The Classical Tradition in Poetry, Chapter 6 (Part 1)

Having published my “Apology for Poetry” and much of chapters I, II, and V of Gilbert Murray’s great work, The Classical Tradition in Poetry, I am herewith offering the first of four posts representing Chapter VI, “Unity and Organic Construction,” which addresses what may be considered the two foremost principles of classicism. 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 adhere to the Classical Tradition in poetic drama.

Chapter VI


To be classical, as we all know, a drama or poem must have unity, and Aristotle took unusual pains to explain what he meant by this unity. It was not enough for the story to be about one person: that is obvious. A complete biography contains masses of incidents only accidentally connected. Nor on the other hand, though Aristotle does not expressly say this, is it absolutely necessary that it be about one person. It might be about a group of people like the Heraclidae or the Trojan Women of Euripides, or the Eumenides of Aeschylus; or, again, it might be about a process affecting a number of different persons, like Hauptmann’s Die Weber or Mr. Arnold Bennett’s Milestones. Unity of place is not mentioned by Aristotle, though as a matter of fact changes of scene are not common on the Greek stage. As to unity of time, he merely remarks that tragedies as a rule “tend” (βουλονται) to confine themselves “to a single revolution of the sun, or exceed it but slightly,” whereas the epic action is unlimited in time. This is true as a rule of Greek tragedies, though there are many exceptions, (1) and the Greek stage possessed in its Chorus an instrument for denoting an unspecified interval of time, just like our curtain. The truth is that time, place, person, are all accidents; the thing that must have unity is the real object of the representation, the praxis.

Unfortunately we have no word for praxis. It is translated “action,” and the verb πραττω often means to “act” or “do.” But it is also used intransitively, meaning to “fare” or to “do” in the intransitive sense, as when we say, “The patient is doing well.” Aristotle seems to waver a little between the two senses. He says, for instance, that it depends on “how they are doing” (κατα τας πραξεις) that people are called “happy” or “unhappy.” And he says explicitly in the Politics (1325b, 16) that praxis includes such mental activities as understanding and speculation. On the other hand, he sometimes uses instead of πραττειν the word δραν, which definitely means to “do” in the transitive sense. A play is called δραμα (”drama”) “because the players represent by doing things” (οτι μιμουνται δροντες).

I have no better word to suggest in place of “action.” Neither “experience” nor “faring” nor Professor Margoliouth’s phrase, “chapter of life,” is quite satisfactory. So we may keep the term “action,” while realizing that it is used in a very broad sense, covering the way the people fare, the things they do, and the inner life they lead. Then Aristotle’s doctrine is clear. “The chief thing is the putting together of the praxis. . . . The story is the first principle and, as it were, the soul of the tragedy.” And of epic: “The story ought obviously to be constructed dramatically, and be about a single action complete in itself, with a beginning, middle, and end, so that it may produce its own proper pleasure, as if it were one complete living creature.” This last sentence is vital.

The view which Aristotle is combatting is the view that character is more important than story, a heresy which has always had its adherents. Aristotle gives many arguments; among them, he points out that tragedy does not “imitate” human beings—that would be a mime; it “imitates” living, or action. Also, it is through the things they do that people show their characters. The gallery hisses the villain because of things he does or intends to do. Finally, a coherent story is at least like a pencil drawing, an intelligible constructed whole; a mass of characters—even with fine speeches added—would be like a mass of colours flung out on the paper.

