Friday, February 16, 2007

'The First Poets': Starting With Orpheus

Published: August 28, 2005

Ancient Greece is the fountainhead of Western culture and politics. As Michael Schmidt demonstrates in ''The First Poets,'' the evolution from aristocratic rule to democracy in Greece was accompanied by the emergence of a strongly individualistic lyric poetry. While the Hebrew Bible, the other major source of Western literature, expresses a God-centered view of the universe, Greek literature gradually freed itself from the sacred to focus on the uniquely human voice.

Schmidt is the editor of PN Review, the founder and director of Carcanet Press and the director of the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University in England. His widely praised book ''Lives of the Poets'' (1998) was a 900-page meditation on English poetry in which his forceful, witty, sometimes partisan sketches revealed a mind deeply in love with literature.

In ''The First Poets,'' however, Schmidt seems less confident of his opinions. He is excessively deferential to authorities, even when gently rejecting their views. It is always a pleasure to encounter the lucid, astute prose of the late Sir Cecil Maurice Bowra (Schmidt's don at Oxford), but this book is clogged with too many pedestrian quotations from academics past and present. Whenever he is front and center, Schmidt himself is a fascinating guide who wins the reader's trust.

''The First Poets'' covers about a half-millennium of writing up to the third century B.C. Its chronological organization is ideally suited for those seeking an introduction to Greek poetry, although the book needs better maps of the Mediterranean world. Drawing on translators from John Dryden to Guy Davenport, Schmidt deftly explains the problems in translating ''vowel-rich'' ancient Greek into English, which cannot capture Greek's falling rhythms and vocal pitch.

A constant theme is the tragically fragmentary nature of the Greek poetry that we have. Only a fraction has survived, much of it by chance -- perhaps because it was quoted in an ancient letter or essay. Because of the fragility of papyrus and parchment, Greek literature was decaying by the Roman era. Schmidt stresses what we owe to the Egyptian desert, where papyrus discoveries are still being made in mummy wrappings and trash heaps. Ancient Greek poems today are often merely tentative scholarly reconstructions.

Schmidt has a sharp eye for material culture: he notes, for example, how the fine grain of papyrus (made from Nile reeds) promoted the development of writing because it gave ''the ability to vary letter-forms.'' Many modern words for books descend from antiquity, when papyrus scrolls -- some up to 100 yards long -- were used for storage. A ''volume'' (from the Latin volumen) literally means ''a thing rolled up.''

The book's profiles begin with Orpheus, the legendary father of poetry and music, whom Schmidt boldly treats as a real person: ''I take Orpheus to have been an actual man with an actual harp in his hand.'' After his wife, Eurydice, was lost in Hades, Orpheus turned to boy-love and was reputedly the first to practice it in his native Thrace. His death was gruesome: he was torn to bits by bacchants, and his severed head floated to the island of Lesbos, which was thereby impregnated with poetic genius.

Schmidt's chapters on Homer, while rich, seem too long for a survey book -- and we're still at the start of the ''Odyssey'' on the next-to-last page. Far more interesting than the excessive plot summary is Schmidt's treatment of Homeric diction as ''a composite of different dialect strands . . . as though a poet wrote in Scots, South African, Texan and Jamaican, all in a single poem.''

Much attention is devoted to controversies over the authorship of the ''Iliad'' and the ''Odyssey'': Was Homer a myth? Did one man (or even a woman) compose both poems? Was Homer merely a collator of inherited material? Schmidt makes Homer concrete by taking us on a lively fictionalized odyssey through his hypothetical life and experiences. As for those who allege there were two poets, Schmidt rightly scoffs, it's ''as though Shakespeare could not have written 'The Comedy of Errors' and 'Othello.' '' ...


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