The Greek Lyrics Poets edited by M. L. West

This collection covers the Greek lyrics poets from the seventh century to the fifth century with the exception of Pindar and Bachyliddes. Too often readers stop with Homer and Hesiod at the expense of missing the powerful love poetry of Sappho, the erotic and vindictive iambis of Archilocus, the morbid and fatalistic poetry of Semonides, the victory odes and mini-epics of Stesichorus, and the traditional mythical themes of Ibycus, many of whom were considered the nine most important lyrics poets worth studying according to Hellenistic Alexandrian standards. Many of the works found in this collection exist in only the tinniest of fragments, no more than a line or two.

The often personal nature of the poetry reveals the evolution of Greek literature; we have come a long way from Homer’s impersonal epics about the deeds and exploits of larger than life heroes. The individual comes to life in these poems for the first time and focuses quotidian existence into sharp relief. Take this fragment from Archilocus:

Some Saian sports my splendid shield:
I had to leave it in a wood,
but saved my skin. Well, I don’t care–
I’ll get another just as good.

Could you picture any of Homer’s heroes leaving behind his prized shield for the enemy to snatch? One need only consider Sophocles’ Ajax who temporarily loses his sanity because he lost to Odysseus in a competition for Achilles’ armor to recognize the different attitudes that rules the world of heroes versus the Greece of Archilocus.

This is not to say that the Homeric strain has disappeared or that these poets fail to glorify courage and heroism. Similar to the theme of Homer’s epics, many of the poets struggle with the ideals of courage and battle prowess against the cruelties and horrors of war. War brings you glory and tests your manhood, but it also kills your friends, threatens your polis, and brings about an early death. Like most Greek literature this creates a sense of fatalism as the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus captures in these powerful lines:

Fear not the throng of men, turn not to flight,
but straight toward the front line bear you
shields,
despising life and welcoming the dark
contingencies of death like shafts of sun.

The various poets constantly remind us that death can occur at any moment; life, fortune, prosperity fluctuate on the whims of the gods. The Greeks of this period live in a tumultuous time that saw the rise of tyrants in many of the city-states and the violent overthrow of the aristocracy. This situation characterizes the poetry of Theognis, a bitter aristocrat disenfranchised by the lower-class:

Cyrnus, the town’s a town still, but it has new
folk
who knew no justice previously, no laws.
They used to wear old goatskins on their flanks,
and lived
outside the town like deer. And now they are
the gentry, Polypaides, while yesterday’s
gentry are dregs. Who can support the sight —
the men of worth reviled, the lower class esteemed?

The rest of Theognis’ poetry addressed to his friend, Cyrnus, in the form of advice, bears a lot of similarity to Hesiod’s work. It deals especially with typical Greek themes of friendship as well as his continual rant against those who overthrew him from power. He claims that wealth is not the measure of the man, but rather noble birth. He shows the same anxiety over the newly rich that subsequent societies will continue to feel; art, too, will continue to express distrust, fear, or at least note the problem of the newly rich being accepted by the established elite (think of such works as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for example).

Another surprising feature of the poetry is the raunchy Iambi. The graphicness of the poems might shock unsuspecting readers who wrongfully assume the Ancient world to be more prude and reserved than our own society. Archilochus is one lyricist who writes some of this graphic poetry, especially about Neoboule, a woman he was supposed to marry, but whose father broke off the engagement for another man. This is a poetry of ridicule as much as it is about erotic titillation; its purpose is to embarrass and humiliate the person featured in its lines. Another example of this genre comes from Hipponax, a low-class poet who admits to being a thief and having committed burglary on occasion, who writes about his sexual exploits with the mistress of Bupalus, a sculptor who once made the mistake of mocking him in public.

Other notable poets includes Solon the Athenian reformer of the law, Sappho the female bi-sexual poet, Anacreon the “archetypal merry old soul” whose work proved influential on European literature from the 16th century onwards, Simonides a contemporary of Pindar, and various other tantalizing fragments.

Is this great poetry? Well, maybe. The lines I quoted above have some nice poetic qualities, capture issues related to the human experience, and reveal a lot about the honor-oriented culture that characterized Ancient Greece, but I also selected and was drawn to lines that were relatively intact. The fragmentary nature of the extant poetry is the greatest detraction of this collection, with many pieces being borderline unreadable. Imagine if I took the famous Emily Dickinson poem, “Hope” is the Thing with Feathers and only the following words and lines remained:

‘Hope’  . . . with feathers—
sings . . . the words—

And sweetest . . . is heard—
And sore must be the storm—

I’ve heard . . .
And on . . .

. . . a crumb . . .

In the example, I deleted whole lines, words from the middle of individual lines, and even kept one full line in tact to show how much is lost even when an entire line of a poem is retained perfectly, but the rest is fragmentary. It is frustrating to read a poem with missing words, missing lines, and in the case of longer poems sometimes missing their entire middle.  Of course, this is no fault of the translator and editor, but rather important writings get lost in time.

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