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On the power of Greek poetry

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greek poetry

The Greeks found it hard to realize political unity, but they were bound together psychologically through the soul-revealing words of their epic poems, just as, to this day, India’s epics bind the remotest corners of the country together.

In describing the effect of poetry in moulding people and civilisations, Sri Aurobindo remarks that

“One might almost say that ancient India was created by the Veda and Upanishads and that the visions of inspired seers made a people.” 1 

A little later in the same passage, he touches upon the “effect of the Homeric poems in Greece”, noting a similar formative and revelatory power of poetry in Greece :

“The epic poems revealed the Hellenic people to itself in the lucid and clear nobility and beauty of an uplifting of life and an aesthetic sense of the humanity and divinity of man; the later art and poetry interpreted to Athens her religious ideas, her thought, her aesthetic instincts, the soul of grandeur and beauty of her culture.” 2 

Greek poetry and its effect on European culture

We may ask here – How much does the poetry of a nation affect its culture? In The Character of English Poetry, Sri Aurobindo comments that English poetry and literature have had a limited influence on the shaping of European culture, despite the English language possessing “the most rich and naturally powerful poetry, the most lavish of energy and innate genius”.

“English poetry…had no great self-recognising idea or view of life expressive of the spiritual attitude of the nation or powerful to determine from an early time its own sufficient artistic forms. But it is precisely the possession of such a self-recognising spiritual attitude and the attainment of a satisfying artistic form for it which make the poetry of a nation a power in the world’s general culture.” 3 

In contrast, it was in fact the Graeco-Roman mould that dominated :

“The poetic mind of Greece and Rome has pervaded and largely shaped the whole artistic production of Europe”. 4

What gave Greek poetry its power

“No poetry has had so powerful an influence as Greek poetry; no poetry is, I think, within its own limits so perfect and satisfying. The limits indeed are marked and even, judged by the undulating many-sidedness and wideness of the modern mind, narrow; but on its own lines this poetry works with a flawless power and sufficiency. From beginning to end it dealt with life from one large view-point; it worked always from the inspired reason, used a luminous intellectual observation and harmonised all it did by the rule of an enlightened and chastened aesthetic sense; whatever changes overtook it, it never departed from this motive and method which are the very essence of the Greek spirit. And of this motive it was very conscious and by its clear recognition of it and fidelity to it it was able to achieve an artistic beauty and sufficiency of expressive form which affect us like an easily accomplished miracle and which have been the admiration of after ages. Even the poetry of the Greek decadence preserved enough of this power to act as a shaping influence on Latin literature.” 5

“The life of Man in divine proportions”

The artistic aim of poets like Homer was not simply the “observant accurate presentation of Greek life”, for poetry is “one of the inner and not one of the surface voices” of life. Here we have a tremendous passage where Sri Aurobindo gives us the image of Homer along with Phidias, the Master-Sculptor of Greece :

Homer gives us the life of man always at a high intensity of impulse and action and without subjecting it to any other change he casts it in lines of beauty and in divine proportions; he deals with it as Phidias dealt with the human form when he wished to create a god in marble. When we read the Iliad and the Odyssey, we are not really upon this earth, but on the earth lifted into some plane of a greater dynamis of life, and so long as we remain there we have a greater vision in a more lustrous air and we feel ourselves raised to a semi-divine stature. 6 

Great Poets of the World

The gifted poet Amal Kiran once asked Sri Aurobindo to rank the world’s greatest poets 7

“You once spoke of Goethe as not being one of the world’s absolutely supreme singers. Who are these, then? Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Valmiki, Kalidasa? And what about Aeschylus, Virgil and Milton? “, to which the Seer replied :

I suppose all the names you mention except Goethe can be included;
or if you like you can put them all including Goethe in
three rows—e.g.:

1st row Homer, Shakespeare, Valmiki, Vyasa
2nd row Dante, Kalidasa, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Virgil, Milton
3rd row Goethe

‘…the first three have at once supreme imaginative originality, supreme poetic gift, widest scope and supreme creative genius. Each is a sort of poetic Demiurge who has created a world of his own.’.  8

In a poetic sense too, it is quite remarkable that for a tiny nation as Greece, there are three Greek poets amongst the greatest names in the world. To me, this is another key to understanding the genius of Greece, and its immense contribution to the life of Europe, for the word of a poet is

“the highest form of speech available to man for the expression whether of his self-vision or of his world-vision.”

The Function of Art, of Poetry

“Poetry has to give us a deeper reality of things and the outsides and surface faces of life are only a part of its reality and do not take us either very deep or very far. Moreover, the poet’s greatest work is to open to us new realms of vision, new realms of being, our own and the world’s, and he does this even when he is dealing with actual things. Homer with all his epic vigour of outward presentation does not show us the heroes and deeds before Troy in their actuality as they really were to the normal vision of men, but such rather as they were or might have been to the vision of the gods.”  9

Without Homer, without the Iliad and the Odyssey, there would be no Greece; or at the very least, not the Greece we know of and admire. Thank goodness then for the bards who soared skyward and created the magic of ancient Greece.


Further Reading

  1. Sri Aurobindo, The Future Poetry; The Soul of Poetic Delight and Beauty
  2. ibid
  3. ibid
  4. Sri Aurobindo, The Future Poetry; The Character of English Poetry – 1
  5. ibid
  6. Sri Aurobindo, The Future Poetry; The Course of English Poetry – 1
  7. It is worthwhile to note here that unlike other poets, Sri Aurobindo was fluent in Italian and German, had read Dante and Goethe in the original, had a mastery over French, Latin and even Greek. He had read Plato’s Republic and Symposium – in Greek. A Seer, who not only wrote in Sanskrit, but who also wrote a sequel to Homer’s Iliadthe Ilion, in Homer’s poetic form, no less, and wrote plays based on Greek and Indian themes.
  8. Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Poetry and Art
  9. Sri Aurobindo, The Future Poetry; The Breath of Greater Life – 1

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