The Classical Tradition in Poetry, Chapter VII (Part 3)

Having published my “Apology for Poetry” and much of chapters I, II, V, and VI of Gilbert Murray’s great work, The Classical Tradition in Poetry, I am herewith offering the third of three posts of Chapter VII, “The Heroic Age,” which addresses the legendary period of ancient Greece that became, and has remained, the great wellspring of Western literature to this day. 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.


THE HEROIC AGE (Part 3 of 3)

Let us take one of the most savage incidents in the Sigurd legend. The Niblung brothers, Gunnar and Hogni, were captured by Attila, who wanted the treasure which they had hidden. Attila tried by threats of torture to make Gunnar reveal it. Gunnar said he would speak when they showed him his brother Hogni’s heart. They cut out the heart of a churl and brought it to Gunnar; but Gunnar said, “That thing trembles. It is not Hogni’s heart.” Then they brought Hogni’s own heart, and Gunnar knew it and said: “Now that Hogni is dead, none but I knows where the treasure is, and from me you shall never hear it.” So they threw him into a pit full of serpents; and he there played his harp to the serpents, and sang aloud, till one, old and deaf serpent bit him and he died.

I have known ardent Christians and pacifists and vegetarians moved to the very extreme of admiration by that story. It responds to none of their conscious ideals, only to the ideal of the Heroic Age, pre-Christian, pre-civilized, yet with the makings in it of all greatness, in which the spirit of man rises up invincible against fate or against odds: “Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener, mood shall be the fiercer, as our might lessens.” [The Battle of Maldon] It is not mere fighting-power, for it often goes with that proud generosity which throws away the advantages that mean success. It goes well with sacrifice, as it goes with great love and great hatred. All these things it rates high, despising for their sake safety and comfort and long life and all the common values of the world.

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It seems then that the roots of poetry lie in the deeps of human nature, in time far beyond our earliest record, in psychology deep below our ordinary consciousness. We can trace them back beyond any heroic age known to history, to that primeval Môlpe described in the second chapter, in which the scarcely articulate human soul tried to express itself toward the great mysteries of the Tragic Pattern—Love, Strife, Death, and that which is beyond Death. But we can see how the form and content of poetry were affected differently by the diverse experience of different races, and in particular how, in the tradition of poetry in Europe, the influence which seems most profound is that of the Heroic Age. It is not barbarism in itself that has so specially affected poetry; it is not civilization. It is the clash of the two. And further, it is not the orderly rule—abnormal process, however unsympathetic—of the barbarian by the civilized. It is the overthrow of order by disorder, of culture by ignorance, of amassed riches by audacious poverty. We cannot expect to analyze the secret of a time about which our knowledge is so scanty, but we can see that it must have forced sensitive and civilized human beings to face unexpected extremes of peril and suffering, while it stimulated the daring of barbaric adventurers with glories and luxuries beyond their comprehension. It provided a combination of rare dangers and rich chances, of indescribable terrors and bewildering hopes, in which, amid the crumbling of external protections, a man had to stand or fall by what he was really worth, by his fighting power, his courage, his strength of will, and the degree to which he could either make his men follow him and his friends love him and die for him, or, if need were, himself follow and love and die.

There would be nothing to surprise us in the case of an individual man who had passed through some intense and soul-stirring experience for a few months in his youth, and found the whole of his later life coloured thereby. And though the parallel is far from perfect, it may serve. We should also find, no doubt, that if the same strain fell on several individuals, some would be crushed by it, some would gain nothing from it, and some few would be strong enough to “learn by suffering.” Many nations have passed through times of violent dissolution and passionate hope like the Heroic Age; but very few have turned the experience to spiritual profit, as the Greeks and the Northmen did. It needs toughness and strength to be a poet, as well as exceptional sensibility.

Moreover, there are some important differences between the heroic ages that produced Hector and Gunnar, and ordinary periods of violence and dissolution. In the first place, a heroic age is a time of birth-pangs as well as death-pangs, of hope as well as fear. That would differentiate it from periods like the Thirty Years’ War, or the Wars of the Roses, but not from a period like the French Revolution, which was singularly barren in art and poetry. We are credibly informed that

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven.

