English Romantic Hellenism Overviews - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Harry Levin (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: The Broken Column: A Study in Romantic Hellenism, Harvard University Press, 1931, pp. 29-76.

[In the excerpt that follows, Levin analyzes the characteristics of Romantic Hellenism and discusses the poetry of Byron, Shelley, and Keats as representative of various types of Romantic Hellenism.]

An Anatomy of Romantic Hellenism

Before we proceed on our quest for the amaranth flower, it may be well for us to fix firmly in mind the characteristics of romantic Hellenism. I shall therefore attempt, very briefly, to anatomize the subject in its successive stages. It begins, as I have indicated, in a complete distrust of the classics, which are associated with the neo-classical period of western European literature. Gradually Greece is dissociated from the rest and converted into an Arcadia for the romanticists. World-weary denizens of the drawing-rooms are ready to divide the world, with Schiller, into naïve and sentimental peoples, and to yearn for the primitive, simple, and idyllic society of the Greeks.

They proclaim that the world was young in those days, that the Greeks were the children of nature. "The mental culture of the Greeks was a finished education in the school of nature," we hear, in ringing falsetto, from the lecture platform of Herr Dr. Professor Schlegel. "Sie haben die Poetik der Freude ersinnen." Hereafter we shall not be surprised to learn that the masterpieces of Greek literature were the spontaneous outpourings of an artless and unsophisticated folk, who performed their greatest achievements for no other purpose than to express themselves. The Spartans followed their rigorous discipline, as Pater explains, so that they might become "a spectacle aesthetically interesting to the rest of Greece." The assumption is by no means uncommon today. M. Salomon Reinach, for example, seems to think that Atticism blossomed into "the unique and immortal flower of human genius" for no other purpose than to provide him with material for the opening chapters of his handbook on art.

It is but a step from the mythological attitude to the historical. The new historical attitude, instead of seeking the relationships between past and present, emphasizes their points of variance. The romanticists have discovered that the supposed simplicity of Greek life disagrees with their own experience of life. Rather than change their interpretation, they conclude that they are undergoing a phase of experience which the Greeks did not know. They have forgotten that Attic Greek and Ciceronian Latin were not dead languages to those who spoke them, that the Greeks did not look upon themselves as figures in a history book, that their sculptors did not chisel their statues for us to put in our museums. So the Greeks become a static people and life to them is, according to Browning, "an eternal petrification." They are not even allowed to have feelings; Herder, Winckelmann, and Schlegel all join arms against Lessing for suggesting that poor Philoctetes experienced any agony.

When Renan stood upon the Acropolis, in 1865, he felt the spirit of Greece as "a fresh, penetrating breeze from very far away." He saluted the goddess and went through a wavering litany, but in confessing his sins—as he says—he became enamored of them. "Une littérature qui, comme la tienne, serait saine de tout point, n'exciterait plus maintenant que l'ennui." Classic perfection bores him, so he embraces the romantic abyss. Indeed, many of the romanticists, in their distrust of perfection, seem to have done their utmost to escape from it.

This eternally rapt repose, on the one hand, and a self-consciously rampant voluptuousness, on the other, are contrasted by Nietzsche as the Apollonian and Dionysiac souls. His disciple Spengler, the provocative critic of history, sets up an Apollinian man as a symbol of the static Greek soul, and opposes to him the modern or Faustian man, a dynamic creature, who strives and strays, knows infinitesimal calculus, and loves Beethoven. It is difficult to keep from being misled by distorted comparisons and, at the same time, from disregarding the grain of truth in a strained distinction. Stevenson, in one of his New Poems, rebukes the "greenspectacled Wordsworth" for his sentimental evocation of youth. In his own youth, Stevenson recalls, he was an Indian (full of "feverish questionings" in the "widening well of space"); in his old age he will be a St. Francis. Meanwhile, between the extremes of life, he is a Greek,

White-robed among the sunshine and the statues
And the fair porticoes of carven marble—
Fond of olives and dry sherry,
Good tobacco and clever talk with my fellows,
Free from inordinate cravings.

From Schiller to Spengler, the romanticists show increasing dissatisfaction with the complacency which they find in the Greeks, and growing appreciation of the infinite longings which they discover in themselves. Victor Hugo, for whom traditional Greece lacks in color, is forced to turn to the oriental elements in modern Greece. The sentimental travellers have come across the modern Hellenes and tricked Greece out in a new nationalism and a colorful orientalism. At this point, romantic Hellenism coalesces with the romantic passion for liberty, and we have philhellenism.

A casual passage from Bryon's Curse of Minerva will aptly illustrate how many extraneous influences—nature, sentiment, oriental atmosphere, moonlight, and nationalism—have colored the romantic conception of Greece.

With cornice glimmering as the moonbeams play,
There the white column greets her grateful ray,
And bright around, with quivering beams beset,
Her emblem sparkles o'er the minaret:
The groves of olive scatter'd dark and wide,
Where meek Cephisus sheds his scanty tide,
The cypress saddening by the sacred mosque,
The gleaming turret of the gay kiosk,
And sad and sombre 'mid the holy calm,
Near Theseus' fane, yon solitary palm;
All, tinged with varied hues, arrest the eye;—
And dull were his that pass'd them heedless by.

