USU 1320
Ancient Literature and Language
©Damen, 2004

A Guide to Writing in History and Classics


Click here for a copy of the slides and notes presented during the lecture in class


Chapter 5: Greek Lyric Poetry

Anyone who has an ear for verse or song today will hear echoes of modern music in what the ancient Greeks called lyric poetry. After the age of epic when stately poems of extraordinary deeds—and length—reigned supreme, Greek tastes changed radically. Shorter, more personal poems written for feasts and weddings came into fashion, the sort of verse we associate with medieval ballads, Shakespeare's sonnets and the Beatles' love songs. In this chapter, we'll review the rise of lyric poetry and investigate a few of the works written by its greatest exponent, the incomparable Sappho, one of the rare women whose voice emerges from Greek antiquity.

I. An Introduction to Lyric Poetry: The Lyric Age

For all his genius and narrative gifts, Homer composed in only one meter ever. From an oral poet, that's to be expected. Besides telling a coherent story of great length and complexity based on the use of oral formulas and composed spontaneously in performance, are we also to require of him a mastery of many poetic forms? It would be unfair and unnecessary.

But as the pre-Classical Age began to dawn after 800 BCE, the Greeks opened their eyes to the larger world around them. With that, oral poetry, illiteracy and nostalgia for the heroes of yore yielded to lyric poetry, writing and the love of innovation per se. Unlike in centuries prior, "new and different" was now good, experimentation prized and a will to explore one means of measuring someone's greatness. In consequence, the Greeks of this age—in many ways, their "Generation Xi"—lived in one of the headiest times ever in history.

Where the art and taste for new modes of verse first arose isn't clear, but by the seventh century BCE lyric poetry was spreading quickly across Greece, especially among the Ionian populations who lived along the shores of the Aegean Sea. In addition to experimenting with different meters, lyric poets also sang their songs to the accompaniment of a lyre, a stringed instrument plucked with the hand—if Homer had musical backup, it's not evident in the text of his epics—thus, the name "lyric poetry."

The lyre functioned much as the guitar does today, and indeed lyric poetry finds an interesting analog in modern rock music. Where Homer had served up two voluminous tales, lyric poets wrote short, direct poems and many of them. This change resembles in some way the transition from opera to rock-and-roll in the modern world. Long, dramatic compositions focusing on heroes and tragic encounters gave way to poems embracing quick and pointed reflections on daily life and love. Modern poetry has moved in much the same direction. It's hard to find any verse published today rivaling Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha or Evangeline in tone or scope. And just as the guitar has fueled the rock-and-roll revolution, the lyre was the instrument driving the shift to lyric poetry in pre-Classical Greece.

Both arts also reflect their changing times. As Greece expanded, a restless crowd of enterprising merchants emerged. These entrepreneurs didn't see their roots in the heroic past but sought from the arts an eloquent companion for their own experiences in the fast lane. To suit the temper of these nouveaux riches, a lyric poet's work needed to be terse and varied.

Like modern audiences, too, their moods tended to center around love: love lost, love found, love's pain and joy. Lyric poetry swells with the excesses of erotic yearning, and like many a modern rock star, more than one of its poets was famous in antiquity for excessive behavior and drunken escapades. That history has handed down to us none of the music which accompanied this genre is a terrible loss—think how effective most songs today would be without their music—and it is to the great credit of its artists that much of their original power still comes through the words of Greek lyric poetry even without the sound track. No poetry shows this better than Sappho's.

II. Sappho

Sappho 31

He seems to me, that man, almost a god—
the man, who is face to face with you,
sitting close enough to you to hear
your sweet whispering

And your laughter, glistening, which
the heart in my breast beats for.
For when on you I glance, I do not,
not one sound, emit.

But my tongue snaps, lightly
runs beneath my flesh a flame,
and from my eyes no light, and rumbling
comes into my ears,

And my skin grows damp, and trembling
all over racks me, and greener than the grass
am I, and one step short of dying
I seem to myself.

Sappho, the greatest of the lyric poets, lived on the island of Lesbos in the northwestern Aegean. She flourished sometime around 600 BCE, that is, about a century or two after Homer. Little is known about her life. Sources in later antiquity held that she was short and ugly, but that's surely the product of post-Classical dramatic traditions in which she was depicted in a broad comic light. She may have gone into exile in Sicily at one point in her life, a biographical detail we can't rule out given the perpetually stormy politics in her homeland. The rare truth that shines out among all these later tales is that Sappho ran a sort of finishing school for girls who were in training to be the companions of men, since most of her poems are addressed with great affection to young ladies.

Typical of poets, however, Sappho isn't easy to label with simple qualifiers like "lesbian"—though the adjective itself originates as a reference to her, its homosexual connotation arose only long after her lifetime—because her poetry centers less on the distant objects which attract her than the larger world around them and the even greater world within the poetess herself. As few others in western civilization have—she stands shoulder to shoulder with Petrarch, Shakespeare and Keats—Sapphic verse explores the intensity of emotions surrounding love, of which the poem above is a premier example.

