Classical Despite Themselves

The poets who lived through the events of the Great War and the subsequent dis-junction of the 1920s lived lives of intrigue, scandal, and often stylistic isolation from the day-to-day humdrum which seemed to chip away at what was left of the old world. Artistically and spiritually, their belief was that single events and individual persons are petty, transient, and unimportant; they are not subjects worthy to be made into art unless they are shown to be symbols of an eternal truth. These poets are the Symbolists, whose search for that eternal truth grew from the despondence of the war and the failure of the previous generation to make the tradition engaging. Nevertheless, there remained elements of classical thought to the Symbolists position – Plato, after all, had taught that every thing in the world was merely a poor copy of its perfect pattern in heaven, and that it could not be understood except by those who knew that pattern.

The Symbolists, then, despite all of burgeoning modernity stimulating the senses of modern man, still took from Greece. Let us detail out the leaders of this movement, beginning with its originator who did not even live to see the Cataclysm. They may not take kindly to us learning of them as individuals, but let us have the four main leaders listed, nonetheless. Their names and most notably Greek-influenced works are:

  1. Stéphane Mellarmé (1842-98):
    1. Herodias (1869)
    1. The Afternoon of a Faun (1876)
  2. Paul-Ambroise Valery (1871-1945):
    1. The Young Fate (1917)
    1. Fragments of ‘Narcissus’ (1922)
    1. The Pythian Prophetess (1922)
  3. Ezra Pound (1885-1972):
    1. Personae of Ezra Pound (collected 1917)
    1. Cantos (1933-47)
  4. T.S. Eliot (1888-1965):
    1. Prufrock and other observations (1917)
    1. Ara Vos Prec (1920)
    1. The Waste Land (1922)
    1. Sweeney Agonistes (1932)

And in prose we consider one James Joyce (1882-1941), linked with them by his use of Greek legend, as well as sharing their techniques and attitude. His works considered include A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922).

The method used by the Symbolists was not conventional, and not one of the learned classical tradition of the nineteenth century. To expect them to be such would undermine the societal shift which was occurring more largely. It is ironic, then, that like the original Greek works which form the basis of their thought, the Symbolists leave much to the imagination. Where they differ is that the Greeks state the essentials, allowing the hearer to supply the details. The Symbolists do not state the essentials. Instead they provide vivid details, often haunting, scarcely central. In music the technique was used by Debussy and Ravel, in painting we see it in Monet and Whistler. It is the Platonic idea that true beauty are too lofty and fragile to be adequately described. Where Platonism is indirectly observing, though, the Symbolists are more sceptical. For the poets of this age, no systematic approach could work to obtain essential truths. The idea that grasping a peripheral detail will lead inevitably to a bright centre is Oriental in origin. This agrees with much of the taste associated with the Symbolists: Whistler collected Japanese pictures, Pound translated Chinese lyrics.

In another sense the Symbolists are not inserting foreign thought as much as they are becoming the inevitable descendants to the Parnassians – they favour a deliberate retreat from the intrusive, the obvious, and the vulgar, towards privacy and remoteness. They are oriental intrigue meeting with industrial rebuke, specifically a rebuke of what industrialism had done to war. They eschewed symmetry, continuity, smoothness, harmony, and logic, in favour of abrupt, unforeseeable, apparently arbitrary, transitions. This is the effect of the Great War entering the mind of the poet. Yet that classicism which lingered in the Parnassians was still present in the Symbolists. Greece was still in essence that unstated bright centre around which their details danced, like shrapnel settling down from the centre of a blast.

The Ancient Fragment: An alluring artefact for the Symbolist

Fragments and Fragmentation

Fragments appealed. It meant distortion of something complete. It meant confusion, a piece of meaning from which true meaning may not even be inferred, but merely speculated upon. No better inspiration on fragmentation existed than the fragments from ancient Greece. It is in this context that Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes was published as ‘fragments of an Aristophanic melodrama’; that Mellarmé penned his Herodias; that Valery produced the incomplete form of Fragments of ‘Narcissus’.

