What English Poetry May Still Learn From Greek


MY first words must be an apology for the title of this paper. It may seem a rather arrogant theme for a professor of Greek to lay before modern readers. But the truth is that I do not for a moment mean to hold up Greek literature as a model for all others to follow. Every great literature has something to teach the others. If ever, in some different life, it were my privilege to address an audience of ancient Greeks, there is nothing I should like better than to suggest to them some qualities which Greek literature might learn from English. But for the present the other side of the question is more fruitful. For some cause or causes, the Greek poets produced extraordinarily successful poetry. I wish now to make a rough attempt to analyze some of those causes and see what we can learn from them.

Perhaps it is also rather a stale theme. Many generations of English critics have dealt with it, from Milton to Walter Pater. Matthew Arnold’s Lectures on Translating Homer are, I see, now made into a school-book, with introduction and notes. Why, then, have I felt justified in treating the subject again? Because, I would say, though the Classics themselves remain fixed, our conception of them is continually moving. Since the time of, let us say, Matthew Arnold, our actual knowledge has vastly increased. The general widening of our studies, even the process of turning our focus of attention away from the Classics to more concrete and vivid subjects, has benefited our classical scholarship. It has greatly increased our knowledge, and still more increased our power of imaginative understanding. If any one doubts that, I would ask him to think of three books, the first three that come into my mind: Dittenberger’s Sylloge Inscriptionum, Miss Harrison’s Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, and Mr. Zimmern’s Greek Commonwealth ; to reflect on the vast field covered by those three books, and consider how little of it was known to Matthew Arnold’s generation.

I take Matthew Arnold as a type, not out of disrespect, but out of respect. He is not merely a critic of the first rank, which would be one reason for choosing him, but he is also to an unusual degree fearless and lucid. One knows where to have him, and where to challenge him. I take him as the best type of a liberal, cultivated, and well-read generation, who applied to ancient poetry — and sometimes to modern: witness his treatment of Shelley — the somewhat blighting demands of unimpassioned common sense.

Let me begin by taking at length one small concrete instance, his attack on Ruskin about the meaning of the Words ϕυσιζοος аιа.

He warns us, in the Lectures on Translating Homer, that ‘against modern sentiment in its applications to Homer, the translator, if he would feel Homer truly, — and unless he feels him truly how can he render him truly?—cannot be too much on his guard.’ He then takes the famous lines (Iliad iii, 243) about Helen’s brothers: —

τους ϐ' ηδη κаτϵχϵν ϕυσιζοος аιа.

‘So spake she; but they were already held by Earth the Life-giver, in Lacedæmon far away, in their dear native land.’ And he quotes for dispraise, Mr. Ruskin’s comment: —

‘“ The poet,” says Mr. Ruskin, “ has to speak of the earth in sadness; but he will not let that sadness affect or change his thought of it. No; though Castor and Pollux be dead, yet the earth is our mother still — fruitful, life-giving.” This is a just specimen of that sort of application of modern sentiment to the ancients, against which a student who wishes to feel the ancients truly cannot too resolutely defend himself. ... The reader may feel moved as he reads it; but it is not the less an example of “ le faux ” in criticism; it is false.’

How does Matthew Arnold himself translate ϕυσιζοος? He does not say; I greatly fear that if pressed he would have said it was ‘merely an ornamental epithet.’ As a matter-of-fact, I think we may safely say that it is an epithet steeped in primitive mysticism. Ruskin’s error was that, not having the clue, he did not go far enough. His feeling about the word was right; but he stopped short at sentiment, whereas the word really connoted religion. ‘The life-giving earth’ is that most ancient goddess who is the cause, not only of the quickening of seeds, but of the resurrection of man. We are familiar with the thought from St. Paul’s use of it as a metaphor. But the conception is far older than St. Paul, and lies in the very roots of Greek religion, as may be seen in Dieterich’s Muttererde.

The detailed evidence would, of course, take us too long; but I may dwell on it thus much. The word ϕυσιζοοs occurs only five times in ancient Greek poetry; twice it is applied to Castor and Pollux, who shared, as we all know, an alternate resurrection (Iliad iii, Odyssey xi); once in an indignant speech of Achilles (Iliad xxi) it is used of a dead man who seems to have returned, ‘with twenty mortal murders in his crown,’ from the grasp of the ϕυσιζοος аιа; once in an oracle, quoted by Herodotus, of the dead yet everliving Orestes, who holds the balance of victory between Sparta and her enemies. In the fifth instance (Hymn to Aphrodite, 125) this mystical reference is less clear, and I will not press it. The point may seem small, but it is of shades of meaning like these that the quality of language is formed. This is merely one of the cases in which greater knowledge has widened and deepened our whole conception of Greek poetry, and swept magnificently away some of those limitations which we were taught to regard as ‘Classic.’

