The Permanent Power of Greek Poetry
IN any survey of Greek poetry, epic, lyric, and dramatic, one may see how, in each successive phase, it was the voice of Greek life. The very word “literature” is fraught with associations which tend to obscure this fact. Writing was, indeed, the instrument by which the poems were preserved and transmitted; in the second half of the fifth century B. c., copies of the most popular works were diligently multiplied and widely circulated. But it belonged to the very essence of all the great poetry that it appealed to hearers rather than to readers. The Greeks of the classical age were eager listeners and talkers; they delighted in lively conversation and subtle discussion, but they were not great students of books. It was the interchange of living speech that sharpened their quick apprehension and gave elasticity to their intelligence. There is a striking passage in the Phædrus of Plato which expresses the genuine Greek feeling on this subject. The written record of thought, Socrates says, is, taken by itself, an inanimate thing. There are two brothers, the spoken logos and the written logos: but the first alone is true born; the second is illegitimate; it does not inherit the full capacities of reason; if it is questioned, it remains dumb; if it is attacked, it can offer no defense. The spoken logos, indeed, alone is really existent; the written is a mere phantom of it. In the place where the remark occurs, it points to the difference between a barren rhetoric and a fruitful dialectic. But the remark itself is of still wider application. In every province of intellectual activity, and in that of poetry among the rest, the Greeks of the classical age demanded a living sympathy of mind with mind. What they felt in regard to the poet can be best understood by comparing it with the feeling which not they alone, but all people have in regard to the orator and the preacher. The true orator, the great preacher, speaks out of the fullness of genuine conviction and emotion to the minds and hearts of those who hear him; through all variations of mood and tone he keeps in mental touch with them. The excellence of the classical Greek poet was tried by the same test. No refinement or elaboration of art could sustain the poet through his ordeal if he failed in truth to nature. False sentiment may pass muster in the study, but it is inevitably betrayed by its own unveracity when it is spoken aloud before listeners whose minds are sane, as those of the Greeks preëminently were; the hollow ring is detected; it offends; and the exemption of the best Greek poetry from false sentiment is a merit secured by the very conditions under which that poetry was produced.
The form of expression, again, was controlled by this tribunal of soundminded hearers. A style might be novel and bold in any degree that the poet’s faculty could reach, but at least it was required to have in it the pulse of life; it would be repugnant to his audience if they perceived the artificial outcome of mechanical formulas, a style which sought to impress or surprise by mere tricks of phrase, having no vital relation to his thought. When Aristophanes quotes such tricks of phrase even from a poet so great in many ways as Euripides, we seem to catch an echo of Athenian laughter; we feel how strong and how sober was the control which the Athenian theatre exercised in this direction. When the work of the composer failed to be vital and sincere, this, the unpardonable fault, was described by the expressive word frigid. The composition was then no longer a living thing, which spoke to the hearers and elicited a response. It was stricken with the chill of death.
Thus the Greek poetry of the great age was not merely inspired by life; it was regulated by life; the instinct of the hearers was a restraint operating upon the poet, a safeguard against affectation or unreality. The freshness, the charm of nature, the immortal youth, which belong to such Greek poetry, are due not simply to the qualities of the Greek mind, but also to this relation between the poet and his audience. This fact cannot Be too much emphasized, for it at once constitutes an essential difference between the best Greek poetry and such as has been produced under the conditions of a literary age, one of books and readers. In a literary age the influence of criticism upon poetry operates through the individual critic, who either speaks for himself alone or is the exponent of a school or a coterie. Such criticism, working on the sensitive temperament of a poet, is too apt to check his spontaneity; on the other hand, it does not necessarily help to keep him in accord with nature, that is with the first law of poetical truth and beauty. But the Greek poet’s spontaneity was in noway checked by his audience; they only required that he should maintain a living relation with them. It is a familiar experience that the collective impression of intelligent listeners to a speech, let us say, or to a sermon, has a critical value of a certain kind which can seldom be claimed for the judgment of any single critic. There is a certain magnetic sympathy, generated by the mere presence of fellow-listeners, which more or less influences each member of such a company. He can scarcely avoid considering how that to which he is listening is likely to affect other minds beside his own. The very atmosphere of human companionship tends to preserve the sanity of the individual judgment. In the case of people with the unique gifts of the Greek race, — their obedience to reason and their instinct for beauty, — the critical value of the collective impression was exceptionally high. Their poets were subject to a test which, while leaving them the largest freedom, also warned them, with unfailing accuracy, when they were in danger of going wrong.
