In the latest issue:

The Politics of Like and Dislike

William Davies

The Shrine

Alan Bennett

After the Shock

Adam Tooze

Punishment by Pressing

Hazel V. Carby

The Suitcase

Frances Stonor Saunders

Short Cuts: Thanington Without

Patrick Cockburn

The Lessons of Reconstruction

Randall Kennedy


Linda Colley

Eva Hesse

Anne Wagner

Parachuted into France

Neal Ascherson

The Age of Sail

N.A.M. Rodger

Poem: ‘Near Gleann nam Fiadh’

Robin Robertson

‘You People’

Clare Bucknell

What Didn’t Happen

Michael Wood

Forster in Cambridge

Richard Shone

Diary: In Ashgabat

James Lomax

Feet on the mantelpieceHugh Lloyd-Jones
Vol. 2 No. 16 · 21 August 1980

Feet on the mantelpiece

Hugh Lloyd-Jones

2879 words
The Victorians and Ancient Greece 
by Richard Jenkyns.
Blackwell, 386 pp., £15, June 1980, 0 631 10991 9
Show More
Show More

Until the 18th century modern Europe had in the main seen Ancient Greece through Latin spectacles. Important advances in Greek studies had been made, but their effect had been restricted, since few were able to read the language easily – in particular, the difficult language of the greatest writers. The first country in which serious efforts were made to see Ancient Greece directly was Germany. The efforts would hardly have been possible without the work of scholars, some of whom were able both to advance the knowledge of the Ancient world and to communicate their learning and enthusiasm to others, but the spreading of enthusiasm was to a greater extent the work of creative writers, among whom Lessing, Goethe and Schiller played a leading part. These men assumed that Ancient literature, as well as Ancient art, were directly accessible to modern minds, and produced masterpieces to which their study of Ancient masterpieces made an obvious contribution. Greek art and literature inspired in them an enthusiasm comparable with that which the men of the Italian Renaissance had felt for Roman art and literature, or for Greco-Roman culture in general, and their approach to it was not yet conditioned by the historical sense which succeeding generations were to develop.

Goethe was by far the most important figure in this intellectual movement, and anyone who wishes to understand the effect of Greek culture upon Victorian England must take him into account, since his influence on that culture was enormous. The vulgar notion that Goethe naively idealised the Greeks, finding nothing but noble simplicity and calm grandeur in their productions, while ignoring the tensions that lay beneath the surface, will not survive an attentive study of his works, particularly the second part of Faust. The monsters of the Classical Walpurgisnacht are not merely a collection of amiable grotesques; Phorkyas lends a grotesque element to the episode of Helen that is quite distinct from the medieval grotesqueries of the poem; the descent to the Mothers alone is enough to show that when Nietzsche wrote that Goethe did not understand the Greeks he himself failed to understand Goethe. Goethe’s prodigious effort to understand Greek culture can be studied with the aid of Humphry Trevelyan’s Goethe and the Greeks, soon to be reprinted, and Ernst Grumach’s Goethe und die Antike. Of course, Greek culture was only one of the elements which he combined: for a man of his extraordinary gifts, born right at the middle of the 18th century, it was still possible to create a synthesis of Greek and medieval cultures. The nature of his achievement could not fully be understood by all, and many of his followers painted Antiquity in too rosy colours. But throughout the century that followed, his achievement continued to exercise a powerful effect, in England as well as Germany: it is not easy to imagine the work of either Arnold or Pater without Goethe’s influence.

The classicising period aroused in Germany an enthusiasm for Greek culture that led to intensive study of the Ancient world. The University of Berlin, organised by Humboldt with the aid of Wolf, became the prototype of the modern university: every aspect of the Ancient world was thoroughly investigated by the general study now termed Altertumswissenschaft. This promoted an attitude of hard-headed realism very different from the idealism of the age of Goethe and Humboldt. Immense successes were achieved, but by the Seventies it was clear that a heavy price had been paid for them. Much German scholarship had become dry and ponderous, as the young Nietzsche pointed out: but this charge could not be levelled against the greatest scholars, like Mommsen and Wilamowitz, and German Classical scholarship continued to flourish and to play an important role in the life of the nation until well into the 20th century, fertilised in part by the trend which Nietzsche set in motion.

In England also, the second half of the 18th century saw a new enthusiasm for Greek culture. Mr Jenkyns devotes most of his first chapter to the travellers in Greek lands and the effect of their work upon the arts, especially architecture. The Classical style provided the reaction against the baroque and the rococo with exact principles: here Greek influence took a positive and concrete form. A cult of simplicity and a new interest in the literature of cultures hitherto assumed to be primitive arose in England as well as Germany; the period of enthusiasm for Ossian saw the publication of the important Homeric studies of Thomas Blackwell and Robert Wood.

