Symonds's Greek Poets

MR. SYMONDS’S volumes are are vision of two books, entitled respectively Studies of the Greek Poets and Studies of the Greek Poets (Second Series), published in London ; the first in 1873, and the second in 1876. These studies had, many of them, first appeared in The North British Review, a periodical which lived only for a few years, though the articles in its few numbers are noted. In preparing the American edition, Mr. Symonds, in spite of the other investigations which now claim him, and in spite of the exile forced upon him by ill health, has still found time to make certain welcome additions. Also, the simultaneoua publication of all the essays has made it easy to change the arrangement of topics, which was somewhat perplexing in the English publications. The chapters now come in the natural order, which Mr. Symonds suggested to his readers in his preface to the second series. Of course, this rearrangement does not make the work a connected whole, and no one should expect to find here a continuous account of the rise and development of Greek poetry. From one point of view, this is a defect, but there are corresponding advantages. No connected account of Greek poetry within the compass of these two volumes could afford so long a chapter to the Greek Anthology as is here given. The same is true of the two chapters on the dramatic fragments; and yet it is in these very chapters, and others like them, that Mr. Symonds makes accessible to English readers a whole range of exquisite Greek poetry, which has belonged till now to special students only. Though this work cannot profitably be used as a text-book, yet experience has shown that the merest beginners can be helped to a living sympathy with the beauties of Greek poetry by reading a chapter in it from time to time. Mr. Symonds’s object has been2 “ to bring Greek literature home to the general reader, and to apply to the Greek poets the same sort of criticism as that which modern classics receive.” Here we have what the editors of Greek text-books but rarely venture to introduce into their commentary,—an enthusiastic account of Greek poetry as poetry, and not an analysis of Greek poems into innumerable problems of syntax, attention to which, however indispensable in wellordered classical study, if too exclusively insisted upon, certainly dulls the appreciation of highest beauty.

In his preface to the American public, Mr. Symonds announces new translations from the lyric poets and from the Anthology, also an “ enlarged ” criticism of Euripides. He further adds that “the concluding chapter” has been “in a great measure” rewritten. The chapter entitled Conclusion, however, is absolutely unchanged. It is the chapter on The Genius of Greek Art (the concluding chapter in the volume published in 1873) which has been changed, but changed only by the addition of notes, and by putting what was a long footnote into the body of the text. But the new translations add greatly to the interest of the book. Mr. Symonds’s four chapters on the poetry between Homer and the dramatists, as first written, stood alone in their thorough appreciation of what an envious fate has left us of this brilliant phase of Greek poetry ; and not the least charm in his treatment of it lies in his many accurate and poetical translations of these beautiful songs. And now the American reader finds added a masterpiece of translation, which fortunately interprets a masterpiece, — Simonides’ Lament of Danaë afloat with her boy Perseus upon the waves at night: —

“ When in the carven chest
The winds that blew and waves in wild unrest
Smote her with fear, she, not with cheeks unwet,
Her arms of love round Perseus set,
5. And said, ' O child, what grief is mine!
But thou dost slumber, and thy baby breast
Is sunk in rest,
Here in the cheerless, brass-bound bark,
Tossed amid starless night and pitchy dark.
Nor dost thou heed the scudding brine
10. Of waves that wash above thy curls so deep,
Nor the shrill winds that sweep, —
Lapped in thy purple robes' embrace,
Fair little face!
But if this dread were dreadful too to thee,
Then wouldst thou lend thy listening ear to me;
15. Therefore I cry, sleep babe, and sea, be still,
And slumber our unmeasured ill.”

