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Category Archives: Poets

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Who is Hesiod?

by August 29, 2014

By Ben Potter
Regular readers will recall our discussion on the dubious and debated identification of Homer i.e. was he one man or two? Was he a woman? Was he a school of poets and compilers?
Homer’s contemporary, the Boeotian Hesiod, if anything, is even more troublesome in this respect. Like with Homer, two poems are ascribed to Hesiod: Theogony and Works and Days.
N.B. A third, Shield of Heracles has been almost universally discredited as his work.

And (as with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey) the prevailing point of debate is that a different man was responsible for each poem.

Painting of Hesiod

Hesiod and the Muse, by Moreau, Gustave, 1891

Interestingly, the main evidence for this is not the extremely different themes and tones, or the inability to date the works, but the fact that they vary significantly in quality.
Propagators of this idea claim the Theogony is laboured, stifled… often tedious in parts. To a lesser extent the same accusations have been levelled again the Iliad, i.e. that gods, catastrophes, sex, intrigue and violence rescue a text lacking in the pace and drive to do full justice to such subjects.
And, with the Theogony, comments about pace do not bemoan the lack of it, but the uniformity of it. In other words, there is too much high drama, too much repetition, too many and too frequent powerful adjectives. With no down time and no juxtaposition, there is no possibility for tension to build; all ebb, no flow.
Also, opportunities for toe-curling tension are wasted. Man’s genesis is ignored and long lists of names trudge along without passion, each as monochrome and forgettable as the last. Moreover, Zeus is so powerful and so perfect that we never fear for his position or safety.
Regarding tension, take this example of Kronos castrating his father Uranus:

“The hidden boy stretched forth his left hand; in his right he took the great long jagged sickle; eagerly he harvested his father’s genitals and threw them off behind”.

Cronus castrating Uranus
Such pungent tragedy is given scant attention; Uranus loses his manhood without even a whimper of resistance, whilst the list of the offspring of Nereus and Doris lasts for 31 dreary lines!
However, these criticisms are asking for a different text; one like the Iliad. If we take at face value that this is a work of religiosity (see the Bible of Ancient Greece) then we can excuse certain dramatic shortcomings, much like the unendurable ‘begat…’ passages of the bible, or the sanitized and colourless canti of Dante’s Paradiso.
Additionally, we mustn’t forget that this is a poem designed to be sung to music. Therefore, there would have been some scope for understating or emphasising supplementary to the mere text.
Likewise, the musical aspect accounts for repetition. In this respect Homer is far more guilty than Hesiod, but understandably so. A repeated or ‘stock’ phrase would allow the performing bard time to gather his faculties before singing the next verse.

It should be stressed that the caveats above do not hope to diminish just how different Works and Days is from Theogony.

The former poem is a treatise on mythology, ethics, sailing, home-spun wisdom, superstition and, above all, farming.

It is a world away from the ethereal Theogony and its laudation of the practical, noble and wholesome unravels in a charming and, often, very amusing manner.
The poem is a long letter from Hesiod to his feckless and reckless brother, Perses.
In Works and Days Hesiod adopts the persona of, or actually really was, a curmudgeonly old son of the soil.
He comes across as…
  • Puritanical and joyless: “your wife should have matured four years before, and marry in the fifth year. She should be a virgin; you must teach her sober ways”.
  • Misogynistic: “Hermes the messenger put in [woman’s] breast lies and persuasive words and cunning ways”.
  • Sanctimonious: “Oh foolish Perses, sailing in a ship because he longed for great prosperity”.

He’s also distrustful of city-folk, pleasure-seekers and dishonesty. But above all we recognise his industriousness, simplicity and innocence.

He is naïve, rural and quaint, bordering on twee.

If this really were a letter to an errant sibling, then one could imagine the response consisting of only two words; the second being ‘off’.

Farming olives
That’s not to say the advice is bad. Much of it gives an ignorant city-dweller (like myself) a pretty good rough guide to the mysteries of tilling the soil. Also, some of the more general and axiomatic fragments are heavy with sagacity.
Indeed, one can identify within the poem’s pages the inspiration for Polonius’ famous speech in act I scene III of Hamlet: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry”.
However, the superstitious snippets are often risible: “don’t piss towards the sun” is one such unforgettable piece of counsel.
Despite this, it would take a debater of Ciceronian stature to make a decent case that Theogony were the better poem.
Works and Days has greater and more flexible poetical guile, a more judicious use of vocabulary, and more evocative comparisons and contrasts than Theogony.

