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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Genius of Greek Art
By John Addington Symonds (1840–1893)
 
From ‘Studies of the Greek Poets’

THE GREEKS had no past; “no hungry generations trod them down:” whereas the multitudinous associations of immense antiquity envelop all our thoughts and feelings. “O Solon, Solon,” said the priest of Egypt, “you Greeks are always children!” The world has now grown old; we are gray from the cradle onwards, swathed with the husks of outworn creeds, and rocked upon the lap of immemorial mysteries. The travail of the whole earth, the unsatisfied desires of many races, the anguish of the death and birth of successive civilizations, have passed into our souls. Life itself has become a thousandfold more complicated and more difficult for us than it was in the springtime of the world. With the increase of the size of nations, poverty and disease and the struggle for bare existence have been aggravated. How can we, then, bridge over the gulf which separates us from the Greeks? How shall we, whose souls are aged and wrinkled with the long years of humanity, shake hands across the centuries with those young-eyed, young-limbed, immortal children? Can we make criticism our Medea,—bid the magnificent witch pluck leaves and flowers of Greek poetry and art and life, distilling them for us to bathe therein, and regenerate our youth like Æson?  1
  Like a young man newly come from the wrestling-ground, anointed, chapleted, and very calm, the Genius of the Greeks appears before us. Upon his soul there is yet no burden of the world’s pain; the creation that groaneth and travaileth together has touched him with no sense of anguish, nor has he yet felt sin. The pride and the strength of adolescence are his: audacity and endurance, swift passions and exquisite sensibilities, the alternations of sublime repose and boyish noise, grace, pliancy, and stubbornness and power, love of all fair things and radiant in the world, the frank enjoyment of the open air, free merriment, and melancholy well beloved. Of these adolescent qualities, of this clear and stainless personality, this conscience whole and pure and reconciled to nature, what survives among us now? The imagination must be strained to the uttermost before we can begin to sympathize with such a being. The blear-eyed mechanic, stifled in a hovel of our sombre Northern towns, canopied through all the year with smoke, deafened with wheels that never cease to creak, stiffened by toil in one cramped posture, oblivious of the sunlight and green fields, could scarcely be taught even to envy the pure, clear life of art made perfect in humanity, which was the pride of Hellas. His soul is gladdened, if at all, by a glimpse of celestial happiness far off. The hope that went abroad across the earth so many centuries ago has raised his eyes to heaven. How can he comprehend a mode of existence in which the world itself was adequate to all the wants of the soul, and when to yearn for more than life affords was reckoned a disease?  2
  We may tell of blue Ægean waves, islanded with cliffs that seem less real than clouds, whereon the temples stand, burning like gold in sunset or turning snowy fronts against the dawn. We may paint high porches of the gods, resonant with music and gladdened with choric dances; or describe perpetual sunshine and perpetual ease,—no work from year to year that might degrade the body or impair the mind, no dread of hell, no yearning after heaven, but summer-time of youth and autumn of old age and loveless death bewept and bravely borne. The life of the schools, the theatre, the wrestling-ground, the law courts; generous contests on the Pythian or Olympian plains; victorious crowns of athletes or of patriots; Simonidean epitaphs and funeral orations of Pericles for fallen heroes; the prize of martial prowess or poetic skill; the honor paid to the pre-eminence of beauty,—all these things admit of scholar-like enumeration. Or we may recall by fancy the olive groves of the Academy; discern Hymettus pale against the burnished sky, and Athens guarded by her glistening goddess of the mighty brow,—Pallas, who spreads her shield and shakes her spear above the labyrinth of peristyles and pediments in which her children dwell. Imagination can lead us to the plane-trees on Cephisus’s shore, the labors of the husbandmen who garner dues of corn and oil, the galleys in Peiræan harborage. Or with the Lysis and the Charmides beneath our eyes, we may revisit the haunts of the wrestlers and the runners; true-born Athenians, fresh from the bath and crowned with violets,—chaste, vigorous, inured to rhythmic movements of the passions and the soul.  3
