The Varieties of Enchantment: Early Greek Views of the Nature and Function of Poetry

The Varieties of Enchantment: Early Greek Views of the Nature and Function of Poetry

The Varieties of Enchantment: Early Greek Views of the Nature and Function of Poetry

The Varieties of Enchantment: Early Greek Views of the Nature and Function of Poetry

Synopsis

Walsh argues that the history of Greek poetics from Homer to Aristophanes was controlled by a preoccupation with enchantment -- the audience's emotional response to the performance of song. Homer made enchantment the pivotal topic of his account of his art; Hesiod and Pindar developed elaborate psychologies of forgetfulness and memory; Euripides and Aristophanes looked back at such theories in a mood that was both critical and nostalgic.

Originally published in 1984.

Excerpt

The views of poetry that his book describes are reconstructions, assembled from the poets' explicitly self-defining statements, and from other more pointed or diffuse kinds of evidence—diction and imagery, and the behavior of fictional poets and their audiences. I have tried to interpret diction and imagery seriously, even naively. For example, when Homer uses a single term indifferently to denote the particular "song," the "topic of song," and also the "competence to sing," I assume that he means what he says: he does not mean to say that these things should be radically distinguished. Fictional accounts of poetry require another kind of sympathetic examination, because the behavior of poets and audiences in fiction acquires meaning chiefly as part of a story. Thus, in the Odyssey, Odysseus's response to song in the palace of Alcinoos depends upon his personality, his past experience, and his present material condition; these things make him a special kind of audience. Homer invites us to deduce Odysseus's character from his behavior as an audience, on the assumption that we understand how audiences normally respond to song; if one wishes to identify the norm, one must know the causes of Odysseus's behavior.

I have tried to formulate an argument or a consistent point of view from each Greek poet's explicit statements, from the implicit sense of his language, and from the "normal" use of poetry in his fiction. There are constraints upon this method. It requires more material than some poets provide. Archilochus and Sappho are excluded, most notably among authors of lyric, because the extant fragments are neither copious enough nor explicit enough about poetics to support an articulated argument. Sophocles is excluded because in all his plays there is little that invites attention to theory. He was an explicit theorist—he wrote a treatise called "On the Chorus," now lost—but . . .

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