That said, there are undeniable crossovers between the works.

The Muses of Mount Helicon are invoked at the beginning of Theogony and again in Works and Days. Even supporters of the ‘two-poets’ argument admit that this is no coincidence. However, the best argument justifying this is that Helicon was some sort of literary pilgrimage site; an artistic Lourdes.

If the Hesiod of the Theogony had been the first such divinely inspired bard then it’s perceivable that a ‘Hesiod school’ could have appeared with countless scribblers using his name.
Perhaps this straw-clutching explanation isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. After all, it’s widely assumed some of Aristotle’s work was written by his pupils and colleagues. The same goes for the works of many Renaissance painters.
It’s also been hypothesised that ‘Hesiod’ was an honorific given to the most able poet among his contemporaries. However, given by whom and how are questions uncomfortably sidestepped.

Suffice to say this ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ idea holds about as much water as Tantalus drinks in a month.

Certainly such thinking, had it even been contemplated, would have been dismissed out of hand by the ancients. They didn’t merely think, but assumed both texts were the work of one man.

And though a majority of modern scholars argue for two poets, their numbers are partly outweighed by the leading cheerleader for a unified author; the exceptional American scholar, Richmond Lattimore.
Much like with the corresponding Homeric one, this is a debate which classicists love as there is hardly any evidence with which to make a refutation. What is more there’s nothing new likely to come to light and, providing there is always one dissenting voice, no chance of a resolution.
Something which does strike a note of concord is the assertion that Works and Days is a superb poem and Theogony is, at the very least, an extremely interesting one.
It may strike you that repudiating a two-and-a-half millennia old assertion that Hesiod wrote two poems simply because one is a better read than the other is a rather flimsy and extreme position to take. In such a respect you only have to think of your favourite author and compare their best to their worst book.
Luckily there is one way in which to reach a really satisfactory conclusion on the matter… but I’ll have to let you get on with that one yourself.

Sappho (630 BCE- 570 BCE)

by July 15, 2013


the poet Sappho

Born on the island of Lesbos around 630 BCE, this date is often disputed, surprisingly little is known about the life of this beloved poet. The only reliable source of biographical information about Sappho comes from her own poetry. However it is often disputed if her writings were actually auto biographical in nature. Additionally much of her writing has been lost to the ages. This leaves us with little to no verifiable evidence about who this woman was.
Still, her name has survived and her reputation as a gifted lyrical poet with it. She wrote extensively about love and passion for all peoples and for both sexes. She describes extensively emotional love between women and occasionally would write about sexual acts between women. These discoveries have lead to the assumption that Sappho was sexually attracted to other women. The term “lesbian” derives from the name of her homeland “Lesbos” and the term “sapphic love” is derived from the poets own name. We may never know for sure if Sappho loved women, the love for women described  in her poetry may have been entirely fictional. But given that she is believed to have written of her life in other fragments, this seems unlikely.
Sappho and Alcaeus

Sappho and Alcaeus by. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

All of these conclusions have been drawn from various scraps of poetry that have been attributed to Sappho. And they really are ‘scraps’. All of the surviving works by Sappho are partially destroyed, save for Hymn for Aphrodite. Her poems are actually categorized as fragment 1- fragment 213. These fragments have been attributed to several books that the poet is believed to have authored during her career as a lyrical poet.

Even though very little of her work has survived, from what remains we can determine that Sappho was extraordinarily talented. She possessed a clarity of language and simplicity of thought that creates images that are sharply defined and beautifully constructed. She was admired by other poets of her time. The philosopher Plato wrote of her in the Anthologia Graeca, a collection of ancient poems by esteemed writers, when he states:
“Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.”
While much of her work has been lost, we still maintain enough poetry from Sappho to appreciate her skill as a poet and her importance as an ancient writer.

