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.
The Greek Anthology
Critical Introduction by Talcott Williams (1849–1928)
THE GREATER monuments of Greece all men know, the incomparable peaks of the chain; and the chain lasted seventeen hundred years, nor ever sank to the dead level about. The steadfast sight of these great Greek originals warps and dwarfs our conception of Greek life. We behold the Parthenon; we forget that each village shrine had its sense of proportion and subtle curve. The Venus of Melos we remember, and the Victory is poised forever on its cliff; but Tanagra figurines tell as much, and reveal more, of Greek life. Nor is it otherwise in letters. The great names all know. For a brief span they stood close together, and the father who heard Æschylus might have told his experience to his long-lived son who read Aristotle, while between the two stood all the greatest genius that makes Greece Greek,—save only Homer. So brief was the noonday,—and it is at high noon, and high noon only, that men have agreed to take the sun; but this uplift was gained in the ascent of nigh two hundred years from the first written Greek literature that still lives. The descent, to the last of the Greek verse which still remained poetry, ran through thirteen centuries. Over all this prodigious span of fifteen hundred years stretches the Greek Anthology, a collection of 4,063 short Greek poems, two to eight lines long for the most part, collected and re-collected through more than a thousand years. The first of these poets, Mimnermus, was the contemporary of Jeremiah, and dwelt in cities that shuddered over tidings of Babylonian invasion. The last, Cometas, was the contemporary of Edward the Confessor, and dreaded Seljuk and Turk.  1
  As the epic impulse faded, and before Greek genius for tragedy rose, the same race and dialect which had given epic narrative the proud, full verse that filled like a sail to zephyr and to storm alike, devised the elegiac couplet. With its opening even flow, its swifter rush in the second line, and its abrupt pause, it was a medium in which not narrative but man spoke, whether personal in passion, or impersonal in the dedication of a statue, or in epitaph. This verse had conventions as rigorous and restrained as the sonnet, and was briefer. It served as well for the epitaph of Thermopylæ as for the cradle-bier of a child, dead new-born; and lent itself as gracefully to the gift of a bunch of roses as it swelled with some sonorous blast of patriotism. It could sharpen to a gibe, or sink to a wail at untoward fate. Through a period twice as long as the life of English letters, these short poems set forth the vision of life, the ways and works of men, the love and death of mortals. These lines of weight, of moment, always of grace and often of inspiration, stood on milestones; they graced the base of statues; they were inscribed on tombs; they stood over doorways; they were painted on vases. The rustic shrines held them, and on the front of the great temple they were borne. In this form, friend wrote to friend and lover to lover. Four or five of the best express the emotion of the passing Greek traveler at the statue of Memnon on the Nile. The quality of verse that fills the inn album to-day we all know; but Greek life was so compact of form and thought that even this unknown traveler’s verse, scrawled with a stylus, still thrills, still rings, as the statue still sounds its ancient note.  2
  In this long succession of short poems is delineated the Greek character, not of Athens but of the whole circle of the Mediterranean. The sphered life of the race is in its subjects. Each great Greek victory has its epigrams. In them, statues have an immortal life denied to marble and to bronze. The critical admiration of the Hellene for his great men of letters stands recorded here; his early love for the heroes of his brief-lived freedom, and his sedulous flattery of the Roman lords of his slavery. Here too is his domestic life, its joy and its sorrow. In this epigram, the maid dedicates her dolls to Artemis; and in that, the mother, mother and priestess both, lays down a life overflowing in good deeds and fruited with honorable offspring. The splendid side of Greek life is painted elsewhere. Here is its homely simplicity. The fisher again spreads his nets and the sailor his peaked lateen sail. The hunter sets his snares and tracks his game in the light snow. The caged partridge stretches its weary wings in its cage, and the cat has for it a modern appetite. Men gibe and jest. They see how hollow life is, and also how truth rings true. Love is here, sacred and revered, in forms pure and holy; and not less, that foul pool decked with beauty in which Greek manhood lost its masculine virtue.  3
