Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts

Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts

Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts

Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts


Nearly all of us have studied poetry and been taught to look for the symbolic as well as literal meaning of the text. Is this the way the ancients saw poetry? In Birth of the Symbol, Peter Struck explores the ancient Greek literary critics and theorists who invented the idea of the poetic "symbol."

The book notes that Aristotle and his followers did not discuss the use of poetic symbolism. Rather, a different group of Greek thinkers--the allegorists--were the first to develop the notion. Struck extensively revisits the work of the great allegorists, which has been underappreciated. He links their interest in symbolism to the importance of divination and magic in ancient times, and he demonstrates how important symbolism became when they thought about religion and philosophy. "They see the whole of great poetic language as deeply figurative," he writes, "with the potential always, even in the most mundane details, to be freighted with hidden messages."

Birth of the Symbol offers a new understanding of the role of poetry in the life of ideas in ancient Greece. Moreover, it demonstrates a connection between the way we understand poetry and the way it was understood by important thinkers in ancient times.


This study examines the ancient history of an idea, or perhaps it is better called a hope or desire. What do we expect from poetry? Is it an entertaining diversion? An edifying tale? A craft whose masters delight and move us with their elegance and fine workmanship? Yes, perhaps. But a few bold souls, ancient as well as modern, have it in mind that poetry will do something more for us. They suspect that the poets' stories might say more than they appear to say, and that their language might be more than just words. Though these readers are likely to concede that the poets work with the mundane stuff of everyday speech, they still hear in their words the faint but distinct promise of some truer resonance, of a subtle and profound knowledge that arrives in a concealed form and is waiting for a skilled reader to liberate it from its code. Some go further and take poetry as a vehicle into a region where more sober minds fear to tread, where the limitations and encumbrances of our regular lives do not exist, and where we might meet, finally face to face, the deathless gods themselves. This realm is familiar to most of us, as a superstition or a moment of insight. It lies just beyond the always receding horizon that circumscribes our day-to-day existence. Though some say it is only a phantom, others are equally sure that it exists and are drawn away by its Siren song toward what they have learned from tantalizing daily experience to be always just out of reach. With a certain regularity, ancient readers find passage to this realm by the same means. They are transported by what they understand to be the inspired poets' most profound and most deeply resonant poetic creations, which they mark with the same Greek term, or “symbols.”

The symbol has a familiar enough standing in contemporary thinking on literature. In most standard reference works, a symbol is a deeply resonant literary image thought to have some special linkage with its meaning: the word “organic” frequently appears in its various definitions. We owe to the Romantics the symbol's modern apotheosis into the role of master literary device. As I will discuss in my concluding chapter, the modern symbol is connected with its ancient legacy, but only through a circuitous and difficult route. This study attempts to . . .

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