c. 400 BC
Classicism both as an art style and as the first theory of art was defined by the ancient Greeks, emulated by the Romans, and then continued to appear in various forms across the centuries. Historically, the periods most associated with Classicism are the fifth and fourth centuries BC in Greece with writers such as Aristotle and Sophocles; the first century BC and first century AD in Rome with writers such as Cicero and Vergil; in late seventeenth-century French drama; and in the eighteenth century, especially in France, during a period called the Enlightenment, with such writers as Voltaire and Condorcet. In its varying formulations Classicism affirms the superiority of balance and rationality over impulse and emotion. It aspires to formal precision, affirms order, and eschews ambiguity, flights of imagination, or lack of resolution. Classicism asserts the importance of wholeness and unity; the work of art coheres without extraneous elements or open-ended conclusions.
Both ancient Greek and ancient Roman writers stressed restraint and restricted scope, reason reflected in theme and structure, and a unity of purpose and design. In his Poetics, for example, Aristotle stressed the unities of time, place, and action. Perhaps basing his theory of drama on Sophocles's plays, Aristotle asserted that the action of a place must occur within 24 hours, with all the events taking place in one location, and each event causing the next event. Following these restrictions would produce a
Page 98 | Top of Articlepleasingly cohesive drama. In all, the ancients believed that art was a vehicle for communicating the reason and intelligence that permeate the world and human affairs when people act rationally and according to moral precept.
Classicism in the twentieth century can be seen in the literary works and critical theory of T. S. Eliot, for example, and in the use of mythology in various works, an instance of which is Eugene O'Neill's 1931 trilogy, Mourning Becomes Electra, which is based on the Oresteia of Aeschylus.
Cicero (106 BC-43 BC)
Cicero was born January 3, 106 BC to a wealthy family living south of Rome. His extraordinary intellect was recognized while he was a student, and Cicero was sent to Rome to study law under the famous Quintus Mucius Scaevola. As a young man, Cicero also became interested in philosophy, first studying Platonian philosophy and then Stoicism, an austere philosophy adhered to by some Romans. Cicero spent time abroad to avoid retaliation following his win of a controversial court case in 79 BC While in Athens, Greece, he conversed on Platonian philosophy and refined his oratorical style. Cicero's career took off when he returned to Rome: He was a successful lawyer, was known as the best orator in the republic, and he quickly ascended through the political hierarchy, often taking a position at the youngest age allowed by law. These feats were impressive for a man who was not part of the nobility and, therefore, lacking the familial influence that was so integral to Roman governance. Cicero was a strong supporter of the Roman Republic during a time when the republic was unraveling into a series of dictatorships. After Julius Caesar was murdered and Rome was in upheaval, Cicero was a popular leader, but he was eventually labeled an enemy of state by Marc Antony and Caesar Octavian, who had him assassinated by decapitation on December 7, 43 BC Cicero was a prolific author of speeches, philosophical treatises, and rhetorical treatises. His many famous works include Brutus (46 BC), On Fate (45 BC), and Cato the Elder, On Old Age (44 BC).
Pierre Corneille (1606-1684)
Pierre Corneille was born June 6, 1606, in Rouen, France. The man who would one day be remembered as the Father of French Tragedy, Corneille studied law and worked as a magistrate for the Department of Forests and Rivers in Rouen. In his spare time, Corneille wrote plays. He sold his first comedy, Mélite, to a traveling troupe of actors in 1629. The play was successful and Corneille began to write full time. While his comedies were generally contemporary, his tragedies, for which he is most famous, were often historic and followed classic rules of composition and theme. Médée, produced in 1635, was his first tragedy. Corneille broke with classic tradition—and his sponsor, the powerful Cardinal de Richelieu—when he produced Le Cid (1637), a play that was categorized as a tragicomedy. Despite the wild success of Le Cid with audiences, the controversy arising from Richelieu's condemnation caused Corneille to withdraw from public life and writing for severalPage 99 | Top of Article years. He returned to playwriting with Horace (1640), Cinna (1643), and Polyeucte (1643), all tragedies carefully crafted in the classic tradition. Corneille went on to have a successful and prolific playwriting career, working until his death on October 1, 1684 in Paris.
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1888 and was educated at Harvard, the Sorbonne in Paris, and Merton College at Oxford University. He met Ezra Pound in England in 1914 and settled in London in 1915,the same year his famous poem "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" was published. His collection Poems was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press in 1919. While evolving as a modern poet, Eliot also made his way as a literary critic and editor, first as an editor for The Egoist and later as the founder of the quarterly The Criterion. In these activities his influence on the modern literary period cannot be overstated. He shaped modern poetry, moving it toward a detached or non-sentimental colloquial idiom as he increasingly affirmed the importance of classical cultural tradition. Eliot converted to Anglicanism during the 1920s and became a British subject in 1927.
T. S. Eliot tried to resurrect the comic drama of Aristophanes in his 1932 poetic play, Sweeney Agonistes, and integrate classical tragic elements in his play Murder in the Cathedral, about the life and death of Thomas Becket. Eliot's literary criticism is extensive, including The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920), The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948). In various essays, Eliot praised the poetic drama of the Jacobean stage and the works of Dryden. In his Poetry and Drama (1951), he analyzed the difficulties in trying to revive poetic drama for the modern stage. In all, a complex literary critic and poet, Eliot articulated some of the most challenging of modern stylistic developments with an appreciation of Classicism. He received the Nobel Prize in 1948.
Euripides (c. 485 BC-c. 406 BC)
A writer during the first classical period in Greece, Euripides was a playwright of great import. The decline of the Golden Age in Greece, as a result of the Peloponnesian War, was witnessed by Euripides, and these changes probably account for the overall tone of his tragedies. His works also serve as a chronicle of Athenian thought during a turbulent time in its history and are excellent examples of Athenian drama.
Euripides was born in 485 BC in Athens, where he spent most of his life. Historians believe that he was from a middle-class background, which suggests that he was well educated. Euripides was also a friend of many of the great thinkers, including Anaxagoras, Socrates, and Protagoras. During his childhood and into early adulthood, Euripides enjoyed the splendor of an Athens rich in resources and political allies.
In 455, Euripides wrote his first tetralogy, a composition including three tragedies and a satyr play. Ninety-two plays are known to have been written by the dramatist after the start of the war. Only nineteen of his plays still exist, most of them tragedies in the form of divine myths, marital narratives, and noble family histories.
Euripides's works were often not warmly received by the Greeks of his time, as he did not believe in the triumph of reason over passion, nor did he believe that reason and order regulated the universe. These contrary beliefs are expressed by the gods of his plays, who do not always act in just or compassionate ways, even exhibiting the less desirable characteristics of their mortal counterparts. It has been suggested that, as a result of these differences, Euripides's work was not popular at dramatic festivals, earning him relatively few prizes. Euripides eventually left Athens in response to his critics and at the invitation of the Macedonia king Archelaus. Archelaus requested that Euripides's writings contribute to a new cultural center the king envisioned as a rival to Athens. Unfortunately, Euripides lived less than two years in Macedonia before he died.
Despite his unpopularity, Euripides has been labeled a stylistic innovator for his unconventional beliefs, particularly by contemporary critics who contend that his works contributed to the creation of modern drama. In his own time, Sophocles and others admired his work for its psychological realism and its use of simple, everyday dialogue in favor of the decorative aristocratic language that dominated the genre. The Dionysian festival revived his plays one hundred years after his death in 406 and they enjoyed a much greater reception.
Homer (c. 750 BC)
It is of interest to note that Homer, whom many consider one of the greatest poets of western civilization, may not have existed. Various critics and historians offer conflicting views as to whether the man actually lived or was a fictional character given credit for the work of many. Some believe he was a bard by profession, a singing poet who composed and recited verses on legends and history. It is difficult to say when exactly the poet would have written. Based on language and style, it can be narrowed down to the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries BC The language of his works, a blend of Ionic and Aeolic, indicates that he was perhaps from the island of Chios, off the western coast of Asia Minor, where one family has actually claimed him as a legitimate ancestor.
In support of this theory, Demokodos, who appears in the Odyssey, is believed to be a portrait of Homer, a blind minstrel who sings about the fall of Troy. Until the third century BC, the Greeks insisted that an individual named Homer was responsible for both the Iliad and the Odyssey, among other various minor works that have been attributed to the author. However, grammarians eventually began to wonder if the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by two different people.
In direct opposition to the idea of a single author, critics also point out that an anonymous group of bards may have been responsible for the work of Homer. Blind, wandering old bards were referred to as "homros" and may be the creative energy behind a fictional Homer. Scholars have also identified many inconsistencies or stylistic differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey, supporting the idea that they are the work of two different authors. Regardless of whether Homer's voice is that of one man or several, the literary greatness of the Iliad and the Odyssey is unchallenged even today.
