Statius’ Medieval Celebrity

C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image:

“Statius, whose Thebaid appeared in the ‘nineties of the first century, ranked in the Middle Ages (as we have already seen) with Virgil, Homer, and Lucan. Like Lucan, he strained after the stunning phrase, less successfully, but also less continuously. He had a larger mind than Lucan, more true seriousness, more pity, a more versatile imagination; the Thebaid is a less tiring and a more spacious poem than the Pharsalia. The Middle Ages were quite right to accept it as a noble ‘historial’ romance. It was in many ways especially congenial to them. Its Jupiter was more like the God of monotheism than anyother being in the Pagan poetry they knew. Its fiends (and some of its gods) were more like the devils of their own religion than any other Pagan spirits. Its deep respect for virginity-with even the curious suggestion that the sexual act, however sanctioned by marriage, is a culpa which needs excuse (u, 233, 256)-appealed to the vein of asceticism in their theology. Finally, the vividness and importance of its personifications (Virtus, Clementia, Pietas, and Natura) brought it in places very close to the fully allegorical poetry in which they delighted. But I have shot my bolt about these matters elsewhere1 and at present Natura is my only concern.”

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Her Greek Has Made All Her Celebrity

Frances Burney, The Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay

‘Streatham, Sunday, June 13. After church we all strolled the grounds, and the topic of our discourse was Miss Streatfield. Mrs. Thrale asserted that she had a power of captivation that was irresistible; that her beauty, joined to her softness, her caressing manners, her tearful eyes, and alluring looks, would insinuate her into the heart of any man she thought worth attacking.

Sir Philip declared himself of a totally different opinion, and quoted Dr. Johnson against her, who had told him that, taking away her Greek, she was as ignorant as a butterfly.

Mr. Seward declared her Greek was all against her, with him, for that, instead of reading Pope, Swift, or “The Spectator”—books from which she might derive useful knowledge and improvement—it had led her to devote all her reading time to the first eight books of Homer.

“But,” said Mrs. Thrale, “her Greek, you must own, has made all her celebrity:—you would have heard no more of her than of any other pretty girl, but for that.”

“What I object to,” said Sir Philip, “is her avowed preference for this parson. Surely it is very indelicate in any lady to let all the world know with whom she is in love!”

“The parson,” said the severe Mr. Seward, “I suppose, spoke first,—or she would as soon have been in love with you, or with me!”

You will easily believe I gave him no pleasant look.’

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High Noon Homer *or* Western Lit

One would not expect Homer to figure importantly in an early 20th century realist novel about the struggle of Californian ranchers against the evils of the railroad, but his influence is felt throughout Frank Norris’ novel The Octopus. While the novel features an expansive cast, with frequent frictionless transitions from one character to another, Norris spends the most time and attention on the aspiring poet Presley, whom we follow from the very opening of the book until its depressing and unsatisfying conclusion. This is understandable enough, given that Presley seems to represent the figure of Norris himself.

Presley is not a rancher, but is closely involved with the social circle of the ranch community set in a fictionalized southern California at the end of the 19th century. His two chief friends in the community are Annixter, a brilliant but wildly churlish owner of a mid-sized ranch who hopes to cash in on the improvements he has made to the land once the railroad offers it for sale, and Vanamee, a wandering mystic who, endowed with a naturally poetic spirit, filters in and out of the community as he struggles to cope with his lover’s death. Presley admires Vanamee in large part due to his natural poetic sensibility, no doubt refined by his frequent solitary perambulations through the southwest.

Presley’s ambition is to write an epic of the American West:

Vanamee understood him perfectly. He nodded gravely.

“Yes, it is there. It is Life, the primitive, simple, direct Life, passionate, tumultuous. Yes, there is an epic there.”

Presley caught at the word. It had never before occurred to him.

