Celebrating the Victors: Edmund Prestwich on the Odes of Pindar

In this essay Edmund Prestwich assesses Andrew M. Miller’s translation of the Odes of Pindar, one of the greatest, some would say, the greatest lyric poet of Ancient Greece.

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Pindar: The Odes translated by Andrew M. Miller. £13.95. University of California Press. ISBN: 9780520300002

The introduction to Andrew M. Miller’s translation of Pindar’s Odes tells us that he is ‘generally reckoned the greatest lyric poet of ancient Greece’. I don’t think many non-Classicists read him now, though he, or the idea of the Pindaric, had a huge influence on poetry in different European languages over centuries in which Sappho was barely a name. Nowadays, positions are reversed: only crumbs of Sappho’s work survive, but her fragments are much translated and widely loved. Her brilliance was acclaimed in her own day, of course, but it seems to me that nowadays the very fragmentation of her oeuvre helps with its assimilation. On the one hand, there’s the intimate-seeming loveliness of the few longer passages; on the other, in the case of such fragments as these, their very lack of context opens them to endless dreaming, allowing us to take them to our hearts on our own terms:

You came, and I wanted you;
You cooled my heart that was burning with desire

or

I was in love with you once, Atthis, long ago

(from Sappho, Complete Poems and Fragments, translated by Stanley Lombardo. Hackett Publishing Company Inc.)

Pindar’s epinician odes, in contrast, have very precise contexts and purposes: each was written to celebrate a victory in one of the great Panhellenic athletic festivals: the Olympic games, which were sacred to Zeus, the Pythian Games, sacred to Apollo, the Isthmian Games, sacred to Poseidon or the Nemean Games, sacred to Zeus and Herakles. The odes celebrate both the victors and their cities. Of course their resonance and power to move us isn’t limited by these contexts and purposes, but their presence does make the poems less immediately assimilable to our own lives and experiences than those splinters of Sappho.

The opening of the first poem in Miller’s book gives an idea of the elevated style and tumultuous rush of ideas that made Pindar an inspiration to Ben Jonson, Cowley, Milton, Dryden and Gray, not to mention his Continental followers:

OLYMPIAN 1
For Hieron of Syracuse, victor in the horse race

Best is water, and gold, like blazing fire by night,
shines forth preeminent amid the lordliness of wealth.
But if it’s contests that you wish
to sing of, O my heart,
then look no further than the sun
for warmth and brilliance in a star
within the empty air of day,
nor let us herald any games as higher than Olympia’s,
from which comes glorious song to cast itself about
the intellects of skilful men, that they may celebrate
the son of Cronus when, amid great riches, they arrive
at the blest hearth of Hieron,

who wields his sceptre lawfully among the fruitful fields
of Sicily.

In its own day, this would have been sung by a chorus of dancers. The odes are composed in ‘triads’, in other words in groups of three stanzas, the first two of which are metrically identical. The dancers moved one way as they sang the first stanza in each triad, another way as they sang the second, and stood still as they sang the third. The ringing absoluteness with which ideas are proclaimed suits such delivery, especially when the poem is as packed with material as this, where the energies of the mind are fully absorbed keeping up with the rush of ideas and the rapid transition to images of different kinds of excellence. Even reading the poems in translation and in private, I feel drawn towards a declamatory mode of recitation. This is wonderfully exhilarating for short stretches, but difficult to sustain all the way through even the shortest of the odes. In the case of Olympian 1 itself, there’s a long way to go after the stanza and a bit that I’ve quoted, and many more transitions to absorb – it contains four triads, or twelve stanzas, interspersing general reflections on human achievement with brilliant glimpses of scenes of mythology.

The particular way in which Pindar uses myth yields great richness as you read your way into the poems but can be discouraging on first approach. All the odes are saturated in myths, almost always myths of particular significance for the city of the victor who’s being celebrated, which is where the ode was written to be performed. Pindar’s job isn’t to retell a story with which his audience is already deeply familiar, it’s to bring the event he’s celebrating into relation with the myth, to invoke the myth’s power by evoking some of its particular features or moments, suggesting how the athlete’s achievement is a fresh manifestation of the divine power working in his community. So he treats stories in a fragmentary and allusive way, referring to characters obliquely –‘son of x’, ‘vanquisher of y’, ‘mother of z’ – and zooming in on relevant moments out of narrative sequence. This means that readers (like me) whose knowledge of mythology is sketchy will usually need notes to enjoy the poem. But the moments themselves are unforgettably vivid. In Olympian 1, Pelops, who’s fallen in love with Hippodameia, stands on the shore begging the sea god Poseidon to help him win her from her father, who makes her suitors compete against him in a chariot race and spears them when they lose:

Drawing near the white-flecked sea,
alone in dark of night,
he hailed the loud-resounding
God of the Trident who close by
the young man’s feet revealed himself.

