Dithyrambs for Athens

Leofranc Holford-Strevens

  • Soliciting Darkness: Pindar, Obscurity and the Classical Tradition by John T. Hamilton
    Harvard, 348 pp, £17.95, April 2004, ISBN 0 674 01257 7
  • The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets by Michael Schmidt
    Weidenfeld, 449 pp, £20.00, April 2004, ISBN 0 297 64394 0

The Theban poet Pindar (c.520-446 BC), though he wrote much else, is principally known for his magnificent odes, known as epinicians, in praise of athletic victories by aristocrats and tyrants, nowadays esteemed less than Athenian democrats and Macedonian monarchs, but no worse than their counterparts in later ages who patronised poets, painters and composers still admired. In his day as in ours adulation was bestowed on sporting champions, who were held to confer glory on their cities as their modern counterparts do on their countries, though there was no shift from noble amateurs to plebeian professionals such as we have seen within the last hundred years. Pindar’s language is sometimes obscure to those who have not ventured beyond tragedy and Homer, since they need to look up rather more words; his thought is frequently compressed.

For these reasons he has often been considered difficult; those of us who blame other people’s intellectual deficiencies, or the loss of background information, are rebuked by John Hamilton: ‘Preposterous as it may sound, this book earnestly considers the possibility of Pindar’s obscurity’ – that is to say, deliberate obscurity. However, though Hamilton is not afraid to engage with Pindar, he is more concerned with more recent authors. When, for example, the greatest classical scholar of the German Empire, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, complains that Pindar was silent about Ionian science and ‘the power and greatness of the fatherland’, Hamilton examines the complexities of Wilamowitz’s position, but not the merits, or rather demerits, of the charges. Pindar had no occasion to mention Ionian science; and the concept of a Greek nation, opposed to barely differentiated barbaroi, owed so much to the Persian War that it could not be decently proclaimed by a poet whose own fatherland of Thebes had fought actively on the anti-national side. In Sicily, on the other hand, where that city’s conduct mattered less, without using the word barbaros, he represented the defeat of an Etruscan fleet off Cumae as a triumph of civilisation over brutishness, and the rescue of Hellas from grievous slavery, to be celebrated in the victor’s city as he would celebrate Salamis in Athens and Plataea in Sparta – the battles ‘in which the Medes of the bent bows fell’.

At times Hamilton emulates Pindar’s wide-ranging digressions and abrupt transitions. Thus he proceeds from Spengler’s post-World War One disillusion with humanistic classicism to Wilamowitz’s dissociation of Pindar from modern minds, leaps back in time to mockery of him in Attic comedy, and returns to consider the contradictions in Wilamowitz’s view of the poet. The quotations from comedy do not entirely bear out Hamilton’s point: Eupolis is said to state that popular philistinism has caused Pindar’s poetry to go unheard, but the playwright’s words – or rather his character’s – survive only in Eustathius’ medieval summary of (for all we know) Athenaeus’ paraphrase (c.ad 200); and the parody in Aristophanes suggests that the Athenian audience was supposed still to have some familiarity with its target.

Nevertheless, of all Pindar’s epinicians only two are for Athenian victors, and those are among his slightest works, whereas 13, including some of his finest, are for Aeginetans, both before and after their island became a victim of Athenian imperialism. He might have been commissioned to write dithyrambs for Athens, since he was the best in the business, but in a city that appropriated its richer citizens’ wealth to communal purposes, grand victory odes for athletes were politically suspect (Bacchylides’ one ode for an Athenian is distinctly flat); and few will suppose that Pindar found its increasingly restless and aggressive democracy as much to his taste as the conservative quiet of aristocratic Aegina. When Wilamowitz made Pindar address ‘mein heilig Athen’, the possessive speaks for the translator, not the poet.

As Hamilton observes, Pindar’s lost aristocratic values are lamented by Renoir’s characters in La Grande Illusion; Camus, expounding his ‘general thesis of the absurd’, and Valéry, in evocation of a passing world, both cite the resigned realism of the Third Pythian. If the society that vanished in 1914 may still be apprehended through art, why not Pindar’s aristocratic civilisation? It is hardly more remote, for an English-speaker, than the experiences that gave rise to Continental absurdism.

