English Romantic Hellenism

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1105

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."

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