CJ-Online Review ~ Echoing Hylas: A Study in Hellenistic and Roman Metapoetics

Echoing Hylas: A Study in Hellenistic and Roman Metapoetics. By Mark Heerink. Wisconsin Studies in Classics. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2015. Pp. xii + 243. Cloth, $65.00. ISBN 978-0-299-30540-6.

Reviewed by Goran Vidović, University of Belgrade

The story of Heracles’ young companion Hylas is generally as follows: during a break on the Argonaut expedition, he goes into the woods to fetch water and is abducted by nymphs; Heracles calls his name repeatedly, sometimes hearing an echo. In this slightly revised 2010 Leiden PhD (dissertation is now available online), Mark Heerink explores variations of the episode, arguing that “Hellenistic and Roman poets used the story of Hylas as a vehicle to express their ideas about poetry and to react to those of others” (4). The metapoetic approach is justified by verbal repetitions, taken as tropes of poets responding to each other; by activating the etymology of Hylas’ name-ὕλη, “wood,” and “poetic subject matter;” and by “the relationship and opposition between the archetypal hero Hercules and the tender boy Hylas, which is appropriated to symbolize the poet’s positioning toward his predecessor(s)” (9).

While the focus is on Apollonius’ Argonautica, Theocritus’ Idyll 13, Propertius 1.20, Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica and Statius’ Thebaid, the structure of Heerink’s argument requires including other works, both of these authors and Homer, Hesiod, Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid, and especially Callimachus: “the Hylas poems all adhere to a Callimachean poetics, however differently interpreted by each individual poet” (9). In the Introduction, once Callimacheanism is outlined and situated in relation to Homer and Hesiod, intergeneric relations emerge as one of the central concerns of the book. Chapters explore how the poets, competing with their contemporaries and predecessors, experiment with generic prerogatives of epic, bucolic poetry, and elegy, via the Hylas episode.

A few snapshots illustrate this rich investigation. Chapter one: Apollonius’ Heracles, too traditionally heroic, literally too heavy for the Argo, is left behind and replaced by “Callimachean” diplomat Jason, prefigured by Hylas. Insightful intra- and intertextual examination demonstrates that “in the Hylas episode, the epic has taken an important step in the “right” direction, by causing an important threat to the epic to leave. Hylas’s entry into the spring, which symbolizes Apollonius’s Callimachean epic, and the concomitant leaving behind of Heracles, reflect Apollonius’s attitude toward heroic-epic poetry and Homer in particular,” which he can follow only to a certain extent (48).

Chapter two: Theocritus aetiologizes bucolic poetry by “bucolizing” Homeric legacy: Hylas is transformed into an echo, a natural sound, symbolizing the bucolic poet, Theocritus (67), who “shows his colleague and poetic rival Apollonius another way of writing Callimachean poetry by rewriting his Hylas episode” (72), and finds “his own poetic, Callimachean niche in relation to Homer’s heroic-epic poetry” (82).
Chapter 3 is a particularly stimulating analysis of Propertius’ 1.20, where he alerts the poet Gallus to protect his lover Hylas from Italic nymphs. By introducing Virgil’s “elegiac excursion in Eclogue 2” (93) and Gallus’ attempt to write bucolic poetry in Eclogue 10 (97), Heerink unpacks the tension between bucolic and elegiac mode (97-98). While drowning Hylas symbolizes Gallus’ poetry absorbed by Virgil’s pastoral landscape, Propertius “has capped Virgil”: the echo is “not reproduced by Hylas but is demythologized into a natural phenomenon that only symbolizes elegiac absence of the beloved.” Moreover, “[b]y inverting what happened to Gallus and his elegy in the Eclogues, and by putting Hylas in service of that typically elegiac activity of the praeceptor amoris to warn Gallus, Propertius has also outdone his elegiac rival” (111-112).

