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Influence Of Greek Literature, Art, And Culture On The Romantics

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18245

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 ornamented, and the idols became models of ideal beauty.

But however far the Greeks may have carried beauty, and even morality, we cannot allow any higher character to their formation than that of a refined and ennobled sensuality. Let it not be understood that I assert this to be true in every instance. The conjectures of a few philosophers, and the irradiations of poetical inspiration, constitute an exception. Man can never altogether turn aside his thoughts from infinity, and some obscure recollections will always remind him of his original home; but we are now speaking of the principal object towards which his endeavours are directed.

Religion is the root of human existence. Were it possible for man to renounce all religion, including that of which he is unconscious, and over which he has no control, he would become a mere surface without any internal substance. When this centre is disturbed the whole system of the mental faculties must receive another direction . . .

Among the Greeks human nature was in itself all-sufficient; they were conscious of no wants, and aspired at no higher perfection than that which they could actually attain by the exercise of their own faculties. We, however, are taught by superior wisdom that man, through a high offence, forfeited the place for which he was originally destined; and that the whole object of his earthly existence is to strive to regain that situation, which, if left to his own strength, he could never accomplish. The religion of the senses had only in view the possession of outward and perishable blessings; and immortality, insofar as it was believed, appeared in an obscure distance like a shadow, a faint dream of this bright and vivid futurity. The very reverse of all this is the case with the Christian: every thing finite and mortal is lost in the contemplation of infinity; life has become shadow and darkness, and the first dawning of our real existence opens in the world beyond the grave. Such a religion must waken the foreboding, which slumbers in every feeling heart, to the most thorough consciousness, that the happiness after which we strive we can never here attain; that no external object can ever entirely fill our souls; and that every mortal enjoyment is but a fleeting and momentary deception. When the soul, resting as it were under the willows of exile, breathes out its longing for its distant home, the prevailing character of its songs must be melancholy. Hence the poetry of the ancients was the poetry of enjoyment, and ours is that of desire: the former has its foundation in the scene which is present, while the latter hovers betwixt recollection and hope. Let me not be understood to affirm that every thing flows in one strain of wailing and complaint, and that the voice of melancholy must always be loudly heard. As the austerity of tragedy was not incompatible with the joyous views of the Greeks, so the romantic poetry can assume every tone, even that of the most lively gladness; but still it will always, in some shape or other, bear traces of the source from which it originated. The feeling of the moderns is, upon the whole, more intense, their fancy more incorporeal, and their thoughts more contemplative. In nature, it is true, the boundaries of objects run more into one another, and things are not so distinctly separated as we must exhibit them for the sake of producing a distinct impression.

The Grecian idea of humanity consisted in a perfect concord and proportion between all the powers,—a natural harmony. The moderns again have arrived at the consciousness of the internal discord which renders such an idea impossible; and hence the endeavour of their poetry is to reconcile these two worlds between which we find ourselves divided, and to melt them indissolubly into one another. The impressions of the senses are consecrated, as it were, from their mysterious connexion with higher feelings; and the soul, on the other hand, embodies its forebodings, or nameless visions of infinity, in the phenomena of the senses.

In the Grecian art and poetry we find an original and unconscious unity of form and subject; in the modern, so far as it has remained true to its own spirit, we observe a keen struggle to unite the two, as being naturally in opposition to each other. The Grecian executed what it proposed in the utmost perfection; but the modern can only do justice to its endeavours after what is infinite by approximation; and, from a certain appearance of imperfection, is in greater danger of not being duly appreciated.

The theatres of the Greeks were quite open above, and their dramas were always acted in open day, and beneath the canopy of heaven. The Romans, at an after period, endeavoured by a covering to shelter the audience from the rays of the sun; but this degree of luxury was hardly ever enjoyed by the Greeks. Such a state of things appears very inconvenient to us; but the Greeks had nothing of effeminacy about them, and we must not forget, too, the beauty of their climate. When they were overtaken by a storm or a shower, the play was of course interrupted; and they would much rather expose themselves to an accidental inconvenience, than, by shutting themselves up in a close and crowded house, entirely destroy the serenity of a religious solemnity, which their plays certainly were. To have covered in the scene itself, and imprisoned gods and heroes in dark and gloomy apartments with difficulty lighted up, would have appeared still more ridiculous to them. An action which so nobly served to establish the belief of the relation with heaven could only be exhibited under an unobstructed heaven, and under the very eyes of the gods as it were, for whom, according to Seneca, the sight of a brave man struggling with adversity is a becoming spectacle.1 With respect to the supposed inconvenience, which, according to the assertion of many modern critics, was felt by the poets from the necessity of always laying the scene of their pieces before houses, a circumstance that often forced them to violate probability, this inconvenience was very little felt by tragedy and the older comedy. The Greeks, like many southern nations of the present day, lived much more in the open air than we do, and transacted many things in public places which usually take place with us in houses. For the theatre did not represent the street, but a place before the house belonging to it, where the altar stood on which sacrifices to the household gods were offered up. Here the women, who lived in so retired a manner among the Greeks, even those who were unmarried, might appear without any impropriety. Neither was it impossible for them to give a view of the interior of the houses; and this was effected, as we shall immediately see by means of the encyclema.

But the principal reason for this observance was that publicity, according to the republican notion of the Greeks was essential to a grave and important transaction. This is clearly proved by the presence of the chorus, whose remaining on many occasions when secret transactions were going on has been judged of according to rules of propriety inapplicable to that country, and most undeservedly censured . . .

We come now to the essence of the Greek tragedy itself. In stating that the conception was ideal, we are not to understand that the different characters were all morally perfect. In this case what room could there be for such an opposition or conflict, as the plot of a drama requires?—Weaknesses, errors, and even crimes, were pourtrayed in them but the manners were always elevated above reality, and every person was invested with such a portion of dignity and grandeur as was compatible with the share which he possessed in the action. The ideality of the representation chiefly consisted in the elevation to a higher sphere. The tragical poetry wished wholly to separate the image of humanity which it exhibited to us, from the ground of nature to which man is in reality chained down, like a feudal slave. How was this to be accomplished? By exhibiting to us an image hovering in the air? But this would have been incompatible with the law of gravitation and with the earthly materials of which our bodies are framed. Frequently, what we praise in art as ideal is really nothing more. But the production of airy floating shadows can make no durable impression on the mind. The Greeks, however, succeeded in combining in the most perfect manner in their art ideality with reality, or, dropping school terms, an elevation more than human with all the truth of life, and all the energy of bodily qualities. They did not allow their figures to flutter without consistency in empty space, but they fixed the statue of humanity on the eternal and immoveable basis of moral liberty; and that it might stand there unshaken, being formed of stone or brass, or some more solid mass than the living human bodies, it made an impression by its own weight, and from its very elevation and magnificence it was only the more decidedly subjected to the law of gravity.

Inward liberty and external necessity are the two poles of the tragic world. Each of these ideas can only appear in the most perfect manner by the contrast of the other. As the feeling of internal dignity elevates the man above the unlimited dominion of impulse and native instinct, and in a word absolves him from the guardianship of nature, so the necessity which he must also recognize ought to be no mere natural necessity, but to lie beyond the world of sense in the abyss of infinitude; and it must consequently be represented as the invincible power of fate. Hence it extends also to the world of the gods: for the Grecian gods are mere powers of nature; and although immeasurably higher than any mortal man, yet, compared with infinitude, they are on an equal footing with himself. In Homer and the tragedians, the gods are introduced in a manner altogether different. In the former their appearance is arbitrary and accidental, and can communicate no higher interest to the epic poem than the charm of the wonderful. But in tragedy the gods either enter in obedience to fate, and to carry its decrees into execution; or they endeavour in a godlike manner to assert their liberty of action, and appear involved in the same struggles with destiny which man has to encounter. .. .


1De Providentia.

Thomas Campbell (essay date 1814)

SOURCE: From Life and Letters, edited by William Beattie, 1849. Reprinted in English Romantic Hellenism, 1700-1824, edited by Timothy Webb, Manchester University Press and Barnes and Noble Books, 1982, pp. 227-30.

[In the excerpt below, written in 1814, Campbell rhapsodizes about the Greek sculptures he viewed at the Louvre, remarking that upon seeing the sculptures, he felt "suddenly transported . . . into a new world."]

I write this after returning from the Louvre . . . You may imagine with what feelings I caught the first sight of Paris, and passed under Montmartre, the scene of the last battle between the French and Allies. .. . It was evening when we entered Paris. Next morning I met Mrs. Siddons; walked about with her, and then visited the Louvre together . . . Oh, how that immortal youth—Apollo! in all his splendour—majesty—divinity—flashed upon us from the end of the gallery! What a torrent of ideas—classically associated with this godlike form—rushed upon me at this moment! My heart palpitated—my eyes filled with tears—I was dumb with emotion. Here are a hundred other splendid statues—the Venus—the Menander—the Pericles—Cato and Portia—the father and daughter in an attitude of melting tenderness . . . I wrote on the table where I stood with Mrs. Siddons, the first part of this letter in pencil—a record of the strange moments in which I felt myself suddenly transported, as it were, into a new world, and while standing between the Apollo and the Venus . ..

Coming home I conclude a transcript of the day:—The effect of the statue gallery was quite overwhelming—it was even distracting; for the secondary statues are things on which you might dote for a whole day; and while you are admiring one, you seem to grudge the time, because it is not spent in admiring something else. Mrs. Siddons is a judge of statuary; but I thought I could boast of a triumph over them—in point of taste—when she and some others of our party preferred another Venus to 'the statue that enchants the world.' I bade them recollect the waist of the true Venus—the chest and the shoulders. We returned, and they gave in to my opinion, that these parts were beyond all expression. It was really a day of tremulous ecstacy. The young and glorious Apollo is happily still white in colour. He seems as if he had just leapt from the sun! All pedantic knowledge of statuary falls away, when the most ignorant in the arts finds a divine presence in this great created form. Mrs. Siddons justly observed, that it gives one an idea of God himself having given power to catch, in such imitation, a ray of celestial beauty.

The Apollo is not perfect; some parts are modern, and he is not quite placed on his perpendicular by his French transporters; but his head, his breast, and one entire thigh and leg are indubitable. The whole is so perfect, that, at the full distance of the hall, it seems to blaze with proportion. The muscle that supports the head thrown back—the mouth, the brow, the soul that is in the marble, are not to be expressed.

After such a subject, what a falling off it is to tell you I dined with human beings! yea, verily, at a hotel . . .

I was one of the many English who availed themselves of the first short peace to get a sight of the Continent. The Louvre was at that time in possession of its fullest wealth. In the Statuary-hall of that place I had the honour of giving Mrs. Siddons my arm the first time she walked through it, and the first in both our lives that we saw the Apollo Belvidere. From the farthest end of that spacious room, the god seemed to look down like a president on the chosen assembly of sculptured forms; and his glowing marble, unstained by time, appeared to my imagination as if he had stepped freshly from the sun. I had seen casts of the glorious statue with scarcely any admiration; and I must undoubtedly impute that circumstance, in part, to my inexperience in art, and to my taste having till then lain torpid. But still I prize the recollected impressions of that day too dearly to call them fanciful. They seemed to give my mind a new sense of the harmony of Art—a new visual power of enjoying beauty. Nor is it mere fancy that makes the difference between the Apollo himself and his plaster casts. The dead whiteness of the stucco copies is glaringly monotonous; whilst the diaphanous surface of the original seems to soften the light which it reflects.1

Every particular of that hour is written indelibly on my memory. I remember entering the Louvre with a latent suspicion on my mind, that a good deal of the rapture expressed at the sight of superlative sculptures was exaggerated or affected; but as we passed through the vestibule of the hall, there was a Greek figure, I think that of Pericles, with a chlamys2 and helmet, which John Kemble desired me to notice; and it instantly struck me with wonder at the gentleman-like grace which Art could give to a human form, with so simple a vesture. It was not, however, until we reached the grand saloon, that the first sight of the god overawed my incredulity. Every step of approach to his presence added to my sensations; and all recollections of his name in classic poetry swarmed on my mind as spontaneously as the associations that are conjured up by the sweetest music. . . .

