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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Simonides (c. 556–468 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Walter Miller (1864–1949)
 
FROM the steps of “Tritonia’s airy shrine,” adorning with its glistering columns the summit of “Sunium’s marbled steep,” there opens over mountains and waters a wide prospect, which for natural beauty and richness of suggestion is scarcely surpassed in all the Hellenic world. Separated from Sunium only by a narrow strait of that wine-dark sea, the nearest of the “isles that crown the Ægean deep” is the first of the Cyclades,—the island of Ceos,—Ionian and yet almost Attic. As it is impossible to think of Stratford-on-Avon without a suggestion of Shakespeare, so Ceos has but little meaning for us apart from her great bard, Simonides.  1
  There, in the village of Iulis, he was born (556 B.C.), the son of Leoprepes, himself a chorus-leader and a poet’s son; and so, by right of inheritance and education, something of the gift of song was his. In the national festival celebrated near his home each year in honor of Carthæan Apollo, the young Simonides found occasion and exercise for his native gifts. There also the greatest poets of Greece competed for the choral prize; and yet before he was thirty, that prize was his again and again. His fame soon spread far beyond his native isle; so that the Muse-loving Hipparchus, when he came to gather round his court at Athens the first artists and poets of his time, at once sent for young Simonides to come from Ceos.  2
  Upon the assassination of Hipparchus (514), Simonides was called to Thessaly to be poet-laureate to the sons of Scopas at Crannon and Pharsalus, and afterward at the court of Larissa. His sound common-sense, and the consummate diplomacy with which he treated rulers and handled difficult problems of statecraft, gave him an influence with kings and statesmen never enjoyed by any other poet. We find him in his later years in the same position of honor with Hiero of Syracuse. His nephew Bacchylides and Pindar were there too, as were also Æschylus and Epicharmus; but it was Simonides whose influence told in affairs of State. Hiero had quarreled violently with his kinsman Theron, tyrant of Agrigentum; war had been declared; the opposing armies stood face to face ready for battle: the wisdom and tact of Simonides won a bloodless victory; the warring tyrants were reconciled, and the armies marched back to their homes in peace.  3
  But it is at republican Athens that we find him at his best. Though associated there with Miltiades, Themistocles, Cimon, King Pausanias of Lacedæmon, Æschylus, Polygnotus, and the other giants of those days of spiritual uplifting that followed the Persian wars, his glory pales not in comparison. Those martial heroes beat back the Mede at Marathon, Salamis, and Platæa; he glorified the victories in his songs. In competition with the great warrior-poet Æschylus himself, he won the State prize with his ode on Marathon.  4
  Simonides died in Sicily in his eighty-ninth year (468), and was buried before the gates of Syracuse.  5
  As to his personal character: reared in accordance with the strict moral code for which Ceos was justly famed, he had added to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge temperance ([Greek]). Indeed, Simonides’s “temperance”—mastery of self, Hellenic “sanity”—had in antiquity become proverbial. Love and wine find no place in his verse. A striking feature of his writings is his tendency to moral apothegms and maxims. The wisdom of the Seven Sages and the piety of an Æschylus were his.  6
  The world of critics, ancient and modern, has often reproached him with being the first poet (though not the last!) to sell his verse for pay. Exalted Pindar did the same. And the calling of the poet was reduced to a purely business basis. He knew what his work was worth in gold, and he obtained his price. Witness Anaxilas of Rhegium, who offered our poet—for a song of victory in honor of his mules victorious in the race—a recompense too modest by half. Simonides declined, so the story runs, explaining that he could not sing the praises of asses’ progeny. Anaxilas doubled his offer, and Simonides in response wrote a famous ode beginning—
  “Hail, daughters of the storm-swift steeds!”
  7
  But his literary contracts, according to the following anecdote, were not always financially so successful. His Thessalian patron, Scopas, once engaged him for a certain specified sum to write an ode in his honor: when the ode was finished and sung, Scopas would pay only half the stipulated honorarium, bidding Simonides collect the other half from the Dioscuri whose praises had filled as large a portion of the ode as his own. The grateful return was paid in full by the sons of Zeus: Scopas, his sons, and all his court were banqueting; the palace roof fell with a crash upon them, and Simonides alone was saved. The gods are “better pay” than “tyrants”!  8
