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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Theognis (fl. Sixth Century B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
OUR ignorance as to the life of this favorite didactic poet is almost ludicrously complete. So early and competent a literary critic as Plato quotes from “Theognis, a citizen of Megara in Sicily.” Yet the poet himself declares he was but a visitor in Sicily, and a native of the parent-city Megara in Hellas proper,—the jealous neighbor of Athens. Again, the lexicographers assign him to the 58th Olympiad (about the middle of the sixth century); but he himself thanks Apollo for averting from his native land “the insolent host of the Medes,” so he must at least have outlived the first Persian invasion, by Mardonius, in 492 B.C.  1
  There is, however, another possibility. In this corpus of six hundred and ninety-four elegiac couplets are found frequently verses elsewhere accredited to Solon, to Mimnermus, to Tyrtæus, etc. There is also a deal of repetition, with little or no change of words. So it appears that the very popularity of the work has drawn into it much alien or unclaimed material. It is perhaps a general collection of ethical maxims, representing the morality of an epoch, of a race. In that case, all attempt at chronology becomes desperate.  2
  The chief trace of unity in the volume is to be sought in the name of the beautiful boy Kyrnos; who is often addressed by name, and for whose education and worldly success these warnings and suggestions are gathered up. Some expressions of warm affection and admiration may remind us that it was almost solely masculine youth and loveliness that aroused in the Hellenic mind the sentiment which the Italian poet devotes to a real or ideal Laura, Beatrice, or Corinna.  3
  Much of this volume is as prosaic as Solon’s political harangues; and we could easily accept Athenæus’s assertion that Theognis did not set his poems to music. But as usual, Theognis himself refutes our later informant; especially in the passage wherein he claims to have immortalized his boyish friend by his songs.  4
  If we may judge from the prevailing tone of the poem, Theognis had little of Solon’s gentle and conciliatory nature. In the civic strife that long distracted Megara, he is a fierce partisan of the oligarchs; sharing their exile and poverty, their restoration amid threats of savage vengeance, their utter contempt for the base-born.  5
  The general ethical tone of the verse is not high. Loyalty to friendship is the chord most enthusiastically struck. There is a frequent pessimistic tone about human life. The very gods are reproached for grievous injustice. Poverty is so bitter that suicide is a justifiable means of escape. Temperance—in the Greek sense—is praised; yet even here there are exceptions:—
  “Shameful it is for a man to be drunk among those who are sober:
Shameful as well to remain sober when others are drunk!”
  6
  Altogether, the book is not a remarkably edifying one; and the attempt to disentangle the various poems, authors, and times represented in it is a task “for a laborious man, and a patient,—and not very happy at that!” as Plato says of those who would expound the meaning of the myths.  7
  Perhaps Theognis appears at his best—and he certainly appears with great frequency—as he is cited in quotation, by Plato and nearly every later author who discourses on social and ethical themes. His great fame in antiquity demanded some attempt at analysis here.  8
  The verses of Theognis are accessible as printed in any text of the Greek lyric poetry; and some portions of his work are usually included in the annotated anthologies. Any one who wishes to make a thorough study of him either in Greek or English will find abundant aid in the volume of the Bohn Library which is chiefly devoted to Hesiod. This contains a literal prose translation of Theognis, with copious references to parallel literature. Furthermore, the most gifted of translators, John Hookham Frere, undertook to reconstruct both the outer and inner biography of our poet from hints afforded in his verse. The attempt itself could hardly be successful if our account of the materials given above has any elements of truth. Incidentally, however, Frere provided us also with a happy translation of nearly or quite the entire body of verse, rearranged freely for his special purposes. This essay of Frere is also included in the volume before mentioned, and from it we draw all the citations given in the following.  9
 
 
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