Here, in some dozen lines, blended with appropriate emotions, we have the typical scenery of romantic Hellas. In our wanderings through this region, we shall be constantly stumbling upon crumbling columns, shattered pillars, and single solitary plinths. It might be estimated that, if all the broken columns that figure in this movement were collected and repaired, we should have a colonnade extending from the Victor Emmanuel II. Monument in Rome to the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin, by way of the Madeleine in Paris.

Let us pass on to consider our stylites. Criticism which consists merely of facile generalizations and exhaustive tabulations is a thoroughly desiccating procedure. Let us keep our eyes on the object and not forget that we are concerned primarily with literary values. It is absurd to rake over a whole literature ruthlessly in an effort to destroy its fundamental doctrines, and then to admit, in conciliating tones, that nevertheless much of that literature may be very beautiful. It is just as foolish to insist that this incidental beauty is all that matters and that the ideas in question are of no importance. The very greatest literature has always contrived to put beautiful ideas into beautiful forms, and I believe that undue emphasis upon the one element or the other is responsible for the present aberrations of critical taste.

We shall find it most profitable to avoid abstractions or catalogues and to turn to the actual pages of romantic writers for illustrations of the ideas that we are following. The works of Byron, Shelley, and Keats present a body of poetry which is unified, full, and extraordinarily fruitful for an inquiry of this sort. The three poets are close contemporaries, if not good friends, and their paths meet—not in Greece, to be sure, but in Rome (now pardoned by the romanticists and set up as the museum of the world).

Their respective styles and backgrounds supplement each other, so that a comprehensive view of much that is typical in romantic poetry may be gained from studying them. Byron, for example, has much in common with the writers of the eighteenth century, Keats is often akin to the Elizabethans, while Shelley is the most purely romantic of the three. Byron, again, has important relations with the continent, Keats is very English, and Shelley has as little as possible to do with this earth. The philhellenism of Byron, the sentimental Hellenism of Shelley, and the more or less genuine naïveté of Keats invite comment. All three, it will be acknowledged, are typical romanticists and poets of approved worth.

The course of romantic Hellenism in England has not yet been explored or chronicled. The philologists of Germany and the literary historians of France have traced the broken column to its plinth, and recorded the development of nineteenth-century classicism in their respective countries, although, in many cases, they have neglected to examine the authenticity of its claims or to show its connexion with the romantic movement. Specimens might be culled from Hölderlin' s Hyperion or Lamartine's Mort de Socrate, from the life of Alfieri or the works of the Parnasse, to show the full flowering of Neo-Hellenism in its literary form on the continent.

We must hope that a capable critic will some day treat this important chapter of English intellectual history. His amply documented pages will remind us of the once famous travels of "Athenian" Stuart. They will explain the Greek façades in St. James's Square. They will gossip of bands of dilettanti, like the Hellenic Society, and pause to admire collections of virtu, like Lord Hamilton's ceramics. They will find evidence in unsuspected places. Few of us were aware that Oxford's poetry prize was awarded, according to the terms laid down by Sir Roger Newdigate in 1806, for "fifty lines and no more in recommendation of the ancient Greek and Roman remains of architecture, sculpture, and painting."

Meanwhile, for our purposes, Byron, Shelley, and Keats are very near the centre of romantic Hellenism in England. Their poetic forbears are singularly free from any vestiges of classicism—Wordsworth and Coleridge through conscious reaction, Burns and Blake through ignorance. Their poetic posterity has inherited its attitude toward Greece from the second romantic generation. Their near contemporary, Landor, may well stand aloof on this question, as he did on every other. On him Mr. Oliver Elton has pronounced the final word: "His Hellenics are not really like anything ancient or modern, except the rare imitations of themselves."

In one of the letters of William Beckford, that esoteric describes the mildly diabolical festivities that celebrated his coming-of-age:

On the left of the house rises a lofty steep mantled with tall oaks amongst which a temple of truly classical design discovers itself. This building (sacred to the Lares) presented a continued glow of saffron-coloured flame, and the throng assembled before it looked devilish by contrast.

I am afraid that we shall witness many such incongruous scenes and encounter many such contrasts. Let us take care that we neither do irreverence to the Lares nor view the devilish throng in too lurid a light.

The Isles of Greece

Byron, in some late verses, confides to us that his style is the romantic,

Which some call fine, and some call frantic;
While others are or would seem as sick
Of repetitions nicknamed Classic.
For my part all men must avow
Whatever I was, I'm classic now.

Both the finely frantic and the narrowly classic are distinctly discernible in his poetry. He may have repudiated the classical studies of his youth, but he never forgot them. The curriculum appears to have been thorough, if not sympathetic. Byron's early collections are full of translations and paraphrases from the Greek and Latin, evident relics of Harrow and Cambridge. And he has nothing but disgust for the student

Who, scarcely skill'd an English line to pen,
Seans Attic metres with a critic's ken.