Jean Racine (1639-1699)
Born on December 22, 1639, in La Ferte-Milon, France, Jean Racine was orphaned as an infant and raised by his paternal grandparents. Racine's education was dictated by Jansenist doctrine, a sect within the Roman Catholic Church. Aside from his religious indoctrination, Racine also studied Greek and Latin literature. After studying theology in the south of France, Racine returned to Paris, where he befriended Molière. Molière's troupe performed Racine's first play, La thébaïde, ou les frères ennemis (translated as The Thebaid), a 1664 play about the rivalry between Oedipus's sons. After Molière agreed to put on his second play, Alexandre le grand, a year later, the friendship between Racine and Molière ended over creative differences when Racine pulled the play two weeks into its production.
This would be one of a series of conflicts for Racine. Upon seeing Alexandre le grand, Corneille harshly criticized Racine for his work, in turn leading to a bitter rivalry between the two dramatists. Racine incited the anger of the Jansenists for denouncing them publicly, making nasty comments that painted the Catholic sect in a most unfavorable light. Finally, the Duchesse de Bouillona was an enemy of Racine and intentionally engaged in activities calculated to subvert Racine's career as a dramatist. In one instance, the duchess encouraged another dramatist to write a play to rival Racine's production. Additionally, she purposely purchased a group of good seats, only to leave them vacant on the opening nights of Racine's plays.
Racine's enemies took a toll on his career, and ultimately he left the theater and retired to private life. He subsequently held the position of royal historiographer, a high-profile post requiring him to travel with Louis XIV on military campaigns. At the request of the king's wife in 1689, he again put pen to paper writing the biblical story of Esther and a biblical drama Athaliah. Racine produced a few additional works before his death on April 21, 1699.
Racine's style is representative of several classical (and, by extension, neoclassical) ideals, namely those of simplicity, idealism, and polish. Racine is also noted for the ease with which he conformed to the unities of action, time, and place, especially with plays larger in scope. It was common for the playwright to skillfully compress several years of storyline into the course of two to three hours in an effort to preserve the convention. It has also been pointed out that Racine followed Aristotle's view that a cast of characters was inherently more important than any one figure within a drama.
Vergil (70 BC-19 BC)
Publius Vergilius Maro was born on October 15, 70 BC, at Andes in northern Italy. He was fairly well educated, which suggests his family was at least from the middle class, and was prepared forPage 101 | Top of Article a career in law. However, he abandoned law practice after making one appearance in court. He retired to Naples, where he spent most of his life, to study philosophy. In 41 BC, Vergil was forced to appeal to Octavian Caesar, who later became Augustus, to return his parents' land because it had been confiscated for distribution to war veterans. It was through the intercession of his friends that the land was returned. Vergil's Eclogues were partially an expression of his gratitude to his friends and to Octavian.
The Eclogues, written sometime between 42 and 37 BC, were a series of pastoral poems, or poems composed on rural themes and involving shepherds as characters. In the case of the ten poems comprising the Eclogues, unhappy shepherds unlucky in love are featured in idealized settings (such setting being another convention of the pastoral form). The popularity of the works led to the publication of Vergil's Georgics (42-37 B.C.), a treatise on farming.
The final work Vergil undertook was his grandest. The Aeneid was commissioned by the emperor Augustus as a way to promote him as Roman emperor by connecting him to the mythic family of Aeneas, the founder of Rome. The epic glorifies the leader's ancestor and prophesies of Rome's Golden Age. Vergil was paid handsomely for his tribute, which he worked on for roughly ten years until he died in 19 BC Discontented with the poem, Vergil ordered his literary executor to burn the Aeneid in the event that he died before he completed and revised the work. Augustus denied this request and instead had the work edited and published, though nothing was added to it. The publication of the Aeneid ensured Vergil's fame as a poet and classicist.
The Aeneid follows the travels of Aeneas, the Trojan prince, after the fall of Troy, during the war with the Greeks described by Homer in the Iliad. Aeneas's journey takes him to Italy at the end of the fifth book. In book six it is prophesied by Aeneas's dead father that his descendants will be responsible for Rome's future greatness as an empire.
The Aeneid epitomizes Augustan patriotism and imperialism. The epic recites the story of the
original family, founders of Rome, and it predicts Rome's greatness. In writing his epic, Vergil follows the Homeric models of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In its retelling of the mythic story, it pays tribute to many important political figures of the day.
Vergil's Aeneid is equally recognized for its narrative form. In creating a shifting narrative from the objective to the subjective, Vergil is said to have refined narrative conventions. Scholars see this shifting of perspective as an important development in the work because it fosters a sense of psychological realism. In other words, it allows readers to have a greater understanding of the events of the work, due to the insights presented by various characters or voices. Vergil also refined the dactylic hexameter, a traditionally Greek meter, in his work.
The play Andromaque is Jean Racine's first major work, appearing in Paris in 1667. The play served as direct competition to Pierre Corneille's play El Cid. Racine believed that Corneille was intent on ruining Racine's reputation as a dramatist. The work draws on classical characters and themes for its substance: Rome, war, heroes, and fallen empires. The play, much like Racine's other works, helped to shape some of the dramatic literary conventions of the Neoclassical period.
The play takes place shortly after the fall of Troy. It centers on the fate of Andromaque, the widow of Hector, whom Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles (a major Greek hero in the Trojan War), is holding captive. The Greeks send Oreste, the son of Agamemnon (the Greek king who led the expedition against Troy), to the court of Pyrrhus with a communication requesting that both Andromaque and her son be returned to them. The fear is that her son will someday attack the Greeks for having destroyed Troy. The political plot is complicated by a series of interlocking love interests.
The world of Andromaque is one dominated by passions. The ancients frowned on intense emotion, preferring the dominance of reason over passion, and to that end, the play is didactic, or instructional. Overindulgence in passion can only lead to tragic results for the characters. Pyrrhus is seemingly consumed by the passion he feels for Andromaque, stopping at nothing short of blackmail to win her love. Orestes believes, meanwhile, that his heroic efforts may win over the heart of Hermione, who is already committed to the brooding Pyrrhus. It is passion that leads to the death of Pyrrhus and then to Hermione's suicide. All of the characters in the play, on some level, allow their passions to spiral out of control, and the results are fatal.
Horace (1640) is the first play in Corneille's classic trilogy, which also includes Cinna and Plyeucte. Horace recounts a traditional Roman story about Horace and his two brothers, the Horatii, who are chosen to represent Rome in a heroic battle with the Curatii, who are three brothers of Alba. The champions will fight to settle a dispute between the two cities and avoid a costly, bloody war; however, there is still a price. Horace is married to Sabine, the sister of the Alban champion Curiace, and Curiace is engaged to Horace's sister, Camille. Horace is fervently patriotic and is unmoved by these circumstances. Sabine pleads with him not to fight her brothers, but Horace ignores her. He duels with and kills his brothers-in-law, also losing his brothers during the fight. When Horace returns to Rome triumphant, Camille curses him and Rome. Enraged, Horace stabs his sister, who dies. By law, he is condemned to death for the murder of his sister, but he appeals to the populace for clemency, which is granted because he is a hero of Rome.
The Iliad (c. 9th or 8th century BC) is known as the greatest war epic to grace the history of Western literature. This masterpiece was even read and discussed by important historical figures, such as Alexander the Great, who, as a schoolboy, was said to have memorized all of the passages that refer to his hero, Achilles. Its emphasis on humanistic values, those of honor, truth, compassion, loyalty, and devotion to both family and gods, has earned the work the critical reputation as being a guidebook to moralistic behavior.
The Iliad is the story of Achilles' anger and its effects, as expressed in the poet's invocationPage 103 | Top of Article to the Muse of Poetry at the epic's opening. In Greek classical works, epic poets often invoke the help of the gods to assist them in their objectives. Structurally, the epic is divided into twenty-four books, accounting for the final months of the Trojan War, which lasted approximately ten years. Throughout the poem, references are made to specific past events that would have been familiar to a Greek audience.
The work is the unchallenged model for the classical epic. It established the genre as one incorporating superhuman heroes whose achievements were accomplished for the benefit of society. Achilles, the work's protagonist, is in fact the product of a union between Thetis, a goddess, and Peleus, a mortal. Homer's poem is written in dactylic hexameter. (A line of dactylic hexameter is seventeen syllables long, which are grouped into five sets of three and an ending set of two with the accents always falling at the beginning of each set.) The Iliad begins at the crucial point of the Trojan conflict, utilizing the classical convention "in medias res" in which a work opens in the thick of the plot, often near the climax, and then later recounts the events leading up to it.
The Iliad, in addition to being the Classic, epic model, is looked to as a valuable record of the late Bronze Age, as it depicts tribal organization, burial customs, class distinctions, and warfare. Though it has some value as a historical document of ancient events, often other sources of information are looked to; however, this does not seem to tarnish its literary merit in the eyes of scholars.
