THE VALUE OF GREEK AND LATIN IN ENGLISH LITERATURE
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 1918
I have promised you, Gentlemen, for to-day some observations on The Value of Greek and Latin in English Literature: a mild, academic title, a camouflage title, so to say; calculated to shelter us for a while from the vigilance of those hot-eyed reformers who, had I advertised The Value of Greek and Latin in English Life might even now be swooping from all quarters of the sky on a suggestion that these dry bones yet were flesh: for the eyes I dread are not only red and angry, but naturally microscopic--and that indeed, if they only knew it, is their malady. Yet 'surely' groaned patient job, 'there is a path which the vulture's eye hath not seen!'
You, at any rate, know by this time that wherever these lectures assert literature they assert life, perhaps even too passionately, allowing neither the fact of death nor the possibility of divorce.
But let us begin with the first word, 'Value'--'The Value of Greek and Latin in English Literature.' What do I mean by 'Value'? Well, I use it, generally, in the sense of 'worth'; but with a particular meaning, or shade of meaning, too. And, this particular meaning is not the particular meaning intended (as I suppose) by men of commerce who, on news of a friend's death, fall a-musing and continue musing until the fire kindles, and they ask 'What did So-and-so die worth?' or sometimes, more wisely than they know, 'What did poor old So-and-so die worth?' or again, more colloquially, 'What did So-and-so "cut up" for?' Neither is it that which more disinterested economists used to teach; men never (I fear me) loved, but anyhow lost awhile, who for my green unknowing youth, at Thebes or Athens--growing older I tend to forget which is, or was, which--defined the Value of a thing as its 'purchasing power' which the market translates into 'price.' For--to borrow a phrase which I happened on, the other day, with delight, in the Introduction to a translation of Lucian--there may be forms of education less paying than the commercial and yet better worth paying for; nay, above payment or computation in price.
No: the particular meaning I use to-day is that which artists use when they talk of painting or of music. To see things, near or far, in their true perspective and proportions; to judge them through distance; and fetching them back, to reproduce them in art so proportioned comparatively, so rightly adjusted, that they combine to make a particular and just perspective: that is to give things their true Values.
Suppose yourself reclining on a bank on a clear day, looking up into the sky and watching the ascent of a skylark while you listen to his song. That is a posture in which several poets of repute have placed themselves from time to time: so we need not be ashamed of it. Well, you see the atmosphere reaching up and up, mile upon mile. There are no milestones planted there. But, wave on wave perceptible, the atmosphere stretches up through indeterminate distances; and according as your painter of the sky can translate these distances, he gives his sky what is called Value.
You listen to the skylark's note rising, spiral by spiral, on 'the very jet of earth':
As up he wings the spiral stair, A song of light, and pierces air With fountain ardour, fountain play, To reach the shining tops of day:
and you long for the musical gift to follow up and up the delicate degrees of distance and thread the notes back as the bird ascending drops them--on a thread, as it were, of graduated beads, half music and half dew:
That was the chirp of Ariel You heard, as overhead it flew, The farther going more to dwell And wing our green to wed our blue; But whether note of joy, or knell, Not his own Father-singer knew; Nor yet can any mortal tell, Save only how it shivers through; The breast of us a sounded shell, The blood of us a lighted dew.
Well in music, in painting, this graduating which gives right proportion and, with proportion, a sense of distance, of atmosphere, is called Value. Let us, for a minute or two, assay this particular meaning of Value upon life and literature, and first upon life, or, rather upon one not negligible facet of life.
I suppose that if an ordinary man of my age were asked which has better helped him to bear the burs of life--religion or a sense of humour--he would, were he quite honest, be gravelled for an answer. Now the best part of a sense of humour, as you know without my telling you, consists in a sense of proportion; a habit, abiding and prompt at command, of seeing all human, affairs in their just perspective, so that its happy possessor at once perceives anything odd or distorted or overblown to be an excrescence, a protuberance, a swelling, literally a humour: and the function of Thalia, the Comic Spirit, as you may read in Meredith's "Essay on Comedy," is just to prick these humours. I will but refer you to Meredith's "Essay," and here cite you the words of an old schoolmaster:
It would seem to be characteristic of the same mind to appreciate the beauty of ideas in just proportion and harmonious relation to each other, and the absurdity of the same ideas when distorted or brought into incongruous juxtaposition. The exercise of this sense of humour ... compels the mind to form a picture to itself, accompanied by pleasurable emotion; and what is this but setting the imagination to work, though in topsy-turvy fashion? Nay, in such a case, imagination plays a double part, since it is only by instantaneous comparison with ideal fitness and proportion that it can grasp at full force the grotesqueness of their contraries.
