|Hesiod, detail of a mosaic by Monnus|
Stanley Lombardo's translation of Hesiod contains a marvelous introduction written by Robert Lamberton. I'm especially intrigued by a pair of facts he points out: In Theogony, the author introduces himself as Hesiod--a narrative style we don't really see in Gilgamesh or Homer's epics, and one that is the precursor to modern first-person narration. And in Work and Days, the author emerges "as an individualized human being with a story and a characteristic, idiosyncratic view of the world"--in other words, as a character himself.
Is his writing autobiographical? When Hesiod speaks of his father and brother Perses, is he recounting the truth of his own life enough that we can use the information in our efforts to understand Hesiod's background?
In Work and Days, Hesiod gives Perses a long speech about his family and behavior. It is important to realize that this is very much a constructed speech which he never would have given in real life--especially since he is presenting family history that his brother would have of course already known. Instead this speech is designed to be heard or read by an audience. In other words, as Lamberton says, "Not only Perses, but Hesiod himself, if first and foremost a fiction."
Although it is tempting to take his words as accurate historical information, it is equally possible that his whole story of inheritance "can very easily be imagined as pure invention, a fiction that has no relationship to the real world."
So Hesiod uses some devices that work against a literal reading. They make for something almost universal or mythical in tone. But throughout his writing, Hesiod also uses very specific details that make his work have the ring of truth, of autobiography. Is the narrator the same as the poet? Not really. Are the facts that the narrator speaks the facts of the poet's life? We have no idea.
This emergence of the individual narrator is a central development in western literature--one that Lamberton argues succeeds in "personalizing the speaking voice and inventing a narrator with an identity and a personality." Perhaps it is that construction that sparks the almost-confessional lyric poetry about to come on the scene. Fascinating.