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The First Poets

Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets

The First Poets
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A dazzling literary exploration by acclaimed poet and critic Michael Schmidt, The First Poets brings to life for the general reader the great Greek poets who gave our poetic tradition its first bearings and whose works have had an enduring influence on our literature and our imagination.

Starting with the legendary and possibly mythical Orpheus and with Homer, Schmidt conjures a host of our literary forebears. From Hipponax, “the dirty old man of poetry,” to Theocritus, the father of pastoral; from Sappho, who threw herself from a cliff for love, to Hesiod, who claimed a visit from the Muses–the stories in The First Poets masterfully merge fact and conjecture into animated and compelling portraits of these ancestors of our culture.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; April 2010
410 pages; ISBN 9780307556172
Download in EPUB
Excerpt
Orpheus of Thrace

He left half a shoulder and half a head To recognise him in after time. These marbles lay weathering in the grass When the summer was over, when the change Of summer and of the sun, the life Of summer and of the sun, were gone. He said that everything possessed The power to transform itself, or else, And what meant more, to be transformed. WALLACE STEVENS, "Two Illustrations That The World Is What You Make of It,"

"What would a man not give," declares Plato in the Apology, "to engage in conversation with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer?" Can we do something of the sort? If not to engage in conversation, then at least to glimpse them as they go about their holy and unholy business?

If I start with Orpheus, father of poetry, of music and, some say, of the art of writing itself; tamer of wilderness and wild hearts, servant of Apollo and, paradoxically, servant also of a new Dionysus; torn limb from limb as Dionysus was himself; dissuader of cannibals, maker of the ordered liturgies that displaced the abandoned frenzy of the orgies . . . If I start with Orpheus, it is to make it clear from the outset that this is a history in something other than the modern sense of the word. My Muse is Clio, as she was Plutarch's and Pausanias'. My Muse is Calliope, as she was Homer's and Apollonius of Rhodes'. And Erato of the lyric, tragic Melpomene, spirited Thalia shaking with laughter at solemn, spiritual Polyhymnia, who mutters prayer and praise. Orpheus is a hero, not a god, and a hero more valuable than most of the gods, just as Prometheus was.

Modern historical scepticism must not bridle us or we will have no Orpheus to converse with and no stories to tell. There is a wealth of stories, and they are worth telling, whether their truths are literal, as they sometimes appear to be, or indicative. Biblical scholars and theologians argue that, when a tale in the Bible is implausible, or is disproven by archaeology, it may nonetheless contain a higher truth or impart a truth of another order than the truth of fact. Without suggesting that we are dealing with holy writ or prophesy (though some see Orpheus as a purveyor of the first and an exemplar of the second), certain general truths exist within the related tales about this and other poets, and those truths emerge most vividly from the particular landscapes and timescapes which the poets may (or may not) have inhabited. Paul Cartledge reminds us that "the ancient Greek word for 'truth' meant literally 'not forgetting.'"

I begin this book as a believer, then, and trust that my faith will survive the pre-Christian millennium of its journey. First, as I step beyond the threshold of my book room into a parched Aegean landscape, I know that there were once springs and trees here in what is no longer Thrace but a land divided between Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. A man called Orpheus was born somewhere in this part of the world. We can confirm very little about him--or, for that matter, about Arion, Linos (said by some to have been Orpheus' teacher, by others his brother), Musaeus (his overconfident disciple? his son?), or Amphion of Thebes. We can confirm almost nothing about Homer and Hesiod, yet we have no problem, even when we should, believing in them.

Orpheus lived, and Orpheus lives. Everyone knows his name and the stories associated with it. His power was intact when in 1913, almost three millennia after his death, the French poet Apollinaire brought a band of young radical painters together under the banner of Orphism. Robert Delaunay, Fernand L’eger, Francisco Picabia, Marcel Duchamp and others at that stage shared a wild fauvist colour-sense and the kinds of dislocation and surface foregrounding we associate with Cubism: a tendency towards abstraction, but always rooted in and answerable to figures in the common world.

Apollinaire's first Orpheus poem accompanies an emphatic woodcut of the First Poet by Raoul Dufy: strong lines, stiff-billowed drapery, full-frontal nakedness, a proportionate penis, a lyre in his left hand. The poem says:

Wonder at this bold vitality And the firm lines' nobility: At "Let there be light" his voice was heard, In Pimander Trismegistus wrote the word.