The tragedy Medea (431 BC) was one ofEuripides' greatest works. Like Sophocles's Antigone, Medea has a female protagonist, a woman who rebels against her husband and murders their children to punish him for his infidelity. Like other Greek tragedies, the play explores the costs extracted by acts of impulse and passion. It sympathetically portrays the feelings of betrayal and abandonment and shows how these convert into revenge as Medea seeks to retaliate by murdering her children. It depicts the terrible waste that comes when passion is unrestrained.
Mourning Becomes Electra
In a trilogy of plays based on the Oresteia by Aeschylus, Eugene O'Neill explores infidelity and murder within a single family. O'Neill uses the Greek stories pertaining to Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra, and their daughter Electra and son Orestes as a model for his story of a New England family. The backdrop is the American Civil War, and like this war that was fought within the United States, the crimes of O'Neill's play initiate within a single family. Ezra Mannon, the returning Union general, represents Agamemnon, the Greek general who returns victorious from the siege of Troy only to be murdered by his wife and her lover. The Greek Clytemnestra is enacted by Ezra's wife, Christine, and her lover, Adam Brant. The New England setting conveys a rigid Puritanism which contrasts sharply with the passions acted upon by the Mannon family. O'Neill's play is one instance of how classical mythology and plot-lines have been used by modern writers to serve as a vehicle for contemporary subjects.
M. I. Finley, in The Ancient Greeks, speaks of the Greeks' concern with the individual and with isolated incidents of the past as expressed in their historical works. According to Finley, the Greeks were interested in history but did not take the pains that a historiographer would to report the past. He also asserts that the function of Greek history, as it expresses itself in the literature of the time, was often to provide an explanation for a current cult practice or ritual (evidenced by the infusion of gods into these texts). Also, the events of such historical accounts do not offer a context of time or place. Greek historians wanted to tell the stories of a more glorious, heroic past and tended, in general, to view the past as being somehow better than the present. Most of these characteristics also permeate ancient Roman writings, such as Vergil's Aeneid.
Classic Greek and Roman writers also influenced the works of the later classicists in their preference for order over chaos. These writers strove to achieve symmetry, continuity, refinement, harmony, and logic in their works. The principle of the unities illustrates this need for order and logic. Renaissance dramatists subscribed to Aristotle's theories of dramatic
design, as explained in his Poetics. Among them are the three unities of action, time, and place. According to these rules, a play first must have a single plot with a beginning, middle, and an ending. Second, the action of a play should be restricted to the events of a single day. Finally, the scene should be restricted to a single location.
Reason versus Passion
It has been said that the Greeks loved to talk and listen, and they excelled at the art of conversation. The Socratic method was a process of educating by using questions that were designed to lead learners toward insight and understanding. The assumption was that if dialogue is used strategically, the truth about the subject being discussed could be elicited from the participants.
The Greeks, like classicists who followed, feared the effects of unrestrained emotion; they assumed that passion brought an upset in the balance and right order of social arrangement and reason stabilized human relationships. Racine's Andromaque, for example, centers on the aftermath of the fall of Troy. All of the characters in the play are dominated by their passions. The result is insanity or death, with the exception of Andromaque. Euripides's tragedy Medea is another fatal tale in which Medea's passion, rather than reason, informs her decisions. Jason's infidelity incites Medea's jealousy and her overruling rage results in the murder of her own innocent children.
A pastoral is a literary composition on a rural theme. The convention originated with classical Greek poet Theocritus during the third century BC In a pastoral, the characters are shepherds who speak in a courtly manner despite their simple setting. Like the poetry Theocritus, Vergil's Eclogues are about the experiences, love affairs, and pastimes of shepherds. Of the ten poems, a few are tragic love stories, a few involve singing contests, and the rest (the majority) recall the seizure of the shepherds' lands by retired Roman soldiers.
Aristotle explained that a tragedy is a drama in which a respected high-ranking person falls from grace because of some impulsive act or prideful trait. The otherwise noble, courageous hero has a character flaw that brings ruin upon himself or herself. In Racine's tragedy Andromaque, all of the characters seem to fall prey to one fatal flaw, passion. It is Pyrrhus's passion for Hector's wife that causes him to cast aside the affections of his betrothed, Hermione. Hermione's disappointment with Pyrrhus causes his death. Finally, Oreste, in his love for Hermione, complies with her passionate request to kill Pyrrhus in an effort to win her affections. All but Andromaque, by the play's end, either die or go mad as a result of their passionate natures.
An epic is a long narrative poem dedicated to the adventures of a hero. Usually the hero is a person of great national, historic, or legendary importance. Often times his story tells the origins of a people or a society. Vergil's Aeneid is an example of an epic. It is, in some respects, an imitation of Homer's Odyssey and Iliad. The protagonist is the Trojan prince Aeneas. His wanderings, after the destruction of Troy, include a journey to the underworld. There Aeneas encounters his dead father who reveals to him the future greatness of Rome and Aeneas's own role in founding the new civilization.
It is difficult to discuss Classicism in terms of its movement variations since any classical variation could, by definition, be considered a part of Classicism. The principles of Classicism have been a part of literature from its ancient origins in Greece until today. However, several periods of distinct classical revival have been recognized in the histories of Rome, France, England, and Germany.
Historians divide the movement in Rome into two periods, the Age of Cicero, from 80 to 43 BC and the Age of Augustus, from 37 BC to 14 AD The Roman culture is often considered an extension of early Greek civilization, the two often being described as Greco-Roman. The Romans, however, added their own political, military, and legal views to Greek values. Greek literature was the model for Roman writings in prose, poetry, as well as drama, and the works themselves were often composed in both Greek and Latin. Satire formed the basis for Roman social commentary. Vergil (70-19 BC) and Cicero (106-43 BC) have been identified as the significant literary figures of the periods. Cicero was one of the greatest prose writers and orators of the time, and his works include numerous legal and political speeches as well as philosophical letters and essays.
Historians have recognized the movement in France in the 1600s and 1700s for its resurrection of classical values and style. The French classicists wrote with an emphasis on reason and intellect. French intellectual René Descartes, for example, emphasize the process of reasoning from a priori knowledge, that is, knowledge based on hypothesis or theory rather than experiment or experience. The French drama of Racine and others strongly influenced the English Neoclassical period. In addition to drama, the French were also noted for their use of satire. Voltaire's Candide (1759) has been identified as one of the best examples of satire. It systematically takes jabs at those in positions of power and privilege. This form of satire has also been identified as being part of a trend towards secularism and criticism of the church.
Although the terms Classicism and Neoclassicism are somewhat interchangeable (and often used as such), Neoclassicism refers specifically to the literary periods in history that produced art inspired by the ancients. It is often defined as the Classicism that dominated English literature during the Restoration Age, which lasted from the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 to 1798. In the early years of the movement, the country enjoyed the reopening of theaters, when both William Wycherley and William Congreve were enlivening the stage with their plays. Heroic drama, written in couplets, developed, as did the comedy of manners. Poetry tended to take the form of the mock epic, the verse essay, and satire, as used by Dryden, Pope, and Swift. John Richardson describes in an essay for Studies in English Literature 1500-1800 how English success in battle during the Spanish succession of the early eighteenth century inspired many poets to draw on classic sources for their laudatory compositions about warfare. Literature drew on classic virtues such as order, restraint, simplicity, economy, and morality, all of which were guided by the politics of the day. The end of the movement would be greatly influenced by the works of Samuel Johnson. The Age of Johnson, as it was called, represented a transition from a focus on classical study and imitation to an interest in folk literature and popular ballads.
The Germans wanted not only to imitate the works of the Greeks and Romans but also to surpass them. In the eighteenth century, classicalPage 106 | Top of Article culture became a subject of great interest. German schools and colleges began offering courses in classical literature, history, and philosophy. Great intellectuals emerged, inspired by classical ideals. During this time period, classical and romantic literature flourished side by side. An interest in a German past was also evident, as expressed in Goethe's Faust, an adaptation of a traditional German/Christian tale. Faust symbolized the union of Classicism and Romanticism in the marriage of Faust and Helen of Troy. However, many scholars believe the classicism of this era is best represented in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, George Friedrich Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franz Joseph Haydn, four of the great classical composers of the eighteenth century.
The origins of Classicism are traceable to ancient Greece. Greek history includes the Golden Age, the fifth and fourth centuries BC, one of the greatest periods of cultural development in Western civilization. Ironically, it was often the negative aspects of that history—the events of war, of plague, and of a Golden Age lost—that became a source of inspiration for Greek classical writers.
Democracy in Greece
Pericles became the leader of the democratic party in Athens in 461 BC and ruled during Athens's Golden Age. When state pay was instituted for officials in 450 BC, Athens nearly became a full democracy; class was no longer a factor in official appointments. However, women, non-Greeks, and slaves were still completely excluded from politics. A demonstrated lack of respect for and exclusion of these groups were also byproducts of Athenian success.
