In an essay, R.W. Livingstone (fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, circa 1921) stated that there are four main qualities of Greek literature: SIMPLICITY, PERFECTION OF FORM, TRUTH and BEAUTY.
This article will deal briefly with the first two elements: simplicity and form.
Livingstone wrote: “If a reader turned from Milton to Homer, from Shakespeare to Sophocles . . . he would find one point of difference between the earlier and the later writers in the greater simplicity of the former. They are briefer: the Oedipus Tyrannus has 1530 lines while the first two acts of Hamlet alone have more than 1600 . . .”
And yet, of course, Livingstone reminds us that brevity is not the soul of simplicity. In addition, there was an inherent simplicity in the content of Greek writing: an absence of muddle and tangle. This quality also denotes their style and FORM (today’s second element of Greek literature).
“[Greek] writing has a double quality. It shows a firm hold on the central and fundamental things: and it presents them unmixed with and unfocused by minor issues, so that they stand out like forest trees which no undergrowth of brushwood masks.”
Very well said, Mr. Livingstone! And it is nothing but the truth; for, if we were to examine a passage from Homer, perhaps, we would see that directness very clearly — untainted by confused thoughts, or the emotions of the speaker. (In this case, the speaker is Menelaus.)
“So I spoke, and straight the heavenly goddess answered: ‘Yes, stranger, I will truly tell you all. When the sun reaches the mid-sky, out from the water comes the unerring old man of the sea at a puff of the west wind and veiled in the dark ripple. When he is come, he lies down under the caverned cliffs; while round him seals, the brood of a fair sea nymph, huddle and sleep, on rising from the foaming water, and pungent is the scent they breathe of the unfathomed sea. There I will bring you at the dawn of day and lay you in line.’ “
So said Livingstone: “[The Greeks] had not ‘thought themselves into weariness.’ They were the children of the world, and they united the startling acuteness, directness, and simplicity of children to the intellects of men.”
La Giaconda, or the Mona Lisa, was referenced in a famous essay by British art critic Walter Pater (author of Studies in the History of the Renaissance). This, of course, is a reference to modern art, in opposition to ancient Greek art.
Pater said: “Hers is the head upon which all ‘the ends of the world are come;’* and the eyelids are a little weary . . . She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times and learned the secrets of the grave . . .”
*Reference to 1 Corinthians 10:11. “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.”
But it is Mr. Livingstone’s claim that this weariness does not reside within Greek art and literature. And, for the most part, I daresay that I agree with him. Modern writing is filled the tiredness of the present-day world; the youth of ages is long past; and our feet are dragging. And yet our intellect, and our thirst for creating new work, is still there. We are tired; yet our love of literature revives us.
“It would be foolish,” said Mr. Livingstone, “to demand that modern writers should have the simplicity of Homer . . . or to pretend that they cannot be great without it. Every age must and will have its own literature, reflecting the minds and circumstances of those who write it.”
And that concludes today’s article on simplicity and form. Stay tuned for a second installment on the truth and beauty of Greek literature.
As always — thank you for reading!