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Masterpieces of Greek Literature (1902)/Simonides of Ceos

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SIMONIDES OF CEOS




Before Simonides, Greek lyric poetry had been chiefly of the personal and individual type. But the increased prominence of the national games in the sixth century B. C., and the Persian wars in the early part of the fifth century, tended to draw the Hellenes together, and to stimulate a national spirit and a national lyric.

The poet's long life covered a period of great importance to his country. Born about 556 B. C., in the age of the Tyrants at Athens, he lived to see the overthrow of the Peisistratidae, the Ionic Revolt, the two Persian invasions, and the establishment of Athens as the leader of Hellas, before his death in 467 B. C. Among his friends were all the great men of the time,—kings and tyrants like Hipparchus at Athens, and Hiero at Syracuse, and the Thessalian princes; statesmen like Pausanias of Sparta and the Athenian Themistocles; and poets like Aeschylus, Anacreon, and Bacchylides.

Simonides lived mainly at the courts of his friends, whose praises he sang in return for gifts; but he identified himself heartily with the Greeks in their struggle for freedom. The patriotic spirit of his epitaphs on those who fell in the Persian Wars has hardly been surpassed. Many of his choral odes celebrated victories in the national games. He achieved distinction in his dirges as well, and from the delicacy and tenderness of his style won from the ancients the name of Melicertesthe sweet poet. He was the most productive of all the Greek lyric poets.

 

DANAË AND HER BABE ADRIFT[1]

When, in the carven chest,
The winds that blew and waves in wild unrest
Smote her with fear, she, not with cheeks unwet,
Her arms of love round Perseus set,
And said: "Ο child, what grief is mine! 5
But thou dost slumber, and thy baby breast
Is sunk in rest,
Here in the cheerless brass-bound bark,
Tossed amid starless night and pitchy dark.
Nor dost thou heed the scudding brine 10
Of waves that wash above thy curls so deep,
Nor the shrill winds that sweep,—
Lapped in thy purple robe's embrace,
Fair little face!
But if this dread were dreadful too to thee, 15
Then wouldst thou lend thy listening ear to me;
Therefore I cry,—Sleep, babe, and sea, be still,
And slumber our unmeasured ill!
Oh, may some change of fate, sire Zeus, from thee
Descend, our woes to end! 20
But if this prayer, too overbold, offend
Thy justice, yet be merciful to me!"

Translated by John Addington Symonds.

 

ON THOSE WHO DIED AT THERMOPYLAE[2]

Of those who at Thermopylae were slain,
Glorious the doom, and beautiful the lot;
Their tomb an altar: men from tears refrain
To honor them, and praise, but mourn them not.
Such sepulchre, nor drear decay 5
Nor all-destroying time shall waste; this right have they.
Within their grave the home-bred glory
Of Greece was laid: this witness gives
Leonidas the Spartan, in whose story 10
A wreath of famous virtue ever lives.

Translated by John Sterling.

 

  1. Danaë was imprisoned in a tower by her father Acrisius, in consequence of an oracle which predicted that he would be slain by his daughter's son. Nevertheless Zeus visited her in a shower of gold, and she bore a son, Perseus. She and her child were then shut up in a chest by her father, and thrown out to sea.
  2. When the Persians invaded Greece in 480 B. C., Leonidas, king of Sparta, went to hold the pass of Thermopylae against them. When by a circuitous route the Persians entered the pass, Leonidas dismissed his army except three hundred Spartans and seven hundred Thespians, who died on the field faithful to their trust.