  Yet after all, when the process of an elaborate culture has thus been toilsomely accomplished, when we have trained our soul to sympathize with that which is so novel and so strange and yet so natural, few of us can fairly say that we have touched the Greeks at more than one or two points. Novies Styx interfusa coercet: between us and them crawls the nine times twisted stream of death. The history of the human race is one; and without the Greeks we should be nothing. But just as an old man of ninety is not the same being as the boy of nineteen,—nay, cannot even recall to memory how and what he felt when the pulse of manhood was yet gathering strength within his veins,—even so now, civilized humanity looks back upon the youth of Hellas, and wonders what she was in that blest time.  4
  A few fragments yet remain from which we strive to reconstruct the past. Criticism is the product of the weakness as well as of the strength of our age. In the midst of our activity, we have so little that is artistically salient or characteristic in our life that we are not led astray by our own individuality, or tempted to interpret the past wrongly by making it square with the present. Impartial clearness of judgment in scientific research, laborious antiquarian zeal, methodic scrupulousness in preserving the minutest details of local coloring, and an earnest craving to escape from the dreary present of commonplace routine and drudgery into the spirit-stirring freedom of the past,—these are qualities of the highest value which our century has brought to bear upon history. They make up in some measure for our want of the creative faculties which more productive but less scientific ages have possessed, and enable those who have but little original imagination to enjoy imaginative pleasures at second hand, by living as far as may be in the clear light of antique beauty.  5
  The sea, the hills, the plains, the sunlight of the South, together with some ruins which have peopled Europe with phantoms of dead art and the relics of Greek literature, are our guides in the endeavor to restore the past of Hellas. Among rocks golden with broom-flowers, murmurous with bees, burning with anemones in spring and oleanders in summer, and odorous through all the year with thyme, we first assimilate the spirit of the Greeks. It is here that we divine the meaning of the myths, and feel those poems that expressed themselves in marble ’mid the temples of the gods to have been the one right outgrowth from the sympathy of man, as he was then, with nature. In the silence of mountain valleys thinly grown with arbutus and pine and oak, open at all seasons to pure air, and breaking downwards to the sea, we understand the apparition of Pan to Pheidippides, we read the secret of a nation’s art that aimed at definition before all things. The bay of Naples, the coast of Sicily, are instinct with the sense of those first settlers, who, coasting round the silent promontories, ran their keels upon the shelving shore, and drew them up along the strand, and named the spot Neapolis or Gela. The boys of Rome were yet in the wolf’s cavern. Vesuvius was a peaceful hill on which the olive and the vine might slumber. The slopes of Pozzuoli were green with herbs, over which no lava had been poured. Wandering about Sorrento, the spirit of the Odyssey is ours. Those fishing-boats with lateen sail are such as bore the heroes from their ten-years’ toil at Troy. Those shadowy islands caught the gaze of Æneas straining for the promised land. Into such clefts and rents of rock strode Herakles and Jason when they sought the golden apples and the golden fleece. Look down. There gleam the green and yellow dragon scales, coiled on the basement of the hills, and writhing to each curve and cleavage of the chasm. Is it a dream? Do we in fact behold the mystic snake, or in the twilight do those lustrous orange-trees deceive our eyes? Nay, there are no dragons in the ravine—only thick boughs and burnished leaves and snowy bloom and globes of glittering gold. Above them on the cliff sprout myrtle rods, sacred to love; myrtle branches, with which the Athenians wreathed their swords in honor of Harmodius. Lilies and jonquils and hyacinths stand, each straight upon his stem,—a youth, as Greeks imagined, slain by his lover’s hand, or dead for love of his own loveliness, or cropped in love’s despite by death that is the foe of love. Scarlet and white anemones are there: some born of Adonis’s blood, and some of Aphrodite’s tears. All beauty fades; the flowers of earth, the bloom of youth, man’s strength, and woman’s grace, all wither and relapse into the loveless and inexorable grave. This the Greeks knew, mingling mirth with melancholy, and love with sadness, their sweetest songs with elegiac melodies.  6
