Hellenistic Poetry

 Hellenistic Poetry



Later Greek poetry flourished primarily in the 3rd century BC. The chief poets were Theocritus, Callimachus, and Apollonius of Rhodes.

Theocritus, who lived from about 310 to 250 BC, was the creator of pastoral poetry, a type that the Roman Virgil mastered in his ‘Eclogues’. Of his rural-farm poetry, ‘Harvest Home’ is considered the best work. He also wrote mimes–poetic plays set in the country–as well as minor epics and lyric poetry.

Callimachus, who lived at the same time as Theocritus, worked his entire adult life at Alexandria, where he was cataloger of the library. Only fragments of his poetry survive. The most famous work was ‘Aetia’ (Causes). It is a kind of poem called an elegy and in four books explains the legendary origin of obscure customs, festivals, and names. Its structure became a model for the work of the Roman poet Ovid. Of his elegies for special occasions, the best known is the ‘Lock of Berenice’, a piece of court poetry that was later adapted by the Roman Catullus. Callimachus also wrote short poems for special occasions and at least one short epic, the ‘Ibis’, which was directed against his former pupil Apollonius.

Apollonius of Rhodes was born about 295 BC. He is best remembered for his epic the ‘Argonautica’, about Jason and his shipmates in search of the golden fleece. Apollonius studied under Callimachus, with whom he later quarreled. He also served as librarian at Alexandria for about 13 years. Apart from the ‘Argonautica’, he wrote poems on the foundation of cities as well as a number of epigrams. The Roman poet Virgil was strongly influenced by the ‘Argonautica’ in writing his ‘Aeneid’ (see Virgil).

Lesser 3rd-century poets include Aratus of Soli and Herodas. Aratus wrote the ‘Phaenomena’, a poetic version of a treatise on the stars by Eudoxus of Cnidos, who had lived in the 4th century. Herodas wrote mimes reminiscent of those of Theocritus. His works give a hint of the popular entertainment of the times. Mime and pantomime were a major form of entertainment during the early Roman Empire.

 Hellenistic Prose

 History. The significant historians in the period after Alexander were Timaeus, Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Appian of Alexandria, Arrian, and Plutarch. The period of time they cover extended from late in the 4th century BC to the 2nd century AD.

Timaeus was born in Sicily but spent most of his life in Athens. His ‘History’, though lost, is significant because of its influence on Polybius. In 38 books it covered the history of Sicily and Italy to the year 264 BC, which is where Polybius began his work. Timaeus also wrote the ‘Olympionikai’, a valuable chronological study of the Olympic Games.

Polybius was born about 200 BC. He was brought to Rome as a hostage in 168. At Rome he became a friend of the general Scipio Aemilianus. He probably accompanied the general to Spain and North Africa in the wars against Carthage. He was with Scipio at the destruction of Carthage in 146. The history on which his reputation rests consisted of 40 books, five of which have been preserved along with various excerpts. They are a vivid recreation of Rome’s rise to world power. A lost book, ‘Tactics’, was on military matters.

Diodorus Siculus lived in the 1st century BC, the time of Julius Caesar and Augustus. He wrote a universal history, ‘Bibliotheca historica’, in 40 books. Of these, the first five and the 11th through the 20th remain. The first two parts covered history through the early Hellenistic era. The third part takes the story to the beginning of Caesar’s wars in Gaul, now France.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus lived late in the 1st century BC. His history of Rome from its origins to the First Punic War (264 to 241 BC) is written from a Roman point of view, but it is carefully researched. He also wrote a number of other treatises, including ‘On Imitation’, ‘Commentaries on the Ancient Orators’, and ‘On the Arrangement of Words’.

Appian and Arrian both lived in the 2nd century AD. Appian wrote on Rome and its conquests, while Arrian is remembered for his work on the campaigns of Alexander the Great. Arrian served in the Roman army. His book therefore concentrates heavily on the military aspects of Alexander’s life. Arrian also wrote a philosophical treatise, the ‘Diatribai’, based on the teachings of his mentor Epictetus

Best known of the late Greek historians to modern readers is Plutarch, who died about AD 119. His ‘Parallel Lives’ of great Greek and Roman leaders has been read by every generation since the work was first published. His other surviving work is the ‘Moralia’, a collection of essays on ethical, religious, political, physical, and literary topics.

