There is a late twelfth-century lai by Marie de France, entitled Laüstic, about a nightingale that was killed by a jealous knight who had been told by his wife, when asked why she would leave the bed so often at night and stand by the window, that ‘there is no joy in all the world like hearing the nightingale’ (verses 84-85: il nen ad joië en cest mund | ki n’ot le laüstic chanter). [1] Till then, there had been a series of nightly contacts, purely by voice, between the wife and her secret lover, whose window was nearby:
des chambres u la dame jut,
quant a la fenestre s’estut,
poeit parler a sun ami
de l’autre part, et il a li.
From the rooms where the lady lay,
when she stood by the window
she could talk to her lover
and, from the other side, he could talk to her.
Marie de France, Laüstic verses 39–42
To warn her lover that the secret has been discovered—an inference that follows, without explanation, from the death of the nightingale—the lady sends the body of the dead songbird to him. She starts by saying: {207|208}
“le laüstic li trametrai,
l’aventure li manderai.”
en une piece de samit
a or brusdé et tut escrit
ad l’oiselet envolupé;
un suen vaslet ad apelé,
sun message li ad chargié,
a sun ami l’ad enveié.
“I will send the nightingale to him,
I will pass on to him the story.”
In a piece of silk,
embroidered with gold and with writing all around,
she wrapped up the bird.
She called one of her servants
and charged him with her message
which she sent to her lover.
Marie de France, Laüstic verses 133–140
When the lover receives the body of the dead songbird, he enshrines it in a reliquary, which he carries around on his person for the rest of his life. [2]
This story of the nightingale, according to the interpretation of one critic, draws a parallel between the song of the bird and the medium of the lai, but the parallelism is enigmatic:
Nowhere in the lai is the presence of a voice anything but a substitute for something else. The lovers are never present to each other, and the nightingale never sings to the lovers. It is itself nothing more than the sign of a ruse or lie told to calm the jealous husband’s suspicions, an invention synonymous with the lai itself. Moreover, the dead bird is embroidered and written (a or brusdé et tut escrit) and sent like a poetic envoi to the lover once consummation or the presence of bodies is no longer even imaginable. Nor was it ever. Presence in the lai is always deferred. [3] {208|209}
This formulation is offered in the larger context of a disagreement with Paul Zumthor’s hermeneutics of oral poetry, who claims that medieval literature is driven by the primacy of what he calls the living voice. [4] As an alternative to Zumthor’s model, it is suggested that “the Old French text is a tomb of the voice which it betrays.” [5] I agree, at least to the extent that the voice of the nightingale has indeed been ‘betrayed’ or revealed by the text:
la dame prent le cors petit,
durement plure e si maudit
ceus ki le laüstic traïrent
The lady took the small body.
She lamented bitterly and cursed
those who betrayed the nightingale.
Marie de France, Laüstic verses 121–123
And yet, it is not just the text that betrays the voice of the nightingale. Even the voice of poetic performance betrays the songbird’s voice. In the logic of the song, the nightingale sings a secret language, to be understood by lovers only, and the songbird is therefore betrayed if his love-song is made public, that is, if his secret language is sung to the public, the poet’s public.
To appreciate more fully the poetic implications of this theme of betrayal, it is instructive to begin with the poem Philomena praevia temporis amoeni by John Pecham (died 1292). This poet reshapes along religious lines the related theme of the nightingale’s love-song, and the legend it implies can be summarized as follows: {209|210}
[The] nightingale knows before-hand the time of her death and when she perceives that it is near, flies to the top of a tree and there, at daybreak, pours out her soul in many songs. At the hour of Prime her voice rises higher and in her singing she knows neither respite nor repose. About the time of Tierce, the gladness and passion increase, until at noon, her heart is ready to break as she cries oci! oci! [‘kill! kill!’], and her strength begins to fail until at None she dies.” [6]
The songbird’s cry of love and death signals the theme of betrayal. In Song 18 of the troubadour Guillaume le Vinier, for example, the nightingale utters this cry oci! oci! ‘kill! kill!’ (verse 4) precisely because he is denouncing the trahitour ‘traitors’ (verse 7), that is, those who betray true lovers—and thereby cause the nightingale’s death. [7] It is a central convention of the troubadour traditions to represent the nightingale as a loyal messenger sent to the beloved by the lover, by the maker of a love-song: thus in Peire d’Alvernha, Song 1.1–4, the songbird is both the discreet communicator and the faithful guardian of the lovers’ secrets. [8] In the logic of this poetic tradition, the language of the nightingale is like the language of secret lovers: it cannot be understood by the uninitiated. This same language, it follows, is the language of the poet. In an early thirteenth-century poem by Peire Cardenal, Song 56 (verses 33–40), the homology is made explicit:
a mos ops chant e a mos ops flaujol,
car homs mas ieu non enten mon lati;
atretan pauc com fa d’un rossinhol
entent la gent de mon chant que se di.
ez ieu non ai lengua fiza ni breta
ni sai parlear flamenc ni angevi,
mas malvestatz que los escalafeta
lor tol vezer que es fals ni es fi. {210|211}

I sing and I play the flute for myself.
