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

Having published my “Apology for Poetry” and much of chapters I, II, V, and VI of Gilbert Murray’s great work, The Classical Tradition in Poetry, I am herewith offering the first post of Chapter VII, “The Heroic Age,” which addresses the legendary period of ancient Greece that became, and has remained, the great wellspring of Western literature to this day. 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.



Hardly any of the best narrative poetry known to us deals with the age in which the poet himself lived. Its scene is set in some time long past, or in some strange and remote place, or, if not that, at least in some class of society that is strange to the poet and his readers. Byron, Kipling, and Masefield illustrate in different ways the same principle. Even if, like Dante’s Divina Commedia, a great poem does treat of recent events about which the poet has direct and personal feelings, it treats them as objects seen from a great distance, or beyond some veil that separates.

This peculiarity is strongly marked in Greek poetry. Homer, indeed, not only tells the story of a past age, but deliberately uses the language of a past age, so that at first sight he seems to speak to us actually from out of the heroic period in which his characters lived, or at least from the confines of it. But it is not so. He sharply distinguishes his own times, with “men such as they now are,” from the times of the Trojan War, and describes an age that is different and remote, not quite the actual Heroic Age as it was on earth, but at least a vision of that age seen through the mists of tradition and memory. The great lyrics of Pindar and Bacchylides, and, above all, the Attic tragedies, come from a definite and well-ascertained period in the fifth century b.c. But, with rare exceptions, they set their scene in the heroic past. Written and acted in republican Athens, they are all about antique kings and queens. Written at a time when women lived in cloistered seclusion and took no part in public life, they are full of heroines of strong characters and passions, who generally dominate the stage more than the men. Written for a public keenly exercised in law and commerce, in democratic institutions and political intrigue, they practically never mention any of these subjects, but concentrate on passionate loves and deaths, curses and blood feuds, battles and deliverances. In their treatment of human character, indeed, they show a certain complexity. A keenly reflective and intellectual age had succeeded the heroic time and inherited its legends; and at times a cutting wind of criticism blows across the idyllic landscape. But in the main, the moral outlook is that of the older time: a certain contempt for statesmen and prophets and, in general, for persons of sedentary pursuits, and unquestioning admiration for the brave man of strong arm and generous passions, who keeps his honour clean, faces the enemy boldly, and never tells a lie. The old heroic rule holds good for them: “Hateful as the Gates of Hell is the man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another.”

Of course, not all poetry belongs to the grand style. There was always in Greece a certain amount of singing about personal and contemporary matters, love-songs and battle-songs, stasiotica or conspiracy-songs, elegies and idylls, and the like. But even in these the heroic background is never far from the poet’s thoughts. His language will be more or less Homeric; his references to other stories will go back to Heracles and Priam. In the vulgarest and most modern Idyll of Theocritus, the two women at the show talk of Troy and the Achaeans, of Zeus and Cypris and Adonis.

The fascination of the legendary past of Greece was of long duration. Apollonius and the Alexandrian poets were still steeped in it, and from them the charm passed on to Propertius and Ovid. Vergil, writing the great national epic of Rome, places his scene in the Heroic Age of Greece and chooses a Homeric hero for his protagonist. Statius writes about ancient Thebes; Valerius Flaccus, about the Argonauts. And when a poet does write a great poem about some recent event, as Aeschylus of the Persian Invasion or Lucan of the Roman Civil Wars, I think we shall find not only that they always choose a subject which has a touch of the superhuman about it, but that they treat it in the spirit of heroic tragedy. That is the spirit in which Lucan calls his hero not by his name, Pompey, but simply “Magnus” (”The Great”), and Aeschylus in the Persae makes the Great King, Darius, into a semi-divine being. It is significant, also, that the Greek poet never mentions, amid his superhuman incidents, the name of any individual Greek. Remote Persian satraps with strange names and titles appear and fight and die in large numbers, but a definite mention of Themistocles or Aristides would have brought the tragedy from the clouds to earth.

This tradition certainly continues. We all have a confused notion that there is something “poetical” in things connected with the Middle Ages, knights and dames and squires and armour and tournaments and the like. One can see the resentment of the modern man against this assumption in such books as Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and its inferior progeny. “To be poetical is somehow to be superior; therefore these knights and squires and dames are supposed to be superior to us. But not to have a bathroom is to be inferior. Therefore”—the man in the street argues triumphantly—“they are not our superiors at all. They are only a fraud, like everything that claims to be better than me!”

