Academic journal article Helios

Playing with Tradition: Gender and Innovation in the Epigrams of Anyte

Academic journal article Helios

Playing with Tradition: Gender and Innovation in the Epigrams of Anyte

Article excerpt

Anyte's poetry has received scant critical attention. While the work of Anyte's Hellenistic contemporaries, Erinna and Nossis, has provoked feminist scholars to investigate those poets' peculiarly feminine forms of discourse and to see in their poems evidence of an alternate female poetic tradition reaching back to Sappho, (2) Anyte's epigrams have often been viewed as reflecting the concerns and sensibilities of patriarchal culture. (3) Some recent scholars, however, have sought to define the feminine qualities in Anyte's poetry and to establish her as a distinctly feminine writer whose work merits significant attention. (4) Kathryn Gutzwiller, for example, has argued persuasively that Anyte's focus on feminine concerns and her deviation from masculine themes and values found in traditional epigram identify Anyte's literary voice as particularly feminine. My own analysis here will attempt to map out a middle ground between earlier views of Anyte as a writer who merely apes prevailing patriarchal values and m ore recent discussions of Anyte which emphasize the feminine sensibilities and values in her work. (5) Indeed, I shall argue that Anyte's art lies in her innovative use of conventional literary genres--her ability to blend the personal and domestic with the "high" art of the heroic--and that despite those concerns and points of view expressed in her poems which may be identified as feminine, there is much in Anyte's work that can be linked to traditionally masculine forms of expression.

I shall focus primarily on Anyte's laments and pet epitaphs, and more specifically on how Anyte's transposition of Homeric vocabulary to the personal and domestic sphere deflates heroic conventions and, at the same time, elevates the domestic to the heroic. Although Anyte wrote her poems within the form of traditional epigram and largely confined herself to its dedicatory and funereal genres, nonetheless she introduced into the epigram genre--especially in her pet epitaphs and pastoral poems--important innovations that appear to have had a significant impact on later writers. (6) As Geoghegan has. shown in his commentary on Anyte's epigrams, we find numerous references to and borrowings from Greek literary culture in Anyte, in particular an abundant use of Homeric vocabulary. Indeed, Geoghegan points out that in antiquity the phrase [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("female Homer") may have been applied to Anyte. (7) Anyte's use of Homeric imagery and her laments for slain warriors and their horses have, I think, contributed to the view of Anyte as a poet who merely imitates the dominant literary tradition. But as I shall show, Anyte transformed traditional epigram through her application of the heroic language of Homeric verse to a context that is often personal and idiosyncratic. Unlike Sappho and Erinna, whose work may reflect a parallel women's literary tradition, Anyte, at least in some of her poems, maintains the tensions of "high" and "low" art and thus creates a unique interplay between the domesticity typically associated with women and established male literary culture.

I

Let me begin with three of Anyte's four epitaphs for young unmarried women, whose deaths are lamented either through the voice of the speaker or through the voice of the deceased girl's mother. (8) Anyte's focus on female concerns appears to figure most prominently in this group of epigrams, and thus it is reasonable to assume that in these poems we would most likely be able to discern a distinctly feminine voice and poetic identity. Indeed, four of Anyte's five human epitaphs represent a mother's grief for a deceased unmarried daughter. These epigrams, as Gutzwiller has shown, clearly express an affirmation of the worth of women's lives and particularly attest to the value of the mother-daughter relationship. In the processing of doing so, Anyte's poems often invoke the Homeric tradition and thus overturn masculine genres of epic and epigram and the celebration of masculine heroic endeavor so integral to those genres. …

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