 Joyce, most of all, shows us in his Ulysses, a writer desperately wanting to be free, yet finding themselves bound to adopt some external suggested form. Joyce finally achieved his free form in Finnegans Wake, a nebula of dream-particles held together only by the magnetism of association, but it is Ulysses which is considered his magnum opus. That is because the reader can navigate themselves through the main plot knowing it resembles that of the Odyssey – the resourceful middle-aged wanderer makes his way through trials and temptations towards his home. The four women of Odysseus’ wanderings reappear in Ulysses:

  • Calypso is the typist Clifford
  • Nausicaa is Gerty MacDowell
  • Circe is the keeper of the brothel
  • Odysseus’ faithful wife Penelope is Bloom’s faithless wife Molly

To get bogged down in detailed parallels between Ulysses and the Odyssey is, however, an artistically pointless task. What Joyce wanted from the epic was its structural plan. But even in this we see but the barest outline. Again, Joyce’s pursuit was distortion and fragmentation. The Odyssey is the story of a quest, Ulysses is not. Bloom and his companion Dedalus merely wander through Dublin, unguided by any single purpose. Joyce and the Symbolists are ultimately too sensitive and wilful to accept the creative discipline of classical form. They were convinced that their method was the way to survive the Cataclysm. Greek mythical figures could be employed to symbolise certain spiritual attitudes. Greece was more real because it was distant from the vulgar, violent, accidental, and transitory Here-and-Now.

A Dedication to Ulysses: Joyce’s opus, both free from and integrated with, the Classical Tradition

Dark Psyche with Greek Symbols

For Mellarmé in his Afternoon of a Faun, the symbols would be taken from Theocritus’ pastoral poems. Mellarmé himself called it an eclogue. The titular faun, half Caliban and half Ariel, symbolises man’s erotic dreams of women – a mixture of animalistic desire and reverence for fragility. Hairy, horned, goat-like is the Faun; but he is also a musician and a poet. Debussy would take Mellarmé’s work and turn it to music in Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Mellarmé would counteract this symbol in Herodias, where the titular princess of proud pure beauty which repels savagery.

Valery picked up where Mellarmé left off. The Young Fate (La Jeune Parque) is, like Mellarmé’s Afternoon of a Faun, in monologue form. The ‘Fate’ in question is Parque or Parca in Latin, one of the three classical Fates. She is a creature of Graeco-Roman inspiration, adoring the sun and recoiling from a serpent whom she calls Thyrsus (a Bacchic symbol of passion). Valery’s work is laced with complex metaphors, with Parque passing between various states of being – sleep to wake, ignorance to self-knowledge, from impassibility to tenderness. In Fragments of ‘Narcissus’ Valery gives us a work with far less precious imagery, but with more skilful in sound. Narcissus is the modern man at his most deplorably self-absorbed. Valery has this ‘inexhaustible I’, drowning himself in a last ecstasy of self-anulling self-absorption. Valery’s poetry expresses a horror of sexual love as a power which dominates, uses, and ultimately humiliates the independent self. Valery would complete his trilogy of horrors with The Pythian Prophetess, the invocation of Apollo fulfilling the role of creative spirit.

Joyce, like Valery, used symbolic and mythical figures to describe his poetic grasp of the world, notably as a young man or ‘artist’. He called himself Stephen Dedalus: Stephen because he owed his education to University College by St. Stephen’s Green, and Dedalus after the mythical inventor, whose myth of invention and escape from an island prison appealed to Joyce’s own predicament. His A Portrait of the Artist also contains an epigraph quotation from Ovid’s version of the legend.