The unfortunate result of this kind of schooling was a purely superficial familiarity with the classics. The very word "classic," in Byron, seems to be synonymous with "dull," and is applied to such writers as Hallam and Sheffield. "Attic wit" is no wit at all. Homer is never mentioned, except in astonishment that men should continue to be interested in those crude chronicles of obsolete battles. Byron's conception of Plato, like Shelley's, is colored by the Petrarchans, but, unlike Shelley, he has no patience with this airy Platonism.

The quality of his appreciation of classical art is indicated by his preferences—the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvidere. He had been brought up under a regimen of the most hollow and uninspired neo-classicism, to which the new, ameliorated views had not penetrated, and in his ardent reaction he was ready to damn the classics as "faint fictitious flames, pastoral passions and cold compositions of art." Under the circumstances, he counselled wisely in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers:

And you, associate bards! who snatch'd to light
Those gems too long withheld from modern sight;
Whose mingling taste combined to cull the wreath
Where Attic flowers Aonian odours breathe,
And all their renovated fragrance flung
To grace the beauties of your native tongue;
Now let those minds, that nobly could transfuse
The glorious spirit of the Grecian muse,
Though soft the echo, scorn a borrow'd tone:
Resign Achaia's lyre, and strike your own.

One of the principal difficulties in dealing with Byron is the fact that, at some time or other, he almost invariably contradicts every statement he makes. Thus we find the converse of this proposition:

Ye who seek finish'd models, never cease,
By day and night, to read the works of Greece.

The couplet is from a paraphrase of Horace, composed in spare moments snatched from English Bards. The ambidexterous poet was able to translate the nocturna versate with his right hand and to pen a denunciation of the Greekling poetasters with his left.

Byron is still, in many ways, a good Horatian. He is the sole champion of Dryden and Pope in his age, and a frequent assailant of the Lakists on grounds of which Dr. Johnson himself might have approved. His satires and many of the early pieces (An Occasional Prologue, for example) show him as the legitimate heir of the English Augustans. They have bequeathed to him much of the conventional frippery of eighteenth-century poetry. Yet Byron lacks the neat precision and subtle grace of Pope and his school; their kind of rhetoric seldom becomes profuse or expansive.

To understand this phase of Byron, we must remember that English poetry, after Gray, did not turn romantic overnight, but that the old satirical tradition continued into the nineteenth century, considerably inflated with poetic bombast and political bias. We must recall much occasional and journalistic verse, many forgotten album-pieces, and a great deal of oratorical poetry. Byron has a close kinship with parliamentary poets like Churchill, Frere, Gifford, and the writers of the Anti-Jacobin.

Just as in Byron's attitude toward the classics, so in his poetry itself there is an eternal warfare of heart and head. The witty and rationalistic Augustan strain is counter-pointed by an elegiac and introspective romantic mood. Like many fellow-poets, he kept a skull about, but this skull was useful as well as ornamental—Byron drank beer out of it. "Today I have boxed one hour," he notes in his diary for April 10, 1814, "written an ode to Napoleon Bonaparte, copied it, eaten six biscuits, drunk four bottles of soda water, and redde [sic] away the rest of my time." The very virility that drove him to rebel against a pallid classicism also saved him from a neurasthenic romanticism.

I've seen much finer women, ripe and real,
Than all the beauty of their stone ideal.

This is the strain that develops into many fine lyrics, full of lips and loves and last long fond farewells. It also develops into the very theatrical eastern tales and the not very theatrical dramas. For it was this Doppelgängerei, this curious dissociation of intellect and emotion, that enabled him to dramatize himself, to posture before the rest of the world in his life and poetry. It also made it impossible for him to penetrate beyond his own egoism and to look objectively upon life as a whole. So we have, in the dramas, feeble and unintelligent echoes of Faust, such as Manfred, a monologue on the heights.

Despite his youthful excursions into the spluttering and ejaculatory style of Ossian, and his admiration for the early romanticists, it is in his life and mood, rather than in his style, that Byron is romantic. His language is always concrete; he employs without compunction the standard poetic diction, well seasoned with colloquialisms and occasionally spiced with a dash of color; he is never as vulgar as Wordsworth, as vague as Shelley, or as fond of images as Keats. He retains a sense of form and recognizes

What Nature could, but would not, do,
And Beauty and Canova can.

But, abandoning more general considerations, we must seek "the land of the cypress and myrtle" and hearken to the Æolian strains. Byron occasionally follows the "self-torturing sophist, wild Rousseau," and discovers an idyllic Greece where everything is natural and expansive and beautiful. Thus he characterizes one of Don Juan's and Haidée's more intimate moments as "Half-naked, loving, natural, and Greek." Yet it was the North and Nature, he tells us, in The Island, that had taught him to adore these sublime southern scenes. The primitive Greeks, we learn from one of the freest passages in his free translation of the Ars Poetica, did not narrow their hearts with commerce, but were "given alone to arms and arts" in true aesthetic fashion. Like Juan, when he awoke to find Haidée addressing him, we cannot understand this kind of Greek, but it all sounds very beautiful.

Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o'er the dust they loved,

sighs Childe Harold's companion, although Harold (heartless wretch) is able to depart without a tear. To the companion a little urn says more than a thousand homilies. He loves to linger by the Ilissus, amid the ruins of the temple of Zeus Olympius, in full view of the Acropolis, with a sepulchral urn before him, and, not far off, a skull from a neighboring burial-ground. How different this lonely figure from the pair that walked and talked there beneath the plane tree many centuries before—the youth Phædrus and the sage Socrates. What would they have thought of this soul-stricken stranger, posing before his solitary column?

Travel is a hereditary privilege of the Englishman, whether his invasions of the continent take the form of a grand tour, a sentimental journey, or a search for the picturesque. The sentimental traveller of the Regency was a great-grandson of the cosmopolite in the reign of the first George, but Childe Harold's wanderings had a new sort of restlessness that distinguished them from the ramblings of Jack Wilton or even Mr. Yorick and Dr. Syntax. Part of Byron's predilection for Greece was due to the fact that he was forever seeking appropriate settings for the continuous monologue of his life. Part was due to his characteristic nostalgia and weariness; he loved, he says, in The Siege of Corinth, to be among

Remnants of things that have pass'd away,
Fragments of stone, rear'd by creatures of clay!

So it was Rome that finally became the city of his soul. Greece, with its oriental traits, nourished his taste for the exotic, but Greece was so far away that his pilgrimage ended in Sehnsucht nach Italien. Rome had later associations which made it holy land, and a soft lunar haze blended its temples with its castles and palazzi. St. Peter's was the very height of sublimity. Rome's columns, in the light of the moon, were more eloquent than Tully. And nature was necessary to complete the spell, for Byron abhorred the Phidian peaks of museums and continually reviled Lord Elgin.

Art, glory, freedom fail, but Nature still is fair.

Yet Byron's landscapes are seldom complete without a ruin in the corner. The declaration, "I love not man the less, but Nature more," must be interpreted in the light of the poet's subjectivity; he was man, and nature was his mirror. In his verse the mountains, rivers, hills, and lakes always turn out to be Byron in disguise. Now and again we have a plea for pantheism that has in it true poetic insight, as in the fragment Aristomenes:

False or true, the dream
Was beautiful, which peopled every stream....

Most typical, however, is the Byron who hymns the beauty of Greece in its age of woe. He sings a mingled measure. Childe Harold identifies Hellas not only with the orient, but even with—of all places—Andalusia. His Romaic love songs are no more classical than his Hebrew Melodies are biblical. "Could I scale," he stipulates, in Beppo,

Parnassus, where the Muses sit inditing
Those pretty poems never known to fail,
How quickly would I print (the world delighting)
A Grecian, Syrian, or Assyrian tale;
And sell you, mix'd with western sentimentalism,
Some samples of the finest Orientalism!

Ultimately, Byron's philhellenism contributed to the success of the Greek Revolution in 1821-33, one of the most significant practical results of the romantic movement. Did he realize how far from ancient Hellas all this was? Again we have the Doppelgänger. For the sentimental poet, the modern Greeks, though degenerated into "craven, crawling slaves," were still the legitimate heirs of the ancient glory; there was "the same light in each eye." For the satirical letter-writer, they were "plausible rascals, with all the Turkish vices, but without their courage." The question is easily settled. It was already a settled question to Tacitus, who records Piso's rebuke to the romantic Hellenist, Germanicus, for honoring "non Atheniensis tot cladibus extinctos, sed conluviem illam nationum." The issue has more to do with Pan-Slavism than with any sort of classicism.

Greece had taken its place along with Byron's other Arcadias of liberty—Venice, Switzerland, America. It is a long way from the liberty of Milton to the liberty of Byron and Shelley. The romantic conception of liberty is temperamental rather than ethical. Attractive and indefinite phrases about liberty are too readily employed to lend a meaning and a philosophy to a libertine life. Periclean Athens had very little freedom in our modern sense. Byron's activities did not revive the old Hellas; they complicated the Near Eastern question.

Missolonghi was the final compromise that put an end to the quarrel between Byron's two selves. At last he had to leave his drawing-rooms and charming ladies for miserable huts and ragged rebels, and at last he became a romantic hero. Head followed heart into the Greek cause, and, although the experience may have been disagreeable to Byron, it left a theatrical tale to the world. The world, however, is better pleased with the compromise of his two selves in Byron's poetry, which gave us that masterpiece of romantic irony, Don Juan. In this ranging and chatty picaresque epic, we frankly accept the fact that the form is sprawling and the story subjective, because the raconteur is so amusing. A moral, a plot, or even an ending would be entirely irrelevant.

All irony is based on the relationship of the real and the ideal. With Byron, Heine, and Jean Paul, the disillusioning facts of life obtrude themselves upon the unrestrained flights of the poet's fancy. With Socrates, the contrast is between petty actualities and universal truths. Romantic irony vacillates from pole to pole without direction. Socratic irony is governed by standards, or at least by logic (Socrates occasionally exhibits an almost Shavian perversity). The Greek ironist never parodies himself. The romantic ironist delights in sharp antitheses. Hardly has the metallic ring of the pseudo-Alcaic ode to "The Isles of Greece" stopped echoing before the author resumes his leisurely manner:

Thus sung, or would, or could, or should have sung,
The modern Greek, in tolerable verse;
If not like Orpheus quite, when Greece was young
Yet in these times he might have done much worse:
His strain display'd some feeling—right or wrong;
And feeling, in a poet, is the source
Of others' feeling; but they are such liars,
And take all colours—like the hands of dyers.

