It is natural, perhaps, for modern lovers of poetry to romanticize ancient Greek lyric. For the Greeks, as for all early and oral cultures, poetry was the privileged form of discourse. All important data were encoded in poetry: love, religion, even knowledge, including history, science, and practical advice. Poetry was a major form of popular entertainment. The Greeks performed poetry at dinner parties, athletic contests, and public events. The entire population thrilled to tragedies, and the poet retained a portion of his archaic role as shaman. In contrast, in our present age, people consume poetry primarily through the media of popular music, advertising, bumper stickers, and graffiti. Mainstream culture depicts poetry as a “special interest,” slightly odd if not ridiculous or, at times, pedantic. A close reading of ancient Greek lyric allows the modern reader to recover, not merely the lovely, profound contours of the authors’ words, but also a grander view of poetry itself, a glimpse of its sublime potential.
Poetry is universal. Though some cultures have no metals, some no pottery, and some lack the ability to control fire, all make use of refined verbal technologies. Among peoples for whom the “aesthetic” is not a category, the prestige of poetry can only arise from its usefulness. Poetry, with its figures of speech and multiple meanings, is the most densely meaningful form of signification.
1. The Earliest Art
Judging by artifacts and what we know of present-day hunter-gatherers, palaeolithic humans constituted their identity primarily through roles, collectivities, and relationships. Thus an individual belonged to a certain tribe, to a clan within that group; he or she had a clear gender role, and perhaps possessed as well honorific status due to fighting or hunting ability, wisdom, descent, or seniority. In addition, every person was connected to others through a network of family relationships. Of course, people had individual characteristics, personalities, tastes, and views, just as they do today, but these were often invisible and always secondary in the subjective constitution of identity.
Analogously in the arts of the Stone Age, convention ruled. Poets, potters, painters, and musicians tended to work in established forms whose principles were known, whose codes were familiar, and whose themes were accepted by the entire community. The artists were, nonetheless, individuals: some talented, some clumsy, some inventive, some slavish in following their models. Occasionally an artist twisted convention or overturned it or ignored it. These innovations might be imitated in their turn; more likely, they might be abandoned.
There were surely individual love poems and laments, expressing authentic passion. Those who offended community standards would likely have been pilloried in satire until they changed their ways. Friends might well commemorate significant occasions with verse. These occasional productions were soon forgotten, though fragments of striking and clever language may have found their way into other work.
The business of “professional” artists, however, was not personal utterance, but collective expression. For these early societies the artist acted as the undifferentiated intelligentsia: scientist, magician, fortune-teller, physician and metaphysician. Acting on behalf of the whole, he would advise in difficult situations, predict the future, assure good harvest, success in combat, or recovery from illness. It was the poet/shaman who provided coherence and significance to life by pronouncing the critical rituals, retelling the myths, lecturing on ethics and ultimate reality. He also made life more tolerable by providing entertainment.
With the Neolithic move from the male-dominated hunt to the female territory of the cultivated plot arose goddess-centered fertility cults. The prey animals which had appeared in such marvelous plentitude on the cave walls at Trois Freres and Lascaux are replaced by cult figurines of women with ample breasts and buttocks. Empires and their urban capitals eventually arose in part to manage the water rights to the Tigris, Euphrates, and the Nile with minimal violence and to protect trade.
The refinement of copper and then bronze and iron had little effect on farming. (Wooden plows, indeed, persisted in wide use into the twentieth century.) But metal did make more formidable arms, and the new technology of ore and smelter encouraged trade over large areas, requiring correspondingly greater political control at the same time that it fostered war and the coalescence of large empires. The conquering heroic patriarchal societies projected potent sky-gods that insist upon hegemony in heaven as well as earth. Jehovah is jealous of his rival gods, anxious to demonstrate his superior power (as in the magic competition between Moses, Aaron, and the Egyptians ), and Zeus dominates one locality after another by absorbing or demoting the local god and having sex with the goddess.
By the sixth or seventh century before Christ, though, the authority of these sky-gods had been undermined by the persistent worship of chthonic deities (underground, indeed, and never eliminated), by the importation of dying and reborn gods such as Dionysos, Attis, Osiris, Inanna, and Persephone, and by the mystery cults that promised personal salvation (an attractive offer compared to a etiolated afterlife in Hades). Furthermore, people were aware of multiple notions of ultimate reality, and some of these metaphysicians were aware of others. No longer would a single tradition determine the boundaries of thought. The fences were breached; the souls were roaming.
