Solon - Solon The Reformer and Poet

Solon The Reformer and Poet

Solon was the first of the Athenian poets whose work has survived to the present day. His verses have come down to us in fragmentary quotations by ancient authors such as Plutarch and Demosthenes who used them to illustrate their own arguments. It is possible that some fragments have been wrongly attributed to him and some scholars have detected interpolations by later authors.

The literary merit of Solon's verse is generally considered unexceptional. Solon the poet can be said to appear 'self-righteous' and 'pompous' at times and he once composed an elegy with moral advice for a more gifted elegiac poet, Mimnermus. Most of the extant verses show him writing in the role of a political activist determined to assert personal authority and leadership and they have been described by the German classicist Wilamowitz as a "versified harangue" (Eine Volksrede in Versen). According to Plutarch however, Solon originally wrote poetry for amusement, discussing pleasure in a popular rather than philosophical way. Solon's elegiac style is said to have been influenced by the example of Tyrtaeus. He also wrote iambic and trochaic verses which, according to one modern scholar, are more lively and direct than his elegies and possibly paved the way for the iambics of Athenian drama.

Solon's verses are mainly significant for historical rather than aesthetic reasons, as a personal record of his reforms and attitudes. However, poetry is not an ideal genre for communicating facts and very little detailed information can be derived from the surviving fragments. According to Solon the poet, Solon the reformer was a voice for political moderation in Athens at a time when his fellow citizens were increasingly polarized by social and economic differences:

πολλοὶ γὰρ πλουτεῦσι κακοί, ἀγαθοὶ δὲ πένονται:
ἀλλ' ἡμεῖς αὐτοῖς οὐ διαμειψόμεθα
τῆς ἀρετῆς τὸν πλοῦτον: ἐπεὶ τὸ μὲν ἔμπεδον αἰεί,
χρήματα δ' ἀνθρώπων ἄλλοτε ἄλλος ἔχει.
Some wicked men are rich, some good are poor;
We will not change our virtue for their store:
Virtue's a thing that none can take away,
But money changes owners all the day.

Here translated by the English poet John Dryden, Solon's words define a 'moral high ground' where differences between rich and poor can be reconciled or maybe just ignored. His poetry indicates that he attempted to use his extraordinary legislative powers to establish a peaceful settlement between the country's rival factions:

ἔστην δ' ἀμφιβαλὼν κρατερὸν σάκος ἀμφοτέροισι:
νικᾶν δ' οὐκ εἴασ' οὐδετέρους ἀδίκως.
Before them both I held my shield of might
And let not either touch the other's right.

His attempts evidently were misunderstood:

χαῦνα μὲν τότ' ἐφράσαντο, νῦν δέ μοι χολούμενοι
λοξὸν ὀφθαλμοῖς ὁρῶσι πάντες ὥστε δήϊον.
Formerly they boasted of me vainly; with averted eyes
Now they look askance upon me; friends no more but enemies.

Solon gave voice to Athenian 'nationalism', particularly in the city state's struggle with Megara, its neighbour and rival in the Saronic Gulf. Plutarch professes admiration of Solon's elegy urging Athenians to recapture the island of Salamis from Megarian control. The same poem was said by Diogenes Laertios to have stirred Athenians more than any other verses that Solon wrote:

Let us go to Salamis to fight for the island
We desire, and drive away our bitter shame!

It is possible that Solon backed up this poetic bravado with true valour on the battlefield.

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