On the idea of dead poets as imagined by T. S. Eliot, compared with ideas about reperformance, Part III

2021.04.30 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In Part III of this essay, continuing from Part I (Nagy 2021.04.17, linked here) and Part II (Nagy 2021.04.24, linked here), I return for the third and last time to what T. S. Eliot said (1919 [1975]:38) about the poet he was in his youth—and about any aspiring poet in general: “the most individual parts of his work,” he said, “may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.” Here in Part III, which I have put together as a text to be presented “live” at 2:30 pm EDT on Friday 2021.04.30 for Day 3 of an online conference organized by Lawrence Kowerski and David Petrain on the subject of an ancient anthology based on verses attributed to the poet Theognis (https://www.gc.cuny.edu/All-GC-Events/Calendar/Detail?id=59813), I return to what I said in Part I, with reference to verses 19–24 and 367–370 of poetry attributed to Theognis, about this poet as a potentially “recomposed performer.” Here I focus on two further passages in the Theognidean anthology, verses 1209–1210 and 1229–1230, where the idea of a recomposed performer is taken one step further. In these verses, I argue, the persona of the poet is speaking as if he were already dead—as a “dead poet” personified. I had made such an argument already in my original work on Theognis (Nagy 1985:76–81 = §§71–79; further elaboration in Nagy 1990:269 = 9§27n99). And then, in Poetry as Performance (Nagy 1996:213, 223), with reference to both the Theognidean passages I just cited, I compared the model of Theognis as a “recomposed” poet who speaks from the dead with parallels in medieval Welsh and Irish poetic traditions as analyzed by Patrick K. Ford (1987), concentrating on the persona of the Welsh poet Aneirin, who is likewise figured as speaking from the dead. More recent work on the Celtic traditions, especially in the article “Merlin’s Last Cry” by Lawrence Eson (2007), has added a wealth of further comparative evidence. For me the most striking parallel to the model of a Greek dead poet who makes contact with the living is the mythological figure of Merlin himself, whose beguiled looks in the picture I show for this essay convey a good sense of the riddling mysticism that is built into the very idea of a dead poet speaking from the dead.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), The Beguiling of Merlin. Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. Photo, Wikimedia Commons.
Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), The Beguiling of Merlin. Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. Photo, Wikimedia Commons.

§1. The Celtic myths about the beguilement of Merlin by the Lady of the Lake, among other mythological variations, conjure in my mind—comparatist that I am—two remarkable texts surviving from ancient Greek lyric. These texts are fragments from the songmaking of Alcaeus (F 129 and F 130), which I analyzed in an essay I once wrote, “Alcaeus in Sacred Space,” published in a Festschrift for Bruno Gentili (Nagy 1993, linked here). The wording we read in these fragmentary texts of lyric, as I argued in the course of my analysis, indicates that the persona of Alcaeus is pictured as speaking from the dead as he gazes, with a ghostly eye, at the beguiling beauty of girls pictured as singing-and-dancing in choral performance at a seasonally recurring festival, sacred primarily to the goddess Hērā, which was held at a sacral center-point, named Messon, on the island of Lesbos. Such a sacral center-point, I further argued, would have been the setting for a hero cult of Alcaeus, which I compared to the wording of verses 1209–1210 in the Theognidean anthology. In terms of this comparison, I argued for the existence of a hero cult, in Megara, of Theognis himself. In a later essay, “Sacred Space as a frame for lyric occasions: The case of the Mnesiepes Inscription and other possible cases” (Nagy 2018.06.30, linked here), I extended the argument further by comparing evidence for a hero cult of Archilochus.

§2. I should note here that Andrej Petrović, in Day 2 of the conference organized by Lawrence Kowerski and David Petrain, showed epigraphical evidence from Teos that I would interpret as an indication of a comparable hero cult for Anacreon of Teos.

§3. I should also note, in passing, the possible relevance of an essay of mine concerning the historical role of Anacreon in shaping the Athenian “Lyric Canon” (Nagy 2021.02.06, linked here). In that essay, as also in earlier work (Nagy 2009, linked here), I argue that Anacreon can ultimately be credited with the transmission, in Athens, of not only his own songs but also the songs of Alcaeus and Sappho—and that this transmission involved not only symposia but also the competitions in aulodic as well as citharodic performances at the festival of the Panathenaia.

§4. For the reader’s convenience, I offer here the texts of verses 1209–1210 and 1229–1230 in the anthology of Theognidea, along with my working translations of these two passages. For commentary on my analysis of both passages (as presented already in Nagy 1985:76–81 = §§71–79), I recommend an incisive further analysis by Olga Levaniouk (2011:41–43, 46–49).

Αἴθων μὲν γένος εἰμί, πόλιν δ᾽ εὐτειχέα Θήβην
οἰκῶ, πατρῳᾶς γῆς ἀπερυκόμενος.

I am Aithōn by birth, and, in the well-walled city of Thebes
do I have-an-abode [oikô], being exiled as I am from the Earth of my ancestors.

Theognis 1209–1210

ἤδη γάρ με κέκληκε θαλάσσιος οἴκαδε νεκρός,
τεθνηκὼς ζωῷ φθεγγόμενος στόματι.

The Corpse of the Sea is now calling me home.
It is dead, but it calls with a mouth that is alive.

Theognis 1229–1230

§5. Postscript 2021.05.01. Here is a brief summary of my analysis, as cited in §4 above, and of the further analysis by Olga Levaniouk, also cited there. In the first passage, the “speaking name” Aithōn confers on the speaker, who speaks here in the mode of an epigram inscribed on a tomb, the identity of a heroic persona who is experiencing a burning inner hunger for the restoration of a social status that has been lost—in this case, lost by way of exile. A cognate idea is conveyed in the Homeric Odyssey, where the persona of Odysseus assumes a cognate identity by way of this same “speaking name,” Aithōn. In the Theognidean verse 1210 of the first passage, the word oikô ‘I have-an-abode’ conjures the idea of a cult hero who is venerated by way of hero cult, so that the ‘I’ is figured here as the cult hero himself, speaking from the dead by way of the epigram inscribed on his tomb. In the second passage, the ‘me’ refers, again, to such a cult hero, who is being summoned back home by Ino, the ‘White Goddess’, worshipped as a cult heroine at Megara. I close this essay by comparing the poetry of Myrddin, the Welsh Merlin. In analyzing a Welsh poem that quotes, as it were, Merlin himself as the dead speaker, Lawrence Eson (2007:188) has this to say about that particular poem:

“As in much of the […] poetry [that is attributed to Myrddin], the motif of lamentation for a dead lord of the North is present here. Like the poet Aneirin, who speaks from an earthen cell in Y Gododdin, the somber voice of Myrddin speaking from the grave also links the epic past of the heroes of the North with the chaotic, crisis-filled Welsh present of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when much of the Myrddin poetry was written down in the form in which it appears in our extant manuscripts.”


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