Pindar 518 B.C.-c. 438 B.C.
Pindar has been admired as the supreme lyric poet of Greece since ancient times. His surviving works consist primarily of choral odes celebrating the athletic prowess of victors at the four great Panhellenic games; each displays bold imagery coupled with dazzling verbal virtuosity. Scholars imperfectly understood the epinicion genre, or victory ode, until the 1960s, when they recognized that the treatment of mythological and ethical themes in Pindar's odes derives from an established tradition which reflected the culture and religion of his times. As the most eloquent and original representative of the Greek archaic age, Pindar has been a wellspring of poetic inspiration for centuries.
Little is certain about Pindar's life. He was born in the city of Thebes in the province of Boeotia, where his family belonged to the aristocracy. As a young man, Pindar received training in music and song at Athens, and he wrote his first poem, "Pythian 10," in 498 B.C. for a powerful Thessalian family. During his fifty-year career as a professional poet, Pindar traveled throughout the Greek world and developed a Panhellenic attitude, witnessing the Persian threats to Greek independence in the early fifth century B.C. and the subsequent rise of Athenian democracy and power. Consequently, Pindar achieved renown for his verse; numerous aristocratic patrons regularly commissioned his poetry, most notably Hieron I of Syracuse, members of Sicily's ruling family, and the nobility of the island of Aegina, for which he seemed to have a particular affection. Pindar also immortalized in verse the victors of the Olympic, Nemean, Pythian, and Isthmian games. These events featured athletic competitions and religious festivals, during which a sacred truce was observed throughout the Greek world. Pindar's last surviving work "Pythian 8," which honors the victory of a wrestler from Aegina, was written in 446 B.C. Pindar is said to have died in Argos about 438 B.C. at the age of 80.
Pindar's body of lyric poetry is among the best-preserved of ancient Greece. Although the great library at Alexandria had poems by Pindar of many types, including encomia, hymns, dirges, and paens, only his epinician odes survive intact. These are grouped as Olympian, Nemean, Pythian,
and Isthmian, according to which games the various odes relate. Epinician odes were originally performed to musical accompaniment by a trained chorus who sang and danced, although some recent critics claim that the odes were intended for a soloist. These choral odes feature an intricate metrical and syntactical structure, based on aeolic and dactylo-epitritic rhythms, and follow a conventional pattern of praise (although Pindar so mastered the form their variety is remarkable). Pindar's epinician odes espouse an essentially religious viewpoint, underscoring the poet's belief that talent and success are god-given. Notable among Pindar's forty-four extant odes are the "Olympian 1," which celebrates the victory of Hieron's horse Pherenikos in 476 B.C.; "Olympian 2," which is unique among epinician odes for its theme of reincarnation and judgment after death; and "Olympian 7," which honors Diagoras of Rhodes, an athlete who claimed victory at all four games. "Olympian 8," "Pythian 8," "Nemean 3-8," and "Isthmian 5, 6, 8" relate the heroic stories of Aeacus and his descendants, the mythological forebears of Aegina, while "Isthmian 7" describes the mythical grandeur of Pindar's native Thebes. In addition, a number of fragments of poems survive, including parts of a hymn to Zeus and a paean for Thebes to Apollo.
Highly regarded during his lifetime, after his death Pindar was referred to as an authority by the classical authors Herodotus and Plato. Perhaps a more remarkable indication of Pindar's fame in the ancient world occurred when Alexander the Great ordered his troops to spare Pindar's house during the destruction of Thebes in 335 B.C. His status as the preeminent lyric poet of Greece persisted during the days of the Roman empire, when the poet Horace attempted to imitate Pindar's "Olympian 2" in his Odes, and Vergil imitated "Pythian 1" in his Aeneid. During the Middle Ages Pindar's poems were unknown except in Byzantium. After Aldus Manutius published the first modern edition of the poet's works in Venice in 1513, Italian imitations appeared later that century. Pindar's most eminent Renaissance imitator was the French poet Pierre de Ronsard, whose synthesis of French and Greco-Roman poetry inaugurated a school of elevated lyric verse on the Continent similar to the development of the Pindaric ode in English poetry by such seventeenth-century poets as Abraham Cowley and John Dryden. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Pindar's odes influenced many European poets, notably Thomas Gray, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Friedrich Holderin, and Victor Hugo. Nineteenth-century German scholars elucidated many historical and philological complexities of Pindar's works in an attempt to discover thematic unity in individual odes. By the 1960s the conventions of choral poetry were better understood, and American and English scholars have demonstrated the nature of Pindar's religious outlook, his handling of myth, and the social context of the athletic victors for whom his odes were written. By analyzing individual odes with reference to their social and religious underpinning, late twentieth-century scholars have fostered a new appreciation of Pindar's worldview and imaginative power.
Pindaric Odes (translated by Abraham Cowley) 1656
Pindar in English Verse (translated by Henry Francis Cary) 1823
The Extant Odes of Pindar Translated into English, with an Introduction and Short Notes (translated by Ernest Myers) 1874
The Odes of Pindar (translated by John Sandys) 1915
The Odes of Pindar (translated by Richmond Lattimore) 1947
The Odes of Pindar (translated by C. M. Bowra) 1969
Pindar's Victory Songs (translated by Frank J. Nisetich) 1980
R. W. Livingstone (essay date 1912)
SOURCE: Two Types of Humanism: Pindar and Herodotus." In The Greek Genius and Its Meaning to Us, pp. 139-159. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912, pp. 139-59.
[In the following excerpt, Livingstone comments on Pindar's thought as representative of Hellenism.]
Pindar is writing for the society that existed in the early part of the fifth century; for the society that fought and beat the Persians, conceived the ideal of a united Greek nation, made a few generous, unpractical efforts to achieve it, failed and resigned the attempt. It was a society in which aristocracies were supreme; but Pindar saw democracy arise in one state after another, in some dispossess its hereditary lords, in almost all wage against them internecine war. Of these two great movements, the national and the democratic, there is hardly a trace in him. He has no interest in politics, either at home or abroad; he has no interest in the masses; if anything, a dislike for them. He writes for the rich, the noble, the 'upper classes'; and even here he is limited; his masterpieces were written for those who won athletic victories. It is as if a modern poet should confine himself to Oxford and Cambridge—indifferent to newer universities, indifferent to socialism and the working classes, indifferent to imperialism, to India, Egypt, or the Colonies; and in Oxford should celebrate mainly the exploits of 'blues'. It may seem a narrow field and typical of a narrow mind, and Pindar may appear a bad example of the Greek manysidedness. Yet on the other hand, just because he is not a very profound thinker, he probably represents the way in which an ordinary Greek looked at life, better than any of the great writers except perhaps Herodotus; and the peculiar Hellenic virtues stand out the more vividly against a background of convention.
