Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond

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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

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 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:

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.

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.

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.

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”:

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:

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.”


[ 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).