Friday, October 28, 2016


Poetry and Real Life

Eduard Fraenkel (1888-1970), Horace (1957; rpt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 36-378 (footnote omitted):
In the modern world it is a familiar idea that a poem has its normal place in a book and that it is primarily to the potential reader of the book that the poem addresses itself. This idea is correct so far as the literature of highly advanced societies is concerned. In the Greek world the conditions under which a poem came into existence were, at least from the fourth century B.C., not fundamentally dissimilar to the conditions prevailing in the Renaissance or in our own time. But we are confronted with an entirely different situation when we turn to the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., the period during which, on the one hand, certain types of recitative poetry, such as elegy and iambics (the latter term covering poems in trochaic tetrameters as well), and, on the other hand, lyrics proper evolved their forms and became for a time the most productive and most significant genres of Greek poetry. If we are to form an idea of the life out of which iambics, elegies, and various types of song grew and of the function which poetry fulfilled within that life, we shall first of all have to cast off some conventional conceptions.

Nowadays it is natural for many educated persons to open a book of verse when they want a rest or a change from the humdrum of their daily occupations, and hope to be diverted or, perhaps, exalted by lofty thoughts and the spell of noble rhythms and sounds. Whatever their motives, these modern readers look on poetry as something clearly separated from any practical activities and from the whole sphere of 'real life'. That, however, was not so during the early period of Greek literature. At that stage poetry, far from belonging to a domain remote from man's practical life, rather formed an integral, and indeed a highly important, part of it. This phenomenon may be illustrated by the position allotted to elegiac and iambic poems in the social life of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. A work of one of those early elegists and iambists was originally destined not to be read but to be listened to as it was being recited, as a rule probably by the poet himself. Such a recitation could take place wherever the men whom the poet wished to address were likely to be found together. A most suitable opportunity was at hand in the banquet or symposium, which played such a prominent part in the normal life of a Greek and which provided special advantages for the undisturbed delivery of poetry, whether recited (often with the accompaniment of an instrument) or actually sung. From time immemorial some kind of poetical entertainment had been considered an all but indispensable element of a symposium. It would not be sufficient merely to say that the symposium provided an excellent opportunity for the performance of many types of poetry, for the existence of symposia as an established institution was in fact one of the main incentives for the composing of poems.

The banquet, however, was not the only occasion on which an elegist or iambist could hope to find an audience. The male inhabitants of southern cities have always been in the habit of spending a large portion of their time in some open square. There they will stand or sit in groups for hours on end, apparently doing nothing at all, and in fact sometimes without any definite purpose, chatting and listening, while, according to the season, they either bask in the sun or enjoy the shade of a sheltered corner. But often they are not really being idle: they may be waiting for a profitable chance, una combinazione, to turn up, or discussing something with their companions, a bit of business, the prospects of the harvest, politics, a journey to foreign lands, in short anything that is of importance to them. An almost unlimited scope of topics presents itself; from a harmless joke to the most dangerous intrigue, from a casual remark to serious deliberations on the nature of the universe and man's precarious fate. As you go past the motley groups, you may, out of the sea of voices, pick up incoherent snatches of arguing, persuading, cheating, and instructing. Anyone familiar with the life of Piazza Signoria in Florence or Piazza Colonna in Rome or the Σύνταγμα in Athens will find it easy to elaborate the picture, especially if he remembers that Greek townspeople always εἰς οὐδὲν ἕτερον ἠυκαίρουν ἢ λέγειν τι ἢ ἀκούειν τι καινότερον. There was always, in the cities of Ionia and of the Greek mainland, an audience for the poet who felt himself capable of catching and holding the attention of a crowd or some smaller group. It was in all probability at such informal gatherings of the citizens that harangues like μέχρις τεῦ κατάκεισθε; or ὦ λιπερνῆτες πολῖται, τἀμὰ δὴ ξυνίετε ῥήματα and many of Solon's poems were first delivered. Such harangues and manifestoes were different from anything that in the modern world would be likely to be put into verse. Their natural place was not somewhere outside the practical life of the people but in its very centre.

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