CHAPTER VII. ROMAN LITERATURE.
Now how rich in poetry was classical antiquity, whether sung in the Greek or Latin languages. In all those qualities which give immortality, it has never been surpassed, whether in simplicity, in passion, in fervor, in fidelity to nature, in wit, or in imagination. It existed from the early ages, and continued to within a brief period of the fall of the empire. With the rich accumulation of ages, the Romans were familiar. They knew nothing indeed of the solitary grandeur of the Jewish muse, or the mythological myths of the Ante-Homeric songsters; but they possessed the Iliad and the Odyssey, with their wonderful truthfulness, and clear portraiture of character, their absence of all affectation, their serenity and cheerfulness, their good sense and healthful sentiments, yet so original that the germ of almost every character which has since figured in epic poetry can be found in them. We see in Homer [Footnote: Born probably at Smyrna, an Ionian city, about one hundred and fifty years after the Trojan War.] a poet of the first class, holding the same place in literature that Plato does in philosophy, or Newton in science, and exercising a mighty influence on all the ages which have succeeded him. For nearly three thousand years his immortal creations have been the delight and the inspiration of men of genius, and they are as marvelous to us as they were to the Athenians, since they are exponents of the learning, as well as of the consecrated sentiments of the heroic ages. We see no pomp of words, no far-fetched thoughts, no theatrical turgidity, no ambitious speculations, no indefinite longings; but we read the manners and customs of the primitive nations, and lessons of moral wisdom and human nature as it is, and the sights and wonders of the external world, all narrated with singular simplicity, yet marvelous artistic skill. We find accuracy, delicacy, naturalness, yet grandeur, sentiment, and beauty, such as Pheidias represented in his statues of Jupiter. No poems have ever been more popular, and none have extorted greater admiration from critics. Like Shakespeare, Homer is a kind of Bible to both the learned and unlearned among all people and ages - one of the prodigies of this world. His poems form the basis of Greek literature, and are the best understood and the most widely popular of all Grecian composition. The unconscious simplicity of the Homeric narrative, its vivid pictures, its graphic details and religious spirit, create an enthusiasm such as few works of genius can claim. Moreover, it presents a painting of society, with its simplicity and ferocity, its good and evil passions, its compassion and its fierceness, such as no other poem affords. [Footnote: The Homeric poems have been translated into nearly all the European languages, and several times into English. The last translation is by the Earl of Derby - a most remarkable work. Guizot, Cours d'Hist. Mod., Lecon 7me; Grote, vol. ii. p. 277; Studies in Homer, by Hon. W. E. Gladstone; Mure, Critical Hist. of Lang. and Lit. of Greece; Muller, Hist, of the Lit. of Ancient Greece, translated by Donaldson.] Nor is it necessary to speak of any other Grecian epic, when the Iliad and the Odyssey attest the perfection which was attained one hundred and twenty years before Hesiod was born. Grote thinks that the Iliad and the Odyssey were produced at some period between 850 B.C., and 776 B.C.
In lyrical poetry the Greeks were no less remarkable, and indeed they attained to absolute perfection, owing to the intimate connection between poetry and music. Who has surpassed Pindar in artistic skill? His triumphal odes are paeans, in which piety breaks out in expressions of the deepest awe, and the most elevated sentiments of moral wisdom. They alone of all his writings have descended to us, but all possess fragments of odes, songs, dirges, and panegyrics, which show the great excellence to which he attained. He was so celebrated that he was employed by the different states and princes of Greece to compose choral songs for special occasions, especially the public games. Although a Theban, he was held in the highest estimation by the Athenians, and was courted by kings and princes. [Footnote: Born in Thebes 522 B.C., and died probably in his eightieth year, and was contemporary with Aeschylus and the battle of Marathon.] We possess, also, fragments of Sappho, Simonides, Anacreon, and others, enough to show that, could the lyrical poetry of Greece be recovered, we should probably possess the richest collection that the world has produced.
[Greek dramatic poetry.]
But dramatic poetry was still more varied and remarkable. Even the great masterpieces of Sophocles and Euripides, were regarded by contemporaries as inferior to many tragedies utterly unknown to us.