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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.

Related feature:

"From the Greek" (The Atlantic, June 1998)
A selection of ancient Greek lyrics and epigrams translated and read aloud by Brooks Haxton.

Discuss this article in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

More on poets and poetry in Atlantic Unbound.

Related link:

The Perseus Project
Described as "a continually growing digital library of resources for studying the ancient world," this site developed by the Classics Department at Tufts University provides a large database of ancient texts and translations, maps, illustrations, secondary essays, and biographical information.

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.:
Hear Books Haxton read his translation of Archilochos (in RealAudio):

RA 28.8, RA 14.4

Hear Books Haxton read his translation of Sappho (in RealAudio):

RA 28.8, RA 14.4

More translations and readings by Brooks Haxton.

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.

Greek lyric poetry lost much of its orphic electricity as Hellenic civilization evolved, and not simply for want of fresh Sapphos. The spread of writing set the stage for the ascendancy of prose as the vehicle for rational discourse, and as the amphitheater emerged as the principal arena for choral poetry in fifth century Athens, the status of the lyric poet in Greek culture went into eclipse, culminating notoriously with Plato proposing to exclude all votaries of what he called "the honeyed muse" from his model republic. Gone were the days when poets were seen as avatars of divinely inspired knowledge: for Plato (despite having dabbled in poetry himself in his salad days), the versifier was a feckless artificer, a pernicious influence on the moral hygiene of the polis and not to be trusted with the heavy lifting of the intellect. As a general consequence of this shift in cultural sensibility, poetry became a more purely literary pursuit, no longer an exalted calling but, Plato's low opinion notwithstanding, still a more or less respectable vocation.

While the lyric impulse did not die out, it took refuge in the modest embraces of the epigram, a genre built on expressive economy, verbal ingenuity, and technical dexterity. As the older tradition of lyre poetry faded away, epigrammatic verse emerged as the most popular and widespread poetic form in the Greek-speaking world, commissioned by wealthy patrons and provincial satraps and collected in anthologies such as the poet Meleagros's famous Garland, produced around 80 B.C.E. The original text of what Meleagros praises in an introductory verse as "these varied fruits of song" does not survive, but much of it was evidently absorbed into an even more lavish cornucopia of epigrams compiled by industrious Byzantine scholars sometime around the ninth century C.E. This well-stuffed treasury of some 4,000 poems, unearthed in the Count Palantine's Heidelburg library in 1606, remains our foremost source of ancient epigrammatic ephemera. It has come to be known simply as The Greek Anthology.

Nowadays we tend to think of epigrams (if we can get away from thinking of them as the exclusive franchise of Oscar Wilde) in the pointed sense with which caustic Latin poets such as Catullus and Martial exploited them: terse, stinging poems of a satirical or ribald turn, the epitome of waspish light verse. In the Greek tradition, however, they were that and a whole lot more. The term itself derives from the Greek word for "inscription," and the earliest epigrams were literally epitaphs, commemorative lines engraved on the base of a tomb. These sepulchral origins help explain why lapidary precision and scrupulous compression has been the essence of the epigram throughout its long history in various tongues. (Has there ever been a more unforgiving literary medium than the gravestone?) It also accounts for the staple meter that almost all Greek epigrams employ, the elegiac couplet, regarded as the most fittingly compact and finely tuned of classical measures.

Despite these stringent constraints, one of the most remarkable features of the epigrams amassed in The Greek Anthology is their nearly inexhaustible range and variety: love poems delicate and wanton; epitaphs actual and imaginary; laments and lampoons; gnomic reflections and corrosive imprecations; homages to gods and heroes and homages to courtesans and crickets. No subject, it seems, was off limits to the enterprising epigrammatist, and the only binding obligation was to have the courage of one's concision. Those Byzantine editors were neither picky nor prudish about what they deemed worthy of inclusion, and thank goodness for that. The pleasures of the Anthology are not those of uniform excellence but of brimming abundance, and while there is something mildly amusing about this most restrained of genres heaped up in a flea-market farrago, the bric-a-brac is more than redeemed by the color and sweep of the tableau. Well over a thousand years of epigrammatic ferment sparkles in this teeming hodgepodge, testifying as no selective archive could to the form's resilient appeal and uncanny versatility.