To wit, its focus opens, not on the girl commanding the writer's affections, but on an anonymous man whose proximity to Sappho's beloved inflames her with jealousy and arouses within her a host of somatic symptoms, constituting a veritable pathology of love. The setting seems to be a party where Sappho gazes across the room and sees a girl she's in love with lying in the arms of some lucky man who is "almost a god." Staring at this nameless near-deity, Sappho recounts how her own senses dulled, leaving her dumb, blind, deaf, sweaty, twitching, pale and catatonic. Thus, the poetess' attention isn't really directed toward the man, or even the girl, but at herself as she carefully measures the intensity of sensation aroused through love which drives her systematically senseless.

While the poem unfolds its clinical diagnosis, it's hard not to wonder what else is going on in the room. Though Sappho begins in the first stanza gazing at the man and the poem says explicitly that the amorous couple is "face to face"—so the man's eyes are surely fixed on the girl—who's the girl looking at? Could it be that Sappho is so transported by jealousy and love as she watches the man embracing her beloved and then later herself turning green that she doesn't realize the girl is looking at her with longing, too? This is only one possibility in what's clearly a complex situation fraught with potentialities all packed into very few words, which is the essence of lyric poetry.

Artists of this genre often bring to bear that sort of density of expression on the most consuming of human emotions, Eros ("Love" in Greek) which the ancients saw as the strongest force in the universe. Personified as Aphrodite, Eros was to them a drive which could be thoroughly satisfying or utterly destructive, something no one says—or has ever said—better than Sappho herself in her famous "Ode to Aphrodite."

Sappho 1 ("The Ode to Aphrodite")

On a dappled throne, deathless goddess, Aphrodite,
Zeus' child, charmer, I beg of you:
break me not with aching, nor with grief,
Lady, tame my heart!

But come here, if ever before from over there
when you heard my voice from afar
you listened and left your father's home
of gold and you came

Hitching up your chariot. Lovely they that lead you
the swift sparrows above the darkling earth
wings whirling countless from heaven
sent amidst us here,

And in a flash appear and you, blessed goddess,
the smiling face that never dies,
asked me what was wrong this time and why
this time I called her

And what most of all my heart wished to have
in my troubled way. "Who is it this time I'm
to turn back to your favor? Who hurts
you now, Sappho dear?

You know, if she runs, soon she will chase;
and if she spurns presents, some day she'll give them;
and if she rejects love, soon she will love,
like it or not." So,

Come to me even now, and from my hardships free me
and from my cares, and all the things to bring about
my heart desires, bring about for me. And you,
fight here beside me.

In the end, history has been unkind to Sappho. Fixating on the hollow vessels in which she poured her abundant love, many critics especially after antiquity condemned her for unnatural passions, when it's clear her fascination is not with the girl but with feeling the depths of despair and heights of ecstasy love brings—that is, taking the journey, not reaching the destination—and as a consequence of their narrow-mindedness, history has also been unkind to her work, most of which now is lost. What little has survived the ravages of such deplorable bias consists of incomplete poems and scrappy fragments, an unspeakable tragedy to humankind. The failure of our predecessors to preserve her poetry is, simply put, the single most horrendous blunder in all of literary history.

III. Lyric Poetry and the Epic Tradition

Intensity, then, not only of passion but also of phrasing, pervades Sappho's work and the genre of lyric poetry in general. In one way, it's a rebellion against the long-winded epics of generations prior and a reflection of the new, faster lifestyle which the Greeks adopted as they began to expand their economic and cultural horizons at the closing of the Dark Age. In this climate, Greeks started asking, "Why listen to two books of Homer just to hear ten famous lines you love? Distill for me, poet, the whole thing into one moment! Give me the wine without the pulp!"

But for all its seeming difference, it was, in fact, a very Homeric way of approaching literature and entertainment. Homer himself had done much the same thing when he focused his attentions on only a part of the Trojan War. His lyric successors in Greece extended that custom by honing in on certain specific passages in the traditional tales—sometimes just a moment here or there—seeking the essence which embodies the whole or a comparison encapsulating the entire thing. It was a smart choice, because not only can doing this be artistically gratifying, it's a crafty, practical measure for an artist to take. If the audience doesn't like what they're hearing, in two minutes it's over and we'll all move on to other, hopefully better things. MTV, sit-coms and many other successful commercial art forms operate on the same principle today.

The following is an example of this kind of critical focus, a carefully constructed poem in which Sappho has distilled the whole Trojan War into one emotion and moment:

Sappho 16

  One man has his cavalry, another has his legions,
yet another has his ships, on all the earth
most beautiful to him. But to me it is the
single thing one loves.
  How easy it is to make this understood
to anyone, for, far outstripping mortal
loveliness, Helen left her man—
and a good man too!—
  Left him and went off to Troy, sailing
away with no thought for her child or parents,
not one glance back, but he led her astray,
Love did, at first sight.

