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Lyric Poetry

While among the Greeks the elegiac and iambic poetry, which forms the transition from epic to lyric composition, was practised by the Ionians, lyric poetry proper, or, as it was more commonly called, melic poetry (μέλος, “a song”)—viz., the song accompanied by music, was cultivated by the Aeolians and Dorians. This is due to the talent for music peculiar to these races. That playing on stringed instruments and singing were cultivated even in mythical times in Aeolia, in the island of Lesbos, is shown by the legend that the head and lyre of Orpheus, who had been torn to pieces by Thracian women, were washed ashore on that island, and that the head was buried in the Lesbian town of Antissa. Antissa was the native place of Terpander (q.v.), who gave artistic form to the νόμος, or hymn to Apollo, by elaborating the laws of its composition. Settling at Sparta in B.C. 676, he laid the foundation of the Dorian music. While he had closely followed Homeric poetry in the texts which he wrote for his musical compositions, there afterwards arose a greater variety in the kinds of songs, corresponding to the greater variety of musical forms, springing from the foundation laid by him. In the Aeolian lyric the pathetic prevails, as might be expected from the passionate nature of the people; the feelings of love and hatred, joy and sorrow are their principal themes. As to the metrical form we find short lines with a soft, melodious rhythm, which make up a small number of short strophes. They are written in the Aeolic dialect; we may suppose that they were solos sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments. In Lesbos the Aeolian lyric was brought to its highest perfection by Alcaeus of Mitylené (about 600), and by his contemporary Sappho, also a Lesbian, and teacher of the poetess Erinna. The joyous poems of Anacreon of Teos (born about 550), whose subjects are love and wine, were also in the Aeolian style, but in the Ionic dialect. An echo of the Aeolian lyric are the scolia. See Scolion.

It was among the Dorians, however, that the lyric poetry of the Greeks reached the highest degree of its development. It is also called choral lyric, because the Dorian songs were intended to be sung at the public festivals, especially those of the gods, by a dancing choir to the accompaniment of stringed instruments and flutes. Intended, therefore, to be public, it naturally had on the whole an earnest, objective character, and is thus distinguished from the Aeolian lyrics that expressed the personal feelings of the poet. Their form shows further points of difference. Instead of the diminutive Aeolian strophes of short lines, unsuitable for dancing, the Dorian lyrics have ampler strophes, usually with longer lines, and the combination of strophes is again subdivided into strophe, antistrophe, and epode, of which the first two are exactly parallel, while the last differs from both in its structure. While the number of the Aeolian metres is fixed, every Dorian song has its own metre, the rhythm of which depends on the tune suitable to the subject. As to the kinds of songs, there is also a great variety in the Dorian lyric: there are paeans, hyporchemata, hymns, prosodia, parthenia, dithyrambs, encomia, epinicia, hymenaea, epithalamia, threnoi; drinking-songs and love songs are also not wanting. They are written in the old epic dialect, influenced by Doric.

With regard to their historical development, Alcman (about 660), a Lydian who had become a citizen of Sparta, was the first to compose longer and more varied poems on the lines laid down by Terpander and his school. The Dorian lyric received its later artistic form from the Sicilian Stesichorus of Himera (about 600), whose contemporary Arion first gave a place in literature to the dithyramb. (See Dithyrambus.) In the sixth century choral poetry became the common property of all Greeks, and so flourished more and more. Of its older representatives we have still to mention Ibycus of Rhegium (about 540), in whose choral songs the erotic element prevails. This class of poetry was brought to its greatest perfection at the time of the Persian Wars by Simonides of Ceos, by his nephew, Bacchylides, and above all by Pindar of Thebes. Besides these, Timocreon of Ialysus, and the poetesses Myrtis, Corinna, Praxilla, and Telesilla deserve mention. Of the productions of Aeolian and Dorian lyric poetry, only fragments have been preserved, except the epinician odes of Pindar. (See Pindarus.) These fragments are edited by Bergk, Poetae Graeci Lyrici (1878).

With the Romans, the first attempts to imitate the forms of the Greek “melic” date from the last years of the Republic. Laevius wrote mythological poems in a great variety of metres, the Erotopaegnia (“Diversions of Love”), which, however, seem to have attracted little attention. Catullus also wrote some poems in melic measures. This kind of poetry was perfected in the age of Augustus by Horace, who introduced the forms of Aeolian lyric. None of the succeeding poets were of even secondary importance, in spite of the great skill with which they handled the various melic metres; one of them, the Christian poet Prudentius, wrote as late as the fourth century. The Dorian lyric never obtained a footing among the Romans.

See Deventer, Zu den griechischen Lyrikern (1887); Führer, Sprache u. Entwicklung d. griech. Lyrik (1885); Mattel, Die griechischen Lyriker (1892); and for the Christian lyrics, the article Hymnus.

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