Odes of Pindar (Myers)/Introduction

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The Extant Odes of Pindar, translated into English  (1874)  by Pindar, translated by Ernest Myers


Probably no poet of importance equal or approaching to that of Pindar finds so few and so infrequent readers. The causes are not far to seek: in the first and most obvious place comes the great difficulty of his language, in the second the frequent obscurity of his thought, resulting mainly from his exceeding allusiveness and his abrupt transitions, and in the third place that amount of monotony which must of necessity attach to a series of poems provided for a succession of similar occasions.

It is as an attempt towards obviating the first of these hindrances to the study of Pindar, the difficulty of his language, that this translation is of course especially intended. To whom and in what cases are translations of poets useful? To a perfect scholar in the original tongue they are superfluous, to one wholly ignorant of it they are apt to be (unless here and there to a Keats) meaningless, flat, and puzzling. There remains the third class of those who have a certain amount of knowledge of a language, but not enough to enable them to read unassisted its more difficult books without an expenditure of time and trouble which is virtually prohibitive. It is to this class that a translation ought, it would seem, chiefly to address itself. An intelligent person of cultivated literary taste, and able to read the easier books in an acquired language, will feel himself indebted to a hand which unlocks for him the inner chambers of a temple in whose outer courts he had already delighted to wander. Without therefore saying that the merely 'English reader' may never derive pleasure and instruction from a translation of a foreign poet, for to this rule our current version of the Hebrew psalmists and prophets furnish one marked exception at least—still, it is probably to what may be called the half-learned class that the translator must preeminently look to find an audience.

The other causes of Pindar's unpopularity to which reference was made above, the obscurity of his thought and the monotony of his subjects, will in great measure disappear by means of attentive study of the poems themselves, and of other sources from which may be gathered an understanding of the region of thought and feeling in which they move. In proportion to our familiarity not only with Hellenic mythology and history, but with Hellenic life and habits of thought generally, will be our readiness and facility in seizing the drift and import of what Pindar says, in divining what has passed through his mind: and in his case perhaps even more than in the case of other poets, this facility will increase indefinitely with our increasing acquaintance with his works and with the light thrown on each part of them by the rest[1].

The monotony of the odes, though to some extent unquestionably and unavoidably real, is to some extent also superficial and in appearance only. The family of the victor, or his country, some incident of his past, some possibility of his future life, suggest in each case some different legendary matter, some different way of treating it, some different application of it, general or particular, or both. Out of such resources Pindar is inexhaustible in building up in subtly varying forms the splendid structure of his song.

Yet doubtless the drawbacks in reading Pindar, though they may be largely reduced, will always in some degree exist: we shall always wish that he was easier to construe, that his allusions to things unfamiliar and sometimes undiscoverable to us were less frequent, that family pride had not made it customary for him to spend so many lines on an enumeration of prizes won elsewhere and at other times by the victor of the occasion or by his kin. Such drawbacks can only fall into insignificance when eclipsed by consideration of the far more than counterbalancing attractions of the poems, of their unique and surpassing interest, poetical, historical, and moral.

Of Pindar as a poet it is hard indeed to speak adequately, and almost as hard to speak briefly, for a discussion of his poetical characteristics once begun may wander far before even a small part has been said of what might be. To say that to his poetry in supreme degree belong the qualities of force, of vividness, of intoxicating splendour, of the majesty of a lofty style, the expression of a high personality, of a mastery of rhythm and metre and imaginative diction, of an intensely Hellenic spirit modified by an unmistakable individuality, above all of a pre-eminent rapidity as of an eagle's flight or of very lightning—to say all this would be to suggest some of the most obvious features of these wonderful odes; and each of these qualities, and many more requiring exacter delineation, might be illustrated with numberless instances which even in the faint image of a translation would furnish ample testimony[2]. But as this introduction is intended for those who purpose reading Pindar's poetry, or at any rate the present translation of it, for themselves, I will leave it to them to discover for themselves the qualities which have given Pindar his high place among poets, and will pass on to suggest briefly his claims to interest us by reason of his place in the history of human action and human thought.

