Matthew Arnold, Milton
(address delivered February 13, 1888):
A lady in the State of Ohio sent to me only the other day a volume on American authors; the praise given throughout was of such high pitch that in thanking her I could not forbear saying that for only one or two of the authors named was such a strain of praise admissible, and that we lost all real standard of excellence by praising so uniformly and immoderately. She answered me with charming good temper, that very likely I was quite right, but it was pleasant to her to think that excellence was common and abundant.
But excellence is not common and abundant; on the contrary, as the Greek poet long ago said, excellence dwells among rocks hardly accessible, and a man must almost wear his heart out before he can reach her. Whoever talks of excellence as common and abundant, is on the way to lose all right standard of excellence. And when the right standard of excellence is lost, it is not likely that much which is excellent will be produced.
As others have noted, the Greek poet is probably Simonides (fragment 579 Page), tr. David A. Campbell:
There is a tale that Arete (Excellence, Virtue) dwells on unclimbable rocks and (close to the gods?) tends a holy place; she may not be seen by the eyes of all mortals, but only by him on whom distressing sweat comes from within, the one who reaches the peak of manliness.
The same, tr. M.L. West:
There is a tale
that Merit dwells on high rocks, hard to climb
...patrols the holy place.
Not all men's eyes may look upon heronly he
who sheds heart-stinging sweat
and reaches the summit of manly endeavour.
The same, tr. Francis Turner Palgrave in his Idyls and Songs: 1848-1854
(London: John W. Parker, 1854), p. 36:
There is a song,
That on high rocks, bright, inaccessible,
Girt with the circling dance, her holy throng,
Doth Virtue dwell:—
Nor on that throne
Seen of all human kind: by him alone,
Heart-pierced in soul-corroding toil, and so
To height of perfect Manhood climbing slow:
—By him alone.
ἐστί τις λόγος
τὰν Ἀρετὰν ναίειν δυσαμβάτοισ' ἐπὶ πέτραις,
ἐγγὺς δέ μιν θεῶν χῶρον ἁγνὸν ἀμφέπειν·
οὐδὲ πάντων βλεφάροισι θνατῶν
ἔσοπτος, ᾧ μὴ δακέθυμος ἱδρὼς
ἵκῃ τ' ἐς ἄκρον ἀνδρείας.
2 ἐγγὺς δέ μιν θεῶν Wakefield, †νῦν δέ μιν θοαν† codd.
There is similar language in Hesiod, Works and Days
287-292 (tr. H.G. Evelyn-White):
Badness can be got easily and in shoals: the road to her is smooth, and she lives very near us. But between us and Goodness the gods have placed the sweat of our brows: long and steep is the path that leads to her, and it is rough at the first; but when a man has reached the top, then is she easy to reach, though before that she was hard.
τὴν μέν τοι κακότητα καὶ ἰλαδὸν ἔστιν ἑλέσθαι
ῥηιδίως· λείη μὲν ὁδός, μάλα δ' ἐγγύθι ναίει·
τῆς δ' ἀρετῆς ἱδρῶτα θεοὶ προπάροιθεν ἔθηκαν
ἀθάνατοι· μακρὸς δὲ καὶ ὄρθιος οἶμος ἐς αὐτὴν
καὶ τρηχὺς τὸ πρῶτον· ἐπὴν δ' εἰς ἄκρον ἵκηται,
ῥηιδίη δὴ ἔπειτα πέλει, χαλεπή περ ἐοῦσα.