The Classical Tradition in Poetry, Chapter 1

Having published my “Apology for Poetry” in the last three posts, I shall herewith share selected chapters from Gilbert Murray’s great work, The Classical Tradition in Poetry, which appeared in 1927 and comprised his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University. Chapter I will appear in this post and the next two. It is within the classical tradition that I composed my plays, The Tragedy of King Lewis the Sixteenth and Dido: The Tragedy of a Woman (both available on I invite you to acquire them as new works written in a mode perennial at least from the time of Homer, the great headwater of Western literature.

Chapter I


Some seventy years ago, a traveller in the Australian bush, riding up at nightfall to a solitary wooden cabin in the district between the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers, would have found the owner sitting alone at a rough and frugal dinner, in complete evening dress. He wore evening dress for the sake of its associations, because he and his people had done so at home. It was to him part of a tradition of thought and conduct and social atmosphere which he valued and which he felt himself to be in danger of losing. He wore it with emphasis and deliberately, though it was, in his present circumstances, a habit both unusual and inconvenient.

For somewhat similar reasons he ordered regularly from London a large chest of books, the recent books that were there considered most interesting and important. He did this because at home his people had usually had the most interesting recent books, as they came out. That also was part of the tradition, though, of course, he also valued the books themselves.

These two observances of tradition, no doubt, excited notice and comment from the man’s neighbours. This was because they stood out as unusual; they were not of a piece with the ordinary texture of life in that neighbourhood. But the man was at the same time doing innumerable other things for exactly the same reason, except that he did them unconsciously and without effort; and all the people about him, without exception, were doing the same. He wore clothes, except for a few changes due to climate or circumstances, formed on the model of the clothes he had worn at home. He had his hair cut the same way; he used a sponge and a toothbrush and a saucer bath, as a matter of course and without ever reflecting what extremely curious instruments they all were. He spoke English, and spoke it with an aristocratic and slightly Irish accent. He practised a religion which to many of his neighbours seemed highly erroneous; he had distinguished and somewhat ceremonious manners. And there were other practices beyond number which he followed not because he had thought them out or had found them specially convenient, but because they formed parts of his whole inherited tradition and no compelling reason had arisen for throwing them off. He was conscious of the tradition only when it conflicted with daily convenience or with the new customs among which he found himself. Otherwise the whole of his normal life was shaped and determined by the ways in which his family, neighbours, and ancestors had lived, long before, on the other side of the world.

Meanwhile his average neighbours in the bush probably thought of him as very “conservative” or dependent on convention, because of his English books and his evening dress, whereas in the countless ordinary actions of life they were fully as dependent on tradition as he. Indeed, they were more so; because, for one thing, he was a thoughtful man, a leader and a pioneer, who often consciously devised new methods to meet new conditions, and also because, in many of the cases where he followed tradition, he chose carefully the tradition that he wished to follow. The mass of them acted without any thought or selection at all, and followed the manners of speech and thought and behaviour which happened to be prevalent at that date between the Murray and the Murrumbidgee. Tradition really held sway over all of them. But there was a difference in the attitude of different people toward the tradition. All were bound by it. But to most men, at any rate to those of the lower type, it was an unconscious bondage. They spoke and ate and smoked and spat in the ways to which their fathers had been accustomed, because it had never occurred to them to do otherwise. They made and laughed at the same jokes, because it is notoriously difficult to make, or to see, new ones. They mostly resented innovations, at any rate when they involved effort. But they had no deep basis of conviction to prevent them from following the line of least resistance.

To the man in evening dress, on the other hand, the tradition represented an ideal. The tradition expected him to be an educated man and a gentleman, to keep his word, to control his desires and passions, and as part and parcel of the same attitude, to sit down as clean at his meals in the remote bush as he would in his father’s house. And all kinds of small things which were associated with that ideal were dear to him for its sake, as a man may love some indifferent sound or smell because it is associated with his home or childhood. The tradition represented a memory which he loved and was proud of, and to which he intended to be true. No doubt he idealized it, and thought of it as something finer than in practice it had really been.

Of course there is always the possibility, or rather the certainty, in ordinary civilized life, that in some points the tradition may be, not too high, but too low for a man’s critical conscience. He will then consciously rebel against it because he wants to raise the standard, and reform things. But, so far as I know, that question did not often occur in the society of which I am speaking. The question there was between trying and not trying to live up to a standard which was difficult to maintain, among people who had mostly lost or never possessed the sense of it. To a visitor from another planet or another civilization, the difference between my hero and his neighbours would have been very small. They were all living according to the habits and ways of thought which they had derived from their ancestors on the other side of the world. But the average feeling was: “One need not be so particular here as at home, thank goodness!” His feeling was: “I was once a better man than this, and living among better men. I must not fall below the old standard.”

The parallel may help us to understand the effect of the classical tradition in English poetry. I mean particularly the Graeco-Roman element in that tradition; for in the full sense the classical tradition is the whole stream which comes down from the ancient civilizations and gives form and unity to our own; a stream which comes from Greece, through the Roman Empire, through Christianity, with affluents from the pre-Christian Hebrew and the barbaric North. The Hebrew tradition is in practice often more familiar, though inwardly less akin to us, than the Greek; the Northern stands beside the Greek in epic and heroic quality. But the Graeco-Roman element forms the main stream. It comes from great minds. It is a stream from which commonness has been strained away. It has formed the higher intelligence of Europe. At the same time it is ubiquitous and unescapable. Even the librettist of musical comedy, even the bombastic mob orator, is under the spell of it, though he has assimilated only those parts of it which come easy to him and eluded all that he felt to be difficult or “above people’s heads.” The poets of the higher style—Milton, Pope, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne—accept the classical, and especially the Greek, tradition as an ideal which they love and to which, however they may adapt and develop it, they endeavour to be faithful. It will help us to understand what this tradition is, if we consider it first in an extreme and obvious form, and then, so to speak, in a disguised form, where it is overgrown and hidden by new matter. I will take it first in Milton, and then—more briefly—in Shakespeare.

