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Professor’s Book Examines Ancient Poet’s Pioneering Style

Andrew Foster was in graduate school when he got hooked on the works of Theocritus, a literary innovator of the ancient world. Here was someone who wrote simple vignettes about country life but laced them with a deep web of storytelling and literary reference. What’s more, his poetry had a “sound” that was cool and sophisticated, in a Miles Davis kind of way.

And, even better, some of it was just plain bad.

“I could get a sense of, ‘This is a person who’s not afraid to try stuff and not have everything work out,’ and I really liked that,” said Foster, PhD, a Fordham classics professor.

Foster’s new book—Reading Voices: Five Studies in Theocritus’ Narrating Techniques (Peter Lang, 2016)—explores the work of this Greek poet who achieved renown in his era, the third century B.C.E. He not only invented the genre of pastoral poetry, but also exemplified the trend toward weaving in references to other works as a way of promoting one’s own work and drawing readers in.

“A self-consciousness of poetic composition develops over the course of classical literature,” Foster said. “In the Hellenistic era, the density of allusion to earlier poetry just goes right through the roof,” and the density of Theocritus’ own self-reference “is quite significant,” he said.

Theocritus was a native of Syracuse, a major Greek settlement in Sicily, who emigrated to Alexandria, Egypt, a center of literary patronage where he obtained some form of patronage under King Ptolemy II, Foster said.

Unlike writers like Homer, with their long epic poems, Theocritus wrote short but richly detailed vignettes about rustic life. In his Idyll 1, for instance, when a goatherd offers a cup to the shepherd Thyrsis if he’ll sing a famous song, the cup and its intricate carvings get a 30-line description that harkens back to Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles, “so you have this country shepherd talking about this rustic cup in these very epic terms,” Foster said.

The idyll also describes the song, with its reference to a boy who’s making a cage for crickets, the quintessential musical insect. “Capturing it within a cage of reeds seems to be emblematic of the poetic craft that Theocritus is trying to emulate,” Foster said. “There are all these very novel associations. It’s very metapoetic.”

Theocritus weaved cross-references among his many works, a technique that’s apparent in everything from the novels of William Faulkner to the Star Wars movies, in which a simple “damsel in distress” story is blown up into a bigger world of mythic proportions, Foster said.

“To a certain degree, this is what Theocritus tries to do,” he said. “He invites you to join in this kind of mutual collaboration to build that larger narrative framework into which these little vignettes can be situated.”

In addition to his bucolic poetry, he wrote other things like mythological vignettes, and he had imitators almost as soon as the bucolic genre was born. His work gained new prominence a few centuries later when Virgil—who was tight with the literary elite in Rome—decided he liked it and helped propagate it.

Theocritus appeared to labor over his poems, and they tended to be more structured and less experimental than those of his contemporaries. His accounts of rustic life are both heavily stylized but also “incredibly vivid,” with an aura of realism and extraordinary literary sophistication that some people find mesmerizing, he said.

“For me, it was really just the sound of the poetry,” he said. “It just sounded like nothing else.”


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