Probably no poet of importance equal to that of Pindar finds so few readers. The causes are not far to seek: the frequent obscurity of his thought, resulting mainly from his exceeding allusiveness and his abrupt transitions, and in the second place that amount of monotony which must of necessity attach to a series of poems provided for a succession of similar occasions.

To his poetry belong the qualities of force, of vividness, often of impressive weight, of a lofty style, seeming to be the expression of a like personality, of a profoundly Hellenic spirit modified by an unmistakable individuality, above all of a certain sweep and swiftness.

Thus, as an example:

“Creatures of a day! What is anyone?
What is anyone not? A dream of a shadow
Is our mortal being. But when there comes to men
A gleam of splendour given of heaven,
Then rests on them a light of glory
And blessed are their days.” (Pythian 8)

We know very little of Pindar's life. He was born about the year B.C. 522, near Thebes. But he travelled among other states, many of which have been glorified by his art. Thus, his praise of Athens, “bulwark of Hellas,” and the city that “laid the foundation of freedom.”

It is believed that he died at the age of 79, that is, probably, in the year 443, twelve years before the Peloponnesian war began. Myths gathered round his name. It was said that once when in childhood he had fallen asleep by the way “a bee had settled on his lips and gathered honey,” and that Pan himself learnt a poem of his and rejoiced to sing it on the mountains; that finally, while he awaited an answer from the oracle of Ammon, whence he had enquired what was best for man, Persephone appeared to him in his sleep and said that she only of the gods had had no hymn from him, but that he should make her one shortly when he had come to her; and that he died within ten days of the vision.

At Delphi they kept with reverence his iron chair, and the priest of Apollo cried nightly as he closed the temple, 'Let Pindar the poet go in unto the supper of the god.'

Thus, Pindar was contemporary with an age of Greek history which justifies the assertion of his consummate interest for those interested in Hellenic life in its prime.

Pindar was a Boeotian, of a country not rich in literary or indeed any kind of intellectual eminence, yet by no means to be ignored in an estimate of the Hellenic race. The people of Boeotia seem to have had generally an easy, rather sensually inclined nature, which accorded with their rich country and absence of nautical and commercial enterprise; but in their best men this disposition remains only in the form of a genial simplicity.

One fact indeed there is, which must make the thought of Pindar's Theban citizenship painful, and that is the shameful part taken by Thebes in the Persian war, when compulsion of her exposed situation, drew her into unholy alliance with the barbarian invader.

By the time of the Persian war the best energies of the race had concentrated themselves between the Aegean and Ionian seas; and the supreme danger of the war had bound the states together against the common enemy and taught them to forget smaller differences in the great strife between Hellene and barbarian. Yet again when that supreme danger was past the old quarrels arose anew more deadly and more complicated: instead of a Persian there was a Peloponnesian war, and the Peloponnesian war in its latter stages came, to partake much of the character of a civil war.

But the time of Pindar, of Aeschylus, of Sophocles, was that happy interval when Hellas had beaten off the barbarian from her throat and had not yet murdered herself. And Pindar's imagination and generosity were both kindled by the moment; there was no room in his mind for border squabbles, for commercial jealousies, for oligarchic or democratic envy: these things were overridden by a sentiment of nationality; yet a sentiment which no other nation before can have possessed in the peculiar lustre, which it then wore in Hellas; for no other nation had ever before known what, it was to stand alone immeasurably advanced at the head of the civilization of the world.

Pindar was of a noble family. He himself seems to have taken no part in politics. When he speaks on the subject in his odes it is not with the voice of a partisan. An ochlocracy is hateful to him, but if he shows himself an 'aristocrat' it is in the literal meaning of the word.

Doubtless if Pindar had been asked where the best servants of the state in public life were most likely to be found he would have answered that it would be among those ancient families in whose veins ran the blood of gods and demigods, who had spent blood and money for the city's honour, championing her in war or in the mimic strife of the games, who had honourable traditions to be guided by and an honourable name to lose or save. These things were seldom undervalued by Hellenic feeling: even in Athens, after it was already the headquarters of the democratic principle, the noble and wealthy families obtained, not probably without wisdom of their own in loyally accepting a democratic position, as fair a place and prospects as anywhere in Hellas.