Escaping the Underworld

What force made the Symbolists reach for Greece? One parallel is that the catastrophes that befall the mythological subjects are often the acts of an avenging God. Mellarmé did not live to see the Cataclysm, sure, but others built upon his themes with the added weight of experiencing the Great War. Such a catastrophe contained elements of antiquity’s visions of destruction. Wicked man is punished by the Flood (a tale told in Babylonia, Judea, and Greece alike). The Symbolists also found strength in the purity of Greece’s mythological characters and the great store of lore contained within the Classical Tradition. Odysseus is one of the earliest in the lexicon to exhibit the strength of purity against adversity, significantly visiting the underworld to ask the seer Tiresias his best route home. The journey naturally appealed. Other Greek heroes visited the underworld – Heracles and Theseus by force, Orpheus by art; but no great poem on their adventures has survived.

The trial to the Underworld was explored in Latin by Virgil, whose Aeneas visits Pluto’s domain, guided by the immortal Sibyl and carrying as a symbol of immortality the golden bough. The Symbolists found solace in such men, who had to conquer death, or go through hell, before finding their way home. We have already seen Dante follow in this tradition. Among the modern symbolists we find Ezra Pound best follows the line from Homer to Virgil to Dante. Pound begins his Cantos with vigorous and partly unintelligible account of the Homeric account of Odysseus’ visit to hell. Pound places capitalists, warmongers, and journalists into obscene and hideous Dantesque domains. Joyce, in the aforementioned Ulysses, also has his traveller make a symbolic visit, the scene of Paddy Dignam’s funeral – a hell of poverty, drunkenness, and lust.

Classical Hell: The Symbolists saw this journey in their own lives

This hell is of a form completely negating the sense of the heroic. The Baroque age had already set itself opposite Homer in certain ways – despising its ‘vulgar’ language and gritty realism, creating mock-heroic tales such as Tom Jones. But Joyce’s tone is a further step removed. He chooses to tell a tale that is anti-heroic. It is the search for a nadir of squalor. Even the phantom of Bloom’s lost son is repellent, dressed in an Eton suit with diamond and ruby buttons and an ivory cane cast against Bloom’s beggar-like exploits to get back to a home which does not recognise him. The hell of the Symbolists was a difficult journey one from which the chance of re-emergence was remote.

Eliot’s Symbols

T.S. Eliot also showed modern life as containing undertones of the underworld. Whereas poets of the Renaissance used Graeco-Roman myth and history as a noble background to dignify the heroic deeds they described, Eliot used them as a means of showing how far society had fallen from those ideals – Sweeney leaving his pick-up girl is like Theseus deserting his mistress Ariadne. Eliot thought of modern life as vile. Ignoble deeds arose from a coarse and complacent experience. The actors of his time even lacked the style to elevate the crimes they perpetrated into a tragedy. Gone is the Boston gentleman depicted in J.P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley (1937). Sweeney belongs to the rising class that will replace him. In Sweeney among the Nightingales he sits carelessly over his coffee after a meal in an inn, chatting with prostitutes. Eliot has the nightingales as calls to King Agamemnon, who also sat triumphantly on his return home from the Trojan war. Just before he was murdered by his wife after a banquet, with the nightingales singing. This is how Eliot incorporates classical symbolism. Sweeney precariously lauding over his own perceived victory – but his rise is in fact a horror. Eliot’s poetry grows out of the contrast between the brutal materialism of today and the frail life of the spirit which is bound to suffer in conflict with it. He refined his feeling in The Waste Land, where evokates that haunting myth of Philomela, Procne, and Tereus.

Agamemnon’s Demise: 
Eliot saw the triumphal arrogance in the rising classes of his own time

The most important symbol utilised in The Waste Land  is Tiresias, the Greek prophet whom Eliot calls the most important personage of the poem. Tireasias appeared in very strange legends – he warned Oedipus of his doom, and it was to find him that Odysseus ventured into the underworld. Before that he had been changed into a woman for seven years and then back to a man, so to experience love from both points of view. Declaring woman had it more pleasurable than man, Juno lost a dispute with her husband Jupiter, and blinded him. Strange indeed. Jupiter then compensated him with the gift of prophecy. Prufrock, a feminine and over-delicate image of Eliot himself, finds himself becoming Tiresias. Helpless because of the growing femininity of the modern man, helpless against the onslaught of modernity. Tiresias, blind to the ordinary light, can see into the darkness.

