A Brief Appraisal Of The Greek Literature In Its Foremost Pretensions by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

By way of Counsel to Adults who are hesitating as to the Propriety of Studying the Greek Language with a view to the Literature; and by way of consolation to those whom circumstances have obliged to lay aside that plan.

No. I.

No question has been coming up at intervals for reconsideration more frequently than that which respects the comparative pretensions of Pagan (viz. Greek and Roman) Literature on the one side, and Modern (that is, the Literature of Christendom) on the other. Being brought uniformly before unjust tribunals–that is, tribunals corrupted and bribed by their own vanity–it is not wonderful that this great question should have been stifled and overlaid with peremptory decrees, dogmatically cutting the knot rather than skilfully untying it, as often as it has been moved afresh, and put upon the roll for a re-hearing. It is no mystery to those who are in the secret, and who can lay A and B together, why it should have happened that the most interesting of all literary questions, and the most comprehensive (for it includes most others, and some special to itself), has, in the first place, never been pleaded in a style of dignity, of philosophic precision, of feeling, or of research, proportioned to its own merits, and to the numerous ‘issues’ (forensically speaking) depending upon it; nor, in the second place, has ever received such an adjudication as was satisfactory even at the moment. For, be it remembered, after all, that any provisional adjudication–one growing out of the fashion or taste of a single era–could not, at any rate, be binding for a different era. A judgment which met the approbation of Spenser could hardly have satisfied Dryden; nor another which satisfied Pope, have been recognised as authentic by us of the year 1838. It is the normal or exemplary condition of the human mind, its ideal condition, not its abnormal condition, as seen in the transitory modes and fashions of its taste or its opinions, which only

‘Can lay great bases for eternity,’

or give even a colourable permanence to any decision in a matter so large, so perplexed, so profound, as this great pending suit between antiquity and ourselves–between the junior men of this earth and ourselves, the seniors, as Lord Bacon reasonably calls us. Appeals will be brought ad infinitum–we ourselves shall bring appeals, to set aside any judgment that may be given, until something more is consulted than individual taste; better evidence brought forward than the result of individual reading; something higher laid down as the grounds of judgment, as the very principles of the jurisprudence which controls the court, than those vague responsa prudentum, countersigned by the great name, perhaps, of Aristotle, but still too often mere products of local convenience, of inexperience, of experience too limited and exclusively Grecian, or of absolute caprice–rules, in short, which are themselves not less truly sub judice and liable to appeal than that very appeal cause to which they are applied as decisive.

We have remarked, that it is no mystery why the decision should have gone pretty uniformly in favour of the ancients; for here is the dilemma:–A man, attempting this problem, is or is not a classical scholar. If he is, then he has already received a bias in his judgment; he is a bribed man, bribed by his vanity; and is liable to be challenged as one of the judges. If he is not, then he is but imperfectly qualified–imperfectly as respects his knowledge and powers; whilst, even as respects his will and affections, it may be alleged that he also is under a bias and a corrupt influence; his interest being no less obvious to undervalue a literature, which, as to him, is tabooed and under lock and key, than his opponent’s is to put a preposterous value upon that knowledge which very probably is the one sole advantageous distinction between him and his neighbours.

We might cite an illustration from the French literary history on this very point. Every nation in turn has had its rows in this great quarrel, which is, in fact, co-extensive with the controversies upon human nature itself. The French, of course, have had theirs–solemn tournaments, single duels, casual ‘turn-ups,’ and regular ‘stand-up’ fights. The most celebrated of these was in the beginning of the last century, when, amongst others who acted as bottle-holders, umpires, etc., two champions in particular ‘peeled’ and fought a considerable number of rounds, mutually administering severe punishment, and both coming out of the ring disfigured: these were M. la Motte and Madame Dacier. But Motte was the favourite at first, and once he got Dacier ‘into chancery,’ and ‘fibbed’ her twice round the ropes, so that she became a truly pitiable and delightful spectacle to the connoisseurs in fibbing and bloodshed. But here lay the difference: Motte was a hard hitter; he was a clever man, and (which all clever men are not) a man of sense; but, like Shakspeare, he had no Greek. On the other hand, Dacier had nothing but Greek. A certain abbe, at that time, amused all Paris with his caricatures of this Madame Dacier, ‘who,’ said he, ‘ought to be cooking her husband’s dinner, and darning his stockings, instead of skirmishing and tilting with Grecian spears; for, be it known that, after all her not cooking and her not darning, she is as poor a scholar as her injured husband is a good one.’ And there the abbe was right; witness the husband’s Horace, in 9 vols., against the wife’s Homer. However, this was not generally understood. The lady, it was believed, waded petticoat-deep in Greek clover; and in any Grecian field of dispute, naturally she must be in the right, as against one who barely knew his own language and a little Latin. Motte was, therefore, thought by most people to have come off second best. For, as soon as ever he opened thus–‘Madame, it seems to me that, agreeably to all common sense or common decorum, the Greek poet should here’—-instantly, without listening to his argument, the intrepid Amazon replied ([Greek: hypodra idousa]), ‘You foolish man! you remarkably silly man!–that is because you know no better; and the reason you know no better, is because you do not understand ton d’apameibomenos as I do.’ Ton d’apameibomenos fell like a hand-grenade amongst Motte’s papers, and blew him up effectually in the opinion of the multitude. No matter what he might say in reply–no matter how reasonable, how unanswerable–that one spell of ‘No Greek! no Greek!’ availed as a talisman to the lady both for offence and defence; and refuted all syllogisms and all eloquence as effectually as the cry of A la lanterne! in the same country some fourscore years after.