Let us now take a few current judgments about Greek poetry and see what we can deduce from them. I will begin with some quotations from Coleridge’s Literary Remains, as edited in Dent’s Library by Mr. Mackail: —

‘The Greeks were polytheists; their religion was local; almost the only object, of all their knowledge, art, and taste was their gods; and accordingly their productions were, if the expression may be allowed, statuesque, whilst those of the moderns are picturesque. The Greeks reared a structure which, in its parts and as a whole, filled the mind with the calm and elevated impression of perfect beauty and symmetrical proportion.’

‘Almost the only object of their knowledge, art, and taste was their gods.’ That is in a sense true, though very misleading; for we know now that there were at least two stages in Greek religion: first, something more like the religion of other primitive though gifted races, something deep, turbid, formless, and impassioned; and secondly, an anthropomorphic movement, clarifying, humanizing, and artistic in its spirit, which led to the formation of the beautiful but somewhat unreal family of Olympian gods. Coleridge himself expresses the truth a little later in the phrase, ‘Bacchus, the vinum mundi.' Greek Theos is much more adequately conceived as the ‘wine of the world’ than as an anthropomorphic statue. It is in that sense that We can understand such a line as that of Euripides,

We are slaves to Theoi, whatever the Theoi may be.

Such Theoi are not anthropomorphic figures; they are wills or forces.

‘Their productions were statuesque.’ Coleridge explains what he means by this. ‘They reared a structure which in its parts and as a whole’ made an ‘ impression of perfect beauty and symmetrical proportion.'

This criticism seems to me profoundly true, although I should almost have thought that a better word for it was ‘architectural.’ It is borne out in the old contrast between the Gothic church with its profusion of detail, — always rich, always exciting, sometimes ugly, and constantly irrelevant, — and the Greek temple, in which every part is severely subordinated to the whole.

Another remark of Coleridge is rather curious to read at the present day: ‘The Greeks, except perhaps Homer, seem to have had no way of making their women interesting but by unsexing them, as in the tragic Medea, Electra, etc.’ Here I think there is little doubt that we have simply moved beyond Coleridge, and thereby come nearer the Greeks. Yet his words are, perhaps, in their literal sense, true. The romantic heroines of Coleridge’s day needed a good deal of ‘unsexing’ before they stood fairly on their feet as human beings, with real minds and real characters. The romantic fiction of a generation or two ago could never look at its heroines except through a roseate mist of emotion. Greek tragedy saw its women straight; or, at most, saw them through a mist of religion, not through a mist of gallantry or sentimental romance. When people are accustomed, as Coleridge was, to that atmosphere, it is pitiful to see how chill and raw they feel when They are taken out of it. As a matter-of-fact, Greek tragedy, as a whole, spends a great deal more study and sympathy upon its women than its men, and I should have thought that, in the ordinary sense of the word, it was hard to speak of Antigone and Deianira and Medea, hard to speak of Andromache and Hecuba in the Troades, or even of Ciytemnestra and Electra, as ‘unsexed’ creatures.

I will refrain from making quotations from Matthew Arnold on the subject of Greek religion. However tolerant an American literary audience may be, there are limits to the disrespect it will allow toward its great critics. But I must protest, in passing, against his use of the Mime of Theocritus about Gorgo and Praxinoë as an instance of Greek feeling about religion. It is almost as if you took, as an instance of modern religion, one of Mr. Anstey’s Voces Populi describing, say, a church parade.

The thing that troubles the ordinary English reader in Greek religion is that he is accustomed to a religion that is essentially moral and essentially dogmatic. Greek religion, in the first place, is not preëminently concerned with morality; it is concerned with man’s relation to world-forces. In the second place, there is no omnipotent dogma.

I will, however, venture to take a sentence or two of Pater’s. In one passage he sums up a discussion by saying that Greek art and literature are characterized by ‘breadth, centrality, blitheness, and repose.’ Now I dare say this is true, if only we understand the words as Pater meant them. But, of course, each word is really a species of shorthand, which summed up for him various long chains of thought. The danger is that we may accept them as catch-words.

‘Breadth.’ The word always reminds me of an ancient occasion when I was rehearsing a Greek play, and the stage-manager came forward in a cheery manner to the caste and said, ‘Now, ladies and gentlemen, remember this is classical. Breadth! Breadth! No particular attention to meanings!’ But I do not suggest that he was interpreting Pater rightly.

‘Centrality.’ This seems true; at least the Greek poets have a clear normal tradition of style. They do not strike one as eccentric or cliquey. But we must remember that they are largely central just because other artists and poets have gathered round them. They stood where they happened to be, and it is the rest of us that have made a centre of them.

‘ Blitheness.’ Well, their best work on the whole lies in tragedies and dirges. I have tried hard to understand what the critics mean by the ‘blitheness’ of the Greeks. It perhaps means what I think would be quite true, that the Greeks have, on the whole, an intense sense of life, of the beauty of things beautiful, of the joyousness of things joyous, as well as of the solemnity or tragedy or horror of other things. Greek poetry in classical times is certainly hardly ever depressed or flat or flabby.

