The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Dithyramb: Originally a wild hymn sung by a chorus in honor of Dionysus (the Greek god of wine); now a term applied to any highly spirited, zealous, or frenzied speech or writing. While its origins are debated, the dithyramb appeared in ancient Greece around the seventh century B.C., was given its traditional literary form by the poet Arion (c. 600 B.C.), and became the subject of competitions during festivals around the fifth century B.C. Many scholars trace the development of Greek tragedy to the dithyramb, which continued as a form in its own right.

EXAMPLES: John Dryden’s Alexanders Feast (1697), a stanza of which follows:

The praise of Bacchus then the sweet musician sung,

Of Bacchus ever fair and ever young:

The jolly god in triumph comes;

Sound the trumpets, beat the drums;

Flushed with a purple grace

He shows his honest face;

Now give the hautboys° breath; he comes, he comes!oboes

Bacchus, ever fair and young

Drinking joys did first ordain;

Bacchus’ blessings are a treasure,

Drinking is a soldier’s pleasure;

Rich the treasure,

Sweet the pleasure

Sweet is pleasure after pain.

The opening lines of “Jazz to Jackson to John” (1988), by Jerry W. Ward Jr., provide a more modern (but similarly musical) example of dithyrambic verse:

it must have been something like

sheets of sound wrinkled

with riffs and scats,

the aftermath of a fierce night

breezing through the grits and gravy;

or something like a blind leviathan

squeezing through solid rock,

marking chaos in the water

when his lady of graveyard love went

turning tricks on the ocean’s bottom;

or something like a vision

so blazing basic, so gutbucket, so blessed

the lowdown blues flew out: jazz