Callimachus and the Modern Lyric


As W. R. Johnson argues in The Idea of Lyric, Callimachus (d. 240 BC), the great librarian of Alexandria who helped sort the annals of ancient poetry into a genre system, as a poet created a self-consciously ‘modern’ lyric. In the text above Johnson shows how the kingfisher, anciently a symbol of freedom, became a symbol of human inwardness.

The lyric structure we call metaxical— focusing on the life of mortals ‘between’ the absolute origin and death—- is amply foreseen here. The inwardness is not solipsistic. Metaxological doubles structure the narrative. (Notice how the Poet splits his consciousness between the corpse, Leontichos, and the gull.)

The value of compassion accompanies the ‘you’ of lyric address. The threat of nihilism that is inherent in the metaxological point of view is resisted both by the intention of the dialectic / narrative of the middle of the poem and by the concision and lucidity of the poem itself. The poem itself becomes an image of life in the between. It does not return to itself as pure ‘form’ but opens on the image of the sea.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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