Our 'Classical Recollections'


‘ALL things beautiful pass away to Persephone,’wrote the mourning Greek, and I fancy he believed the burden of his song. But there is a native human trust in the immortality of whatever concerns ourselves, despite the acknowledged mutability of phenomena at large. So it may never have entered the poet’s mind that the liquid music of his elegy, the fair Hellenic speech itself, might pass with body’s beauty and pillar’s pride and the perishable loveliness of vase and amphora to the pale guardianship of ‘Our Lady of Shadows.’ But the Greek tongue is well-nigh silent now in our schools, and the richest of dead languages has lapsed from its immortality and ceased commonly to ‘live on the lips.'

Active protest grew faint long ago. It is long since Panurge, unable to find a language familiar to his valet, tried Greek at last and was understood. It is long since Milton, declaring ‘hearteasing mirth’ to be called in heaven Euphrosyne, registered his belief in the likely theory that Greek is the natural language of the celestial regions. It is almost as long since in the Battle of Books the Ancients made their easy conquest over the pert and upstarting Moderns. Indeed that protracted literary strife between the Ancients and the Moderns, once so comfortably balanced and apparently interminable, is fallen almost out of mind. The Ancients of to-day, should they have the effrontery to form a phalanx, would not venture into battle at all. They would simply stand in line, trusting to one of the ‘ blind hopes ’ of Prometheus, the assurance that they have been proved very hard to kill. And whosoever would defend their cause must no longer speak in the manner of those who expect to be heard.

The classical scholar has ceased to contend for precedence in college curricula and has accepted without rancor his partial eclipse. I dare say he remembers in his heart the good time—still to quote Rabelais— when the ancient languages were once ‘ to their pristine purity restored,’ and above all Greek, ‘ without which one might be ashamed to count himself a scholar.’ But the classical scholar of to-day, if he has not studied the humanities in vain, has not failed to learn from them liberality of view and tolerance for new orders for efficiency. He applauds the growing vogue of modern tongues, welcome promise that the American people shall yet be raised from its linguistic illiteracy; for he knows the discipline and potential liberty to be gained from the study of language. He is the brother and promoter of historical learning; for his life, dedicated to the vitality of the past, has known the reviving vigor to be reached through that permanent contact. He comprehends the popular avidity for modern literatures; for he is the disciple of a literature which has left, even to those who know it not, an eternal legacy of strength and beauty and shapeliness. He respects the young man’s alertness in the quest of new philosophies; for he guards the plenteous fountains of philosophy, and knows better than we the energy and intellectual humility which may derive from that search. Man of the present as of the past, he understands the recent leap of economics to the front both in education and in publication; for he met Demos long ago in the pages of Aristophanes, and knows that he is to be reckoned with. No, the true classical scholar is slow to oppose a progressive shift of college emphasis.

Perhaps he feels that the real check on Greek is less the eager modernity of the academic environment than the utilitarian pressure closing always more heavily on the secondary schools. If Greek is to have any intimate share in education, the initial steps in its study must be taken early. Though we are always told that Cato learned Greek at eighty, no one has yet explained the use he made of it. But a far-away voice speaking for Greek can hardly make itself heard in the current clamor that the public money be spent not for the refinements of the negligible few, but for firmer courses of industrial preparation, which shall help the workaday pupil to earn his bread with, or better, without, the sweat of his brow. Here too the conservative respects the force by which he is dispossessed. The demand that education shall serve the common need seems to him a natural impulse of elementary justice, fortunate, inevitable, requiring only a provident and discreet guidance. He knows the common need better than the dictator of the present, the practical man, appreciates the more elusive values of the humanities.

To Demos, under the pressure of his hungry generations, the scholar often seems the devotee of an obsolete archaism and of effete cultivations, repository of sterile, old-world impracticalities, with whom there can be no productive issue. Discussion has grown with time more urbane on all subjects. Diomed no longer hurls his ashen spear into the side of Deiphobus. But the classical scholar, wrestling for a foothold in the secondary school, is likely to hear under some courteous disguise the time-honored charge, apt for the settlement of all radical differences, ‘Thou art not fit to hear thyself convinced.’ To this unsatisfactory but irrefutable argument there is never a ready answer. The pleader for Greek must prove his fitness more humanly than by a revised dialectic.

There is now and then a promising bit of inconsistency in our school system, for whatever is Greek save the language is still preserved with solicitude. The boy is driven to learn the history of Athens and Sparta, although our courses curtail the history curriculum more and more in many an otherwise strong school. Our colleges admit — let us be frank — throngs of intelligent pupils who do not know the difference between a Saxon and a Norman and have heard but the name of Magna Charta. But the high-school graduate is familiar with the tale of Leonidas and has probably less difficulty than Darius the King to ‘remember the Athenians.'