For no man except me understands my language.
As little as they understand the nightingale
do the people understand what my song says.
And I do not have a tongue that shakes or stutters,
nor do I know to speak Flemish or Angevin,
but the meanness which contains them
takes away the vision of what is false, what is true. [9]
To betray the nightingale, then, is to betray the lovers’ secrets, which they communicate to each other through their love-song. [10] To betray the songbird’s secret love-song is to make it public. The irony here is that the death of the nightingale becomes essential for the continuity of the bird’s song as art: to betray and thus make public this love-song, with all its beautiful heartache, is to keep it alive—in the form of the song that the troubadour sings to his public. [11] If the poet compares himself directly to the nightingale, as we have just seen in the stanza from Peire Cardenal, it is more appropriate for him to stage himself at that very moment as being alone, without a public, singing to himself a song misunderstood by the uninitiated.
What, then, is the secret theme of the nightingale’s song in the lai of Marie de France? In the logic of the lai—or of the lady’s lament in the lai—the songbird’s betrayal and death signal both the lovers’ feeling of powerlessness to consummate their love and the expression of this feeling in song. It may be that this feeling of unfulfilled love is the secret theme of the nightingale’s song. This theme can be linked with a medieval belief that the nightingale ceased to sing and lost his singing voice once his songs finally led to the long-awaited moment of success in copulating. [12] There is a related theme in the troubadour tradition, as in Song 35 of Gaucelm Faidit, where the poet himself is pictured as dying from an inability to express his love fully in song. [13] {211|212}
My aim, however, is not to reflect any further on the feelings conveyed by the nightingale’s song but to explore the meaning of the song as a symbol of continuity in spite of death, even because of death. Within the story of Marie de France, to repeat the formulation that we saw earlier, the nightingale is “the sign of a ruse or lie told to calm the jealous husband’s suspicions, an invention synonymous with the lai itself.” Beyond the story, however, the song of the nightingale is the very opposite of an ad hoc invention: it is a sign of continuity, of a sad but compellingly beautiful song that cannot end with the death of the songbird. Marie de France draws attention to her use of a Breton word, laüstic, for ‘nightingale’: ceo est ‘russignol’ en franceis / e ‘nihtegale’ en dreit engleis ‘that is, russignol in French and nihtegale in proper English’ (Laüstic verses 5–6). Even in this word of Celtic origin, laüstic, we find an indirect historical indication of continuity in an oral and non-Latin tradition. [14] The image of the nightingale as oral poet persists to this day in the poetic traditions of the Celtic world: for example, the cognate of Breton laüstic in Welsh, eos or eosig, means both ‘nightingale’ and ‘bard’.
The letters embroidered on the silk that enshrouds the nightingale, preserved in the reliquary kept by the lover, are the transcript, as it were, of the song he once sang. To that extent, letters are indeed the tomb of performance. [15] In Greek traditions as well, “the poet seems to be saying that [his] poetry is his sêma ‘tomb’.” [16] This formulation has been applied in interpreting some cryptic verses of Theognis, where the poet’s words mirror the language of inscriptions actually found on tombs: [17]
Αἴθων μὲν γένος εἰμί, πόλιν δ᾿ εὐτειχέα Θήβην
οἰκῶ, πατρῴας γῆς ἀπερυκόμενος

I am Aithon by birth, and I have an abode [oikeîn] in well-walled Thebes,
since I have been exiled from my native land.
Theognis 1209–1210 {212|213}
It appears that the poet here is picturing himself as already dead, speaking from a tomb. [18] The verb oikeîn in parallel contexts refers to the establishing of a corpse in a sacred precinct for the purposes of hero cult. [19] After the cryptic words of Theognis 1209-1210, and some further cryptic words that go beyond the scope of this inquiry (1211–1213), the poet reiterates that he is an exile (1213–1214), and then he announces that his abode is next to the Plain of Lethe (1215–1216)—clearly, the realm of the dead (cf. Aristophanes Frogs 186). [20]
And yet, the image of the tomb in this and other archaic Greek passages conveys a message of life after death, achieved through the dead poet’s words. [21] Moreover, sêma means not only ‘tomb’ but also the ‘sign, signal, symbol’ that is the poem. [22] So long as the sign of the dead poet is there, the song may continue to live. A sign authorizes, making the poet an author. [23] The same may be said of the medieval traditions that we have considered: so long as the sign of the dead nightingale is there, the song of the poet may continue.
