Iambus and Elegy: New Approaches (A Q&A with Laura Swift)

iambus_coverThis week we chatted with OU Classicist Laura Swift about her newest publication – a volume co-edited with Chris Carey (UCL) entitled Iambus and Elegy: New Approaches (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Please can you define iambus and elegy for us?

LS: Iambus and elegy are two important types of early Greek poetry, and along with melic poetry, they’re often grouped under the category of ‘early Greek lyric’. They flourished in the seventh and sixth centuries BC (though they were almost certainly performed long before that), and in chronological terms our surviving examples come in the period between Homer and Athenian tragedy that often gets skipped over in undergraduate courses. The famous authors include Archilochus and Solon (who wrote both iambus and elegy), Tyrtaeus, Theognis and Simonides (who wrote elegy), and Semonides and Hipponax (who wrote iambus). Neither form is particularly easy to define, which was one reason that we wanted to compile an edited volume on them. Normally ancient scholars divided up poetic forms according to metre, but iambus and elegy both use metres that cross genres. Elegy is more straightforward in a way, as it can be defined as poetry that uses the elegiac couplet, but it’s very hard to pin down in terms of any core content or style, since we have narrative or mythological elegy, drinking songs, love poetry, and political philosophy. The one thing it doesn’t seem to contain is anything ‘elegiac’ (in the sense of the English word ‘elegy’, meaning a lament), and that’s often muddied the waters in trying to define it. Iambus is rather a hotch-potch of different metres, so people have often tried to define it in terms of content instead, and it’s usually thought of as abuse poetry. It’s true that there’s plenty of abuse, vitriol, and dirty language in iambus, but it’s not only blame-poetry: it can also be humorous, or even moralising and philosophical. So both are very wide-ranging and diverse forms, and are hard to pin down.

How have these subjects traditionally been studied?

A lot of scholarship has focused on definitional questions, and so one aim of the book was to move beyond this and study the poetry itself for what it is. Iambus and elegy have also been considered the poor cousin of melic poetry, and so they’ve had less attention than (say) the poetry of Pindar or Sappho. But they’re also a dynamic area, not least because new poems continue to turn up regularly. Over the course of the twentieth century, the amount of iambus and elegy that is available to scholars increased dramatically, and that has carried on in recent years. For example, a major new elegy by Archilochus was published in 2005, and some more fragmentary lines of his iambics were found in 2012. Because we’re dealing with quite a small corpus, new finds can really change what we think about a poet or a genre, and that makes it an exciting field to study.

How did you get the idea for the book?

The book was based on a conference that my co-editor Chris Carey and I organised in 2012, as part of a Leverhulme Fellowship that I had at that time. I had originally thought of having a conference just on Archilochus, the author I was working on, but then decided to broaden it out to iambus and elegy (the two forms Archilochus composed in), because I thought that would allow more variety and help us make connections between different poets. Lyric poetry is a vibrant sub-field in Classical Studies, with a very lively community, but most of the conferences in lyric are dominated by papers on the melic poets. Chris pointed out that there hadn’t ever been a conference focusing exclusively on iambus and elegy, and it was a great opportunity to put them centre-stage. We were really happy with how the conference went, and OUP was interested in publishing a volume inspired by it, and so we worked alongside some of the scholars who gave papers at the conference to put a collection together.

How long did it take to put the book together?

The conference took place in July 2012, and we started talking to contributors about a volume and putting together a draft proposal for OUP that autumn. The whole process of getting together the contributions, getting feedback to the contributors on their chapters, and then working with them to get revised versions took just over two years, and we submitted the completed manuscript to the Press in December 2014. After that, the copy-editing and typesetting process took about another year, and so the book appeared in print this February.

What was the hardest part of the process, for you as an editor?

There were two aspects that I found challenging. The first was keeping on top of all the contributions at the stage where we were dealing with revisions: for example, keeping track of which stage each paper was at, when we had last been in touch with each contributor, and whether there were outstanding queries we needed to resolve or we were waiting for them to respond to something we had raised. In any edited volume, some contributors are in a position to turn around their piece very quickly and others need more time to fit it in with their other commitments, and so there’s a certain amount of diplomacy needed in encouraging those who still needed to get papers in, while making sure that the people who had already done so didn’t feel we’d forgotten all about them or that the project had lost momentum. 

The second thing was that I hadn’t realised how much work would be required from the editors after the final submission of the manuscript, during the copy-editing and typesetting process. Although I’ve been through that process with monographs, it’s much easier when you’re dealing with something that’s just your own work. Dealing with copy-editing queries on someone else’s article and checking consistency across chapters is much more challenging. Fortunately, Chris had done all of that before, and so it was fantastic to have an experienced co-editor.

Can you tell us about your own chapter on Archilochus’ erotic imagery?

My chapter is about how Archilochus uses imagery associated with the natural world in his erotic poems, particularly images of plants and fertility. This is a very common strand of imagery in Greek poetry, where a woman’s body is compared to the landscape (so a young girl is like a beautiful wild meadow, and a married woman is like fertile ploughland). But I argue that Archilochus plays with this imagery and turns it around. For example, rather than praising a young woman by comparing her to a beautiful landscape, he abuses a woman for being ‘past it’ by comparing her to a dried up wintry landscape, or to a fruit that’s starting to get flaccid and over-ripe. So Archilochus is reworking imagery from other poetic genres in a provocative and playful way, which showcases his creativity as a poet.

Iambus and Elegy: New Approaches is published by Oxford University Press.

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