The Classical Tradition in Poetry, Chapter VII (Part 2)

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 second of three posts 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.


For what, after all, is great poetry about? There is poetry about drinking and feasting, and art, and pretty faces, and clothes and gardens and jewels and ornaments, and all kinds of pleasant things. There is poetry about dreams and fantasies, about enchanted princesses who fall in love with one, and magic swords with which one cuts off the legs of giants, and purses which are never empty, and the like. The Mediaeval and Celtic traditions were largely reared upon such fare. There is the poetry of allegory and mysticism, of theology and philosophy—even of social aspiration and political controversy. There may be beauty in all these things. But the great poetry of the world, especially the poetry of the classical tradition, is ultimately about the human soul; and not about its mere fortunes, but its doings. We noticed above the subjects of the ancient communal Dance and Song, from which Greek poetry seems to be derived: Love, Strife, Death, and that which is beyond Death. These things, and the way in which man comports himself toward them, are the subjects which the Heroic Age provides for poetry; to these belong “the deeds of men of old,” and, even more sharply perhaps, in contrast with tamer and happier ages, “the immortal gifts of the Gods and the endurances of men.”

These facts are sometimes stated as if an age or society was poetical merely because it was lawless and full of crime; as if a noble life was a prosaic thing, and a selfish or licentious life beautiful. Any such conception is, I think, a mere muddle. The interesting thing is noble living; it is the only thing that really uplifts and thrills and stimulates. Nothing is so flat and boring to contemplate as the kind of man who cannot resist any temptation because he has no strength in him; who can never tell the truth or pay his debts or keep his promise or refrain from getting drunk or being envious or spiteful. He is not even comic. To get any value at all out of the bad man, you have to give him some startling goodness in the midst of his trumpery, so as to enjoy the effect of contrast. The cruel man shows some singular faithfulness or lovingkindness; the thief behaves with some keen sense of honour; the drunken rake remembers his mother and turns chivalrous; and out come all our pocket-handkerchiefs. The “goodness” may sometimes, no doubt, be of a superficial kind. There are some people who are so much interested in clothes that they will be thrilled by a Renaissance villain because he has one pink leg and one blue; but these are exceptions, and not important exceptions. As a rule, it is not wickedness that is interesting. The real advantage of wickedness is that it puts goodness to the test. And the special advantage of a lawless and violent age is not merely that it gives scope to passion, but that it gives the real virtues a chance of proving their mettle. In a well-policed modern city there is generally no means of knowing whether a particular law-abiding man is really, as the Greeks would say, “Brave, wise, temperate, and just.” He may be so, but he may be merely drifting along the line of least resistance and not daring to take risks. Whereas an Abdiel,

faithful found,
Among the faithless faithful only he,
Among innumerable false unmoved,
Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified,

owes much of his value to his bad companions.

So in the Iliad Achilles’ sense of honour may be rather an unreasonable one, but still his defiance of Agamemnon in Book I, rejecting all worldly advantages rather than submit to dishonour, is stirring, and in its way noble. The refusal of the gifts in Book IX shows the same spirit intensified. The sending of Patroclus in Book XVI is a conflict between obstinacy and chivalry. The utter misery and self-reproach at Patroclus’ death leads up to the fury of his revenge—a revenge, it must be remembered, which he knows will cost his own life, so that it is, amid all its cruelty, generous. But two scenes at the end have especially the full spirit of the Heroic Age in them. First the scene in which the mortally wounded Hector speaks to Achilles:

“ ‘I beseech thee by thy life and by thy knees and by thy parents leave me not for the dogs to eat beside the ships of the Achaeans, but take the store of bronze and gold that my parents will bring to thee, and give back my body that the Trojans and the wives of the Trojans may lay it upon the fire.’

“And swift-footed Achilles answered scowling: ‘Dog, talk not to me of knees nor parents! Would that my heart would let me hack thy flesh and eat thee raw, for the deed thou hast done to me. Not any one shall save thee from the dogs—not if they bring hither a ransom ten and twenty fold, and weigh it out, and promise more beside; no, not if Priam bade buy thee for thy weight in gold. Thy mother shall not lay thee in thy bed nor lament for her child. The dogs and the birds shall devour every part of thee.’

“And Hector of the glancing helm spake as he died: ‘I look upon thee, and I know thee well. I was not like to persuade thee, for the heart is iron in thy breast. Beware lest I be a wrath of god upon thee, on that day when Paris and Phoebus Apollo shall slay thee in all thy valour by the Scaean Gates.’

“The end of death encompassed him as he spake; and the soul went out from his limbs, and flew toward the House of Hades, wailing for her doom, leaving youth and manhood behind. And Achilles spake over the dead:

“ ‘Lie thou dead; I will accept my doom when Zeus sendeth it.’ ” [Iliad, XXII, 337 ff.]

Achilles tries for days to slake his rage and his misery by insults to the dead body. Afterwards Priam comes with the ransom, makes his way unseen into his enemy’s tent, and suddenly kisses Achilles’ hand and kneels before him:

“ ‘Forget not the Gods, Achilles, and have pity on me, remembering thine own father, for I am more miserable than he; and I have endured what no other mortal hath endured on earth, that I should put to my lips the hand of him who slew my son.’

“He spake, and waked in Achilles the desire of weeping. And he took the old man’s hand and put him gently from him. And they wept together bitterly, as the old man sunken at Achilles’ feet remembered red-handed Hector, and he thought of his own father, and again of Patroclus. And the noise of their weeping went through the room.”