Virgil (70 BCE- 21 BCE)

by July 15, 2013


the poet Virgil

Virgil or Publius Vergilius Maro, his full name, is one of the most celebrated and influential of the ancient Roman poets. His work was loved during his lifetime and has survived through the ages. It is believed that he authored several small poems during his life. However he is often remembered for three books in particular. These are The Eclogues (or Bucolics), The Georgics, and the epic Aeneid
There are various, conflicting reports about the life of Virgil. His biography is therefore a bit complicated. Some claim he was of Etruscan or Celtic descent. Still others claim he was descended from early Roman colonists. And while unsubstantiated claims say that Virgil was born to a father of modest means, still others believe he was born to a wealthy, land owning family that could afford an education for the poet.
The first two of his great works are The Eclogues and The Georgics. The Eclogues is a collection of ten poems that describe the political turmoil of Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. Interestingly, in the fourth poem Virgil mentions the birth of a boy that would herald in a new age of humanity. This was interpreted by later Christians as being a prophetic message for the birth of Jesus Christ.
The Georgics was Virgil’s second great work and was believed to have been published in 37 BCE. In The Georigics Virgil writes about all the labors necessary for running a farm. Virgil describes the care of livestock, methods for harvest and the nature of bee keeping as well as bees themselves. The theme of the poem varies between optimism and pessimism, which has lead to debate about the authors intentions.
Virgil bust

bust of Virgil

Virgil’s most famous piece is the epic Aeneid. The poem details the pilgrimage of Aeneas, a warrior fleeing the ruined city of Troy. Aeneas travels to Italy and founds a city that would grow over the years and eventually become Rome. The epic is a prolific piece of literature and consists of 12 books. The writing is similar to that of the poet Homer and the story itself is often compared to The Iliad as well as The Odyssey. 
Virgil would gain great fame during his lifetime for his writings. He is often regarded as one of the most talented writers of ancient Rome and his epic Aeneid is considered one of the most important poems of western culture. Virgil would remain popular long after his death. He even appears in The Divine Comedy by Dante and acts as Dante’s guide through the seven circles of Hell.

Ovid (43 BCE- AD 17)

by July 8, 2013


The Poet Ovid

Ovid, know during his life as Publius Ovidius Naso, was a noted Roman poet who is often mentioned along with the likes of Virgil and Horace. He lived during a significant time of Roman politics and briefly tried his hand at public office while traveling across much of the early Roman empire including Athens and Asia minor. It is believed that he originally studied law as a young man, but instead decided to pursue poetry at the age of 18.
Ovid focused much of his efforts on perfecting the style of elegiac couplet style poetry, a popular technique used by the ancients to create short versed, lyrical poems. It is believed that his first significant work was Heroides, which was a collection of fictional letters that mythological heroines would write to their absent lovers. This piece was believed to have been published around 19 BCE, however several revisions were made and re published later, so it is difficult to pin down when this work was originally produced.
Ovid would produce several poems over the course of his life. He would write extensively about love and would publish several poems exploring the difficult topic of love. The Amores (The Loves), The Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), Remedia Amores (The Cure for Love) are all works by Ovid that focus on the topic of love, sex and seduction. Ovid, strangely enough, also wrote  Medicamina Faciei Femineae (Women’s Facial Cosmetics). Only about 100 lines survive from this poem detailing the facial treatment for women and emphasizing that women should learn to refine their manners as well as their beauty.
Ovid’s most ambitious and popular work is Metamorphoses (Transformations). It is a 15-book catalogue that details the transformations involved in Greek and Roman mythology and explores the popular myths that many of us are familiar with today. Ovid covers all topics in his magnum opus, including the creation of the universe, the education of Achilles, even the deification of Caesar.
ovid statue

Statue of Ovid in Sulmona

Despite Ovid’s extensive success as a poet, he would be exiled to Tomis on the Black Sea by the Emperor Augustus in 8 AD. There are several possible explanations for Ovid’s exile. Ovid himself writes that he was exiled because of “a poem and a mistake”. It is possible that Ovid was aware of, yet not directly involved with, a conspiracy against Augustus. Another hypothesis is that he used his writing to undermine the emperor’s moral legislation concerning monogamous marriages.
Whatever the reason, Ovid would die 9 years after his exile. His poem Fasti was published posthumously. He remains a significant poet of the Roman empire who left behind prolific work that helped shape our understanding of the mythology and culture of the ancient world.