Greek art too is placed in the boy’s way, with the hope that he may chance to notice it. As he proceeds along the corridor in these days of ardent school decoration, he goes between a double row of masterpieces which the world has still no mind to lose. High under the cornice the Parthenon horses prance in a procession of hoofless glory. In the distance looms up an armless Venus. Above the window headless Niké forever tries in vain to unfasten her sandal. Sometimes the boy notes the maimed deities as he passes; but frankly I suppose he would prefer statues of a race less august but with all their members intact. These things appear acceptable to the educated, but for the most part, in his opinion, they are ‘antiquities which nobody can know.’ Yet we insist that he shall know them.

And in the grown-up world of culture the pulse of Hellenic blood still beats high. Here too the zest persists for all things Greek except the language. The lecture halls of notable classic scholars are thronged as promptly as ever. Archæology, once fearfully regarded by the vulgar as a science of dry bones for the strictly academic, makes yearly a more engaging appeal to common man. Of books of travel in Greece there is no end, for the ever-pressing vanguard of the tourist hordes, finding stale its historic stamping-ground of westen Europe, long since advanced its frontier and is pushing in always larger numbers eastward into the far Ægean seas.

Yes, the next generation will look more familiarly, if more profanely, than ourselves on the ruined temples which stand for our reverence under the old Greek sky. They will step more boldly across the threshold of the gods, loiter at their ease in the pillared porticoes, and wander at will among the desecrated shrines. They too will love the yellowed softness of the weathered fanes standing in the curve of many a round shore or rising in golden hill-top light against the live blue of the southern sky. These are beautiful things which have not yet passed away to Persephone. They will find at Athens or at Pæstum or at Girgenti a present loveliness and a fair symbolism of departed days. But one joy they will lack, though they praise the gods with sincerity and venerate duly the classic shrines. They will not have what Macaulay, supposing that he referred to a universal and enduring experience, called ‘our dear classical recollections.’ Our children will not have heard in old school days Zeus and Athena speaking their own tongue in the clear temple of Hellenic story, — a temple big enough to celebrate ‘heaven and ocean and air and the imperishable race of all the blessed gods.’


Dear classical recollections — already the phrase has a quaint ring! But we who have them still bear witness that they are precious, and we think that our witness is true. At least our testimony is not invalid through the prejudice of our erudition; for we who now dare wish the survival of our heritage for the coming generations are not the classical scholars.

We are the neglectful who have passed for the most part to other affairs, and, to speak honestly, we have forgotten that Greek ‘ which we so much do vaunt but nowhere show.’ The grimy old books were long ago relegated to the bottom shelf, and above them has arisen tier on tier the library of our subsequent fast-slipping interests. Anacreon long since made place for Herrick, Lucian for Cyrano de Bergerac, Euripides for Ibsen. Fair-armed Nausicaa has faded before the vision of Beatrice, and Cuchulain one day cut the ground from under Achilles by a single stroke. The little red dictionary in the corner is dusted no oftener than the obduracies of housekeeping demand; Æschylus, crowned not only on earth but in Hades, is growing as Greek to us as the conversation of Cicero sounded to Casca; even the pet anthology, once lightly familiar, ‘though much worn, is therein little read.’

The Iliad still opens to the Trojan walls where heaven-born Helen passes like to one of the immortal goddesses among the aged men, or to the grim contest where the soul of Hector, defender of Trojans, is driven from the body, lamenting its bloom and its youth. But the pictures flash no longer from the words, only gleam out dimly at the sound suggestion of the noble verse. Without the little red dictionary we could hardly construe a line of Homer or chat with dear old Herodotus on the insufferable presumption of the Persians. If we would render a chorus of the ‘Agamemnon,’ we must invent the metre for ourselves, and our interpretation of Pindar must be, like Pindar himself to Cowley, ‘a vast species alone.’

