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Hesiod’s Two Plows: Materiality and Representation in Works and Days

Andre Matlock


A tension between labor-intensive process and spontaneous emergence defines Hesiodic preoccupations with materiality and poetics.  This tension is readily seen in the coexistence of the two plows that Hesiod recommends his addressee “store up in the house, one of a single-piece (αὐτόγυον) and the other fit together (πηκτόν), since it is much better (πολὺ λώιον) this way” (v. 433).  Hesiod provides extensive instruction on how to construct a plow that is well-fitted (μάλα γάρ νύ τοι ἄρμενον οὕτω, 424); yet, the single-piece (αὐτόγυος) plow appears already complete and stored away, without comment by the poet on how it came to be or where to acquire one like it—its self-fashioned material perfection is reflected in its sudden occurrence in the poem.  As this example illustrates, one type of material (both physical and poetic) must be shaped, crafted, or constructed; another type of material is emergent, self-forming, and transitory.  
    Although a typical reading of Works and Days, and especially the “Works” section (roughly vv. 274-694), emphasizes process and labor (e.g., Nicolai 1964; Beye 1972; West 1978; Canavero 2015), I will argue that the poem also features a recurrent awareness and even anxiety over spontaneity and abundance, which periodically erupts through the careful construction of the poem.  The potential for sudden and emergent abundance occurs most notably in the myths of Pandora and the Golden Age, yet also protrudes into the “Works” often in moments of fantasy (e.g., during the “Winter” passage, 504ff.; c.f. Marsilio 1997).  This preoccupation with the emergent potential of matter and its often uneasy relationship to labor also occurs in Homeric poetics; as a point of comparison to Hesiod, I will consider the construction of Odysseus’ raft (Od. 5.233ff.; c.f. Dougherty 2001).  In each of these passages, the constructed nature of objects is considered alongside their automation and vibrancy.  Through these comparisons, I will show a pervasive tendency in Hesiodic and Homeric poetics to fixate on moments where labor and spontaneous abundance coexist and must be grappled with as defining factors of the experience and representation of the material world.    
    While there has been significant work done on metapoetics and Hesiod (c.f. Nagy 1982, esp. Rosen 1990, Marsilio 2000 esp. Ch 2, Dougherty 2001, Beall 2004), I am not interested in metapoetics as such; instead, I will articulate a reflexivity between ontology and representation that features prominently in Hesiodic poetry.  The doubling of the plow marks both an emergence in the schematized world of matter and, paradoxically, a narrative singularity around which the regimented structure of Hesiod’s poetry may resolve.  In this way, instead of viewing Hesiod’s poetry as derivative or reducible to lists of precepts, we can instead perceive, in its very organizational principles and productive impulses, the tension between iteration and duration that occurs in the material world—the intuition of a sudden and unexpected effusion beyond the ordered structure of the narrative.  


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Didactic Poetry

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