Masterpieces of Greek Literature (1902)/Introduction


The idea of collecting and publishing representative selections of Greek literature is not a new one with us of the twentieth century. Especially in the later periods of the life of the Greeks and Romans such selections were made in the Florilegia that have come down to us, and in other earlier and later collections and compilations that are now lost. These were made primarily for the use of students, but the needs and tastes of other readers were also consulted.

The chief value of a good collection of specimens is that a book of them gives, in concrete examples, a summary view of the various sorts of literature. And if the extracts are accompanied by suitable introductory biographical notes, wherein, with other information, the relation of the different forms of literary expression to each other and of their development are duly set forth, we have in the work what is in effect a useful illustrated history of literature. But with these advantages we must not fail to recognize that there are disadvantages in a book of selections of Greek prose and poetry. These disadvantages are due, in part, to the fact that the book is a book of extracts and fragments, and, in part, to the fact that a book for English readers can contain only translations. The task of selecting the extracts, especially from a literature so abundant, varied, and rich as is Greek literature, is at once easy and difficult. It is easy because of the great wealth of material at our disposal; difficult because of the necessity, for lack of space, of omitting much that has as strong a claim to admission as most that is actually admitted. Indeed, a dozen books of Greek masterpieces might be prepared, each one of which would be as representative as any of the others. The chief disadvantage, then, of a single volume of selections, like the present one, is that it must be incomplete. Extracts and fragments for the most part can alone be given, and fragments, though interesting in themselves, can afford no idea of the complete works from which they are taken. Furthermore, Greek literature itself, owing to the marvellous organic development through which it came into being, is, as it were, itself a literary whole, and a book of minor extracts, being in itself only a fragment of something greater, can hardly be completely satisfying.

The fact that a book intended for English readers must be a collection of translations is likewise a disadvantage. "No work of genius," as Mr. Lowell says, "can be adequately translated, because every word of it is permeated with what Milton calls 'the precious life-blood of a master spirit,' which cannot be transfused into the veins of the best translation." No translation of a piece of literary art can ever be entirely satisfactory. The original work has a distinct individuality that it is impossible to reproduce, an individuality which is determined not only by the substance of thought embodied in it, but by the aesthetic form in which it is cast and the language in which this thought finds expression. Indeed, a perfect translation is as impossible as the duplication of an individuality, and approximations to perfect translation are difficult in proportion to the richness and complexity of the original. A great painting may be copied,—translated, as it were; but even here, where the medium of translation is the same as that which was used in the original, color and drawing, how inadequate and disappointing the result! Still more is this the case when the medium of translation is something wholly different from the original medium, as when a work in one language is translated into another of alien spirit and genius. In all translations something is lost, something is added. If all the thoughts of the original are preserved, something of the color, form, atmosphere necessarily disappears; and when the translation is made from Greek into a language like English,—at once rich and poor, brilliant and bizarre, particolored and bald, each word in its vocabulary surcharged with manifold meanings and associations,—it is inevitable that even at the hands of the most competent and careful of translators much should be imported into the translation that was not in the original, the language of which is, above all, simple, direct, vivid, "fitting aptest words to things," only the translucent veil of thought, not its cumbrous garment.

But translations have been made, and many of them are as successful as the limitations and conditions of the problem will allow. The requisites of what may be called a successful translation are twofold: not only scholarship to know, and fully and delicately to appreciate, all that was in the original—substance of thought, form, tone, color; but also creative literary power, often the poetic gift, so to render the original into English phrase that it may produce on the unlearned modern reader the entire effect, so far as may be, that it produced on the readers for whom it was first designed. In translations to be included in a book of masterpieces these two conditions should be fulfilled, and when we have at our command versions by masters in English expression, great poets and prose writers of the time, these should be chosen in preference to others. Such choices have been made in the selections included in this volume.

Though all translation, certainly from the æsthetic point of view, is disappointing and inadequate, there are other points of view from which good translations are of the highest importance and value. For persons who have not easy access to the original fountains, they are convenient as a sort of substitute for those clear springs of utterance. They swiftly bring the modern reader at least to the crude thought of the original, to the bare facts there recounted, and where these are, as so often, thoughts of wisdom and facts of vast significance, their value is incontestable. Perhaps one may not go quite so far as Emerson in saying that "What is really best in any book is translatable,—any real insight or broad human sentiment," remembering Emerson's other saying, "I confide in your scholarly character that you spurn translations and read Greek." It still remains true that the best translations preserve for such as read with open and discerning minds very much "that was in their originals to enlarge, liberalize, and refine the mind." Some English translations, too, have a value which is not dependent upon their relation to their originals. They gain this by their own native charm, being themselves English classics. Such is Pope's Iliad, of which Bentley said, "It is a pretty poem, but must not be called Homer." Paraphrases of this character are of course in no sense substitutes for the original. All translations, however, whether mere echoes, or whether fairly successful and adequate or the contrary, if they possess an independent literary quality, have the merit of guiding the sympathetic and ambitious reader to the original. It is to be hoped that this will be the outcome for many readers of these pages.

