Pindar was one of the most celebrated lyricists of antiquity. Today he is often dismissed, though, as Richard Stoneman believes, his ability to take modern readers to the heart of Greek ideas should not be overlooked.
It used sometimes to be said that Greek poets showed no feeling for nature, and that the ancient Greeks in general were indifferent to the majesty of the landscape that surrounded them. The judgment was partly conditioned by the sense that Greek poets were not at all like Wordsworth, and showed no ‘romantic sensibility’ to nature; but if any poet belies such an idea, it is Pindar. Pindar of Thebes, whose career spanned the fifth century BC, wrote poems in praise of gods and heroes, and of the victorious athletes in the Panhellenic Games whose achievements put them on a par with the heroes of old; but in praising these august beings, Pindar always sees achievement as part of the enduring processes of nature.
Many people who visit Greece fall, as I did forty years ago, under the spell of its landscape and the sense that the gods somehow still inhabit it. Delphi, where ‘the shining-armed Delphian maidens’ summon you to ‘dance their soft measures around the high Parnassian rocks’, is just one such place. In other poems Pindar evokes the grassy plains of Nemea, ‘the pasture of the Lion’ as he quaintly calls it; he describes the baby prophet Iamos ‘nourished with the blameless venom of bees… while his tender body was bathed by the golden and purple rays of violets; he evokes the birth of the island of Rhodes, ‘rising from the floor of the grey sea that would be bountiful for men and favourable flocks’. One of the finest set pieces in his poetry is the description in Pythian 1 of an eruption of Mt Etna, which he first set eyes on in 476 BC. The fire and rock that the mountain spews forth is caused by the anger of the Giant Typhoeus, imprisoned beneath the island of Sicily. There is no better companion than Pindar to the god-haunted landscape of Greece.
Pindar is among the richest sources for the Greek myths, telling many that are known from no other writer. They include the founding myth of the city of Cyrene, when the nymph Cyrene was spied by Apollo, hunting in the mountains. ‘The purposes of gods are swiftly achieved’; and she gave birth to a hero who became the founder of the city that bears her name. Many of his myths concern the heroes of the island of Aegina, neighbour and enemy of Athens: they include Ajax, Peleus and his son Achilles, born of the sea-nymph Thetis. Odysseus, for Pindar, has been unjustly magnified by the genius of Homer: in Pindar’s view he embodies the cunning and duplicity that he associated with the democratic regime of Athens. The hero par excellence for Pindar is Heracles, who became a god by his achievements. All these heroes offer models that a man can emulate but never equal: mortals must be content with the moments of god-given brightness provided by athletic victory and its celebration in song and dance.
Though readers have often complained of Pindar’s difficulty, because of his Boeotian dialect, his complex syntax and abstruse metres which can be the despair of beginners, as well as the tortuousness of his trains of thought, many through the centuries have found it endlessly worthwhile to persevere because of the vision he offers. The German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin was unique in the depth of his response: himself sensitive to the activity of the gods in his world – he wrote to a friend when on the brink of madness ‘Apollo has struck me a blow’ – he saw in a recreation of the unitary universe of Pindar a way to ‘regenerate Germany through the mythical celebration of the higher life of individual community’.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger used Hölderlin’s evocation of Pindar as a way of exploring the complexities of ‘being in the world’. Other poets have relished his style of telling the stories of the gods and heroes, his often startling metaphors, and his moral intensity. Pindar, like Homer, encapsulates the Greek vision at a moment before the triumphant explosion of reason and the drama in fifth century Athens. I for one would never want to be without him. ■