As intertexts accumulate, reading of imperial epicists in chapter four grows more complex. Valerius Flaccus anomalously assigns “anti-epic” Hylas an unfitting epic role: he is carrying Heracles’ weapons but, unlike in the corresponding passage in Apollonius (1.131-132), he is not yet strong enough to carry his heavy club (Arg. 1.110-111). Similarity with Ascanius following Aeneas dressed like Heracles (Aen. 2.721-724) presents Hylas as “a potential epic hero” (114). This “Virgilization” of Apollonius, impeded by Hylas’ un-heroic pedigree, “functions as a metapoetical manifesto, revealing Valerius’s Argonautica as an epic that can only imitate its Augustan epic predecessor to a certain extent,” recalling “Apollonius’s Callimachean position vis-à-vis Homer” (116-117). Ovid’s “elegiac epic” Metamorphoses is thrown into the mix: Valerius’ Heracles’ passion for Hylas, who resembles Narcissus and Hermaphrodite, “elegizes” the Aeneid (cf. “Ovidian” unequal-foot-pun, Arg. 3.485-486; page 141). Further, Valerius combines Theocritus’ and Propertius’ Hylas (124), and is “window alluding” to Propertius through Ovid (133). Heerink then discusses Hylas in the Thebaid (5.441-4) and Statius’ reference to following the Aeneid admiringly (12.816-817), arguing that these passages combine two Valerian Hylas passages (1.107-111, 3.495-496) in an allusion to Ascanius following Aeneas. The book ends with some remarks on political and poetic succession in imperial epic.

It is beside the point to blame such a streamlined inquiry for omissions, except the curiously understudied Echo ending Callimachus’ epigram 28-especially since the poem is Heerink’s interpretive touchstone throughout. Still, given the importance of succession, wood symbolism, bilingual name etymologies, and Heracles-Hylas paralleling Aeneas-Ascanius, one wonders how Heerink would have incorporated Heracles’ son and heir Hyllus, etymologized when gathering wood for Heracles’ funeral pyre in Sophocles’ Trachiniae (πολλὴν μὲν ὕλην, 1195), or indeed Aeneas’ other son, Silvius, a Latin “Woody” (Aen. 6.763-772, with suggestive quercu).

The study is dense, even mildly but attractively dizzying. Meticulously close readings alternate with zooming out-trees and forest, as it were-assembling one giant puzzle. Thankfully, it is very accessible due to generous cross-references, recaps and summaries, clear, level-headed exposition, and absence of critical jargon. No specific theoretical framework is applied, though Bloomian “anxiety of influence” is implicit. In brief, this book is learned, exhaustively documented,imaginative and ultimately exciting.

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©2017 by The Classical Association of the Middle West and South. All rights reserved.

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CJ – Online Review ~ Valerius Flaccus: Argonautica, Book III.

Valerius Flaccus: Argonautica, Book III. Edited with commentary by Gesine Manuwald. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp.x+286. Paperback, $39.99. ISBN 978-1-107-69726-3

Reviewed by Jessica R. Blum, Wabash College

Long on the outskirts of the Classical canon, Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica has, in the last three decades, benefited from renewed interest in Flavian epic and emerged as lively new ground for study. The publication of numerous articles, a Brill’s Companion, and a remarkable number of commentaries (21 since 1980), has significantly advanced the field. In the midst of this wave of scholarship, however, Book 3 has been largely overlooked. Manuwald’s new text with commentary fills this signal gap.

In keeping with the Cambridge Greek and Latin Series, Manuwald brings the Argonautica to a wider audience, with a commentary aimed at graduate and advanced undergraduate students as well as specialists. One of the volume’s most valuable features, therefore, is its presentation of the Argonautica as an archetype of Flavian epic: both commentary and poem offer an accessible and engaging entry point into the field as a whole.

