Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Alcæus (c. 620–c. 580 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
ALCÆUS, a contemporary of the more famous poet whom he addressed as “violet-crowned, pure, sweetly-smiling Sappho,” was a native of Mitylene in Lesbos. His period of work fell probably between 610 and 580 B.C. At this time his native town was disturbed by an unceasing contention for power between the aristocracy and the people; and Alcæus, through the vehemence of his zeal and his ambition, was among the leaders of the warring faction. By the accidents of birth and education he was an aristocrat, and in politics he was what is now called a High Tory. With his brothers, Cicis and Antimenidas, two influential young nobles as arrogant and haughty as himself, he resented and opposed the slightest concession to democracy. He was a stout soldier, but he threw away his arms at Ligetum when he saw that his side was beaten, and afterward wrote a poem on this performance, apparently not in the least mortified by the recollection. Horace speaks of the matter, and laughingly confesses his own like misadventure.  1
  When the kindly Pittacus was chosen dictator, he was compelled to banish the swashbuckling brothers for their abuse of him. But when Alcæus chanced to be taken prisoner, Pittacus set him free, remarking that “forgiveness is better than revenge.” The irreconcilable poet spent his exile in Egypt, and there he may have seen the Greek oligarch who lent his sword to Nebuchadnezzar, and whom he greeted in a poem, a surviving fragment of which is thus paraphrased by John Addington Symonds:—
  From the ends of the earth thou art come,
Back to thy home;
The ivory hilt of thy blade
With gold is embossed and inlaid;
Since for Babylon’s host a great deed
Thou didst work in their need,
Slaying a warrior, an athlete of might,
Royal, whose height
Lacked of five cubits one span—
A terrible man.
  Alcæus is reputed to have been in love with Sappho, the glorious, but only a line or two survives to confirm the tale. Most of his lyrics, like those of his fellow-poets, seem to have been drinking songs, combined, says Symonds, with reflections upon life, and appropriate descriptions of the different seasons. “No time was amiss for drinking, to his mind: the heat of summer, the cold of winter, the blazing dog-star and the driving tempest, twilight with its cheerful gleam of lamps, mid-day with its sunshine—all suggest reasons for indulging in the cup. Not that we are justified in fancying Alcæus a mere vulgar toper: he retained Æolian sumptuousness in his pleasures, and raised the art of drinking to an æsthetic attitude.”  3
  Alcæus composed in the Æolic dialect; for the reason, it is said, that it was more familiar to his hearers. After his death his poems were collected and divided into ten books. Bergk has included the fragments—and one of his compositions has come down to us entire—his ‘Poetæ Lyrici Græci.’  4
  His love of political strife and military glory led him to the composition of a class of poems which the ancients called ‘Stasiotica’ (Songs of Sedition). To this class belong his descriptions of the furnishing of his palace, and many of the fragments preserved to us. Besides those martial poems, he composed hymns to the gods, and love and convivial songs.  5
  His verses are subjective and impassioned. They are outbursts of the poet’s own feeling, his own peculiar expression toward the world in which he lived; and it is this quality that gave them their strength and their celebrity. His metres were lively, and the care which he expended upon his strophes has led to the naming of one metre the ‘Alcaic.’ Horace testifies (Odes ii. 13, ii. 26, etc.), to the power of his master.  6
  The first selection following is a fragment from his ‘Stasiotica.’ It is a description of the splendor of his palace before “the work of war began.”  7

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.