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Poetry Guide: Anacreontics

Anacreontics (from the name of the Greek poet Anacreon), the title given to short lyrical pieces, of an easy kind, dealing with love and wine. The English word appears to have been first used in 1656 by Abraham Cowley, who called a section of his poems "anacreontiques" because they were paraphrased out of the so-called writings of Anacreon into a familiar measure which was supposed to represent the meter of the Greek.

Half a century later, when the form had been much cultivated, John Phillips (1631-1706) laid down the arbitrary rule that an anacreontic line "consists of seven syllables, without being tied to any certain law of quantity." In the 18th century, the antiquary William Oldys (1696-1761) was the author of a little piece which is the perfect type of an anacreontic; this begins:

"Busy, curious, thirsty fly,
Drink with me, and drink as I;
Freely welcome to my cup,
Could'st thou sip and sip it up.
Make the most of life you may;
Life is short and wears away."

In 1800 Thomas Moore published a collection of erotic anacreontics which are also typical in form; Moore speaks of the necessity of catching "the careless facility with which Anacreon appears to have trifled," as a reason why anacreontics are often tame and worthless. He dwells, moreover, on the absurdity of writing "pious anacreontics," a feat, however, which was performed by several of the Greek Christian poets, and in particular by Gregory of Nazianzus and John of Damascus.