Pindar; drawing by David Levine

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,1 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 the competitive, aggressive, and egalitarian spirit of Athenian democracy set the tone. Pindar was no democrat. “There is great weight in inherited glory,” he sang in the third Nemean ode, for Aristokleidas of Aegina, “while mere instruction leaves a man a thing of shadows.” But his defiant celebration of aristocratic values was the swan song of a dying ideal; by the end of the fifth century BC his poetry no longer had an audience. For the Alexandrian scholars of the third and second centuries it was a bare literary text, its music and choreography long since lost, a difficult text, too, that called for editing and interpretation. Since its rediscovery in the West (the first printed edition appeared in Italy in 1513) it has served scholars as an arena for acrid controversy and the literate public as a model of the sublime which everyone admired and some, Rabelais for instance, made fun of, but few took the trouble to read.

It would seem from this description of the fate of Pindaric poetry that it was not for all time but of an age, and Carne-Ross indeed points out that unlike other Greek literary creations such as tragedy, comedy, lyric, pastoral, and epigram, the victory ode had no future.

If Homer and Virgil and Horace have (until yesterday) been household figures, it is because they lived on in our poetry through allusion, imitation, and translation. This did not happen with Pindar and in consequence he has remained a marginal figure in our tradition.

Yet few who can read him in the original have doubted that he is a great poet; even those scholars who find him full of digressions and irrelevancies admire the splendors of what Horace taught us to call “purple patches.” And modern translators, the poet-scholar Richmond Lattimore leading the way, have offered the English-speaking public versions that give at least an idea of the magnificence and subtlety of Pindar’s rhythms, the brilliance and originality of his imagery, and the elevation of his language, consistently noble but never pompous.2 Yet for most readers the poems remain difficult, as anyone knows who has tried to teach them in translation. Carne-Ross addresses himself to the problem of trying “to give some impression of what it ‘feels like’ to read a victory ode, to suggest the way the thing works, how it moves and breathes, by means of a series of rather close readings of individual poems.”


The problem is, and has been from the beginning, that of the unity of the individual ode. One scholar expresses it pointedly in a recent book: “One’s first reaction to any poem by Pindar is to feel that one is confronting a series of unrelated fragments.”3 Cryptic references, abrupt transitions, mythical themes of dazzling radiance but apparently marginal relevance, proverbial wisdom and gnomic exhortation, invocation of gods and heroes, and statements that sound like assertions in the poet’s own person assault the reader’s attention as they race by with the speed of the athletes these strange productions claim to celebrate. Here, for example, is Pindar, in the tenth Olympian ode, apologizing for late delivery:

For the time ahead is suddenly here, and I am deep in arrears and embarrassment.

And yet payment

   with interest can alleviate
the sting of discredit.
As the white wave washes
the spinning pebble under,
so I’ll sweep my debt away

For Honesty rules in Western Lokroi,
and they cultivate Kalliopa there
and the bronze God of War.
Even champion Herakles
recoiled once, in battle with Kyknos.
Let Hagesidamos, winner in boxing

at Olympia,

pay his trainer Ilas gratitude
as Patroklos paid Achilleus.
With a god’s favoring hand, one man
may whet another’s ambition, inspire him
to prodigious feats,
if glory’s in his birthright.
(translated by F. Nisetich)

Scholarly attempts to deal with these recalcitrant texts took two main directions: to find for the individual ode one basic concept—the Grundgedanke—to which most if not all of the elements could be somehow connected (a variant was to look for a central unifying symbol) or to renounce the idea of unity and see the ode as a scattering of poetic gems in a prosaic setting. The Grundgedanke, unfortunately, always turned out to be some staggering banality (and the ubiquity of a basic symbol usually had to be imposed on a reluctant text by special pleading). The admirers of individual purple passages fastened on the “prosaic” stretches as a base for reconstituting Pindar’s life and times. The masterpiece in this line, Wilamowitz’s 538-page Pindaros (1922), offers a detailed biography of the poet, with an exploration of his beliefs, prejudices, and political attitudes, the whole towering edifice precariously based on fanciful deductions from the text of the poems.

No progress seemed possible; disciples of both schools simply went on refining the arguments of their mentors. The critical situation resembled that of Homeric studies, where the unitarians continued to smooth over anomalies in the text and the separatists to exaggerate them. In that field the rules of the game were changed by the new insights of an American scholar, Milman Parry, whose hypothesis of oral composition by theme and formula explained so many of the anomalies in the text that though the argument continued it now had to be recast along different lines. In Pindaric studies the work of another American, Elroy Bundy, produced a comparable upheaval. Parry died young, before the scholarly world at large had recognized the importance of his work; Bundy, too, died young but, in spite of initial neglect and in some cases angry dismissal, he lived to see his approach to the problem of unity in the victory ode almost universally accepted in whole or in part, either adopted with qualifications and demurrals or pushed to unacceptable extremes by overenthusiastic imitators.

