The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets
by Michael Schmidt
The Plonking Muse
A review by Emily Wilson
In the beginning of the Theogony, the poet tells us that the Muses taught
Hesiod glorious song while he was tending his sheep at the foot of Mount Helicon.
They spoke to "me," says Hesiod, insulted the current occupation of Hesiod and
his fellow shepherds ("Rustic shepherds, wretched, shameful creatures, mere stomachs!"),
and boasted about their own mysterious powers: "We know how to say many false
things like the truth,/and whenever we wish, we know how to tell the truth." Then
the Muses presented Hesiod with a scepter and a laurel branch, and breathed inspiration
into him, commanding him to sing about the blessed immortals -- which he does in
the rest of the poem.
This, as Michael Schmidt remarks in his new book, is "a good story." The switch from third person to first person is remarkable, and creates a more intimate relationship between poet and poem than we find in the Homeric poems. The story tells us a great deal about the poet's understanding of his art. Poetry is available even to the peasant shepherd, but it lifts him above the level of his stomach. It carries enormous cultural authority: the poet holds a scepter, like a king, and is able to communicate with the divine.
What this story does not tell us is anything at all about Hesiod's own life. It is evidence that the author of these verses calls himself "Hesiod," but it is not evidence that his work was inspired by a vision, nor that he once worked as a shepherd in the Mount Helicon area. The passage is not exactly the equivalent of a Henry James preface, an explanation of how the following work of art came to be written. Hesiod is composing a programmatic fantasy, not reportage or autobiography.
One could try to rationalize the supernatural elements of the story, in the hope of making it sound more plausible. The claim that those pesky Olympian Muses are the daughters of Zeus "the holder of the goat skin," Schmidt suggests, "may be a way of alluding to a mighty human master who imparted the divine art of song to the young shepherd, his poetic apprentice, and Hesiod translated the man and the debt into a 'higher register.'" Well, it might be. But this is pure speculation on Schmidt's part. It is certainly a dubious way of doing biography. The whole notion that Hesiod is giving a factual report of how he became a poet seems to miss the crucial point about these Muses: they "know how to say many false things like the truth."
Many genres of ancient Greek poetry, such as epic and tragedy, tend to exclude the poetic "I" altogether. Homer and Sophocles never come forward to speak in the first person, although the pseudo-Homeric Margites identifies its author as the "blind singer of Chios." Other, less elevated genres -- lyric, iambic satire, didactic poetry, epigram -- often do use the first person. But none of these ancient genres is confessional, or even genuinely introspective.
Scholars argue about the value of biographical criticism, and some would argue (as would I) that the knowledge of a poet's life does not necessarily help us to understand his or her work. It is perfectly possible, of course, to write accurate biographical accounts of most modern and early modern poets, and such accounts may be critically useful. We have quite a lot of evidence even for the life of Shakespeare, which is often said to be poorly documented. But the danger of the "biographical fallacy" is that biographical facts (or, worse, biographical fantasies) may become a substitute for the real critical work of engaging with the text. Biographical reading may suggest a reductive causality that omits imagination from the creative process.
Nowhere is biography less illuminating than with ancient poets, because we have absolutely no documentary evidence for any of these people's lives. Our only sources of biographical evidence are the poems themselves, and the ancient testimonia. Several anonymous or pseudonymous Lives of classical authors were produced in late antiquity. Some biographical stories are collected in the Suda, the Byzantine school encyclopedia. Others appear piecemeal in authors such as Plutarch and Athenaeus. But in most cases this evidence is extremely untrustworthy. Another book called The Lives of the Greek Poets, and a better one, was written more than twenty years ago by Mary Lefkowitz. Unlike Schmidt, Lefkowitz makes the study of sources central to her story, and argues that the ancient lives are often based not on remembered biographical fact, but on the poets' own surviving work. They are criticism posing as biography.
Some details in some of the ancient lives may reflect reality: it is possible, for instance, that Simonides, as the ancient lives tell us, was the first poet to take money for each poem, rather than being funded by a patron. But to fill out the biography of Simonides, we need fiction, not biography: Mary Renault's novel The Praise Singer offers a powerful but candidly fictional account of his life, which provides the general reader with a vivid sense of the world in which ancient Greek poetry was produced. Writing a modern biography of Orpheus or Homer is rather like writing a biography of Batman, or Madame Bovary, or God. There is plenty of material, but the exercise is misguided and futile.