So it will always be. Those who (like Madame Dacier) possess no accomplishment but Greek, will, of necessity, set a superhuman value upon that literature in all its parts, to which their own narrow skill becomes an available key. Besides that, over and above this coarse and conscious motive for overrating that which reacts with an equal and answerable overrating upon their own little philological attainments, there is another agency at work, and quite unconsciously to the subjects of that agency, in disturbing the sanity of any estimate they may make of a foreign literature. It is the habit (well known to psychologists) of transferring to anything created by our own skill, or which reflects our own skill, as if it lay causatively and objectively[1] in the reflecting thing itself, that pleasurable power which in very truth belongs subjectively[1] to the mind of him who surveys it, from conscious success in the exercise of his own energies. Hence it is that we see daily without surprise, young ladies hanging enamoured over the pages of an Italian author, and calling attention to trivial commonplaces, such as, clothed in plain mother English, would have been more repulsive to them than the distinctions of a theologian, or the counsels of a great-grandmother. They mistake for a pleasure yielded by the author, what is in fact the pleasure attending their own success in mastering what was lately an insuperable difficulty.

[Footnote 1:
Objectively and subjectively are terms somewhat too metaphysical; but they are so indispensable to accurate thinking that we are inclined to show them some indulgence; and, the more so, in cases where the mere position and connection of the words are half sufficient to explain their application.]

It is indeed a pitiable spectacle to any man of sense and feeling, who happens to be really familiar with the golden treasures of his own ancestral literature, and a spectacle which moves alternately scorn and sorrow, to see young people squandering their time and painful study upon writers not fit to unloose the shoes’ latchets of many amongst their own compatriots; making painful and remote voyages after the drossy refuse, when the pure gold lies neglected at their feet. Too often he is reminded of a case, which is still sometimes to be witnessed in London. Now and then it will happen that a lover of art, modern or antique alike, according to its excellence, will find himself honoured by an invitation from some millionnaire, or some towering grandee, to ‘assist,’ as the phrase is, at the opening of a case newly landed from the Tiber or the Arno, and fraught (as he is assured) with the very gems of Italian art, inter-mingled besides with many genuine antiques. He goes: the cases are solemnly disgorged; adulatory hangers on, calling themselves artists, and, at all events, so much so as to appreciate the solemn farce enacted, stand by uttering hollow applauses of my Lord’s taste, and endeavouring to play upon the tinkling cymbals of spurious enthusiasm: whilst every man of real discernment perceives at a glance the mere refuse and sweeping of a third-rate studio, such as many a native artist would disdain to turn out of his hands; and antiques such as could be produced, with a month’s notice, by cart-loads, in many an obscure corner of London. Yet for this rubbish has the great man taken a painful tour; compassed land and sea; paid away in exchange a king’s ransom; and claims now on their behalf, the very humblest homage of artists who are taxed with the basest envy if they refuse it, and who, meantime, cannot in sincerity look upon the trumpery with other feelings than such as the potter’s wheel, if (like Ezekiel’s wheels) it were instinct with spirit, would entertain for the vilest of its own creations;–culinary or ‘post-culinary’ mugs and jugs. We, the writers of this paper, are not artists, are not connected with artists. And yet, upon the general principle of sympathy with native merit, and of disgust towards all affectation, we cannot but recall such anecdotes with scorn; and often we recollect the stories recorded by poor Benvenuto Cellini, that dissolute but brilliant vagabond, who (like our own British artists) was sometimes upbraided with the degeneracy of modern art, and, upon his humbly requesting some evidence, received, by way of practical answer, a sculptured gem or vase, perhaps with a scornful demand of–when would he be able to produce anything like that–‘eh, Master Ben? Fancy we must wait a few centuries or so, before you’ll be ready with the fellow of this.’ And, lo! on looking into some hidden angle of the beautiful production, poor Cellini discovered his own private mark, the supposed antique having been a pure forgery of his own. Such cases remind one too forcibly of the pretty Horatian tale, where, in a contest between two men who undertake to mimic a pig’s grunting, he who happens to be the favourite of the audience is applauded to the echo for his felicitous execution, and repeatedly encored, whilst the other man is hissed off the stage, and well kicked by a band of amateurs and cognoscenti, as a poor miserable copyist and impostor; but, unfortunately for the credit of his exploders, he has just time, before they have quite kicked him off, for exposing to view the real pig concealed under his cloak, which pig it was, and not himself, that had been the artist–forced by pinches into ‘mimicry’ of his own porcine music. Of all baffled connoisseurs, surely, these Roman pig-fanciers must have looked the most confounded. Yet there is no knowing: and we ourselves have a clever friend, but rather too given to subtilising, who contends, upon some argument not perfectly intelligible to us, that Horace was not so conclusive in his logic as he fancied; that the real pig might not have an ‘ideal’ or normal squeak, but a peculiar and non-representative squeak; and that, after all, the man might deserve the ‘threshing’ he got. Well, it may be so; but, however, the Roman audience, wrong or not, for once fancied themselves in the wrong; and we cannot but regret that our own ungenerous disparagers of native merit, and exclusive eulogisers of the dead or the alien–of those only ‘quos Libitina sacravit,’ or whom oceans divide from us–are not now and then open to the same palpable refutation, as they are certainly guilty of the same mean error, in prejudging the whole question, and refusing to listen even to the plain evidence of their own feelings, or, in some cases, to the voice of their own senses.