We know very little of Pindar's life. He was born in or about the year B.C. 522, at the village of Kynoskephalai near Thebes. He was thus a citizen of Thebes and seems to have always had his home there. But he travelled among other states, many of which have been glorified by his art. For his praise of Athens, 'bulwark of Hellas,' the city which at Artemision 'laid the foundation of freedom,' the Thebans are said to have fined him; but the generous Athenians paid the fine, made him their Proxenos, and erected his statue at the public cost. For the magnificent Sicilian princes, Hieron of Syracuse and Theron of Akragas, not unlike the Medici in the position they held, Pindar wrote five of the longest of his extant odes, and probably visited them in Sicily. But he would not quit his home to be an ornament of their courts. When asked why he did not, like Simonides, accept the invitations of these potentates to make his home with them, he answered that he had chosen to live his own life, and not to be the property of another. He died at the age of 79, that is, probably, in the year 443, twelve years before the Peloponnesian war began. Legend said that he died in the theatre of Argos, in the arms of Theoxenos, the boy in whose praise he wrote a Skolion of which an immortal fragment remains to us. Other myths gathered round his name. It was said that once when in childhood he had fallen asleep by the way 'a bee had settled on his lips and gathered honey,' and again that 'he saw in a dream that his mouth was filled with honey and the honeycomb;' that Pan himself learnt a poem of his and rejoiced to sing it on the mountains; that finally, while he awaited an answer from the oracle of Ammon, whence he had enquired what was best for man, Persephone appeared to him in his sleep and said that she only of the gods had had no hymn from him, but that he should make her one shortly when he had come to her; and that he died within ten days of the vision.

Two several conquerors of Thebes, Pausanias of Sparta and Alexander of Macedon,

'bade spare
The house of Pindarus, when temple and tower
Went to the ground.'

At Delphi they kept with reverence his iron chair, and the priest of Apollo cried nightly as he closed the temple, 'Let Pindar the poet go in unto the supper of the god.'

Thus Pindar was contemporary with an age of Greek history which justifies the assertion of his consummate interest for the student of Hellenic life in its prime. It was impossible that a man of his genius and temperament should have lived through these times without representing to us with breadth and intensity the spirit that was in them, and there are several points in Pindar's circumstances which make his relation to his age peculiarly interesting. We may look on him as in some points supplementary to the great Athenian dramatists, whose works are doubtless far the most valuable literary legacy of the time. Perhaps however the surpassing brilliance of Athenian literature and history has made us somewhat prone to forget the importance of non-Athenian elements in the complex whole of Hellenic life and thought. Athens was the eye of Hellas, nay, she had at Marathon and Salamis made good her claim to be called the saving arm, but there were other members not to be forgotten if we would picture to ourselves the national body in its completeness.

Pindar was a Boeotian, of a country not rich in literary or indeed any kind of intellectual eminence, yet by no means to be ignored in an estimate of the Hellenic race. Politically indeed it only rises into pre-eminence under Epameinondas; before and afterwards Boeotian policy under the domination of Thebes is seldom either beneficent or glorious: it must be remembered, however, that the gallant Plataeans also were Boeotians. The people of Boeotia seem to have had generally an easy, rather sensually inclined nature, which accorded with their rich country and absence of nautical and commercial enterprise and excitement, but in their best men this disposition remains only in the form of a genial simplicity. Pelopidas in political, and Plutarch and Pausanias in literary history, will be allowed to be instances of this. That the poetry which penetrated Hellenic life was not wanting in Boeotia we have proof enough in the existence of the Sacred Band, that goodly fellowship of friends which seems to have united what Hallam has called the three strongest motives to enthusiastic action that have appeared in history, patriotism, chivalric honour, and religion. Nor is there any nobler figure in history than that of Epameinondas.

One fact indeed there is which must always make the thought of Pindar's Theban citizenship painful to us, and that is the shameful part taken by Thebes in the Persian war, when compulsion of her exposed situation, and oligarchical cabal within her walls, drew her into unholy alliance with the barbarian invader. Had it been otherwise how passionately pure would Pindar's joy have uttered itself when the 'stone of Tantalos' that hung over the head of Hellas was smitten into dust in that greatest crisis of the fortunes of humanity. He exults nobly as it is, he does all honour to Athens, 'bulwark of Hellas,' but the shame of his own city, his 'mother' Thebes, must have caused him a pang as bitter as a great soul has ever borne.