The mediaeval convention itself was on the same lines as the ancient, though of course its heroic past was different in detail. The Middle Ages seem to have been bewildered and overburdened by a wealth of foreign tradition which they could not assimilate. The Norsemen, who were long left alone, had a great incipient epic, now wrecked and almost lost, and a magnificent saga literature, much of which is still extant. But the other West-European tribes, when they were whirled one after another into the vortex of the Roman-Christian tradition, with its vast literature both legendary and historical, its great though half-forgotten civilization, and its complex oriental religion, once despised but now backed by the whole prestige of the Roman Empire, became ashamed of their own poetry and tradition, as they were ashamed of their own gods. It is a curious historical coincidence that, as in her heyday Rome had killed the indigenous art and culture of almost every people she had absorbed into the Empire, so in her last decline she did much the same for the Franks and Goths, the Celts and the Germans. The native literatures were stifled before they reached maturity. Even in a true epic, like the Chanson de Roland, there are “omens” as the late Professor Ker put it, of the coming victory of mediaeval romance. What seems to go wrong in mediaeval poetry, from the twelfth century onward, is a loss of restraint and sincerity and constructive power. Amid all the ornamentation and exaggeration there is a “horror of infinite flatness” and a confused mixture of elements foreign to one another and tending nowhere. It is curious to reflect that these qualities, which are the very reverse of classical, came into the mediaeval romances from the imitation of Latin literature. The early Icelandic tradition, which knew nothing of the Roman world, remained uncorrupted, and in many important respects was in the true sense classical and even “Homeric.” Still the romances do, in the main, place their scenes in some fabulous or mythological past, and though their conception of past history is so confused that one can hardly identify it with any particular time, it has at least the quality of remoteness.

Greek poetry, then, tends to draw its characters and its stories from the Greek Heroic Age; Roman poetry follows Greek; mediaeval romance, in a confused and vacillating way, does something more or less similar; while the modern world generally goes, for its epic themes, either to the Middle Ages or to one or other of the various heroic ages now known to us. For modern literature is enriched by new stores of tradition, both European and Asiatic, of which the most valuable in epic qualities is the Icelandic. And Iceland, like Greece, went for its poetry chiefly to its own heroic age.

It may be suspected that this merely means that narrative poetry deals with the past, as it needs must, since a story must be supposed to have happened before it can be told. But I think there is more in it than that. Poetry likes a past that is remote, at least remote enough to keep some little air of mystery and to leave the poet some freedom to invent and imagine. A past well dated and documented is always inconvenient, not merely because it hinders the poet’s freedom, but even more because it loses most of the magic of memory. The memory that transmutes a man’s own experience, and gives to some trivial word or scene a beauty that is often heartrending in its poignancy, is always, I think, a memory that is free to create; it cannot without danger be too much checked and corrected. But, more important still, whether poetry seeks for the scene of its narrative a past time or a distant country, I think it almost always seeks for a state of society that is simpler and ruder than the poet’s own. By simpler and ruder, I mean one in which the individual human soul is less protected, less standardized, more exposed to strain and peril, and more dependent on its own strength for its battle against the world. The modern city poet seeks the Middle Ages, or the wild west, or the various parts of the world in which Conrad delighted, for a quality which they all possess in common. In all of them life is dangerous; and the things which in civilized society are reduced to a more or less mechanical and harmless level there stand out in their full intensity—friend and foe, love and hate, truth and treachery, honour and dishonour, courage and cowardice. A man in danger there does not telephone to the police or consult his lawyer: he thinks for himself and, if necessary, fights for his life.

Now if we realize what, as a matter of history, the heroic ages of Greece and of Northern Europe really were, we can understand their importance to the poetry of the human race. In Greece the old safe and splendid Minoan empires—or at least the civilization of which the Minoan palaces are the only remaining witness were overthrown root and branch by barbarian invaders: Achaioi, Northerners, Peoples of the Sea, outlaws and broken men from within the Minoan area, or whatever else they may have been. It was a time when almost all the social protections which man had devised for himself had been undermined or shattered; cities, customs, religious rules, tribes, and even the family itself, had broken down. The riches of a great civilisation, damaged no doubt but still vast and dazzling, lay open for the spoiler to seize, and, if he could, to keep. The dominant social organization consisted of a chief or king with a band of adventurers following his fortunes, who roamed abroad in the hope of winning perhaps a kingdom or a city, perhaps some armour and jewellery and slaves, perhaps merely a short life of abundant food and drink, or perhaps—for the wisest and most fortunate—some safe retreat where they could live once more like civilized and self-respecting men, and die, when the time came, without dishonour. And the same phenomenon was repeated on a larger scale when the Northern barbarians were engaged in breaking up the decaying civilization of Rome. It was a time, as Professor Chadwick says, “of Mars and the Muses”: of Mars, because, unless a man was ready to fight, he found only too many people ready to fight him; of the Muses, because, while most of the arts require for their cultivation some continuous security, poetry does not. You cannot build temples or carve statues or paint pictures, you cannot make towns or gardens, grow vines and olives, or engage in regular trade or manufacture, without some assurance of the future and some fair safety for capital. But any fugitive or beggar or pirate can sing and tell stories if he has the gift. The people of the Heroic Age did so, and have been the cause of song and stories to others ever afterwards.

It was a time evidently of intense experience and terrible ordeals. A time of “exultations, agonies,” in some senses of “love,” and, above all, “of man’s unconquerable mind.” Think of a child’s sand castle, built slowly and carefully, with moats and battlements, and then of the great moment when the tide storms in, and the work of hours is swept away in as many minutes. Think of the slow laying and preparation of some elaborate fuse which is to set off a firework, and the moment when the fuse is touched and all goes up in flame. If it is true that, for poetry and romance, if for nothing else, “one crowded hour of glorious life” has a value not to be estimated in terms of ordinary experience, then one can see why the heroic ages, with all their misery and brutality and impoverishment, have been so intensely precious to later generations.

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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