Sappho, Poems
Herodotus, History
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War
Sophocles, The Oedipus Cycle
Euripides, Plays
The Greek Anthology




Sappho, Poems

Since they began in the early days of the popular-education movement in nineteenth-century Britain, five-foot shelves, world classics, hundred best books, have hardly ever included poetry as such, and drama and epic have been distinguished for the trashiness of their translations, because these collections are all programmatic — “the great ideas that have influenced the progress of mankind.” I doubt if works of art as such do any such thing; yet no one would dare give his selections so vulgar and unimproving a label as One Hundred Books That Have Thrilled the Ages. Down the millennia since the cave painters the arts have sharpened and refined human sensibilities, yet no one can even be sure that this is a good thing. The screen of history, like the taste of politicians, churchmen and university presidents, has been programmatic. So we have a large collection of Aristotle’s lecture notes on politics and ethics, and we have only random fragments of Sappho’s poems.

Matthew Arnold said Homer was eminently rapid, plain, direct, in thought and expression, syntax, words, matter, and ideas, and that he was eminently noble. Arnold refused to define the ambiguous word “noble,” but he meant by it his own special virtue of his idealized Victorian ruling caste: disinterested responsibility. This final criterion eliminates Sappho, although she shares with Homer and Sophocles their splendor, clarity, and impetuosity. She, above all others, is bright, swift, and sure. She surpasses all other Greek poets in immediacy of utterance and responsiveness of sensibility.

The greatest Greek writers, read in Greek, seem hypersensitive to us and possessed of a higher irritability in the medical sense; amongst us this is considered a morbid condition, because it has been cultivated excessively or pretended to by modern decadents. There is no reason why it should not be thought of as quite the opposite — a symptom of superabundant health. Sappho is as exquisitely sensitive to objective reality as to her own subjectivity, and she organizes the poignancies of these interlocked realities with consummate taste. As Sophocles is a man, so she is a woman, functioning at maximum realization of potential.

Since we have only fragments of Sappho the size of Japanese poems, one short complete poem, and single words or phrases quoted by grammarians to illustrate the Aeolic dialect, is it possible that we delude ourselves with the Sapphic legend? If attention is focused sharply on anything whatever from which we expect aesthetic satisfaction, a process takes place similar to the raptures of nature mysticism. Our own hyperesthesia is exacerbated; we become hypnotized; the object of contemplation, like a crystal ball, acquires a significance with unlimited ramifications. Is this what we do with the shards and ruins we call Sappho?

. . . about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays
of apple, and from the quivering leaves
slumber pours down . . .

is, just as it is, a most impressive poem. Whatever its original context, it is as moving as any similar poem in classic Japanese. How about “more gold than gold,” “far whiter than an egg,” “neither honey nor the bee”?

The two Edwardian poetesses who wrote under the name of Michael Field expanded many of Sappho’s fragments into poems of great poignancy. The best was taken from a scholiast’s commentary on a line of Pindar’s, where the reference to Sappho is in indirect discourse: “Yea, gold is son of Zeus, no rust / Its timeless light can stain; / The worm that brings man’s flesh to dust / Assaults its strength in vain. / More gold than gold the love I sing, / A hard, inviolable thing.” Does the original justify this enraptured response?

It has been difficult to come at Sappho without the Greek. Nineteenth-century England swarmed with mediocre academicians and country clergymen, all in a conspiracy to prove to those without the tongues that Western Civilization had been founded by tenth-rate minds who wrote atrocious doggerel. Translations of Sappho, until recent years, have been fantastically inappropriate. Catullus, with Baudelaire and Tu Fu, in all the world’s literature most nearly approaches Sappho’s special virtues. His translation of her lessens her intensity.

Today a sufficient number of literal translations by modern poets may enable the reader of English to envelop Sappho and measure her as we do distant stars by triangulation from more mundane objects. It then becomes apparent that we are not deluding ourselves. There has been no other poet like this. Wherever enough words remain to form a coherent context, they give one another a unique luster, an effulgence found nowhere else. Presentational immediacy of the image, overwhelming urgency of personal involvement — in no other poet are these two prime factors of lyric poetry raised to so great a power.

Both the ancient legend of a romantic, tempestuous life and the Victorian one that portrayed her as a schoolmistress of an academy for brides were constructed from her poems. We know nothing surely except the poetry, which, on the face of it, is the passionate utterance of a woman whose life was spent as lover and guide to a small circle of younger girls. There is no evidence that this was an institutional relationship, like the thiasos, the dancing school, of her friend Alkaios. He is obviously a doting professional teacher of chorus girls; Sappho’s relationships are as obviously openly erotic. The poems certainly mean what they say.