He leaves us in no doubt as to what he thinks to be the highest happiness, and the enthusiastic Hellenist is apt to be shocked when he comes to Pindar's view of the ideal life. What Pindar covets and admires is no mystic vision of supersensual beauty, no intellectual grasp of abstract truth, but an earthly, tangible, profitable good. To start with, a man should be young and tall and handsome, and have those natural gifts which attract friends, help him to win races at Olympia, put him in a position to enjoy the good things of life, and make him, in a word, a success. He must have ὰγλαόγυιος ῂβη—'glorious-limbed youth'—you could not parallel the phrase outside Greek. The picture of Jason, as he comes down from the Centaur's cave among the forests of Pelion to claim the kingship which was his due, gives a clear notion of Pindar's, and indeed of the Greek, ideal of man. 'So in the fullness of time he came, wielding two spears, a wondrous man; and the vesture that was on him was twofold, the garb of the Magnetes country close fitting to his splendid limbs; but above he wore a leopard's skin to turn the hissing showers; nor were the bright locks of his hair shorn from him, but over all his back ran rippling down. Swiftly he went straight on, and took his stand, making trial of his dauntless soul, in the market-place when the multitude was full.' This is the sort of man Pindar would like you to be.
Then, if you can choose your station in life, be a king—that is the crown and summit of human good. But in any case be rich, and wealth joined to—or in Pindar's expressive phrase, 'enamelled with'—the gifts of nature will make you as secure as a man can be. It will give you chances which the ordinary man has not, it will suppress the deeper cares, and in the end it will bring you to the Paradise of the Just. So at least Pindar implies. A strange key it seems with which to open heaven. And yet there is some sense in Pindar's view; for the possession of wealth puts a man beyond the vulgar temptations of poverty, and it is a law of life that to him that hath more is given. Be rich, be strong, be handsome. This is the Greek grasping after facts, after hard, concrete, physical facts.
But supposing Nature has done her duty, and made you an athlete and a rich man, what of the world into which you are born? It seems a bad world on the whole. Any one glancing through a collection of Pindar's sayings might think them predominantly gloomy. Everywhere death is seen closing up the avenues of prosperity and success which these athletic triumphs open, and Pindar will not let the victor forget that he is putting his festal robes on a body which is mortal, and that at the last he will clothe himself in earth. Even life itself is a dark thing. The poet is oppressed by thoughts of πόυς? and λήθη, the hard work which is necessary to success, the oblivion which so soon and so remorselessly devours it. For man is 'a creature of a day, the dream of a shadow. Then, too, there are the ordinary misfortunes of human life, which Pindar thinks so many that 'heaven allots two sorrows to man for every good thing. Even his heroes are not exempt. Some one of these brilliant victors is in disfavour, or in exile, or has been disappointed of some hope. Perhaps there has been death in his house, or illness is sapping his strength, or old age has ended his triumphs and warns him of the approach of death; and 'there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave whither he goes.' Then, too, there are all those unnumbered hindrances, accidents, and checks to ambition, summed up in the bitter words of the fourth Pythian: 'now this they say is of all griefs the sorest, that one knowing good should of necessity abide without lot therein.' Pindar never holds his tongue about these things, and, if he were a modern, we should call him a pessimist. But he is Greek, and so a page or a line further on, and we are deep in one of those brilliantly coloured, 'purple' descriptions of joy or feasting or adventure of which he is a master, 'moving among feasting and giving up the soul to be young, carrying a bright harp and touching it in peace among the wise of the citizens.
Here is the Greek, determined, as far as he can see it, to tell himself the truth. There is no shirking facts, no pretending that evil is good and death pleasant; there is no attempt even to conceal the fact that such things exist. Yet the existence of evil is no argument for pessimism in Pindar's eyes. The skeleton is indeed brought out to fill his place; but he is only one among the guests at the banquet of life. If the dark days are many, so are the bright, and the wise man enjoys or endures each as it comes.
Many people would criticize Pindar's view of life as earthy, and find fault with a poet who seems to place man, not a little lower than the angels, but rather a little higher than the brutes. Yet no one could call Pindar sordid, for he has the Greek gift, to repeat a phrase, of spiritualizing material things. The joys of feasting, for instance, play some considerable part in him (they were, then as now, the sequel to athletic contests). But they are viewed in a glory of ideal light, not as the mere filling of the belly, butas εύфρoσύυη, 'cheerfulness,' as ìερòυ εύξωαs άωτoν, 'the sacred blossom of joyous living.' English keeps traces of the same thought in phrases like 'good cheer' and 'good living,' but they have long since sunk into synonyms for gluttony; in Pindar the good fellowship remains more than the good food, as we see in the description of the brilliant company of poets and statesmen at the table of Hiero. 'They celebrate the son of Kronos, when to the rich and happy hearth of Hiero they are come; for he wieldeth the sceptre of justice in Sicily of many flocks, culling the choice fruits of all kinds of excellence; and with the flower of music is he made splendid, even such strains as we sing blithely at the table of a friend.
No, it is not sordid, nor, if life is to be regarded from a purely human point of view, is it wrong. At any rate even the most aspiring idealists have at times their human moments, and there are few who will not find it refreshing after reading Carlyle or some other mystic prophet, till the head grows dizzy and numb with the thought of the mystery of life and of man wandering between two eternities, to take up Pindar and read, set out in a flaming glory of language, this sober, commonplace philosophy of the earth on which we live.
Probably the more we have said about Pindar, the more unfitted he has seemed to illustrate theview of Hellenism….[:] the Greek united to his love of physical excellence a love of, and respect for, the things of the mind. And now, to illustrate this theory, we have hit upon a poet, who has the Greek truthfulness and the Greek love of personal beauty and of concrete things, but who has so far shown no sign of the Greek love of reason. Pindar, to judge from what we have seen of him, appears to have had a very commonplace intellect, and to have compensated for intellectual commonplaceness, as a man by a passion for athleticism, as a poet by a rich sense of beauty.
True Pindar has not a first-class intellect; he has no speculative power at all; and though much of his poetry is sudden and dazzling like lightning, its flashes do not illuminate the depths of human nature. Yet Pindar is more philosophical than at first appears. He has an elaborate intellectual theory of life, is clearly very pleased with it, and loses no opportunity of preaching it. He may not be speculative in the sense in which Plato and the dramatists are speculative, but like all his race he felt the need for some rational account of things. Hence a philosophy. Its catchwords sound meaningless (so do Election, Reprobation. Justification by Works or by Grace); but that is only because we have outgrown the phraseology, and use clearer or ampler language to express our meaning. The meaning is modern, if not the words.