In the present volume the attempt has been made, and in my opinion happily made, to group together a considerable number of representative passages, each of distinct intrinsic interest, from Greek poetry and prose, mainly of the classical age, in the best available translations; the translations, so far as possible, come from the hands of acknowledged masters of English speech. The selections from each author are accompanied by brief biographical sketches and other notes in which the place of the author in Greek literature is sketched, and other pertinent information is given.

We have here representation of nearly all the classes of extant Greek poetry. Three memorable passages from the Iliad which recount scenes in the life of Hector and the mourning for him (in Bryant's translation), followed by one book of the Odyssey—Odysseus and Polyphemus—(in Worsley's version) open the volume and give us a glimpse of epic poetry. What we call lyric poetry is represented in selections from Tyrtaeus and Archilochus, in three interesting specimens of Scolia, and in entire poems or fragments of Alcaeus, Sappho, Simonides of Ceos, and Pindar. Then follow Mrs. Browning's Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus and Plumptre's Antigone of Sophocles, each entire. These, with selections from the Mad Heracles and nearly the whole of the Alcestis of Euripides, in Mr. Browning's transcripts, stand for Greek tragedy. Scenes from the Birds and the Frogs of Aristophanes, the two most important of the plays of this writer, in Frere's paraphrases, show the reader Greek comedy at its best.

Greek classical prose, on the other hand, is represented, first, by short extracts from the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, and from Xenophon, the essayist and bright story-teller, with a few scenes from the pages of Plato, poet and philosopher in one, Jowett's classic versions being used for Thucydides and Plato. Several of these passages from Xenophon and Plato have reference to that most unique and striking personality in ancient thought, the Athenian Socrates. Then follows, in Lord Brougham's spirited rendering, a brief extract from the speech of Demosthenes On the Crown, a speech of which David Hume said "that it is the most perfect production of the human intellect." The poetry of the post-classical age is represented by three of the Idyls of Theocritus, and by eight or ten of the little pieces which have been, though incorrectly, ascribed to Anacreon. The book closes with three selections from Lucian, a prose writer of the second century of our era, who, in his satirical Dialogues, marks a new departure in literature and seems in many ways to link together the ancient and the modern world.

This volume and other books like it will appeal to readers of various classes. We may read literature for the information on matters of fact that it affords, or for the esthetic pleasure and quickening that it yields, or for the new light it casts on human life, or for its effect upon our manner of thinking and upon our expression of thought; we may read it also as students of great achievements in thought, or as lovers of the beautiful, the knowledge of which elevates and ennobles life, of things that "soothe the cares and lift the thoughts of men." The reasons why Greek literature in particular, which is represented in this volume, has this universal appeal, are numerous. The literature of the Greeks, in its varied types, in its perfection of form, and in the richness and fruitfulness of its content, was the most significant contribution made by the ancient world to civilization. It impressed itself on Rome, both in the models it furnished and in the ideas it conveyed, and the rediscovery of it after the Dark Ages was one of the chief causes of that new birth or awakening of the human spirit which in its results means the modern world. The chief instrument of the liberal education of the people of Rome and Byzantium, it became not long after the Renaissance one of the most important elements in the systems of the higher education as these were framed on the Continent and in England. Its influence, then, has been both direct and indirect in contributing to the creation of that great unseen world of ideas and ideals in which all generous souls now live and long have lived, and will live in time to come. It is impossible for us to know this world or to know ourselves, who are a part of it, or our work, which is conditioned by it, without some knowledge of the sources from which arose this mighty fabric, which

"like a dome of many colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity."

Greek literature owes its commanding place in the realm of the spirit to several causes. It is the adequate expression in uttered words—as Greek art is the expression in plastic forms—of ideals of thought. The thought is large and free and fine and enlightening, beholding the things of the spirit as they are, "steadily" and "whole," and the expression of the thought is as perfect as human speech can make it, helped as this expression here is by a language that is marvellous and unmatched in its power, delicacy, and range. Greek poetry is thus what Wordsworth says all poetry is,—

"Wisdom married to immortal verse."

