The Victorians and Ancient Greece
The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain
A notable feature of Anthony Powell’s tragicomic saga of English upper-class life from the Twenties of this century through the Sixties is the near absence, in a masterpiece distinguished among other things for abundance of subtly controlled allusions to art and literature, of any reference to the literary and artistic legacy of ancient Greece. The few exceptions—a sinister title, The Kindly Ones, for example, or the disreputable Mr. Deacon’s murky canvas. The Boyhood of Cyrus—serve only to highlight the fact, true in real life as in Powell’s brilliantly created world, that the English generation which came of age during and just after the First World War viewed with indifference if not with suspicion that Greek experience which had dominated the thought and bewitched the imaginations of their Edwardian and Victorian predecessors.
Perhaps this was a reaction against the education and ideals which had promised enlightened progress and ended in the mud of Passchendaele; Rupert Brooke and many other young products of Oxford and Cambridge, as Jenkyns points out, had gone to their deaths with Homer’s lines ringing in their ears. If so, it was a classic reaction, equal and opposite, for the Victorian obsession with Greek ideals and theory had been almost maniacally complete. The Tyranny of Greece over Germany is the title of a well-known study, its dramatic claim not perhaps fully vindicated by its contents. Now Jenkyns and Turner have presented us with two lengthy and compendious examinations of the primacy of Greece in English education and intellectual controversy for most of the nineteenth century and the first fourteen years of the twentieth.
Greece had not always been such a power in the land. Ben Jonson, who sneered at Shakespeare’s “less Greek,” had none too much of it himself and Samuel Johnson, who said of the young Alexander Pope that “it was not very likely he overflowed with Greek,” spoke of the language as a rare commodity: “Greek, Sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can.” The intellectual (and political) model for eighteenth-century England was Augustan Rome; no essay in the Spectator or Rambler appeared without a quotation (untranslated) from Horace, Virgil, or Ovid as its epigraph.
The Greeks came into fashion and power with the Romantics. Keats saw a new, more “natural” Homer, stripped of Pope’s Augustan elegancies, when he first “heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.” Wolf’s influential thesis that the Homeric poems were put together in a later age from primitive, oral ballads exalted them to the majestic level of Ossian, a poet admired by Goethe and Napoleon, whose work had been translated from the (wholly imaginary) Gaelic by James Macpherson. (It was, according to Samuel Johnson, “as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with.”)
For Shelley and the young radicals, the Greeks were a revolutionary inspiration, Prometheus a model of heroic defiance, unmoved by the threats and tortures of Zeus-Castlereagh. “We are all Greeks,” he proclaimed in the preface to Hellas (1822). “Our…
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