Hellenic Tours

Jonathan Barnes

  • The Cambridge History of Classical Literature. Vol. I: Greek Literature edited by P.E. Easterling and B.M.W. Knox
    Cambridge, 936 pp, £47.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 521 21042 9
  • A History of Greek Literature by Peter Levi
    Viking, 511 pp, £14.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 670 80100 3

Greek, Sir, said he, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can.’ So Johnson in 1780. An early editor punctiliously observed that ‘this was said twenty-five or thirty years ago, when lace was very generally worn.’ Two centuries later lace is quite out of fashion.

Lovers of lace – and what civilised man is not a lace-lover? – sometimes despond, and sackcloth is generally worn when Classicists congress. Publishers, however, a race of men not famous for their optimism, are not yet printing the funeral service. On the contrary, Classical texts and Classical commentaries appear in ever greater numbers, works of haute vulgarisation or low learning pour from the presses, translations – good translations – multiply and sell. And it is immensely cheering to welcome the publication of two new and substantial histories of Greek literature.

The Cambridge History is a formidable tome: nine hundred learned pages by 19 learned scholars. It begins with Homer and proceeds at a steady pace to the third century AD. Most significant figures receive thorough discussion; in addition, the editors have justly defended the rights of minor characters, and they have called particular attention to the most recent enlargements in our knowledge of Greek literature. The text and the ample appendixes convey all the information – biographical, literary, bibliographical – which a serious reader could want: the history is a handbook, something to be consulted rather than read, and it will certainly become a standard work of reference. But it is also much more than a catalogue of ascertained fact and scholarly conjecture. Its various chapters contain criticism and assessment, and they are generously illustrated with quotations, many of them in Greek.

Peter Levi’s history purposes to give ‘a short lucid description in easy, continuous prose of most of ancient Greek literature’. The description is again accompanied by critical reflections and illustrated by frequent quotations (all in English translation). But this history is not a handbook. It is described as a ‘one-man tour d’horizon’, and its scope and range are determined by its author’s predilections.

Mr Levi covers the poets pretty thoroughly, and he neglects none of the best-known prose-writers. But his survey is not complete. Philosophers will regret the absence of Epictetus (the most translated of ancient philosophers) and of Sextus Empiricus (who perfected philosophical prose). Others will properly lament the fact that Greek scientific prose – Hippocrates, Euclid, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Galen – is ignored. But Mr Levi does not pretend to be comprehensive, and a reader who wants detailed accounts of Ptolemy’s Syntaxis or Epictetus’s Manual may find them elsewhere.

Not, however, in the Cambridge History. And here a critic may find room to carp. In at least two respects the book is conservative. Literary scholars prefer poetry to prose, and they prefer the well-worn to the less familiar. The History shares these preferences. Poetry is better treated than prose – thus Callimachus is allotted more space than Plato, Aristotle gets fewer pages than ‘minor Hellenistic poets’. Unfamiliar prose-writers are largely shunned: Epictetus is briefly discussed, Galen extends to a page, Archimedes, Ptolemy and Hippocrates earn each an aside, Euclid (unless I have missed something) is not mentioned.

Of course, no history, however generous in its pagination, can satisfy all esoteric desires. And a Cambridge Monument is perhaps obliged to celebrate the orthodox faith rather than to hint at heretical delights. For all that, I find it disappointing that the scientific and philosophical writers come off so badly. Students of ancient philosophy rarely think of their texts as literature – what matters for them is the content, not the form. Students of literature conversely hope that their colleagues will look after an Aristotle or an Archimedes – the subject-matter, after all, demands a specialist. Thus some of the best and some of the most extensive ancient prose texts lie neglected in no-man’s land. Who writes on the brilliant blend of rigour and rhetoric in Galen’s prose? Who investigates the subtleties of Aristotle’s technical style? Who, come to that, has much to say about Plato?

Such questions should strike the student who consults the Cambridge History. For it is students and scholars who will consult it. It is a book for the professionals. To be sure, Greekless readers are not cut off from its pages, for all Greek quotations are translated; and I hope that ‘anyone with an interest in the ancient world’ (as the publishers put it) will from time to time feel strong enough to lift it down from the library shelves. But it is not bedside reading.

Mr Levi’s publishers speak (as publishers will) of ‘students, scholars and general readers’. Students will go for the Cambridge volume. As for scholars, Mr Levi is optimistic if he really expects that they will be ‘refreshed and amused’ by his book; at all events, most of the scholars I know seek refreshment in a different form.