The case for obscurity begins with Nietzsche, who, cried up along with Pindar himself and Hölderlin by Stefan George and friends in their war for a Hellenised German (or Germanised Greek) Geist against Wilamowitzian philology, twists an adjuration from the Second Pythian, genoi’ hoios essi mathôn, ‘having learned [from me] what manner of man you are, live up to it’ (not, as Hamilton has it, ‘be the sort of man you learn to be’), into a chimerical opposition with the Delphic ‘Know thyself,’ celebrating ignorance against knowledge on the ground – despite mathôn, ‘having learned’ – that becoming what one is presupposes not already knowing it. Hamilton is hardly less inventive himself, interpreting the poet’s admonition against ingratitude and slander as a repudiation of his own traditional assertions about the gods’ superior power, and of the search for justice in the universe.

The title of Part II of Soliciting Darkness, ‘Arts of Digression’, recalls those mythological passages in the epinicians that readers have supposed to distract attention from the achievement of the victor. These were not peculiar to Pindar, as we know not only from Bacchylides but from the story that Simonides, celebrating the pugilistic victory of a Thessalian aristocrat, spent so much time praising Castor and Pollux (the latter himself a boxer) that his patron paid him only half his fee and told him to seek the rest from the Heavenly Twins. Hamilton knows this story, but does not draw the consequence that a feature of the generic style cannot tell us something about any one exponent unless it is handled in an individual fashion. Simonides’ epinicians being lost, Pindar’s use of myth can be compared only with Bacchylides’; but when only two can be compared, how is the norm to be found?

Hamilton believes that Pindar is disconnected not only from later times but also from his own. This is problematic: ‘How could this ancient, choral lyricist, this overtly public singer of the Pan-Hellenic games, be conceived as having a private, separatist voice?’ According to Hamilton, Pindar’s odes operate on two separate levels, praising the victor but also praising the gods. As an answer this is unsatisfactory, for personal notions about the gods, if they jarred with current thought, would have been as inappropriate as adverse reflections on the victor; but it is true inasmuch as the gods are no mere supporting cast.

Turning to Latin poetry, Hamilton observes that Horace’s celebrare in Odes 1.12.2 echoes the sound of Pindar’s keladêsomen in Olympian 2.2. We move swiftly to Ode 4.2, that self-subverting recusatio on which Pindar’s poetic reception has been based:

Pindarum quisquis studet aemulari,
Iulle, ceratis ope Daedalea
nititur pennis, vitreo daturus
nomina ponto.

[4.2.1-4]

Whoever strives to contend [aemulari] with Pindar, Iullus, relies on wings waxed by Daedalic hand, doomed to give his name to the glassy sea.

tum meae, si quid loquar audiendum,
vocis accedet bona pars et ‘o sol
pulcher, o laudande!’ canam recepto
Caesare felix.

[4.2.45-48]

Then, if I can say anything that can be heard, a goodly portion of my own voice shall join in and I shall say ‘O radiant sun, O glorious one!’, happy that Caesar is back with us.

Horace has appropriated the role of Roman Pindar even as, reasserting the convention that Augustus’ greatness exceeds the poet’s capacity to praise, he professes the intention of joining in the trite language and simple metre of the crowds. Unfortunately, as Hamilton progresses, his expository ambition becomes comparably Icarian: Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), revising aemulari to explicare, is said to fear ‘the risk of having sense, of having nothing with which to struggle’. That is because Hamilton’s theme is now the equation of obscurity with profundity, above all in a religious context; his point of departure is Lonicerus’ Latin translation of a Pindar previously understood by few, a paucis hactenus intellectus – a phrase taken not from the translation of 1528, where it would have meant ‘hitherto available only in Greek’, but from its re-edition with commentary in 1535.

