Corinna Critical Essays

Introduction

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Corinna fl. c. 3rd-5th century b.c.-

(Also transliterated as Korinna) Greek lyric poet.

Considered one of the greatest of the Greek female poets, Corinna wrote narrative verse celebrating the heroes of mythology. She is credited with defeating Pindar in at least one poetry contest and perhaps in as many as five; the accuracy of either account is questioned by many experts who argue that Corinna lived not in Pindar's time, the fifth century b.c., but two centuries later. Although some modern era critics deem her a naïve teller of folk tales, scholars who have been reevaluating her verses find indications of previously overlooked literary skill. Corinna has additionally been receiving attention in the context of women's studies as some of her writings, at least ostensibly, are directed to a female audience.

Biographical Information

There is virtually no information concerning Corinna's life other than the fact that she was born in Boeotia, an area north of Attica in ancient Greece. No reference to her survives from before the first century b.c., when Antipater of Thessalonica included Corinna in his list of the nine Earthly Muses. A later account claims that she was the teacher of the great poet Pindar (522 b.c.-443 b.c.) and that she defeated him in competition. Her poetry is written in the Boeotian dialect of Greek.

Major Works

Corinna reportedly wrote five books of poetry, but only three significant papyrus fragments survive, along with a few short quoted passages in the works of grammarians. One fragment concerns a verse contest between the two mountains Helicon and Cithaeron. The gods decide the winner is Cithaeron; Helicon shows the pain of defeat by hurling a boulder which breaks into a thousand stones. A second fragment tells of how the seer Acraephen attempts to soothe the troubled mind of Asopus as he worries for his nine maiden daughters, who have been abducted by Zeus, Poseidon, Phoibos, and Hermes to serve as their wives. Acraephen states that they will give birth to demigod heroes. The third verse, known as the Terpsichore fragment, finds Corinna announcing her role in the preservation of tradition. Her subjects appear to have chiefly consisted of local Boetian myths, including “The Seven against Thebes,” “Boeotus,” “Euonymie,” “Iolaus,” and “Orion.”

Critical Reception

The majority of Corinna scholarship centers on whether or not she belongs to the fifth century b.c. or the third century b.c. The evidence is persuasive on both sides. According to the tradition of the Alexandrian scholars, Corinna was a contemporary of Pindar, so Plutarch, Pausanias, and Aelian place her in the fifth century. Two relevant questions have been posed but cannot be definitively answered: Was her style archaic or consciously archaizing? Was her challenge to Pindar as a contemporary or as a dominant poet of the past? C. M. Bowra believes Corinna was most likely a contemporary of Pindar. He notes that evidence involving the length of certain vowels in her works is not persuasive because Corinna's fragments have been rewritten from the old spelling to a new Boetian spelling used from 350 to 250. H. J. Rose concurs but asserts that the text in its present form was written down somewhat later, between 225 and 175. Charles P. Segal [see Further Reading] uses the voting arrangement found in the singing contest between Helicon and Cithaeron to strongly argue for a later date, suggesting that Corinna may be using the device of “pseudo-naiveté”: “The fullness of detail looks like archaic simplicity and factuality, but it may be artful and witty archaizing.” Segal further writes: “Corinna avoids figurative language, metaphor, elaborate tropes. There are a few compound adjectives of the type common in fifth-century choral lyric. But on the whole she writes with a simplicity of vocabulary, sentence structure, and meter which has suggested folk-poetry to some scholars.” M. L. West and E. Lobel [see Further Reading] have both presented evidence against using the traditional date for Corinna. Marilyn B. Skinner focuses on Corinna's intended audience, noting a great deal of difference between the attitudes of Corinna and Sappho concerning “what and how a woman is to write.” Sappho set up “the public culture and its competitive values as a negative foil to her own private world of emotional intensity. Women's poetry thus provides a corrective counterstatement to the dominant literary tradition. Corinna, on the other hand, has fully internalized male values. As a woman, she is aware of her second-class status within the public culture. Unlike Sappho, she does not disavow accepted cultural norms; instead, she creates a female poetic that implicitly acknowledges her inferiority to men.” Jane M. Snyder asserts that Corinna has been given short shrift critically and notes that the “paucity of fragments and the question of Korinna's date prevent her from being assigned her appropriate niche in the history of Greek literature. To judge from the fragments themselves, she excelled at heroic narrative which relied largely on simple, direct language but was also characterized both by selective use of Homeric epithets and by significant repetition.” Snyder especially credits Corinna for her “refreshing simplicity” of style.