In fact, an interesting but very different book could have been written about how the legends about the lives of ancient Greek poets developed and mutated, and how they have been used since antiquity. The lives of Homer, presumably, are purely mythical. It is highly unlikely that there was a "Homer" who single-handedly composed the whole of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Homeric poems are based on a long oral tradition; some parts of the poems seem to be several hundred years older than others, since there are inconsistencies about burial practices and about the metals used for military equipment that reflect changes in material culture discovered by archaeology. It is possible that Homer was a clerk, not himself a poet, who collected up and edited the best of the oral poets' work. Perhaps Homer was a committee, a group of poets who teamed up with at least one person who could write, and pooled their best material. Or perhaps, as Gregory Nagy has argued, the Homeric poems did not exist as we have them until they were edited by Alexandrian scholars. The composition of these texts would then have taken at least a thousand years, and authorship would be divided among enormous numbers of singers, writers, editors, and scholars. Given these famous and intractable Homeric problems, to try to read the Homeric poems biographically seems mad.
The ancient biographical testimonia about Homer are interesting not because they are true, but because they reveal an enormous amount about late antique attitudes toward poetry, and toward the figure often known simply as "the poet." We learn from the Suda that the poet's parentage was disputed; some said he was the son of Apollo and Calliope (and hence a half-brother of Orpheus); others claimed that he was the son of Telemachus. The alternatives suggest different ideas about the Homeric poems. They are clearly great literature, and their author must therefore have been at least partly divine; but the Odyssey creates also an intimate sense of involvement and empathy with the human characters, and so its author must have been one of Odysseus's family. The conclusions may seem naďve, but the observations are perfectly valid.
The Suda lists twenty different possible birthplaces for Homer; every town in the ancient world would have liked to claim him for its own. There is a fairly consistent tradition that Homer was blind and wandered begging through all the towns of Greece. The stories may reflect a buried memory that the Homeric poems began in a pre-literate age: blind poets do not write. More importantly, the myths tell us something about how the Greeks viewed their own literary and cultural heritage. Stories of the wandering poet suggest an awareness that the Homeric poems were the common property of all the Greek cities. Aelian, the Greek rhetorician of the second century C.E., reports in his Varia Historia that when Homer vomited, other lesser poets scrabbled round the sick bowl, grabbing scraps from the master's mouth. This tells us a lot about the bitter and satirical way a later age viewed the master's influence on the lesser poets who came after him: poets have no more control over what happens to their work than a sick man has over his own vomit.
Ancient Greek poems provide only minimal information about the people who composed them. In some cases, we know only very roughly when the poet lived; in other cases, such as Pindar's odes for particular Olympic festivals, poems can be dated reliably. But that is about as far as it goes. Consider the seventh-century iambic poet Archilochus. Greek iambic is a simple, conversational meter, associated with low, satirical subject matter. Archilochus's work survives only in fragments, but from them one can construct quite an exciting life story. He seems to have been born on the quiet island of Paros, but abandoned his homeland for war: "Paros, farewell," he says, "and those figs too, that quiet life by the sea." He fought on "golden Thasos," part of a Greek attempt to colonize this rich island. He may have been a mercenary. At some point he threw away his shield; as he says (in David Mulroy's version): "Some Thracian is waving the shield I reluctantly left by a bush, a flawless piece./So what? I saved myself. Forget the shield. I will get another, no worse."
Archilochus's sex life, if we take the poetry as evidence, was equally eventful. He expresses love for a girl called Neoboule. ("O, to touch Neoboule's hand!" is arguably the earliest fragment of Western love poetry.) Other fragments suggest that the relationship has gone wrong: Archilochus curses Neoboule herself, her father Lycambes, and her sisters. A long papyrus fragment discovered in 1974 draws a sharp contrast between two girls, one of whom may be Neoboule. The speaker first rants against a girl who is said to be hideous: her face and bottom are indistinguishable, and she ought to work as a scarecrow. Then the poem turns into a fairly explicit description of great sex with the second girl. Schmidt cites Guy Davenport's version: "I said no more but took her hand ... touched her hot breasts with light fingers, /spraddled her neatly and pressed/Against her fine, hard, bared crotch./I caressed the beauty of all her body/And came in a sudden white spurt/While I was stroking her hair."