Let us take a fragment of this philosophy—Pindar's account of evil. Our misfortunes, he thinks, are due to three causes. First comes the nature of the universe, in which death and old age are inevitable, and some people are born weak or sickly; in which accidents happen that no one can foresee or avert. That is Μοι̑ρα̖̑, Fate, which sends evil not of our seeking and beyond our control. It is no use our complaining or rebelling against it. Death and old age have to be frankly accepted—as the tyrant of Syracuse had to accept them; ὰσθενεȋ μέν Χρωτὶ βᾴίνωνε άλλὰ μoιρίδιoν νῇ, 'walking with sick body, yet so it was fated to be. Then there are the evils which we bring on ourselves, by arrogance or vice or some other sin; and these are due to "ϒβριϚ, the Insolence of man. Finally there are the evils which cannot be put down to either of these causes, which are not of God, yet for which we can hardly blame ourselves. An upright, patriotic citizen is banished; his very virtue makes it impossible for him to live peaceably with his neighbours, and keeps him out of office and power. What is the malign influence which works against him but Φθνоς, Envy;Μоȋρᾳ̑, "ϒβρις, Φθνоς, the three sources of our mis-fortunes; how could we improve on the definition, except by a change of words? What is the remedy for these evils? For illness? doctors, medicine: but there are many evils which they never cure. For "ϒβριoς? repentance and amendment: but the evil done may be irreparable. For Φ θ θoς? it is difficult to find any remedy for that, except Pindar's general remedy for them all, Xρᾳρoς, Time. A slow remedy and one sometimes overtaken by death; but is there any other which is effective? S. Paul, perhaps, might have said ύπoμoνᾑ, 'patient endurance'; but that is only putting the same idea in a profounder and more personal way.
So, after all, Pindar serves to illustrate our point; a common-place intellect; interests which might well have crowded out intellectual things, and certainly do not encourage them; yet a complete philosophy; not profound, in some ways crude, but carefully thought out, elaborately rounded off, and perhaps not so very inadequate or contemptible.
Lawrence Henry Baker (essay date 1923)
SOURCE: "Some Aspects of Pindar's Style." ne Sewanee Review, Vol. 31, No. 1,January-March, 1923, pp. 100-110.
[In the essay below, Baker discusses the figurative language, meters, rhetoric, and myths that comprise the style of Pindar's odes."]
There was once a time when Pindar was regarded by moderns as a queer jumble of contests, of gnomic sayings, of myths, and of almost arrogant self-esteem. The blending of all these elements—if not the very reason for presenting them in poetry at all—was not easily to be explained; and men long held, therefore, that Pindar was not only difficult but also of questionable value. The discovery of the works of Bacchylides, in 1896, however, helped greatly to change this feeling. Bacchylides is far easier to follow than is Pindar, and very much more translucent; therefore he furnished a simpler model whereby to study Pindar's department, namely that of Choral-Lyric—the lyric written for the song and the dance. A comparison of the two poets has thrown much light on what was not so clear before, and has proved what was previously suspected—that many of the striking peculiarities of Pindar are manifestations of the tradition and precedent of his department.
But the removal of the departmental difficulties could not sufficiently lighten the task of reading Pindar to make him more generally studied. The individualistic and personal difficulties remained behind; so that we may call Pindar one of the infrequently read classical authors, and one who beyond a limited circle of Greek students is to-day practically unknown.
Pindar's fame in Greece was unquestionably greater, and his circle of readers larger than it is in the modern world, although we can hardly ascribe to him all the popularity which Plutarch, whose frequent quotation from Pindar, a fellow-citizen of Bœotia, would lead us to think he had. The very nature of his choicest compositions, the Epinicia, or Songs of Victory, which were written to celebrate the rewards of success in contests at the great national festivals at Olympia, Delphi, Corinth, and Nemea, was such as to preclude the possibility of very wide circulation. Admirable works of art though they are, the epinicia were not entirely floods of poetic inspiration which burst the gates of the poet's restraint and demanded expression merely for expression's sake. Inspired they were; but unfortunately the inspiration was often the yellow light of gleaming gold, or the exultant hope of favor and patronage. Each epinicion was written to celebrate a given man's success. It was of particular interest, therefore, to him and his immediate circle alone; and if we add to this fact that in each instance the man celebrated was a member of the Greek aristocracy, we can see an even greater limitation placed upon the number of Pindar's hearers or readers. Much has been written about the poet's art of making a national event out of a given patron's victory; but the personal theme of his poetry certainly made for narrowness of appeal, even though we must admit that Pindar's treatment of a specific victory proceeds on broad and general lines calculated not to end in the immediate family of the victor.
The ancients have agreed with the moderns as to the problem which Pindar presented to the reader. To the writers on Greek rhetoric who flourished in the post-classical period, when men were too busy learning the intricacies of classical Attic to write anything original, he stood largely as a representative of the rugged style of composition—merely a specimen to be collected and put into the same preserving-jar with Thucydides, his counterpart in prose. Some modern critic dubbed Pindar "the scholar's poet"; and the evil effects of this name he has never been able to live down. Few people now read him, and fewer still are intimately familiar with him, largely, perhaps, because of the fact that he has come to be surrounded in the minds of most modern students with an aura of exoticism which they fancy requires for its penetration too much of the primitive element that Hesiod prescribed for the ascent to Arete—namely, hard work.
That Pindar is difficult to read is not to be denied; for the student who has been reading the carefully constructed, smooth, easily-flowing sentences of Lysias, for example, would find a decidedly painful contrast in Pindar. These two are—in addition to the fact that one is a prose writer, the other a poet—quite widely removed in their positions in Greek style. Lysias is perhaps the world's finest master of the art that conceals art; and in his works will be found passages that read along as smoothly and easily as the imperceptible current of a mighty river—passages that for all their apparent guilelessness are the despair of imitators. Lysias is a strikingly excellent illustration of clear, transparent writing; whereas Pindar typifies the style which the ancients themselves regarded as harsh—the αυστηρός αρμoνία, or the severe style.
The troublesome characteristics of Pindar could perhaps be best described by giving an account of the ᾀυστηρό αρμoνία. This is a style in which the virile, concept-bearing noun predominates at the expense of the lighter, more unifying verb. Juxtaposition of ideas is far more frequent than a predication facilitated by means of the copula; and a rugged massing of substantives almost beats into our minds the thought that seems to lie under, through, and over them all, yet not in any single one of these substantives.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a writer of the time of Augustus, and perhaps the greatest student of literary style in all ages, has made an unsurpassable analysis of this severe manner of composition. In elucidation I quote him as follows:—
It [the austere style] requires that the words should be like columns firmly planted and placed in strong positions, so that each word should be seen on every side, and that the parts should be at appreciable distances from one another, being separated by perceptible intervals. It does not in the least shrink from using frequently harsh sound-clashings which jar on the ear; like blocks of building-stone that are laid together unworked, blocks that are not square and smooth, but preserve their natural roughness and irregularity. It is prone for the most part to expansion by means of great spacious words. It objects to being confined to short syllables, except under occasional stress of necessity.
In respect of the words, then, these are the aims which it strives to attain, and to these it adheres. In its clauses it pursues not only these objects, but also impressive and stately rhythms, and tries to make its clauses not parallel in structure or sound, nor slaves to a rigid sequence, but noble, brilliant, free. It wishes them to suggest nature rather than art, and to stir emotion rather than to reflect character. And as to periods, it does not, as a rule, even attempt to compose them in such a way that the sense of each is complete in itself: if it ever drifts into this accidentally, it seeks to emphasize its own unstudied and simple character, neither using any supplementary words which in no way aid the sense, merely in order that the period may be fully rounded off, nor being anxious that the period should move smoothly or showily, nor nicely calculating them so as to be just sufficient (if you please) for the speaker's breath, nor taking pains about any other such trifles. Further, the arrangement in question is marked by flexibility in its use of the cases, variety in the employment of figures, few connections; it lacks articles; it often disregards natural sequence; it is anything rather than florid, it is aristocratic, plainspoken, unvarnished; an old-world mellowness constitutes its beauty.
