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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Anacreon (582–485 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
OF the life of this lyric poet we have little exact knowledge. We know that he was an Ionian Greek, and therefore by racial type a luxury-loving, music-loving Greek, born in the city of Teos on the coast of Asia Minor. With a few fellow-citizens, it is supposed that he fled to Thrace and founded Abdera when Cyrus the Great, or his general Harpagus, was conquering the Greek cities of the coast. Abdera, however, was too new to afford luxurious living, and the singing Ionian soon found his way to more genial Samos, whither the fortunes of the world then seemed converging. Polycrates was “tyrant,” in the old Greek sense of irresponsible ruler; but withal so large-minded and far-sighted a man that we may use a trite comparison and say that under him his island was, to the rest of Greece, as Florence in the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent was to the rest of Italy, or Athens in the time of Pericles to the other Hellenic States. Anacreon became his tutor, and may have been of his council; for Herodotus says that when Orœtes went to see Polycrates he found him in the men’s apartment with Anacreon the Teian. Another historian says that he tempered the stern will of the ruler. Still another relates that Polycrates once presented him with five talents, but that the poet returned the sum after two nights made sleepless from thinking what he would do with his riches, saying “it was not worth the care it cost.”  1
  After the murder of Polycrates, Hipparchus, who ruled at Athens, sent a trireme to fetch the poet. Like his father Pisistratus, Hipparchus endeavored to further the cause of letters by calling poets to his court. Simonides of Ceos was there; and Lasus of Hermione, the teacher of Pindar; with many rhapsodists or minstrels, who edited the poems of Homer and chanted his lays at the Panathenæa, or high festival of Athena, which the people celebrated every year with devout and magnificent show. Amid this brilliant company Anacreon lived and sang until Hipparchus fell (514) by the famous conspiracy of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. He then returned to his native Teos, and according to a legend, died there at the age of eighty-five, choked by a grape-seed.  2
  Anacreon was a lyrist of the first order. Plato’s poet says of him in the ‘Symposium,’ “When I hear the verses of Sappho or Anacreon, I set down my cup for very shame of my own performance.” He composed in Greek somewhat, to use a very free comparison, as Herrick did in English, expressing the unrefined passion and excesses which he saw, just as the Devonshire parson preserved the spirit of the country festivals of Old England in his vivid verse.  3
  To Anacreon music and poetry were inseparable. The poet of his time recited his lines with lyre in hand, striking upon it in the measure he thought best suited to his song. Doubtless the poems of Anacreon were delivered in this way. His themes were simple,—wine, love, and the glorification of youth and poetry; but his imagination and poetic invention so animated every theme that it is the perfect rendering which we see, not the simplicity of the commonplace idea. His delicacy preserves him from grossness, and his grace from wantonness. In this respect his poems are a fair illustration of the Greek sense of self-limitation, which guided the art instincts of that people and made them the creators of permanent canons of taste.  4
  Anacreon had no politics, no earnest interest in the affairs of life, no morals in the large meaning of that word, no aims reaching further than the merriment and grace of the moment. Loving luxury and leisure, he was the follower of a pleasure-loving court. His cares are that the bowl is empty, that age is joyless, that women tell him he is growing gray. He is closely paralleled in this by one side of Béranger; but the Frenchman’s soul had a passionately earnest half which the Greek entirely lacked. Nor is there ever any outbreak of the deep yearning, the underlying melancholy, which pervades and now and then interrupts, like a skeleton at the feast, the gayest verses of Omar Khayyám.  5
  His metres, like his matter, are simple and easy. So imitators, perhaps as brilliant as the master, have sprung up and produced a mass of songs; and at this time it remains in doubt whether any complete poem of Anacreon remains untouched. For this reason the collection is commonly termed ‘Anacreontics.’ Some of the poems are referred to the school of Gaza and the fourth century after Christ, and some to the secular teachings and refinement of the monks of the Middle Ages. Since the discovery and publication of the text by Henry Stephens, in 1554, poets have indulged their lighter fancies in such songs, and a small literature of delicate trifles now exists under the name of ‘Anacreontics’ in Italian, German, and English. Bergk’s recension of the poems appeared in 1878. The standard translations, or rather imitations in English, are those of Cowley and Moore. The Irish poet was not unlike in nature to the ancient Ionian. Moore’s fine voice in the London drawing-rooms echoes at times the note of Anacreon in the men’s quarters of Polycrates or the symposia of Hipparchus. The joy of feasting and music, the color of wine, and the scent of roses, alike inspire the songs of each.  6
 
 
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