Page images
[ocr errors]

most remarkable way, he has caught inspiration from the literature of Greece. I learn from Poetry, the magazine, that he is “the son of a professor of Greek—deeply grounded as a boy in the classic languages, and indeed, through much schooling abroad, in some of the modern languages as well.” His verse shows that the very names of Greek writers have a charm for him:

names like the stars' names, Sappho, Alcaeus, And Aeschylus a name like the first eagle's,80

and in describing “Point Pinos and Point Lobos" he recalls similar headlands famous in classic story:

also I heard my masters Speak of Pelorum head and the Attic rocks of Sunium, or that Nymphaean Promontory under the holy mountain Athos, ....

... and Actium and the Acroceraunian And Chersonese abutments of Greek ridges on the tideless wave They named, my spirit has visited.

The poem which most conspicuously illustrates Greek influence is the long dramatic narrative, entitled “The Tower beyond Tragedy," which is obviously based upon the great trilogy of Aeschylus, his Oresteia. The murder first of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra and then of Clytemnestra by Orestes is described with terrible realism, but perhaps the most powerful passage in the poem is the Queen's appeal to her son, not so much to spare her life as to keep his own hand innocent of her blood :

Wait. I was weeping, Electra will tell you, my hands are wet still,
For your blue eyes that death had closed she said away up in

Phocis. I die now, justly or not
Is out of the story, before I die I'd tell you-wait, child,

wait. Did I quiver
Or pale at the blade? I say, caught in a net, netted in by my

enemies, my husband murdered,
Myself to die, I am joyful knowing she lied, you live, the only

creature Under all the spread and arch of daylight That I love, lives. .... As for her, the wife of a shepherd Suckled her, but you These very breasts nourished: rather one of your northern

spearmen do what's needful; not you Draw blood where you drew milk. The Gods endure much, but

beware them.

30 "The Torch-Bearers' Race.”

The whole tragedy is brought into relation even with present-day life when Cassandra's prophetic vision embraces modern nations, including Britain and America:

far down
Smite Spain for the blood on the sunset gold, curse France
For the fields abounding and the running rivers, the lights in

the cities, the laughter, curse England
For the meat on the tables and the terrible gray ships, for old

laws, far dominions, there remains
A mightier to be cursed and a higher for malediction
When America has eaten Europe and takes tribute of Asi when

the ends of the world grow aware of each other
And are dogs in one kennel, they will tear
The master of the hunt with the mouths of the pack.

"You clasp hands with the great Greeks across time,” wrote the late George Sterling to Jeffers. Yes, we can at once admit that Aeschylus has taken a tremendous hold upon this modern poet, and Greek scholars will readily recognize the influence of Theocritus, including the 'Oaplotus, in the frank paganism of Jeffers' most musical poem “Fauna," but to my mind Robinson Jeffers belongs to an earlier reign than that of Zeus. In his reckless might he is like the Giants who made war upon the Gods, and Miss Monroe quite rightly says that “all the dark power of Mr. Jeffers cannot quite persuade us to swallow his modern tales of abnormal passion with the simple inherited faith of a more primitive time.” She also assures us that "the Greek audience accepted quite simply the horror as well as the beauty of its inherited myths." Greek myths are often horrible enough, but I know of no Greek literature that delights in such revolting tales as are told in “Tamar” and “The Roan Stallion," or that dares to suggest incest in the relations of Orestes and Electra. The unnatural relationship in the Oedipus is, of course, an unconscious one. But Jeffers does not worship at the shrines of Restraint and Reticence. He is ignorant of a fundamental law of Greek art as well as of Greek morals the law known as μηδέν άγαν. .


When I first took up my pen to write this address, I had intended to deal largely with transatlantic poets, and to include some from Canada, Australia, and other parts of the English-speaking world. I soon found, however, that such a plan involved too wide a survey, and I have therefore confined myself to this continent and to this Republic. But there is ample material here, and possibly it is more important for our purpose to show that our most distinguished American poets of today are deeply indebted to the classics, than to remind ourselves of what is much more obvious, viz., that most of the great living poets of England are peculiarly intimate with the literatures of Greece and Rome. In Great Britain there has never, for many a generation past, been any break in the classical tradition. It is only in America that this has been interrupted, and today, as we have seen, the gap has again been bridged. Whitmanism, indeed, has proved a blessing in disguise. It has had a most salutary influence upon our poetry by recalling us to the great realities of life, from which, in academic exclusiveness, we have sometimes been tempted to stand aloof. But we have once more learned the lesson that for the creation of lofty and enduring poetry, we need something more than mere experience of life, however genuine. We have learned that such experience must be supplemented by sound literary training, and when this principle becomes generally recognized, sooner or later the Greek and Latin classics will once more come into their own. English literature by itself will never suffice, and our aspiring poets must themselves go to those perennial fountains from which all our greatest writers in the past have drunk so freely. The trouble at present is that our would-be poets are often content with superficial knowledge. The young versifier who, in Mr. Untermeyer's words "takes a sight-seeing tour through classical mythology” is no more steeped in the classics than is the prose-writer who a few weeks ago aired his knowledge of Latin in a book-review by speaking of somebody's "Apologia pro scripta sua !" Pope has written