And yet in a most unscholarly fashion the Hellenic world has remained, even for us, a memory clean and potent of great old things cool and fresh, of clear simplicities and single passions, of living grace and abundant life. We stood long ago as suppliants to the blessed gods, the Lord of the Silver Bow, and Dictynna of the Mountains, and that god ‘wonderful by night, leader in the dance of the fire-breathing stars,’ and to ‘Earth the mother of all.’ We have been at the service of Bacchus, in no operatic orgy, but with Euripides in the midnight wood, while the crackle of satyr and mænad sounded nigh in the thicket, and we heard the very cry of joy when the ruddy god, the son of Semele, was born. We have rested in an authentic Arcadia, no fancy land of coral clasps and amber studs, not in court, guise or ribboned masquerade or wailing a mournful threnody in the funeral train of some northern Thyrsis or Lycidas. But in a sunny Arcadia of the living we have seen the fattening of the two-year kid, have drunk pure milk from a basin round and shapely, have heard the pipes under a Sicilian sun, and watched below the shifting trace of level wind on a blue Sicilian sea. We have been in Cloud-CuckooLand and heard in the lilt of perfect anapests the primal twittering of birds on creation day, and believed for truth the word of the old poet that ‘the Graces, seeking for a support to which they might cling and not fall, found the soul of Aristophanes.’ And I, for one, have waited in the Vatican before the Far-Darter, careless that it is no longer permissible to adore Apollo Belvidere, and have addressed to him as a reasonable service the right invocation in his own language.

Our children will not quote Greek, but they can have their fill of translation. Indeed the ubiquity of cheap English versions is a satisfactorily commercial proof that the compulsion of the Greek spirit remains with us. But for all cosmopolitan tongues save the Greek it is an accepted platitude that poetry which has suffered a transmigration of language is quenched of its flavor like wine which has crossed the sea. Never are we asked to test the noble Prologue of Faust, unless we are strong enough to hear the morning stars and all the works of nature singing together in stout German. We do not presume to seek the ineffable vision of Dante without the support of the ‘fine style which does him honor.’ Nor can we touch the secrets of our own poets without the interpretation of their native melodies.

Chaucer, spirit of intimate cheer, we may not know without the full-voweled richness of his easy music; nor Milton, the ‘ mighty-mouthed inventor of harmonies,’ without his harmony; nor can we travel the high-rambling ways of the Faerie Queene, if we have not leisure for Spenser’s majestic pace. How, then, is the gold become dimmed, how is the most pure gold changed, if we seek to enter too cheaply the thesaurus of classic riches, to understand the priceless values of the Greek inspiration, ignorant of the language which has given to our own the sacred words ‘poet’ and ‘melody,’ and has taught us that ‘enthusiasm’ is divine, for ‘a god is in it.’ Ours is but lip-service to that god, if we allow to dwindle into far-off spaces the true sound of Prometheus’s immense invocation, or lose the veritable echo of the great ‘song which saved at Salamis.’

There will not be another revival of Greek learning so confiding as the old, when ‘ the ancient tongues were to their pristine purity restored.’ Never again will the Greek letters carry so venerable a meaning as in the early Renaissance days when, their significance guessed only by a few, they seemed occult and fraught with marvel, potential of hoarded life and unsuspected grace, master-words yet to be spelled, able perchance to call to flesh again the grand and careless divinities of the elder days. Nor can Greek be to us, or to our children, the entrance-talisman to a brave new world of indisputable thought, unexplored country of unquestioned wisdom and reliable truth, abundant for the instruction of the nations. Centuries of scholars have explored that country, and the instruction of the nations is by no means complete. Besides, our generation hears of its unexplored countries from the complex challenge of the present, finds for its curiosity and intellectual devotion a richness of perplexity and unmeasured compass of inquiry not imaginable to the Greeks. The wholesale absorption of our master minds in the minutiæ of classic scholarship, already finely chopped through the ages, is rightly and luckily unthinkable.

But to preserve within easy reach the mother tongue of our culture inheritance is but to safeguard an essential element of our present. We have learned in larger matters to distrust new orders which displace the past in wholesale rejection of experience; for in more ways than one the world is proved ‘ wise, being very old.’ We must, to be sure, plead for our conservatisms with qualified insistence. We must not press our claims too loudly, or champion our cause with disproportionate affection. We shall not impose the humanities upon the unwilling and the unready. If the growing generation asks the means of bread, we shall not cry out upon ‘blind mouths’ and ordain a forcible feeding of Greek. But to urge that Greek be restored to reasonable accessibility is not to make a sentimental claim upon the public purse. After all, we do not champion our classical recollections in stiff attachment to the clustered associations of schooldays, nor in too rigid a loyalty to the wholesome classic training. But with opposition our regret has turned to full persuasion that, a distinct proportion of Greek must be guaranteed to popular education, if we are to insure the continued efficiency of English literary scholarship or save a necessary standard for the full enlightenment and discipline of the English literary genius.

In America at least there is needed some modest revival of Greek learning, without which in more illiterate times a man ‘might, be ashamed to count himself a scholar.’


