On Not Knowing Greek (in 1923)

Virginia Woolf

One hundred years ago, as a diversion from writing her novel Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) set about describing her complex, intimate relationship with Ancient Greek. Her essay would be published two years later in the collection The Common Reader (Hogarth, London, 1925, pp.39–59), under the playfully ambiguous title “On not knowing Greek”.

Woolf did know Greek, a language she had started to learn at the Ladies Department of King’s College London in 1897.[1] Nevertheless, her reading of Ancient Greek texts was still relatively narrow by the 1920s. At the time of writing, she had read the seven extant plays of Sophocles, a couple of plays by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes apiece, as well as four Platonic dialogues. Her knowledge of these texts came from a combination of reading the original Greek and using English or French translations. At any rate, ‘On not knowing Greek’ reveals in technicolour Woolf’s deep-rooted belief in the magical strangeness of Greek as a language. Paradoxically, she emerges to be fascinated by the very untranslatability and inherent unknowability of Ancient Greek.

Thoby, Vanessa, Virginia, Julia, and Adrian learn with their mother, Julia Stephen, at Talland House in St Ives Cornwall, 1894.

That fascination did not fade. A decade later, the joys Woolf found in Ancient Greek and its literature was manifest. In 1934, aged 52, she wrote in her diary. “Reading Antigone. How powerful that spell is still – Greek. Thank heaven I learnt it young – an emotion different from any other. I will read Plotinus: Herodotus: Homer I think”[2]

Her words will speak for themselves. After the essay, we also reproduce as an appendix Woolf’s earlier piece from 1917, ‘The perfect language‘, in which her praise for Greek literature (and, in turn, the newly launched Loeb Classical Library) is strikingly fulsome.

The pagination of the 1925 edition is given in square brackets. Translations and references are provided for Greek quotations (and some typographical errors silently corrected). The original pieces had no footnotes or illustrations, but we have added some here and there.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry, c.1917 (priv. coll.).

On Not Knowing Greek

For it is vain and foolish to talk of knowing Greek, since in our ignorance we should be at the bottom of any class of schoolboys, since we do not know how the words sounded, or where precisely we ought to laugh, or how the actors acted, and between this foreign people and ourselves there is not only difference of race and tongue but a tremendous breach of tradition. All the more strange, then, is it that we should wish to know Greek, try to know Greek, feel for ever drawn back to Greek, and be for ever making up some notion of the meaning of Greek, though from what incongruous odds and ends, with what slight resemblance to the real meaning of Greek, who shall say?

It is obvious in the first place that Greek literature is the impersonal literature. Those few hundred years that separate John Paston from Plato, Norwich from Athens, make a chasm which the vast tide of European chatter can never succeed in crossing. When we read Chaucer, we are floated up to him insensibly on the current of our ancestors’ lives, and later, as records increase and memories lengthen, there is scarcely a figure which has not its nimbus of association, its life and letters, its wife and family, its house, its character, its happy or dismal catastrophe. But the Greeks remain in a fastness of their own. Fate has been kind [40] there too. She has preserved them from vulgarity. Euripides was eaten by dogs; Aeschylus killed by a stone; Sappho leapt from a cliff. We know no more of them than that. We have their poetry, and that is all.

But that is not, and perhaps never can be, wholly true. Pick up any play by Sophocles, read— 

Son of him who led our hosts at Troy of old, son of Agamemnon,

and at once the mind begins to fashion itself surroundings. It makes some background, even of the most provisional sort, for Sophocles; it imagines some village, in a remote part of the country, near the sea. Even nowadays such villages are to be found in the wilder parts of England, and as we enter them we can scarcely help feeling that here, in this cluster of cottages, cut off from rail or city, are all the elements of a perfect existence. Here is the Rectory; here the Manor house, the farm and the cottages; the church for worship, the club for meeting, the cricket field for play. Here life is simply sorted out into its main elements. Each man and woman has his work; each works for the health or happiness of others. And here, in this little community, characters become part of the common stock; the eccentricities of the clergyman are known; the great ladies’ defects of temper; the blacksmith’s feud with the milkman, and the loves and matings of the boys and girls. Here life has cut the same grooves for centuries; customs have [41] arisen; legends have attached themselves to hilltops and solitary trees, and the village has its history, its festivals, and its rivalries.

Some fellow members of the Bloomsbury Group at Garsington Manor, Oxfordshire, in 1915: left to right, Lady Ottoline Morell, Maria Nys (future wife of Aldous Huxley), Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell (National Portrait Gallery, London).