Historians estimate the population of Attica, the state over which Athens was the capital, to have been approximately 315,000 at the time. Of this population, 172,000 were Athenian citizens; 28,000 were resident aliens; and 115,000 were slaves. All were registered in political and religious units known as demes. The rural population was very small, the land either owned by wealthy nobles or by farmers, whose chief crops were said to be olives and oil. Over half of the grain consumed in Athens was imported. The growing middle class, whose members were chiefly involved in commerce or were artisans and laborers, largely influenced urban life. The metics, or non-Greek resident aliens, were involved in trade and finance, and the state slaves contributed to public works.
The Peloponnesian War
Athens's prosperity during the Golden Age was no reflection of its foreign relations. Expansion-ist policies in the outlying areas of Greece, which had been denied access to Athens, helped to form an ever-lengthening list of enemies. The growth of Athenian power also caused fear and suspicion in Sparta, the head of the Peloponnesian league.
The war began in 431 BC, with raids by Athens in Peloponnesus and Spartan attack on Attica. The conflict raged between Athens and Sparta, with no clear victor. While Athens was a dominating force on the seas, it was no match for Sparta's armies. Sparta, however, had no navy. Eventually, when their resources were depleted, Athens and Sparta signed a treaty in 421 BC that temporarily ended the conflict.
Nicias was elected to oversee a more peaceful Athens. But Alcibiades, a disciple of Socrates who was interested in the democratic leadership, had visions of aggressive expansionism. Alcibiades's rhetoric incited Athenians and Spartans to take up swords against one another. The final defeat of the Athenians occurred in 405 BC at Aegospotami when its final fleet was destroyed when taken by surprise. Athens was under a state of siege at the time, until 404 when it surrendered. Though the city of Athens was spared, its walls were torn down and many of its citizens were killed.
Historians estimate that from 430 to 429 BC,a plague from the east decimated Athens. Overcrowding within the city walls caused it to spread rapidly, killing one-third of the population and crippling many others. The horror of the event changed the social and religious values of the culture dramatically. Pericles died of the plague in 429 BC, and historians are quick to point out that his death was a pivotal event with respect to the outcome of the Peloponnesian War.
Scholars overwhelmingly acknowledge the debt the Western canon owes to the ancient Greeks and Romans, for their contributions not only to Western literature but to Western culture as a whole. The works of the classical writers were often admired for their restraint, restricted scope, sense of form, unity of design and aim, clarity, simplicity, and balance. They have been described as being models of conservatism and good sense, as demonstrated by the economy of their prose. Classical roots are evident throughout the history of Western literary thought, from the strict imitation of the Romans to the obscure, fragmented, and somewhat obscure poetry of the symbolists.
But not all were champions of the classical convention. Trevor Ross has formulated his own conclusions in his discussion of the anticlassical revolution and its effect on poetry in his work entitled "Pure Poetry: Cultural Capital and the Rejection of Classicism." Ross begins his essay making much of the words of romantic poet Joseph Wharton. Wharton was in favor of ridding poetry of its classical conventions altogether. He was more interested, instead, in promoting a poetry of feeling. Wharton (as recalled by Ross) said of poets and the classical tradition, "We do not, it should seem, sufficiently attend to the difference there is betwixt a man of wit, a man of sense, and a true poet." Wharton was quick to point out that as men of wit and of sense, poets such as Donne and Swift produce no "pure poetry."
Still other criticism surfaced as to the constraining or limiting nature of classical convention. Wharton is also identified for having similar sentiments, as quoted yet again by Ross. Said Wharton, perhaps as the "voice" of the romanticists, classic form "lays genius under restraint, and denies it that free scope, that full elbow room, which is requisite for striking its most masterly strokes."
Finally, Ross himself has commented on what perhaps would be called the "true motives"Page 108
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of some of the classical poets. Although their aims were artistic, in their imitation of form and translation of works resided what has been called a rather "vigorously productive" form. Such literature, Ross points out, could be produced relatively quickly, and at the same time, it could be modified to attract a wealthy patronage. Ross adds that the neoclassical poets were "less anxious to define their autonomy from economic interests than not to compromise their moral and ideological integrity as national poets."
Kryhoski is currently employed as a freelance writer. In this essay, Kryhoski considers the influence of classic conventions and thought on the work of the symbolist poets.
Although most expressive in its Greek and Roman origins and perhaps its manifestations during the French, German, and English revivals, Classicism has still managed to wind its way forward, leaving behind it a trail of "new classics." The works of the symbolist poets in some ways rely on a classical tradition to provide powerful imagery and symbolism in order to evoke a response in the reader, juxtaposing them with more contemporary images. Gilbert Highet, in The Classical Tradition, has also given great consideration to the factors that define a classic in order to find some common ground with Classicism. Is the work of T. S. Eliot, among others, classical?
Many examples can be found in the body of symbolist poetry to suggest its reliance on classical conventions. Symbolist poets were interested in the representation of single events and individual persons; they applied Greek values in their realization of such representations. They believed that subjects were not necessarily considered art unless representative of eternal ideals. Although Plato stressed this belief in his own way, his emphasis was the same. Both the philosopher and the symbolist poets held that the key to understanding what was identifiably art were eternal ideals, the disseminators and interpreters of truth. It has been said that the symbolists were not conscious Platonists, despite already adopting symbols from Greek conventions.
Symbolist poets left much to the imagination. Highet is quick to point out that this preference was antithetical to Greek convention. He points out that the Greeks tended to state the essentials, allowing the hearer to supply the details. The symbolist poets, however, did not state essentials but instead described, in vivid detail, related images, the idea being that the central thought is made evident by the existence of such details. To a great degree, then, the matter of interpretation was left strictly to the reader. An Impressionist painting serves as a good example of the genre at work. Standing at an arm's length from Claude Monet's "Water Lilies," all that is perceptible to the viewer is a muddied collection of paint splotches randomly placed on a canvas. But as the viewer moves away from the canvas, the meaningless sea of paint starts to take form, to become ordered,
until the viewer is able to see the beautiful image of lilies on a pond.
The works of the Classicists also employed very clear transitions, while In symbolist poetry, transitions between impressions have been characterized as being bewildering, confusing, and dreamy. Such transitions seem to be the product of a primitive impulse rather a logical sequence. The symbolists avoided symmetry, continuity, smoothness, harmony, and logic in favor of abrupt, unpredictable, random transitions. Essentially, such patterns roughly resemble a
rambling conversation or monologue rather than a progression of well-balanced ideas. The symbolist form naturally does not lend itself to the kind of creative discipline required of the classical form.
Yet the employment of the Greek myth in the creation of symbolist imagery is of great importance to the integrity of the overall work. The contrast that results from the inclusion of these images from the ancient past is powerful because, by their nature, they are often quite foreign to what has been referred to as a more vulgar, violent, short-lived present. Again, there is a connection to the Platonist idea that symbolic figures become the source of immortal stories. The symbolists were intent on taking a complex personal emotion or state of being and immortalizing it symbolically, thus making it art.
T. S. Eliot uses Greek legend to expose what he sees as a modern life devoid of meaning. His introduction of mythic symbols does not serve to boost the present, i.e., by reflecting a glorious past in an even more glorious present. Instead, he tends to use classical allusions to expose horrible truths about contemporary society. Highet adds that Eliot uses such allusions to "accentuate the sordidness of today with that of the past." Eliot actively sought out weaknesses and exposed them. In one of Eliot's very first poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the poet uses a lyrical, dramatic monologue infused with classical allusions to describe Pru-frock, a character plagued by self-doubt. The first classical reference in the work is to Dante's Inferno, Canto 27, appearing as an epigraph. It is translated as follows:
If I thought that I was speaking
to someone who would go back to the world,
the flame would shake no more.
But since nobody has ever
gone back alive from this place, if what I hear is true,
I answer you without fear of infamy.
The quotation sets up the premise or theme of the work. Eliot seems to be stating that existence is a hell and there is no possibility of escaping from it. The poem also elaborates on such sentiments. The work is not simply commenting on the struggles of a man whose insecurities have gotten the best of him and have prevented him from approaching the woman of his dreams. Prufrock is full of self-doubt, assuredly, to this aim, but his doubts run much deeper. He also expresses doubts about society, the world, and even his ability to claim a meaningful existence. To this end, he uses, among others, Christian references from the classical period. At one point in the poem, Prufrock pauses to reflect not only upon what he cannot accomplish but upon what the end result of a union with a woman would mean. He envisions his own demise in the reference "Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter . . . ." The quotation is an allusion to the beheading of John the Baptist by order of King Herod. In this biblical story, the king has the head of the Baptist brought to queen Herodias in an effort to please her. Prufrock is likening himself to John the Baptist, whose fate is dictated by the whims of a woman.