From this preface it is already abundantly clear what side we take in this dispute about modern literature and the antique.[2] And we now propose to justify our leaning by a general review of the Pagan authors, in their elder section–that is, the Grecians. These will be enough in all conscience, for one essay; and even for them we meditate a very cursory inquest; not such as would suffice in a grand ceremonial day of battle–a justum proelium, as a Roman would call it–but in a mere perfunctory skirmish, or (if the reader objects to that word as pedantic, though, really, it is a highly-favoured word amongst ancient divines, and with many a

‘philosopher,
Who has read Alexander Ross over,’)

why, in that case, let us indulge his fastidious taste by calling it an autoschediastic combat, to which, surely, there can be no such objection. And as the manner of the combat is autoschediastic or extemporaneous, and to meet a hurried occasion, so is the reader to understand that the object of our disputation is not the learned, but the unlearned student; and our purpose, not so much to discontent the one with his painful acquisitions, as to console the other under what, upon the old principle of omne ignotum pro magnifico, he is too apt to imagine his irreparable disadvantages. We set before us, as our especial auditor, the reasonable man of plain sense but strong feeling, who wishes to know how much he has lost, and what injury the gods did him, when, though making him, perhaps, poetical, they cut short his allowance of Latin, and, as to Greek, gave him not a jot more than a cow has in her side pocket.

[Footnote 2:
In general usage, ‘The antique‘ is a phrase limited to the expression of art; but improperly so. It is quite as legitimately used to denote the literature of ancient times, in contradistinction to the modern. As to the term classical, though generally employed as equivalent to Greek and Roman, the reader must not forget this is quite a false limitation, contradicting the very reason for applying the word in any sense to literature. For the application arose thus: The social body of Rome being divided into six classes, of which the lowest was the sixth, it followed that the highest was the first. Thence, by a natural process common to most languages, those who belonged to this highest had no number at all assigned to them. The very absence of a number, the calling them classici, implied that they belonged to the class emphatically, or par excellence. The classics meant, therefore, the grandees in social consideration; and thence by analogy in literature. But if this analogy be transferred from Rome to Greece, where it had no corresponding root in civic arrangement–then, by parity of reason, to all nations. ]