Other critics, men who have been farther removed in time from Pindar than was Dionysius, and who, accustomed from childhood to other tongues, knew far less Greek than didhe, have substituted the term archaism for his old-world mellowness; but the substitution has brought a loss rather than a gain. To call Pindar archaic is to admit an ignorance of the conventions of his department, or to overlook the fact that he post-dates Homer, who is always modern, and that he is the contempory of Aischylos, who stands at the bud and flower of Greece's prime. The term archaic, in plastic art, has come to be applied to works characterized by adherence to the law of frontality and by the 'type' manner of production prevalent before the work of Myron. It is doubtful whether Pindar fits in this category; for, although his extant poems are types of epinicia, they are not the whole of his productions. Besides, their language and metres are greatly diversified; and this term which fills a prominent place in material art, has but doubtful significance when applied to literature.
The language of Pindar is somewhat responsible for the "old-world mellowness" that is to be found in his works. It is not Theban, as a recent author seems to imagine, who asserts that Bœotia developed stiffness and bombast, whereas Athens produced grace and ease. It is not bombastic language, nor yet is it characterized by Athenian fluency. It is, rather, a language remotely comparable to that of Spenser, a literary vehicle, and no spoken speech at all. Aischylos has said that his dreams were the τεμάχη, or scraps, from the feast of Homer; and Pindar, as well as all the other poets—and not a few prose writers of Greece—partook heavily of the fare of their blind host. Pindar's language is a mixture of the Epic, Æolic, and Doric dialects, each of these elements varied according to the mood of the particular poem. Perhaps the Doric seems more in evidence than the other dialects; but this predominance can be naturally explained as caused by the handling of Stesichorus, the Doric pioneer in choral-lyric.
To the variations according to mood must be added the variations according to the personality of the poet. It is to be remembered that Pindar was a member of the aristocracy, who would, on the one hand, feel the right to assume a lofty and terse diction, and, on the other, would feel himself not bound to avoid giving offence. He is conscious of the security of his position, and for that reason does not recoil from expressing the commonplace, even the unseemly.
Another matter which has contributed to the difficulty of reading Pindar is the intricacy of the metres which he uses. The division of his works into their metres and cola has come down to us in a long tradition based upon metrical scholia which show the influence of Hephæstion and Aristoxenus. This tradition was discarded by the scholar Boeckh (1811-21), who in turn was followed by Schmidt, with his neat systématisation of the poems. Schmidt is perhaps best known to students to-day through John Williams White's translation of his Rhythmic and Metric, in 1878. Probably the latest scansion of Pindar which has sought authenticity by publication is that of Schroeder, 1908. That none of these treatments has been universally accepted in toto is attested by the fact that Professor Wilamowitz has what he considers some improvements upon them in his latest work on Greek metrics. We may say that the odes of Pindar are composed in dactylo-epitrite, logacedic, and paionian rhythms; but unfortunately the former two of these terms are now involved in dispute, so that our information is not as enlightening as it seems. Whatever may be the technical term applied to his rhythms, however, a sympathetic reading of the poems, with due regard for long and short syllables, will make one feel their movement; and it will do more than this—it will bring out the mood of each poem.
Possibly Pindar's metres, possibly the dictates of his department, and possibly his personality alone will account for the characteristics of his poems. Of any one of these we know less than we might wish; but we can draw our inferences from his works. We have said that his personality was aristocratic. The conventions of his department have been surveyed by Dornseiff, who seems to think that the purpose of choral-lyric was largely to convey the effect of turgidity and bombast. This, however, can hardly be considered a sympathetic view. We should be fairer to Pindar if we adhered more closely to the information given by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. In Pindar we find a large rhetorical element; but this element is in keeping with the ᾲὐστηρoòς άρμονίᾳ̑. It is not the art which smooths away all difficulties from the path of the reader; but it is the art in which the author solicits the help of the reader and makes him a co-worker in the elaboration of his ideas.
The diction of Pindar is lofty and elevated, with much fullness. As would be expected, circumlocution occurs very frequently. There is seen in it an influence of the speech of the Delphic priests, who, more because they were guided by traditional and religious impulses than because they sought to insure a means of escape, if their prophecies failed, refrained from calling a spade a spade, but resorted to giving descriptions of the objects meant in their divinations.
As in sentence structure Pindar shows a fondness for coördination, so in his arrangement of words, coördination prevails. The chief indication of its presence here is a large use of apposition, which often comes to equal the use of a comparison without ώς, or some sign of the simile.
Similes and perhaps all the figures known to rhetoricians are present in the odes of Pindar; and his diction may be called highly figurative and imaginative. Manifold are the objects which serve as the basis for these figures; but the very first strophe of the "First Olympian Ode" will present the best epitome of Pindar's favorite objects of comparison. Here we find water, gold, gleaming fire, lordly wealth, the sun that shines by day, the stars that gleam at night, the broad expanse of the sky or the ether. Pindar's love for figures which portray flashing brilliance and masterly swiftness has been the subject of much consideration, the outcome of which has been to attribute this predilection to his aristocratic inheritance. The aristocrat must be rich and strong; and brilliant display and swiftness are manifestations of wealth and strength.
The Odes of Pindar are so strongly ornamented with figures that their author has often been charged with mixing his metaphors. Dornseiff seems to find in him figures that coil and uncoil about one another, and are extremely difficult to follow:—
Pindar is continually mingling picture and reality, or is continually hovering back and forth between the concept and the portrayal, between the object itself and a pretty veil for the object. The archaic tendency to strong metaphorical speech is so intensified in Pindar that his figures cross each other so frequently as to make it difficult to see the end of his flourishes.
To me, the term archaic used here is odious; and I feel that we should do better to maintain toward this apparent shortcoming of the poet the attitude stated by Professor Gildersleeve. Pindar slides from view to view with great rapidity; and his quick succession of figures is but another objective indication of his love of swiftness. Perhaps, too, his readers have read into him a fault by taking his asyndeton as the result of omission rather than of commission.
In considering Pindar's work, we must not pass over the general form of the epinicion itself. Each of these songs of victory was merely another variation of the same theme, in which the conventions of the department seemed to dictate that there should be four elements—namely, the personal, the hymnic, the gnomic, and the epic-mythical.
The personal element, of course, consisted in the giving of publicity and praise to the victor who commissioned the poet. This element certainly must have severely menaced the artistic perfection of the whole poem; but if the given hero were sufficiently famous, or traced his genealogy back to a member of the Pantheon, as most of them seem to have done, then this element furnished an approach to the poet's business of making the poem rise to the height of general and abiding interest.
