The Classical Tradition in Poetry, Chapter 5 (Part 2)

Having published my “Apology for Poetry” and much of chapters I and II of Gilbert Murray’s great work, The Classical Tradition in Poetry, I am herewith offering the second of three posts representing Chapter V, “Poetic Diction.” Murray here defends the use of poetic diction, including archaic language, which for millennia was taken for granted as integral to the poet’s craft. 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 V


As for Truth, the furthest Aristotle will go is to say that the poem must not be so untrue as to be improbable. “Better to write plausible impossibilities than things improbable and yet true.” Similarly, Wordsworth himself admits—though he thinks the admission dangerous—that poetry is concerned with appearance, not with reality. “Poetry’s appropriate employment, her privilege and her duty, is to treat of things not as they are, but as they appear; not as they exist in themselves, but as they seem to exist to the sense and the passions.” If this is true, the aim of poetry is illusion; what, then, do people mean by claiming with Wordsworth and Shelley that its object is truth, and that it is really a higher kind of knowledge? (3)

I believe that there are two distinct meanings in this claim.

There is, first of all, Aristotle’s famous and much-misunderstood dictum that poetry is “more philosophic and higher than history,” because history merely narrates what happened, poetry narrates “the sort of thing that would happen—probably or inevitably—under given conditions.” (4) That is, a chronicle simply narrates in order of time a number of things which happened to happen; poetry, taking a given situation as a datum, shows the sort of thing that would result from that situation by a process of modified deduction—a deduction which admits the probable as well as the necessary consequence. Poetry is thus nearer to philosophy, which, given certain premisses, shows by strict deduction the necessary conclusions.

Thus it is “history” to write:

1639. Charles marches north to punish the Scots. The East India Company buys land on which it builds Madras. Wroth, Erbery, and Cradock, Welsh clergymen, are deprived of their livings. Horrocks observes the transit of Venus.

Every statement here is true; but they are not causally connected—at least, not within the sphere of the narrative.

Poetry tells us how Pyramus and Thisbe, young lovers living next door to one another in Babylon, were forbidden by their parents to meet, and how they found a crack in the mud wall to whisper through, and what other things they did and suffered in consequence. Every statement is untrue, but all are causally connected, and all represent “the sort of thing that would” result, or be quite likely to result, from that situation.

Thus poetry implies knowledge of human nature and power of generalization. It is “more philosophic” than a mere historical narrative, though Aristotle never for a moment says it is more “true.”

It may, however, show truths and teach truths about life which a plain prose record would miss. Poetry, or, as we should say, fiction, kindles the imagination; and that kindling of the imagination certainly does reveal, or bring to light, facts in life and elements in human nature which the dull eye of ordinary prose does not see. Impassioned scenes of tragedy often strike one, not merely as “true to life,” but as revealing details or elements ordinarily hidden. Take a very simple Old Testament narrative. When Hagar and Ishmael were driven out into the wilderness, “The water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said, ‘Let me not see the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice and wept.”

That is impassioned imaginative narrative. The story may be history or myth or fiction; but whichever it is, there is in it an imaginative or poetical quality which makes one realize more exactly and fully how Hagar felt and acted, or how a woman in Hagar’s position would feel and act. The essential poetry, or use of the imagination, in the narrative makes us see more truth, and so gives us more knowledge. Indeed, the plain fact is that without a lively use of the imagination people understand nothing.

So far there is nothing in the least mystical in our discussion. Poetry aims at illusion or credibility; it must therefore know the sort of thing that people will believe. It makes people use their imagination and observation, and so educates them to see more than they saw before. In this sense, poetry can be said to see and reveal truth.

But there is another sense in which this claim is made, which is stated more clearly and with more philosophic power by Shelley than by Wordsworth, though Wordsworth, I think, meant much the same. We noticed that in the ancient mimetic dances and other forms of ecstatic worship there came a climax in which the worshipper felt himself to be transfigured: his long prayer and effort had borne fruit and he had become identified with his god. Expressions such as, “From man I am become god,” “Thou in me and I in thee,” are typical of this phase. It was accompanied, of course, by other revelations or illusions; and in the result the whole of the worshipper’s life and surroundings were equally transfigured. This ecstasy, or a state of mind resembling this ecstasy, is well known, in one degree or another, to most lovers of poetry and people of keen sensibility. Indeed, most people who are honest with themselves would admit the general truth of Shelley’s description:

“We are aware of evanescent visitations of thought and feeling . . . elevating and delightful beyond all expression. . . . It is, as it were, the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own. Poets are not only subject to these experiences as spirits of the most refined organization, but they can colour all that they combine [that is, all the “combinations” or “compositions” they make] with the evanescent hues of this ethereal world. . . . Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world. . . . Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man.”

So much we can all accept: we recognize, in various degrees, this kind of experience, and admit that great poetry perpetuates it. The question then becomes simply this: is the experience in question an illusion—a subjective experience no less real, but also no more true, than the visions produced by hashish or opium, or any other illusion or dream? Or is it a sort of revelation of the true world of being, of which this ordinary world of phenomena is only a transitory and inadequate image? This last is what Shelley, under the influence of Plato, believed about the world as a whole, and what Wordsworth believed at least in respect of the “spirit of Nature.” Both poets thought that, by poetic ecstasy, they could really discover truth.