  Simonides was the most productive of the Greek lyrists, as his Muse was the most versatile. In no less than fifty-six public contests, so he tells us, at fifty-six public festivals, his lyrical compositions gained the first prize; and there may have been more after that was written,—phenomenal success, when we remember that Euripides, the favorite of the Hellenic world, received first prize but five times. His successes moreover were commensurate with his years. We have another epigram in which he rejoices to have won at Athens, in his eighty-first year (476), the first prize with a composition of his own produced by a chorus of fifty voices, with Aristides the Just as choragos. And his public victories must, in comparison with his odes written for private individuals and his spontaneous bursts of song, have been only the smallest part of his life’s work.  9
  His productions cover almost every field of lyrical composition. No sort of choral song seems to have been wanting from his repertoire. We have fragments of Pæans, Hymns, Dithyrambs, Hyporchemes, Epinicia, Elegies, Dirges, and more, besides the Epigrams.  10
  It is upon the epigrams that his greatest fame must rest, as they alone of the extant remains do not consist of mere fragments. The epigram was originally what the name implies,—the inscription upon a tomb or upon a votive offering to explain its significance. By a natural transfer of meaning, an epigram easily came to be a couple of verses containing in pointed, polished form, a thought which might very well serve as an inscription to the object that suggested it. The unexpected—the ingenious turning of the point at the end—was no essential feature of the classical epigram; but within the compass of the few verses allotted to it, the story it had to tell must be complete. And no one possessed in like degree the gift Simonides had, of crowding a bookful of meaning into two faultless lines. Upon the tomb of the Three Hundred at Thermopylæ he wrote:—
  Go thou, stranger, and bear to Lacedæmon this message:—
Tell them that here we lie, faithful to Sparta’s commands.
How long a poem he might with such a theme have made! But in two lines, without a trace of artificiality or forced rhetoric, he has sketched the Spartan character, and told the whole story of that loyal devotion to country that meant so much to every Greek. Description there is none: that would have been superfluous. No word of praise is there: the deeds were their own encomium.
  Diophon, Philo’s son, at the Isthmus and Pytho a victor;
Broad jump, foot-race, disk, spear-throw, and wrestle he won.
In one line he gives his hero’s name, his lineage, and his victory at two great festivals; into the five words of the pentameter line with consummate skill he puts in the exact order of their succession in the stadium the five events of the Greek pentathlon, in which Philo’s son was victor.
  11
  The finest and most famous of all his epigrams are those inspired by the Persian wars. The glory of those days permeated his verse; the life of the victorious living and the death of the noble slain are both glorified. These verses may be wanting in splendor and magnificence: the man who could have furnished those qualities had “stood on the wrong side in his country’s life struggle; and Greece turned to Simonides, not to Pindar, to make the record of her heroic dead.” (Murray.) A few even of these are no more than plain, prosaic statements of fact. Compare—
  When, as leader of Greece, he routed the Median army,
King Pausanias gave Phœbus this off’ring of thanks,—
with the simple lines on the men of Tegea who fell at Platææ:—
  Thanks to the valor of these men! that smoke never blackened the heavens,
    Rising from Median flames blazing in Tegean homes.
Theirs was to leave to their children a city of glory and freedom,
    Theirs to lay down their lives, slain in defense of their own,—
and the general epitaph of the heroes of Platææ:—
  Glory immortal they left a bequest to the land of their fathers—
  Fame for the land they loved; death’s sable shroud for themselves.
Still, though dead, are they not dead; for here their virtue abiding
  Brings them from Hades again, gives them a glorious life.
  12
  A difficulty which taxed the epigrammatist’s utmost skill to surmount was the graceful weaving in of unmetrical names, of dates, and of other naturally prosaic necessities. How well Simonides could handle even these is illustrated by the two following autobiographical notices:—

