The Classical Tradition in Poetry, Chapter 6 (Part 2)

Having published my “Apology for Poetry” and much of chapters I, II, and V of Gilbert Murray’s great work, The Classical Tradition in Poetry, I am herewith offering the second of four posts representing Chapter VI, “Unity and Organic Construction,” which addresses what may be considered the two foremost principles of classicism. 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 adhere to the Classical Tradition in poetic drama.

Chapter VI


In reality it is dead wood that the classical tradition hates; and dead wood that shines and rattles and attracts attention it hates rather more than that which is merely dull, because it does more to dissipate the interest and spoil the main effect.

Here the so-called Gothic tradition, still on the whole prevailing in England and northern Europe, and in popular taste almost everywhere, enters its protest. It points to a great deal of modern and mediaeval literature, and even to some parts of Shakespeare. Above all, it points triumphantly to its cathedrals. It says: “Why should I be the slave of rules? This morning, while I was writing my tragedy about the Archangel Michael, I saw a blind man take off his hat to a horse and ask it the way, and this gave me an idea which made me laugh consumedly. So I have put it in. Why lose a good laugh?”

Or again: “While pegging away, month in month out, at my old cathedral, I suddenly conceived the idea of a peculiarly disgusting kind of devil, so I have stuck him in where there was a good vacant space, just over the Virgin Mary. Also, I have heard so much about the richly carved porch that those idiots at P______ have had built, that I have determined to stick in an extra porch somewhere which shall be twice as richly carved. It may not exactly be necessary to the plan; but it will be one more beautiful thing to look at. And, furthermore, if you talk high doctrine to me and say that I should treat my art seriously, I answer that in real life the tragic and the ridiculous, the beautiful and the ugly, are always apt to be mixed up like that. And as for symmetry and order, that is just what you do not get in life. You get lots of beautiful and interesting things, mostly muddled together and fighting one another. So I consider my methods both freer and truer to life than yours.”

This doctrine is without doubt very popular. The newspaper and the music-hall are both built upon it. Quite serious critics support it, and even Dr. Johnson, in an unguarded moment, has uttered an apparent defence of it. (1) It consists essentially in a denial of Aristotle’s principle, “Tragedy should not be expected to produce every kind of pleasure, but the kind proper to it.” The popular love of it, I think, rests on laziness and on a lack of real interest in art. The sort of being who is, I believe, happily described in America as “the tired business man” is not prepared to make the mental effort necessary for grasping a great artistic climax; his attention wanders and he likes it to wander; consequently he likes to be amused from moment to moment. He cannot exercise the self-restraint or make the temporary sacrifice necessary for good art.

The theoretic defence is that, since real life is a confused mixture of things and not a unity, therefore art should also be a confused mixture of things. This, I think, is a patent fallacy. If you wish to depict the confusion of life, by all means do so; but you will not do it by confused art. That will only produce muddle. You must do it by careful construction and arrangement so as to produce the effect of confusion, as Thackeray does in Vanity Fair, or Tolstoy in War and Peace. A picture of Chaos must be as carefully planned and thought out as a picture of anything else, and must have as much unity of purpose. It cannot be made by flinging tubes of paint at a canvas. Putting the case more generally, if you want to enjoy the Parthenon, though there will be great beauty of detail, which you will study at your leisure, the main artistic enjoyment will lie in the contemplation of the whole as a whole, in its full symmetry. If you want to enjoy the Gothic cathedral, you will find your chief pleasure in walking round about, prying into curious and exciting details. As for the whole, it will probably not have been constructed on one plan, and if it has, the plan will probably have been lost through additions and digressions. And the ordinary man finds it far easier to be amused with curious details than to stand in contemplation of a great, serious, and complex whole.

Let us, then, try to see exactly what advantage there is in “unity” or “congruity,” and what is meant by the classical insistence on unity of construction, or the need that a work of art should be, in Aristotle’s phrase, “seen as a whole,” or “grasped as one by the memory” (ευσυνοπτον ευμνημονευτον).

