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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Pindar (c. 522–433 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Basil L. Gildersleeve (1831–1924)
PINDAR, greatest of Greek lyric poets, was born at Thebes of Bœotia. He came of a noble family, and the aristocratic note sounds clear and shrill throughout his poems. The family was not only noble,—it was artistic, it was musical. The flute, or rather clarionet, was a favorite Bœotian instrument; and Pindar served an apprenticeship as a flute-player, as a musical composer. Sundry stories are told of his early career: how he was defeated by Corinna, whose fair face and sweet Bœotian brogue won her the victory; and how the same Corinna warned him against overcrowding his poems with mythological figures, summing up her advice in the homely proverb, “Sow with the hand and not with the whole sack.” The period of apprenticeship past, he began to compose poems for public occasions; and the fragments show that he became a master in all the ranges of lyric poetry,—in hymns, in pæans, in songs for the dance, in processional songs, choruses for virgins, songs of praise, drinking songs, dithyrambs, dirges,—maintaining everywhere his eminence, and striking at times notes that are more sympathetic to the modern soul than his great Songs of Victory. The oldest poem that we have of his, the tenth Pythian,—composed, according to the common computation, when he was only twenty years old, in honor of a Thessalian victor,—shows little trace of a ’prentice hand. From this time forth his fame grew, and his commissions came from every part of Greece; and as was the wont of lyric poets, he traveled far and wide in the exercise of his art, the peer of Thessalian nobles and Sicilian princes. Honored wherever he went, he was reverenced at home; for he was a poet-priest, and the Blessed Ones are said to have manifested themselves to him. When he craved of a god what was best for man, the god sent him death, as he lay resting on the lap of his favorite in the theatre at Argos. He cannot have long outlived his seventieth year.  1
  Pindar was a proud, self-contained man, and held himself aloof from meaner things; and this pride in his lineage and in his art, this belief in the claims of long descent, and in the supreme perfection of his own consecrated song, may be the reason why the modern heart does not respond to Pindar as it does to other Greek poets—as it does to his rival Simonides, and to his contemporary Æschylus. Simonides is more tender; and Æschylus in his ‘Persians’ and his ‘Seven against Thebes’ strikes a warlike note of patriotism, that thrilled the Athenian theatre then and thrills us now. But Æschylus was a Marathon man; and Pindar was bound by his people and by his order to the cause of Thebes, which was the cause of the invader. But the issue of the Persian war interpreted to Pindar the meaning of the struggle; and his praise of Athens—“the violet-wreathed,” “the stay of Hellas”—was a chaplet that the Athenians wore proudly. The Thebans are said to have fined him heavily for the praise of their enemy, but Athens more than made good the loss; and long afterwards, when the Macedonian soldiery pillaged Thebes, Alexander, grateful for a like honor which Pindar had done to an ancestor of his,
                  “——bid spare
The house of Pindarus when temple and tower
Went to the ground.”
  Pindar is known to us chiefly by his Songs of Victory, composed in honor of the victors in the great games of Greece. The preservation of these poems is attributed to the accident of their position in the Alexandrian collection; but one cannot suppress the feeling that it was not accident alone that has preserved for us these characteristic specimens of an unreturning past. For nothing can bring these games back. The semblance may be there, but the spirit is gone forever. The origin of the games was religious, and they were held in honor of the great divinities of Greece,—the Olympian and Nemean in honor of Zeus, the Pythian of Apollo, the Isthmian of Poseidon. The praise of the gods is often the burden of the Song of Victory. The times of the games were fixed by a sacred calendar; and the prizes were simply consecrated wreaths of wild olive, laurel, and wild celery. True, abundant honors and many privileges awaited the victor at his home. The blessing of the gods rested on him; he was a man of mark everywhere in Greece; and sunshine lay thenceforth about his life. Surely reward enough for the “toil and expense,” the “expense and toil,” which Pindar emphasizes so much. Much stress is laid, and justly laid, on the athletic features of the games,—on the truly Greek consecration of the body, in its naked perfection, to the service of the deity. But there was a service of the substance as well; and the odes are so arranged as to bring the most expensive, the most princely, to the front. Only one of the odes here selected deals with physical prowess.  3
  The theme is no narrow theme, as it is handled by Pindar. The shining forms of gods and heroes illumine the Songs of Victory; every ode reaches back into the mythic past, and brings out of that treasury some tale of endurance or achievement, some romantic adventure, some story of love, some vision of the world beyond. Again, the poet dominates the whole by his strong personality, by his belief in God, by his belief in genius as the gift of God. He has a priestly authority; he is not the mouthpiece of the people, he is in a sense the voice of the Most High. Still, the Song of Victory does not belie its name. The note of triumph rings through festal joy and solemn prayer and grave counsel: “Only, the temporary victory is lifted to the high level of the eternal prevalence of the beautiful and the good over the foul and the base; the victor himself is transfigured into a glorious personification of his race, and the present is reflected, magnified, illumined, in the mirror of the mythic past.” This higher point of view gives a wider sweep of vision; and in Pindar’s odes the light of a common ideal played over all the habitations of the Hellenes. Proof of pure Hellenic blood was required of all contestants at the great games. In Pindar’s Songs of Victory the blood is transmuted into spirit.  4
  For the appreciation of the lofty and brilliant genius of Pindar, the closest study is necessary; and comparatively few of those who profess and call themselves Grecians are Pindaric scholars. And yet much of his “gorgeous eloquence,” as Sir Philip Sidney calls it, lies open to the day,—the splendor of his diction, the vividness of his imagery. Even in a translation all is not lost. Matthew Arnold calls Pindar “the poet on whom above all other poets the power of style seems to have exercised an inspiring and intoxicating effect”; and style cannot be transferred entire. No rendering can give the form and hue of the Greek words, or the varied rhythm, now stately, now impassioned, as the “Theban eagle” now soars, now swoops. But no one can read Pindar, even in a translation, without recognizing the work of a supreme genius, who combined, as no other Greek poet combined, opulence and elevation with swiftness and strength. To take the odes selected here: The first Olympian is said to have owed its position to the story which it tells of the primal chariot race in Elis; but it holds its place by its brilliance. The second Olympian strikes a note the world is to hear ages afterwards in the ‘Divina Commedia’ of Dante. In the third Olympian the sustained diction matches the deep moral significance of the life of Herakles; the seventh is as resplendent as the Island of the Rose which it celebrates, the Bride of the Sun; and the majestic harmonies of the first Pythian sway the soul to-day as they did when the Doric lyre was not a figure of speech. Pindar’s noble compounds and his bold metaphors give splendor and vitality to his style; his narrative has a swift and strong movement; and his moral lessons are couched in words of oracular impressiveness. All this needs no demonstration; and so far as details go, Pindar appeals to every lover of poetry.  5
  And yet, as he himself has said, his song needs interpreters. His transitions are bold, and it is hard to follow his flight. Hence he has been set down as lawless; and modern “Pindarists” have considered themselves free from the laws of consecutive thought and the shackles of metrical symmetry. But whatever the freedom of Pindar’s thought, his odes are built on the strictest principles of metrical form; strophe is answered by antistrophe, epode responds to epode, bar to bar. The more one studies the metres, the more one marvels at the delicate and precise workmanship. But when one turns to the thought, the story, then the symmetry becomes less evident—and yet it is there. Only, the correspondence of contents to form is not mechanically close. The most common type of the Song of Victory is that which begins with the praise of the victor, passes over to the myth, and returns to the victor. But victor, myth, victor, is not the uniform order. The poet refuses to be bound by a mechanical law, and he shifts the elements at his sovereign pleasure. The first Pythian is not built like the first Olympian. This myth, this story, which is found in almost every Pindaric ode, is not a mere poetical digression, not a mere adornment of the poem. It grows out of the theme. So in the first Olympian the kingly person of Hieron and the scene of the victory suggest the achievement of the first master of the great island of Pelops. In the third, the heroic figure of Theron brings up the heroic figure of Herakles, and the reward of the victory suggests the Quest of the Olive. The seventh Olympian, recording a splendid career, gives it a fit setting in the story of the victor’s home, the Island of the Rose. And in the first Pythian the crushed son of Gaia, who answers to the suppressed spirit of discord, lay under the very Ætna whose lord is celebrated in the poem. The historical interpretation has been overdone; and it is a mistake to press the lines of coincidence between the figures of the myth and the figures of the victor and his house: but it is also a mistake to revert to the older view, and deny all vital connection between the mythical past and the actual present.  6
  This controversy as to the function of the myth is but a specimen of what is found in every sphere of Pindaric study. Few of Pindar’s interpreters have heeded the words of the poet himself, “Measure is best.” Ancient schemes of lyric composition have been thrust on the fair body of the Pindaric odes, in utter disregard of the symmetry of the members; and elaborate theories have been based on the position of recurrent words. There has been much insistence on the golden texts and the central truths; but unfortunately each commentator picks out his own texts and finds his own center. “No true art without consciousness,” says one, after Plato. “No true art without unconsciousness,” says another, after Hartmann. And the lover of Pindar, weary of all this dispute, recalls the solemn verse, as true in art as in religion, “No man can come to me except the Father which hath sent me draw him.” In art as in religion, there is no true acceptance without a “drawing” that defies analysis.  7
  BIBLIOGRAPHY.—The best book on Pindar and his art is by Alfred Croiset, ‘Pindare et les Lois du Lyrisme Grec’ (second edition, Paris, 1886). There is an admirable chapter on Pindar in Jebb’s ‘Classical Greek Poets’ (1893), and an elaborate and most suggestive work by Fraccaroli, ‘Le Odi di Pindaro’ (1894).  8
  The translations of the odes that have been selected for this LIBRARY are taken without change from the admirable version of Ernest Myers. One exception is made, and that in favor of Professor Newcomer’s version of the first Pythian, which is published here for the first time, and will be welcomed by all lovers of poetry and the poet, as the earnest of a sympathetic rendering of Pindar’s Odes of Victory. That an editor of Pindar should differ at a number of points from any other man’s translation is most natural; but it would be both impertinent and ungrateful to insist on divergences of opinion here. A work of art such as Myers’s translation is to be changed by the hand of the artist himself or not at all.  9
  Sir John Sandys’s close and scholarly rendering in the Loeb Classical Library may aslo be commended to those who desire to follow the poet in the original, which faces the translation.  10

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