Peter Jones

Ancient and Modern - 28 July 2012

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Dr Armand D’Angour (Jesus College, Oxford) has composed a brilliant Ode in ancient Greek to welcome the Olympic Games to London. It is called a ‘Pindaric’ Ode, but as Dr D’Angour knows very well, the ancient Greek poet Pindar (518–438 bc) wrote very differently. 

Pindar was commissioned to compose Odes that celebrated winning: not the winning athletes but those wealthy patrons who had sponsored them. The Odes were sung after the event, by a choir to musical accompaniment. They celebrated the patron’s family, wealth and other wins; unfolded moral or proverbial reflections on the meaning of victory; and introduced a myth of some relevance to the occasion, often with a moral point. They emphasised requirements for victory (inborn ability, effort and endurance, expenditure and divine favour) and consequences (the envy of men and gods, but fame through poetry). Startling mixed metaphors abound (‘the downy surface of poetic skill, yoked to fame-bearing streams of words’).

So a multi-purpose Pindaric Ode in favour of whichever corporate sponsors you prefer might begin something like: ‘Chocolate is very good, fizzy pop swells the wind of song, but sing, my soul, of burgers, which pluck the finest fruits of every excellence, especially when sprinkled with a soft dew of fries….’ 

A myth would then describe how some hero of the past did not crouch in darkness, aimlessly nursing an undistinguished old age but, watering a healthy prosperity, shot joy into men’s hearts, and so too Usain Bolt, launching the bronze javelin of his swift knees, dropped his anchor at the furthest limits of happiness, loading onto the losers bitter returns home, jeering tongues and skulking journeys. It would end: ‘Without skill, toil and the gods’ help, none can climb the steep path to glory, but burgers’ bright radiance is the surest light there is for men.’

In poetry, as in everything else, the modern Olympics bear no relation to the originals. But one can rather see why Dr D’Angour took the path he did. Jeering at losers is not quite the modern Olympic spirit.