Further, it should be remembered that poetry, orally delivered, not written for readers, had been from the earliest times the very basis of Greek education. The Greek genius had reached full maturity before written literature became important, and before literary prose had been developed. There is no more significant testimony of this fact than is afforded by the manner in which Greeks of the classical age conceived the office of the poet. They regarded him as primarily a teacher. Aristophanes frequently expresses this view of his own calling, and is a true interpreter of orthodox Greek sentiment when he enumerates the lessons which may be learned in various departments from the older poets. Aristotle was the first who formally asserted that the aim of poetry, as of all fine art, is to give noble pleasure, and that its didactic use is accidental. But the older conception held its ground, and often reappears in the later Greek literature. Strabo, in the Augustan age, can still describe poetry as an elementary philosophy, which instructs us — pleasurably, no doubt — in regard to character, emotion, action. With the same meaning, he observes that no one can be a good poet who is not first a good man. Plutarch gives still more forcible expression to the same sentiment; poetry, he says, is a kind of twilight, — a soft light in which truth is tempered with fiction, — to which the young are introduced in order that their eyes may be gradually prepared for the full sunshine of philosophy. In the Roman writers, too, this old Greek view can be traced, though sometimes blended with the Aristotelian, as when Horace insists equally on the utile and the dulce. And from the Roman world it passed on to the Renaissance. The prevalent view of the Elizabethan age, as given by Sir Philip Sidney in his Apology for Poetry, was that the end of poetry is “delightful teaching.” Dryden was something of a heretic when he ventured to say, “I am satisfied if ” verse “cause delight; for delight is the chief, if not the only end of poesy. ” It may seem strange that the view of poetry as primarily didactic, a view which might be deemed prosaic, should have been that which was generally held by the Greeks, the most artistic of all races, in the age when their artistic faculties were at the best. But it is needful to distinguish between this view as it was held in Hellenistic or Roman times and as it was held by the Greeks of an earlier period. What it really signifies, in its old Greek form, is that poetry was interwoven with the whole texture of Greek life. The voice of the poet was the voice from which the people had been accustomed, through long generations, to derive every thought that raised their minds above daily routine, and every sentiment that came home to their hearts with living power. When they spoke of the poet as a teacher, and of poetry as didactic, this did not imply any indifference to beauty of form, or to the delight which such form gives; it was simply a recognition of poetry as the highest influence, intellectual and spiritual, which they knew. It was not merely a recreation of their leisure, but a power pervading and moulding their whole existence. The ethical aspect, to which they habitually gave prominence, was in their conception inseparable from the artistic, and became thus prominent because, to them, poetry was a thing so potent and so serious. This was the sense in which the Greeks of the classical age spoke of poetry as didactic ; it was, in reality, quite different from the sense in which the same view of it was enunciated by the literary moralists of a later time, who regarded Greek poetry as a treasure-house of maxims or sentiments wherewith to point their rules of conduct and to fill their anthologies. Between the two stands Aristotle’s doctrine that the end of poetry is to give noble pleasure,—a doctrine, as we can now see, itself a testimony to the fact of which, in his Poetics and his Rhetoric, he implies his consciousness that the creative age of the Greek genius was finished,
A broad line separates that age, in respect of its poetical work, from every other. In no second instance has the world seen the most perfect art of expression joined to such direct sympathy with the living soul of the people whose mind was thus interpreted. The great types of Greek poetry, epic, lyric, dramatic, became permanent traditions ; they passed on from one nation to another, receiving various modifications, while always preserving the traces, direct or indirect, of their origin; the Greek spirit, too, reappears now and again, though fitfully and partially, in later times; but the combination of form with spirit which distinguishes the classical poetry of Greece remains unique.
