ePub 版

It will take, we apprehend, about as long as will be necessary to prepare the public mind for seriously saying yes or no upon the question of the Universal Catalogue.

ART. IV. - A Critical History of the Language and Litera

ture of Ancient Greece. By WILLIAM MURE of Caldwell. 3 vols. London: 1850. GENERAL acquaintance with the literature, and some know

ledge of the language of ancient Greece, have long been regarded in this country as essential parts of a liberal education. But many, even of those who have been debarred by circumstances from the latter attainment, will still be desirous of becoming well-informed respecting those masterpieces of poetry and eloquence which have been the models of all subsequent ages, and of acquiring a popular idea of that literature which has been to a great extent the source and the model of all that have succeeded it. It is difficult to calculate, and impossible to overrate, the influence which Greek literature has exercised upon modern Europe, whether directly or through the medium of that of Rome, – itself but a bastard branch of the great Hellenic stock. But it may safely be affirmed that as no one can thoroughly understand the etymology of much of his own language who is ignorant of that of Greece, it is equally impossible for him to enter fully into the merits of the great writers of his own country, without some acquaintance with the poets and the orators, the historians and the philosophers of ancient Greece. It is, therefore, not a little remarkable that there should not exist in English any general history of Greek literature, or even any work calculated to convey to the English reader a systematic view of any one of its branches. While Homer is universally read in our schools, and the Greek dramatists familiarly studied in our universities, we do not possess any connected survey of the poetry of the Greeks as a whole, nor an intelligent guide-book to its æsthetic appreciation. Equally deficient are we in any historical view of the prose writers of Greece, or any critical estimate of her historians, her orators, or her philosophers; and the student who would seek for information concerning any of those authors who are not included in the ordinary course of school and college reading, is left to glean it at home as best he may from a variety of compilations, or to have recourse to the more copious stores of German learning.


Previous Works on the Subject.


Our previous attempts to supply these deficiencies may be disposed of very briefly. The pleasantly-written, but somewhat superficial, volume of Mr. Nelson Coleridge on the Homeric poems, was designed as the commencement of a series of similar introductions to all the classic poets of Greece-a design which we deeply regret that he was prevented from completing. However such a popular introduction might have failed in satisfying the wants of the more advanced scholar, it would have been invaluable to the young student, to whom it could scarcely have failed to impart something of that purity of taste and enlightened sensibility to the highest poetical qualities so conspicuous in its pages. Such a work was the more to be desired, because the method of instruction commonly pursued among us has unfortunately a tendency to draw off the attention of the learner from the more substantial merits of the ancient authors to grammatical distinctions and metrical refinements. Even of those who have been most distinguished at our universities, but too many, we fear, are more occupied in the vain endeavour to imitate the language and versification of the Greek tragedians than in examining or appreciating their inimitable beauties.

Of far higher pretensions, both in the comprehensiveness of its scheme and the qualifications of the writer, is the unfinished work of K. O. Müller, first presented to the public in an English dress by the Society of Useful Knowledge. Imperfect as it was unfortunately destined to remain, this work is unquestionably a most valuable addition to our knowledge of ancient literature, and had it not been cut short by the premature death of its highly-gifted author, would have probably in a great degree anticipated our complaint. But the plan on which it was conceived, and the limits within which it was confined, while they prevented it from discussing all the topics, or entering into all the details, on which the professed student might be desirous of information, necessarily rendered it dry and unattractive to the general reader. In attempting to hold a middle course between the popular and the critical character, it has failed, we think, in fully securing the advantages of either class.

The elaborate work of Colonel Mure, of which the volumes now before us are, we trust, but the first instalment, has therefore the advantage of occupying ground almost untrodden by any English rival, and supplying a deficiency long felt by every classical scholar.

It must be admitted that the difficulties of the task were of no ordinary character. Literary history in general is a branch of composition wholly of modern growth, and even in recent times has been one of the least cultivated. Among the Greeks them

selves, notwithstanding the variety of channels into which their literary industry was directed during the latter periods of their national existence, and the vast masses of literary and historical disquisition which they accumulated, we find no trace of anything like a systematic history of their literature as a whole. Their Roman successors were equally wanting in this respect, for the brief review of the principal Greek and Roman authors by Quintilian is far too slight a sketch to be considered as an exception. Even in modern times works of this description have not been numerous; and it is remarkable that neither we ourselves nor our French neighbours possess even any attempt to present a connected and complete history of our respective literatures. Italy and Spain have been far more fortunate. Tiraboschi has presented the students of Italian literature with the most complete and elaborate review of his whole subject of which any modern language can boast; while the more popular and agreeable, though diffuse, volumes of Ginguénè amply suffice for the requirements of the ordinary reader. The wellknown work of Sismondi on the Literature of the South of Europe, comprises in a smaller compass a pleasing, yet by no means scanty or superficial, review of the best authors of Spain as well as Italy. And to these must now be added the recently published History of Spanish Literature by Mr. Ticknor; a masterly performance, and which perhaps of all compositions of the kind has the most successfully combined popularity of style with sound criticism and extensive research within its own compartment.

