12 April 2007

Gilbert Murray

[from Gilbert Murray's Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, published as The Classical Tradition in Poetry in 1927]

It is difficult in any circumstances to predict what one literature can learn from another. And the classical literatures, it might plausibly be argued, have long since taught English quite as much as can be considered desirable, and in some matters a great deal more. Still, as Shelley says, poetry is infinite. And a man must, I think, be in a state of "savage torpor" who imagines that he has no more to learn from Homer or Vergil. . . .

Of course, there is a strong spirit abroad which tries to throw off rules and exactitude. It is proud of trusting not to measured feet, but merely to its ear, which is perfectly sound doctrine if the ear is correct, but not otherwise. Unfortunately it hates a correct ear almost as much as a measured foot. Such a school, whether it makes merely for rough versification or definitely for vers libre, has its place and its justification in the progress of poetry; but the classical tradition will probably continue to look for advance by writing better and more carefully, not more carelessly and impatiently. No one can be sure that a method is wrong until it has been well tried; but it is difficult to expect good permanent results from one which is based predominantly on contempt for the practice of good poets, on self-assertion rather than worship, and on ennui rather than delight. Otherwise no one can prophesy or point the way. A poet must love the Tradition; otherwise he will not love poetry. He must love language and be tender and reverent with it, as well as bold; or he will never have master of its secrets. He must care enough for his work not to notice how much time and trouble he spends on it. He must, as Plutarch warns us, not be like those false lovers of Penelope who, when the found the Queen obdurate, contented themselves with the handmaids. It is along some such lines as these, and not by violent divergence from them, that I should expect to see the modern world find its way to some new Dante or Milton or Goethe, a poietes-aoidos who will bring back into our poetry the forgotten music of the lyre and the old sweep of the sea-bird.

1 comment:

  1. oh, he knows me well...my savage torpor...I may have to steal that one.