Let us begin at the beginning–and that, as everybody knows, is Homer. He is, indeed, so much at the beginning that, for that very reason (if even there were no other), he is, and will be ever more, supremely interesting. Is the unlearned reader aware of his age? Upon that point there are more hypotheses than one or even two. Some there are among the chronologers who make him eleven hundred years anterior to Christ. But those who allow him least, place him more than nine–that is, about two centuries before the establishment of the Grecian Olympiads, and (which is pretty nearly the same thing as regards time) before Romulus and Remus. Such an antiquity as this, even on its own account, is a reasonable object of interest. A poet to whom the great-grandfather of old Ancus Martius (his grandfather, did we say–that is, avus?–nay, his abavus, his atavus, his tritavus) looked back as to one in a line with his remote ancestor–a poet who, if he travelled about as extensively as some have supposed him to do, or even as his own countryman Herodotus most certainly did five or six hundred years afterwards, might have conversed with the very workmen who laid the foundations of the first temple at Jerusalem–might have bent the knee before Solomon in all his glory:–Such a poet, were he no better than the worst of our own old metrical romancers, would–merely for his antiquity, merely for the sublime fact of having been coeval with the eldest of those whom the eldest of histories presents to our knowledge; coeval with the earliest kings of Judah, older than the greatest of the Judean prophets, older than the separation of the two Jewish crowns and the revolt of Israel, and, even with regard to Moses and to Joshua, not in any larger sense junior than as we ourselves are junior to Chaucer–purely and exclusively with regard to these pretensions, backed and supported by an antique form of an antique language–the most comprehensive and the most melodious in the world, would–could–should–ought to merit a filial attention; and, perhaps with those who had waggon-loads of time to spare, might plead the benefit, beyond most of those in whose favour it was enacted, of that Horatian rule–

‘vos exemplaria Graeca,
Nocturna versate manu, versate diurna.’

In fact, when we recollect that, in round numbers, we ourselves may be considered as two thousand years in advance of Christ, and that (by assuming less even than a mean between the different dates assigned to Homer) he stands a thousand years before Christ, we find between Homer and ourselves a gulf of three thousand years, or about one clear half of the total extent which we grant to the present duration of our planet. This in itself is so sublime a circumstance in the relations of Homer to our era, and the sense of power is so delightfully titillated to that man’s feeling, who, by means of Greek, and a very moderate skill in this fine language, is able to grasp the awful span, the vast arch of which one foot rest upon 1838, and the other almost upon the war of Troy–the mighty rainbow which, like the archangel in the Revelation, plants its western limb amongst the carnage and the magnificence of Waterloo, and the other amidst the vanishing gleams and the dusty clouds of Agamemnon’s rearguard–that we may pardon a little exultation to the man who can actually mutter to himself, as he rides home of a summer evening, the very words and vocal music of the old blind man at whose command

‘———-the Iliad and the Odyssey
Rose to the murmurs of the voiceful sea.’

But pleasures in this world fortunately are without end. And every man, after all, has many pleasures peculiar to himself–pleasures which no man shares with him, even as he is shut out from many of other men. To renounce one in particular, is no subject for sorrow, so long as many remain in that very class equal or superior. Elwood the Quaker had a luxury which none of us will ever have, in hearing the very voice and utterance of a poet quite as blind as Homer, and by many a thousand times more sublime. And yet Elwood was not perhaps much happier for that. For now, to proceed, reader–abstract from his sublime antiquity, and his being the very earliest of authors, allowance made for one or two Hebrew writers (who, being inspired, are scarcely to be viewed as human competitors), how much is there in Homer, intrinsically in Homer, stripped of his fine draperies of time and circumstance, in the naked Homer, disapparelled of the pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious antiquity, to remunerate a man for his labour in acquiring Greek? Men think very differently about what will remunerate any given labour. A fool (professional fool) in Shakspeare ascertains, by a natural process of logic, that a ‘remuneration’ means a testern, which is just sixpence; and two remunerations, therefore, a testoon, or one shilling. But many men will consider the same service ill paid by a thousand pounds. So, of the reimbursement for learning a language. Lord Camden is said to have learned Spanish, merely to enjoy Don Quixote more racily. Cato, the elder Cato, after abusing Greek throughout his life, sat down in extreme old age to study it: and wherefore? Mr. Coleridge mentions an author, in whom, upon opening his pages with other expectations, he stumbled upon the following fragrant passage–‘But from this frivolous digression upon philosophy and the fine arts, let us return to a subject too little understood or appreciated in these sceptical days–the subject of dung.’ Now, that was precisely the course of thought with this old censorious Cato: So long as Greek offered, or seemed to offer, nothing but philosophy or poetry, he was clamorous against Greek; but he began to thaw and melt a little upon the charms of Greek–he ‘owned the soft impeachment,’ when he heard of some Grecian treatises upon beans and turnips; and, finally, he sank under its voluptuous seductions, when he heard of others upon DUNG. There are, therefore, as different notions about a ‘remuneration’ in this case, as the poor fool had met with it in his case. We, however, unappalled by the bad names of ‘Goth,’ ‘Vandal,’ and so forth, shall honestly lay before the reader our notions.

