Greek lyric

Alcaeus and Sappho (Brygos Painter, Attic red-figure kalathos, ca. 470 BC)

Greek lyric is the body of lyric poetry written in dialects of Ancient Greek. It is primarily associated with the early 7th to the early 5th centuries BC, sometimes called the "Lyric Age of Greece",[1] but continued to be written into the Hellenistic and Imperial periods.


Lyric is one of three broad categories of poetry in classical antiquity, along with drama and epic, according to the scheme of the "natural forms of poetry" developed by Goethe in the early nineteenth century. (Drama is considered a form of poetry here because both tragedy and comedy were written in verse in ancient Greece.)[2] Culturally, Greek lyric is the product of the political, social and intellectual milieu of the Greek polis ("city-state").[3]

Much of Greek lyric is occasional poetry, composed for public or private performance by a soloist or chorus to mark particular occasions. The symposium ("drinking party") was one setting in which lyric poems were performed.[4] "Lyric" indicates that these poems were conceived of as belonging to the tradition of poetry sung or chanted to the accompaniment of the lyre, also known as melic poetry (from melos, "song"; compare English "melody"). Modern surveys of "Greek lyric" often include relatively short poems composed for similar purposes or circumstances that were not strictly "song lyrics" in the modern sense, such as elegies and iambics.[5]

Greek lyric poems celebrate athletic victories (epinikia), commemorate the dead, exhort soldiers to valor, and offer religious devotion in the forms of hymns, paeans, and dithyrambs. Partheneia, "maiden-songs," were sung by choruses of maidens at festivals.[6] Love poems praise the beloved, express unfulfilled desire, proffer seductions, or blame the former lover for a breakup. In this last mood, love poetry might blur into invective, a poetic attack aimed at insulting or shaming a personal enemy, an art at which Archilochus, the earliest known Greek lyric poet, excelled. The themes of Greek lyric include "politics, war, sports, drinking, money, youth, old age, death, the heroic past, the gods," and hetero- and homosexual love.[7]

In the 3rd century BC, the encyclopedic movement at Alexandria produced a canon of the nine melic poets: Alcaeus, Alcman, Anacreon, Bacchylides, Ibycus, Pindar, Sappho, Simonides, and Stesichorus.[8] Only a small sampling of lyric poetry from Archaic Greece, the period when it first flourished, survives. For example, the poems of Sappho are said to have filled nine papyrus rolls in the Library of Alexandria, with the first book alone containing more than 1,300 lines of verse. Today, only one of Sappho's poems exists intact, with fragments from other sources that would scarcely fill a chapbook.[9]


Greek poetry meters are based on patterns of long and short syllables (in contrast to English verse, which is determined by stress), and lyric poetry is characterized by a great variety of metrical forms.[10] Apart from the shift between long and short syllables, stress must be considered when reading Greek poetry. The interplay between the metric "shifts", the stressed syllables and caesuras is an integral part of the poetry. It allows the poet to stress certain words and shape the meaning of the poem. The nine melic poets composed in complex triadic forms of strophe, antistrophe, and epode, with the first two parts of the triad having the same metrical pattern, and the epode a different form.[11]

Iambic and trochaic meters, most commonly iambic trimeter and trochaic tetrameter, alternate long and short syllables. Iambic meters were thought to reflect most closely the rhythms of Greek as spoken in everyday life,[12] and was thus the meter used for dialogue in Greek plays of the 5th century BC. Earlier, it was usually used for invective or satire, as suggested by the word iambos, which meant "lampoon" or "scurrilous abuse",[13] and as found in Archilochus and Hipponax. Semonides of Amorgos uses iambic trimeter for both his "misogynistic satirizing of women" and for his poem on the theme of "the vanity of human wishes."[14]

Literary histories usually treat elegies, a category which includes any poetry written in elegiac couplets, as part of the lyric tradition. Since the first line of an elegiac couplet is dactylic hexameter, the verse form used for epic poetry in both the Greek and Latin literature, the division between elegy and epic is permeable. Military and didactic themes may be treated in elegiac couplets, drawing on poetic conventions from epic.[15]




Loeb Classical Library

Critical editions


Elegy and Iambus



  1. Andrew W. Miller, Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation (Hackett, 1996), p. xi.
  2. Budelmann (2009a, p. 3).
  3. Miller, Greek Lyric: An Anthology, p. xi.
  4. Miller, Greek Lyric: An Anthology, p. xii.
  5. Miller, Greek Lyric: An Anthology, pp. xii–xiii.
  6. David E. Gerber, A Companion to the Greek Lyric Poets (Brill, 1997), pp. 161, 201, 217, 224, 230.
  7. Miller, Greek Lyric: An Anthology, p. xii.
  8. Miller, Greek Lyric: An Anthology, p. xiii.
  9. Miller, Greek Lyric: An Anthology, p. xv.
  10. Miller, Greek Lyric: An Anthology, p. xii.
  11. Miller, Greek Lyric: An Anthology, pp. xiii–xiv.
  12. Aristotle, Poetics 4.18 (1459a).
  13. Miller, Greek Lyric: An Anthology, p. xiv.
  14. Miller, Greek Lyric: An Anthology, p. xiv.
  15. Miller, Greek Lyric: An Anthology, pp. xiii–xiv.
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