The holding of the games was not merely Greece's means of surmounting the difficulty caused by the absence of modern clocks to mark the flight of time, as I was once told by a freshman studying Ancient History; but it was the expression of religious impulses. Back of the pleasure, joy, or fame that either the spectator or contestants gained, there was the feeling that all present were convened to do honor to some potent patron and deity. The poem which celebrated a victory won at any of these games must not entirely overlook the rendering of honor to the god whose worship gave the victor the opportunity to cover himself with glory. For this reason, we find scattered through the poems words of praise for the gods—for Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon, and Heracles. Sometimes the hymnic element takes the form of a proemium.
Pindar is particularly rich in gnomic expression; but in this respect he merely emphasizes the general tendency of ancient literature, which is rarely free from the morally didactic strain. According to him, "If any man hopeth to escape the eye of God, he is grievously wrong"; "Few have gained pleasure without toil"; "Wealth adorned with virtues is the true light of man"; "The truly wise is he that knoweth much by gift of nature"; "Praise is attacked by envy." Sometimes the outlook on life is somewhat melancholy, for the "Second Olympian" tells us:—
Verily, for mortal men at least, the time when their life will end in the bourne of death is not clearly marked; no, nor the time when we shall bring a calm day, the Sun's own child, to its close amid happiness that is unimpaired.
And the "Eighth Pythian" adds to this the mournful reflection that "man is but the dream of a shadow", a statement which Shakespeare seems to echo in Hamlet, in the form, "Man is but the shadow of a dream." We are given the consolation, however, that "Under the power of noble joys, a cruel trouble is quelled and dieth away, whenever good fortune is lifted on high by a god-sent fate." The melancholy is that of the man who sees life as no bright, sweet dream; but who, on the other hand, is willing to take the bitter with the sweet and to stand up like a man against the trial that will prove his true genuineness. There is in Pindar nothing that approaches the morbid, sentimental melancholia which Thomson shows in his City of Dreadful Night.
The mythic element of the epinicion is perhaps that which gives cohesion to the whole structure, and for most people adds the strongest touch of beauty. The tendency used to be to ascribe the presence of the myth to the epic influence; but now we reverse the process because we think that there can be detected in choral-lyric the rudiments of the old heroic sagas which must have preceded the epic. In the growth of poetry, lyric must have preceded the other departments; but our evidence shows that the order of crystallization of the departments must have been epic, lyric, drama. Hence there may be some truth in the above statement; and the epic, instead of affecting, shows effects itself.
The "Fourth Pythian" is Pindar's greatest poem, both in size and in Æsthetic appeal. It deals with the Argonautic expedition, and is a famous handling of an epic theme in a lyric manner. Next to this I personally like the "Second Olympian," the "Eighth Pythian," and the "First Olympian," in the order named.
The appreciation of Pindar has varied somewhat with the ages. Dionysius of Halicarnassus remarks apropos of a dithyrambic fragment of Pindar's:—
These lines are vigorous, weighty, and dignified, and are marked by much severity of style. Though rugged, they are not unpleasantly so, and though harsh to the ear, are only so in due measure. They are slow in their rhythm, and present broad effects of harmony, and they exhibit not the showy and decorative prettiness of our own day, but the severe beauty of a distant past.
Horace says of Pindar that he—
is like a river rushing down from the mountains and over-flowing its banks. He is worthy of Apollo's bay, whether he rolls down new words through daring dithyrambs, or sings of gods and kings, or of those whom the palm of Elis makes inhabitants of heaven, or laments some youthful hero and exalts to the stars his prowess, his courage, and his golden virtue.
And Quintilian declares that—
Of lyric poetry Pindar is the peerless master, in grandeur, in maxims, in figures of speech, and in the full stream of eloquence.
Ronsard, 1550, wrote a number of odes to show le moyen de suivre Pindare; and this action was followed by a long succession of English poets who adopted what they considered to be the Pindaric method of constructing odes,—Cowley and Shadwell in the seventeenth century, and Congreve and Gray in the eighteenth.
In his Progress of Poesy Gray, indeed, speaks of the pride and the ample pinion—
That the Theban eagle bear
Sailing with supreme dominion
Thru the azure deep of air.
Matthew Arnold had a high opinion of Pindar, and paid him the compliment of imitating him in passages. "Pindar," he says, "is the poet above all others on whom the power of style seems to have exercised an inspiring and intoxicating effect." His Merope is a copy of Pindar's ["Olympian VI"] and his eagle who—
Droops all his sheeny, brown, deep-feathered neck,
Nestling nearer to Jove's feet,
While o'er his sovereign eye
The curtains of the blue films slowly meet,
is from the "First Pythian" of Pindar.
Tennyson said of Pindar: "He is a sort of Australian poet; has long tracts of gravel with immensely large nuggets imbedded." Voltaire thought of Pindar only as "the inflated Theban"; but even these characterizations were less unkind than the remarks of those who saw in Pindar's lyric flights the crude gambols of a mastodon.
Fortunately, however, some scholars and critics—unprofessional as well as professional—have found Pindar to possess charm and grace in his massive gambols. Delicacy, smoothness, ease are not his; but he has a satisfying substantiality which is at once welcomed by the mind capable of understanding him. Translation of him is, at best, but a travesty; but a reading and re-reading of him in the original Greek is like successive hearings of Wagnerian music—one thinks it strange at first, but finds in it new enjoyment at each successive hearing.
Edith Hamilton (essay date 1930)
SOURCE: "Pindar, the Last Aristocrat." In The Great Age of Greek Literature, pp. 85-103. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
[In the following essay, Hamilton relates Pindar's poetic achievement as the greatest interpreter of the Greek aristocracy at its greatest moment.]
"Pindar astounds," says Dr. Middleton in The Egoist, "but Homer brings the more sustaining cup. One is a fountain of prodigious ascent; the other, the unsounded purple sea of marching billows."
The problem anyone faces who would write about Pindar is how to put a fountain of prodigious ascent into words. Homer's unsounded purple sea is in comparison easy to describe. Homer tells a great story simply and splendidly. Something of his greatness and simplicity and splendor is bound to come through in any truthful account of him; the difficult thing would be to obscure it completely. The same is true of the tragedians. The loftiness and majesty of their thoughts break through our stumbling attempts at description no matter how little is left of the beauty of their expression. Even translation does not necessarily destroy thoughts and stories. Shelley's poet
could be turned into another tongue without a total loss.
But this kind of poetry is at the opposite pole to Pindar's. Hopes and fears unheeded by the world he lived in were never his. The light of thought shed no glory of new illumination upon his mind. Such thinking as he did went along conventional, ready-made channels and could have moved no one to sympathy except the most stationary minds of his day. Nevertheless he was a very great poet. He is securely seated among the immortals. And yet only a few people know him. The band of his veritable admirers is and always has been small. Of all the Greek poets he is the most difficult to read, and of all the poets there ever were he is the most impossible to translate. George Meredith with his fountain of prodigious ascent gives half of the reason why. So, too, does Horace, who paints essentially the same picture of him:
Pindar is all that. One feels "life abundantly" within him, inexhaustible spontaneity, an effortless mastery over treasures of rich and incomparably vivid expression, the fountain shooting upward, irresistible, unforced—and beyond description. But in spite of this sense he gives of ease and freedom and power, he is in an equal degree a consummate craftsman, an artist in fullest command of the technique of his art, and that fact is the other half of the reason why he is untranslatable. His poetry is of all poetry the most like music, not the music that wells up from the bird's throat, but the music that is based on structure, on fundamental laws of balance and symmetry, on carefully calculated effects, a Bach fugue, a Beethoven sonata or symphony. One might almost as well try to put a symphony into words as try to give any impression of Pindar's odes by an English transcription.