It would seem, however, that the dawn did not last, and the afternoon was sultry and depressing. The next age looked back to the Revolution as a time of crime and courage on the grand scale, but not as a time of beauty and poetry. It is here that the difference lies. The generations that immediately followed the Heroic Age, both in Greece and in Northern Europe, certainly did think of it and sing of it, as a time of splendour. And it looks—though the evidence is conjectural—as if the men of the Heroic Age had themselves felt the world about them to be inspiring and glorious. The singing seems to have begun in the actual lifetime of the Northern heroes, and it may well have been the same with the Greek. One hesitates to use our Iliad and Odyssey in their present shape as evidence; but certainly the feeling in them that the day of the heroes was a great and wonderful day seems to lie deep in the structure of both poems. It is not merely that the heroes wield weapons or throw rocks which “men as they now are” could not even lift; that may mean little. But there is a sense of exhilaration in the narrative, as if in the presence of a beautiful and inspiring world. Things are all good of their kind. The ships are swift and well balanced, the doors and houses well fixed, the armour strong and gleaming, the men, almost without exception, brave and generous, and the women gracious and white-armed and lovely; the sun and the moon shine in beauty, and the West Wind runs shouting over the wine-faced sea. There is a sense of joy in the world, except when definite disasters come from the gods or your enemies, or, of course, from your own Ate.

We cannot, I repeat, be sure that this idealization of the Heroic Age amid all its horrors belongs only to the generations, perhaps still more miserable, that followed it, or whether, as most authorities seem to think, it was actually the spirit of the “heroes” themselves. The Byzantine historian, Priscus, on his famous visit to Attila, passed first through territories which had been depopulated, partly by the massacring Huns themselves, partly by the suicide of whole communities through fear of the Huns, and then, with the horror of this experience still upon him, arrived at headquarters to find the Huns full of joyous enthusiasm and singing songs about their own virtues. A visitor to the camp of the Myrmidons would very likely have had a similar experience. It is curious, in the first book of the Iliad, to look beneath the veil of poetry to the brute facts which it describes: the plague-stricken army pinned to the sea-shore and dependent for its food on precarious raiding, the narrow space choked with dead dogs and mules, the piles of burning corpses, the bitter personal quarrel between the leaders. And the poet makes of it a tale of chivalry and splendour! If such enthusiasm was really characteristic of the contemporaries of Achilles and of Attila, and if the bards’ songs were indeed poetry and not a mere journalistic record of passing events, the contrast provided by the Heroic Ages with their miseries and their exhilaration as against our own times, with their comparative comfort and depression of spirits, becomes almost startling.

Perhaps I am pressing this point too hard. No doubt societies, like individuals, are subject to waves of elation and depression, self-confidence and self-abasement; and such feelings, we may remark in passing, have probably as little to do with real merit in the one case as in the other. But through practically all ages the rule seems to hold that, so far as imaginative fiction is concerned, the present is the subject for prose, for realism and for satire; Poetry dwells beyond some dividing veil, among the things which still live after Time has done his worst upon them. Of course a lyric, like Maud, or a philosophical poem, like The Prelude, may use contemporary events as its material, but their main burden is not narrative at all, but an inner life which is timeless. The thing that cannot live is historical contemporary narrative, like Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis or Voltaire’s Henriade.

One can see why the abrupt ups and downs of a man’s present material life, however vehement in emotion, are not fit themes for poetry. They are only the rawest of raw material, which needs long treatment before it can be used. But to many imaginative minds it does remain a puzzling doctrine that the things about which they care most, and care, as it seems to them, with the noblest part of their being, are not suitable material for poetry. Many of us have at some time longed to use, or to see others use, the radiance of poetry to illuminate the real lives of men and women and help the causes that now inspire us, instead—one might almost say—of wasting it all on things that might just as well be forgotten or outgrown, however much they were esteemed by our barbaric ancestors.

Yet apparently it cannot be done. Men may well and wisely devote their lives to the emancipation of slaves, or the education of peoples, to the abolition of war or the development of medical or electrical science: excellent objects of devotion, all of them, but somehow too near the surface of experience, too much concerned with criticism and intellect, and the shallow grit of daily vicissitudes, for their roots to work down to the deep places from which poetry springs. Much more sound and beneficent, no doubt, much more calculated to stir the imagination of practical men, than the griefs of Hecuba, or the death of Odysseus’, old dog on the dung-heap, or the blast of Roland’s horn, or that song that was indeed the lark and not the nightingale. But the kingdom of poetry is not for them. They are new and they argue. They explain and insist and are superseded. Poetry listens to no argument and opens her heart to no strangers. A thousand years in her sight are but as yesterday, and her home is among things that are very old, old as the battle of man against fate, old as love and death and honour, and the kiss of Helen and the dancing of the daffodils.

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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