Byzantine literature

 Constantine the Great moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium (now Istanbul) in about AD 330 and renamed the city Constantinople. The Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire lasted until it was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 . The civilization of this empire was Greek in language and heritage, but it was Christian in religion.

In religion the crowning literary achievement was considered to be the New Testament portion of the Christian Bible. This, coupled with a reverence for the great literary traditions of the past, combined to make Byzantine literature very conservative. The written language had to preserve the forms of speech of the New Testament and the Church Fathers. Being heirs to such a great literary tradition excluded any interest in outside ideas.

This undue emphasis on form smothered any likelihood of originality and invention. The literary creations of the period have, therefore, bequeathed few memorable works to the present.

Much of the writing was necessarily religious: sermons, hymns, theological works, and descriptions of the lives of the martyrs and saints. Of the few authors who are still read may be mentioned Eusebius (died 340), who wrote the first church history; St. Basil the Great (died 379), who organized Eastern monasticism; his brother Gregory of Nyssa (died 394), who wrote many works in which he combined Platonic philosophy with Christian teaching; and Gregory of Nazianzus (died 389), who is noted for his poems, sermons, letters, and writings on theological controversies.

The writings of the historians, geographers, philosophers, scientists, and rhetoricians are read today largely as curiosities or as sources of historical information. A work such as ‘Byzantine History’, a 37-volume study by Nicephorus Gregoras (died 1360), for example, constitutes a valuable primary source for the 14th century.

In philosophy only Proclus (died 485) deserves mention. He was the last major Greek philosopher and was influential in spreading the ideas of Neoplatonism throughout the Mediterranean world.

The only literature that showed any real originality was that written in the vernacular, the language of the common people. This literature–including poems, romances, and epics–was only written from the 12th century onward. Of the epics, the most memorable is the story of Digenis Akritas, based on a historical figure who died in about 788. It presents Akritas as the ideal medieval Greek hero.

After the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, Greek national life and culture ended for centuries, as did literary production. It was only revived when Greece became independent in 1829

Modern Greek poetry

In 1991, two books of poetry, by two major Greek poets, made their appearance on the Greek poetic scene: the posthumous work of Yiannis Ritsos, who died in 1990 at the age of 81, entitled Late, Very¨Late into the Night and a collection of 14 poems under the title: The Elegies of Oxopetra1 by Odysseus Elytis (he died 3 years later). Elytis complained in one of his very rare interviews that his book was received as a kind of farewell: “You would think that they were already in mourning” he said; “They isolate one line (‘the truth is given only in exchange for death’) and they conclude that with these poems I try to come to terms with my death, as if I hadn’ t been dealing with death in all my poetry!”.

Kostis Palamas, another beacon of Greek poetry, with tremendous literary influence―he even managed to keep Cavafy off the shores of the Athenian literati for quite a long time―tried in his laborious, long poems to establish the psychological elation of the modern Greek man supported by his past history (ancient, Byzantine, folk) and the present. Angelos Sikelianos (died 1951) expressed in his visionary poetry this feeling of “oneness”, linking the Greek of today to all the premordial elements which had nourished, on his land, gods and men alike, a land “where memory has no end and no beginning”. In a sort of pantheistic exaltation, where the god Dionysos and Christ take part in the same ritual, Sikelianos celebrates life and life giving death.

George Seferis, the inconsolable witness of the Asia Minor disaster of 1922, strived to find “another life” in a country resembling “a large plane-leaf / swept along the torrent of the sun / with the ancient monuments and the contemporary sorrow” (“The King of Assini”). He traced the itinerary of the Greek man, who, like a new Argonaut, sets out not to find the golden fleece but his Greek identity, a reconciliation between the ancient statues and contemporary sorrow. Even the Alexandrian Cavafy, distanced both geographically and psychologically from mainland Greece, created a totally original world where modern psychological attitudes are dressed in the frock and charm of the forgotten protagonists of a very obscure moment in history.

In April 2012 Despina Kontaxis was invited to attend the first International Congress of Literature “Muse of poetry Pegasi”  But who is Despina Kontaxis? She is a physiotherapist and a poetess. She has has published 3 poetry books having as titles:” You I think of while I wait”, “The solitude of the bedwalker” and “The purple kiss”. She has also translated “Oresteia” by Aeshylus in english for an off Broadway production that toured America in 2010-2011. Between the numerous awards of  Despina Kontaxis are the following important :

  • Headmaster’s Award, Johannesburg, South Africa

  • Award-Metal of benefactor of the Nomarchy of Kavala, Greece

  • Award of the Municipality of Eleftheroupolis Kavala, Greece.