The work is also full of haunting images of the industrial landscape. As Prufrock describes "yellow smoke that slides along the street," there is an allusion made to the classical poem "Works and Days" by Hesiod, an eighth century BC Greek poet: "And time for all the works and days of hands." The poem, which celebrates farm work, perhaps functions as a sigh would, a momentary memory of a more favorable past before returning to the advent of the industrial age. These themes are not new to classical works, particularly the doubts Prufrock expresses about society and the world. The work of Goethe, particularly his Faust, also comments on a lack of meaning apparent in contemporary German political and social life. Alexander Pope, in The Rape of the Lock, used the tragedy of a woman "victimized" by her boyfriend to also expose a more superficial and trivial English society.
Eliot's The Waste Land, perhaps his most important work, has been said to also capture the hypocrisy, disillusionment, skepticism andPage 111
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excess of modern life. In this work, Eliot incorporates the rituals of various ancient fertility cults, both Christian and pagan, but heavily relies on those of the Greeks (Adonis, Osiris, or Attis) to capture man's desire for salvation. The end result of such juxtaposition of ancient with modern is an exposure of a contemporary life devoid of spirituality. Highet also refers to The Waste Land's theme as that of "death by water." He states that the work "is an evocation of the many epitaphs on drowned sailors in the Greek Anthology."
While it is certainly true that the symbolists were amateurs, not scholars, of ancient literature, the symbols they borrowed from the tradition have served to fortify their works, giving them not only a basis for meaning but for overall interpretation. They held a firm belief that the problems of life must be examined through a noble lens, i.e., in comparison to a more noble past, in an effort to express the malaise or social sickness prevalent in contemporary society. Does this make the symbolists classicists? Consider Euripides, who, though definitely a classicist, did not adhere to the forms and conventions of his times, and who intentionally bucked Greek tradition in favor of his own more modern views. In the same spirit, T. S. Eliot may be characterized as a "classicist in literature" if we move beyond traditional definitions.
Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on Classicism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
In this essay, Richardson argues that early eighteenth-century poets tried to write poetry in a classical manner drawing on ancient texts but the poems were unsuccessful because ideas about warfare and what constitutes heroism had changed since ancient times.
The five years between 1704 and 1709 were for the allies the high point of the War of the Spanish Succession, as under the leadership of the Duke of Marlborough they won pitched battles at Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706), Oudenarde (1708), and Malplaquet (1709). These successes were greeted in England by a large number of laudatory poems, which though seldom read today are of considerable interest. Often written with great care by accomplished men, they represent a collective effort that may mark an important point in English literary history. Most of the poets seem to have entertained the double ambition of celebrating victory in
heroic forms derived from the ancients and of representing modern battle with a degree of accuracy. The two aims proved incompatible. Modern war and the modern understanding of war brought with them new constraints on representation and new ideas about the nature of heroism. These sit uneasily in ancient forms and among ancient codes, creating an incongruity in many of the poems between new and old. To a modern reader the poems do not seem to work, and some evidence exists that contemporaries felt the same. There was a growing discomfort by the end of the war with the way in which poets had written about it and a growing realization that ancient martial models might not fit, or be made to fit, modern experience. The history of eighteenth-century literature is not just a history of the temporary dominance of satire, the (possible) rise of the novel, and the emergence of Romanticism, but also one of the decline of the heroic. The high years of the War of the Spanish Succession are a pivotal moment in that decline.
Most of the war poets tried to write significant and lasting poetry by drawing upon ancient models. The seriousness the poets invested in their writing and the fact that these poems are not meant to be either metrical journalism or ephemeral puffs are evident in the format and length of some of them. In response to Blenheim, for instance, Samuel Cobb, John Philips, and Joseph Addison all published poems of around six hundred lines in large, handsome print, and John Dennis, who seldom did things by halves, brought out a smaller-format poem of seventy-two pages. Scattered through these and other poems are comparisons between modern and ancient heroes, deployed to elevate the modern. Dennis, for instance, likens English names to "Grecian, or the Godlike Roman Names," and an anonymous poem of 1707 finds quite typically that the mixture of good conduct and good soldiership in Marlborough is similar to that in Aeneas, called here "the MAN the Latian Bard design'd." More generally, Addison begins the most famous war poem of the period, The Campaign, by seeing "An Iliad rising out of One campaign," an idea echoed by Cobb: "What Muse, delighted in Wars loud Allarms, / Will pay an Iliad to British Arms?" Addison's is the more pointed praise since it emphasizes that Marlborough needed only a summer campaign of a few months to provide materials equal to those from a struggle of ten years, but both he and Cobb assume that the ancient Greeks are the measure of the heroic. Even Matthew Prior, whose Letter to Boileau is something of an exception among war poems of the time in being witty as well as patriotic, wishes for an English Virgil, or as he puts it, that "The British Muse shou'd like the Mantuan rise."
The assumption of ancient, heroic preeminence, or an assumption close to that, is often at work even when it is not explicitly stated. The poets consistently use ancient forms, including pastoral, ode, epic, and, perhaps most commonly, a kind of all-purpose heroic. Cobb, for instance, who does not attempt an epic, begins with the hope of inspiration and poetic immortality:
Should some kind Muse, with a Pierian rage,
Inflame my Breast, and consecrate my Page,
Or would propitious CHURCHILL deign to shine
On my low Thought, and brighten every Line:
Not Egypt's Pyramid should mine surpass,
Like Marble polish'd, and more strong than Brass.
Although it is slightly odd to have Marlborough, so often the subject of these poems, enlisted here as an extra muse as well, Cobb's overriding intention seems to have been to use ancient formulas to animate his poem. Many of the more specifically epic poets imitate the ancients by way of Milton. Philips is the best known, and perhaps the best, of these, but he is not alone. In his preface Dennis eschews rhyme, citing the authority of Milton, and he begins his poem by asking God to inspire him so that he will write "[n]o wretched, low, untun'd, prosaick Song," an echo (however faint) of the intention of Milton's muse to soar "with no middle flight." John Paris, too, refers to Milton from the outset, beginning "Of Britons Second Conquest, and the Man," and delaying his main clause, "Sing, Muse, propitious," until the thirteenth line. Milton, of course, was no ancient, and the battles of Page 113 | Top of ArticleParadise Lost are in some respects deliberately different from those in Homer. Nevertheless, by invoking him, poets also invoked traditional ways of thinking and writing about heroism, fighting, and war.
However, if the war poets of 1704-09 relied heavily upon ancient representations of battle, there is also something distinctly and originally modern in many of their descriptions of war. My point is not that they were writing during, or just after, what historians call a military revolution. Although it is true that the disappearance of the pike, the invention of the socket bayonet, and the universal distribution of the flintlock were important developments of the very early years of the eighteenth century, historians are not agreed upon the existence or the date of a revolution. Jeremy Black, for instance, suggests it is most accurate to think of two revolutions, the second occurring between 1660 and 1720, and being in nature less of a real revolution than a cumulative series of gradual but important changes. But debates of this kind are only of tangential interest in a discussion about the martial poetry of the period, since it was all written away from the battlefield. What matters for the poetry is less the reality of war than the home-front awareness of the reality and the desire to use that in poetic representation. In this respect there may have been a kind of revolution. As well as being quaintly old-fashioned in some passages, the poems about Blenheim and later battles are newly detailed and accurate in their accounts of the events of a modern battle. Poems about William III's battles, for instance, are fewer in number, shorter, less poetically ambitious, and generally do not include very exact details of the fighting.
Two factors were important for this change. Firstly, there were the scope and number of the poems. So much was written and at such length that the poets could not simply offer abstract generalities about victory and greatness. Secondly, there was the effect of the victory at Blenheim, a battle Daniel Defoe describes as "a very great Action, the Greatest, most Glorious, and most Compleat Victory that I can find in History for above 200 Years past." So great was the victory that it resulted in what would now be called blanket media coverage and in the establishment of Marlborough's heroic status. Accurate and detailed journalistic accounts of military actions were not in themselves anything new. Ten years earlier, people in London could have read half-week by half-week in the London Gazette or the Postscripts to the Post-Boy of the developing siege of Namur, where Tristram Shandy's Uncle Toby received his wound. The new developments were the amount and spread of information and the readiness to use it in poetry. Some of that information came direct from the frontline, such as the letter published in The Evening Post after the Battle of Malplaquet from a war-weary Lieutenant Earbery: "Yesterday Morning we began a most bloody Battle with the French, we have totally routed them and cut them in Pieces; we have not two Men in four but what is kill'd or wounded ... we have lost a vast Number of Men, but the Enemy more; I am very well my self, but few besides me of our Squadron . . . This Battle was worse than Hochstet." The short sentences here and the obsessive returning to the size of the losses have the authentic stamp of terrible firsthand experience. More common are less personal accounts, but even these contain enough detail about the nature and progress of the war to keep the reading Englishman very well informed.