In the late 18th century there was a revival of serious education in the ancient universities, and the institution of the Tripos at Cambridge and the Honour Schools at Oxford had the effect of increasing substantially the numbers of those able to read Greek texts. Learned work continued for some time to be done in the 18th-century tradition: that is true of the brilliant specialised textual critics of Greek drama and of the massively learned editors of the old school like Thomas Gaisford, who did not die till 1855. But while in Germany the age of Classicism was succeeded by the age of learned historicism, the English were on the whole content to study Classical civilisation in outline, and shrank from the labour of learned and intensive study. Had Thomas Arnold not been cut off in his forties, things might have been different. Arnold belonged to a group of scholars based on Oriel College who for a brief moment before the Tracts seemed about to inaugurate an era of high scholarship in Oxford: he grasped the importance of the revolution in historical studies made by Niebuhr and, despite all other claims upon his time, did what he could to explain it to his countrymen. But the prevailing trend in the ancient universities was typified by Jowett, for whom a scholar was a man able to read Thucydides with his feet on the mantelpiece. Oxford and Cambridge had the merit of supplying the English with the kind of acquaintance with Greek culture that they required. The Greats course made use of Ancient philosophy and Ancient history to introduce undergraduates to the main problems of those disciplines, but the main English contributions to these subjects came from outside the ancient universities. At least until late in the century, Oxford and Cambridge produced no philosopher comparable with Mill and no Ancient historian comparable with Grote.

The ancient universities did, however, produce some scholars of importance, and as Mr Jenkyns says little about them, I will say something. In Oxford, Jowett was opposed by a small group headed by Mark Pattison, who wished to see the place become a centre of real learning, as German universities were. From this circle came Ingram Bywater, as an undergraduate the close friend of Pater; he became an authority on Ancient philosophy, especially Aristotle, and on Renaissance scholarship. Reacting strongly against Jowett, he addressed only a learned audience: when someone complained that his standard commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics said nothing about ‘fine art’, Bywater replied that he could not find the term in Aristotle.

Cambridge at this time produced a Greek scholar whose learned work is still indispensable to scholars, and whose elegant and concise manner of expression gives him a real claim to be considered a distinguished writer. Sir Richard Jebb (1842-1905) devoted the main effort of his life to the making of an edition of Sophocles with commentary. In certain technical respects he was surpassed by his German contemporaries, while to modern taste he seems to make Sophoclean tragedy too much a tragedy of character: but he had the finest feeling for Greek and the most delicate appreciation of Sophoclean art.

In philosophy the most important feature of the Greek revival was the renewed influence of Plato, which in Germany received a powerful impetus from the work of Schleiermacher. The first English thinker to reflect the Continental trend was Coleridge (although the isolated figure of Thomas Taylor had pointed the way in the 18th century). The early Utilitarians were too philistine to take much notice of Plato, but Mill studied him effectively, and Grote made him the subject of an important book, all the more valuable for being written from a standpoint that was highly critical – he did the same for Aristotle. Greek philosophy became the chief subject-matter of the philosophical part of Greats. Jowett’s translation of Plato was not satisfactory as a work of scholarship, but it had literary merit, and has done useful service ever since its publication. When Hegelianism reached England, surprisingly late – Stirling’s Secret of Hegel appeared in 1865 – it gave a further stimulus to Platonic studies.

Philosophical Platonism was distinct from what may be called the natural Platonism of certain imaginative writers, which was not uncommon during the Romantic period. Platonism of a kind pervades Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality’ Ode, and it is present too in much of Shelley’s work. Ruskin read Plato assiduously, but was a Platonist before he did so; there is a remarkable affinity between the two. Plato’s theory of ideas can be seen as a natural development from a religion in which, as Thales put it, everything is full of gods. When Ruskin says in the last chapter of Praeterita that he believes in the ancient gods, that is his true meaning.

Arnold and Pater were both deeply affected by Plato, though neither accepted his philosophy: Arnold chiefly by his elegant and ironical manner in argument and exposition, Pater by the poetic element. Both men were also influenced by Goethe: Arnold was attracted by his stoical endurance, Pater more by his aestheticism. Mr Jenkyns scolds Arnold for over-refinement and, by making the Greeks out to be so ‘moderate’, making them dull: but what Arnold got from his Greek studies helped him to make a vastly important contribution, not only to literary criticism – above all, in On Translating Homer – but to the criticism of contemporary life. Pater’s decadent streak is most un-Classical, though he rightly felt an affinity with writers of late Antiquity. But he wrote of Plato with understanding as well as sympathy, and it is not surprising that he thought Plato and Platonism to be his best book: his negative attitude to the dogmatic side of Plato often reminds one of writers of our own period. I cannot agree with Mr Jenkyns that ‘Pater’s picture of Plato is essentially a fuzzier version of Jowett’s,’ though I come near to agreeing with the remark that Pater’s version of Ancient Sparta was something between Eton and Kensington. Mr Jenkyns himself quotes from Pater the sentence, ‘The eye is fixed on the sharp bright edge of Hellenic culture, but loses sight of the sombre world across which it strikes,’ and there are other traces of an awareness of that ‘sombre world’ that recall Nietzsche – consider, for example, the essays on Dionysus and on the Bacchae of Euripides at the beginning of Greek Studies. Like most Victorians who had a real sympathy with Greek culture, Arnold and Pater were closer to authors of its post-Classical period – Arnold to the Stoics and Pater to the Epicureans and the Cyrenaics.

