Friday, May 27, 2011

Hesiod: Voice of the Poet, Voice of the Narrator

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.


  1. Slow Plot Driven ReaderMay 27, 2011

    I think I need my morning cup of coffee to help me think more about the difference between the poet and the narrator. Fascinating indeed.

    From your earlier posts, I get the sense that Hesiod's treatment of women, rather than his focus on more everyday topics, is what made his writing less interesting to you than Homer. Given your professed love of Jane Austen, I am sure you are not resisting the pastoral aspect of Hesiod.

    Before you move on to the self-confessional classic lyric poet, please let us know if you recommend Hesiod for the dabbler and if there are certain highlights you recommend. Thanks.

  2. By coincidence, one of the book groups in which I participate is currently reading Pirsig's ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, and one of the questions I posed to the group before we began was that of the narrator's veracity. Is it a memoir, or is it a novel, and what relation does the writer have to the narrator? Quite a distance from Hesiod, I admit, but your questions are pertinent to our group's reading.

  3. I'm reading a few different histories lately from slightly later, and it strikes me that writers did not have the same attitudes, or feel the same responsibilities, towards truth. In some sense, I wonder if Hesiod's contemporary reaers would have CARED if it was true, you know? Truth had to have a purpose to be kept, and embellishment and outright dishonesty were the means one used to 'elucidate' the 'real' truth. You see this in Plato, too: Socrates in the republic, basically, says that the perfect republic should throw out or alter any of it's stories or religious tales that distract from the purposes of education. Similarly, Thucydides, when he attempted to write a balanced account of the Pelop War almost sounded as if he had to defend his desire to do so, like he had to prove that there was a purpose in not writing history-as-didactic.


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