Passionate love is the very substance of Sappho. In ancient Greece as in China, the love between men and women was of a totally different character where it existed at all, and seldom passionate. In most Greek poetry, however noble or erotic, relations between the sexes are institutionalized, whether Alkestis or the prostitutes of Paulos Silentiarios. Romantic love, with its destructive potential, is found only between members of the same sex.

Sappho’s poetry is not only intimate, it is secular. Myth hardly exists and is never the cohesive cement of institutions as it is in Pindar’s lyric odes, which are hieratic, hierarchic, and impersonal. The idylls of Theokritos are court poetry, like the eighteenth-century French Rococo poets who imitated him. Behind the flirtations of his deodorized shepherds and shepherdesses we always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near, loaded with marriage contracts arranged by treaty between warring dynasties. So Kallimachos was an Alexandrian Voltaire, one of a committee to construct the synthetic religion of Serapis for an atheist court. His one intimate poem is to a man. Erotic love returns in The Greek Anthology with late-born Levantines like Meleager and Isaurians with Hittite blood from the Anatolian highlands. Except for them, and a few passages in the choruses of Euripides, what we consider the proper subject for lyric poetry does not exist in Greek verse outside the fragments of Sappho and one tiny bit by the similar Erinna.

Central to the understanding of Sappho as of Plato is her sexuality. Critics down the ages have exerted themselves to deny this, most especially when they shared it. To judge by primitive song, legend, and epic, romantic love has commonly existed between members of the same sex, and seldom in the institutionalized relations between men and women until those institutions pass through formalization to etherealization, as in the court circle of The Tale of Genji. Romantic love appears between men and women only when it becomes economically feasible. The problem is neither to explain nor to explain away Sappho’s homosexuality. It is to explain the accelerating homosexualization of love between Western men and women since the eleventh century, with its culmination in the movies and the more urbane girlie magazines.

Although women in Lesbos were more free than their sisters in Athens or Sparta, they were far from free in our sense. Sappho’s poetry reveals the intensity of the hidden life of ancient Greek women. The curtain is raised for a moment and we see into purdah. For the rest, history and literature are silent.

[Rexroth translations of Sappho and other classic Greek poets]
[Diverse translations of a Sappho poem]



Herodotus, History

For a century or more, both historians and Greek scholars dismissed Herodotus as a teller of tales and, in comparison with Thucydides’ tightly structured history, a garrulous rambler. Most scholarship today has moved to the other side. Actually, debate over the merits of Thucydides and Herodotus as scientific historians is not very illuminating. It is really a question of taste, and there is no reason why a catholic taste should not admit them as equals. However, it is true that Herodotus is what today we would call more scientific. For many centuries he was to stand alone as the only historian of the Western World to think of the affairs of men in anthropological, sociological, economic, and ethnic terms.

A great deal of taste in Greek literature is shaped by the study of Plato, Aristotle’s Poetics, and the plays of Sophocles. It is a deliberately elitist taste, the core of all those systematic judgments we call Classicist. In human affairs, its emphasis is upon the interrelations of the highly privileged, where privilege means precisely the ability to indulge in such moral luxuries of conscience. So Werner Jaeger in his great study of the Greek ethos, Paideia, dismisses Herodotus as “quasi-anthropological” and as “an explorer of strange, half-understood new worlds.” We now have better information about even the remotest peoples, says Jaeger, and only in heroic political history, as written by Thucydides, “is it possible to achieve the true understanding of the inner nature of a race or epoch, to realize our common fund of mature social and intellectual forms and ideals,” regardless of the accidents of occasion. The idealist taste of this requirement is evident, and it effectually eliminates the pluralistic, polyvalent, democratic Herodotus no matter how up to date his information might be. Modern research has, it so happens, revealed Herodotus as an exceptionally accurate informant, even on such subjects as Egypt, Scythia, and the outer barbarians, where skeptical nineteenth-century critics assumed that he was romancing.

The subject of Herodotus’ History is the successful defense of a democratic, rational, secular society against the onslaughts of what Gibbon in another context altogether was to call barbarism and superstition. However far the narrative may wander, its center is always Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, the yeomen and merchant seamen in their little bands defying the perfumed might of the Persian Empire — the King of Kings with half the East at heel; illimitable piles of arms, armor, and armament; gold for bridle ornaments and Greek brides; and silk for tents — and all the mysterious gods and priests and shamans gathered up from four thousand years of a hundred dead and living civilizations and innumerable barbarisms. Herodotus’ book is as closely structured as Thucydides’. It is simply not so obviously schematized a tableau of the conflict of personal vices and virtues. It is the story of the triumph of an idea of civilization. Without this initial concept of the good society as a nursery of integrity and freedom, the stage for the conflicts of Thucydides’ stylized heroes would never have existed.

