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The Greek Lyric Poets
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

The following discussion should be read in connection with material found on the Translations of Classical Authors page: see, in particular, Selections from the Greek Lyric Poets (Porter), to which links are provided below.

Suggested Background Reading


The older literary histories of Greece divide Greek cultural history into four periods: the Age of Epic (10th to 8th centuries, when Greece consists of a series of small agrarian communities dominated by a landed aristocracy), the Age of Lyric (7th to 6th centuries, which sees the rise of the polis), the Age of Tragedy (5th century, flourishing of the polis), and The Age of the Oratory and Philosophy (4th century, decline of the polis). In this rather simplified overview the Age of Lyric is presented as the period when the common individual — generally ignored in Homeric epic — first finds a voice, a sign of the waning dominance of the aristocracy in the more complex social and political structures of the emergent polis. This picture of the lyric poets is exaggerated — poems of this sort (if not of this sophistication) had probably been composed for centuries before the birth of Archilochus, while poets such as Archilochus, Alcaeus, and Solon were themselves very much members of the aristocracy — but it does point to the striking difference in tone, outlook, and subject matter between Homeric epic and the short fragments of the lyric poets that we possess. [FN 1]

This difference is in large part due to differences in the occasions on which the poems were performed and the conventions governing their presentation. Unlike Homeric epic, which was performed at public festivals before large crowds, the non-choral lyrics presented below seem to have been performed on more intimate occasions, especially the *symposium or formal drinking party, at which men would recite poetry themselves or be entertained by a variety of performers (male and female) who put on musical, poetic, choreographic, and gymnastic displays as well as (often) providing sexual favors. The poets dealt, not with the grand events passed down by the mythopoetic tradition, but with contemporary occurrences and their own experiences. Thus the poet does not employ the formal, impersonal style of Homer but uses an emphatic first person, voicing a strongly personal viewpoint (although the degree to which the speaking voice in our poems is to be identified with the poet's own voice is uncertain: compare, e.g., the poems of Robert Browning and see below on Archilochus).

The poems are called lyric poems because many of them — those, e.g., of Sappho, Alcaeus, and Ibycus — were intended to be sung to the lyre. A good number of the fragments below, however, were not sung but recited or chanted. For the most part what follow are mere snippets, fragments that have been preserved by chance. Only Theognis has a proper manuscript tradition; the works of the other poets are preserved because someone in later antiquity (a biographer, metrician, grammarian, or literary name-dropper) thought fit to cite a few lines to illustrate a particular point, or because a papyrus fragment found in Egypt happened to have this passage on one side. (Such fragments often consist of the ancient equivalent of scratch paper, "books" that were reused by someone later on — business people recording their accounts, students writing out practice exercises, or whatever. Such finds within the last 100 years mean that we now can read, e.g., poems by Bacchylides or plays by Menander, authors who were known only by name to scholars in the 19th century and earlier.)

One interesting problem that arises from the accidents of preservation is that of determining whether a particular poem is complete or merely a fragment selected from a larger work. The papyri often mark the end of a poem with a marginal note, but a passage quoted, e.g., by Plutarch comes with no such editorial aids.

You will often find editors remarking that a particular fragment "has the air of a complete poem," but such deductions are subjective at best. Consider the following piece by Philip Larkin:

They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad,
They may not mean to, but they do;
They give you all the faults they had
and add some extra, just for you.
I cite these lines from memory and, very likely, have gotten some of the details wrong — much as our ancient sources frequently do. Equally important, I know them, not from reading the author's works, but because they were cited in a novel that I once read. For years I assumed that this was a complete poem since, to me, the lines had that "air"; it is not.

For us the lyric poets are of interest for what they reveal about various Greek attitudes, particularly regarding women. The modest collection presented here begins with a series of male poets. Their poems tell us a great deal of what interests and concerns dominated the male aristocrat's daily thoughts: war, politics, social occasions (symposia), marriage, sex. We will be paying particular attention to these last two topics, since they allow us to begin to examine the lot of women in ancient Greece — a topic of great interest but one that is difficult to pursue since women were not as a rule granted a public voice, while the male authors tend to ignore private, domestic matters in favor of the public world of politics. (There is also the problem that social customs varied from polis to polis, sometimes radically.) After the male poets, we will hear one of the few female voices to survive from Greek antiquity, that of Sappho. As we will see, her view of women and eroticism is quite different from that of the male poets. Finally we will look at some of the fragments of Xenophanes for evidence of changing attitudes toward the gods.


(Paros: 1st half of the 7th C.)