A little learning is a dangerous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring; and yet in these days of breadth of culture and variety of intellectual interests we must at times give heed to such an earnest plea as that made by the late Dr. Horace Howard Furness, when he said: "If I cannot, for lack of time, drink deep of the Pierian spring, let me, in heaven's name, at least take a sip. .... Does Nature offer us no beauty in shallowness? Do the shores of a lake sink at once to its greatest depth? Is it not from the shallows that water-lilies make glad the soul of man when they bare their heart of gold to the rays of the morning sun ?”31

Not long ago, I found myself at a luncheon seated between two wellknown writers, one of them a poet, the other distinguished as one of the prolific and popular novelists of our day. The poet has published little, but one at least of her songs is likely to live on in American anthologies, because it not only throbs with life, but also has high artistic qualities. In the course of conversation the novelist confessed to me that though

31 Quoted by Le Baron Russell Briggs, in Men, Women, and Colleges, p. 78.

her work was held in high favor, yet she was sadly aware that none of it had enduring qualities—not a line of it would outlive herself. In this I could not honestly disagree with her, especially as I had never read any of her stories, but I tried to encourage her to produce at least one great work of art, by which posterity would remember her. Then it was that she admitted her ignorance of really great literature. She had a facile pen, she knew how to make a popular appeal, but she was writing according to rule of thumb and had no definite standards for form, style, or even substance. For all her undoubted genius, she will never rise above mediocrity. It is well that the lady is not a poet, for, as Horace says:

mediocribus esse poetis Non homines, non di, non concessere columnae.


For the classics do give us definite standards of both taste and achievement. They have stood the test of time. They have not served, in the gay phrase of Mme de Sévigné, merely "as a breakfast for the sun," but they have lived on, and have helped to mould the literatures of many nations. Without a knowledge of the classics, a modern writer is like a sailor adrift on the sea, without a compass or helm. He floats about aimlessly, and if he reaches some port, he does so in haphazard fashion, because the wind blows in that direction. But the writer at home in his classics has both compass and helm and need never lose his bearings. He has been trained in taste and expression and can bank upon a wealth of human wisdom and experience which he can utilize at every turn in the unfolding of his own. Above all he is possessed of criteria, which will often save him from extremes of bathos and bombast. As Chancellor Day once said, the classics are "a time-saver and a sure road to the topmost round of all things that require strong, critical, and clear thinking”—and surely that is the kind of thinking our poets need—not mere gush and sentimentality. It is this clear and critical thinking that is so characteristic of Edwin Arlington Robinson, and gives him such marked distinction.

It is nearly ten years since the famous conference on classical studies at Princeton, which resulted in the publication by the Princeton University Press of the volume known as Value of the Classics. In this we find the testimony of statesmen and men of affairs; of clergymen, lawyers, and doctors; of engineers, physicists, and chemists; of professors of political science, economics, philosophy, fine arts, and other branches of knowledge. The book is an admirable one, and all classical scholars feel deeply indebted for its preparation to Dean West and his co-workers. But I think one more important group should have been represented—that of those who are today engaged in creative literary work. To be sure, we have editors of newspapers and magazines, some of whose testimony is remarkably strong ; but how much weight would have been added by the evidence of historians, biographers, essayists, novelists, and, above all, poets! Of this last group I find only two, Alfred Noyes and Henry van Dyke, and both of these speak merely in their capacity as teachers of English literature.

Here then is a gap which I have tried to fill—not indeed by the direct testimony of our living poets, but by an examination of their written works, which give evidence of their faith. “Ye shall know them by their fruits." Even today our best poets look upon Latin and Greek as "living literature"; and, to judge from their experience, the best training for creative genius—to supplement native gifts-must still be found in the classics. Ellery Sedgwick has given us the formula : "Latin literature furnishes the supreme model for a straightforward, concise, and logical style. It teaches any appreciative student close thinking and direct expression. Greek civilization is the source of love for beauty and refinement."

The value of Latin is largely utilitarian, that of Greek mainly aesthetic, and one cannot study our chief poets without realizing how potent, and at times overpowering, is the appeal made to them by Greek. Was it not Goethe who once said: “Let us study Molière, let us study Shakespeare; but above all things the old Greeks and always the Greeks"?

Of the Latin poets, Catullus, Lucretius, and Virgil are most deserving of a place beside the Greeks. Lucretius, especially, is in high favor in this scientific age, a time too when we hear so much of the spirit of revolt, of which “The Poet in the Desert" by Charles Erskine Scott Wood, is the most remarkable expression. Though Wood probably owes nothing to the influence of Lucretius, yet his spirit is kindred to that of the old poet who could write with such fiery ardor against the conventional beliefs of his day:

Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.

But the Greeks—how fresh and modern they always are! Listen to these verses:

Will they ever come to me, ever again,

The long, long dances,
On through the dark till the dim stars wane?
Shall I feel the dew on my throat, and the stream
Of wind in my hair? Shall our white feet gleam
In the dim expanses ?

« PreviousContinue »