Of all the stages through which the Greek tradition passed, none is more instructive than the Alexandrian. It is so near to the great Hellenic age in time, it has so many links with it, and yet the difference is so profound. The best poetry of Greece had been nourished by two inspirations, working together for beauty, for natural freshness and vigor, for sincerity: these inspirations were religion and political freedom. The Alexandria of the third century B. C. had no longer the inspiration of the Hellenic religion. In the religion of Alexandria, the Oriental element mingled with Hellenic forms and names, as already predominant, often in shapes which were not only non-Hellenic, but non - Aryan, being distinctly Semitic both in form and in origin. This tendency had begun, indeed, earlier, but it implied a fundamental change of thought and of feeling when cults such as that of Adonis came to be publicly and generally practiced by Greeks. Then as to civic life, it was not merely in form of government that the capital of the Ptolemies differed from the free cities of the elder Hellas. We remember Aristotle’s views as to the proper limit of size for a city. “A city could not consist,” he says, “of ten men, nor, again, of 100,000.” A city of 100,000 (free) inhabitants would have been, in Aristotle’s estimate, no longer a civic society, a πóλις, but Something more unwieldy. It has been computed that at the end of the Peloponnesian war the total free population of Athens was less than 70,000. Aristophanes can assume that his Athenian audience will seize each of his innumerable allusions to fellowcitizens, whom we may suppose to have been, in many cases, of no public eminence, and who nevertheless were familiar to the mass of their fellow-citizens by their personal peculiarities, failings, or merits. This compactness of social life was an intellectual gain to poetry. But Alexandria in the third century B. C. was like a huge modern city. It had a population of about 800,000. Every country of the ancient world contributed its quota to that multitude. There was a native Egyptian quarter, prolific in beggars by day and burglars by night. There was a large Jewish quarter, harboring chiefly men of business or men of letters. Soldiers from Greece, Italy, Sicily, and Asia were enrolled among the guards of the Ptolemies. Merchants from the farthest East brought the porcelain of China and the choicest products of India to the marts of the great capital. Literature, like art, was no longer a public delight, prepared by citizens for citizens; it was now mainly the pleasure of princes and millionaires, and was produced by men who might be described as professional men of letters. The Alexandrian age is the earliest that can be called, in a modern sense, literary ; the earliest in which a literary class catered for select through numerous readers. The learned poets of Alexandria wielded the classical Greek language with complete mastery of its vocabulary; their models, the classical Greek writers, were thoroughly familiar to them; they had explored all the paths of Greek mythology, even the most devious and obscure. Yet, in reading Callimachus or Apollonius Rhodius, we speedily become aware that the difference between them and the older poets is not merely one of degree, but, in respect to what makes poetry vital, a difference of kind. They are ingenious, elegant, copious; their gift of expression is often brilliant ; but the thing which is not there is the breath of life. Their work is the work of the study, artificial, elaborate, charged with allusions gathered by their wide reading, embellished with words and phrases culled from all the highways and byways of poetical diction; but if, in the great age of Greece, such poems had been tried by the sound natural instinct of a Greek audience, they would not have been saved by their occasional beauties; taken in the mass, they would have been condemned as frigid.