Does this describe a real sexual encounter? Did Archilochus really abandon his shield? Was there even such a person as Neoboule, a name that means "New Plan," and is suspiciously appropriate as the name of an innovative poet's girlfriend? The answer to all these questions is probably not. It is certainly a mistake to imagine that Archilochus maintained anything like modern journalistic standards of accuracy. In his military and erotic poems, Archilochus is offering an amusing and provocative challenge to contemporary cultural pieties. The Spartan poet-general Tyrtaeus, who lived at roughly the same time as Archilochus, wrote the famous line that Horace later imitated: "It is a beautiful thing when a good man falls and dies fighting for his country." In the poetry of Archilochus, the beautiful thing is staying alive. As he says in another fragment, "Nothing good can be said for being dead."
Archilochus is the first author to contrast the fox and the hedgehog: "The fox has many tricks,/the hedgehog only one, but it's enough." Prickly and self-protective, a survivor rather than a fighter, the hedgehog is like the iambic poet, who pretends his vicious attacks on others are only to defend himself. The image tells us very little about Archilochus the man, but a great deal about the kind of poetry he was writing: individualistic, aggressive, comic invective, which deliberately defines itself against the ethos of Homeric epic.
Michael Schmidt is dismissive of academic skepticism about ancient Greek poets' lives, claiming about Archilochus that "a surprisingly real person fills out our ignorance." I am not at all sure what this densely metaphorical statement means. Probably Archilochus was "real," in the sense that somebody called "Archilochus" wrote all or most of the fragments attributed to him, although it is quite possible that "Archilochus" -- a military term meaning "sergeant" -- was the poet's title, not his name. Archilochus's poetry includes a lot of precise circumstantial detail. It is gritty, dirty, down-to-earth. In this sense, Archilochus keeps it real. Yet our almost total ignorance of his actual life story can hardly be mitigated or "filled out" by his realism. After all, the Muses say many things like the truth, and they do not add up to biography.
Schmidt is unreasonable to dismiss these issues as academic quibbles. The fundamental point is that poetry need not be a report on the poet's life. The ability to understand and to enjoy poetry as poetry, and not as evidence for facts about the author's life, is hardly confined to academics; it is an essential quality for any competent reader. But Schmidt relies heavily on the false assumption that "untheorized" people, both in antiquity and today, prefer fact to fiction. He acknowledges that Archilochus might have made it all up, but he adds that "it is doubtful whether his audience would have found a fiction as tantalizing as a tale based on real people." This assumption also informs his overstated assurances to his readers that we should "believe" even the least plausible myths about the ancient Greek poets. These claims suffuse his whole book with the odor of bad faith. Schmidt is aware of the lack of biographical evidence for these ancient lives, but he insists that unless we take the legends as an article of faith, we will lose them altogether. Now, children, are you willing to let Tinkerbell die? Do you believe in fairies?
Schmidt declares that he begins his book "as a believer." His first "life" is an account of the obviously mythical figure of Orpheus, in whom he claims to believe, arguing that "modern historical scepticism must not bridle us or we will have no Orpheus to converse with and no stories to tell." Six impossible things before breakfast is one thing; but this book contains twenty-five implausible and entirely undocumented lives. Schmidt puts an enormous strain on his reader's credulity. But the effort is entirely superfluous, and one wonders why Schmidt felt compelled to make it.
Why on earth would an educated, well-read man, himself a poet, a magazine editor, and a publisher of poetry, assume that everyone, ancient and modern, will be interested only in facts and not in fictions? Why could Schmidt not examine and paraphrase the legends without claiming that they are true? The answer to this puzzle seems to lie in Schmidt's own critical persona, which is no-nonsense and authoritative in the manner of an old-fashioned nanny. None of this flimflam about myth and interpretation for him: he prefers good clean facts, a firm set of value judgments, and lights out before eight. By insisting that there must be no gray area between fact and fiction, Schmidt finds himself writing a book where myth and history are confused.
Schmidt is already the author of a much-acclaimed Lives of the Poets, a survey of more than three hundred Anglophone poets; and both The First Poets and Lives of the Poets make an obvious nod to Samuel Johnson. Now, Johnsonian criticism may mean several things. It might denote a tendency to generalize, a refusal to count the stripes on a tulip. It might mean that criticism should be, like life, an arena for spiritual struggle. (In the Life of Milton, Johnson grapples with his own intense dislike of Milton the man, whom he sees as a kind of Satan, fundamentally dishonest both in his work and his life, narcissistic, tyrannical, pretentious, horrible to his wives and daughters, politically wrongheaded and inspired to republicanism only by his "envious hatred of greatness" -- but Johnson is ultimately able to acknowledge that this creep produced a work of sublime genius that he regards as second only to the Iliad.) At its worst, the would-be Johnsonian critic might simply adopt a pompous and fruity style, the kind that demands the reader's silent assent. This is the mode recommended by Stephen Potter in his brilliant account of how to appear authoritative: "If you have nothing to say, or, rather, something extremely stupid and obvious, say it, but in a 'plonking' tone of voice -- i.e. roundly, but hollowly and dogmatically."
