His later imitators used his style of writing, in addition to his choice of meter—these writers created work known as the Anacreontea. Today, anacreontics are short lyrical poems that use the subject matter Anacreon was known for but do not utilize the same meter. This makes it far more likely that readers have come across an anacreontic poem.
Definition of Anacreontics
Anacreontics are a type of poetry that is inspired by the work of the Greek poet Anacreon. His poetry was concerned with wine, love, and other related subjects, and today it’s still possible to write, or to find, short lyrical poems written in his styles. These anacreontics likely don’t conform to the metrical pattern Anacreon was known for, but some of them do.
Anacreontics Metrical Pattern
In Anacreontic verse, if a writer wants to conform their lines to the same exact pattern that Anacreon used, they’re going to have to use eight-syllable lines and breve and longum. These two terms are used to describe two different types of syllables. The breve and long are determined in accordance with syllabic weight. A longum is a heavy syllable and a breve or brevis is a light syllable. A longum contained a long vowel or a diphthong in most instances. In others, it contained a short vowel that was followed by more than one consonant. The breve is any word that doesn’t follow those rules. The pattern of syllables used by Anacreon (with u symbolizing breve and – symbolizing longum) looked like: u u – u – u – –
Anacreon lived from 582-485 BC. He’s one of the most important Greek poets of the period and is listed among the nine famous Greek lyric poets. It’s important to remember that all of Anacreon’s verse, and that of his contemporaries, was composed to be sung out loud. Rather than composing for a chorus, Anacreon chose to write in the form of monody, or for a single performer. Unfortunately, despite the translations below, it’s hard to fully grasp Anacreon’s verse and the sound his meter creates without reading the original Greek.
Often, readers will find the term bacchanalian associated with Anacreon’s writing. It’s used to describe verse that was based around the celebration of the god Bacchus, known for his love of wine. The rest of his verse is composed around themes of love and sex.
Much of Anacreon’s verse is lost today, and far more of his imitators’ survive.
Examples of Anacreontics
Consider these lines from one of the better-known examples of Anacreaon’s poetry. The original Greek looked like:
ἄγε δηὖτε μηκέτ’ οὕτω
πατάγωι τε κἀλαλητῶι
Σκυθικὴν πόσιν παρ’ οἴνωι
μελετῶμεν, ἀλλὰ καλοῖς
ὑποπίνοντες ἐν ὕμνοις.
The translation to English reads:
Come (pour) again, but this time
let’s not drink our wine Scythian-style
with crashing and shouting,
but drinking gently with
These lines are a great example of the metrical pattern that Anacreon was known for. The lines conform to the correct syllabic arrangement, except for the final line, and touch on the normal subject. In this case, he emphasizes drinking and singing.
Here is an excerpt from another poem, one that focuses on a woman’s affections. It reads:
Ah tell me why you turn and fly,
My little Thracian filly shy?
Why turn askance
That cruel glance,
And think that such a dunce am I?
O I am blest with ample wit
To fix the bridle and the bit,
And make thee bend
In harness all the course of it.
These lines were translated from the original Greek by Walter Headlam.
From Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus
Below are a few lines taken from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. He used the Anacreontic verse in this 5th/6th century play.
beat my brain
hot i’m hot
where’s the fire?
not fire forged
but sticks: […]
While these lines don’t conform to the expected subject matter, they do use some of the meter that Anacreon was known for.
Follow, Follow by Thomas Campion
Thomas Campion is one poet, among others, who has chosen to engage with the Anacreontic form in his writing. Consider the following lines in which he discusses Love, personifying it along with Time.
Though with mischief
Arm’d, like whirlwind
Now she flies thee;
Time can conquer
Love can alter
Read more Thomas Campion poems.
Greek lyric poetry was at its height between the 7th to 5th centuries BC. It continued to be written into the Imperial period. These poems used long and short syllables and followed the Ionic or Aeolic metrical patterns. Doric chorals songs were also popular.
A lyric poem can be written in many different eras, styles, and sub-genres. They are song-like and explore the writer’s or a character’s emotions. They are sometimes on personal subjects, like lost love, and other times explore the natural world.
The Anacreontic verse was created by the Greek lyric poet Anacreon. His style of writing, including the subject matter he engaged with and the meter he used, were incredibly influential. Today, it’s possible to study his work and the work of his imitators much of which was originally mistaken for his own.
The famous nine Greek lyric poets were Alcman of Sparta, Sappho of Lesbos, Alcaeus of Mytilene, Anacreon of Teos, Stesichorus of Metauros, Ibycus of Rhegium, Simonides of Ceos, Bacchylides of Ceos, and Pindar of Thebes.
Some poets are still interested in the meter Anacreon popularized. But, writing anacreontic poems is not something that many poets actively study. Far more common are poems that engaged with the same subject matter, like drinking and love, that Anacreon enjoyed writing about.
Related Literary Terms
- Alazon: one of the three traditional characters in Greek comedy. They have an inflated sense of worth and often boast.
- Alexandrianism: the work and beliefs of Greek poets during the Hellenistic age, lasting from 323 to 31 BCE.
- Alba: a specific type of poetry. It’s a genre of lyric poetry from the Old Occitan period, also known as the Old Provençal.
- Alcaic Stanza: a type of lyrical meter thought to have been invented by Alcaeus, a writer from Mitylene.
- Epitaph: a short lyric written in memory of someone who has died. Sometimes, epitaphs serve as elegies.
- Ode: a formal lyric poem that is written in celebration or dedication. They are generally directed with specific intent.
- Watch: Greek Lyric Poetry: Works of Sappho, Pindar, and Aeschylus
Listen: Ancient Greek Poetry
- Watch: Sappho of Lesbos—The Female Poet of Ancient Greece