In his love of Greece, Keats was absolutely typical of the cutting edge of English culture. A whole generation of Romantic artists in Britain were absorbed by Graecomania. While the poor Keats languished artistically in London, Lord Byron, forced to flee London, became a superstar poet writing from abroad but entered the pantheon of Romantic artists by dying for Greece. Like many writers and thinkers he was galvanised by the fight for Greek freedom from the Turkish Empire. It was a fight that gave a fully politicised agenda to the ideological idealism of the artistic turn towards Greece. Byron may have in reality achieved next to nothing and died of fever, but he became a heroic symbol of Romantic commitment to the cause of freedom (artistic, political, sexual) which made Philhellenism an essential credo of the age.
Shelly too was passionate about the Greek fight for independence, and many of his greatest poems link the struggle to escape the dulling shackles of social convention and political oppression with the ideal image of a free Greece. Prometheus was a figure who Shelly returned to again and again: the chained creative spirit who suffers for truth and mankind, and yet longs for freedom and justice, a very definition of the Romantic artist as much as a Greek Titan. Shelley also died young and abroad. He drowned off the coast of Italy a death that has been invested with less mythic nobility than Byron’s. Strangely, however, even swimming was touched with the glamour of the classical. It’s hard now to appreciate that swimming was rediscovered as a pastime only in the late eighteenth century, and as a sport much later still. Although Greeks and Romans swam as a leisure activity, there is a long gap in its history people don’t swim in medieval and Renaissance Europe. It was taken up again with a conscious look backwards towards the ancient love of exercise and training the body, especially by Romantic Philhellenes, who fancied swimming the Bosphorus, like Leander of Greek myth, towards a lover of their own. To swim was to sport and strive like a Greek or Roman hero. Shelley’s death by water his last swim becomes part of his self-mythology of Greekness.
For Byron, Shelley and a host of intellectuals the Romantic giants of the first quarter of the nineteenth century Greece was an intellectual rallying call. A generation of English intellectuals defined themselves aesthetically and politically by turning towards an idealized Greece. They were committed to a revolutionary politics and a revolutionary poetics, and in both areas they found the image of a free Greece inspirational. Shelley raised the banner for his whole generation when he proudly declared: ‘We are all Greeks."
These Romantic Philhellenists set the agenda for the century that follows. Greece courses through the artistic and cultural life of England with a continuing obsessiveness. For the educated classes, it was an integral part of the construction of a personal and cultural identity. We can see Oscar Wilde, flamboyant as ever, on his first trip to Greece, which he made with his tutor from Trinity College, Dublin in the 1870s. dressing up as a Greek for the camera, a self-confident smile, and foot poised on the ancient rocks of Greece, in a carefully posed image for friends at home or universitv. It is a highly coded self-projection, with the same flair for spectacular self-presentation that marks Glde’s later career. He had written to his tutor in Oxford to ask permission to be late for term because a visit like this to Greece was so educational. Certainly Wilde was learning.
Wilde was acting out what it meant to say ‘We are all Greeks,’ and he knew well the intense charge of such a claim in the circles in which he was already moving. He found himself at home with a group in Oxford and London known as the ‘Aesthetes’. These Aesthetes offer a distinctive flowering of self-conscious transgression. The group was a self-selected and shifting collection of individuals, linked by their commitment to an extreme aesthetic principle where ‘beauty’ mattered above all. All aspects of life
were submitted to that criterion. And for all of them Greece provided the very paradigm of a world infused with beauty.
Wilde’s later notoriety has eclipsed a line of more serious scholars, including the art historian Walter Pater, poets such as Algernon Swinburne and essayists like John Addington Symonds, who had a profound influence on a generation of young men both by their publications and by personal contact in the elite world of Oxford University education. Greece ran through their debates on beauty and on sexuality. Pater, the movement’s high priest, wanted his pupils to rediscover all around them ‘a world of exquisite craftsmanship, touching the minutest details of daily life with splendour and skill, in close correspondence with a particularly animated development of human existence’ which was how he defined Greek art, his model and hope.
Symonds, however, had a more specific liberalizing sexual agenda.He saw the cultural ideal of Victorian Hellenism in terms of his own socially stigmatized desires. His Greece of the imagination is summed up like this: ‘Like a young man newly come from the wrestling-ground, anointed, chapleted and very calm, the Genius of the Greeks appears before us. Upon his soul, there is no burden of the world’s pain . . . nor has he yet felt sin.’ For Symonds, a longing for Greece is pictured as a beautiful boy without for once the feeling of sin. Greece promised a pre-Christian, guilt-free paradise. Unsurprisingly, it was Symonds rather than Pater who was scathingly attacked by Oxford conservatives for what they all-too-vividly imagined he was thinking of when he demanded that ‘we must imitate the Greeks’. Wilde knew what he was doing when he dressed up as a Greek.