Here is above all a noble originality. Practically everything in Greek poetry, forms of art and themes, and for that matter almost everything in European literature, is original in Greece, and so far as we know has no organic or derivative connection with anything outside of Greece, except now and then some minor matter or motif—as, perhaps, the strophic forms of poetry from the Babylonians and flute music from Phrygia. The Greeks inherited, it is true, from their ancestors certain poetic impulses and forms, but as Greek poetry dawns upon us in Homer it is something wonderfully in advance of the crude Indo-European beginnings such as we infer these to have been from Sanskrit literature. The Greeks borrowed, it is also true, but in borrowing they so transformed and recreated what they borrowed, transfiguring it into a larger life, that it seems to be and to the eye of the soul really is a new creation. The author of the Platonic Epinomis felt this truth, which finds illustration not only in literature but in all other forms of artistic expression, when he said, "Whatever the Greeks take over from the foreign world they fashion into something far more beautiful." Other nations have struck out on new lines in many things, but in none has the world ever beheld such a transcendent wealth of original tendencies, impulses, products. Think of what—to speak of forms of poetry only—we owe in their beginnings to the Greeks: epic poetry, lyric poetry, tragedy, comedy. These comprise nearly the whole of poetry, and these were not only initiated by the Hellenic people, but were brought to such completeness and perfection of growth that subsequent poetic achievement, at least in the ancient world, was hardly more than an intended imitation, or an unconscious echo, of the voices and notes of Hellas.

But originality is not enough. Originality, except in things themselves nobly worth while, may be a bane and not a benefit. The originality of the Greeks led to the production of works of poetic art which in themselves, on their own intrinsic merits, stand supreme. It is the manifold and universal excellence of the several kinds of Greek poetry—their perennial freshness, vigor, spontaneous vitality, their lucidity and their enkindling light—more than anything else that establishes the claim of Greek literature to its high place in the traditions and elements of civilization.

Greek literature—poetry, and to a certain extent prose also—has these peculiar excellences to so signal a degree, because it stood, as no other literature has since stood, in intimate relations with the whole of the life whence it sprung. Greek civilization had a solidarity and unity, and withal a noble simplicity, that gave to all parts and elements of it a vital interrelation and connection. Life, the whole life of the city-state, and sometimes of the whole nation, was the poet's inspirer, regulator, test. The poet was the consummate product, the epitome, as it were, of his age, not a wandering voice: he sang the true heart of the people, whether in their higher aspirations or in their grosser desires. And just here lies much of the meaning of Greek poetry for the student of humanity. It is the spontaneous and universal expression of the life and character of the Greeks; it is the comprehensive interpretation of the essential qualities of the race; in it is sounded the diapason of the capacities of this people; it is, as Sir Richard Jebb has said, the "index of their capacity." Literature, especially poetry, is national life expressed, not, as to-day, an individual's "criticism of life."

How does this relation show itself? In the first place, in the universality of Greek poetry, and in its infinite variety within certain grand types, which had been developed by the reaction of poets on their environment. Besides the great branches of poetic art, with the scant fragments of which we are familiar, it must be remembered that every class in society had its peculiar form of poetic utterance. The originals are gone, leaving only scant allusions to them in such writers as Athenaeus and Plutarch: there was poetry for each time of life, from cradle songs to dirges for the aged dead; each occupation had its peculiar poetry—watchmen, waterdrawers, shepherds, weavers, harvesters, soldiers. There were choral songs, in part rude and improvised, in part original artistic creations of famous poets, in part re-fashioned by great poets from rude popular originals. In the glad festivals of Dionysus there were choral songs of great variety, from two kinds of which Attic drama, both tragedy and comedy, in an unprecedented development, drew its origin. Plutarch tells of the hymn of invocation to Dionysus, sung by the women of Elis at Olympia; we read of the free and unrestrained songs of guilds of roving beggars, sung at spring and autumn gatherings. It was songs of this character that gave rise to the idea of responsive recitation, which when accompanied by intricate dance movements led to the highly artistic framework of subsequent choral poetry with its elaborate correspondences and symmetries. Especially interesting are the songs that were sung at convivial gatherings; traces of such songs are found in all branches of the Hellenic stock, as the elegiac verses of the Ionians, and the scolia which were popular with the Athenians in the classical age. Examples of the latter are given in the following pages.

The use of poetry in Greek education, indeed its almost exclusive use here, is another evidence of the intimate relation and interrelation of poetry and life. Plato tells us that "Homer is the teacher of Greece." At school, so soon as the boy could read he was introduced to the poets, and the purpose of this study was a moral one, having regard to the precepts of the poets, and to the praises of the great men of old, "in order," says Plato, "that the boy may emulate their examples and strive to become such as they." Precisely the reasons that we of to-day urge for the study of the Bible were by the Greeks urged for the study of Homer, and many more. A striking passage in Plato's Laws sets forth the practice of the Greeks of his day in reference to the use of poetry in education: "We have a great many poets writing in hexameter [Homer, Hesiod, Theognis], trimeter [the dramatists and others], and all sorts of measures—some who are serious, others who aim only at raising a laugh; and all mankind declare that the youths who are rightly educated should be brought up in them and saturated with them; some insist that they should be constantly hearing them read aloud, and always learning them, so as to get by heart entire poets; while others select choice passages and long speeches, and make compendiums of them, saying that these ought to be committed to memory, if a man is to be made good and wise by experience and learning of many things." The object of this literary study, as already suggested, was not to impart learned lore, to delight and enrich the imagination, to refine the taste, but to shape character. Aeschines, the orator, expresses the same conception when he says: "I recite these verses, for I maintain that the reason why we learn by heart in boyhood the sentiments of the poets is that when we are men we shall put them into practice."