‘Repose.’ Yes; perfectly true, and undeniably characteristic. Every Greek tragedy, every great impassioned poem, ends upon a note of calm; and we all know the same quality in the paintings and statues.

Pater again makes great use of the word ‘statuesque,’ and it is a word that I can never feel quite happy about. Stone, of which statues are made, has certain obvious qualities: it is cold, hard, immovable. Speech, of which literature is made, has its qualities also, and they are remarkably unlike those of stone. Speech is warm, swift, vibrating, transitory. The ‘statuesque’ theory is derived, I believe, from Winckelmann, who was very intimate with the statues and knew little of the literature; consequently he interpreted everything through the statues. And every dilettante is under the temptation of following him, since a decent acquaintance with the statues is an easy thing to acquire, and any first-hand acquaintance with the literature a hard one. We should also remember that the statues which Winckelmann and the critics of his time knew, and used for the illustration of classical Greece, were almost without exception the work of the decadence, and to our present judgment markedly unlike the spirit of the great period.


Now, what result emerges from this rather rough summary? First, that Greek poetry is full of religion. This is true and important, though religion, as we noticed, is not exactly what we mean by the word: classical Greek poetry is somehow always in relation to great world-forces. Every great vicissitude, every desire and emotion, seems to be referred to the mysterious action of tremendous and inscrutable laws or wills — something that a Greek would call Theos.

Secondly, it is full of this statuesque, or, as I prefer to call it, ‘architectural’ quality. Every work of Greek art is ‘a structure, which, in its parts and as a whole, aims at an impression of beauty and symmetrical proportion.’ This is a principle of which the Greeks themselves were eminently conscious. Aristotle lays down flatly the law that a poem or tragedy should be ϵυσυνοπτον, ‘capable of being seen as a whole’; and the writers on style, from Terpander and Gorgias down to the later rhetoricians, are never weary of telling us that a speech or poem must have ‘a beginning, a middle, and an end.’ We may perhaps think that we knew that before; but if we compare the Iliad or Odyssey with any of our English epics or long poems we can hardly help feeling an astonishing difference in this point of architecture. The Iliad and Odyssey are definitely ‘constructed’; they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They have a story working up, through a great series of climaxes and digressions, to a tremendous height of emotion just before the end, and in the actual end reaching a note of calm. Turn them into English prose, and they still make thoroughly good stories.

Now think of our epics, the Faerie Queene, the Excursion, the Revolt of Islam, Endymion: are they not to an amazing degree shapeless and lacking in this quality of the ordered whole? I cannot help thinking that this is the real cause of the failure of the long poem in English. A poet should always remember that poetry excels prose threefold and fourfold in sheer boring power; and yet our poets never seem to have grasped the importance of making a long poem organic in its parts, as they would a prose story. Even Paradise Lost is not from this point of view well-constructed. It may be that the future here has something great in store for us. In this matter of construction we have learned our craft on the short story, and brought it to a degree of perfection perhaps never equaled in the world. It seems now as if we were able to grapple with the long prose story. After that, perhaps, will come the turn of the long poem. Of course it is not the same quality of construction that is wanted. The amount of sheer excitement and intellectual interest which is needed to float a long prose story would probably kill an epic poem, or distract the attention from its higher poetic qualities. But there is an organic construction for a poem, too; and that, I believe, is one of the obvious tasks that lie before us.

Religion, architecture; there is also, I think, a third quality, which critics have not noticed, or have treated as obvious. I mean the quality and precision of the texture out of which Greek poetry is woven. It is not merely that the actual words are finer in quality than English words, though I incline to think that this is true also. They build their palace of cedar, and we of rougher wood. But still more important is the actual precision of the building, the exact fitting of word into word with reference both to the emphasis and the rhythm. This depends greatly on the importance of quantity in Greek speech. To take one instance: it is in the essence of Greek poetry that a long unstressed syllable shall nevertheless be felt as long. That is a rock on which English verses make shipwreck by the thousand.

Perhaps some caution is necessary here. I am assuming, it may be said, a careful and studied pronunciation, which is really characteristic of Greek as a dead language spoken by scholars, just as it is of Latin for the same reason, but which probably never belonged to any language in the rough-and-tumble of common intercourse. Well, I cannot stop to debate the point at length, but I think that, first, the detailed rules of Greek metre and the laws which the poets followed, and, secondly, the definite statements of grammarians of the best period, show that, in poetry and public speech at any rate, the Greeks did demand, and intensely enjoy, a very clear and accurate articulation. In the time of Philostratus, people came in thousands to hear a sophist who could really pronounce the old poetry with full attention to quantity, to stress, and to that curious variety of musical tone which in post-classical times became important, and was denoted by accents. To turn the musical accent into a stress-accent, as is often done in America and Germany, is to my ear absolutely destructive of all poetic rhythm. It is better to attend only to quantity and neglect the pitch-accent altogether. But the question is highly technical, and I will not discuss it further.