Again and again Herodotus drives home his point with crucial anecdotes. Solon confronts Croesus not as an aristocratic lawgiver but as a spokesman, in the court of an oriental despot of incredible wealth and absolute power, of the independent yeomanry of a land so poor that hard work, the cooperation of equals, and ingenuity in outwitting nature were virtues essential to survival. When the Great King crosses the Hellespont, his flying arrows dim the sun like any massive inhumane natural phenomenon, like an act of God, one of Homer’s gods, the embodiment of the frivolity of the nonhuman.

Herodotus’ tone has misled many critics. It is almost colloquial, folkloristic — another Odysseus spellbinding an audience of prosperous farmers with the tall tales of The Odyssey. The narrative is so exciting that it has taken the careful archeology of this century to overcome our tendency to disbelief. Today we know that the Scythians of the Ukraine or the nomads of the desert and the merchants of the oasis cities of the far northeast inter-Asian frontier of the Persian Empire were really as Herodotus describes them. It is amazing that at the beginning of historical and geographical writing in the Western World one man could so carefully have sifted and judged his evidences.

One man did not. The most significant thing about Herodotus is that he is the literary expression of a whole people, as cunning in their ability to deal with facts as their prototype, Odysseus, was cunning to deal with monsters. Herodotus traveled widely and judged rationally of all he saw, but in the vast scope of his story he perforce relied mostly on hundreds of other Greeks who had gone to all the limits of the world with which he dealt, or who had lived before him and handed down to him information on the past, and who were as questioning and as sane as he.

The epic subject of Herodotus will haunt the philosophy of history from his day to ours. The conflict of the molar, obliterative mass civilization emanating from a single power center versus the dynamism of the manifold-centered city-state — eighteenth-century America versus 1968 USA — Herodotus’ History is the first large-scale anti-imperialist indictment. But what is wrong with imperialism? Did not Persian ecumenical egalitarianism, so like the empire of the Incas, ensure a greater good to a greater number than did the anarchic communalism of Greece? Eventually the city-state failed so completely that there was no other solution than the takeover of the Persian Empire itself by Alexander.

This would certainly be the utilitarian judgment; but the “Senatorial party” — Herodotus, Tacitus, Cicero, de Tocqueville, Lord Acton — have always disagreed. The heroic drama of Thucydides, with its Classicist stage and its limited cast, would be impossible in a monolithic society. Thucydides’ drama is tragic but, in his eyes, worth it. Tragedy is impossible in the oriental palace, where man’s fate depends on the incomprehensible wrangles of incomprehensible forces. Nor are there tragedies of the masses — themselves an incomprehensible force. In the Greek community, man’s fate depended on himself, on his follies and his virtues in his relations with his fellows.

Herodotus’ History is a prologue; the denouement lies ahead of him in the next generation. If he could have seen the breakdown of Greek polity in the hundred years following the Persian Wars, certainly he would not have said it were better had Xerxes prevailed. There have always been those who, though they see tragedy as the outcome of freedom, will nevertheless judge that tragedy is not too high a price to pay.



Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War

At the conclusion of his own introduction to his history of the war between Athens and Sparta, Thucydides announces his intention: “It will be enough for me if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events that happened in the past and that will, human nature being what it is, at some time or other and in much the same ways be repeated in the future. My history has been composed to be an everlasting possession and not to win the prize of an hour.”

He then observes that the Greek strife between Athens and Sparta wrought far greater physical damage than the Persian Wars, which were decided in two battles by land and two by sea. Implicit is the contrast between the liberation of creativity amidst the Greeks during and following their struggle for freedom and the irreparable moral damage done by the struggle for power amongst themselves. Thucydides goes on to trace the spreading corruption of power from the war between states to its internalization in each state in civil strife, and finally to its corruption of the individual leaders, the conflicts and defeats of conscience, and the monstrous growth and ultimate destruction of individual wills.

In Herodotus, history emerges from epic and anecdote into the beginnings of the science of man. Thucydides is the first to treat history as moral drama. The emphasis in Herodotus is on people. In Thucydides it is on persons. He never deals with the forces that operate in the affairs of men in abstract terms, but only as embodied in characters. Sometimes this comes dangerously near to personification. From Thucydides descend those generalizations so misleading and convenient to demagogues — the French are lewd and frivolous; the Swedes commit suicide because they drink too much coffee.

Thucydides himself avoids such generalities. His Athenian and Spartan generals and statesmen speak in accordance with national character that Thucydides presents empirically, inductively, but he is careful to distribute the components of that character amongst real men, balanced with human contraries and contradictories in each case. It has often been remarked that Thucydides’s point of view is medical. His subject is the disorder that threatens the life of Greece. He treats it in terms of symptoms, etiology, diagnosis, implicit therapy, and prognosis. His characterization of his protagonists is remarkably like that of the Elizabethan playwright who had a medical concept of drama, Ben Jonson, with his theory of humours.

