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THE PERSONAL SONG - SAPPHO, ALCAEUS, ANACREON

Extracts from Gilbert Murray's Ancient Greek Literature*

THE Song proper, the Greek 'Melos,' falls into two divisions - the personal song of the poet, and the choric song of his band of trained dancers. There are remains of old popular songs with no alleged author, in various styles: the Mill Song - a mere singing to while away time - "Grind, Mill, grind; Even Pittacus grinds; Who is king of the great Mytilene"; - the Spinning Song and the Wine-Press Song, and the Swallow Song, with which the Rhodian boys went round begging in early spring. Rather higher than these were the 'Skolia,' songs sung at banquets or wine-parties. The form gave rise to a special Skolion-tune, with the four-line verse and the syllable-counting which characterises the Lesbian lyric. The Skolion on Harmodius and Aristogeiton is the most celebrated; but nearly all our remains are fine work, and the "Ah, Leipsydrion, false to them who loved thee," the song of the exiles who fled from the tyrant Pisistratus to the rock of that name, is full of a haunting beauty.

The Lesbian 'Melos' culminates in two great names, Alcaeus and Sappho, at the end of the seventh century.(1)

The woman has surpassed the man, if not in poetical achievement, at least in her effect on the imagination of after ages. A whole host of poetesses sprang up in different parts of Greece after her - Corinna and Myrtis in Boeotia, Telesilla in Argos, Praxilla in Sikyon; while Erinna, writing in the fourth century, still calls herself a 'comrade' of Sappho.

ALCAEUS spent his life in wars, first against Athens for the possession of Sigêum, where, like Archilochus, he left his shield for the enemy to dedicate to Athena; then against the democratic tyrant Melanchrôs and his successor Myrsilos. At last the Lesbians stopped the civil strife by appointing Pittacus, the 'Wise Man,' dictator, and Alcaeus left the island for fifteen years. He served as a soldier of fortune in Egypt and elsewhere: his brother Antimenidas took service with Nebuchadnezzar, and killed a Jewish or Egyptian giant in single combat. Eventually the poet was pardoned and invited home. His works filled ten books in Alexandria; they were all 'occasional poetry,' hymns, political party-songs (stasiôtika), drinking-songs, and love-songs. His strength seems to have lain in the political and personal reminiscences, the "hardships of travel, banishment, and war," that Horace speaks of. Sappho and Alcaeus are often represented together on vases, and the idea of a romance between them was inevitable. Tradition gives a little address of his in a Sapphic metre, "Thou violet-crowned, pure, softly-smiling Sappho," and an answer from Sappho in Alcaics - a delicate mutual compliment. Every line of Alcaeus has charm. The stanza called after him is a magnificent metrical invention. His language is spontaneous and musical; it seems to come straight from a heart as full as that of Archilochus, but much more generous. He is a fiery Aeolian noble, open-handed, free-drinking, frank, and passionate; and though he fought to order in case of need, he seems never to have written to order.