Wilde himself shows his growing engagement with this Greek love in his notebooks and commonplace books, where he collected a series of passages from Pater, Symonds and his other reading. Platonic philosophy and the Symposium’s praise of male love play a special role here. These phrases show Wilde’s Grecian style as it is being formed: ‘We wrestle to embrace and embrace to wrestle,’ he wrote, lovingly dwelling on a mixture of homoeroticism and dialectical philosophy. He added a catchphrase from Pater: ‘to do philosophy with desire’. So strong was the ‘Grecian’ aspect of doing philosophy that ‘being of a philosophical disposition’ became a euphemism for someone with whom you could talk of homoerotic feelings.
Wilde tried to capture those intense conversations between young men in a single principle: ‘the refinement of Greek culture coming through the romantic medium of impassioned friendships’. The romance of his impassioned friendships needed the veil of the ‘refinement of Greek culture’, and in particular Plato’s discussions of desire offer an ideal image to live up to. Hellenism was the medium of homosexual expression for this high-profile and influential intellectual milieu. It’s not by chance that the lead character of Wilde’s best-known novel should allude to a scholarly world of Greek feeling. The Picture of Dorian Gray hesitates to mention ‘the love that cannot speak its name’, but through the odd name ‘Dorian’ it alludes knowingly to the Spartans, the Dorian race par excellence, and thus to a Spartan pederastic tradition, which made male love part of manly warfare, and not a sign of effete softness. This sort of hint and smirk is typical of the insider talk of these aesthetically minded teachers and pupils, writers and artists.
For the educated classes in Victorian Britain, Greece was a fundamental route to understanding the world and, above all, for expressing one’s own place, intellectual, moral, sexual, within it. This is partly why the long-running argument about the place of classics in the school and university curriculum was so heated. This political debate ran throughout the nineteenth century and stretched well into the twentieth. Nor has it finished yet today. But in the nineteenth century the argument started with the question of whether anything else but classics and the Bible should even be taught to children, once they could read and write. For most of the century, classics took up a good 80 per cent of the time in the classroom. The familiarity with Greece and Rome begins with this institutional foundation.
Politicians and educationalists throughout the nineteenth century made educational reform and the place of classics in it a matter of intense national concern. One of the most influential figures in this long debate was Benjamin Jowett. At the same time as the Aesthetes were strutting their stuff on the streets of Oxford and London, Jowett who was friendly with many of them, especially Swinburne was fundamentally changing the educational system in Oxford, starting with Balliol, the college where he was master.
Jowett also took Plato as his master-text, but in a quite different way from those who poured over the Symposium as part of their crushes on beautiful boys. Jowett established the one-on-one class or ‘tutorial’ as the mainstay of his educational policy ~ classes deliberately set up like Plato’s portraits of Socrates with a friend, doing philosophy together. He himself translated all of Plato into English, and made Platonic philosophy 3 guide for those in public life something Plato would have appreciated well. Jowett educated his students with Plato to rule the Empire, and, from the study in Oxford to the corridors of power across the Empire, this education was remarkably effective.
It was helped by a civil service exam that awarded many more marks for success in classical papers than any other subject even the languages spoken in the areas to be governed. Classics was a training to rule, and the best and brightest who went from public school to university to government were educated in ancient texts. The role of the civil service in ruling India had been formulated by Thomas Macaulay back in the I 8305. When he traveled out to India first by boat, he carefully read and reread much of Greek literature including nearly all of Plato, and the Iliad and the Odyssey, along with Cicero and other Roman writers. This was his preparation for ruling an empire. When Alexander the Great conquered the known world, he slept with a copy of Homer under his pillow, as he strived to achieve the immortal glory of the Homeric heroes. The pursuit of empire cultural conquest is fed by classical dreams.
The dominance of this educational model was pervasive and Jowett's Oxford formed the apex of a far broader educational commitment in England. From the first schooldays to ruling the Empire to a quiet retirement reading Homer in the evening classics was integral to the formation of the nineteenth-century gentleman.
These snapshots of poets, aesthetes and educational grandees give a good flavour of how varied the passionate lovers of Greece in Victorian Britain were. What such vignettes cannot capture is how pervasive and broad this passion was. The figures I have focused on are the cultural heroes for nineteenth-century England. They set the cultural agenda which was absorbed and followed by vast numbers of the educated classes. The Romantic poets and their self-conscious revolutionary Hellenism, the Aesthetes with their self-consciously transgressive Hellenism, and the Oxford-educated elite with their self-aware commitment to Hellenism as an education for Empire, take very different roots towards an ideal Greece, and use their Greece in very different ways. Yet each group is empowered by their understanding of Greece, and their understanding informs their whole lives. Their interest in Greece is not just one intellectual hobby among others, but a way of responding to the world and existing in it. It is an integral part of the construction of their personal and cultural identities.
A Greece of the imagination informs Victorian culture. In the last hundred years, modern British culture has spent a tremendous amount of energy trying to show how it is different from Victorian society ~ while recognizing its roots in it. It’s one of the obvious places contemporary Britain comes from and anxiously, explores, rejects, fantasizes about. In England, unlike, say, the USA, there are plenty of Victorian buildings in towns and cities around the country. Victorian novels are still a mainstay of our education in English, and of television adaptation.