Let us go to Matthew Arnold again. ‘Homer,’ he says, ‘is rapid in movement, plain in style, simple in ideas, noble in manner.’

Yes; but what I think strikes me still more is the combined gorgeousness and precision of the texture.

ως οτ' ϵν ουρаνω аστρа ϕаϵινην аμϕι σϵληνην. hōs hōt’ en oúranō ástra faeínēn ámfi selēnēn.

Put it against the beginning of Pope:

Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumbered, heavenly goddess, sing:
The wrath that hurled to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain.
Their limbs unburied on the naked shore
Devouring dogs and ravening vultures tore. Yes, it is rapid, plain, dignified, and full of fire; but will it stand for a moment in point of texture and quality beside that
hōs hot’ en oúranō ástra faeínēn ámfi selēnēn.

Try even Milton: —

Him the Almighty power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.

That is much nearer: it is gorgeous and it is precise, only it has not quite the simplicity; it has nothing near the musical swing. It cannot, for example, in that metre, give habitually, and as a matter of course, full value to the long unstressed syllables. It is only by training that we are able to do this in the Greek hexameter, to say аνδρων ηρωων, ãndrōn hērōōn, without letting some two of the live long syllables go short, or to pronounce Pallas Athéné rightly, and not as if it were ‘Pallus Atheeny.'

Our poets, of course, have tried the hexameter, fascinated by that swing. I abstain from criticizing Longfellow, partly from prudence, partly from affection; but I take two passages that are selected for their merit in Ward’s English Poets, and must ask my reader to read them carefully aloud, comparing them all the time with some one line of Homer.

Bút in the | interval | here the | bōilīng | pēnt-ūp |
Frees it | self by a | sudden descent, attaining a
Tēn fēēt | wīde ãnd | ēīghtēēn | lōng, with | white-
ness and fury
Occupied partly but mostly pellucid, | pure, a
Beautiful there from the colour derived from the
green rocks under,
Beautiful | most of | all, where | beads ōf | foam
Mingle their clouds of white with the delicate
hue of the stillness.

(Clough, Bothie.)

All day long they rejoiced; but Athene still in her
Bent herself over her loom, as the stars rang loud
to her singing,
Chanting of order and right, and of foresight,
warder of nations;
Chanting of labour and craft, and of wealth in the
port and the garner;
Chanting of valour and fame and the man who
falls with the foremost,
Fighting for children and wife, and the field which
his father bequeathed him.

(Kingsley, Andromeda.)

Now, what is wrong with the first of these passages is pretty obvious. It is that, on any standard approaching that of the Greeks, the metre is beneath criticism. The stress on ‘ but,’ the utterly lamentable and destructive use of trochees instead of spondees, so that ‘most of’ and ‘boiling’ have to count as two long syllables, while ‘pure, a’ is apparently a dactyl. The poet, in fact, is completely baffled by the most obvious technical difficulties of the metre he has chosen. This is not, of course, to deny the beauty of many lines and passages, and the interesting character of the poem as a whole.

The passage from Kingsley is metrically ever so much better. The chief flaw is monotony, mainly at the beginning and end. The difficulty of starting on a stressed syllable drives the poet to monotonous construction — witness the four lines running beginning with a present participle — and there is almost as much monotony in the constant dissyllabic endings. There is no approach to that perfect control of the instrument: which enables Homer — and Virgil even more — to vary their rhythms and pauses without ever spoiling the metrical structure.

The stressed syllable at the start and the dissyllabic ending; those are two great difficulties of the hexameter in English; and it is by avoiding them, as well by his wonderful skill in other respects, that Swinburne has contrived to build up in English a trisyllabic metre that will really stand alongside the Greek.

I have lived long enough, having seen one thing,
that love hath an end;
Goddess and maiden and queen, be with me now
and befriend.
Thou art more than the day or the morrow, the
seasons that laugh or that weep,
For these give joy or sorrow, but thou, Proser-
pina, sleep.
Yea, is not even Apollo, with hair and harpstring
of gold,
A bitter god to follow, a beautiful god to behold? ’
‘Thou art more than the gods that number the
days of our temporal breath,
For these give labour and slumber, but thou,
Proserpina, death.'
ως οτ' ϵν ουρаνω аστρа ϕаϵινην σϵληνην. . .
ουτ' ϵμϵ γ’ ϵν μϵγаροιςιν ϵυσκοπος ιοχϵϵаιρа

The English will bear the comparison. The great difficulty is that such texture of language in English is somehow exotic; it has to choose its language and diction with special exclusiveness. It hardly ever, even in Mr. Swinburne’s sea-poems, seems really to belong to the wind and the open air. The strong direct life of the Homeric hexameter comes out more in Sigurd the Volsung:

There Gudrun stood o’er the turmoil, there stood
the Niblung child:
As the battle-horn is dreadful, as the winter wind
is wild,
So dread and shrill was her crying, and the cry
none heeded or heard,
As she shook the sword in the Eastland and
spake the hidden word:
‘The brand for the flesh of the people, and the
sword for the King of the World.’
Then adown the hall and the smoke-cloud the
half-slaked torch she hurled,
And strode to the chamber of Atli, white-fluttering ’mid the smoke;
And their eyen met in the doorway and he knew
the hand and the stroke,
And shrank aback before her, and no hand might
he upraise;
There was naught in his heart, but anguish in
that end of Atli’s days.
But she towered aloft before him, and cried in
Atli’s home:
‘Lo, lo, the daylight, Atli, and the last foe overcome.’

It is fine poetry, strong and beautiful. I hardly like to say anything against it; but taken as mere metrical workmanship, it remains rough. The texture of the language is sometimes cheap, sometimes a little affected; the long unstressed syllable, on which everything depends, is little considered. The texture of Sigurd seems to me sometimes to be founded not upon Homer but, as it were, upon something earlier and cruder than Homer. Keeping the sound of it in your ears, think first of Swinburne, then of the words spoken to the dead Achilles in Odyssey xxiv, how all day long down to even-fall the bravest of Achæans and Trojans met their death,—

μаρνаμϵνοι πϵρι σϵιο δ' ϵν στροϕаλιγγι κονιης
κϵισο μϵγаς μϵγаλωστι, λϵλаσμϵνος ιπποσυνаων.

The Swinburne had one quality of great poetry, and the Morris another, but has not this, almost to the limit of perfection, both? It is so smooth and splendid, and at the same time so simple and strong!


In illustrating this question of poetic texture, I find I have been speaking chiefly of epic. Is there any future for this form of poem in English? Most people will say that they do not see any clear hope; but we must remember that such negative evidence is not of much value. As soon as somebody can see the thing he will do it. As we said before, it is chiefly architecture that is wanted. The texture, indeed, may need generations of craftsmen to build it up, but we must remember that Milton practically did make such a texture once, single-handed. The other great quality, religion, is wanted, too. Probably a great epic should be based on some traditional story with characters and incidents that already mean something in the national mind. At any rate it must be somehow related to life as a whole, or to the main issues and interests that men feel in their lives. It is something of this sort that makes much of the greatness of Mr. Hardy’s Dynasts. If one could only get some day a combination of the sustained sweep of Frank Norris with the high quality of William Vaughn Moody!

About drama I will say nothing at present, or almost nothing. The three qualities we have noticed, religion, architecture, and beauty of texture, are notably present in Greek tragedy; the religion most obviously so. As to architecture, whatever may have happened to the supposed classical unities, it is the rarest thing in the world to get a Greek drama which does not aim essentially at unity of effect and unity of atmosphere. I think that one of the reasons why comparatively few scholars enjoy Greek tragedy as much as they enjoy Homer, say, or Theocritus, is that drama so seldom condescends to burst out into specially beautiful scenes or passages. Every character and every scene is subordinate. Each is doing work for the whole. It is largely the same quality, I think, which in modern times leads to the comparative unpopularity of Ibsen with lovers of literature. Of course I do not compare him with the Greeks in his actual attainment of beauty; but in his resolute disregard for the beauty of the part, and his concentration on the value of the whole, he works exactly in their spirit.

But how, you may say, does this comparative disregard of beautiful or eloquent language fit with my doctrine of texture? It does so in quite an interesting way. Let us spend a moment in considering it.

The diction of a poetical play in any language has, I conceive, two tasks, among others, laid upon it. It must be able to move up and down a certain scale of tension, the lower end tending toward ordinary conversation (or the illusion of ordinary conversation), the upper end toward sheer lyrical poetry. And secondly, it must somehow preserve always a certain poetical quality of atmosphere — something ideal, or high, or remote, however one may define it.

Now you will find that the ordinary English poetical play tries to solve this problem by (1) rather slack and formless metre; and (2) ornate, involved, and ultra-poetical diction. The first enables the poet to slide into prose when asking for his boots; the second, almost unassisted, has to keep up the poetical quality of the atmosphere. It does so, of course, at the expense of directness, and often with the ruinous result that where you have Drama you have killed Poetry, and where you have Poetry you have killed Drama.

Greek tragedy tried quite a different method. It has (1) a clear ringing and formal metre, based indeed on the rhythm of ordinary conversation, but perfectly strict in its rules and unmistakable to the ear. Comedy and Tragedy both write their dialogue in iambic trimeters, but the critics tell us that if in comic dialogue any line occurs which observes the metrical rules of tragedy, that line is a parody. So clear is the tragic rhythm. (2) This metrical system, aided by a corresponding convention in vocabulary, so maintains the poetic atmosphere, that the language can afford to be extraordinarily direct and simple, though, of course, it can also rise to great heights of imaginative or emotional expression.