This seems true. It is not merely that the average mass of mankind is more interested in story than in character, or at least primarily interested in the story, and through the story in the character. It is something more fundamental. The primary importance of the praxis, or action, results at once from the principle of unity or coherence. It is the artistic creation itself—the poem or play or whatever it is—that must have unity, and this cannot be attained merely by the description of so many different characters. It is their praxis, the story you have to tell about them, that must be one. Of course, you might make your subject, your praxis, something intimately dependent on character: for example, how a character can be transformed by success or by failure, as in The Rise of Silas Lapham, or by bad treatment, as in Euripides’ Hecuba. Then the change of character is the story. Or you might take the effect in life of certain weaknesses of character in one person or many, as in the “Tartarin” series, or Tchekhov’s Cherry Orchard. In all such cases the story remains the essential thing, but it happens to be about human character, as it might be about a passion or a vendetta or the development of a railroad. It is always the praxis itself—the action or experience, the “faring” or “doing” represented in the work of art—that must have unity and coherence.

Why then does the other view maintain its vitality among the cultured? I think it is partly through a misunderstanding. People think of “story” or “action” as meaning something external, and they know that they are more interested in something internal or spiritual. If they realized that Aristotle’s praxis, or story, covers the internal as well as the external, they would withdraw much of their objection. The essential point, it seems to me, is that the subject of Romeo and Juliet is “the tragic history of Romeo and Juliet”: it is not a study of Romeo plus Juliet plus Mercutio plus the Nurse plus Friar Laurence, and so on, though it must contain studies or at least sketches of all of them.

It seems that in the present generation there is still a reaction against the over-ingenious and artificial plots invented in the latter part of the nineteenth century, especially on the French stage. Hence clever dramatists are “bored” by plots of the old sort, while most of them have not yet found out how to make really good plots of a more exacting sort. And secondly, there is no doubt that the last fifty years have seen an immense increase of interest in the study of character and increase of skill in analyzing or depicting it. The artist naturally likes the thing he can do and depreciates what he has no taste for.

We can see, therefore, what Aristotle means by insisting on the primacy of the “story” or the praxis, and the need of its being “one and complete.” But it does not follow that the ancient Greek and Latin poets really did what Aristotle thought they ought to do. Let us consider the point.

First, there can be no doubt whatever of the artistic unity and admirable construction of the Iliad and the Odyssey. (The point has, of course, nothing to do with the supposed single authorship of a person called “Homer.”) They are almost the only epics in the world which are still read with pleasure in prose translations, though these, of course, give little of the charm of the original except the story. They are read in full translations; they are read in abbreviated forms. They are read both by boys and by girls. They sell. And the reason is not so much any inherent magnificence in the actual incidents, as the skill of the story-telling. Vergil’s Aeneid again has unity of a sort, and considerable variety, apart from its exquisite beauty in detail; but few would read it for the story. The Nibelungenlied and the Chanson de Roland in their extant forms are both diffuse and shapeless, however fine the underlying story of the first and the language of the second. Paradise Lost has unity, but not much human interest, and rather a limited range of incident. But think of most other epics! What is the story of the Faery Queene, or Endymion, or The Revolt of Islam? Few indeed could say. One cannot remember the stories, they are so shapeless and ill constructed. And consequently these epics, in spite of the beauty of individual parts, are difficult to read through. Chaucer, of course, has the power of seeing his story as a whole and consequently of telling it, but he is hardly an epic writer. Don Juan, Orlando Furioso, are entertaining or brilliant in episodes, but the plots of both wander helplessly. Even Dante’s Divina Commedia, though a great continuous stretch, is hardly an organic unity. He chose a theme which enabled him to add incidents here and there as the mood took him. He can hardly stand up to Aristotle’s dictum: “A thing whose presence or absence makes no difference to a whole is not a part of that whole.” The truth is that few poets since the beginning of literature have had the strength both of will and of intellect to grasp a great continuous theme and work it out organically with an eye to the whole.

Outside the epic this rule of unity or construction has had far more influence. The modern counterpart of the epic is no doubt the novel; and most good novels have, allowing for the loose form in which they are written, a fairly definite and complete story, with a “beginning, middle, and end.” They are markedly better in this respect than the ancient Greek novels, from Chariton to Heliodorus. The lesson seems also to have been learnt by the average modern dramatist. But there are considerable varieties in degree.