The Alexandrian age can show only one poet who has a true affinity with the great past of Greek song, and that is Theocritus. His rural idyls are no sham pastorals, but true to the sights and sounds of his native Sicily. The Sicilian sunshine is there; the shade of oak trees or pine; the “couch, softer than sleep,” made by ferns or flowers; the “music of water falling from the high face of the rock; ” the arbutus shrubs, with their bright red berries, above the sea-cliffs, whence the shepherds watch the tunny-fishers on the sea below, while the sailors’ song floats up to them; and if the form given to the strains of shepherd and goatherd is such as finished poetry demands, this is a very different thing from the affectation of the mock pastoral, as it existed, for instance, at the court of Louis XIV. The modern love-songs of Greek shepherds warrant the supposition that their ancient prototypes commanded some elegance of expression ; and whatever may be the degree in which Theocritus has idealized his Sicilian peasants, at any rate we hear the voice and breathe the air of nature. His twenty-first idyl is a dialogue between two old fishermen, who wake before daylight in their wattled cabin on the Sicilian coast. One of them tells the other a dream that he has just had: he had caught a golden fish, and had vowed that he would give up his hard calling. His comrade advises him to go on with his work, for dreams of gold will not feed him. Of this idyl Mr. Lang truly says: “There is nothing in Wordsworth more real, more full of the incommunicable sense of nature, rounding and softening the toilsome days of the aged and the poor. It is as true to nature as the statue of the naked fisherman in the Vatican. One cannot read these verses hut the vision returns to one of sandhills; of the sea; of a low cabin roofed with grass, where fishing-rods of reed are leaning against the door; while the Mediterranean floats up her waves that fill the waste with sound. This nature, gray and still, seems in harmony with the wise content of old men whose days are waning on the limit of life, as they have all been spent by the desolate margin of the sea.” But the idyls of Theocritus are not all rural, and he, too, when he handled epic material, had to write in the Alexandrian manner; as in his hymn to the Dioscuri, and his two idyls on Heracles, the serpent - strangler and lion - slayer. The general Alexandrian character is seen in the adaptation of the subjects to a small framework, the avoidance of the large epic style, the prettiness of detail given by a number of pictorial touches. It is a significant fact that Theocritus, the last genuinely inspired poet of Hellas, draws his true inspiration not from civic, but from rural life, and is least Hellenic, in the old sense, just when he is most in accord with the taste of the great city in which he dwelt.
In the Alexandrian age, with all its close study and imitation of the classical models, nothing is more remarkable than the absence of any promise that the Hellenic spirit which animated those masterpieces was destined to have any abiding influence in the world. If that spirit was already so languid or almost dead in Greek-speaking men so familiar with its works, how could it be expected that aliens in blood and in language, aliens further removed from the great days of Greece, not merely in time, hut in all the conditions of their lives, should prove more appreciative disciples or more faithful guardians of the Hellenic tradition? And yet it is true that the vital power of the Hellenic genius was not fully revealed until, after suffering some temporary eclipse in the superficially Greek civilizations of Asia and Egypt, it emerged in a new quality, as a source of illumination to the literature and the art of Rome. Early Roman literature was indebted to Greece for the greater part of its material; but a more important debt was in respect to the forms and moulds of composition. The Latin language of the third century B. C. was already in full possession of the qualities which always remained distinctive of it; it was clear, strong, weighty, precise,—a language made to be spoken in the imperative mood, a fitting interpreter of government and law. But it was not flexible or graceful, musical or rapid; it was not suited to express delicate shades of thought or feeling; for literary purposes, it was, in comparison with Greek, a poor and rude idiom. The development of Latin into the language of Cicero and Virgil was gradually and laboriously accomplished under the constant influence of Greece. That finish of form, known as classical, which Roman writers share with Greek, was a lesson which Greece slowly impressed upon Rome. The Roman character was far too distinctive and too vigorous to be merged in any foreign influence. A peculiarity of the Roman mind was indeed its capacity to receive new impressions and to assimilate foreign influences without losing its own powerful individuality. On the other hand, a close and prolonged study of the Greek models could not end in a mere discipline of form; the beauty of the best Greek models depends too much upon their vital spirit. Not only was the Roman imagination enriched, but the Roman intellect, through literary intercourse with the Greek, gradually acquired a flexibility and a plastic power which had not been among its original gifts. Through Roman literature the Greek influence was transmitted to later times in a shape which obscured, indeed, much of its charm, but which was also fitted to extend its empire, and to win an entrance for it in regions which would have been less accessible to a purer form of its manifestation.