  CHIEF of the Archons in Athens that year they named Adimantus,
  When the fair tripod of bronze fell to Antiochis’s tribe.
That year Xenophilus’s son, Aristides the Just, was choragos,
  Leader of fifty men singing the praise of the god.
Glory was won for their trainer, Simonides,—poet victorious,—
  Ceian Leoprepes’s son, then in his eightieth year.
  
FIFTY-AND-SIX great bulls, Simonides, fell to thee, prizes,
  Tripods fifty-and-six, won ere this tablet was set.
So many times having trained the gladsome chorus of singers,
  Victory’s splendid car glorious didst thou ascend.
  13
 
  The following is brevity “gone to seed”:—
  “Tell me then who thou art. Whose son? Of what country? What victory?”
“Casmyl. Euagoras’s son. From Rhodes. Boxing at Pytho.”
  14
  In the epigrams the dialect is Attic; in the choral odes the conventional Doric has been retained.  15
  The “epinician,” the choral song in honor of a victor in the great national games of Greece, may almost be called Simonides’s own creation. Down to the times of Simonides a few verses had sufficed; but with him came the full artistic structure of the magnificent epinician ode as we find it perfected in Pindar. With the glorification of the victor, the praises of a god or a mythical hero connected with the victor—his fortunes, his family, or his country—are appropriately interwoven. Passing on by easy transitions from the human to the divine, and from the divine again to the human, the poet dwells upon the lessons of truth and wisdom suggested by his hero’s life, and the god whom he has glorified. “To be perfectly good is a hard matter: only God may be perfect; and man is good only as God dwells in him.”  16
  In the epinicia, Simonides may fall short of the grandeur of Pindar, and yield supremacy to him alone. But in the field of Elegy and of the Dirge, as in the Epigram, he stands without a peer in the world’s literature. Pindar’s pathos may be sublime, Æschylus’s awful; but Simonides knows how to touch the heart. Pindar philosophizes on the glory awaiting the dead whose life has been well spent: Simonides gives expression to the sorrow of the hearts that mourn, and awakens our sympathies; he knows the healing power of tears, and the power that the story of another’s sorrow has to make them flow, when one’s own grief seems to have dried their fountain. He dwells upon the frailty of human fortunes, the inevitability of fate, and the goodness and justice of God,—the consolation of sympathy, not of hope. What threnos could be more exquisitely delicate and touching than Danaë’s mother-heart yearning over her sleeping babe,—unconscious of any danger,—as together in the chest they are helplessly tossed by the storm upon the waves; and the tearful appeal at the end to Zeus, the father of her child! And as she prays, the storm in her own bosom is stilled.  17
  No less fine, in exquisite pathos and exalted patriotic sentiment, are the few verses left to us of the elegy on the heroes of Thermopylæ. It is quoted in full here.  18
  Simonides’s position among the melic poets may be suggested by the influence he exercised on the development of lyric poetry, especially in choral song, (1) The dithyramb he removed from the narrow sphere of Bacchus-worship and adapted it to the service of any god. (2) With him the threnos was elevated from a simple monody to a great choral. (3) It was Simonides who introduced the myth into the epinician and gave it the form which Pindar perfected. (4) And the epigram as a recognized division of poetry is his own creation.  19
  The best editions of the fragments are—Bergk, ‘Poetæ Lyrici Græci,’ 4th ed., Vol. iii.; Schneidewin, ‘Simonidis Cei Carminum Reliquiæ’; Hartung, ‘Poetæ Lyrici Græci,’ with a German translation, Vol. vi. A few translations are given in Appleton, ‘Greek Poetry in English Verse,’ and Tomson, ‘Selections from the Greek Anthology.’  20
 
 
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