“Epic, yes, that’s it. It is the epic I’m searching for. And HOW I search for it. You don’t know. It is sometimes almost an agony. Often and often I can feel it right there, there, at my finger-tips, but I never quite catch it. It always eludes me. I was born too late. Ah, to get back to that first clear-eyed view of things, to see as Homer saw, as Beowulf saw, as the Nibelungen poets saw. The life is here, the same as then; the Poem is here; my West is here; the primeval, epic life is here, here under our hands, in the desert, in the mountain, on the ranch, all over here, from Winnipeg to Guadalupe. It is the man who is lacking, the poet; we have been educated away from it all. We are out of touch. We are out of tune.”

Presley’s fondness for Homer was well known to the other ranchers. Annixter is regularly found reading David Copperfield. Mrs. Derrick, the wife of Magnus Derrick (the most prominent and respected of the ranchers), is an eager enthusiast for literature, but is troubled both by Presley’s fondness for Homer and his own literary efforts:

The monotony of the ranch ate into her heart hour by hour, year by year. And with it all, when was she to see Rome, Italy, and the Bay of Naples? It was a different prospect truly. Magnus had given her his promise that once the ranch was well established, they two should travel. But continually he had been obliged to put her off, now for one reason, now for another; the machine would not as yet run of itself, he must still feel his hand upon the lever; next year, perhaps, when wheat should go to ninety, or the rains were good. She did not insist. She obliterated herself, only allowing, from time to time, her pretty, questioning eyes to meet his. In the meantime she retired within herself. She surrounded herself with books. Her taste was of the delicacy of point lace. She knew her Austin Dobson by heart. She read poems, essays, the ideas of the seminary at Marysville persisting in her mind. “Marius the Epicurean,” “The Essays of Elia,” “Sesame and Lilies,” “The Stones of Venice,” and the little toy magazines, full of the flaccid banalities of the “Minor Poets,” were continually in her hands.

When Presley had appeared on Los Muertos, she had welcomed his arrival with delight. Here at last was a congenial spirit. She looked forward to long conversations with the young man on literature, art, and ethics. But Presley had disappointed her. That he—outside of his few chosen deities—should care little for literature, shocked her beyond words. His indifference to “style,” to elegant English, was a positive affront. His savage abuse and open ridicule of the neatly phrased rondeaux and sestinas and chansonettes of the little magazines was to her mind a wanton and uncalled-for cruelty. She found his Homer, with its slaughters and hecatombs and barbaric feastings and headstrong passions, violent and coarse. She could not see with him any romance, any poetry in the life around her; she looked to Italy for that. His “Song of the West,” which only once, incoherent and fierce, he had tried to explain to her, its swift, tumultous life, its truth, its nobility and savagery, its heroism and obscenity had revolted her.

“But, Presley,” she had murmured, “that is not literature.”

“No,” he had cried between his teeth, “no, thank God, it is not.”

We can understand readily enough that Mrs. Derrick found Homer violent. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are replete with scenes of appalling and horrific violence. But the impression that Homer is coarse is owing to a curious admixture of upper class snobbery and a rarefied notion of literary polish. (Indeed, one could argue that Pope’s Homer was so poorly received because Pope tamed Homer by rounding off all of the jagged edges and polishing him into rolling, monotonous, and correct Augustan insipidity.) The idea that there is something wild, primal, or untamed about Homer’s poetry had long been a cliché. John Dryden, in his preface to Fables, Ancient and Modern, compared Homer’s free and wild genius to the more restrained intellectual virtues of Vergil:

For the Grecian is more according to my genius than the Latin poet. In the works of the two authors we may read their manners and natural inclinations, which are wholly different. Virgil was of a quiet, sedate temper; Homer was violent, impetuous, and full of fire. The chief talent of Virgil was propriety of thoughts, and ornament of words; Homer was rapid in his thoughts, and took all the liberties, both of numbers and of expressions, which his language, and the age in which he liv’d, allow’d him. Homer’s invention was more copious, Virgil’s more confin’d.

Indeed, it was the wild, violent, or heroic aspect of Homer which made him such choice reading for the manly man in search of poetry. Thus, in his essay, Reading, Thoreau notes that we need not worry that Homer could have an enervating effect on us as readers:

The student may read Homer or Æschylus in the Greek without danger of dissipation or luxuriousness, for it implies that he in some measure emulate their heroes, and consecrate morning hours to their pages. The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have. The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity.

