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Whether the poems of Homer, like the “Orlando Innamorato” of Boiardo, as recomposed by Berni, or our national ballad of “Chevy Chase," as altered and improved by successive hands, were rude but noble lays, refined gradually or at once; or whether they were originally composed in the form which two thousand five hundred years have not been able to amend or deteriorate-this is a question which it were vain to argue upon here; suffice it to say, that Greek literature, in poetry at least, had reached a standard which has never been surpassed in the age of Pişistratus, who, as the prototype of Pericles (his imitator both in the career of learning and of ambition), if he deprived his countrymen of their birthright, conferred on them the only earthly advantage that can in any degree be regarded as an honourable compensation for the loss of liberty : he bestowed upon them, by his munificent patronage, the motives and the means of cultivating those elegant arts and useful sciences which, more than all that fortune can give, or valour win besides, adorn, enrich, and dignify any people among whom they find a sanctuary and a home. The glory of Pisistratus in the history of literature is only second to that of Honier; for having gathered the poems of the latter into the most precious volume (the Sacred Scriptures excepted) wbich time has spared in the devastations of his march, and spared so long that even he cannot destroy it, except in that ruin in which he shall involve himself and all things under the sun.
From the era when the works of Homer were thus revived, and not they only but all the treasures of past and contemporary genius, in the library which Pisistratus first established, were thrown open to all who had leisure,' ability, and disposition to avail themselves of the same-from that auspicious era, not only Athens, but all the little comnionwealths of Greece, Sparta excepted, rose so rapidly in learning and refinement, that thenceforward, till the subversion of their independence by Philip of Macedon, has been justly styled the golden era of that illustrious land, whose heroes, philosophers, poets, historians, orators, and adepts in all that exalts and beautifies man in society remain to this day, and must ever remain, the models and exemplars to the great and the glorious of every kindred and climate. Had they correspondingly excelled in virtue, how had they blessed their own and every other age in which their honour, name, and praise should have been known!
But it is their literature, not their morals, with which we have at present to do, and it is but justice to say distinctly, after intimating that much was amiss, there were among them many not only of the wisest but of the best men, to whom no light but that of nature had been given, and whose nearest approach to the discovery of eternal truth was the consecration of an altar “to the unknown God." Within the period above alluded to, but especially after the battles of Marathon and Salamis had raised the reputation of their arms to an equality with the eminence of their arts, the greatest number of their greatest men appeared, and flourished in such thick contiguity and rapid succession, that the mere relics, the floating fragments of the wreck of literature which have been preserved, because they could not sink in the dead sea of oblivion, that ingulfed and stagnated over the buried riches of a hundred argosies,-the mere relics and wreck of literature preserved to us, from that brief period, are of as much value as all that has been inherited, or recovered rather, from the ages before that died-may I say it? without will, -and the ages after, that had comparatively little wealth either to live upon or to bequeath, though the country, under various forms of republican government, and as a province of Rome, continued to be the seat of arts, science, and phi losophy through many succeeding centuries.
It was during that brief but illustrious period that Athens, the eye of Greece—the loveliest feature in a face and form of which every line and limb was moulded as exquisitely as her own ideal image of beauty,-it was then that Athens, the eye of Greece, shone forth in all its lustre, and, when it closed, left such a remembrance of its light behind, as continued to cheer the paths both of the Muses and the Graces through the comparative darkness of succeeding times. Athens by day presented the brilliant and vivacious spectacle of a thronging population in the forum, the portico, the grove, the theatres, the temples, the palaces of her heroic yet voluptuous city, -where the gayest, the proudest, the most intellectual people that ever dwelt in such close society, were eagerly pursuing glory under every form of labour, letters, arts, and arms--or pleasure, in all its diversities of pomp, licentiousness, and superstition -superstition so elegantly disguised (and yet so profligate) as to impose on the imaginations, if not to captivate the understandings, of the wisest men. There every street, public edifice, and open space was so crowded with the images of their popular divinities, and their divinities were but the symbols of the worshippers themselves personified, though with superhuman strength and symmetry, in marble, metal, ivory, or wood, that it was almost a proverb, “You will as easily find a god as a man at Athens.” From this picturesque profusion of sculpture, exposed without injury to the open air in that delightful clime, Athens by night would resemble a city of statues, -I had almost said a city of spirits, when the cold moon, looking down from pure blue heaven, beheld, energing from black shadows,
innumerable forms of Parian marble white as snow, and disposed in every attitude of grace and majesty. One seems to feel the silence of the scene in thinking upon it; its beauty, magic, grandeur, touch and awe and elevate the soul, and we almost expect that one of the more than mortal shapes should break the stillness, and address us in the language of Pericles or Demosthenes; till some patrician youth, like Alcibiades, flushed with wine, apparelled in purple, and crowned with flowers, followed by a rabble-rout of bacchanals, breaking forth from the haunts of their revelry, with shout, and song, and dance, and music, disenchant the whole, or rather transform the enchantment into a new and more exhilarating spectacle of the midnight orgies of the finest sons of Greece in her prime.
Is there, anywhere a parallel to this picture of imagination ?--Somewhere in the depths of an abandoned wilderness, in the heart of Africa, according to an ancient tradition, there may be seen to this day, in perfect preservation, a magnificent city, once the capital of a surrounding empire, on which so strange a judgment came, that all its inhabitants were in a moment turned to stone, while they and their dwellings were doomed to remain, through the lapse of ages, precisely as they stood, as they looked, as they were, at the infliction of the stroke. The stillness of death--of death in every form of life, reigns within the walls, while the multitudes of people of all ages, ranks, and occupations, who seem to the visiter (if visiter ever enters there) at the first glance in the full action of men, women, and children, hurrying to and fro about their business or their amusements,--the longer you gaze seem more and more fixed to the eye, till the beholder himself becomes almost petrified by sympathy. Sometimes, however (and it is well for him, when his trance is so broken), a herd of antelopes, fleeing from a lion in full chase after them, rush
through the open gates of the city, and bound along the streets, regardless of the apparent throngs of human beings wherever they turn, but whose motionless figures, through long familiarity, are to them as indifferent as so many unshapen fragments of rock.-I must drop the veil here, both over the city of Minerva and the city of the desert, which I have dared to bring into crude comparison with it: in contemplating either, imagination may have run riot in the labyrinths of revery, mistaking phantoms for realities, and vain fancies for high thoughts. We return for a few moments to the straightforward path of historical retrospection.
The Decline of Greek Literature. It has been already stated, that the period from Pisistratus to Philip of Macedon was the golden age of Grecian fame; literature and freedoni flourishing together,--and they ought" never to be separated. Literature, when freedom is lost, becomes the most degraded and the most dangerous tool of despotism; while freedom without literature that is, without knowledge-presents the most ferociously savage state of human society, if society can exist without a single bond of moral or civil restraint. If the Spartans were not such an iron race, it was because learning and philosophy, which they affected to despise, exercised an indirect but benign influence over them, without betraying the secret of their power.
From the division of the empire of Alexander the Great, when Greece fell under the dominion of one of his captains, though the Achaian league partially restored and maintained the republican spirit in some of the states, till the time when the whole country passed under the Roman yoke,-from the death of Alexander to the reign of the Emperor Aurelian, may be styled the silver age of Greece.