To call one’s self a scholar requires to-day perhaps more than ever the gift of tongues; for this is the generation of those who seek ‘comparative literature,’ no longer kept a mystery for the inner circle of the initiate, but offered freely by open invitation. The critical school of judicial and oracular pronouncement is in its grave; luckily it cannot come out of it. Even the cult of the personal ‘ appreciation,’ though we may trust its permanency, can no longer shut itself in the private chambers of its imagery to spin its web. Our more immediate zeal is to seek out the hidden sources of literary impulse, to trace through the ages the continuous action and reaction of one country upon another, anxious in a cordial spirit of cousinship to claim all our international relations. This zest for the community of literary material has been good for us. It has served to freshen with a new significance the old habit of specialized investigation, to clear the overgrown channels of research, to subdue the chaos of historical variety to a system of intersecting lines, to reveal below the swirl of local detail a simplicity of advance. It has humanized us besides to transcend even a little our provincialism, to find a home-felt pleasure at each new proof of the universal kinship.

But in our new ardor for a cosmopolitan scope of study we may need to guard more carefully against the large danger of the little learning. In our modern world thus frankly addicted to ‘ genealogical criticism ’ we must know the languages of the genealogy. The popularization of comparative literature can easily enfeeble the grip and slacken the judgment if it is undertaken without the necessary rigors, in sluggish acceptance of pre-digested manna. Without the languages to serve our individual turn, we cannot know in miniature the experience of the pioneer scholar, or take honest satisfaction in the discovery of ‘a poor thing’ but our own. And as we cannot with any perspicacity compare literatures seen darkly through the glass of translation, so we cannot compare their genealogies in ignorance of their beginnings, if anything has a beginning. We cannot return in seriousness to these beginnings and forget that, if Latin has contributed more of its body to the modern tongues, Greek has given a finer service of its spirit.

And the English genius, unconfined and fancy-free as it has liked at times to think itself, still needs, we may suppose, for its perpetual correction the ripe understanding of classic restraint. Ours is the tradition of liberty in artistic method, of vigorous exuberances and inspired variations. And surely we have indulged our native willfulness not blindly but in sound instinct. The independence of the English nature has been its condition of fertile and healthy production; the rich field of English letters would have yielded a less generous growth if it had not often outsprouted attempts at artificial clipping. But our unfettered energies may easily become ‘outrageosities’ if we fail to keep for reference the canons of Hellenic classicism. And perhaps we shall indulge our vagaries less unfalteringly, if the classic ideal does not remain a steadfast witness to the eternal rectitude of structure, absolute and immutable behind all the lively shifts of experimentalism.

Ours, we are told besides, is the literature of the personal and the particular. Ever since Chaucer went on pilgrimage to Canterbury, it has continued to marshal sundry folks each different in soul and feature from every other. ‘Here she was wont to go, and here, and here,’ sang the English shepherd; and whoso follows the footsteps of the English muse follows a path lined with special trees and bordered by the local wayside flower. And our zest for the significant detail has served its function in the development of the world’s letters. Literary evolution, at least, if it is to be ‘careful of the type,’ can never be ‘careless of the single life.’ But we shall create our individuals and our singularities with less conviction, if the touchstone of the catholic and the universal is not kept in the singleness of Greek genius.

For a century and more we have often been, like the rest of the world, voluble and inclined to confidence. Modern personality, zealous to search its inmost recesses, has not scrupled to handle the intimacies with familiarity and to give up its secret sins and revered privacies. And as we face the broader human interests, we do not grow less talkative; rather we become more eager to express the utmost of the personal thought and experience for the enrichment of the common destiny. Upon us presses the demand for the broader personality; around us throng the claims of the universal problems, asking practical and theoretical solution. Here too the responsibility which so easily besets us is, we hope, obedient to a normal right. Long ago in the old romance, Sir Percival, perversely silent before the procession of the Grail mysteries, taught the lesson that man’s lasting duty in the presence of perplexing mysteries is to question their meaning. The modern world cannot ask its multifarious questions in silence. It must continue the ever-deepening murmur of query and tentative reply. We shall wait long before reticence will become for us a dominant literary note. Perhaps it may never rightly become so. But in tired hours we shall still do wisely now and then, if we return for a little to the dignified Greek world of noble withdrawal and controlled stress, strong with the power of abundant reserve.