But whatever may be the difficulties which beset the literary historian of any other age or country, these assume a far more formidable aspect in the case of the classical languages of antiquity, and especially that of ancient Greece. Here he labours at once under disadvantages apparently the most opposite. His materials are at the same time lamentably deficient and overwhelmingly copious; his subject at once too familiar and too abstruse. On the one hand, he has to deplore the almost entire loss of the writings of many of the most distinguished authors; while on the other, the few and scanty fragments which remain of their compositions, and the almost equally scanty notices of their lives and writings have been made the subject of a mass of commentary, dissertation, and conjecture, which may well appal the most stout-hearted man of letters. The literature of the Homeric question alone would fill a library of no mean dimensions. The remains of the poems known as the Epic Cycle, of which not fifty complete lines have come down to us, have afforded to one of the most eminent German scholars of the present day the subject of two goodly octavo

oppoeient and poo abstruset the writin other, the tend the almade

the almished authors; . W of their compositings have been mare


Advantages of the Author.


volumes, published at an interval of not less than fourteen years, - a singular instance of devotion to a special branch of study! In like manner, of the Lyric Poets of Greece, while Pindar is the only one of whom more than a few fragments have been transmitted to us, there is not one whose scanty débris have not been collected and re-collected, commented and re-commented, as if we could compensate for the loss of what has perished by excess of labour bestowed on what remains. Again, the leading authors of ancient Greece may be thought to be so familiar to all persons who have received a school and college education, that there is little new to be said about them. Every one knows, whether from the originals or by translations, the story of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the names and characters of the Homeric heroes, and the plots and persons of the principal Attic tragedies. But when the historian, quitting these beaten tracks of criticism, begins to wander into more remote and unfrequented paths, the reader can with difficulty be induced to follow him through the thorny mazes of German criticism, or to share in the labour of gleaning from the arid pages of ancient grammarians the few facts which they supply in the illustration of his subject.

To the execution of this arduous task Colonel Mure has brought no ordinary qualifications. He is indebted, we believe, for his classical education to a German university ; but, while he has thence derived all the best qualities of modern German scholarship, — a minute accuracy, an extensive range of reading, and a philosophical application of philological principles, - his natural clearsightedness and calmness of judgment have preserved him from the defects which too often accompany these merits. While he is keenly alive to the minutest distinctions of style, of dialect, or of metre, he never allows himself to be led away by the consideration of these petty details, to the neglect of the broader features of his subject, or the more important questions of taste and sentiment. Familiar with all that has been written on ancient literature by the critics of Germany, he is not misled by their vague and often fanciful theories, and continually recurs from the most subtle and ingenious of their speculations to the arguments of common sense, or the plain and obvious meaning of the text. Indeed, his criticisms and opinions strike us as exhibiting in general a remarkable independence of mind; whatever may be his views on any particular question, they are essentially his own; he avails himself of the labours of preceding critics as useful auxiliaries for arriving at a sound conclusion, but never permits their authority, however deservedly great, to bias him in the exercise of his own unfettered judgment. The opinions thus definitely

formel are enunciated with equal distisctness; if his style be umetime deficient in fipenes, it is rarels wanting in elearness, and the tender is never left in that maze of bewilderment, in which he too oiten finds himself, after toiling through the laborious pages of many Teutonic critics.

The general tendency of Colonel's Mure's views on the numerous subjects of controversy, which have been agitated of late years in the world of classical criticism, may be characterised as cnsentially consercatice. He tells us of himself in regard to the Homeric question, that he was at one period of his life, like most • young scholars,' a zealous disciple of the Wolfian school, but that a diligent scrutiny of its doctrines, continued through a space of twenty years, has left him with a full conviction of their fallacy. The change is certainly complete, and, as is often the case with literary as well as religious converts, the bias of his mind is now decidedly in the contrary direction. While we entirely concur with him in rejecting the extreme views of Wolf and his followers, we cannot but think that (independent as he is, he has on some occasions displayed too much deference for the authority of the ancient critics, and has been inclined to acquiesce in their established conclusions and received traditions, without always examining with sufficient care how they were established and why they were received. As it is the prevailing error of the modern German school of criticism to seek rather for novelty than truth, so it is the present disposition of Colonel Mure, now that he is restored to the bosom of the ancient faith, to look with suspicion apon every new theory, and to distrust its truth on account of its novelty.

The title of his book sufficiently indicates the particular scope which the author has proposed to himself, and the class to which he designs his work to be referred. It is a Critical History of the Language and Literature of Ancient Greece; as such, it is addressed principally to the classical scholar, and is designed not 80 much to give a popular introduction to the subject for those previously unacquainted with it, as to supply to the riper student a more complete and systematic survey of the whole field of Hellenic literature, than he would have been able to attain by his own unassisted endeavours. At the same time there are large portions of the work which almost every reader may peruse with interest and pleasure, and any one who posHesses the commonest schoolboy's power of construing the Ilomeric poems will be able to derive delight and instruction from the masterly analysis and review of them, to which Colonel Mure has devoted so large a portion of the present volumes.

The Literary History of Greece divides itself almost spon

« 上一頁繼續 »