Thus, there is some precedent for Mrs. Derrick’s aversion to Homer, and Presley’s own reception of Homer as something peculiarly endowed with a raw, vital, and unbridled energy perfectly at home in the rugged American West. Even at a social event among the ranchers, he filters life through the Homeric lens:

Presley was delighted with it all. It was Homeric, this feasting, this vast consuming of meat and bread and wine, followed now by games of strength.

As The Octopus progresses, Presley continues to struggle with the development of a Western epic. Though he writes a poem addressing the injustices which the railroad visits upon the ranchers who work the land intersected by the tracks, the grand story of the frontier remains unwritten. Here we see Presley as the stand-in for Norris himself most clearly. In his essay, A Neglected Epic, Norris laments that a story as violent, exciting, and important as the conquest of the frontier had produced no Homeric literature of America:

But when at last one comes to look for the literature that sprang from and has grown up around the last great epic event in the history of civilization, the event which in spite of stupendous difficulties was consummated more swiftly, more completely, more satisfactorily than any like event since the westward migration began — I mean the conquering of the West, the subduing of the wilderness beyond the Mississippi — what has this produced in the way of literature ? The dime novel ! The dime novel and nothing else. The dime novel and nothing better.

The Trojan War left to posterity the character of Hector; the wars with the Saracens gave us Roland; the folklore of Iceland produced Grettir; the Scotch border poetry brought forth the Douglas; the Spanish epic the Cid. But the American epic, just as heroic, just as elemental, just as important and as picturesque, will fade into history, leaving behind no finer type, no nobler hero than Buffalo Bill.

The young Greeks sat on marble terraces overlooking the Aegean Sea and listened to the thunderous roll of Homer’s hexameter. In the feudal castles the minstrel sang to the young boys of Roland. The farm folk of Iceland to this very day treasure up and read to their little ones hand-written copies of the Gretla Saga chronicling the deeds and death of Grettir the Strong. But the youth of the United States learn of their epic by paying a dollar to see the “Wild West Show.”

One senses here that, despite all of the apparently demotic appeal which Homer (or other epics) are supposed to possess, that Norris acknowledges the fundamentally aristocratic origin of epic by contrasting it with vile and tawdry popular entertainments.

Rather than spend all of his energy lamenting the lack of Western epic, Norris bent his mind to an ambitious project: a novelistic triptych, The Epic of the Wheat, which was to chronicle the production of wheat in southern California (The Octopus), the processing of wheat in Chicago, (The Pit), and the consumption of wheat in Europe (The Wolf). Due to his early death at the age of 32, Norris never even began the last book of his trilogy. There is some irony in attempting to replicate the organic and non-teleological development of more authentic epics with a systematized plan for a trilogy. Perhaps the reason that Vergil satisfies so much less than Homer, and Milton seems so lacking in vitality compared to Beowulf, is just this: Vergil and Milton are too methodical, too self-consciously artistic, and too literary. But Norris compensates for this with a violent and primal literary energy of his own. Indeed, though The Octopus is a novel, he manages to capture some of the verbal effects most prominent in Homer, through the use of repetitive phrasing/imagery, and a kind of paratactic pile-on that refuses to deal too much with the lifeless niceties of subordinate clauses. (The Octopus was also apparently written in one go, with minimal editing. While some critics found fault with Norris’ scriptorial quirks, seeing in them little more than sloppiness or lack of attention, I think that they have neglected the parallel between Presley and Norris himself, and thus, overlooked the Homeric program on display in the book.)

I will never know exactly why the American West suggested itself to readers and writers as something especially Homeric. Perhaps it is the brutality, the harshness of life and the constant threat of death, and the general sense that most of that suffering is utterly tragic because it is brought on by human folly and in the last estimate is all for naught. In antiquity, the reception of the Trojan War typically featured the lament that it didn’t have to be that way. The eradication of an entire civilization, and the destruction which was in turn visited upon the eradicators, could have been prevented if humans were slightly less prone to error:

And Troy would still stand, and you, o lofty citadel of Priam, would still remain!

