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

Excerpt

His book is an outline of the chief ways in which Greek and Latin influence has moulded the literatures of western Europe and America.

The Greeks invented nearly all the literary patterns which we use: tragedy and comedy, epic and romance, and many more. In the course of their two thousand years of writing they worked out innumerable themes--some as light as 'Drink to me only with thine eyes', others as powerful as a brave man's journey through hell. These themes and patterns they passed on to the Romans, who developed them and added much of their own.

When the Roman empire fell civilization was nearly ruined. Literature and the arts became refugees, hiding in outlying areas or under the protection of the church. Few Europeans could read during the Dark Ages. Fewer still could write books. But those who could read and write did so with the help of the international Latin language, by blending Christian material with Greek and Roman thoughts.

New languages formed themselves, slowly, slowly. The first which has left a large and mature literature of its own is Anglo- Saxon, or Old English. After it came French; then Italian; and then the other European languages. When authors started to write in each of these new media, they told the stories and sang the songs which their own people knew. But they turned to Rome and Greece for guidance in strong or graceful expression, for interesting stories less well known, for trenchant ideas.

As these languages matured they constantly turned to the Greeks and Romans for further education and help. They enlarged their vocabulary by incorporating Greek and Roman words, as we are still doing: for instance, television. They copied and adapted the highly developed Greco-Roman devices of style. They learned famous stories, like the murder of Caesar or the doom of Oedipus. They found out the real powers of dramatic poetry, and realized what tragedy and comedy meant. Their authors modelled themselves on Greek and Roman writers. Nations found inspiration for great political movements (such as the French Revolution) in Greece and Rome.

This process of education by imitating Greco-Roman literature . . .

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