Greek Lyric Poet Pindar Dies Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Pindar, the greatest Greek lyric poet, perfected the genre of choral poetry, performed in celebration of gods and men, especially athletic victors, and bequeathed to Western literature the grand Pindaric ode.

Summary of Event

The death of Pindar, a native of Thebes, marked the end of archaic choral lyric poetry, one of the greatest literary achievements of the ancient Greeks. Like J. S. Bach, whose work came at the end of an artistic era (the Baroque) and summed up, while surpassing, the works of his contemporaries, Pindar was universally acknowledged as the greatest Greek lyric poet. His poems express the fullest flowering of the genre of extremely complex choral odes that combined song, dance, and musical accompaniment by lyres and pipes (reed instruments similar to oboes). Also, just as the generation following Bach was turning to new forms of music that made Bach’s music seem outdated, so Athenian drama, oratory, history, philosophy, and new forms of poetry were eclipsing Pindar’s lyric poetry. Pindar

His poems were collected into seventeen books (actually papyrus rolls) and edited by Alexandrian scholars, beginning around 250 b.c.e. They included hymns, songs addressed to various gods (1 book); paeans, hymns addressed to Apollo (1 book); dithyrambs, hymns addressed to Dionysus (2 books); prosodia, hymns for approaching a god’s shrine (2 books); partheneia, hymns sung by maidens (3 books); hyporchemata, dancing hymns (2 books); enkomia, songs of praise for men (1 book); threnoi, songs of lament for deceased men (1 book); and epinikia, victory songs (four books). Only the four books of victory odes (about one-fourth of Pindar’s total work) have survived in manuscripts.

Choral lyric poetry first flourished with the poet Alcman in Sparta around 625 b.c.e. At that time, the genre was already marked by brief mythical narratives, gnomic reflections, and allusive, metaphorical language. Studies have shown that the performance of choral poetry served various important functions, such as physical, aesthetic, and moral education; ritual worship of the gods; and the initiation and integration of young women and men into their societies.

Pindar’s odes serve these and other purposes. Some, like the enkomia (songs of praise), are less formal and contain praise suitable for symposia (communal drinking parties). Others, like the hymns, paeans, and dithyrambs, are communal and formed part of ritual celebrations of the gods, while the threnoi are solemn songs of lament and consolation for a death.

The other thirteen of Pindar’s books have survived only in fragments, through chance discoveries of papyrus in Egypt or as quotations in the works of later Greek authors. However, the four books of epinikia are very well preserved in manuscripts through a long chain of copying and recopying from the original papyrus rolls. These four books contain forty-five poems, varying in length from 20 to 299 verses. They celebrate athletes from cities all over Greece (and Greek colonies throughout the Mediterranean) who were victorious in the most prestigious games, Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian. Each of the four books is devoted to victors in each of these games. Those celebrated range from boy victors from small towns (such as Asopichos of Orchomenos) to some of the most powerful rulers at the time (Hieron of Syracuse, Theron of Acragas, and Arcesilas of Cyrene), whose horses and four-horse chariots had won for them prestigious victories. Pindar’s reputation as the greatest praise poet of Greece rests on these poems.

The odes consist of extremely complex metrical arrangements. The verses are organized into stanzas called strophes, antistrophes, and epodes. A strophe contains from three to thirteen verses. It is matched by a metrically identical stanza called an antistrophe, and a metrically different stanza called an epode—the three combining to form a triad, which is typically repeated from three to five times in a poem. The longest and most complex ode, Pythian 4, contains thirteen triads. Odes often have an ABA structure: praise—mythical narrative—praise. Pindar’s language is rich in metaphor, bold images, newly coined words, and very complex syntax and word order, all making his poetry extremely dense and difficult to interpret.

