The Classical Tradition in Poetry, Chapter 1 (cont’d)

Having published my “Apology for Poetry” in the first three posts and, most recently, the first of three comprising Chapter I of Gilbert Murray’s great work, The Classical Tradition in Poetry, I present the second Murray post below. 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 I


Later on [in Milton’s Paradise Lost], we find many speeches beginning in a very peculiar way, with a formal address followed by the word “for” or “since”:

Powers and Dominions, Deities of Heav’n,
For, since no deep within her gulf can hold
Immortal vigor, though opprest and fall’n,
I give not Heav’n for lost. From this descent, etc.;
(II, 11)


Native of Heav’n, for other place
None can than Heav’n such glorious shape contain.
(V, 361)

Why does he write thus? Because this opening is a well-known mannerism of Homer, regularly noted by the scholiasts.

Elsewhere, though this form is not observed, speeches generally begin with some similar classical turn, like the magnificent first words of Satan to Beelzebub:

If thou beest he; But O how fall’n! how changed.

Turn from speeches to similes: there is a well-known peculiarity of Homeric similes, that when the poet says that A is like B, he proceeds to describe B in detail, adding points about it which have nothing to do with A. For example, Athena makes a light to blaze from Achilles’ helmet:

As from an island city, seen afar,
The smoke goes up to heaven, when foes besiege,
And all day long in grievous battle strive
The leaguered townsmen from their city wall:
But soon at set of sun, blaze after blaze,
Flame forth the beacon fires, and high the glare
Leaps, that in other islands they that see
Perchance may launch their ships and come to save.
(Iliad, XVIII, 208)

Just so Milton, when comparing Satan stretched on the burning flood to Leviathan, goes on to describe how “the pilot of some small night-foundered skiff” is apt to mistake the sleeping Leviathan for an island and to cast anchor in the lee of him—all of which has nothing to do with Satan.

Sometimes, further, one of these added details is made by Homer the starting-point of a new simile; for example:

Out then they two charged and fought in front of the gates, like wild boars on a mountain, who abide the oncoming throng of men and hounds, and charging sidelong break the underwood about them, tearing it rootwise up, and through all else comes the noise of gnashing tusks, till some man strikes and slays them; so came the noise of clashing bronze about their bodies.
(Iliad, XII, 145 ff.)

This usage explains the double simile in Book I, 303. The legions of fiends lying on the burning flood are like the leaves in Vallombrosa,

or scatterd sedge
Afloat, when with fierce winds Orion arm’d
Hath vext the Red-Sea coast, whose waves orethrew
Busiris and his Memphian chivalrie,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d
The sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore their floating carkases
And broken chariot wheels, so thick bestrown,
Abject and lost lay these, covering the flood,
Under amazement of their hideous change.

From Homer, too, comes the effective use of repetitions (Book XI, 259 ff.; cf. 48, 97 f.) of phrases, or of particular lines like

Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Vertues, Powers.
(X, 460)

Even more marked are the un-English, but often beautiful, turns of syntax: like Adam’s words,

O miserable of happie! is this the end . . .
Accurst of blessed.
(X, 720)

Dust I am, and shall to dust returne;
O welcom hour, whenever!’’
(X, 771)

Yet one doubt
Pursues me still, least all I cannot die.
(X, 782)

Sometimes these are heaped one upon another till the sentence must be difficult to understand for those who do not know Greek and Latin:

Unwarie, and too desirous, as before,
So now of what thou know’st not, who desir’st
The punishment all on thyself; alas,
Beare thine own first, ill able to sustaine
His full wrauth whose thou feelst as yet lest part,
And my displeasure bearst so ill.
(X, 947)

After this, one scarcely notices the Greek idiom of

Adam the goodliest man of men since born
His sons, the fairest of her daughters Eve;
(IV, 323)

or Satan’s words to Gabriel:

Then, when I am thy captive, talk of chains;
(IV, 970)


Whom thus the Angelic Vertue answer’d milde;
(V, 371)

To whom the Virgin Majestie of Eve.
(IX, 270)

These tropes and turns of syntax show more markedly Milton’s intimate dependence on classical tradition than the many direct references to incidents in ancient poetry which are obvious throughout Paradise Lost, such as the famous lines about the infernal architect:

Men called him Mulciber; and how he fell
From Heav’n, they fabl’d, thrown by angry Jove
Sheer o’re the chrystal battlements: from morn
To noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve,
A summers day; and with the setting sun
Dropt from the zenith like a falling star,
On Lemnos th’ Aegaean ile;
(I, 740)


Enna, where Proserpin gathring flours
Her self a fairer floure, by gloomie Dis
Was gatherd;
(IV, 269)

or Satan sitting on the tree like a cormorant (IV, 196: cf. Iliad, VII, 60, Odyssey, V, 51); or the martial games of the Angels and Devils (II, 528, IV, 550: cf. Aeneid, VII, 162, Iliad, II, 774); or Eve, like Narcissus, looking at her reflection in the water (IV, 460); or the nine-days fall of the rebel host (VI, 872: cf. [Hesiod’s] Theogony, 722 ff.); or the nectar that flows from an angelic wound, as ichor from the wound of Aphrodite (VI, 332: cf. Iliad, V, 340); or the myrrh and cassia and nard and balm which grow in the Garden, not because Milton had ever seen them growing on earth, but because they grew in ancient poetry; or the tremendous chariot-charge of the Messiah in Book VI, when “O’er shields and helms and helmed heads he rode,” not because it was specially consonant with his Messianic character, but because Achilles in Book XX of the Iliad had made a chariot-charge just like that; or the sudden turn to the second person in a hymn to the Almighty,—“Thee, Father, first they sang” (III, 371),—because there is an exactly similar turn to the second person in a hymn to Hercules in the Aeneid [VIII, 293].

More really significant as signs of the deep saturation of Milton’s mind with the tradition of ancient poetry are the passages where there is no concrete allusion to anything classical, but only a shade of thought or feeling, or even of rhythm, which comes to the classical scholar with the inward music of the old world:

whereon Jacob saw
Angels ascending and descending, bands
Of guardians bright, when he from Esau fled
To Padan-Aram in the field of Luz,
Dreaming by night under the open skie,
And waking cri’d, “This is the Gate of Heav’n.”
(III, 510)

There is the same vivid classical influence in lines like the Stoic sententia:

To mee who with eternal famin pine,
Alike is Hell or Paradise or Heaven;
(X, 597)


Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth;
(IV, 677)


Unshak’n, unseduc’d, unterrifi’d;
(V, 896)


O Woods, O Fountains, Hillocks, Dales and Bowrs;
(X, 860)

or in the several descriptions of dawn and sunset, as much as there is in

All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome. (I, 107)

In the last line, no doubt, the average English reader is conscious of a shock to his expectations and will recognize something exotic; in the others he will notice nothing, the classical influence has sunk so deep, both into his consciousness and into the habits of English poetry.

Here, as in the rest of life, the unconscious and unnoticed influence of tradition is vastly more widespread than that which strikes the mind. Is there any possible way in which we can estimate that unconscious influence?

Perhaps a critic would usually think first of the judgements uttered about poetry in the Poetics [of Aristotle], and would consider how far Milton was guided by them. Aristotle’s first demand is for unity of action; an epic poem should have definite construction, so that the whole of it is about the same subject, like the Iliad or the Odyssey or a good Greek tragedy; it must not form a mere collection of amusing episodes, like the Kalevala or the Decameron, or a modern revue. This is certainly a quality of Paradise Lost. One might also quote Aristotle for the approval of a special style of diction suitable for poetry, and differing both in vocabulary and in style from the ordinary language of conversation or of businesslike prose. Here, too, Milton is classical; as the late Sir Walter Raleigh has shown, he is the very originator of the current “poetic diction” of the ages that followed him. Again, Aristotle implies, though he never states it in so many words, a view of metre extremely different from that current in popular English or German poetry. He assumes, as a matter of course, that the rules of the metre in which he writes will be known and unerringly observed by the poet; he assumes also that the quantity of every syllable—long, short, or doubtful—will be definitely known, and that, whatever variety of metrical effect the poet may produce or aim at, it must always be a variety inside the rules of the art. Here, also, Milton, among English writers of blank verse, is conspicuously exact and wonderful in his varied music. There is perhaps one more “classical” quality which we can definitely derive from Aristotle: that is, the quality of being “heroic,” or dealing with characters and actions and experiences which are, as he puts it, “greater than ourselves.” The kind of poetry to which Aristotle gives the name of tragic—for he includes the Iliad under that head—deals habitually with kings, and gods, and “heroes,” which is only the early Greek name for the mighty dead. And should anyone object that a king may not be a hero, or indeed any “greater” in character than a bootblack, Aristotle’s answer would be merely that, of course, that sort of king is not a fit subject for heroic poetry.