Troiaque nunc staret, Priamique arx alta maneres. [Aeneid, 2.56]

What if Troy still stood? What if the history of the American West were something other than one of genocide, plunder, and brutality? The cultural logic of human civilization made both of those counterfactuals impossible. Similarly, in The Octopus, the greed of the railroad and the unwillingness of the ranchers to yield to its depredations resulted in the murder of almost all of the ranchers; the arch-capitalist railroad agent S. Behrman dies after falling into a shipping hold of wheat, ruined by his greed; and Presley leaves America in disgust. But the railroad continues on as a malevolent but inescapable, impersonal force in human life. Frank Norris may not be Homer; but in The Octopus, he gave America the epic of senseless suffering and brutality it deserves.

The_Curse_of_California
G. Frederick Keller, The Curse of California

Forget English, Get Some Greek!

Virginia Woolf, Letter to a Young Poet:

The other day I went to call upon a friend of mine who earns her living as a publisher’s reader. The room was a little dark, it seemed to me, when I went in. Yet, as the window was open and it was a fine spring day, the darkness must have been spiritual–the effect of some private sorrow I feared. Her first words as I came in confirmed my fears: “Alas, poor boy!” she exclaimed, tossing the manuscript she was reading to the ground with a gesture of despair. Had some accident happened to one of her relations, I asked, motoring or climbing?

“If you call three hundred pages on the evolution of the Elizabethan sonnet an accident.” she said.

“Is that all?” I replied with relief.

“All?” she retaliated, “Isn’t it enough?” And, beginning to pace up and down the room she exclaimed: “Once he was a clever boy; once he was worth talking to; once he cared about English literature. But now—-” She threw out her hands as if words failed her–but not at all. There followed such a flood of lamentation and vituperation–but reflecting how hard her life was, reading manuscripts day in, day out, I excused her–that I could not follow the argument. All I could gather was that this lecturing about English literature–“if you want to teach them to read English,” she threw in, “teach them to read Greek”–this passing of examinations in English literature, which led to all this writing about English literature, was bound in the end to be the death and burial of English literature. “The tombstone,” she was proceeding, “will be a bound volume of—-” when I stopped her and told her not to talk such nonsense. “Then tell me,” she said, standing over me with her fists clenched, “do they write any better for it? Is poetry better, is fiction better, is criticism better now that they have been taught how to read English literature?” As if to answer her own question she read a passage from the manuscript on the floor. “And each the spit and image of the other!” she groaned, lifting it wearily to its place with the manuscripts on the shelf.

“But think of all they must know,” I tried to argue.

“Know?” she echoed me. “Know? What d’you mean by ‘know’?” As that was a difficult question to answer off-hand, I passed it over by saying: “Well, at any rate they’ll be able to make their livings and teach other people.” Whereupon she lost her temper and, seizing the unfortunate work upon the Elizabethan sonnet, whizzed it across the room. The rest of the visit passed in picking up the fragments of a teapot that had belonged to her grandmother.

Now of course a dozen other questions clamour to be asked about churches and parliaments and public houses and shops and loudspeakers and men and women; but mercifully time is up; silence falls.

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That Is Not Literature

Frank Norris, The Octopus (Chp. II):