Let us play with an example for one moment. A child sees such an excrescence, such an offence upon proportion, in an immoderately long nose. He is apt to call attention to it on the visage of a visitor: it intrigues him in Perrault's 'Prince Charming' and many a fairy tale: it amuses him in Lear's "Book of Nonsense":
There was an old man with a Nose, Who said 'If you choose to suppose That my nose is too long You are certainly wrong'--
This old man he detects as lacking sense of proportion, sense of humour. Pass from the child to the working-man as we know him. A few weeks ago, a lady--featured, as to nose, on the side of excess--was addressing a North Country audience on the Economic Position of Women after the War. Said she, 'There won't be men to go round.' Said a voice 'Eh, but they'll have to, Miss!' Pass from this rudimentary criticism to high talent employed on the same subject, and you get "Cyrano de Bergerac." Pass to genius, to Milton, and you find the elephant amusing Adam and Eve in Paradise, and doing his best:
the unwieldy elephant, To make them mirth, used all his might, and wreathed His lithe proboscis.
Milton, like the elephant, jokes with difficulty, but he, too, is using all his might.
I have illustrated, crudely enough, how a sense of things in their right values will help us on one side of our dealings with life. But truly it helps us on every side. This was what Plato meant when he said that a philosopher must see things as they relatively are within his horizon--[Greek: o synoptikos dialektikos]. And for this it was that an English poet praised Sophocles as one
Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole.
And this of course is what Dean Inge meant when, the other day, in a volume of "Cambridge Essays on Education," he reminded us, for a sensible commonplace, that 'The wise man is he who knows the relative values of things.'
Applying this to literature, I note, but shall not insist here on the fact--though fact it is--that the Greek and Roman 'classical' writers (as we call them) laid more stress than has ever been laid among the subsequent tribes of men upon the desirability of getting all things into proportion, of seeing all life on a scale of relative values. And the reason I shall not insist on this is simply that better men have saved me the trouble.
I propose this morning to discuss the value of the classics to students of English literature from, as the modern phrase goes, a slightly different angle.
Reclining and looking up into that sky which is not too grandiose an image for our own English Literature, you would certainly not wish, Gentlemen, to see it as what it is not--as a cloth painted on the flat. No more than you would choose the sky overarching your life to be a close, hard, copper vault, would you choose this literature of ours to resemble such a prison. I say nothing, for the moment, of the thrill of comparing ours with other constellations--of such a thrill as Blanco White's famous sonnet imagines in Adam's soul when the first night descended on Eden and
Hesperus with the host of heaven came, And lo! Creation widen'd in man's view. Who could have thought such darkness lay conceal'd Within thy beams, O sun!...
No: I simply picture you as desiring to realise our own literature, its depths and values, mile above mile deeper and deeper shining, with perchance a glimpse of a city celestial beyond, or at whiles, on a ladder of values, of the angels--the messengers--climbing and returning.
Well, now, I put it to you that without mental breeding, without at least some sense of ancestry, an Englishman can hardly have this perception of value, this vision. I put to you what I posited in an earlier course of lectures, quoting Bagehot, that while a knowledge of Greek and Latin is not necessary to a writer of English, he should at least have a firm conviction that those two languages existed. I refer you to a long passage which, in one of those lectures, I quoted from Cardinal Newman to the effect that for the last 3000 years the Western World has been evolving a human society, having its bond in a common civilisation--a society to which (let me add, by way of footnote) Prussia today is firmly, though with great difficulty, being tamed. There are, and have been, other civilisations in the world --the Chinese, for instance; a huge civilisation, stationary, morose, to us unattractive; 'but this civilisation,' says Newman, 'together with the society which is its creation and its home, is so distinctive and luminous in its character, so imperial in its extent, so imposing in its duration, and so utterly without rival upon the face of the earth, that the association may fitly assume for itself the title of "Human Society," and its civilisation the abstract term "Civilisation".'
