Feet on the mantelpiece

Hugh Lloyd-Jones

  • The Victorians and Ancient Greece by Richard Jenkyns
    Blackwell, 386 pp, £15.00, June 1980, ISBN 0 631 10991 9

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.

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