His younger contemporary SAPPHO - the name is variously spelt; there is authority for Psappha, Psaffo, and even Pspha - born at Ephesus, dwelling at Mitylene, shared the political fortunes of Alcaeus's party. We hear of a husband, whose name, Kerkylas of Andros, is not above suspicion; and of a daughter Kleïs, whose existence is perhaps erroneously inferred from a poem - "I have a fair little child, with a shape like a golden flower, Kleïs, my darling." She seems to have been the leader of a band of literary women, students and poetesses, held together by strong ties of intimacy and affection. It is compared in antiquity (Maximus Tyrius) to the circle of Socrates. Sappho wrote in the most varied styles - there are fifty different metres in our scanty remains of her - but all bear a strong impress of personal character. By the side of Alcaeus, one feels her to be a woman. Her dialect is more the native speech of Mitylene, where she lived; his the more literary. His interests cover war and drinking and adventure and politics; hers are all in personal feeling, mostly tender and introspective. Her suggestions of nature - the line, "I heard the footfall of the flowery spring"; the marvellously musical comparison, "Like the one sweet apple very red, up high on the highest bough, that the apple-gatherers have forgotten; no, not forgotten, but could never reach so far" - are perhaps more definitely beautiful than the love-poems which have made Sappho's name immortal. Two of these are preserved by accident; the rest of Sappho's poetry was publicly burned in 1073 at Rome and at Constantinople, as being too much for the shaky morals of the time. One must not over-estimate the compliments of gallantry which Sappho had in plenty: she was 'the Poetess' as Homer was 'the Poet'; she was 'the Tenth Muse,' 'the Pierian Bee'; the wise Solon wished to "learn a song of Sappho's and then die." Still Sappho was known and admired all over Greece soon after her death; and a dispassionate judgment must see that her love-poetry, if narrow in scope, has unrivalled splendour of expression for the longing that is too intense to have any joy in it, too serious to allow room for metaphor and imaginative ornament. Unfortunately, the dispassionate judgment is scarcely to be had. Later antiquity could not get over its curiosity at the woman who was not a 'Hetaira' and yet published passionate love-poetry. She had to be made a heroine of romance. For instance, she once mentioned the Rock of Leucas. That was enough! It was the rock from which certain saga-heroes had leaped to their death, and she must have done the same, doubtless from unrequited passion! Then came the deference of gallantry, the reckless merriment of the Attic comedy, and the defiling imagination of Rome. It is a little futile to discuss the private character of a woman who lived two thousand five hundred years ago in a society of which we have almost no records. It is clear that Sappho was a 'respectable person' in Lesbos; and there is no good early evidence to show that the Lesbian standard was low. Her extant poems address her women friends with a passionate intensity; but there are dozens of questions to be solved before these poems can be used as evidence: Is a given word-form correct? is Sappho speaking in her own person, or dramatically? what occasion are the verses written for? how far is the poem a literary exercise based on the odes written by Alcaeus to his squire Lykos, or by Theognis to Kyrnus?

No one need defend the character of ANACREON of Teos; though, since he lived in good society to the age of eighty-five, he cannot have been as bad as he wishes us to believe. His poetry is derived from the Lesbians and from the Skolia of his countryman Pythermus. He was driven from Teos by the Persian conquest of 545 B.C.; he settled in Abdera, a Teian colony in Thrace; saw some fighting, in which, he carefully explains, he disgraced himself quite as much as Alcaeus and Archilochus; finally, he attached himself to various royal persons, Polycrates in Samos, Hipparchus in Athens, and Echekrates the Aleuad in Thessaly. The Alexandrians had five books of his elegies, epigrams, iambics, and songs; we possess one satirical fragment, and a good number of wine and love songs, addressed chiefly to his squire Bathyllus. They were very popular and gave rise to many imitations at all periods of literature; we possess a series of such Anacreontea, dating from various times between the third century B.C. and the Renaissance. These poems are innocent of fraud: in one, for instance (No. 1), Anacreon appears to the writer in a dream (cf. 20 and 59); in most of them the poet merely assumes the mask of Anacreon and sings his love-songs to 'a younger Bathyllus.' The dialect, the treatment of Erôs as a frivolous fat boy, the personifications, the descriptions of works of art, all are marks of a later age. Yet there can be no doubt of the extraordinary charm of these poems, true and false alike. Anacreon stands out among Greek writers for his limpid ease of rhythm, thought, and expression. A child can understand him, and he ripples into music. But the false poems are even more Anacreontic than Anacreon. Compared with them the real Anacreon has great variety of theme and of metre, and even some of the stateliness and reserved strength of the sixth century. Very likely our whole conception of the man would be higher, were it not for the incessant imitations which have fixed him as a type of the festive and amorous septuagenarian.

These three poets represent the personal lyric of Greece. In Alcaeus it embraces all sides of an adventurous and perhaps patriotic life; in Sappho it expresses with a burning intensity the inner life, the passions that are generally silent; in Anacreon it spreads out into light snatches of song about simple enjoyments, sensual and imaginative. The personal lyric never reached the artistic grandeur, the religious and philosophic depth of the choric song. It is significant of our difficulty in really appreciating Greek poetry, that we are usually so much more charmed by the style which all antiquity counted as easier and lower.

From Gilbert Murray's A History of Greek Literature (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1897), pp. 90-95. Part of Chapter 4, "The Song." Scanned for Peithô's Web by Agathon (RSB).

1. The dates are uncertain. Athens can scarcely have possessed Sigêum before the reign of Pisistratus. Beloch, Griechische Geschichte, i. 330.












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