The Classical Press of Wales (2019) h/b 307pp £60 (ISBN 9781910589793)
After the introduction, ten papers are presented under three headings, Theory, Tracing Tradition, and Comparisons and Continuations. The range is impressive and the collection shows how beneficial ‘decolonization’ can be—‘and beyond’ of the title is a judiciously chosen phrase. The editors provide an introduction that briefly discusses the nature of the genre (if, for example, ‘didactic’ can be a noun as well as an adjective) and its reception, with a focus on the utility/pleasure debate and themes of knowledge, authority and power contingent on the transmission of knowledge.
Part one opens with a chapter by Donncha O’Rourke who traces the development of didactic from Hesiod to Virgil and Manilius in relation to the book’s threefold subtitle (Knowledge, Power, Tradition). The development of transmission of knowledge is accompanied by change of historical circumstances and consequently of the empowerment (or otherwise) of the poet, addressee and the reader. This is to simplify considerably a line of enquiry that springs from Foucault’s interest in the relationship of knowledge and power. Lilah-Grace Canevaro discusses Hesiod’s Works and Days in the second (and last) essay in part one with a focus on cognitive training. She considers ‘the cognitive value of Hesiod’s didactic ideal, using a number of tenets of cognitive psychology …’
David Sider’s Homer Ethicus opens part 2, hoping to show that the best poets ‘may hope to have some improving effect upon their listeners’ and that Homer knew or hoped ‘he had the power to alter men’s perceptions about themselves for the better.’ Floris Overduin explores elegiac pharmacology after Nicander with a particular focus on two recipe poems (the theriacum of Andromachus the Elder and a shorter poem of Aglaias) especially their links to and divergence from the didactic tradition by close examination of the Greek texts (quotations have English translations). His conclusion that ‘they reflect the joy of a common literary past in an elite culture of playful learning’ makes a pertinent link to Monica Gale’s discussion of name puns and acrostics. This is a controversial topic as G. freely admits, but in her approach, wordplay once identified by a reader needs to be demonstrated as ‘susceptible to interpretation’, and not an accident.
For example, some justification for wordplay might be possible in certain cases: the telestich o-t-i (Georgics 4.562-564) occurs where ignobilis oti ends line 564 and the acrostic m-a-r-s (Aeneid 7. 601-4) has Martem ending 603, but the acrostic signature at Georgics 1.429-433 where ma-ve-pureveal Virgil’s tria nomina in reverse order and on alternate lines might belong to the land of the cryptic crossword. Elena Giusti completes part 2 with Ovid’s Ars Poetica, a title which signals not only an engagement with Horace but also her discussion of the contrast between technical content and poetic form—Ovid, she neatly observes, turns form into content by writing a treatise as love-elegy.
In part 3, Comparisons and Continuations, Helen Van Noorden discusses the presence of Homer and Hesiod in the Sibylline Oracles. She highlights ‘a tension between approaches of ethical or practical instruction … and of “apocalyptic” revelation’. Johannes Haubold asks ‘what classicists might learn from reading ancient Babylonian didactic literature’ with a focus on Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi (‘Poem of the Righteous Sufferer’). His choice of text to examine is more complex than such works as Counsels of Wisdom which offer, as H. puts it, ‘a simple recipe for human success: honour the gods and good things will come to you’. The poet of Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi on the other hand offers critical reflection on suffering and the god Marduk whose ‘heart is as merciful as his hand is heavy’ (LudlulI.33). In his conclusion H. recalls the editors’ claim that didactic poetry ‘questions the limits of what can be learnt and taught’ and in revealing the sophistication of the Babylonian texts he lends support to treating Babylonian literature for its own values, not simply as a source for Hesiod. Madhlozi Moyo’s chapter, Fauna and Erotic Didactics in Archaic Greek and Kalanga Oral Wisdom Literatures, shows how in both cultures ‘animals are used as symbols of moral authority in the depiction of human erotic love’. Kalanga is a minority language of Zimbabwe and Botswana and the major motivation behind this study is to highlight and help to preserve the Kalanga culture and language. There is a further objective: to examine the potential for a living tradition to help understand one only accessible through texts. The final chapter takes the reader to early-modern Scotland and to three authors in particular on whom David McOmish contributes a ‘provisional assessment’ by looking closely at their verse and its classical models.
The volume brings together different approaches and different styles but with shared interests: for instance, the sweet coating for a serious message, the poet as educator and entertainer, besides the themes of authority and power. The sweet, comfy read is expressed somewhat amusingly by Charles Lamb on Hesiod: ‘to read the Works and Days, is like eating nice brown bread, homely sweet and nutritive.’ But C., who quotes, this reminds us that ‘it is also a threat to the thoughtful person’. This book isn’t, but it is aimed at an academic readership.