(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Archilochus’s poetry sprang from the rich oral poetic heritage of prehistoric and archaic Greece, and especially of Ionia. It was influenced not only by the impersonal, formulaic, epic tradition ending with Homer, but also by a parallel oral tradition of more personal expression which led, beginning with Archilochus in the mid-seventh century b.c.e., to Greek iambic, elegiac, and lyric poetry. It is probable that the invective mood, animated dialogues, and vivid expression of personal feelings which fill Archilochus’s poems were not inventions of the poet, but rather his inheritance from the iambic and elegiac traditions, which Archilochus utilized in his own distinctive, usually unorthodox, manner. Interaction between the epic and lyric traditions is particularly evident in Archilochus’s poetry, in which the poet not only uses but also often semantically transforms Homeric words, epithets, and even scenes. Archilochus’s poetry is filled with metaphors that are often derived from Homeric, martial sources, but which are abrupt and violent in their poetic context; the much-discussed metaphor of a woman taking a town by storm through her beauty is one example.

Archilochus can also be seen to use conventional themes in unconventional ways: for example, his “On My Shield,” in which he revises traditional military values; his unorthodox propemptikon or “bon voyage” poem (fragment 79a D.), which is really a wish for an evil voyage upon a personal enemy; and his seduction poetry, which has, at least once, in the Cologne Epode, an unconventional climax. His poetry also shows a fondness for animal fables in the tradition of Aesop; Archilochus uses these fables, often in unusual contexts, as brief metaphors or extended allegories. The biographical Archilochus may lie hidden behind the persona of his poetry, but the poetry itself reveals the talents of an original and unorthodox mind whose contributions to the Greek iambic and elegiac traditions are monumental. There may have been a lost “lyric” tradition before Archilochus, but through his personal, first-person poetry a distinctive form of poetic expression developed which lies at the beginning of the European lyric tradition.

The fragments of Archilochus’s work reveal a dynamic poetry which creates, from the vocabulary and themes of the oral epic and iambic traditions, the impression of a personal voice upon which modern lyric poetry is ultimately based. It is especially through his unconventional use of standard words and concepts that Archilochus’s style develops its forceful and unexpected turns of thought and expression. Although critical discussion of Archilochus’s life and poetry may never be free from the controversies occasioned by the lack of primary evidence, enough of his work survives to show his original contributions to the European poetic tradition, especially in the areas of metrical experimentation, iambic or invective poetry, and lyric or first-person expression.

Fragment 67a D.

Fragment 67a D. is a trochaic tetrameter example of the hortatory poem usually expressed in elegiacs and forms part of a thematic group in Archilochus’s poetry on tlesmosyne or “endurance” (fragments 7 D., 68 D., and 58 D.). Significantly, this group is not bound to a particular meter and is composed of both elegiac and trochaic tetrameter. The exhortative theme is distinctive in 67a D. in that it is an introspective address to the poet’s thumos, his “heart,” rather than to another person (such as Glaucus in 68 D.). Address to one’s own thumos and reflection on one’s own state of mind are found in such epics as the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.), but Archilochus’s adaptation of this epic trope to the first-person persona reveals the ability to distance oneself from one’s poetic persona, an ability which is essential to the lyric mode. In 67a D., Archilochus addresses his heart in a military or nautical context, as if his heart is under siege or at sea: “thrown into confusion” (kukőmene); “ward off” (alexou). The vocabulary is Homeric, but the context is original. The poet’s advice to his heart is climaxed in lines four through six with a pair of parallel imperative phrases. The first pair, “don’t in victory openly gloat” and “nor in defeat at home fall in grief,” is balanced not only in sentiment but also in word order, where Greek participial references to victory (nikőn) and defeat (nikētheis) are completed in meter and in sense by the imperative forms “gloat” (agalleo) and “grieve” (odureo). In the second pair of imperative phrases, the emphasis is not so much on the contradictory imperatives “rejoice” (chaire) and “give sorrow” (aschala) or on the objects of these actions, “good fortune” (chartoisin) and “evils” (kakoisin), but on the adverbial qualification of these commands at the beginning of the last line, “at least not excessively” (mē liēn). This plea for moderation in the expression of emotion was a traditional archaic Greek sentiment, best known in the form of the Apollonian dictum “nothing in excess” (mēden agan), but Archilochus sums up this concept, in the rest of the last line, by a final imperative phrase semantically charged in a striking way: “Recognize what a rhythm of order controls human life.”

Archilochus’s use of rhusmos, an Ionic form of the Greek word rhuthmos, is...

(The entire section is 2271 words.)