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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Solon (c. 630–560 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
POETRY is older than prose. Familiar as this assertion is, it yet rings like a paradox, and is still often received with incredulity. Indeed, it needs exposition, if not qualification. Of course the rude beginnings of human speech—whatever their origin—were not rhythmical in any high artistic sense. But as soon as men invoked the aid of “Memory, mother of the Muses,” when they wished to fix firmly, in the mind of the individual or of the clan, some basic principle of justice, some heroic exploit, some tragic incident,—then a regular recurrent movement of language, effectively accompanied by drum or foot beat, would almost instinctively be sought and found. Hence the early and all-but universal rise of the popular ballad, the “folk-song.”  1
  That two great masses of hexameter verse, and naught else, crossed successfully the gulf into which the Homeric civilization fell, is not perhaps so strange. Similarly a Nibelungenlied, the Sagas, the Lays of the Troubadours, float to us, bringing almost the only distinct tidings from phases of life else utterly sunken and forgotten.  2
  But when the grave practical problems of civic organization and foreign war were first effectively debated in the Athens of Solon, it does strike us with surprise, that even the great lawgiver habitually “recited a poem.” The dominant influence of Homeric epic doubtless aided largely here also. There are few loftier or stronger orations left us, even by the ten orators of the canon, than the speeches in which Achilles justifies his withdrawal from the war, or Priam pleads for mercy toward Hector dead. Then too, even this ruder early Athenian folk can have been no ordinary race of tradesmen or farmers. Many generations of artistic growth must have preceded Æschylus and Phidias. Their language itself is sufficient evidence of a shaping and molding instinct pervading a whole people. Indeed, that language is already the plastic material waiting for the poet; just as the melodious Italian speech performs beforehand for the improvisator more than half his task.  3
  Moreover, even the prose of Demosthenes and his rivals is itself no less truly rhythmical. It is subject to euphonic law which it easily obeys, and of which—like great poetry—it makes a glorious ornament instead of a fetter.  4
  Solon’s elegies, then, are poetical in form, largely because artistic prose was not yet invented, and because Solon wished his memorable words to be preserved in the memory of his Athenians. They are not creative and imaginative poetry at all. Full of sound ethical teaching, shot through by occasional graces of phrase and fancy, warming to enthusiasm on the themes of patriotism and piety, they still remain at best in that borderland where a rhymed satire by Dr. Johnson or a versified essay of Pope must also abide. Nearly everything they offer us could have been as well and effectively said outside the forms of verse. This is the just and final test of the poet’s gold, but how much, even of what we prize, would bear that test without appreciable loss?  5
  Among creators of constitutions, Solon deservedly holds a very high—perhaps the highest—place. His first public proposal, indeed, was one to which he could hope to rally the support of all classes: the reconquest of the lovely island of Salamis, lying close to the Attic shores, and destined to give its name to the proudest day in Athenian annals. With Spartan help it was actually wrested again from Megara.  6
  This success hastened the selection of Solon as mediator between the bitterly hostile factions of a people on the verge of civil war. By the desperate remedy of a depreciated coinage the debtor class was relieved. Imprisonment or enslavement of innocent debtors was abolished. Solon’s political reforms left the fulcrum of power, at least temporarily, among the wealthier and landed classes; and tended at any rate to educate the common people to wield wisely that civic supremacy which he may have foreseen to be inevitably theirs in subsequent generations.  7
  The story of Solon’s prolonged voluntary exile—in order to cut off any proposals for further change while his institutions endured the test of years—may be pure invention. Certainly his famous meeting with Crœsus of Lydia, at the height of that monarch’s power, must be given up. Solon died before Crœsus can have become lord of Western Asia. On the other hand, his fearless disapproval of his young kinsman, the “tyrant” Pisistratus, is at least probable. His answer when asked what made him thus fearless:—“Old age!”—reminds us of Socrates. Solon’s larger measures outlived the too aggressive protectorate of Pisistratus, and remained the permanent basis of the Athenian constitution. The tolerant, genial, self-forgetful, and fearless character of the man was a legacy hardly less precious to his countrymen; and they were nowise ungrateful to his memory.  8
  Solon’s poetry comes to us almost wholly in the elegiac couplet. This variation on the hexameter was the first invented form of stanza, and appears to have been hit upon in the seventh century B.C. It had for a time almost as many-sided currency as our own heroic couplet or rhymed pentameter; but was soon displaced in great degree by the iambic trimeter, which, like our “blank verse,” was extremely close to the average movement of a colloquial prose sentence. This latter rhythm (which is also used by Solon) became the favorite form, in particular, for the dialogue of Attic drama. Hence, even in the fifth century, both hexameter proper and the elegiac had already come to be somewhat archaic and artificial. This is still truer of such verse in Latin; though Ovid wears the bonds of elegiac with consummate ease and grace. In modern speech it is all-but impossible. Longfellow composed, in his later years, clever renderings from several of Ovid’s ‘Tristia’; but the best isolated examples are Clough’s preludes to the ‘Amours de Voyage,’ especially the verses on the undying charm of Rome:—
  “Is it illusion or not that attracteth the pilgrim transalpine,
Brings him a dullard and dunce hither to pry and to stare?
Is it illusion or not that allures the barbarian stranger,
Brings him with gold to the shrine, brings him in arms to the gate?”
  9
  But he would be a bold adventurer who would attempt to make our Anglo-Saxon speech dance in this measure, while fast bound to the practical prosaic ideas of Solon’s political harangues!  10
  There is no satisfactory annotation or translation of Solon’s fragments. They have been somewhat increased by citations in the recently discovered Aristotelian ‘Constitution of Athens’; and would make a fruitful subject for a monograph, in which poetical taste, knowledge of history, and philological acumen, might all work in harmony.  11
 
  [NOTE.—The essentially prosaic character of Solon’s thought makes him doubly ineffective in translation. He seems to be hardly represented at all in English versions. Neither of the experiments here appended satisfies the translator himself. Solon’s iambics are not quite so slow and prose-like as our “blank verse.” On the other hand, the Omar-like quatrain into which Mr. Newcomer has fallen is both swifter and more ornate than the unapproachable elegiac couplet of the Greeks.]  12
 
 
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