In the earlier period of the Renaissance, the scholars of Italy, where the revival had its chief seat, were engrossed with Latin literature; they regarded it as their Italian heritage, restored to them after long deprivation. Greek studies, though ardently pursued by a few, remained, on the whole, in the background. And it may be said that the general spirit of the classical revival continued to be Latin rather than Greek down to the latter part of the last century. Even where Greek scholarship was most cultivated, there was comparatively little sense of what is characteristic, and distinctive in the best Greek literature. This sense was developed, in the second half of the eighteenth century, chiefly through two agencies. One was the study of Greek art as advanced by such men as Winckelmann and Lessing, bringing with it the perception that the qualities characteristic of the best Greek art are also present in the best Greek literature. The other agency was the reaction against the conventional classicism, wearing a Latin garb, which had so long been in vogue. Minds insurgent against that tyranny turned with joyous relief to the elastic freedom of the Greek intellect, to the living charm of Greek poetry and Greek art. Goethe and Schiller are representatives of the new impulse. The great gain of the movement which then began was that, for the first time since the revival of letters, the Greek originals stood out distinct from the Latin copies, men acquired a truer sense of the Hellenic genius, and the current of Hellenic influence upon modern life began to flow in a clearer channel of its own, no longer confused with the somewhat turbid stream of Renaissance classicism.
Meanwhile, however, literature and art had experienced the influence of other forces, acting in very different ways; and with these forces the Hellenic influence had to reckon. One of these was the product of mediæval Catholicism, which had given art a new genius. A new world of beauty had arisen, even more different from the pagan world than the Empire of the twelfth century was different from that of the first. Greek art had sprung from a free, cheerful life, open to all the bright impressions of external nature, — a life warmed by frank human sympathies, and lit up with fancy controlled by reason. The lawgivers of mediæval art were men withdrawn from communion with the outward world by the rapture of a devotion at once half mystic and intensely real; instead of flexible intelligence, they had religious passions; instead of the Greek’s clear and steady outlook upon the facts of humanity, they had a faith which transfigured the actual world, which adjusted every relation of life by its own canons, made itself, indeed, the standard by which the impressions of senses were to be judged. The Greek artist, even in portraying passion, was mindful of balance, and placed certain limits on the expression of individual character; the mediæval artist strove before all things to express the intensity of the individual soul. In poetry Dante is the great exponent of this spirit. And mediæval Catholicism deeply colored the sentiment of all the literature known by the general name of romantic. In Goethe’s younger days the conflict between the classical and the romantic schools raged fiercely. The interlude of Helena, which forms the third act in the second part of Faust, was the work of his old age. Faust’s nature is to be elevated and purified by developing in him the sense of beauty. Helena represents the classical, but especially the Greek element in art and literature; and when Faust at last wins her, their union typifies the reconciliation of the romantic with the classical. Goethe himself, as one of his critics says, dated a new life, a complete mental regeneration, from the time when he first seized the true spirit of the ancient masters. In his own words, speaking of Greek art and literature: “Clearness of vision, cheerfulness of acceptance, easy grace of expression, are the qualities which delight us; and now, when we affirm that we find all these in the genuine Grecian works, achieved in the noblest material, the best proportioned form, with certainty and completeness of execution, we shall be understood if we always refer to them as a basis and a standard. Let each one be a Grecian in his own way; but let him be one.” In the allegorical strain which pervades the Helena, Goethe has not failed to mark that, while the Hellenic idea of beauty is supreme, the romantic element has also enriched modern life. The gifts are not all from one side. The symmetry, the clear outlines, the cheerful repose of classical art, are wedded to the sentiment, passion, and variety of the romantic. The great German poet felt, and has expressed with wonderful subtlety, the truth that no modern can absolutely dissociate the Hellenic, influence from the others which have contributed to shape modern life; no one can now be a pure Hellene, nor, if he could, would it be desirable; but every one should recognize the special elements with which the Hellenic ideal can ennoble and chasten the modern spirit, and these he should by all means cultivate. To do so successfully is to educate one’s sense of beauty; and to do that aright is to raise and purify one’s whole nature.
