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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

At the House of Pindar

By Denton Jaques Snider (1841–1925)

[Born in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, 1841. Died, 1925. A Walk in Hellas. 1881.]

WE have entered another world, the tragic discord of the Syrma has been cut off and left far behind, and man has become a most harmonious being who dwells forever amid the tuneful spheres; we have entered the house of Pindar.

Upon this spot it stood according to our ancient guide; here the poet when he rose at morn saw the first beams of Helius play over the Dirkean waters. The material house has indeed disappeared, but that other house built by Pindar stands visible, nay audible to-day and forever. For it is a musical house still, though partly in ruins; the most happy musical temple ever erected out of the lofty hymn. Into it we may enter and tarry long, catching its harmonies broken at times, but still possessed of the sweetest and sublimest cadences.

Many were the miraculous things told of him in antiquity indicating that he was truly a child of the Gods. On that hot day while he was going to Thespia, he seems to have received his first revelation; he fell asleep along the road and the bees lit upon his lips, depositing their waxen cells for honey; when he woke, he began to sing; such, says the ancient narrator, was the beginning of his making hymns. Then the appearance of Persephone, Goddess of the Lower Regions, to the Poet in a dream, complaining that to her alone of the divinities he had never written a hymn, was justified by his character; dark Tartarean realms he avoids, but delights to dwell on the upper earth in Greek sunshine. Therefore he was the special favorite of Apollo, God of Light, whose games he has celebrated in such rapturous splendor: the priestess at Delphi announced to all Greece to give to Pindar a share of the first-fruits equal to that of the God. Then too the proclamation was long afterward heard at the Delphic shrine: “Let the poet Pindar come in to his supper with the God.” Indeed he is the product and culmination of Delphi, thither we shall have to follow him in order to reach the deepest and richest vein of his character. In the dell of the Oracle, at the fount of Castalia, under the tops of Parnassus, we shall have to place him, where prophecy and poesy rocked the hills with musical wisdom, whereof he is the highest expression. Pindar, on the whole, may be taken as the best Delphic utterance remaining for us to-day.

Still he belongs here too, and in him all Thebes turns to harmony—that discordant Thebes so full elsewhere of tragic destinies; nay, that sensual Thebes, receiving its nickname from swinish indulgence, becomes through him the most ethereal of poetic existences. It is one of the marvels of this land that it could bring him forth, him the most ideal of men. From this fat soil he sprang, this heavy air he breathed, upon this gross vegetation he fed, yet he has the freest rein and the widest bound of all poets, often a little too sudden in his earth-defying leaps. To-day we confess him unrivalled in the lyric; he has the exaltation, the sweep of imagination and the greatness of thought which belong to all supreme poetic utterance.

But the quality in which he surpasses every poet whom I have read after, is what may be called his harmony. Not that light superficial thing called by the critics harmonious versification is meant now; this true harmony flows from the deepest of matters, it is the harmony of the All, of the Universe uttering itself in the measured syllables of the bard. At his best moment each word is set in vibration which sings long afterward in the ear or rather in the soul, indeed one will never get rid of that music truly heard; but such a word is only a note of the song which in its completeness will make your whole being throb and thrill in attunement with its strains. Yet not you alone, but nature outside of you vibrates to the chords of the lyre which the poet touches; both the inner and outer world are absorbed into the stride and swell of his harmonies. All Time, too, is therein made musical, as to-day sunny Thebes seems to be gently moving to pulsations of those ancient hymns.

Such is the Pindaric music, unattainable by any external combination of sounds and syllables, or by any arrangement of the scanning machine; what modern would get it, if only thus it could be reached? It goes far deeper, as it must in all true poetry; the rhythm must lie ultimately in the thought wedding itself to speech; the words are but the outward drapery dropping into symphonic folds from the rapturous pulsations within; the fountain of Pindar’s harmony is in the soul, and there only can it be truly heard. It is a great mistake to think that the music of poetry comes from the jingle of sounds, short and long, accented and unaccented, from the employment of open vowels, from the abolition of certain consonants in certain situations. Much talk of this kind has been heard of late; but such doctrines can do hardly more than construct a well-regulated poetical machine which will grind at any time with any person turning the crank; thus we may attain a light-flowing Italian melody at the very best, but not all-pervading, all-subduing organ harmonies. First there must be the thought great and worthy, then it must pulse with an inner ecstasy which bursts forth into utterance.

No counting of syllables, then, is going to reveal to you the deepest secret of poetic harmonies. It is true that in verse measure is necessary; but this is the mechanical part, it is the outer to which there must be an inner that creates it and puts it musically on like a rich glowing vestment. Poetry cannot do without that fixed recurrence of accents called metre; even the sea, most melodious of Nature’s instruments, has a measured rhythm, a regular beat in its rise and fall, as if the waves were keeping time after some invisible master. Yet hardly are we to think of the metre the while, but to hear the music; it is the harmonious thought of Pindar which makes every word drop tuneful from his lips; too often his strains get lost in that labyrinth of metrical schemes, which produce so much discord, at least among grammarians. I cannot help thinking that Pindar’s verse, and all true verse, makes its own scheme as it goes along, to a degree; it throbs great waves of harmony through any soul musically attuned, without scansion; for I must refuse to believe that the dry prosodical man who scans Pindar is the sole person who has become heir to his melodious wealth. An inborn poetic sense may perhaps be better tested by Pindar’s verse than by that of any other poet; if no music be heard there, whatever the outer ear may be, the poetic soul is of dubious existence.

This harmony then, combined with his exaltation, is Pindar’s highest poetical characteristic. Next to him perhaps Dante should be placed, who likewise possesses the power of setting all in vibration to the strains of his poetry; even the dry abstractions of scholastic theology move in his “Paradiso” with a strange enraptured rhythm. Here also lies the chief miraculous gift of our Milton, though he is behind the two who have been mentioned. These are preëminently the poets of harmony, to my mind; others greater than they have existed because of the possession of a still greater quality, in conjunction with this one.

Pindar is the most rapt expression of the Greek world, the Delphic utterance of it we may say. His sympathy with Hellenic life is complete; he is in the main content to live as his forefathers lived; we do not find in him the profound questionings of the Attic poets, he is too harmonious. He does not assail the established, he is at one with the religion and morality of his age—a conservative poet we may consider him. Yet he will not accept all the myths which have been handed down, nor does he fail to castigate certain evils of his city and time. But he is not a satirist, not a revolutionist; he is in harmony with the world and the world with him; so that he becomes the throbbing utterance of the games, of the festivals, of the songs in that joyous Greek life around him.