(N.B. Students can consult a brief selection of Archilochus' poems translated by John Porter. Links in the following discussion are to various fragments in this selection.)

Archilochus was born into a prominent family on the island of Paros. We have a wealth of biographical detail regarding his life, most of it fictional. He was very much involved in the politics and military affairs of his times — particularly wars against neighboring Naxos and the Abantes on the island of Euboea — and took part in an expedition to colonize the island of Thasos in the northern Aegean, an undertaking that involved him in battles with the fierce Thracians on the nearby mainland. Archilochus' attitude to war is very different from that evinced by Homer: in some ways Archilochus seems to go out of his way to emphasize his disagreement with the austere, idealistic picture of war found in the Iliad. Note specific instances of Archilochus' distance from, or outright disagreement with, Homer in the picture he paints of war, heroism, and military service: frgs. 4, 5, 114.

Archilochus was most famous in antiquity as an author of *iambic verse. For us the word iambic is a metrical term — much of Shakespeare, for example, is written in iambic pentameter — but for the Greeks it originally denoted not the meter of a poem but its genre and tone. Iambic poetry was the poetry of vicious personal attack. A famous story told of how Archilochus, having been promised the hand of Lycambes' daughter *Neobule, was cast off in favor of a more promising suitor and wrote a series of poems so virulent that the entire family hanged themselves in disgrace. This story was always regarded as a fiction — it was noted, for example, that Neobule's name means "she who forms new plans" (i.e., she who changes her mind), but an important clue to its origin was provided in the 1970s with the publication of the so-called Cologne fragment (see next paragraph). The new fragment suggests that, like Browning, Archilochus often composed dramatic fictions in the first person. You will find other hints of this in the notes to some of the fragments: cf., e.g., frgs. 19 and 122.

"First Cologne Epode"
(P. Colon. inv. 7511)

Read The First Cologne Epode (P.Colon. inv. 7511: Guy Davenport, translator; available on the Diotima WWW site). This fragment has caught people's attention for a number of reasons: its length, what it implies about Archilochus' use of the first person in his poems, and (not least) its subject matter. Consider, in particular, what the fragment tells us about the Greek male's view of women and marriage.


(Amorgos: Mid- or Late-7th C.)

Semonides is a second-rate poet who is distinguished from the others by the fact that his fragmentary work "On Women" (frg. 7) is the longest sustained fragment of a single poem from this period to have survived. It is also one of the most curious poems, a flat-footed misogynistic diatribe that nonetheless tells us a great deal about the Greek view of women. The fragment would more appropriately be titled "On Wives" since it is women in their role as spouses that the poet discusses. Not surprisingly, Semonides looks on women as a curse. As you read through the fragment, pay attention to the contexts in which the individual women are judged, whether positively or negatively. What does the fragment tell us about what men expected in a wife and what spheres of activity and concerns were deemed proper for married women?

In order to appreciate this fragment, especially its opening and closing references to the gods' role in the creation of women, you need to return to Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days (cf. The Mythological Background of Homer's Iliad). In these two works Hesiod tells the story of the creation of the first woman, *Pandora ("All-gifts") — an Eve figure who bears the responsibility for all of the woes in the world as we know it. The story begins with the deception of Zeus by the cunning minor god *Prometheus (son of Iapetus; like Hephaestus, a god of artisans), who attempts to befriend humankind but in the end becomes responsible for the Greek version of "The Fall" — a separation of the gods from humanity and the loss of humanity's privileged position, the former symbolized by a quarrel over the division of sacrificial offerings, the latter by the gift of fire (a symbol of human culture, but also of humanity's alienation from the world of nature) and by the creation of woman. The story of Pandora is useful as another indication of the Greek male's view of women but also because it allows us to see how Semonides has playfully changed Hesiod's version of the story into a sardonic animal fable. (Read: Hesiod, Theogony 535-616 and Works and Days 42-l05 in the on-line Perseus Project.)


(Mytilene: Late 7th-Early 6th C.)

We have already met Alcaeus in our discussion of the various power struggles that attended the rise of the polis: see the relevant sections of The Archaic Age and the Rise of the Polis. A good number of Alcaeus' fragments are on traditional subjects, especially that of "wine, women, and song". Of particular interest are the fragments that deal with Helen of Troy (frgs. 42 and 283).


(Colophon: Late 7th/early 6th C.)

Mimnermus is a poet of wonderful versatility. In antiquity, however, he was known mainly for his love poetry and his reflections on the horrors of old age. The few fragments that survive reflect this side of his oeuvre: see frg. 5.

(Rhegium: 2nd half of the 6th C.)