Themistocles the wise man; Pericles the urbane and skillful politician; Cleon the demagogue; Nicias the pious, naïve soldier; Archidamus the cautious and wily man; Alcibiades the insolent spoiled adventurer; the envoys of the contending allies who speak with caution and rashness, truculence and prudence, turn and turn about. Behind them, as in Shakespeare, the mob functions at first as the residue of those impersonal forces which do not lend themselves to casting in Thucydides’s dramatis personae. As time goes on, the moral base of the contending leaders is eaten away in the attrition of war. Each at last operates as the embodiment of the narrowest possible character consistent with his essential humanness — of which Thucydides never quite loses sight. Virtue and vice together fall away into the sump of the inchoate mass — the war of each against all.

The method of Thucydides has obvious faults — “Life is not all that simple.” To which the response of the Classicist, or of what we call the inner-directed man, will be, “Ah, yes, but the lessons of life are precisely that simple, and the job of the historian is to arrange, without falsifying, his material to show forth the lessons of history in their natural simplicity.” At the moment we are in an anticlassical and other-directed period of taste, and Herodotus is preferred to Thucydides.

The difference between the two authors is manifest in their greatly disparate styles. Herodotus is one of the most engaging writers who ever lived. He is always interesting, eventful, and picturesque. His prose is always relaxed. We never have any feeling of pressure. Thucydides amongst prose writers might be called the inventor of the antidemocratic style. His sentences are at once hard and complicated, clear and businesslike. The narrative proceeds like an inescapable argument, with the snap of a Jesuit disputation.

Herodotus is the source of our knowledge of those great battles against the Persians which have become precious myths for Western Civilization. When we read over sentence by sentence his story of the fighting, it is often difficult to tell what is going on. Herodotus personalized combat like Tolstoy, Stendhal, or Stephen Crane. War to him was a vast disorder intruding like a poisonous storm upon the decency of civil life. Thucydides thought like a tactician and personified the forces of battle. He always knows who is doing what to whom; who advances, who threatens, who overcomes, just as in a game of chess. Battles in fact seem to have been down the ages pretty much as Herodotus or Tolstoy described them. However, it would not pay a general to deploy his men against the enemy with any other guiding principles than those of Thucydides.

The famous speeches scattered throughout the narrative unfold a philosophy of history. History acquires a logic, almost a geometry, which can be learned and applied by the men who come after to create a politics of wisdom. Thucydides conceives of history as depending ultimately upon the interaction of gentlemen like himself. Although he sees the struggle for power as the operative dynamism of history, he sees it in a contrary manner to that of Machiavelli. Those recipes for politics which we call Machiavellian, Thucydides attempts to prove unworkable because they are imprudent. Although he cuts through the cant and propaganda, still he deals with politics as a department of ethics. It is not that in his eyes might makes right — but that might makes the inescapable historic fact and the politician who uses power with prudence, firmness, balance may make right in fact.

This is the political philosophy of Aristotle or Sophocles. Behind its clear Euclidean relationships, Thucydides is always aware of the ungovernable irrational factor of tyche: not doom or fate, in his use of the word, but chance. If the will holds firm and the reason preserves its order, the man of power, says Thucydides, can rise above the disasters of chance — if not always, at least often enough to make a significant difference in the history of the people over whom he rules. This may be the moral of the most exemplary of all historians; but as he casts backward glances in the course of his narrative, you feel that Thucydides realized its only truth might be that of operative myth, of necessary fiction.



Sophocles, The Oedipus Cycle

Sophocles’s life might have been lived by his statue in the Louvre — so wise, so calm, so marmoreal. The same exemplary image could well have written his tragedies. Sophocles sang and danced as a boy in the choir of thanksgiving for Athens’s naval victory over the Persians at Salamis. He was the intimate of Pericles and the friend of Phidias and Thucydides. Speakers in Plato’s dialogues remembered him as an aged man. He died before the capture of Athens by Sparta. That was all there was: just the long lifetime of one man, from 495 to 406 B.C.

In Renaissance Florence, T’ang China, or Elizabethan England, he would have been too good to be true. His was a time never to occur again, and he was superlatively true to it. The unique artistic experience of Attic tragedy was contemporary with the glory of Athenian power, between the wars with Persia and Sparta. It lasted less than three generations; its perfect expression, only one. Aeschylus speaks at the opening of the greatest generation in the experience of man; Sophocles, for its brief years of mature achievement. To understand the Periclean Age requires an effort like no other. We find about us no standards or experiences that warrant a belief that life was ever like that. If the societies of other times and places are the measure of humanness, the Athenians for a moment were superhuman. The men and women in the tragedies of Sophocles are human as ourselves but purer, simpler, more beautiful — the inhabitants of a kind of Utopia. With all its agonies, this is life as it should be lived.

