The Classical Tradition in Poetry: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures

by Gilbert Murray. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1927. 8vo. viii+271 pp. $3.00.
IF a Greek poet could have written English prose it would read like Gilbert Murray’s. Or I amuse myself with imagining that this is how Shelley would have written had he lived to a ripe maturity. Freighted with scholarship, these chapters glow with feeling, gleam with insight, flash and sparkle with a delicious humor (try the encounter between the anarchist and the Recording Angel on page 57, and surrounding remarks), whilst seeming always hovered over by that light which never was on sea or land. Here are pages of wisdom and beauty to be carried in one’s mind for long periods and to be thought over and over, as, for my part, I have been careful to do with three other classics of classical scholarship by Professor Murray: his Rise of the Greek Epic, Tradition and Progress, and Four Stages of Greek Religion. More than scholarship, some magically potent stuff of life has been poured into these works, and it finds its way into the reader. It invigorates. It leaves one with a feeling of being somehow on his mettle.
One of the ablest young men in American letters has written a book on a matter relating to public opinion. An excellent work, it none the less exhibits this peculiarity: its range of allusion hardly goes back thirty years. You are left to infer that human history began with Mr. Graham Wallas and Drs. Freud and Jung. The author seems positively ashamed to mention anything prior to the Origin of Sprecies. This same thinness of soil afflicts our poetry. Young poets scorn craftsmanship. It afflicts our art. Young painters disdain to learn their trade. It afflicts our criticism. Professional scoffers we have, but one suspects that they scoff so much because they know so little. It threatens to afflict our music, though here one must have a modicum of sound tuition if he is to handle the form at all.
The effect on such scorners of cultural tradition of a book like Professor Murray’s I can liken only to the emotions of a jazz orchestra player happening into an opera house during a performance of Tristan. It would make him horribly nervous. Here is a large audience of passionately attentive listeners, a superb art, and all going on in serene indifference to the existence of jazz. The jazz-hound may listen or no. But if he listen he is lost. For he will learn that in order to live it is necessary to know, and in order to know it is necessary to work—to think hard and to feel deeply — and that to him who work the something divine called inspiration is added while he works.
In its urbanity of lecturer’s style (Professor Murray is one of the few who know how to use the pronoun I impersonally), in its grace and courtesy whilst handling subjects often sharply controversial, what an example (and what a sorely needed one) of good manners this volume sets Anerican letters. The matter of consternation in reading Professor Murray’s prose works is to find that one who writes so well must of necessity write so little. But the remedy is the sovereign one of re-reading, and re-re-reading. This present volume I have so far read only twice, but the first time was in the golden sunshine of Indian summer on the shore cliffs down at Seabury, where, glaneing up from these vibrant pages, one can watch the molpe of snowy gulls over a flashing surf and muse, in Æschylean phrase, on ’the myriad laugh of the sunlit sea.’ For The Classical Tradition in Poetry, read out of doors, rings true to sea and sky.