There remains the general reader, or, as Mr Levi himself puts it, ‘the average man of letters’. Who is this beast? He is Greekless, but he knows something about Classical Antiquity. He is sufficiently versed in European literature to savour allusions to the major and the minor poets. He knows the rudiments of grammar and he need not be told what a hexameter is. He is interested enough in philological controversy to wonder whether or not Zuntz refuted Wilamowitz. Although he will find it ‘a positive advantage not to have read most modern discussions’ of Aeschylus’s plays, he will eagerly seek out Richard Reizenstein’s analysis of Greek novels in his brilliant Hellenistische Wundererzählung. Such readers may once, I suppose, have manned the farthest outposts of the Empire, but nowadays they are surely rare birds.

Readership or no readership, Mr Levi’s book has undeniable virtues. It skips and gambols with enthusiasm. It indulges in unashamed digressions. It generously tempts us with amusing tidbits of abstruse information. It makes plain and forthright critical judgments. Rangoon readers will learn from it a great deal about Greek literature, and they will do so easily, for Mr Levi rarely speaks like a schoolmaster, and few of his chapters are trudgingly dull.

Moreover, the book is spiced with a number of engaging lunacies. Consider the conjecture that Heraclitus’s ‘great feat of self-expression in prose and in philosophy’ was not equalled until Montaigne published his Essays. Or better, relish the suggestion that lyric poetry ‘for all we know to the contrary may be prehuman’. And some may find equally charming the more frequent intrusions of guff. ‘Maybe the statues of the kouroi, with their simple sensuality, their restrained strength, and their secret smiles, are thinking about poems by Mimnermus.’ ‘In musical terms, Simonides’s poetry is perfectly genuine, as crisp and light as a leaf.’ But such things are not unequivocally delicious. Leaves, I agree, are relatively light – but are they ordinarily crisp? Can a poem really be light as a leaf? (I take it that Mr Levi does not intend to hint that Simonides wrote on papyrus.) If poems can be light and crisp, are these really musical (as well as botanical) terms? And what – to ignore the rhetorical embroidery – does it really mean to say of a poem that it is ‘genuine’? In this context, nothing whatsoever.

Any author of a critical history of literature is no doubt entitled to a moment or two of levity and to a reasonable ration of elegant nonsense. It would be merely ill-mannered to object that leaves are not crisp, were such things infrequent in Mr Levi’s five hundred pages. But they are not. On the contrary, crispy leaves are characteristic of his book, and their pervasive presence explains why I find his tour d’horizon ultimately dispiriting.

The book is marked by two persistent features: vapidity of judgment and linguistic insensitivity. Take these summary opinions. ‘Aischylos is a poet of great dramatic grandeur, but he is terribly simple.’ ‘Whoever discusses Sophokles must feel he is dealing with someone more intelligent than himself.’ ‘It is not easy to sum up the works of Euripides. They are very various, but always pointed.’ Thucydides’s ‘brooding gravity hangs above the tangled, overorganised sentences like the spirit of history itself brooding over the face of the waters.’ (‘Aischylos’, I might remark, is due neither to me nor to the printer, but to Mr Levi. The Greek tragedian’s name has an established English translation, namely ‘Aeschylus’. ‘Aischylos’ and the like, which many Classical scholars now favour, may seem chic: but they betray a false modishness. Fortunately Mr Levi is not consistently modish.)

Few things are harder to write or easier to ridicule than literary criticism. Yet the judgments I have quoted are, on the kindest view, embarrassingly jejune. They are the things which an A-level essayist will write – and write only because he has somehow to bring his essay to a stop. Better write nothing at all. ‘It is not easy to sum up the work of Euripides.’ No: it is impossible – and whyever should anyone think that such a summary is demanded of a critic or expected by a reader?

Homer and Plato are, in Mr Levi’s view, the two outstanding geniuses of Greek literature, and in writing his book it was Plato who more than any other writer ‘refreshed, satisfied and excited’ him. Here, then, is his considered assessment of Plato’s Phaedo. ‘I do not believe that on the level of argument and debate we are meant to be over-critical, but the arguments are suggestive and even beautiful.’ I myself am not sure that Plato’s arguments in the Phaedo are beautiful: the prose in which they are expressed is beautiful, but the arguments themselves do not have the stark elegance of, say, the arguments of Euclid’s Elements. Again, I do not know what it means to say that the arguments are suggestive. You may walk or smile or even eat suggestively: but not even the most consummate of logicians can argue suggestively.