As Manuwald notes, Book 3 particularly lends itself to this project, and she convincingly presents it as a distillation of the poem’s main themes. Two principal episodes may be read separately or together: the Argonauts’ night-battle in Cyzicus, in which they are tragically blown back to friendly shores and unwittingly attack their hosts, and the rape of Hylas in Mysia, which precipitates Hercules’ departure from the expedition. These two sequences exemplify Valerius’ distinctive engagement with, and revision of, traditional material, principally from Apollonius Rhodius and Virgil. Both episodes, furthermore, illuminate key issues for the Argonautica’s interpretation-its representation of the gods and fate, and its characterization of the protagonist Jason. Both introduction and commentary keep these issues to the fore throughout the volume.

The introduction comprises four sections, on poet, poem, Book 3, and text. It begins with a survey of the scant historical evidence for Valerius and summarizes the much-disputed question of the Argonautica’s date of composition. This debate centers on whether Valerius was working primarily under Vespasian, whom he addresses in the proem, or Domitian, who completed the Templum gentis Flaviae to which Valerius may refer at Arg.1.15-6. Manuwald wisely does not offer a definitive answer, but rather-and more importantly-explains its interpretive significance-how the Argonautica’s possible Roman points of reference (e.g. its frequent criticism of tyrant figures) may be read as commenting on contemporary society. She shows how the theme of the Argo’s opening of the seas unifies the poem and informs its historical relevance to the Flavian political program. Addressing the poem’s intended length and degree of completeness, she summarizes the structural evidence for an original eight books, with the final half-book either incomplete at the time of the poet’s death or lost at an early stage of transmission. The text largely agrees with Liberman’s (1997); textual problems and emendations are thoughtfully and thoroughly discussed.

Highlights of Manuwald’s introduction are her discussion of Valerius’ interaction with his poetic models (Section 2.6, and passim) and a detailed outline of Book 3 (Section 3.1). She well shows the correspondences between Book 3’s two episodes and emphasizes their indebtedness to Virgilian models; the text will thereby be readily accessible to students familiar with the Aeneid. This approach likewise addresses one of the Argonautica’s most distinctive features: its pervasive system of multi-level and multi-genre allusion. Valerius’ language and narrative are notoriously elliptical, regularly relying on allusion to supply information and meaning. This poetic technique not only resists straightforward interpretation, but is also partially responsible for the traditional dismissal of Valerius as derivative-a highly Virgilian ‘successor of Virgil’. Manuwald’s focus on engagement rather than imitation demonstrates how this quality produces richness rather than sterility, and so introduces the poem on its own terms.

The introduction draws on Manuwald’s prior scholarship, identifying the knowledge gap between men and gods as a key element of Valerius’ response to the literary tradition and to contemporary Stoic doctrine (Sections 2.4, 2.5). Without access to a divine plan, not only Jason but the reader as well is left uncertain as to the significance of his actions. This interpretation informs the discussion of the place that Valerius’ Jason occupies within a literary tradition that frequently questions his heroic status in comparison to (e.g.) Hercules or pius Aeneas. Book 3 is particularly apt for this inquiry. Jason’s remorse after inadvertently killing his host Cyzicus, and his distress over whether the crew should leave Hercules behind in Mysia, act as litmus tests of his heroic character.

The commentary itself is structured by the two principal episodes (Cyzicus, 1-461, and Hylas, 481-740) and an interlude (the rowing contest). Each section begins with a detailed introduction to its content, major themes, and relevant bibliography. For teachers, a particularly attractive feature of the commentary is the frequent explanation of how discrete sections fit together in structure and theme, which helps the student to move beyond the minutiae of grammar. Detailed explanations of mythological and literary references will provide a welcome starting-point for discussion. Some notes seem oriented more to the undergraduate than the graduate student and pay far more, perhaps inordinate, attention to references to Virgil than those to Apollonius, who most often is noted as a point of contrast.

While the interpretive angle of Manuwald’s commentary will not surprise those familiar with her scholarship on Valerius, this is by no means a limiting factor. The volume is an engaging introduction to the Argonautica, which offers in-depth philological analysis while setting the poem in its literary and historical contexts.


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