Sophocles’s dramatic world, like Periclean Athens itself, is self-contained. Its ultimate sanctions are immanent, not transcendent. The mythic beings of Aeschylus are supernatural references for a new system of values, otherworldly midwives of a new social order. In Sophocles, this order is operating. The dilemmas of the natural community are not solved by reference to a supernatural one. Aeschylus’s sacred democracy is personalized by Sophocles. For him a person is the most concrete thing there is. Tragedy arises out of the flux of fate and oracular doom, but so arises from the acts of free persons. The age‑long puzzle of fate and free will is solved by the dialectic of dramatic moral action.

From the style of Aeschylus one could construct a rhetoric of majesty. Sophocles, a few years younger, has already learned to avoid all appurtenances of sublimity. His style is simple, almost plain. Its majesty owes little to symbol, metaphor. His figures of speech arise from the ordinary linkages of direct communication —  the opposite of the vast disjunctions and incongruous juxtapositions of Aeschylus. This is the optimum human of Aristotle’s ethics speaking. The virtues of his style are grandeur, grace, control, dynamic balance, proportion, dialectic organization, the equipoise of strength and beauty. Nothing is mean; all is golden. His characters may be infatuated, but never ignoble. Their calamities are their own fault, but that fault is never base. Their sins are arrogance, rashness, overconfidence, presumption, contempt, cruelty, anger, lust, carelessness — the family of pride. Not even the soldiers, slaves, and messengers are guilty of gluttony, sloth, cowardice, venality.

The plays themselves form the transcendent community whose natural product is value. They are the etherealizing mirror of contemporary Athens. It is because there was majesty in the audience that the Sophoclean chorus can so directly “bridge the footlights.” The chorus is us. As the dialectic of dramatic speech and situation unwinds with that inevitable order which Sophocles learned from the Sophists and which they had learned by an analysis of the talk of Athens, the audience is transported into a purified region of conflicting hypertrophied motives. The audience is not “purged of pity and terror,” but those emotions themselves of their dross — fear, of cowardice and pity, of sentimentality. Caught up in the catastrophe of tragedy, the audience learns compassion and dread. Unfortunately, it was not possible for the later Greeks, faced with the dilemmas of their deteriorating secular society, to transfigure their situation by joining a Sophoclean play, as one might join a church or monastery. So the nobility of Sophocles becomes for future ages the private consolation of the mature and never again functions as a social paradigm.

A humanistic religion like Sophocles’s demands less and seems more impregnable than transcendentalism. It answers the mystery of evil with the qualities of art and with tone of character. Men suffer unjustly and learn little from suffering except to answer unanswerable questions with a kind of ultimate courtesy, an Occidental Confucianism that never pretends to solution. The ages following Sophocles have learned from him the definition of nobility as an essential aristocratic irony which forms the intellect and sensibility.

Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone are not a trilogy. Their chronological order is not that in which they were written. Antigone is the play of a mature man; Oedipus the King of a middle-aged one; Oedipus at Colonus of a very old man; yet they are, in spite of minor anachronisms, interdependent. It is as if Sophocles had held within his mind from the beginning a general structure for the Theban Cycle. The acts of Antigone and Creon in Antigone are made plausible by their behavior in Oedipus at Colonus, written fifty years later. The central play, Oedipus the King, is first in dramatic order. It may be the most perfect play ever written, and since it is the primary subject of Aristotle’s Poetics, it has been the model for most tragedies since. It is by far the most dialectic of all Greek plays. One situation leads to another with an inexorable necessity. Yet each is created by the interplay of the faulty motives and rash choices of the protagonists.

Oedipus discovers that he has murdered his wife’s husband; that he was a foundling; that he has murdered his father and married his mother in a series of dialogues more inevitable in motion than those of the Platonic Socrates evoking the realization of truth amongst his fellows. Realization comes in a succession of blows, and each blow reshapes the character of Oedipus as hammers form a white‑hot ingot on the anvil.

In Oedipus at Colonus, there is hardly a plot at all — only the contrast of the aged, dying, blinded Oedipus with his daughters; his sons; his successor on the throne of Thebes; Theseus, his Athenian host; and the common people of the chorus. Each character’s contrast illuminates him with a growing glory until, as he walks away to die in the sacred grove of Colonus, he has become a sacred being, a daimon.

This apotheosis is totally convincing, though Oedipus has lost not one of the faults that led him to disaster in the first place. He is still a rash and angry old, old man. He has learned only wisdom, wisdom that is indefinable, a quality of soul that comprehends suffering and evil, without understanding. Aeschylus justifies the ways of God to man by placing the mystery in God. Sophocles justifies the ways of man to man by placing the mystery in man.