The end of the book traces Pindar’s fortunes in the 17th and 18th centuries: as a shuttlecock in the Querelle des anciens et des modernes, as a model for a patriotic effusion on the mythical sinking of the Moniteur (more mendacious than anything Pindar ever said on behalf of tyrants such as Hieron or Arcesilas), imitated by Gryphius, Klopstock and Hamann, by Cowley, Gray and Collins, absorbed by Goethe, translated by Hölderlin. Any student of these literatures, even if not particularly concerned with Pindaric reception, ought to read these chapters; as in the rest, there is much that is acute, not a little that will seem perverse. Light is shed on the place of Pindar in European literature, valued not least for his divergence from what passed for the classical tradition. The relevance of obscurity, however, all too often remains obscure.

Various comments on detail could be made. The metrical analysis of Cowley is utterly at sea. Even if in ‘Progress of Poesy’ Gray has learned from Pindar that time has no effect, he cannot have learnt that tempus is cognate with temnein (Greek for ‘to cut’) – an unproved guess – because Pindar knew no Latin and used the variant form tamnein. When Ecouchard-Lebrun repeats words at five-line intervals, is he really violating the musical prohibition on parallel fifths? The attempt to overlay the specific metrical pattern of a Pindaric ode (as opposed to its rhythmical complexity) on Hölderlin’s translation seems overbold.

As in the case of tempus and temnein, connections between words often suggest to Hamilton ideas and images that he then reads back into his texts. When examining craftsmanship in the First Olympian, he makes the verb aphistamai, ‘I stand back’ (from believing the gods are cannibals), convey the familiar concept of poetry as weaving since it shares a root with the weaving term stêmôn, ‘warp’, which does not occur in the poem; but so it does with stasis, ‘civil conflict’, and statêr, ‘steelyard’. Sometimes mere sound suffices: stegê, Dio Chrysostom’s term for the roof of Pindar’s house that Alexander forbade to be burned, ‘at least resonates’ with Latin textum. Why not with Welsh teg, ‘beautiful’, or Turkish tek, ‘single’, or the Dutch island Texel – not to speak of tecknê, which at least is Greek? Neither Pindar nor Alexander knew a word of Latin; even if (improbably) Dio had encountered Quintilian’s use of textum for the texture of writing, it is irrelevant to his anecdote. Or does Hamilton mean textus, which did not acquire the sense of ‘text’ before the Middle Ages? That would be nothing to such errors of Latinity as mistranslating animi motus effert interprete lingua (‘he expresses the emotions of the mind with interpreting tongue’) as ‘deeply moved, he delivers the message.’

Goethe said that certain Pindaric words ran through his soul like swords; he also declared that when the poet shoots arrow after arrow at his target in the clouds, stehich freilich noch da und gaffe, ‘I just stand there and gape.’ After some tortuous arguments about the verb gaffen, in which he finds a compulsion in Goethe to ‘ape’ Pindar (in German äffen), Hamilton sums up the case as follows: ‘Like swords, the fragments penetrate the boy with the open mouth.’ In so pithy a sentence, the penetration and the open mouth ought to be a single image; why then does Hamilton bother with monkey-business when gaffe, translated into Greek as khaskô, itself indicates an openness to penetration, if not necessarily oral? That ought not to be too far-fetched for the author who, from Gottsched’s allegation that German Pindarisers had mutilated the language, extracts the suggestion that in changing Luther’s sieht to gafft in the simile at Song of Songs 7.4 (‘a tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus’), Hamann ‘is hearing the öffnen in gaffen and mutilates (verstümmelt) Luther’s verse in order to make it intend (bestimmen) the future’.

The first paragraphs of Michael Schmidt’s chapter on Pindar crisply delineate the difference between Pindar and the Pindarisers, which Hamilton may seem to blur. He also maintains that Pindar, though obscure for those who do not recognise his allusions (some alarmingly easy examples are given), is no longer difficult for readers accustomed to the writings of the Modernists. The Modernists, indeed, have evidently become new classics: Callimachus is said to be ‘the most compelling’ of the Alexandrians ‘for those readers who love Modernism’.

