Poetry into Drama

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Poetry into Drama: Early Tragedy and the Greek Poetic Tradition is the forty-ninth volume of the Sather Lectures, a major series of classical studies based upon public lectures given by the Sather Professor of Classical Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. John Herington is a distinguished classical scholar whose most important previous book, The Author of Prometheus Bound (1970), supports the strongly disputed Aeschylean authorship of this play.

Turning his critical attention in Poetry into Drama to the contributions of early Greek poetry in the development of Athenian tragedy, Herington has changed significantly the ways in which Greek poetry and tragedy are understood and has painted an excellent picture of what he calls the “song culture” of Greece. Poetry into Drama is as much about pre-tragic Greek poetry as Greek tragedy and treats the epics of Homer, the lyrics of Sappho, and the tragedies of Aeschylus as part of one poetic evolution. Herington revives literary bonds which united these genres in the ancient Greek world, when tragedy was considered a subform of poetry rather than a separate genre and when the word “poet” was applied equally to composers of epic, lyric, and tragedy. Pre-tragic Greek poetry included several forms, such as lyric (or monody), elegy, and iambic, classified according to the meters used and the contexts of performance. By discussing all these diverse ancient poetical categories as part of a single song culture in pre-fifth century b.c.e. Greece, Herington makes a significant contribution to the criticism of Greek poetry and drama.

Both the original lectures and the published book are directed to the general reader as well as the classical specialist, and each audience will find much of value in the book. For the sake of the general reader, most of the documentation has been placed in a series of ten appendixes containing information about ancient Greek poetry not otherwise available in a single source. Making up about 20 percent of the text, these appendixes include evidence for musical performances at religious festivals, for performances of various types of Greek poetry, and for texts and reperformances of such poetry. These appendixes would have been easier to use if page headings had distinguished each one by title or by number. Fortunately, Herington’s theory that tragedy was created out of the oral song cult in Greece can be followed without giving overdue attention to the documentation in the appendixes.

Poetry into Drama is divided into three parts. In the first, Herington describes the pre-tragic poetry of Greece and discusses several important ways in which the oral and performative features of this poetry are similar to those of dramatic performances. In the second part of the book, Herington describes the confluence of pre-tragic Greek poetry in sixth century Athens, which led, within a few decades, to the invention of drama. In the last part, Herington studies features of Greek tragedy that show a deliberate blending of several types of pre-tragic poetry. This poetic integration can especially be noted in the innovative assimilation in tragedy of several diverse metrical forms found in earlier forms of Greek poetry.

Unlike most modern poetry, pre-tragic Greek poetry was directed toward live audiences rather than to readers. Oral, traditional, performed publicly, often in a competitive context, poetry of this type in Greece can be traced back to the preliterate world of Homer, when poetry based on traditional tales and vocabulary was composed in performance by illiterate singers. In Poetry into Drama, Herington is interested less in that stage of Greek poetry when the Homeric epics were a living form than in the sixth century b.c.e., when the Homeric texts had become more fixed and were being performed by reciters called rhapsodes, not by creative poets. While the combined poet-performer of epic was no longer active during this period, other kinds of poets continued to perform their own compositions. The works of Sappho, Alcman, and Pindar provide Herington with important evidence for the role of performance in Greek poetry. Herington might have added that early Greek tragedians, such as Aeschylus, continued this poetic practice by acting in their own productions.

Herington considers pre-tragic Greek poetry a performing art. In the first chapter of Poetry into Drama, he provides a detailed comparison of four kinds of pre-tragic poetic performances: the rhapsodic recitations of Homer; solo performances of songs sung to the accompaniment of a lyre or kithara; performance of choral lyrics, such as those of Alcman and Pindar; and the performance of solo lyrics, such as those of Sappho and Anacreon. Discussing both literary and artistic evidence for such performances, Herington notes the need for declarative and histrionic skills not unlike those needed for drama. Performers of such poetry were not much different from actors.

These poetic performances also shared with later dramatic performances an element of competition. Herington provides a catalog of the many religious festivals at which poetic contests were held. Viewed from this perspective, the famous dramatic competitions during the Festival of the Greater Dionysia in Athens were...

(The entire section is 2204 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Choice. XXIII, October, 1985, p. 287.