When Dryden wrote his famous, indeed matchless, epigram upon the three great masters (or reputed masters) of the Epopee, he found himself at no loss to characterize the last of the triad–no matter what qualities he imputed to the first and the second, he knew himself safe in imputing them all to the third. The mighty modern had everything that his predecessors were ever thought to have, as well as something beside.[3] So he expressed the surpassing grandeur of Milton, by saying that in him nature had embodied, by concentration as in one focus, whatever excellencies she had scattered separately amongst her earlier favourites. But, in strict regard to the facts, this is far from being a faithful statement of the relations between Milton and his elder brothers of the Epos: in sublimity, if that is what Dryden meant by ‘loftiness of thought,’ it is not so fair to class Milton with the greatest of poets, as to class him apart, retired from all others, sequestered, ‘sole-sitting by the shores of old romance.’ In other poets, in Dante for example, there may be rays, gleams, sudden coruscations, casual scintillations, of the sublime; but for any continuous and sustained blaze of the sublime, it is in vain to look for it, except in Milton, making allowances (as before) for the inspired sublimities of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and of the great Evangelist’s Revelations. As to Homer, no critic who writes from personal and direct knowledge on the one hand, or who understands the value of words on the other, ever contended in any critical sense for sublimity, as a quality to which he had the slightest pretensions. What! not Longinus? If he did, it would have been of little consequence; for he had no field of comparison, as we, knowing no literature but one–whereas we have a range of seven or eight. But he did not: [Greek: To hypselon],[4] or the elevated, in the Longinian sense, expressed all, no matter of what origin, of what tendency, which gives a character of life and animation to composition–whatever raises it above the dead level of flat prosaic style. Emphasis, or what in an artist’s sense gives relief to a passage, causing it to stand forward, and in advance of what surrounds it–that is the predominating idea in the ‘sublime’ of Longinus. And this explains what otherwise has perplexed his modern interpreters–viz. that amongst the elements of his sublime, he ranks even the pathetic, i. e. (say they) what by connecting itself with the depressing passion of grief is the very counter-agent to the elevating affection of the sublime. True, most sapient sirs, my very worthy and approved good masters: but that very consideration should have taught you to look back, and reconsider your translation of the capital word [Greek: hypsos]. It was rather too late in the day, when you had waded half-seas over in your translation, to find out either that you yourselves were ignoramuses, or that your principal was an ass. ‘Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ And any man might guess how you would settle such a dilemma. It is, according to you, a little oversight of your principal: ‘humanum aliquid passus est.‘ We, on the other hand, affirm that, if an error at all on the part of Longinus, it is too monstrous for any man to have ‘overlooked.’ As long as he could see a pike-staff, he must have seen that. And, therefore, we revert to our view of the case–viz. that it is yourselves who have committed the blunder, in translating by the Latin word sublimis[5] at all, but still more after it had received new determinations under modern usage.

[Footnote 3:
The beauty of this famous epigram lies in the form of the conception. The first had A; the second had B; and when nature, to furnish out a third, should have given him C, she found that A and B had already exhausted her cycle; and that she could distinguish her third great favourite only by giving him both A and B in combination. But the filling up of this outline is imperfect: for the A (loftiness) and the B (majesty) are one and the same quality, under different names. ]

[Footnote 4:
Because the Latin word sublimis is applied to objects soaring upwards, or floating aloft, or at an aerial altitude, and because the word does sometimes correspond to our idea of the sublime (in which the notion of height is united with the notion of moral grandeur), and because, in the excessive vagueness and lawless latitudinarianism of our common Greek Lexicons, the word [Greek: hypsos] is translated, inter alia, by [Greek: to] sublime, sublimitas, etc. Hence it has happened that the title of the little essay ascribed to Longinus, [Greek: Peri hypsous], is usually rendered into English, Concerning the sublime. But the idea of the Sublime, as defined, circumscribed, and circumstantiated, in English literature–an idea altogether of English growth–the sublime byway of polar antithesis to the Beautiful, had no existence amongst ancient critics; consequently it could have no expression. It is a great thought, a true thought, a demonstrable thought, that the Sublime, as thus ascertained, and in contraposition to the Beautiful, grew up on the basis of sexual distinctions, the Sublime corresponding to the male, the Beautiful, its anti-pole, corresponding to the female. Behold! we show you a mystery. ]

