Apollonius Rhodius Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The chief characteristics of Alexandrianism, of which Callimachus was the leading proponent, were refinement in diction, precision of form and meter, erudition which often degenerated into pedantry and obscurity, and avoidance of the commonplace in subject, sentiment, and allusion. Apollonius Rhodius shares some of these traits, and he seems to have written the Argonautica out of bravado, to show that he could indeed write an epic poem. The influence of the age, however, was too strong. Instead of a unified epic, there is merely a series of episodes. In the four books of his Argonautica, Apollonius tells of the quest for the Golden Fleece and especially of Jason and Medea. The same story was known to Homer and certainly belonged in the repertory of old epic. It provided a splendid source of thrilling adventures and opportunities for excursions into the unknown, a literary device that varied the more straightforward episodes of epic. It demanded, however, a heroic sense of human worth and of perilous action, and this was precisely what Apollonius lacked. His Jason is the faintest of phantoms; he could hardly be otherwise, inasmuch as Apollonius lived in the metropolitan society of Alexandria and had little idea of how to depict a hero. There were other defects as well. Apollonius never forgot that he was an antiquarian and therefore he liberally garnished his poem with tidbits of erudite information. This is deadly not only to the flow of the narrative but also to the actual poetry. The delight in learning for its own sake was an especially Alexandrian characteristic. Literary allusions seeped into Alexandrian poetry without poets quite noticing how cumbersome and distracting they were. Apollonius must have thought such allusions gave richness and dignity to his story, but ultimately, they make it tedious and pedantic.


Not until the Hellenistic age and Apollonius’s Argonautica was there a complete epic presentation of the Thessalian or Argonautic cycle of legends, among the oldest in Greek mythology. Poetry in all its forms had time and again turned to the legend of the Argonauts and the local history of the many places connected with it. Thus, Apollonius was faced with a rich tradition with many partly contradictory variants.

Apollonius’s composition exhibits a systematic arrangement of the subject matter. The first two books describe the voyage to the land of Colchis, the third relates the adventures leading to the winning of the Golden Fleece, while the fourth tells of the dangers of the flight and the return home. The stress on details, however, is variously distributed; there are rapid transitions, but there are also passages over which Apollonius had lingered lovingly, typical of the rejection of symmetry and the tendency to variety found elsewhere in Alexandrian poetry.

Book 1

While a proem with prayer formula is merely indicated at the beginning of book 1 and much of the preceding history is saved for later, the introductory passage offers an elaborate catalog of the Argonauts, geographically arranged in the manner of a circumnavigation and leading from the north of Greece to the east and west and then back to the north. The catalog tradition of ancient epic served as its model. The scenes of departure in Iolcus and on the beach at Pagasae are spun out in detail. Then follows the long series of stopping places and adventures on the way out, along the usual route to Colchis. For the voyage up to the treacherous passage through the Symplegades, which are thought to be at the entrance to the Pontus, the tradition had a number of effective, ready-made episodes upon which Apollonius elaborated successfully. First is the landing in Lemnos, where the women, under a curse of Aphrodite, have killed their husbands. Now, however, they are glad to entertain the Argonauts. The result is a delectable sojourn from which Heracles has to call his companions to action. That is followed by the initiation into the mysteries at Samothrace and the adventures in Cyzicus. Here the Argonauts give the Doliones effective help against evil giants only to become involved, through a misunderstanding, in a bitterly regretted nocturnal battle with their friends.

The next stop on the coast of Propontis provides the setting for the Hylas episode. When Apollonius tells how the beautiful youth Hylas is dragged down into a pool by a nymph who has fallen in love with him, he does it very well, since his dramatic economy avoids any kind of false pathos, and the reader witnesses the nymph’s ruthless determination as she puts her arms around the boy who is stooping to get water. Heracles seeks Hylas in the woods and the Argonauts continue their voyage without him, since the sea-god Glaucus announces that the hero is destined to perform other deeds. This device eliminates from the narrative the greatest of the champions, beside whom the heroic Jason would pale by comparison.

Book 2

The story continues without a stop from book 1 to book 2, which begins with Pollux’s boxing match with Amycus, a barbarian king. In Bithynia, the Argonauts come upon the blind king Phineus, who, in deep misery, is doing penance for some ancient offense. The winged sons of Boreas liberate him from the Harpies, the predatory storm spirits who rob him of every meal or defile it. As a reward, Phineus gives the Argonauts good advice for the rest of their voyage. The compositional significance of this preview is that it sums up the various minor episodes of the second half of the voyage. The...

(The entire section is 2275 words.)