Still, it would not be enough to think that the death of the nightingale—the death of the poet—ensures the continuity of the song. The one who continues the song must somehow find a point of engagement with the dead poet, through the dead poet’s words. In his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot says that, for the modern poet, the “most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.” [24] For a culture like that of the ancient Greeks, where performance is still needed to bring the composition to life, Eliot’s words can be reapplied if we take for a moment the performer’s point of view: all I need {213|214} for the moment is to reword his work as his performance. Let me recompose, then: for a performer, the most individual parts of his performance may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. In other words, the reperformed composer becomes the recomposed performer.
Here we return to the subject of mimesis in Greek poetic traditions. This book has consistently stressed the fundamental role of mimesis in the performance of song and poetry in the theater, in choral events, in professional citharodic or aulodic events, in rhapsodic events, and even in the symposium. [25] So long as the authority of mimesis continues, we must reckon with its power to reshape the identity of those who take part in the process of performing a song or poem. Just as every performance becomes a potential re-creation in mimesis, that is, a virtual recomposition, so also the very identity of the performer stands to be re-created, recomposed. When the performer re-enacts an identity formerly enacted by previous performers, he or she is re-creating his or her own identity for the moment. That is to say, a performer’s identity is recomposed in performance.
From the standpoint of the Alexandrian period, an era that inaugurates terminal rigidity in the performance traditions of both tragedy and Homer, it is reasonable to expect the perception of a veritable chasm between the actor of, say, a Sophoclean drama and Sophocles himself, or between the immediate rhapsode and Homer, the ultimate Singer. We have seen a striking example of such a chasm at an even earlier date, already in the fourth century: it is the metaphor of the magnet in Plato’s Ion, with the rhapsode Ion pictured as the last and weakest link in a magnetic chain of rhapsodes leading all the way back to the genius of Homer (533d–536d). Still, I maintain my earlier objection to this idea that a rhapsode is a mere replica: such a mentality is contradicted by the more archaic mentality of mimesis, which shapes the idea of a recomposed performer, in that performers may still appropriate to themselves the persona of the composer.
In a performance tradition that is markedly more fluid, as in the case of the troubadour songs represented by Jaufré Rudel, we have seen that any distinction between the so-called “original” {214|215} composer and the performer is in fact so blurred as to lead a modern editor to talk about multiple authorship. Let us recall the striking formulation of Rupert Pickens: “The conventions and traditions of the courtly lyric have conspired to efface the author and to create at least as many Jaufré Rudels as there are medieval anthologies.” [26]
A comparative perspective, taking into account the differences we have observed so far, leads to the following two axioms:
  1. The greater or smaller the degree of mouvance, the smaller or greater respectively is the distinction between composer and performer. [27]
  2. Where the distinction between composer and performer requires it, the performer’s identity becomes reshaped—recomposed—to fit the ideology of his or her distinctness from the supposedly prototypical composer, the author.
All this is not to renounce the historical reality or even the very concept of authors, of earlier composers of earlier compositions in oral tradition. What I resist is simply the insistence of some scholars on the notion that an original composer of an original composition in oral tradition can be recovered as a synchronic reality. The parallel of historical linguistics imposes itself. Within the conceptual framework of this discipline, we can claim to be reconstructing a given earlier phase of a language on the basis of cognate forms, but we cannot ever say that we have recovered an original phase. [28] The different details that we reconstruct cannot be reassembled into one synchronic reality, one glorious instance of real speech as really spoken in one time and one place. All we can do is predict the relationships that the reconstructed details {215|216} maintain with each other within a continuum that is diachrony. Our predictions must take the form of hypothetical cross-sections of synchrony that correspond to genuinely attested cross-sections, that is, to recordings of living speech.
So also in the study of oral tradition, we cannot expect, as Lord warns us, to recover an “original,” in this case an original composition. Nevertheless, following the model of historical linguistics, we may indeed hope to reconstruct earlier stages or cross-sections of traditions in composition. In my earlier work, I used the letters L M N and so on as symbols for various reconstructed stages of authorship in oral traditions, avoiding the sequence of letters A B C and so on with the implicit purpose of emphasizing that a model of reconstruction cannot start with the beginning, only with a beginning. [29] To start with L M N and so on is thus symbolically apt, in line with the archaic Roman custom, derived from earlier conventions in the writing traditions of Semitic languages, of dividing the alphabet into two halves for teaching purposes, with the recto, as it were, starting at A-B-C and the verso, at L-M-N. Thus by learning the essentials of language, one would learn concurrently one’s A-B-C-s and L-M-N-s. The idea of L-M-N-s as implicit essentials, alongside the A-B-C-s as explicit ones, helps explain the etymology of Latin elementum, alongside abecedarium, as Michael Coogan has argued persuasively. [30] To use Coogan’s metaphor, the sequence L M N in one particular Qumran student’s practice abecedarium represents “a fresh start.” [31]
This etymology of elementum can serve as a fitting symbol for the elements of authorship in oral tradition. As we attempt to trace a progression of originators within an oral poetic tradition, we will predictably fail if we start with an originator standing at a starting line, as it were, but we may indeed succeed in catching up, along the way, with successive relays of continuators, each of whom becomes an originator for the next continuator.