It is the climate that is impossible. If we try to think of Sophocles here, we must annihilate the smoke and the damp and the thick wet mists. We must sharpen the lines of the hills. We must imagine a beauty of stone and earth rather than of woods and greenery. With warmth and sunshine and months of brilliant, fine weather, life of course is instantly changed; it is transacted out of doors, with the result, known to all who visit Italy, that small incidents are debated in the street, not in the sitting-room, and become dramatic; make people voluble; inspire in them that sneering, laughing, nimbleness of wit and tongue peculiar to the Southern races, which has nothing in common with the slow reserve, the low half-tones, the brooding introspective melancholy of people accustomed to live more than half the year indoors.

That is the quality that first strikes us in Greek literature, the lightning-quick, sneering, out-of-doors manner. It is apparent in the most august as well as in the most trivial places. Queens and Princesses in this very tragedy by Sophocles stand at the door bandying words like village women, with a tendency, as one might expect, to rejoice in language, to split phrases into slices, to be intent on verbal victory. The humour of the people was not good-natured like that of our postmen and cab-drivers. The taunts of men lounging at the street corners had something cruel [42] in them as well as witty. There is a cruelty in Greek tragedy which is quite unlike our English brutality. Is not Pentheus, for example, that highly respectable man, made ridiculous in the Bacchae before he is destroyed? In fact, of course, these Queens and Princesses were out of doors, with the bees buzzing past them, shadows crossing them, and the wind taking their draperies. They were speaking to an enormous audience rayed round them on one of those brilliant southern days when the sun is so hot and yet the air so exciting. The poet, therefore, had to bethink him, not of some theme which could be read for hours by people in privacy, but of something emphatic, familiar, brief, that would carry, instantly and directly, to an audience of seventeen thousand people perhaps, with ears and eyes eager and attentive, with bodies whose muscles would grow stiff if they sat too long without diversion. Music and dancing he would need, and naturally would choose one of those legends, like our Tristram and Iseult, which are known to every one in outline, so that a great fund of emotion is ready prepared, but can be stressed in a new place by each new poet.

Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon, Frederic Leighton, 1868/9 (Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, UK).

Sophocles would take the old story of Electra, for instance, but would at once impose his stamp upon it. Of that, in spite of our weakness and distortion, what remains visible to us? That his genius was of the extreme kind in the first place; that he chose a design which, if it failed, would show its failure in gashes and ruin, not in the gentle blurring of some insignificant detail; which, if it succeeded, would cut each stroke to [43] the bone, would stamp each fingerprint in marble. His Electra stands before us like a figure so tightly bound that she can only move an inch this way, an inch that. But each movement must tell to the utmost, or, bound as she is, denied the relief of all hints, repetitions, suggestions, she will be nothing but a dummy, tightly bound. Her words in crisis are, as a matter of fact, bare; mere cries of despair, joy, hate

οἲ ‘γὼ τάλαιν’, ὄλωλα τῇδ’ ἐν ἡμέρᾳ.[3]

παῖσον, εἰ σθένεις, διπλῆν.[4]

But these cries give angle and outline to the play. It is thus, with a thousand differences of degree, that in English literature Jane Austen shapes a novel. There comes a moment—“I will dance with you,” says Emma—which rises higher than the rest, which, though not eloquent in itself, or violent, or made striking by beauty of language, has the whole weight of the book behind it. In Jane Austen, too, we have the same sense, though the ligatures are much less tight, that her figures are bound, and restricted to a few definite movements. She, too, in her modest, everyday prose, chose the dangerous art where one slip means death.

Orestes killing Clytemnestra, etched by Jean Duplessi-Bertaux and engraved by Jean Baptiste Patas, 1792 (after a Roman bas-relief of the 2nd cent. AD, now in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia).

But it is not so easy to decide what it is that gives these cries of Electra in her anguish their power to cut and wound and excite. It is partly that we know her, that we have picked up from little turns and twists of the dialogue hints of her character, of her appearance, which, characteristically, she neglected; of something suffering in her, outraged and stimulated to its utmost [44] stretch of capacity, yet, as she herself knows (“my behaviour is unseemly and becomes me ill”), blunted and debased by the horror of her position, an unwed girl made to witness her mother’s vileness and denounce it in loud, almost vulgar, clamour to the world at large. It is partly, too, that we know in the same way that Clytemnestra is no unmitigated villainess. “δεινὸν τὸ τίκτειν ἐστίν,”[5] she says—“there is a strange power in motherhood”. It is no murderess, violent and unredeemed, whom Orestes kills within the house, and Electra bids him utterly destroy—“Strike again.” No; the men and women standing out in the sunlight before the audience on the hill-side were alive enough, subtle enough, not mere figures, or plaster casts of human beings.