  Half a century before Christ, when Greek life overspread the eastern Mediterranean, and in every market-place Greek was the tongue of trade, of learning, and of gentle breeding, Greek letters grew conscious of its own riches. For six centuries and more, or as long as separates us from Chaucer, men had been writing these brief epigrams. The first had the brevity of Simonides, the next Alexandrian luxuriance. Many were carved by those who wrote much; more by those who composed but two or three. In Syrian Gadara there dwelt a Greek, Meleager, whose poetry is the very flower of fervent Greek verse. Yet so near did he live to the great change which was to overturn the gods he loved, and substitute morality for beauty as the mainspring of life, that some who knew him must also, a brief span of years later, have known Jesus the Christ. Meleager was the first who gathered Greek epigrams in an Anthology, prefacing it with such apt critical utterance as has been the despair of all critics called since to weigh verse in ruder scales and with a poise less perfect. He had the wide round of the best of Greek to pick from, and he chose with unerring taste. To his collection Philippus of Thessalonica, working when Paul was preaching in Jason’s house, added the work of the Roman period, the fourth development of the epigram. Other collections between have perished, one in the third or Byzantine period, in which this verse had a renaissance under Justinian. In the tenth century a Byzantine scholar, Constantinos Cephalas, rearranged his predecessors’ collections,—Meleager’s included,—and brought together the largest number which has come down to us. The collection is known to-day as the ‘Palatine Anthology,’ from the library which long owned it. His work was in the last flare of life in the Lower Empire, when Greek heroism, for the last time, stemmed the Moslem tide and gave Eastern Europe breathing-space. When his successor Maximus Planudes, of the century of Petrarch,—monk, diplomat, theologian, and phrase-maker,—addressed himself to the last collection made, the shadow of new Italy lay over Greek life, and the Galilean had recast the minds of men. He excluded much that Greeks, from Meleager to Cephalas, had freely admitted, and which modern lovers of the Anthology would be willing to see left out of all copies but their own. The collection of Planudes long remained alone known (first edition Florence, 1594). That of Cephalas survived in a single manuscript of varied fortune, seen in 1606 by Salmasius at eighteen,—happy boy, and happy manuscript!—lost to learning for a century and a half in the Vatican, published by Brunck, 1776, and finally edited by Frederic Jacobs, 1794–1803, five volumes of text and three of comment, usually bound in eight. The text has been republished by Tauchnitz, and the whole work has its most convenient and familiar form for scholars in the edition of both the collections of Planudes and Cephalas, with epigrams from all other sources prepared by Frederic Dübner for Didot’s ‘Bibliotheca Scriptorum Græcorum,’ 1864–1872, three volumes.  4
  The Loeb edition has a translation by W. R. Paton on pages parallel with the text. About one-third of the poems have a prose translation by George Burges in the ‘Greek Anthology,’ 1832, of Bohn’s series, with versions in verse by many hands. The first English translation of selections appeared anonymously, 1791. Others have succeeded: Robert Bland and John Herman Merivale, 1806; Robert Bland, 1813; Richard Garnett, 1864; Sir Edwin Arnold, 1869; John Addington Symonds, 1873; John William Mackail, 1890; Lilla Cabot Perry, 1891. A collection of selected translations edited by Graham R. Tomson was published in 1889. Of these partial versions, the only one which approaches the incommunicable charm of the original is Mr. Mackail’s, an incomparable translation. His versions are freely used in the selections which follow. All the metrical versions, except those by Mrs. Perry, are from Miss Tomson’s collection. But no translation equals the sanity, the brevity, the clarity of the Greek original, qualities which have made these epigrams consummate models of style to the modern world. In all the round of literature, the only exact analogue of the Greek epigram is the Japanese “ode,” with its thirty syllables, its single idea, and its constant use of all classes as an universal medium of familiar poetic expression. Of like nature, used alike for epigraph, epitaph, and familiar personal expression, is the rhymed Arabic Makotta, brief poems written in one form for eighteen hundred years, and still written.  5

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