Bundy suggested that the vinculum earlier scholars had tried to find in Grundgedanken and the like, the bond or chain that would link the apparently disparate elements of the poem, had been clearly visible from the start to anyone who paid attention to the social context of the victory ode; it was the poet’s main purpose, the overriding obligation to the patron who had commissioned the ode—to praise the victor. In a pair of highly condensed articles published in 19644 Bundy attempted to demonstrate, in his analysis of two odes, that all those “characteristics of style and temper” usually ascribed to Pindar—“an allusiveness that would strain the powers of a listening audience,…personal, religious, political, philosophical and historical references that might interest the poet but do nothing to enhance the glory of a given patron,…abruptness in transitions…gross irrelevance…lengthy sermonizing…literary scandals and embarrassments”—must be creations of the modern imagination; they stem from misunderstanding of the conventions of encomiastic poetry. Bundy observes and catalogs “a host of these conventions” and finds that “they point uniformly…to one master principle: that there is no passage” in these poems “that is not in its primary intent…designed to enhance the glory of a particular patron.”


Bundy was not the first scholar to investigate the conventions of the genre (Schadewalt, in Germany, had made a start), but his was far and away the most thoroughgoing and convincing analysis of the poetic tactics of the encomium. Public praise is a dangerous medium; it can all too easily provoke disgust if it verges on flattery, boredom if it belabors the obvious or runs to repetition, derision if it exaggerates beyond the limits of credibility. The only place where such considerations do not apply is the court of a dictator where, on the contrary, abject flattery, monotonous repetition, and wild exaggeration are exactly what official spokesmen are expected to produce. Such qualities are omnipresent, for example, in the collection of twelve speeches in praise of Roman emperors which have come down to us under the title Panegyrici Latini. When I met Bundy at Berkeley in 1964 he told me that the crude adulation and abject servility of these compositions had set him to reflecting on the infinitely subtle and sophisticated techniques employed by the practitioners of the victory ode, who had to sing public praises not of an autocrat before his court but of a free man in the presence of his fellow citizens.5

The two essays in which Bundy explored the intricacies of this refined art were unfortunately written without much regard for the reader; on the contrary, the clipped and allusive prose, studded with new and repellent technical terms—pronominal name cap, focusing foil, prooimial priamel, categorical vaunt, inverted gnome—seemed designed to repel rather than attract; even for professional Greek scholars these essays are hard going. And some who did not welcome Bundy’s conclusions seized on his style as an excuse to discount them. Yet even though he did not fulfill his promise to move on to explore “odes celebrated for their obscurity or willful irrelevance” his achievement has been generally recognized; no one will ever again interpret a Pindaric statement along biographical or historical lines without first making sure it is not an exquisitely disguised form of one of the conventions of the genre. For what Bundy found in Pindar was a “marvelous creative energy shaping and reshaping the nuances and colors of traditional form.”

Of course, like most scholars with an original insight, Bundy went too far; Pindar is more than a superb technician of praise and certainly more than the shabby figure who emerges from the work of some who have adopted Bundy’s approach to create, as Hugh Lloyd-Jones puts it, “a dreary scholasticism, treating the ode as a collection of commonplaces strung together by a few stock devices.” The phrase comes from Lloyd-Jones’s British Academy “Lecture on a Master Mind”;6 his choice of Pindar for such a series, justified by the claim that his poetry “communicates a distinctive vision of the world, conveyed with great imaginative power,” does not imply a rejection of Bundy’s results but only of the limitations they seem to impose on Pindar’s creativity.

Carne-Ross, too, is emphatic on this point. “When a major artist makes use of an existing form he does not simply follow the rules…. He is more likely to reshape it to his own ends.” To appreciate Pindar, he says, “we should master the grammar of choral lyric, learning its rules so well that we internalize them and half ‘forget’ them: in order to leave our attention free for what may be specially even uniquely Pindaric.”

In his opening chapter he gives a swift survey of the “grammar of choral lyric” for the uninitiated but proceeds to point out that though recent studies of the form of the victory ode “have removed many old barriers to understanding” they “hardly take us beyond the level of technique.” They have brought us to appreciate “a consummate virtuoso” but no closer to Pindar as a great poet or indeed to that archaic Greek world which in its values and assumptions is still alien territory to us. And yet, he goes on to claim, the sensitive reader attuned to modern poetry can react to Pindar in a way that was hardly possible for generations brought up on Wordsworth and Tennyson. “The rapid cutting from one theme to another, the ellipses and apparent lack of connections, the brilliant images imbedded in some pretty impenetrable stuff” should present no unsurmountable barrier to the reader who has “cut his critical teeth” on Eliot’s Waste Land and who is “not notably dazed by the opening of Pound’s fourth canto” which, incidentally, is a passage notable not only for its Pindaric aura but for the quotation of the Greek word ANAXIFORMINGES—which opens Pindar’s second Olympian.7

Palace in smoky light,
Troy but a heap of smouldering boundary stones,
Hear me. Cadmus of Golden Prows!