This great lesson, taught half mystically in the second part of Faust, is apt to be obscured by a contrast much deeper than any that ever existed between the romantic and the classical schools, — one of which Goethe took little account, since it did not much concern him, —the contrast between Hellenism and Hebraism. As Mr. Matthew Arnold says in Culture and Anarchy, the governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness; that of Hebraism is strictness of conscience. Both seek, in the Hebrew apostle’s words, to make us partakers of the divine nature; but Hellenism seeks to do this through the reason, by making us see things as they are; Hebraism insists rather on conduct and obedience. The Renaissance was a movement away from mediæval Catholicism, in the direction of Hellenism; the Reformation was a movement in the direction of Hebraism. In countries where the Reformation took strongest hold, and owing to the qualities of our race, more especially in England, the intellectual influence of the Renaissance was crossed, and for a time checked, by the Hebraizing tendency. The Puritan conception of righteousness, with all its moral nobleness, was at that moment adverse to the acquisition of the best things which the Hellenic influence had to bestow; and in this sense it could be said, with a melancholy truth, that the English “entered the prison of Puritanism, and had the key turned upon their spirit there for two hundred years.”
But though there is a profound difference, there is no necessary antagonism, between the ideal, broadly described as Hebraic, and the permanent, the essential, parts of Hellenism. The Greek influence has acted upon modern life and literature even more widely as a pervading and quickening spirit than as an exemplar of form; and it has shown itself capable of coöperating, in this subtle manner, with various alien forces, so as neither to lose its own distinction nor to infringe upon theirs.
In respect to Hebraism Milton illustrates this. By temperament no less than by creed Milton was a Puritan of the higher type; he had an austere belief in his own mission to be for England a prophet, a mouthpiece of moral teaching and moral warning, just as he believed, and said, that the English nation was, in the Hebrew sense, a chosen people. He was also steeped in classical culture. In an age of classicism which, outside of Italy, was usually superficial, he was the first Englishman who had joined a thorough appreciation of all the classical literature (especially Latin) to a first-rate original genius for poetry. I do not forget Ben Jonson, at once scholar and poet; but in neither quality was he Milton’s equal. How, then, is the Hellenic influence seen in Milton? It cannot be said to have determined the pervading spirit of his work; that is rather Hebraic, or, when it is not Hebraic, Latin. The Lycidas, for instance, is a pastoral elegy on the Alexandrian model; but how strangely is the temper of the Greek original changed when the English poet blazes forth in Puritan indignation against the corruptions of the Church ! The poet himself shows his consciousness of this in reverting from the digression to his theme: —
That shrunk thy streams; return, Sicilian Muse.”
The Samson Agonistes has the form of a Greek drama, but its inspiration, like its subject, is far more Hebraic than Hellenic: it concerns the mysterious dealing of Jehovah with his servant ; it is full of questionings and strivings like those of Job, followed by such a triumph as rings through the song of Miriam or of Deborah. Yet no one familiar with the best Greek poetry can read Milton without feeling what its influence has contributed to his genius; it has helped to give him his lofty self-restraint and his serenity.
Another modern poet who illustrates the coöperation of the Greek influence with foreign influences is Keats. Unlike Milton, Keats knew Greek literature only through such scraps as he might find in classical dictionaries, or at most through translation, as he knew Homer through Chapman. His grasp of Hellenic things unavoidably lacks that sureness which is found, for instance, in Landor, who, besides being much of a Greek in feeling, had also an intimate familiarity with Greek literature. On the other hand, Keats had a native sympathy with the spirit of Greek mythology; and even a Landor could not achieve what Keats sometimes reached by flashes of insight. The Greek element is, however, only one of those which are present in the poetry of Keats. The romantic element is not less vital in it; The Eve of St. Agnes is not less characteristic than the Ode on a Grecian Urn. And his manner, even in treating Greek subjects, is not Greek, except occasionally and for brief spaces. His style has not the harmonious and lucid simplicity of the best Greek style, which gives clear outlines to the central thought, dispensing with all ornament which might confuse or obscure it. Keats, like the Elizabethan poets, delighted in a luxuriance of decorative detail; his style is essentially romantic. In Hyperion, for instance, the description of the god’s palace,
And touch’d with shade of bronzèd obelisks,”
is throughout romantic in its splendors and its mystery rather than truly Hellenic. So, also, is this passage from the same poem, beautiful in itself, but charged with imagery of an Elizabethan type, and lacking Hellenic simplicity : —
Those green-robed senators of mighty woods,
Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars,
Dream, and so dream all night without a stir”
But in one quality of his genius Keats was truly a Greek, namely, in his vivid, spontaneous sympathy with the life of external nature. Take, for example, his Ode to a Nightingale: there we see the joy in nature for nature’s own sake, penetrated by a feeling which is purely Hellenic; not with the feeling of Shelley, that the visible world is but the veil of the unseen. Like a Greek, too, Keats loved to embody the powers of nature in human shapes of more than human loveliness ; unlike Wordsworth, to whom the influences of nature were emanations, not persons, and whose joy in nature was also inseparable from those aspirations of his own mind which he read into the scenes around him: —
Do take a sober coloring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality ;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.”
