May 04, 2010


For my lit project, I read the surviving poems of Callimachus.

One hears a lot about Callimachus when learning the Classics. Poet, librarian, critic, Callimachus represents the shift to the post-Heroic Hellenistic era. As a critic, he condemned epic poetry and praised what was brief, highly-crafted, and very literate. These lines from his Hymn to Apollo both express and exemplify this philosophy:
And Envy whispered in Apollo's ear:
"I am charmed by the poet who swells like the sea."
But Apollo put foot to Envy and said:
"The river Euphrates has a powerful current
but the water is muddy and filled with refuse.
The Cult of the Bees brings water to Deo
but their slender libations are unsullied and pure,
the trickling dew from a holy spring's height."
Pure drops from a holy spring (Callimachus's poetry) are preferable to a powerful yet muddy current (epic poetry). This aesthetic preference characterizes the Hellenistic age. Epics and Tragedies are out of fashion; in fashion are Menander, Theocritus, and Aratus. Incidentally ... Epigram 62:
Aratus of Soloi models his verse
On Hesiod's best, and refuses to write
The Ultimate Epic. We praise these terse,
Subtle tokens of long effort at night.
How fortunate I am to have crossed Aratus, this bizarre, little poet. I am beginning to understand his reputation among the Ancients.

The Hellenistic inclination to holy dew reappears with vigor among the Romans. Without Callimachus, no Catallus, Propertius, or Ovid (whose Fasti may be more influenced by Callimachus's lost Aetia than by Propertius). Callimachus's influence is difficult to escape. And yet, as Fortune has it, little of his work survives, and one is at a loss to discover why there is so much noise about him. 6 hymns, 64 epigrams, and some number of fragments survive. These I read. These only of hundreds of estimated books. Time has robbed us of his work.

What, O Zeus, are we to make of Callimachus?

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