Magnus Derrick’s wife looked hardly old enough to be the mother of two such big fellows as Harran and Lyman Derrick. She was not far into the fifties, and her brown hair still retained much of its brightness. She could yet be called pretty. Her eyes were large and easily assumed a look of inquiry and innocence, such as one might expect to see in a young girl. By disposition she was retiring; she easily obliterated herself. She was not made for the harshness of the world, and yet she had known these harshnesses in her younger days. Magnus had married her when she was twenty-one years old, at a time when she was a graduate of some years’ standing from the State Normal School and was teaching literature, music, and penmanship in a seminary in the town of Marysville. She overworked herself here continually, loathing the strain of teaching, yet clinging to it with a tenacity born of the knowledge that it was her only means of support. Both her parents were dead; she was dependent upon herself. Her one ambition was to see Italy and the Bay of Naples. The “Marble Faun,” Raphael’s “Madonnas” and “Il Trovatore” were her beau ideals of literature and art. She dreamed of Italy, Rome, Naples, and the world’s great “art-centres.” There was no doubt that her affair with Magnus had been a love-match, but Annie Payne would have loved any man who would have taken her out of the droning, heart-breaking routine of the class and music room. She had followed his fortunes unquestioningly. First at Sacramento, during the turmoil of his political career, later on at Placerville in El Dorado County, after Derrick had interested himself in the Corpus Christi group of mines, and finally at Los Muertos, where, after selling out his fourth interest in Corpus Christi, he had turned rancher and had “come in” on the new tracts of wheat land just thrown open by the railroad. She had lived here now for nearly ten years. But never for one moment since the time her glance first lost itself in the unbroken immensity of the ranches had she known a moment’s content. Continually there came into her pretty, wide-open eyes—the eyes of a young doe—a look of uneasiness, of distrust, and aversion. Los Muertos frightened her. She remembered the days of her young girlhood passed on a farm in eastern Ohio—five hundred acres, neatly partitioned into the water lot, the cow pasture, the corn lot, the barley field, and wheat farm; cosey, comfortable, home-like; where the farmers loved their land, caressing it, coaxing it, nourishing it as though it were a thing almost conscious; where the seed was sown by hand, and a single two-horse plough was sufficient for the entire farm; where the scythe sufficed to cut the harvest and the grain was thrashed with flails.

But this new order of things—a ranch bounded only by the horizons, where, as far as one could see, to the north, to the east, to the south and to the west, was all one holding, a principality ruled with iron and steam, bullied into a yield of three hundred and fifty thousand bushels, where even when the land was resting, unploughed, unharrowed, and unsown, the wheat came up—troubled her, and even at times filled her with an undefinable terror. To her mind there was something inordinate about it all; something almost unnatural. The direct brutality of ten thousand acres of wheat, nothing but wheat as far as the eye could see, stunned her a little. The one-time writing-teacher of a young ladies’ seminary, with her pretty deer-like eyes and delicate fingers, shrank from it. She did not want to look at so much wheat. There was something vaguely indecent in the sight, this food of the people, this elemental force, this basic energy, weltering here under the sun in all the unconscious nakedness of a sprawling, primordial Titan.

The monotony of the ranch ate into her heart hour by hour, year by year. And with it all, when was she to see Rome, Italy, and the Bay of Naples? It was a different prospect truly. Magnus had given her his promise that once the ranch was well established, they two should travel. But continually he had been obliged to put her off, now for one reason, now for another; the machine would not as yet run of itself, he must still feel his hand upon the lever; next year, perhaps, when wheat should go to ninety, or the rains were good. She did not insist. She obliterated herself, only allowing, from time to time, her pretty, questioning eyes to meet his. In the meantime she retired within herself. She surrounded herself with books. Her taste was of the delicacy of point lace. She knew her Austin Dobson by heart. She read poems, essays, the ideas of the seminary at Marysville persisting in her mind. “Marius the Epicurean,” “The Essays of Elia,” “Sesame and Lilies,” “The Stones of Venice,” and the little toy magazines, full of the flaccid banalities of the “Minor Poets,” were continually in her hands.

When Presley had appeared on Los Muertos, she had welcomed his arrival with delight. Here at last was a congenial spirit. She looked forward to long conversations with the young man on literature, art, and ethics. But Presley had disappointed her. That he—outside of his few chosen deities—should care little for literature, shocked her beyond words. His indifference to “style,” to elegant English, was a positive affront. His savage abuse and open ridicule of the neatly phrased rondeaux and sestinas and chansonettes of the little magazines was to her mind a wanton and uncalled-for cruelty. She found his Homer, with its slaughters and hecatombs and barbaric feastings and headstrong passions, violent and coarse. She could not see with him any romance, any poetry in the life around her; she looked to Italy for that. His “Song of the West,” which only once, incoherent and fierce, he had tried to explain to her, its swift, tumultous life, its truth, its nobility and savagery, its heroism and obscenity had revolted her.