Ibycus was popular court poet, renowned for his sensuous imagery: see frg. 287.

(Teos: 2nd half of the 6th C.)

Anacreon was another popular court poet, renowned for his witty poems on wine, women, and song. He spent time in particular at the courts of the tyrants Polycrates (on the island of Samos) and Hipparchus (Athens): see frgs. 358, 376, and 417.


(Mytilene: c. 620 - c.550)

Sappho is an anomaly and an enigma. As the sole female author to be represented by a substantial body of surviving works, she has attracted much scholarly attention. There is little agreement, however, regarding the significance of those works. The first thing to note is the very problem of their existence. In a society where women were accorded so meager a public role, a female poet deserves remark. This is even more true when we consider that poetry in ancient Greece survived and was disseminated largely in oral form, through repeated performance, and not through writing: poems became known by being heard at public, or semi-public, occasions. In Athenian society the only such occasions open to women were the relatively few religious festivals (such as the Thesmophoria) that were reserved solely for women. How poems composed for such gatherings might come to be disseminated, written down, and cited by later male authors is uncertain. Moreover, not all of Sappho's fragments have a ritual cast to them, although they clearly represent a world dominated by women. While some of her fragments have a conventional subject matter (e.g., one fragment concerning her brother), many of them are addressed by the poet in the first person to other women, often in a highly personal, erotically charged tone (e.g., frg. 2). The assumption was made in antiquity that these poems indicated a society where women openly displayed their desire for other women — that the women of Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, were "Lesbians" in the modern sense. The 19th century, which venerated Sappho's poetry, found this notion abhorrent and developed the view that Sappho was the head-mistress of the Greek equivalent of a girls' boarding school (a number of the fragments present the poet's fairwells to women who are departing). Various theories hold the field today, none of them altogether convincing. The one thing that we can say is that the aristocratic society of Mytilene seems to have differed from those of most other Greek poleis.

For our purposes Sappho is most interesting for her views on love and eroticism. The male poets we have read tend to treat women as chattel (useful or costly, depending on whether they are "good" or "bad": see Semonides frg. 7) or as objects in a game of sexual conquest (see the The First Cologne Epode (P.Colon. inv. 7511: Guy Davenport, translator; available on the Diotima WWW site) of Archilochus and Anacreon frgs. 358 and 417). Even in their most emotionally charged fragments (e.g., Ibycus frg. 287 or Anacreon frg. 376) there is a playfulness which suggests that the erotic emotion (whether directed at a female or a male) is little more than a poetic conceit. Sappho's poetry, by contrast, presents erotic passion as a complex, highly personal experience rather than as a game (see, in particular, frg. 1), while the difference between her view of women and that of her male counterparts can perhaps best be appreciated by contrasting her view of Helen (frg. 3) with theirs (see, especially, the end of Semonides' "On Women" and Alcaeus frgs. 42 and 283).

In reading Sappho, consider her treatment of erotic passion: in what ways is her presentation of such feelings more complex than what we have seen in the male poets? How might frgs. 2 and 3, in particular, contain criticisms (implicit or direct) of male views of love, sex, and women?

(For Sappho's influence on the Roman poet Catullus, see Course Notes for Classics 121: Catullus.)


(Colophon: c. 570 - c. 478)

Xenophanes stands apart from the other poets we have read. Rather than politics, military concerns, or "wine, women, and song," his poems present criticisms of contemporary religion and morality. Thus Xenophanes represents a branch of the philosophical/moralizing tradition in early Greek poetry. He is particularly interesting in his critique of traditional myth and religion, condemning the popular image of the gods — as portrayed, e.g., in Homer and Hesiod — as false and debased. Xenophanes denounces the traditional anthropomorphic conception of the gods and promotes instead the image of a single impersonal deity that effects its mysterious will effortlessly. His poems are valuable for the evidence they present of growing dissatisfaction with the gods of the mythopoetic tradition: with the rise of the polis and its more complex social and political structures, the solipsistic, timê -obsessed gods of Homer and Hesiod begin to be seen as problematic. See the fragments of Xenophanes on the Selections from the Greek Lyric Poets page. (Cf. the discussion under The Homeric Gods.) In many ways, Xenophanes was ahead of his time: see the Course Notes on Sophocles' Oedipus and the Greek Enlightenment.


[FN 1] Notice, as well, where these poets tend to come from: Asia Minor (Colophon) and the islands of the Aegean (Paros, Amorgos, Lesbos, Teos). As in the Bronze Age, the initial impetus for the development of Greek artistic traditions in the Archaic Age derives from regions where Greek culture comes into contact with the peoples of the East. [Return to text]

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