English Romantic Hellenism
English Romantic Hellenism
The relationship between the literary Romantic movement and the growing interest in ancient Greek literature, mythology, art, and culture in nineteenth-century England is a complex one; scholars rarely agree on which development is an offshoot of the other. While Harry Levin (1931), in the first major study of English Romantic Hellenism, maintained that the "cult of Greece" became a "mere enthusiasm" among a "long series of romantic obsessions," James Osborn (1963) pinpoints Romantic Hellenism as a part of the larger Neo-Hellenism movement. While the boundaries of these movements remain blurred, it is clear that during the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, in the aftermath of the eighteenth century's neo-classicism, England became increasingly enamored of Greece, and the Romantic poets—most notably Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats—turned to the past and to the East for inspiration.
Several concurrent developments influenced a shift in English attention from Rome to Greece during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In terms of literature, the writings of ancient Rome and Greece had long been lumped together under the rubric of "classical studies." Typically, Latin translations of Greek works served as the basis of such studies, due in part, John Churton Collins (1910) notes, to the difficulty of the Greek language. But gradually, a separation of Roman and Greek cultures began to occur, resulting in a new respect for Greek works as the models on which subsequent Roman literature was based. At the same time, Greece was experiencing a new wave of travelers to its shores. French and English travelers to Greece published accounts of their observations, and in the mid-eighteenth century, two British artists, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, set out to measure the Parthenon and other Greek structures. James Osborn notes that with the publication of their The Antiquities of Athens, Measured and Delineated (1762), a new Grecian fashion in architecture and decoration took hold in England. Countless similar excursions to Greece followed, and soon overlapped with interest in Greek literature, as scholars sought to investigate the veracity of Homer and his works. Finally, it must be noted that in 1800, Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, had plaster casts made of Greek statues of the Parthenon. Elgin was also authorized to remove pieces of statuary on which there appeared inscriptions. The "Elgin marbles," as they became known, soon arrived in England (many by 1804) and in 1816 were purchased for the country by the British government.
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries also saw numerous developments within the field of mythography. Throughout most of the eighteenth century, explains Alex Zwerdling (1964), mythographers were primarily concerned with making pagan "idolotary" acceptable to a Christian audience. While the typical eighteenth-century attitude toward Greek mythology was a negative one, it remained a source of interest, mainly out of a sense of obligation to classical studies. By the late eighteenth century, the distortion of Greek myth for the sake of Christian sensibilities was becoming increasingly unpalatable to the growing Romantic movement. Greek mythology underwent a revival in which it was presented factually and objectively, rather than being reduced to Christian allegory. These more "scientific" treatments, as well as more comprehensive studies of lesser known myths, became the point-of-entry into Greek myth for many Romantics. Edward B. Hungerford (1941) stresses that for Shelley and Keats, as well as other Romantics, mythology became a "new language" for exploring religious and spiritual themes.
Before long, such shifts in attitudes were reflected in the works of England's Romantic poets. Lord Byron, just prior to his departure for Greece in 1809, disparaged the Elgin marbles as "freaks" and "mutilated blocks of art." After having traveled in Greece, Byron published the first two cantos of his Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in 1812, which included passages glorifying Grecian ruins. In The Curse of Minerva (1815), Byron berated Lord Elgin for his vandalism of Grecian statuary. Byron treats Greek themes in other poems as well, including The Bride of Abydos (1813) and The Giaour (1813). Byron, Shelley, and Keats are acknowledged by modern critics to be the best representatives of English Romantic Hellenism; as Levin notes, the three poets "are very near the centre of romantic Hellenism in England." Yet Byron is often characterized as Philhellenic, in that his interests toward the end of his career turned away from ancient Greece and toward the political issues surrounding contemporary Greece. In fact, Byron died at the age of 36 when he was killed fighting for Greek independence from the Turks.