Engrossed as I was with the Apollo, I could not forget the honour of being before him in the company of so august a worshipper, and it certainly increased my enjoyment to see the first interview between the paragon of Art and that of Nature. Mrs. Siddons was evidently much struck, and remained a long time before the statue; but, like a true admirer, she was not loquacious. I remember, she said—'What a great idea it gives us of God to think that he has made a human being capable of fashioning so divine a form!' When we walked round to other sculptures, I observed that almost every eye in the Hall was fixed upon her and followed her: yet I could perceive that she was not known, as I heard the spectators say—'Who is she? Is she not an English woman?' At this time, though in her fifty-ninth year, her looks were so noble, that she made you proud of English beauty—even in the presence of Grecian sculpture. . . .


. . . 2Chlamys: short mantle or cloak.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (essay date 1819)

SOURCE: "Letter from Naples," 1819. Reprinted in English Romantic Hellenism, 1700-1824, edited by Timothy Webb, Manchester University Press and Barnes and Noble Books, 1982, pp. 232-4.

[In the following excerpt from a letter, Shelley discusses in detail the ruins of Pompeiian area that the editor notes "was powerfully suggestive of the Greek tradition "—describing it as a Romantic would describe a Greek city, observing, for example, the relationship between the ruins and the landscape.]

At the upper end, supported on an elevated platform stands the temple of Jupiter. Under the colonnade of its portico we sate & pulled out our oranges & figs & bread & [?soil] apples (sorry fare you will say) & rested to eat. There was a magnificent spectacle. Above & between the multitudinous shafts of the [?sunshiny] columns, was seen the blue sea reflecting the purple heaven of noon above it, & supporting as it were on its line the dark lofty mountains of Sorrento, of a blue inexpressibly deep, & tinged towards their summits with streaks of new-fallen snow. Between was one small green island. To the right was Capua, Inarime, Prochyta and Miseno. Behind was the single summit of Vesuvius rolling forth volumes of thick white smoke whose foamlike column was sometimes darted into the clear dark sky & fell in little streaks along the wind. Between Vesuvius & the nearer mountains, as thro a chasm was seen the main line of the loftiest Apennines to the east. The day was radiant & warm. Every now & then we heard the subterranean thunder of Vesuvius; its distant deep peals seemed to shake the very air & light of day which interpenetrated our frames with the sullen & tremendous sound. This scene was what the Greeks beheld. (Pompeii you know was a Greek city.) They lived in harmony with nature, & the interstices of their incomparable columns, were portals as it were to admit the spirit of beauty which animates this glorious universe to visit those whom it inspired. If such is Pompeii, what was Athens? what scene was exhibited from its Acropolis? The Parthenon and the temples of Hercules & Theseus & the Winds? The islands of the Ægean Sea, the mountains of Argolis & the peaks of Pindus & Olympus, & the darkness of the Beotian forests interspersed? From the forum we went to another public place a triangular portico half inclosing the ruins of an enormous temple. It is built on the edge of the hill overlooking the sea. .. . In the apex of the triangle stands an altar & a fountain; & before the altar once stood the statue of the builder of the portico.—Returning hence & following the consular road we came to the eastern gate of the city. The walls are of enormous strength, & inclose a space of three miles. On each side of the road beyond the gate are built the tombs. How unlike ours! They seem not so much hiding places for that which must decay as voluptuous chamber[s] for immortal spirits. They are of marble radiantly white, & two especially beautiful are loaded with exquisite bas reliefs. On the stucco wall which incloses them are little emblematic figures of a relief exceedingly low, of dead or dying animals & little winged genii, & female forms bending in groupes in some funeral office. The higher reliefs, represent one a nautical subject & the other a bacchanalian one. Within the cell, stand the cinerary urns, sometimes one, sometimes more. It is said that paintings were found within, which are now—as has been every thing moveable in Pompeii—been removed & scattered about in Royal Museums. These tombs were the most impressive things of all. The wild woods surround them on either side and along the broad stones of the paved road which divides them, you hear the late leaves of autumn shiver & rustle in the stream of the inconstant wind as it were like the step of ghosts. The radiance & magnificence of these dwellings of the dead, the white freshness of the scarcely finished marble, the impassioned or imaginative life of the figures which adorn them contrast strangely with the simplicity of the houses of those who were living when Vesuvius overwhelmed their city. I have forgotten the Amphitheatre, which is of great magnitude, tho' much inferior to the Coliseum.—I now understand why the Greeks were such great Poets, & above all I can account, it seems to me, for the harmony the unity the perfection the uniform excellence of all their works of art. They lived in a perpetual commerce with external nature and nourished themselves upon the spirit of its forms. Their theatres were all open to the mountains & the sky. Their columns that ideal type of a sacred forest with its roof of interwoven tracery admitted the light & wind, the odour & the freshness of the country penetrated the cities. Their temples were mostly upaithric; & the flying clouds the stars or the deep sky were seen above. O, but for that series of wretched wars which terminated in the Roman conquest of the world, but for the Christian religion which put a finishing stroke to the antient system; but for those changes which conducted Athens to its ruin, to what an eminence might not humanity have arrived!

John Churton Collins (essay date 1910)

SOURCE: "Influence of Greek Poetry," in Greek Influence on English Poetry, edited by Michael Macmillan, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, Ltd., 1910, pp. 53-77.

[In this excerpt, Collins analyzes the ways in which Greek poetryoften through the medium of Roman literatureinfluenced English poetry, and identifies the most influential Greek poetic forms.]

It would not be too much to say that the history of the development and characteristics of two-thirds of what is most valuable in English poetry is the history of the modification of Celtic and Teutonic elements by Classical elements.

These classical elements are almost entirely Greek, being derived either directly or indirectly from Greek Literature.

It is first necessary to distinguish between the direct influence of Greek Literature on our poetry and the indirect influence that came through a Roman medium. It must be clearly understood that Roman Literature was mainly an imitation of Greek Literature. What the moon is to the sun, that Roman is to Greek poetry. There was an indigenous literature in Rome and Latium up to about 240 B.C. Then came contact with Greece between the first and second Punic wars (242-218 B.C.). The result was that for the rude native plays represented by the Saturae and the Fabulae Atellanae were substituted tragedies and comedies, modelled in the main on the Attic tragedies and on the comedies of Philemon and Menander and their followers. The Saturnian metre gave place to the hexameter, which became in Rome, as it had been in Greece, the recognized metre of epic poetry.

In a word, in every species of poetry the Romans followed Greek models. The Roman Epics, the 'Æneid,' the 'Thebaid,' the Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus are modelled on the 'Iliad,' the 'Odyssey' and the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius. The first six books of the 'Æneid' are based on the 'Iliad,' the last six on the 'Odyssey.' It is the same with the Roman drama. The Roman tragedies were purely Greek. The older Roman dramatists, whose works have been lost, imitated Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The tragedies of Seneca, the sole intact remains of Roman tragedy, were modelled not on Attic tragedies, but on the later degenerate drama of Alexandria. .. . In comedy Plautus was largely and Terence wholly Greek. In didactic poetry the title of the Georgics is taken from one Greek poet, Nicander, and the matter largely from the 'Works and Days' of Hesiod and partly from the poems of Aratus and Nicander. Lucretius took his philosophy from Epicurus, Xenophanes and Empedocles. In lyric poetry Horace and Catullus imitated Alcaeus, Sappho and Archilochus. The title of Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' was taken from Parthenius, and probably much of the matter came from the same poet, and from the Heterœumena of Nicander. Roman elegies imitated Greek elegies, especially those of Callimachus and Philetas. Latin pastorals followed the 'Idylls' of Theocritus. All the measures of classical Latin poetry were Greek, as is clear from their names, hexameter, pentameter, Sapphic, Alcaic, hendecasyllabic, iambic. Indeed, Rome took from Greece all the nomenclature of poetry, even including the term for poet. The only important contribution to poetic literature made by the Romans was satire. "Satira tota nostra est," says Quintilian, and even this claim cannot be accepted without modification. Speaking generally, then, the whole of Roman Literature is derived from Greek Literature. As Horace says, "Captive Greece led captive her barbarous conqueror, and brought her refinements to rustic Latium." The Roman poets not only acknowledged, but even boasted of their indebtedness to Greek models.

Of course, the tone and colour of Roman poetry, imitative and reflective though it was, took its peculiarities from the Roman national character. The Greeks, that is those Greeks who produced and represented the master poets of the race, were essentially a poetical people, imaginative, emotional, exquisitely sensitive to aesthetic impression, finely touched, artistic. The Romans, on the contrary, were not a poetical people. They had not even a native word for a poet nor any proper common term to denote the class till they came into contact with Greece, for vates means soothsayer. Nay, their name for the poet was grassator—a vagabond or idler.1 Their genius was essentially unimaginative, practical and political; their temper from an aesthetic point of view was coarse-fibred; the finer aroma of poetry escaped them. And a curious illustration of this is that they were not so much attracted by the great Greek poets—by Homer, Pindar, Æschylus, Sophocles—as by the later poets of the Alexandrian schools, poets who stand pretty much in the same relation to the great masters as Dryden and Pope stand to Shakespeare and Milton.

The note of Roman poetry is rhetoric. Magnificent rhetoric was its glory and ornament, second and third-rate rhetoric was its defect and vice. As was their character, so was their literature and their language, "the voice of empire and of war"—let me quote Nelson Coleridge's words—"of law and of the state; inferior to its half parent and rival in the embodying of passion and in the distinguishing of thought, but equal to it in sustaining the measured march of history, and superior to it in the indignant declamation of moral satire."

And now we must proceed to the consideration of what we must carefully discriminate, the indirect influence of Greek on our poetry, and the direct influence. Indirectly, as we have seen, we must attribute to Greek influence almost all, so far as form is concerned, which directly we must attribute to Roman influence. Take, for example, first our "classical" tragic drama as represented by 'Gorboduc,' our first formulated tragedy. 'Gorboduc' is modelled on the Latin tragedies of Seneca or possibly on Italian imitations of those tragedies; but the Latin tragedies of Seneca were modelled on the Greek tragedies and so, of course, by implication, were the Italian imitations of Seneca. Take, secondly, our romantic tragedy, the drama culminating in the tragedies of Shakespeare. Our romantic tragedies also originated in the imitation of the Latin tragedies of Seneca, and of Italian imitations of those tragedies; but those in their turn were modelled on the Greek tragedies. So that back we have to go again historically to the Greek tragedies. Take comedy. The first formulated comedies, both in Italy and England, were modelled on Plautus and Terence; but the comedies of Plautus and Terence were modelled on the New Comedy, as it was called, of the Greeks. Our romantic comedy, 'Twelfth Night,' for example, or 'As You Like It,' was, historically explained, a modification of Italian classical comedy; but Italian classical comedy was a modification of the comedies of Plautus and Terence, and these, as we have seen, were modelled on the Greek comedies. So, back we have to go once more to the Attic stage here. And so it is with the epic. We may trace the English epic to the Roman epic, but what is the Roman epic but an imitation and copy of the Greek? Ultimately then in this, and in other branches of poetry, the pastoral, for instance, we have to go back to Greece, even though immediately we need not go further than Rome.

