English Romantic Hellenism Introduction

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,105 words.)