The natural affinity of Keats with the Greek mind is curiously illustrated by a letter to a friend, in which he argues against distrust of the imagination as a guide to truth; saying, in effect, that when a beautiful vision rises before the imagination, it is the imperfect reflex of a divine prototype, which will be seen hereafter. Keats had not read Plato, and yet here is the tendency which received a more scientific expression in the theory of ideas. When the poetry of Keats was described as “the wail and remonstrance of a disinherited paganism,” the criticism was singularly unjust. A strain of imaginative regret there indeed is in him, when he thinks of what has gone out of the world with the inspirations of the ancient poetry: —
But his regret is for the beauty, not for the paganism ; and no one feels more finely the sense in which the spiritual existence of that beauty has been prolonged.
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.”
Other poets there have been, and are, who have consciously sought, and sometimes with exquisite results, to blend the Hellenic grace with a romantic coloring: as in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnets on Greek subjects the language has a Greek clearness, lightness, and finish, while the spirit is rather that of the Italian middle age; or as Mr. William Morris clothes Greek stories in a mediæval garb. Thus his Jason derives a peculiar charm from the mediæval traits. When the Argonaut heroes move through the streets of Iolcos to embark, bells are ringing in the town, and ladies shower roses
Of many a purple cloth.”
It is as if the poet were singing in the latter part of the middle age, when its enchantments were about to pass away before a clearer illumination ; like the wreaths on the helmets of the Argonauts, the poet’s fancies seem
The distinction of such poetical work is the use of romance to bring Hellenism into relief; the inner contrasts between the romantic and the Hellenic spirit are hinted rather than expressed.
But the deepest and largest influence of Greece is not to be sought in the modern poetry which treats Greek subjects and imitates Greek form; that influence works more characteristically when, having been received into the modern mind, it acts by suggestion and inspiration, breathing a grace and a power of its own into material and form of a different origin.
Mens agitat molem, et, magno se in corpore miscet.”
This influence has been all-pervading in modern life, in modern literature and art.
Yet those who most appreciate the true value of Hellenism will never claim for it that, by itself, it can suffice for the needs of modern humanity. In the intellectual province its value is not only permanent, but unique: it has furnished models of excellence which can never be superseded; by its spirit, it supplies a medicine for diseases of the modern mind, a corrective for aberrations of modern taste, a discipline no less than a delight for the modern imagination, since that obedience to reason which it exacts is also a return to the most gracious activities of life and nature. Of such a power we may truly say, —
Pass into nothingness, but still will keep
A bower of quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams and health and quiet breathing.”
But in the province of religion and morals Hellenism alone is not sufficing. Greek polytheism, even as ennobled by the great poets, was incapable of generating religious conceptions which could satisfy the mind and heart, or of furnishing an adequate rule for the conduct of life. These must be sought from another source.
