Pindar: Odes

March 13, 2023

The Odes
Translated from the Greek by C.M. Bowra
(Penguin Classics, 1969) [c.500-450 BC]
256 p.

Pindar was a versatile poet, but only his Odes have come down to us substantially intact. They are celebratory poems, originally performed with music, to mark, in most cases, an athletic victory at one of the pan-Hellenic games held at various places in the Greek world. Thus we get an ode praising the boy who won the foot-race in Nemea, or the man who won the wrestling tournament in Delphi. Presumably they were commissioned by the authorities, or by the families of the victors, although I do not know for sure.

They vary in length, but have a fairly standard structure. There is an opening flourish, praising the victor and his homeland, followed by a myth or tale somehow related to the winner, and then a closing flourish.

If I am not mistaken, Pindar is a poet who is more respected than loved. His Greek is, I am told, complex and artful. Quintilian wrote, “Of the nine lyric poets, Pindar is by far the greatest, in virtue of his inspired magnificence, the beauty of his thoughts and figures, the rich exuberance of his language and matter, and his rolling flood of eloquence, characteristics which, as Horace rightly held, make him inimitable.”  It may be so. If his style is inimitable, it is probably even more difficult to successfully mimic in another language.

Since most of the poems are brief (say, 50-100 lines) and tonally similar, they are best read one or two at a time, at intervals. A little, I found, went a long way. In fact, I found these Odes fiercely difficult to follow, in part because they were so liberally salted with proper names of places, people, gods, and mythological figures, and maybe also partly on account of Pindar’s native style. Like a superconductor repelling magnetic fields, I found the poems repelled my powers of concentration. Much of the time I was lost, and drifting toward being loster. It would be interesting to hear an attempt to reproduce a musical performance of one of these Odes, but, apart from that, I’m unlikely to return to these poems again.

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