Caviar to the General

Pindar

by D.S. Carne-Ross
Yale University Press, 195 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Pindar is the first book in a new series, edited by John Herington for the Yale University Press, which aims to close a gap. It is the gap between “the classical masters of Greece and Rome, those models of concision, elegance, and understanding of the human condition” and “a sort of industrial complex, processing those masters into an annually growing output of technical articles and monographs.” The editor sees a need for the kind of book that will direct “the general reader not to the pyramid of secondary literature piled over the burial places of the classical writers but to the living faces of the writers themselves, as perceived by a scholar-humanist with a deep knowledge of, and love for, his subject.” For his authors he looked for “men and women possessed of…a love for literature in other languages, extending into modern times; a vision that extends beyond academe to contemporary life itself; and above all an ability to express themselves in clear, lively, and graceful English.”

That all three qualities are native to the critical writing of D.S. Carne-Ross is no secret to those who have read his reviews in this journal, his many contributions to that now defunct but sorely missed periodical Arion, and his recent collection Instaurations: Essays In and Out of Literature, which proceeds “from Pindar to Pound” by way of Sophocles, Dante, Góngora, and Leopardi. In this new volume he has tried to find the way in which a reading of Pindar’s poetry can “best be proposed to today’s incurious world.”

That adjective is well-chosen. Pindar (probable dates 518–438 BC) has often been called the greatest of the Greek lyric poets but in the modern world his forty-five victory odes for athletic champions who won prizes at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and the Isthmus are, like the play Hamlet so much admired, caviar to the general. The modern world is not alone in this indifference; Pindar had not been long in his grave when the Athenian comic poet Eupolis spoke of his songs as “already condemned to silence by popular lack of taste.” They were the exquisite products of a performing art which vanished together with the society that had called it into being: the aristocratic world of archaic Greece, a world of political stability and religious certainty, and also of patrons who could afford to celebrate an athletic triumph at the great games with an ode that was composed by a master poet such as Pindar, usually in honor of a victorious athlete returning to his city, to be recited at a single performance by a dancing chorus. One of Pindar’s most impressive religious personifications is Hesychia—“Tranquillity”—a concept that embraces individual calm of mind, internal political stability, and restraint in foreign relations.

As Carne-Ross points out in his discussion of Pindar’s invocation of Hesychia in the opening lines of the eighth Pythian ode, this attitude was no longer at home in a Greece for which …

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