Greek lyric poetry

December 5, 2022

Greek Lyrics
Translated from the Greek by Richmond Lattimore
(Univ. Chicago, 1960) [c.650-450 BC]
xiii + 82 p.

If ever you are happy, one way to bring yourself down is to think about the literature that has been lost to the vicissitudes of history. There are particularly agonizing cases: Aristotle’s dialogues, most of the Greek tragedies, swaths of Livy and Tacitus. But spare a tear as well for early Greek poetry, much of which has come down to us in shreds.

In this little volume, Richmond Lattimore gathers together an assortment of surviving verses from several dozen Greek poets who were writing between the seventh and fifth centuries BC. I believe we don’t have much lyric poetry from earlier times, but I don’t know why he drew the later chronological boundary where he did. He has called these poems “lyrics,” perhaps simply to distinguish them from epic. In any case, the designation does not seem a strict one; there is a huge variety here: invective, epitaph, epigram, love poem, political poem, historical poem, inscription, song, myth, and more. It’s a very difficult sort of book to size up.

We’ll look at a few examples.

Maybe the earliest of the poets represented here is Archilochus of Paros (c.680-640). He was apparently a soldier with an avocation as a poet. Based on his showing here, his poetry is among the better preserved, and we may even have some complete poems, such as this one offering counsel to a soldier:

Heart, my heart, so battered with misfortune far beyond your strength,
up, and face the men who hate us. Bare your chest to the assault
of the enemy, and fight them off. Stand fast among the beamlike spears.
Give no ground; and if you beat them, do not brag in open show,
nor, if they beat you, run home and lie down on your bed and cry.
Keep some measure in the joy you take in luck, and the degree
you give way in sorrow. All our life is up-and-down like this.

At the other chronological end is Praxilla of Sicyon (mid 5th c.), for whom Lattimore gives us a fragment from a poem about the death of Adonis, who, in his last throes, uttered these lines:

“Loveliest of what I leave behind is the sunlight,
and loveliest after that the shining stars, and the moon’s face,
but also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears, and apples.”

It’s rather beautiful, but Lattimore remarks that this mention of cucumbers, in this context, gave rise to a Greek saying whereby one who says the wrong thing at the wrong time might be judged “sillier than Praxilla’s Adonis.”

We have a number of anonymous poems, as you would expect. Most of the inscriptions are so, though the famous epitaph for the Spartans fallen at Thermopylae —

Traveler, take this word to the men of Lakedaimon :
We who lie buried here did what they told us to do.

— is a notable exception, being attributed to Simonides of Ceon. An especially intriguing sub-genre is the anonymous drinking song, like this one:

Underneath every stone there lies hidden a scorpion, dear friend.
Take care, or he will sting you. All concealment is treachery.

It probably sounds better with music.

The most famous of the poets represented here are Solon, the great Athenian reformer and lawgiver, from whom a number of poems survive, including argumentative verse in which he defends his policies; Sappho, about whom we’ll have more to say on a later occasion; and Pindar, whom we’ll also spend more time with later. To my considerable surprise, a full quarter of the book is devoted to a single poet, Bacchylides of Ceos, a contemporary of Pindar for whom a number of relatively long poems have survived. I confess these were among my least favourite of the batch, so I’ll say no more about them.

Lattimore is a renowned translator of the Greeks, prized for his dedication to retaining as much as possible the shape of the Greek verse in his English renderings. Personally, though, in my previous experience with him, I have found that I don’t especially like the result much of the time. It often feels awkward to me, and too much like prose. These poems didn’t change my mind, but they were serviceable and good enough to get the point across.

And what is the point? Why sit down with a mess of tattered pages like this? The question presses more firmly in an anthology, when we get, in most cases, barely more than a taste of individual poets, not really enough for their personalities to come through.

Often a motive for reading old books is to penetrate a way of thinking and seeing the world that differs from our own customary habits. Maybe in so doing we can see ourselves more clearly, and perhaps be startled at what we see. There’s a bit of that here, but it’s not ideal because the points of view are too numerous. Maybe the motive is the opposite: not to see our differences, but to see what we share. If we have something in common with these men and women, given all that separates us, perhaps there we are getting close to what is fundamental to human life. It is a good experiment to take one of these poems, even a couple of lines, and ask ourselves what  we recognize in them. And it is not surprising, I expect, that we find love, and hatred, and admiration of the beautiful, and fear of death, and sadness, and curiosity, and many, many more things that constitute the texture of our lives, then as now. Welcome home!

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Pindar: “War is sweet to those who have not tried it.”

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