The Classical Tradition in Poetry, Chapter 6 (Part 4)

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 fourth and concluding post of the entirety of 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 in their modest way adhere to the Classical Tradition in poetic drama.

Chapter VI


Now in Greek and Latin poetry this power of arranging the words in whatever order best suits the speaker’s purpose is exercised freely and with beautiful effect. The subject is well treated by Professor Naylor of Adelaide in his edition of Horace’s Odes (Cambridge, 1922). Horace is one of those: poets, very few in number, who have been read and reread with delight by cultivated men of alien languages and civilizations for two thousand years, and that not because he has anything very important to say, but simply for the beauty of his form. Beauty of form has made him immortal, and fully half of that beauty lies in the order of his words. This fact can be fully appreciated only after considerable familiarity with Horace, but the point can be illustrated. He writes:

Nunc et latentis proditor intimo
Gratus puellae risus ab angulo. (Odes, I, ix, 21.)

Literally: “The delightful betraying laugh from a deep corner of a girl hiding there.” If he had said, “Ab intimo angulo risus proditor puellae latentis,” there would be nothing in it. But we have together, “latentis proditor”—“betrayer of one hiding”; “proditor intimo”—“betrayer in the deep”; “gratus puellae”—“delightful, of a girl”; “puellae risus”—“girl’s laugh”; “risus ab angulo”—“laugh from a corner.” And I am not sure there is not something in “intimo gratus”—“delightful in the deep.” The total result is magical.

Dr. Weil adduces and attempts to translate another famous and trite passage:

Nihil est ab omni
Parte beatum: Abstulit clarum cita mors Achillem,
Longa Tithonum minuit senectus.

It is clear that a literal translation misses most of the meaning. “There is no perfect happiness. A quick death swept away glorious Achilles, a long old age wore down Tithonus.” How can one get the series of contrasts? “Cut down in glory”—-“glory, swift death”—“swift death Achilles”—“long life Tithonus”—“Tithonus dwindling”—“wasting age.” A translator would be driven to a tiresome reduplication: “Achilles had glory, and quick death cut it off. Tithonus had long life, and age slowly wasted him.” The sense, roughly speaking, would be kept, but the charm lost.

This “juxtaposition of opposites” is made easy in a highly inflected language by the free order of the words; but, of course, it is much more than a juxtaposition of opposites. It is juxtaposition of those words which specially affect or explain or intensify one another, and so, without altering the intellectual meaning of the sentence, invest it with depths and shades of feeling, and knit it into a whole, like Aristotle’s “live animal.” It is, I think, the pursuit of this effect which leads Milton sometimes to repeat particular words or phrases, so as to associate them with first one idea and then another, since he cannot simply group all three together, as Horace does in “latentis proditor intimo.” Consider, for instance, the curious repetitions in Adam’s speech in Book X of Paradise Lost (lines 720 ff.):

O miserable of happie! is this the end
Of this new glorious world, and mee so late
The Glory of that Glory, who now become
Accurst of blessed, hide me from the face
Of God, whom to behold was then my highth
Of happiness: yet well, if here would end
The miserie, I deserved it and would bear
My own deservings.

At other times it leads him to arrange the clauses of his sentence in a curious but effective order:

Who from the Pit of Hell
Roaming to seek their prey on Earth, durst fix
Their Seats long after next the Seat of God,
Their Altars by his Altar, Gods adored
Among the nations round, and durst abide
Jehovah thundering out of Sion, throned
Between the Cherubim.

But how terribly this loses unity!

It is curious how the lucid eighteenth-century style, which considered itself classical, eschews almost entirely this delicate torsion of the threads of language, just as it eschews in general the qualities by which ancient literature achieved its richness of imaginative expression. In resolutely renouncing affectation and obscurity and all that it could not explain and defend, the eighteenth century lost so much besides.

At times a new effect is attained in English through some imitation of a Greek or Latin phrase which in itself would seem unjustified. “That forbidden Tree whose mortal tast brought death into the world” could certainly not be translated straight into Latin: “cuius mortalis gustus” would be more unintelligible than the English. In Greek, ου δη βροτεια γευσις would be possible, but would call for comment. When Shelley’s Hermes says to Prometheus,

Awful sufferer,
To thee unwilling most unwillingly
I come,

it is clear to any reader of Aeschylus’ Prometheus that “unwilling” is accusative agreeing with “thee” (ακων προς ακοντ), and that “Awful sufferer” comes from ’Ω δεινα πασχων (“O thou that sufferest awful things”). Yet, as a matter of fact, to most English readers, even Greek scholars, the words suggest something different. It is Prometheus himself rather than his suffering that is “awful” to us. And the same unintended enrichment of the original meaning results from many of the classicisms of Keats.