Tiresias is also aged. This makes him wise, yet impotent. The world around him is full of young, violent, men of unfeeling like Sweeney, who know nothing of the past and see nothing of future. In Ash Wednesday Eliot conflates this feeling with the eagle, the same image Horace thought had best embodied Pindar. Eliot further confounds in his use of the symbol of the Sibyl, a prophetess who had a life-span of a thousand years, but without eternal youth, so that she gradually wasted away into nothing but a bodiless prophetic voice. Eliot has her appear in The Waste Land:

‘I myself saw the Sibyl at Cumae, hanging up in a bottle, and when the kids said to her “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered “I want to die”.’

That death, that withering, was a distinct part of Eliot’s experience of life.

Decorative Background

The Symbolists understood that metaphors worked better when containing the wealth Greek reference. Here are two apt examples:

  1. Mellarmé’s Salut:When Mellarmé looks at the glass of champagne in which he is to toast poetry and fellow poets, he sees the froth changed into the foam of magic seas, in which there is a glimpse of the white flanks of the Sirens.
  2. Eliot’s A Cooking Egg and Coriolan I (Triumphal March): When Eliot thinks of the splendour and brutality of military power, he images it in the eagles and trumpets of Rome.

The Symbolists felt the need to saturate their poetry with metaphors as ramparts against the despair of modernity. Such is the case in The Waste Land, which builds on earlier works containing haunting elements, such as Pater’s Marius the Epicurean. They wanted to create highly specialised art, one imperceptible to the masses. This feeling of contempt amid the masses’ lost grasp of knowledge is often concealed, like much of the Symbolists intentions. Yet every now and then we hear its cry, as in the case of Ezra Pound’ Nunc dimittis in his Personae:

The thought of what America would be like

If the classics had a wide circulation

Troubles my sleep

But the mass-man, in the eyes of these poets, is doomed to be Eliot’s Sweeney, unable to hear the nightingales.

The cryptic classicism of the symbolists can be well understood by casting an eye toward Pound’s Papyrus:


Too long…


Derided by critics at the time, there was a misunderstanding toward the emotion Pound was trying to convey. Gongula is a word which occurs twice in the lyrics and fragments we have discovered belonging to Sappho. Pound is writing a poem from the perspective of our distant descendants. They will take from our poetry like the way we take from the papyri of Sappho – fragments of feelings, and a lingering sense of loss.

Sappho’s Fragments Both Haunted and Inspired Pound

Only decades earlier the likes of Jose-Maria de Heredia and Walter Savage Landor were composing poems on Greek themes in which every detail was as firm as marble. The times were gone, and that solidity with it. Mellarmé had brought with him a sense of dissolution which engaged the later Symbolists. The cataclysm would be rubber stamped by the falling bombs of the Great War. The poets could no longer equate or use the classics as Landor and Heredia had. The old sense of civilisaiton had become, within one lifetime, akin to the Papyri of antiquity. It is important to bear in mind the movement was not unique to literature. In painting we see Ingres and Puvis de Chavannes give way to Seurat and Monet. It is also pivotal to remember the symbolists were not scholars, certainly not in the same breadth as Shelley, Milton, or Goethe. Joyce recognised this, calling himself ‘a shy guest at the feast of the world’s culture’. They also pursued and used other outlets away from modernity than the classical antiquity, often with better success: Yeats with Celtic mythology, occultism, and Hindu mysticism; Rilke in his private treasure-stock of remembered pictures, statues, noble lives, and visions. Even Eliot consumed himself with mystical Christianity as much as with Greece and Rome. Yet beneath all of the exotic pursuits of the symbolists lay a disturbed sense of self, rooted out from its touch with the classics by the onslaught of gross materialism and the devastation of the old world through grinding gears of mechanised warfare. But to survive this cataclysm, that thematic link to the classics was more important than all others.