Alcaeus Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Alcaeus c. 630-20 b.c.–-?

Greek poet.

An acclaimed performer, Alcaeus, who sang his poetry to the accompaniment of a lyre, is also credited with creating a particular type of four-line stanza that bears his name—the Alcaic strophe. A well-known poet in his time, Alcaeus was active in the wars and political struggles of Mytilene, his birthplace, throughout his life. Because of his own and his family's participation in politics, Alcaeus was exiled for several years on at least two occasions. His writings also reflect his political beliefs, employing a forceful, straightforward manner, often characterized by invective against his political enemies, most notably Pittacus, ruler of Mytilene for ten years and deemed one of the Seven Sages of Greece. While much of Alcaeus's work was political in nature, he also wrote love poetry, several lyrics that deal with myths, as well as a volume of hymns to the gods. Frequently mentioned by scholars in conjunction with his friend Sappho, a lyric poet of Lesbos, Alcaeus's poetry exists today only in fragments and in quotes by other writers. The Alcaic strophe influenced the Roman poet Horace, who modified it slightly into what is known as the Horatian stanza, used often in his Odes. In addition to Horace, numerous other poets, both Greek and Roman, used Alcaeus's work as a basis for their own.

Biographical Information

Scholars concur that dates concerning Alcaeus are unreliable and problematic. G. O. Hutchinson states: “We should rest content with locating Alcaeus' activity around the first few decades of the sixth century.” Born around 630-20 b.c. in Mytilene, a city-state on the Greek island of Lesbos, Alcaeus belonged to a prominent aristocratic family. Not much else is known about his life, except that he had at least two brothers, who are remembered for overthrowing, with the help of Pittacus, the tyrant Melanchros. Alcaeus joined Pittacus in battle against the Athenians and once had to ignobly abandon his shield in hasty retreat or be slaughtered. After a peace treaty with Athens, Myrsilus became ruler of Mytilene and Alcaeus and some associates attempted to overthrow him. When the plot failed, Alcaeus was forced to flee to a distant shrine on Lesbos. The years of hardship spent in exile are the subject matter of a number of his poems. Following Myrsilus's death, Mytilene came under the rule of Pittacus. Once again, Alcaeus, who claimed that Pittacus broke an oath to him, was exiled, this time possibly to Egypt. Scholars surmise that he was eventually pardoned and returned to Mytilene. A reference to his gray chest hair is the sole indication that Alcaeus may have reached old age.

Major Works

No single poem by Alcaeus survives in its entirety. The Alexandrians Aristophanes and Aristarchus edited a ten-book set of Alcaeus's works, including hymns and erotic poetry, almost all of which are now lost. What remains of Alcaeus's work may be found in Alkaiou Melé:The Fragments of the Lyrical Poems of Alcaeus (1927), edited by Edgar Lobel, and the later Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta (1955), edited by Edgar Lobel and Denys Page. The shifting fortunes of politics are the chief theme of Alcaeus's writing, with many of the existing fragments full of anger directed at Pittacus. Alcaeus's most famous work likens the state of Mytilene to a ship in peril at sea, tossed by storms and waves.

Critical Reception

Alcaeus was highly regarded by ancient critics. Dionysius of Halicarnassus places him in the company of Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Demosthenes, and other great authors. Quintilian, Cicero, and Demetrius all attest to his excellence, their praises tantalizing modern critics, who have come to accept that Alcaeus's best work is almost certainly lost forever. Placing him in a literary-historical context, Hubert Martin, Jr. stresses the awareness and control demonstrated by the poet: “Alcaeus never allowed himself to be used by the epic tradition when he turned to it for subject matter; he took what he wanted and freely adapted it to his lyric needs and the native verse forms in which he chose to compose.” The majority of Alcaean criticism focuses on literary analysis of his poetry, a task that remains incomplete due to the fragmentary nature of all of Alcaeus's surviving works. G. M. Kirkwood notes, for example, that although Alcaeus had a reputation as an amatory poet, a mere three extant fragments of his work contain any reference to love. Kirkwood deems Alcaeus a spiritual successor to Archilochus, one who continued “his contemporaneity of subject matter and his intensity of self-expression.” Leslie Kurke finds considerable evidence of “stylistic dissonance” in the poems, in which Alcaeus takes “desperate linguistic measures” as a result of his betrayal by Pittacus and what it meant to his sense of the world. Jeffrey Walker analyzes the relation between the work of Alcaeus and his contemporary Sappho, with particular emphasis on the question of their intended audiences. Anne Pippin Burnett writes that in his “art songs,” Alcaeus has created lyrics in which the poet exchanges anger for tranquility and “treats of open and immutable problems, observing the shapes that destiny can take and amusing himself by casting the largest conceivable questions into the tightest of forms.”