Defence of poetry

Hugh Lloyd-Jones

  • Enemies of Poetry by W.B. Stanford
    Routledge, 181 pp, £8.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0460 5
  • The Idea of a Theatre: the Greek Experience by M.I. Finley
    British Museum, 16 pp, £95.00, February 1980, ISBN 0 7141 1267 4

Professor Stanford, who this year retires from the Regius Chair of Greek at Trinity College, Dublin after 40 years in office, feels that ‘creative literature is being used more and more as material for history or archaeology or psychology.’ He therefore sets out to defend the poetic element in literature against disparagement and neglect. He cites much modern as well as ancient literature, and seems to wish his book to be relevant to modern as well as ancient poetry, but much of what he says seems principally concerned with the case of Greek studies.

Asking himself who have been the principal enemies of poetry, he devotes one chapter (25 pages) to ‘historicists’, one (24 pages) to scientists, psychologists and mathematicians, one (14 pages) to philosophers, and one (14 pages) to politicians and moralists; then follows a list of 26 ‘fallacies of classical criticism’ which result from poets being taken over-literally.

About historicists, and also about psychologists and anthropologists, there is a good deal to be said in this connection; the other types of person listed seem to me not very dangerous ‘enemies’ at the present time. Not many scientists and mathematicians are interested in poetry, but not many are its active enemies; more often, poets or lovers of poetry are hostile to science. But in the chapter about scientists, psychologists and mathematicians, Professor Stanford’s quarrel is really with people who criticise poets for not getting their facts right. The most notable of these is the great Classical scholar Richard Bentley (1662-1742), who judged the poets by the standards of his own rigorous 18th-century rationalism; a good many people have remarked that his edition of Paradise Lost, in which he used the theory that the text has been interpolated by an amanuensis who took advantage of the poet’s blindness to impose his own critical standards on the poem, was not a great success. Psychologists are a different matter: some of them are doing harm to the understanding of poetry – particularly in America, as I shall show presently. Professor Stanford offers some hair-raising examples of their work, like that of the writer who thinks that ‘in order to gain control over fire men had to renounce the homosexually-tinged desire to put it out with a stream of urine.’ But he deals very briefly with them, and does not explain why they treat poetry as they do.

Both in the chapter on philosophers and in that on politicians and moralists, Professor Stanford has much to say about Plato’s hostility to poetry; he finds Aristotle’s more sympathetic attitude greatly preferable. He rightly points out that poetry does not move upon the same level as philosophy or politics, but he would have done better justice to Plato if he had pointed out more clearly that in early Greece many people were by no means sufficiently aware of this. Poetry was often praised for its moral content, and, in the absence of a sacred book, poetry, especially that of Homer, formed the staple fare of elementary education. Nor is he sufficiently aware that in Plato’s time poetry, like all the arts, made an incomparably more powerful impact than it came to have during the Hellenistic period – not to mention ages like our own. Professor Stanford’s discussion of Plato contains a good deal that is true, but very little that is new; the subject is incomparably better treated in Iris Murdoch’s brilliant lecture, ‘The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato banished the artists’, which he does not seem to know. Politicians and moralists were certainly hostile to poetry as late as the Nineties. Professor Stanford reminds us that Baudelaire, Wilde and other poets excited disapproval. It would have been interesting if he had shown why. But how many politicians and moralists trouble themselves much about poetry today?

In the chapter on historicists, Professor Stanford makes an attempt to get to grips with the real enemies, but even there he disappoints us. First, his great courtesy does not permit him to attack any historicists more modern than Walter Leaf, the author of the standard commentary on the Iliad, and Gilbert Murray, who both died many years ago. Secondly, he does not explain how it has come about that during the last century poetry has so often been criticised and judged from a historical point of view.

The roots of modern historicism are to be found in Germany. When Goethe and his contemporaries set about rediscovering Greek antiquity, so as to see it, as no one in modern Europe had yet seen it, directly and not through Latin intermediaries, they studied it not for scientific but for humanistic purposes. But during the first half of the 19th century the old Classical scholarship gave way to the new science of the study of antiquity – Aitertums-wissenschaft. Instead of singling out certain authors and artists as ‘Classical’, the exponents of this studied the ancient world as a whole, from the historical point of view, using the diverse disciplines of literary scholarship, comparative linguistics, archaeology and art history, and above all history, and studying not only literary texts and works of art but inscriptions, papyri and all kinds of material remains. This led to a more thorough scholarship and a deeper understanding of antiquity, checking the tendency to excessive idealisation, but it was not without its drawbacks. For instance, the Homeric poems are, among other things, a historical document, and it is legitimate to consider them as such. But they were created for a special purpose, and anyone who studies them without taking adequate account of that purpose is neglecting an aspect that can hardly be called unimportant. All too often since the rise of historicism, scholars have approached literature and art in a way that takes no account of their most essential qualities.