He goes on:
Looking, then, at the countries which surround the Mediterranean Sea as a whole, I see them to be, from time immemorial, the seat of an association of intellect and mind such as deserves to be called the Intellect and Mind of the Human Kind.
But I must refer you to his famous book "The Idea of a University" to read at length how Newman, in that sinuous, sinewy, Platonic style of his, works it out--the spread, through Rome, even to our shores, of the civilisation which began in Palestine and Greece.
I would press the point more rudely upon you, and more particularly, than does Newman. And first, for Latin--
I waive that Rome occupied and dominated this island during 400 years. Let that be as though it had never been. For a further 1000 years and more Latin remained the common speech of educated men throughout Europe: the 'Universal Language.' Greek had been smothered by the Turk. Through all that time--through the most of what we call Modern History, Latin reigned everywhere. Is this a fact to be ignored by any of you who would value 'values'?
Here are a few particulars, by way of illustration. More wrote his "Utopia," Bacon wrote all the bulk of his philosophical work, in Latin; Newton wrote his "Principia" in Latin. Keble's Lectures on Poetry (if their worth and the name of Keble may together save me from bathos) were delivered in Latin. Our Vice-Chancellor, our Public Orator still talk Latin, securing for it what attention they can: nor have
The bigots of this iron time Yet call'd their harmless art a crime.
But there is a better reason why you should endeavour to understand the value of Latin in our literature; a filial reason. Our fathers built their great English prose, as they built their oratory, upon the Latin model. Donne used it to construct his mighty fugues: Burke to discipline his luxuriance. Says Cowper, it were
Praise enough for any private man, That Chatham's language was his mother tongue, And Wolfe's great name compatriot with his own.
Well then, here is a specimen of Chatham's language: from his speech, Romanly severe, denouncing the Government of the day for employing Red Indians in the American War of Independence. He is addressing the House of Lords:
I call upon that right reverend bench, those holy ministers of the Gospel, and pious pastors of our Church--I conjure them to join in the holy work, and vindicate the religion of their God. I appeal to the wisdom and the law of this learned bench to defend and support the justice of their country. I call upon the bishops to interpose the unsullied sanctity of their lawn; upon the learned judges to interpose the purity of their ermine, to save us from this pollution. I call upon the honour of your lordships to reverence the dignity of your ancestors, and to maintain your own. I call upon the spirit and humanity of my country to vindicate the national character. I invoke the genius of the Constitution. From the tapestry that adorns these walls the immortal ancestor of this noble lord [Lord Suffolk] frowns with indignation at the disgrace of his country. In vain he led your victorious fleet: against the boasted Armada of Spain; in vain he defended and established the honour, the liberties, the religion--the Protestant religion--of this country, against the arbitrary cruelties of Popery and the Inquisition, if these more than Popish cruelties and inquisitorial practices are let loose among us--to turn forth into our settlements, among our ancient connexions, friends, and relations, the merciless cannibal, thirsting for the blood of man, woman, and child! to send forth the infidel savage---against whom? against your Protestant brethren; to lay waste their country, to desolate their dwellings, and extirpate their race and name, with these horrible hell-hounds of savage war!--hell-hounds, I say, of savage war! Spain armed herself with blood-hounds to extirpate the wretched natives of America, and we improve on the inhuman example even of Spanish cruelty; we turn loose these savage hell-hounds against our brethren and countrymen in America, of the same language, laws, liberties, and religion, endeared to us by every tie that should sanctify humanity....
My lords, I am old and weak, and at present unable to say more; but my feelings and indignation were too strong to have said less. I could not have slept this night in my bed, nor reposed my head on my pillow, without giving this vent to my eternal abhorrence of such preposterous and enormous principles.
That was Chatham. For Wolfe--he, as you know, was ever reading the classics even on campaign: as Burke again carried always a Virgil in his pocket. Abeunt studia in mores. Moreover can we separate Chatham's Roman morality from Chatham's language in the passage I have just read? No: we cannot. No one, being evil, can speak good things with that weight; 'for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.' We English (says Wordsworth)
We must be free or die, who speak the tongue That Shakespeare spake....
