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- The Interdependence of Literature - 4/15 -
Horace, in Cicero and Caesar. The graceful softening of language and art among the imaginative Greeks, becomes in the Romans austere power and majesty, with a tendency to express greatness by size. These early indications of race characteristics never died out, as we may see by the contrast between the Apollo Belvidere of the Greeks, and the Moses of Michelangelo. The oldest existing example of Latin or Roman literature is the sacred chant of the Frates Arvales. These latter composed a college of Priests whose prescribed duty was to offer prayers for abundant harvests. This took place in the spring, in solemn dances and processions, not unlike the Bacchic festivals of the Greeks, although the Roman dances took place in the temple with closed doors. The dance was called the tripudium from its having three rhythmical beats. The inscription of this litany of the Frates was discovered in Rome in 1778, and experts have agreed that the monument belongs to the reign of Heliogabalus, 218 A.D. It is said to contain the very words used by the priests in the earliest times.
"Most of the old literary monuments in Rome," says a modern writer, "were written in Saturnian verse, the oldest measure used by the Latin poets. It was probably derived from the Etruscans, and until Ennius introduced the heroic hexameter the strains of the Italian bards flowed in this metre. The structure of the Saturnian is very simple, and its rhythmical arrangement is found in the poetry of every age and country. Macaulay adduces as an example of this measure, the following line from the well-known nursery song:
'The queen was in her parlor, Eating bread and honey.'
From this species of verse, which probably prevailed among the natives of Provence (the Roman Provencia) and into which at a later period, rhyme was introduced as an embellishment, the Troubadours derived the metre of their ballad poetry, and thence introduced it into the rest of Europe."
Literature with the Romans was not of spontaneous growth; it was chiefly due to the influence of the Etruscans, who were their early teachers, they lacked that delicate fancy and imagination that made the Greeks, even before they emerged from a state of barbarism, a poetical people. The first written literature of the Romans was in the form of history, in which they excelled. Like other nations, they had oral compositions in verse long before they possessed any written literature. The exploits of heroes were recited and celebrated by the bards of Rome as they were among the Northern nations. Yet these lays were so despised by the Romans that we can scarcely see any trace of their existence except in certain relics which have been borrowed from true poetry and converted into the half fabulous history of the infant ages of Rome. That the Romans, as a people, had no great national drama, and that their poems never became the groundwork of a later polished literature was due to the incorporation of foreigners into their nation who took little interest in the traditions of their earlier achievements. Father Ennius (239-169 B.C.), as Horace calls him, was the true founder of Latin poetry. He enriched the Latin language, gave it new scope and power; and paid particular attention to its grammatical form. What he has done was so well done, that it has never been undone, although later ages added new improvements to the language. In fable Rome was an imitator of Greece; but nevertheless Phaedrus (16 A.D.) struck out a new line for himself, and became both a moral instructor and a political satirist. Celsus, who lived in the reign of Tiberius, was the author of a work on medicine which is used as a textbook even in the present advanced state of medical science.
The Greek belief in destiny becomes in the Romans stoicism. This doctrine, found in the writings of Seneca, and in the tragedies attributed to him, led to the probability that he was their author. Seneca has had many admirers and imitators in modern times. The French school of tragic poets took him for their model.
Corneille and Racine seem to consider his works real tragedy.
Cicero's philosophical writings are invaluable in order to understand the minds of those who came after him. Not only all Roman philosophy of the time; but a great part of that of the Middle Ages was Greek philosophy filtered through Latin, and mostly founded on that of Cicero. But of all the Roman creations, the most original was jurisprudence. The framework they took from Athens; but the complete fabric was the work of their own hands. It was first developed between the consulate of Cicero and the death of Trajan (180 years), and finally carried to completion under Hadrian. This system was of such a high order that the Romans have handed it down to the whole of modern Europe, and traces of Roman law can be found in the legal formulas of the entire civilized world.
