Greek Lyrics, translated by Richmond Lattimore
I must admit I found this book a lot more humorous than I thought it would be. Part of this comes from the poems themselves, which show a great deal of emotional variety and demonstrate something genuinely funny about the Greek lyric poets of the archaic age, many of whom come from obscure places that hardly anyone has ever hard of rather than the more familiar Greek cities of the classical ages. There is, for example, only one Athenian poet included in this short anthology of about 80 pages, and he is Solon, the notable lawgiver of Athens who helped kickstart its push to democracy. But part of the humor of this book comes from the framing, as the translator (a noted classicist) notes that this book is for those who are interested in Greek writings but who do not know how to read Greek, and that those who do know Greek who read the book may do so for malicious reasons. I could see how a writer would think that–I often assume that at least some people read me for malicious reasons–but to say it in a book is another thing altogether than thinking it. Any book written with a sense of humor that borders on paranoia is going to become a lot more interesting to me.
The book’s contents certainly warrant that interest. They include a broad and sometimes deep selection of lyric poets from the Greek-speaking world of the pre-classical period of the sixth and seventh centuries, including the sardonic poems of Archilochus, selections by Callinus, Semonides, Hipponax, Tyrtaeus, Minmermus, Solon, Phocylides, and Xenophanes. Some of these writers I had previously heard about (more on that anon), but most of them were entirely unknown to me before. After these poets there are plenty of metrical poets that are represented in this volume, including some early works, some anonymous later works, and ones by Terpander, Alcman, Stesicorus, Ibychus, the famous Sappho, Alcaeus, Anaceron, Praxilla, Corinna, Simonides, some anonymous and funny drinking songs, and a large selection of works by Pindar. Throughout the selections the author makes notes about the poet or about what he (or she) may have thought, and about the background and legends surrounding the various authors or potential authors, and how they were immortalized by later generations of Greek. Not only, then, is is this book a poetry book, but also a worthwhile history of an obscure time.
I mentioned before that I had heard of some of these poets previously. Sappho, of course, is famous for writing romantic poetry about younger women who then married, although she was a married woman herself. Solon, I had heard about because of my interest in Greek political history. Pindar was a noted Theban poet, and rustic Boetia has always reminded me of my own background as a farmer’s son. The other poet I came into this collection knowing about was Archilochus, one of the first poetic celebrities of the Greek world, and I knew of his sarcastic poetry from the writings of Victor Davis Hansen, who uses them as the basis for some of his ideas about Greek hoplite and pre-hoplite warfare. Being more familiar with Greek poetry is, I think, a very good thing. Even if these poets have perspectives that are far different than my own, in one very true sense, as a fellow Western writer who writes for love and not for wealthy sponsors (although I wouldn’t mind making more money from writing), many of these writers are the same sort of Nathanish people I find in many books. Archilochus, for example, had an unfortunate romance, was a rather cynical writer, and was a distinctly unheroic person made a hero after his death for his writing prowess. That’s something worthwhile, at least.