These citations from Plato and Aeschines suggest the remark that the views expressed by the Greeks in general on the function of poetry are an interesting confirmation of what has been said about the intimate connection between Greek literature and life. And the gradual change in these views reflects the gradual change that took place in this relation. For after the loss of national liberty at Chaeronea there came about a disassociation of all the finer elements of Greek life from each other, and we trace the sad development of individualism, sectionalism, party narrowness, begun earlier, which finally broke up the fabric of Hellenic society. In a familiar passage in the Frogs of Aristophanes there is a scene between Aeschylus and Euripides, who are represented as engaging in a poetical contest in the lower world, the victor in which is to be released and to revisit Athens. The dialogue opens thus: "Tell me," says Aeschylus, "for what qualities we should admire a poet." "For wit and useful wisdom," replies Euripides, with the approbation of Aeschylus, "for making men better." The same thought reappears in the words of the orator Hyperides—"How can we live beautifully unless we know the beautiful things in life?" For is not poetry among the most beautiful things in life? Plato, as is well known, would exclude the poet from his ideal state. But even this exclusion is evidence of the position and power of Greek poetry among the Greek people, and it is accompanied by interesting modifications. It is mainly, says Plato, because men believe in the literal truth of immoral myths and legends that they are injured by poetry. To a noble and true poetry he raises no objection. The poet and the law-giver are rivals, the latter striving to set in action the noblest of dramas, and the poet must not address the citizens in a manner out of harmony with the institutions of the state. There must be a censorship of poetry, and the poet must sing only of high thoughts and deeds. But even in Aristotle we note the beginning of a change of opinion as to the chief object of poetry,—a slight but a significant change. For him the chief use of poetry is that it affords a "noble pleasure;" and this double view is reflected in the sentiment of Sir Philip Sidney that the end of poetry is "delightful teaching," poetry being the "sweet food of uttered knowledge." A century after Aristotle, a great scholar,—perhaps the first great scholar in the modern sense of this word, Eratosthenes of Cyrene,—declares with emphasis that the end of poetry is not instruction or edification, but pleasure, or beguiling delight. And this view leads on to the further degradation of the conception of the office of poetry, until men say that the chief reason for studying poetry is to have something to quote!

Such was Greek poetry to the Greeks themselves in the classical age. What may it be to us? Has it a message for modern ears,—a message that we may spell out in the pages of this book of selections from Greek poetry,—and what is that message? We may answer this question in many ways, but mainly as students of human achievement and as lovers of the beautiful. The survivals of antiquity, especially the literature of Greece, interest us and should demand our devotion because they are the tokens and memorials of human life and spirit, brilliant, beautiful, powerful, pregnant in meaning for later times—it "contains the future as it came out of the past;"—memorials of memorable epochs, bright and happy moments in the history of humanity when the individual was at his best and uttered himself as seldom since, in spite—and perhaps because—of the vast enrichment and expansion of our modern world. As the man of science delights in nature because she speaks of herself, so the student of literature delights in the poetry of the Greeks because it reveals the soul of man in its radiant and wondrously gifted youth. And so when we are asked whether modem poetry has not much to offer that is better than Greek poetry, and are told that it suits our times, being ampler and deeper in sentiment, and at least equally happy in marrying sense and verse, we can only reply that the thoughtful really live in no one time above another; they are citizens of all time, and must find their own, what they need for the enlargement and awakening of their souls, in the poetry of Athens equally with that of Weimar and Paris and London and Boston. And to the second contention we can only answer that modern poetry is in no sense a substitute for Greek poetry. It has, it is true, much that Greek poetry has not; so has Greek poetry much, very much, that finds no echo nor counterpart in modern verse. Modern poetry, modern literature, is supplementary to that of the Greeks. And the liberal soul that covets earnestly the best gifts, and all the best gifts, will seek and study and cultivate them both, with equal assiduity and strong endeavor.

It remains for me to add that the selections in this volume were made, and the biographical and other notes written, by Miss Clara Hitchcock Seymour, B. A., of Bryn Mawr College, and that she had in her task, which she has executed with both taste and skill, the counsel of her father, the distinguished Hillhouse Professor of Greek in Yale University. My share in the work has been merely to contribute this brief Introduction.


October 29, 1902.