Shelley expresses himself clearly on this point: “Poetry strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of all its forms.” And again: “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects to be as they were not familiar.” Thus: “Poetry is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” The doctrine is really a form of Platonism. Are material objects the only reality, and consequently mathematical or scientific laws only so many imperfect generalizations about them? Or is the mathematical law the real, permanent truth, and the various round and square and angular objects which we sit upon and knock against, so many transient and faulty “images” or representations of it? The plain man assumes the first; Plato has convinced himself of the second. If you agree with Plato, it is not difficult to take a further step and agree with Wordsworth and Shelley.

Neither of these great poets could possibly have known the importance which the Môlpe, or ancient communal dance, would eventually acquire in this connexion through the advances of anthropology; but both make use of it to explain the essence of poetry. “The poet, singing a song in which all human beings join him, rejoices in the presence of Truth as our visible friend and hourly companion.” An ancient mystic might say “Dionysus” or Hermes” instead of “Truth”; but otherwise the statement would suit him admirably.

Shelley says more simply: “In the youth of the world men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions . . . a certain rhythm or order.” He goes on to explain that there is one rhythm or order, in each case, which would produce an intenser and purer pleasure than any other. The effort of the dance is to attain this rhythm; it is an effort of “approximation to the beautiful,” and those in whom the faculty of such approximation exists in excess are poets. This is exactly stated; and no one can well deny two other claims that Shelley makes for poetry: that “it makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos,” and that it “defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions.” It breaks, as I have put it elsewhere, the prison walls of the immediate material present.

It may be said that the question which we have just raised, and slurred over, is of vital interest. It makes all the difference whether the poet’s or dancer’s ecstasy is an illusion or a revelation, and a critic has no right to pass the question by. I shall come back to it in a later chapter. For the present, I can only say that the Classical Tradition has never pronounced itself: both views are in the canon of great poetry. The question itself, apart from its metaphysical side, takes one straight into the most obscure and debated provinces of psychology and the problem of the control of matter by mind. One may perhaps acquiesce in Shelley’s own words about the Poet:

He will watch, from dawn to gloom,
The lake-reflected sun illume
The yellow bees in the ivy bloom;
Nor heed nor see what things they be:
Yet out of these create he can
Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of immortality.

The poet in his vision creates something that is real, even if he does not discover something that is true.

But in either case, whether he finds a new and different world already existing under the veil of phenomena, or whether he himself creates the new and different world by his imagination, it seems only natural and inevitable that the language of that world should be somewhat different from this. Poetry must have its own style of speech. The singers of the Môlpe were right.

The character of that speech, as we have seen, is to a very slight extent a matter of euphony; much more it is a matter of appeal to the senses and the imagination rather than to intellect and calculation; most of all it is a matter of association, and therefore of tradition. Consequently the attitude of the poet toward the general tradition of poetry is often very instructive. One thinks of Shelley as a revolutionary and Wordsworth as the reverse. But in regard to the poetical tradition the roles are changed. Shelley feels nothing but admiration and love for the poets of the past; he likes to think that he is following them and cooperating with them. As Milton reached out through the darkness for the sympathy of

Blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides,
And Teiresias and Phineus, prophets old,

so Shelley, in that inspired self-forgetfulness which sometimes makes him so adorable, idealizes other poets—and not only his predecessors, but even his contemporaries. Wordsworth thinks that other poets have all gone badly astray and that he himself has found out, or at least recovered, the proper way to write poetry. “The first poets of all nations wrote from passion excited by real events.” It is only all the intervening poets who have gone wrong, by setting themselves to imitate the manner and language of their predecessors, and so inventing “poetical diction.”

Now, as a historical statement this account is completely fallacious. It belongs to the idyll of Romanticism: “Le monde naìt, Homère chante,” and the rest. So far as classical literature is concerned, the element of tradition or convention is just as strong in Homer and Hesiod as in the later forms of poetry. The epic language is demonstrably traditional; it is full of extremely ancient and obscure words, some of which are used wrongly in the actual poems; it is full of highly varied metrical formulae for the same thing. It shows at every turn the effect of a long and exquisitely studied tradition. In Hebrew literature, again, the oldest books, such as Judges or Genesis, already show both marked conventions and a knowledge of previous literature. And I am told that one of the very earliest poems unearthed in Babylonia contains a lament that all reasonable subjects for literature are already exhausted. The imaginary primitive poet, whose utterance is the unspoiled utterance of Nature, must go the way of the “simple, primitive language” and Rousseau’s natural Man. The process which Wordsworth condemns as vicious, that is, the loving discipleship of poet to poet, and the long bond of influence and association uniting the oldest to the newest, is the normal and healthy method for the progress of poesy, and was more dominant in primitive times than it is now.

[To be continued.]

(3) “Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge.”—Wordsworth. Poetry “is at once the centre and the circumference of knowledge.”—Shelley, Defence of Poetry.

(4) It is worth noticing that the proper meaning of οια αν γενοιτο is “the sort of thing that would happen, if . . .” rather than simply “the sort of thing that might happen.” The distinction is not always kept clear, even by Aristotle himself, but it is important.

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.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please wait...

Subscribe to our newsletter

Want to be notified when our article is published? Enter your email address and name below to be the first to know.

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)