Writing had existed for three thousand years, but its use was spreading from the palaces to landowners and merchants. Commerce among nations was growing, though rapacious raids continued (and continue). Greece became a trading country, and thus a cosmopolitan one. Political ferment and class struggle resulted in the rise of tyrants to replace hereditary monarchs and oligarchs. People began to view history not wholly as divinely mandated fate, or in the light of the ancient heroes, but also as the willful creation of remarkable all-too-human humans.
Concomitant with the change in consciousness arose the spread of writing. Writing requires of its adepts a narrow visual focus that departs from the generalized alertness of preliterate humankind. In addition, Plato reminds us that writing brought the death of memory. Though writing made possible the accumulation of a vast storehouse of experience, the collective memory of the great libraries (now further expanded with digital storage), it decimated individual memory. Part of consciousness can be externally stored and need not animate the individual who can look to authorities instead of knowing everything at once, including the mysteries.
The arrival of writing necessarily transformed literature. The oral text has flexible form. Depending on the audience it may be edited for content or style. Even such a scripted spectacle as the circus varies in every performance. Its most fixed form is that constructed by the viewer. Each person’s experience, once registered, changes little, and every spectator’s response is shaped by the reactions of the group, the social conditions of reception (just as in a movie theater the viewer is more likely to laugh or gasp or drop a tear in concert with others). For a written text, the contradiction is reversed: the text never changes, but it invites a fresh construction from every reader. New meanings may always be adduced from the code, just as Augustine thought new readings of scripture may be as authentic as old. While a new reading may attempt to supplant an old one, more often it simply joins already existing readings. The poetic text glories in polysemy, whereas other forms of discourse seek simple clarity.
Manguel points out that the classic tag “scripta manet, verba volat” is today taken to indicate the advantage of writing which “lives on” while spoken words vanish, whereas it originally suggested the opposite valuation: that spoken words have wings and can fly, in other words, they are inspired, in contrast to the dead and inert written words.
Written culture was slow to come. Most readers mumbled the words if they did not read out loud. More than a thousand years after writing had become widespread and available not to an elite caste but to the well-to-do in general, Augustine is amazed to see Ambrose reading silently, and most poetry was performed aloud for another millennium after that.
Homer, at the dawn of generalized literacy, presents us with a written text of a composition processed through centuries of oral performance. The question of Homer is vast, and substantial recent discoveries in the field of oral literature have provided more fruitful questions (not all the answers). Whether the identification is literally true or not, the reader must be startled when the author of the Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo suddenly includes this boastful pitch, very nearly an advertisement: “Remember me in after time whenever any one of men on earth, a stranger who has seen and suffered much, comes here and asks of you: `Whom think ye, girls, is the sweetest singer that comes here, and in whom do you most delight?' Then answer, each and all, with one voice: `He is a blind man, and dwells in rocky Chios: his lays are evermore supreme.'” Around the seventh century B.C.E. we find the earliest demonstrably self-conscious artists, creators who feel they deserve a brand name.
The change in material conditions is again associated with a change in verbal technology. Art, and, in particular, lyric poetry, becomes a snapshot of consciousness, no longer what all the group sees, but what the maker says the persona sees. Though poetry still purveys dogma and received truths, it also does the opposite: it opens up critical possibilities, it points toward ambiguities, contradictions, ambivalence to a degree unknown to earlier times. Preserving a moment of consciousness, lyric verse asserts the irrational that governs the greater part of our thought even in this twenty-first century. Poetry foregrounds sense impressions, the raw data of all our conclusions. Poetry arises from an impulse toward pleasure, and Freud was far from the first to recognize the fundamental role of what he called the pleasure principle. For all these reasons, Aristotle could make his celebrated claim that poetry is truer than history. Through the play and manipulation of symbols which distinguishes our species from the others, each so excellent in its way, people have found something like the Buddhist mindful here-and-now and, using these tools of words, have vaulted from the most immediate to the sublime. A poem, a “program” of words, has the power, as Longinus says, to “entrance” its consumer, to inspire “exaltation” and “joy.”