  Beneath the olive-trees, among the flowers and ferns, move stately maidens and bare-chested youths. Their eyes are starry-softened or flash fire, and their lips are parted to drink in the breath of life. Some are singing in the fields an antique, world-old monotone of song. Was not the lay of Linus, the burden of [Greek] (High are the oak-trees, O Menalcas), some such canzonet as this? These late descendants of Greek colonists are still beautiful—like moving statues in the sunlight and the shadow of the boughs. Yonder tall, straight girl, whose pitcher, poised upon her head, might have been filled by Electra or Chrysothemis with lustral waters for a father’s tomb, carries her neck nobly as a Fate of Pheidias. Her body sways upon the hips, where rests her modeled arm; the ankle and the foot are sights to sit and gaze at through a summer’s day. And where, if not here, shall we meet with Hylas and Hyacinth, with Ganymede and Hymenæus, in the flesh? As we pass, the laughter and the singing die away. Bright dresses and pliant forms are lost. We stray onward through the sheen and shade of olive branches.  7
  The olive was Athene’s gift to Hellas, and Athens carved its leaves and berries on her drachma with the head of Pallas and her owl. The light which never leaves its foliage, silvery beneath and sparkling from the upper surface of burnished green; the delicacy of its stem, which in youth and middle and old age retains the distinction of finely accentuated form; the absence of sombre shadow on the ground beneath its branches,—might well fit the olive to be the symbol of the purity of classic art. Each leaf is cut into a lance-head of brilliancy, not jagged or fanciful or woolly like the foliage of Northern trees. There is here no mystery of darkness, no labyrinth of tortuous shade, no conflict of contrasted forms. Excess of light sometimes fatigues the eye amid those airy branches, and we long for the repose of gloom to which we are accustomed in our climate. But gracefulness, fertility, power, radiance, pliability, are seen in every line. The spirit of the Greeks itself is not more luminous and strong and subtle. The color of the olive-tree, again, is delicate. Its pearly grays and softened greens in no wise interfere with the lustre which is the true distinction of the tree. Clear and faint like Guido’s colors in the Ariadne of St. Luke’s at Rome, distinct as the thought in a Greek epigram, the olive branches are relieved against the bright blue of the sea. The mountain slopes above are clothed by them with light as with a raiment; clinging to knoll and vale and winding creek, rippling in hoary undulations to the wind, they wrap the hills from feet to flank in lucid haze. Above the olives shine bare rocks in steady noon, or blush with dawn and evening. Nature is naked and beautiful beneath the sun,—like Aphrodite, whose raiment falls waist downward to her sandals on the sea, but whose pure breasts and forehead are unveiled.  8
  Nature is thus the first, chief element by which we are enabled to conceive the spirit of the Greeks. The key to their mythology is here. Here is the secret of their sympathies, the well-spring of their deepest thoughts, the primitive potentiality of all they have achieved in art. What is Apollo but the magic of the sun whose soul is light? What is Aphrodite but the love charm of the sea? What is Pan but the mystery of nature, the felt and hidden want pervading all? What, again, are those elder, dimly discovered deities, the Titans and the brood of Time, but forces of the world as yet beyond the touch and ken of human sensibilities? But nature alone cannot inform us what that spirit was. For though the Greeks grew up in scenes which we may visit, they gazed on them with Greek eyes, eyes different from ours; and dwelt upon them with Greek minds, minds how unlike our own! Unconsciously, in their long and unsophisticated infancy, the Greeks absorbed and assimilated to their own substance that loveliness which it is left for us only to admire. Between them and ourselves—even face to face with mountain, sky, and sea, unaltered by the lapse of years—flow the rivers of Death and Lethe and New Birth, and the mists of thirty centuries of human life are woven like a veil. To pierce that veil, to learn even after the most partial fashion how they transmuted the splendors of the world into æsthetic forms, is a work which involves the further interrogation of their sculpture and their literature.  9
 
 
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