At this half way point it is worth taking stock on where precisely we are in our attempt to survey the classical tradition. We have come through the dark ages thanks to the philosophical consolation of Boethius, found Ovidian love in middle ages France, explored duty and destiny with Dante, before exploding in the artistic wealth of Renaissance Europe. And an explosion of energy is a good way to look at those chapters dealing with the Renaissance. After the translators had helped disseminate the classics to wider audience, that audience had chosen, like the Pléiade in France, to take up the mantel and attempt making work comparable to the Greeks and Romans, without being Greek or Latin in tongue. Many of the names that emerged during the Renaissance have indeed achieved the same immortality as the Classical authors – names like Montaigne, Tasso, Spenser and, of course, Shakespeare.

Our last voyage, looking into the legacy of lyric poetry, gave us a glimpse at where the literary tradition would go as it emerged from the Renaissance. The layers contingent to lyric poetry, from the classical all the way to its dispersion and dissolution post-industrial revolution, largely ripple throughout all the forms of literature. The periods after the Renaissance were often called the modern age, though the terminology has shifted somewhat of late. The idea behind envisaging all of the post-renaissance as the modern age was due to two strands of thought:

  1. The idea of the modern meant that we were still on a wave soaring upward out of the dark ages. It meant the latest cycle of greatness in civilizational creativity, learning, and understanding.
  2. The second, conjoint to the first but specifically dealing with literature, was the idea that the great works were all unearthed. The translations made and re-made. The modern was a period more notably at ease with the classics as sources of learning. The modern meant a world where the ancients were more familiar than exotic and ultimately more mature in usage.
The Austrian National Library: During the Baroque Age, the shelves were filled with the knowledge of the Classics

At the time of Highet’s writing (1949), it was useful to break the modern into two halves, the first running from 1600-1770, the second dealing with the age of revolution until his own time immediately after the second world war. This is still a useful break, particularly as the idea of the souls of the twenty first century being modern becomes less and less agreeable. We are now in the reign of post-modernity, even if we are unsure about its significance or meaning. So the breakage of the modern age, as Highet understood it, in the year 1770 remains an important distinction. This first half is not truly modern in the sense many would understand it but baroque. The baroque age was treated as a separate layer of lyric poetry and for wider literature likewise stands out as separate from the latter, truly modern, period of the age of revolution and beyond.

The lines are, as in any instance of drawing distinction in history, somewhat blurred. Were there budding ideas which led directly to the revolutionary literature within baroque? Of course there were. Were there figures whose main work took place after 1600 to whom we would say fit closer to the Renaissance? Likewise. We have already met some of them. John Milton did not publish his Paradise Lost until 1667 and his earliest work in 1629, yet he has largely been included in the discussion of Renaissance literature. The reason is due to the character of his work, bursting with energetic enthusiasm and ingenuity that seems at odds with later baroque writers.

Further blurred lines occur in the second half of our split, during the industrial revolution. Since about 1850 there has been a strong, so far permanent, change in direction to our approach to the classics. Four key societal erruptions have diluted the impact of the classics on the everyday thought since this time:

  1. Industrialism lead to the fascination with applied science. Many bright minds would go into new fields of engineering as it gave the world, in its construction, an exoticism once held by the classics during the Renaissance.
  2. The change in governmental structure. The Western countries widened their franchises and moved toward government by the people or through the people. Whether it was democracy, socialism, communism, or fascism, all new forms turned away from the old idea of landed gentry and inherited capital. The old system, steeped as it was in ancient tradition, was naturally more inclined to cultivate the classics which, like the land from which they got their wealth, drew a temporal power from its sense of agelessness.
  3. The abolition of serfdom and slavery. Much linked to the second point, this added freedom to the masses would give rise to greater movement of people and undermine the stayed traditions. Like the engineers, but without the touch of genius, the newly liberated masses would find exoticism in doing rather than in reading, in travelling spatially throughout the world, rather than travelling temporally through use of the page. This search for spatial exoticism has continued down to the present day.
  4. The education of the masses. If the masses could travel, acquire capital readily, and gain political influence, then it followed that they should be educated. The means of this education has shifted further and further away from the classical education over time towards a preoccupation with educating, so the student may do specific tasks, rather than educating so that the student may be wholly educated, with a well-rounded understanding of the world.

From these four developments came three impacts on literature in particular:

  1. A huge increase in the amount of literature produced. The masses, having gained literacy as a craft, did proceed to write and publish literature on an extraordinary scale. All the time in the world would not allow you to consume even a fraction of it. This growth in sheer number of publications would inevitably lead to our second impact.
  2. A shift toward standards acceptable to large masses. This would mean both deviation away from the strict classical standard that emerged from the Baroque Age, not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. But there are pitfalls, and many of them. Art was re-orientated, either to suit the banal wishes of the largest paying consumers or, more sinisterly, to specifically create often crude propaganda. The result of this was that poetry gave way to prose while the epic gave way to the novel. Gone is the didactic poem, waned is the emphasis on style. Now is the hour of ‘power’ and ‘appeal’ – meaning targeted emotional intensity within certain fields. All is designed to please a large public of fairly low cultural standards. The words of Highet were true in 1949 and are even more true today: ‘Since about 1900 no single literary type has raised its standards, but all have broadened them’. Indeed, we have ceased to have standards at all.
  3. The reaction against the trend. The final literary impact is the most interesting. Extreme specialisation and cauterisation became the aim of artists determined not to aim at the masses. In literature the best-known are Eliot, Joyce, and Rilke though the reaction stemmed into other artistic fields, delivering Pablo Picasso in painting, and Arnold Schönberg in music. It led to the creation of works of art our of purely private material – work to be decoded, sprawled over in search of hidden meaning.

