Eager enthusiast scuffs originals

The First Poets
April 22, 2005

This is a layman's introduction to Greek poetry excluding drama.

Its title is inaccurate because the early Greek poets were not the first in the world's history and virtually nothing is known about their lives.

However, what matters is content not label.

Michael Schmidt has an enthusiasm for poetry and a wide knowledge of English literature. These are his primary qualifications. His others include considerable industry, a willingness to tell us what the best modern specialists say and the courage to formulate his own approach.

These should have enabled him to write a good book, and some may think he has done so. He is certainly informative. It is not everywhere that a Greekless reader can find a lively appreciation of more than 20 Greek poets ranging from Homer to Theocritus together with all the facts or fictions about them that ancient scholars and biographers have preserved.

But readers of a more down-to-earth frame of mind may become impatient.

What is the point of a chapter on the "life" of Orpheus? It is as irrelevant to literature as a biography of Merlin. Why waste space listing five suggested names for Pindar's father when we know nothing more about any of them? Sometimes there are over-clever jokes - calling Oedipus "a victim of faulty memory" or describing the boys and girls sent in legend from Athens to Crete as the Minotaur's "annual tribute of protein". These are out of place in a history, however funny they might sound in a comedy.

Other remarks, such as "Arion's mother was a nymph called Oneaea - five vowels and a gentle consonant" or "the Greek use of syntactical and verbal repetitions is lovely", would be more at home in Private Eye's Pseuds Corner .

So doubt begins. Does Schmidt know what he is talking about or are we listening to the patter of a tour guide? His Greek is certainly shaky, perhaps non-existent. He takes technopaignia to be singular, iambopoios to be plural and olbos to be the same word as olbios with the Alice-in-Wonderland meaning of "one with cherished male offspring, stables and hounds". The verb kertomein , to mock, is translated as "the pain words inflict". Chreos , mis-transliterated kreos , is defined as "the obligation a poet has to praise". These, and there are many more like them, are not casual slips or in-context paraphrases. They are repeated in a formal glossary at the back of the book.

Ignorance of language is matched by ignorance of metre. He does not seem to understand the basic principles of quantitative scansion, let alone how to explain them. For someone claiming to be a guide to Greek poetry, it is a major disqualification to understand neither the language nor the verse.

There are many other grounds for complaint. Some are comparatively venial such as describing the Colossus of Rhodes as if it bestrode the harbour when it is now known to have been something more like the Statue of Liberty, or saying that Eratosthenes calculated the earth's circumference "with astonishing accuracy" when the round figures show clearly that he was aiming at only an approximate demonstration. Some mistakes are perhaps due to haste, as when the consolidation of Homer's text is credited to Pericles instead of to Peisistratus, or when Cos is said to lie on a direct line from the Dardanelles to the port of Athens.

But it is less easy to forgive habits that show lack of consideration for the reader. References to "op. cit." are idiotic when they refer to an author such as Herodotus with only one "op." or they send you off on a long paper-chase when the op. in question has not been cited for several chapters. References to "test." are simply ways of passing the buck and mean that you can find the evidence ( testimonium ) only if you look it up in whatever edition of the poet's work Schmidt has been using.

Then there is the author's love of exciting words. This is innocent enough in the case of "oversoul" or even "prequel", but less so when we are told that Simonides "dirged" Antiochus or that a north African tribe "sherpaed" prospective Greek colonists to the site of Cyrene. Eventually it passes into unintelligibility. He tells us that much of Stesichorus is "inert with literature" - and if you can interpret that, can you manage "Pindaric patristics" or the "mezzanine elements" that "survived Mycenae"? But to be fair he can be unintelligible with quite ordinary words, too. For instance what can he mean when he writes of a cloying "profusion of adjectives, praised by some ancient critics as epithets"?

Such moments destroy one's confidence. When Schmidt writes knowingly about important things, he may in fact not know. Take Homer's Iliad , the first Greek poem of the first Greek poet and therefore central to his subject. He writes a great deal about it, its "sequels and prequels" and its oral nature. But has he read it? If so, how can he talk of its "simile structure" in which "fishing is a crucial element"? How can he call Homer's Paris "the great warrior and lover" when he is a dandy, none too brave, a cause of shame to his wife and never said to have had a mistress? How can he say that Homer is interested only in males when Homer's Helen is such a unique and successful creation? How can he repeat the cliché (derived from C. S. Lewis?) that Homeric warriors fight only for themselves and not for their country in spite of what various warriors, Ajax, Hector and most notably Sarpedon, have to say about duty and obligation? The answer must be that he never read the Iliad for himself at all or if he did he was wearing blinkers.

Pliny the Elder said that every book has something of value in it and charity demands that we believe him. If so, the good points of this one are its wide coverage and its evangelical zeal. May its convertites prosper!

Maurice Pope is emeritus professor of classics, Cape Town University, South Africa.

The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets

Author - Michael Schmidt
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 449
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 297 64394 0

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