The Classical Tradition in Poetry, Chapter 5 (Conclusion)

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 concluding post 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. This part of the chapter is curiously applicable to the recent addiction of many to mobile telephones and the Internet. 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


Lastly, though one hesitates to form judgements about one’s own environment, it looks as if the present age was more exposed to one paralyzing influence than the ages which preceded the Industrial Revolution. I mean the influence of ennui. A process began at that period, and has probably increased in intensity since, which doubtless has some good points but does seem to involve overstimulation and its natural consequences. Wordsworth at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution cries passionately: “A multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.” A little later he speaks of “this degrading thirst for outrageous stimulation.”

Now the time in which Wordsworth wrote was not in general a time of “torpor” or feebleness. It was a great period of artistic creation and of speculative achievement. Yet the poet’s analysis may be true all the same. Excessive stimulus may well produce extraordinary energy, but it does, probably, produce ennui as well, and with ennui “a degrading thirst for outrageous stimulation.” A man accustomed to the constant stream of external stimuli which are characteristic of modern city life, “amusements” mechanically laid on from outside, and “news” flung at him by the sensational newspapers which form his principal reading, is probably less able to appreciate beauty in literature or art than one who lives more quietly. His jaded nerves cry not for beauty, but for novelty; and the analogy of the mechanical arts steps in to assure him that novelty is the real mark of genius. Novelty is mistaken for “originality” or “individuality.”

It seems strange to us moderns when we read Plato’s argument in the first book of the Republic . . . that as the just man will not try to surpass the just man in justice, so the musician tuning a lyre will not try to “outdo” another musician, nor a physician, in prescribing for a complaint, wish to “go beyond” another physician or beyond the science of medicine. He means, of course, in each case to speak of the artist qua artist: if an artist has made a mistake and has to be corrected, then, in so far as he goes wrong, he is not an artist. And, given that explanation, we should not differ from Plato. But it is significant of a profound difference of outlook that Plato thinks of the art as something in itself perfect; something which a man has to learn and study and practise as well as he can, in order to “approximate to the beautiful.” He never thinks of it as a thing which an individual can modify and alter as he thinks fit, or a vehicle by which he can “assert his personality.” With him the artist serves his art; with the egotistic or rebellious modern, the art has to serve the artist.

Of course, there must always have been ennui; always men could have too much of a good thing, and when they had, they demanded change, though it were a change to something worse. Even the Odyssey complains that people always rush for the newest story. And Wordsworth himself was in some respects a victim of this ennui which he reviles. He hates the poetical style of his own day, and comes near to denouncing all poetic style whatsoever. He proudly avoids the “personifications of abstract terms,” a trope which had become grossly common; he has even “abstained from the use of many expressions, in themselves proper and beautiful, but which have been foolishly repeated by bad poets until feelings of disgust are connected with them.” That is the working of ennui. It is pardonable enough, but I doubt if Shelley or Milton or Vergil would have avoided an expression which seemed to them proper and beautiful just because they were “disgusted” by the “bad poets” who had used it.

The acme of this modern rebellion against the Tradition may be found in a man of some genius, whose sensitive and jealous egotism sometimes passed the bounds of the normal—Samuel Butler. “Blake was no good because he learned Italian at over sixty in order to read Dante. Dante was no good because he was fond of Vergil. Vergil was no good because Tennyson ran him, and as for Tennyson—well, he goes without saying.” This was a jest, no doubt, in the sense that Butler knew it was funny; I cannot believe it was a jest, in the sense that he did not mean it. He did.

Against that outburst we may set the spirit of those poets, certainly great and perhaps the greatest, who have built up almost the major part of their marvellous fabric of poetry out of memories and reminiscences, at the head of them probably “Homer,” undoubtedly Vergil and Milton. Critics sometimes sneer at the two latter for making their poems “out of books and not out of life”; but the sneer is a shallow one. No artist builds his work out of mere life; only a newspaper reporter does that, and not the most intelligent kind of reporter. A poet builds out of life interpreted; out of life seen through transfiguring and illuminating media of emotion and memory and imagination. To make up his experience, both at the moment of emotion and still more when the emotion is “remembered in tranquillity,” there go elements from all his knowledge of life, all things remembered or imagined, all the experiences of other poets through which he has imaginatively lived, all the old poetry which has become a part of his being. The Iliad and Odyssey are full of traditions and formulae and similes which were certainly not first invented for the places where they now stand. Vergil’s great poem is haunted in every line by memories of Greek or old Latin poets—Homer, Apollonius, Hesiod, Ennius, Lucretius—and perhaps most markedly so in his most magical parts. Yet he is utterly different in style and imagination from any one of them, and it needs a fairly tough ear and mind to deny his immense originality. He transmutes all he touches, and the effect of his being so steeped to the lips in the tradition of poetry is not to take away anything that is his own but to add to all he writes a peculiar richness and depth of meaning. Vergil was regarded in the Middle Ages as a magician, and his book was used as a collection of oracles or sortes. And it has been well remarked that this was not a mere accident. Vergil at his best does write in such a way that almost every verse, if you think it over, seems to have some meaning beyond its immediate meaning. There is so much of reflection and memory, so much association behind association, in each line of his great passages, that readers of the most diverse characters and periods have felt as if the words had a special personal meaning to themselves. And it is almost the same in Milton; almost the same in much of the greatest work of the poets. For as Shelley puts it, “All high poetry is infinite. . . . Veil after veil may be withdrawn, and the inmost naked beauty of the meaning never exposed.” It is this quality of infinitude that is specially produced by real love of the tradition. There is not only the thing said; the thing said is mostly a type or symbol, pointing beyond itself; and some word in which it is phrased, or some image or some turn of rhythm, carries with it, beyond the statement itself and beyond the direct meaning of the symbol, fragrances from that great garden which all the poets of the past have planted and watered and bequeathed to us. This does not mean that a check should be placed in the way of progress or of variety. It means that the future poet will naturally, if he cares for poetry, feed on the poetry of the past. That poetry will help to form his vision of the world; and it is that vision that he will express in his own writings. I do not, of course, dream of saying to the future poet that he should “imitate” or “mould himself upon” this or that great writer. I would only say to him: “Remember you are not the first human being to have seen the poetic vision. Millions have seen it before you, and seen it in innumerable different ways. A few hundred of them happen to have had their words preserved, and are there waiting for you, your brothers, comforters, leaders, if you care to listen to their voices, who can show you things you have never seen and make you feel what you have never felt. What you ultimately express will of course be your own vision of the world, but it will then come to you enriched by the imaginative experience of many great minds.”

Nor, lastly, do I urge you to try to be learned, or to read everything that anyone else has read. That way lies despair. Try to read good things. Read them over and over. Make them a part of you: and do not imagine you are wasting time, because you are not. Read the books that you like best. And if there are famous books, generally praised by good judges, which you do not appreciate, give them a fair chance. Try them from time to time, to see if you enjoy them or understand them better. For remember that in that inner world to which great literature belongs, a man may go on all his life learning to see, but he can never see all that is there; he can only hope to see deeper and deeper, more and more, and as he sees, to understand and to love.

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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