Homer the Poet and Fate – Part Two

by December 26, 2012

by A.P. David – You can Read Homer the Poet and Fate – Part One by A.P. David HERE:
The problem with a budget is that it cannot be changed mid-stream. In the period prior to its passage, a budget is a field of endless conflict and negotiation. Anything is possible at that point. But once it is passed, nothing can be changed. Once the government offices or UN bureaus have received their annual allotment, they cannot ask for more. They can only petition for next year. I think that this is the key to the power of fate. It is like this year’s budget.
Conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon

“La Colère d’Achille” (“Wrath of Achilles”) by French painter Michel Martin Drolling

Consider how deeply the anxiety about this problem goes in the Iliad; it is in fact expressed in the opening conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, which is essentially a problem of re-allotment once the division has already been made. The case is doubly poignant and humanly challenging because the commodity in question is a woman. Apart from the question about the value of a woman (how many hecatombs is she worth?) it is not possible to return a woman. She has become ‘used’, to put it crudely. It is essential, in regard to the possibility of reconciliation with Achilles, that Agamemnon claims he has not, in fact, slept with Briseis… although this stretches credibility.
The whole narrative problem of the Iliad, which is also Zeus’s problem, is how to stitch in a certain sequence of events, within a framework that has already been determined. He already knows that Troy is going to fall and when it is going to fall. But Thetis has called in a favour; and he must deliver in such a way as to work within the confines of a fate that has already been budgeted. To some extent, I believe he makes things up as he goes along. He is shown doing this when he wonders whether Patroclus should die right there at Hector’s hands, over Sarpedon’s body, or whether he should get to rage on some more. (He decides on a little more action for Patroclus.)
Zeus and Hera on Mount Ida

Zeus and Hera on Mount Ida, 1775 by Andries Lens

The flexibility here is striking. In Book VIII we find out from Zeus’s own mouth, for the first time, that Patroclus has to die as part of this favour for Thetis. Just because Zeus expresses it as a fated thing, does not mean that he had ever seen this before: he speaks in the modus of a prophet. But Zeus himself, the supremo, does not know precisely when the necessary death must occur. Similarly, in Book XV, when he wakes up from Hera’s embrace, he announces for the first time, to us and presumably to himself, that Hector also must die. His son Sarpedon will fall at Patroclus’ hands, and Patroclus at Hector’s, so that Achilles will finally be roused from the ships to seek revenge. This is the way that Thetis’ favour will be completed. There will be a reversal, a παλίωξις, driving back from the ships to Ilium, to neutralize the retrogression in fate that was initiated by Thetis’ request.
It is false to the letter and to the spirit of the story to say that Patroclus’ and Hector’s deaths were fated from the beginning. No such things were on the horizon until the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon, and Thetis’ visit to the knee of Zeus. Fate unfolds before us, at the very moments that Zeus sees the pieces fall into place, and Homer himself glimpses at the horizons of his story. Perhaps we even feel a sense of achievement here. Zeus’ successful negotiation within the confines of fate is at the same time a narrative achievement. As we are also swept onward into the real-time mortality of Patroclus and Hector, the pathos of Achilles’ surrogates.
At certain moments Zeus holds up the scales, and a man’s fate tips in the balance. I am open to suggestions about the meaning of this, but it strikes me as a ratification rather than a decision. Judges do not like to feel like perpetrators of any kind, but as agents of justice. Zeus is no exception. Holding up the scales is a way of turning the messy motives that produce what is fated, into a matter of masses and weights. There is a distance in the gesture that perhaps is a comfort to judge and jury. It seems to be a way of objectifying a decision, rather than an event in itself.
Zeus and Thetis

Is Zeus like Bill Clinton?

So, is the most powerful figure in the universe a kind of hen-pecked American president, with Hillary in the wings, and Monica asking favours, who has to pass a budget through an unruly congress and then live with the consequences? Yes. I think this is Homer’s idea. What I don’t understand is what experience Homer could possibly have had of this post-Enlightenment kind of government: for that is what Homer depicts in his Olympians, a government, of a kind very familiar to us.
The question to ask is about the truth and the reality. Which of the competing stories that purport to take us ‘behind the scenes’ actually works, so as to answer to our experience of reality? Is what is behind the appearance of our will and agency a reality of impersonal forces, masses, energies and elements, whose implacable laws are the true determinants of what is real? Or behind the scenes is there a purpose or intelligence of some kind? Or is there a loving god with a personal stake in our welfare? Or rather, does the world actually work as though its strongest power were a compromised president, where things happen as though they had been decided by a corruptible parliament, and the divinity of sex can overthrow the most stable fantasies of well-meaning people? It would be good to separate these answers, between the ones that are wishes, the ones that comfort, and the ones that are true. As always, open eyes and an open mind are what move us forward.