In each ode, Pindar sets the achievements of the victor within the context of his city’s traditions, Greek history, mythology, and traditional wisdom. The odes often contain myths, recounting heroic or divine stories that serve as backdrops for the athlete and his city, maxims, prayers and addresses to gods, and sometimes catalogs of past victories of the victor or his family. In Pindar’s odes to powerful kings such as Hieron and Arcesilas, the poet adopts the position of a Panhellenic adviser, offering precepts of statesmanship such as “Guide your people with a rudder of justice; on an anvil of truth forge your tongue” (Pythian 1.86-87).

Significance

Pindar’s lifetime spanned the end of the Archaic period and the beginning of the Classical, divided by the repulsion of two Persian invasions in 490 and 479 b.c.e. In the ensuing decades, the Greek world split into two opposing camps. Whereas Athenian democracy promoted innovation, aggressive economic imperialism, and radically new philosophical ideas, Spartan conservatism grounded itself in aristocratic institutions, Doric traditions, defensive foreign policy, and traditional ideas. Pindar was a spokesperson for the conservative outlook. He regularly praises aristocratic leaders and governments, Doric laws and institutions, and political stability; he looks back to the traditional legends and wisdom; and he is wary of what is not tried and true. His poetry is full of warnings about humans’ dependence on the gods and their limitations: “From the gods come all the means for human achievements” (Pythian 1.41); “Do not, my soul, strive for the life of the immortals, but exhaust the practical means at your disposal” (Pythian 3.61-62); “Creatures of a day! What is someone? What is no one? A dream of a shadow is man” (Pythian 8.95-96).

Pindar, with lute in hand, recites his poetry.

(Library of Congress)

Yet, Pindar’s vision was universal, for he aspired to be “foremost in wisdom among Hellenes everywhere” (Olympian 1.116) and consistently gave praise where it was fairly earned. The international reputation Pindar gained in the century following his death is illustrated by the story that when Alexander the Great razed the city of Thebes in 335 b.c.e., Pindar’s house was the only building he spared. In this way, the commander who venerated Homer and was uniting all Greece paid homage to the Panhellenic poet who had celebrated the deeds of great men.

With the death of Pindar came the end of the independent genre. Choral lyric poetry survived for a while in a diminished role in the tragic choruses of Sophocles and Euripides and in the comic choruses of Aristophanes. The expense of outfitting and training these choruses (the most expensive part of producing tragedies and comedies) indicates how lavish the performance of Pindaric odes must have been, requiring talented singers, dancers, and musicians dressed in fine costumes. Within a couple more generations, their performance ceased altogether. The last attested victory ode was composed by Euripides in 416 b.c.e. Even knowledge of their poetic conventions and details of performance were soon lost. The remarks of the earliest Alexandrian commentators two centuries after Pindar’s time show that his poetic language was perplexing and performance no longer understood.

Pindar’s odes, however, continued to influence the European tradition. The Roman poet Horace measured his smaller (Horatian) odes against Pindar’s grand poems. The Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard imitated Pindar and aspired to become the French Pindar. In the seventeenth century, the English poets Ben Jonson, Abraham Cowley, and John Milton composed Pindaric odes, as did Thomas Gray in the eighteenth century. Even the grand odes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Gerard Manley Hopkins are distant relatives of Pindaric odes.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bundy, Elroy L. Studia Pindarica. 1962. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. A pioneering, dense, scholarly analysis of the poetic and rhetorical aspects of Pindar’s praise that revealed the sophistication of his poetry and challenged its usefulness in providing historical or biographical information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Race, W. H. Pindar. Boston: Twayne, 1986. A survey for the general reader of Pindar’s work addressing its influence on Western literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Race, W. H. Pindar. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Facing Greek text and English translation of all the odes and principal fragments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rutherford, I. Pindar’s Paeans: A Reading of the Fragments with a Survey of the Genre. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A scholarly edition of the fragmentary paeans, recovered on papyrus from Egypt in the early twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steiner, D. The Crown of Song: Metaphor in Pindar. London: Duckworth, 1986. A readable survey of Pindar’s extensive use of metaphor.
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