Feeling, to be sure, had been brought back into poetry and life, but in the process control had been eliminated, and either is vain without the other. Byron was acutely aware that he was the puppet of his feelings. In the poem generally quoted as his last, he sounds a clarion call, not to Greece ("she is awake!"), but to his soul:

Tread those reviving passions down,
Unworthy manhood! . . .

But there is a later fragment, a single stanza published in 1887 as Last Words on Greece:

What are to me those honours or renown
Past or to come, a new-born people's cry? ...
I am a fool of passion, and a frown
Of thine to me is as an adder's eye. . . .
Such is this maddening fascination grown,
So strong thy magic or so weak am I.

So Byron continued to play the rôle of the weary Titan, chained to his papier-mâché Caucasus by shackles of his own forging, with the tragic fire preying eternally on his heart.

The Poet Unbound

"As he wandered among the ruins made one with Nature in their decay, or gazed on the Praxitelean shapes that throng the Vatican, the Capitol, and the palaces of Rome, his soul imbibed forms of loveliness which became a portion of itself." The soul is Shelley's and the speaker is the second Mrs. Shelley, in one of the marginal dithyrambs with which she has lovingly glossed her husband's works. It will be our part to inquire whether the soul really assimilated the loveliness, or whether it simply projected itself upon all beautiful forms that came in its way. Or again, how far did Shelley's classical background affect his ideas, and how far did his ideas affect his classical background?

The Hellenism of Shelley is complicated by the fact that he had a deeper interest in Greek literature and a wider knowledge of it than any of his contemporaries. Most of his familiarity with the classics was acquired, as his wife records, after his early departure from Oxford and during his travels on the continent. The circumstance is highly significant. It means that Shelley did not have the opportunity to be repelled by the classical curriculum, that his approach to the classics was wayward and unacademic, and that his subsequent reading was influenced by his political and philosophical obsessions.

"The poetry of ancient Greece and Rome, and modern Italy, and our own country," he confesses, in the preface to The Revolt of Islam, "has been to me, like external nature, a passion and an enjoyment." (O soul of Sir John Cheke!) The collected poems include translations of Plato, Euripides, the Homeric Hymns, and the pastoral poets, among others. Some of them sound enough like Shelley to raise our suspicions. We turn, quite at random, to the rendering of Vergil's tenth Eclogue.

.. . the wild woods knew
His sufferings, and their echoes

is Shelley's version of the three simple Vergilian words, "respondent omnia silvæ."

To read Shelley is to become conscious of the vast distance between the modern poet and those ancients whom he continually evokes. He is a poet of the averted gaze; we never know for sure what he is writing about. Mary Shelley praises him for "discarding human interest and passion to revel in the fantastic ideas that his imagination suggested." "As to real flesh and blood," he wrote, to his friend Gisbourne, "you know that I do not deal in those articles." What are your wares, then, Mr. Shelley? Many will answer for the poet that he is a dealer in ideas, a philosopher. Professor Elton, for example, a stalwart champion, enshrines Shelley on high, with Plato on his right hand and Ruskin on his left.

The name of Plato has been shamelessly abused by twenty-odd centuries of poets and philosophers. As Shelley puts it, with unconscious aptness,

"Then Plato's words of light in thee and me
Lingered like moonlight."

Hellas has a lyric scene in which Christianity and Platonism are reconciled by the simple dramatic expedient of having Christ praise Plato. A more familiar kind of Platonizing ensues when Shelley invokes his "moth-like muse" in Epipsychidion. The result is more like a Petrarchan sequence than the Symposium. Emilia is "Spouse, Sister, Angel," but Shelley's love for her, like Tristan's for Isolde, goes beyond the sonneteers and seeks to consummate itself in annihilation. "I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire."

Shelley does not deal in thoughts, but in "the shadow of the idol of a thought." He has the romantic wish to be infinite, so he seeks the mazes and mists of a vaporish philosophy. His idealism expresses moods instead of expounding ideas. In Prince Athanase, when he quotes the philosopher,

"The mind becomes that which it contemplates,"

we are tempted to recall the occasion on which he contemplated the wind ("Be thou me, impetuous one"), and to consider him eminently successful in becoming the object of his contemplation. For Shelley, to put it baldly, is all fire and air, without much fire.

If Shelley deals neither in flesh and blood nor in ideas, what—we rudely repeat—is his merchandise? Again the never-failing Mrs. Shelley has a ready answer. He had, she tells us, in her preface to the first 1839 edition of his poems, "the luxury of imagination, which sought nothing beyond itself (as a child burdens itself with spring flowers, thinking of no use beyond the enjoyment of gathering them)." Apparently the garden of poetry has become so overgrown that our later poets have only to linger in the shade of its trees, languidly culling poetic conventions and dallying with poetic devices.

