The Classical Tradition in Poetry, Chapter 2 [concluded]

Having published my “Apology for Poetry” and Chapter I of Gilbert Murray’s great work, The Classical Tradition in Poetry, I should now like to offer a further , and final, excerpt from Chapter II, “The Molpê.” Murray here addresses the doctrine of imitation or mimesis in poetry, a doctrine much maligned and misunderstood since the Romantic Revolution, which was born in the mid-eighteenth century. The Classical Tradition in Poetry appeared in 1927. I beg to call my readers’ attention to my two published plays, The Tragedy of King Lewis the Sixteenth and Dido: The Tragedy of a Woman (both available on, as present-day works that in their modest way adhere to the Classical Tradition in poetic drama.

From Chapter II


Tragedies end in death. Comedies end in marriage. The rough rule is true of almost all Greek tragedies, and, if we understand rightly the word “marriage,” of practically all Greek comedies. “Marriage” in English is a word of legal and ceremonial connotations; the marriage Comos of Greek poetry has little to do with legal forms. It is a union of lovers accompanied by an outburst of joy. Is it not at first sight amazing, and on further reflection profoundly instructive, to recognize that the same rule has remained generally true of all tragedies and comedies since? The poets and dramatists have not deliberately wished to end upon the note of rejoicing for love or of weeping for death. Thousands of them have tried hard to escape from so hackneyed an ending, and to prove themselves “original.” But the tradition is too strong for them. There is one general joy greater than other joys, one universal fear darker than other fears; and the poet who throws himself on the stream of his song is borne almost inevitably toward the one or the other. Aristotle speaks of the Homeric epos as the fountainhead of tragedy; Longinus distinguishes the Odyssey from the Iliad as a “comedy of character.” Both judgements are easily explicable. The last line of the Iliad tells us: “So wrought they the burial of Hector tamer of horses.” And the last line of the Odyssey, according to Aristarchus,—though in our present version there are many lines after it,—runs: “So came those two to the rite of the ancient Marriage-Bed.” (Odyssey, XXIII, 296.)

Love and Death: those are the two chief subjects of this primitive Molpê. Next there is Strife, whether for defeat or victory. The Iliad and Odyssey are full of it; no ancient comedy is without it, and, properly understood, no ancient tragedy. Indeed, it is largely strife which gives to love or death its value. The world is not greatly interested in a marriage which has involved no difficulty and no opposition, nor even in a natural and expected death. It is Love won in spite of obstacles and enemies; it is Death in the midst of strife and glory, especially Death averted or conquered, that move us most.

Death can be conquered by heroism, by some quality of character or some expression of beauty so dazzling that death seems a small thing in comparison; but the easiest way—in fiction—to rob Death of his sting and the grave of its victory is, of course, through the revelation of some life beyond death, and the contemplation of the Immortals who are “deathless and ageless for all days.”

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The Muses, Hesiod tells us (Theogony, 61), had carefree hearts. They could also free others from care. For when they have taught a bard, and he sings of the gods and the heroes of old, then even a man in fresh grief forgets his sorrow and remembers not his cares any more (Ibid., 102). That explains, if it needs explanation, the cry of the bard Alkman, when his limbs fail him in the long nocturnal dance: “Would, would that I were the ceryl-bird, who over the flower of the wave floats among the halcyons, with never a care in his heart, the sea-blue bird of the spring.” The ceryl-bird conducts a Molpê [meaning “dance-and-song”] too, like the poet, except that the bird never wearies. The word Molpê itself is used of the halcyon in a similar prayer of another poet:

Bird of the sea rocks, of the bursting spray,
O halcyon bird,
That wheelest crying, crying, on thy way:
Who knoweth pain can read the tale of thee:
One love long lost, one song for ever heard,
And wings that sweep the sea.

It is the singing and the dance together that make the likeness, and so turn the bird into an Aoidos [classical Greek singer]. It is the same with the “minstrel swan,” not ours but the Mediterranean swan, which utters a deep, bell-like note as it flies; it is like the bard, or rather, it is what the bard wishes to be like. (Iphigenia in Tauris, 1089, 1103.) The same with the cranes in the Helena (1484), flying in clamour high among the clouds: “O winged ones long-throated,” the poet calls, “I would I could join your dance.” Even the nightingale, which seems to us to do very little in the way of dancing, having specialized entirely in song, seemed to the ancients to have a “dance” of her own, a dance of hiding or flying, fugitive either from some hungry hawk or from her own persecuting memories. These song-birds are all Aoidoi, making magical Molpai with their voices and their wings alike. They show the poet what he should strive to be.

For it seems as if there were still one element which we had forgotten, and one which the ancients counted among the most important of all, the element of Mimesis, or imitation. In most of the dances, if not all, the dancer ceased to be himself. He “imitated,” or personated, the god or hero of whom he sang, or it might be the centaurs or satyrs or the wild beasts of the mountain. There was something outside himself which he longed and strove to be, or at least to be like. In moments of ecstasy he actually felt that he had become it. He forgot himself. He partook of the divine or magic life which he celebrated, so that the hierophant in the mysteries regularly became identified with the god, the leader of the Bacchic dance became Bacchos.

