Poem of the Fortnight: Pandering to Pindar

Posted by Rebekah King on Tuesday, November 10, 2015 with No comments
This week we pause in our discussion of individual poems to examine, more broadly, a type of poem: the pindaric. The re-emergence of the pindaric in the seventeenth century and the relative frequency with which it appears in these miscellanies raises questions about whether we should include this label in the list of ‘genres’ on the DMI data-entry interface from which, at present, it is absent.

In my last post, ‘Doggerel Fights’, we met with the pugnacious Pindar of Thomas Brown’s imagination who avenged himself against the feeble imitations of subsequent centuries by beating up a bad modern poet.

Brown tells the hack in question:

Thou write Pindarics, and be damn’d,
Write Epigrams for Cutlers;
None with thy Lyrics can by shamm’d
But Chambermaids and Butlers.

For Brown, the ‘pindaric’ is clearly a distinct poetic genre, like the epigram or lyric. When I enter data for a poem and am given the option to tick as many ‘genres’ as apply, ‘epigram’ appears on the list, as does ‘lyric’, but not that form inspired by Pindar.

According to Encyclopaedia Brittanica, the original Greek pindaric was triadic in structure: strophe (two or more lines repeated as a unit), corresponding antistrophe, and concluding summary line or ‘epode’.

The seventeenth century pindaric was far looser in form, being “irregular rhymed odes in which the length of line and stanza is capriciously varied to suggest, but not reproduce, the style and manner of Pindar”. Abraham Cowley’s book of Pindarique Odes, (1656), is usually credited with the reintroduction of the form, which went on to inspire Dryden’s ‘Alexander’s Feast’, Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, and Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.

In my work on the DMI, I have come across many poems, by Cowley and others, which call themselves as ‘pindarics’ or ‘pindaric odes’. In Lycidus or the lover in fashion, (1688) for example, the poem ‘Hail thou sole empress of the land of wit....’ (‘Written by a Lady’), is included under the title ‘A Pindarick to Mrs. Behn on her Poems on the Coronation.’ Another, unattributed, from the same miscellany, calls itself ‘On Beauty. A Pindaric’.

The best that can be done for these, and other such poems, is to click the box for ‘Imitation (in the style of...)’ when prompted to select the applicable genres. But the pindaric is not mere imitation. Cowley and the rest had reinvented the form for an early modern readership, for whom the term had a new resonance, whether or not it was associated with the quasi-mythological figure of Pindar himself.

The system for marking genres in the DMI is subjective at the best of times but here, the limitations of a finite list help us to think more carefully about the classification of these poems. Oddly enough, the discussions raised by its apparent shortcomings raise new questions about what we mean by ‘genre’ in the first place.

Nevertheless, I think perhaps that the pindaric deserves to be included on the list. And in any case, from Brown’s description of Pindar, I wouldn’t like to chance an insult to that form: one risks a bruise or two.