Perry's History of Greek Literature

OUR stock of positive knowledge in regard to Greek literature may never be much greater than it is now Neither a renewed search among the dust-covered and decaying libraries of the Greek monasteries, nor the skillful erasure of Christian palimpsests, nor even the recovery of the precious papyri from the tombs of Egypt, can be expected to restore to us more than tantalizing fragments of lost master works.2 Even the signal triumphs of the spade in our own day have rarely cast more than an instructive side light upon the literary monuments of antiquity. And yet, though Hellenism changes not, and comes little nearer to us, we ourselves live on, and change, and learn. Hence each generation will desire to define afresh its attitude toward these Immortals. A new history of Greek literature, then, even though it come with no harvest of results from learned original research, has an undoubted claim upon the attention of intelligent men and women.

A veteran critic, a remarkably wide and industrious reader, above all an unwavering advocate of the development theory as applied to the fine arts, Mr. Perry here offers us a sustained essay in literary criticism, along the lines consistently followed by his school. We are forbidden hereafter to enter an angry complaint against any one — even against that patient old scapegoat Euripides — for not being other than he was. Not only does the environment make the artist, but the period of decline and decay follows as normally and inevitably on the heels of complete development as old age presses close upon the maturity of the individual man ! We used to be thankful for genius, as a fresh miracle of creation; but that is an outworn and childish feeling, which our historian relegates to the lumber-room, many a time and oft, and with unwearied emphasis. Such a work, on such a subject, may well have a sufficient and consistent character, even though upon its material side it be avowedly little more than a compilation.

It is evident that a diligent and intelligent use has been made of good ancient and modern authorities. It is equally clear, however, that the most recent results of archæological studies and research have not been adequately utilized. Hence the work of Mr. Perry is at its best in those fields where our knowledge is definitely limited and already summarized by others. In particular, the chapters on the early lyric poets and the Anthology will be read with unalloyed pleasure. On the other hand, the detailed description of a Greek theatre, with its stage “ forming the diameter of the semicircular orchestra;” the “ curtain rolled down instead of up,” etc. ; above all, the illustration of the Athenian theatre “ restored from recent excavations,”— these things will certainly horrify the sturdy young graduates of our school at Athens.

This picture of the restored Dionysiac theatre is, we suppose, borrowed from the popular German work mentioned in the Preface. The few other modern pictures in the volume are, as a rule, unsatisfactory ; especially so is the rough drawing after Preller’s beautiful painting of Odysseus and Nausicaa. On the other hand, the ancient monuments represented are well chosen and generally well copied. In only one case have we noted, in the text itself, an allusion to any of the illustrations, and it is often amusing to discover the reason for their insertion just where they are. A mention of Delphi brings out a picture of Delos. A poet tells us we must not talk at dinner about the wars of giants or Titans, and, like a death’s-head at the banquet of the ancients, a sarcophagus adorned with a spirited battle scene emphasizes the admonition, just across the page!

We think the author, or the publishers, should have made due acknowledgment to the modern works from which these illustrations are nearly all copied. Baumeister’s Monuments of Antiquity has probably been laid under the heaviest contribution. In general, the most surprising feature of the book is its absolute silence regarding almost all the others which have made its existence possible. This extends even to the translators most largely quoted. Thus, after a brief discussion of Chapman’s famous version of Homer, Pope and Cowper are also casually mentioned, and they alone. And yet, soon afterward, a series of selections in Worsley ’s Spenserian stanzas begins, and occupies in all about forty pages. A brief discussion of the metrical question, or at least a remark that, these are not hexameters, would have been helpful to an ignorant reader. But the entire suppression of Worsley’s name is inexplicable. It never seems to occur to Mr. Perry that, in such a book as his, the choice extracts are valuable chiefly so far as they beguile us into seeking elsewhere the complete works from which they are taken. We think a popular history of Greek literature should also remark frankly upon the extreme poverty of really satisfactory modern versions. The number of English translations combining permanent literary value with scholarly accuracy is surprisingly small. The passages quoted by Mr. Perry will, upon the whole, bring this consciousness home to a critical reader, but some of the most striking gaps, at any rate, should have been pointed out. Thus, for most of Euripides we are dependent on a translation nearly a century old, which is extremely deficient in both accuracy and simplicity. Here the brief Preface arouses our interest by promising some of Louis Dyer’s scholarly versions, which are as yet unpublished. It is, however, impossible to divine which of the passages cited are from Professor Dyer’s hand. Even under the Medea, one or two quotations are credited to J. A. Symonds, and the rest are anonymous, as usual.

