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Lyric Worlds: ‘Vividness’, Alcaeus, and Cognitive Poetics

Il Kweon Sir

University of Oxford

This paper aims to provide a methodological framework for the discussion of ‘vividness’ in Greek lyric by applying cognitive approaches not previously used in Classics (Text World Theory and Texture). With close readings of select fragments of Alcaeus, ‘vividness’ in Greek lyric is explored through the examination of the cognitive effects of deixis for described – rather than performed – contexts.

‘Vividness’ has long interested scholars of Greek lyric. Despite the warnings against Romantic lyric anachronistically affecting interpretation of Greek lyric, and despite the acceptance of the distinction between the poet and the speaker and the consequent emphasis on artificiality, few would argue that poets such as Sappho and Alcaeus do not often create a sense of ‘vividness’. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the dominant performance-oriented, historicist approach to lyric, which has focused on mapping similes, metaphors, and ecphrases onto the performance context, and on using performance context in turn to explain imagery (e.g. Rösler 1980, Gentili 1988), has increasingly been considered restrictive in this respect. Since the early 2000s, some scholars have turned to ‘vividness’, especially by focusing on pragmatics and research on the senses (Felson 2004, D’Alessio 2009, Cazzato and Lardinois 2016 on lyric; Courtray 2013, Butler and Purves 2013, Squire 2016 more broadly). At the same time, research on deixis in lyric has led to an awareness of the difference between the described context and the performed context (e.g. Yatromanolakis 2004, D’Alessio 2018). This paper aims to go further in exploring the described context, which the fragments preserve for us, over the performed context, of which we have very little evidence, by shifting the focus, with a cognitive approach, from the poet-performer’s standpoint to the audience’s standpoint. Furthermore, the emphasis on the described context enables an examination of not only the described setting of the original audience, usually shared by the poet-performer, but also of the described setting shared by all audiences, including the audience of early re-performances and modern readers.

Since the proposed object of study – the perception of ‘vividness’ in the described setting – is the experience of audiences, this paper proposes applying the emerging field of cognitive poetics, which has become increasingly popular for literary studies in other disciplines, to the fragments of Alcaeus. The paper first introduces and summarises Text World Theory (TWT), a cognitive discourse grammar (proposed by Werth 1999; fullest account in Gavins 2007), which has not yet been applied in Classics (although several works are forthcoming). It is argued that TWT’s focus on the creation of mental representations prompted and defined by the text, and the use of the linguistic concept of ‘common ground’ (Szabó and Thomason 2019: chapter 8) that allows for multiple interpretations depending on the differences in the participants’ knowledge and attitude make it a good framework in which to explore the poet’s creation of described settings that are shared by all audiences. In combination with the attention-resonance model of Stockwell 2009’s Texture theory, which has also not yet been applied to classical texts, the paper explores through close readings of Alcaeus the different ways in which the language of Greek lyric creates vivid scenes in which the audience is immersed.

The theories are first demonstrated with a reading of Alcaeus fr.6, whose use of deictics for vivid world-building and for complex embedding of past narratives is explored to analyse spatial, temporal, and emotional contrasts between text-worlds. The intensifying effects of zooms and of contrasts between text-worlds for ‘vividness’ of scenes within fragments are examined with reference to Alcaeus frr.338 and 140. Further, it is argued that that the paradoxical perception of ‘vividness’ in the described settings with few deictics at Alcaeus frr.130b and 129 is due to emotional and atmospheric ‘vividness’ that is represented spatially (fr.130b) and is created by the evocation of the past (fr.129). The potential for divergent experiences of different audiences to the same fragments, due to differences in ‘common ground’, is also explored in detail.

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