For his very profession of song-writer to all Hellenic states without discrimination, especially when the songs he had to write were of the class which we still possess, triumphal odes for victories in those great games which drew to them all men of Hellenic blood at the feet of common deities, and which with each recurring festival could even hush the clamour of war in an imperious Truce of God—such a profession and such associations must have cherished in him the passion for Panhellenic brotherhood and unanimity, even had there not been much else both within and without him to join to the same generous end. It was the time when Panhellenic feeling was probably stronger than ever before or after. Before, the states had been occupied in building up their own polities independently; the Hellenic activity had been dispersing itself centrifugally among the trans-marine colonies, and those of Italy and Sicily seemed at one time to make it doubtful whether the nucleus of civilization were to be there or in the mother-country. But by the time of the Persian war the best energies of the race had concentrated themselves between the Aegean and Ionian seas; and the supreme danger of the war had bound the states together against the common enemy and taught them to forget smaller differences in the great strife between Hellene and barbarian. Yet again when that supreme danger was past the old quarrels arose anew more deadly and more complicated; instead of a Persian there was a Peloponnesian war, and the Peloponnesian war in its latter stages came, by virtue of the political principles involved, to partake much of the character of a civil war. But the time of Pindar, of Aeschylus, of Sophokles, of Pheidias, of Polygnotos, was that happy interval when Hellas had beaten off the barbarian from her throat and had not yet murdered herself. And Pindar's imagination and generosity were both kindled by the moment; there was no room in his mind for border squabbles, for commercial jealousies, for oligarchic or democratic envy: these things were overridden by a sentiment of nationality wanting indeed in many circumstances which modern nationalities deem essential to the existence of such sentiment, and many of which are really essential to its permanence—yet a sentiment which no other nation ever before or since can have possessed in the peculiar lustre which it then wore in Hellas; for no other nation has ever before or since known what it was to stand alone immeasurably advanced at the head of the civilization of the world.

Pindar was of a noble family, of the house of the Aigeidai, and it is probable that his kinsmen, or some of them, may have taken the side of oligarchy in the often recurring dissensions at Thebes, but of this we know nothing certain. He himself seems to have taken no part in politics. When he speaks on the subject in his odes it is not with the voice of a partizan. An ochlocracy is hateful to him, but if he shows himself an 'aristocrat' it is in the literal and etymological meaning of the word. Doubtless if Pindar had been asked where the best servants of the state in public life were most likely to be found he would have answered that it would be among those ancient families in whose veins ran the blood of gods and demigods, who had spent blood and money for the city's honour, championing her in war or in the mimic strife of the games, who had honourable traditions to be guided by and an honourable name to lose or save. These things were seldom undervalued by Hellenic feeling: even in Athens, after it was already the headquarters of the democratic principle, the noble and wealthy families obtained, not probably without wisdom of their own in loyally accepting a democratic position, as fair a place and prospects as anywhere in Hellas. But that, when the noble nature, the ἀρετή[errata 1], which traditions of nobility ought to have secured, was lacking, then wealth and birth were still entitled to power, this was a doctrine repugnant utterly to Pindar's mind: nor would his indignation slumber when he saw the rich and highborn, however gifted, forgetting at any time that their power was a trust for the community and using it for their own selfish profit. An 'aristocrat' after Pindar's mind would assuredly have a far keener eye to his duties than to his rights, would consider indeed that in his larger share of duties lay his infinitely most precious right.

But he 'loved that beauty should go beautifully;' personal excellence of some kind was in his eyes essential; but on this he would fain shed radiance and majesty without end. His soul rejoiced in splendour—splendour of stately palace-halls where the columns were of marble and the entablature of wrought gold, splendour of temples of gods where the sculptor's waxing art had brought the very deities to dwell with man, splendour of the white-pillared cities that glittered across the Aegean and Sicilian seas, splendour of the holy Panhellenic games, of whirlwind chariots and the fiery grace of thoroughbreds, of the naked shapely limbs of the athlete man and boy. On this characteristic of Pindar it is needless to dwell, for there is scarcely an ode of those remaining which does not vividly impress it on our minds.