The reporting of the war fed directly into the poetical representation of it. The anonymous doggerel Le Feu de Joye makes this explicit by creating a poetic context in which the writer waits anxiously in England until "[w]e'ad News." Once that arrives, he launches into his war poem, enumerating the assaults on the fortress at Schellenberg that preceded Blenheim, giving considerable attention to the effects of cannon at Blenheim itself, and trying to capture the cries made by the French soldiers driven into the Danube there:
Not Screitching Owls, or Southern Croaking Frogs,
Howling of Wolves, the Latriant Noise of Dogs;
Roaring of Lions, Irish or'e their dead,
Or Condemn'd Pris'ners, full of Horror dread,
Not Infants Squeal, poor Wife's Moan, or Eagles squawling,
Th' Peacock's Schream, Snakes Hiss, or Caterwawling,
The Sailor Shipwreckt, or lost Trav'llers Cry,
More dismal were than these in Misery.
Although the poem is in many ways unsuccessful, one must acknowledge the attempt here to render the writer's understanding of battlefield reality as precisely as possible. He was not alone in the attempt. When Edmund Smith suggests of Philips's Blenheim that "all the BattlePage 114 | Top of Article thunders in his Lines," he is not bestowing meaningless praise on his dead friend. Philips's poem includes smoke, cannon, and even the effects of chain shot:
on each side they fly
By Chains connex't, and with destructive Sweep
Behead whole Troops at once; the hairy Scalps
Are whirl'd aloof, while numerous Trunks bestrow
There is a relish in Philips's lines, aptly characterized by Richard Blackmore as "hideous Joy," which is peculiar to him, but most other poets also refer to such modern elements of battle as cannon, muskets, and cavalry charges.
The poets of the War of the Spanish Succession, then, tried at once to imitate ancient models and to represent modern war. The incompatibility in these two desires lay in the fact that modern war and the modern understanding of it were different from the ancient form of war. An example of the perception of the gap between ancient and modern can be found in Alexander Pope's preface and notes to his Iliad. At times, Pope identifies continuity in military practice, especially with respect to the construction of defensive works. When the Greeks build a wall around their camp in the seventh book, for instance, he argues that the fortification is "as perfect as any in the modern Times." Moreover, the Greek discipline that he and his sources sometimes refer to may be seen as a shadow of modern military discipline, especially when it is praised as a contrast to the disorderliness of "the barbarous Nations." More striking than this, however, are the frequent references to the differences between ancient and modern battlefield behavior, references that suggest broadly that the ancients were courageous but cruel whereas the moderns are humane but unheroic. Pope admires the "wonderful Simplicity of the old heroic Ages" when honor was the reward for victory in single combat, but he condemns "the uncivilized Manners of those Times" that led Agamemnon to kill a young and already defeated enemy. On occasion, he ascribes the differences to changes in military technology: "Another Consideration which will account for many things that may seem uncouth in Homer, is the Reflection that before the Use of Fire-Arms there was infinitely more Scope for personal Valor than in the modern Battels . . . There was also more Leisure in their Battels before the Knowledge of Fire-Arms; and this in a good Degree accounts for those Harangues his Heroes make to each other in the Time of Combate." Ancient heroism and the loquacity poets associated with it are here directly linked to levels of military technology and to the absence of guns.
The reliance on gunpowder and what Dennis calls "missionary Death," as against that directly delivered by swords, had far-reaching effects. In particular, the modern battlefield came to be seen and represented less as the stage for individual heroism than as the site for massed movements. Pope points out that "in each Battel of the Iliad there is one principal Person, that may properly be call'd the Hero of that Day or Action." Part of the reason for this was an aesthetic principle of subordination and clarity, but it also mirrors a way of thinking about fighting that was no longer possible for modern battles. Abel Boyer, in his History of the Reign of Queen Anne, Digested into Annals. Year the Third, describes the Battle of Blenheim as a series of troop movements and formations rather than courageous actions by individuals. The early part of the description is characteristic: "the Army advanced to the Plain, and were drawn up in order of Battle. The Left Wing consisted in 48 Battalions and 86 Squadrons, whereof 14 Battalions and 13 Squadrons were English Troops; 22 Squadrons Danish; 14 Battalions and 19 Squadrons Dutch." This understanding of the battle as the disposition and movement of formed groups is reinforced at the beginning of the section in a fold-out plan, which represents battalions and squadrons as squares, and batteries as small firing cannon. The same fundamental conception is given more imaginative treatment when Defoe looks back from 1720 to the English Civil Wars in Memoirs of a Cavalier. He describes a skirmish near Gloucester: "We at first despised this way of Clubbing us, and charging through them, laid a great many of them upon the Ground; and in repeating our Charge, trampled more of them under our Horses Feet: And wheeling thus continually, beat them off from our Foot, who were just upon the Point of disbanding." It is the pronouns that are interesting here, since they are all plural. Like Boyer's bird's eye plan of Blenheim, Defoe's worm's eye account of earlier battles registers groups of men moving in unison and displacing or protecting other groups.
The individualism and individual heroism that are so important in Homer's battles have little place in a war of this kind. Indeed, the typically Homeric situation in which the victor is the individual hero and the vanquished the fleeing mass is reversed, since strength lies in organized numbers. This is nicely illustrated in Boyer's plan where the only part that shows separate soldiers is the representation of the flight of the routed French troops toward the Danube. The suggestion that the victorious are groups and the defeated individuals is made explicit and political by Dennis:
Their Squadrons now confounded, all disband,
Each for himself takes sordid Care alone,
Sure Ruin both to Armies and to States.
Although Dennis is in part seizing the opportunity to attack factionalism at home, the understanding of the need for discipline and solidarity on the battlefield is genuine enough and was quite widespread.
Other changes wrought by gunpowder were an increase in noise on the battlefield and a decline in the status of individual weapons. Both have consequences for the representation of war. Pope, as we have seen, ascribes the "Harangues his [Homer's] Heroes make to each other in the Time of Combate" to the comparative leisure of the ancient battlefield, but the comparative noise must have been just as important. Dennis remarks how the sound of the cannon silences trumpets and soldiers alike, by drowning "all dreadful Noises in its own." Most of the other poets seem to have shared this perception. The author of Le Feu de Joye has Marlborough urge his troops "Observe me Fellow-Soldiers what I do," and Philips represents the British troops as responding to French taunts with surly silence, "No need such Boasts, or Exprobations false / Of Cowardice." But the great majority of poets simply leave speeches out of the busy, noisy, modern battlefield.
As well as banishing speeches from the battlefield, gunpowder and mass production changed the nature of weapons. In Homer, a hero's weapons are important in themselves, the most famous example being the elaborate shield Vulcan makes for Achilles. This is so powerful a work of art that Pope describes Homer's design and description of it as "the noblest Part of the noblest Poet," but it is also a practical weapon of war used to repel javelin throws. In the War of the Spanish Succession there were no weapons as elaborate and beautiful as the shield, and there are none in the poetry inspired by it. Associated with weaponry in Homer is the description of the arming of the hero. Having donned Achilles' armor, Patroclus looks so splendid and metallic that "[h]e flash'd around intolerable Day," and metaphors of refulgence are later applied to Achilles in his new armor. Few poets describe the arming of Marlborough, except, like Philips, in a distant way:
on thy pow'rful Sword alone
Germania, and the Belgic Coast relies,
Won from th'encroaching Sea: That Sword Great ANNE
Fix'd not in vain on thy puissant Side,
When Thee Sh'enroll'd Her Garter'd Knights among.
The sword and its fixing, both metonyms for authority, suggest modern generalship rather than excellence in hand-to-hand fighting. Indeed, Philips's lines make Achilles and his armor, even in Pope's translation, seem distinctly out of date.
The nature of war and perceptions of its nature influenced ideas about the heroic. The early years of the eighteenth century saw both the persistence of ancient models of heroism and the emergence of new models. Some descriptions preserve the idea of the warrior chief, such as Cobb's representation of Marlborough at Blenheim:
Our Left, as far as England's Sons could do,
Copy'd their Great Original in view:
Who, with his Sword, where thickest Troops ingage,
Leaves bloody Foot-steps of his manly Rage.
There are three heroic qualities displayed by Marlborough here, and all of them are familiar from the Iliad. He has a leader's charisma, he puts himself at risk in the most dangerous part of the battlefield, and he is an efficient, sword-wielding killer. Philips develops this third quality with considerable gusto. When Marlborough sees Eugene repulsed:
Swift, and Fierce
As wintry Storm, He flies, to reinforce
The yielding Wing; in Gallic Blood again
He dews His reeking Sword, and Strows the Ground
With headless Ranks.
Again there is a characteristic, and somewhat idiosyncratic, relish in Philips's account of blood and beheading.