What a piece of good luck that Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing on Style, remembered these lines and quoted them ! This translation is such a miracle that we have been betrayed into speaking as if it were the original. Any single line compared with the original, taking each word separately, makes us think the Greek transmuted rather than translated. For this comparison the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth lines will answer; —

. . . πορψυρέ κεíμενος έν χλaνíδι, κaλòν πρóωπον
Eἰ δέ τοι δεινòν τó γε δεινòν ήν,
κaí κεν ἐμῶν ῥημáτων λεπτòν ύπεȋχες οὖaς

Another of the poems now first translated by Mr. Symonds is the Hymn of Welcome, sung by the degenerate Athenians to welcome back Demetrius Poliorcetes, who had subdued Ætolia. The following lines give a vivid expression to the pride of Athens, even in those fallen days not gone, but wonderfully tempered by the servile helplessness of second childhood : —

“The Sphinx, who, not on Thebes, but on all Greece,
Swoops to gloat and pasture;
The Ætolian, who sits upon his rock
Like that old disaster ;
He feeds upon our flesh and blood, and we
Can no longer labor;
For it was ever thus the Ætolian
Preyed upon his neighbor.”

The translations, new and old, made and selected by Mr. Symonds in his chapter on the Greek Anthology, have evidently been to him and his a labor of love. Many of the versions by Dr. Symonds are particularly happy. Indeed, there is nowhere else in English so complete an account of these latest Greek poets. They were many of them not Greeks by birth, but all of them were Greeks in their art, — Greeks, to be sure, of late, degenerate days. Mr. Symonds has especially earned thanks for putting into English some of the exquisite work of Meleager of Gadara. Two stanzas of one of his poems, now first translated, must speak for Meleager:—

“ Did I not warn you ? Now the net
Has tangled you, and in the string
You vainly strive, for love hath set
And bound your pinions wing to wing,
“And placed you on the flames to pine,
And rubbed with myrrh your panting lip,
And when you thirsted given you wine
Of hot and bitter tears to sip.”

“ Of beauty in decay sufficient splendors,” our author well says, may be found in the epigrams of Meleager. Before leaving the Anthology, it should be said that the American printer is responsible for the pronoun in the following line of the epitaph on Aristophanes : “ Lycambes weeping for HER daughters three.” What Lycambes would have done if the bitter Archilochus, not content with abusing him as a perjured dotard, had called him a woman, only a Greek could say.

Turning to the “ enlarged ” criticism of Euripides, it is gratifying to find that the enlargement consists chiefly in a few pages which point out the most serious defects of that great tragedian. Flattering though it may be to every honest Anglo-Saxon soul to join with such champions as Mr. Symonds and Mr. Mahaffy in harassing the defeated army of Euripides’s German foes, there was danger that we should lose sight of the undeniable faults which the Germans have pointed out in that great writer. But now Mr, Symonds’s account of “ sad Electra’s poet ” is just, and no longer one-sided. No more complete proof that “ comparisons are odious ” can be found than in the various German criticisms on Euripides. If he is not compared with Æschylus and Sophocles, he cannot escape comparison with Shakespeare; in either case the odds are against him. He has not the sublimity of Æschylus, and he lacks the purity and selfcontrol of Sophocles; others compare him with Shakespeare, and find that he lacks finish in the delineation of minor characters, that his long speeches are unnatural. Still Euripides is so great a poet that no one thinks of comparing him with any but the greatest; the real complaint is that he is not “ a second Sophocles or a revived Æschylus.”

The characteristics of Mr. Symonds’s Studies are too well known to require detailed statement. The “ style ” is perhaps too prominent throughout, and, as Mr. Symonds himself admits, there is, especially in the essay upon Aristophanes, too much “ fine writing.” Still, thought is not wanting, and a full appreciation of the connection between Greek tragedy and Greek sculpture is nowhere expressed so well as in these pages. The chapters on Homer are insufficient, and the somewhat labored and pointless essay upon Greek Mythology could well be spared to make room for an account of the gods in Homer. Finally, the Conclusion, which is a defense against the critics, rambles into a decidedly unrefreshing attempt to describe the morality of the future, which it appears is to have the accuracy of science. This Mr. Symonds calls the Greek tendency, and yet Aristotle said that an attempt to gain scientific clearness in ethics was like going to mathematics for an appeal to the feelings, or to rhetoric for demonstrative proof.

  1. Studies of the Greek Poets. By JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS, Author of Sketches and Studies of Southern Europe, etc. In two volumes. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1880.
  2. Preface to the Studies of the Greek Poets. London. 1873.