Those, perhaps, are quibbles. What is seriously objectionable is the suggestion that we are not meant to be ‘over-critical’ in our assessment of Plato’s arguments. In a sense, of course, that is exactly right; for no author ever wishes his readers to be over-critical. But although what Mr Levi says is, taken literally, true, it is plain that he does not mean to say what, taken literally, he does say. He means to say that we should not – that Plato did not intend us to – subject the arguments of the Phaedo to close philosophical scrutiny. Why does Mr Levi hold this strange belief? He does not tell us. Certainly he cannot have derived it from his reading of Plato, for the one overriding theme of Plato’s Socrates is the importance of scrutiny, of following an argument wherever it may lead, of probing and prying even at the cost of seeming boorish or pedantic. (That is why, despite himself, Plato was something of a philosopher.) Mr Levi’s judgment on Plato is worse than vapid: it is frivolous – for it betrays a wanton disregard for the essence of Plato’s thought and work.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that flat opinions should be expressed in flat prose. At any rate, Mr Levi’s prose is usually flat. Although his history is a personal document, he uses the impersonal ‘one’ with irritating frequency. His penchant for the adverb ‘terribly’ I found equally annoying. And it is vexing to be told, on a single page, that Socrates ‘moves rather undeviatingly’ to his conclusions, and that a Platonic dialogue has a ‘somewhat iron skeleton’. Such phrases are crass.

Here are a few longer examples. ‘One by one, Aischylos plays a series of strong cards at the beginning of this trilogy, and gradually they come together in the mind.’ ‘At times Euripides fills the air with fire and brimstone, at times the formal clang of the verses sharpens his meaning, and sometimes his rhetorical patterns overspill like waterfalls.’ Aristophanes’s Lysistrata’ contains strange touches of pathos, so that one is sorry for the person one is laughing at, which are clearer in the performance than on the printed page, and a rather strangely moving choral lyric about the obscure myth of Melanion.’ ‘One cannot help suspecting that of all the marvellous arts of the Athenian democracy in the fifth century, it is Aristophanic comedy rather than tragedy or music or painting or architecture or sculpture or even political organisation or philosophy, which I take to be arts of a kind, that most intimately expresses Athens.’

Scholars are not obliged to be literary stylists. If anyone is inclined to suppose, on a priori grounds, that Classical scholars, whose lives are devoted to the minute study of great literature, must themselves produce prose of a passable excellence, he will swiftly encounter an a posteriori confutation: scholars often write vilely. For my part, I see no reason why we should tolerate vile prose in Academia, and I wish that editors and publishers would give more thought than they do to the aesthetic sensibilities of their readers. But however that may be, a scholar who writes a critical history of literature for a lay readership is surely under an obligation to produce respectable sentences himself. And this Mr Levi often fails to do.

The fault is compounded by the fact that he is writing for the Greekless and must present his authors in translation. His translations are sometimes borrowed, with propriety, from other literary figures, but at least half of them are his own. Several of these are to my mind very good: at once accurate and elegant. But several are not, and when Mr Levi purports to be writing iambics his verse limps more lamely than Justice herself. This, I think, matters. Mr Levi invites his readers to judge one poem good and another bad on the basis of English translations. The invitation, as he is well aware, is at best perilous: how can we – and why should we – attempt to assess the poetic merits of Homer by reading Chapman or Pope or E.V. Rieu? But Chapman and Pope – and also Rieu – write tolerable English, so that no one who reads Pope’s Iliad will be tempted to infer that Homer himself was a duffer at versification. If, on the other hand, the translation is indifferent English, then the reader has no chance of seeing any literary merit in the original Greek.

I make no apology for spending more time on the style than on the content of Mr Levi’s book; for style is not an ornament or optional decoration for a book of this sort. Mr Levi has published several successful and eminently readable volumes of prose and of verse. You may think my strictures on his style incredible – so would I, if I had not written them.

Reviewers always find it easier to niggle than to praise. Neither of these histories is bad. On the contrary, the Cambridge book is a splendid production, and Mr Levi’s is packed with plums. But each volume arouses larger hopes than it satisfies, and it is disappointment which sticks in the mind.