You may criticise Chatham's style as too consciously Ciceronian. But has ever a Parliamentary style been invented which conveys a nobler gravity of emotion? `Buskined'?--yes: but the style of a man. 'Mannered'?--yes, but in the grand manner. 'Conscious'?-- yes, but of what? Conscious of the dignity a great man owes to himself, and to the assembly he addresses. He conceives that assembly as 'the British Senate'; and, assuming, he communicates that high conception. The Lords feel that they are listening as Senators, since it is only thus a Senate should be addressed, as nothing less than a Senate should be addressed thus.
Let me read you a second passage; of written prose:
Laodameia died; Helen died; Leda, the beloved of Jupiter, went before. It is better to repose in the earth betimes than to sit up late; better, than to cling pertinaciously to what we feel crumbling under us, and to protract an inevitable fall. We may enjoy the present while we are insensible of infirmity and decay: but the present, like a note in music, is nothing but as it appertains to what is past and what is to come. There are no fields of amaranth on this aide of the grave; there are no voices, O Rhodopè! that are not soon mute, however tuneful; there is no name, with whatever emphasis of passionate love repeated, of which the echo is not faint at last.
Latin--all Latin--down to its exquisite falling close! And I say to you, Gentlemen, that passages such as these deserve what Joubert claimed of national monuments, Ce sont les crampons qui unissent une génération à une autre. Conservez ce qu'ont vu vos pères, 'These are the clamps that knit one generation to another. Cherish those things on which your fathers' eyes have looked.'
Abeunt studia in mores.
If, years ago, there had lacked anything to sharpen my suspicion of those fork-bearded professors who derived our prose from the stucco of Anglo-Saxon prose, it would have been their foolish deliberate practice of composing whole pages of English prose without using one word derivative from Latin or Greek. Esau, when he sold his birthright, had the excuse of being famished. These pedants, with a full board, sought frenetically to give it away-- board and birthright. 'So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality' --almost, I say, these men had deserved to have a kind of speech more to their taste read over their coffins.
What, in the next place, can I say of Greek, save that, as Latin gave our fathers the model of prose, Greek was the source of it all, the goddess and genius of the well-head? And, casting about to illustrate, as well as may be, what I mean by this, I hit on a minor dialogue of Plato, the "Phaedrus," and choose you a short passage in Edward FitzGerald's rendering:
When Socrates and Phaedrus have discoursed away the noon-day under the plane trees by the Ilissus, they rise to depart toward the city. But Socrates (pointing perhaps to some images of Pan and other sylvan deities) says it is not decent to leave their haunts without praying to them, and he prays:
'O auspicious Pan, and ye other deities of this place, grant to me to become beautiful inwardly, and that all my outward goods may prosper my inner soul. Grant that I may esteem wisdom the only riches, and that I may have so much gold as temperance can handsomely carry.
'Have we yet aught else to pray for, Phaedrus? For myself I seem to have prayed enough.'
Phaedrus: 'Pray as much for me also: for friends have all in common.'