Antigone, although written first, is a fitting conclusion. It is a conflict of people who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Creon has forbidden the burial of Polyneices, killed as a traitor attacking Thebes. Antigone defies him, buries her brother, and is condemned to death. Creon’s son, Haemon, affianced to Antigone, kills himself; last, his mother, Eurydice, commits suicide. We are back with Aeschylus in the conflict of state and family, male and female. The drama is human, not mythic; the protagonists not wiser; experience has been in vain; the burnt children still love the fire; but the characters are real, each an end in himself, concrete with an absolute concreteness.

Sophocles has found better translators in the past than has Aeschylus — Richard Aldington, Yeats, Browning, Shelley. The best contemporary edition of the Theban Plays is published by the Modern Library and the University of Chicago Press. The translators are David Grene, Robert Fitzgerald, and Elizabeth Wyckoff.




Euripides, Plays

When Aristotle said Euripides’s plays were “for the most part unethical,” he was using ethos in his own special sense. He meant that Euripides’s plots, his characters, and he himself were unbalanced, exceptional, wavering, tactless. If Sophocles perfectly exemplifies Aristotle’s taste, Euripides is tasteless.

In Aeschylus and Sophocles two different concepts of rational order, cosmos, are counterpoised to chaos. Euripides attacks not only rational order in the affairs of men, but reason itself. Aeschylus and Sophocles use myth to reveal reality. Euripides uses myth to mock reality — not, as is usually said, the reverse. No educated Greek “believed in” the factual reality of myth.

The poetic style of Aeschylus is continuous, controlled linguistic adventure, a conscious expansion of meaning. Sophocles is unique in literature for his achievement of a steady, high level of semantic purity. He elevates and illuminates Athenian speech at its most communicative. In Euripides, speech has broken down. Thucydides writing on the effects of war on social and personal relations, and hence upon communication, and the resulting debauchery of meaning, might well have been describing the rhetoric of Euripides. Long after the Peloponnesian War had done its destructive work, Aristotle had to redefine a philosophic vocabulary, to refound the meaning of meaning. He did it so well that his linguistic analysis has lasted to this day in the assumptions of the man in the street. Plato, like Alfred North Whitehead in our time, failed at this task because of the overspecialization of his caste dialect. The evocative, connotative, ambiguous language of Euripides is the opposite of the pure poetry of Sophocles, as it is the opposite of the aristocratic clarity of Plato or the forceful commonplaceness of Aristotle.

Criticism down the centuries has tended to arrange the three tragedians in chronological order. We should not forget that Euripides was 64 when Aeschylus died and that, though fifteen years younger, he died in the same year as Sophocles. In the three tragedians the wheat and tares of the Athenian mind were harvested together in one long season. The differences are spiritual rather than temporal. Each poet speaks for his own kind in Periclean Athens. True, Aeschylean man more or less died out; the Sophoclean became the public mask of the elite, while the people for whom Euripides spoke were the future.

Sophocles has the interests of a civic leader who is a country gentleman, as in his memorable evocation of the suburban village of Colonus. Euripides was an alienated intellectual, an ironic wanderer in Baudelaire’s “city lit with prostitutes.” Like Baudelaire, he was unsuccessful in his lifetime and the favorite of the megalopolitan culture that came after him. His virtues are the virtues of that culture, as they are vices in the world of Aeschylus and Sophocles. They are thoroughly metropolitan and bourgeois: domestic realism, entrancing rhetoric, ironic philosophizing (like that of the characters in Chekhov), witty intellectualism, literary professionalism, moral eclecticism, subjectivity, and the attitude of tragic alienation.

In Sophocles each drama is a cosmos. The characters fit together like gears to produce dramatic power. The episodic crises of Euripides’s plays are a series of judgments on autonomous characters, amongst whom the author takes sides. This is sympathy, a virtue invented by the middle class. Tragedy and this kind of sympathy are incongruous. So too are sympathy and the greatest comedy. Richardson could certainly not have written Tom Jones, any more than Beaumont and Fletcher could have written Volpone. Plays like Euripides’s Orestes and Iphigenia at Tauris are comedies, and even Medea has a mocking comic finale. Phaedra’s nurse in Hippolytus is the first of many pimping domestics who see through the grandiloquent self‑images of heroic life, who give the clysters and empty the chamber pots for the golden people who claim to be more than human.

Not only are Euripides’s plays romantic; so, in the pejorative sense, are his heroines. They are all Emma Bovarys, as adept at role-playing as his heroes are at acting‑out. Euripides’s characters — not the actors, as in Brecht’s theory of theatrical alienation — are pretending to be Medea, Orestes, Elektra. Although Hiippolytus is a highly skilled job of archaizing, Phaedra deliberately plays the part of the ruined queen of the overcivilized, conquered Sea Peoples, the embodiment of their mysterious goddess and her snake priestesses. The Bacchae, like Hippolytus, is almost a play by an anthropologist.

