What is Dithyrambic Poetry: Its History?
by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition
DITHYRAMBIC POETRY, the description of poetry in which the character of the dithyramb is preserved. It remains quite uncertain what the derivation or even the primitive meaning of the Greek word διθ?ραμβος is, although many conjectures have been attempted. It was, however, connected from earliest times with the choral worship of Dionysus. A dithyramb is defined by Grote as a round choric dance and song in honour of the wine-god. The earliest dithyrambic poetry was probably improvised by priests of Bacchus at solemn feasts, and expressed, in disordered numbers, the excitement and frenzy felt by the worshippers. This element of unrestrained and intoxicated vehemence is prominent in all poetry of this class. The dithyramb was traditionally first practised in Naxos; it spread to other islands, to Boeotia and finally to Athens. Arion is said to have introduced it at Corinth, and to have allied it to the worship of Pan. It was thus “merged,” as Professor G. G. Murray says, “into the Satyr-choir of wild mountain-goats” out of which sprang the earliest form of tragedy. But when tragic drama had so far developed as to be quite independent, the dithyramb did not, on 324that account, disappear. It flourished in Athens until after the age of Aristotle. So far as we can distinguish the form of the ancient Greek dithyramb, it must have been a kind of irregular wild poetry, not divided into strophes or constructed with any evolution of the theme, but imitative of the enthusiasm created by the use of wine, by what passed as the Dionysiac delirium. It was accompanied on some occasions by flutes, on others by the lyre, but we do not know enough to conjecture the reasons of the choice of instrument. Pindar, in whose hands the ode took such magnificent completeness, is said to have been trained in the elements of dithyrambic poetry by a certain Lasus of Hermione. Ion, having carried off the prize in a dithyrambic contest, distributed to every Athenian citizen a cup of Chian wine. In the opinion of antiquity, pure dithyrambic poetry reached its climax in a lost poem. The Cyclops, by Philoxenus of Cythera, a poet of the 4th century b.c. After this time, the composition of dithyrambs, although not abandoned, rapidly declined in merit. It was essentially a Greek form, and was little cultivated, and always without success, by the Latins. The dithyramb had a spectacular character, combining verse with music. In modern literature, although the adjective “dithyrambic” is often used to describe an enthusiastic movement in lyric language, and particularly in the ode, pure dithyrambs have been extremely rare. There are, however, some very notable examples. The Baccho in Toscana of Francesco Redi (1626-1698), which was translated from the Italian, with admirable skill, by Leigh Hunt, is a piece of genuine dithyrambic poetry. Alexander’s Feast (1698), by Dryden, is the best example in English. But perhaps more remarkable, and more genuinely dithyrambic than either, are the astonishing improvisations of Karl Mikael Bellman (1740-1795), whose Bacchic songs were collected in 1791 and form one of the most remarkable bodies of lyrical poetry in the literature of Sweden.