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Children of Orpheus
Children of Orpheus

June 10, 1998

The literature of the ancient Greeks, like their architecture, has come down to us as a congeries of glorious ruins. There is no telling how much of it is missing, nor can we take comfort in the thought that what has survived is all the best stuff. Scattered fragments, tattered papyri, doubtful attributions, glaring lacunae -- these are our "classics," and behind that stately imprimatur lurks the chastening realization that the reading list we set so much store by derives not from the judgment of ages but from a sifting of shards.

It isn't the fault of the Greeks, this melancholy state of affairs. Some scholars posit that the Greeks devised their alphabet specifically to preserve their rich heritage of oral poetry, and just in time to hand down the epic hexameters of Homer so that he could be enshrined as the father of us all. The Fates have been far less kind, however, to the early Greek lyric poetry that also flowered in and around the Homeric period. Of this extraordinary vernacular tradition of impassioned song, convivial entertainment, and intimate utterance, we have only the barest remnants, literal scraps that add up to no more than a couple thousand lines. Complete poems are scarce, and a good many of the extracts are isolated quotations cited by later scribes to gloss fine points of grammar or prosody. Practically all of them are copies of copies, a patchwork portfolio that hardly deserves to be called a paper trail.

How much of the original lyric essence can be salvaged from these stray bits and pieces? Quite a bit more, as it turns out, than might be supposed. In sharp contrast with the canonic works of epic verse and tragic drama that loom on the syllabi of undergraduate survey courses like so many imposing rows of marble columns, Greek poems in the lyric mode did not aspire to the condition of monumental grandeur or mythic sweep. Their aim was to stick close to the pulse of primal emotion and subjective experience, and, as the selection of brightly rendered versions by Brooks Haxton in The Atlantic Monthly's June issue ("From the Greek") ably demonstrates, they are still capable of cutting to the quick. Spare, poignant, and bracing, the finest of them turned with exquisite simplicity and exemplary finesse, lyrics and epigrams in this vein put us in touch with the Greek imagination as it was expressed on a human scale, lines that do not breathe the rarefied air of heroic ideals or elevated abstractions but are instead charged with the warm breath of singular voices. The songs of Orpheus, you may remember from the myth, were so divine that he could enchant the wild beasts and make the trees and stones follow after him at will. These surviving snippets of his collateral descendants may not be quite that mesmerizing (when I recited them aloud at home my black tabby merely twitched an ear, and the hanging ivy hardly turned a leaf), but they are surely the next best thing.

"Lyric poetry" in our current parlance is a lumpy generalization, loosely describing just about any shortish first-person poem that is neither overtly narrative nor expressly dramatic. For the Greeks, it originally meant something far more specialized: compositions sung to the accompaniment of the lyre. Lyric poetry, properly defined, was a distinct branch of what was classified as "melic" poetry (the term roughly translates as "melody" or "air"), strictly differentiated from poetic genres that were meant to be recited without instrumentation or performed with other instruments such as the flute and the oboe-like aulos. That the lyre was Orpheus's chosen instrument -- legend had it that the god Apollo taught him his chops -- reflects its supreme prominence in Greek minstrelsy. Melic poems were divided into two distinct forms: choral lyrics, which were sung by a chorus of up to fifty voices, and monodic lyrics, composed for solo voice.

It is the art of monody, which flourished in the Aeolian islands in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., that gives us our first lyric "personalities," poets who sang of their lives and loves and unrequited yearnings with a visceral intensity of feeling. Like Homeric epic, this was a mode of oral poetry, but that is where any similarity ends: the meters were entirely distinct, as were the social conventions that dictated the lyric poet's themes and occasions. It is perhaps no wild exaggeration to think of these compositions as the pop songs of their day, especially when one considers that they were typically performed at those uniquely Greek post-prandial drinking parties known as symposia. Here both seasoned professionals and game amateurs took turns offering spirited verses drawn from an eclectic repetoire of topics and motifs, the thrust of which might be hortatory, contemplative, amorous, or bibulous. The symposium was a clubby bastion of the aristocratic male citizenry, but as Ewen Bowie writes in The Oxford History of the Classical World, "melic poetry was at home everywhere," and there is evidence to suggest that rounds of lyric poetry became a standard form of entertainment at after-dinner soirees all across the Aegean archipelago. In a custom associated with Athenian gatherings but almost certainly followed elsewhere as well, a myrtle branch was passed around the room, and each of the assembled would descant as the wine flowed. We catch something of the heady atmosphere of these archaic open-mike nights in the poem by Archilochos in the Haxton selection, dating to the middle of the seventh century B.C.E.:

She took the myrtle branch and sang in turn
another song of pleasure, in her left hand still
the flower of the rosetree, and let loose
over her naked shoulder, down her arm
and back, the darkness of her hair.

This torrid cameo of a chanteuse in her element cannot help but call to mind Sappho, the masterly Aeolian lyric poet whom Plato tells us was heralded by later generations as "the Tenth among the Muses." No question about it, Sappho was that good -- a legend in her time no less than in ours. Yet if she was an icon for the Greeks, for us she is little more than an aura, her life and times an enigma wrapped inside a mystery and her surviving poetry a fever dream of haunting snatches and throat-catching similes. Active around 600 B.C.E. on the island of Lesbos, where according to most scholars she served as the headmistress (or, alternatively, priestess) to a school (or, some contend, a cult) of young women, we can only safely infer that the throbbing erotic intensity and rapturous emotional pitch of her lyrics was probably unprecedented as well as unrivaled. Sappho did not invent the style of personal expression and passionate delivery in which she so excelled (Alcaeus, her island coeval, was similarly celebrated for the colloquial energy and stirring urgency of his lyre-songs), but even in the broken phrases that are all we have of her now we can sense the Promethean fire she brought to that poetry, remaking it in her own radiant image. It has become a truism to call her the West's first true lyric voice, but this laurel crown somehow fails to do her justice. Better to say, perhaps, that she remains the ineffable ideal toward which all lyric poetry has striven ever since.

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David Barber is The Atlantic's poetry editor.

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