The eyes of brides are easy to turn, light things,
lightly swayed by passion—which makes
me think now of Anactoria,
who isn't here now.

I would rather see her lovely step
and her twinkling bright face
than Lydians process in pomp and
soldiers' pageantry.

This poem called today "The Ode to Anactoria" was only recently recovered on a papyrus (a type of ancient paper) found in Egypt. Due to its poor state of preservation, it's possible these verses aren't complete but, even if not, the thought certainly is. In any case, it's clear from what there is that Sappho in this poem both rejects and embraces the Homeric past.

In content, for instance, the poem overtly denounces the military values which structure The Iliad, where cavalry, ships, and martial pageantry rule. At the same time, however, the Ode to Anactoria deploys the very pattern of "ring composition" underlying so much of Homer: stanzas 1 and 5 contrast love and the glory of war; stanzas 2 and 4 outline the power of love—Menelaus in the second stanza is abandoned by a love-struck Helen in much the same way Sappho in the fourth stanza longs for the absent Anactoria—and finally the central stanza (3) focuses on the love distracting lovers. It's evident from this alone that Sappho knows her Homer very well—and expects the same of her audience—but utilizes of him only what resonates as true in her life, the tragic passion of Helen and Menelaus and not the crashing battles which consume so much of his work.

To Sappho, then, The Iliad is essentially a tale of broken hearts, not broken spears, and so she passes over the combat, Achilles' anger and even the long story of Helen's seduction by Paris—the Trojan doesn't even merit mention by name—and instead she focuses on the heart of the story from her perspective, the passion which sunders love, rips a lovely wife from the arms of a "good man," and steals parent from child, the same breed of Eros which took Anactoria from Sappho's longing embrace. To her, this is what the whole story of the Trojan War comes down to, love. Without it none of the rest would have happened. Why say more?

In sum, Sappho treats Homeric myth not as a collective cultural phenomenon embodying a heroic ideal but as her personal property, an adornment to garnish the special moments in her life. It's appropriate, then, that she most likely wrote her poems to be sung at weddings, festivals and private ceremonies. Where Homer makes myth an end-unto-itself and creates a world into which listeners project themselves, Sappho brings the world of myth to us here and now, its tales serving as a vehicle by which to achieve our desired ends, not an end-unto-itself. In other words, Homer takes us to Achilles, whereas Sappho leads Helen to us.

This immediacy gives lyric poetry a radiant vitality that glamorizes the world around it, a luminosity that would change Greek literature forever. Ancient audiences henceforth would demand of authors a sense of proximity to the fiction, a core of reality in the lie, and, most of all, a role in the fantasy which in some way should focus on the company present, not live only in some distant world where epic heroes meet towering walls. Thus, the gods and traditional myth come to represent in Sappho forces to be studied, lured to our side and made to make us happy in this age right here, right now.

IV. Conclusion: The Legacy of Lyric Poetry

Sappho 2

Here to me from Crete to this temple here
this shrine, where you have this graceful grove
of apples, and the fragrant altars
fume with frankincense.

In here the cold water bubbles through branches
of apples, and with roses everything's
shaded, and glistening in the wind the leaves
rain down gentle sleep.

In here the meadow horses graze flourishes
in spring with flowers, and the winds
soothing breathe . . .

To there, you . . . lift, Aphrodite,
in golden goblets lightly
what's mixed with our delights, the nectar
like the wine, come pour!

As much as this may look on the surface like a poem directed to a goddess in heaven, the overwhelming impression is that it's really a paean to life on earth. So much more realistic, more pragmatic than the fantastical tales of Troy, the writer sets out to seduce the goddess of seduction herself—Aphrodites Apate?—and entice her epiphany on earth. This Sapphic Aphrodite is a far cry from the impersonal Homeric goddess who symbolizes Desire and lends out girdles. The divinity envisioned by Sappho is an intensely personal expression of the poetess' own tastes and wishes.

But all in all, another even more earth-shaking change underlies lyric poetry. It's obvious that, although the lyric poets sang their verses in public much the same way their oral counterparts had in Homer's age, lyric poetry rose out of a literate culture. Clearly, Sappho and her fellow poets wrote their works—that is, they didn't compose them orally—and like modern singers, performed them as memorized pieces, not verses fabricated spontaneously and unique to each performance. At least to judge from the widespread appeal of some lyric poets, their poems probably circulated in written form, too. This new literature, in the truest sense of the word "written text," looked ahead to the next stage in the evolution of ancient narrative arts when drama would dominate public attention.

Terms, Places, People and Things to Know

lyric poetry

The Ode to Aphrodite
The Ode to Anactoria



A Guide to Writing in History and Classics


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