Now, taking the whole mass of our poetry, it is undoubtedly true that Greece has to a very considerable extent influenced us indirectly through Rome. We may explain the architecture of the English classical epic by reference to the 'Æneid,' not to the 'Iliad,' the 'Odyssey' and the Argonautica. Similarly we may trace the genesis of our eighteenth century pastoral to Virgil's Bucolics, not to Theocritus. But for all that, we have historically to go back to Virgil's models. I have said that Greece has influenced a vast mass of our poetry indirectly through Rome, and the reasons have been these. The Latin language has always come home to us more than the Greek, and Latin authors have always been better known in England than Greek authors. It is not difficult to see why this should have been so. In the first place, the English genius is much more in affinity with Rome than with Greece. Secondly, the difficulty of the Greek language has always been an impediment in the way of knowledge of Greek Literature, and this difficulty was for a long time aggravated in England by want of lexicons, grammars, and good texts, so that an intimate critical acquaintance with it was impossible till late in the eighteenth century. It may be doubted whether before Milton any of our poets, except perhaps Spenser, Chapman and Ben Jonson, travelled further in Greek scholarship than being able to follow Greek texts in Latin translations, and it may be doubted whether any other of our poets, except Congreve, between Milton and Akenside (who was certainly a fair Greek scholar, as his 'Hymn to the Naiads' shows) had made much way in this study. Among the Elizabethan poets there is no poet so Greek in style as Marlowe. His 'Hero and Leander' is thoroughly Hellenic, and it is not so because it is on a Greek subject, but simply because of its architecture and style, for it is an original poem, not, as it is always described, a translation of the poem ascribed to Musaeus—for it is not even a paraphrase of that poem. But Marlowe's Hellenism was probably not the result of an intimate acquaintance with Greek, but was like that of Keats the result of natural temper and sympathy. On the whole, we may say with safety that familiarity with Greek poetry in the original was a rare accomplishment among English poets till about the middle of the eighteenth century, when there was a Greek Renaissance marked by Akenside, Collins, Gray, Mason, Glover and Thomas Warton.

Distinguishing, therefore, between the indirect influence of Greece and its ambiguous manifestations, I mean where it may be attributed to second-hand knowledge, let us note where it is direct and unmistakable. Perhaps the best way of dealing with it will be to trace its influence through the various branches of poetry.. ..

Passing by the 'Davideis' of Cowley, which is modelled on Virgil, and owes nothing directly to Greek, and Davenant's 'Gondibert,' which was written with the intention of emancipating the epic from the canons of classicism, we come to that interesting epic of Richard Glover's, 'Leonidas,' published in 1737. Warton, a very competent judge, tells us that Glover was one of the best and most accurate Greek scholars of his time. 'Leonidas' was once, for a short time, the most popular poem in English literature, but that was for political reasons, because Glover was the poet laureate of the Patriots, as they were called, that is to say, of the Opposition at the time of Walpole's ministry. But his 'Leonidas' is now forgotten, and the world is always right in these matters, seldom losing its memory without good reason. The truth is that Glover was one of those poets who just stop short of genius. But in style and tone 'Leonidas' is thoroughly Greek. The poem is modelled on Homer and occasionally, though not often, catches the Homeric note; the style severely simple, terse, chaste, lucid and precise, is Greek in the true sense of the term. But these qualities are carried too far; its simplicity degenerates too often into baldness; its terseness into abrupt, jerky brevity, and its lucidity and precision are acquired at the expense of charm, of. flexibility, variety, grandeur. In choosing a Spartan subject it would seem that Glover affected a Spartan style. It is just such a poem as a Spartan Homer, without genius, might have written. It is like Homer's style in shorthand. What life the poem has is in its vindication of liberty, and we may note in passing that it was as the eulogists, vindicators and prophets of liberty that the Greek poets and orators especially attracted Akenside, Collins, and even Gray, the poets, so to speak, of the Second Greek Renaissance. Glover left another epic, the 'Athenaid,' in thirty books, which was a continuation of 'Leonidas.' But it is much inferior, less Greek in style, and probably represents only the first draft of a poem which his severe taste would have greatly curtailed had he lived to revise it.

Southey's Epics, 'Roderick' and 'Madoc,' come next. They owe nothing to Greek and little, if anything, to classical influence. A man who preferred Lucan and Statius to Virgil in Latin literature is not likely to have resorted to Greek models, or in any case to have profited much from them. But in Landor's 'Gebir' we are again with the Greeks and the Homeric poems. Landor's robust and original genius always revolted from servile imitation, but its chief impulse and nutriment came from the Greeks. He is one of the most Greek of English poets. If not in architecture, at any rate in tone, colour and style, 'Gebir' is thoroughly Homeric, however much Landor's own genius has modified, and modified it has importantly, Homeric qualities. And what is true of 'Gebir' is true in a still greater degree, we may note in passing, of Landor's 'Hellenics.' But for the Greeks, we should not have had the best poetry of Landor; and most of his best poetry is found in these 'Hellenics.'

Next, chronologically, to 'Gebir' comes the magnificent epic fragment of Keats, the Hyperion. Nothing could be more Greek in some important respects than this poem, but it is Hellenism tempered slightly with the Elizabethan note and more potently with the Miltonic note. It is remarkable that Keats could not read Greek poetry in the original; he was too lazy and dissolute to undertake the drudgery necessary for the task; but, as in the case of Marlowe, natural affinity, instinctive sympathy, enabled him to get at Greek genius and art through translations, so that sometimes in his poetry we find the pure Greek spirit as in his 'Ode on a Grecian Urn':—

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Leadst thou that heifer lowing at the skies
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk this pious morn?

Landor and Keats lead us, as transition links, to the poets with whom we conclude this brief review of the influence of Greek on our epic poets—Tennyson and Matthew Arnold.

The 'Idylls of the King' was a new experiment in epic poetry, which may be called the Idyllic Epic—a continuous epic story, presented in a series of idylls—pictures, frescoes as it were. Now it is not unlikely that Theocritus designed an epic on a similar plan. Among his idylls are two, the 'Infant Hercules' and 'Hercules the Lion-slayer,' both apparently fragments. It might have been that he designed an epic on the career of Hercules, intending to present it in a series of idylls, not in continuous epic narrative. Such an idea would be exactly in accordance with the spirit and taste of the Alexandrian age, an age like our own, when short works, especially in poetry, were more to people's liking than long ones. .. . [T]he great book is tantamount to a great evil, said the typical man of that age, Callimachus. And there are, moreover, other indications in Alexandrian Literature of epics being designed on that popular plan. No doubt they talked—those degenerate, hurriedly living Alexandrians—of 'wading' through the 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey' much as we talk of wading through 'Paradise Lost.' It is probable, then, that the idyllic epic, which we have seen realized by Tennyson, was originated by the Alexandrian poets, and it was from them that Tennyson got the idea.

The Homeric influence on the 'Idylls of the King' is immense, and it is quite impossible here to touch on it in detail. Similes, phrases, epithets, idioms are transferred from 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey' alike. For illustrations I may be allowed perhaps to refer to my 'Illustrations of Tennyson.' Tennyson, being mainly in essence a reflective and artificial poet, resembles Virgil much more than he resembles Homer. But it may safely be said that there is more of the race and flavour of Homer's style in these idylls than there is in the 'Æneid.' Virgil never got as near Homer as Tennyson does in a passage like this:—

They couch'd their spears and prick'd their steeds and thus
Their plumes, driv'n backward by the wind they made
In moving, all together down upon him
Bare, as a wild wave in the wide North Sea
Green glimmering toward the summit bears, with all
Its stormy crests that smoke against the skies,
Down on a bark and overbears the bark
And him that helms it, so they overbore
Sir Lancelot and his charger.

And so, in the 'Morte d'Arthur,' which the poet himself described as a faint Homeric echo, the opening lines are truly Homeric:—

So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
Among the mountains by the wintry shore.

But Homer would never have described a moustache as "the knightly growth that fring'd his lips," and the poem, as a whole, is far more Virgilian than Homeric.

And lastly we come to the most comprehensively faithful Homeric echo in our language, Matthew Arnold's episode of 'Sohrab and Rustum.' This is pure Homer, the exact counterpart of the ordinary level and cast of the Homeric style and temper, not rising as Tennyson rises in the passages just quoted to the very grandest of his notes, but faithfully catching and preserving all but those. Matthew Arnold most accurately defined and indicated Homer's characteristics, when he said they were majesty, simplicity, rapidity and radiance. Read 'Sohrab and Rustum,' and you will understand in English illustration what he meant. There is also much of the Homeric spirit in his 'Balder Dead,' but this is not equal to 'Sohrab and Rustum.' Matthew Arnold's poetry, as a whole, is the nearest approach our English language and poetry has ever made in point of style to the style of Greek poetry. Here we must conclude this very brief sketch of the influence of Greek on our epic poetry, and turn to the consideration of the Drama. .. .

Between 1751 and 1759 William Mason made a second attempt to naturalize Greek tragedy in English in his two dramas, 'Elfrida' and 'Caractacus.' The latter was translated into Greek by G. H. Glasse. Then came Richard Glover with his 'Medea' in 1761. Here we have a slight variety from the Greek model in its being divided into acts and scenes, but with this exception it is purely Greek. The lyrics of the chorus, in one or two of which he anticipates Matthew Arnold, are unrhymed and are strictly arranged in strophe and antistrophe. Just noticing William Sotheby's Orestes' in 1802, we come to Matthew Arnold's 'Merope' (1858), which is an exact counterpart of the Greek drama, not only in form, but also in its ethical characteristics. Last of all, we have Swinburne's brilliant dramas, 'Atalanta in Calydon,' and 'Erechtheus.' Such have been the attempts to naturalize the Greek drama in its rigid form in our literature.

Of modified forms of the Greek drama in English one of the most important is Milton's 'Comus.' Shelley's 'Prometheus Unbound' is a magnificent variant on the 'Prometheus Bound' of Æschylus, but its florid beauty and philanthropic enthusiasm are far from being Greek. Mrs. Browning's 'Drama of Exile' is another modification of the Greek dramatic form. Nor must we forget Robert Browning's fine setting of the 'Alcestis' in 'Balaustion's Adventure,' and of the Hercules Furens in his 'Aristophanes' Apology.'

Satan's address to the sun in the beginning of the fourth book of 'Paradise Lost' was originally intended to be the prologue to a drama in the Greek style. Like other soliloquies in 'Paradise Lost' and 'Paradise Regained,'2 it is an imitation of the soliloquies found in the Greek dramas. On those soliloquies have also been modelled such noble poems as Browning's 'Artemis Prologizes' and Tennyson's 'Ulysses,' 'Tithonus,' 'Teiresias,' 'Demeter and Persephone,' which are tempered sometimes with a Homeric sometimes with a Theocritean note. It should be added, too, that the Greek choruses have been the models on which some of our finest poetry has been constructed. From them sprang such lyrics as Collins' 'Ode to Fear' and Shelley's 'Worlds on Worlds' in 'Hellas.'

The old Greek comedy, as represented by Aristophanes, has for the most part influenced English Literature only indirectly. Ben Jonson imitated the Parabases of Aristophanes. Foote, owing to the violent personality of the satire in his dramas, was called, not without reason, the English Aristophanes. Richard Cumberland, another playwright who had studied Greek at the University, translated the 'Clouds' into English, and no doubt in his own dramas owed something to his knowledge of the old Attic comedy. Four unsuccessful attempts which are not worth mentioning have been made in recent years to present counterparts to Aristophanic comedy in English. The influence of the New Comedy through Plautus and Terence has, of course, been immense, but we are not concerned at present with what has come to us indirectly through Rome.3

Bucolic poetry and idyllic poetry, the creations of the Alexandrian school, are represented to us by the idylls of Theocritus, Bion and Moschus, which have influenced English poetry so immensely that I have only space to indicate that influence by one illustration, the Funeral Poem. From the dirge over Daphnis in the first idyll of Theocritus, from Bion's dirge over Adonis and from Moschus' funeral poem on Bion have flowed (other rills, of course, contributing, and various modifications taking place), Spenser's 'Astrophel' and 'Mourning Muse of Thestylis,' Drummond's 'Pastoral Elegy,' Milton's 'Lycidas,' Congreve's 'Mourning Muse of Alexis,' Mason's 'Musæus,' Shelley's 'Adonais,' Matthew Arnold's 'Thyrsis' and innumerable other elegies: I have only selected one, as you will see, from each era.

Again, Theocritus suggested the form and gave the keynote for the style of 'Œnone,' for such idylls as the 'Gardener's Daughter,' and 'Walking to the Mail,' and for the superb lyric in the 'Princess,' "Come down, O maid." Turn where we will in Tennyson's poetry, we are never long without perceiving the perfume of this sweetest of Greek poets. And here we may notice that it is not so much in what is formal and susceptible of exact estimation that the influence of poetry on poetry is most real. The indebtedness of our poets to Greece, where that indebtedness is greatest, is often such as evades illustrative definition.

And now let us turn to another branch of poetry, and notice the influence which the Greek hymns have had on our poetry. These are represented by the Homeric hymns, the hymns of Callimachus and the Orphic hymns. Our poetical literature is full of poems, or of passages in poems, which have been modelled on them, which are sometimes simply parodies of them. We have first of all Spenser's four hymns, to Love, to Beauty, to Heavenly Love, to Heavenly Beauty. To these we shall have again .. . to recur, because they are steeped in Platonism. These do not, of course, borrow their form from the Greek hymns, but they derived their origin from them and much of their inspiration, and are constructed on their model. Chapman, who translated the Homeric hymns, modelled on them his 'Hymn to Christ upon the Cross.' If the Psalms gave the main inspiration, the hymns in 'Paradise Lost' owed much in the formal moulding to the Homeric hymns and to those of Callimachus. Henry More's philosophical poems are penetrated with the influence of the Orphic hymns. Two of the hymns of Callimachus have been paraphrased by Prior. Akenside, who, by the way, was saturated with Greek, has given us in his 'Hymn to the Naiads' the exact counterpart in English of the Callimachan hymn, and in several of his inscriptions we have the pure Greek note.

In William Whitehead's 'Hymn to the Nymph of the Bristol Spring' we have another imitation of Callimachus. Warton's 'Pleasures of Melancholy,' which would have been more correctly entitled 'A Hymn to Melancholy,' is but an ornate and picturesque variation of the Callimachan hymn. What are Keats' 'Hymn to Neptune,' Shelley's 'Hymn of Apollo,' Coleridge's 'Hymn to the Earth,' Wordsworth's 'Hymn to the Moon,' and innumerable others, but glorious echoes of the old Greek strains?

Now passing over the influence of the Greek minor poetry—the elegiac poetry and the epigram, which from the Elizabethan Age downwards has penetrated our poetry, giving us directly or indirectly many precious gems—we come to the great Greek Lyric Poets. To Anacreon, or rather to the Pseudo-Anacreon, we owe the charming Anacreontic, which, since Cowley naturalized it, has gone on repeating itself in every generation of our poets. To Sappho we owe innumerable poems or passages of poems of which Tennyson's 'Eleanore' and Swinburne's 'Anactoria' may be taken as illustrations. On Dionysius' 'Ode to Nemesis' Gray modelled his noble 'Ode to Adversity,' which became in its turn the model for Wordsworth's as noble 'Ode to Duty.' And who that is familiar with the fragments of other Greek lyric poetry, with those of Alcæus and Simonides especially, does not find their perfume and their echo in the lyrics of Akenside, Collins, Gray, Shelley, Landor, Tennyson, Arnold and Swinburne?

But our grandest inheritance from the Lyric of Greece is the Pindaric Ode—the ode modelled on the Epinikian Odes of Pindar. To deal adequately with the influence of Pindar on English poetry would require a volume. Let me only touch on the subject generally. And let us take first the direct imitations of Pindar; then the various modifications; and we shall find famous masterpieces of English lyric poetry.

The odes of Pindar are constructed on a very rigidly metrical system, among both the former and the latter, and in the full scheme consist of strophe, antistrophe and epode. The first poet who attempted to naturalize the Pindaric ode in English was Ben Jonson in his Pindaric ode on the death of Sir Henry Morison, and this regards faithfully the metrical scheme of strophe, antistrophe and epode. Next came Cowley in his 'Pindarique Odes,' as he calls them, two of which are adaptations of Pindar, one of Horace, one a paraphrase of part of Isaiah, and the others are original. But Cowley does not regard the strophe, antistrophe and epode, though there is a certain regularity about his metre. The consequence of this was that he called into being the pseudo-Pindaric or irregular ode, which, from his time to the death of Dryden, became one of the most popular forms of lyric poetry, and the works of the minor poets of that time abound in these so-called Pindaric odes, wild and licentious compositions in verses of every variety of syllables and feet, from verses of two feet to verses of sixteen. Some memorable odes were written in this pseudo-Pindaric style, such as Dryden's 'Song for St. Cecilia's Day,' his 'Ode to the Memory of Mrs. Anne Killigrew,' and his 'Alexander's Feast.' Dryden's contemporary, John Oldham, produced one of the most remarkable of the pseudo-Pindaric odes in his dithyramb in praise of Bacchus. Cowley's tradition was also kept up by the Pindarics of Dr. Thomas Sprat and by Thomas Yalden in his 'Hymn to Darkness.' Then came Congreve, who, after writing some of these irregular pseudo-Pindaric odes, acknowledged his error and wrote two in which he restored the strophe, antistrophe and epode, prefixing to them an interesting preface, in which he explained the metrical regularity of Pindar. Nevertheless, Swift, Pope, Addison, Prior and innumerable others went on producing their irregular Pindarics. But one poet of that age, Elijah Fenton, wrote in the regular style and produced a really fine Pindaric ode, dashed with Horatian influence—his 'Ode to Lord Gower,' which contains such powerful lines as these:—

Shall man from Nature's sanction stray,
With blind opinion for his guide,
And rebel to her rightful sway,
Leave all her bounties unenjoy'd?
Fool! Time no change of motion knows
With equal speed the torrent flows,
To sweep Fame, Power, and Wealth away:
The past is all by Death possess'd,
And frugal Fate that guards the rest,
By giving, bids him live to-day.

Passing by Akenside, whose Pindarics are more than respectable, we come to two immortal lyric poets, Collins and Gray. Collins' odes to Fear, to Mercy and to Liberty are three of the finest lyrics in our language, and are modelled partly on Pindar and partly on the Greek choruses. The ode to the Passions is not in strophe, antistrophe and epode, but an irregular and noble variation of the Pindaric ode. Then come Gray's 'Bard' and 'Progress of Poesy' which, though strongly flavoured with Latin rhetoric, are attempts to produce in English exact counterparts of Pindar, and so also is his fine Installation Ode. Then, passing over minor illustrations, we come to Shelley's grand Pindaric 'Ode to Naples.' And how splendid have been the modern variants of the Pindaric, Coleridge's Odes on France and the Departing Year, Shelley's 'Ode to Liberty,' Wordsworth's 'Intimations of Immortality' and 'Vernal Ode,' Tennyson's 'Ode to Memory' and 'On the Death of the Duke of Wellington'! So remarkable has been the history of Pindar's direct and indirect influence on our lyric poetry.

On Greek lyric poetry, simple or choric, have been modelled such gems as Ben Jonson's 'Queen and Huntress Chaste and Fair,' as the second and third song in Milton's 'Arcades,' as the Echo Song and the Sabrina Song in 'Comus.' Of Matthew Arnold's most delicious lyrics some are purely Greek, faithful Greek echoes, and, even where the modern note predominates, the Greek note is always there. But turn where we will in English lyric and elegiac poetry, we shall never wander very far without catching the breath and savour of the lyric genius of Greece. Nor must we omit to notice the enormous influence, both direct and indirect, which the Greek anthology has exercised on our minor poetry. From the time of the Renaissance there were innumerable selections from this collection generally accompanied with a Latin version, and it would literally fill a substantial volume adequately to indicate the influence of these poems on our minor poetry from, say, Shakespeare's last sonnet, which is a version of one of these poems, Ben Jonson's imitations, and onward through the Elizabethan Age in unbroken tradition to the poetry of to-day. The form of these poems has seldom or never been borrowed, but the matter, the sentiment, the imagery, the ideas have been a common treasury.

I have exceeded the time allotted to me, and yet I have not touched on what is perhaps the most important part of this subject, I mean the influence which Greek poetry has, as it were, insensibly exercised, exercised not formally on expression but as an inspiring, tempering, modifying, educative power, by which our poetry has been imperceptibly affected much as our minds are unconsciously affected by the air and character of those with whom we associate. And this constitutes perhaps our most real and important debt to Greece. But I have said enough to indicate, though I have only grazed the surface of the subject, how vast and complex is the indebtedness of English poetry to the poetry of Greece.


1 Poeticae arti honos non erat: si qui in eâ re studebat aut sese ad convivía adplicabat, grassator vocabatur.—Cato apud Aulum Gellium xi, 2, 5.

2 See P. L. iv, 358, 505. P. R. i, 196.

3 On the influence of Plautus in modern literature see Reinhardstöttner, Spätere Bearbeitungen plautinscher Lustspiele (1886).

Frederick E. Pierce (essay date 1917)

SOURCE: "The Hellenic Current in English Nineteenth-Century Poetry," in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. XVI, No. 1, January, 1917, pp. 103-35.

[In the excerpt below, Pierce traces the "reasonably distinct Hellenic current" in English poetry from 1812 through the nineteenth century. Pierce discusses the Greek themes and forms of the poetry of this time, and credits several forcesincluding an increase in travel literature about Greece and Byron's journey to and writings about Greecewith developing the Greek "spirit" in nineteenth-century poetry.]


There are two ways in which the literature of a foreign country may influence our own poetry: as a forming spirit, molding any material either that of its own or that of another nation; or as a source of material, molded by any forming spirit, whether Greek, Roman, or medieval. The two methods are often distinct and often merge. William Mason's Elfrida is Greek in spirit, medieval in subject matter. The Hellenic tales of William Morris's Earthly Paradise are Greek in material, medieval-romantic in atmosphere. Wordsworth's Laodamia is Greek in both.

