Greek Lyric Poets: Selections from Lattimore's Greek Lyrics

Archilochus of Paros [(1‑6); Solon of Athens (18‑23); the Early Metrical   Inscriptions (31‑32); Alcman of Sparta (33‑36); Stesichorus of   Himera (36‑7); Sappho of Myteline (38‑42); Simonides of Ceos (53‑  56); Pindar of Thebes (57‑63). 

General reading advice: How can the harried student possibly read all those different lyric poets' work and keep them mentally organized?  Become a specialist. I am giving you an introductory survey of lyric poets, but it's up to you to decide which you will remember, which you care about enough to understand more fully and to be able to interpret their significance to others. That's how a poet acquires fame (Gk. kleos). Note that a significant portion of these poets' works are devoted to distributing fame to others, some good fame and some bad (praise and blame). Without poets, our names do not survive our own eras. With poets, they may chance to live on for thousands of years. To Greeks who did not participate in rebirth mystery cults of Herakles or the Eleusinian Mysteries, poetic fame was the only sort of immortality one might achieve, and most of them appear to have thought it a goal worthy of one's life.

        What does that mean for the modern Internet "''netizen," whose name may be inextinguishable for as long as there are microchips and power to run them? Hmmm...maybe the answer is in those two prerequisites. These Greek poems needed a translator like Lattimore to make them come alive again in English, but the apparatus for reproducing them and making them audible is cheap and durable as the species. You could even chalk these poems on the sidewalks of Goucher.

Click here for a brief introduction to poetic genres, with examples from English poets who followed Classical Greek models.

Questions that might lead to paper topics or class discussion issues--

Archilochus of Paros‑‑ (c. 680‑640 BCE)

1)  How would you characterize the attitude presented in the  first seven lyrics?  How does A., by representing his likes and  dislikes, position himself with respect to the reader?

2)  Balance (isocolon) and unexpected syntactic reversal  (anaphora) are A's most commonly used devices.  Based on  Lattimore's translations, how do these two devices work with A's  meaning to create your experience of the poem?  What does it  align, withhold, or reiterate?

3)  In #8‑#10, what is A's primary subject and what variety do  you see in his attitude toward it?

4)  Do you notice a difference between poems that converge on  their subject and those which diverge?  What is A's intention?

5)  Fragments usually suggest what the remainder of the poem  might have been.  What do you imagine the missing portions to  have done to continue or reverse the development in the fragment? 

6)  The intentional fragment became an important poetic form  among English Romantic poets (e.g., Coleridge's "Kubla Khan"  [1816].  Might any of A's "fragments" be complete?

7)  #17 is a famous aphorism.  How is it characteristic of A's  style?  It also is a riddle about two methods of ancient warfare.

8)  How does A's passion for dispute shape his verse?

Callinus of Ephesos--(c. 680-640 BCE)

1)  According to Lattimore's headnote, Callinus wrote this fragment as part of a larger poem to encourage the Ephesians' military resistance to the threat of invasion.  How does he seek to motivate the young men of the city to stand in the line of battle?

2)  How does the poem urge its readers to imagine the identity of a man who lives life properly?  What relationships are emphasized?  If you were reading this in conjunction with an epic poem such as the Iliad or Odyssey, could you see specific moments in their plots where Callinus might have seen the exemplars of this sort of male identity?  Though the poem doese not specifically address women's or children's social roles in this construction, by implication what should they do or say, or avoid doing or saying, to play their part in this social drama?

3)  If you were to read this poem in the context of later classical era Greek drama (c. 500-350 BCE), such as Aeschylus' Orestia or Sophocles' Oedipus, do you see any complicating issues being raised by the dramatists choice of plots and characterization that would make it difficult for the protagonists to follow the instructions of Callinus' poem?

4)  Medieval and Renaissance Christian poets have a strikingly different alternative to this vision of warrior-identity in Christianity's embrace of Jesus' and the saints' suffering as essential identity-defining events.  If you were a pagan raised on Callinus' values, how might the Christians try to convince you of the superiority of their value system, and can you see any evidence that some "Christians" bought into the superficial parts of the doctrine while still adhering to the pagan warrior-identity virtues?  Comparison with Chaucer's pilgrim Knight and his tale, or with the earlier "Battle of Maldon" or Beowulf, might be instructive.

Solon of Athens‑‑ (c. 630‑550, made archon 594 or 592)

1)  Constrast S's ideals with Archilochus's.  What differences do  the two men bring to their lyrics and how do S's values shape his  works?

2)  How does #1 characterize misfortune?  Is it uncontrollable  and unpredictable, or does S sometimes believe it can be tamed?

3)  What are the basic theses underlying S's understanding of  human psychology in #1?

4)  How might you compare S's political philosophy in #2 to that  of Aeschylus?  What beliefs does the tragedian share in common  with the singer/politician?

5)  S depicts himself as a restorer of balances‑‑by what images does  he concretize your understanding of political  objectives?

Alcman of Sparta‑‑ (C7 BCE)

1)  #1 is a comparatively recent discovery from the papyrus  scrolls found at Oxyrynchus in Egypt.  It is a parthenion or song  for girl's chorus.  What modern poetic genre or event does this  poem evoke?

2)  How might you paraphrase the discovery recorded in #2 or the  exclamation in #3?

3)  Does the opposition in #4 give you any insight into the roles  of poet‑singer and warrior in the Odyssey?

4)  Is #5 a compliment?

Stesichorus of Himera‑‑ (C7‑mid C6 BCE)

1)  What might explain S's struggle with the "Helen problem"?

