Symmachus

Publishing, classics, mood swings

Pindar, The Second Isthmian Ode, vv. 1-12

On the occasion of Richard Seaford’s article in TLS June 17, 2009, the beginning of the Second Isthmian was read and translated.

Men of old, Thrasyboulos,
who mounted the chariot of the golden-crowned Muses,
gathering there with the glorious lyre,
lightly shot their honey-voicèd hymns of youth,
of the beautiful youth that had attained
the lovely summer-ripeness wooing Aphrodite
on her perfect throne.
For the Muse did not desire profit
then, nor worked a trade:
Nor were the softly sounding songs
from honey-spoken Terpsichore
sold with silver faces.
But now she allows
the Argive’s word to attain the place
most near to truth.
Money, money makes the man.
Who said it having lost his goods and friends.

Οἱ μὲν πάλαι, ὦ Θρασύβουλε,
φῶτες, οἳ χρυσαμπύκων
ἐς δίφρον Μοισᾶν ἔβαι-
νον κλυτᾷ φόρμιγγι συναντόμενοι,
ῥίμφα παιδείους ἐτόξευον μελιγάρυας ὕμνους,
ὅστις ἐὼν καλὸς εἶχεν Ἀφροδίτας
εὐθρόνου μνάστειραν ἁδίσταν ὀπώραν.
ἁ Μοῖσα γὰρ οὐ φιλοκερδής
πω τότ’ ἦν οὐδ’ ἐργάτις·
οὐδ’ ἐπέρναντο γλυκεῖ-
αι μελιφθόγγου ποτὶ Τερψιχόρας
ἀργυρωθεῖσαι πρόσωπα μαλθακόφωνοι ἀοιδαί.
νῦν δ’ ἐφίητι <τὸ> τὠργείου φυλάξαι
ῥῆμ’ ἀλαθείας < ⏑ – > ἄγχιστα βαῖνον,
χρήματα χρήματ’ ἀνήρ
ὃς φᾶ κτεάνων θ’ ἅμα λειφθεὶς καὶ φίλων.

*

It is untypical of Pindar thus to idealize a poetry for not being “profit-hungry” (φιλοκερδής) or “working a trade” (ἐργάτις). He was definitely not ashamed of getting paid, even writing about it, for instance at the end of the Third Pythian,

If the god should hold out exuberant wealth to me,
I have the hope to find great glory forthwith.

εἰ δέ μοι πλοῦτον θεὸς ἁβρὸν ὀρέξαι,
ἐλπίδ’ ἔχω κλέος εὑρέσθαι κεν ὑψηλὸν πρόσω.

A close reading of the beginning of the Second Isthmian might, with a pinch of imagination, elicit a more significant message than the hypocritical reverence for amateur disinterestedness that it professes. The piece may be read as a statement of literary criticism as well as, beneath the surface, ironically detached professional pride. The key-word is “lightly” (ῥίμφα). Poets of old wrote lightly, says Pindar, lovesongs of (about or to) beautiful youths. He has in mind the Archaic melic poets, for instance Alcman, Alcaeus and Ibycus, perhaps also Archilochus and Sappho although they preferred girls — but παιδείους … ὕμνους in v. 5 may in fact with some good intention be read as “songs of young boys and girls” (cf. Crat. fr. 258, Eup. fr. 327, LSJ παιδικός III 2 a).

Now if we compare this description of the Archaic Lyre with Pindar’s own production, we find that he is depicting the very antithesis of Pindaric poetry. Pindar wrote grave hymns, about deadly serious mythological subjects. If he should occasionally write about boys (fr. 123), the result is not light, but morally challenging, boldly metaphorical, and possessing the gravity of good and expensive knives. Hence, the lightly composing amateur poets of old — would they not be, from Pindar’s perspective, also a tad light-weight? Is it not also possible to elicit from the epithet παιδείους another meaning: I mean educational? Instead of the ordinary παιδικός, Pindar chooses an adjective which is cognate with παιδεία, education, and which is elsewhere normally used in the context of child-rearing.

This cannot be without significance: indeed from Pindar’s perspective, the Archaic poets belonged to the Lehrjahre of Greek poetry. Now, with Pindar, poetry had reached maturity. And might accordingly, as an adult, allow itself professional remuneration.

Clothed in words of pious reverence, the beginning of the Second Isthmian could in fact contain an ironical and carefully concealed snub at the patron: possibly he could not afford to pay that much. The entire poem contains only 48 verses, to be compared with about a hundred in most Pythian and Olympian odes, and three hundred in the Fourth Pythian.

Then again a silver coin is a silver coin, and we could perhaps compare the story about Pindar’s older contemporary Simonides, as related by Aristotle (Rhet. 1405b):

As the winner in the mules’ race tried to offer Simonides too little money, he said that he did not want to compose a poem, professing to be insulted for having to write about half-asses. But when he gave enough, Simonides wrote:

Hail, sisters of storm-heeled horses (fr. 10 Page, PMG)

*

Not a very original idea of mine, I see now after studying Verdenius’ commentary. Although it is usually surmised that Pindar asks for money, rather than mocks the unsufficiency of his client’s funds.

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