First, an isolated incident is not interesting. I see in the paper that in such-and-such a city a man was choked by swallowing a fishbone; I can hardly imagine anything much less interesting. Except to a reader already interested in fishbones, this information possesses what one might almost call the very minimum of interest. But let us reduce it still further: say the man only coughed and recovered. But, at the same time, suppose you look further and see that the victim of the accident was some one whom you know: the interest will be doubled immediately.

Thirdly, suppose that your friend who swallowed the fishbone turns out to have been gambling heavily, and suppose that you dimly remember a doctor having told you that swallowing a fishbone was a good way of committing suicide without exciting suspicion; that you remember, now you think of it, that your friend was in the room at the time. (Did he or did he not, ask the doctor some question? And what question was it?) Each new item does not merely add to the story its own small amount of interest: it multiplies the interest of each item that has gone before and contributes to a whole which begins to emerge out of them.

I have tried to put the matter in a crude and obvious form, since in talking of aesthetics there is always a danger of using the terms abstractly and without immediate reference to fact. The whole essence of construction is to increase the value of scenes or acts or words by the surroundings in which they are put, or the way in which they are led up to. Aristotle is very clear, and very clear-sighted, about this. The word he uses for the “construction” or “fitting together” of a story is the same that he uses for the biological or “organic” construction of live animals (συστασις). As the different muscles or bones work together in the physical organism, each serving the other or enabling the other to operate, so should the different “parts” of a story. This cooperation of “parts” is a delicate and elaborate business, and any brief illustration cannot avoid being rather coarse and obvious.

Take what is practically an identical scene in the two Greek tragedies about Electra. In Sophocles’ play the heroine is alone with the Chorus, and makes a moving speech about the horrors of her life, culminating in a description of Aegisthus in her father’s bed, with her mother in his arms. In Euripides’ Electra, she makes a very similar speech, but with this, the most poignant part, left out. Why? Because she is telling it to a strange man, and there are things which a woman does not say to a strange man. But the value of every word is doubled because we know, though she does not, that the strange man is Orestes himself. The construction doubles the value of the scene, and more than compensates for the effect omitted.

Again, in Aeschylus’ play on the same subject, Euripides when about to enter the palace to do his deed of vengeance, is met in the doorway by Clytemnestra, who greets him with dignified courtesy. The interest of every word spoken in the scene is multiplied for us by the fact that, the last time we saw her in just that position, she was standing triumphant over the dead bodies of her husband and Cassandra. One part of the play is helping another, and every word becomes thrilling.

Take an instance on a larger scale. The hero, or quasihero, of Vanity Fair, George Osborne, is killed on the field of Waterloo. One would expect a fairly detailed and emphatic description of his death, his feelings, his last words, and so forth. All that we get is in the final sentence of a chapter describing the doings of quite other people in another place. “No more firing was heard at Brussels. The pursuit rolled miles away. Darkness came down on the field and city: and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.” That half-sentence is all that we hear about George’s death. There are no details. It owes the whole of its effect to the setting in which it is placed. It is only one item in the vanitas vanitatum. All the pity and contempt and anger and sympathy and the various impressions of futility, which have been slowly piling up in scores of earlier chapters, are doing their work to deepen and enrich this particular stroke of tragedy. They are all in it; and it could not be what it is without them.