[Footnote 5:
No word has ever given so much trouble to modern critics as this very word (now under discussion) of the sublime. To those who have little Greek and no Latin, it is necessary in the first place that we should state what are the most obvious elements of the word. According to the noble army of etymologists, they are these two Latin words–sub, under, and limus, mud. Oh! gemini! who would have thought of groping for the sublime in such a situation as that?–unless, indeed, it were that writer cited by Mr. Coleridge, and just now referred to by ourselves, who complains of frivolous modern readers, as not being able to raise and sequester their thoughts to the abstract consideration of dung. Hence it has followed, that most people have quarrelled with the etymology. “Whereupon the late Dr. Parr, of pedantic memory, wrote a huge letter to Mr. Dugald Stewart, but the marrow of which lies in a nutshell, especially being rather hollow within. The learned doctor, in the first folio, grapples with the word sub, which, says he, comes from the Greek–so much is clear–but from what Greek, Bezonian? The thoughtless world, says he, trace it to [Greek: hypo] (hypo), sub, i. e. under; but I, Ego, Samuel Parr, the Birmingham doctor, trace it to [Greek: hyper] (hyper), super, i. e. above; between which the difference is not less than between a chestnut horse and a horse-chestnut. To this learned Parrian dissertation on mud, there cannot be much reasonably to object, except its length in the first place; and, secondly, that we ourselves exceedingly doubt the common interpretation of limus. Most unquestionably, if the sublime is to be brought into any relation at all to mud, we shall all be of one mind–that it must be found above. But to us it appears–that when the true modern idea of mud was in view, limus was not the word used. Cicero, for instance, when he wishes to call Piso ‘filth, mud,’ etc. calls him Caenum: and, in general, limus seems to have involved the notion of something adhesive, and rather to express plaister, or artificially prepared cement, etc., than that of filth or impure depositions. Accordingly, our own definition differs from the Parrian, or Birmingham definition; and may, nevertheless, be a Birmingham definition also. Not having room to defend it, for the present we forbear to state it. ]

Now, therefore, after this explanation, recurring to the Longinian critiques upon Homer, it will avail any idolator of Homer but little, it will affect us not much, to mention that Longinus makes frequent reference to the Iliad, as the great source of the sublime–

‘A quo, ceu fonte perenni,
Vatum Pieriis ora rigantur aquis’;

for, as respected Grecian poets, and as respected his sense of the word, it cannot be denied that Homer was such. He was the great well-head of inspiration to the Pagan poets of after times, who, however (as a body), moved in the narrowest circle that has ever yet confined the natural freedom of the poetic mind. But, in conceding this, let it not be forgotten how much we concede–we concede as much as Longinus demanded; that is, that Homer furnished an ideal or model of fluent narration, picturesque description, and the first outlines of what could be called characteristic delineations of persons. Accordingly, uninventive Greece–for we maintain loudly that Greece, in her poets, was uninventive and sterile beyond the example of other nations–received, as a traditional inheritance, the characters of the Paladins of the Troad.[6] Achilles is always the all-accomplished and supreme amongst these Paladins, the Orlando of ancient romance; Agamemnon, for ever the Charlemagne; Ajax, for ever the sullen, imperturbable, columnar champion, the Mandricardo, the Bergen-op-Zoom of his faction, and corresponding to our modern ‘Chicken’ in the pugilistic ring, who was so called (as the books of the Fancy say) because he was a ‘glutton’; and a ‘glutton’ in this sense–that he would take any amount of cramming (i. e. any possible quantum of ‘milling,’ or ‘punishment’). Ulysses, again, is uniformly, no matter whether in the solemnities of the tragic scene, or the festivities of the Ovidian romance, the same shy cock, but also sly cock, with the least thought of a white feather in his plumage; Diomed is the same unmeaning double of every other hero, just as Rinaldo is with respect to his greater cousin, Orlando; and so of Teucer, Meriones, Idomeneus, and the other less-marked characters. The Greek drama took up these traditional characters, and sometimes deepened, saddened, exalted the features–as Sophocles, for instance, does with his ‘Ajax Flagellifer’–Ajax the knouter of sheep–where, by the way, the remorse and penitential grief of Ajax for his own self-degradation, and the depth of his affliction for the triumph which he had afforded to his enemies–taken in connection with the tender fears of his wife, Tecmessa, for the fate to which his gloomy despair was too manifestly driving him; her own conscious desolation, and the orphan weakness of her son, in the event which she too fearfully anticipates–the final suicide of Ajax; the brotherly affection of Teucer to the widow and the young son of the hero, together with the unlooked-for sympathy of Ulysses, who, instead of exulting in the ruin of his antagonist, mourns over it with generous tears–compose a situation, and a succession of situations, not equalled in the Greek tragedy; and, in that instance, we see an effort, rare in Grecian poetry, of conquest achieved by idealisation over a mean incident–viz. the hallucination of brain in Ajax, by which he mistakes the sheep for his Grecian enemies, ties them up for flagellation, and scourges them as periodically as if he were a critical reviewer. But really, in one extremity of this madness, where he fixes upon an old ram for Agamemnon, as the leader of the flock, the [Greek: anax andron Agamemnon], there is an extravagance of the ludicrous against which, though not exhibited scenically, but simply narrated, no solemnity of pathos could avail; even in narration, the violation of tragical dignity is insufferable, and is as much worse than the hyper-tragic horrors of Titus Andronicus (a play which is usually printed, without reason, amongst those of Shakspeare) as absolute farce or contradiction of all pathos must inevitably be a worse indecorum than physical horrors which simply outrage it by excess. Let us not, therefore, hear of the judgment displayed upon the Grecian stage, when even Sophocles, the chief master of dramatic economy and scenical propriety, could thus err by an aberration so far transcending the most memorable violation of stage decorum which has ever been charged upon the English drama.

