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The Greek Conquest of Britain

The Victorians and Ancient Greece

by Richard Jenkyns
Harvard University Press, 386 pp., $30.00

The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain

by Frank M. Turner
Yale University Press, 461 pp., $30.00

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 laws, our literature, our religion, our arts, have their roots in Greece.” At the same time the publication of Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens and the exhibition in the British Museum of the battered statues a reluctant nation had finally been shamed into buying from Lord Elgin, gave the British public new artistic models to replace the Roman copies and adaptations of the old classical canon. And the early decades of the nineteenth century saw the Greek uprising against the Turkish pashas who had misgoverned them for over three hundred years, a struggle which won the sympathy of many who saw the modern Greeks through the lyric haze of Byron’s early vision of a regenerate Greece—“when riseth Lacedaemon’s hardihood/ When Thebes Epaminondas rears again/ When Athens’ children are with hearts endued…”—rather than with the realistic eye of Byron at Missolonghi—“an intriguing, cunning and unquiet generation.”

These exciting developments ushered in a century which saw the firm imposition of Greek on the educational system of the upper classes and the result that, as Frank M. Turner puts it, “knowledge of Greek (even if rarely mastery) and a familiarity with Greek culture were characteristic of a large portion of the British political elite as well as of the leaders and clergy of the Church of England.” By 1865 “the major commentator on Homer as well as a major translator of the poet, the chief critic and historian of Greek literature, the most significant political historian of Greece and the authors of the then most extensive commentaries on Greek philosophy either were or had recently been members of the House of Commons or the House of Lords.” It was not until after the First World War that Oxford and Cambridge began to admit students who had no knowledge of Greek.

The Yale ecologist Evelyn Hutchinson, who, when he enrolled at Emmanuel in Cambridge in 1921, was one of the generation which benefited from this dispensation, tells in his fascinating autobiography1 of an encounter between his mother and a fierce champion of the requirement, T.R. Glover of Johns’. “Mother had sat next to Glover at a dinner party on Saturday night and had a heated discussion on the value of compulsory Greek…. Next morning he was to give one of a series of Ecumenical sermons at St. Edward’s Church…so we all trooped down. Arriving (as usual) rather late, we were shown into the front pew. When the time came for the sermon, Glover leaned forward from the pulpit and announced his text: ‘And the centurion said unto Paul, Canst thou speak Greek?’ “2

This same Glover, some thirty years later, dismissed me from a lively tutorial in which I had, in Young Turk style, defended Cleon against Glover’s beloved Pericles, with the stern admonition: “Young man, you should go out and get yourself some of the benefits of organized religion.”

This bizarre combination of a zealous, muscular, and proselytizing Christianity with an unstinting, almost fanatical admiration for the pagan Greeks to whom, as Paul said, “Christ crucified” was “foolishness,” is one of the leading threads pursued by Turner in his attempt “to explore Victorian commentary on antiquity as a means of more fully understanding Victorian intellectual life itself” and by Jenkyns in his sprightly vindication of what he himself calls “the ambitious claim” that “ancient Greece preoccupied many of the finest minds of the last century, and thus, directly and indirectly…became a pervasive influence reaching even to the edges of popular culture.”

Like other aspects of the Greek experience which dominated Victorian intellectual debate, the Christian-pagan problem reflected, and influenced in its turn, the changing climates of opinion through the century, and both of these books deal with this central theme. Since the New Testament was written in Greek, it might have been expected that this text would assume a major part in the classical curriculum, but in fact it was studied mainly in divinity schools and did not appear in the influential Oxford “Greats” program, which came into being around the middle of the century. Few attempts were made to justify this embarrassing omission and those cited are vague evasions. The Bishop of Durham, for example, saw the whole of classical Greek literature, Euripides included, as “distinct stages in the preparation for Christianity.” The real reason must have been the simple pedagogical fact that students who were being trained to write the pure and elegant Attic of Plato and Demosthenes could not, without grave risk of linguistic corruption, be exposed to the Hellenistic koine, the Basic Greek of the Middle East, in which the Gospels are written.

The defense of the pagan texts as essential for an understanding of the Christian message was carried to its paradoxical extreme by no less a person than Gladstone, who found time in between serving as president of the Board of Trade, colonial secretary, chancellor of the Exchequer, and four terms as prime minister, “to write a series of articles on Homer and five books, one of them consisting of three volumes and containing more than 1700 pages.” The content of these learned works was remarkable, to say the least. Jenkyns offers a sample:

The Homeric world, he said, “stands between Paradise and the vices of later heathenism” and he meant it literally: Homer was far closer to the Garden of Eden than the classical Greeks, and Homeric religion contained memories of God’s revelation to primitive man…. It was evident, he thought, that Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto (he used the Roman names) were a memory of the Trinity. Apollo was a relic of belief in a Messiah, as can be seen from his double character as Saviour and Destroyer (a page is allotted to demonstrating that Apollo’s rape of Marpessa was “not of a sensual character”). Was Minerva the Logos or the Holy Spirit? Did Latona represent Eve or the Virgin Mary? How curious that the poems contained no mention of the Sabbath!

Eccentric as these views were, “the eccentricity,” as Jenkyns says, “consisted in pushing certain Victorian tendencies to extreme limits.” Gladstone was not one for evasions; he was as direct and forceful in his Homeric studies as in his political life. “There are still two things left for me to do,” he told Mrs. Humphry Ward in 1888. “One is to carry Home Rule—the other is to prove the intimate connection between the Hebrew and Olympian revelations.”

But the evasions prevailed; even Matthew Arnold, who made the famous distinction between “Hebraism” and “Hellenism” could, as Jenkyns points out, translate a passage from Oedipus Tyrannus into “a kind of scripture language” and comment: “Let St. Francis—nay, or Luther either, beat that!” Elsewhere, however, Arnold made it clear that he was trying to provide, in “culture” (which included a mammoth portion of Greek literature), a substitute for that “faith” which was now an ebbing tide, its sound a “melancholy, long, with-drawing roar.” Others were not so frank; Jowett’s eloquent translation of Plato, a minor English classic, went a long way in its “Analyses and Introduction” along the path he had once charted, in strict confidence, to a friend: “Something to be done in the way of making Christianity, whether under that or some other name, a reality….”

The established Church was not deceived; Jowett had been, early on, prosecuted (unsuccessfully) for having, in an essay on the interpretation of Scripture, “advisedly promulgated…certain erroneous and strange doctrines…contrary to and inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church of England…” (of which he was, like all Oxford dons, an ordained member). The ecclesiastical conservatives succeeded in delaying for ten years a proposal to raise his stipend as Regius Professor to the level of a living wage (a measure which the Bishop of Oxford characterized as “a deadly blow at the truth of God”). Their instinct was correct; Jowett was a sincere Christian all right, but his feelings about the Church were summed up in his advice to a young lady: “You must believe in God, my dear, despite what the clergymen say.”

  1. 1

    Evelyn Hutchinson, The Kindly Fruits of the Earth (Yale University Press, 1979), p. 26.

  2. 2

    Acts 21:37. Glover is quoting from memory; the AV runs: “And as Paul was to be led unto the castle he said unto the chief captain, May I speak unto thee? Who said, Canst thou speak Greek?” Glover’s point is the practical value of Greek; the centurion’s question expressed incredulous surprise—he thought Paul was an Egyptian terrorist who had caused trouble in Jerusalem before. Without his Greek Paul would probably have been executed on the spot.

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