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THE ancient classical writers of the world are thought to
have shown but little sensibility to that natural beauty with which the earth has been clothed, as with a magnificent garment, by her Almighty Creator. Those of their works which have been preserved to us are declared by critics rarely to bear evidence of much depth of feeling of this kind. The German scholars are understood to have been the first to broach this opinion—the first to point out the fact, and to comment on what appears a singular inconsistency.
“ If we bear in mind,” says Schiller, “ the beautiful scenery with which the Greeks were surrounded, and remember the opportunities possessed by a people living in so genial a climate, of entering into the free enjoyment of the contemplation of nature, and observe how conformable were their mode of thought, the bent of their imaginations, and the habits of their lives to the simplicity of nature, which was so faithfully reflected in their poetic works, we can not fail to remark with surprise how few traces are to be met among them of the sentimental interest with which we in modern times attach ourselves to the individual characteristics of natural scenery. The Greek poet is certainly in the highest degree correct, faithful, and circumstantial in his descriptions of nature, but his heart has more share in his words than if he were treating of a garment, a shield, or a suit of armor. Nature seems to interest his understanding more than his moral perceptions ; he does not cling to her charms with the fervor and the plaintive passion of the poet of modern times.”
This passage of Schiller, quoted in “ Cosmos,” is supported by similar observations of M. de Humboldt himself: “ Specific descriptions of nature occur only as accessories, for in Grecian art all things are centered in the sphere of human life.” And, again : “ The description of nature in its manifold richness of form, as a distinct branch of poetic literature, was wholly unknown to the Greeks. The landscape appears among them merely as the background of the picture, of which human figures constitute the main subject.” Touches of description must of course occasionally occur, and whenever these are found, the harmony of Grecian taste gives them the highest beauty possible. The many noble similes and comparisons scattered through the greater poems, form admirable detached pictures; but they occupy the attention very briefly ; a rapid glance is thrown upon the hill, the river, or the wood, rather for the purpose of affording greater relief to the figures in the foreground than of enduing the sketch of these features of the earth with any charm or importance in itself. But it is quite impossible to believe for a moment that the Greeks, so fully alive to the spirit of beauty in all its other forms, should have been blind to its effects in the natural world. Other ways of accounting for the apparent inconsistency must be sought for, and the peculiar character and position of the people would seem to suggest these. It was quite consistent with the condition of the world at that early period, and of the Greeks in particular, that nature and art should not then hold the same relative places which they occupy to-day. Art was still in its youth, and of more importance to them than it is to us. Nature, with all her untold wealth, her unharvested magnificence, lay before them, close at hand, always within reach; there was no fear that she should fail them. But human Art was in its earliest stages of culture ; every successive step was watched with most lively interest; every progressive movement became of great importance, while the genius of the Greeks particularly led them to feel extreme delight in every achievement of the kind. In fact, all their highest enjoyments flowed from this source, and into of song
this sphere they threw themselves with their whole soul. Whatever susceptibility to the grandeur and beauty of the inanimate creation was felt among them, sought therefore rather to express itself in forms more positive than the voice
What, for instance, was the most noble of their temples but the image in Dorian marble of some grand primeval grove, whose gray, columnar trunks they found reflected in the waves of the Ægean Sea ? What were the vase, and the vine wreathed about its lip, but the repetition of living forms of fruits and foliage growing in the vale of Tempe, or at the foot of Hymettus ? The Greek mind thus beheld the whole external world chiefly through the medium of human Art. An interesting and very striking instance of this peculiarity occurs in the Iliad; no natural object which has a place in the poem-neither the sea nor the skies, neither the streams nor the mountains, all glowing as these were with the purple light of a Grecian atmosphere-could draw from Homer a description filling half the space allotted by him to the shield of Achilles ; nay, more, observe that where rural life and its accessories
the most distinctly in his verse, it is not the reality which he shows us; we do not ourselves tread the brown soil of the freshly-tilled fallow; we do not pass along the one narrow path in the vineyard, amid the purple clusters, but we are called upon to behold these objects—“sight to be admired of all!”—as they lie curiously graven by the hand of Vulcan on the bronze buckler of the hero, where he
“ With devices multiform, the disk Capacious charged, toiling with skill divine."* Their very religion was but a work of art, a brilliant web of the human imagination, into which, as on the metal of Vulcan, their poets had wrought
“ Borders beauteous, dazzling bright,” where Olympic deities passed to and fro, with grace and spirit unequaled, but moving ever by the springs of the most com
* See Part XXIX. of the following selections.