OSCAR WILDE AND ANCIENT GREECE by Iain Ross, Reviewed by Isobel Hurst

By Iain Ross
(Cambridge, 2013) xv + 274
Reviewed by Isobel Hurst on 2014-12-29.

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Studies of Hellenism in the late nineteenth century have drawn attention to an increasing disparity between the preoccupations of the classical scholar and more widely disseminated images of Greece and the Greeks. The imagined territory of Hellas, charted by Romantics such as Shelley and Keats, seemed to be threatened both by popularizers and professional classicists with their new scientific and archaeological approaches to the ancient world. According to Iain Ross, Wilde was exceptionally engaged with both sides of the controversy between academic and popular versions of Greece, reinventing himself as a new type, the "dandy-scholar." Ross takes Wilde's Keatsian poem "Charmides" as an elegiac response to the precise mapping of Grecian topography, a lament that scientific exactitude had rendered the pastoral vision of Hellas, the elision of Arcadian and English landscapes, an outdated poetic conceit. Wilde was also profoundly influenced by the Hellenism of his predecessors, Matthew Arnold, Walter Pater, and John Addington Symonds. These Victorian Hellenists helped to determine Wilde's view of Greece as an "aesthetic ideal, a corrective force imparting the critical spirit, bestowing form, tracing rather than imposing laws" (4).

The first three chapters of the book are described in the introduction as an "intellectual biography" in which Ross examines the "particularities of the institutions, texts and editions through which [Wilde] encountered ancient Greek literature and material culture" (5). Ross's thoroughly researched account of Wilde's studies is enriched by details from unpublished manuscripts, marginal annotations in Wilde's copies of classical texts, copies of the syllabus followed at Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford, and archival evidence. These resources are partly reproduced in a series of appendices, including samples of Wilde's Greek verse composition exercises and notes on philosophy. Ross demonstrates that Wilde's notable success in Oxford's renowned Literae Humaniores or "Greats" course owed much to his earlier classical education in Ireland, at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen and Trinity College, Dublin, and points out that the playful combination of scholarship and wit that Linda Dowling identifies as characteristically Oxonian in Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (1994) was also exemplified and performed by Wilde's Trinity tutors J. P. Mahaffy and R. Y. Tyrrell. The classical curriculum that Wilde studied at Oxford has received much attention in histories of classical studies or of the university as well as in the biographies of writers such as Pater and Wilde, but Ross's attention to detail enables him to illuminate how precisely the style of the Oxford classical curriculum (and not, for example, the "pure" scholarship of the Cambridge Classical Tripos) suited Wilde's own thinking. A meticulous examination of texts and examination questions shows, for example, that Wilde's habit of drawing analogies between ancient and modern authors was encouraged at Oxford: one of his oral exams included a discussion of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Aristotle's Poetics, and Walt Whitman.

Despite his distinguished results in Greats, Wilde did not win a college fellowship at Oxford and was also unsuccessful in his application for a school inspectorship, a career choice perhaps suggested by the Arnoldian model. But after applying for an archaeology scholarship in Greece, he later became one of the founding members of the Hellenic Society. Wilde's fascination with archaeology is a prominent theme in Ross's study. Through Sir William Wilde's obsession with archaeology and sense of the Homeric resonances of ancient burial sites in Ireland, Wilde had long been familiar with the idea that the Irish and the ancient Greeks shared a common racial inheritance, a Celtic identity. In the era of prominent amateur archaeologists such as Heinrich Schliemann, who claimed to have found the site of Troy and Agamemnon's Mycenae, archaeology became fashionable. As editor of the Woman's World, Wilde kept his readers up to date with reviews of extravagant spectacles and burlesques incorporating archaeological details found in the latest excavations; the magazine also noticed spectacular productions such as Todhunter's Helena in Troas (Constance Wilde appeared in the chorus of this production) and the newly established university Greek Plays, such as Oxford's notable 1880 Agamemnon. But then, Ross suggests, Wilde returned to the classics themselves. Having become so thoroughly identified with archaeological popularizers that he seemed to be turning away from Greek literature and Romantic Hellenism, he refocused his attention on the texts he had studied at Oxford.

Unlike some Victorian classical purists, Wilde sympathised with those who pursued their interests in the ancient world outside the university (and he also praised the expansion of university education in women's colleges and in the more inclusive American institutions of higher education). In the late 1870s and 1880s, his dependence on journalism for an income encouraged less strictly scholastic preoccupations and strengthened his association with the popular archaeological mode of Hellenism. A combination of social and academic flair, and the experience of popular journalism, enabled Wilde to create a "new identity as a critic" who could "make creative play with the texts of the Hellenist tradition, confident that his readers were, or would expect to be addressed as if they were, as familiar with them as he was" (123). Ross traces the development of this new critical voice in his fourth chapter, "Philologia," moving on from intellectual biography to persuasive but rather too briefly developed readings of Wilde's plays, De Profundis, and The Picture of Dorian Gray in light of his Hellenism. Apropos great controversies such as the Homeric question, Wilde's position is not necessarily clear or consistent: having first accepted the Wolfian view (that the Homeric epics were collections of ballads created by unknown singers), he works around to clearly rejecting it--through the persona of Gilbert--in "The Critic as Artist."

Matthew Arnold exalted fifth century BCE Athens as a high point of Western civilization, a rare example of a culture that matched a "significant, a highly developed, a culminating epoch" with "a comprehensive, a commensurate, an adequate literature" ("On the Modern Element in Literature" [1869]). In the work of Arnold and Ruskin, following a German model set out by Winckelmann and revised by Schlegel, fifth-century Greek culture was interpreted as a three-part history of growth, perfection, and decline. The pattern might be exemplified by the great tragedians: the austere, primitive grandeur of Aeschylus, the elegant perfection of Sophocles and the decadent flamboyance of Euripides. The nineteenth-century reception of the tragedians might be said to follow a similar trajectory, as Romantic appreciation of Prometheus Bound gave way to acclaim for Sophocles' Antigone and Oedipus the King, followed by an increasingly sympathetic reading of Euripides' dramas such as Alcestis and the Bacchae towards the end of the century. Ross notes that as a student in Dublin, Wilde shared the conventional admiration of Sophocles, but despite his love of Oedipus, he makes few references to the dramatist in his mature work, preferring "My Euripides" for the realism of his representation of humanity (32). In a review of the 1887 performance of Alcestis at Oxford, Wilde observes that Euripides is "the most modern of all the ancients, there is something of Browning in him" (33). Browning had already acknowledged his own connection with Euripides by including his adaptation of the Alcestis within the poem Balaustion's Adventure (1871).

Wilde linked the belatedness of Euripides with that of his own late-Victorian era. According to Ross, he was particularly influenced by Mahaffy's version of the narrative of growth-perfection -decline in which Arnold's preferred period, the fifth century, is only a prelude to a period of greater sophistication, and the high point is reached in the fourth century. By shifting the study of Wilde's Hellenism away from more familiar associations towards the New Comedy of Menander, and from the study of Plato to that of Aristotle, Ross enriches our understanding of late-Victorian classicism, offering a distinctive alternative to the chthonic and Dionysian associations that have dominated recent scholarship.

Isobel Hurst is Lecturer in English at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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