“But, Presley,” she had murmured, “that is not literature.”

“No,” he had cried between his teeth, “no, thank God, it is not.”

Octopus

Latin Is No Good

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (Chp. III):

Tom thought he should rather like to show Philip that he had better not try his spiteful tricks on him. He suddenly walked across the hearth and looked over Philip’s paper.

“Why, that’s a donkey with panniers, and a spaniel, and partridges in the corn!” he exclaimed, his tongue being completely loosed by surprise and admiration. “Oh my buttons! I wish I could draw like that. I’m to learn drawing this half; I wonder if I shall learn to make dogs and donkeys!”

“Oh, you can do them without learning,” said Philip; “I never learned drawing.”

“Never learned?” said Tom, in amazement. “Why, when I make dogs and horses, and those things, the heads and the legs won’t come right; though I can see how they ought to be very well. I can make houses, and all sorts of chimneys,—chimneys going all down the wall,—and windows in the roof, and all that. But I dare say I could do dogs and horses if I was to try more,” he added, reflecting that Philip might falsely suppose that he was going to “knock under,” if he were too frank about the imperfection of his accomplishments.

“Oh, yes,” said Philip, “it’s very easy. You’ve only to look well at things, and draw them over and over again. What you do wrong once, you can alter the next time.”

“But haven’t you been taught anything?” said Tom, beginning to have a puzzled suspicion that Philip’s crooked back might be the source of remarkable faculties. “I thought you’d been to school a long while.”

“Yes,” said Philip, smiling; “I’ve been taught Latin and Greek and mathematics, and writing and such things.”

“Oh, but I say, you don’t like Latin, though, do you?” said Tom, lowering his voice confidentially.

“Pretty well; I don’t care much about it,” said Philip.

“Ah, but perhaps you haven’t got into the Propria quæ maribus,” said Tom, nodding his head sideways, as much as to say, “that was the test; it was easy talking till you came to that.”

Philip felt some bitter complacency in the promising stupidity of this well-made, active-looking boy; but made polite by his own extreme sensitiveness, as well as by his desire to conciliate, he checked his inclination to laugh, and said quietly,—

“I’ve done with the grammar; I don’t learn that any more.”

“Then you won’t have the same lessons as I shall?” said Tom, with a sense of disappointment.

“No; but I dare say I can help you. I shall be very glad to help you if I can.”

Tom did not say “Thank you,” for he was quite absorbed in the thought that Wakem’s son did not seem so spiteful a fellow as might have been expected.

“I say,” he said presently, “do you love your father?”

“Yes,” said Philip, colouring deeply; “don’t you love yours?”

“Oh yes—I only wanted to know,” said Tom, rather ashamed of himself, now he saw Philip colouring and looking uncomfortable. He found much difficulty in adjusting his attitude of mind toward the son of Lawyer Wakem, and it had occurred to him that if Philip disliked his father, that fact might go some way toward clearing up his perplexity.

“Shall you learn drawing now?” he said, by way of changing the subject.

“No,” said Philip. “My father wishes me to give all my time to other things now.”

“What! Latin and Euclid, and those things?” said Tom.

“Yes,” said Philip, who had left off using his pencil, and was resting his head on one hand, while Tom was learning forward on both elbows, and looking with increasing admiration at the dog and the donkey.

“And you don’t mind that?” said Tom, with strong curiosity.

“No; I like to know what everybody else knows. I can study what I like by-and-by.”

“I can’t think why anybody should learn Latin,” said Tom. “It’s no good.”

“It’s part of the education of a gentleman,” said Philip. “All gentlemen learn the same things.”

“What! do you think Sir John Crake, the master of the harriers, knows Latin?” said Tom, who had often thought he should like to resemble Sir John Crake.

“He learned it when he was a boy, of course,” said Philip. “But I dare say he’s forgotten it.”