Nietzsche clearly indicated this danger in the second of his Unzeitmässige Betrachtungen, but then and for long afterwards his warning was disregarded. Only after the First World War did German scholars become fully aware of the debit side of historicism, and the rising impatience of the public with the dryness of many of their productions. They were confronted with an awkward dilemma, for if they were to renounce the full rigour of their scientific approach, they feared that they might drift into facile sentimentalism. One group tried to institutionalise the defence against the dangers of historicism by proclaiming the birth of a new ‘third humanism’, to follow the first humanism of the Renaissance and the second humanism of the age of Goethe. But the attempt petered out: the finest scholars continued to use the tools of modern scholarship with the thoroughness which the pursuit of truth required, while remaining aware that literary texts and works of art had elements which marked them off from other documents studied by historians.

But though the conflict between critical scholarship and art was accentuated during the 19th century, it had existed long before that time: as Professor Stanford points out, it existed even in antiquity. No scholar did more to purge Classical texts of the corruption they had suffered in the course of transmission, or to devise a critical method for testing the genuineness of facts and documents, than Richard Bentley. But the remorseless logic which served him so well in this kind of work could carry him too far when he touched questions that depended in whole or in part on literary sense, or on sympathy with the taste of a period other than his own.

The modern English Classical scholar most like Bentley was certainly Sir Denys Page, who was Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge from 1950 till 1973, and who died two years ago. He made a gigantic contribution to the editing of Greek texts, enough to establish him as an eminent scholar three times over. But when he touched literary matters, the knife that dealt so effectively with purely philological questions might cut the hand that weilded it. In an appendix to his brilliant book, History and the Homeric ‘Iliad’, Sir Denys treated an episode in the 19th book, after Achilles has renounced his anger against Agamemnon and is in a hurry to return to battle and avenge Patroclus. As he is about to lead his men into the field, he is stopped by the more experienced Odysseus, who reminds him that his soldiers have not yet eaten. Page finds the delay pointless; he complains that the story is none the better for being ‘padded with lecture after lecture about food’. To me this seems one of the poet’s most masterly touches. Achilles in his grief may live only for revenge, but ordinary life must go on, and the more realistic Odysseus must remind him that an army marches on its belly. Not all distinguished textual critics have been prone to this kind of over-logicality, but since it often goes with the very qualities that help them to achieve their notable successes, it is a kind of occupational risk.

In a characteristically succinct and intelligent account of the Greek theatre, in a handsomely illustrated pamphlet which gives amazing value for its price, Sir Moses Finley also protests against historicist depreciation of poetry. ‘It is currently fashionable among some classical scholars in this country,’ he writes, ‘including some of the most highly reputed, to underrate, and even denigrate, the content of the plays’; he is speaking of Greek tragedies and comedies. He points out that, though Aeschylus was neither a social thinker nor a political philosopher, he was a great tragic poet, and so a kind of thinker, though not a thinker of the same type. Coming from one who has always stood for a tough-minded and unsentimental approach towards antiquity, these words are notable.

Since the 19th century Classical studies have gained greatly from contact with the new disciplines of anthropology and psychology. The early pioneers made errors, which are now easy to observe, but the path they chose was the right one, and has led to the important work of E.R. Dodds in this country, Karl Meuli and his followers in Germany and Switzerland, and Louis Gernet and his school in France. These scholars have made a careful study of the new disciplines whose methods they have used, and have done so with all proper caution. That cannot be said of a large number of inferior practitioners who after acquiring a smattering of fashionable theories, usually derived from a superficial acquaintance with the works of Freud, have filled whole volumes with twaddle like the sentence about quenching fire with urine. Some institutions in the United States encourage the purveyors of this trendy rubbish.

So far Classical scholars have been quicker to learn from psychologists and anthropologists than these scientists have been to learn from them. It is true that one very clever and learned Freudian, the ethno-psychiatrist Professor George Devereux, has acquired considerable Classical learning late in his career, and that we owe to him some valuable insights; but too often, as in his book Dreams in Greek Tragedy, he has made the mistake of applying psychological techniques to works of literary art without making proper allowances for their character as such. The relationship of Classical studies to psychology and anthropology is worth a far longer treatment than the page or two of horrifying examples which Professor Stanford gives it.