[Footnote 6:
There is a difficulty in assigning any term as comprehensive enough to describe the Grecian heroes and their antagonists, who fought at Troy. The seven chieftains against Thebes are described sufficiently as Theban captains; but, to say Trojan chieftains, would express only the heroes of one side; Grecian, again, would be liable to that fault equally, and to another far greater, of being under no limitation as to time. This difficulty must explain and (if it can) justify our collective phrase of the Paladins of the Troad. ]

From Homer, therefore, were left, as a bequest to all future poets, the romantic adventures which grow, as so many collateral dependencies,

‘From the tale of Troy divine’;

and from Homer was derived also the discrimination of the leading characters, which, after all, were but coarsely and rudely discriminated; at least, for the majority. In one instance only we acknowledge an exception. We have heard a great modern poet dwelling with real and not counterfeit enthusiasm upon the character (or rather upon the general picture, as made up both of character and position), which the course of the Iliad assigns gradually to Achilles. The view which he took of this impersonation of human grandeur, combining all gifts of intellect and of body, matchless speed, strength, inevitable eye, courage, and the immortal beauty of a god, being also, by his birth-right, half-divine, and consecrated to the imagination by his fatal interweaving with the destinies of Troy, and to the heart by the early death which to his own knowledge[7] impended over his magnificent career, and so abruptly shut up its vista–the view, we say, which our friend took of the presiding character throughout the Iliad, who is introduced to us in the very first line, and who is only eclipsed for seventeen books, to emerge upon us with more awful lustre;–the view which he took was–that Achilles, and Achilles only, in the Grecian poetry, was a great idea–an idealised creation; and we remember that in this respect he compared the Homeric Achilles with the Angelica of Ariosto. Her only he regarded as an idealisation in the Orlando Furioso. And certainly in the luxury and excess of her all-conquering beauty, which drew after her from ‘ultimate Cathay’ to the camps of the baptised in France, and back again, from the palace of Charlemagne, drew half the Paladins, and ‘half Spain militant,’ to the portals of the rising sun; that sovereign beauty which (to say nothing of kings and princes withered by her frowns) ruined for a time the most princely of all the Paladins, the supreme Orlando, crazed him with scorn,

‘And robbed him of his noble wits outright’–

in all this, we must acknowledge a glorification of power not unlike that of Achilles:–

‘Irresistible Pelides, whom, unarm’d,
No strength of man or wild beast could withstand;
Who tore the lion as the lion tears the kid;
Ran on embattl’d armies clad in iron;
And, weaponless himself,
Made arms ridiculous, useless the forgery
Of brazen shield and spear, the hammer’d cuirass,
Chalybean temper’d steel, and frock of mail,
Adamantean proof;
But safest he who stood aloof,
When insupportably his foot advanced
Spurned them to death by troops. The bold Priamides
Fled from his lion ramp; old warriors turn’d
Their plated backs under his heel,
Or, groveling, soil’d their crested helmets in the dust.’

These are the words of Milton in describing that ‘heroic Nazarete,’ ‘God’s champion’–

‘Promis’d by heavenly message twice descending’;

heralded, like Pelides,

‘By an angel of his birth,
Who from his father’s field
Rode up in flames after his message told’;

these are the celestial words which describe the celestial prowess of the Hebrew monomachist, the irresistible Sampson; and are hardly less applicable to the ‘champion paramount’ of Greece confederate.

Throughout the whole of this review, the same ‘moral,’ if one might so call it, would be apparent–viz. that in proportion as the oratory was high and intellectual, did it travel out into the collateral questions of less instant necessity, but more durable interest; and that, in proportion as the Grecian necessity was or was not enforced by the temper of the House, or by the pressure of public business–the necessity which cripples the orator, by confining him within the severe limits of the case before him–in that proportion had or had not the oratory of past generations a surviving interest for modern posterity. Nothing, in fact, so utterly effete–not even old law, or old pharmacy, or old erroneous chemistry–nothing so insufferably dull as political orations, unless when powerfully animated by that spirit of generalisation which only gives the breath of life and the salt which preserves from decay, through every age alike. The very strongest proof, as well as exemplification of all which has been said on Grecian oratory, may thus be found in the records of the British senate.