And it is more with him than a mere manner in poetical style. The same defect which we feel more or less present in all poets of antiquity—least of all perhaps in Virgil and Sophokles, but even in them somewhat—a certain want of widely sympathetic tenderness, this is unquestionably present in Pindar. What of this quality may have found expression in his lost poems, especially the Dirges, we can scarcely guess, but in his triumphal odes it hardly appears at all, unless in the touches of tender gracefulness into which he softens when speaking of the young. And we find this want in him mainly because objects of pity, such as especially elicit that quality of tenderness, are never or seldom present to Pindar's mind. He sees evil only in the shape of some moral baseness, falsehood, envy, arrogance, and the like, to be scathed in passing by the good man's scorn, or else in the shape of a dark mystery of pain, to be endured by those on whom it causelessly falls in a proud though undefiant silence. It was not for him, as for the great tragedians, to 'purge the mind by pity and fear,' for those passions had scarcely a place in his own mind or in the minds of those of whom he in his high phantasy would fain have had the world consist. And as in this point somewhat, so still more in others, does Pindar remind us, even more than might have been expected in a contemporary, of Aeschylus. The latter by virtue of his Athenian nurture as well as of his own greater natural gifts reveals to us a greater number of thoughts, and those more advanced and more interesting than we find in Pindar, but the similarity in moral temper and tone is very striking, as also is the way in which we see this temper acting on their beliefs. Both hold strongly, as is the wont of powerful minds in an age of stability as opposed to an age of transition, to the traditions and beliefs on which the society around them rests, but both modify these traditions and beliefs according to the light which arises in them, and which is as much moral as intellectual light. In so doing they are indeed in harmony with the best instincts of the society around them, but they lead and guide such instincts and give them shape and definiteness. In the Oresteän trilogy of Aeschylus we have an ever-memorable assertion of the supreme claims of human morality to human allegiance, of the eternal truth that humanity can know no object of reverence and worship except itself idealised, its own virtues victorious over its own vices, and existing in the greatest perfection which it can at any given time conceive. Somewhat the same lesson as that of the Oresteia is taught later, with more of sweetness and harmony, but not with more force, in the Oedipus Coloneus of Sophokles. And in Pindar we see the same tendencies inchoate. Like Aeschylus he does by implication subordinate to morality both politics and religion. He ignores or flatly denies tales that bring discredit on the gods; he will only bow down to them when they have the virtues he respects in man. Yet he, like Aeschylus and Sophokles, does so bow down, sincerely and without hesitation, and that poets of their temper could do so was well indeed for poetry. By rare and happy fortune they were inspired at once by the rich and varied presences of mythology, 'the fair humanities of old religion,' and also by the highest aspirations of an age of moral and intellectual advance. We do not of course always, or even often, find the moral principles clearly and consciously expressed or consistently supported, but we cannot but feel that they are present in the shape of instincts, and those instincts pervading and architectonic.

