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

2024.06.01a | By Gregory Nagy

This pre-edited standalone essay, rewritten for online publication in Classical Continuum, originally appeared in Classical Inquiries 2021.04.17. My rewritten version here supersedes the original version, partly because my online contributions to Classical Inquiries, extending from 2015.02.14 to 2021.10.13, are currently not being curated by the Center for Hellenic Studies.

§0. In an essay first published in the year 1919, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot made a bold statement about poets, dead or alive. Back then—I show as illustration for this essay a picture taken of him around that time—he was thinking not only about the “individual talent” of young poets like himself but also about the collective legacy of all “dead poets” stemming from the “European tradition,” as he thought of it, starting with Homer and moving forward in time all the way to the English-speaking poets who lived in generations preceding his own. I will now quote what Eliot said about the poet he was then—as also about any generic poet as he imagined “him” in the making: “the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously” (Eliot 1919 [1975]:38). I once quoted this formulation in a book bearing the title Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond (Nagy 1996:213, linked here), citing it from a selection of Eliot’s essays edited by Frank Kermode (1975:38), because I thought then, and I still think, that Eliot’s wording here is good to think with. I must add right away, however, that I did not then and do not now agree with Eliot’s overall vision, since my comparative approach takes me beyond his Eurocentric and he-centered model-building. For example, I had originally quoted Eliot in the context of my analyzing the she-centered songs of Sappho, where I was aiming to confront a problem: how to explain the he-centered reperformances of these songs? I now return to that problem here in Part I of a two-part sequence in Classical Inquiries, concentrating on the idea of reperformance as I formulated it then; later, in Part II, I will examine how this term “reperformance” has been used in various different approaches advocated by various different classicists since the time when I first used it in my book Pindar’s Homer (Nagy 1990, = PH, starting at p. 18, 1§5 and continuing from there, especially at p. 81 2§53 and in Chapters 3, 12, 13, 14). My idea, as I plan to show in Part II, which will follow Part I here, is different from most though not all of those newer approaches. A case in point is a volume of essays edited by Richard Hunter and Anna Uhlig, 2017. (In that volume, I should already say, I find myself in agreement with the views presented in the lead essay by Johanna Hanink.)

T. S. Eliot, photographed one Sunday afternoon in 1923 by Lady Ottoline Morrell. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. The arguments in Part I here can best be handled by way of epitomizing various relevant arguments presented in Poetry as Performance (Nagy 1996:213–223), to be followed in a newer essay, Part II, by a variety of further arguments as presented in other newer essays I have already posted in Classical Inquiries. I have found that the value of such epitomizing is basically this: each new epitome is now presented in different and therefore new contexts of argumentation. In what immediately follows here in Part I, the overarching argument is this: for a song culture like that of the ancient Greeks, where performance is still needed to bring the composition to life, Eliot’s words, quoted above, can be reapplied if we take for a moment the performer’s point of view: all I need for the moment is to reword Eliot’s wording where he says “his work” by saying, instead, “his or her performance.” Let me recompose, then: for a performer, the most individual parts of his or her performance may be those in which the dead poets, his or her ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. In other words, as I argued in Poetry as Performance, the reperformed composer becomes the recomposed performer.

§2. Of prime relevance here is the idea of mī́mēsis in the primary sense of ‘re-enactment’ and in the secondary sense of ‘imitation’ in Greek poetic traditions. In Poetry as Performance, I consistently stressed the fundamental role of mī́mēsis, hereafter written simply as mimesis, in the performance of song and poetry. So long as the authority of mimesis continues, I argued, we must reckon with its power to reshape the identity of those who take part in the process of performing a song or poem. Just as every performance becomes a potential re-creation in mimesis, that is, a virtual recomposition, so also the very identity of the performer stands to be re-created, recomposed. When the performer re-enacts an identity formerly enacted by previous performers, he or she is re-creating his or her own identity for the moment. That is to say, a performer’s identity is recomposed in performance.

§3. A comparative perspective leads to the following axiom: where the distinction between composer and performer requires it, the performer’s identity becomes reshaped—recomposed—to fit the ideology of his or her distinctness from the supposedly prototypical composer, the author.

§4. A continuation from a supposedly original composition in the past to a performance by a performer in the present will need a continuum—a continuous setting, to match any original setting. We may link such “original” settings as the hetaireíā ‘assembly of comrades’ addressed by a figure like Alcaeus at one time and one place—let us say, around 600 BCE on the island of Lesbos—with such historically continuing settings as the symposium, in all its varieties throughout many times and many places, where the spirit of hetaireíā writ large provides a fitting context for re-enactments of Alcaeus’ words in song. To this extent, I accept the dictum of Wolfgang Rösler (1980) that the identity of Alcaeus as a lyric poet was a function of his social group, his hetaireíā. In the absence of a hetaireíā, Alcaeus cannot exist. To use the wording of Rösler (1980:40), “ohne Hetairie kein Lyriker Alkaios.” I even accept the notion of Alcaeus as an author. I must insist, however, that the hetaireíā is diachronic—and so too, for that matter, is the persona of Alcaeus. That is to say, the persona of Alcaeus may be adaptable through time, fitting a wide variety of situations—both positive and negative—affecting the very idea of hetaireíā. Just as the society reflected by Alcaeus—let us continue to call it his hetaireíā—changes over time, so also the persona of Alcaeus may change along with it. If indeed Alcaeus was transmitted primarily through the symposium, then Alcaeus the author will change as the symposium changes through time.