On the whole, it seems to me clear that, while the modern European languages, by the much wider experience which they embody and the much larger number of words, or at any rate of nouns, which they contain, can easily outstrip the ancient in variety and in particularity of definite meaning, the ancients, by means chiefly of their inflections, developed a degree of art in the use of language itself which we cannot emulate but from which we may possibly still learn. It is a little like the difference between modern English and the style of Hume or Adam Smith; or, better, between modern French and the style of Pascal. Pascal used, I believe, a language which contained about half the number of words that are current in good modern French; yet he seems to be able to say whatever he wants to say, and he certainly produces an impression of clarity and of beauty. His organ has fewer stops, but he plays it better. Now the ancients had an organ, perhaps not with so many stops as ours, but certainly with different and subtler stops; an organ far more difficult to play at all, but, I think, more capable of response to a really exquisite artist.

The problem before us is not to imitate classical effects. It is simply impossible, for instance, to reproduce in English the free order of words in the sentence. Inversion of the order is a trope to be used sparingly in English and capable of being used only in a very simple way.

Great praise the Duke of Marlborough won


Of Nelson and the North
Sing the glorious day’s renown

are suitable and spirited phrases, but would not cause Horace to look interested; and if we put them forward as effective inversions, Catullus might indeed “make mouths at our speech.”

Flowers of all hue and without thorn the rose

is more interesting; or

Adam first of men
To first of women Eve.

There is poetry again in Keats’s inversion in La Belle Dame:

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors; death-pale were they all.

But the ancients would hesitate to repeat the same word three times in a space of sixteen syllables, to attain no more effect than that.

The problem of learning from another language is not unlike the problem of translation. A translator finds an effect of style, of emphasis, of rhythm, of suggestion, of atmosphere, for which there exists no direct equivalent in his own language. In bald prose sometimes it can be ignored, provided you can state in your own language the facts stated in the other. In poetry or artistic prose sometimes it is the very thing that matters, far more than the statement of fact conveyed in the words. The translator may stand paralyzed before the particular problem how to turn into English the phrase of Tacitus describing what Rome felt about the death of Drusus: “Breves et infaustos populi Romani amores,” [“(H)ow short-lived and ill-starred were the attachments of the Roman people.”] or the sinister impression produced at the public games by a prince, “Quanquam vili sanguine nimis gaudens.” [“…for he gloated intensely over bloodshed, however base its victims.] The English stylist will feel the stinging beauty of such a phrase and wonder how, in some totally different circumstances and material, he could make that sort of effect in English. And perhaps the greatest lesson to be learnt, next to those of self-control and exact expression, is the lesson of construction: the order of words in a sentence, of sentences in a chapter, or, it may be, of incidents in a poem or story, which will enable the whole to operate not like a series of disconnected pushes, but like Aristotle’s living organism whose every muscle is helping in the main work, and thereby creating a beauty of form and rhythm in the whole, far beyond anything which the parts could attain by themselves.

I have tried to consider in this chapter the most central and characteristic doctrine of Aristotle, the doctrine of Unity of Action. We have seen that this unity implies construction. The work must have a beginning, middle, and end—a doctrine which seems to mean little and really means so vastly much. Furthermore, this construction must be organic, not merely mechanical. The whole must be like a live thing, an animal in which every organ serves a central purpose and coöperates with the rest.

Now, curiously enough, if we take the novel as the most characteristic form of modern imaginative work, we fulfill this demand in one sense much better than the ancients, while in another sense we generally neglect it. Aristotle was full of admiration for the plot of the Oedipus; but, as far as mere ingenuity of plot goes, dozens of modern writers of detective stories could give Sophocles a large handicap and beat him easily. We are extraordinarily good at ingenuity—better than any previous age of the world. But we use this ingenuity for a somewhat crude and trivial purpose, if not an utterly inartistic purpose. The detective story keeps us in a state of excitement till it is finished. When it is once finished, we have used it up. There is nothing left until we forget it sufficiently to read it again. The ingenuity of construction has not been used to create an object of permanent contemplation, a thing of beauty which will remain. The Oedipus is better to read the second time than the first, and better the twentieth time than the second. The Greek has not merely contrived a series of thrills, with a secret revealed in the last chapter but one. He has constructed a whole like the Parthenon, which you can look at from different angles, which you can explore and study, but which remains always Eusunopton, comprehensible as a whole and beautiful as a whole. The detective-story writer has constructed a maze, in which the fun is to find the way out, and when that is once found, the fun is over.

The reflection left in one’s mind by this comparison is one that is often suggested by various phases of our incomparably rich and strong and ingenious modern civilization, typically perhaps by the inside works of a popular theatre or newspaper office. Immense outlay of wealth; immense energy and organization; marvellous machines and materials; the utilization of the great forests and natural forces and the labour of strong arms and the inventive power of ingenious brains, all formed into a vast complex engine devoted to the production of—Well, of what? Bewilderment as well as politeness makes me hesitate to finish the sentence. But it seems clear that our wisdom and our sense of beauty have not increased in proportion with our wealth and our mastery of nature.

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 :)