The first named poetic personality in European literature is Archilochos, a mercenary and colonizer who died in battle during the seventh century B.C.E. Perhaps he assumed the vision of an outsider due to his birth from a slave mother (according to the traditional biography). At any rate, he is known as the first poets to use iambics, a meter strongly associated with satire and invective.
Homeric culture is heroic. The Iliad centers about Achilles’ acceptance of his impending doom. When Andromache makes her humane plea to Hektor, he says he would feel shame before both men and women, were he to fail to fight with valor. He hopes rather, he says, to gain glory for himself and his family, fame that is the warrior’s immortality. The Spartan mothers are said to have told their sons to return from battle, either with their shields or upon them (i.e. having fought nobly or else dead). Even today we are expected to glorify the war-dead, and the citizen who shows little enthusiasm for the sentiment is suspect.
In his most familiar poem, Archilochos directly contradicts the conventional pro patria et deo piety:
A Saian exults. He’s got the shield I left behind
in a bush, blameless, but against my will.
I got away myself. What’s the shield to me?
Forget it. I’ll get another no worse.
Over the centuries, the reader feels the cool breeze of a broken taboo, a boundary crossed, the simple declaration of a fact known to all combat veterans but rarely admitted: that honor and valor coexist on the battlefield with panic and pissing in one’s pants and simple self-preservation. The difference is that the poet speaks with an individual voice, confident that his own vision, his concrete specifics, bear truth and demand attention. No longer a craftsman with rigidly prescribed skills writing for a committee of the whole, he is able to warble his own tune and follow it where it leads.
The poem is not perceived more or less instantaneously like a painting or a building. Rather it unfolds over time, like music or a story. Archilochos’ poem is a kind of psychological cinematic montage. After the initial scene is sketched, it becomes a play of subjectivities. From imagining the Saian delighted at his booty, the mood shifts to the natural reaction of repugnance the Greek audience would have felt upon hearing of the lost shield. The deepening miasma is then suddenly contradicted by the single word: “blameless.” With some of the force of magic, the very pronunciation of the word makes it true. The admission, coming out of a certain military closeting, as it were, overwhelms the idée reçue. The warrior’s ego inheres in his will, and the poet admits loss, but still looks to the future, buoyed by his own individual conviction of merit, so secure he volunteers the tale of the lost shield as a paradoxical affirmation of his confidence and worth.
Whereas Demodokos in the Odyssey is “instructor of the people,” repeating the vitally important principles that create the community, those things about which all agree, Archilochos is their critic. Meleagar called him “thorny.” After he died, the story spread that wasps hovered over his grave.
Originally, people regarded nature with awe. Animist beliefs found divinity in that other which they could not wholly control. When nature influences narrative in Homer, it is generally as a reflection of divine wills. Hesiod, on the other hand, a yeoman farmer rather than a landed gentleman, calls his community Ascra “a woebegone village, bad in winter, unbearable in summer, good at no time.” His entire effort was devoted to mastering nature, and he found the struggle taxing. For the later market agriculturalist animals and plants have economic reality. Their fertility, which had been illuminated with numinous potency, has become a matter of account book bottom lines. The ecstatic shamanism of the Upper Palaeolithic has deteriorated to a collection of prudential superstitions: for instance, it is taboo, Hesiod advises, to stand upright and face the sun while urinating; one should open new wine-jars on the 27th of the month.
Alcman’s time doubtless considered itself less superstitious yet, but the ritual substratum persisted. Alcman wrote choral lyrics, meant to be performed as (song and dance) by young girls under a male choirmaster. He refers to the male chorus leader as a “stallion.” In another piece, he laments the weakness of his [aged] limbs before his “girls of honey-sweet voices,” wishing he were a halcyon soaring with them over the sea. This is at once a realistic vignette suggesting freedom and energy, a wish for renewed sexuality, and a reference to the myth that claimed that the female halcyon would carry the male, when aged, on her back. In a way the choruses may resemble the entertainment world of today which elevates ever-young maidens to rejuvenate us all in imagination.