Carne-Ross buttresses this appeal to modern sensibility as a bridge (a fragile one he admits) to Pindaric poetry with a reference to another “modernist poem,” David Jones’s Anathemata (“great if still too little read”), and Gwyn Williams’s comparison of it to medieval Welsh poetry, which is remarkable for “the absence of a centred design.” That absence, Williams says, is not a weakness, since Welsh poets were not following the classical convention; they “were not trying to write poems that would read like Greek temples…but, rather, like stone circles or the contour-following rings of the forts from which they fought, with hidden ways slipping from one ring to another.”

Herington wanted for his series writers with “a love for literature…extending into modern times”; it is fascinating to see Carne-Ross summon such contemporary masters as Pound and Jones—together with Yeats, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Nietzsche, Hölderlin, and Dante—to bridge the chasm of the centuries which separate us from Pindar. He is not, however, “saying that Pindar is really quite modern after all”; on the contrary, he believes that his poet is “very distant” and that “this distance must be preserved and cherished.” We can no more transform the victory ode into a modern poem than we can assume the mentality of archaic Greece. “To establish a true relation with a work from the past is to enter into a dialogue with it.” And this he goes on to do in the succeeding chapters, as he takes the reader through twelve of the odes, a representative selection which ranges from the comparatively simple to the highly obscure, from the serene joy of the ninth Pythian (for which Carne-Ross uses a Petrarchan epigraph—Qui Regna Amore) to the darker overtones of Pythian 8.

One remarkable chapter—“An Ode Takes Shape”—works up to a translation of the tenth Nemean ode by way of an attempt “to trace in imagination the genesis of an ode—not the mysterious process whereby a work of art comes into being, but the way a writer observing strict conventions and with a patron to satisfy goes about his task.” This peek into “the poet’s workshop” sets Pindar on a tour of Argos (the home of the victor) where “shrines, altars, temples, emblems of divinity, heroic memories” stir his imagination. The song is beginning to take shape: “There must be a long rich section on Argos and the victor’s great inheritance” and another on the athletic triumphs of the victor’s family. A family tradition links the victor to the divine twins Kastor and Polydeukes; their story will be told, but which story?…and so on.

All this, as Carne-Ross admits, is speculation, but it carries conviction. And it is a welcome change from the kind of speculation Bundy’s work relegated to oblivion, the erection of towering biographical and historical structures on doubtful inference. In its wit, imaginative insight, and graceful exposition it is typical of the book as a whole; Carne-Ross has written, for the modern reader of poetry, an introduction to Pindar’s strange world “of straddling energy and splendor” which might even succeed in moving Pindar some little way from the margin of our poetic tradition toward the center.

One other quality Herington looked for in his authors was “a vision that extends beyond academe to contemporary life itself,” A passionate concern for the present state of our culture in the widest sense of that term has been characteristic of Carne-Ross’s writing from the first, and it is not lacking even in this introduction to a poet whose majestic celebration of archaic and aristocratic virtues seems at first, and for that matter at second, glance to have little or no relevance to the way we live now.

Yet Pindar draws for the themes of his poems on timeless constants of human existence, and there is one recurrent burden of his song that, though it would have seemed outdated to our grandfathers, now strikes our ears more persuasively with every day that passes. It is his acceptance of the bounds set to human endeavor, his vision of human prowess and glory contained within limits set by divine power and natural law. In that same third Nemean ode which championed “inherited glory” against “mere instruction” the victor is hailed as one who “has reached the peak of manliness” and told that “to go on from there is no light matter.” He has reached a limit—like Herakles, who, great hero though he was, turned back on his westward journey when he reached the Atlantic and at the straits we call Gibraltar raised on both sides the rocks the ancients called the Pillars of Herakles. They were “the world’s boundary.” (In another ode Pindar says of the Atlantic, in words whose rhythm suggests its chop and swell: “beyond Cadiz into the dark of the West no man may go.”)

Carne-Ross sees the third Nemean as a poem that “if we contrive to station ourselves before it in such a way that it can address us,” poses “a question or choice that is starting to take shape.” The choice is whether or not to abandon what George Steiner calls “the conviction centrally woven into the Western temper, at least since Athens, that mental enquiry must move forward, that such motion is natural and meritorious in itself”8—even if it leads us to open the last door in Bluebeard’s castle which, in Carne-Ross’s words, “gives on to realities wholly beyond our control.” These are, as he points out, our terms, not Pindar’s, whose acceptance implies not retreat but a society’s choice “to endure round its immemorial truths rather than advance.” Those pillars of Herakles Pindar sees as constructive not restrictive, “a grace of containment providing man’s energetic nature with the space within which it can flourish in the manner that is proper to it.” It is proud affirmation not craven submission. But “it may be too late to hear those words as Pindar speaks them.”

This Issue

October 24, 1985