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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

D'Arcy W. Thompson 
Aristotle's Natural Science

From, D'Arcy W. Thompson, Natural Science,
in R.W. Livingstone (ed.), The Legacy of Greece, Oxford University Press, 1921.

Page 3

Such allusions, refined at first by art and hallowed at last by familiar memory, lie treasured in men's hearts and enshrine themselves in our noblest literature. Take, of a thousand crowding instances, that great passage in the Iliad where the Greek host, disembarking on the plains of the Scamander, is likened to a migrating flock of cranes or geese or long-necked swans, as they fly proudly over the Asian meadows and alight screaming by Cayster's stream—and Virgil echoes more than once the familiar lines. The crane was a well-known bird. Its lofty flight brings it, again in Homer, to the very gates of heaven. Hesiod and Pindar speak of its far-off cry, heard from above the clouds: and that it 'observed the time of its coming', 'intelligent of seasons', was a proverb old in Hesiod's day—when the crane signalled the approach of winter, and when it bade the husbandman make ready to plough. It follows the plough, in Theocritus, as persistently as the wolf the kid and the peasant-lad his sweetheart. The discipline of the migrating cranes, the serried wedge of their ranks in flight, the good order of the resting flock, are often, and often fancifully, described. Aristotle records how they have an appointed leader, who keeps watch by night and in flight keeps calling to the laggards; and all this old story Euripides, the most naturalistic of the great tragedians, puts into verse:

The ordered host of Libyan birds avoids The wintry storm, obedient to the call Of their old leader, piping to his flock.

Lastly, Milton gathers up the spirit and the letter of these and many another ancient allusion to the migrating cranes:

Part loosely wing the region; part more wise, In common ranged in figure, wedge their way Intelligent of seasons, and set forth Their aery caravan, high over seas Flying, and over lands; with mutual wing Easing their flight; so steers the prudent crane.

But the natural history of the poets is a story without an end, and in our estimation, however brief it be, of ancient knowledge, there are other matters to be considered, and other points of view where we must take our stand.

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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

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