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Oscar Wilde, Classics Scholar

The Women of Homer

by Oscar Wilde, edited by Thomas Wright and Donald Mead
London: The Oscar Wilde Society, 103 pp., £30.00
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Napoleon Sarony/Apic/Getty Images
Oscar Wilde at the beginning of his American tour, 1882

1.

When asked what he intended to do after finishing at Oxford, the young Oscar Wilde—who was already well known not only for his outré persona (“I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china,” etc.), but for his brilliant achievements as a classics scholar—made it clear in which direction his ambitions lay. “God knows,” the twenty-three-year-old told his great friend David Hunter Blair, who had asked Wilde about his postgraduate plans, and who later fondly recalled the conversation in his 1939 memoir, In Victorian Days. “I won’t be a dried-up Oxford don, anyhow. I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, I’ll be notorious.”

As we know, his prediction would be spectacularly fulfilled: like a character in one of the Greek tragedies he was able to translate so fluently as a student, his short life followed a spectacular trajectory from fame to infamy, from the heady triumphs of his post-Oxford days, when he was already famous enough to be lampooned by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience, to the dreadful peripeteia of the trials and imprisonment. But to some of those who knew him at the time, Wilde’s emphatic rejection of the scholarly life must have come as something of a surprise.

He had, after all, shown a remarkable flair for the classics from the start. At the Portora Royal School, where he’d been sent in the autumn of 1864, just before his tenth birthday, he won the classical medal examination with his extempore translations from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (the tragedy he loved above all others) and the Carpenter Prize for his superior performance on the examination on the Greek New Testament. Later, at Trinity College, Dublin, he took a first in his freshman classical exams and went on to win the Berkeley Gold Medal for his paper on a subject that was, perhaps, not without augury: the Fragmenta comicorum graecorum, “Fragments of the Greek Comics,” the great scholarly edition by the early-nineteenth-century German philologue Augustus Meineke. (According to his friend Robert Sherard, he occasionally pawned the medal when he needed money, but managed always to redeem it, keeping it until the end of his life.)

After transferring to Magdalen College, Oxford, in the autumn of 1874, Wilde scored highest marks on his entrance exams, and finished by taking a prestigious double first in “Greats,” the relatively recent, classics-based curriculum officially known as literae humaniores. Always attentive to his image, he liked to imply that these successes came easily—“He liked to pose as a dilettante trifling with his books,” Hunter Blair recalled—but in fact put in “hours of assiduous and laborious reading, often into the small hours of the morning.” Whatever his taste for lilies and Sèvres, he was a “grind.”

Wilde’s activities immediately following his departure from Oxford suggest, if anything, a certain unwillingness to abandon the domain of “dried-up old dons.” While scrounging for ways to keep himself employed, he wrote his old friend George Macmillan, of the publishing family, offering to take on projects that would have daunted full-blown classics scholars twice his age: a new translation of Herodotus, a new edition of Euripides’ Madness of Hercules and Phoenician Maidens. He applied, unsuccessfully, for an archaeology scholarship; he had a hand in an 1880 production of Agamemnon that was attended by Browning and Tennyson.

Because he did indeed end up traveling down the path he announced to David Hunter Blair, we can never know what the mature work produced by this “classical” Wilde might have been like—the Wilde who could easily have gone on to do a D.Phil. in classics, Wilde the don, Wilde the important and perhaps revolutionary late-nineteenth-century scholar of Greek literature and society. Of that Wilde, the extant record affords us only a few tantalizing glimpses: a university prize essay, an unsigned review article, journeyman’s pieces that nonetheless reveal a characteristic bravura. This partial view has occasionally been enlarged over the years by the publication of fascinating bits of juvenilia (“Hellenism,” a fragmentary set of notes about Spartan civilization, was published only in 1979). Now we have The Women of Homer, a substantial although unfinished paper on Homer’s female characters that reminds us once more how strongly Wilde’s classical training underpinned the sensibility that would make him so famous.

2.

Wilde’s copy of the Nichomachean Ethics, dated 1877, contains this suggestive gloss on the text: “Man makes his end for himself out of himself: no end is imposed by external considerations, he must realize his true nature, must be what nature orders, so must discover what his nature is.” At the time he was beginning his studies, the tradition of secondary and university instruction in the classics did not necessarily encourage a profound examination of what one’s “true nature” might be. A great premium was placed on proficiency in the languages: students were expected to be able to translate passages from the classical languages into English—and from English into Greek and Latin prose and verse. While still at Trinity, Wilde was asked on one exam to translate a fragment of a text about Odysseus into Elizabethan prose, and then was required to translate selections from Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and Matthew Arnold into Greek.1

Luckily, Wilde, whose linguistic abilities were certainly formidable—years later, a former Portora schoolmate recalled his ability to “grasp the nuances of the various phases of the Greek Middle Voice and of the vagaries of Greek conditional clauses”—was to fall into the hands of the right professors. His Trinity master was the Reverend J.P. Mahaffy, a distinguished classicist who had a special interest in later Greek antiquity, and who was, too, a celebrated wit—a quality that must have appealed to his young student. (Informed that the current tenant of an academic post he coveted was ill, Mahaffy replied, “Nothing trivial, I hope?”)

