The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature

The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature

The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature

The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature


Originally published in 1949, Gilbert Highet's seminal The Classical Tradition is a herculean feat of comparative literature and a landmark publication in the history of classical reception. As Highet states in the opening lines of his Preface, this book outlines "the chief ways in which Greek and Latin influence has moulded the literatures of western Europe and America". With that simple statement, Highet takes his reader on a sweeping exploration of the history of western literature. To summarize what he covers is a near-impossible task. Discussions of Ovid and French literature of the Middle Ages and Chaucer's engagement with Virgil and Cicero lead, swiftly, into arguments of Christian versus "pagan" works in the Renaissance, Baroque imitations of Seneca, and the (re)birth of satire. Building momentum through Byron, Tennyson, and the rise of "art of art's sake", Highet, at last, arrives at his conclusion: the birth and establishment of modernism. Though his humanist style may appear out-of-date in today's postmodernist world, there is a value to ensuring this influential work reaches a new generation, and Highet's light touch and persuasive, engaging voice guarantee the book's usefulness for a contemporary audience. Indeed, the book is free of the jargon-filled style of literary criticism that plagues much of current scholarship. Accompanied by a new foreword by renown critic Harold Bloom, this reissue will enable new readers to appreciate the enormous legacy of classical literature in the canonical works of medieval, Renaissance, and modern Europe and America.


At eighty-three I am about to commence my fifty-eighth year of full-time teaching at Yale. In this phase of an academic career I confine myself to small discussion groups of senior undergraduates, just twelve in each, so as to allow time for frequent individual meetings. These recent years one group centers upon Shakespeare, the other on American literature from Emerson to Hart Crane.

With the more gifted students, I urge that they study Greek and Latin, as I did as a Cornell undergraduate (1947–1951). In old age I remain grateful to my mentor M. H. Abrams, who encouraged me when most I needed it, and to the classicists who taught me Greek and Latin: Friedrich Solmsen, Harry Caplan, James Hutton, and Gordon Kirkwood. Because of them I learned to read closely in Homer, Plato, the Athenian dramatists, Pindar and the Greek historians, as well as Vergil, Lucretius, Horace, Ovid, and other Latin poets.

These digital days, relatively few students study the classical tongues, or even the history of the English language. It is unrealistic to expect otherwise, a sad conviction that induces me to write this foreword to Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition.

I read Highet’s book when it appeared in 1949, and I gained by its clarity and comprehensiveness. Two generations later, I have just reread it, and I find it still to be invaluable.

Highet begins by asserting that our world is a “direct spiritual descendant of Greece and Rome,” which may have been only a partial truth sixty years ago and is scarcely accurate in 2013. That hardly seems to me a flaw in his book, where the argument is less important than the cavalcade of influences and connections that he charts in English, French, Italian, Spanish, and German literature. His learning is vast and thorough, and he had the gift of popularizing without debasing or oversimplifying major works of the literary imagination.

Scope indeed is this book’s strength: from Dante and Chaucer through Milton on to Montaigne, Shakespeare, Goethe and the Romantics, and finally to James Joyce.

Under T. S. Eliot’s sway, Highet stressed benign transmission between classical tradition and individual talents. Eliot himself, in other writings, told darker stories about literary lineages. I admit to an interest here since I have passed a lifetime teaching and writing about . . .

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