I can only suppose that the normal language of Greek poetry is in itself in some sense sublime. Most critics accept this as an obvious fact, yet, if true, it is a very strange fact and worth thinking about. The sound of a great deal of Greek poetry, either as we pronounce it, or as the ancients pronounced it, is to modern ears almost ugly. It depends partly, perhaps, on the actual structure of the Greek language: philologists tell us that, viewed as a specimen, it is in structure and growth and in power of expressing things, the most perfect language they know. And certainly one often finds that a thought can be expressed with ease and grace in Greek which becomes clumsy and involved in Latin, English, French or German. But neither of these causes goes, I think, to the root of the matter.
What is it that gives words their character and makes a style high or low? Obviously, their associations; the company they habitually keep in the minds of those who use them. A word which belongs to the language of bars and billiard saloons will become permeated by the normal standard of mind prevalent in such places; a word which suggests Milton or Carlyle will have the flavour of those men’s minds about it. I therefore cannot resist the conclusion that, if the language of Greek poetry has, to those who know it intimately, this special quality of keen austere beauty, it is because the minds of the poets who used that language were habitually toned to a higher level both of intensity and of nobility than ours. It is a finer language because it expresses the minds of finer men. By ‘finer men’ I do not necessarily mean men who behaved better, either by our standards or by their own; I mean men to whom the fine things of the world, sunrise and sea and stars and the love of man for man, and strife and the facing of evil for the sake of good, and even common things like meat and drink, and evil things like hate and terror, had, as it were, a keener edge than they have for us and roused a swifter and a nobler reaction.