Her husband preludes his Hellas with the announcement that "the subject, in its present state, is incapable of being treated otherwise than lyrically." But it is Shelley, as we have reason to believe, who is incapable of treating any subject otherwise than lyrically. This is undoubtedly true of his treatment of Greece. "The modern Greek," he claims, "is the descendant of those glorious beings whom the imagination almost refuses to figure to itself as belonging to our kind, and he inherits much of their sensibility, their rapidity of conception, their enthusiasm, and their courage."

We recognize the purest sentiments of romantic Hellenism—the identification of ancient and modern Greece, the isolation of ancient Greece as an Arcadia in "the world's golden dawn," and the purely romantic emotional coloring. They are to be expected from the man who found Priapus "quaint" and Pan "melancholy." By now these concepts are familiar, and perhaps tiresome, to us. We are chiefly interested in the essential quality which Shelley attributes to Greece and in his explanation of the golden age.

"If England were divided into forty republics, each equal in population and extent to Athens," he writes, in one of his introductions, "there is no reason to suppose but that, under institutions not more perfect than those of Athens, each would produce philosophers and poets equal to those who (if we except Shakespeare) have never been surpassed." Liberty, then, is the sole reason for this superiority of the ancient Greeks. "If not for Rome and Christianity," he informs a correspondent, "we should all have been Greeks—without their prejudices." Is liberty enough? Shelley reveals not only a superficial conception of liberty, but also a superficial conception of genius. An age of genius has seldom been an age of liberty. We are reminded of Chénier's couplet:

Les poètes anglais, trop fiers pour être esclaves,
Ont même de la raison rejeté les entraves.

An examination of the lyric drama Prometheus Unbound will serve to bring out many of the differences between classical tragedian and romantic lyricist. The lost tragedy of Æschylus was set apart in the catalogue because it dealt with gods rather than with men. To Fontenelle, Metastasio, and Voltaire it seemed a violation of the principles of taste. Shelley has forsaken both gods and men to concern himself with continents, spheres, and elements. Against a background of ravines and icy rocks in the Indian Caucasus, the protagonist calls in turn upon mountains, springs, and air, while "Asia waits in that far Indian vale."

The Prometheus of Greek drama, in his misery, invokes first the lands of the earth and finally the waves of the sea, but we must bear in mind that he is addressing the dwellers in those lands and that the personification of the ocean was a climax intended to impress Greek audiences with the dire extent of his woes. Æschylus has relieved the super-human argument by introducing Io and her very human plight. Even Power and Force show a crude characterization. The modern play has none of the cruelty of the ancient; where the classical Titan agonizes, the romantic Titan rhapsodizes. Although the modern poet has no more sympathy for his subject than the ancient poet, the duty of Æschylus is to perceive and acknowledge the necessary outcome of the struggle. Shelley rebels against the inevitable and, by refusing to recognize the common lot of man, casts off the ties that bind literature to life.

His preface not only points to Prometheus as the champion of mankind and to Zeus as its oppressor, but goes a step farther and identifies Prometheus with Satan, "the Hero of Paradise Lost." On this romantic diabolism, Shelley builds a labyrinth of pure allegory, with little immediate or symbolic significance. It is a compound of Plato and Godwin, Milton and Mist. The sense of necessity and the deep awe of the Prometheus Vinctus are dispelled. The mystical machinery is inconceivable, the action beyond human emotions (nay, even beyond the chain of cause and effect), and our interest languishes, save when revived by the grace or skill exhibited in a chorus.

It is not easy to follow the misty dramatis personas. The Earth is the daughter of Asia, who is the daughter of Oceanus. Somehow or other, the rebellious phantasm of Zeus abjures him. Eternity is rebuked and the Spirit of the Hour quotes Dante. No more abstract poetic language could be imagined than such a figure as "cancelled cycles." In the midst of this potpourri of abstractions, Shelley comes down in a machine and proclaims the Millennium, which is celebrated in a carnival of adjectives. He has progressed from the triumph of evil in The Revolt of Islam to the return of the golden age in Hellas.

This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

But Shelley, after all, was a human being, and for that reason his Titanism is unconvincing. Milton and Æschylus succeeded in creating superhuman figures by drawing men on a vast scale. Shelley lacked the power of characterization (The Cenci reveals him as a wooden Webster), and so he sought to convince by imagery and allegory. Occasionally the contrast between his characters and the things which they symbolize becomes amusing; thus Asia instructs the Spirit of the Earth in what every young sphere ought to know:

Peace, wanton, thou art yet not old enough.
Think ye by gazing on each other's eyes
To multiply your lovely selves, and fill
With spherèd fires the interlunar air?

How fair these air-born shapes? You are nothing—we are tempted to say—but a pack of words. It takes only a single phrase to dethrone Jupiter and his dynasty. Symbolism carried beyond a certain stage loses all significance. See, then, how easy is it to have a man walk out on the stage and say, "I am Eternity!" Shelley discovered that it was no more trouble to write hymns on mountains and chasms than to write homilies on stones and brooks, thereby reducing Wordsworth to absurdity. In a passage like the following, he develops a veritable apotheosis of the "pathetic fallacy":

The tongueless Caverns of the craggy hills
Cried, "Misery!" then; the hollow Heaven replied,
"Misery!" and the Ocean's purple waves,
Climbing the land, howled to the lashing winds,
And the pale nations heard it, "Misery!"

