The Classical Tradition in Poetry, Chapter 1 [concluded]

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


At any rate, the thrill of nature, like the thrill of romantic love, is an essential element in the Greek tradition.

In Milton, then, it almost seems as if the occasional marked “classicisms,” using that word to denote the striking and unusual imitations of Latin or Greek usage, were so conspicuous as really to divert a reader’s attention from the main stream of classical tradition flowing through him. And it is the main stream that matters. Let us take the great antithesis to Milton in this matter, who is supposed to represent the English tradition at its freest, most removed from the learned or Graeco-Roman influence—Shakespeare. It will not be fair to take his poems: they are as deeply dyed in classical sources as Milton. The verse is strict; the diction poetic; the allusions, to an almost tiresome degree, mythological. We must take his plays, where the style, evidently of set purpose, is much looser and nearer to spoken language. And among the plays it would not be fair to take the definitely classical plays, like Julius Caesar, nor yet, on the other hand, the more trivial or fanciful comedies. The classical tradition shows best in the greatest works; let us take the opening scene of Hamlet.

First, there is the form of the composition. It is a “tragedy,” a form invented by the Greeks; and written in five acts because in Shakespeare’s time Greek tragedies were commonly believed to be so divided. And, like Greek tragedy, though it represents conversation, it is written in regular verse, and that verse iambic in character. The subject of a Greek tragedy is, without exception, taken from history, and almost always from remote and legendary history, away from the tyranny of exact information. It is never invented by the poet. It is practically always about kings, queens, and princes. Hamlet follows all these rules. We may also notice that Greek tragedy was never bound by narrow patriotic interests; the Athenian poet chose his subject indifferently in Argos, or Thebes, or wherever he might find it. So Shakespeare, though he also wrote a series of English historical plays, in his greatest works is as free as the Greeks. Here he chooses the royal family in the legendary history of Denmark.

The subject itself is a strange one: the old Hamlet having been murdered by a younger kinsman, his wife seduced, and his crown taken, his son is urged by supernatural warnings to avenge his father and eventually does so; but, overpowered by the horror of the situation, and especially by his feeling toward his mother, he becomes deranged in mind on the way. This is not only the regular tragic sequence of Old King, Young King, or Enemy, and Third King, or Deliverer: it is exactly the story of Orestes, the most typical hero of Greek tragedy. The father of Orestes also was murdered by a younger kinsman, his wife seduced, and his crown taken; Orestes is urged by supernatural warnings to avenge his father; he also eventually does so; but, overpowered by the horror of the situation, he also becomes deranged in mind on the way. The differences and similarities in detail are very striking, but these I propose to discuss more fully in a later chapter. Let us now take the actual opening of Hamlet—a very beautiful and famous scene.

A platform before a Castle at Elsinore; a sentry watching in the night. Just so the Oresteia of Aeschylus opens on a platform before—or above—the Castle of the Atreidae at Argos, where a sentry is watching in the night. Aeschylus then proceeds to explain the situation in a soliloquy of the Watchman; Shakespeare, following the practice of the later Greek tragedians, has, instead of the soliloquy, a dialogue between soldiers. The dialogue between two servants or retainers as a method of exposition seems to have been started in the Medea of Euripides, and has remained a favourite device ever since.

Shakespeare can use three speakers instead of two; and his verse is composed on a looser model than that of Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides, unless indeed we consider the unfinished Iphigenia in Aulis of the last-named. That play initiated a movement toward freer and more colloquial dialogue, a movement developed afterwards with wonderful grace and daring by Menander, and copied much more loosely and heavily by Plautus. One might say that Shakespeare was just continuing the Menandrian tradition, and carrying it a step or two further.

At line 41, while it is still night, “Enter the Ghost.” A large number of our extant Greek tragedies begin with some supernatural being, a god or a ghost, in the darkness before dawn; after this being’s departure there are usually some lines calling attention to the break of day:

But look, the morn in russet mantle clad
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill;


Hark, the sun’s first ray
Awakens the clear song of morning birds,
And the dark revel of the stars is still.

Shakespeare says one, Sophocles [Electra, 1. 17] the other; and, as it happens, it is the modern poet, not the ancient, who personifies and gives human form to the goddess of dawn.

Shakespeare’s Ghost first enters after forty-one lines; most Greek ghosts or gods like to be there at the beginning, though the Ghost of Clytemnestra in the Oresteia enters at line 94 and departs at 139. Still, Shakespeare’s Ghost, with its two entries and exits, moves a good deal more freely than the fifth-century ghosts, and more like those of the New Comedy.

The language of this scene is, of course, free from the elaborate classicisms which add dignity to the verse of Milton; for this is the language of a play, and a play, as Aristotle, observes, must keep close to real life. It is meant to be spoken and to be rapidly understood. Some few phrases remind one of a Greek or Latin source—the dating of an incident, not by clocks or hours, but by the stars:

When yon same star that’s westward from the pole;

a deliberately Greek periphrasis for “the late King”:

That fair and warlike form
Wherein the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometime march;

references to “the Fates” and “an omen”: to

the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands;

and to the various signs and portents which boded the death of Julius Caesar,

when the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets

—which they did, doubtless, because of those ghosts who “squeaked in thin voices like bats” in the Odyssey [Odyssey, XXIV, 6]. But I keep further details for a later chapter.

Of course there is no suggestion here of denying or minimizing the great differences of style and treatment which separate Shakespeare from his antique predecessors: the greater length of the play, the variety of incidents, the number of characters, the free admission of irrelevant matter, the lavish use of ornament and quip and quibble, the great flexibility with which the Elizabethan moves in and out of the tragic legendary world to visit the common world of to-day. Still less, I trust, will anyone imagine that this insistence on the element of tradition in Shakespeare, and still more in Milton, affects in the smallest degree the greatness of either poet’s genius. It is one of the very feeblest of critical errors to suppose that there is a thing called “originality,” which consists in having no models. I have merely tried to show, first, that in an author of markedly classical leanings, like Milton, there is, besides the obvious classicisms, a great mass of classical influence—that is, extremely ancient traditional influence—which passes unnoticed; and next, that the same is true of a very different author, such as Shakespeare, who is commonly supposed to represent the opposite tendency. But we remain confronted by the difficulty that, when we try to reckon up the amount of unnoticeable and perhaps unconscious classical influence that exists in these authors, we have no proper instrument for detecting it. We do not really know what we are looking for. We can see the classicism that stands out as alien against the ordinary style of English poetry; but how are we to recognize the elements in that ordinary style which are the direct though unconscious fruit of ancient influence and have been in poetry from the beginning?

To answer this question, it may be helpful to begin at the other end, and try to discover what the origin of poetry, as known to the European or Mediterranean world, really was, and what elements seem to have been essential to it. If that can be made out, we shall gain some conception of the sort of subject, language, style, method, and spirit that originally made poetry, and that constitute its classical or permanent tradition; we may also observe the sort of variation from norm which has, at different times, for one reason or another, been tried and found unsatisfactory, or at least impermanent.

[End of Chapter.]

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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