Yes, I serve the God of Battle.
But I also serve the Muses
And receive their lovely gifts.
Archilochus is recognized as the first lyric poet in the West. He seems to have invented a distinctively new style of poetry that is primarily concerned with the immediate here and now, presented in (by) the first person, and concerned with personal feelings. The two major figures who come before Archilochus in early Greek literature are Hesiod, who wrote about the gods, and, of course, Homer, who wrote in epic style of a society in which the myths heroic men, in the company of somewhat less heroic gods, perform important actions in war and pursue grand deeds for worthy and meaningful ends. Archilochus, by contrast, while he keeps the Homeric themes of war and battle, writes about contemporary people and events with the focus on things that are right before him rather than in some distant past, and with a genuine personality. It has been claimed that he invented, if not lyric poetry itself, the “I” of the lyric.
The classicist Hermann Frankel writes:
Archilochus decisively seizes upon the first and nearest data of the individual: the here, the I. The glitter of the highest, the greatest, the most powerful, before which all the world stands in longing and admiration, means little to him in comparison with the relatively modest success of a man in Thasos who kindles his personal and as it were intimate hate. World history pales in the face of what goes on in our own street. At that time the rich Greek city of
If, Aesimedes, you will attend to the gossip of others, then you will find in life not very much to enjoy.
It seems as if Archilochus did find much in life to enjoy, but it is also certain that much of what we think we know about him comes from the gossip of others and uncertain interpretations; we are never quite sure just who is speaking in his poems. Is it the voice of Archilochus the actual, historical man? How much can we infer about the man from what he says? Various different interpretations of Archolochus’ lyrics are possible, but since most are fragmentary, they are at the same time exceedingly difficult and, yet, quite open. We are free to get to know this guy without having to know a lot of stuff we just don’t, or can’t.
It is tempting, and it is easy, to listen to the voice of Archilochus speaking across the ages and ascribe it to Archilochus himself, the real person, and so glean from these fragments presumed aspects of his character and temperament. It is also enjoyable because he is a compelling character. It may or may not be a valid approach to his work, however. It is certainly possible to read a character into the voice that produces the aphorisms, fragments, and brief poems attributed to Archilochus. Since it is not possible to say for certain if the poet speaks in his own voice, we may regard it as a convenient fiction. Indeed, his sort of convenient fiction has been a source of much interpretive scrutiny throughout the history of lyric poetry. In fact, in some ways the sense that we are listening to an I who is another (a delightful observation from Rimbaud)
If Archilochus did indeed invent the “I” of lyric poetry, he stands at the head of a long and incredibly inventive line of poets--which includes Sappho, Catullus, Horace, and, from them through all, or mostly all, of first-person lyric poetry in the Western tradition, through Dante, Petrarch, Ronsard, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, These poets can all be found in something Archilochus gets started, the character speaking (performing, writing) his poems, or her poems--much as a dramatist creates characters, gives them names, and situates them within some action depicted on stage. Even when poets name themselves in this genre, as both Catullus and Sappho do, however, in writing poetry they write in a mode that is best defined as if. Personal revelations per se are rarely poetic; in fact, as we all know, they tend to be trite, often surprisingly dull (except to analysts, I suppose) and quite commonplace. Spilling your guts seems to be how--or why-- clichés were invented--not poetry.
Poetry, on the other hand, takes that stuff—the kind of stuff we think and say about ourselves and others, and other things—and heightens the language, makes it far more expressive, more absorbing or penetrating, and more memorable than ordinary language. What we find in Archilochus, and what lyric poets since then have been especially good at, is the creation of a character through a voice written down and performed in poetry. These characters tend to be interesting--even compelling. They may remind us of ourselves, or others. The character begins not with flesh and blood, unless it would be our own, but with words. In the case of Archilochus the lyric poet, we can only speculate about how his songs were first heard, and used. The lyre, of course, is a stringed instrument, and so lyric poetry was sung or chanted with accompaniment. But much of what we call lyric poetry, even from this Archaic Age, was choral music, or accompanied by flutes and other instruments. We keep the term “lyric” to mean poetry in a personal voice that uses “deictics,” which those parts of language that situate the speaker and the audience in the here and now. This is a marvelous fiction—think of how a singer like Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra can make you feel they are for real.
Scholars are not entirely certain when Archilochus lived, but they can point to his poem about an eclipse and suggest that it may be used to help date the poem--presumably he was alive during an eclipse so we can guess when he flourished. It appears that the poem here under the rubric Eclipse might have referred to an actual eclipse either on March 14, 711, or April 6 of 648 B.C.E. There is some sixty years wiggle room here. Then again, it is conceivable that Archilochus never actually saw an eclipse but, like many writers, wrote of what he heard or read from others. He was born in Paros, an island in the Cyclades in the middle of the
For centuries Archilochus seems to have been almost as popular and as admired a poet as Homer, but today we can only see glimpses of his poetic talents. His work exists in fragments; these are principally from quotations found in the work of later authors, or scraps of papyrus found during archaeological digs and subsequently (and with great skill and patience) reconstructed. He was both a soldier (engaged in colonial wars in
Here is an example of how we come to know a poem of his. In Aristotle’s Rhetoric we read:
With regard to the “character” in which a thing is said, since there are some things which if you said them of yourself would be invidious or tedious or provocative of contradiction, and if you said them of another would be slanderous or impolite, such things should be put into another’s mouth, as is done by Isocrates in the Philip and in the Exchange, and by Archilochus, who in his censure makes the father speak of the daughter in the iambic poem:
There is nothing in the world unexpected, nothing to be sworn impossible nor yet marvelous, now that Zeus the Father of the Olympians hath made night of noon by hiding the light of the shining Sun so that sore fear came upon mankind. Henceforth is anything whatsoever to be believed or expected. Let not one of you marvel, nay, though he see the beasts of the field exchange pasture with the dolphins of the deep, and the roaring waves of the sea become dearer than the land to such as loved the hill.