The arts in which imitation of the Greeks is most difficult are poetry and painting. Very little Greek painting, other than vase-painting, a somewhat restricted genre, has survived, and modern techniques are very different from those of the Ancients. The age of true Classicism in painting was over before Victoria’s accession: Ingres, as Michael Greenhalgh has lately pointed out, was no true Classicist. The Grecising pictures of the Leightons and the Alma Tademas employ Greek decor, but are in temper, as in quality, singularly unhellenic.

Another domain in which we encounter much Greek decor, but little awareness of Greek essentials, is that of poetry. This is partly because the shape and texture of the Greek language and its metre are so different from those of English as to set narrow bounds to imitation. Further, the temper and attitude of Greek poetry, at least during the Epic, Archaic and Classical periods, are remote from those of the 19th century. Early Greek poetry is intimately bound up with early Greek religion; without understanding the one it is hardly possible to understand the other – and Greek religion was the part of Greek culture which the Victorians found hardest to understand. Polytheism and the attribution of human passions to the gods embarrassed them, as they had embarrassed Plato. Most took the Olympian religion to be no real religion, but a beautiful conventional apparatus; others assumed that Greek religion must have been more like Christianity than it seemed on the surface. They did not see that early Greek religion has a strong monotheistic element, or that the Greeks deified the powers that are seen working in the world, not necessarily for man’s good or in a manner that he would approve. As the heirs of the Enlightenment, the Victorians, or some of them, could understand Greek rationalism; as the heirs of Christianity, many of them could understand Platonism: but they could not understand the intellectual climate of the period between the eighth and fifth centuries BC, when the great masterpieces were created.

The Victorians were well aware that the two genres which contained the greatest Greek literary works were those of epic and tragedy, yet their own efforts to produce epic and tragedy failed completely. The writer who did most to help the general reader understand Homer was surely Gladstone, who for all the eccentricities of his strange synthesis of Hebraism and Hellenism, had greater sympathy with the heroic than his contemporaries, and realised that the Homeric poems offered a picture of the gods and the world that long continued to shape the outlook of Greeks, and had many signal merits. The author who turned the study of Greek poetry to best advantage was not Arnold or Swinburne, but George Eliot. In the manner of her time she saw the tragedies of Sophocles, which she studied most devotedly, as tragedies of character; and it is not so much in her direct allusions to Greek tragedy as in her development of tragic situations that we find a Sophoclean influence.

The early Romantics had admired Greek poetry, and had felt that they had more in common with the Greeks than either had with the Augustans. Not surprisingly, though, their poetry has far more in common with the English poetry that preceded the Augustan age than it has with Greek. Greek decor is one thing; real Greek influence another. Tennyson had a Classical education, and read Greek as well as Latin often and with pleasure; his favourite Classical poet was Virgil, and his favourite Greek poet was Theocritus: once again it is a post-Classical author that a great Victorian artist prefers. Browning read Greek poetry, particularly dramatic poetry, with enthusiasm; the famous literal version of the Agamemnon is an interesting experiment, and in ‘Balaustion’s Adventure’ and ‘Aristophanes’ Apology’ he used Greek poetry effectively; yet no one would claim that Browning had a special affinity with the Greeks. Arnold’s poetry has on the surface a strong Hellenic element. But neither ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ nor ‘Baldur Dead’ is at all Homeric: both have a faint suggestion of the Alexandrian epyllion, but the essential content is Romantic. ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ is really about Thomas and Matthew Arnold. ‘Merope’ is a corpse, the form of Greek tragedy without its life; ‘Empedocles on Etna’ is infinitely better poetry, but the content is wholly of the 19th century. For all the Greek decor of ‘Atalanta in Calydon’, Swinburne is a very unhellenic author; his rhyming alliterative verse with its Romantic content is singularly remote from Greek drama.

Every age that makes a serious study of another takes from it what it needs for its own purposes: slavish imitation merely leads to deadness. Inevitably it reads much of itself into the past; inevitably it concentrates on the features of the past that suit itself. The start of the Victorian age almost coincided with the moment when art in Europe voluntarily retreated from the centre to the margins of life. Romantic art, laudably enough at the first moment of its coming face to face with the new industrial civilisation, wished to purify itself as much as possible from the corrupting and eroding influence of real life: Greek art, at least during the period when the greatest works were made, was firmly rooted in the life of Greek communities. Greek literature and art during that period were closely linked with Greek religion: Victorian literature and art could not be so linked, and Greek religion was hard for the Victorians to understand. The Victorian age made a serious study of Ancient Greece: but the study was less profound and the relationship less close than most Victorians realised, and the Greek writers and artists with whom they felt most affinity belonged to the post-Classical period. Mr Jenkyns offers a great deal of useful information, clearly and pleasingly. But he lacks the ability to see general tendencies at work and to establish the general principles which one would need to write a work of this kind that was of the highest quality. It is not an easy book for a young man to attempt.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences