The Classics Are Not Driftwood

Basil Gildersleeve, Hellas and Hesperia:

“A detached American is for the most part a pitiful spectacle. But it is precisely because we stand in our place with our own day here that we cannot dismiss the past so cavalierly as Whitman has done. To the dead all things are dead. To him that is alive there is no dead poetry, no dead language. ‘Only those languages,’ said Lowell in a famous discourse, ‘only those languages can be called dead in which nothing living was ever written.’ There is no need of crediting the past, as Whitman calls it. The past collects its interest by the inevitable process of eternal laws. Classical antiquity is not driftwood, as Whitman intimates, not driftwood out of which to build fires to warm ourselves and dream by, calling up the figures of Jason and Medea, of Paris and Helen, and listening to Arion in his singing-robes. The classical caravel is still seaworthy. No Captain Courageous of Gloucester, Mass., is more popular than Odysseus of Ithaca. Retell the story of the wanderings of the much-enduring to a popular audience, if you wish to find out whether Homer is dead, and what Kipling calls his bloomin’ lyre has ceased to bloom. No happier hours in my long career can I recall than those I spent in repeating the tale of Old Audacious to a sympathetic audience thirty years ago. Tennyson’s Ulysses I need not mention. Stephen Phillips’s Ulysses I mention merely to protest against his perversion of the only true story of Odysseus in Hades. It is then precisely because we stand in our own place here, precisely because we are Americans and Walt Whitman is our prophet, that we insist on our inheritance of the precious past, on which and by which we live.”

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