Like Schmidt's earlier book, his new book is designed as an introduction for the non-specialist. It makes sense, then, that it consists very largely of paraphrase, both of the poets themselves and of the work of classical scholars. As an upmarket version of Cliffs Notes, The First Poets is both marketable and valuable. There is no real harm in stating the obvious. Some truisms are true. And so, as Schmidt tells us, Sappho was "an incomparable artist, innovative in her techniques, unique in sensibility," and Pindar's art "sometimes gets quite lost in translation."
But there is some harm in stating what is highly debatable as if it were common sense. Schmidt is very dogmatic, and he relies too heavily on the plonking tone of voice. Several of the Greek poets are roundly condemned: the work of Semonides of Amorgos is "verse" and "not poetry," and Bacchylides is "cloying." Schmidt often adopts an infuriatingly superior attitude toward the classical scholars and translators whose work he plunders. He tells us, for instance, that "when Peter Jay thinks he is translating Simonides, he may be the victim of exquisite forgeries," because many of the epigrams that have passed down under Simonides's name are probably by later authors. But this is hardly an obscure piece of information: Jay, a learned and elegant translator, was presumably aware that Simonides did not compose all of Simonides.
Schmidt frequently makes comparisons between Greek poetry and English poetry as a useful way to draw the Greek-less reader into the subject. Unfortunately, the comparisons are often superficial. The Alexandrian poet Callimachus famously suggests in his Aetia that it is better to write short, precise, delicate poems than big sprawling modern epics: méga biblíon, méga kakón, "a long book is a great evil." Schmidt reminds us that long poems in the ancient world were a physical problem for the reader as well as a literary one. (A really long poem, such as the Iliad, would take up a roll of 140 papyrus feet, at least if it were inscribed continuously, rather than broken up into the usual twenty-four books.) All this is fine contextualization, though slightly beside the point. But Schmidt adds that "a modern poetlibrarian, Philip Larkin, echoing Callimachus, declared, 'Books are a load of crap,' and he didn't even have the labour of re-winding them." The comparison to Larkin, an exceedingly un-Alexandrian writer, is glib and unhelpful. Callimachus never said that books were crap, and unlike Larkin in the poem that Schmidt is citing, Callimachus never suggested that life might be the thing. He always preferred reading.
The First Poets is a significantly worse book than Lives of the Poets. It is hard not to suspect that Schmidt, despite his versatility, was not really qualified to write it. He frequently cites transliterated Greek words, and implies that he has read in the original the poems that he discusses; but there are some suspicious mistranslations of basic words. He does not seem to realize that philos in Homeric Greek often means "one's own" as well as "dear," or that homoios means "of the same kind," not "by each other." And his account of Greek meter is muddled and confusing. Schmidt relies far more heavily here than in the previous book on secondary sources, and the authorities cited are an odd hodgepodge. Schmidt has obviously made great use of Lesky's and Bowra's antique guides to Greek literature, but his use of more recent scholarship is erratic and unreliable.
Perhaps it does not matter that Schmidt's Greek is less good than it might be. After all, as Virginia Woolf pointed out in her essay "On Not Knowing Greek," nobody really knows Greek in the sense that people know English. The experience of reading Greek poetry, even for a trained classicist, will always be mediated through commentaries, dictionaries, and textual reconstruction. Since none of us is a native speaker, we can never be sure what nuances we have missed; our response to Alcman or Pindar can never be as quick or as direct as our response to Eliot, Shakespeare, or even Chaucer. Moreover, Greek lyric poetry was written for the lyre, and without the music we are clearly missing half or more than half of the experience. We are like deaf people studying the lyrics to Don Giovanni.
A good book might have been written about what one can get out of Greek lyric read only in translation. Certainly, not everything is lost: the sense of imperfect access to the text may itself be a source of imaginative inspiration, as it was for Keats and for Yeats. But this is not the book that Schmidt has written. He alludes to himself as an "amateur" who wishes to "open out" classical literature to the non-specialist, but he never makes it clear whether knowing Greek counts as specialist knowledge. He wants to have it both ways, spreading great literature to the plebs while retaining his own position as a high literary authority. But even general readers do not enjoy being patronized. Though Schmidt hopes to knock the academics off their throne and set himself up in their place, new priest is but old presbyter writ large.
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