  • Award of the Panhellenic Physiotherapy Association.

  • Metal by the United Poets Laureate International.

  • International Book Award  «Alexander Papadiamantis» for the poetic collection «The solitude of the bedwalker».

  • International Book Award «Midnight» for the bilingual poetic collection«The purple kiss».

  • Metal with the name «Ares» at the 1st Mediterranean Poetry Festival.

  • Award for her poetic tribute by the International Society of Greek Writers and Artists.

  • Her poem “Sentimental Parade” in “A Royal Romance” anthology inspired by the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton.

  • The only greek poetess that reached the top 10 by the UN for her poem “Hibakusha”

  • Trophy and metal  “Mahatma Fule” Nagpur, India from “Mahatma Fule Talent Research Academy” for a remarkable work in the field of Poetry and for keeping the name of Greece high.

2. * South Africa

By Despina Kontaxis

South Africa has 11 national languages, Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Pedi, Tswana, Venda, SiSwati, Tsonga, and Ndebele. Any definitive literary history of South Africa should, it could be argued, discuss literature produced in all eleven languages.

Some of the early names include Leipoldt and Langenhoven, who wrote the national anthem (Die Stem). Early poetry often deal with theAnglo-Boer War, and it is only in the 1930s that poetry reaches a significant literary standard. N. P. van Wyk Louw is the vanguard of the new movement, called Dertigers, along with his brother WEG Louw, and Elizabeth Eybers, although they were all to write in future literary periods. Olivier notes Van Wyk Louw’s predominance: “It was only in the Thirties that a fully developed theory about Afrikaans as a national literature was launched by the erudite poet, N P van Wyk Louw, in his two collections of essays Lojale verset (1939) and Berigte te velde (1939)”. Van Wyk Louw introduced international literary theories and movements into the South African literary scene on a much larger scale than any of his predecessors, and his “theory provided the intellectual and philosophical space within which poets and novelists could exercise their craft without fear of transgression; in short, it became the paradigm for Afrikaans literature” (Olivier)

Tony Ullyatt’s The Lonely Art: An Anthology includes South African English poetry. English poetry in South Africa is often considered ‘good’ by whether or not it criticises Apartheid, or whether or not it depicts life ‘as it is’, rather than the Afrikaans emphasis on literary merit

Although there are nine official African languages in South Africa, most speakers are fluent in Afrikaans and English. Coupled with the small market for writing in African languages, this has led many African writers to write in English and Afrikaans. The first texts produced by black authors were often inspired by missionaries and frequently deal with African history, in particular the history of kings like Chaka. Modern South African writing in the African languages tends to play at writing realistically, at providing a mirror to society, and depicts the conflicts between rural and urban settings, between traditional and modern norms, racial conflicts and most recently, the problem of AIDS.

In the first half of the 20th century, epics largely dominated black male writing: historical novels, such as Sol T. Plaatje’s Mhudi: An Epic of South African Native Life a Hundred Years Ago (1930), Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka (trans. 1925), and epic plays like those of H. I. E. Dhlomo, or heroic epic poetry such as the work of Mazizi Kunene. These texts “evince black African patriarchy in its traditional form, with men in authority, often as warriors or kings, and women as background figures of dependency, and/or mothers of the nation” (Cullhed, 2006: 21). Female literature in the African languages is severely limited because of the strong influence of patriarchy, but over the last decade or two society has changed much and it can be expected that more female voices will emerge.


Some of the most prominent Zulu authors are BW Vilakazi, Mazisi Kunene, RRR Dhlomo, HIE Dhlomo, JL Dube, Njabulo S Ndebele, Nimrod Ndebele, EA Made, and DBZ Ntuli.


Some of the most prominent Xhosa authors are AC Jordan, Samuel EK Mqhayi, JJR Jolobe, ZS Qangule, KS Bongela, Godfrey Mzamane,Rubusana, and Guybon Sinxo. A female writer of note is Sindiwe Magona. Her 1998 novel, Mother to Mother, deals with violence at the end of Apartheid through the killing of American student Amy Biehl. Magona writes both in English and Xhosa.


