Greece Melic Poetry Part I

Therefore the Ionic lyric, of the elegy and of the giambo, found diffusion and continuation also among the other races of Greece. However, the other lineages – that is, the Aeolians and the Dorians – gave origin at the same time to other forms, their own: which were more consistent with the natural tendencies of their spirit and their customs; and they corresponded even better to the concept of opera. In fact, they were truly accompanied by the melody (music and song), nor did they ever try to get rid of it: therefore – to avoid any misunderstanding with the elegy and with the iambo, in which the original melodic element had been immediately suppressed – they distinguished themselves with the name of melic poetry. This then used to be divided into monodic and choral, depending on whether it was made to be sung by one alone or by the choir. Certainly superficial distinctions and divisions, because they refer to external factors of technique, instrumentation, performance, etc.; but which also largely coincide with the internal dispositions of the poetic substance. There is no doubt that the didactic, rational, discursive aims which constitute the main characteristic of the Ionic lyric are beyond the scope of melica; or if they manage to introduce themselves to it (since almost all Greek poetry of the classical age is, in a certain sense, pragmatic and utilitarian), they lose their heaviness; they take on a lighter, more affective, more ardent tone. In the monodic form then the poet really places himself face to face with himself: and then he has the opportunity to dig out his own self and expand the fullness of internal affections. On the other hand, in the choral form he rather pours out on the matter of the myth and of the “gnome”: since he sings not only for himself but for others; it is aimed at the interests, feelings and affections of the community; composes for national and religious ceremonies, on the occasion of prayers, victories, weddings, funerals, symposiums, etc. (hence the innumerable specifications of choral poetry in nomoi, hymns, paeans, epinics, hyporchemi, dithyrambs, prosodîs, parthenî, encomî, epitalamî, hymenes, trains and epices, scholîs, etc.). But in general, whatever matter it was, it is certain that in melica, both monodic and choral, the way was more open to the lyrical currents of sentiment and subjectivity (in those limits – s’ he means – that they were allowed by the still not very advanced stage of development of Greek consciousness and psychology). Of course, we cannot judge other than the part that was concretized in words: but an important complement was constituted by the melody, which had precisely the task of increasing the effect of the words by prolonging and sublimating them into harmonious echoes. It provided to satisfy the most abstruse and indefinite needs of the soul, descending into greater depth and drawing from the abysses of the unconscious many of those vibrating impressions that poetry itself did not express, nor could it yet express, because they did not yet reach the threshold of consciousness and verbal objectification. The main center of radiation of melic poetry was at the Aeolians of Asia Minor, and especially on the island of Lesbos, where, between the end of the century. VII and the beginnings of the VI a. C., the two great figures of Alceo and Saffo are presented to us as a sign and effect of a now luxuriant development.

Both the one and the other composed songs of various kinds (perhaps even choral), for parties, ceremonies, etc.; but they reached the greatest excellence in the monodic form, in which they expressed a singular aptitude for the expression of feelings and affections. This attitude was naturally nourished in them by the conditions of the civilization in which they lived; since the island of Lesbos was then the scene of actions and ardent passions: agitated by the political struggles between the aristocracy and tyranny, and at the same time animated by an intense fervor of musical and literary life. In Alceo especially the riots of war and revolution resound. He is the biased man, the aristocrat, who grabs the lyre to vent his political hatreds or, in general, to spread the troubles and torments of his soul beaten by storms. To political passions, wine and love are added in him, as a source of unrest and song. In fact, he is also an essentially symposiac, erotic and sensual poet: in wine and in love he seeks rest, oblivion, relief; in reality it always finds new opportunities from which to make the bitterness, regret and boredom of life gush out. He is all impulse; the fullness of his temperament translates into poetry of lively and warm tonality. Sappho, on the other hand, transports us to a more serene environment, of spiritual and family life: it reflects the subtleties of education and culture, which reached a high degree of elegance in Lesbos and was especially entrusted to female society. Family, friendship, love have never found an expression so delicate and so immediate as in this poet, who joined with grace the iu̇gore of a truly original genius. In her, all things acquire a sense of sweet and affectionate intimacy: the facts of life, relationships with loved ones, and also the world of nature and myth.