I may mention that these two points constitute part of the reason why, after many experiments in blank verse, I came to the conclusion that the tragic trimeter was best represented in English by rhyme. Rhyme gives to the verses the formal and ringing quality, remote from prose, which seems to my ear to be needed; it enables one to move swiftly, like the Greek, and to write often in couplets and antitheses, like the Greek. I also found that, while in neither case would English convention tolerate for long the perfect simplicity of language that is natural in Greek, it was possible in rhyme to write far more directly and simply than in blank verse. Blank verse, having very little metrical ornament, has to rely for its effect on rich and elaborate language. Rhyme often enables you to write lines as plain and direct as prose without violating the poetical atmosphere.

That is a digression, and my judgment may, of course, be wrong. But I believe you will find that one reward which Greek tragedy reaps from its severe metrical rules is that, the ear being satisfied and unconsciously thrilled by the metre, the language can at will cast away all ornament, and go straight for drama. In the greater part of the Œdipus Rex you will find scarcely any deliberate eloquence, and scarcely any poetical ornament. What you do find in every speech and every line is dramatic relevancy. There is beauty, of course, but not as it were a beauty that is deliberately sought and imposed upon the material. It is the beauty that necessarily results from clean well-balanced proportion, psychological truth, and intensity of feeling.

It is in lyric poetry that the difference between Greek and English, and, I will venture to say, the great technical superiority of Greek, comes out most strongly. I am considering, of course, so far as the two can be separated, technique, and not inspiration. I am not for the moment concerned to deny that for sheer poetic beauty some quite simple English song, with no elaboration or subtlety about it, may stand as high as the choruses of the Agamemnon. I merely urge that in point of technique there is hardly any comparison. It is only in the last century that English poetry has begun to learn its business in the writing of lyrics, under the lead first of Shelley, and then of Swinburne. Some admirers of Elizabethan lyrics will, perhaps, here rise in indignation against me, but I must still maintain that, in the matter of lyrical skill in the Greek sense Elizabethan song is absolutely rudimentary. I will base that statement on three grounds: —

1. Elizabethan song cannot handle the trisyllabic foot. No English poet succeeded in doing so till the generation of Shelley.

2. No Elizabethan song can handle what the Greeks called syncope —that is, the omission of a short unstressed syllable, so that the long syllable that is left becomes over-long (as in ‘Break, break, break.’)

3. No Elizabethan song can make anything of the unstressed long syllable.

4. These are three purely metrical points, but I would add another of wider range. The whole essence of lyric is rhythm. It is the weaving of words into a song-pattern, so that the mere arrangement of the syllables produces a kind of dancing joy. Now,

the older English lyric seems to associate this kind of marked rhythm with triviality. It has no feeling for the sublimity of song as such. Even at the present day our clearest lyrical measures are almost confined to the musichalls. Many people still feel sublimity or even seriousness to be incompatible with good lyric rhythm. Now Greek lyric is derived directly from the religious dance; that is, not merely the pattering of the feet, but the yearning movement of the whole body, the ultimate expression of emotion that cannot be pressed into articulate speech, compact of intense rhythm and intense feeling. The two are not in Greek incompatible; on the contrary, they are intimately and essentially connected.

This rhythmical movement of the body accompanying the lyric leads naturally to an extreme precision in metrical values, a full valuing of each word. The long unstressed syllable comes by its due; trisyllabic and even quadrasyllabic feet like the Ionic a Maiore (˘ ˘ ˉ ˉ ‘morituri’; ‘in a palm tree’) are easily managed; and syncope, which we find so difficult, is almost a central and necessary feature. It is curious to think how difficult it is for us to work words together into one of the commonest of Greek songmetres.

Паρθϵνιη, πаρθϵνιη, ποι μϵ λιπουσ' аποιχϵι.

Seldom again, seldom again, streaming across the twilight.

What we do is to help ourselves out by rhyme, that is, by a very clear stress on the last syllable of some member of the song, to make up for the rather blurred values in other places.

Again, in lyric also we find the architectural quality. A good Greek lyric always builds up to the rhythm of its final lines. To quote instances would take us too long, as each one would have to be proved in detail. But let any one read the last two or three lines of each verse of the Fourth Pythian, and see how the rhythm is deliberately at certain chosen places entangled and checked, in order to run loose at the end in smooth trochees, with just the thrill of one resolved arsis. Almost any of the more serious lyrics of Euripides will show the same process. Let me illustrate this point of architecture in English. Take a good Elizabethan song, — I tremble here at what I am going to say, but my convictions will out, — an Elizabethan song, in which a short line is purposely mixed with long lines: —

Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands.
Curtsied when you have, and kiss’d,
The wild waves whist . . .