and makes Charon the carpenter speak in the Iambic poem which begins
I care not for the wealth of golden Gyges, nor ever have envied him; I am not jealous of the works of Gods, and I have no desire for lofty despotism; for such things are far beyond my ken.
This is how we get much of the work we have, when some learned person--though not usually as distinguished a commentator as Aristotle--needs to make a point and calls upon some well-known author to help him make it. The point Aristotle is making should not be lost, however: Archilochus uses the voices of others, even when you hear him say “I.”
We may know almost nothing of his life, but his poems--some of the short ones may not be fragments at all but, rather, aphorisms--make excellent reading and give strong hints of dramatic character. Even from reading these fragmentary forms--and in translation--a personality, temperament, and voice do emerge, and they create in our minds a distinctive, recognizable individual. Whether they conform to the real person who wrote the poems or not is of course irrelevant and unknowable. Poetry is, after all, a fiction. What matters is what we think matters. As with other lyric poets, about whom we know more, one may perhaps ultimately read through the fiction to some understanding of the author as a human being--like me.
Hugh Kenner in the preface to Guy Davenport’s translations published in Poetry calls Archilochus
a contemporary poet...He has been made possible by our ability to engage the imagination with the pragmatic, by our renewed pleasure in the laconic and the expletive functions of language, and by our present willingness to assimilate those pleasures into our notion of Hellenism.
The idea of flux in human affairs is important in Archilochus, who portrays humans as living in a rhythmic world, with ups and downs, all immediately available to the senses. It is raw, energetic stuff, and out of it emerges much of our notion of masculinity itself. It is a masculinity that takes much from aggressive, military, and erotic maneuvers. If Archilochus presents an archaic view of women as, one might say, sex objects, he is actually quite frank--in the modern sense--about sex and sexual relationships generally. What seems to be his general penchant for cowardice and womanizing which, if not Homeric, is immediately recognizable in (for example) the Maverick of television or the Flashman of MacDonald Fraser’s comic historical novels.
In one of the few books devoted mostly to Archilochus, Frederick Will says:
We don’t know what his poetry sounded like. We don’t really know to what kind of background his lyric pieces were performed. We don’t know how religious he was being when he made his various allusions to the cruelty of the world; they could have sprung from a god-filled or from a godless mind. We don’t even know when he was being funny. (p. 1)
But as we read we make a lot of it up. If scholars wish to read poems as clues or indices to the times and the thought of an era, it is also possible for mere readers of poetry to read for simple enjoyment. And reading Archilochus can be immensely enjoyable. We find here a poet with an attitude. Much has been made of his anti-heroic discarding of his shield during one of his battles.
I left my poor shield--
What a good shield that was!--
Behind some shrub.
A Saian exults with it now.
But, I did save myself.
So, why should I grieve
For that particular shield?
It's gone, and good riddance!
I'll get me another.
It's just as well.
No one in Homer’s epics would have done such a thing, or certainly would have never boasted of it later. It is said that when the stern Spartans heard of the poem they issued a decree banning Archilochus from entering their state. (We have no word how he took this news.) But it is a striking image, a mini-narrative, that catches the imagination. Other poets in the Greek and Roman tradition, including Horace, claim also to have left their shields behind in battle. It may be coincidence--shields were heavy--it may also be a topos, or traditional turn of phrase, which became a way of paying homage to this marvelously self-revealing--and self-deprecatory--poet.
Critias the Sophist, a politician during the Peloponnesian wars (centuries after Archilochus lived) refers to this self-deprecatory quality:
Critias raises the objection, against Archilochus, that he was his own worst slanderer. “If,” as he says, “Archilochus had not spread this opinion of himself among the Greeks, we would never have known that he was the son of Enipo, a slave woman, nor that he left Paros from poverty and indigence, and so went to Thasos, nor that upon arrival there he alienated himself from those people, making light of friend and foe.” “Furthermore,” he says, “we wouldn’t even know that he was an adulterer, if we didn’t have it from him, nor that he was unbridledly, even indecently, sensuous, and, worst of all, that he threw his shield away. Archilochus was no good testimony to himself, leaving that sort of slander and scuttlebutt behind him.” Reproaches raised not by me, notice, but by Critias. Critias fr. 44 in Aelian, Varia Historia, X 13.
But then, maybe he never did throw his shield away. Maybe he just made it up, for convenience, or a joke, or because he had some character in one of his stories tell the tale. We just don’t know.