Offended holiness conditions all the dramas of Sophocles and Aeschylus. In Euripides there is usually nothing there to offend. The tremendum is comic and without mana. Where Sophocles and Aeschylus thrill to the aweful or the intensely humane, Euripides’s intensity is usually only aesthetic. Again, this is professionalism and alienation. Euripides has no operative connection with the holy in being. When he wishes to evoke it as a context to support his own philosophy of life, he must construct it like a doctor of comparative religion. The tremendum of The Bacchae is not being with the supernatural or transcendent locked into the common order. It is beyond or outside the order of being altogether. The Bacchae is Euripides’s evaluation of life. This is what being means to him. This is the first psychedelic system of values, a middle‑class substitute for mystical vision. Lyrical ecstasy is the only answer to mystery.

Euripides invented comic, as Sophocles invented tragic, irony. The tragedies of Sophocles are conflicts of fate and personality, will and time. The tragicomedies of Euripides are confusions of luck and individuality. Egocentric people are caught in the falsehoods, not the truths, of time — misrepresentations, mistakes, confusions, doubles, incognitos. They play their roles in picturesque, romantic landscapes, quite unlike the classic parks of Sophocles or the immense vistas of Aeschylus. Their morality is a deliberate, ironic imitation of the real Heroic Age ethos — pluck, gang loyalty, sexual passion. Suffering never ennobles them, as it does the Greek gentlemen of Sophocles, but only coarsens still more the bourgeois sensibility beneath the heroic mask — to an appalling degree in Orestes, Medea, The Trojan Women or Pasiphaë’s speech in a fragment of a lost play.

In each of these cases occurs a deliberate, specific denial of the Socratic fallacy. The typical Euripidean heroine usually finds opportunity to repudiate the idea that if man is reasonably convinced of a good he will choose it. Again and again his frantic women say that reason is morally impotent. The conclusion follows that the cosmos is not a cosmos at all, for to the Greek mind moral order is the necessary reflection of physical order. When the Euripidean hero or heroine looks upon the world of fact, he finds it worthless.

In Aeschylus, far and near fuse to give transcendence to the here and now. In Sophocles, all time is immanent and forms the abiding skeleton of value for here and now. In Euripides, here and now are devalued by the far‑away and long‑ago, the hopeless wish to escape from a present without value. So the rhetorical intensity of his vertiginous verse, certainly as overpowering as any ever written, couples luster with mockery, radiance without wholeness and harmony, and is for that very reason so much the more intense. In the Hellenistic world of great cities and warring empires, Euripides came into his fame. The Hellenistic world was Euripidean through and through, and so is the one in which we live today.

The most convincing contemporary translations of Euripides are in the University of Chicago Modern Library edition. The nearest approximations to his hypnotic verse are the translations of the choruses of Iphigenia at Aulis and Hippolytus by H.D.




The Greek Anthology

Most people are unaware, and even scholars seldom pause to consider, that the Greek literature on which our civilization is so largely based survives as a very small library indeed. It would be quite possible for a skilled reader to go through it all in a couple of years, and anyone could read all the really important works in a winter. Only a small selection of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides survives; of other tragedians we know practically nothing but their names. We have considerable Aristophanes, but of the New Comedy from which our own and Roman Comedy derive we have only a few plays of Menander, and those in bad condition. Of the Greek lyric poets we have even less: of Sappho two poems and miscellaneous fragments. Many of the most important writers of ancient Greece are known only by reputation. Greek literature is a ruin — like the Acropolis. As with the Acropolis, most of what survives is monumental, impersonal, “classic.” Intimate poetry seems to have been written rarely, and hardly any survives — except in the Anthology.

What we call the Greek Anthology is a Byzantine collection and rearrangement of an unknown number of earlier anthologies, the best of which was gathered by the Syrian‑Hellenistic poet Meleager, who included a liberal selection of his own verse. Almost all the poems are written in the elegiac distich — the meter used for monuments and gravestones. One of the largest books is made up of sepulchral epigrams. Some are real or imaginary epitaphs; others are actual dedicatory poems or votive offerings — or, again, imitations. There are a large book of inscriptions on statues and monuments; a surprisingly mediocre book of homosexual poems; a collection of rhetorical and declamatory short poems in elegiac meter; collections of quite tedious Christian epigrams, decidedly inferior to either the great Byzantine hymns or medieval Latin poetry; satirical poems, epigrams in our sense; and, most famous of all, a book of love poems which contains the core of Meleager’s original collection.