He often praised specific members of his troupe (the leaders of his half-choirs of virgins Agido and Hagesikhora, for instance) by name. The glorious dance, the beautiful bodies, the concentration of élan vital are themselves redemptive. In Oedipus Tyrannos the chorus dances and sings: “when [shameful deeds] are held in esteem, why dance together?” The inverse proposition was equally reasonable to the Greeks: when people did dance, their ordered movements indicate (and help to create) an ordered cosmos, a harmonious world. Thus the viewers of the tragedy could find solace in the performance itself even as they contemplated dread events. The chorus dances, rather like an existential “man of action;” it “goes on” like Vladimir and Estragon in the face of death and dissolution. The lyric choir dances still, though for us the dance is encoded as black marks on a white page.
The lyricist moves to recover a portion of the old mysterium tremendum. The precise details of nature, in Homeric poetry summoned to elaborate grand similes, here stand alone. He simply describes the scene, expecting that the facts, edited from raw sense impression, will be significant. The speaker is, of course, a persona and the picture doubtless owes much to earlier models, so the poem may be as much about other poems, other visions, other sensibilities, as about the scene before him, but it asserts verisimilitude. The gods are notably absent. Nature is apprehended in itself or as a projection of the viewer in a way familiar to us from Chinese and Japanese poetry. The poem is not so distant from hymns calling on deities and asking favors. Here the poet seeks sympathetic psychic rest by singing to sleep the marvels of creation, geological formations and fauna, but the last word goes to the wonders of the wholly natural. The poet invokes a sort of peace which passeth understanding, but the last word is spent in wonder at those miraculous yet ordinary objects: the wings of birds, birds that mediate between this world and another.
Sleep is on the mountains,
the peaks and the clefts,
headlands and torrents,
all those that walk the woods,
nursed by the black earth,
and the race of bees,
and monsters from the sea’s purple depths!
Sleep on, you tribe of birds
with such long wings!
What could be more subjective and powerful than sexual love? The focus of most popular song today, it is also the most traditional topic of poets. Archilochos wrote a number of love lyrics (as well a number of thoroughly obscene verses ), and Alcman’s young choruses dance illuminated by an erotic nimbus, but for Sappho and her coterie, love is unapologetically central. Whatever else it may have been, Sappho’s was an association for the cultivation of sensibility reminiscent of Sei Sonagon and Lady Murasaki’s Heian Japan or Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Courts of Love in southern France. The old Victorian dodge of maintaining that she ran a school may have some truth, but it was hardly the sort of excuse they sought. We now admit the ancient Greek predeliction (very well documented in the case of men) for sex between adults and teens, but she seems to refer to adult women in references to some of her associates as which sounds like a term used among equals. In addition, she does not slight the power of heterosexual love: apart from her own marriage, she was known to have written an entire book of epithalamia.
In the Phaedrus Socrates surprises his interlocutors with the claim that “our greatest goods come to us through madness,” but he quickly limits this: “assuming the madness is a gift of the gods.” All the varieties he describes are associated with poetry: prophetic madness (governed by Apollo), telestic madness (as in Dionysian ritual), poetic madness (Muses), and erotic possession (Aphrodite and Eros). Here the subjectivity in which we live is embraced and glorified as divine.
And this is not simply the transport of love’s first blossom. Sappho’s work is filled with jealousy, petty backbiting, resentment of all sorts, but this is clearly part of love’s dialectic. confidence in one’s subjectivity, a vision for triangulation, capturing what Lawrence called the mystery of “the offering-up one yourself to the very great gods, the dark ones, and nothing else” by keeping precise and direct record of its visitation.
The man's all but a god
who sits with you and pays such heed
to your sweet talk
and lovely laugh --
listening excites me --
my heart's at odds, unsettled.
And when I look at you my mouth
can't form a word.
My tongue stopped, I'm filled
with thin flames -- vision fades,
and my ears hear the beating
of my blood.
Cold sweat on my side, I'm taken
with trembling and blanch like straw.
Little short of death,
I must last it out,
without you . . .
Longinus praised this catalogue of physical symptoms of love, saying its power arises from describing the “most extreme and intense” signs of passion. The poem was translated (after a fashion) by Catullus and his version was translated by Sir Philip Sydney during the love-sonnet craze of the 16th century. In her intensity and single-minded focus, Sappho points toward the Platonic “ascent of love” from the individual beloved to the divine, later elaborated by Plotinus and the Victorines. As Longinus notes, the goal of poetry is not to persuade, but to entrance, to transport with wonder. This is an altogether different experience than being taught, persuaded or informed. The shamanic trance, the “Pentecostal” possession during group ceremonies, is replaced by an aesthetic experience, more idiosyncratic, but equally ambitious.