The continuators, of course, need a continuum—a continuous setting, to match any original setting. We may link such “original” {216|217} settings as the hetaireía ‘assembly of comrades’ addressed by Alcaeus at one time and one place with such historically continuing settings as the symposium, in all its varieties throughout many times and many places, where the spirit of hetaireía writ large provides a fitting context for re-enactments of Alcaeus’ words in song. [32] To this extent, I accept Wolfgang Rösler’s dictum that the identity of Alcaeus as a lyric poet was a function of his social group, his hetaireía: “ohne Hetairie kein Lyriker Alkaios”. [33] I even accept the notion of Alcaeus as an author. I must insist, however, that the hetaireía is diachronic—and so too, for that matter, is the persona of Alcaeus. That is to say, the persona of Alcaeus may be adaptable through time, fitting a wide variety of situations—both positive and negative—affecting the very idea of hetaireía. Just as the society reflected by Alcaeus—let us continue to call it his hetaireía—changes over time, so also the persona of Alcaeus may change along with it. If indeed Alcaeus was transmitted primarily through the symposium, then Alcaeus the author will change as the symposium changes through time.
The symposium can serve as an ideal example of a setting for performance, since this institution happens to be more conservative than most in maintaining a continuum of traditional values in the history of Hellenism. [34] And the stronger the continuity, the stronger we may expect to be the sense of potential identification between composer and performer. For example, the sympotic persona of Alcaeus, conveyed in the varieties of ethos that are being acted out in the songs attributed to him, makes it all the more natural for any sympotic performer of Alcaeus to develop a relatively strong sense of identification with him in performance. The same can be said of monodic poetry composed in elegiac couplets, as in the case of Theognis: “the figure of Theognis speaks less as a generalized choral personality and more as a specialized sympotic personality” (cf. especially Theognis 239–243). [35] Even the verses of Archilochus, at least {217|218} those composed in elegiac couplets, were suited for performance at symposia. [36]
We may recall in this connection the opinion of Aristotle, for whom the paideía ‘education’ that a younger man acquires in the symposium, presumably by way of performing as well as hearing the kind of songs that were traditionally performed in that context, provides an immunization against the potentially harmful effects of attending theatrical performances of íamboi ‘iambs’ and comedy, where we would expect the mimesis to concentrate on negative varieties of ethos: τοὺς δὲ νεωτέρους οὔτ᾿ ἰάμβων οὔτε κωμῳδίας θεατὰς θετέον, πρὶν ἢ τὴν ἡλικίαν λάβωσιν ἐν ᾗ καὶ κατακλίσεως ὑπάρξει κοινωνεῖν ἤδη καὶ μέθης, καὶ τῆς ἀπὸ τῶν τοιούτων γιγνομένης βλάβης ἀπαθεῖς ἡ παιδεία ποιήσει πάντως ‘it should be ordained that younger men not be theater-goers [theataí] of íamboi or of comedy until they reach the age where they have the opportunity to participate in lying down together at table and getting intoxicated [that is, to participate in symposia], at which point their education [paideía] will make them altogether immune to the harmful effect of these things’ (Politics 1336b20–22). [37] By implication, the paideía of mimesis in the symposium—even the cumulative ethos of the symposium—provides a proper balance for Hellenic youth in their educational experience of learning the variations of ethos. The symposium, it seems, provides a “safe” occasion for morally vulnerable younger men to hear things that might be “unsafe” to hear in the theater. Presumably even the roguish blame poetry of Archilochus becomes a “safe” topic in the symposium.
In this connection, we may note Aristotle’s tendency to use specific passages from the poetry of Archilochus when he tries to reconstruct the prototypes of comedy (for example, Poetics 1449a9ff, apparently with reference to Archilochus F 120 W); [38] we may note too his theory that íamboi are a prototype of comedy and that they stem from blame poetry (Poetics 1448b32–1449a6). [39] And yet, it seems that Aristotle does not rule out the symposium as {218|219} a context for performing this kind of poetry, despite its frequent representation of rogues who exemplify a negative morality.
An example of such roguishness is Archilochus F 4.7–8 W, where the speaker says that ‘we’ cannot endure guard-duty without drinking wine. The question imposes itself: is the speaker referring to a real situation? One critic offers this answer: “I think it far more probable that Archilochus is evoking a situation with which his audience was all too familiar but which they could thank the gods was not their actual situation while they sang.” [40] I agree, but my point of emphasis is different: the negative morality that is being represented in this composition is being framed by the positive morality of the symposium as the setting of the representation. If I understand Aristotle correctly, the same representation in a setting that is different from the symposium, such as the theater, would make it easier for impressionable youth to become vulnerable to the negative morality that is being dramatized. In other words, Aristotle seems to be saying that the symposium provides a proper frame for moral discrimination, whereas the theater is more hazardous.