When Shaftesbury defined the poet as "a second maker, a just Prometheus under Jove," he was heralding a host of romantic poets, with Byron at their head, who sought out lonely rocks and raged at the heavens. Yet Byron realized the inevitability of the Titan's fate and did not attempt to overthrow the order of things:

Like thee, Man is in part divine,
A troubled stream from a pure source;
And man in portions can foresee
His own funereal destiny;
His wretchedness and his resistance,
And his sad unallied existence.

Byron knew more of the world than Shelley, and had a sounder sense of human values. Still, he lacked the lighter touch of the younger poet. Byron's verse often sounds rhetorical and commonplace when compared with the smoothness and exquisite finish of Shelley's.

But Shelley lacked the elder poet's sense of humor. In his pseudo-Aristophanic comedy, Swellfoot the Tyrant, the chorus of swine grunts out such fanciful lines that the satire against George IV. and Castlereagh loses point. Now and again Shelley restrained this profusion and produced a poem of the true Greek epigrammatic quality, like the sonnet Ozymandias, so effective in its refusal to point a moral. Often, too, he found a becoming subject for his customarily atmospheric and evocative style, as in Adonais, one of the happiest examples of "reflective" poetry.

"Why, did you ever hear any people in clouds speak plain?" asks Mr. Bayes, in The Rehearsal "They must be all for flight of fancy, at its full range, without the least check or control upon it. When once you tie up spirits and people in clouds to speak plain, you spoil all." The present attitude toward Shelley resembles the viewpoint of Mr. Bayes. Shelley could not have been tied up and made to speak plain, but many of his admirers prefer him untied and in the clouds. They are apostles of what the French literary critics call lyrisme.

Lyricism is the practise of poetry for poetry's sake. Poetry originated before the days of writing, when men adapted their sayings to rhythm in order to make them memorable. Then it is developed to a high degree of art and performs a lofty function in the life of a people. But sooner or later there comes an Alexandrian period, when men feel that the normal possibilities of literature have been exhausted, and take to experimenting with novel forms and recherché emotions. Belles-lettres become a mere drawing-room accomplishment.

Lyricism is a very late stage in the history of poetry. It is a reaction against undue didacticism, against formalism of all sorts. The western civilization is more prone to it than the classic, because its melody is more obvious and because accent and rhyme often dictate the sentiment. When our critics read a poem which rhymes and scans and apparently has nothing to say, they speak of its lyricism. Human character and emotion have been fully exploited in narrative and drama, the lyricist feels; the only thing left for him to do is to summon up, in lyric snatches, vague moods, embellished by the approved poetic conventions. His art is suggestive and literary to the extreme. We have the impression that he is writing about poetry rather than life.

Byron, Shelley, and Keats can show us aspects which are typical of romantic poetry and quite foreign to the best classical poetry with which we are familiar. With Byron it is subjectivity; the author's personality is more important than his theme, and he is unable to look upon life objectively. With Shelley it is lyricism; he is interested in words for their own sake and substitutes moods for ideas. With Keats, as we shall see, it is imagism; the trappings of poetry are for him its chief charm, and his verse becomes a kind of decoration.

Beauty or Truth?

John Keats, who was killed off by one critique,
Just as he really promised something great,
If not intelligible, without Greek
Contrived to talk about the gods of late,
Much as they might have been supposed to speak.

Or, at least, that is what Byron has to say about it. Keats himself says (to Charles Cowden Clarke) that

.. . my thoughts were never free, and clear,
And little fit to please a classic ear.

Despite this confession, Keats has been pointed out as the most Grecian of modern poets. If he had been subjected to irregular verbs, perhaps his longing for Homer's wide demesne might have been tempered somewhat. Because he knew the classics at second hand, his attitude toward them is purely conventional. Thus we find pale reflections of the various phases of romantic Hellenism in his poems—the rocking-horse Pegasus of neo-classicism, the mythological echoes, the early Greeks unconsciously culling Time's sweet first fruits,

. . . with as sunburned looks
As may be read of in Arcadian books.

"I hope I have not in too late a day touched the beautiful mythology of Greece, and dulled its brightness," Keats writes, in the preface to Endymion. The mythology of Greece continues to shine, although it is not certain whether Keats has attained his pious hope in Endymion. Certainly he has attained it in the charming verses beginning, "I stood tiptoe upon a little hill," which present a delightful picture of the reveries of the romantic Hellenist. "Pan is no longer sought," complains the poet, in his fresh and vivid delineation of the hillside scene. Then there follows an evocation of several Greek myths suggested by the landscape, and the poet finally dedicates himself to the tale of Endymion. Such verses go far to justify the romantic conception of Greece or to suggest that there were Neo-Hellenists who held a wider and clearer outlook than their neo-classic predecessors.