Some of the most prominent Sesotho authors are MKPD Maphala, BM Khaketla, and Thomas Mofolo.


Some of the most prominent Pedi authors are OK Matsepe, HDN Bopape, HP Maredi, SR Machaka, and Ramaila.


Some of the most prominent Tswana authors are Sol DT Plaatje, DB Moloto, DPS Monyaise, SA Moroke, Gilbert Modise, MJ Ntsime, LD Raditladi (who had a crater on Mercury named after him), MD Mothoagae, JHK Molao.

The most famous piece of literature in South Africa is without any doubt “The Long Walk to Freedom” by none other than Nelson Mandela himself. 

South Africa has a very much alive and rich story telling tradition that has stood the test of time. 

Its modern story tellers, men and women of all races, have produced and continue to produce an extraordinary rich and varied literary output in all 11 official languages, using the written word as their form of expression. Looking at the diverse cultures and languages diversity in South Africa, each with its own literature background, one can not really speak of one South African literature. The culture that maybe could claim some form of national literature is the Afrikaans one. 
South Africa’s English literature on the other hand, is often seen within the context and as a sort of extension of English literature in the world as a whole. Most of the major works in Afrikaans have found their way into English translation. 
Black literature in South Africa, as with anywhere on the continent, began with the oral tradition, augmented by song, which has always been a powerful tool of community fellowship and communication in Africa. Literary expression by the various black cultures has traditionally been hampered by widespread illiteracy, censorship and political inequalities. 
Apart from that they had very limited access to the print media. It was not until the 20th century that literature by black South Africans emerged. However, for the sake of a broader reach most black writers of consequence have tended to write in English. 
One of the first towering figures in South African literature was Olive Schreiner. She wrote the novel “The story of an African farm”, which is generally considered to be the founding text of South African literature. It tells the story of several characters representing aspects of South African society of its day. 
Olive Schreiner was born on a mission station and worked as a governess on isolated Karoo farms, an experience that formed the novel. She later supported the Boers in their war of freedom against Britain. 
The first novel by a black South African was Mhudi (completed in 1920 but only published in 1930), by Solomon (Sol) Thekiso Plaatje. This epic story follows the trajectory of the Tswana people during and after their military encounter with the Zulus under Shaka, the Zulu conqueror of the 19th century and encompasses their earliest encounters with the white people moving into the interior. 
Viewed as the founding father of black literature in South Africa, Plaatje was also the first secretary general of the then South African Native National Congress (now the African National Congress) at its foundation in 1912. 

Then there was Nadine Gordimer published her first short stories in the early 1950s. She was the first South African to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Between those two dates, her many novels and short stories articulated key issues for white South Africans sympathetic to the plight of disenfranchised blacks. 
Next to that her work showed the outside world a devastating picture of what it was like to live under apartheid. Another important South African Novelist was J.M. Coetzee, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. 
A loose grouping of Afrikaans writers of the 1960s, calling itself “Die Sestigers” (The Sixtiers), was formed out of a core of influential novelists, commentators and poets, including well-known writers such as Jan Rabie, Etienne Leroux, Breyten Breytenbach and Andre Brink. 
Publishing first in Afrikaans and later also in English, these writers were increasingly politicised by the situation in South Africa and their contrasting experiences overseas. Breytenbach, left South Africa in 1960. When he returned to South Africa in 1970, he was arrested and jailed for work he was doing for the liberation movement. 
After Apartheid there certainly has been no sudden post-apartheid renaissance. The primary topics of most of the writers such as apartheid and racial issues did not suddenly change. Well, apartheid may have died, but its effects linger on and the issues of power that haunted the apartheid era are still in many ways with us. 
Many writers dealing with South Africa today are still focussing on the legacy of its past in their writings, looking for answers to challenging questions such as what it is like to be a South African, what it is like to live in a new South Africa.

Last but not least is another great South African writer  J.R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien  was an English writer, poet, philologist, and university professor, best known as the author of the classic high fantasy works The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

After his death, Tolkien’s son Christopher published a series of works based on his father’s extensive notes and unpublished manuscripts, including The Silmarillion. These, together with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings form a connected body of tales, poems, fictional histories, invented languages, and literary essays about a fantasy world called Arda, andMiddle-earth within it. Between 1951 and 1955, Tolkien applied the term legendarium to the larger part of these writings.

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