In an 1874 book called Social Life in Greece, Mahaffy argued for a vision of the Greeks and their civilization as something more than a mausoleum of culture, “mere treasure-houses of roots and forms to be sought out by comparative grammarians.” Among other things, he showed a refreshing willingness to dust off contemporary attitudes toward one Hellenic institution that would have had a special if secret resonance for Wilde: homosexuality. “There is no field of enquiry,” Mahaffy wrote in Social Life in Greece, “where we are so dogmatic in our social prejudices, and so determined by the special circumstances of our age and country.”

Mahaffy’s advocacy of a living engagement with the civilization of the Mediterranean—still somewhat of a novelty at the time—would land the young Wilde in trouble. In the spring of 1877 he accompanied his former professor on a trip to Italy and Greece; after returning to Oxford several weeks late in the term, Wilde was “rusticated”—forced to leave university for the duration of term. The irony of being temporarily expelled from his classics curriculum for having immersed himself in the Greek world was not lost on the future master of the epigram, who observed that he “was sent down from Oxford for being the first undergraduate to visit Olympia.”

The Oxford that punished the unrepentant Wilde had, in fact, been shaking off the old ways, transformed by the energetic reforms of Benjamin Jowett, Regius Professor of Greek, Master of Balliol, and translator of Plato. It was Jowett who insisted that Greats include important currents in contemporary thought (as a young man he had been devoted to Kant); who saw, indeed, the classics as a natural conduit for modern liberal thought. Instrumental in shifting the emphasis of the curriculum from Roman to Greek authors, he made Plato central to it; not coincidentally, the philosopher’s dialectical method was embodied in the intimate one-on-one tutorial system (which occasionally fomented Platonic passions of a less intellectual variety).2

The special Platonic emphasis at Oxford was clearly what animated Wilde’s later, admiring characterization of the curriculum as one in which

one can be, simultaneously, brilliant and unreasonable, speculative and well-informed, creative as well as critical, and write with all the passion of youth about the truths which belong to the august serenity of old age.

Here, perhaps, is the root of the characteristically Wildean taste for entwining ostensibly incompatible qualities. His work encompassed, sometimes uneasily, what he saw as his “Gothic” and “Greek” sides, veering between a grandiose Romanticism and an astringent Classicism, the fusty nineteenth-century melodrama of most of his theater and the crisp modernism of his critical thought.

Mahaffy and Jowett weren’t the only Hellenists advocating a profoundly engaged approach to the classics during the latter half of the nineteenth century. During Wilde’s time at Oxford the literary critic and poet John Addington Symonds was publishing his two-volume Studies of the Greek Poets (1873, 1876). While their earnestness and dogged effort at comprehensiveness may have been exhaustingly typical of mid-Victorian criticism, these volumes were particularly celebrated (or derided) for their unusually passionate, personal, and florid style: a style that hinted at a more than purely academic degree of investment in the subject, and suggested, once again, that the Greeks could have more than a “dry as dust” meaning for the present day. Symonds, like Mahaffy, urged his readers to visit the Mediterranean sites in order to be able to feel the still-living connection to ancient civilizations. In 1874 he published a three-volume collection of travel pieces, Sketches and Studies in Italy and Greece.

One secret reason for Symonds’s engagement is by now well known. Like certain others of the “Oxford Hellenists” of the mid-nineteenth century—including Walter Pater, another figure whose work Wilde would admire extravagantly—Symonds was a secret homosexual who sought, through readings of the Greek classics, to find both expression for and justification of his own sexual nature. Indeed, Symonds later wrote in his memoirs that he had virtually discovered his sexuality through a reading of Plato’s Phaedrus and Symposium: the night he read their “panegyric of paiderastic love” was “one of the most important of my life.” In time, he would go on to write explicitly about Greek homosexuality in A Problem in Greek Ethics, a text that was circulated privately for ten years before its eventual publication, in 1883, and is now seen as a foundational document of modern homosexual studies.
However flowery his style and whatever lip service he paid to conventional condemnation of “paiderastia,” there were those who were able to read between the lines of Symonds’s work—especially the lines of the final chapter of the second volume of Studies of the Greek Poets, with its controversial defense of Greek rather than Judeo-Christian morals, which he dismissed as “theistic fancies liable to change.” (Phyllis Grosskurth’s 1964 biography of Symonds retells an amusing anecdote about a “shocked compositor” who, after setting the type of Symonds’s book, wrote an outraged letter to the author.) The critic and sometime watercolorist Richard St John Tyrwhitt fulminated against Symonds’s book in a lengthy article that appeared in The Contemporary Review, warning that Studies of the Greek Poets advocated “the total denial of any moral restraint on any human impulses.” As a result of the controversy surrounding the second volume of his study, Symonds reluctantly withdrew his candidacy for the Poetry Chair at Oxford.

  1. 1

    This and other tidbits about the writer’s intellectual formation are retailed in Thomas Wright’s admiring intellectual biography of Wilde, Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde, a highly useful survey of what Wilde was reading at every stage of his life, to which my discussion of Wilde’s schooling is indebted.

  2. 2

    See Linda Dowling’s intriguing study Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (Cornell University Press, 1994).

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