After the fall of the Western Empire these laws had little force until the twelfth century, when Irnerius, a German lawyer, who had lived in Constantinople, opened a school at Bologna, and thus brought about a revival in the West of Roman civil law. Students came to this school from all parts of Europe, and through them Roman jurisprudence was carried into, and took root in foreign countries. By common consent the invention of satire is attributed to the Romans. The originator of the name was Ennius; but the true exponent of Roman satire was Lucilius, who lived 148-102 B.C. His writings mark a distinct era in Roman literature and filled no less than thirty volumes, some fragments of which remain. After his death there was a decline in satire until fifty years later, when Horace and Juvenal gave it a new impetus, although their style was different from that of Lucilius. Doctor Johnson was such an admirer of the two finest of Juvenal's satires that he took pains to imitate them.
Boethius, the last of the Roman philosophers, left a work "on the Consolations of Philosophy," which is known in all modern languages. A translation was made into Anglo-Saxon by King Alfred in 900 A.D. Virgil (70-19 B.C.) has taken Homer as his model in his great national poem of the Aeneid. In many passages it is an imitation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In his didactic poems, known as the Bucolics, Virgil has made use of Theocritus, while in the Georgics he has chosen Hesiod as his model. The later didactic poets of all ages have imitated Virgil, particularly in England, where Thomson's Seasons is a thoroughly Virgilian poem. It is easy to see in Virgil where borrowed methods end and native strength begins; for, in spite of being close imitators of the Greek, there is a character peculiar to the writers of Rome by means of which they have acquired an appearance of dignity and worthiness all their own.
The traditions of all nations go back to an age of heroes. Nature, also, has had her time of stupendous greatness, a period of great revolutions in nature, of which we can see traces to this day; and of huge animals, whose bones are still being dug up. The history of civilization also has its period of great achievements, and poetry has had its time of the wonderful and gigantic. In numerous heroic poems of different nations we can trace the unity of all heroic personages, as in the Iliad and the Odyssey of Greece, the Sagas of the North in the Nibelungen-lied, and the Ramayon of the Orient. Freedom, greatness and heroism are embodied in these poems, and many of them breathe a martial spirit.
We find the same character, however touched by local color, in all these beautiful traditions of whatever nation or clime; at the zenith of success, in the spring-time of youth and hope, on the very eve of joy unutterable, there often seizes on the soul of man an overwhelming sense of the hollowness and fleetingness of life. It is this touch of the spiritual which raises these old heroic poems to such sublime beauty and power. Poetry of this kind implies a nation, one which is still, or has been, great; one which has a past, a legendary history, vivid recollections, and an original and poetical manner of thought, as well as a clearly defined mythology.
Poetry of this order--lyric as well as epic--is much more the child of nature than of art. These great mythological poems for hundreds of years were never written; but were committed to memory, sung by the bards, and handed down from one generation to another until in time they were merged, after the Christian era, into the historical heroic poems. These in turn were the origin of the chivalrous poetry which is peculiar to Christian Europe, and has produced such remarkable effect on the national spirit of the noblest inhabitants of the world. Nor has this oral poetry entirely died out. In the present day Mr. Stephen Gwynne has astonished the world by telling of how he heard aged peasants in Kerry reciting the classics of Irish-Gaelic literature, legendary poems and histories that had descended from father to son by oral tradition; and the same phenomena was found by Mr. Alexander Carmichael among the Gaelic peasants in the Scottish Highlands and surrounding islands. It has been said that heroic poetry is of the people, and that dramatic poetry is the production of city and society; and cannot exist unless it has a great metropolis to be the central point of its development, and it is only by the study of the literature of all nations that we see how essentially these heroic poems were the foundation of all that followed them in later ages.
The Scandinavian Nation held, during the Middle Ages, the first and strongest influence over the poetry and thought of Western Europe. The oldest and purest remains of the poets of German Nations are contained in the Scandinavian Edda. Its mythology is founded on Polytheism; but through it, as through the religion of all nations of the world, there is a faint gleam of the one Supreme God, of infinite power, knowledge and wisdom, whose greatness and justice could not be represented in the form of ordinary man. Such was the God of the Pagan Germans, and such was the earliest belief of mankind.
Perhaps the poet priests of primitive times, who shaped the imaginative mythology of the North, were conscious of the one true God; but considered Him above the comprehension of the rude men of the times, so they invented the deities who were more nearly akin to the material forces that these people alone understood. The second part of the first Edda contains the great Icelandic poems, the first of which is the song of Voland, the famous northern smith.
Voland, or Wayland, the Vulcan of the North, is of unknown antiquity; and his fame, which spread all over Europe, still
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