Themes and Meanings
The poem is a statement of why the classics mean so much to the poet and should mean as much to the present reader. A classic, in Herbert’s view, is a work of art that contains a meaning that is true in all times and places—not merely in its account of a specific subject matter such as war. The Greeks, who are often praised for their development of the classical ideal, believed there was an order in nature that should be imitated in the order of human affairs. A belief in order meant a sense of proportion, of the individual finding an appropriate place in the community, the polis. Individuality per se was not a value, though individuals had a value, which was determined by examining, as Thucydides and the poet do, the nature of things and of humankind’s place in them.
For Thucydides, the paramount value is his native city, not himself. Failing to save it means to him a life of exile, for only in this way can he assert his subordination to the very thing for which he fought: his land and people. Yet the irony of the poem is that Thucydides becomes a great individual precisely because of his sacrifice and loyalty, because of his sense of place, his subordination to an ideal greater than himself. That, in essence, is classicism and why the poet accepts it. If the poet, like the “generals of the most recent wars,” only serves himself, then he leaves nothing for the future, for his present has shrunk in significance.
(The entire section is 569 words.)