One unquestioned gain amidst the dissolution was the increase in vigour and energy that, in an expanding world of knowledge, there was a deepened field of subject-matter from which the author could pluck inspiration. And still, up until the Great War knowledge of the classics continued to grow – it remained the bedrock of higher education, a knowledge box that must be ticked before proceeding on in life. Archaeology seemed to uncover more and more understanding about their lives and times up until roughly the same period. If we choose the point of demarcation to be 1914, we may say that the classical tradition remained in a place of growth – even if growth meant dilution.

30 Years War
The Thirty Years’ War: A Threat to Renaissance’s Achievements

To what extent, then, did the ruptures of the world wars cause the fatal blow to the Classical Tradition? European civilisation had withstood cataclysms before, no more than the civil wars of the Reformation culminating in the thirty years war. War, looting, and political oppression are three weapons that attack scholarship. (We think of Casaubon learning Greek while hiding in a cave.) There were six counter-waves which rolled back the Renaissance:

  1. The Sack of Rome of 1527. Italy had been the heart of the renaissance, and the imagery of the Charles V’s savage troops gave haunting images akin to Alaric in 410AD. The Spanish occupation of much of Italy was only settled by the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559.
  2. The St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre of 1572. This cast the protestant scholars out of France and inhibited expressive thought in that country for some time thereafter. It’s affects have been alluded to in ‘Fractious France’.
  3. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648). This was the sledgehammer blow to German scholarship and flushed out any chance of Germany attaining the literary heights of Western Europe until the time of Goethe.
  4. The Ottoman Threat. Unashamedly called the barbarians from the east by Highet, he is to an extent correct. They put Hungary out of the picture of European civilisation for centuries with their victory at the battle of Mohacs in 1526, occupied the Balkans for even longer, and kept Poland and Austria perpetually on their toes.
  5. The Spanish Inquisition. In attempting to curb Protestantism as well as Jewry, it took the approach of levelling the entire field. Dampening much creativity and learning as it did so. It twice imprisoned St Ignatius Loyola, while St Theresa was several times denounced and had her Conceptos del amor de Dios banned. Key dates are the founding of the Society of Jesus in 1540, whose Jesuits have been participators in much good and evil both, and the Council of Trent in 1564 which began censorship in the modern manner with its index of prohibited books.
  6. The Puritan and Lutheran Reaction. Not all blame in the reformations threat to classicism rests with the Catholics. There was an ardent strand of Protestantism that destroyed all forms of art with its iconoclasm. Most notable of these was the ban placed on the English theatre from 1642 which lasted virtually until 1660. Even then, it returned with an added lewdness not seen before its departure, and a Marlowe or Shakespeare was not among its dramatists. Recovery would be long and hard.

Nevertheless scholarship can fight back against this barbarism if it is intensely stimulated by the subject-matter. This was still true at the close of the Renaissance. The most important reason for classical survival and its subsequent strengthening is that, during this destruction of the old order of Christendom, knowledge of classical literature was still early in its life cycle. Much of Petronius was not discovered until it turned up in 1650 in Dalmatia, for example. This is a key difference between the intrusions faced by Europe in the Reformation and that which it faced in the twentieth century. One wonders about the timing of certain archaeological digs which could have injected a new energy into the classics. If Schliemann had discovered Troy in the 1930s as opposed to 60 years earlier. If the great digs at Mesopotamia, started professionally by the Germans in the first decade of the twentieth century through the Deutsche-Orient Gesellschaft, had not been cut short by the dissolution of both the German Reich and the Ottoman Empire after the first world war. If their successors, the British had not then been first disrupted by war with Germany (again!), and second, undone in the region with the execution of King Faisal of Iraq in 1958.

Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell explores the Middle East, 1920s

The Fertile Crescent, the earliest civilisations – Nineveh, Uruk, Nimrud and the rest – could have galvanised again our want to complete the puzzle. Ovid wrote of Pyramis and Thisbe, the ancient Hebrews wrote of the ancient flood. These and more had their roots in Babylon. Who knows what more could, nay should, have been found? With the correct energy and correct timing, European man could have withstood the wars’ threat to classicism. Our understanding of our place in the world could have been enhanced, just as hid had been in the Renaissance. The death knells were ringing out by 1979, when Iran prohibited archaeological digs to occur within their borders. Perhaps even more symbolically, during the Iraq war at the beginning of 21st century the Iraq museum, founded by Gertrude Bell whilst Iraq was under a British mandate in the 1920s, was looted. Countless work was lost. In a sense the Iraq war closes the turmoil of the twentieth century quite nicely. It had begun so promisingly with the Deutsche-Orient Gesellschaft’s endeavours before the Great War. It ended with a distinct loss of history, rather than a broadening of it.

Solace can be taken from the fact that it is not all played out. If the Reformation’s 1517 is our 1914, we are only in the equivalent of their 1620s. This series intends to do just that. Throughout the rest of the chapters we should take care to see how the Classical tradition overcame their difficulties, adding the works of Baroque and Revolutionary Age masters to our repertoire as we do so. We will begin by showcasing one of the most pressing literary questions which emerged from the maturing of the classical tradition – could the classics ever be outdone. If so, how? This is the subject of the next instalment.