If we take Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus or Electra, or Euripides’ Hippolytus or Medea as a model Greek play, we shall find that there is not a single scene that is not strictly relevant or does not directly contribute to the climax. (2) Compared with these, the Odyssey is full of digressions and retardations, and even anecdotes; and there are parts of the Iliad which are not strictly business. But these are not really derogations from unity, or faults in construction. The epic is a looser form than tragedy, and is also much longer. Consequently, in order to get the maximum of concentrated interest in the poem as a whole, there is actually an advantage in admitting digressions and retardations. The only rule is that the whole must be stronger as well as larger than the part. The digression must give the hearer a rest in his main interest, not so excite him as to divert him from it. The retardation must add to the reader’s suspense, not make him lose the thread of the story. Thus, the first four books of the Odyssey, in which the hero never appears but everyone is thinking about him and being affected one way or another by his absence, add immensely to the effect of his first appearance on the isle of Calypso in the fifth book. And the slow building-up of preparations in the later books, the testing of Eumaeus and Telemachus and Penelope and Eurycleia, increase the weight and volume, as it were, of the culminating moment when Odysseus leaps up on the threshold and draws his bow.

Again, a Shakespearean play is apt to be about twice the length of a Greek tragedy, or more; it is much looser in texture and admits far more characters and changes of scene and incidents. Consequently it cannot be expected to keep so strictly to business as a Greek tragedy, though I do not say that it would be the worse for doing so. Macbeth has no serious digressions; (3) it is constructed with almost Aristotelian severity; it never leaves its main theme, and many people love it the best of Shakespeare’s plays. But it would be pedantic to quarrel with Shakespeare for relaxing the tension and varying the atmosphere, from time to time, or to hold with Frederick the Great that his plays are “farces worthy of the savages of Canada,” because they break rules which were not made for them, but for something else. The question really is, whether any particular digression or diversion serves the total effect, or no. A typical case would be Hamlet’s longish conversation with the players. Does it serve a real purpose in the play—for example, to show what Hamlet was like in ordinary life, as one critic says; or to show how, like most young persons of high rank, he fancied that he could teach professional people their business, as another suggests? Or is it an irrelevant outburst of criticism on contemporary acting, which may be interesting, as coming from Shakespeare, but is no part of Hamlet? If so, by the classical canon, it is bad. Again, in the much-discussed scene of the comic Porter in Macbeth, the goodness or badness of the incident depends on whether it increases or merely interrupts the tragic value of the scenes among which it comes. To put it crudely, if the Porter’s facetiae make you either forget the murder of Duncan, or want to laugh during the next scene, they are bad. If by contrast they enhance the effect of the next scene, they are good.

Similarly, in a modern novel of the long and leisurely type, such as Thackeray’s, varieties and changes and digressions are part of the art-form. Yet the question always remains whether or no they carry more than their own weight, and so play their part in the main structure. For instance, it might be held that in Vanity Fair there was practically not a stoke that did not help in making up the great picture of the vanity of human wishes; while in Pendennis most people would agree that there was a lot of “dead wood.” Curiously enough, the average modern reader is apt to think of classical literature, from Homer to Scott, as containing too much “dead wood,” because it often moves more leisurely and prepares its effects more fully. There is, no doubt, in modern readers a greater expectation of speed, and possibly a greater capacity for rapid apprehension. But that is largely a matter of fashion. In reality it is dead wood that the classical tradition hates; and dead wood that shines and rattles and attracts attention it hates rather more than that which is merely dull, because it does more to dissipate the interest and spoil the main effect.

(1) Prometheus, ages; Agamemnon, some days; Eumenides, some years at least; Trachiniae, some weeks (?).

(2) Possibly in the Medea there is one scene, that with Aigeus, which only serves to say what “happened afterwards,” but even there perhaps the misery of the childless king is meant to suggest to Medea’s mind the strange form that her revenge is to take.

(3) Nor has Othello; but its theme is un-Greek.

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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