Socrates: 'Even so be it. Let us depart'
To this paternoster of Socrates, reported more than four centuries before Christ taught the Lord's Prayer, let me add an attempted translation of the lines that close Homer's hymn to the Delian Apollo. Imagine the old blind poet on the beach chanting to the islanders the glorious boast of the little island--how it of all lands had harboured Leto in her difficult travail; how she gave birth to the Sun God; how the immortal child, as the attendant goddesses touched his lips with ambrosia, burst his swaddling bands and stood up, sudden, a god erect:
But he, the Sun-God, did no sooner taste That food divine than every swaddling band Burst strand by strand, And burst the belt above his panting waist-- All hanging loose About him as he stood and gave command: 'Fetch me my lyre, fetch me my curving bow! And, taught by these, shall know All men, through me, the unfaltering will of Zeus!' So spake the unshorn God, the Archer bold, And turn'd to tread the ways of Earth so wide; While they, all they, had marvel to behold How Delos broke in gold Beneath his feet, as on a mountain-side Sudden, in Spring, a tree is glorified And canopied with blossoms manifold. But he went swinging with a careless stride, Proud, in his new artillery bedight, Up rocky Cynthus, and the isles descried-- All his, and their inhabitants--for wide, Wide as he roam'd, ran these in rivalry To build him temples in many groves: And these be his, and all the isles he loves, And every foreland height, And every river hurrying to the sea. But chief in thee, Delos, as first it was, is his delight. Where the long-robed Ionians, each with mate And children, pious to his altar throng, And, decent, celebrate His birth with boxing-match and dance and song: So that a stranger, happening them among, Would deem that these Ionians have no date, Being ageless, all so met; And he should gaze And marvel at their ways, Health, wealth, the comely face On man and woman--envying their estate-- And yet You shall he least be able to forget, You maids of Delos, dear ones, as ye raise The hymn to Phoebus, Leto, Artemis, In triune praise, Then slide your song back upon ancient days And men whose very name forgotten is., And women who have lived and gone their ways: And make them live agen, Charming the tribes of men, Whose speech ye mock with pretty mimicries So true They almost woo The hearer to believe he's singing too! Speed me, Apollo: speed me, Artemis! And you, my dears, farewell! Remember me Hereafter if, from any land that is, Some traveller question ye-- 'Maidens, who was the sweetest man of speech Fared hither, ever chanted on this beach?' I you beseech Make answer to him, civilly-- 'Sir, he was just a blind man, and his home In rocky Chios. But his songs were best, And shall be ever in the days to come.' Say that: and as I quest In fair wall'd cities far, I'll tell them there (They'll list, for 'twill be true) Of Delos and of you. But chief and evermore my song shall be Of Prince Apollo, lord of Archery. God of the Silver Bow, whom Leto bare-- Leto, the lovely-tress'd.
Did time permit, I might quote you a chorus of Aeschylus, a passage from Thucydides or from Aristotle, to illustrate Gibbon's saying that the Greek language 'gave a soul to the objects of sense, and a body to the abstractions of metaphysics.' But there it is, and it has haunted our literature; at first filtering through Latin, at length breaking from Constantinople in flood and led to us, to Oxford and Cambridge, by Erasmus, by Grocyn:
Thee, that lord of splendid lore Orient from old Hellas' shore.
To have a sense of Greek, too, is to own a corrective of taste. I quote another old schoolmaster here--a dead friend, Sidney Irwin:
What the Greeks disliked was extravagance, caprice, boastfulness, and display of all kinds.... The Greeks hated all monsters. The quaint phrase in the "Odyssey" about the Queen of the Laestrygones--'She was tall as a mountain, and they hated her'--would have seemed to them most reasonable.... To read Greek is to have a perpetual witness to the virtue of pruning--of condensing--a perpetual protest against all that crowds, and swells, and weakens the writer's purpose. To forget this is but to 'confound our skill in covetousness.' We cannot all be writers ... but we all wish to have good taste, and good taste is born of a generous caution about letting oneself go. I say generous, for caution is seldom generous--but it is a generous mood which is in no haste to assert itself. To consider the thing, the time, the place, the person, and to take yourself and your own feelings only fifth is to be armour-proof against bad taste.
They tell us that Greek is going, here. Well, I hold no brief for compulsory Greek; and I shall say but one word on it. I put it, rather idly, to a vote in a Cambridge Combination Room, the other day, and was amazed to find how the votes were divided. The men of science were by no means unanimous. They owned that there was much to be said even for compulsory Greek, if only Greek had been intelligently taught. And with that, of course, I agree: for to learn Greek is, after all, a baptism into a noble cult. The Romans knew that. I believe that, even yet, if the schools would rebuild their instruction in Greek so as to make it interesting, as it ought to be, from the first, we should oust those birds who croak and chatter upon the walls of our old Universities. I find the following in FitzGerald's "Polonius":
An old ruinous tower which had harboured innumerable jackdaws, sparrows, and bats, was at length repaired. When the masons left it, the jackdaws, sparrows, and bats came back in search of their old dwellings. But these were all filled up. 'Of what use now is this great building?' said they, 'come let us forsake this useless stone-heap:
And the beauty of this little apologue is that you can read it either way.