Already magic, hermeticism, mystery--the Egyptian smoke-screen of Hermes Trismegistus, high-priest of the obscure--are at hand, like three brocaded Magi at a simple manger, complicating things. They are inseparable from the first poet, and finally they swamp him. All the same, at the dawn of Modernism it was appropriate that the singer who enchanted the beasts with his lyre and charmed the trees to gather round him in attentive groves should guard the door of Apollinaire's Bestiary. He helps the French poet to tame his animals in epigrams that contain but do not confine them. Other poems by Apollinaire relate to Orpheus, for example "The Tortoise," whose shell--a gift from Apollo--provided the frame of his lyre. Apollo made a gift of his own name to Wilhelm-Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky (Apollinaire), because the poet's father was nowhere to be found.

What can we say for certain about Orpheus? First, that his mother was Calliope, one of the nine daughters of Zeus and Memory (Mnemosyne) and Muse of epic poetry. Who his father was is less certain: the prime suspects are an Olympian god (Apollo) and an almost-mortal Thracian (Oeagrus, possibly a river god, or a king who inherited Thrace from his father, Charops, who helped Dionysus establish himself in Greece and was his devoted follower, inheriting the original Dionysian rites). On balance, it seems probable that his father was mortal, not divine: had both his parents been Olympians, he would not have been able to die. He did die, horribly, by several different accounts and in several different ways.

The travel writer Pausanias, whose Greece visited in the second century ad is a world already bleached by time, plumps for Oeagrus. Though the traveller lived a thousand years after the poet, he was two thousand years closer to him than we are. We also doubt the place of Apollo in Orpheus' immediate family tree because the varieties of Orphic religion that grew out of his name, though hostile to the unbridled Dionysian, are certainly not Apollonian. The followers of Dionysus, keen to introduce discipline and ritual, to channel the energy and frenzy of their rites, were attracted to his interest (if it was his) in the soul's survival and residual divinity. In his person and the stories that surround it he seems to acknowledge the perennial question: How shall we come to terms with our own death? We will return to Orphism and its metamorphoses. But Orpheus the man and his songs are our quarry now. One conclusion of two leading scholars of Orphism, I. M. Linforth and the beguiling W. K. C. Guthrie, is reassuring: what we know of Orphism is less a settled philosophy or soteriology (a doctrine of salvation) than a literature.

Orpheus' hypothetical brother Linos was himself a masterful singer. His ill fortune was to be appointed tutor to the young Heracles, who brained the poet with his own lyre when he tried to discipline the unruly boy. In another story, Linos is found challenging Apollo to a singing contest, and the god slays him. More evidence for Oeagrus: Apollo is unlikely to have slain his son or step-son. Whatever the manner of Linos' death, he was thereafter mourned with the ceremonial cry of ai Linon (woe for Linos), a lament which may have had a place in the rituals marking the changing seasons. On the shield which Hephaestus makes for Achilles in the Iliad (Book XVIII), "Youths and maidens all blithe and full of glee, carried the luscious fruit in plaited baskets; and with them there went a boy who made sweet music with his lyre, and sang the Linos-song with his clear boyish voice." Orpheus, too, has a place, more prominent than his brother's, in the cycle of fertility myths.

We know beyond all but the most wilful doubt that Orpheus married, and his wife was the lovely, young and innocent Eurydice. All the accounts of their romance--and it was among the most often told and sung of stories, until Offenbach reduced it to laughter in Orpheus in the Underworld--agree that they were a handsome and well-matched couple. What did Offenbach find comical? Innocent romance itself, perhaps, love without ironic distance, without style if you like. He may, too, have been impatient with earlier tellings. We know how Orpheus loved Eurydice; but did she love him back? She is portrayed as the object of desire, she is ordered about and obeys, but her own character is seldom consulted. Even in Hell, when Orpheus charms the God of the Dead, he reclaims Eurydice without reference to her own will to resurrect. Jesus did the same with Lazarus, and modern painters make much of the Biblical line that as they unwound the dead man from his shroud, he stank.

Let us look a little more closely at Orpheus' wife: she may provide clues to his character, and he to hers. Some of the main sources for information about Orpheus--in particular Pausanias, whose description of the murals of Polygnotus at Delphi is such a telling reconstruction--do not mention Eurydice at all. Orpheus went to the underworld, it would seem, out of curiosity rather than love, or perhaps he was a spirit of the underworld who escaped into the upper air, and Eurydice was added by some later romancer to give the first poet a credible human motive and a credible human nature. Since I have declared myself a believer, I take Orpheus to have been an actual man with an actual harp in his hand and a voice which, if we could only hear it, would bring us a visionary calm. The vision would be of the real forms that underlie the phenomenal world we perceive, a characteristic rather than a specific world.

