The Classical Tradition in Poetry, Chapter 6 (Part 3)

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 third 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 in their modest way adhere to the Classical Tradition in poetic drama.

Chapter VI


Let us now consider again the meaning of organic construction in verbal style, or, as the ancients would say, in rhetoric. Think of any Messenger’s speech in Euripides. You will find almost always that the Messenger starts his speech on a quite low note. Then comes a rise, then a different rise, then a quickening, then a deepening, then a climax, then climax upon climax of excitement, and perhaps of horror; then, at much less length, a diminuendo effect, a lessening of strain, an increase of solemnity perhaps, and almost always an ending in something like resignation or calm. That calm ending is called in Greek “catastrophe”; and it is instructive to see how we have utterly changed the word’s meaning. But how is it that the Messenger is able to start thus on the low note, and so build up all his varied effects? It is because the ground is prepared.

Let me take an instance from the scene where a Messenger comes to announce the death of Hippolytus, who has just gone to exile under his father’s curse. You might have a Messenger simply bursting in with a cry and pouring out his tale in thunderous language. Instead, we have a short scene which, first, works up the suspense so that we are eager to hear the speech before it begins, and secondly brings out the conflicting emotions of the different characters so that, when it does begin, it is interesting not merely as a good story but because of the situation in which it is told and the people to whom it is told. (1) It would take too much space to illustrate the building up or rhythm of this speech, but I will take a short piece of Tennyson to illustrate, on a smaller scale, what I mean by construction in the realm of diction and metre. It is a passage in the Idylls of the King, where the “little maid” is “babbling” to Guinevere:

My father said—and was himself a knight
Of the great Table, at the founding of it,
And rode thereto from Lyonnesse; and he said
That, as he rode, an hour or maybe twain
After the sunset, down the coast, he heard [5]
Strange music; and he turned, and, turning, there—
All down the lonely coast of Lyonnesse,
Each with a beacon star upon his head,
And with a wild sea-light about his feet,
He saw them, headland after headland, flare [10]
Far on into the rich heart of the West.

That is constructed so as to lead from “babble” to serious and mysterious beauty. Lines 1 to 3 babble: rhythm intentionally poor, but varied in each; 4, rather babbly, with its “hour or maybe twain after the sunset,” but a growing interest in the tale, and firmness of metre; 6, firm metre, but much held back by pauses, to lead up to 7, perfectly firm and smooth; 8, 9 similar: increasing beauty of rhythm and tension of expectation, since we do not yet know what noun these descriptive lines are referring to; 10, tension resolved, “headland after headland,” strong end on “flare”; 11, tension relaxed in musical distance.

Every line in this set of ten gets special value from those that precede. We may notice also that in line 10 there is just a faint re-suggestion of “babble,” in the insertion of “them.” A realist would make the little maid say, “He saw them, he did.”

Another field for construction is in the words themselves, the paragraph and the chapter, but particularly the sentence. In the construction of the larger wholes we have generally surpassed antiquity. The ancients worked without indices or pages, or even a clear and quickly read script, and were consequently thrown back upon their memory. But the critic can trace organic construction in a sentence just as the biologist can in a living cell. Indeed, the sentence raises interesting problems, affecting both the order of the words and the amount of sentence-architecture which a given language will comfortably and safely support. In both points there is a great difference between an inflected and an uninflected language, or, to speak more accurately, between a language that is rich in inflexion and one that is poor.

As to order, most languages have some order which they prefer, and uninflected languages generally have a more or less cast-iron order from which they depart at their peril. French, for example, has, like most of the Romance languages, a strong preference for what may be called a “descending order”—that is, the dependent word is put after the word that governs it, the weak after the strong. The order is subject-object, noun-adjective, verb-adverb.

1             2             3          4                    5                   6
Le fils | ainé | du roi | a donné | une fête | aux citoyens.

If we take this descending order as a model, English will give: “The king’s eldest son has given a feast to the citizens,” that is, 3, 2, 1, 4, 5, 6; German: “Des Königs ältester Sohn hat den Bürgern ein Fest gegeben,” that is, 3, 2, 1, half-4, 6, 5, half-4. Turkish, so I read, has an absolutely fixed order which is the exact opposite of French. It is ascending: adjective before substantive, governed substantive before governing, complement before verb, “preposition” after the noun, subordinate clause before principal. The sentence, “We have seen that one finds consolation for many ills in devout prayer,” will run: “Devout-prayer-in | many-ills’-consolation | to-be-found | we-have seen” (“Piis precibus multorum malorum solacia inveniri vidimus”).

Thus, languages with a poor system of inflections or with some other serious weakness (like the absence of relatives in Turkish) are generally driven to some one regular order. It often happens that it is only by the position of the word in the sentence that you can tell what case it is in and what part of speech it is. For example, “Him the Angel smote” is clear, because the pronoun “he” has an accusative form. “Satan the Angel smote” is ambiguous: to be clear you must say either, “Satan smote the Angel,” or “The Angel smote Satan.” The position shows the case. Similarly, “black” is an adjective in “a black deep” or “the black boots,” a substantive in “a deep black,” and a verb in “black the boots.” More often the order is simply fixed, and to alter it would not make a different sense, but would merely produce faulty speech. (“One knows that by contemporaries unappreciated poets from the after-world a juster judgement await” would not be good English, though “Man weiss dass von der Mitwelt verkannte Dichter von der Nachwelt ein gerechteres Urtheil erwarten,” would be good German.) English is considerably freer than French in this matter, and perhaps a little freer than German. But English, too, has, on the whole, a fixed grammatical order in which it must speak. Now Greek and Latin have a free order. There are preferences, of course; Latin likes verbs at the end, prefers nouns to precede adjectives, and the like. But the order can at need be varied indefinitely.