But, although a student of English Literature be ignorant of Greek and Latin as languages, may he not have Greek and Latin literature widely opened to him by intelligent translations? The question has often been asked, but I ask it again. May not some translations open a door to him by which he can see them through an atmosphere, and in that atmosphere the authentic ancient gods walking: so that returning upon English literature he may recognise them there, too, walking and talking in a garden of values? The highest poetical speech of any one language defies, in my belief, translation into any other. But Herodotus loses little, and North is every whit as good as Plutarch.
Sigh no more, ladies; ladies, sigh no more! Men were deceivers ever; One foot in sea and one on shore, To one thing constant never
Suppose that rendered thus:
I enjoin upon the adult female population ([Greek: gynaikes]), not once but twice, that there be from this time forward, a total cessation of sighing. The male is, and has been, constantly addicted to inconstancy, treading the ocean and the mainland respectively with alternate feet.
That, more or less, is what Paley did upon Euripides, and how would you like it if a modern Greek did it upon Shakespeare? None the less I remember that my own first awed surmise of what Greek might mean came from a translated story of Herodotus--the story of Cleobis and Biton--at the tail of an old grammar-book, before I had learnt the Greek alphabet; and I am sure that the instinct of the old translators was sound; that somehow (as Wordsworth says somewhere) the present must be balanced on the wings of the past and the future, and that as you stretch out the one you stretch out the other to strength.
There is no derogation of new things in this plea I make specially to you who may be candidates in our School of English. You may remember my reading to you in a previous lecture that liberal poem of Cory's invoking the spirit of 'dear divine Comatas,' that
Two minds shall flow together, the English and the Greek.
Well, I would have your minds, as you read our literature, reach back to that Dorian shepherd through an atmosphere--his made ours--as through veils, each veil unfolding a value. So you will recognise how, from Chaucer down, our literature has panted after the Mediterranean water-brooks. So through an atmosphere you will link (let me say) Collins's "Ode to Evening," or Matthew Arnold's "Strayed Reveller" up to the 'Pervigilium Veneris,' Mr Sturge Moore's "Sicilian Vine-dresser" up to Theocritus, Pericles' funeral oration down to Lincoln's over the dead at Gettysburg. And as I read you just now some part of an English oration in the Latin manner, so I will conclude with some stanzas in the Greek manner. They are by Landor--a proud promise by a young writer, hopeful as I could wish any young learner here to be. The title--
Corinna, from Athens, to Tanagra
Tanagra! think not I forget Thy beautifully storied streets; Be sure my memory bathes yet In clear Thermodon, and yet greets The blithe and liberal shepherd-boy, Whose sunny bosom swells with joy When we accept his matted rushes Upheav'd with sylvan fruit; away he bounds, and blushes.
A gift I promise: one I see Which thou with transport wilt receive, The only proper gift for thee, Of which no mortal shall bereave In later times thy mouldering walls, Until the last old turret falls; A crown, a crown from Athens won, A crown no god can wear, beside Latona's son.
There may be cities who refuse To their own child the honours due, And look ungently on the Muse; But ever shall those cities rue The dry, unyielding, niggard breast, Offering no nourishment, no rest, To that young head which soon shall rise Disdainfully, in might and glory, to the skies.
Sweetly where cavern'd Dirce flows Do white-arm'd maidens chaunt my lay, Flapping the while with laurel-rose The honey-gathering tribes away; And sweetly, sweetly Attic tongues Lisp your Corinna's early songs; To her with feet more graceful come The verses that have dwelt in kindred breasts at home.
O let thy children lean aslant Against the tender mother's knee, And gaze into her face, and want To know what magic there can be In words that urge some eyes to dance, While others as in holy trance Look up to heaven: be such my praise! Why linger? I must haste, or lose the Delphic bays.
[Footnote 1: The Works of Lucian of Samosata: translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler (Introduction, p. xxix). Oxford, Clarendon Press.]
[Footnote 2: "The Training of the Imagination": by James Rhoades. London, John Lane, 1900.]
[Footnote 3: Landor: "Æsop and Rhodopè."]