Yet there is no inherent conflict between true Hellenism and spiritualized Hebraism, such Hebraism as has passed into Christianity. Such a notion could be entertained only where the apprehension of Hellenism itself was superficial or defective. There has, indeed, been some poetry in which the direct imitation of Greek form has been associated with unhealthy tendencies ; there have been transient vagaries of modern fashion which have seemed to assume that Hellenism is to be found, as has been neatly said, in eccentricity tinged with vice. But the distinctive quality of the best Greek poetry and art, that by which it has lived and will live, is the faculty of rising from the earth, from a soil which nourishes weeds along with flowers, into a clearer air. “The divine,” says Plato in the Phædrus, “is beauty, wisdom, goodness, and the like: by these the wing of the soul is nourished, and grows apace; but when fed upon evil and foulness, and the like, wastes and falls away.” Greek poetry in its noblest forms was indeed the πτϵρоυ δivɑμις, the power of the wing, for the human soul; the visions to which it soared were such as that described in the Phædrus, where beauty is beheld dwelling with σωϕροσúυη, modesty, in a holy place, as in a shrine; and in the emotion which this divine beauty stirs love is blended with reverent adoration. The spirit of the highest Greek poetry, as of the best Greek art, is essentially pure; to conceive it as necessarily entangled with the baser elements of paganism is to confound the accidents with the essence. The accidents have passed away; the essence is imperishable. Nor is it purity alone that can he claimed for such Greek poetry; it is capable of acting as an intellectual tonic, and of bracing us for the battle of life. There is truth in the words with which Mr. Gladstone concludes his Studies on Homer: —
“To pass from the study of Homer to the business of the world is to step out of a palace of enchantment into the cold gray light of a polar day. But the spells in which this enchanter deals have no affinity with that drug from Egypt which drowns the spirit in effeminate indifference; rather they are like the ϕáρμɑĸоv έσθλóν, the remedial specific, which, freshening the understanding by contact with the truth and strength of nature, should both improve its vigilance against deceit and danger, and increase its vigor and resolution for the discharge of duty. ”
A like tribute might be paid, with not less justice, to the classical Greek poetry as a whole. True to Aristotle’s principle for art, this poetry deals with the universal, — with those elements of human character and life which are not transient or abnormal, but of interest for every age and every land. What Mr. Lowell said of the ancient classical literature generally applies especially to the Greek: “It is as contemporary with to-day as with the ears it first enraptured; for it appeals not to the man of then or now, but to the entire round of human nature itself. . . . We know not whither other studies will lead us, especially if dissociated from this; we do know to what summits, far above our lower region of turmoil, this has led, and what the many-sided outlook thence.”
The claims of classical Greek poetry to a permanent hold upon the attention of the civilized world are of two kinds, intrinsic and historical. Viewed in regard to its intrinsic qualities, this poetry is the creation of a people in whom the gifts of the artist were more harmoniously united than in any other race ; it bears the impress of their mind in the perfection of its form; it is also the spontaneous and profoundly suggestive expression of their life and thought. Viewed historically, this poetry is the fountain head of poetical tradition in Europe; it has supplied the typical standards of form; it has also furnished a varied wealth of material and illustration; even where it has not given a direct model, it has operated by the subtle diffusion of an animating spirit; it has become blended with various other influences of later origin, and to every such alliance it has contributed some intellectual distinction which no other element could have supplied. So far from being adverse to those religious and ethical influences which are beyond the compass of its own gift to modern life, it is, rightly understood, in concord with them, inasmuch as it tends to elevate and to refine the human spirit by the contemplation of beauty in its noblest and purest form. On the high places of Greek literature, those who are worn with the troubles or disturbed by the mental maladies of modern civilization can breathe an atmosphere which, like that of Greece itself, has the freshness of the mountains and the sea. But the loneliness of Octa or Cithæron is not there; we have around us, on those summits, also the cheerful sympathies of human life, the pleasant greetings of the kindly human voice. The great poets of ancient Hellas recall to one’s mind the words in which Æschylus described the kinsmen of Niobe who worshiped their ancestral deity on the mountain heights of Mysia: —
Men near to Zeus ; for whom on Ida burns,
High in clear air, the altar of their Sire,
Nor hath their race yet lost the blood divine.”
Humanity cannot afford to lose out of its inheritance any part of the best work which has been done for it in the past. All that is most beautiful and most instructive in Greek achievement is our permanent possession, to be enjoyed without detriment to those other studies which modern life demands; no lapse of time can make it obsolete, and no multiplication of modern interests can make it superfluous. Each successive generation must learn from ancient Greece that which can be taught by her alone; and to assist, however little, in the transmission of her message is the best reward of a student.
Richard Claverhouse Jebb.