Here there is no architecture. There is no lyric value in the shortness of that line. The car has not been led up by a series of rhythms to demand that particular short line, and to feel a special rest and refreshment when it comes. You will tell me that it was meant to be accompanied by music, and that by working the music right you can make the two-beat line seem as if it had four beats. Quite true, but no defence: admit modern music, and all thoughts of metre and poetic rhythm go to the wall. Modern music would justify the first column of the New York Sun as a lyric.

Now take a poem that is architectural: —

Wrap thy form in a mantle grey,
Blind with thine hair the eyes of Day,
Kiss her until she be wearied out;
Then wander o’er city and sea and land,
Touching all with thine opiate wand;
Come, long sought!
Thy brother Death came and cried:
‘Wouldst thou me?’
Thy sweet child Sleep, the filmy-eyed,
Murmured like a noon-tide bee:
‘Shall I nestle near thy side,
Wouldst thou me?’ And I replied:
’No, not thee!'

If you read this carefully, a little dreamily, letting your speech move somewhat in the direction of song, you will find that the short lines, especially at the end, are deliberately built up to. That is what makes them serve their rhythmical purpose. They give just the rhythm that the ear has been made to hunger for.

I could write at great length upon this subject, but I have perhaps already indicated the main point, and I would like now to call attention to one particular misunderstanding.

Professed imitations of Greekrhythm in English poetry seem to me to have gone practically always on quite wrong lines. They ought to have been more intensely rhythmical than the average; as a matter of fact, they think they are being Greek when they lose lyrical rhythm altogether. Swinburne, as usual, so far as metre is concerned, gets triumphantly to the heart of the matter:

She is cold and her habit is lowly,
Her temple of branches and sods;
Most fruitful and virginal, holy,
A mother of gods.

That has a strong clear rhythm, full of majesty and sweetness, and it happens to be practically a Greek metre: —

Μϵλισσοτροϕου Σаλаμινος
ω βаσιλϵυ Τϵλаμων,
νησου πϵρκυμονος οικησаς ϵδρаν.

But if you take, let us say, the most admired lyrics in Samson Agonistes :

God of our fathers, what is man?
That thou towards him with a hand so various,
Or might I say contrarious,
Temper’st thy providence through his short
Not evenly, as thou rul’st
The angelic orders and inferior creatures, mute,
Irrational, and brute;


This, this is he: softly awhile;
Let us not break in upon him . . .
Or do my eyes misrepresent? Can this be he,
That heroic, that renowned,
Irresistible Samson, whom unarmed
No strength of man or fiercest wild beast could
Who tore the lion as the lion tears the kid . . .

This may be poetry of the highest order; I can quite imagine that those who know it by heart even enjoy the rhythm of it. But surely it is clear that the rhythm is exceedingly obscure, and utterly unlyrical in quality? There is far more swing, far more approach to song, in Milton’s average blank verse.

The beginning of the second passage is, I believe, meant to represent choriambics: —

Thís, this is hé; softly awhíle;
Lét us not bréak ín upon hím;

but they cannot be considered successful choriambics. All writers of lyrics in English must face a disagreeable fact. When there is a perfectly clear and simple metre to give guidance, their readers will very likely, though not certainly, pronounce the words right; but the words themselves, however carefully chosen, will hardly ever guide the average reader through a difficult or original metre. It is a habit of our pronunciation to make the wordaccent yield constantly to the sentenceaccent: and if you try in lyric to impose on the reader some rhythm to which he is not accustomed; if you try to produce some rhythm that you think rare and beautiful, or particularly expressive of some phase of feeling, you must prepare for disappointment. Unless you write in words of quite unmistakable rhythm (I recommend ‘mulligatawny’ and ‘hullabaloo’), you will find yourself disappointed. The readers will twist your line away toward some rhythm with which they are thoroughly familiar. This is one reason among many why these unrhymed quasi-Greek metres are so certain to fail of their purpose.

Take another case, from Matthew Arnold’s Merope:

Much is there which the sea
Conceals from man, who cannot plumb its
Air to his unwinged form denies a way
And keeps its liquid solitudes unsealed.
Even earth, whereon he treads,
So feeble is his march, so slow,
Holds countless tracts untrod.
But more than all unplumbed,
Unsealed, untrodden is the heart of man;
More than all secrets hid the way it keeps:
Nor any of our organs so obtuse,
Inaccurate, and frail,
As those wherewith we try to test
Feelings and motives there.

