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Trust and Charm: Late Hellenistic Authors on the Value of Poetry

Kathryn Wilson

Washington University in St. Louis

Scholarship on ancient discussions of the value of poetry tend to focus primarily on Plato and Aristotle, or then jump ahead to later authors such as Philodemus, Longinus, Horace, and Quintilian (see Halliwell 2002, Ford 2002, Porter 2010).  The weighty and complicated ideas of these authors have been discussed at length, but little attention has been given to the intervening time period.  In this paper, I will look at the ideas in two works from the second century BCE that address the same question:  Hipparchus’ commentary on Aratus’ Phaenomena, and the geographic poem the Periodos to Nicomedes.   Both the issues at stake and the terminology in these works are very similar, suggesting that they are participating in an ongoing debate that has clearly drawn lines of argumentation.  In each, the concerns of the author show a discussion focused on the trust created by the emotional response of the audience and the relationship between form and content in eliciting that response.

            The poet of the Periodos to Nicomedes opens his poem with an explanation of his decision to compose on a prosaic subject in verse, in which he hopes he will “captivate (ψυχαγωγεῖν) every sage judge” due to the trustworthiness (πιθανόν) of his work (PN.4-5). He creates a connection between the emotional reaction of the reader and the truth value of the poem.  He concludes his prologue with a reference to its χάρις (PN.43). Similarly, Hipparchus begins his commentary with a discussion of why he feels obligated to do so, in which he describes how the χάρις of Aratus’ poem has given it “a certain credibility (ἀξιοπιστίαν),” leading people to accept some erroneous statements in it as true (Hipparch.1.1.7).  In each of these cases, the author focuses on the relationship between the formal qualities of poetry of the work, especially its charm, and the trust it evokes in the audience.  These terms suggest a discussion that is focused on the emotional experience of the audience, but with a specific effect on the audience’s perception of the poem’s truth value.  Where Plato and Aristotle focused on the mimetic effects of performed poetry, however, these later authors use broader terms that, although still tied to the formal aspects of the work, are more widely applicable to reading poetry. 

            In both of these works, the relationship between form and content comes to the fore.  The prologue of the Periodos is grounded in earlier and contemporary literary criticism, such as the Euphonist movement, as Hunter 2006 has noted.  In particular, the term ψυχαγωγεῖν is highly marked.  The term is important for Plato, but also to Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who claimed that the purpose of poetry is “entertainment (ψυχαγωγίας), not education.” (Str.1.2.3). This comment, too brief and too in conflict with his own writings to be completely understood, separates the emotional experience of the audience from any ethical or informative purpose, an idea that leads quite logically to the extreme formalism of the Euphonists.  In contrast, Hipparchus and the poet of the Periodos see a didactic tool in the formal qualities of poetry.  Both texts are addressing the decision to write technical, didactic content in verse form.  As prose superseded verse in educational contexts, the distinction between the two could no longer be made on content, and the conversation naturally turned to formalism. These works contain an expression in nuce of the modern rhyme-as-reason psychological theory, “if it rhymes, it chimes” (McGlone and Tofighbakhsh 2000).  One author embraces the didactic value of the poetic form and the other distrusts it, but both are fully convinced of its reality.  

            It is unlikely that these works are responding directly to each other, but in their similarities, we can see the outlines of the argument at this time.  The evidence of the Hellenistic period is often frustratingly lacunose, but, in these texts we have a window into the state of an important conversation during this period.

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Genre and Style

Session/Paper Number

16.6

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