David Fearn’s book is the first English-language monograph on Bacchylides in more than twenty years. Fearn sternly refuses to ask whether Bacchylides is any good. This is understandable, but his disengagement is also a pity. He could have pointed out en passant the odd effective turn of phrase or sexy detail, but his focus is narrower: he deals with a handful of poems and tackles, in sequence, the three issues that make up his title – politics, performance, poetic tradition. The overall point is New Historical: to establish the context within which Bacchylides was working and to judge his merits against the demands of his job. The idea is good, but its execution is difficult: we often know too little about Bacchylides’ circumstances to work out exactly how he responded to them. Fearn could have made a virtue of drawing attention to the inevitability of these difficulties, but instead he often disguises it through abundant use of annotation, convoluted prose and learned padding. The book is interesting nonetheless, for the questions it asks as well as the possible answers it offers.
Reviewed by the LRB
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