After that, if we try to observe further the sort of characteristics that belong to Milton and also belong markedly to the Greek tradition in poetry, we shall have to leave Aristotle and notice some of the qualities which he did not consider worth mentioning, he took them so completely for granted. One is a vivid consciousness of values, of what is good or bad, high or low, right or wrong; a complete absence of the cynical or merely realistic spirit, which either does not feel disgust when its heroes or heroines act disgustingly, or is actually amused and pleased at making them do so. One whole tragedy of Sophocles hinges on the problem whether a young man will, or will not, tell a bad lie because he is ordered to do so; and quite a number of tragedies are concerned with the problem of Orestes’ duty toward his father and mother. This attitude is, as it were, stiffened and exaggerated in the Puritan poet, with his overwhelming sense of the importance of acting rightly or wrongly, and his conviction that Sin is the mother of Death.

Two other characteristics of Greek poetry are less conspicuous in Milton, but, if one looks, are to be found in him. Lafcadio Hearn observes that one of the difficulties which the Japanese feel in appreciating English poetry is the immense—and to their minds unpleasant—importance which our poets attach to love between man and woman. Indians are said to feel the same difficulty. Our preoccupation with the subject may well be criticized; it is certainly often extravagant and morbid. But there can be no doubt that it belongs to the Greek tradition. Greek myth is full of love-stories where love is not a trivial but a tragic thing; where disappointed lovers die, or persistent lovers go through long ordeals; where maidens kill themselves to preserve their virginity, or because they have lost it; and where the observance of some rule of chastity leads to bliss, or its breach to disaster. This motive was, for various reasons, so immensely developed and exaggerated in the Middle Ages and in the Romantic Movement, that nineteenth-century writers fell into the habit of regarding romantic love as a modern invention with which the ancients did not sympathize; but such a view will not bear a moment’s reflection. It cannot be maintained that the ancient poets and artists abstained from the romantic idealization of woman—Homer and the vase-paintings and the concepts of such goddesses as Athena and Artemis disprove such a view. It cannot be maintained that women did not express their feelings: Sappho shows that they did. The truth probably is that something which in a large sense may be called the Romantic Movement began in Greece, but, partly because it was only beginning and partly because of the restraint and truthfulness that was natural to Greek art, it was free from those intensities and extravagances of sensibility which it developed, for example, in the Vita Nuova of Dante, or the novels of George Sand. It arose, also, in protest against that extremely unromantic and matter-of-fact view of woman which was probably normal in the stage of civilization out of which the Hellenic movement rose, and which still remains usual outside the narrow limits of the cultured Western or Hellenic tradition. And, lastly, we must always remember that, in the ancient world, when emotion rose above a certain degree of intensity, it regularly expressed itself, not as literature, but as religion. Why invent stories or compose rhapsodies about inspired and angelic young women, when it was so much easier to sing hymns to the Muse or the nymph Egeria, to Artemis or Pallas Athena? The same thought throws light on another subject where modern criticism has notoriously gone astray. The Greeks are said not to have possessed our sensitive appreciation of the beauties of nature. The truth seems to be that our sensitiveness to nature is simply the old ecstasy of nature-worship sublimated and devitalized. Wordsworth wished, in his rapture, that he could catch sight of Proteus rising from the sea,

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

But the old Greeks, in their rapture, simply did so. Where we write long descriptions of the beauty of some mountain scene, they trudged to the mountain-top at dawn and gave sacrifice. Only gradually, as the cruder nature-worship died away, did the poets begin to describe natural beauty with much detail: there are flashes in Sophocles and Euripides, exquisite pictures later in Theocritus, and eventually, toward the fall of Greek literature, elaborate descriptions in the novelists, Heliodorus and Longus. I speak with insufficient knowledge, but it seems to me that the long descriptions of nature in such mediaeval romances as Aucassin and Nicolette or even the Romaunt of the Rose are modelled, at one or two removes, on these late Greek novelists.

[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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