With the spread of writing, the individual vision is preserved and privileged. The poet perceives the Olympians through the quotidian. The educated classes in particular lost some of the cosmic participation mystique which humans had cultivated through ritual and liturgy (i.e. through art) at least since they have been homo sapiens, and the new lyric, through the real, undeniable data of everyday life, revalued everything. Archilochus presents a dissent from social norms; Alcman a nonmythological but nonetheless still sanctified nature; and Sappho the incendiary irrationality of love.
The genre of lyric poetry is distinguished from other forms of discourse not merely by extraordinary compression, but also by its ability (shared only with the other arts) to accurately represent human consciousness, properly privileging subjectivity, the irrational, sense impressions, and pleasure-seeking. Poetry also allows the expression of new ideas, contradictions, ambiguities, and ambivalence. Art provides the means for investigating the mysteries of god, love, and death. The thematic spectrum runs from those works that most affirm a society’s accepted truths (and this sort dominates in the oral age as well as in mass and popular media), and works that question the present order (these have been preserved since the dawn of writing, but have been preferred only since the Romantic era).
A character in an ancient dialogue says of the reputation of a poet that he would live as long as “serving-lad bears round mixed wine for cups and deals bumpers about board, so long as maiden band does holy night-long service of the dance, so long as the scale-pan that is daughter of bronze sits upon the summit of the cottabus-pole ready for the throwing of the wine drops.” This in the face of inevitable suffering and death, in a cosmos finally unknowable, and thus subjectively unpredictable and absurd, a person chooses to drink, yes, and to take joy in the bodies of others (both the “serving-lad” and the “maiden[s]” offer up their youth), but also to socialize, to fling wine in an unlikely game with elaborate rules and to pass the time as well composing poetry.
In my youth, the primary image of Greek antiquity was the fountainhead. In the old ethnocentric view, philosophy, aesthetics, democracy, values of tolerance and liberality, all good things flowed to us from the Periclean age. Europeans have made a variety of uses of the classics: the veneration of the medievals for whom antiquity regularly signified authority, Renaissance celebration of Greece to legitimize a new humanism, the 18th century Enlightenment thinkers who founded a new “cult of the muses,” the growth of scientific investigation which flowered in the philological rigor of Wilamowitz and then gave way to the decadent prose of John Addington Symonds and the poised academic swoon of Alma-Tadema’s paintings.
Like all these predecessors, I would argue that my Greeks are the authentic Greeks. Like the lyric poets, indeed, like all of us, my own subjectivity provides my sole access to Truth.
The muses arose in association with cult practice. For Pausanias the original muses are song, memory, and action (, also “practice” or “occasion”). This formulation implies ritual performance. Alcman and Mimnermus regard them as children of Gaia and Ouranos, and thus primeval. Much of the vocabulary of poetry points in the same direction: metrical “feet” began with dance steps, the “strophe” signified a physical turn, etc.
To account for the later tradition that names Zeus and Mnemosyne as parents of the muses, Pausanias suggests there may have been two generations of muses. Of these the first may imply collective, altogether oral events, and the second, performances that were written, though (as the role of memory indicates) virtually always orally performed.
The muses are actually a late systemization. Erato was especially associated with love poems and hymns. Among canonical nine there are muses for astronomy, history and for geometry. In the early era the muses’ realm was spacious, extending over the range of human culture (including scientific learning) through poetry, music, and dance. Through the metrical patterning of poetry, knowledge was given a gleam of the divine and preserved.
Erato is the muse associated with lyric poetry, with the lyre, with love poetry and hymns. In the tradition of late classicism Euterpe also governs lyric poetry, but she is generally depicted with a flute (the ).
The muses sometimes reflect a Jungian anima, a subconscious wisdom that inspires the poet with vision. Graves, in his twentieth-century concept of the muse-poet, who through his art worships the Goddess, consciously recalls the ancient and the medieval in his attempt to revive this blend of the vatic and the erotic.
Caveat lector: When they appeared to Hesiod as he watched his flocks, the muses said, “We know how to say many false things as though they were true, but we also know, when we choose to, to tell the truth.”
Posted by William Seaton at 8:16 AM