Now unreflecting people naturally assume that the order in which they speak is the natural order of thought, the Turks thinking one order natural, the French the opposite order. But in reality the order of thought is quite a different thing from the order of grammar; that is certain. Let us take a simple English sentence: “Mr. B. went from Boston to Amherst by car.” But put the sentence in the following context: “This brings us to Wednesday. That night Mr. B. and the prisoner remained in Boston. From Boston Mr. B. went on by car to Amherst, while the prisoner,” and so forth. The regular grammatical order would be: “Mr. B. and the prisoner remained in Boston that night. Mr. B. went on from Boston to Amherst by car.” But it would be less clear. The order of thought tends to make each new sentence start from the point already reached, or from the main object of thought at the end of the last sentence. We have got to “Wednesday”; we start, “That night.” We have got to Boston; we start, “From Boston.” Even in English the order can be so far changed.

However, the permissible variations in English are so slight that the point is better illustrated from Latin. The late Professor Weil (2) cites a passage in Livy about the brothers Aruns and Lucumo. Aruns had died, and his son fell into poverty: “Lucumoni contra, omnium heredi bonorum, cum divitiae iam animos facerent, auxit ducta in matrimonium Tanaquil, summo loco nata, et quae haud facile iis in quibus nata erat humiliora sineret ea quae innupsisset. Spernentibus Etruscis Lucumonen . . .” If you began this sentence with the grammatical subject, Tanaquil, you would have to wait till the end before the reader could know what it was about. He knows Aruns, he knows Lucumo; but Tanaquil he has never heard of. Sense demands that we start with Lucumo, and Livy’s Latin has no difficulty in starting with him in the dative. The result is one clear sentence, proceeding from the known to the new. In English we should probably have to make several sentences. “Now Lucumo had inherited the whole property. His ambition was stirred by the possession of this wealth, and increased by his marriage with Tanaquil, a princess who was not disposed to let the conditions into which she married be inferior to those in which she had been born. The contempt shown for Lucumo by the Etruscans . . .” In general, it will be found that in sentences where Latin or Greek would begin a sentence with a noun in an oblique case [any noun case except the nominative] followed by an active verb, English can keep the order by using either a passive or a causal verb (“Tarquinio dat agrum”— “Tarquin was presented with the farm”; “Virtutum viri stupentibus barbaris”—”His courage amazed the barbarians”), and this is the main reason why passive and causative verbs are so unnaturally abundant in most modern European languages, and abstract verbal substantives even more. (3) A looser and more unshapely way of obtaining the same result is to start with a phrase which takes the important word outside the syntax of the sentence. Thus the sentence taken above from Livy might start: “In the case of Lucumo, his marriage with Tanaquil,” or, “With regard to Lucumo,” or some other miserable makeshift. A final example may be taken from Dr. Weil: “Il avait un beau-père; il l’obligea de se pendre. Il avait un beau-frère; il le fît étrangler” [“He had a father-in-law; he obliged him to hang himself. He had a brother-in-law; he had him strangled.”] (in Latin: “Socerum ille ad suspendium adegit; affinem strangulari iussit”). The Latin produces its epigrammatic effect with more neatness and less emphasis. It is a surprise to learn that the French is the original and comes from Voltaire.

(1) L. Look yonder. Surely from the prince ’t is one
That cometh, full of haste and woebegone.
(Enter Messenger.)
M. Ye women; whither shall I go to seek
King Theseus? Is he in this dwelling? Speak.
L. Lo where he cometh thro’ the castle gate.
(Enter Theseus.)
M. O King, I come with tidings of dire weight
To thee, yea, and to every man, I ween,
From Athens to the marches of Trozen.
Th. How? Some new stroke hath touched, unknown to me,
The sister cities of my sovranty?
M. Hippolytus is . . . nay, not dead, but stark
Outstretched, a hairsbreadth this side of the dark.
Th. How slain? Was there some other man whose wife
He had, like mine, defiled, who sought his life?
M. His own wild team destroyed him, and the dire
Curse of thy lips. The boon of thy great sire
Is granted thee, O King, and thy son slain.
Th. Ye gods, and thou Poseidon! Not in vain
I called thee father. Thou hast heard my prayer. . . .
How did he die? Speak on. How closed the snare
Of heaven, to smite the shamer of my blood?

(2) L’Ordre des Mots, Paris, 1879.

(3) Illustrations are hardly necessary: but I have seen “quorum metu abiit” represented in English by “Expectation of violence on the part of the barbarians caused his departure,” i.e., an abstraction of an abstraction caused an abstraction.

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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2 Responses

  1. Christopher J Lane says:

    Interesting to see how different languages impose different approaches based upon each language’s construct.

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