Didactic Poetry

views updated

Didactic Poetry

THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL

Source

Hesiod. Didactic poetry (from the Greek word didaskô or “teach”) was always written in the same meter as epic (dactylic hexameter) and therefore not distinguished by the ancients from that grander genre. Nevertheless, the modern classification is well-established and convenient. There survives only one complete didactic poem from the period covered in this chapter, Hesiod’s Works and Days (circa eighth century b.c.e.), and it was this poem which was to have great influence when a more scientific age revived the practice of didactic verse; there survive several such works from the Hellenistic (for example, Aratus) and Roman periods (especially Lucretius and Vergil).

THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL

Zeus punishes men for Prometheus’s theft of fire:

“Son of iapetos, clever above all others, you are pleased at having stolen fire and outwitted me—a great calamity both for yourself and for men to come. To set against the fire I shall give them an affliction in which they will all delight as they embrace their own misfortune.” So saying, the father of gods and men laughed aloud; and he told renowned Hephaestus at once to mix earth with water, to add in a human voice and strength, and to model upon the immortal goddesses’ aspect the fair lovely form of a maiden. Athene he told to teach her crafts, to weave the embroidered web, and golden Aphrodite to shower charm about her head, and painful yearning and consuming obsession; to put in a bitch’s mind and a knavish nature, that was his instruction to Hermes the go-between, the dog-killer. . . . When he had completed the precipitous, unmanageable trap, the father sent the renowned dog-killer to Epimetheus taking the gift, swift messenger of the gods. Epimetheus gave no thought to what Prometheus had told him, never to accept a gift from Olympian Zeus but to send it back lest some affliction befall mortals: he accepted, and had the bane before he realised it. For formerly the tribes of men on earth lived remote from ills, without harsh toil and the grievous sicknesses that are deadly to men. But the woman unstopped the jar and let it all out, and brought grim cares upon mankind. Only Hope remained there inside in her secure dwelling, under the lip of the jar, and did not fly out, because the woman put the lid back in time by the providence of Zeus the cloud-gatherer who bears the aegis.

Source: Hesiod, Works and Days, pp. 54-68, 83-88.

Moral Fervor. Addressed to his brother Perses, Hesiod’s poem is less concerned with the technicalities of its predominant subject matter, agriculture, than with questions of correct behavior and justice, in which it seems that his brother was rather deficient. This moral fervor was something that Roman didactic was later to cultivate. Popular also in later examples of the genre was the use of mythology, and here Hesiod set the example; in trying to explain why the world is so constructed that hard work is necessary just to survive, he offers an explanation based on the story of Pandora, the woman who brought all the trouble into the world, and then later the completely inconsistent story of the degenerating races of mankind. Apart from agriculture, Hesiod also advises on seafaring, and (in the last section of the poem) on the proper days for particular activities—the eleventh and twelfth days of the month, for instance, are suitable for shearing wool and picking fruit.

Source

Peter Toohey, Epic Lessons: An Introduction to Ancient Didactic Poetry (London & New York: Routledge, 1996).

About this article

Didactic Poetry

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article