In the mimesis of a rogue’s persona, as in the case of Archilochus, we may expect an intensification of distinctions between composer and performer in the symposium. A similar point can be made about other personae as well, as in the case of Sappho. We know that Sappho’s songs, like those of Archilochus, were performed at symposia. In one source, Solon himself is pictured as becoming enraptured by a song of Sappho as sung by his own nephew at a symposium (Aelian via Stobaeus 3.29.58). [41] The point is, for a male singer to act out a woman’s persona implies a radical reshaping of personality in performance. One critic {219|220} remarks, in arguing for a contrast between the ease with which a symposiast may perform the words of Theognis addressing his boy-love Kyrnos and the difficulty with which the same symposiast may perform the dramatized words of Aphrodite addressing Sappho: “Contemporaries will have had little difficulty in singing a song addressed to [Kyrnos]; they might, however, have felt some oddity in singing Sappho [F] 1, with its give-away τίς σ᾿ ὦ Ψαπφ᾿, ἀδικήει; [‘who, Sappho, is doing you wrong?’]; or reciting such lines as Hipponax [F] 32.4 W δὸς χλαῖναν Ἱππώνακτι [‘give a cloak to Hipponax!’].” [42] So also with such songs as Alcaeus F 10 V and Anacreon PMG 385: in each case, the dramatized persona who is speaking is clearly female.
We must distinguish, however, between a dramatized ‘I’ who simply plays out a conventional role in a conventional situation and a dramatized ‘I’ who claims to be the author, as when a rhapsode intones ‘tell me, Muses’ or ‘tell me, Muse’, thereby becoming Homer the author, Homer the culture hero of epic. Here we return to the second axiom: where the distinction between the composer and performer requires it, the performer’s identity becomes reshaped—recomposed—to fit the ideology of his or her distinctness from the supposedly prototypical composer, the author. When a rhapsode performs the lament of a woman, the lamenting ‘I’ is surely distinct from the narrating ‘I’ of Homer the author. [43] Granted, the equation of the rhapsode’s ‘I’ with Homer’s ‘I’ is itself an act of mimesis, but the further equation with a lamenting woman’s ‘I’ surely intensifies the mimesis. In the same way, a sympotic performer’s ‘I’ is surely less mimetic when it renders an ‘I’ overtly equated with Archilochus as author or with Sappho as author and more mimetic when it renders an ‘I’ that seems distinct from the authors.
Even so, the identity of the author is at risk. Let us reconsider the various songs in which an “author” is speaking through what is understood to be his or her own persona. The variety of situations conjured up even in such appropriated songs may lead to a commensurate variety of speaking personae. In other words, the demands of mimesis may lead toward an intensified multiplicity {220|221} in ethos even for the author, with the persona of an Archilochus or a Sappho becoming transformed into multiple personalities that fit multiple situations. Just as the performer may be recomposed in multiple ways, so too this multiplicity may be retrojected all the way to the supposedly prototypical composer, the author. A case in point is the persona of Sappho, which becomes refracted into multiple personalities that eventually become distinguished from the “real” poetess in various Life of Sappho traditions: one such “fake” Sappho is a lyre-player who reputedly jumped off the cliff of Leukas (Suda Σ 108, iv 323 ed. Adler; cf. Strabo 10.2.9 C452), while another is a courtesan (hetaíra: Aelian Varia Historia 12.19, Athenaeus 13.596e), even a prostitute (publica: Seneca in Epistles 88.37).
Despite the verifiable reality of recomposition-in-performance, of change in identity within the process of mimesis, the songmaking tradition may continue to insist on its unchangeability. The tradition may even claim that mimesis itself is the visible sign or seal of unchangeability for the song and, by extension, for its author. Such a traditional mentality is evident in two passages from Theognis of Megara.
In the first passage, the persona of Theognis claims that he is placing a sphragís ‘seal’ upon his words as he identifies himself by name:
Κύρνε σοφιζομένῳ μὲν ἐμοὶ σφρηγὶς ἐπικείσθω
τοῖσδ᾿ ἔπεσιν, λήσει δ᾿ οὔποτε κλεπτόμενα
οὐδέ τις ἀλλάξει κάκιον τοὐσθλοῦ παρεόντος.
ὧδε δέ πᾶς τις ἐρεῖ· Θεύγνιδός ἐστιν ἔπη
τοῦ Μεγαρέως· πάντας δὲ κατ᾿ ἀνθρώπους ὀνομαστός.
ἀστοῖσιν δ᾿ οὔπω πᾶσιν ἁδεῖν δύναμαι

Kyrnos, let a seal [sphrāgís] be placed by me, as I practice my skill [sophía],
upon these my words. This way, it will never be undetected if they are stolen,
and no one can substitute something inferior for the genuine thing that is there.