The works of Shelley and Keats, on the other hand, continue to be examined as more purely Hellenic. William Wordsworth, as well, has been identified as a Romantic Hellenic, with Douglas Bush (1937) describing him as "the fountain-head of nineteenth-century poetry on mythological themes." Bush points to such poems as "Laodamia" (1815) as evidence of Wordsworth's embracing of myth as a symbol of religious imagination, and credits the poet with establishing mythology as the "language of poetic idealism." Bush further maintains that Wordsworth "passed on to younger poets .. . a noble and poetic conception of mythology as a treasury of symbols rich enough to embody not only the finest sensual experience but the highest aspirations of man." One of these "younger poets" was Shelley. Levin describes Shelley's Hellenism as "sentimental." Shelley's most noted Hellenistic work is Prometheus Unbound (1820), in which he reworks the ancient myth of Prometheus. Modern critics observe a number of significant differences between the classic and romantic versions. Levin describes the poem as abstract and as "pure allegory, with little immediate or symbolic significance." Frederick Pierce (1917) finds that the "ancient models" for the poetic drama are only followed in the first act, yet "unquestionably Greek elements" flow throughout the poem. However, Collins states that while Shelley's poem "is a magnificent varient" of the myth, he charges that "its florid beauty and philanthropic enthusiasm are far from being Greek."
Bush identifies John Keats as the poet most influenced by Wordsworth; Levin describes him as "the most Grecian of modern poets." Keats's inspiration includes Grecian sculpture and art, as in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (1820), as well as mythology, as in Endymion (1818). Pierce notes that poems such as "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and Hyperion (1820) are "classic in the noblest sense of the word, as nobly Grecian as anything in our language."
Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats, like many minor poets, were inspired in a variety of different ways by ancient Greece. Stephen Larrabee (1943), in concluding his analyses of the influence of Greek sculpture on the Romantics, summarizes what is perhaps the main thrust of English Romantic Hellenism when he notes that the Romantic poets "wished to emulate the Greeks in making great art from the circumstances of their time."
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (Cantos 1 and 2) 1812
The Bride of Abydos 1813
The Giaour 1813
The Curse of Minerva (written in 1811) 1815
"The Nymphs" 1818
Hero and Leander 1819
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" 1820
The Fall of Hyperion. A Dream (written in 1819) 1856
Thomas Love Peacock
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Prometheus Unbound 1820
The Witch of Atlas 1824
"Laodamia" (written in 1814) 1815
"Dion" (written in 1816) 1820
"Ode to Lycoris" (written in 1817) 1820
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Harry Levin (essay date 1931)
SOURCE: The Broken Column: A Study in Romantic Hellenism, Harvard University Press, 1931, pp. 29-76.
[In the excerpt that follows, Levin analyzes the characteristics of Romantic Hellenism and discusses the poetry of Byron, Shelley, and Keats as representative of various types of Romantic Hellenism.]
An Anatomy of Romantic Hellenism
Before we proceed on our quest for the amaranth flower, it may be well for us to fix firmly in mind the characteristics of romantic Hellenism. I shall therefore attempt, very briefly, to anatomize the subject in its successive stages. It begins, as I have indicated, in a complete distrust of the classics, which are associated with the neo-classical period of western European literature. Gradually Greece is dissociated from the rest and converted into an Arcadia for the romanticists. World-weary denizens of the drawing-rooms are ready to divide the world, with Schiller, into naïve and sentimental peoples, and to yearn for the primitive, simple, and idyllic society of the Greeks.
They proclaim that the world was young in those days, that the Greeks were the children of nature. "The mental culture of the Greeks was a finished education in the school of nature," we hear, in ringing falsetto, from the lecture platform of Herr Dr. Professor Schlegel. "Sie haben die Poetik der Freude...
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Historical Development Of English Romantic Hellenism
Harry Levin (essay date 1931)
SOURCE: "The Romanticists and the Classical Tradition," in The Broken Column: A Study in Romantic Hellenism, Harvard University Press, 1931, pp. 18-28.
[In the excerpt below, Levin offers a brief account of Romantic Hellenism as a reaction against eighteenth-century neo-classicism.]
