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Lyric poetry

Poetry represented the only form of Greek literature until the late Archaic Age. The earliest Greek poetry, that of Homer and Hesiod, had been confined to a single rhythm. A much greater rhythmic diversity characterized the new form of poetry, called lyric, that emerged during the Archaic Age. (These texts are not yet available to Perseus.) Lyric poems were far shorter than the narrative poetry of Homer or the didactic poetry of Hesiod, and they encompassed many forms and subjects, but they were always performed with the accompaniment of the lyre1 (a kind of harp that gives its name to the poetry). Choral poets like Alcman2 of Sparta wrote songs to be performed by groups on public occasions to honor the gods, to celebrate famous events in a city-state's history, for wedding processions, and to praise victors in athletic contests. Lyric poets writing songs for solo performance on social occasions stressed a personal level of expression on a variety of topics. Solon and Alcaeus3, for example, wrote poems focused on contemporary politics. Others self-consciously adopted a critical attitude toward traditional values such as strength in war. For instance, Sappho4, a lyric poet from Lesbos born about 630 B.C. and famous for her poems on love, wrote, “Some would say the most beautiful thing on our dark earth is an army of cavalry, others of infantry, others of ships, but I say it's whatever a person loves.” In this poem Sappho was expressing her longing for a woman she loved, who was now far away. Archilochus5 of Paros, whose lifetime probably fell in the early seventh century, became famous for his range of poems on themes as diverse as friends lost at sea, mockery of martial valor, and love gone astray. The bitter power of his poetic invective reportedly caused a father and his two daughters to commit suicide when Archilochus ridiculed them in anger after the father had put an end to Archilochus's affair with his daughter Neobule. Some modern literary critics think the poems about Neobule and her family are fictional, not autobiographical, and were meant to display Archilochus's dazzling talent for “blame poetry,” the mirror image of lyric as the poetry of praise. Mimnermus of Colophon6, another seventh century lyric poet, rhapsodized about the glory of youth and lamented its brevity, “no longer than the time the sun shines on the plain.” Lyric poetry's focus on the individual's feelings represented a new stage in Greek literary sensibilities, one that continues to inspire poets.

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