Yet it is not because we can analyse them into feelings that they impress us. In six pages of Proust we can find more complicated and varied emotions than in the whole of the Electra. But in the Electra or in the Antigone we are impressed by something different, by something perhaps more impressive—by heroism itself, by fidelity itself. In spite of the labour and the difficulty it is this that draws us back and back to the Greeks; the stable, the permanent, the original human being is to be found there. Violent emotions are needed to rouse him into action, but when thus stirred by death, by betrayal, by some other primitive calamity, Antigone and Ajax and Electra behave in the way in which we should behave thus struck down; the way in which everybody has always behaved; and thus we [45] understand them more easily and more directly than we understand the characters in the Canterbury Tales. These are the originals, Chaucer’s the varieties of the human species.

Detail of a page of Woolf’s first draft of “On Not Knowing Greek” in her notebook for 1923/4 (British Library Add MS 51044, f.84r, accessible here).

It is true, of course, that these types of the original man or woman, these heroic Kings, these faithful daughters, these tragic Queens who stalk through the ages always planting their feet in the same places, twitching their robes with the same gestures, from habit not from impulse, are among the greatest bores and the most demoralising companions in the world. The plays of Addison, Voltaire, and a host of others are there to prove it. But encounter them in Greek. Even in Sophocles, whose reputation for restraint and mastery has filtered down to us from the scholars, they are decided, ruthless, direct. A fragment of their speech broken off would, we feel, colour oceans and oceans of the respectable drama. Here we meet them before their emotions have been worn into uniformity. Here we listen to the nightingale whose song echoes through English literature singing in her own Greek tongue. For the first time Orpheus with his lute makes men and beasts follow him. Their voices ring out clear and sharp; we see the hairy, tawny bodies at play in the sunlight among the olive trees, not posed gracefully on granite plinths in the pale corridors of the British Museum. And then suddenly, in the midst of all this sharpness and compression, Electra, as if she swept her veil over her face and forbade us to think of her any more, speaks of that very nightingale: “that bird distraught [46] with grief, the messenger of Zeus. Ah, queen of sorrow, Niobe, thee I deem divine—thee; who evermore weepest in thy rocky tomb.”

And as she silences her own complaint, she perplexes us again with the insoluble question of poetry and its nature, and why, as she speaks thus, her words put on the assurance of immortality. For they are Greek; we cannot tell how they sounded; they ignore the obvious sources of excitement; they owe nothing of their effect to any extravagance of expression, and certainly they throw no light upon the speaker’s character or the writer’s. But they remain, something that has been stated and must eternally endure.

Yet in a play how dangerous this poetry, this lapse from the particular to the general must of necessity be, with the actors standing there in person, with their bodies and their faces passively waiting to be made use of! For this reason the later plays of Shakespeare, where there is more of poetry than of action, are better read than seen, better understood by leaving out the actual body than by having the body, with all its associations and movements, visible to the eye. The intolerable restrictions of the drama could be loosened, however, if a means could be found by which what was general and poetic, comment, not action, could be freed without interrupting the movement of the whole. It is this that the choruses supply; the old men or women who take no active part in the drama, the undifferentiated voices who sing like birds in the pauses of the wind; who can comment, or sum up, or allow the poet [47] to speak himself or supply, by contrast, another side to his conception. Always in imaginative literature, where characters speak for themselves and the author has no part, the need of that voice is making itself felt. For though Shakespeare (unless we consider that his fools and madmen supply the part) dispensed with the chorus, novelists are always devising some substitute—Thackeray speaking in his own person, Fielding coming out and addressing the world before his curtain rises. So to grasp the meaning of the play the chorus is of the utmost importance. One must be able to pass easily into those ecstasies, those wild and apparently irrelevant utterances, those sometimes obvious and commonplace statements, to decide their relevance or irrelevance, and give them their relation to the play as a whole.

We must “be able to pass easily”; but that of course is exactly what we cannot do. For the most part the choruses, with all their obscurities, must be spelt out and their symmetry mauled. But we can guess that Sophocles used them not to express something outside the action of the play, but to sing the praises of some virtue, or the beauties of some place mentioned in it. He selects what he wishes to emphasize and sings of white Colonus and its nightingale, or of love unconquered in fight. Lovely, lofty, and serene, his choruses grow naturally out of his situations, and change, not the point of view, but the mood. In Euripides, however, the situations are not contained within themselves; they give off an atmosphere of doubt, of suggestion, [48] of questioning; but if we look to the choruses to make this plain we are often baffled rather than instructed. At once in the Bacchae we are in the world of psychology and doubt; the world where the mind twists facts and changes them and makes the familiar aspects of life appear new and questionable. What is Bacchus, and who are the Gods, and what is man’s duty to them, and what the rights of his subtle brain? To these questions the chorus makes no reply, or replies mockingly, or speaks darkly as if the straitness of the dramatic form had tempted Euripides to violate it, in order to relieve his mind of its weight. Time is so short and I have so much to say, that unless you will allow me to place together two apparently unrelated statements and trust to you to pull them together, you must be content with a mere skeleton of the play I might have given you. Such is the argument. Euripides therefore suffers less than Sophocles and less than Aeschylus from being read privately in a room, and not seen on a hill-side in the sunshine. He can be acted in the mind; he can comment upon the questions of the moment; more than the others he will vary in popularity from age to age.

