There may have been a time when, besides the epic and the two species of poetry Hesiod represented, the Greeks had only folk songs with refrains. Following this mythopoeic, religious, seasonal, and festival art, the lyric arose as a spontaneous creation, not like the poetry of Occidental nations that at the very least had Latin church hymns as models. The elegy may well have appeared as a great innovation, even as a kind of debasement.
Modern lyric poetry contrasts most sharply with the Greek, recognizing hardly any set limits or laws and seeking to escape discipline for pleasure. Greek lyric poetry on the other hand was, by its connection with singing and conviviality, with dancing and instrumental music, bound to detailed standards of composition and performance, being thereby protected against sublimation into nothingness.
Our discussion of Greek poetry does not claim to be a clearly arranged literary survey; we shall deal with poesy only as a free expression of life and as a cultural force in the nation. The individual states and social castes took part in many ways, now here, now there, now stressing this aspect, now that. Beginning with the epic bards, poetry fell into all sorts of hands but remained a high art nonetheless, its forms commanding the utmost respect.
It was a long time before the old poetry gave way to new forms, this event occurring only after all imaginable contents had been poured into the old forms. Greek poetry grew slowly and consistently, each order giving way when its season of fruition was over. No foreign literature, no religion with foreign imagery, interrupted this development; hence we shall proceed in accordance with the development of the various forms.
A large number of poets enjoyed renown from the outset, and though their works were topical and involved in contemporary affairs, their names endured. Complete collections of their works were made early, and it is a misfortune that apart from Pindar and the tragedians so little has survived. Later Greeks possessed these works intact and consciously treasured them as significant cultural developments.
Poetry accorded with the life of the individual as well as with that of the nation; it was not faced with a division into the educated and the uneducated, being accessible to every freeborn Greek. Its original source was the body of myths known to rich and poor alike, as were the rites of worship; yet it remained a sublime art.