The word “imitation” is too unpretending to suit our modern style. Our critics pour contempt upon it, and speak of “creation” or “self-expression,” or the like. But the Greeks knew what they meant. Mimesis was the striving to be like something which you longed to be: an attempt, as Shelley, with his usual acuteness of divination, puts it, to be one with “that ideal perfection and energy which everyone feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires, and would become.” Perhaps we can understand the word better when we notice that it is treated as practically equivalent to Methexis (Μεθεξις), which means participation or communion, and is especially used of those who, through inspiration or possession or sacramental communion, partake of the being of their God. “The Pythagoreans say that existing things exist by imitation of Number; Plato says, by participation in Number.” So Aristotle tells us [Metaphysics, I, 6]. The exact meaning of the two words these philosophers have left undefined. But clearly both imply some transcending of the bounds of self, some “ecstasy” or “standing outside” of the prison of the bard’s ordinary identity and experience.

Yet surely, a critic may say, there is a contradiction, or at least a paradox, in the whole of this argument. We think of a classical style as emphatically a correct and chastened style. The ancient writers are always recommending the limae labor [slow and laborious polish of a literary work]. Horace exhorts the poet to keep his poem in his desk till the ninth year, to make sure that he has made it as good as possible. We hear of the infinite labour bestowed by Vergil on the Aeneid, and how at his death he ordered the manuscript to be burnt because it was so miserably imperfect. Even in prose we hear of Plato’s leaving seven different versions of the first sentence of the Republic before he hit upon the present remarkable order. It is only an exaggeration of the same spirit when we hear of the fifty-six different versions of the opening of Orlando Furioso. Yet, if poetry is the inspired outpouring of a bard leading his dancers in ecstasy on the threshing-floor or the mountain-top, what has it to do with all this studious and painful elaboration?

To an early Greek the question would probably have seemed a simple one. An Aoidos, or bard, sings amid the dancers; and no doubt some specially gifted and experienced Aoidoi can start off on the pure excitement of the moment, with no previous preparation. But normally you need a Poietes, or maker, as well as a singer. The one constructs the Molpê, taking as long as he likes; the other performs it; though of course one person can, and to a certain degree must, fill both offices.

That is, I think, the orthodox classical tradition; and whosoever would be saved should, in some form or other, act upon it. Poetry needs ecstasy or inspiration; true, but the inspiration will not merely be imperfect, it will simply not come, except to a mind that has by some long process of thinking and feeling been prepared for it. The preparation need not be conscious or specialized. When Paul had his vision on the road to Damascus, or Augustine heard the words, “Tolle, lege,” or Plotinus and St. Francis were uplifted into their special ecstasies, they had not, of course, been practising or rehearsing those ecstasies, but they had long been living the kind of life and concentrating upon the kind of thought or effort to which that inspired hour was a natural crown. A poet who tosses off some exquisite lyric, apparently on the spur of the moment, has almost certainly been so living as, first, to be exquisitely prepared for that particular mood or emotion, and, secondly, to have developed the technical skill which enables him to write what he wants to write. It is, if one thinks of it soberly, absurd to suppose that inspiration falls like the rain equally on him who lives among poetical thoughts and him who thinks only of his digestion and his bank balance.

Many believers in the “inspiration theory” of poetry would admit thus much. But they still rebel against the idea of the poet sitting at his desk and laboriously correcting and improving and rewriting. A poem, they protest, ought first to represent a “real emotion,” and secondly it should be an inspiration, the flash of an intense moment. As to the first point, it is the old realist fallacy raising its head once more. It implies that poetry proceeds from direct experience, whereas really it proceeds from imagination. Direct experience, as a matter of fact, does not produce poetry: poetry is produced by remembered experience or imagined experience. But the demand for inspiration is a little more plausible, or the fallacy of it harder to make clear.

How can a poem which has the true quality of ecstasy be produced by laborious rewriting? Of course, it cannot be produced by labour alone; there must be the ecstasy or inspiration, at any rate, the flash of intense emotion, as well. But is there any difficulty in understanding that a man who feels some emotion intensely and delightfully should love to dwell in it, as a lover, for instance, spends a large part of his time consciously, and far more subconsciously, thinking about the beloved? Why should people imagine that an emotion which is felt vehemently for a moment and then thrown away is somehow superior, or more sincere, compared with an emotion which colours all a man’s life for long periods? Vergil worked over and over the Aeneid because he loved doing so. What exactly it was that he loved would be, certainly for us and probably even for him, impossible to say: partly the whole atmosphere of the poem, partly the interest of particular stories or thoughts, chiefly—one would imagine—the mere artist’s delight in his craft, in making the texture of his weaving more gorgeous or the fretting of his marble more exquisite.

