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The Agency of Style: Dionysius of Halicarnassus on Sappho and Pindar

Alyson Melzer

Stanford University

Ancient critics did not simply talk about literary style; they also created their own. Although important work has been published recently on ancient literary criticism (de Jonge, Wiater, Worman, and Porter), the language developed by ancient critics for the analysis of style has not received due attention. Yet the style of aesthetic discourse that critics crafted in their treatises reveals broader cultural sensibilities and the remarkable creativity with which they approached the authors they cite. My paper focuses on one example of this creative practice: I analyze the language Dionysius of Halicarnassus uses in On the Composition of Words 22 and 23 to portray the distinctive styles of Pindar and Sappho, who are provided as examples of the austêra (‘austere’ or ‘rough’) and glaphura (‘polished’) styles or syntheses (distinctive ‘sound combinations’), respectively. There are previously unnoticed but specific ways in which the critic discusses these two styles of the lyric poets while infusing the concept of style with its own agency and physicality.

Dionysius describes differing literary styles with such vividness, I argue, that the styles of Pindar and Sappho become ‘Theophrastian-esque’ characters with moving bodies, personalities, and somatic presence. I demonstrate this by examining three categories of action that, according to Dionysius, the styles themselves perform. 1) They have explicit desires and goals, communicated through verbs such as boulesthai (‘to want’), philein (‘to love’), and peirasthai (‘to attempt’). 2) They are capable of movement (with forms of bainein), but the austêra moves independently while the glaphura is more often passively carried. 3) They interact with the body of the speaker, in accordance with (in the case of the glaphura) or against (for the austêra) physis: the austêra synthesis exceeds the natural breath of the performer with its long clauses and uses sound combinations that are ‘unnatural’ (ou physikos) to the ear, while the glaphura acts in an inherently natural way (phyein).

While an examination of these traits demonstrates how vividly the two styles are conceptualized and described, a comparison between them further shows that the austêra style is considered an autonomous (authadês) entity with agency and presence that is more intense than the gentle (malakê) glaphura. Dionysius’ characterization of these styles thereby mirrors the effects of the styles through descriptive mimesis, while at the same time the styles themselves imitate the tone and character of their content: the powerful austêra is associated with literature about violent heroes or, in the case of Dionysius’ Pindar fragment, the Olympian gods-- the Pindaric style is therefore portrayed as an imposing aesthetic presence; the amiable glaphura, conversely, is employed for erotic lyric such as the quoted Sappho 1, and is therefore itself smooth and inviting.

The mimetic expressiveness of Dionysius’ stylistic strategies and their aesthetic implications have thus far escaped academic notice, nor has there been an adequate examination of his analyses of Pindar and Sappho in light of his stylistic system. My paper therefore reevaluates Dionysius’ citations of Pindar and Sappho through a newly enhanced lens that illuminates how he describes these poets. Each of the three categories of stylistic agency listed above deepens Dionysius’ reading of Pindar and Sappho as poetry that actively embodies an aesthetic persona. The physicality and immediacy Dionysius instills into these styles and archaic lyrics suggest that, in the elite circles of his era, literature was still a somatic phenomenon, a living organism indivisible from the body and senses. The implications of this argument for discussions of ancient performance, sensory experience, and reception are vast and vital to issues of literary criticism and lyric poetry, even today. 

Session/Panel Title:

Style and Rhetoric

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