In contrast with this, one might take the last act of The Merchant of Venice, or one might take many instances from modern literature, and from almost all the long, shapeless, meandering romances of the Middle Ages, in which incident after incident and description after description trickle endlessly along. But it is less invidious to take a case from a Greek tragedy. It is one of the rare mistakes of Euripides. In that poet’s Suppliant Women, after the bodies of the champions slain at Thebes are brought back for burial, and the main conflict of the play is over, there suddenly appears a woman whom we have not seen before, who, after a lamentation, throws herself upon her husband’s pyre. She is Evadne, the wife of Capaneus. There is no preparation; we knew nothing about Evadne beforehand. The incident, which ought to have been full of value, is ineffective just because there is no organic connexion between it and the rest of the play. With proper treatment from the beginning it might have produced various effects. We might have been made to feel long before how Evadne loved her husband, and to wonder what she would do when his body was brought home; or she might have said something ambiguous, to set us thinking; she might have shown indifference when the other wives were lamenting, and seemed callous because in her heart she was determined to join her husband so soon. It is also possible that we might—by careful preparation—have been made to receive the shock of horror and surprise which the incident would have caused in real life; and it may be that this surprise was what Euripides, with insufficient resources of technique, was aiming at. But as it is, the incident just happens “on the flat,” with no accumulated suspense or tension.

The defect is not uncommon in ancient plays, and perhaps that is what makes Aristotle so emphatic in condemning it. Of all plays, he says, “the episodic are the worst.” And by “episodic” he means those that depend for their appeal on mere episodes, or incidents without inner connexion or construction. The reason is not far to seek. The construction of a fully symmetrical work of art, with the parts subordinate to the whole, demands prolonged effort and faith and self-control, both in the artist and in the spectator. Both of them only get their reward when they have worked through to the end of the last scene. They must persevere, and have faith that the effort is worth making. They must be willing to dispense with little amusements and diversions and refreshments by the way. Self-restraint and faith go together: self-restraint is the renunciation of some immediate good for the sake of a greater good seen by the eye of faith. And this self-restraint is specially characteristic of classical art. It renounces the cheap and easy and immediate, in order to seek perfection.

We have so far been considering construction in what Aristotle calls poetry, and we should call fiction. But it is equally characteristic of classical art in other branches. This is clearest of all in architecture and the groups of sculpture associated with architecture. In such work no individual figure, however fine, lives to itself; it is always a counterpoise to some other figure, and the two are generally held together by some boundary or drawn together by some centre. The symmetry is essential and obvious; but, if I am not mistaken, it is seldom or never a mere equipoise of two similar and contrasted objects: there is usually something to which they both lead. The simplest case is the sculpture inside a pediment, where the two sets of balancing and contrasted figures all lead up to the towering central figure. The same consideration applies to the temple. There is not only balance: there is also climax and unity.

But now let us make a distinction. This quality of unity or organic construction is not the same as plot. A good ancient work of art has generally a certain artistic quality which, though it involves matters of plot, is more like symmetry or rhythm. Each element in the story contributes not only to the plot-interest of the whole, but to the symmetry or rhythm of the whole, so that, when you think the story over, it has the beauty that comes from form. It is, in Aristotle’s phrase, ευσυνοπτον; it is right when seen as a whole. You can reflect upon it and feel it as one thing. It is only a few of the best modern novels that satisfy this requirement.


(1) Poetics, 1453b, 11. Contrast The Rambler, No. 156: “What is there in the mingled drama which impartial reason can condemn? The connexion of important with trivial incidents, since it is not only common but perpetual in the world, may surely be allowed upon the stage which pretends only to be the mirror of life. The impropriety of suppressing passions before we have raised them to the intended agitation, and of diverting the expectation from an event which we keep suspended only to raise it, may be speciously urged. But will not experience show this objection to be rather subtle than just? Is it not certain that the tragic and comic affections have been moved alternately with equal force, and that no plays have oftener filled the eye with tears . . . than those which are variegated with interludes of mirth? I do not, however, think it safe to judge of works of genius merely by the event; . . . and instead of vindicating tragicomedy by the success of Shakespeare, we ought perhaps to pay new honours to that transcendant and unbounded genius that could preside over the passions in sport; who, to actuate the affections, needed not the slow gradation of common means, but could fill the heart with instantaneous jollity or sorrow, and vary our disposition as he changed his scenes.”

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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2 Responses

  1. Christopher J Lane says:

    Always informative and interesting

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