But Keats' poetry abounds in a profusion very unlike the Greek. He was unable to sustain the statuesque style of Hyperion. The more characteristic Endymion is suffused with Spenser, and it betrays the touch of Archimago's wand. The poet longs for the moon, in four cantos. His Endymion is constantly falling into swoons, heretofore the peculiar privilege of men of feeling or the heroes of mediaeval romance. The poppies and lilies with which the poem is redolent are no Grecian flora. The style is Elizabethan, although Keats makes embellishment his raison d'être. He preferred to look back to the golden age in the literature of his own people, rather than to follow the classical tradition. He says little of Homer and a great deal about Chapman.

Keats is the laureate of bric-à-brac. "Lo, I must tell a tale of chivalry!" he announces. He must not, he will not, he cannot. He will simply talk about plumes and chargers and glittering trappings. St. Agnes ' Eve and the other tales show that his chief concern was with stage settings. Had he actually been an Elizabethan, he would have written masques instead of dramas. Images alone suffice, for Keats is in love with sense impressions. But it is wrong to call Keats a child of nature; he is really a connoisseur. He betrays at times an almost morbid delight in things physical, and his interest in nature is not marked by the wholesome pleasure of the sportsman, but by the wistful regret of the consumptive. It is conceivable that his Greeks should sleep in the grass, feed upon red apples and strawberries, catch nymphs, and even bite their white shoulders,—as they do in Sleep and Poetry,—but the dove-wings, the dancing-girls, the almond blossoms, and the cinnamon betray the connoisseur. It is the poor cockney from Moorfields who speaks.

When the poet is a voluptuary, it is natural that poetry should be treated as a narcotic. The poetry of Keats is heavy, sweet, languorous, and soporific. There is a sense of fatigue and romantic melancholy, a feeling that the scroll of mighty poets has been made up and rolled away. Everyone is tired in this tragic century. Newman felt a sense of "pain and weariness" which he found elsewhere only in the pages of Vergil. That is the strain of Tennyson's Lotus-Eaters and the sad, faint harmonies of Swinburne, who inherited Shelley's lyricism and Hellenism. The great end of poetry, for Keats, was "to soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man," but he was only successful in achieving the first of his aims.

When he comes to apostrophize the Grecian urn in terms of pure lyric speculation, Keats realizes that nothing in this life endures save what is crystallized by art into a work of beauty. The symbolism of the poem is indisputable. Sappho, however, would draw her distinctions with greater nicety. . . .

And that is not all ye need to know; ye need to know what is truth and what is beauty. Plato could not have quarrelled with the idea expressed in the Ode, but if he had read it in the light of Keats' other poems he would have rebuked Keats for exalting beauty of so purely sensuous a character. In another ode (the one addressed to Psyche) the poet speaks of his "soul" when he is really talking about his sensibility. The beauty of his work is ultimately achieved through the play of his fancy, which he ever allows to roam, rather than through the deliberations of that austerer faculty, the imagination. Lamia is apparently beautiful, but not true, and yet the poet will not recognize the reality and would embrace the serpent. "Græcum est, non potest legi." Poor Keats never learned Greek. . . .

Romanticism arose as a protest against the neo-classicism into which the humanistic tradition had frozen. But let us not make the mistake of judging romantic Hellenism from the neo-classical viewpoint. It is doubtful if the neo-classicists always had a sounder apprehension of the classics than their romantic Hellenist successors. It is very likely that they, too, often saw the reflected ideals of their own age in ancient Greece, when they adapted Homer for the drawing-rooms, made "Caton galant et Brutus damerei," and turned a hero of ancient tragedy—according to Dryden's taunt—into "Monsieur Hippolyte." Every young lady was a nymph, muses and lyres were the indispensable equipment of the poet, and writers put the pantheon in their pages. "Mes belles dames," was their query, "voulez-vous des éventails à la grecque?" Yet their appreciation of the classics developed to such a degree of nicety that La Harpe could attack Homer for violating classical taste and Chesterfield could sneer at the Homeric heroes as porters. Don Juan strays no farther from the Odyssey in one direction than Télêmaque does in the other.

The Greeks, unfortunately, were unable to have such a thing as a classical education. Subsequent civilization was able to codify their experience and to depend upon it for authority during the course of many centuries. The Greeks, perhaps for historical reasons, did not have our habit of turning back, at every step, to consult the past. It has been said that the Greek language was pure because the Greeks read and spoke no other. It may be that this principle can explain the clarity which we find in classical times and the confusion which we see, at present, in our own age. Whether or not that is true, we may be sure, when we look back to the past, that the Greeks were ever looking forward to the future; Pericles' funeral oration or the epitaphs at Marathon or Andromache's farewell to Hector should teach us that. Up to this late day, when we are depending more and more upon that vast tradition of our own which we have accumulated, and less and less upon our inheritance from the more remote past, each successive age has interpreted Hellas anew.

Timothy Webb (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Introduction to English Romantic Hellenism: 1700-1824, edited by Timothy Webb, Manchester University Press and Barnes and Noble Books, 1982, p. 35.


(The entire section is 20936 words.)