It is not the rage and cruelty that move us; but if they were not there, we should not be moved so much. It is strength of will, and love and honour, and the independence of the individual soul. It would need very little change in the above scene to make it fit into the starkest parts of a tragic Icelandic saga. The language is more artistic in the Greek, and the tenderness more outspoken. But the incident and the passions might belong to any heroic age.

This imaginative dependence on the Heroic Age goes far, I would suggest, to explain one of the great characteristics of the classical style: that is, its reserve and truthfulness. A French critic has pungently said of the Romantic school that the characteristic of Romanticism, “c’est le faux.” As contrasted with the classic style, Romanticism is never happy unless it exaggerates. Dumas’s Antony, when annoyed, drives his dagger through an oaken table. Victor Hugo’s Hernani offers people his head, but refuses to take his hat off. So certain Celtic heroes fight for thirty days on end, with no intervals for meals. Others are apt to have magic accoutrements, which enable them to do things never done on earth. The troubadour Rudel devotes his whole life to the Princess of Tripoli, whom he has never seen or spoken to, but loves desperately on the strength of a miniature and a verbal description.

I am not saying that these things do not produce very charming poetry; but I think they differ in one definite way from the manner of the Heroic Age. They are the inventions of people who either have no experience of the things they write about, or are not genuinely interested in them as real things. They are fantastic because the authors and audiences like dreaming; they describe impossible acts of valour because a lady in her bower, making up an imaginary hero, may just as well have one who routs a hundred antagonists as one who, like a real Northern hero, with difficulty baffles and escapes from three. The manner of the Heroic Age is that of poets who know what they are describing and audiences who know the thing that is being talked about. The battles in Homer, for instance, are numerous and detailed; the single combats and the exact wounds are fully described. Yet there is not a single “Aristeia” which is plainly impossible or fantastic; there is not a single Gargantuan blow or unnatural wound. It is all close to fact: as close, almost, as the Icelandic sagas. There are, of course, a few interventions of gods to explain how some one escaped when he really seemed done for, or how a beaten party inexplicably rallied. There are also in two places actual battles between the gods themselves. But even here there is nothing impossible or fantastic to a public which believed in the gods and thought it likely enough that, some generations back, they had intervened in human affairs more than they do now. Probably many a stout practical soldier in the fifth century B.C., and for a good two thousand years later, was quite disposed to think that the interference of gods or angels or the like afforded the only possible explanation of certain odd incidents within his own experience.

The same “sophrosynê,” the same temperance and sobriety of invention, lasts on through the whole of classical Greek literature. Supernatural incidents occur in it, because people still believed that they occurred in real life. But while the gods, of course, behave like gods, the men and women behave like real men and women. The language is so free from bombast and exaggeration that it generally disappoints a modern reader, accustomed to the habitual over-emphasis of modern fiction, not to speak of newspapers and advertisements. The Roman writers indulge increasingly in exaggeration, but in Greek literature the fashion set by the poetry of the Heroic Age lasts on almost unbroken to the end.

Again, a great mark of early literatures and simple societies is the habit of telling a story with little or no moral comment or psychological explanation from the story-teller. Homer hardly ever comments on the behaviour of his actors. He describes their actions, and that is enough. It is the same in the sagas; and most of us, in our childhood, have felt a little puzzled by a similar absence of comment in the early books of the Bible. In origin, no doubt, this reticence may be due to the fact that primitive people have neither the necessary categories of thought nor the necessary vocabulary for making much ethical or psychological comment. They get their meaning across the footlights much more effectively and correctly by stating exactly what happened, and selecting among the things that happened those that are really important. To a modern reader, accustomed to the minute psychological interest of the contemporary novel and its crowded masses of small but significant detail, this habit of mentioning only facts, and only the great facts, gives to ancient literature an air of hardness and externality; he misses something that is warm and intimate and revealing.

It is like the difference between a crowded world in which a thousand interests, jostle and obliterate one another, and a world in which a man’s eyes see one landscape and his mind is filled by one or two main thoughts. Think of the methods which are necessary in the western world to heal some small misunderstanding between two modern governments, or bodies much less important than governments—the innumerable conversations and memoranda and minutes and diplomatic notes and banquets and polite phrases and cautious circumlocutions. And compare with them the following account, by an English eyewitness, of the renunciation of a long blood feud between two Arab tribes. “The two Sheikhs, each followed by his suite of tribesmen, advanced slowly, but without greeting, to meet one another. They stood still for some time, and then one Sheikh said: ‘Is it enough?’ The other looked back towards his followers and gathered an impression from their faces; then turned and said gravely, ‘It is enough.’” As a matter of fact, the deaths on the two sides were just equal, so that honour was satisfied. That thought was in every mind. And no doubt there were, in the minds of the two chiefs, as in those of various of their followers, all sorts of considerations and germs of feeling for which they simply had no words and did not feel that words were needed. They selected just the words which really mattered.

It is curious how this characteristic of the Heroic Age lingers on as a deliberate point of style even in fifth-century Athens, at a time when Socrates and Euripides were filling the city with eager disputants about the nature of righteousness and the real springs of human conduct. Drama, it is true, psychologizes; it would hardly be drama if it did not. But even drama in the fifth century was extremely sparing in its comments, and seldom labelled its characters “good” and “bad.” Thucydides, who is not a poet but a historian, abstains so rigorously from comment on the actions of his characters that his real opinions are still subjects of doubt and discussion among critics. On the whole, it is in the essence of the classic tradition that the poet himself, though, he tells you what his characters did and what they said, does not tell what he himself thinks; and similarly, even in producing effects of high emotion or ecstasy, he remains in command of his own feelings.

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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