Poetics before Plato: Interpretation and Authority in Early Greek Theories of Poetry

By Grace M. Ledbetter | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
Pindar: The Poet as Interpreter

LIKE HOMER and Hesiod, Pindar1 petitions the Muse for a divine message:

Muse, be my oracle, and I shall be your interpreter, (fr. 150)

Pindar, however, departs from both Homer's and Hesiod's poetics by casting the poet as an interpreter (προφήτης). Much of Pindar's poetic theory flows from this innovative model, including his radical conception of a poem as a decryption of a divine message from the Muse. Pindar's revisionary conception of the Muse as oracle also lends sense to his poetry's claim of authority: poetry interprets for its human audience a divine message that the poet receives as inspiration from the Muse.2 Dodds took the narrator of this fragment to disavow all but an interpretive role: “observe that it is the Muse, and not the poet, who plays the part of the Pythia; the poet does not ask to be himself 'possessed,' but only to act as interpreter for the entranced Muse.”3 According to Dodds, the poet asks the Muse only for the “supernormal knowledge” required to grasp her message or act as her interpreter. But in fact the poet asks for more; he also asks that

1 Ever since Bundy's rejection of the biographical approach to Pindar studies (see Bundy
1962) the groundwork has been laid for viewing Pindar's “I” as a poetic persona. Lefkowitz's
defense of this position expounds the complex nature of Pindar's self-representation (Mary
L. Lefkowitz, First-Person Fictions: Pindar's Poetic “I” [Oxford, 1991]; see especially “The
Poet as Hero,” pp. 111–26, and “The Poet as Athlete,” pp. 161–68). Here I propose that
the poet represents himself as a theoretician (on the nature of poetry) as well.

2 Pindar's poetics are most often taken to be conventional elements of his poetry (see e.g.,
D. A. Russell, Criticism in Antiquity [Berkeley, 1981], p. 19; R. Hamilton, Epinikion: Gen-
eral Form in the Odes of Pindar
[The Hague, 1974], pp. 113–15). This issue does not bear
directly on the present study since I will be interested in showing how Pindar's poetics are
bold and innovative only with respect to poetic theories outside the epinician tradition. It is
nevertheless worth noting a weakness in the standard view: that Pindar touches on his poet-
ics “briefly and allusively” (Russell, p. 19) need not imply that such topics were “expected
and well understood.” The brevity and allusive quality of these passages could instead simply
result from their poetic, nondiscursive form.

3 E. R Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley, 1951), p. 82, followed by Mur-
ray 1981, p. 97. Murray reads fr. 150 as claiming that the poet is an “intermediary between
gods and men” in some general sense. The conclusion she draws from other passages, that
for Pindar “poetic creativity depends both on inspiration and on conscious effort” is correct,
but misses the particular nature of the poet's inspiration (reception of a cryptic message) and
“conscious effort” (interpretation).

-62-

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