He did not go to Hades for fun: it was a serious and perilous undertaking, of a kind that only love motivates. Even so, it is not until we get to Virgil and Ovid that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice is fully developed--at least, those are the first surviving poems in which it unfolds in a familiar form; there must be many missing transitional texts. One mustn't accuse Virgil or Ovid of originality, of wilfully making fictions of such importance. By the time of the Roman poets, everything was done upon established authority, and what was original was the way the derived pieces were assembled.

Some poets, notably Hermesianax of Alexandria in the fourth century bc, refer to Eurydice as Agriope ("wild-eyed" or "wild-voiced"), a name suitable for a nymph or a spirit of the wood, which is what some poets thought her to be, rather than a mortal woman who might die. "Orpheus and Agriope" lacks the euphony of "Orpheus and Eurydice," and composers from Monteverdi to Offenbach would probably have given the story a wide berth had "Eurydice" not prevailed. Eurydice: her name means "wide justice," Robert Graves says, or "wide-ruling," whereas Orpheus' name is uncertain. Graves suggests that it might mean "of the river bank."

Orpheus married Eurydice on his return from the heroic journey with Jason and the Argonauts, having had sufficient adventure by then to want a quiet life. He and his bride settled in Thrace among the wild Cicones. One day, out alone "gathering flowers," as the poets say, the young bride was assaulted by Aristaeus ("the best"). Now, he was the son of Apollo, via a nymph, Cyrene, one of the god's successful conquests. He transported her to the area of Africa that took her name, made love to her, and there she bore him two sons, the elder of whom became a crucial spirit of husbandry--hunting and bee-keeping were his special skills, and some say he learned from the Myrtle-nymphs of Cyrene how to make cheese, and brought the cultivated olive tree to men. He fathered some famous children himself, not least the hunter Actaeon, slain by his own hounds when he spied upon Artemis bathing in a spring.

Like all fertility gods, Aristaeus was sexually excitable, and finding Eurydice alone, he tried to rape her. She fled, stepped upon a serpent which bit her heel, and died. That is the story Virgil tells. Aristaeus was punished. His bees died, and he was forced to make atonements for his wickedness (which, upon his aunt Arethusa's insistence, involved snaring that most protean of gods, Proteus, in his sea cave, and securing his counsel). Proteus, according to Virgil, gave him a severe talking-to:

"An avenging spirit pursues you, crazed by grief, The ghost of Orpheus, calling for his lost bride. If the punishment that he gives you matched the crime The troubles you suffer now would seem like joys. Remember how the doomed girl fled, you ran her down In the deep grass by the river, and she could not see The venomous viper that lay along the bank at her feet."

Proteus tells the stricken Aristaeus the whole story of the descent of Orpheus in vain quest of his beloved. Then he tells him how to make atonement to the gods, because he cannot atone to man. Aristaeus follows instructions, and, after sacrifices and other penitential exercises, a new swarm of bees clouds out of one of the sacrificed carcasses and into his hives. But nothing could undo the consequence of his lustful act that concerns us here, Eurydice's death.

Orpheus had lived in hope, as Proteus tells, and this is where the power of music and poetry, of love and legend, come together in the great Romantic story. A virtuous girl, a faithful wife, she was running away from Aristaeus, but after the snake struck, her legs no longer moved, she floated on the strong current of death like a figure from Chagall, out of the sunlight and into the long dark caverns leading to the kingdom of the dead. We must assume she went the same route that Orpheus was to follow in seeking her, the single route to Pluto's world, but because she was a woman and her passage was the normal one for a person dead, over the River of Forgetfulness on Charon's rickety boat, past the three-headed dog Cerberus with his three-jawed slavering and three-throated bark, none of the poets follows her. She, or her life, vanishes from the face of the earth, and the next time we see her is through Orpheus' eyes, when she is already dead.

Discovering her death, Orpheus wanders in sorrowful desperation. His music cannot calm him, so he decides, after a period of lament and ineffectual strumming, to seek her out in Hades and persuade the dark gods to give her back.


From the Hardcover edition.