Brooks Haxton's sampler of brisk translations gives us a choice appetizer to The Greek Anthology's moveable feast. Here you will find some of the marquee names of classical Greek poetry: the earthy Archilochos and the sublime Sappho; the celebrated court poet Simonides, who was lionized for his polished epigrams and whose epitaph for fallen Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae is considered to be the acme of the form; Meleagros, he of the Garland, an accomplished epigrammatist in his own right who, like many an opportunistic anthologist since, saw to it that a healthy dollop of his own verse made it into the mix; Theokritos, beloved for his dewy bucolic idylls and the chief pioneer of pastoral poetry; Kallimachos, the urbane and cantankerous head librarian of the great Library of Alexandria, who used his position of prominence to campaign on behalf of the epigram's economy of scale and rail against all forms of writerly longwindedness (his enemies charged that this animus was just protective cover for his inability to write at length himself); and, yes, even Plato, who before finding his true depth as the grandmaster of the Socratic dialogue was known to have composed short poems of surpassing elegance and tenderness.

Yet for all that, the names are almost beside the point. This is poetry best appreciated as a sluicing wellspring of sensibility, and cherished for qualities that transcend the vagaries of history and biography: a swiftness and sureness of introspective feeling, an intensity and immediacy of sensual awareness, a plainspoken clarity and purity of tone embodying an abiding regard for the telling particular and the luminous moment. The acute brevity of these ancient poems has preserved them as touchstones of an acute sensitivity to felt experience that we don't readily associate with antiquity, yet their crystallized concentration scarcely has any modern aesthetic equivalent, matched only perhaps by the classical Chinese and Japanese poets. There is nothing deceptive about their simplicity or their intimacy; that is the spirit in which they were composed, and that is why they continue to give off their burnished glow.

Classicists are forever admonishing that English can only poorly approximate the exacting inflections of the ancient Greek and cannot come close to capturing the delicate pitch and cadence of the elegiac couplet (the Greek metric was ruled by vowel duration, whereas English verse measure is based on syllabic stress patterns) -- and what can any of us with little Latin and less Greek do except bow helplessly in their direction? All the same, that is no reason to fret that we are deluding ourselves when we feel the evocative tremor of an adaptation or imitation "from the Greek" working along our nerves. Though we cannot hear the plucked strains of the ancient lyre or the rhythmic pulse of the original lines, what comes through is the shape of the lyric gesture and the temper of the lyric mindset -- resonance enough, at least, to trust implicitly that we are experiencing something not too far removed from the frisson old Kallimachus describes in his renowned elegy for his comrade, Herakleitos: "Your poems sing to me like nightingales, / only out of the darkness where no hand can reach."

Notes on further reading:
A volume of Brooks Haxton's translations of the Greek poets is forthcoming from Viking. The Greek Anthology, edited by Peter Jay (Penguin), is the most comprehensive contemporary volume of Greek epigrams, containing more than 800 of the poems as translated by several dozen noted poets and classicists. Good selections of the Greek lyric poets can be found in Willis Barnstone's Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets (Schocken), and D. A. Campbell's two-volume Greek Lyric (Harvard University Press). Mary Barnard's Sappho: A New Translation (California) and Jim Powell's Sappho: A Garland (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) provide thoughtful introductions to the life and work of the poet for the general reader. Early Greek Lyric Poetry, by David Mulroy (University of Michigan Press), lucidly annotates the surviving fragments of twenty major lyric poets in their literary and historical context, along with providing concise biographical sketches and general background commentary.

See "From the Greek," a selection of ancient Greek lyrics and epigrams translated and read aloud by Brooks Haxton.

Discuss this article in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

More on poets and poetry in Atlantic Unbound.

David Barber is The Atlantic Monthly's assistant poetry editor. His first collection of poems,
The Spirit Level (1995), received the Terrence Des Pres Prize. He has written for The Atlantic on Stanley Kunitz and for Atlantic Unbound on Wislawa Szymborska and W. B. Yeats.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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