Busts of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark).

If then in Sophocles the play is concentrated in the figures themselves, and in Euripides is to be retrieved from flashes of poetry and questions far flung and unanswered, Aeschylus makes these little dramas (the Agamemnon has 1663 lines; Lear about 2600) tremendous by stretching every phrase to the utmost, by sending them floating forth in metaphors, by bidding [49] them rise up and stalk eyeless and majestic through the scene. To understand him it is not so necessary to understand Greek as to understand poetry. It is necessary to take that dangerous leap through the air without the support of words which Shakespeare also asks of us. For words, when opposed to such a blast of meaning, must give out, must be blown astray, and only by collecting in companies convey the meaning which each one separately is too weak to express. Connecting them in a rapid flight of the mind we know instantly and instinctively what they mean, but could not decant that meaning afresh into any other words. There is an ambiguity which is the mark of the highest poetry; we cannot know exactly what it means. Take this from the Agamemnon for instance—

ὀμμάτων δ’ ἐν ἀχηνίαις ἔρρει πᾶσ’ Ἀφροδίτα.[6]

The meaning is just on the far side of language. It is the meaning which in moments of astonishing excitement and stress we perceive in our minds without words; it is the meaning that Dostoevsky (hampered as he was by prose and as we are by translation) leads us to by some astonishing run up the scale of emotions and points at but cannot indicate; the meaning that Shakespeare succeeds in snaring.

Aeschylus thus will not give, as Sophocles gives, the very words that people might have spoken, only so arranged that they have in some mysterious way a general force, a symbolic power, nor like Euripides will he combine incongruities and thus enlarge his little [50] space, as a small room is enlarged by mirrors in odd corners. By the bold and running use of metaphor he will amplify and give us, not the thing itself, but the reverberation and reflection which, taken into his mind, the thing has made; close enough to the original to illustrate it, remote enough to heighten, enlarge, and make splendid.

For none of these dramatists had the licence which belongs to the novelist, and, in some degree, to all writers of printed books, of modelling their meaning with an infinity of slight touches which can only be properly applied by reading quietly, carefully, and sometimes two or three times over. Every sentence had to explode on striking the ear, however slowly and beautifully the words might then descend, and however enigmatic might their final purport be. No splendour or richness of metaphor could have saved the Agamemnon if either images or allusions of the subtlest or most decorative had got between us and the naked cry

ὀτοτοτοῖ ποποῖ δᾶ. ὦ ’πολλον, ὦ ’πολλον.[7]

Dramatic they had to be at whatever cost.

But winter fell on these villages, darkness and extreme cold descended on the hill-side. There must have been some place indoors where men could retire, both in the depths of winter and in the summer heats, where they could sit and drink, where they could lie stretched at their ease, where they could talk. It is Plato, of course, who reveals the life indoors, and describes [51] how, when a party of friends met and had eaten not at all luxuriously and drunk a little wine, some handsome boy ventured a question, or quoted an opinion, and Socrates took it up, fingered it, turned it round, looked at it this way and that, swiftly stripped it of its inconsistencies and falsities and brought the whole company by degrees to gaze with him at the truth. It is an exhausting process; to concentrate painfully upon the exact meaning of words; to judge what each admission involves; to follow intently, yet critically, the dwindling and changing of opinion as it hardens and intensifies into truth. Are pleasure and good the same? Can virtue be taught? Is virtue knowledge? The tired or feeble mind may easily lapse as the remorseless questioning proceeds; but no one, however weak, can fail, even if he does not learn more from Plato, to love knowledge better. For as the argument mounts from step to step, Protagoras yielding, Socrates pushing on, what matters is not so much the end we reach as our manner of reaching it. That all can feel—the indomitable honesty, the courage, the love of truth which draw Socrates and us in his wake to the summit where, if we too may stand for a moment, it is to enjoy the greatest felicity of which we are capable.

Alcibiades being taught by Socrates, François-André Vincent, 1776 (Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France).

Yet such an expression seems ill fitted to describe the state of mind of a student to whom, after painful argument, the truth has been revealed. But truth is various; truth comes to us in different disguises; it is not with the intellect alone that we perceive it. It is [52] a winter’s night; the tables are spread at Agathon’s house; the girl is playing the flute; Socrates has washed himself and put on sandals; he has stopped in the hall; he refuses to move when they send for him. Now Socrates has done; he is bantering Alcibiades; Alcibiades takes a fillet and binds it round “this wonderful fellow’s head”. He praises Socrates. “For he cares not for mere beauty, but despises more than any one can imagine all external possessions, whether it be beauty or wealth or glory, or any other thing for which the multitude felicitates the possessor. He esteems these things and us who honour them, as nothing, and lives among men, making all the objects of their admiration the playthings of his irony. But I know not if any one of you has ever seen the divine images which are within, when he has been opened and is serious. I have seen them, and they are so supremely beautiful, so golden, divine, and wonderful, that everything which Socrates commands surely ought to be obeyed even like the voice of a God.” All this flows over the arguments of Plato—laughter and movement; people getting up and going out; the hour changing; tempers being lost; jokes cracked; the dawn rising. Truth, it seems, is various; Truth is to be pursued with all our faculties. Are we to rule out the amusements, the tendernesses, the frivolities of friendship because we love truth? Will truth be quicker found because we stop our ears to music and drink no wine, and sleep instead of talking through the long winter’s night? It is not to the cloistered disciplinarian mortifying himself in solitude that [53] we are to turn, but to the well-sunned nature, the man who practises the art of living to the best advantage, so that nothing is stunted but some things are permanently more valuable than others.

So in these dialogues we are made to seek truth with every part of us. For Plato, of course, had the dramatic genius. It is by means of that, by an art which conveys in a sentence or two the setting and the atmosphere, and then with perfect adroitness insinuates itself into the coils of the argument without losing its liveliness and grace, and then contracts to bare statement, and then, mounting, expands and soars in that higher air which is generally reached only by the more extreme measures of poetry—it is this art which plays upon us in so many ways at once and brings us to an exultation of mind which can only be reached when all the powers are called upon to contribute their energy to the whole.

But we must beware. Socrates did not care for “mere beauty”, by which he meant, perhaps, beauty as ornament. A people who judged as much as the Athenians did by ear, sitting out-of-doors at the play or listening to argument in the market-place, were far less apt than we are to break off sentences and appreciate them apart from the context. For them there were no Beauties of Hardy, Beauties of Meredith, Sayings from George Eliot. The writer had to think more of the whole and less of the detail. Naturally, living in the open, it was not the lip or the eye that struck them, but the carriage of the body and the proportions [54] of its parts. Thus when we quote and extract we do the Greeks more damage than we do the English. There is a bareness and abruptness in their literature which grates upon a taste accustomed to the intricacy and finish of printed books. We have to stretch our minds to grasp a whole devoid of the prettiness of detail or the emphasis of eloquence. Accustomed to look directly and largely rather than minutely and aslant, it was safe for them to step into the thick of emotions which blind and bewilder an age like our own. In the vast catastrophe of the European war our emotions had to be broken up for us, and put at an angle from us, before we could allow ourselves to feel them in poetry or fiction. The only poets who spoke to the purpose spoke in the sidelong, satiric manner of Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. It was not possible for them to be direct without being clumsy; or to speak simply of emotion without being sentimental. But the Greeks could say, as if for the first time, “Yet being dead they have not died”. They could say, “If to die nobly is the chief part of excellence, to us out of all men Fortune gave this lot; for hastening to set a crown of freedom on Greece we lie possessed of praise that grows not old”. They could march straight up, with their eyes open; and thus fearlessly approached, emotions stand still and suffer themselves to be looked at.

But again (the question comes back and back), Are we reading Greek as it was written when we say this? When we read these few words cut on a tombstone, a [55] stanza in a chorus, the end or the opening of a dialogue of Plato’s, a fragment of Sappho, when we bruise our minds upon some tremendous metaphor in the Agamemnon instead of stripping the branch of its flowers instantly as we do in reading Lear—are we not reading wrongly? losing our sharp sight in the haze of associations? reading into Greek poetry not what they have but what we lack? Does not the whole of Greece heap itself behind every line of its literature? They admit us to a vision of the earth unravaged, the sea unpolluted, the maturity, tried but unbroken, of mankind. Every word is reinforced by a vigour which pours out of olive-tree and temple and the bodies of the young. The nightingale has only to be named by Sophocles and she sings; the grove has only to be called ἄβατον, “untrodden”,[8] and we imagine the twisted branches and the purple violets. Back and back we are drawn to steep ourselves in what, perhaps, is only an image of the reality, not the reality itself, a summer’s day imagined in the heart of a northern winter. Chief among these sources of glamour and perhaps misunderstanding is the language. We can never hope to get the whole fling of a sentence in Greek as we do in English. We cannot hear it, now dissonant, now harmonious, tossing sound from line to line across a page. We cannot pick up infallibly one by one all those minute signals by which a phrase is made to hint, to turn, to live. Nevertheless, it is the language that has us most in bondage; the desire for that which perpetually lures us back. First there is the compactness of the expression. [56] Shelley takes twenty-one words in English to translate thirteen words of Greek.

