Wednesday, April 19, 2023


Ancient and Modern Poets

Gilbert Murray, Euripides and His Age (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1913), pp. 99-102:
It is strange to reflect on the gulf that lies between the life of an ancient poet and his modern descendants. Our poets and men of letters mostly live either by writing or by investments eked out by writing. They are professional writers and readers and, as a rule, nothing else. It is comparatively rare for any one of them to face daily dangers, to stand against men who mean to kill him and beside men for whom he is ready to die, to be kept a couple of days fasting, or even to work in the sweat of his body for the food he eats. If such things happen by accident to one of us we cherish them as priceless "copy," or we even go out of our way to compass the experience artificially.

But an ancient poet was living hard, working, thinking, fighting, suffering, through most of the years that we are writing about life. He took part in the political assembly, in the Council, in the jury-courts; he worked at his own farm or business; and every year he was liable to be sent on long military expeditions abroad or to be summoned at a day's notice to defend the frontier at home. It is out of a life like this, a life of crowded reality and work, that Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides found leisure to write their tragedies; one writing 90, one 127, and the third 92! Euripides was considered in antiquity a bookish poet. He had a library—in numbers probably not one book for every hundred that Tennyson or George Meredith had: he was a philosopher, he read to himself. But on what a background of personal experience his philosophy was builded! It is probably this immersion in the hard realities of life that gives ancient Greek literature some of its special characteristics. Its firm hold on sanity and common sense, for instance; its avoidance of sentimentality and paradox and various seductive kinds of folly; perhaps also its steady devotion to ideal forms and high conventions, and its aversion from anything that we should call "realism." A man everlastingly wrapped round in good books and safe living cries out for something harsh and real—for blood and swear-words and crude jagged sentences. A man who escapes with eagerness from a life of war and dirt and brutality and hardship to dwell just a short time among the Muses, naturally likes the Muses to be their very selves and not remind him of the mud he has just washed off. Euripides has two long descriptions of a battle, one in the Children of Heracles and one in the Suppliant Women; both are rhetorical Messenger's Speeches, conventionally well-written and without one touch that suggests personal experience. It is curious to compare these, the writings of the poet who had fought in scores of hand-to-hand battles, with the far more vivid rhapsodies of modern writers who have never so much as seen a man pointing a gun at them.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?