Every reader can see that Milton—apart from his Hebrew elements, which I am not now considering—is steeped in Greek and Latin literature; he makes direct classical allusions, he uses peculiar Latin or Greek words and phrases; still more, he frames the syntax of his sentences on a model which is rather Latin than English, or at least which belongs by right to a highly inflected language, not to one whose inflections have mostly decayed; to a greater degree still he uses tropes and turns of speech which he could never have used unless he had learned them in Greek or Latin poetry; and even his treatment of metre is demonstrably influenced by classical rules and feelings. But we can go into the matter more closely than this. The whole form of his great poem, an “epic” divided into twelve “books,” is directly taken from the form of Vergil, as Vergil took that from Homer; and we know that Milton doubted long whether to adopt this form or the still more marked and characteristic form of a Greek tragedy. Even his subject, which no doubt he thought to be Christian or Hebraic, consists of an old Greek subject, the Titanomachia, or Battle of the Gods and Titans, intertwined with, or followed by, the story of the Fall in Genesis. There was no genuine Hebrew legend about Satan: Milton’s hero, though bearing the Hebrew name of Satan, is really Greek—part Typhon and part Prometheus. And it is perhaps noteworthy also how, on the whole, the later books of Paradise Lost, where the poet is following Christian and Hebrew originals, are inferior to the earlier books, in which he was more free to indulge his natural love for Greek memories. But let us look at some of these points in detail.

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal tast
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heav’nly Muse.

This long period, with the verb at the end, is in the manner of the Latin epic: the subject of the poem is stated in the first words in an oblique case, with the verb of narrating left to follow when it will, just as it is in Vergil, Lucan, Statius, and others, who take it from the Iliad and Odyssey. The verb, when it comes, is a prayer addressed to a Graeco-Roman goddess, and takes the form of requesting her to “sing,” though, of course, it is really the poet himself who is about to perform, and in the ordinary sense of the word there is no question of anybody singing. There is nothing wrong. In the old poetry which Milton loved, and in which his memory delighted, the Greek or Roman poet was accustomed to think of his poem as something “inspired,” or “breathed into” him, by this goddess, and deliberately to describe it as a “song,” though the word did not denote his own practice, but had come down to him from the practice of ages long before.

It is worth realizing that Milton was quite serious in his prayer to the Muse. He appeals to her in language taken partly from the ancient Stoics, partly from Theocritus (XXII, 116):

Thou, O Spirit, who dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know’st,—

and one is not, or ought not to be, surprised to find that the prayer has passed imperceptibly from the throne of the Muse to that of the Holy Ghost.

He proceeds:

Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb or of Sinai . . .

Why “secret”? Because of a tradition dating from the time when Hesiod’s Muses walked Mount Helicon hidden from mortal eyes in deep mist (Theogony, 8).

But to continue:

Or if Sion’s hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God . . .

Why all these choices, these alternatives? Because the old Greek gods, since each of them was normally an amalgamation of beings worshipped in different tribes or cities, are regularly invoked in that way. You cannot be sure at which of his seats of worship your god will be, and you may be crying to an empty throne. So you call to him in every place. Dozens of instances will occur to the classical scholar: the Apollo who may be at the Spring of Castaly, in the forests of Lycia, or the isles of Delos or Patara; the Nymphs who failed to watch over Daphnis because they were away, perhaps in the mountain valleys of Tempe or perhaps of Pindus . . . .

But, to go back, what did the Muse do on Oreb or on Sinai?

that on the secret top
Of Oreb or of Sinai didst inspire
That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos:

“Inspire”: purely classical. “That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed”: a trick of ancient style, bringing the action more vividly before our minds than would the simple name “Moses.” And what did he teach them? A subject that recurs again and again in ancient poetry, in “Orpheus,” in Hesiod, in Apollonius, in Vergil, of course in Lucretius, even in Aristophanes and Ovid—the greatest, and most mysterious of subjects to teach:

In the beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos.

So he invokes the Muse to give aid to his adventurous song “that with no middle flight” (an ancient poetical phrase) intends to “soar” (the consecrated ancient metaphor) “above the Aonian Mount” (that old Greek mountain where the Muses lived), while it pursues

Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme;

which it does because Horace similarly had uttered

carmina non prius
Audita Musarum sacerdos;
(Odes, III, 1)
[“I, the Muses’ priest, sing songs not heard before.” —Ed.]

because Lucretius had exclaimed,

Avia Pieridum peragro loca, nullius ante
Trita solo;
(De Rerum Natura I, 926, and IV, 1)
[He speaks of “a pleasing love of the Muses, with which inspired I now wander, in vigorous thought, over the trackless regions of the Pierides, not trodden before by any poet.” —Ed.]

and their various models had said much the same before them.

In those first fifteen lines, there is not a phrase, there is hardly a word, which is not made deeper in meaning and richer in fragrance by the echoes it awakens of old memories, old dreams, old shapes of loveliness. Presently (line 33) we find a question and answer:

Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile, etc.,

just because Homer at the beginning of the Iliad had similarly asked and answered:

What God had cast those twain to clash in strife?
The son of Zeus and Leto.
(I, 8)
[To be continued.]

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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