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THE SPIRIT' OF G'REEK LITERATURE GILBERT NORWOOD I I N 'dealing with a topic so difficult and elusive as this, , precision must be sought almost as earnestly as Truth herself. First, then, let me define my period. I shall restrict myself to that part of Greek literature which, is not only the "greatest but also. the most distinctively Greek- ' that is, those authors who wrote before Greece, first through the victories of Alexander, then through the Roman ~onquest, became part of a far wider world with novel politics, new religions, and conceptions of life that made the Hellenic spirit a thing not indeed dead but a now distant bea,.con instead of a daily sunlight. This period stretches fron1 Homer to Aristotle and Demosthenes: by a strange chance, the greatest scientist and the greatest orator of antiquity both died within a few months of Alexander, perhaps its greatest soldier. Even thus reduced, our period may well appear gigantic~ it covers some seven centuries of immense and varied Iiterary achievement. But still further concentration is needed. If we are to gain any clear impression, we must keep to the quintessence , ignoring perforce many qualities of many Greeks and much of their literature. What, then, is the central quality of this mass-epic and lyric poetry, history and philosophy, tragic and comic drama, oratory? Can we attempt to summarize in a phrase. men like Plato and Aeschylus? Are we to draw out leviathan with a hook, to play with him as with a bird, or bind him for our maidens? Formidable as this enterprise may be, many 434 THE SPIRIT OF GREEK LITERATURE before me have essayed it. .Few of us have not heard I that the essence of the Greek spirit is a feeling for beauty,) or a sense of proportion, or allegiance to reason. Yet all these seem to me one-sided, inadequate, misleading. J discern Iittle of the sovereignty of reason in Pindar} small feeling for beauty in Demosthenes, nor could Aristophanes reckon among his vast merits a sense of proportion. ", No: I can see but one quality that is common to all these otherwise so divergerit geniuses: an instinct to keep close to immediate fact-in their own phrase, "the things before our feet." Yet I believe that the more we con- 'sider this, the less commonplace it will seem. This instinct, as found in literature, means saying in memorable language exactly what one means-no less and no more. This will appear not worth stating until we realize that most other writers dono! say what t~ey mean. We moderns are so steeped in our own poetry and prose that to realize this simple fact is hard for us. Exaggeration has come, by incessant repeti tion, to sound like sober truth. Therefore I find myself compelled to bring out my point by comparison of ancient and modern forms. . Let us begin with a brief instance: And my fause luver staw my rose, But left the thorn wi' me. He did nothing of the sort. What he did was to leave her to grief and the memory of past joy. You will exclaim: "Yes! But Burns has put it vastly better than you." To -be sure he has-most beautifully and poignantly. But he has gained this effect by a lovely and feli~itous untruth, an untruth which does not trouble us in the ,least, because we. are brought up on th~ language of 435 THE UNIVERSITY O. V TORONTO QUARTERLY metaphor. Now, Sappho also puts it vastly better than I, but how? Maidenhood, maidenhood, -whither art thou fled and left me? Never shall I return to thee, never again to thee, never return. That is fact, and nothing but fact. Consider next .the first two stanzas of Shelley's Song to Night: Swiftly walk o'er the western wave, Spirit of Night! Out of the misty easter┬Ěn cave, Where all the long and lone .daylight Thou wovest dreams of joy and fear, Which make thee terrible and dear,Swift be thy flight! Wrap thy form in a mantle gray, Star-inwrought! Blind with thine hair the eyes of Day; Kiss her until she be wearied...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 434-452
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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