2)  The American imagist poet, H.D. (pen name of Hilda  Doolittle), wrote a novel in the form of a poem titled Helen in Egypt which  describes the meeting between Helen and the ghost of Achilles  after the end of the war.  Following S's version of the myth, H  tells the spirit she never went with Paris and that a goddess  took her to Egypt for the duration of the war.  Is this "legal"  and what is the importance of such a poetic project?  What  difference does it make to this culture whether and why Helen  went to Troy?

Sappho of Mytelene‑‑  (c. 620‑550 BCE)

1)  How does the invocation of Aphrodite construct a verbal trap  for the goddess?

2)  How might Aphrodite's earlier response to Sappho in #1 reflect Sappho's  understanding of the way desire's psychology works?  Also, in #2,  Why does S's desire suddenly bring her close to death?

3)  #2 poses a problem directly related to gender and sexual  identification.  What must happen for you to feel the effect of  S's displacement from her beloved's side by a man?   

4)  How does the opposition posed in #3 compare to Alcman's #4?   What has S done to the relationship A posed between war and song?

5)  Compare #4's invocation of the goddess to #1‑‑how does its  strategy differ?

Praxilla of Sicyon--(fl. mid-5th century BCE)

1)  In the fragment (male) writers used to make Praxilla notorious for being a bad poet, the narrator is the voice of the spirit of dying Adonis, the mortal lover of Aphrodite who was killed while on a boar hunt.  Do you see a pattern in the sequence of beautiful things he names as those things he regretfully leaves behind as he descends to the Underworld?  How might the items in that sequence fit a woman poet's understanding of mortal existence?

2)  In the second fragment, the speaker, let us assume for the moment a female speaker, observes another woman looking outward from her window and observes something sexual about that woman's identity.  Under what circumstances and at what time in the observed woman's life might it be likely that the viewer would have certain knowledge of that sort?  With what implications would a female speaker utter such an observation, and how might the implications differ if the speaker were male?  If the speaker were male, might he have another context in which he would be likely to know what the text asserts about the observed woman?  Note that the text, itself, does not support definitively either identification of the speaker, though the circumstances of the utterance cannot likely be explained any other way for either a female or male speaker. 

Corinna of Tanagra--(c. late C6-early C5 BCE)

1)  To whom does Corinna address the first fragment and of what specific achievement does the poem boast?  Think about what current poetic idioms might also boast of the same sort of style?

2)  Corinna's second fragment recounts, in the style of an oracle prophesying the future and revealing the past, the possessions and marriages of Asopos' daughters by gods, and the fates of their famous children.  (See Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Vol. 2, Section 66, for a summary.)  Corinna's poem treats the women's mates and progeny as their identifying attributes.  What kind of mentality does this offer female readers, and how might Euripedes' Medea have read the poem?

3)  The third fragment recounts the contest between two famous mountains in the "theogony" or god's birth-story.  Helikon was the home of the Muses and location of the springs of Aganippe and Hippocrene, whose waters would make poets sing.  (The Hippocrene was said to have sprung forth when Pegasus' hoof struck the mountainside, an allegory for both the "flow" and "flight" of poets' words in song.)  Kithairon, very near Helikon, was sacred to Dionysus and was the place where the baby Oedipus was exposed at birth when his father sought to evade the prophecy foretold for the boy.  Here, the mountains are personified and their conflict results in Helikon's tearing a stone from Kithairon's side and shattering it.  How might this narrative explain the geography of the two mountains and what might that do for the local inhabitants?

4)  Corinna's fourth fragment dispraises Myrtis, another female Greek poet, for competing against Pindar of Thebes, the famous author of victory odes and poems celebrating Greece's major cities.  On what grounds does Corinna attack Myrtis, and where in English literature have you heard this charge before?  (Hint: Anne Finch dreaded it.) 

Simonides of Ceos‑‑  (c. 556‑468)

1)  The first fragment is Danae's lullaby to her son, Perseus.   Perseus is her child by Zeus, who came to her in a shower of  gold.  Her father placed mother and child in a pilotless boat  because the Delphic oracle predicted her son would kill him.  How  does S's technique compare to his claims about what poetry is?   (See RL's introduction to this section.) Also see #3‑‑how does S  use the image to construct sense?

2)  #2 deliberately draws attention to the literal falsehood of a  common poetic conceit (see Sappho #5 and 6).Is it poetry or  criticism?

3)  What commonplace belief does #5 seek to counter with its  images?  Compare it with #6‑‑how would you describe S's ethics?

4)  Though at first glance it may seem laughably inadequate, #9  is perhaps the most famous epitaph ever written.  How does it  work?  (See RL's introduction to this section.)

Pindar of Thebes‑‑  (c. 518 or 522‑after 446 BCE)

1)  The choral ode strives to create a rich field of references  converging on the same subject.  Consider P's efforts to expand  and contract the ode's focus in the first fragments, #7, & #8.

2)  #4 oscillates between the poet and the history of Keos.  Why?

3)  How does #5 change the focus of the Iliad for P's purposes?

4)  #9 is another oft‑quoted epigram.  Would our soldier‑poet,  Archilochus, agree with it, and why?  Thebes took the side of the  invading Persians in 480 BCE.  How might that change your reading?

5)  #7 & 8, like 4 & 5, are hymns to cities.  P reportedly  received 10,000 drachmas and a government job for #7.  What kind  of poetry is this?

6)  #12 attempts to offer an alternative to the fear of death  we've seen in other evocations of the Underworld.  Compare it  with #13, 14, & 15‑‑what is P's vision of human existence?