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Hesiod's Works And Days Wisdom Notes

Classics Notes > Early Greek Hexameter Poetry Notes

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Is Wisdom Literature an appropriate description of Hesiod's Works and Days?
Wisdom literature is certainly an appropriate description for the Works and Days because it set the precedent of form and style for all didactic poetry that was to follow. The central claim of the poem is that it will make our day to day lives less intolerable by making the necessities of life more straightforward; Hesiod claims to have a knowledgeable insight into everything necessary to make this the case. The first two hundred lines are organized as a justification and dramatic frame for the traditional wisdom that follows in the last few hundred lines; the whole shape and tone of the poem makes the poet seem wise and there is a reassuring forcefulness with which he presents his advice. The clearest indication that this poem comes under the heading of wisdom literature is given at the very beginning; by addressing the work in terms of advice given to his brother Perses he starts a tradition which all didactic poets, such as Lucretius, follow. "O hearken as thou seest and hearest, and make judgement straight with righteousness, Lord; while I should like to tell Perses words of truth." He does begin with an invocation to the Muses but his appeal is directed more towards Zeus who is the highest and wisest power in the universe; this seems right since he will be laying down what he regards as infallible precepts by which Perses should live his life. It contrasts to the proem of the Theogony where the appeal is directed solely to the Muses of literature who admit themselves that they can tell words of truth and convincing lies; there is no room for such ambiguity here because Hesiod needs words of truth only to give to Perses. His first piece of advice is to not be a spectator of disputes or a frequent listener at debates since it is far better to ensure that one has enough food for the coming year through hard work than to idly waste time in such a manner. Here Hesiod has created a persona of wisdom in relation to the foolish Perses, who he directly calls as such, and he makes it clear that he feels it is essential that the addressee follows his advice. This certainly fits the description of wisdom literature but it also has a rather patronising tone, especially since the two men are brothers and so to all intents and purposes social equals. Perhaps this would have been appropriate if Perses were a far younger man than Hesiod but the way the poet hints at a law suit between them, pending or just resolved, certainly implies that this is not the case. The law suit, which Hesiod alludes to, seems to involve a disputation between him and Perses over some property and he hints at the fact that Perses has bribed the judges to grant him a greater share of this land. This accounts for the nature of the first couple of hundred lines of the poem which are directed at Perses and seem different from the more general advice that follows; the dispute adds colour to Hesiod's almost nagging insistence that Perses follow the path of righteousness and wisdom. For example he directs at him the parable of the hawk and the nightingale: "But you, Perses, must harken to Right and not promote violence. For violence is bad for a lowly man; not even a man of worth can carry it easily, but he sinks under it when he runs into Blights. The road on the other side gives better passage, to righteousness: Right gets the

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