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Poetry Guide: Gnomic Poetry

Gnomic poetry consists of sententious maxims put into verse to aid the memory. They were known by the Greeks as gnomes, from the Greek word for "an opinion".

A gnome is defined by the Elizabethan critic Henry Peacham (1576?-1643?) as "a saying pertaining to the manners and common practices of men, which declareth, with an apt brevity, what in this our life ought to be done, or not done". The Gnomic Poets of Greece, who flourished in the 6th century BCE, were those who arranged series of sententious maxims in verse. These were collected in the 4th century, by Lobon of Argos, an orator, but his collection has disappeared.

The chief gnomic poets were Theognis, Solon, Phocylides, Simonides of Amorgos, Demodocus, Xenophanes and Euenus. With the exception of Theognis, whose gnomes were fortunately preserved by some schoolmaster about 300 BCE, only fragments of the Gnomic Poets have come down to us. The moral poem attributed to Phocylides, long supposed to be a masterpiece of the school, is now known to have been written by a Jew in Alexandria. Of the gnomic movement typified by the moral works of the poets named above, Prof. Gilbert Murray has remarked that it receives its special expression in the conception of the Seven Wise Men, to whom such proverbs as "Know thyself" and "Nothing in excess" were popularly attributed, and whose names differed in different lists.

These gnomes or maxims were extended and put into literary shape by the poets. Fragments of Solon, Euenus and Mimnermus have been preserved, in a very confused state, from having been written, for purposes of comparison, on the margins of the manuscripts of Theognis, whence they have often slipped into the text of that poet. Theognis enshrines his moral precepts in his elegies, and this was probably the custom of the rest; it is improbable that there ever existed a species of poetry made up entirely of successive gnomes. But the title gnomic came to be given to all poetry which dealt in a sententious way with questions of ethics. It was, unquestionably, the source from which moral philosophy was directly developed, and theorists upon life and infinity, such as Pythagoras and Xenophanes, seem to have begun their career as gnomic poets.

By the very nature of things, gnomes, in their literary sense, belong exclusively to the dawn of literature; their naiveté and their simplicity in moralizing betray it. But it has been observed that many of the ethical reflections of the great dramatists, and in particular of Sophocles and Euripides, are gnomic distiches expanded. It would be an error to suppose that the ancient Greek gnomes are all of a solemn character; some are voluptuous and some chivalrous; those of Demodocus of Leros had the reputation of being droll.

In modern times, the gnomic spirit has occasionally been displayed by poets of a homely philosophy, such as Francis Quarles (1592-1644) in England and Gui de Pibrac (1529-1584) in France. The once-celebrated Quatrains of the latter, published in 1574, enjoyed an immense success throughout Europe; they were composed in deliberate imitation of the Greek gnomic writers of the 6th century BCE. These modern effusions are rarely literature and perhaps never poetry. With the gnomic writings of Pibrac it was long customary to bind up those of Antoine Faber (or Favre) (1557-1624) and of Pierre Mathieu (1563-1621). Gnomes are frequently to be found in the ancient literatures of Arabia, Persia and India, and in the Icelandic staves. The priamel, a brief, sententious kind of poem, which was in favor in Germany from the 12th to the 16th century, belonged to the true gnomic class, and was cultivated with particular success by Hans Rosenblut, the lyrical goldsmith of Nuremberg, in the 15th century.

This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, a publication in the public domain.