More common than descriptions like Cobb's and Philips's, however, are those that omit the third quality. The modern hero is usually regarded as a risk-taking leader rather than a life-taking fighter, The Post Boy reports that at Malplaquet "the Duke of Marlborough and Count Tilly, were, during the whole Fight, on the Right and Left Wings, continually at the Head of the Troops in the hottest of the Fire." The final phrase is telling since it implies that the generals were endangered by the fire, not that they were personally dispensing it. Similarly, the Post-Man cites a battle report affirming that at Blenheim Marlborough "expos'd himself to the greatest danger, as the meanest Souldier," and the Tatler writes warmly of General Webb, who at Malplaquet "expos'd himself like a common Soldier." This verb, "to expose oneself," which is to be found quite often in battle reports, suggests that the hero is in danger himself rather than directly a danger to others. The same idea is present in the frequent accounts of Marlborough's near misses. Newspaper reports, repeated in Francis Hare's history, tell how at Blenheim the Duke "narrowly escap'd being kill'd by a Cannon Bullet, which grazed under the Belly of his Horse, and cover'd him with dirt," and Dennis, among others, attempts to turn a similar incident at Ramillies into poetry:
but Discord while He mounts
And Death outrageous to be thus repuls'd
Level a Canon at His Sacred Head,
But from His Sacred Head the ponderous Ball
Diverted, Bringfield who remounts Him kills.
Dennis's hero here faces mighty adversaries and real danger, but at least insofar as the immediate threat to his life is concerned, he is a rather passive figure. The danger is not averted by his killing an enemy, but by a providential turning aside in which he has no part.
The de-emphasis on the hero's role as a killer is connected with two other developments in the perception of warfare. Firstly, the general was increasingly regarded as the controller of the battlefield rather than a fighter, an understanding that is present in Boyer's account of Blenheim. He describes an enemy movement of troops as "one of the principal Causes of their Defeat," and a later failure to deploy at the right moment as "this Capital Fault of the French" to which "we ought principally to ascribe our Victory." Implicit here is the belief that stratagems, not great acts of heroism, win modern battles. William Broome, one of Pope's later collaborators on the Homer translation, shows the same understanding when he compares Marlborough to Mars, complete with "Iron Car" and "Adamantine Shield." He adds: "With delegated Wrath thus Marlbro' glows, / In Vengeance rushing on his Country's Foes." It is the phrase "delegated Wrath" that is significant, and it has to be understood in the context of the earlier description of how "The dauntless Hero pours his martial Bands." Marlborough's wrath has been delegated to his soldiers, and his own task is to direct them rather than to fight himself.
This is not to suggest that courage becomes unimportant but that it is important in the context of generalship, not of combat. When the poetry of the period emphasizes Marlborough's valor, it usually does so primarily by showing him giving encouragement to his soldiers. Paris, for instance, writes:
lo! I behold at length
The Godlike Heroe all besmear'd with Dust
Gloriously dreadful, issuing forth Behests
Sedate, unmov'd, with Succour opportune
Th'Oppress'd relieving, the prevailing Part
His animating Looks uphold, in all
His Sword or Presence vig'rous Thoughts renews
And wonted Chear.
With the exception of the word "dreadful," the first few lines of the passage quoted here focus exclusively on the beneficial influence Marlborough exerts on his men, and they evoke a saint ministering to the sick as much as a fighter. The last line is also suggestive, as Paris mentions the sword, then offers "[p]resence" as an alternative. It is the general's being in the battle with the men rather than his fighting that counts. Nicholas Rowe implies something similar:
Like Heat, diffus'd his great Example warms,
And animates the Social Warriors Arms,
Inflames each colder Heart.
Rowe uses the same heat and animation metaphors as Paris, and with the telling phrase "Social Warrior" he places those in the context of a modern army, which operates by numbers and groups. One of the general's principal tasks is to encourage those groups.
The second development in the perception of warfare was the growing belief that the hero should be humane and actively in pursuit of good as well as bold and more or less justified in his fight. In the preface to his Blenheim poem, John Oldmixon makes explicit comparisonsPage 117 | Top of Article between the benevolent and virtuous heroism of Marlborough and the selfish heroism of other conquerors. Many heroes, he suggests, were "animated by a lawless Ambition," and even though "some of the ancient Heroes might make a good use of their Power, yet that does not excuse their seizing it out of the Hands of those to whom it belong'd." In a similar vein, Blackmore urges poets not to make too much of comparisons with a Greek hero such as Achilles, since "too near Brutal is his Martial Rage," and suggests that British soldiers are actually somewhat closer to "Angelic Warriors." Occasionally ideas of this kind shade into almost pacifist Christian sentiments. When Edward Young looks back on the war from the peace of 1713, it is with relief that a moral burden has been lifted from the country:
Devotion shall run pure, and disengage
From that strange Fate of mixing Peace with Rage;
On Heaven without a Sin we now may call,
And Guiltless to our Maker prostrate fall;
Be Christians while we Pray, nor in one Breath
Ask Mercy for ourselves, for others Death.
The suggestion here that all war is morally tainted does not occur very often in writing of the period, but its expression indicates something of a discomfort with mass killing.
Most contemporary writers seem to have wanted generals and soldiers to be brave, virtuous, and merciful. Addison sees "Unbounded courage and compassion join'd" in Marlborough, and although he is honest enough to deal with the ravaging of Bavaria before Blenheim, he is also eager to explain it: "The leader grieves, by gen'rous pity sway'd, / To see his just commands so well obey'd." It is important here that Marlborough's orders are represented both as being justified by the imperatives of war and as causing him private pain. There is a similar conception of the compassionate hero in a set of verses that appeared in the Female Tatler in 1709:
Now Marlbro' comes, more like a Deity,
That seeks to set Mankind at Liberty;
Conquers to give, not with the thirst of Gain,
Or base Ambition, or Desire of Reign;
But to make War's Tyrannick Murders cease,
And force outragious Men to live in Peace.
Pope, too, shares the belief implicit here that "all generous Warriors regret the very Victories they gain," and his main objection to Homer, whom he admires so much in other respects, "is that Spirit of Cruelty which appears too manifestly in the Iliad." Philips is again the exception, and it is interesting to compare his account of the French troops driven into the Danube with Oldmixon's description of the same incident. Oldmixon, who claims Britons are "by Nature good as they are Brave," has Marlborough recalling his "Impetuous Troops" as their enemies tumble into the river, while Philips says the opposite: "Nor did the British Squadrons now surcease / To gall their Foes o'erwhelm'd." Whatever the truth about the pursuit of the French, Oldmixon's account is more typical than Philips's of the beliefs and expectations of the poets of the time.
Mixed perceptions about the nature of warfare and heroism created difficulties of representation. Writers struggled to accommodate, on the one hand, received aesthetic demands alongside admiration of the ancients, and on the other, modern perceptions of war and heroism. This created a number of problems. One of Pope's borrowed notes for the Iliad argues that "[i]t is in Poetry as in Painting, the Postures and Attitudes of each Figure ought to be different." But the idea of the modern battlefield with its massed formations does not permit such difference. Moreover, modern notions of courage, heroism, and generalship militate against the representation of the active, killing "Hero of that Day" so prominent in the Iliad.
The difficulty of dealing with massed formations can be seen in The Campaign, a poem commended by the Tatler as "wholly new, and a wonderful Attempt to keep up the ordinary Idea's of a March of an Army, just as they happen'd in so warm and great a Stile, and yet be at once Familiar and Heroick." Although the references to warmth, greatness, and the heroic suggest that the poem was not entirely new in its ambitions or style, Addison does attempt to represent a campaign in which artillery and massed infantry are the key forces. In doing so, he describes the defenses of the Schellenberg fortress and the assault upon them:
Batt'ries on batt'ries guard each fatal pass,Page 118 | Top of Article
Threat'ning destruction; rows of hollow brass,
Tube behind tube, the dreadful entrance keep,
Whilst in their wombs ten thousand thunders sleep:
High on the works the mingling hosts engage;
The battel kindled into tenfold rage
With show'rs of bullets and with storms of fire
Burns in full fury; heaps on heaps expire,
Nations with nations mix'd confus'dly die,
And lost in one promiscuous carnage lye.
Addison faces two connected difficulties here. Firstly, although battlefield crowds are one common epic element, he has virtually nothing to offer except them. Because of the perception of a massed formation battle, he cannot introduce a variety of postures, having to rely instead on repeated plurals and amplification for effect. Secondly, the shooting battle he describes destroys the possibility for extended, stirring contests between individuals.
The only individuals that Addison and other poets single out are the generals, especially Marlborough, but here description is hampered by modern ideas of generalship and the heroic. In a passage from The Campaign picked out by the Tatler for special commendation, Marlborough is shown in the thick of battle:
'Twas then great MARLBRO'S mighty soul was prov'd,
That, in the shock of charging hosts unmov'd,
Amidst confusion, horror, and despair,
Examin'd all the dreadful scenes of war;
In peaceful thought the field of death survey'd,
To fainting squadrons sent the timely aid.
