Originally published in 2004, Michael Schmidt’s masterful The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets has been given a new – and handsome – lease of life thanks to Head of Zeus. Deemed ‘exhilarating’ and ‘deeply engaging’ by the Washington Post, and ‘an important new study’ by The Observer, its republication will certainly delight history buffs in the English-speaking world.
Revered poetry professor Schmidt has focused upon our ‘cultural ancestors’; those individuals who provided the foundations for our poetic heritage, the legacy which they have left behind, and the lasting quality of their work. As Schmidt explains, ‘Things that inadvertently shape us draw upon structures, forms, legends, and myths that have their origin in ancient Mediterranean cultures’. Mythology and factual history have been merged most interestingly throughout, and Schmidt writes of figures we have heard of – Orpheus and Homer, for instance – as well as those who are rather more obscure, or who have been forgotten – Linos and Amphion, for example.
Schmidt’s account is thorough, which will surprise nobody who has read any of his other work. The majority is comprised of sections which focus solely on twenty-three poets (indeed, the chapter about Sappho is particularly enlightening), as well as essay-length inclusions which deal with the likes of The Iliad and The Odyssey. The depth of literary criticism from peers of the poets here is surprising, and many of the profiles which have been included are both entertaining and memorable. Several of the poets whom Schmidt has focused upon throughout his study have no lasting work, and very little of that by even the more famous poets is complete: ‘some writers are at best a scatter of phrases, preserved by grammarians’. Despite this, he has wonderfully managed to fashion a six-hundred page tome from this subject matter, and every single page contains something of interest for the modern reader.
The entirety of The First Poets has been beautifully put together. Schmidt’s writing is intelligent and lucid, but despite his credentials, it does not come across as a purely academic book; its very thoroughness, in fact, makes it accessible to everyone, whether experience with the works of the poets is held or not. In fact, reading the work of any specific Ancient Greek poets mentioned here is not a prerequisite; verses and fragments have been included and analysed at intervals. The First Poets is not firmly rooted in the ancient past; several more modern literary works have been referenced, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The First Poets is a wonderfully informative book, filled with an incredible amount of research.