Now I do not say that the thought of these verses is unpoetic or dull, or that the expression is particularly bad; but I must say that the verses seem to me, as lyrics, to have absolutely no value at all. Put them for a moment beside the ‘Forsaken Merman,’ or ‘Strew on her roses, roses,’ and see how, not only are there no metrical refinements, no polysyllabic feet, no syncope, no unstressed long syllables, but there is no trace of the first necessity of lyric — the rudimentary swing that urges you in the direction of singing. Let us turn from that song to what I conjecture to have been its original model, a chorus in the Choephoroi:

πολλа μϵν γа τρϵϕϵι
δϵινа δϵιμаτων аχη

Pólla mén | gâ trefeí | deína deímatôn achê. | Read this with its full metrical values, not being afraid, and realize that it was accompanied and its rhythm intensified by some kind of movement or stress of the body; then notice how all through the stanza your voice starts and is checked and is checked again, and then floods out in a ringing line. You will see that this solemn poem has a rhythm so marked that in modern England we should only think it fit for a music-hall; and secondly, that it is full of metrical architecture. What a feeling of peace comes to the ear at the recurrence of the metrical phrase of the last line!

аιγιδων ϕρаσаι κοτον. aígidôn frasaí kotón.

In general, I believe that in the last generation or two we have been gradually getting to understand Greek metres, — though, of course, we do not understand them fully yet, — and, at the same time, English poetry, especially that of Shelley and Swinburne and their followers, has been developing its own lyrical genius. We are now, for instance, able to handle four-syllable feet as well as three-syllable. Compare

When you’ve ’eard the East a-callin’ you won’t
never ’eed naught else —
No, you won’t ’eed nothink else —
But them spicy garlic smells,
And the palm-trees and the sunshine and the
tinkly temple bells,
On the road to Mandalay;


συ δϵ μ', ω μаκаιρа ∆ιρκа,
στϵϕаνη ρаνηϕορους áπωθη
θιаσους ἒχουσаν ἐ σοι.
τι μ' аνаινη; τι μϵ ϵνγϵις

And the palm-trees and | the sunshine | —

τι μ’ аνаινη; τι μϵ ϕϵυγϵϵγις.

We are learning to manage syncope, from ‘Break, break, break,’ onward through various beautiful Christy Minstrel songs like

Gra-asshopper sittin’ on de swee-eet ’tater vine;

and so getting back to lines like

’Ιδаιа τ’, ’Ιδаιа, κισσϕορа νаπη,

the clue to which is that the ’I of the second ’Ιδаιа is equal to &舒 舒 or 舒 ˘ : 舒

And Ida, da-ark Ida, where the wi-ild ivy
grows . .

Also several writers of lyric since Swinburne have observed their unstressed long syllables. Just at the moment, it may be, we are in the midst of a reaction against metrical accuracy, and many of our best writers pursue an effect like that which the Greeks found in the scazon and similar freaks of verse, a deliberate disappointment to the ear, producing some feeling of pathos or frailty. Personally, I think it is overdone, but the fact that good writers do it probably shows that they have at least an ear for accurate rhythm, and could produce it if they were not, for the moment, tired of it.


I have spoken much about texture and much about architecture; I have said little of the other of my three points — the constant connexion of Greek poetry with religion. I feel that to some any emphasis laid on this point may seem almost paradoxical. To them, perhaps, Greek religion is a thing of anthropomorphism and lucidity; a thing essentially without mystery, and almost without earnestness. 1 would ask them to remember the background; to remember the evidence of anthropology and even of Greek religious inscriptions, and to realize that older religion which vibrates at the root of Greek poetry. The lucidity of the fifth and fourth centuries was imposed on a primitive tangle of desires and terrors, on a constant sense of the impending presence of inscrutable world-forces. Greek poetry is never far removed from the primitive religious dance. Some particular lyric may stand, perhaps, half-way between an original magic dance meant to bring rain and fill the water-springs, and a mere artistic dance meant to show its own gracefulness. But, at any rate, there is always about it some trace of the first, and through the beautiful words and graceful movements of the chorus one feels the crying of a parched land for water.

‘All thoughts, all passions, all desires . . .’ In our art it is true, doubtless, that they are ‘the ministers of love’; in Greek they are as a whole the ministers of this religion, and this is what in a curious degree makes Greek poetry matter, makes it all relevant. There is a sense in each song of a relation to the whole of things, and it was apt to be expressed with the whole body, or, one may say, the whole being.

It sometimes seems as if, for poetry, we have become too much differentiated. Poetry needs intellect, of course, and rots without it. But poetry also needs the whole self in one piece: every thought in it needs the support of a sub-conscious and instinctive emotion. With us, when inspiration comes, the ruling powers of the brain are apt to dance their Bacchic dances alone; in classic Greek one feels that the underground inarticulate impulses moved more along with them, as they did with Euripides’ Bacchanals, when

all the mountain felt
And worshipped with them; and the wild things
And ramped and gloried, and the wilderness
Was filled with moving voices and dim stress.

If may or may not be possible for men to arrive again at this oneness; it may be that it depends on the actual quality of the daily life we live, and that to the Greeks of the Great Age, not for long, but for a few glorious generations, the daily stuff of life was really a thing of splendor. If so, our task in the matter of poetry is wider, and perhaps harder, than we thought; but it is a task to which voices on every side are calling us.