Such objections as we have here raised are apparently forestalled in the prefatory remark, that " the ‘ general reader ’ does not care for, and the scholar does not need, the frequent footnote, in a hook of this sort.” The obvious and truthful reply is, that certainly most of Mr. Perry’s audience — we might indeed safely say all his real readers — belong to an intermediate class. The “ scholar ” who carries all the facts about Hellenic antiquity in his wise head belongs to an extinct nay, let us be truthful, to an imaginary race. On the other hand, all of us who seriously undertake the perusal of this stately volume of nine hundred pages are willing and desirous to be instructed. Works like the Iliad and Odyssey of Andrew Lang and his associates, Rawlinson’s Herodotus, Jowett’s Thucydides and Plato, Plumptre’s Æschylus and Sophocles, are surely a creditable beginning, after all, for an English classical library. Though we may never have mastered the Greek alphabet, we can, none the less, realize the importance of studying Greek literature, life, religion, history, at first hand, in the complete works of the ancient authors. An historian of Greek literature is the very man who should, most of all, impress this lesson upon us.

It is far from our intention to speak in a querulous or disrespectful tone of this earnest, sustained, and, on the whole, creditable performance. But we regard it as the imperative duty of the critic, especially where much is given, to formulate as high and importunate a claim as he may for more, — for all that lies within the author’s scope and power.

There is one direction in particular in which our author seems already to have gained much, but he might profit still more, from prolonged and intimate communion with the most gifted sons of Hellas. The claim has sometimes been made, in behalf of classical studies, that they are indispensable to a really good English style. This claim we regard as untenable and utterly injudicious. We even frankly prefer the prose of Bunyan to that of Milton. Yet, surely, it is true that he who sets forth for our admiration the strength, the simplicity and rapidity of Homer, the unadorned grace and charm of Lysias, the resistless and fiery directness of Demosthenes, is doubly bound to be himself at all times simple, direct, and dignified. Some of us may remember a recent Slavic attack on the confused and excessive use of metaphor by nearly all English writers. Even Panin seems to us almost justified by such sentences as this (page 121) : “ The astounding brilliancy of the Greeks is here, as it were, in the bud, and we find it fascinated by the spectacle of the world in its newness, before literature had left its trail of association over the whole face of nature.” Perhaps the critical historian may take refuge behind his favorite doctrine, that none of us is individually responsible for anything, least of all for his style ! Yet we must at any rate train ourselves to say the thing we mean. Now on page 3 we are told: 舠The early home of the Aryans was long held to be the high plateau, north of the Himalayas, in central Asia ; but of late this hypothesis has been much shaken, and it has been held with plausibility that the once heretical notion that it had its home in Europe has some interesting arguments in its favor.” But in truth, as Mr. Perry well knows, no one has ever questioned that “ this hypothesis” had, and still has, its abode in Europe. These are not fair specimen sentences, as we have already intimated ; but they are real blemishes.

Of misprints this handsome volume contains but few. Libation Poems (for Pourers) as the title of Æschylus’ play (page 275) is easily the worst. On page 3 Taine is made to praise the “ weird types ” of the Greeks. Whether this rather uncanny expression is really to be credited to the French or the American critic, or rather to those other “ weird types” which at one time or another bring us modern scribblers all to horror and despair, we have been unable to decide.

Upon the whole, those who are guiding the work of serious students in ancient literature, whether in the original languages or through translations, cannot safely commit them to this volume as to an unquestioned and wholly satisfactory guide ; yet both master and disciples will find it at times a helpful and instructive companion. It is avowedly offered, however, to “ those who have no direct knowledge of the subject. If our author reaches any such unfortunate class, we are sure they will receive much profit and no harm.

We heartily agree with Mr. Perry that “in all history there is no such subject” as this glorious and inspiring one, — the creative and artistic achievements of the Greek intellect. It is a curious fact that the field has never been adequately covered by any one. The two greatest Germans who had attempted the task, Otfried Müller and Bergk, both died before completing it. The time is, we trust, at hand when our own classical scholars will have the equipment and the courage for a great constructive undertaking of this character. Indeed, we believe there is one man among us already of whom such a work may be rightfully expected, and who could accomplish it in such a manner as to command the attention and gratitude of Hellenists everywhere. But that is another story.

  1. A History of Greek Literature. By THOMAS SEROEANT PERRY. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1890.
  2. Hardly had these words been put into type when the news of a great discovery in the British Museum came to illustrate anew the perilous nature of general negations. Aristotle’s much-lamented treatise on the Athenian constitution has been found, almost intact, among papyrus rolls purchased some time ago in Egypt.