Dance to the Music of Time

The struggle to keep poetry alive is a game of tag-team wrestling, and the greatest poets play their matches with the poets of ancient Greece and Rome. We all know it for Latin. Plautus and Vergil are centones of Greek verse, their originality hidden, for some, by passage after passage taken directly from Greek poetry.

English poets have played in the same arena. Shakespeare learned how to make verse sing and stage action jump by rewriting Ovid and Plautus. The classic tradition of English verse begins with John Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas and hits its stride with Dryden's Vergil and Pope's Homer. (Professors should not be allowed to pontificate on "The Rape of the Lock" and "The Epistle to Doctor Arbuthnot" until they have worked through Pope's Iliad.) From Milton to T.S. Eliot our greatest poets have known Greek and Latin and other languages to boot and have filled their verse with echoes and quotations. English poetry grew strong out of that sometimes rough-and-ready contact sport.

So it is no wonder that our contemporary poetry is anemic and asthmatic, that it wheezes out limp phrases, mumbling to itself about personal problems or the politics of newspaper editorials. It needs to be sent south to the Mediterranean for its health. Its regimen must be the classics in the original tongues. It has to resign its current motto: "Better mendacities than the classics...

Join now to access the full article and gain access to other exclusive features.

Get Started

Already a member? Sign in here