And perhaps as we pass further from the repose of the classic spirit, we may but need it the more. Perhaps the poetry of the next generation, if it reaches out with more assurance in significant choice of the democratic and common subject; if, groping still toward the expression of the common need, it rejects with more resolution the poetic diction even of the present day for the dialect of the ignorant and the vulgar, may require more than ever the reminder that sympathy of heart takes no necessary issue with serenity and dignity of tone. Certainly we shall need all the classical reminders we can get in many-blooded America, which claims as its privilege to-day in its taste for literary form, — as it claimed of old for its tenets political and religious, — ‘the dissidence of dissent.’


Perhaps our hope is not ‘blind.’ If Greek is to remain an everlasting sign of high consistencies and fine reserves, we must turn with a more loyal and comprehending trust to the public high school, the guardian of our coming culture. If we respect patiently and faithfully enough its generous ideal and far discernment, it may yet restore to the children who come after us the chance for ‘dear classical recollections.’ For the public high school, though tormented by a multitude of conflicting necessities, hampered by the intrusion of contradictory criticism, bewildered in its responsibility like the conscientious man in the fable, possessed of both a boy and a donkey, yet exists only to meet the composite need of the whole people, if anybody could have the astuteness to apprehend the nature of that need.

We must temperately bide our time till a more generous subsidy of public education shall be commonly recognized as the best patriotic investment. We must wait till the captivity of the secondary school-teacher is turned by a sufficiency of competent help to free and adequate service. We must not lay Greek as a last straw upon her devoted back, already weighted with a load which would tax miraculous virtue. We must wait in patience besides till, at whatever lavishness of experimental waste, we have met with a more practical intelligence the necessity of the laboring world for efficient vocational preparation. Daily are we surer that if man cannot live by bread alone, he is not likely to live without it in anyway creditable to civilization.

But already in our well-intentioned doubling of courses and differentiation of systems we may be in danger of cutting the class chasm too wide. The boy, even of the industrial school, has the right to know that the things of culture exist, that they are excellent and are unforbidden. Life long ago published a capital cartoon. On the pictured bottom of the sea lay an open chest stored with gold enough to stock several Treasure Islands. Near by lingered two shrewd young fishes. ‘Come along,’ said one. ‘You won’t find any worms there.’ And the gold lay, we suppose, untouched, thereafter to be unregarded. It is not the least privilege of the high school to teach broadcast the gospel that there are other things than worms, to proclaim and reveal the preciousness of the world’s fine gold, and to keep open the approach to all treasures of learning for those whose happier lot or more aspiring energy allows the longer search in college years.

The common cause of service for college and secondary school will appear in truer proportion when their veiled belligerency ceases for good. Perhaps the college must learn first and most. Condescension once discarded, it will comprehend better the baffling problem of the secondary system, with its double function: to perform reliably its trust toward the chosen people destined for academic enlightenment, and still to honor first its great mission to the Gentiles of the less fortunate public. It may relieve tension by a timely decision, — no vague broadening in the scope of requirements, but rather a united emphasis upon intensive precision, — that would be at once the strongest support to the secondary school and its own surest safeguard of adequate preparation.

In turn the secondary school may with grateful good-fellowship reach in less anxious times a more liberal interpretation of its calling. It may serve with a gladder response the interest of higher education, freed from the check of a too rigidly enforced economy, unchafed by the irritation of inconsiderate censure, able at last to indulge a little that heartening devotion to pure scholarship without which secondary education becomes the sorriest of modern sights. If the full culture of our nation demand the maintenance of an unpopular subject wanted by few seekers, even if that subject be Greek, the high school will maintain it. It will at some cost, at some sacrifice of utilitarian frugality, secure to the college this part of its complete faculty, wise to know that even in education the best economy is sometimes to choose an ultimate or even an unseen value. Yet again perhaps shall Greek live on the lips.

And indeed, if we are wrong, if the stimulus of Greek is to be eliminated from the common suggestion of heart and thought, the neglect will be due in part to its past sufficiency, — so intrinsically has it modified the direction of our growth. For of other gods than Brahma it might rightly be written, ‘When me they fly, I am the wings.’ If we can do without Greek, we can only think that its services have been ‘so splendid that they are no longer necessary.’

But that we shall long forego direct contact with this essential gift from the world’s great past, the mind which has faith in the steadiness of our racial progress cannot believe. Still must the modern world give tribute of earth and water to the old. ‘The ancient melodies have ceased,’ and the ‘fair nine’ are become wanderers on the earth. But though attempts have been made to supersede them, though a Heavenly Muse has even sat upon Mount Sinai, though we may live to see the cult of muses most unclassical, when new ways prove hard and new fountains dry, we shall return gladly and not in vain to the old invocation: —

Hereth, that on Parnasso dwelle,
By Elicon, the clere welle!