“Oh, well, I can do that, then,” said Tom, not with any epigrammatic intention, but with serious satisfaction at the idea that, as far as Latin was concerned, there was no hindrance to his resembling Sir John Crake. “Only you’re obliged to remember it while you’re at school, else you’ve got to learn ever so many lines of ‘Speaker.’ Mr Stelling’s very particular—did you know? He’ll have you up ten times if you say ‘nam’ for ‘jam,’—he won’t let you go a letter wrong, I can tell you.”

“Oh, I don’t mind,” said Philip, unable to choke a laugh; “I can remember things easily. And there are some lessons I’m very fond of. I’m very fond of Greek history, and everything about the Greeks. I should like to have been a Greek and fought the Persians, and then have come home and have written tragedies, or else have been listened to by everybody for my wisdom, like Socrates, and have died a grand death.” (Philip, you perceive, was not without a wish to impress the well-made barbarian with a sense of his mental superiority.)

“Why, were the Greeks great fighters?” said Tom, who saw a vista in this direction. “Is there anything like David and Goliath and Samson in the Greek history? Those are the only bits I like in the history of the Jews.”

“Oh, there are very fine stories of that sort about the Greeks,—about the heroes of early times who killed the wild beasts, as Samson did. And in the Odyssey—that’s a beautiful poem—there’s a more wonderful giant than Goliath,—Polypheme, who had only one eye in the middle of his forehead; and Ulysses, a little fellow, but very wise and cunning, got a red-hot pine-tree and stuck it into this one eye, and made him roar like a thousand bulls.”

“Oh, what fun!” said Tom, jumping away from the table, and stamping first with one leg and then the other. “I say, can you tell me all about those stories? Because I sha’n’t learn Greek, you know. Shall I?” he added, pausing in his stamping with a sudden alarm, lest the contrary might be possible. “Does every gentleman learn Greek? Will Mr Stelling make me begin with it, do you think?”

“No, I should think not, very likely not,” said Philip. “But you may read those stories without knowing Greek. I’ve got them in English.”

“Oh, but I don’t like reading; I’d sooner have you tell them me. But only the fighting ones, you know. My sister Maggie is always wanting to tell me stories, but they’re stupid things. Girls’ stories always are. Can you tell a good many fighting stories?”

“Oh yes,” said Philip; “lots of them, besides the Greek stories. I can tell you about Richard Cœur-de-Lion and Saladin, and about William Wallace and Robert Bruce and James Douglas,—I know no end.”

“You’re older than I am, aren’t you?” said Tom.

“Why, how old are you? I’m fifteen.”

“I’m only going in fourteen,” said Tom. “But I thrashed all the fellows at Jacob’s—that’s where I was before I came here. And I beat ’em all at bandy and climbing. And I wish Mr Stelling would let us go fishing. I could show you how to fish. You could fish, couldn’t you? It’s only standing, and sitting still, you know.”

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Possible Heroes

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh:

“The critics say that epics have died out
With Agamemnon and the goat-nursed gods–
I’ll not believe it. I could never dream
As Payne Knight did, (the mythic mountaineer
Who travelled higher than he was born to live,
And showed sometimes the goitre in his throat
Discoursing of an image seen through fog,)
That Homer’s heroes measured twelve feet high.
They were but men!–his Helen’s hair turned grey
Like any plain Miss Smith’s, who wears a front:
And Hector’s infant blubbered at a plume
As yours last Friday at a turkey-cock.
All men are possible heroes: every age,
Heroic in proportions, double-faced,
Looks backward and before, expects a morn
And claims an epos.

Ay, but every age
Appears to souls who live in it, (ask Carlyle)
Most unheroic. Ours, for instance, ours!
The thinkers scout it, and the poets abound
Who scorn to touch it with a finger-tip:
A pewter age,–mixed metal, silver-washed;
An age of scum, spooned off the richer past;
An age of patches for old gabardines;
An age of mere transition, meaning nought,
Except that what succeeds must shame it quite,
If God please. That’s wrong thinking, to my mind,
And wrong thoughts make poor poems.”

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