History’s Lost, Part I: Stesichorus

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J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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14 Responses

  1. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    That guy’s name sounds like a dinosaur. “The fearsome Allosaurus often preyed upon the stolid Stestichorus…”Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

      Haha, yes — I always knew there was something off sounding about his name, but I could never quite put my finger on it. And if Stesichorus were a dinosaur, he would certainly have been “stolid.”Report

  2. Very interesting read. I’m looking forward to the continuance of this series.Report

  3. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    “would it be worth it to have the next dozen of Sophokles’ plays if, through their inferior quality, they lowered our estimation of the playwright so much that the magnificent eight we presently have fell, too?”

    How did you respond? I think I’d have to read them just out of curiosity, but I can think of a few writers, not to mention directors, and musicians who did the equivalent of this by peaking early and it is hard to remember that their early work is still great, regardless of what came after.

    On the other hand, if we found twelve more plays by Sophokles, I’d still have to read them.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

      Oh, of course I’d love to have more plays by Sophokles, and of course I’d read them. (Or at least stick them somewhere on my never-ending reading list. Though since I’d have to buy some newfangled hardcover copy rather than picking them up in a used book store/sale, I’d probably actually do it, just to get my money’s worth quickly.)

      But the point my professor was making — with which I agree nevertheless — is that Sophokles is “Sophokles” in part because of how few plays we have. So I’d feel a little nervous. I’ve got a lot emotionally at stake in the greatness of Sophokles, you see, and part of me would rather just play it safe.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Excellent point.

      It’s like saying “Imagine Jimi Hendrix dying in 1977 after releasing 4 more albums that weren’t as good”.

      Of *COURSE* I’d want to listen to them!

      Even if we’d be talking about those albums the way we talk about Zep’s “Presence” or The Who’s “It’s Hard”, we’d still have the equivalent of Nobody’s Fault But Mine and Eminence Front.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck says:

        Or, for an inverse (and more contemporary) example, imagine if “Firefly” had gone on for eight seasons. Would we still remember it as the Best Thing That Ever Happened Ever? Or would we be saying “well it started strong, but ended well past its prime, just like Buffy and Angel”?Report

  4. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Plato writes of him in the Phaedrus:

    Now I, my friend, must purify myself; and for those who have sinned in matters of mythology there is an ancient purification, unknown to Homer, but known to Stesichorus. For when he was stricken with blindness for speaking ill of Helen, he was not, like Homer, ignorant of the reason, but since he was educated, he knew it and straightway he writes the poem:“That saying is not true; thou didst not go within the well-oared ships, nor didst thou come to the walls of Troy” Stesichorus Frag. 32 BergkReport

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      The story about him being blinded was the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Stesichorus. Mr. Wall would know this better than me, but I think Stesichorus wrote that Tyndarus forgot to honor Aphrodite when he made offerings to the other gods and so she decided that all of his daughters would leave their spouses (in a fragment that always struck me as sort of funny). And then he wrote the other version in which Helen wound up in Egypt instead of Troy. The story was that he did so in order to regain his sight. Apparently, this was the equivalent of the libel laws back then.Report

      • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

        The fragment about Tyndareus is on the uncertain side — I forget exactly whether it’s the attribution to Stesichorus that’s uncertain, or that Tyndareus is the person being discussed, but I actually think it’s the latter. (I don’t have anything on hand with that particular fragment in it so I can’t check.) Whatever the case, yep, that’s the standard reading of Stesichorus on Tyndareus.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          Actually, do you have any fragments on hand that you could paste into the comments section? I remember reading Stesichorus, but can’t find anything online and don’t have any books with passages in them. This is a great observation for instance:
          “Stesichorus wrote from the equivalent of the Wild West, and his works show it.”
          That’s totally how I remember his passages reading.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

      There’s a guy named Sider — at NYU, I believe — who has a paper arguing that the blindness was, in fact, a performative conceit — that Stesichorus-as-narrator would have been on stage with his chorus — and that the recitation of those lines would have been the dramatic high point in a whole long choral poem about Helen, with the second-half contradicting the first. It’s kind of another of those sounds-cool-but-show-me-the-proof-first theories that I have a soft spot for.Report