We ourselves know little about that kind of writing. It is impossible to illustrate Pindar's poetry from English poetry. Metre was far more important to the Greeks than it is to us. That may seem a strange assertion. The rhythmic beauty and lovely sound of the verse of countless English poets is one of the characteristics we think most of in them. Even so, it is true that the Greeks thought more of metrical perfections. They would have in their poetry balanced measure answering measure, cunningly sought correspondence of meaning and rhythm; they loved a great sweep of varied movement, swift and powerful, yet at the same time absolutely controlled. The sound is beautiful in
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang
Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave
Nevertheless Shakespeare and Milton are painters with words more than they are master craftsmen in metrical effects. "A poem is the very image of life," Shelley said. No Greek poet would have thought about his art like that, hardly more than Bach would about his. The English-speaking race is not eminently musical. The Greek was, and the sound of words meant to them something beyond anything we perceive. Pindar's consummate craftsmanship, which produces the effect upon the ear of a great sweep of song, cannot be matched in English literature.
But Kipling has something akin to him. The swift movement and the strong beat of the measure in some of his poems come nearer than anything else we have—if not to Pindar himself, at any rate to what an English reader unversed in the intricacies of musical composition can get from him. Compare
That night we stormed Valhalla, a million years ago—
with the two lines just quoted from Shakespeare and Milton, and Kipling's characteristic speed of movement and strength of stress become evident. Pindar could be as stately as Shakespeare and Milton on occasion; he could do anything he chose with words, but the measures he preferred have the sweep and lift Kipling shows so often:
In such lines the rhythm is of first importance. What they say is not of any especial consequence; the great movement holds the attention. The lines stay in the mind as music, not thoughts, and that is even truer of Pindar's poetry. His resources of vivid and beautiful metrical expression are immensely greater than Kipling's, and the compass of his music, too. The mirror Kipling holds up to him is a tiny thing; nevertheless we shall not find a better. It is worthy of note that Kipling himself declared that he was one of the little band of Pindar's lovers:
Me, in whose breast no flame hath burned
Life-long, save that by Pindar lit.
If Pindar's poetry is, when all is said and done, indescribable and his thoughts merely conventional, it would seem superfluous to write about him. It is anything but that to one who wants to understand Greece. Pindar is the last spokesman for the Greek aristocracy and the greatest after Homer. The aristocratic ideal, so powerful in shaping the Greek genius, is shown best of all in his poetry.
He was an aristocrat by race and by conviction, born in the late sixth century when aristocracy in Greece was nearing its end. The first democracy in the world was coming to birth in Athens. Pindar was the figure upon which much romantic pity and sympathy have been expended—the champion of a dying cause. The man who fights for a new cause does not receive that tribute. He is up against the immense force of stubborn resistance the new always arouses. He must give battle without trumpets and drums and with the probability that he will not live to see the victory. Indeed he cannot be sure that there will ever be a victory. Nevertheless he is far more to be envied than the man who tries to turn the tide back; and that is what Pindar did.
To judge him fairly one must consider what the ideal was that produced the aristocratic creed. It was founded upon a conception altogether different from the one behind tyranny, of all power in the hands of a single man. The tyrants departed from Greece unlamented, and never to be revived again even in wishful thinking, except for Plato's rulers who were to be given absolute power only upon the condition that they did not want it, a curious parallel to the attitude prescribed by the early Church. A man appointed to the episcopacy was required to say—perhaps still must say, forms live so long after the spirit once in them is dead—"I do not want to be a bishop. Nolo episcopari." To the Fathers of the Church as to Plato, no one who desired power was fit to wield it.
But the case for the aristocracy was different. In the aristocratic creed, power was to be held by men who alone were immune to the temptations that beset, on the one hand, those struggling tobe powerful and, on the other, those struggling to survive. The proper leaders of the world, the only ones who could be trusted to guide it disinterestedly, were a class from generation to genera tion raised above the common level, not by self-seeking ambition, but by birth; a class which a great tradition and a careful training made superior to the selfish greed and the servile meanness other men were subject to. As a class they were men of property, but position was not dependent upon wealth. The blood ran as blue in the veins of the poor noble as in the rich, and precedence was never a mere matter of money. Thus, absolutely sure and secure, free from the anxious personal preoccupations which distract men at large, they could see clearly on the lofty eminence they were born to, what those lower down could not catch a glimpse of, and they could direct mankind along the way it should go.
Nor was their own way, the aristocratic way, by any means a path of ease. They had standards not accessible to ordinary men, standards well-nigh impossible to men obliged to fight for their daily bread. An aristocrat must not tell a lie (except in love and war); he must keep his word, never take advantage of another, be cheated in a bargain rather than cheat by so much as a hair's breadth. He must show perfect courage, perfect courtesy, even to an enemy; a certain magnificence in the conduct of his life, a generous liberality as far as his means could be stretched, and he must take pride in living up to this severe code. Aristocrats subjected themselves as proudly and willingly to the exacting discipline of the gentleman as they did to the rigid discipline of the warrior. High privilege was theirs, but it was weighted by great responsibility. The burden of leadership lay upon them; they must direct and protect the unprivileged. Nobility of birth must be matched by nobility of conduct.
This was the creed of the aristocracy. Theoretically it is impeccable. Men placed by birth in a position where disinterestedness was easy were trained from childhood to rule other men for their greater welfare. Purely as a theory there is not another that can compete with it, except the one that all men are to be enabled to be disinterested, trained to be rulers, not of others, but each of his own self, and all interdependent, equally bound to give help and to accept it. This Utopia, the merest dream so far, is the only conception that surpasses or even matches the conception of authority in the hands of the disciplined best. But most unfortunately for the world it did not work. There was no fault with the idea, only with its supporters. It was never allowed to work by those who upheld it. That is beyond dispute to us to-day. From the first moment that we catch sight of it in history it is a failure. Class privilege has become class prejudice, if it had ever been anything else; inherited power creates a thirst for acquiring more power; nobility of birth has no connection with spiritual nobility. The aristocrats always failed every time they had their chance. Their latest embodiment, the English House of Lords, endowed by birth with all the best the world could give—power, riches, reverential respect—fought throughout the nineteenth century with almost religious resolution every attempt to raise the condition, the wages or education, of the agricultural laborer.
We all know that by now; but Pindar did not. He believed that the great had and would use their power for the benefit of others. His poems express to perfection and for the last time in Greek literature the class consciousness of the old Greek aristocracy, their conviction of their own lofty moral and religious value. It has often been pointed out that the perfect expression of anything means that that thing has reached its culmination and is on the point of declining. La clarté parfaite, n'est elle pas le signe de la lassitude des idées? The statue of the man throwing the discus, the charioteer at Delphi, the stern young horsemen of the Parthenon frieze, and the poetry of Pindar—all show the culmination of the great ideal Greek aristocracy inspired just before it came to an end: physical perfection which evokes mysteriously the sense of spiritual perfection. Every poem Pindar wrote is a tribute to that union.
