Victorian Hellenism Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Victorian Hellenism

In English and American culture today it is conventional wisdom to think of ancient Greece, c. 500 B.C., as the birthplace of Western civilization and to attribute the qualities associated with the flowering of Western European culture—especially those of secular humanism—to the inheritance, more or less direct, from the great flowering of art, philosophy, and especially democracy in ancient Athens. These beliefs do not take into account, however, the inheritance of Victorian values, for it was nineteenth-century Britain that initiated the valorization of all things Hellenic (relating to ancient Greece), manifested largely in the Victorians' desire to see themselves as the resurrection of Hellenic Greece. In Victorian England one aspect of the rich and complicated culture was an enthusiastic self-identification with ancient Greece. While men of the ruling classes were steeped in the study of classical literature—and its associated values—as the basis of their education, popular notions of Hellenism, of its superiority and relevance, spread throughout the culture at large.

As many scholars of Victorian culture have argued, eras preceding the Romantic and Victorian took only an occasional interest in Greece. Instead, Europeans of the Renaissance and Enlightenment viewed themselves in a line of descent from the Roman republic, extolling its politics, philosophies, and aesthetics. In the years that bridged the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, certain threads in European culture—particularly in Germany and England—prompted a desire to diverge from that Roman image. Where studies of ancient Greece occupied only a corner of scholarship and publication in the centuries preceding the nineteenth, by the end of that century such publications had far outstripped the focus on Rome. Hundreds of books, articles, and pamphlets celebrated ancient Greece's philosophy, literature, mythology, art, religion, and politics. New translations of all the major authors and many minor ones became available. Rome took on an image of decadence and insincerity, while Greece illustrated the first burgeoning of democracy, lyric poetry, humanism—all elements appealing to rising currents in Victorian culture.

England's enthusiasm for Hellenism had roots in eighteenth-century Germany, where scholars studied ancient Greek texts and culture in such earnest that it had a tremendous and far-reaching impact on the country's educational system, as well as on the later development of scholarship in general. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, this rather specialized interest in classical studies had a marked growth in England. One of the most important texts of the revival, K. O. Müller's History of Greek Literature, came from Germany, but in fact appeared in translation in England in 1840 even before it reached publication in Germany.

The Victorian take on Hellenism, which both inherited and diverged from the early nineteenth-century Hellenism of the English Romantics, germinated very concretely in curricular changes at Oxford University. Long-standing language requirements for admission at both Oxford and Cambridge insured that every university educated man—as well as every man educated at schools hoping to send their students to Oxford or Cambridge—would know Latin and Greek. In the mid-nineteenth century, Oxford's curriculum changes outstripped this traditional focus on language and brought Greek history, literature, and philosophy much more pervasively into the education of all its students.

From this primary training site, the country's future leaders-in politics, letters, business, and religion-acquired a shared set of values such that even where they debated specific issues, a certain frame of reference, distilled from the prevailing interpretations of classical texts, permeated the dominant culture in all fields. As these men set the standard for their culture, the values that they embraced filtered through the country at large, no longer just in the specialized fields of history or philology. Greek myth and imagery became common in literature, in the most popular poetry as well as the most specialized texts, and in the visual arts. The presence of Hellenism in political and economic discourse was also substantial. George Grote's History of Greece, published in twelve volumes between 1846 and 1856, not only contributed to the Hellenic passion, it also put forward one of the most influential notions of ancient Greece: the belief that classical Athens had realized the greatest potential of democracy. In the mid-nineteenth century, this argument had a significant place in heated contemporary debates over the direction and nature of an expanding liberal democracy.

Frank M. Turner, one of the first specialists to study Victorian Hellenism, has frequently remarked that Victorian writers appropriated ancient Greece in particularly self-serving fashions, exploiting it as a vessel for containing an unlimited array of images or messages. Consequently, the reasons that Victorians embraced ancient Greece with such affinity, argues Turner and others, had much more to do with certain forces bearing on Victorian culture than with the history of Greece itself. Economic and political changes presented England's ruling classes with new challenges, and, as commentators from Friedrich Nietzsche to Turner have argued, they fortified themselves for this challenge with new self images borrowed from ancient Greece. Nietzsche identified the urge as one prompted by the limitations of the modern world, which sent his fellows in search of the succor of a meaningful past and mythology. When the late eighteenth century bore witness to two major revolutions, in America and France, one sympathetic response came from Romanticism. Douglas Bush ascribes the initial nineteenth-century revival of Hellenism to "the Romantic reaction against a rationalistic and mechanistic view of the world and man"—a rationalism largely exemplified by the leading poets of the eighteenth century, including Alexander Pope. The considerable room for interpretation embedded in Hellenism ultimately allowed it to assume divergent functions—from the relatively radical to the relatively conservative. For example, thinkers used Hellenism both as a mode for pushing away the traditional religious values that had held sway in England since the Restoration and as a new justification and explanation of those values.

In the 1980s, Turner noted the dearth of significant criticism on Victorian Hellenism. At the beginning of the century, Edwardian critics looking back at the Victorians—the generation just preceding their own—painted that culture over with their own need to reject its values. Consequently, previous to the wave of fresh analyses concurrent with Turner's own work, scholars either failed to look at Hellenism as a significant facet of Victorian culture or flatly accepted the Edwardian assessment at face value. Not until the 1980s did scholars begin to challenge the absence of more thoughtful inquiries and contend, as Turner did in his groundbreaking Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (1981), that Victorians avidly created ancient Greece in their image—or in their own desire to see themselves in a particular image. Since that time, many articles and books have appeared examining the motives and meanings of Hellenism in Victorian politics, philosophy, theology, education, and arts.