πᾶς γοῦν ποιητὴς γίγνεται, κἂν ἄμουσος ᾖ τὸ πρίν, οὗ ἂν Ἔρως ἅψηται.[9]

…For everyone, even if before he were ever so undisciplined, becomes a poet as soon as he is touched by love.

Every ounce of fat has been pared off, leaving the flesh firm. Then, spare and bare as it is, no language can move more quickly, dancing, shaking, all alive, but controlled. Then there are the words themselves which, in so many instances, we have made expressive to us of our own emotions, thalassa, thanatos, anthos, aster[10]—to take the first that come to hand; so clear, so hard, so intense, that to speak plainly yet fittingly without blurring the outline or clouding the depths, Greek is the only expression. It is useless, then, to read Greek in translations. Translators can but offer us a vague equivalent; their language is necessarily full of echoes and associations. Professor Mackail says “wan”, and the age of Burne-Jones and Morris is at once evoked. Nor can the subtler stress, the flight and the fall of the words, be kept even by the most skilful of scholars—

…thee, who evermore weepest in thy rocky tomb

is not

ἅτ᾽ ἐν τάφῳ πετραίῳ,

αἰεὶ δακρύεις.[11]

The third act of Menander’s Samia, as depicted in a mosaic of the 4th cent. AD (House of Menander, Mytilene, Lesbos Greece).

[57] Further, in reckoning the doubts and difficulties there is this important problem—Where are we to laugh in reading Greek? There is a passage in the Odyssey where laughter begins to steal upon us, but if Homer were looking we should probably think it better to control our merriment. To laugh instantly it is almost necessary (though Aristophanes may supply us with an exception) to laugh in English. Humour, after all, is closely bound up with a sense of the body. When we laugh at the humour of Wycherley, we are laughing with the body of that burly rustic who was our common ancestor on the village green. The French, the Italians, the Americans, who derive physically from so different a stock, pause, as we pause in reading Homer, to make sure that they are laughing in the right place, and the pause is fatal. Thus humour is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue, and when we turn from Greek to English literature it seems, after a long silence, as if our great age were ushered in by a burst of laughter.

These are all difficulties, sources of misunderstanding, of distorted and romantic, of servile and snobbish passion. Yet even for the unlearned some certainties remain. Greek is the impersonal literature; it is also the literature of masterpieces. There are no schools; no forerunners; no heirs. We cannot trace a gradual process working in many men imperfectly until it expresses itself adequately at last in one. Again, there is always about Greek literature that air of vigour which permeates an “age”, whether it is the age of [58] Aeschylus, or Racine, or Shakespeare. One generation at least in that fortunate time is blown on to be writers to the extreme; to attain that unconsciousness which means that the consciousness is stimulated to the highest extent; to surpass the limits of small triumphs and tentative experiments. Thus we have Sappho with her constellations of adjectives; Plato daring extravagant flights of poetry in the midst of prose; Thucydides, constricted and contracted; Sophocles gliding like a shoal of trout smoothly and quietly, apparently motionless, and then, with a flicker of fins, off and away; while in the Odyssey we have what remains the triumph of narrative, the clearest and at the same time the most romantic story of the fortunes of men and women.

The Odyssey is merely a story of adventure, the instinctive story-telling of a sea-faring race. So we may begin it, reading quickly in the spirit of children wanting amusement to find out what happens next. But here is nothing immature; here are full-grown people, crafty, subtle, and passionate. Nor is the world itself a small one, since the sea which separates island from island has to be crossed by little hand-made boats and is measured by the flight of the sea-gulls. It is true that the islands are not thickly populated, and the people, though everything is made by hands, are not closely kept at work. They have had time to develop a very dignified, a very stately society, with an ancient tradition of manners behind it, which makes every relation at once orderly, natural, and full of reserve. Penelope crosses the room; Telemachus goes to bed; [59] Nausicaa washes her linen; and their actions seem laden with beauty because they do not know that they are beautiful, have been born to their possessions, are no more self-conscious than children, and yet, all those thousands of years ago, in their little islands, know all that is to be known. With the sound of the sea in their ears, vines, meadows, rivulets about them, they are even more aware than we are of a ruthless fate. There is a sadness at the back of life which they do not attempt to mitigate. Entirely aware of their own standing in the shadow, and yet alive to every tremor and gleam of existence, there they endure, and it is to the Greeks that we turn when we are sick of the vagueness, of the confusion, of the Christianity and its consolations, of our own age.

Virginia Woolf watches Julia and Leslie Stephen read in the library of Talland House, in 1892; the holiday home inspired her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse.

The Perfect Language

Review of the second volume of W.R. Paton’s Greek Anthology (Loeb Classical Library, Heinemann, 1917), Times Literary Supplement 801 (24 May 1917) 7.)

To those who count themselves lovers of Greek in the sense that some ragged beggar might count himself the lover of an Empress in her robes, the Loeb Library, with its Greek or Latin on one side of the page and its English on the other, came as a gift of freedom to a very obscure but not altogether undeserving class. The existence of the amateur was recognized by the publication of this Library, and to a great extent made respectable. He was given the means of being an open and unabashed amateur and made to feel that no one pointed the finger of scorn at him on that account; and in consequence, instead of exercising his moribund faculties almost furtively upon some chance quotation met in an English book, he could read a whole play at a time, with his feet on the fender. With such treatment too, his little stock of Greek became improved, and occasionally he would be rewarded with one of those moments of instant understanding standing which are the flower of reading. In them we seem not to read so much as to recollect what we have heard in some other life.

Of course, no translation, as Mr. Paton would probably be the first to agree, is going to reproduce the bloom and scent, the natural poise and sequence, all that we feel before we understand the meaning, of the original words. No one is going to translate—

                                                O Proserpina,
For the flowers now, that frighted thou let’st fall
From Dis’s waggon!

It is necessary perhaps to be English to understand that. But there are other qualities which can be rendered. A spirited version will give the movement and the form of a play so that a thousand suggestions can be received by a mind unable to grasp a fraction of them when weighed down with the labour of translation. It is important to read quickly, if only because the friction of speed creates in the reader the arrogant and, in this case, scarcely warrantable belief that he knows precisely what Æschylus meant, that the misunderstood Æschylus reserved a peculiar meaning for him, that he is for the first time building up a perfectly original figure of the poet. Without this conviction the reading of the classics is apt to become insipid, and the burden of other people’s views a weight too heavy to be borne. But once fired with the spirit of the partisan, it is wonderful what hardships no longer repel us, and how little respect is paid to the authority of the great. It is true that humiliation has generally to be faced at the end of these outbursts of zeal, for the reason that Greek is an immensely difficult language. A great deal of knowledge is essential for the moderate understanding of it, and not easy to come by. How many people in England can read Homer as accurately as a child of eight can read the morning paper? for example; and the few who read Sophocles perfectly are about as singular as acrobats flying through space from bar to bar.

The text of Iliad 1.1-25 in the utterly fabulous Venetus A (Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, gr. 822). The page can studied in more detail here.

To our thinking the difficulty of Greek is not sufficiently dwelt upon, chiefly perhaps because the sirens who lure us to these perilous waters are generally scholars of European reputation. They have forgotten, or never knew, or for reasons of their own choose to belittle what those difficulties are. But for the ordinary amateur they are very real and very great; and we shall do well to recognize the fact and to make up our minds that we shall never be independent of our Loeb. And the more we own the difficulty, and confess the sense of unrewarded effort, the consciousness of pygmy understanding, the more we must testify to the miracle of the language. It will not let us go. It will not agree to be a respectable branch of learning which we are well content to admire in the possession of others. A branch of learning suggests a withered stick with a few dead leaves attached to it. But Greek is the golden bough; it crowns its lovers with garlands of fresh and sparkling leaves. We nave only to open this volume of the Anthology at haphazard to fall once more beneath the spell:

I Brotachos, a Gortynian of Crete, lie here, where I came not for this end, but to trade.

The serene, restrained, and penetrating sound of that detaches itself at once from all others, even in the English version. What is added to it by the Greek words it is impossible to define. To appreciate them fully one would have no doubt to be born a Greek. But we are not aware of any affectation when we say that once having read them we know, even with our imperfect understanding, that there is a beauty in the Greek language which is unlike and beyond any that we have met elsewhere. Let us turn the page and read:—

I am the tomb of a shipwrecked man; but set sail stranger; for when we were lost other ships voyaged on.


If to die well be the chief part of virtue, Fortune granted this to us above all others; for striving to endue Hellas with freedom, we lie here possessed of praise that groweth not old.


Tears the last gift of my love, even down through the earth I send to thee in Hades, Heliodora…

Here we have the peculiar magic, the lure that will lead us from youth to age, groping through our island fogs and barbarities towards that unattainable perfection. But perfection has a chill sound. It scarcely seems the right word for that extremely individual and definite spirit which is the flame of the Greek character. No one can read the few lines quoted above without feeling not only their extreme beauty, but also their extreme unlikeness to anything in any other language. It is an unlikeness that perpetually rouses our curiosity about them. These lines, in the first place, seem to be written neither in the infancy nor in the old age of the world, but in its maturity. There is no prettiness as there is no mysticism in them. We hear the voice of men whose outlook on life was perfectly direct and unclouded. There is, of course, that virtue of restraint so often praised in the Greeks that we tend to forget that it is most of all a virtue when, as in the present case, there is much to restrain. And although the present volume of the Anthology is devoted to epigrams upon the dead, it is evident that this people had everything to restrain, a love of man or woman, a love of earth, a love of life itself more passionate, it seems, than ours. Nevertheless they are able to dismiss life with stoical clearness of sight, and of all their grief allow only one cry to escape them.