The games, the great games, had belonged time out of mind to the aristocrats. Only they had money enough and leisure enough to undergo the strenuous discipline of the athlete for the reward of a crown of wild olives. When Pindar lived, the bourgeois were beginning to take part in them, but professionalism had net yet come into being. Almost all his poems that we have are songs in honor of a noble victor at one of the four chief games—the Pythian near Delphi, the Isthmian at Corinth, the Nemean in Argolis, and, most glorious of all, the Olympic at Olympia. These triumphal odes are written in a way peculiar to Pindar. No other poems that praise physical achievement, poems of battle and adventure and the like, bear the least resemblance to them, and it is Pindar's creed as an aristocrat that marks them out. Anyone who has not read him would expect his songs to centre in the encounter he celebrates, to describe the thrilling scene when the chariots went whirling down the race course, or the light flashing feet of the runners carried them past the breathless crowd, or two splendid young bodies locked together in the tension of the wrestling match. Nothing light was at stake. A victory meant the glory of a lifetime. The soul-stirring excitement together with the extreme beauty of the spectacle would seem to give a theme fitted to the heart's desire of a poet. But Pindar dismisses all of it. He hardly alludes to the contest. He describes nothing that happened. A good case could be made out for his never having been present at a game. He sings praises to a victor and he disdains to mention a detail of the victory. His attention is fixed upon the young hero, not upon his achievement. He sees him as the noble representative of the noble, showing in himself the true ideal for humanity. He sees him as a religious figure, bringing to the god in whose honor the game was held the homage of a victory won by the utmost effort of body and spirit. What did this or that outside event matter—the way a horse ran or a man, or the way they looked, or the way they struggled? Pindar was glorifying one who had upheld the traditions of the great past upon which all the hope of the world depended.
In all his odes there is a story of some hero of old told with solemnity. The hero of the present, the victor, is pointed back to what men in other ages did and so shown what men in future ages could do. Pindar gives him a model upon which to form himself and make himself fit to join the august company of the noble dead. Pindar in his own eyes had a mission to the world lofty enough to employ worthily the great endowments of genius and noble blood he had been born to. He was the preacher and the teacher divinely appointed to proclaim the glory of the golden past and to summon all the nobly born and the highly placed to live their own lives in the light of that glory. This was his great charge, and no man on earth, however powerful, could make him think himself inferior. He felt not the slightest degree of subserviency. He spoke to his patron invariably as one equal to another. So they were in his eyes. In point of birth, they were both aristocrats; in point of achievement, the glory of an Olympic victory did not surpass the glory of his poetry. When summoned to Sicily to make an ode in honor of one or another of the mighty tyrants there who often competed in the games, he would admonish him and exhort him exactly as he would any lesser noble. Indeed, in the many poems he wrote to Hieron the Magnificent, the tyrant of Syracuse, he speaks more plainly even than elsewhere. "Become what you really are," he bids the great ruler. Pindar will show him his true self and spur him not to sink below it. "Be straight-tongued"—in the old aristocratic tradition, which is ever "in harmony with God, and shoulder the yoke which God has laid upon you."
There is nothing quite so unique in literature as these solemn admonitory poems dedicated to the praise of a powerful ruler and a popular hero crowned in an athletic victory, and written in a way that is the very reverse of the popular, never condescending to one word of flattery. "Wherefore seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with patience the race that is set before us." Something like that Pindar said to his victorious athletes, and no other poems written to praise an exploit, athletic or military or of any sort, ever said anything in the least like that—as witness all the poets laureate.
He is different from them all. His subjects were chosen for him just as theirs were, and no doubt he too was paid for his poems; but these were matters of no importance to him. The thing that mattered was that he always would and could write exactly as he pleased. His odes were written at command, but how they were written was his affair alone. He was loftily sure of his own position. There never was a writer more proudly conscious of superiority. He is "an eagle soaring sunward," he declares, while below him the other poets "vainly croak like ravens," or "feed low like chattering crows." His odes are "radiant blossoms of song"; "an arrow of praise that will not miss the mark"; they are "a torch, a flame, a fiery dart"; "a golden goblet full of foaming wine."
"I will set ablaze the beloved city with my burning song. To every quarter of the earth my word shall go, swifter vale I build a treasure-house of song. No rain of winter sweeping to the uttermost parts of the sea upon the wings of the wind, no storm-lashed hurricane, shall lay it low, but in pure light the glorious portal shall proclaim the victory."
Such poetry proves its sublime descent. The power to write it, Pindar says in many an ode, comes from God alone. It is no more to be acquired than noble blood by the baseborn. Can excellence be learned? Socrates was to ask the Athenians that question again and again in a later day, but Pindar first propounded it and his answer was, No. "Through inborn glory a man is mighty indeed, but he who learns from teaching is a twilight man, wavering in spirit." That is the ne plus ultra of the aristocratic creed, and so stated it cannot be refuted. To us to-day the theory of the aristocracy has almost ceased to be. The fact that there are aristocrats remains. Power, of poetry or anything else, comes to a man by birth; it cannot be taught in the public schools.
The Greeks put Pindar with Æschylus and Thucydides, in the "austere" school of writing, the severe and unadorned. It seems a curious judgment in view of his power of rich and vivid expression, which is one of his most marked characteristics, but there is much truth in it. Pindar is austere. Splendor can be cold, and Pindar glitters but never warms. He is hard, severe, passionless, remote, with a kind of haughty magnificence. He never steps down from his frigid eminence. Aristocrats did not stoop to lies, and his pen would never deviate from the strict truth in praising any triumph. He would glorify a victor so far as he was really glorious, but no further. As he himself puts it, he would not tell "a tale decked out with dazzling lies against the word of truth." Only what was in actual fact nobly praiseworthy would be praised by him. "Now do I believe," he says, "that the sweet words of Homer make great beyond the fact the story of Odysseus, and upon these falsities through Homer's winged skill there broods a mysterious spell. His art deceives us…. But as for me, whoever has examined can declare if I speak crooked words." Again, "In ways of single-heartedness may I walk through life, not holding up a glory fair-seeming but false." And in another ode:
Forge thy tongue on an anvil of truth
And what flies up, though it be but a spark,
Shall have weight.
Nevertheless, also strictly in the aristocratic tradition, he would leave the truth unsaid ifit was ugly or unpleasant, offensive to delicate feeling. "Believe me," he writes, "not every truth is the better for showing its face unveiled." He adds:
That which has not the grace of God is better far in silence.
The reserve which has always been held to characterize gentlefolk is stamped on everything he wrote. "It is fitting," he writes, "for a man to utter what is seemly and good," and in one way and another the idea is repeated throughout the odes. Essentially the same feeling makes him unwilling to touch with his pen the torments of the damned in hell which so many great writers have loved to linger on. The joys of the saved, yes:
Their boon is life forever freed from toil.