The problems raised by a discussion of these two influences are also different. In studying the working of the Hellenic or the medieval spirit we must ask ourselves whether we have truly comprehended or misconceived it; whether it will assimilate with our existing culture; whether it is the element best fitted to maintain artistic balance in our national life. In tracing the use of Hellenic material by modern poets, the exploiting of ancient history, legend, and mythology, we are confronted by other questions. Does the richness of association investing these tales make them still especially fit for poetry, or are they becoming shopworn from overuse? Does continual association with events caused by an obsolete social system tend to expand our horizon; or does it, on the contrary, tend to produce certain stereotyped faults, akin to those of decadent neo-classicism, in the handling of both incident and phraseology? So distinct are the two sets of problems that a critic might with perfect consistency advocate for our modern poetry a great increase in the Hellenic spirit and a great decrease in the use of Hellenic legend.

In his Greek Influence on English Poetry the late J. Churton Collins has recently discussed the first and more difficult problem. We wish to supplement his work by tracing the use of Greek material through the nineteenth century, drawing some conclusions and leaving others for our readers. Occasionally we may have gone too far into the limbo of forgotten rhymers; but for the modern poet and critic failure at times has its lesson as well as success.

Although we have heard repeatedly that English neoclassicism was Latin rather than Greek, it is something of a revelation to analyze our writers from 1700 to 1812 and find how indifferent they seemed to the narrative possibilities of the chief classical literature. Pope, Thomson, Collins, Gray, Chatterton, the Wartons, Dr. Johnson, Goldsmith, Cowper, Crabbe, Burns, Blake, have not left us a single great original poem located on Greek soil or drawn from Greek mythology. This is the more marked when we remember that Gray and Thomas Warton were eminent Greek scholars, and that the poems of Collins teem with Grecian allusions. There were evidently counter influences in the air. The few versifications based on Hellenic material during that long period are now almost unreadable. Thomson's Liberty and Agamemnon, Home's Agis, Glover's Leonidas, Beattie's Judgment of Paris,—who outside of specialists as much as hears their names? Even Akenside's Hymn to the Naiads and the digression on Greece in the last book of Falconer's Shipwreck are following their less deserving comrades into oblivion.

The early nineteenth century writers before 1812 make only a little better showing. The poems of Wordsworth published before 1814, the earlier works of Coleridge, Southey, Scott, Campbell, and of the more poetical minors, such as Hogg and Leyden, almost ignore Hellas. Moore's paraphrase of Anacreon (1800), though well received, was essentially a schoolboy's exercise. Two or three early minor poems of his on Greek themes are short and insignificant. Some of Landor's early poems might be mentioned; but these were unknown and still are. His Count Julian and Gebir are Spanish in location, whatever they may be in spirit.

To find much in this decade we must go down among the minors. William Sotheby, Byron's pet aversion, "that Itch of Scribbling personified,"1 in 1802 published his Orestes, a crude play mixing a melodramatic ghost crying "Vengeance" with classic antiquity. Mrs. Tighe's Psyche (1805) was on a Greek theme and influenced Keats's Endymion; but, aside from the fact that it is a minor work, it speedily drifts away from an earthly Hellas into a medieval dreamland, with a feudal knight, a "Gothic castle", and all the allegorical machinery of Spenser. W. R. Wright in 1809 published his Horae Ionicae, written partly in Greece, partly from memory in England. The book is full of first-hand, though badly worded, descriptions of Greek scenes, but in meter and diction represents the most decadent stage of the Pope tradition.

From 1812 on we find a reasonably distinct Hellenic current, turning both major and minor poets to Grecian themes, increasing or lessening from time to time, but continuing practically unbroken to the present day. That contemporaries felt this rise of a new stream is shown by a quotation from the Edinburgh Review2 for 1813: "Greece, the mother of freedom and poetry in the West, which had long employed only the antiquary, the artist, and the philologist, was at length destined, after an interval of many silent and inglorious ages, to awaken the genius of a poet."

Before tracing this current we may pause to consider its causes. One of these was obviously the world-ransacking curiosity of the romantic generation. Another was the growing realization among the romanticists, after their first reaction against neo-classicism, that Greek literature3 was not neo-classic. Another was the intrinsic beauty of that literature, which even in the garbled versions of the eighteenth century

Would plead like angels trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of its taking off.

But back of these, and stimulating them, lay the great revival in Greek scholarship near the turn of the century. "As in the seventeenth, so in the eighteenth century, Greek had not much hold on the many. Neglected in the public schools, neglected in the universities, not required either for degrees or for ordination, it was the rarest of accomplishments."4 "The difficulty of the Greek language has always been an impediment in the way of knowledge of Greek literature, and this difficulty was for a long time aggravated in England by want of lexicons, grammars, and good texts, so that an intimate critical acquaintance with it was impossible till late in the eighteenth century."5 For the cure of the latter evil, the world owes a lasting debt to Richard Porson, the greatest Greek scholar of his age, and far superior in that particular field to his eighteenth century predecessors. In textual criticism, comment, etc., his editions of the ancients were epoch-making, and they came just in time to influence the younger generation of the romantic poets. Byron studied Porson's edition of Hecuba at Harrow, and afterward bequeathed his copy to the library there.6 "The prince of Grecians," drunken and untidy, was no arbiter elegantiarum, but the effect of his work on poetry is unquestionable.

Profoundly skill'd,—in learning deeply read,
He form'd the judgment, while the taste he led. . . .
In Grecian learning he was deeply vers'd,
The best of Grecians, he was own 'd the first,

wrote a minor poet7 in 1808, the year of his death. And De Quincey8 reminds us that "as a Grecian, Coleridge must be estimated with a reference to the state and standard of Greek literature at that time and in this country. Porson had not yet raised our ideal." "Classical scholarship had not been represented by a single man of mark since the death of the learned Richard Bentley in 1742, and Porson, the eminent Greek scholar by whom it was revived, did not receive his appointment as professor until 1793,"9 says Professor Legouis; and he adds that at Cambridge, Porson's university, "The10 mathematical tripos, or principal competitive examination was instituted in 1747, the classical tripos not until 1824," which was just about the time that the Tennyson brothers began to come to Cambridge.

Increasing knowledge of Hellas itself went hand in hand with increasing knowledge of Hellenic literature. Between 1784 and 1818 Mitford was publishing in various installments his History of Greece. In spite of its faults it opened to the public a field which had not before been even respectably presented to them. In his Advertisement to the first edition Mitford declared that his errors could only be excused by "The reality of the want," and a very stern, anti-literary reality that was. Mitford, at the suggestion of Gibbon, took this subject, not because he was especially in sympathy with it, but because it had been so glaringly neglected. The effect of such a work on a curious age craving for novelty and beauty, must have been considerable. Mrs. Hemans' Storm of Delphi, as she tells us in a footnote, was suggested by Mitford's citations from Herodotus; and other better poems must have had a similar origin.

The great increase in books of travel discussing Greece was also unquestionably a factor. The footnotes to Grecian poems by Moore and Mrs. Hemans refer repeatedly to many such books, most of which appeared between 1760 and 1830. A number of other works on scholarship and travel in Greece during this period are cited by Professor H. T. Peck in his History of Classic Philology (p. 380). The Monthly Review for August, 1811, reviewing books of Sir William Gell, (The Topography of Troy (1804), Geography and Antiquities of Ithaca (1807, etc.) mentions "that laudable curiosity concerning the remains of classical antiquity, which has of late years increased among our countrymen."11

Another cause was Byron's journey to Greece—in itself part of the increasing tourist current turning there—and the sudden popularity in 1812 of his poetry describing it (Childe Harold, Canto II). The purely Hellenic current was also at first associated with, and encouraged by, the great Orientalizing movement led by Byron and Moore. Between 1812 and 1840 at least many poets saw in all Greece what Lord Houghton saw specially in Corfu,

A portal, whence the Orient,
The long-desired, long-dreamt of, Orient,
Opens upon us, with its stranger forms,
Outlines immense and gleaming distances,
And all the circumstance of faery-land.


By the irony of destiny, the movement that Byron precipitated was additionally furthered by an act which he himself in The Curse of Minerva had denounced as vandalism. Not far from the time when the great poet returned to England with Childe Harold in his portmanteau, Lord Elgin brought to the same shores from Greece the famous Elgin Marbles; and in 1816 they were purchased by the government and put on public exhibition in the British Museum. The Hellenizing influence of so much beautiful sculpture in a place so easily accessible could not but have its effect. Both Keats and Mary Shelley13 speak of spending an afternoon in the Museum with the Elgin Marbles. Keats wrote two sonnets on them, in one of which he says:

So do these wonders [bring] a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old Time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

These sonnets were addressed to Keats's friend, the painter Haydon, who had published an essay pointing out the beauties of the sculptures in question, and done all in his power to spread their influence. Hazlitt14 in Table Talk says of statues that he "never liked any till I saw the Elgin marbles." The mood which they would tend to develop in a man is exactly that found in Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn. Less important, though of the same nature, was the greater accesibility to Englishmen after 1814 of the classic art treasures of the Louvre, treasures which had been almost closed to them for two decades by the French wars. "The reader may remember," says Beattie,15 "the enthusiasm with which Campbell had visited the antique statues in the Louvre [in 1814]. The effect was still fresh in his mind, and when he resumed his lectures on the Poetry of Greece [in 1818], his prose was enriched by frequent allusions to her sculptures."

The last and most obvious of the causes we are discussing was the revolt of the Greeks against Turkey in 1821, which turned on them the eyes of all Europe. The connection of this war with literature is patent, and needs no discussion except a reminder that "coming events cast their shadows before," and that the strain and unrest of the Greeks—their longing for liberty in an age when the French Revolution had set every one dreaming of liberty—must have influenced English poetry long before the first cannon was fired.

Bearing these causes in mind, let us take up the beginning and first broadening of the current, the period from 1812 to 1830. By a strange mockery of fate, the great original impetus came from a spirit in some ways the very opposite to Athenian art, from Byron. But that Byron became an innovator was not due merely to the fact that he happened to travel in modern Attica. Deep in his heart he admired and longed for the very elements he lacked. We feel this in Manfred, where the stormy Byronic hero confronts the Witch of the Alps, with her calm brow, "Whereon is glassed serenity of soul." And Byron loved the country of Hellas, with its associations. His "longings constantly turned toward Greece. Even before the actual publication of Childe Harold Dallas and other friends pressed him to continue it; this, he replied, was impossible in England, he could only do it under the blue skies of Greece."16 Hence it was not so strange that the "rhyming peer" should lead in the revival under discussion. His second canto of Childe Harold, written largely on Grecian soil, was filled with existing ruins and the glory of past associations,

When wandering slow by Delphi's sacred side,
Or gazing o'er the plains where Greek and Persian died.

And yet how lovely in thine age of woe,
Land of lost gods and godlike men, art thou.

Where'er we tread 'tis haunted, holy ground.

Then followed The Giaour, and The Bride of Abydos, which, though Oriental tales, contain long interpolated passages on the past glory of Hellas and the Trojan war.

"Clime of the unforgotten brave!" says The Giaour
"Shrine of the mighty! can it be,
That this is all remains of thee? . . .
Say, is not this Thermopylae? . . .
Pronounce what sea, what shore is this?
The gulf, the rock of Salamis!"

The second canto of The Bride of Abydos devotes over fifty lines to musings on the plain of Troy, memories of Leander, Priam, Achilles, Alexander, and Homer. The Corsair and The Siege of Corinth are located on Grecian soil, and though little connected with the great past suggest it occasionally. Byron's Prometheus is a Promethean theft from the mythology of Aeschylus; and in his poem on his thirty-sixth year he cries:

The sword, the banner, and the field,
Glory and Greece, around me see!
The Spartan borne upon his shield,
Was not more free.

Most intense of all in its Hellenism is "The isles of Greece" in Canto HI of Don Juan:

Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung.

If we should say that Byron is praising the land of poets whose thought and style were utterly unlike his own, he would be first to acknowledge it and point to his own lines:

And must their lyre so long divine,
Degenerate into hands like mine.

The two great products of this current before 1830 were Keats and Shelley, but others around and before them were touched by it. Mrs. Hemans, significant through popularity if not through merit, turns from domesticity and medievalism to write Modern Greece (1817), a poem of a thousand lines in imitation of Childe Harold.

"Oh! who hath trod thy consecrated clime,
Fair land of Phidias! theme of lofty strains!
And traced each scene, that, 'midst the wrecks of time,
The print of Glory's parting step retains," etc.

The same author gives us over a dozen scattering short poems on Grecian themes: The Last Song of Sappho; The Spartan's March, etc.

Her Tombs of Platea begins:

And there they sleep!—the men who stood
In arms before the exulting sun,
And bathed their spears in Persian blood,
And taught the earth how freedom might be won.

In 1818 T. L. Peacock, soaked for years in the best literature of antiquity, printed his one masterly poem, Rhododaphne, Grecian in story, and Attic in its polished style, wildly romantic as are its incidents.

Tom Moore's Evenings in Greece (1826) is very feeble poetry; but its length shows that the author felt the growing current. The scene is modern, but, like all descriptions of modern Greece, tinged with some past associations. Moore's Legendary Ballads (1828) contain short poems on the Greek themes of Cupid and Psyche, Hero and Leander, and Cephalus and Procris. His Memoirs (published by Lord John Russell) show that the Irish lyrist during this period read many books or articles about Greece and Greek literature, among them Fouriel's Chantes Populaires de la Gréce.17 Campbell in 1822 wrote his Song of the Greeks,

Again to the battle, Achaians!

and in 1828 his Stanzas on the Battle of Navarino,

Hearts of oak that have bravely delivered the brave,
And uplifted old Greece from the brink of the grave.

Barry Cornwall in 1823 published his Flood of Thessaly, a poem of over a thousand lines developing in fair Miltonic verse the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha. It ends with Deucalion's Miltonic vision of the coming glories of ancient Hellas. Barry Cornwall also, in his Dramatic Scenes (1819) includes Lysander and Ione "a pastoral" with "something of the familiarity of a common dialogue," like the more playful style of Landor. Lysander's description of a waterfall, "Rich as Dorado's paradise," shows a romantic mercy toward anachronisms.

The current produced from Wordsworth one classic masterpiece, Laodamia (1815), located in the Greece of the Trojan wars and celebrating "calm pleasures" and "majestic pains." Lamb felt that a change had come over the poet of the Lyrical Ballads, and wrote to Wordsworth: "Laodamia is a very original poem; I mean original with reference to your own manner. You have nothing like it. I should have seen it in a strange place, and greatly admired it, but not suspected its derivation."18 The same atmosphere appears in his Dion (1820):

Mourn, hills and groves of Attica! and mourn
Ilissus, bending o'er thy classic urn.

Wordsworth also produced three mediocre sonnets on Greek themes: "When Philoctetes in the Lemnian isle" (1827); and the two sonnets On a Celebrated Event in Ancient History, published 1815 but written 1810. Beddoes, probably not long after 1820, turned from his haunted charnel-house to write Pygmalion, a Greek theme handled somewhat in the style of Keats's Lamia. Leigh Hunt in 1819 published his Hero and Leander. The same subject was treated more at length and with more success by Tom Hood in 1827. In the same volume with the latter Hood published his charming Lycus, the Centaur, which portrays the terrible effects of Circe's power with romantic horror sufficiently unlike Comus. Passing mention can also be afforded to Ariadne (1814) by Edward, Baron Thurlow, The Naiad (1816) by Keats's friend and one time poetic rival, J. H. Reynolds, and Praed's prize poem Athens (1824).

Enough has been said to show that in the decade and a half following 1812 there was a widespread Hellenic tendency. In the midst of this current rise, as its two chief exponents, Keats and Shelley. In Keats's first volume the Greek element is slight, and is completely overshadowed by pseudo-medievalism. But in his second work the growing tide has caught him. Endymion in mood and style is distinctly Spenserian, not Homeric; but its subject matter is wholly Attic and is regarded through a loving though uncritical eye. In the third or 1820 book of poems Lamia, the Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to Psyche, and the unfinished Hyperion are classic in the noblest sense of the word, and as nobly Grecian as anything in our language.

The Greek element in Keats is the instinctive answer of deep to deep, and by no means confined to poems on Greek mythology. Compare with his well known Ode To Autumn the following lines from Pater's19 translation of Theocritus:

"The scent of late summer and of the fall of the year was everywhere; the pears fell from the trees at our feet, and apples in number rolled down at our sides.... A cup like this ye poured out now upon the altar of Demeter, who presides over the threshing-floor. May it be mine, once more, to dig my big winnowing-fan through her heaps of corn; and may I see her smile upon me, holding poppies and handfuls of corn in her two hands!"

Shelley, like Keats, was drawn in among the Hellenists after he had already appeared as an author, although a love for things Grecian seems always to have existed in both. Queen Mab, The Revolt of Islam, and Rosalind and Helen have nothing especially Greek either in spirit or matter, nor is any such element sharply prominent in Alastor. The Cenci is Elizabethan rather than Greek, and full of verbal echoes from Shakespeare. Swellfoot the Tyrant (1820) though redolent of Aristophanes, is not a great drama. It is in Prometheus Unbound (1820) and scattering poems, chiefly posthumous, which follow it, that Shelley's discipleship to the ancients becomes mature. Hellas (1821) was suggested by the Persians of Aeschylus; and, imperfect as it is, reveals its great model in the noble closing chorus. The following short poems, all written after 1819, are thoroughly Greek: Arethusa; Song of Proserpine, while gathering flowers; Hymn of Apollo; Hymn of Pan; Orpheus. At least three of these belong to the highest order of poetry. The Prometheus Unbound, by the direct comparison which it invites with Aeschylus, shows what the Hellenic current in English poetry before 1830 was and what it was not. Attic symmetry is found only fitfully in the short poems and almost never in the long ones. The action of Prometheus Unbound is dramatic and Aeschylean only in the first act, where the ancient models are most closely followed. The rest of the poem, like a river released from its levees, spreads out into a meandering, beautiful, uncharted marsh, with water lilies and moonshine and music across the waves. Yet certain unquestionably Greek elements are there; the pure sense of beauty, the avoidance of the medieval grotesque, the world of the calm superman as opposed to the stormy superman of Byron. All of these elements appear also in Hyperion, and the first two in Endymion.

The Hellenic current was an outgrowth of the romantic movement. In its own productions it was sometimes thoroughly romantic, sometimes doubtfully so; but it was never neo-classic. It is perhaps significant that no poems on Grecian themes were produced by either Crabbe or Rogers, although the latter locates his most lengthy poem in the country of the ancient Romans. In general the writers of the romantic generation saw the light of Hellas as they did that of the Middle Ages, through the stained glass of a temperament, which sometimes resulted in a startling juxtaposition of the words classic and romantic. Mrs. Hemans in Modern Greece (xxiii) addresses a Greek ruin as "romantic temple," and adds two lines below:

Years, that have changed thy river's classic name,
Have left thee still in savage pomp sublime.

lxvii: Thebes, Corinth, Argos!—ye, renoun'd of old,
Where are your chiefs of high romantic name?

Campbell in his lectures on Greek poetry said that "scarce any conception of romantic poetry existed, the germ of which might not be traced to the Odyssey."20 K. H. Digby in his Broad Stone of Honour emphasizes the fact that Greek poets loved remote lands and ages: "Of all the Grecian princes who went to Troy, Ulysses was from the country most remote from the land of Homer. The heroes of the Athenian tragic drama, the Pelopidae, and the Labdacidae, were all foreigners. Pausanias remarks that the Greeks must always have more admired the wonders of foreign countries than of their own; since their most celebrated historians have described the pyramids of Egypt with the greatest exactness, and have said nothing of the royal treasury of Minyas, nor of the walls of Tirynthus, no less admirable than the pyramids."21 But a less romantic, more truly classic note often appears, as, for example in Hazlitt's Round Table,22 a quotation from which may be compared with Keats's Grecian Urn: "The gusto in the Greek statues is of a very singular kind. The sense of perfect form nearly occupies the whole mind, and hardly suffers it to dwell on any other feeling. It seems enough for them to be, without acting or suffering. Their forms are ideal, spiritual. Their beauty is power. By their beauty they are raised above the frailties of pain or passion; by their beauty they are deified." Shelley writes:23 "Could a Grecian architect have commanded all the labour and money which are expended on Versailles, he would have produced a fabric which the whole world has never equalled."

The less romantic attitude toward Greece was not a less enthusiastic one. "Rome and Athens,"24 declared Hazlitt, "filled a place in the history of mankind, which can never be occupied again." In his posthumous Essay on the Revival of Literature (1832) Shelley speaks of "Grecian literature,—the finest the world has ever produced." Unlike Hazlitt, however, he admired Greece at the expense of Rome. In a letter to Peacock, January 26th, 1819, he cries: "O, but for that series of wretched wars which terminated in the Roman conquest of the world; but for the Christian religion, which put the finishing stroke on the ancient system; but for those changes which conducted Athens to its ruin,—to what an eminence might not humanity have arrived!" He writes again to John Gisborne, November 16, 1819: "Were not the Greeks a glorious people? What is there, as Job says of the Leviathan, like unto them? If the army of Nicias had not been defeated under the walls of Syracuse; if the Athenians had, acquiring Sicily, held the balance between Rome and Carthage, sent garrisons to the Greek colonies in the South of Italy, Rome might have been all that its intellectual condition entitled it to be, a tributary, not the conqueror of Greece."


1 Prothero's Byron's Letters, IV, 228.

2 Vol. XXII, p. 37.

3 "The machinery of early romance writers," wrote Southey in the Preface to his Amadis of Gaul, "is probably rather of classical than of Oriental origin. . . . Enchanted weapons may be traced to the workshop of Vulcan as easily as to the dwarfs of Scandinavia. The tales of dragons may be originally oriental; but the adventures of Jason and Hercules were popular tales in Europe, long before the supposed migration of Odin, or the birth of Mohammed. If magical rings were invented in Asia, it was Herodotus, who introduced the fashion into Europe? The fairies and ladies of the lake bear a closer resemblance to the nymphs and naiads of Rome and Greece, than to the peris of the East."

4 J. Churton Collins' Greek Influence on English Poetry, p. 51.

5 J. Churton Collins' Greek Influence on English Poetry, p. 58.

6 Lord Russell's Memoirs of Moore, II, 624.

7 Barker's Anecdotes, II, 6.

8Coleridge and Opium Eating.

9 Legouis' William Wordsworth, Matthews' translation, p. 72.

10Ibid, p. 74.

11 P. 371.

12Corfu (written 1832).

13 Dowden's Life of Shelley, II, 183.

14 Waller and Glover's ed., VI, 16.

15 Beattie's Life and Letters of Thomas Campbell, II, 93.

16 Elze's Life of Byron, p. 130 of Eng. Translation.

17 Russell II, 515.

18 Lucas's Lamb's Works, VI, 457.

19 In Demeter and Persephone.

20 Redding's Literary Reminiscences, I, 113.

21 Godefridus, p. 19, ed. of 1844.

22 Waller and Glover's ed., I, 79.

23 Dowden's Life of Shelley, II, 43.

24 Waller and Glover's ed., I, 4.

Stephen A. Larrabee (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: Conclusion to English Bards and Grecian Marbles: The Relationship Between Sculpture and Poetry, Especially in the Romantic Period, Columbia University Press, 1943, pp. 277-88.

[In the following essay, Larrabee reviews the reaction of Romantic poets to Greek sculpture, and argues that the Romantic poets "wished to emulate the Greeks in making great art from the circumstances of their time."]

During the Romantic period in England poets responded to the sculpture of Greece in a variety of ways. Many of them stated directly the sensations felt when they beheld works of art. In recording in verse the actual experience of seeing sculptured works, Byron and Keats surpassed other poets of the time. A man of taste almost in spite of himself, in Childe Harold Byron described the "old antique" in the visits of his hero to the Italian galleries. The familiar Greco-Roman works had been somewhat staled by countless gentlemen who had marveled at their canons of proportion and Ideal Beauty. None the less, Byron gave the Apollo and the Venus a show of significance through his easy rhetoric and passionate sentimentality. In The Curse of Minerva a different method of statement appeared, with the imagined sensations of prize fighters and dainty maidens reflecting the poet's own experience and opinion of the Elgin Marbles. Keats, on the other hand, in the "Haydon" sonnets reported almost too accurately his experiencing of the "mighty things" from the Parthenon. A young poet untutored in the arts, he transferred to paper the dizzying rush of sensations with which he saw before him a new realm of artistic achievement in the grand style of the Greek sculptures.

Two lesser poets offered parallel statements. In Paris in 1815 George Croly, a disciple of Byron, enumerated the antiques in the Halls of Sculpture at the Louvre and minutely described their appearance. William Haygarth in Greece imagined the Elgin friezes in their original places on the Parthenon, even turning his eyes upward to gaze upon the "long procession" of marble men and maidens moving to the sacrifice.

Other poets left glowing accounts of their "soul-adventures" in the presence of Greek sculpture, but more often in letters or journals, in criticism, or in miscellaneous prose than in poetry. Again Keats and, in a lesser degree, Byron gave very personal reports, though Shelley easily outdid them in prose statements of his interest in ancient art. The comments in Shelley's Notes on Sculptures in Rome and Florence were the most vivid record by any Romantic poet of stimulating hours in galleries. Shelley represented all poets, perhaps, when he remarked, "These things are best spoken of when the mind has drunk in the spirit of their forms."1

For "romantic" poets, as indeed for certain poets as far back as the twelfth century, the most exciting element in seeing Grecian statuary was the feeling that the forms or figures of sculpture were expressive. Statues were not "bodies" but "breathers." After making that discovery, the poets went beyond their own sensations to revel in and to describe the "life" of the sculptured forms. To show the vitality and lifelike qualities of a statue, the "romantic" poet often termed it a "breathing stone" in the manner of earlier poets. He was more likely, however, to grant the statue a more complex set of activities than merely being a counterfeit of nature or the embodiment of a typical trait or characteristic. Many statues were imagined as enjoying finer lives than those of human beings, in passionate moments made enduring in the lasting material of marble. Whether stones "warmed to life," whether "incarnations," in the language of Shelley, "of all the finest minds have conceived of beauty," or whether "cold pastoral" scenes of bacchanales or sacrifices, Greek sculpture had to reveal vital or living or emotional qualities in order to stir the feelings and imaginations of poets.

The discovery of "life" in statues was the prerequisite of poetry throughout the long tradition of interest in Greek sculpture among English poets. In the Romantic period the imaginative "animation" or "energizing" or "emotionalizing" of Grecian statues took a greater variety of forms than previously. There was little evidence of aesthetic appreciation of sculpture, of course, in the factual or informational accounts, which remained fairly numerous. The minor poets, such as the collegiate winners of Newdigate Prizes and Chancellor's Medals, tended to assert the "life" of sculptures and to describe little more than the positions of the figures and the activities represented. Byron, Wordsworth, and Coleridge at times wrote verse of this more rhetorical and "academic" nature.

The emphasis on the "life" of statuary also led to a rehearsal of episodes from the mythological history of the subject. In the Romantic period poets turned on many occasions from statues to mythological tales, legends, and fancies. Procter's "Theseus" was perhaps the finest example of a purely mythological sketch suggested by a statue. The Pygmalion myth still attracted the poets, along with a somewhat similar modern story of the maid of France who died from unrequited love for the Apollo Belvedere.

As far as the description in poetry of the "life" found in sculpture was concerned, Keats held the foremost position among "romantic" poets, largely because he vitalized the sculpture itself instead of presenting incidents and episodes other than those represented in the subjects of his poems. In the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and the "Ode on Indolence," for example, he concerned himself with the emotions and passions of the figures, in other words, with the drama arrested in the sculpture instead of with extraneous incidents. The continuously blissful future of the lovers (along with the "happy boughs" and the "melodist, unwearied,") was mentioned, to be sure, but always as an ever living, because sculptured, passionate activity. Since Keats kept his attention on the figures themselves as they were upon the urn and the vase, the two odes approached the ideal of the poetic endowing of sculpture with "life," the re-creation of the feeling of sculpture in the medium of poetry.

The identification of himself with a sculptural figure imagined to possess great vitality and emotional activity was easy for almost every "romantic" poet. At some time all the major poets except Wordsworth and Coleridge identified their own feelings with the "life" in Grecian statues. The Apollo statues, especially the Belvedere figure whose arrow has perhaps just felled a tyrant, was a particular favorite. Apollo also symbolized various aspects of the beau ideal of manly beauty for Shelley, Byron, and Hunt. The statue was admired, too, as the form of the poet's god, the symbol of poesy, reason, thought, and everything muselike. Byron saw the love of Juan and Haidée in a sculptured group as an idealized version of one of his own amours. Shelley identified himself with Bacchus; Byron associated himself sometimes with Hercules and again with Apollo. Blake could find in the Laocoön group an allegory of his struggles with the world of art. Keats interpreted figures on vases in relation to his personal problems.

"Romantic" poets likewise gave peculiarly personal descriptions of Grecian statues. The Venus de Medici still served for the beau ideal of feminine grace. Byron in particular tended to judge many of his friends by their similarity to the darling of the Uffizi. Shelley responded to Praxitelean shapes of an eager lightness and a soft ideality. Landor's feeling in sculpture was for coldness, grandeur, and restraint. Hunt, Keats, De Quincey, and Hazlitt carried their ideas of sculpture into the theater, writing criticism of actors and acting in the terms of sculpture.

Yet the imaginative re-creation of sculptural scenes and figures presented the best reflection of the interest of poets of the Romantic period in the "life" which they found in ancient art. These re-creations of the feeling of sculpture ranged from Byron's Zuleika postured as a younger Niobe to Shelley's hermaphrodites in The Witch of Atlas and Epipsychidion; from Keats's statuesque "stationings" in Hyperion and Endymion to the flower in Wordsworth's "Love Lies Bleeding" drooping in the fashion of the Dying Gladiator, or to Moore's "Kiss" à la Cupid and Psyche; and from the sculpturesque scenes in the poetry of Keats and Landor to the visionary sculptures of Blake and the linear, dreamlike reliefs seen by Shelley.

Landor, Keats, and Shelley excelled in re-creating sculptural scenes and relief-like figures, with Hunt and Byron nearest them, though at some distance. Somewhat apart from the other poets in his conscious checking of emotional suggestiveness, Landor was most nearly the "classical" sculptor. Nevertheless, he was only slightly more appreciative of the decorative values of sculpture than were Keats and Shelley. The three of them were the early nineteenth-century poets most concerned with sculpturesque qualities. Keats possessed the ability to make his descriptions of sculpture convey the feeling of the art to a degree unequaled by any contemporary English poet. Shelley had similar powers of intuition and expression, but he often clothed his figures in Shelleyan garments. His sculptural figures became rather too unsubstantial, too dreamlike, or too linear for sculpture. Byron was sensitive to sculptural qualities, though he was inclined either to be too serious and too sentimental or else to distrust his feelings. His imaginative use of sculptures for comical and satirical purposes was unequaled in Romantic poetry. In a few lines Hunt alone rivaled him in poetry of this kind.

A similar richness and variety appeared in the poetry of the Romantic period which dealt with the complex group of "ideas" concerning society, the arts, and culture associated, as we have seen, with Greek sculpture by poets from the seventeenth century onward. The Grecian enthusiasm of Shelley, Byron, Hunt, and Landor led them to relate social and political ideals to sculpture more often than the other poets. They were the leading Hellenists of the Romantic period in respect to social and political matters, and they admired the state where sculpture had flourished under the tutelage of Liberty.

Blake, Shelley (and through him Byron to a small degree), Landor, Wordsworth, and Coleridge were interested in the Grecian workmanship revealed in sculpture for the light shed upon the poetical faculty or power and upon the nature of the artistic or creative processes Landor again stood somewhat apart from the other poets in that he failed to advance the distinctive "romantic" theory of art, namely, the theory in which the stress fell upon the inner meaning and organic form of the ancient statues. Shelley more than compensated for Landor's silence, however, in his numerous treatments in poetry of various aspects of that view of the Antique.

Excluding Landor, then, these poets might be called Hellenists in regard to morality and aesthetics, were it not that one hesitates to apply the term to Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. The three poets were such staunch defenders of the Christian and the Modern against the Pagan and the Ancient that they scarcely merit the label of Hellenist. They would probably have agreed with Horace Smith, whose "Moral Ruins" related a kind of "progress" of sculpture and the other arts in the light of their morality, in which the highest and the one true and abiding religion proved to be the Christian.

The marble miracles of Greece and Rome,
Temple and Dome,
Art's masterpieces, awful in the excess
Of loveliness,
Hallowed by statued Gods which might be thought
To be themselves by the Celestials wrought,—
Where are they now?—their majesty august
Grovels in dust.


However, they were concerned with the moral and religious influences upon Grecian art almost as much as Shelley. Though convinced that the mythological fables of Greece expressed pagan creeds and outworn sentiments, this trio might have been willing occasionally to join the poetaster T. K. Hervey, whom Williams's Select Views in Greece (1829) moved to exclaim,

The heart that owns a better faith may kneel,
Nor wrong his creed, while bending o'er the sod
Where gods—and men like gods, in act and will,—
Are made immortal, by the wizard rod
Of him whose every thought aspired to be a god!


Moreover, like Shelley, each poet interpreted the Greek works as illustrating his personal and "romantic" conceptions of the creative power. Blake imagined that the Grecian artists had sculptured visions. Wordsworth and Coleridge saw in Grecian art the working of the Neo-Platonic plastic process by which spiritual belief reveals itself in sensuous and intelligible material forms. Shelley felt that the ancient artists had made sculpture into a vehicle for the expression of thought and intellectual beauty. The Greek statues were of great beauty and external loveliness; but, for all four poets, their true glory lay in the mental or intellectual or spiritual elements which the sculptors had expressed in "fixed shapes" of stone.

