The First Poets

In 1999, Michael Schmidt published a book titled, like Samuel Johnson’s famous work, Lives of the Poets, covering the development of English poetry and language from Geoffrey Chaucer to Thom Gunn. Ambitious as that undertaking was, at least the existence of its subjects could be proved. Not so with Schmidt’s The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets. The subtitle must not be taken literally, considering how little is known about the preclassical Greek poets, including, in some cases, whether they lived at all.

Undaunted, Schmidt presents verifiable facts when he can, drawing on varied sources, ancient and modernpoets, historians, philosophers, critics, linguists, and archaeologists. While he duly reports on the scientific underpinnings of modern knowledge about ancient literature, he is clearly more interested in people’s beliefs about the past than in what science can prove. He declares, “I wanted to write a book that instructs and entertains, to suggest some of the theoretical and critical issues of the present and earlier ages, but primarily to honour ancient patterns of belief.” Schmidt, himself a poet as well as a scholar, succeeds in that aim by balancing established fact with informed, sometimes inspired, conjecture.

Schmidt seems to be aiming at a general audience, though academic specialists will be interested in his scholarly notes at the book’s end. Before introducing particular “first poets,” the author establishes, for lay readers, the general framework of Greek poetry. First he accounts for the paucity of knowledge about the actual content of the earliest Greek poems: Some of them, such as the work of Stesichorus, survive only as brief passages from long poems, assorted lines or phrases, single words, or sometimes just parts of words. In an introductory section titled “Materials,” Schmidt offers a key explanation as he describes the surviving textsand the materials on which they are written, such as clay and papyrusfrom which modern society draws whatever direct knowledge it has of early Greek poetry.

Modern scholars know much more about ancient Babylonian culture (predating the Greeks by as much as a millennium), which preserved laws and literature on clay, than about the earliest Greek culture, whose poems were transcribed onto papyrus from centuries-old oral tradition. “Without such papyri,” Schmidt notes, “we would have no Greek texts at all. By the middle of the fifth century bc, ’all civilised people’ wrote on papyrus scrolls.” Papyrus scrolls, therefore, represent a more recent period of poetry than do clay tablets, but papyrus is more fragile: The last great library of ancient scrolls burned in Istanbul in 1204 c.e. It is the oldest poetry which has survived the besthaving been inscribed in clay, which is durable to begin with and which hardens during a fire, unlike papyrus. Schmidt also reports that almost all Babylonians were required to be literate, while relatively few Greek men were allowed the privilege. From such observations, the lay reader may learn many new things, while even specialists may be introduced to new insights into familiar facts.

Still laying the foundation for his main subject, Schmidt distinguishes “hot” cultures, in which poetry was always recited and never written down, from “cold” cultures with printed literature. His readers learn that, centuries before they were first written down, epics took poetic form partly because they had to be memorized and recited, and mnemonic devices such as rhythm, meter, and alliteration were conducive to this task. These devices were reinforced by dancing and playing music in time to the recited poetry.

Oral tradition allowed for little or no variation in the words of the epics. In a predominantly Greek culture, illiteracy kept the long-established versions intact. A time then came when, to be preserved in a non-Greek culture, Greek poetry had to be written down in an “official” version. Schmidt notes, “When it reaches Alexandria, poetry comes in out of the sun, it retires to the library, becomes one with its medium, language. And so it survives in a world where the vulgar tongue is not Greek.”

At length, change in the common language brought a change in poetic form. Schmidt describes the difference between quantitative poetic meter, a feature of Greek and Latin verse, and stress meter, characteristic of English-language poetry. (He recommends some good books on meter for the reader who does not speak Greek, though he asserts that, to understand Greek poetic meter fully, one must learn the language.) Quantitative meter works in a vocalic language such as Greek, in which the pronunciation of a long vowel takes about twice as much time as a short vowel. The English Renaissance, with its revival of classical learning, ushered in a vogue for quantitative verse in English, which attracted not only such preeminent...

(The entire section is 2038 words.)