And this is what everyone will say: “These are the words of Theognis
of Megara, whose name is known among all mortals.”
But I am not yet able to please [= verb handánein] all the townspeople [astoí].
Theognis 19–24 {221|222}
It has been argued about the “seal”:
Like the code of [a] lawgiver, the poetry of Theognis presents itself as static, unchangeable. In fact, the sphragís ‘seal’ of Theognis is pictured as a guarantee that no one will ever tamper with the poet’s words. Outside this ideology and in reality, however, the poetry of Theognis is dynamic, subject [like the law code of Lycurgus] to modifications and accretions that are occasioned by an evolving social order. And the poet is always there, observing it all—despite the fact that the events being observed span an era that goes well beyond a single lifetime. [44]
With his “seal,” then, the figure of Theognis is authorizing himself, making himself the author. [45] There is an explicit self-description of this author as one who succeeds in sophía, the ‘skill’ of decoding or encoding poetry. [46] On the basis of this success, the author lays claim to a timeless authority, which resists the necessity of changing just to please the audience of the here and now, who are described as the astoí ‘townspeople’. [47] The author must risk alienation with the audience of the here and now in order to attain the supposedly universal acceptance of the ultimate audience, which is the cumulative response of Panhellenic fame. [48]
Such fame is achieved, as we see from the second Theognis passage, through the authority and authenticity of mimesis. Implicitly, only the pleasure of exact reperformance, which is {222|223} supposedly the ongoing achievement of mimesis, is truly lasting, while the pleasure elicited through changes in response to an immediate audience is ephemeral. In this second passage, the persona of Theognis declares that only the one who is sophós, that is, ‘skilled’ in the decoding and encoding of poetry, can execute a mimesis of Theognis:
οὐ δύναμαι γνῶναι νόον ἀστῶν ὅντιν' ἔχουσιν·
οὔτε γὰρ εὖ ἕρδων ἁνδάνω οὔτε κακῶς·
μωμεῦνται δέ με πολλοί, ὁμῶς κακοὶ ἠδὲ καὶ ἐσθλοί·
μιμεῖσθαι δ' οὐδεὶς τῶν ἀσόφων δύναται.

I am not able to decide what disposition it is that the townspeople [astoí] have towards me.
For I do not please [= verb handánein] them, either when I do for them things that are advantageous or when I do things that are disadvantageous. [49]
There are many who find blame with me, base and noble men alike.
But no one who is not skilled [sophós] is able to re-enact [mimeîsthai] me.
Theognis 367–370
Here the notion of mimesis becomes an implicit promise that no change shall ever occur to accommodate the interests of any local audience in the here and now, that is, of the astoí ‘townspeople’. The authorized reperformance of a composition, if it is to be a true re-enactment or mimesis, can guarantee the authenticity of the “original” composition. The author is saying about himself: “But no one who is not skilled [sophós] can re-enact my identity.”
Here is an occasion to conjure up, yet again, the reworded words of Eliot: for a performer, the most individual parts of his performance may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. These words bring us back to the paradox of mimesis, which demands a never-changing identity for the author through an ever-changing identification with whatever the author chooses to represent: {223|224}
The concept of mimesis, in conveying a re-enactment of the realities of myth, is a concept of authority as long as society assents to the genuineness of the values contained by the framework of myth. Correspondingly the speaker who frames the myth, or whose existence is re-enacted as framing the myth, is an author so long as he or she speaks with the authority of myth, which is supposedly timeless and unchanging. The author has to insist on the timelessness and unchangeability of such authority, which resists the pressures of pleasing the interests of the immediate audience by preferring the pleasure of timeless and unchanging values transmitted to an endless succession of audiences by way of mimesis. [50]
To this extent, there is indeed such a thing as an author in oral tradition—or at least, there are different kinds of author in different traditions. In pre-Islamic poetry, for example, as critics contemplate the myriad variants constituting the corpus of a single poet, they claim they can sense the author’s presence in the creation—and re-creation—of his poetry:
Thus, although we may not possess the verbatim record of [Imru’ al-Qays]’ mu‘allaqa as uttered by the poet himself on a specific occasion, we do possess something perhaps even more valuable: a verse-by-verse delineation of a fine and majestic living poem in all its protean states of oral existence—a carefully developed multiple exposure, as it were, of a fluctuating poetic organism that still kept its own unique identity so as to be recognized by all who knew and heard it. [51]
To recognize the song, then, is to recognize the singer. And yet, the singer cannot be independent of the song, as it continues to be performed and re-performed. We may heed the words of Thomas Hardy, echoing the poems of Wordsworth, Keats, and many others:The Selfsame Song
A bird sings the selfsame song,
With never a fault in its flow,
That we listened to here those long
Long years ago. {224|225}

A pleasing marvel is how
A strain of such rapturous rote
Should have gone on thus till now
Unchanged in a note!