The mistake comes, I think, from people’s regarding “labour” or “study” as a disagreeable thing, associated with the idea of an imposed task. And no doubt among the innumerable ways of going wrong which lie open to every artist there is the possibility of trying to cover by labour, or still more by cleverness, a deficiency of inspiration. A man may often go wrong by laziness or carelessness: millions do so. He may go wrong by snatching too eagerly at the fun or the fame of having his book published before it is properly finished. He may go wrong by working long and hard with his mind set on the wrong object: for instance, on his desire to be a poet, or to dazzle his fiancée, or to outdo a rival, or to get good reviews, or to be clever, or to shock the bourgeois, or perhaps to do something that no other person, or at least no other sensible person, has ever done, instead of simply thinking about the work he is doing. There are so many ways of failure that sensitive and impatient critics are inclined to say that it is no good taking trouble. The poem will be either good or bad, inspired or not inspired, and there an end.

There is, no doubt, a difficulty in understanding the exact psychological process by which a poet goes on, day in and day out, working quietly and often happily at a poem full, let us say, of tragic emotion and excitement. I believe that a subconscious or repressed stream of excitement is present most of the time; that is what makes imaginative composition so exhausting. In fact, one may suspect that the poet is really in a state of what is loosely called “double consciousness,” such as is usual in actors on the stage. I remember a company that was playing Othello in a theatre which had last been used for pantomime and had a trapdoor on the stage, which was supposed to be not perfectly safe. In the height of a passionate scene, which both were feeling deeply, Othello whispered to Desdemona: “Mind that beastly trap”; and Desdemona answered: “I know. Can you move a step up?” There the artists were mainly concerned with the play, but kept a part of their minds on the trap. In prolonged composition the poet is perhaps mostly concerned with mending or smoothing traps, but the thrill of the poem is always present at the back of his mind. And I think there can be no doubt, first, that the maddening exhaustion which results when the work goes badly is in part due to the strain of emotion caused by poetical imagination itself. It is quite different from the prosaic worry caused by ill success with a cross-word puzzle. On the other hand, I suspect that, when the work goes reasonably well, the labour itself helps to give peaceful release to the emotion, while the beautiful words and rhythms which are constantly in the worker’s mind soothe him with what Wordsworth calls “the co-presence of something regular.”

At any rate, it seems clearly a misunderstanding to think of Vergil or Milton, or one of the later poets in the Homeric tradition, as working away at his desk in a perfectly cool state of mind, as if he were correcting his pupils’ exercises. And it seems also that, for once, Shelley goes astray in his account of the matter. He suggests that the “toil and delay recommended by critics mean no more than a careful observation of the inspired moments and an artificial connexion of the spaces between their suggestions by the intertexture of conventional expressions.” This sentence certainly gives a rather imperfect account of the facts; but if one remembers the condition of psychology in Shelley’s day, not merely before William James, but before Bentham and James Mill, one may surmise that he meant by it something much nearer the truth than he succeeds in saying.

The classical tradition is practically consistent in demanding both ecstasy and labour, both the Aoidos and the Poietes, the singer and the maker. And one must not forget that, though in an abstract way the two can be divided, in truth every maker must be in his heart a singer, and every singer inevitably a maker, just as the dramatist must have the spirit of the actor in him; while the actor, by his interpretation, inevitably in part makes his own play. Neither can do his work without study, neither without inspiration.

Love, Strife, Death, and that which is beyond Death; an atmosphere formed by the worship of Nature and the enchantment of Memory; a combination of dance and song like the sweep of a great singing bird; all working toward an ecstasy, or a transcending of personality, a “standing outside” of the prison of the material present, to be merged in some life that is the object of adoration or desire: these seem to be the subjects, and this the spirit and setting, of that primitive Molpê which is the fountainhead of ancient classical poetry. The tradition, if there is a tradition, rises there. It can be traced in later Greek literature, and through Greek into Latin, and on into the higher style of verse in mediaeval and modern Europe, a thing permanent amid changes innumerable, creating still, as it created many thousand years ago, the indefinable result that we call poetry. And I would suggest that the difference between that modern poetry which we feel to be in the main stream of great art and that which, however attractive or startling, seems to be pursuing a byway or a backwater, may lie in the following or the forsaking of the paths shown by this age-old and almost eternal Molpê.

David Lane

I am the author of two published plays, The Tragedy of King Lewis the Sixteenth and Dido: The Tragedy of a Woman, in both of which I used regular traditional metrics (blank verse) and the traditional language of poetry, all but universal from the Trojan War to the First World War. I am a retired editor and a veteran of the Vietnam War. For nearly twenty years, I have served as Chairman of Una Voce New York, an organization dedicated to restoring traditional Roman Catholicism, especially the ancient Latin Rite superseded by the heavily revised vernacular liturgy born of the Second Vatican Council, an event that introduced sweeping changes into the Catholic Church and ignited fierce controversy that rages to this day.

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