The book’s title suggests an engagement with Mary Lefkowitz’s demolition of Greek poetical biographies; she is cited four times, three of them with approval, but Schmidt would like to believe as much as he can, even treating Orpheus as a real person, or at least as a focus of ‘indicative’ truth, and the surviving Orphic poems as ‘probably forgeries’. The First Poets is a review of Greek poetry from Orpheus (in defiance of ‘modern historical scepticism’) to Theocritus (early third century BC).

Unlike Hamilton, Schmidt interposes the filter of translation; his readers, presumed Greekless, are informed that the language can be ‘richly vocalic’ (one thinks of Keats’s ‘vowelled Greek’) in contrast to consonantal English, and offered an account of Greek metre too short of definitions to be understood, and rather darkened than illuminated by the English experiments that he quotes. Having rightly stated that Callimachus writes ‘lean poetry, every sinew functioning and not the merest gram of fat’, Schmidt cites the Heraclitus epigram in William Cory’s version, which expands six lines into eight by means of repetition and inserted epithets while omitting the most touching word in the poem: pou, at once ‘somewhere’ and ‘I suppose’. These things call into question the ‘possibility of English vernacular access’ asserted in his preface.

The book has high aspirations: modern English-language scholarship is freely cited, and many good and interesting things are said. It is neither surprising nor undesirable that critical judgments should invite dissent: where Schmidt finds cruelty in the Cologne Archilochus, such as the iambic genre would lead us to expect, others find a surprising tenderness. However, there are flaws. When the writing down of Homer’s poems is ascribed to Pericles instead of Peisistratus and Solon is called a tyrant, the learned reader will wince and pass on, having laughed in the meantime on seeing Ficino, the 15th-century philosopher and cleric, feminised to ‘Marsilia’; such slips are more dangerous in books intended for the general public. It is bad enough that Homer is said to have ‘no embedded or older prosodies’, despite the considerable number of verses that scan only when we mentally restore an older word-form; but Arion is called an ur-Homer, though he was not an epic poet and lived later, and the Batrachomyomachia, with its disguised Latin loanwords, is dated ‘around 480 BC’.

In other circumstances Schmidt shows scholarly caution that is no more than cowardice in the face of common sense. As he rightly observes, the lyric ‘I’ of the Romantics is alien to the Greeks; but that does not mean that when Sappho professes to faint at the sight and sound of another woman speaking sweetly and laughing delightfully, and Anacreon pleads with a boy of maidenish looks who spurns his advances, not knowing that he rides the poet’s soul like a horseman, they are merely exercising themselves at the Glasperlenspiel. If poetry is governed by convention, so is feeling: each is professing the feelings to be expected in those circumstances, and would have been a freak had she or he never experienced them. That does not mean their emotional experience and physical practice were recorded in their poems as if in Pepys’s diary, but neither are those of modern poets; the Romantic ‘I’ is not to be imposed even on Romantics. Yet it is less absurd than its professorial opposite of believing the ancient poets mere mummers in masks, holding forth under false names about alien sensations; rather, the ancients were expressing a oneness with audiences who knew the same feelings, while the moderns are mainly interested in constructing a self.

In discussing female homoeroticism in Sappho, Schmidt makes the usual references to ritual, which might seem to be supported by Alcman’s Partheneion. No doubt it went on in such circumstances (would that we had some poetry from the pubescent Athenian girls undergoing a rite of passage in the so-called bear ritual at Brauron), but to imply that it could not have resulted from private enterprise is to fly in the face of Plato and of common sense, paradoxically united. Why cannot it be taken at face value as easily as its male counterpart?

The implied reader apparently finds ‘rebarbative’ the Homeric poems’ ‘insistently male orientation and address’; yet female critics have found Homer, of all Greek male poets, the most understanding of women, and however masculine the Iliad, Bentley supposed that the Odyssey was intended for a female audience, Butler that it was written by a woman. Schmidt himself calls the female figures ‘compelling and credible’; but why ‘apart from his goddesses and sorceresses’? Is disbelief so hard to suspend? Yet the nature of his readership must excuse much in this book; I hope that it succeeds in opening some eyes both to the worth of Greek poetry and to the necessity of learning Greek.