—But it’s not the selfsame bird.—
No: perished to dust is he....
As also are those who heard
That song with me. [52] {225|}


[ back ] 1. There is a related narrative, this one centering on the figures of Tristan and Iseut, in a late twelfth-century poem entitled Donnei des Amants (see ch. 1n50 above): hearing Tristan imitating the song of birds—and the first bird to be mentioned in the text is a nightingale—Iseut leaves the bed where King Mark is sleeping, following Tristan’s seductive sound. See Pfeffer 1985:154–156; also in general her ch. 7, “Sex and the Single Nightingale.”
[ back ] 2. See Pfeffer pp. 157–168, who compares the narrative of Marie de France with several other versions of the “nightingale’s death” theme in medieval literature, including an obscene treatment in Boccaccio’s Decameron, Day 5 Story 4 (“Caterina and Ricciardo”). I am grateful to Rupert T. Pickens for showing me a copy of his paper, “The Bestiary of Marie de France’s Lais,” in which he gives the background for visualizing the two art objects featured in the lai of the nightingale: 1) the finely-crafted box or reliquary and 2) the luxuriant silk embroidered with gold thread and wrapped around an object to be treasured—in this case, the body of the nightingale. The embroidered message on the silk could not be “read” unless it was unwrapped.
[ back ] 3. Bloch 1988:71.
[ back ] 4. Bloch 1988:63, especially with reference to Zumthor 1983, 1984. At p. 66, Bloch challenges Zumthor’s emphasis on the “biological” aspects of “orality.”
[ back ] 5. Bloch 1988:73, who argues that traire ‘betray’ is treated in this work as a synonym of traire ‘transmit’. Since, however, we expect the two words to be distinct, that is, pronounced differently (traïr ‘betray’ vs. traire ‘transmit’), such an argument can work only on the level of the written word (cf. Pickens 1994:68). Bloch goes on to say: “To write or treat (“traire”) is to betray (“traire”); or, to carry this idea further, to write immanence, whether figured as the body or the voice, is to betray it, and, as in the case of the nightingale, to ensnare and contain it, kill it and, ultimately, to entomb the living voice in the dead letter of a text, to silence it. This is why, I am convinced, silence is such an obsessive theme in Old French literature: every work silences a voice.” Cf. Vance 1986:51–85 (“Roland and Charlemagne: The Remembering Voices and the Crypt”), especially p. 85 on “two modes of experiencing language, one proper to an oral culture, the other to a culture of writing, though the former cannot be known except as a dialectical myth of the latter.”
[ back ] 6. Raby 1951:445–446. On the vernacular background of the onomatopoeia implicit in the cry oci! oci! ‘kill! kill!’, see Pfeffer 1985:41. On the mythological background for the theme of death by ‘killing’, see Pfeffer p. 136–137, 140.
[ back ] 7. Pfeffer 1985:134–137, 140.
[ back ] 8. Pfeffer 1985:111–113. On the theme of the nightingale as a messenger of lovers in modern French folksongs, see Pfeffer p. 214.
[ back ] 9. Translation after Pfeffer 1985:107.
[ back ] 10. Just as the nightingale is a model of discretion for lovers, other birds, like the starling, become models of indiscretion: on this counter-theme, see Pfeffer 1985:113–114.
[ back ] 11. For a similar theme, see Schur 1998 on a work by Franz Kafka, Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse.
[ back ] 12. This belief is played out in the Old French jeux-partis tradition of the trouvères, as in Princes del Pui, mout bien savés trouver, analyzed by Pfeffer 1985:141–150, 175.
[ back ] 13. Analyzed by Pfeffer 1985:101–102.
[ back ] 14. In the work mentioned at n2 above, Rupert T. Pickens discusses the reliance on Celtic oral traditions (matiere de Bretagne)—alongside Latin written traditions (matiere de Rom)—in the lais of Marie de France, whose literary activity is historically linked with the court of Henry II of England.
[ back ] 15. As the discussion still to come makes clear, however, it does not follow that the symbol of the tomb reflects the permanent death of the entombed.
[ back ] 16. GM 222n62.
[ back ] 17. GM 273–274. Cf. Svenbro 1993:84.
[ back ] 18. For analogous themes in Irish and Welsh poetry, see Ford 1987: in the Celtic traditions, a given poem can represent its poet as if he were already dead. Ford connects this convention with attested rituals of poetic initiation.
[ back ] 19. GM 274n20.
[ back ] 20. Detailed analysis in N 1985:76–81. Cf. N 1993 on Alcaeus F 129 and 130 V, where the persona of the poet seems to be speaking from the dead.
[ back ] 21. N 1985:76–81.
[ back ] 22. GM 221–222; cf. Ford 1985:91, 95. On the etymology of sêma, see Ivanov 1993b.