And this, by the way, brings us round to an aspect of Grecian oratory which has been rendered memorable, and forced upon our notice, in the shape of a problem, by the most popular of our native historians–the aspect, I mean, of Greek oratory in comparison with English. Hume has an essay upon the subject; and the true answer to that essay will open a wide field of truth to us. In this little paper, Hume assumes the superiority of Grecian eloquence, as a thing admitted on all hands, and requiring no proof. Not the proof of this point did he propose to himself as his object; not even the illustration of it. No. All that, Hume held to be superfluous. His object was, to investigate the causes of this Grecian superiority; or, if investigate is too pompous a word for so slight a discussion, more properly, he inquired for the cause as something that must naturally lie upon the surface.

What is the answer? First of all, before looking for causes, a man should be sure of his facts. Now, as to the main fact at issue, I utterly deny the superiority of Grecian eloquence. And, first of all, I change the whole field of inquiry by shifting the comparison. The Greek oratory is all political or judicial: we have those also; but the best of our eloquence, by immeasurable degrees, the noblest and richest, is our religious eloquence. Here, of course, all comparison ceases; for classical Grecian religious eloquence, in Grecian attire, there is none until three centuries after the Christian era, when we have three great orators, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil–of which two I have a very fixed opinion, having read large portions of both–and a third of whom I know nothing. To our Jeremy Taylor, to our Sir Thomas Browne, there is no approach made in the Greek eloquence. The inaugural chapter of the Holy Dying, to say nothing of many another golden passage; or the famous passage in the Urn Buriall, beginning–‘Now, since these bones have rested under the drums and tramplings of three conquests’–have no parallel in literature. The winding up of the former is more, in its effect, like a great tempestuous chorus from the Judas Maccabeus, or from Spohr’s St. Paul, than like human eloquence.

But, grant that this transfer of the comparison is unfair–still, it is no less unfair to confine the comparison on our part to the weakest part of our oratory; but no matter–let issue be joined even here. Then we may say, at once, that, for the intellectual qualities of eloquence, in fineness of understanding, in depth and in large compass of thought, Burke far surpasses any orator, ancient or modern. But, if the comparison were pushed more widely, very certain I am, that, apart from classical prejudice, no qualities of just thinking, or fine expression, or even of artificial ornament, could have been assigned by Hume, in which the great body of our deliberative and forensic orators fall short of Grecian models; though I will admit, that, by comparison with the Roman model of Cicero, there is seldom the same artful prefiguration of the oration throughout its future course, or the same sustained rhythmus and oratorial tone. The qualities of art are nowhere so prominently expressed, nowhere aid the effect so much, as in the great Roman master.

But, as to Greece, let us now, in one word, unveil the sole advantage which the eloquence of the Athenian assembly has over that of the English senate. It is this–the public business of Athens was as yet simple and unencumbered by details; the dignity of the occasion was scenically sustained. But, in England, the vast intricacy and complex interweaving of property, of commerce, of commercial interests, of details infinite in number, and infinite in littleness, break down and fritter away into fractions and petty minutiae, the whole huge labyrinth of our public affairs. It is scarcely necessary to explain my meaning. In Athens, the question before the public assembly was, peace or war–before our House of Commons, perhaps the Exchequer Bills’ Bill; at Athens, a league or no league–in England, the Tithe of Agistment Commutation-Bills’ Renewal Bill; in Athens–shall we forgive a ruined enemy? in England–shall we cancel the tax on farthing rushlights? In short, with us, the infinity of details overlays the simplicity and grandeur of our public deliberations.

Such was the advantage–a mighty advantage–for Greece. Now, finally, for the use made of this advantage. To that point I have already spoken. By the clamorous and undeliberative qualities of the Athenian political audience, by its fitful impatience, and vehement arrogance, and fervid partisanship, all wide and general discussion was barred in limine. And thus occurred this singular inversion of positions–the greatest of Greek orators was obliged to treat these Catholic questions as mere Athenian questions of business. On the other hand, the least eloquent of British senators, whether from the immense advance in knowledge, or from the custom and usage of Parliament, seldom fails, more or less, to elevate his intense details of pure technical business into something dignified, either by the necessities of pursuing the historical relations of the matter in discussion, or of arguing its merits as a case of general finance, or as connected with general political economy, or, perhaps, in its bearings on peace or war. The Grecian was forced, by the composition of his headstrong auditory, to degrade and personalise his grand themes; the Englishman is forced, by the difference of his audience, by old prescription, and by the opposition of a well-informed, hostile party, into elevating his merely technical and petty themes into great national questions, involving honour and benefit to tens of millions.

Leave a Reply 0

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