No more to trouble earth or the sea waters
With their strong hands,
Laboring for the food that does not satisfy.
But with the favored of the gods they live
A life where there are no more tears.
Around those blessed isles soft sea winds breathe,
And golden flowers blaze upon the trees,
Upon the waters, too.
But as for the others, "those bear anguish too great for eye to look upon." A gentleman will not join the staring crowd. Neither Virgil nor Dante would have tempted Pindar to journey in their company.
If Pindar had lived where he belonged by all his convictions and ideas—in the sixth century, or the seventh, instead of the fifth, he would be that not uncommon figure among men of exceptional gifts, a man of genius moving with the tide and not great enough to perceive that the flow is feeble and the ebb is near. But Pindar's life was lived when the tide of Greek achievement was at fullest flow, and he withstood it. Marathon, Thermopylæ, Salamis—he had no part in them nor in the exultant and solemn triumph the land felt when the Persian power was broken. Not an echo of these heroic events is in his poetry. His city, Thebes, did not join in the glorious struggle. She refused to help, and her poet took his stand with her. He acted as the aristocrats always act in the face of whatever threatens to disturb things as they are. He did concede praise to the chief defender of Greece, Athens, in two famous lines,
O shining white and famed in song and violet-
Fortress of Hellas, glorious Athens, city of God,
but that was the utmost he could do for the new cause. What was dawning in Greece would give light to the world for all ages to come, but Pindar would not look at it. He kept his eyes fixed on the past. He used his genius, his grave and lofty spirit, his moral fervor, to defend a cause that was dying through the unworthiness of its own supporters. And that, not the difficulty of understanding his poetry, is at bottom the reason why he has not meant more and has become to the world a name without a content. What has the man who is bent wholly on the past to say to those who come after him? Æschylus, also an aristocrat, was able to discard the idea of being set apart by noble birth and become the spokesman for the new freedom which after Salamis leveled old barriers. His poetry is permeated with aspiration toward a good never known before, and with insight into loftier possibilities for humanity than had ever yet been discerned. He saw Athens no longer divided into ruler and ruled, but the common possession of a united people. To compare this spirit with Pindar's is to see why with all his great gifts Pindar essentially failed. Æschylus is greatly daring as the leader to new heights must be; Pindar is cautious and careful, as the defensive always must be. Stay within safe limits, he constantly urges. The aristocrats must attempt nothing further if they are to keep what they have. He warns them solemnly not only against ambition, but against aspiration as well. It is dangerous; it tempts a man to stray from the old roads to the unknown. Be content, he tells the victor in the games. Seek nothing further. Man's powers are bounded by his mortality; it is sheer folly to think that that can ever be transcended. "Strive not thou to become a god. The things of mortals best befit mortality." And again, "Desire not the life of the immortals, but drink thy fill of what thou hast and what thou canst." "May God give me," he prays, "to aim at that which is within my power." An Olympic victory is the height of human achievement, as is also in a different sense the splendor and dignity and remoteness from all things vulgar of a great prince's court, as Hieron's in Syracuse. That height once gained, all that remains is to defend it and keep it inviolate for nobles and tyrants forever.
As a result, Pindar is often sad. The brilliant odes of victory have an undercurrent of dejection. It is a discouraging task to defend in perpetuity. Hieron's festal board is spread; the wine sparkles in the golden cups; the high-born gather to celebrate; they chant the praise of driver and steeds that won the glorious race—and the mournfulness of all things human weighs down the poet's heart. That terrifying page has been reached in the book of man's destiny which Flaubert says is entitled "Accomplished Desires." There is nothing to look forward to. The best has been achieved, with the result that hope and endeavor are ended. Then turn your eyes away from the future. It can bring nothing that is better; it may bring much that is worse. The past alone is safe, and the brief moment of the present. This point of view has no especial distinction; it is not profound, neither deeply melancholy nor poignantly pathetic. It is hardly more than dissatisfaction, a verdict of "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity." "Brief is the growing time of joy for mortals and brief the flower's bloom that falls to earth shaken by grim fate. Things of a day! What are we and what are we not. Man is a shadow's dream." That is Pindar's highest contribution toward solving the enigma of human life.
Only in a very minor capacity does he still speak to the world as the greatest interpreter of the Greek aristocracy at its greatest moment. In his true and sovereign capacity as a mighty poet he has almost ceased to speak. It is our irreparable loss that his peculiar beauties of language and rhythm cannot ever be transferred in any degree into English. It is our still more irreparable loss that this man of genius used his great gifts to shed light only upon the past and turned away from the present which was so full of promise for the future of all the world to come.
Kathleen Freeman (essay date 1939)
SOURCE: "Pindar—The Function and Technique of Poetry." Greece and Rome, Vol. 8, No. 24, May, 1939, pp. 144-159.
[In the essay below, Freeman surveys Pindar's odes for the poet's own views about his art in many of its aspects.]
All writers are to some extent consciously interested in the technique of their art; many of them fare more so than is generally realized. The majority follow the principle Ars maxima celare artem, and do not allow us more than a glimpse into their workshop; many a lyric that delights us by its apparent spontaneity has been hammered out slowly and shaped and altered until its final form contains hardly a trace of the original creation. The late W. B. Yeats in his Autobiography says:
Metrical composition is always very difficult to me. Nothing is done upon the first day, not one rhyme is in its place; and when at last the rhymes begin to come, the first rough draft of a six-line stanza takes the whole day. Sometimes a six-line stanza would take several days, and not seem finished even then.
We should not have guessed this even from his more ambitious pieces, much less from his lyrics.
I quote this statement of Mr. Yeats, not as being typical of the methods of a lyric poet—I do not think that it is—but as an example of the surprising information about their own craftsmanship that poets can give us if they will. They sometimes will, if they are deeply interested in their own processes. Nowadays, there is the convenient separate manifesto, the autobiography or the explanatory preface, in which the information can be given. But when studying the ancient writers we have to look for such information in the works themselves. In almost every poet we find a few passages on poetry in general, and scattered remarks on himself and his own methods in particular. There are famous testimonies to the power of the Muse, and frequent personal claims to immortality, such as Sappho's μνἁσϵσθαί τινἀ φᾳ̑ὶ καì ὒΟτϵρΟν ἄμμϵων; but where will you find anything comparable to the above passage in Yeats's autobiography? Nowhere an exact parallel; the nearest approach to it, I maintain, is in Pindar, and in Horace when he was imitating Pindar.
The great Victory Odes of Pindar follow a fairly consistent plan. Ther
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Bonnard, André. "Pindar, Prince of Poets and Poet of Princes." Greek Civilization, translated by A. Lytton Sells, pp. 104-24. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959.
Summarizes the content of several Pindaric odes.
Burton, R. W. B. Pindar's Pythian Odes: Essays in Interpretation. London: Oxford University Press, 1962, 202 p.
Examines the structure and content of each ode as a finished work.
Cook, Albert. "Pindar: 'Great Deeds of Prowess Are Always Many-Mythed.'" Myth and Language, pp. 108-44. Bloomington: Indiana...
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