The nature of the meter and its traditional origin dictated the form and substance of all the best of these poems — in any category. An inscription on a gravestone should be simple, succinct, poignant — and a personal expression of either the subject or the mourners. An actual stone at Corinth: “This little stone, dear Sabinos, is all the memorial of our great love. I miss you always; and I hope that you did not drink forgetfulness of me when you drank the waters of the new dead.” An imaginary epitaph: “Here is Klito’s little shack. Here is his little corn patch. Here is his tiny vineyard. Here Klito spent eighty years.” Purest of all, the acknowledged grand master of the epigram, is Simonides, of the classic age. On the Spartans (the Lakadaimonians) fallen holding back the Persian host at Thermopylae: “Stranger, when you come to Lakadaimon, tell them that we lie here, obedient to their will” — which is certainly the greatest poem of its kind ever written.

The epitaph of Meleager to his mistress Heliodora, too long to quote, intensifies and further personalizes this emotion, as special a sensitivity as that which distinguishes Japanese classic poetry, and the transition to the simple love poem is hardly noticeable — the same sensibility is speaking in the same form: “I swear by desire, I would rather hear your voice than the sound of Apollo’s lyre.” Or the bitter scholar Palladas in decaying Alexandria, mourning the passing of Greek civilization itself: “We Greeks have fallen on evil days and fancy a dream is life. Or is it we who are dead and seem to live, or are we alive after life itself has departed?”

Later, in the classic revival under Justinian, the lawyer Paul the Silentiary would write poems to courtesans that are elegiac in our sense, full of the sorrow of the ruin of all bright things and the wistful momentariness of a girl’s body. No other Greek poet is quite like Paul; only the Latin Petronius captures the same sense of man trapped in history. The relicts of over a thousand years of Greek verse are gathered in these books, and we can relive the history of the Greek sensibility — from the first unselfconscious clarity and sensual glory of Sappho to the fatigue of the last disciples of paganism in Byzantium and Rome.

What distinguishes this verse? What is the pagan sensibility? What grows fatigued? Confidence. The classic poets are sure; they are certain of their senses, of their bodies in the clear Greek air, of their relations with one another. They know what death and love are — far simpler things than what we, with Romanticism and psychology behind us, mean by those terms. Sex is sex. Infidelity is infidelity; there is nothing complicated about it. Death is death. Heroism is heroism. The response is as direct as that of Simonides’ Spartans, and as directly and gently ironic.

This is the “tragic sense of life” reduced to its simplest terms — “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”; it would sustain and reinvigorate the erotic lyric and elegy for over two thousand years. Ben Jonson and WaIler, William Carlos Williams writing of cold plums and white chickens and cautious cats, or Robert Desnos remembering his girl as he lies dying in a Nazi concentration camp: the greatest poetry still speaks Greek — in the simplest tragic language, the plain confrontation of beauty and love with Time, and nothing complex about it.

The simplicity of this acceptance gives life or, rather, living a confidence that modern man usually troubles with the imaginations of his conscience which only confuse and compromise the issue. The pagan sensibility, whether Greek or Chinese or Japanese, has no conscience in our sense. Melancholy saturates the later poets of the Anthology and even tinctures Meleager — but it is utterly unlike the melancholy of Proust or even Goethe. It is simply a more somber, more continuously haunting realization of the final term of the good, the true, the beautiful — and of the self and of civilization itself. Paul the Silentiary, courtier of the orientalized Christian emperor, is haunted by the remembrance of things past, but he would have thought Proust a madman. The ghosts that lurk behind the last poems of the Anthology are as definite ghosts as the athletes and lovers of Sappho and Simonides are definite. These Greeks never ceased to see clearly. The complicated sensibility can never reveal reality as more complex than its own complications.

Out of the stark simplicity of the finest poems of the Anthology, whether erotic or sepulchral, satiric or convivial, flows all the endless complexity of reality itself. “Take off your clothes and lie down; we are not going to last forever.” “Pass the sweet earthware jug made of the earth that bore me, the earth I shall some day bear.” The simplicity is highly deceptive — as misleading as the complexity of Kierkegaard, or the knotted webs of tergiversation in Henry James, which go not further than the printed page. The modern sensibility attempts to drain the contents of experience; these Greek poets strive to state the fact so poignantly that it becomes an ever‑flowing spring — as Sappho says, “More real than real, more gold than gold.”

There are many translations of the Anthology, in styles to suit every taste. Dudley Fitts in modern verse and Richard Aldington in prose are contemporary in style. Mackail’s nineteenth‑century prose is still popular. I’ve done a book of selections myself, from which the translations in this essay are derived. The Loeb Library gives a good Greek text and a rather wooden English one.

[Rexroth translations from the Greek Anthology]


Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

Other “Classics Revisited” essays