And if we allow so much of ethical enlightenment to these great spokesmen of the Hellenic people, we cannot deny something of like honour to the race among whom they were reared. Let us apportion our debt of gratitude to our forerunners as it is justly due. There would seem to be much of fallacy and of the injustice of a shallow judgment in the contrast as popularly drawn between 'Hellenism' and 'Hebraism,' according to which the former is spoken of as exclusively proclaiming to the world the value of Beauty, the latter the value of Righteousness. In this there is surely much injustice done to Hellas. Because she taught the one, she did not therefore leave the other untaught. It may have been for a short time, as her other greatness was for a short time, though its effects are eternal, but for that short time the national life, of Athens at any rate, is at least as full of high moral feeling as that of any other people in the world. Will not the names of Solon, of Aristeides, of Kallikratidas, of Epameinondas, of Timoleon and many more, remind us that life could be to the Hellene something of deeper moral import than a brilliant game, or a garden of vivid and sweet sights and sounds where Beauty and Knowledge entered, but Goodness was forgotten and shut out? For it is not merely that these men, and very many more endowed with ample portion of their spirit, were produced and reared among the race; they were honoured and valued in a way that surely postulated the existence of high ethical feeling in their countrymen. And even when the days of unselfish statesmen and magnanimous cities were over, there were philosophers whose schools were not the less filled because they claimed a high place for righteousness in human life. To Solon and Aristeides succeeded Sokrates and Plato, to Epameinondas and Timoleon succeeded Zenon and Epiktetos. That the morality of the Hellenes was complete on all sides, it would of course be irrational to maintain. They had not, for instance, any more than the Hebrews, or any other nation of antiquity, learnt to abhor slavery, though probably it existed in a milder form at Athens than anywhere else in the ancient world: they were more implacable in revenge and laxer in sexual indulgence than the Christian ethics would allow in theory, though not perhaps much more so than Christendom has shown itself in practice. And though undoubtedly the greatest single impulse ever given to morality came from Palestine, yet the ground which nurtured the seeds of Christianity was as much Hellenic as Hebrew. It would be impossible here to enter on an exhaustive comparison of the ethical capacities of the two races, but before we pronounce hastily for the superiority of the Hebrew there are surely some difficulties to surmount. We may well ask, for example, Would Hellas ever have accepted as her chief national hero such a man as David, a man who in his life is conspicuous by his crimes not less than by his brilliant gifts, and who dies with the words of blood and perfidy on his lips, charging his son with the last slaughterous satisfaction of his hate which he had sworn before his God to forego? And though the great Hebrew prophets teach often a far loftier morality than this, they cannot have been nearly so representative of the feeling of this nation as were Aeschylus and Sophocles and Pindar of the feeling of theirs. The Hebrews of the prophets' age 'slew the prophets,' and left it to the slayers' descendants to 'build their sepulchres,' and at the same time to show their inherited character still more unmlstakeably by once more slaying the last prophet and the greatest.[3]

In truth in the literature, the art, the life generally of Hellas in her prime, the moral Interest whenever it appears, and that is not seldom, claims for itself the grave and preponderant attention which It must claim if it Is to appear with fit dignity. But it is not thrust forward unseasonably or in exaggeration, nor is it placed in a false opposition to the interests of the aesthetic instincts, which after all shade into the moral more imperceptibly than might be generally allowed. There must be a moral side to all societies, and the Hellenic society, the choicest that the world has seen, the completest, that is, at once in sensibilities and in energies, could not but show the excellence of its sensibilities in receiving moral impressions, the excellence of its energies in achieving moral conduct.

This, however, is no place to discuss at length questions in the history of ethics. Yet it must be remembered that in the ancient world departments of thought, and the affairs of men generally, were far less specialized than in modern times. If the philosophy of Hellas be the most explicit witness to her ethical development, her poetry is the most eloquent. And scarcely at any time, scarcely even in Aristotle, did Hellenic philosophy in any department lose most significant traces of its poetical ancestry. But enough here if I have succeeded in pointing out that in the great poet with whom we are concerned there is an ethical as well as a poetical and historical interest, supplying one more reason against neglect of his legacy of song.

Yet indeed even now there remains a further question which to the mind of any one who at present labours in this field of classical scholarship must recur persistently if not depressingly, and on which it is natural if not necessary to say a few words. If the selection of Pindar in particular as a Greek poet with claims to be further popularized among Englishmen may be defended, there is still a more general count to which all who make endeavours to attract or retain attention to Greek literature will in these times be called upon to plead by voices which command respect. To such pleas this is not the place to give large space, or to discriminate in detail between the reasonable and unreasonable elements in the attacks on a system of education in which a preeminent position is allotted to the literature of antiquity. While fully admitting that much time and labour are still wasted in efforts to plant the study of ancient and especially of Greek literature in uncongenial soil, while admitting also most fully the claims, and the still imperfect recognition of the claims, of physical science to a rank among the foremost in modern education, I should yet be abundantly willing that this attempt to help in facilitating the study of a Greek author should be looked on as implying adhesion to the protest still sometimes raised, that in the higher parts of a liberal education no study can claim a more important place than the study of the history and the literature of Hellas. The interest which belongs to these is far wider and deeper than any mere literary interest. To the human mind the most interesting of phenomena are and ought to be the phenomena of the human mind, and this granted, can there be any knowledge more desirable than the knowledge of the most vigorous and sensitive and in some ways also the most fruitful action of human minds that the world has known hitherto?

But again, we are told that the age we seek thus toilsomely to illustrate and realize is too remote to justify the attempt, that our civilisation is of too different a type from the Hellenic, and that a gulf of three-and-twenty centuries is too much for our sight to strain across. But is not the Hellenic life at least less remote now to Western Europe than it has ever been since the Northern invasions? Though the separation in time widens does not the separation in thought decrease? Is not one civilisation more like another than it can be to any barbarism? And shall not this same Physical Science herself by accustoming us to look on men in large masses at once, and on the development of humanity as a process of infinite duration, as a sectional growth included in universal evolution—Science, in whose eyes a thousand years are as a watch in the night—shall she not thereby quicken our sympathies with the most gifted race that has appeared in our short human history, and arouse the same feeling toward it as a family may cherish toward the memory of their best and choicest, who has died young?

Only let us take heed that such regret shall make us not more but less unworthy of those noble forerunners. One symptom of the renewed influence of antiquity on the modern world is doubtless and has been from time to time since the Revival of Letters a tendency to selfish and somewhat sickly theories so-called of life, where sensibility degenerates through self-consciousness into affectation, and efforts to appreciate fully the delightfulness of life and art are overstrained into a wearisome literary voluptuousness, where duty has already disappeared and the human sympathies on which duty is based scarcely linger in a faint aesthetic form soon to leave the would-be exquisiteness to putrify into the vulgarity of egoism. Such tendencies have less in common with the Hellenic prime than with the court of Leo the Tenth, though even that had perhaps an advantage over them as being in some ways a more real thing. But that the Hellenic prime with all its exquisite sensibility was deficient in recognition of a high ideal of duty can never be believed among those who have studied it candidly and attentively; I have endeavoured above to suggest that in this point, take it all in all, it yields to no age or race. It would indeed be a mistaken following of those noble servants of Humanity to draw from their memories an argument for selfish isolation or for despair of the great human republic. He who has drunk deeply of that divine well and gazed long at the fair vision of what then was, will, if his nature be capable of true sympathy with the various elements of that wonderful age, turn again without bitterness to the confused modern world, saddened but not paralysed by the comparison, grieving, but with no querulous grief, for the certainty that those days are done.

Ay, let our fates be such, for such they are;
So ordereth the voice oracular
Of the slow-moving, ever-moving years,
Too stern, too hind, to stay them for our fears;
And our own breasts, that know a younger age
Our creditor for ampler heritage.
Yet whoso anywhiles hath lingered long
In that high realm of unforgotten song,
This man methinks shall never quite set free
His soul from that constraining phantasy;
Still sometimes in a lonely place and fair,
Where the warm south-winds stir the rainy air
And sigh themselves to silence, shall his ear
In that vague wistful sighing seem to hear
From dreamy regions of the elder earth
A mournful music sweeter than our mirth,
Some harping of the god of golden head
By Delian waters waiting to be dead,
Some voice of wailing wood-nymphs amorous
Far off, within a vale[errata 2] of Maenalus.

  1. The importance and interest to a student in Hellenic literature of a collateral study of whatever remains to us of Hellenic plastic art—statues, vases, gems, and coins—can hardly be too strongly insisted on.
  2. In Mr. J. A. Symonds' 'Studies of the Greek Poets' there is an essay on Pindar which dwells with much appreciative eloquence upon the poet's literary characteristics.
  3. In thus touching on the obligations of our morality to the Hebrew and to the Hellene respectively, I have insisted more exclusively on the weak points of the former than I should have done in a fuller discussion of the subject: here I am merely concerned to question in passing what seems to be a popular one-sided estimate.


  1. Original: ἀρέτη was amended to ἀρετή: detail
  2. Original: Vale was amended to vale: detail