Anyone who has an ear for verse or song today will hear echoes of modern music in what the ancient Greeks called lyric poetry. After the age of epic when stately poems of extraordinary deeds—and length—reigned supreme, Greek tastes changed radically. Shorter, more personal poems written for feasts and weddings came into fashion. The greatest Greek lyric poet in ancient Greece was the incomparable Sappho, one of the rare women whose voice emerges from Greek antiquity.
The Lyric Age
For all his genius and narrative gifts, Homer composed in only one meter ever. From an oral poet, that’s to be expected. Besides telling a coherent story of great length and complexity based on the use of oral formulas and composed spontaneously in performance, are we also to require of him a mastery of many poetic forms? It would be unfair and unnecessary.
But as the pre-Classical Age began to dawn after 800 BCE, the Greeks opened their eyes to the larger world around them. With that, oral poetry, illiteracy, and nostalgia for the heroes of yore yielded to lyric poetry, writing and the love of innovation per se. Unlike in centuries prior, “new and different” was now good, experimentation prized and a will to explore one means of measuring someone’s greatness. In consequence, the Greeks of this age—in many ways, lived in one of the headiest times ever in history.
Where the art and taste for new modes of verse first arose isn’t clear, but by the seventh century BCE lyric poetry was spreading quickly across Greece, especially among the Ionian populations who lived along the shores of the Aegean Sea. In addition to experimenting with different meters, lyric poets also sang their songs to the accompaniment of a lyre, a stringed instrument plucked with the hand—if Homer had musical backup, it’s not evident in the text of his epics—thus, the name “lyric poetry.”
The lyre functioned much as the guitar does today, and indeed lyric poetry finds an interesting analogue in modern rock music. Where Homer had served up two voluminous tales, lyric poets wrote short, direct poems and many of them. This change resembles in some way the transition from opera to rock-and-roll in the modern world. Long, dramatic compositions focusing on heroes and tragic encounters gave way to poems embracing quick and pointed reflections on daily life and love. Modern poetry has moved in much the same direction.
Both arts also reflect their changing times. As Greece expanded, a restless crowd of enterprising merchants emerged. These entrepreneurs didn’t see their roots in the heroic past but sought from the arts an eloquent companion for their own experiences in the fast lane. To suit the temper of these nouveaux riches, a lyric poet’s work needed to be terse and varied.
Like modern audiences, too, their moods tended to centre around love: love lost, love found, love’s pain and joy. Lyric poetry swells with the excesses of erotic yearning, more than one of its poets was famous in antiquity for excessive behaviour and drunken escapades. That history has handed down to us none of the music which accompanied this genre is a terrible loss, and it is to the great credit of its artists that much of their original power still comes through the words of Greek lyric poetry even without the soundtrack. No poetry shows this better than Sappho’s.
Sappho, the greatest of the lyric poets, lived on the island of Lesbos in the northwestern Aegean. She flourished sometime around 600 BCE, that is, about a century or two after Homer. Little is known about her life. She may have gone into exile in Sicily at one point in her life, a biographical detail we can’t rule out given the perpetually stormy politics in her homeland. The rare truth that shines out among all these later tales is that Sappho ran a sort of finishing school for girls who were in training to be the companions of men since most of her poems are addressed with great affection to young ladies.
Typical of poets, however, Sappho isn’t easy to label with simple qualifiers like “lesbian” — though the adjective itself originates as a reference to her, its homosexual connotation arose only long after her lifetime —because her poetry centres less on the distant objects which attract her than the larger world around them and the even greater world within the poetess herself. As few others in western civilization have — she stands shoulder to shoulder with Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Keats — Sapphic verse explores the intensity of emotions surrounding love.
n the end, history has been unkind to Sappho. Fixating on the hollow vessels in which she poured her abundant love, many critics especially after antiquity condemned her for unnatural passions, when it’s clear her fascination is not with the girl but with feeling the depths of despair and heights of ecstasy love brings — that is, taking the journey, not reaching the destination — and as a consequence of their narrow-mindedness, history has also been unkind to her work, most of which now is lost. What little has survived the ravages of such deplorable bias consists of incomplete poems and scrappy fragments, an unspeakable tragedy to humankind. The failure of our predecessors to preserve her poetry is, simply put, the single most horrendous blunder in all of literary history.
All in all, another even more earth-shaking change underlies lyric poetry. It’s obvious that, although the lyric poets sang their verses in public much the same way their oral counterparts had in Homer’s age, lyric poetry rose out of a literate culture. Clearly, Sappho and her fellow poets wrote their works—that is, they didn’t compose them orally — and like modern singers, performed them as memorized pieces, not verses fabricated spontaneously and unique to each performance. At least to judge from the widespread appeal of some lyric poets, their poems probably circulated in written form, too. This new literature, in the truest sense of the word “written text,” looked ahead to the next stage in the evolution of ancient narrative arts when drama would dominate public attention.