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Poem Division in the Theognidea

Alexander Karsten

Duke University

The Theognidea is a crucial resource for the study of early Greek elegy and its function within the symposion. But performance of the entire corpus (over 1,400 lines) would not have been suitable for any such occasion. In order to understand how this poetry was performed over time and the goal and outcome of those performances, one must first decide how the performers assembled the verses into self-standing units. The non-specialist may be surprised to learn that editors, from the oldest manuscripts to the most recent critical texts, hardly agree on their placement of poem boundaries, and that no scholar has ever considered what this disagreement can teach us about the essential nature of Theognidean elegy. This paper seeks to illuminate the character of this corpus as sympotic poetry by comparing how twenty different texts (including manuscripts, editions, and a monograph) articulate the corpus into poems. My comparative analysis highlights the fundamental impact of boundary placement on the meanings and uses of Theognidean elegy.

My study finds that no two texts articulate the Theognidea in exactly the same manner. Although editors universally assume a collection of many short poems, they all make different choices following methodologies that remain unremarked and unacknowledged. In fact, few even explicitly admit responsibility for the placement of poem boundaries.

It is with this silence in mind that I adopt a quantitative approach: without editors to call upon, the editions are made to speak for themselves. Among other important metrics, the data analyzed include the average poem length for each edition, the frequency of various poem lengths, and the extent of agreement between various editions. The results reveal with unprecedented clarity how the division of the Theognidea has been approached throughout history, and how competing approaches presuppose (and in turn promote) particular views of this critical body of poetry.

My analysis shows that there is a clear divide between the manuscripts and modern texts in their articulation of the corpus. Manuscripts exhibit a definite tendency to connect couplets that modern versions often separate. In fact, single-couplet poems predominate in almost every modern edition. It is as if the manuscripts are looking for poems in the corpus, while the modern texts are looking for fragments. Nevertheless, the similarity within these groupings (i.e., the manuscripts and modern texts) should not be overemphasized. The manuscripts are not so closely aligned as to suggest derivation from a common source—confirming Selle’s conclusion (2008, 114)—while the variance among modern editions confirms that the proper way to divide the corpus remains far from settled.

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Ancient Scholarship

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