The Romanticists and the Classical Tradition
Although we ordinarily expect to find the man reflected in the books that he reads, what are we to judge from the classical tastes of É mile, the romantic child of nature? "En général, É mile prendra plus de goût pour les livres des anciens, que pour les nôtres," explains his godfather, Rousseau, "par cela seul qu'étant les premiers, les anciens sont le plus près de la nature, et que leur génie est plus à eux." Emile, then, took his books along with him into the thicket and the shadows of leaves sifted over the pages as he read them. They reflected him in the sense that the whole world became, for the romantic egoist, a dim gallery of mirrors. The classical tradition, in a civilization which had hesitated to take a single step without looking back to Greece and Rome, was too strong to be swept aside, but men can always put new interpretations upon a body of laws too venerable to be flouted or abolished.
There were, early in the romantic movement, various attempts to flout and...
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Influence Of Greek Mythology On The Romantics
Douglas Bush (essay date 1937)
SOURCE: "Coleridge: Wordsworth: Byron," in Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry, 1937. Reprint, Harvard University Press, 1969, pp. 51-80.
[In the following essay, Bush examines the influence of Greek mythology on Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Byron. Bush argues that Christian ideas dominate "Hellenic impulses " in Coleridge's poetry; maintains that Wordsworth "re-created mythological poetry for the nineteenth century "; and asserts that Byron's use of myth is most effective in his satires.]
Before we come to Wordsworth, who has been described as Coleridge's greatest work, and, like all his other works, left unfinished, a few pages must be given to Coleridge's writings. Mythology is perhaps not to be counted among the first score or two of his major interests, but some of his allusions to the subject in both prose and verse are very suggestive and important. He touched everything, and seldom touched anything that he did not either illuminate or befog. For an example of the latter result, it is enough to refer to the extraordinary essay "On the Prometheus of Aeschylus" (1825).1 Much briefer and somewhat more lucid are his remarks on Asiatic and Greek mythologies. Whatever his immediate sources of information, ancient and modern, Coleridge might be summarizing Blackwell (not to...
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Influence Of Greek Literature, Art, And Culture On The Romantics
August Wilhelm von Schlegel (lecture date 1809)
SOURCE: "Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Literatur," 1809, translated by J. Black, 1815. Reprinted in English Romantic Hellenism, 1700-1824, edited by Timothy Webb, Manchester University Press and Barnes and Noble Books, 1982, pp. 213-19.
[In the following excerpt from a lecture, Schlegel enthusiastically praises Grecian art, poetry, and drama.]
The formation of the Greeks was a natural education in its utmost perfection. Of a beautiful and noble race, endowed with susceptible senses and a clear understanding, placed beneath a mild heaven, they lived and bloomed in full health of existence; and, under a singular coincidence of favourable circumstances, performed all of which our circumscribed nature is capable. The whole of their art and their poetry is expressive of the consciousness of this harmony of all their faculties. They have invented the poetry of gladness.
Their religion was the deification of the powers of nature and of the earthly life: but this worship, which, among other nations, clouded the imagination with images of horror, and filled the heart with unrelenting cruelty, assumed, among the Greeks, a mild, a grand, and a dignified form. Superstition, too often the tyrant of the human faculties, seemed to have here contributed to their freest development. It cherished the arts by which it was...
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Arnold, Matthew. "Hebraism and Hellenism." In Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism, pp. 109-27. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1883.
Discusses Hebraism and Hellenism as forces or influences that need to be balanced in English society in order to ensure the stability of the state. Arnold equates Hebraism with religious authority and moral conduct and stresses the overly Hebraic nature of England, maintaining that the influences of Greek philosophy and art (Hellenism) are required to rectify this imbalance. Arnold's views on the subject reflect a debate in later-nineteenth-century England that was becoming increasingly racial in tone, pitting Aryan against Semite, due in part to a reaction to the growing Jewish population in nineteenth-century England.
Chislett, William, Jr. "The Romantic Revolt." In The Classical Influence in English Literature in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 8-10. Boston: The Stratford Co., 1918.
Provides a brief list of nineteenth-century poets who were inspired by Grecian themes.
Clarke, G. W., ed. Rediscovering Hellenism: The Hellenic Inheritance and the English Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, 264 p.
A collection of essays discussing the various ways in which Greek philosophy,...
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