The shadow of your scorn: Archilochus

Thalia and the PoetThe ancient Greeks thought Archilochus (spoken something like arkíll o’kos) was one of their greatest poets. The three they most admired were Homer, Archilochus and Sappho, in that order. The poetry of Archilochus (and of Sappho) hasn’t survived, except for a few fragments. Yet if we want to have a clearer picture of classical culture some attempt to assess their most esteemed writers is necessary.

Archilochus was said by later scholars to have lived in the mid seventh century BC. He was a native of Paros, an island right in the centre of the Aegean Sea.

Other details survive, concerning his parents, his love affairs and his profession, that of a soldier. These stories, like all autobiographical stories of ancient writers, have to be treated with caution. They may in some cases be true, but we have no way of knowing. They derive from Byzantine compilers who drew on Alexandrian scholars’ editions of works by celebrated writers. In some cases at least the source of information is the huge corpus of fourth century comedy (most of which also hasn’t survived). The comic writers obviously would take lines of a poem out of context, put opinions in the mouth of famous writers the opposite of the ones they were known for, invent scurrilous abuse of respectable people (just as Aristophanes did for Socrates), all to raise a laugh. The audience, after all, knew the works of the writers lampooned and could take things in context. We don’t, and have to be careful we don’t take a joke as a fact. All these sources of information are much later than the lifetime of poets like Archilochus.

The other source of information on ancient writers commonly used (by modern writers as well as ancient ones) is statements made in their poetry. Sappho writes of feeling desire for a woman: so she must have been a lesbian. Archilochus writes of throwing away his shield: so he must have been a soldier. Before we assume every personal statement in an ancient poem is autobiographical we need to know something about the context in which these works were written.

The poems of Archilochus and Sappho might have been at first spoken, not written, works. In the seventh century BC the Greek alphabet was still evolving. There were in effect two Greek alphabets. Writing was changing direction, from the right to from the left. The various dialects, Ionian in which Archilochus wrote, Aeolian the language of Sappho, and others, were in the process of being standardised. Writing, which had been used for legal and commercial purposes, had only started to be used for recording the poetry which up to that time had been recited and passed on by bards.

This is the period when scholars believe Homer lived, and the Homeric poems first written down, and if so he must have either transcribed a recitation or compiled from memory the poems that make up the Iliad and the Odyssey. His younger contemporary Archilochus might have done the same. Both poets lived in a transitional age, when the poets turned from oral composition and performance and began to write their compositions. Some, at least, of the works of Archilochus, if we had them, might have turned out to be traditional. This process was still going on a generation later, in the time of Sappho.

These last two poets were lyric poets, unlike Homer, who was an epic poet. Because we still have a lyric form in poetry, and because lyric uses a personal tone of voice, we can easily interpret them in 21st century terms. This might make the poems more relevant, but might not be an accurate way to imagine how they were first composed or performed.

Epic poets celebrated the ancestors’ deeds, lyric poets spoke in their own voice. Lyric poets had a variety of metres, and of tones, they could use. Epic poets used the hexametre and the grand and majestic manner. But the personal touch wasn’t what made lyric poetry ‘lyric’: it was the metre and the accompaniment of the lyre.

Lyric poetry, like the alphabet, was going through changes. In the 19th century it ended up with works like Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ or ‘To a Skylark’, but in the seventh century BC things were different.

We don’t actually know how seventh century lyric was presented (though a poet writing his heart out in his garret is an unlikely scenario for ancient times), but scholars suggest an evolution from religious ceremony, to secular song, to spoken poem, and finally to written form.

Ancient religion, like ancient lyric, was different to its modern forms. It was part of public life, in which every citizen participated, and might range from devotion to the family or city ancestors to participation in great annual celebrations for one of the gods. Lyric poetry began as something like hymn, as tragedy was closer to oratorio than what we think of as drama. Music, dance and song were combined in the performance. The poems of Archilochus, Sappho and Homer were performed for centuries all over the Greek world, in Sicily, Italy, the islands, and the Black Sea, by professional rhapsodes.

We have a much better idea about how fifth century drama was presented. It was part of a ‘national’ (an anachronistic term hard to avoid) ceremony and festival in honour of Dionysios and (in Athens) Athena. Established poets had the reputation that prophets had in ancient Judea (nothing to do with foretelling the future of course). Associated with the tragedies were satyr plays, earthy mockery of gods and satirical parodies of human failings. The same poet wrote and presented three tragedies and one satyr play at each festival. The satyr play gives us an idea as to how Archilochus might have presented his work, and how he might have been appreciated, in his earlier time.

Archilochus was thought by ancient critics to be an innovator, as was Thespis. He introduced new metres, which may mean only that he introduced an existing metre into lyric (metres originally meaning a dance step or measure). He also introduced his own voice, at least some of the time. We don’t know if the surviving fragments are personal or dramatic, part of some proto-satyr masque in honour of a god. It appears though that Archilochus was a devoteé of the god Dionysios, just as it appears Sappho was involved in worship of Aphrodite.

So lyric originally meant accompanied by a lyre, danced and sung in honour of a god, and featured a personal, contemporary note in the poetry, though this could at times have been in a dramatic structure (dramatic in that the singer might have been impersonating a mythological character.

One further consideration needs to be born in mind before looking at the fragments of Archilochus’ poetry. He may have come on, as it were, after an epic recitation, and his tone meant to contrast as much as possible with epic dignity.

My enemy has my shield, I threw it against a bush and ran away;
Let it go, it’s only a shield, not worth a life: I’ll get another

I know how to love those
who love me, how to hate.
My enemies I overwhelm
with abuse. The ant bites!

(trans. Guy Davenport)

I shall no more heal a wound by weeping
than make it worse by pursuing joys

(J M Edmonds)

Archilochus represents the anti-heroic and the dilemmas of real life. He talks about cowardice, fear, old age, poverty, ridicules his enemies, cons a girl into having sex, gets drunk, admits that life is hard, that death comes at the end, that people are untrustworthy. It tells us something about the ancient Greeks that they appreciated this ‘tell it like it is’ approach. But there is more to his poetry. Also admired was Archilochus’ energy. His lines were forceful, incisive. If he mocked you, you felt the lash. “Hasten on, Wayfarer,” was written on Archilochos’ tomb, “lest you stir up the hornets.”

All the more pity he and Sappho are both represented mainly by single words quoted by ancient grammarians. There appear to have been more grammarians than poetry lovers in Greek culture eventually, and that’s the real reason Archilochus’ poetry hasn’t survived.

Photograph: Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, with Poet Reading from a Scroll, detail, Phyrgian marble relief, Roman, 180-200 CE, columnar sarcophagus (background removed) from the “Gardens of Pomey,” Rome (Photographic Credit Barbara McManus, 2001), by courtesy of the VRoma Project.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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