But that, when the noble nature, which traditions of nobility ought to have secured, was lacking, then wealth and birth were still entitled to power, this was a doctrine repugnant to Pindar's mind: nor would he approve when he saw the rich and highborn, however gifted, forgetting at any time that their power was a trust for the community and using it for their own selfish profit.

But he “loved that beauty should go beautifully;” personal excellence of some kind was in his eyes essential. His imagination rejoiced in splendour: stately palaces, halls where the columns were of marble, splendour of temples of gods that brought the very deities to dwell with man, splendour of the white-pillared cities that glittered across the Aegean and Sicilian seas, splendour of the holy Panhellenic games, of whirlwind chariots, the fiery grace of thoroughbreds, and of the limbs of athletes.

And it is more with him than a mere manner in poetical style. He sees evil only in the shape of some moral baseness, falsehood, envy, arrogance, and the like, or else in the shape of a dark mystery of pain, to be endured by those on whom it causelessly falls in a proud though undefiant silence.

It was not for him, as for the great tragedians, to “purge the mind by pity and fear,” for those passions had scarcely a place in his own mind. And as in this point somewhat, so still more in others, does Pindar remind us, as a contemporary, of Aeschylus. The latter by virtue of his Athenian nurture as well as of his own greater natural gifts reveals to us a greater number of thoughts, and those more advanced and more interesting than we find in Pindar, but the similarity in moral temper and tone is very striking, as also is the way in which we see this temper acting on their beliefs.

Both hold strongly, as is the wont of powerful minds in an age of stability as opposed to an age of transition, to the traditions and beliefs on which the society around them rests, but both modify these traditions and beliefs according to the light which arises in them, and which is as much moral as intellectual light. In so doing they are indeed in harmony with the best instincts of the society around them, but they lead and guide such instincts and give them shape and definiteness.

In the Oresteän trilogy of Aeschylus we have an assertion of the supreme claims of human morality to human allegiance, of the eternal truth that humanity can know no object of reverence and worship except itself idealized, its own virtues victorious over its own vices. And in Pindar we see the same tendencies.

Like Aeschylus he does by implication subordinate to morality both politics and religion. He ignores or flatly denies tales that bring discredit on the gods; he will only bow down to them when they have the virtues he respects in man.

By happy fortune they were both inspired at once by the rich and varied presences of mythology, and also by the highest aspirations of an age of moral and intellectual advance.

There would seem to be a shallow judgment in the contrast as popularly drawn between 'Hellenism' and 'Hebraism,' according to which the former is spoken of as exclusively proclaiming to the world the value of Beauty, the latter the value of Righteousness. And yet the greatest single impulse given to morality came from Palestine. It can be argued that the ground which nurtured the seeds of Christianity was as much Hellenic as Hebrew.
Finally, on a more general note, we are told by some, that in the study of the ancient Greeks, that the age we seek to realize is too remote to justify the attempt; that our civilisation is of too different a type from the Hellenic, and that a gulf of three-and-twenty centuries is too much for our sight to strain across.

But is not the reality in fact that Hellenic life is at least less remote now to the global world?

Though the separation in time widens, does not the separation in thought decrease?

Science accustoms us to look on men in large masses at once, and on the development of humanity as a process of infinite duration, and as a growth included in universal evolution.

Shall she not thereby quicken our sympathies with one of the most gifted races that appeared in our short human history, and arouse the same feeling toward it as a family may cherish toward the memory of a loved ancestor?

One symptom of the renewed influence of antiquity on the modern world is doubtless, a tendency to selfish theories of life, where sensibility degenerates through self-consciousness into affectation, and efforts to appreciate fully the delightfulness of life and art are overstrained into a wearisome literary voluptuousness, where duty has already disappeared and the human sympathies on which duty is based scarcely linger, soon to lapse into the vulgarity of egoism.

I believe that if one drinks deeply of that well and gazes long at the vision of what then was, one will, if his nature be capable of sympathy with the elements of that age; turn again to the confused modern world, saddened by the comparison; grieving, but with no querulous grief, for the certainty that those days are perhaps done.