Harvard University Press 1980. ISBN 0-674-93687-6

Richard Jenkyn's book is an unhurried and careful  exploration the influence of ancient Greece on Victorian society. Despite being a Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall of Oxford University, he succeeds in being even handed and has written an altogether fascinating book.

He sees a source of Victorian Hellenism in late 18th century romantic naturalism with it's ideas of the "noble savage", shepherds and shepherdesses, the rural idyll etc. with the ancient Greeks fitting easily into this environment.

Of course, the rationalism and science of the 19th century industrial revolution was notably  unromantic and this sets up a tension that runs through the Victorian period which he illustrates so well. As he says, "...that scientific thought, hard remorseless and factual, was draining magic and fantasy out of the world." and he quotes from Peacock's essay, "The Four Ages of Poetry", "We know too well that there are no dryads in Hyde Park nor naiads in Regent's Canal. But barbaric manners and supernatural inventions are essential to poetry." So the modern poet (i.e. Victorian poet), ignoring the achievements of historians and philosophers, is merely "wallowing in the rubbish of departed ignorance."

Or to really turn things on their heads, he quotes Fitzgerald, "As I often think, it is not the poetical imagination, but bare Science that every day more and more unveils a greater Epic than the Iliad." Now perhaps the industrialist and scientists are the new Heroes without having been identified as such by the Victorian classicists.

In some respects he shows the Classics to be a refuge from the frantic change in Victorian society. The 19th century Mediterranean still retained it's timeless ancient landscapes of olive orchards and vineyards and offered a stark contrast to what was widely seen as the industrial ruination the British landscape and traditional life. A recurrent theme was to see late Victorian England as late Ancient Rome comparing unfavourably to a vital classical Greece. Somehow things had passed their best, the freshness of youth had gone and art had lost it's ancient purity. (top)

Both Ancient Rome and Victorian England were imperial, and the guardians of the empire were the classically educated British public school and Oxbridge elite. A classical education was undoubtedly a social advantage and it showed an allegiance to the autocratic, aristocratic, Platonic ideal of the philosopher kings and their administrations.

He shows that the new democratic, industrial and commercial world of the middle and lower classes, had little in common with their Hellenistic masters other than the uniform longing for a lost rural past. Dickens for example was a popular writer with no classic coolness (Jenkyns points out that his novels would not have been so good if they had) who hankered after earlier simpler pre-industrial times. Tolkien's hero Bilbo Baggins from Bag End equally is no hero in the classical mould, but a hero nonetheless of a peculiarly understated, unassuming British traditional rural type.

Jenkyns shows that the Germans didn't domesticate the Homeric model to such an extent and followed the idea more closely with the the "healthy, vigorous animalism" promoted by Nietszche, something that never quite fitted the stuffy restrictive Victorian atmosphere. They rather escaped into the exoticism of the aesthetes using a degraded classicism and orientalism as a cover for titillating art and fantasy writing.

It was unusual, but some writers could see value in the old and the new worlds. As he says, "Mill wanted to call the old world in to redress the balance of the new: classical literature should be studied he said, "not as being without faults, but as having contrary faults to those of our own day"; and conversely ancient states exhibited "precisely that order of virtues in which a commercial society is apt to be deficient." In other words, you need classicists to administer the democratic ideals of free speech, liberty and equality before the law.

It's interesting to think what Homer would have made of all this. He actually believed in mortals, immortals and demi-gods and unlike Gladstone didn't have to rationalise his belief with Christianity or an industrial revolution.

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