Greece in the English Renaissance

Greece in the English Renaissance April 28, 2015

According to C. S. Lewis (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, 27-28), English humanists were most interested in style, but the style was mostly Latin: “Greek was given abundance of ‘mouth honor,’ but only the minor Greek authors (Plutarch, Heliodrous, Chilles Tatius, the Anthology) were really relished. Greek will not take the hard, high polish which was what the humanists principally cared for: it is too supple, sensitive, and intimate. You can hardly be marmoreal in Greek . . . It would be quite a mistake to think of the sixteenth century as a period in which we were much influenced by the spirit or form of Greek literature. Plato’s influence was one of doctrine not of form: he affected philosophers and philosophizing poets. Chapman’s Homer was in that age impossible for us to assimilate.”

He adds, “The great age of Greek influence is not the sixteenth century but the nineteenth. Shelley, Landor, Browning, Tennyson, Arnold, Ruskin, and even Morris, were all, in their different ways, more receptive of the Greek spirit than any Elizabethan. No doubt they saw the Greeks with a romantic distortion of their own, but that is a trifle compared with the humanistic distortion….a very large area of sensibility is common to the ancient, the medieval, and the romantic mind, and that humanism stands outside that area. Until the fog of classicism has lifted, the greater classics are invisible.”

The different treatments are evident from a comparison of Chapman’s Homer and Douglas’s translation of the Aeneid: “Both translators read their own philosophy into the originals. As Virgil’s afterworld became hell and purgatory in Douglas, so in Chapman the nod of Zeus is related to the doctrine of the first Mover. In an age with no real historic sense this was perhaps inevitable. Again, both read their own practical ideals into their authors: but here Chapman is far more disabled than Douglas. The Scot’s knightly and Christian ideal is not, for poetical purposes, very far removed from Virgilian pietas and valour: but there is a yawning abyss between the despair and passion of Homer’s warriors and Chapman’s half-Stoical, half-Machiavellian, idea of the Great Man. Chapman’s Homer is always teaching lessons (not always very noble) of civil and domestic prudence which never crossed the real Homer’s mind. We may say of Chapman, as he (gratuitously) makes Hecuba say of Hector, ‘policy was his undoing. . . . His Jove hardly ever addresses Juno without some comment by Chapman on the proper treatment of shrewish wives. When Agamemnon sacrifices . . . we are told how ‘the politick king made show respectes to heaven.’ In vi.160 et seq. Homer says that Anteia wanted Bellerophontes to lie with her in secret ‘but did not at all persuade the right-minded and prudent Bellerophontes’: Chapman explains that his prudence led him to shun ‘the danger of a princesse loue.’ Later in the same book we have twelve wholly original lines explaining Hector’s reason for addressing Paris exactly as he did.”

Lewis argues that this comes from his admiration for Homer: Chapman was sure that Homer had something important to say even if what he wrote seemed inconsequential. When he added lines, he thought he was making explicit the important themes that Homer intended.

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