From Ancient Greece to the man on the Clapham omnibus

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, Gilbert Murray’s The Classical Tradition in Poetry. 

Can you imagine a contemporary newspaper, whose daily readership is measured in millions, publishing as its weekly book review a piece on the importance of classical traditions in the writing of poetry? Neither can I. That is what The Evening Standard did on the 19th of January 1928 when it published Arnold Bennett’s review of Gilbert Murray’s The Classical Tradition in Poetry. In the review, Bennett bemoans his own lack of Greek and his tendency to doze off while watching stage productions of Greek plays. However, this does not stop him declaring emphatically:

Here is a book I can recommend.

Frontispiece

What book was it that he was recommending? Gilbert Murray, Professor of Greek at Oxford University, had given the first lectures on poetry as the incumbent of the newly established Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetry at Harvard University in the autumn of 1926. These were then republished by the Oxford University Press. Murray’s thesis was that all poetry could be firmly put into the Greek tradition of mimesis, a combination of mimicry and immersion that, like the Greek dancers of the molpe, allowed the poem to become that which it is describing. “The world is born. Homer sings” as Victor Hugo wrote and Murray quotes more than once, each time pointing out Hugo’s error: Homer too had models that he drew from, and these models too had their own models.

What did the  readers (as much as 2 million daily) of The Evening Standard make of it all? Any answer to that question will, I suppose, depend on your opinion of Arnold Bennett, literary taste in 1920s Britain and who could afford a book costing five shillings (as much as £40 if you link it to relative wages in 1928)? My own feeling is that readers of The Evening Standard did not simply turn the page or skim through the review. Gilbert Murray is not well known today, as this Google Book Ngram make only too clear:

The numbers don't lie.

It was a different story back in the 1920s and 30s. Gilbert Murray was not simply a Greek scholar he was also a bit of personality. His work on behalf of the League of Nations, his speeches in favour of disarmament and free trade were reported at length in the Burnley News, the Hull Daily Mail and the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. He was not solely of interest to the metropolitan press. Bennett wrote:

…the Professor has been and is a great civilising influence on the present age. I immensely admire his taste, his moral bases and his achievement. And he emphatically is not narrow-minded. His sympathetic vision can and does embrace many varied manifestations of life, including the modern; he constantly shows this by his allusions and his comparisons.

It is this emphasis on the personal qualities of Gilbert Murray that would, I think, catch the eye of the reader on the London omnibus or underground.

Gilbert Murray National Library of Australia

What did I make of it? I found the chapters on Milton and Shakespeare a challenge; almost overwhelmed by the talk of dochmiacs and dactyl-spondees in the chapter on Metre and sceptical of his links between Hamlet and Orestes. All, I should point out, based on the same knowledge of Greek as had Bennett. Am I glad I read it? Yes I am. His style is clear and limpid. His passion for his subject shines through. He is academic without being exclusive.

On the 24th of January, Bennett saw Noel Coward in comedy The Second Man and declared him “admirable.”

 

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