Great artists, the Greek sculptors too, apparently, had been "romantic." In the words of Blake, they had bodied forth "spiritual existences." Or, as a minor "romantic" poet, Charles Lloyd, succinctly stated this view of art:

'Tis not the form that is th' essential thing,
It is the soul, the spirit, that is there.


Yet the all-important spirit or soul needed a shape or material form in which to reveal itself, and the statues of Greece presented something close to an ideal fusion of spirit and matter, the Idea made manifest in sensible form. In sculpture, as practised by the Greeks in particular, Coleridge found that "the perfection of form is an outward symbol of inward perfection and the most elevated ideas, where the body is wholly penetrated by the soul, and spiritualized even to a state of glory." Expressive symbols, the statues were living forms whose external beauty resulted from the spirit within.

With such a view of art, the admiration of external forms is already on the decline. Their praise of the spirit of Grecian workmanship actually led Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge away from the Antique—to such an extent that one ordinarily excludes them from the ranks of the Hellenists. These "romantic" poets valued statues, not for their perfect forms—whether reposeful or grandly simple or teeming with emotional activity—but for the spirit or soul operating within the marble forms. Wordsworth gave the finest statement in poetry of this view of sculpture in The Excursion, where he explicitly turned from the "fixed shapes" of statuary to the spiritual or immaterial essence. Coleridge expressed a similar view in his carefully worded warning against excessive imitation of the Antique in On Poesy or Art. Clearly the stress on the spirit operating within a work of sculpture—both the plastic power felt by Shelley and the organic or inner form in the aesthetics of Wordsworth and Coleridge—tended to make poets slight the individual masterpieces of sculpture.

Only Shelley, the thoroughgoing Hellenist of this group of Romantic poets, failed to warn against too great a liking for the "fixed shapes" of the Antique. In his poetry, however, Shelley showed more often than either Wordsworth or Coleridge how a poet would use this theory; for he always read the spiritual (and intellectual and emotional) qualities expressed in a statue from its external form. Under the influence of both Shelley and Wordsworth, Byron also reflected at times a somewhat similar feeling for the spirit of ancient statues. Keats presented in his re-creations of sculpture an even finer illustration of the ways in which a poet imaginatively seizes upon the spirit operating within external appearances. Accordingly, had he explicitly stated a theory of sculpture, he would probably have equated the spirit in statues with emotions and passions or sensations rather than with intellectual and spiritual elements. Yet Keats, too, wished to explore

all forms and substances
Straight homeward to their symbol-essences.

Strange as it seems, the Elgin Marbles were yet another influence which, to some extent, at least, directed poets away from the Antique. At the time of the controversy over their merit in 1815 and 1816, critics like Hazlitt, artists like Canova, West, and Haydon, and poets like Keats regarded the sculptures as "natural" in contrast to the "old antique" of the idealized Greco-Roman figures. The Elgin Marbles presented the forms of nature. The great beauty of the Parthenon sculptures resulted from a grandeur of style employed in displaying actual human beings engaged in the activities of real life. This "naturalness" showed that the Greek sculptors had made beautiful sculpture out of the circumstances of their age and out of the deeds of heroes and the actions of gods which were instinct with meaning for the Greeks. The lesson taught by the Elgin Marbles was that "romantic" poets should treat the life of the early nineteenth century in the spirit of the Greek artists, or in the "naked and Grecian manner" of grand design achieved with care and precision in detail. Thus the Elgin Marbles contributed the force of their antique example to the "romantic" theories about art: fifth-century Greece joined hands with Wordsworth and Coleridge in urging writers to use the circumstances and spirit of their own age.

Yet the familiar forms of Ideal Beauty of the "old antique" lingered in the minds of many Romantic poets even after the "new antique" of the Elgin Marbles had been placed in the British Museum. The opposition between the Greco-Roman and the Parthenon figures remained, for the most part, a subject for discussion among critics and gentlemen rather than poets, with the notable exceptions of Keats and Byron. Although Haydon belabored the Greco-Roman favorites of the connoisseurs, and although Hazlitt and other critics ridiculed the Ideal Beauty of the Neo-Classical and Academic theorists, the Elgin Marbles failed to displace the "old antique" from the affections of the English poets. Most of them continued to think of the statues which they had seen in books like Spence's Polymetis at school or at the universities and elsewhere. In Italy the poets, like Shelley and Byron and Landor, still studied the Greco-Roman works after the Elgin Marbles had been accepted in England.

Of course, a good deal of the Romantic poetry inspired by Greek statuary was primarily sculpturesque decoration, in which poets were little concerned, if at all, with theories of art. Interested in the poetic or imaginative and emotional values in the sculpture of Greece, Landor, Hunt, Shelley, and especially Keats liked to describe the beautiful objects of the art of the sculptor—from gems to friezes, from urns and vases to heroic statues. They were the heirs of the Alexandrian poets of classical antiquity and of the Renaissance. Landor, Keats, and, to a lesser degree, Shelley took pleasure in ornamenting and adorning the stages upon which occurred the moving drama of their poetry.

But classical details and architectural and sculptural effects alone satisfied few Romantic poets. Landor, Keats, Byron, Shelley—in fact, almost every poet of the time—poured modern feelings into ancient forms, since they felt that the forms or "fixed shapes" of classical sculpture, history, mythology, and poetry offered poor vehicles for modern themes and feelings. Largely for that very reason, Wordsworth and Coleridge pointed out the difference between the fancy, with which a poet might treat classical motifs, and a higher power, the imagination, with which he expressed the vital articles of his beliefs. Their analysis of the opposition between fancy and the imagination reflected the growing realization among "romantic" writers of the conflict between

the Grecian dream
Of Beauty perfect in a finite mould


and the indefinable, intangible, and spiritual sentiments of the Christian and modern (or "romantic") genius—the conflict which profoundly disturbed the poets of the later nineteenth century.

What these foreshadowings of the conflict between the Grecian or pagan and the modern or Christian meant in the Romantic period may be seen by reference to two admirers of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Charles Lloyd versified the opposition between fancy and imagination in relation to sculpture thus:

Beauty, to the ancients, was a love, devotion:
Power was their symbol of sublimity!
Attitude, Passion, Symmetry, and Motion,
With them were fix'd in forms of statuary!

But, at the same time, howe'er much I prize,
And much I prize it, classical tradition,
I still must feel what difference there lies
'Twixt it, and gospel truth's sublimer mission.
From one for fancy many charms may rise;
To the sense grateful is its exhibition!

But, in the gospel page, Imagination.

George Dyer announced that he could feel the spirit or soul or genius of the lakes of Westmoreland and Cumberland, which he had visited with Wordsworth and Southey, with greater force

'Mid falling water's solemn sound,
'Mid pathless rocks, and mountains rude,
And all yon deep opaque of wood,
Than if, enshrin'd aloft I saw thee stand,
Glittering in robes of gold, and shap'd by Phidias' hand.


Moreover, though they had inherited a preference for things classical, especially Grecian, "romantic" poets and critics determined to find subject matter and means of presentation appropriate to their age. Because the Greeks and Romans had been silent concerning many emotions, sentiments, and experiences which were of great importance and of frequent occurrence in the nineteenth century, these writers found it difficult to "coöperate" fully with the Ancients. "Romantic" poets must create the forms which would possess significance for their own age.

The "romantic" poets in England continued, nevertheless, to look to the past and to Greek sculpture, but not as their immediate predecessors of the Academies had turned to antiquity. Many gentlemen, connoisseurs, and poets of the eighteenth century had refined themselves according to classical antiquity, where they found the perfect or correct taste—first of Rome and then of Greece—by which they became urbane, reasonable, and enlightened. "Romantic" poets saw themselves, rather, as links new-forged in the golden chain of poets; and they hailed the sculpture of Greece as a stimulus to creative activity on their own part. They wished to emulate the Greeks in making great art from the circumstances of their time. In other words, they were to do "for Britain what the artists of old did for Greece: their works are classical—not from being the offspring of a classic land, but because they were the embodied poetry of its actual beauty and sentiment."8

Among the poets and critics of the Romantic period, therefore, description of antique forms was supplemented and largely replaced by imaginative and poetic interpretation, and admiration of the canons of proportion of the Antique gave way to study of the inner harmony and organic form. Wordsworth and Coleridge presented this position most clearly—a position which had developed almost inevitably from the Platonic theories of Shaftesbury, Winckelmann, and Reynolds and from the pioneer versification of an aesthetic response to sculpture by Thomson and Akenside. Accordingly the "romantic" poets treated the spirit of works of ancient art more often than their external forms.

At the same time that Wordsworth and Coleridge, through their stress upon the inner qualities of art, to some extent directed poets away from the Antique, they encouraged the study of the nature of the artistic processes, including what they considered to have been the spirit of the Grecian workmanship. The finest poetic re-creations of sculpture in the Romantic period sprang, indeed, from the concern with the spirit within the ancient works—that is, with the intellectual and mental and emotional qualities which poets imaginatively discovered in sculpture. The emphasis upon the internal and poetic and imaginative qualities in Greek sculpture paralleled the renewed interest in the spirit of ancient religion and mythology. Again, poets sometimes sought to understand the Ancients by studying how the sculptors had presented the beliefs of Greece in their statues, vases, and friezes of gods and men and heroes.

Wordsworth set the pattern for succeeding poets—with his early toying with classical motifs in the manner of the Academic poets; with his original creations of the great decade from 1798 to 1807 in which he showed how a modern poet made poetry from the familiar matter of his day with a "classical" simplicity inherited from the eighteenth century; with his analysis in The Excursion and elsewhere of a spirit within the "fixed shapes" of Grecian sculpture which possessed more beauty than stone or marble; and, finally, with several poems on classical subjects where his fancy could make use of the forms of ancient art.

Then, too, Wordsworth joined with Coleridge in advancing the "romantic" theory by which the two of them as well as other poets, both in the Romantic period and later, might hope to create works of art comparable in formal beauty and spiritual significance to

the works
Of Grecian Art and purest Poetry.


1 See letter to Peacock, March 23, 1819 (Letters, X, 37), and above, pp. 167 ff.

2Poetical Works (1857 ed.), pp. 40-41.

3 See "The Temple of Jupiter Olympius at Athens" and "The Acropolis, at Athens," The Poetical Sketch-Book (1829), pp. 14, 120-21. Hervey's note explained that the wielder of the "wizard rod" was none other than Phidias!

4Desultory Thoughts in London (1821), p. 41.

5 Aubrey de Vere, The Waldenses (1842), p. 292.

6Desultory Thoughts in London, "On the Connection between Different Degrees of Spiritualization, in Religion, and a Taste for the Arts in General, and a Material or Metaphysical Taste in Poetry," and "Parallel between the Imagery of Heathenism and That of the Bible," pp. 71, 155. Lloyd had in mind The Excursion (see above, pp. 124 ff.) and Coleridge's lines on mythology in The Piccolomini (see above, pp. 143-44).

7Poetics; or, A Series of Poems, and Disquisitions on Poetry (1812), p. 231. See above, pp. 127 ff.

8 Allan Cunningham, criticizing the classicistic forms painted by James Barry, Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (2d ed., 1830), II, 140.

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Influence Of Greek Mythology On The Romantics


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