‘Make it New’ — the rewards of novelty in ancient literature

Classical and novel appear antithetical but a search for the new is evident in some of the oldest literary works.

Homer Singing the Iliad at the Gate of Athens by Guillaume Lethiere (1760-1832).
Homer Singing the Iliad at the Gate of Athens by Guillaume Lethiere (1760-1832). Credit: IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo

The horror of the blank page is a phenomenon well known to writers, as is the problem of originality. How does one start putting one’s thoughts down on paper? And how can one be sure of saying something worth saying, in particular something that might count as new? It may be little comfort to victims of such anxieties to know that such thoughts are as old as writing itself. An ancient Egyptian text written during the Middle Kingdom (2030-1640 BC) by a priest, Seni son of Ankhu, poetically laments

Would that I had unknown phrases,
sayings that are strange,
novel, untried words,
free of repetition;
not transmitted sayings,
spoken by ancestors….
for what was said is repetition
when what was said is said again.

Ancient Greek poets of classical times were similarly vexed by the problem of saying something new. They had the genius of the great minstrel Homer to contend with. Had he not said (or sung) everything worth saying in his two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey?

The answer was, of course, no. To be sure, if one were trying to write an epic poem based on heroic myths, it would be hard to improve on the divine bard – and evidently no one ever did, until Virgil took on Homer in Latin and created the Aeneid. But there were other kinds of poetry and song that could be explored (and most of the early poetry of Greece was written to be sung), and these were to create the bulk of the tradition of Greek – and its successor Roman – literature that survives.

Homer himself, however, had laid down a stern marker for poets by stressing the importance of novelty for poetic success and appeal. In the first book of the Odyssey, the bard Phemius is singing bardic tales to entertain the suitors gathered in the great hall of the palace of Ithaca. Odysseus himself has been absent for twenty years, ten years fighting in Troy and a further decade facing trials on his return home; but other Greek heroes such as Menelaus and Agamemnon had returned from Troy to their homes and palaces, even if they had not faced the same sort of welcome. Phemius is singing of the latters’ travels and travails when Odysseus’s faithful wife Penelope, who has been busy keeping the suitors at bay in the remote hope of her husband’s return, interrupts him. ‘Why do you sing of the returns of heroes,’ she asks, ‘when Odysseus is still at large, and may never return? It wrings my heart. Give the audience one of your old crowd-pleasing songs instead.’ But Telemachus, her son by Odysseus, swiftly intervenes. ‘Let the bard sing what he will,’ he commands. ‘Everyone knows that the newest song is the one that wins the greatest acclaim.’

Subsequent poets were bound to feel the need to heed Telemachus’s words, which were often quoted out of context – for example, by Plato in his Republic, in the course of a discussion of new styles of music. In the meantime, Ankhu’s lament was echoed by other poets down the centuries, including the Greek epic poet Choerilus of Samos at the end of the fifth century BC:

Lucky was he who was skilled in song-making,
the Muses’ servant, when the meadow of song was still untrodden.
But now everything’s parcelled out, all the arts have their boundaries.
We’re the last on the road, and there’s nowhere for a poet,
try as he may, to drive a newly-yoked chariot.

Since Choerilus wrote this as a preface to a long composition that took as its subject a brand new theme for epic verse – the Persian Wars of the fifth century BC – it can hardly be taken as face value. It comes across more as knowing self-advertisement: by using an familiar trope (‘the road less trodden’) in a new context, Choerilus is drawing attention to his innovative use of the epic genre: his poem was to relate events from recent Hellenic history, hitherto told in prose by the Father of History, Herodotus.

Another strategy that ensured poetic novelty was to work in new genres entirely. Following the age of Homer in the eighth century BC, Greek poet-songwriters turned to forms of expression very different from epic: in particular, the shorter, first-person, and often quite intimate works of lyric verse (‘lyric’ literally refers to songs ‘sung to the lyre’ – we might compare modern love songs accompanied to the strumming of a guitar). This genre, represented by poets such as Sappho, Alcaeus, and Anacreon, who were active during the seventh and sixth centuries BC, shows that poets were still keen on drawing attention to their innovative endeavours, in a self-referential manner remote from what we would generally consider to be poetic. The Spartan poet Alcman, for instance, calls on the Muse’s divine support:

Come, Muse, clear-voiced Muse of many tunes and everlasting song,
start up a new song for girls to sing.

We cannot be sure, however, what Alcman and other lyric poets intend by ‘new’ in such contexts. ‘New’ here could refer to form, content, or melody, or any combination of these elements. Suffice it to say that ‘novelty’ remained an avowed aim; and insofar as the works survived and made it into the literary canon, the poets’ goal appears to have been achieved.

The lyric age of Greece was followed by the great efflorescence of fifth-century literary poetry, most famously in the brilliant plays created for performance by four great Athenian dramatists – tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the comedian Aristophanes. The choral portions of their dramas incorporate a melange of poetic styles and musical influences, and the music survives almost entirely in the metre — the rhythmical shaping of words. These odes are metrically the most complex and difficult expressions of Greek poetry, because they were written to be sung to melodies that are now lost, the effect of which we can only speculate about. Even in drama there is occasionally an explicit emphasis on novelty, incorporated into the context of the action. In Euripides’ play Medea (431 BC), for example, the chorus claim that they are singing new kinds of music to match the novelty of the situation they observe — in this case, the authority of a female heroine; and modern scholarship has detected that the features of Medea’s choral odes exhibit a novel form of melodic structure that would have been recognisable as such to the audience.

Ancient Greek poets never lost the taste for self-referentiality, nor perhaps something of the anxiety that required them to constantly restate their originality. Aristophanes’ comedy Clouds, first performed in Athens in 423 BC but surviving in a later version written some years afterwards, provides a good example of both self-promotion and self-questioning in relation to novelty. In the middle of the play the author steps forward and speaks to the audience in his own voice, in a passage called the parabasis (stepping-forward). In this case there’s a twist: the author’s speech refers to the fact that the text of the play is a revised version of a comedy that had failed to win the favour of the audience on its first performance. ‘I thought you were a sophisticated audience’, Aristo­phanes berates his hearers, ‘so I always made a point of introducing novelties. But you didn’t like my best work! So I’ve revised this play to give you the usual kinds of vulgar slapstick that other comedians employ’. Sometimes, it seems, one can try too hard to be novel.

When, in 406 BC, Aristophanes wrote another comic masterpiece, The Frogs, he had it open with a slave coming on stage with his master and uttering the words ‘Shall I tell one of the usual gags, the ones that always makes the audience laugh?’ The master refuses to let him, saying that those gags make him throw up — but between them, master and slave proceed to tell the very jokes that are guaranteed to elicit a laugh and a groan. Even in presenting jokes that might be thought derivative and unfunny, the poet was contriving to be original and comic. Frogs went on to win huge acclaim, and the first prize for a comedy at Athens’ wintertime dramatic festival, the Lenaia. Greek poets clearly never forgot Homer’s advice that novelty brings the greatest rewards.


Armand D'Angour