In ‘Olympian 6’, Evadne of the violet locks – herself a daughter of Poseidon – finds herself pregnant by Apollo, enraging her human foster father. ‘Laying down her crimson belt / and silver pitcher underneath a thicket of dark shade’ she gives birth to a child and

In pain and grief
she left him on the ground. Two snakes with gleaming eyes,
conforming to the gods’ designs,
nourished him on the blameless
venom of bees

Snakes and bees both have associations with prophecy, and the child becomes a famous prophet.

These are two random examples – I could have chosen any number of others – but I hope they will illustrate both the sensuousness of Pindar’s visual imagery and his ability to home in on moments of intense human drama and pathos. Although not specifically designed for it, such moments do lend themselves to the lingering reflection that goes with private reading.

Most mythological allusions are quite short but Pythian 9 humanizes a god on a more extensive scale. It tells how Apollo falls in love with the athletic huntress Cyrene when he sees her wrestling with a lion in defence of her father’s herds. The humour and emotional delicacy of Pindar’s handling delightfully leaven the expected praise of the victor’s city – the city Apollo founded for Cyrene after their marriage. Apollo is one of the most powerful of the gods. Among other things he’s the god of prophecy and therefore knows everything, but love abashes him, making him suddenly and very humanly uncertain. He takes refuge from emotional turmoil in a kind of dishonesty, summoning the wise centaur Chiron to ask who the girl is and whether his love for her is lawful. At the same time as the god is brought beautifully close to a human level by this awkwardness, Chiron’s answer involves an awesome statement of Apollo’s power, and therefore of the power of love which can humble even him:

‘gods and men alike feel modesty
at openly alighting on their first
experience of love’s sweetness.

Thus even you, whom right forbids to touch on falsehood,
Were moved by tender passion to misspeak
that utterance of yours. About the girl’s descent
are you, O lord, inquiring? – you who of all things
know the appointed end and all its pathways;
how many leaves the earth sends up in spring, how many
grains of sand in the sea and in the streams
are tossed about by waves or blasts of wind,
and what will be, and whence
it will arise, you hold within clear view.’

The odes are saturated in myth because what they’re essentially about is the relation between men and the immortals – a particular aspect of that relation. The gods may be made to seem lovable and imaginatively approachable by being shown as feeling the same emotions as mortals but, as the end of my last quotation suggests, there’s an unbridgeable gulf between the two orders of being. Nevertheless, participation in the great games is one of the ways in which men can, however briefly, make themselves godlike. At this point I can do no better than quote from D. S. Carne-Ross’s book Pindar . Not being a classicist I can’t make a scholarly judgement on its views, but I found it compelling and revelatory as an imaginative way in to Pindar’s world:

Pindar tells us again and again why victory matters so much. In that radiant moment a man stands on the edge of the absolute, narrow line separating mortal from god. Absolute, because our brief lives and powers are as nothing compared with the unending splendor of Olympos. Narrow because – in the poet’s own words – “somehow we resemble the immortals in greatness of mind or bodily form” (Nemean 6). If Zeus represents the natural order in all its majesty, we who are part of that order can at fullest stretch put on a little of his majesty. Victory in the great games enacted in this holy place is the means whereby a momentary gleam of divinity is realized through human effort, by that creature who of all things on earth is the least divine, being irretrievably mortal. This is the mystery which Pindar knew himself called on to celebrate.

Perhaps this is the point to go back to the first words of my quotation from ‘Olympian 1’: “Best is”. The occasion of each ode poem may be some specific sporting success but, as people often point out, Pindar says remarkably little about the actual events. What counts is surpassing excellence itself, whatever form it takes; that’s where the approach to divinity is felt. So the odes also celebrate the power of song that will perpetuate the victor’s achievement, the civic virtues of his community, nature’s abundance, courage and skill in all areas of life. To read them is to enter a vision of life’s beauty and wonder – an idealising vision whose exaltation is made bracing and kept in contact with the harsher side of reality by constant reminders of the precariousness of good fortune and of life itself.

I’ll finish with a quotation from ‘Pythian 8’ in Andrew M. Miller’s translation:

Beings defined by each new day! What is a man?
What is he not? A shadow’s dream
is humankind. But when the gleam that Zeus
dispenses comes,
then brilliant light rests over men and life is kindly.

Carne-Ross called the original of these lines ‘the greatest perhaps in Greek’ and said they’d defeated all attempts at English translation, offering only what he called the ‘bald prose’ of their sense himself – ‘Creatures of a day. What is he, what is he not? Dream of a shadow, man. But when the radiance granted by Zeus comes, a bright light rests on men and life is sweet.’ Not knowing ancient Greek I can’t form an impression of the verbal music of the original, which Carne-Ross quotes, or see how effectively the words ride the metre, but my knowledge of Modern Greek is enough to show me how much swifter, more concentrated and pointed the contrasts are in the original than they are in Carne-Ross’s prose gloss, which adds twelve words to Pindar’s 22.

Edmund Prestwich grew up in South Africa but has spent his adult life in England where he taught English at the Manchester Grammar School till his retirement. He has published two collections: Through the Window with Rockingham Press and Their Mountain Mother with Hearing Eye.

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