The Aeolians thus had a magnificent source of songs, but they let it die very soon, together with the rapid exhaustion of the civilization of Lesbos. The Ionians produced something similar, following the example of the Aeolians: as they had inherited and recast in their dialect and in their spirit the motifs of the original Aeolian epic, so they also repeated and recast the motifs of the monodic melica. This is demonstrated by Anacreonte di Teo, who flourished a few decades after Alceo and Sappho and brought his lyre as a refined Ionic cantor to the courts of Polychrates in Samos and of the Pisistratids in Athens.

Anacreonte is partly linked, for his poetic nature, to his own fellow countryman, Mimnermo di Colofone (and he too composed elegies); but more directly it depends on the melicos of Lesbos. In fact he develops Alceo’s convivial poetry; on the contrary it almost makes it a special genre, which will perpetuate itself, especially in Athens, in the typical imitation of the Anacreontics: sings wine and love, women and children, flowers and dances, joys and pleasures. Not the pains: because he lacks any depth of passion; everything is light, superficial, carefree. And here we now feel that poetry, due to an excess of lightness, dies; it does not want to be heavy and cluttered with the material of the growing intellectual needs, as it is mostly in Ionia, among the elegiacs and giambographers of this period, but on the other hand it is reduced to pure play and distraction: it does not grow from the depths of life and of thought, but on the edge of life and thought.

The forms of melic poetry had a wider and more lasting flowering among the lineage of the Dorians, in the Peloponnese – in Sparta, Corinth, etc. – and in the colonies.

It is significant that, according to tradition, from the island of Lesbos he came to Sparta, between the century. VIII and VII, the famous Terpandro, who is considered as the main founder of poetry among the Dorians, and was especially celebrated for his religious songs, called nomoi, solemn and austere, accompanied by the low sound of the zither (citarodia). Arione of Metimna also arrived from the island of Lesbos, settling especially in Corinth (some decades after Terpandro); whose figure, although shrouded in legend, nevertheless responds to historical reality: celebrated for having given literary form to the orgiastic songs in honor of Dionysus-Bacchus, called dithyrambs, which due to their procacity were in perfect antithesis with the nonmoi, and were accompanied by the sound, not so low, of the flute (aulodia). Finally, of Aeolian origin it was probably also Alcmane, a native of Sardis in Lydia; who, at the end of that same seventh century, carried out a conspicuous activity in Sparta, where the martial elegies and anapestas of Tirteo da Mileto resounded, linking his name both to innovations of a technical nature (introduction of harmonies and new meters, definitive constitution of the antistrofico system, etc.) and to the intrinsic value of his poetic production. In his verses, composed largely for choirs of girls (Partenî), he left a very vivid image of his gentle personality, suffused with a certain oriental softness.

But in Sparta and everywhere, in general, among the Dorians, poetry had to take on a different character from that which it had in the Aeolians, adapting to the needs, customs, and temperament of a people for whom the individual was more harshly framed in the community and the manifestations of art were understood only as functions of the people, emanations of public life, worship, war, national games, etc. Therefore, with the Dorians, poetry was almost exclusively choral: sung in full voices by many, with the evolution of rhythmic dances, around the altars, on the squares, in the processions, in the gatherings. Moreover, being so tied to the people, even when at the beginning it was composed of foreign musicians and poets, it immediately had to adopt the indigenous dialect, the Doric: which impressed itself in the choral poetry so firmly that it was considered an indispensable element of it: and ‘he then introduced into the choirs of other lineages; it will also be introduced into the choruses of the Attic drama, bringing its special color, distinct and almost aristocratic, to contrast with the Attic language of the dialogue parts.

Greece Melic Poetry 1

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