Our book today is Anne Pippin Burnett‘s 2008 entry in the great Bristol Classical Press “Ancients in Action” series, Pindar. As might be guessed, the book deals with the Theban poet Pindar, who achieved massive success in the first half of the 5th century BC. A great many books have been written about Pindar, and as Burnett points out, a great many verdicts about Pindar have been handed down by scholars, historians, and especially other poets. He’s always been more discussed than known, due at least in part to how difficult it is to know him.

Part of the problem is that we know so little about him. In the centuries since his heyday, biographical accretions have crusted around his name, but very few actual facts have come down to us, and most of those can only be derived from his verses themselves (always a perilous attempt). We know he was a master of virtually every kind of public poetry in existence in his day. His fame eventually reached a point where commissions were coming in from all directions, from Thessaly and North Africa and Sicily and all of Greece. He wrote great choral odes for public occasions like temple dedications; he wrote virginal hymns designed for virtuoso solo vocals; he wrote laments, in which pure, non-bathetic sadness was wrought like fine-spun gold until the purity of it was almost unbearable; he wrote lover-songs, praise-works often done in multiple, mutually complexifying voices … he had, in other words, a vast repertoire of work, much of it designed to encourage improvisation, much of it as polychromatic as jazz.

He also wrote hymns of praise for victorious athletes – for boys back from local or inter-city games, for men back from pan-Hellenic great games and festivals, for various rulers, celebrating their rules by holding a mirror to some corresponding physical glories. These would have been works for hire, as Burnett takes pains to make clear:

Every Pindaric ode was a bought product. Distinguished achievements were paid a ‘wage’ of praise, and he who made that praise likewise received a wage, as Pindar was more than willing to note. One group of singers suggested that their Muse’s ‘whispering songs, faces painted with silver’, went out as prostitutes into the world where ‘money makes the man’ (Isthmian 2.6-11.) This was said in an ode made for an old acquaintance from Akragas … who presumably delighted in the savoury metaphor, but the sense is generally applicable, for the victory performance was designed to provide a client with exactly the pleasures he wanted.

It’s permissible to suspect that bought products may not have elicited the poet’s highest and mightiest achievements; any study of Pindar must in part be a longing to have more of his work than we do. What were those other kinds of poetries like, when handled by this master from Thebes? Barring some miraculous discovery in some dusty basement of some Coptic monastery, we’ll never know except in fragments – the vast majority of what we have from him, and about him, comes in the form of these bought products, these written remnants of an institutionalized kind of performance poetry that all subsequent ages have found very strange – alien, off-putting. These victory-odes, most of them, were intended to be performed as if they were extemporized – a group of the victor’s young friends, maybe a little flushed with wine, bursting into vivid, rambling song in celebration of him. But how can spontaneity be so carefully planned, so metrically perfect? How can fraternal intimacy be achieved by a group of young hired singers, most of whom will never have clapped eyes on the victor before? It all requires a phenomenal amount of imaginative participation from the audience. Ancient Greek audiences were always willing to do that, but more phlegmatic modern ones seldom are. In a tradition started by Petrarch and so indelibly stamped by Wordsworth, Pindar can’t help but seem incredibly odd.

Aristophanes and Horace politely disparaged him; Dryden and Tennyson grudgingly admitted that something poetic was going on in the victory odes but grumbled at the work necessary to unearth it; T. S. Eliot, in one of the 20th century’s most noted instances of a pot calling a kettle black, called him “the prize wind-bag of all ages.” We sense his consummate skill, but it’s such a foreign skill we’re often left, as Dryden put it, “at a gaze.” It can lead to wayward interpretations, and throughout her slim book, Burnett does what she can to correct the ones she catches, as when she runs up against a common misreading of the 7th Nemean ode, in which an invocation of Achilles’ lethal warrior-son Neoptolemus crops up at the conclusion of a victory-song to a young athlete named Sogenes:

Ignoring the magnificence of the hero’s final resting place, critics of the present day see this episode as a deliberate outrage that Pindar has wrought, for one reason or another, upon his own victory song. Neoptolemos, they say, was the Greeks’ first great war-criminal, guilty of sacrilegious cruelty at the fall of Troy, and justly punished for his atrocities by the god Apollo. Consequently he can have no function in the praise of young Sogenes, and must appear here because the poet is pursuing some misplaced purpose of his own. This view, however, while it honours the gossip of Hellenic scholars, forgets the perfect warrior and ideal son that Odysseus describes in the Odyssey (11.505-37). What is worse, it further ignores the dynamic of Pindar’s actual song and also the fact that, to be preserved, the piece must have pleased Thearion, the host and father who set this performance before his friends for their entertainment.

We will likely never read anything close to the full range of this poet, and we’re equally unlikely to come across any firmer biographical basis than we already have. What we have instead is perhaps more pure: the man’s work, and dynamic examinations of that work by scholars like Burnett, who chooses to use a prose style that’s direct and evocative:

A layer of the population not only admired, but also scrutinised itself through private rituals of this sort, saying, this is what we are – let us continue to be so! Such was the function of the traditional ode with its invocations, its lists of victory locations, its revival of ancestral achievements, its prayers, and its bits of gnomic wisdom sprinkled everywhere like salt.

There’s gnomic wisdom aplenty in this book as well, as fine an introduction to this enigmatic poet as a modern reader can hope for. Granted, an almost totally unknown life is an off-kilter place to start a string of biographies, but there’s an appeal, too, in taking a person on the strength of his work alone. We’ve been doing that with Homer even longer than we’ve been doing it with Pindar, and it hasn’t hurt him any.