Tyrtaeus2516065Masterpieces of Greek Literature — Tyrtaeus1902Thomas Campbell


Milton says that it is the function of the poet "to inbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue and public civility." On this ground, if on no other, Tyrtaeus deserves the title of poet. He was general of the Spartans during the Second Messenian war, in the seventh century before Christ, and by his patriotic verses aroused in his fellow citizens increased courage and spirit in battle, and a larger devotion to the State in peace. His songs were long sung about the Spartan camp fires.


How glorious fall the valiant, sword in hand,
In front of battle for their native land!
But oh! what ills await the wretch that yields,
A recreant outcast from his country's fields!
The mother whom he loves shall quit her home, 5
An aged father at his side shall roam;
His little ones shall weeping with him go,
And a young wife participate his woe;
While scorned and scowled upon by every face,
They pine for food, and beg from place to place. 10

Stain of his breed! dishonoring manhood's form,
All ills shall cleave to him: affliction's storm
Shall blind him wandering in the vale of years,
Till, lost to all but ignominious fears,
He shall not blush to leave a recreant's name, 15
And children, like himself, inured to shame.
But we will combat for our fathers' land,
And we will drain the life-blood where we stand,
To save our children.—Fight ye side by side,
And serried close, ye men of youthful pride, 20
Disdaining fear, and deeming light the cost
Of life itself in glorious battle lost.

Leave not our sires to stem the unequal fight,
Whose limbs are nerved no more with buoyant might;
Nor, lagging backward, let the younger breast 25
Permit the man of age (a sight unblest)
To welter in the combat's foremost thrust,
His hoary head dishevelled in the dust,
And venerable bosom bleeding bare.
But youth's fair form, though fallen, is ever fair, 30
And beautiful in death the boy appears,
The hero boy, that dies in blooming years:
In man's regret he lives, and woman's tears;
More sacred than in life, and lovelier far,
For having perished in the front of war. 35

Translated by Thomas Campbell.