Homer the Poet and Fate – Part One

by December 21, 2012

by A. P. David
What is the role of ‘fate’ in Homer’s Iliad? My late teacher David Grene used to say that fate in ancient Greek usage was only ever about 95% certain. That is to say, there was always that little bit of wiggle room, and hence a feeling of possibility and choice. Without this 5%, it would not be humanly possible to conceive of a worthy life or a meaningful, interesting narrative. Hence it is absurd to say that we cannot discuss a character’s choices simply because everything was fated for ‘the Greeks’. What then, considering the above, is the role of fate in Homer the poet’s plotting and in the lives of his protagonists?
Zeus and Hera

Zeus and Hera

It is quite clear that Zeus is the most powerful figure in the world, but not even the father of gods and men is free to alter fate. Let us consider the nature of the pressures on him. When he realizes that his dear son, Sarpedon, is about to be killed by Patroclus, he mourns out loud in the most personal way, and wonders whether he should spirit him away alive.
Hera’s response is worth mulling over. It is not, ‘hey Zeusy, that’s nice, but you know it’s IMPOSSIBLE.’ It is, rather, ‘well well well … all this fuss for a mortal … okay, go ahead. But the rest of us gods aren’t going to be too happy about it.’ She goes on to point out what chaos would result if each of the gods decided to help out their particular favourites, protecting their lives from some kind of prearranged fate. ‘There are so many sons of immortals fighting around Priam’s town!’ She suggests, instead, that Sarpedon be allowed to die, but also that arrangements be made for the body to be returned to Lycia, where his family could prepare it and mourn properly.
Zeus is eager to acquiesce. It is the thought of what a bureaucratic mess would be created that prevents the supreme power in the universe from saving his son. We all know this feeling of the bureaucratic nightmare. (It is quite a puzzle to me how Homer the poet knew this feeling, without the direct experience of modern politics and infrastructures.) Is it really this mundane, bureaucratic inertia that preserves the machinery of fate? Yes, apparently.


Let’s look at Book II in the Iliad. After hearing the false dream, Agamemnon declares to the troops that the army’s cause is hopeless. It is said that the Achaeans would have returned home in their ships ὑπέρμορα, ‘beyond fate,’… unless a chain of command from Hera through Athena to Odysseus had not reined them in.
This notion that something would have happened ‘beyond fate’ but for some intervention, recurs through the poem. I would connect it to the affect of the ‘brink of destruction’, a feeling of the tension that something that is not supposed to happen is almost coming to pass. One feels, almost bodily, the force that keeps what is fated on its proper track. Nothing ever happens in the Iliad beyond what is fated, despite the reality of the threat. It is as though there is a contract established between poet and audience, which allows him to draw on this effect in a state of peculiar epic pleasure.
Next question then is: How can we have a free will if there is such a thing as fate? The modern question is about the coexistence of will and fate (or determinism), but to Homer the poet it is the relation between, say, Zeus’ plan and the anger of Achilles. On the one hand, these actions are directly juxtaposed, but on the other hand, this looming notion of fate emerges with a steady persistence.
Triumph of Achilles

Triumph of Achilles

At first it seems that the Homeric question is as intractable as the modern one, but I believe there is important information in the Greek. It is found in the word most often translated as ‘fate’. This word is μόρος and properly it means ‘part’ or ‘portion’. Sometimes the notion is figured as a piece of string that is cut by the three mythological spinners. But I think it is best served by an image that expresses the finitude of the available string—and really a cake or a pie works better. It is as if there is one big pie baked of the stuff of life, and each of us is allotted one share. This notion of the share, it seems to me, is a key to understanding Homer’s conception, in the way that it adds content to the notion of a predestined terminus to a string-like line of life.
What I would like to suggest is the notion of a ‘budget᾽, in its political and modern sense, which gives context to the notion of a share or portion that is the Homeric ‘fate’. Just as in the case of a modern congress, everything that ultimately becomes a part of the fateful budget begins life as an object of desire on the part of an agent, however broad-minded or craven the politician.
I think it is fair to say that everything that comes to be fated in the Iliad began life as an object of desire, in the person of some god. To be sure, there is a Freudian over-determination in Homeric events; it is not that there is no explanation for why something happens, but rather, that there are too many of them. The anger of Achilles did all those terrible things, and also the will of Zeus was being accomplished, and oh, by the way, the whole thing was fated anyway.
To Read Homer the poet and Fate – Part Two, click HERE