The Greek poetic tradition in which Anacreon wrote was a particularly rich one, tracing its origins to the oral songs of the Homeric period. It was in many ways a conservative tradition. It restricted certain genres to specific meters, such as epic to hexameter and invective to iambic, and depended to a great extent on stock epithets, formulas, and vocabulary from Homeric epic. Yet, at the same time, it was a tradition which encouraged experimentation and novelty of expression. Thus, beginning in the late eighth century b.c.e., lyric poetry, distinguished by the use of the first person, blossomed, especially in the Greek cities of Ionia and Aeolia, and produced Archilochus, Sappho, and Alcaeus in the seventh century b.c.e. All of these early lyric poets experimented with a poetic analysis of personal experience and emotion to which the late sixth century b.c.e. Anacreon was heir. While accepting the traditional metrical types and continuing the lyric proclivity toward self-expression and introspection, Anacreon brought to this poetry not so much new emotions and feelings as the skill of a meticulous craftsman who chose his words carefully and knew when to inject exaggeration and humor for the proper effect. Anacreon enriched Greek lyric with the novelties of a poetic experimenter who constantly sought new imagery and approaches for old themes. Certainly the themes of love and wine which dominate Anacreon’s extant poetry are, for the most part, traditional. What is significant about Anacreon is that he strove to express these themes in new contexts and succeeded so well that the novel imagery and contexts he introduced, especially in the realm of love poetry, have generally become the clichés of later generations of poets.
Anacreon’s goal of novelty in a traditional context is demonstrated in 357 P., a prayer to Dionysus. The prayer form had early been recognized to be well suited to lyric expression; these prayers are meant not for public ceremony but for private performance. Sappho’s “Ode to Aphrodite” had already used the prayer poem in a love context with great success, and Anacreon may here be following Sappho. Anacreon’s prayer is divided into two parts: the invocation, in which the deity is addressed and described; and the entreaty, or the request made to the god. Anacreon’s invocation, striking in that it does not mention the god’s name, identifies Dionysus only by his habitual companions and haunts. Dionysus is described as playing on the lofty mountaintops with Eros, nymphs, and Aphrodite. Novelty of expression is achieved by the use of new rather than stock epithets for Dionysus’s companions. While the epithet “subduer,” which Anacreon invents for Eros, is never used again in Greek literature, the concept of Eros as a tamer of men, which Anacreon implies through this epithet, is one which becomes commonplace in later lyric. Anacreon’s descriptions of the nymphs as “blue-eyed” and Aphrodite as “rosy” are noteworthy both because these adjectives had never been applied to these deities before, and because they reflect another characteristic of Anacreon’s style: a fondness for color contrasts. In a very few words, Anacreon is thus able to achieve a vivid, colorful, original description of Dionysus’s world.
This formal invocation is followed by an equally formal entreaty. Anacreon maintains the solemnity of the prayer form here by employing standard expressions of entreaty: “I beseech you,” “come kindly to us,” and “hear our prayer.” The climax to which the poem is leading is the specific request that the poet wants to make; the formality of structure and vocabulary suggests that the request is a serious one. Yet the next phrase, “be a good counselor to Cleobulus,” shows that Anacreon is not serious. Anacreon’s word for “good counselor,” sumbulus, creates a pun on Cleobulus’s name which is difficult to miss, since both Cleobulus and sumbulus are placed at the beginning of their respective lines. The humor of this phrase shatters the solemn tone of the prayer and prepares for the surprise of the last two lines, where Anacreon finally reveals that he is actually praying to Dionysus not for some lofty request, but for aid in a homosexual love affair. The manipulation of the prayer form to suit a love theme is already found in Sappho, but without the change in tone developed here. Sappho maintains in her poem an intensity of emotion which is not found in Anacreon. By adding a pun at the point when he is introducing the love theme, Anacreon emphasizes not his intense emotions but his artistic skill, his ability to control his poem through the careful selection of words.
Cleobulus is featured in several other poems, including 359 P., which again shows Anacreon’s interest in form rather than emotions. This love poem is a sequence of three parallel statements about Anacreon’s...
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