These lines describe a thoroughly modern hero, and the diffusion of that image can be seen in its occurrence in other poems. Dennis calls Marlborough "Lord of himself," Oldmixon shows him acting with "Chearful Patience," and Cobb describes him as "collected in himself." This Marlborough does not participate directly in the fighting, he does not kill, and above all, he does not become emotionally entangled in the battle through anger. Addison strives to give effective poetic voice to these negative qualities by creating a striking contrast between the battle's fury and Marlborough's calm. The effect, however, is one of unintended incongruity. The most obvious cause of the incongruity is an idea of poetically heroic behavior that is derived from epic and from which Addison's Marlborough diverges. There may also be an implied coherence in the would-be sublime that leads to an expectation of consistency, so that the main figure in an elevated description of battle should himself be an active fighter. Whatever the causes, however, the peacefully contemplative, modern general seems out of place on a poetic battlefield, as an ancient champion would not.
This incongruity is compounded by the way in which poets go to some length to avoid showing Marlborough and the English engaged in killing. Although grisly descriptions of death are quite common, direct references to the soldierly causes of it are not. The Danube at Blenheim again provides a good example. Defoe's rather curious Hymn to Victory includes passages on the fighting qualities of Englishmen, but when the battle is joined he prefers to recount how the French rushed to their own deaths:
Th' Inviting Streams the desp'rate Troops allure,
There they have room to die secure;
There they can gratifie their Rage, and die,
In spight of the insulting Enemy.
Cobb, too, gives the river responsibility for the deaths of the French, developing the idea in a self-consciously literary fashion:
The River then, discharging on his Foes,
Mud, Sand, and Stones, his whole Artillery throws
From his vex'd bottom; some with violent strokes
He head-long bears; some with hurl'd Gravel chokes.
Although this is largely a conceit and an attempt at elevation, it seems also to be grounded in an unwillingness to write too directly of English killing. But like the descriptions of the composed Marlborough, such circumlocutions have the effect of undermining the martial heroic style.
Perhaps more important than this is the way in which the status of the general as the director of the battle also means that his preservation becomes paramount for the success of the battle and the safety of his troops. Addison at one point advises Marlborough to suppress his natural inclination to join the fight:
Forbear, great man, renown'd in arms, forbear
To brave the thickest terrors of the war,
Nor hazard thus, confus'd in crouds of foes,
Britannia's safety, and the world's repose.
The advice is not peculiar to Addison. The anonymous Poem on the Late Glorious Successes counsels, "But oh! take heed; great Hero, rush not on," and even Philips warns "O! Beware / Great Warrior, nor too prodigal of Life / Expose the British Safety." Old ideas of heroism are alive and well in these examples, since it is a compliment that Marlborough's courage requires restraint, but the new idea of the general who needs to be protected exists alongside them. Pope glances sardonically at this development in a note to the episode in book 10 of the Iliad,Page 119 | Top of Article in which a number of chiefs volunteer to go on a raid: "It appears from hence, how honourable it was of old to go upon these Parties by Night, or undertake those Offices which are now only the Task of common Soldiers." The sentence works on the contrast between the honor and courage "of old" and the delegation and safety of "now." When the latter qualities are turned into poetry they appear as rather less than heroic. It is hard to imagine Homer shouting to his warriors from the sidelines that they must be careful not to get hurt.
Some of the problems of representation faced by Addison and the other poets were also faced in different forms by visual artists. Probably the most famous painting concerning Marlborough's victories is James Thornhill's ceiling in the Great Hall at Blenheim Palace. This is a lively baroque allegory, which employs perspective to create the illusion of looking upward at a classical arch. At the top of the stairs in front of the arch, and in the middle of the picture, Marlborough, dressed in ancient helmet and armor, kneels before the goddess Britannia who proffers a laurel wreath. Above him, in the fictional space of the painting, various figures climb the air, commemorating his fame by reading, writing, or blowing a trumpet. Below him two of Britannia's handmaids are posed on rocks, a second anciently dressed general sits and talks, presumably of the war, and at the lowest point three muscular, bare-chested men maneuver trophies of battle into place. The grand allegorical manner allows Thornhill to maintain an aura of ancient dignity without offending modern sensibilities by making his heroes too ensanguined. Because the painting does not represent a historical event, Thornhill can place his generals in rather languid poses reminiscent of Addison's tranquil Marlborough. Most of the specifically military references are to ancient warfare. The painting is an oval, and the corners of the rectangular ceiling that the oval does not fill are decorated with bundles of ancient weaponry including spears, shields, and bows. The only modern weapons to be seen are three dark, easily missed sections of cannon among the trophies at the bottom of the picture. There is, however, one modern reference that is not so easily missed. As Marlborough kneels, he gestures back with his left hand to a plan of the Battle of Blenheim, made prominent by its whiteness and its being larger than Marlborough himself. An angel supports the paper from behind and another leans over the top of it to point at the clearly marked lines representing the British formations. The plan is a curious and incongruous element in the painting. The lines, in heavy black and red, belong to a different kind of war from that suggested by the pseudo-ancient surroundings, and the plan itself belongs to a different kind of discourse about war. It recalls Boyer's. Annals, newspaper accounts, coffee-shop discussion, political controversy, and modern ideas of generalship. Just as the tranquil Marlborough is an odd figure in Addison's raging battle, the modern plan introduces an awkward, discordant note into Thornhill's picture.
The extent to which contemporaries were conscious of these difficulties is unclear, but there was some recognition of the poor quality of most of the writing prompted by the war. Cobb interprets this as a tendency of all war writing when he suggests that Ramillies produced "What Battles generally do; bad Poets, and worse Criticks." Others regarded the failure as more peculiar to this war. The Duchess of Marlborough included in her will the demand that poetry be omitted from biographies of the Duke, and Oldmixon opined bluntly that "had our Soldiers fought no better than our Poets write upon 'em, we should have had little to rejoyce over but our Victory at Sea." A more considered rejection of contemporary war poetry is evinced by Thomas Tickell in the opening lines of the prologue for his successful 1712 poem, The Prospect of Peace:
Contending Kings, and Fields of Death, too long
Have been the Subject of the British Song.
Who hath not read of fam'd Ramillia's Plain,
Bavaria's Fall, and Danube choak'd with Slain!
There were good reasons for Tickell, the protégé of Addison and a firm Whig, to have supported the poetic celebration of the war, but on the eve of the Peace of Utrecht even he seems to have had enough of it.
The most revealing pejorative comments come from Richard Steele and Thomas Parnell. In the third issue of the Tatler, Steele ironically develops the format of Blackmore's second long war poem, that is, advice to a tapestry maker on how to represent the war: "I must own to you, I approve extremely this Invention,Page 120 | Top of Article and it might be Improv'd for the Benefit of Manufactury: As, suppose an Ingenious Gentleman should write a Poem of Advice to a Calico Printer: Do you think there is a Girl in England, that would wear any Thing but The Taking of Lisle, or The Battle of Oudenarde?... I should fancy small Skirmishes might do for Under Petticoats, provided they had a Siege for the Upper." Although the comments are a joke, they point to the real problem of finding appropriate forms. A petticoat may be a humorously inappropriate canvas for representing a battle, but that leaves open the question of how exactly war can be adequately represented, and more especially, how modern war can be represented. A partial answer is given by Parnell's allegorical Essay on the Different Stiles of Poetry in 1713. Having passed bad war poetry on his poetic flight, the poet arrives at the good toward the end of the essay:
Then Hosts embattel'd stretch their Lines afar,
Their Leaders Speeches animate the War,
The Trumpets sound, the feather'd Arrows fly,
The Sword is drawn, the Lance is toss'd on high.
Parnell's answer to the problem of how to write a successful, modern, and heroic war poem is that it must be out of date in terms of the military technology and behavior it represents. Only if the battlefield is quiet enough for the hero to make speeches and if the most deadly missives are arrows and darts will a heroic poem work. In short, heroic verse and modern warfare do not belong together.
This is, I think, the impasse that had been reached by the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. A number of poets had tried to use ancient forms to represent modern battles, but they had not succeeded. Wars later in the century would not be greeted by any comparable effort at representation, and one quite elaborate pastoral elegy of 1759 on the death of General Wolfe even has Apollo forbidding the poet to sing of war. Occasionally poets would rise to the occasion of a victorious battle with an ode to the general, but such poems are fewer, shorter, and less elaborate than those of 1704-09. More typical of later productions is a poem like the Bloody Ballad about Dettingen, which is printed in red ink throughout and tries to be nothing more than a rousing song of the moment. After the first decade of the century, ambitious heroic poetry is generally placed firmly in the distant past, first in Pope's translations of Homer and later in the Ossian poems. As for modern warfare, literary writers of the middle century were to look for other ways of representing that than the heroic. Tobias Smollett attempted grimly ironic realism in Roderick Random, and Laurence Sterne used complex humor in Tristram Shandy. It is as if the poetic effort of 1704-09 taught England's writers that a new phenomenon such as modern war and a new understanding of it could not be dressed in the robes of ancient Greece and Rome. The War of the Spanish Succession, then, may not have caused, but it seems to signal, the end of contemporary heroic ambitions in English literature.
Source: John Richardson, "Modern Warfare in Early Eighteenth-Century Poetry," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 45, No. 3, Summer 2005, pp. 557-77.
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