[ back ] 23. On the conceptual link between authorizing and authorship, see PH 79–81, 169–170, 350, and 412–413. It is hazardous, however, to retroject to the ancient world our contemporary notions of the “author”—notably the individual author. On the semantic problems of retrojecting our notions of the individual, see Held 1991.
[ back ] 24. Eliot 1919 [1975]:38.
[ back ] 25. See especially p. 85.
[ back ] 26. Pickens 1978:40.
[ back ] 27. This formulation restricts the term mouvance to mean a phenomenon of variation in oral poetics as shown by the evidence of manuscripts, not the manuscript evidence showing that phenomenon. As Laurence de Looze points out to me, the presence or absence of manuscript evidence in any given case may be an accident of history. It often may not be possible, therefore, to work out quantitative or comparative criteria for measuring mouvance. My axiom is meant merely as a practical index of mouvance.
[ back ] 28. Cf. N 1972:49: “it can happen that in a given set of cognates ... the least common denominator of the semantic sphere is no longer extant in any of the Indo-European languages with relevant ... evidence.”
[ back ] 29. PH 80.
[ back ] 30. Coogan 1974, 1990; cf. Ivanov 1993a, especially pp. 1–2.
[ back ] 31. Coogan 1974:61.
[ back ] 32. See pp. 84–85 above.
[ back ] 33. Rösler 1980:40.
[ back ] 34. Cf. Murray 1990.
[ back ] 35. PH 368n159. See also Bowie 1986. Perhaps it is not necessary to postulate, as does Bowie on p. 14, that the elegiac verses of a figure like Theognis must have been accompanied by an aulós. In PH 25–26 it is argued that such accompaniment may have been optional but not obligatory.
[ back ] 36. Bowie 1986:16–18, especially with reference to Archilochus F 4 W (also F 2).
[ back ] 37. See p. 163 above. Cf. Bartol 1992:66. {I save for another occasion my comments on the observations of Gentili, who also notices this.I save for another occasion my comments on the observations of Gentili, who also notices this.}
[ back ] 38. PH 394–395.
[ back ] 39. BA 253; cf. Rosen 1988.
[ back ] 40. Bowie 1986:16.
[ back ] 41. Cf. Herington 1985:35. For more on the singing of Sappho’s songs at symposia, see Plutarch Sympotic Questions 711d: ὅτε καὶ Σαπφοῦς ἂν ᾀδομένης καὶ Ἀνακρέοντος ἐγὼ μοι δοκῶ καταθέσθαι τὸ ποτήριον αἰδούμενος ‘even when Sappho’s songs are sung, or Anacreon’s, I feel like putting down my drinking-cup, out of respect’; also 622c: ἐζητεῖτο παρὰ Σοσσίῳ Σαπφικῶν τινων ᾀσθέντων ‘there was a debate at the house of Sossios, after some songs of Sappho had been sung...’ (cf. Rösler 1980:101). Also Aulus Gellius Noctes Atticae 19.9 (mention of Anacreontic and Sapphic songs sung at a symposium by both boys and girls). I am grateful to Dimitrios Yatromanolakis for the last reference.
[ back ] 42. Bowie 1986:14.
[ back ] 43. See p. 86 above.
[ back ] 44. N 1985:33. Cf. Ford 1985:85: “Theognis is not simply the name of a marvelous performer but the lock and key fixing a body of poetry and guaranteeing its provenience.”
[ back ] 45. Cf. Batchelder 1994 on the poetics of the sphragís ‘seal’ in the Electra of Sophocles. Here too, as in Theognis, the seal functions as a sign that authorizes the author. In this case, there are two levels of successful authorization and authorship: inside the dramatic frame, Orestes takes control of the state—and of his own drama—as he competes with his rivals for control, while Sophocles himself maintains ultimate control of the frame from the outside, as the definitive dramaturge.
[ back ] 46. On sophós ‘skilled’ as a programmatic word used by poetry to designate the ‘skill’ of a poet in encoding the message of the poetry, see PH 148. See also PH 374n190: “A successful encoder, that is, poet, is by necessity a successful decoder, that is, someone who has understood the inherited message and can therefore pass it on. Not all decoders, however, are necessarily encoders: both poet and audience are decoders, but only the poet has the authority of the encoder.”
[ back ] 47. In this and related contexts, astoí ‘townspeople’ seems to be the programmatic designation of local audiences, associated with the special interests of their own here and now. See PH 273–275.
[ back ] 48. This theme of the alienated poet is examined at length in N 1985:30 and following.
[ back ] 49. The ‘doing’, of course, may amount simply to the performative level of ‘saying’ by way of poetry.
[ back ] 50. PH 373–374
[ back ] 51. Zwettler 1978:221.
[ back ] 52. Hardy 1929 [1978]:221. Thanks to Steven Meyer (31 March 1994).