Other Literary Forms
Callimachus himself was a scholar and literary critic as well as a poet and wrote prose monographs on subjects as diverse as the names of tribes, rare words, barbarian customs, and marvelous occurrences throughout the world. Unfortunately, none of the prose is extant.
Callimachus is the preeminent “Alexandrian” poet, the most daring, technically skilled, and prolific among the writers practicing their art in that Hellenized Egyptian city during the third century b.c.e. Like his contemporaries Theocritus and Apollonius Rhodius, Callimachus wrote allusive, learned, yet dramatic poetry; unlike these two fellow Alexandrians, however, he seems to have mined deliberately the widest variety of genres. Moreover, he alone among the poets whose work survives from this period crafted and refined throughout his career a poetic dogma, a highly developed notion of what a poem should be. In this, one could compare him with Ezra Pound among modern poets, continually urging his colleagues to “make it new” and exerting a powerful influence on subsequent generations of poets. Callimachus, who was also like Pound in being a scholar of poetry, renewed the Greek poetic tradition in two ways: He cultivated forms that had fallen into disuse (such as the hymnic), and he infused traditionally non-personal poetry with allusions to his own time and condition. A hymn, for example, could become a vehicle for praise of the patron monarch Ptolemy and for pronouncements on style, while purporting to praise Zeus or Apollo; a funerary epigram might be turned in the poet’s hands to serve as a sophisticated joke.
It was Callimachus’s achievement to compose poetry that satisfied a discerning, restricted audience—the royal court at Alexandria and other scholar-poets—without becoming hopelessly obscure or dated. Instead, his poetry in all genres usually attains the ideal he set: Lightness of tone is wedded to brevity, urbane manner, erudite content, and exclusive allusions. That these qualities were prized in poetry is evidenced by the many papyrus fragments later discovered to contain works by Callimachus—far more than those of any other author, including the very popular Euripides. Ironically, this “exclusive” poet obtained a far-from-exclusive audience, perhaps because his verse challenged the reader as it simultaneously offered rare pleasures. His influence extended even beyond the Greek-speaking lands; the verse of the Roman poets Quintus Ennius, Catullus, Horace, Vergil, and Sextus Propertius, and the poetic stance which each assumes, would be unthinkable without the example of Callimachus.
In turn, from the poets writing during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, the English “Augustans” inherited the Callimachean poetic ideal; Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714) echoes the Alexandrian poet’s Lock of Berenice, although Pope added the mock-epic tone. Indeed, Callimachean aesthetic principles are so much a part of the European literary tradition that they may be taken for granted. Yet, whenever a new poetic movement (Imagism, for example) challenges outworn canons of taste, jettisons tedious narrative, and turns instead to highly crafted “small” verse forms, the creators of the new poetry are treading the path first cleared by the Alexandrian poet.
Callimachus was not a native Alexandrian; he grew up and seems to have begun composing poetry in Cyrene, a Greek city of North Africa. From a commentary on a lost portion of his long poem, the Aetia, it appears that Callimachus represented himself as once dreaming that he was transported from his boyhood home in Libya to Mt. Helicon, the place on the mainland of Greece which was considered the traditional home of the Muses. He thus alludes to an early initiation into his art.
Neither his date of birth nor his parentage is known, but Callimachus’s family apparently prided itself on being descended from Battus, the legendary eighth century b.c.e. founder of Cyrene. From this assumption it may be deduced that his education was that of an aristocrat. On moving to Alexandria, however, which was one of the main cultural centers of Hellenistic Greek civilization, Callimachus was initially a marginal figure; family connections did not help. He held the position of schoolmaster in the suburb of Eleusis, which was not a lucrative job. Several of his epigrams that mention his poverty have been thought to date from this period (c. 280-270 b.c.e.); nevertheless, it should be remembered that the topic of poverty (penia) was a convention in Greek literature as early as Hesiod (fl. 700 b.c.e.), a poet whom Callimachus admired and imitated. When, therefore, the poet addresses a lover in Epigram 34 M., “You know that my hands are empty of wealth . . . ,” and proceeds to beg affection, the words are most likely those of a persona rather than of the poet himself.
At some later point, Callimachus received an appointment to the great library at Alexandria, perhaps after an introduction to Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the library’s royal patron (who ruled from 285 to 246 b.c.e.). Callimachus’s ground breaking compilation of the 120-volume Pinakes (tablets), a catalog of the library’s hundred thousand or so papyrus scrolls of Greek literature, entailed far more than merely listing titles, involving him in decisions about genre, authorship, authors’ biographies, and the arrangement of sections within each work. This extensive piece of literary history provided the poet with a wealth of material—often obscure—from which to fashion learned verse.
Despite his important contributions there, Callimachus was never appointed head of the library. Some controversy may have been involved, as literary infighting was surely a part of his life, but the details of his arguments with various contemporaries remain vague. Ancient commentators mention a feud between Callimachus and Apollonius, the author of the epic Argonautica (third century b.c.e.). Callimachus’s preference for brevity and disdain for pseudo-Homeric epic apparently prevailed for a time: Apollonius is said to have left, humbled, to live on the island of Rhodes. Callimachus’s Ibis, now lost, a piece of darkly worded invective which Ovid later imitated, may have hastened its victim’s departure from Alexandria. Other personal enemies apparently were attacked through allusions in the revised prologue of the Aetia.
While much of his poetry continues such artistic debates, several of Callimachus’s poems might best be understood in a different light—as responses to occasions at the royal court which demanded expression on the part of an “attached” poet. The Lock of Berenice, for example, commemorates an actual event, the dedication of a wife’s lock of hair to petition the gods for the safe return of her husband, Ptolemy III, as he departed for war in 247 b.c.e. (This is the only datable poem extant.) Again, court happenings might be alluded to in that portion of the Hymn to Zeus that mentions Zeus’s rule over his older brothers; the entire composition may be an elaborate, half-veiled praise of Callimachus’s patron. It is surely not a real hymn meant for ritual recitation. Unfortunately, nothing is known of the poet’s relation with the royal family other than that their patronage extended until his death at an advanced age. This social situation in its broader implications must be kept in mind: What appears to be Callimachean allusive indirection often might have resulted from politic discretion.
Since the legacy of Callimachus lies so much in his theory of style, it is best, first, to examine several of his extended metaphors describing the ideal style; then his major works can be evaluated according to his own aesthetic standards.
Epigram 30 M.
In most cases, Callimachus’s pronouncements about poetry are blended skillfully with other topics. Epigram 30 M. is a good example. The seven-line poem builds on the poet’s exclusive tastes:
I hate a cyclical poem, take no delight in the road
That carries many to and fro. I detest
A lover that wanders, nor do I drink from a well;
All held in common I abhor. . . .
Then the poet dramatically changes tack. What began as a literary manifesto ends abruptly as a bitter personal love poem:
Lysaniē, you are beautiful, beautiful . . .
But before Echo speaks this, someone says
“Another possesses him.”
The reader is left in suspense, yet he could eventually conclude that the poet, true to his lonely principle in life as in art, is here abandoning the one thing he does not hate.
The long, undistinguished epic poems, called “cyclic” because they complete the Trojan War myth cycle, represent for Callimachus all that one should avoid in verse. Even though his Hymn to Apollo uses the centuries-old Homeric meter and epic diction, the poem in praise of the god is startlingly fresh and compresses details of geography, ritual, history, and myth, into a dramatic framework. The final lines, which express Callimachus’s aversion for the epic form, are spoken by the god of poetry himself,...