§5. The symposium can serve as an ideal example of a setting for performance, since this institution happens to be more conservative than most in maintaining a continuum of traditional values in the history of Hellenism. And the stronger the continuity, the stronger we may expect to be the sense of potential identification between composer and performer. For example, the sympotic persona of Alcaeus, conveyed in the varieties of ethos that are being acted out in the songs attributed to him, makes it all the more natural for any sympotic performer of Alcaeus to develop a relatively strong sense of identification with him in performance. The same can be said of monodic poetry composed in elegiac couplets, as in the case of Theognis. As I have argued elsewhere (PH 368 12§55n159), the figure of Theognis speaks primarily as a sympotic personality (for example, in Theognis 239–243).

§6. Despite the verifiable reality of recomposition-in-performance, of change in identity within the process of mimesis, the songmaking tradition may continue to insist on its unchangeability. The tradition may even claim that mimesis itself is the visible sign or seal of unchangeability for the song and, by extension, for its author. Such a traditional mentality is evident in two passages from Theognis of Megara.

§7. In the first passage, the persona of Theognis claims that he is placing a sphrāgís ‘seal’ upon his words as he identifies himself by name:

Κύρνε σοφιζομένῳ μὲν ἐμοὶ σφρηγὶς ἐπικείσθω
τοῖσδ᾿ ἔπεσιν, λήσει δ᾿ οὔποτε κλεπτόμενα
οὐδέ τις ἀλλάξει κάκιον τοὐσθλοῦ παρεόντος.
ὧδε δέ πᾶς τις ἐρεῖ· Θεύγνιδός ἐστιν ἔπη
τοῦ Μεγαρέως· πάντας δὲ κατ᾿ ἀνθρώπους ὀνομαστός.
ἀστοῖσιν δ᾿ οὔπω πᾶσιν ἁδεῖν δύναμαι

Kyrnos, let a seal [sphrāgís] be placed by me, as I practice my skill
upon these my words. This way, it will never be undetected if they are
and no one can substitute something inferior for the genuine thing that
     is there.
And this is what everyone will say: “These are the words of Theognis
of Megara, whose name is known among all mortals.”
But I am not yet able to please [= verb handánein] all the townspeople

Theognis 19–24

§8. As I have argued with reference to this sphrāgís ‘seal’ (Nagy 1985:33), the poetry of Theognis presents itself as static, unchangeable. In fact, the ‘seal’ of Theognis is pictured as a guarantee that no one will ever tamper with the poet’s words. Outside this ideology and in reality, however, the poetry of Theognis is dynamic, subject to modifications and accretions that are occasioned by an evolving social order. And the poet is always there, observing it all—despite the fact that the events being observed span an era that goes well beyond a single lifetime.

§9. With his sphrāgís ‘seal’, then, the figure of Theognis is authorizing himself, making himself the author. We see here an explicit self-description of this author as one who succeeds in sophíā, the ‘skill’ of decoding or encoding poetry. On the basis of this success, the author lays claim to a timeless authority, which resists the necessity of changing just to please the audience of the here and now, who are described as the astoí ‘townspeople’. The author must risk alienation with the audience of the here and now in order to attain the supposedly universal acceptance of the ultimate audience, which is the cumulative response of Panhellenic fame.

§10. Such fame is achieved, as we see from a second passage I have chosen from Theognis, through the authority and authenticity of mimesis. Implicitly, only the pleasure of exact reperformance, which is supposedly the ongoing achievement of mimesis, is truly lasting, while the pleasure elicited through changes in response to an immediate audience is ephemeral. In this second passage, the persona of Theognis declares that only the one who is sophós, that is, ‘skilled’ in the decoding and encoding of poetry, can execute a mimesis of Theognis:

οὐ δύναμαι γνῶναι νόον ἀστῶν ὅντιν’ ἔχουσιν·
οὔτε γὰρ εὖ ἕρδων ἁνδάνω οὔτε κακῶς·
μωμεῦνται δέ με πολλοί, ὁμῶς κακοὶ ἠδὲ καὶ ἐσθλοί·
μιμεῖσθαι δ’ οὐδεὶς τῶν ἀσόφων δύναται.

I am not able to decide what disposition it is that the townspeople
     [astoí] have towards me.
For I do not please [= verb handánein] them, either when I do for
     them things that are advantageous or when I do things that are
There are many who find blame with me, base and noble men alike.
But no one who is not skilled [sophós] is able to re-enact [mīmeîsthai]

Theognis 367–370

§11. Here the notion of mimesis as re-enactment becomes an implicit promise that no change shall ever occur to accommodate the interests of any local audience in the here and now, that is, of the astoí ‘townspeople’. The authorized reperformance of a composition, if it is to be a true re-enactment or mimesis, can guarantee the authenticity of the “original” composition. The author is saying about himself: “But no one who is not skilled [sophós] can re-enact my identity.”

§12. Here is an occasion to conjure up, yet again, the reworded words of Eliot: for a performer, the most individual parts of his or her performance may be those in which the dead poets, as figurative ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.


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