Engagement photo of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, July 1912.

The difference between them and ourselves is made very clear in those epigrams where feelings of such depth and scope are concentrated into so small a space. They have to do with individual men and women; and we see, as in a vignette, a little view of the house, of the daily work, of the country outside the door. We can see the sharp lines of the mountains, the changing colour of the sea, the little vines stooping with grapes, and hear the harsh song of the crickets. It is the South, but it is not Italy. It is life, but it is not our life. When we attempt to visualize the Greek world we see it standing in outline against the sky without crowd or detail. One is inclined to think of their literature, too, as a succession of complete and perfect utterances; for (to the amateur at least) there are no schools in Greek literature, or imitations, no bad shots at great things which tend to blur the outline of the masterpiece when it is achieved. For us at least no chance saying in Greek, or association of words, opens up a view of irrelevant vulgarity such as it is well nigh impossible to exclude from the pages of those who write in a living tongue. On the contrary, we feel that if by chance the veil lifts in their writing it is to reveal something beautiful, something strong and sincere.

But we doubt whether it is right to use our English word beauty so perpetually when we speak of the Greeks, for they do not seem to have our conception of beauty, or of its rarity or of its value. Another power seems to be theirs—the power of gazing with absolute candour upon the truth of things, and beauty seems to come of its own accord, not as an ornament to be applied separately but as an essential part of the world as it appears to them. Theirs is a beauty of the whole rather than of parts; and although it would be possible, no doubt, to make a book of the beauties of their poets, we should miss much more by this treatment of them than we should if it were applied to our own Elizabethans. Among the epigrams of the Anthology there are many examples of this flawless quality; save among the latest it would be hard to find one without a trace of it. It is a quality which has the likeness of impersonality were it not for that inflection of the voice with which they charge their words with all the sorrow, the passion, or the joy that words can say, or, more marvellously still, leave unsaid.

Now the white violet blooms, and blooms the moist narcissus, and bloom the wandering mountain lilies; and now, dear to her lovers, spring flower among the flowers, Zenophile, the sweet rose of Persuasion, has burst into bloom. Meadows, why idly laugh in the brightness of your tresses? For my girl is better than garlands sweet to smell.

The beauty of that seems to us incomparable and yet it is only a reflection of the beauty of the Greek.

But we could go on multiplying quotations and seeking and persuading ourselves that we find new reasons for our love of them indefinitely. For the truth is that, even to an amateur, Greek literature is not so much literature as the type of literature, the supreme example of what can be done with words. Even to him the words have their strong and unmistakable accent. Other words of other languages may come nearer to us, but what in Latin or English has this stamp of finality, what in any other literature so convinces us that the perfect form of human utterance has been found once and for all? Found easily, as we feel, almost unconsciously, such was the genius of the race for expression. And, although it seems ungracious to add this when we have owned so much indebtedness to translators, some knowledge of the language is a possession not to be done without. With the best will in the world the translators are bound to stamp their individuality or that of their age upon the text. Our minds are so full of echoes that a single word such as “aweary” will flood a whole page for an English reader with the wrong associations. And such is the power of the Greek language that to know even a little of it is to know that there is nothing more beautiful in the world.

Virginia Woolf, c.1927.


1 A letter from her father, Leslie Stephen, to her first Greek tutor George Warr explicitly asks him to “let her off with light work”, because of her ill health (1 Nov. 1897, now in the Smithsonian because an over-keen collector mistook the addressee “Dr Warr” to be the painter John Ferguson Weir).
2 A.O. Bell (ed.), The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Four: 1931–1935 (Hogarth, London, 1982) 257.
3 Oh, wretched me, I’ve been ruined this day” (Electra 674, at the false report of Orestes’ death).
4 “Strike twice, if you have the strength” (Electra 1415, to Orestes attacking Clytemnestra).
5 Literally “It’s a terrible thing to give birth” (Electra 770).
6 “In the hunger of his eyes all love (lit. “Aphrodite”) leaves” (Ag. 418–19, as sung by the chorus).
7 Meaningless cries of woe, followed by “O Apollo, O Apollo” (Agamemnon 1072.
8 As at Oedipus Coloneus 675.
9 Plato Symposium 196e; the phrase “even if he was formerly uncultured” is a quotation from a lost play of Euripides, Stheneboea (fr. 663).
10 “Sea, death, flower, star.”
11 Electra singing (Electra 151–2).