Our disruptive ancestor

Shelley and Greece
August 22, 1997

One of the more exquisite pleasures of University College, Oxford, is its Shelley memorial, a secular shrine to the poet hero formally opened by his daughter-in-law a little over 100 years ago. As Jennifer Wallace nicely observes in the conclusion to her brilliant monograph, Onslow Ford's marble statue "crystallised Victorian ideas of Greek beauty as well as 19th-century ideas of the poet, ideas which emphasised his lyrical unworldliness and repressed his political opinions and the disruptive impact of his writing". Actually, it arguably did even more than that, and in a way that is entirely in keeping with Wallace's own approach to Shelley's writings.

Her illustration, captioned "The idea of Greece which keeps us together", shows Ford's statue from the front, unquestionably male if not necessarily masculine. Viewed from the back, on the other hand, the sinuous curves are at the least feminised, and give the whole a distinctly herm-aphroditic feel. Such, we may think, is entirely suitable to a devotee of ancient Greece who was fascinated by what Wallace calls the "plenitude" of the Uffizi hermaphrodite. It is no less apt to an acute and sensitive interpreter who seeks to apply to Shelley criticism new ideas from cultural and gender studies and from the study of literary influences, the effect of which is to "destabilise the assumption that the relationship with other cultures and other writers is natural and unproblematic. Shelley's Hellenism is, as Wallace demonstrates, an excellent testing ground for these ideas.

Even the crassest modern reader of Shelley, of course, would find it hard to miss or play down the significance of Shelley's appropriation of ancient Greece: Adonais, Alastor, Epipsychidion, Oedipus Tyrannus or Swellfoot the Tyrant, Prometheus Unbound, translations of several ancient Greek texts, including Plato's prose Symposium (the prefatory Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks tackled Greek pederasty head on and was for that reason published only posthumously), not to mention Hellas (introduced by "We are all Greeks...") - all these thoroughly justify Shelley's inclusion among the "Athenians" of his day. (Not yet among the Dorian Spartans - Wilde's speakingly named Dorian Gray was still a long way off.) But what, precisely, was the nature of Shelley's Hellenism, an often nebulous and ex hypothesi unstable compound? How did it figure and how did he figure it within his poetic oeuvre as a whole? And how, in particular, did it fit into his political programme?

In Wallace, Shelley's Hellenism has found its ideal contemporary interpreter. Not only is she an English literature lecturer firmly abreast of the latest Shelley scholarship but she is also by training a pukka classicist and - therefore, surprising though it may seem - not only able to read Shelley with intertextual aplomb but also up with the very latest literary-critical scholarship on reception and translation, in which classicists have in recent years been leading rather than following the pack. What she presents us with, in brief, is an anticanonical recuperation of Shelley for the 1990s and beyond: as an ancestor, true, but one who, rather than providing a timeless model of perfection to be imitated, "unsettles orthodox assumptions", about education, about gender identity, and above all about political ideals laying claim to descent and inspiration from ancient Greece.

In the Wallace version Shelley's Hellenism is thus far more questioning and far less adulatory than has been standardly assumed hitherto. Key words in her critical vocabulary are disruption, fragmentation and ambiguity. In antiquity satyr-drama was written and performed with - or against - a group of three tragedies: in his translation of Euripides's satyr-drama, Cyclops, Shelley duly re-exploits this ancient potential of the satyr-drama to disrupt and interrupt, and through that explores the issue of violence in the context of democratic revolution. In his Prometheus Unbound Shelley sought among other things to fragment the kind of calm, monolithic Greece that had become associated with Schlegel's reception of the Aeschylean Prometheus. (Shelley's troubling and troubled Prometheus is thus the ultimate source of the broad Greek left's canonisation of the Titan as patron saint of the oppressed and toiling masses.) In Epipsychidion the seductive but ambiguous relationship between Greece and "us" is put into question: is Greece "western" or "oriental"? Does the relationship empower men, or women? Wallace's Shelley, in short, is undoubtedly red and radical, but his Hellenism is far from univocal. In Hellas, fittingly, although the chorus is represented as straightforwardly philhellenic, the tragic hero is the Turk Mahmud, and he comes graced with an "attractive individualism".

It seems a pity to interject a sour note, but it has to be stated that Wallace's publishers have let her down more than somewhat: the book was overlong in production, and their printing of Greek font is abysmal. Yet for anyone concerned with the understanding of another - or an Other - culture, with the Hellenic roots of cultural modernity, and with the relationship between poetical and political praxis in post revolutionary Europe, this book is a must-read. For those with a special interest in the developing 19th-century construction of sexuality it forms an admirable complement and prelude to Linda Dowling's Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford. Such are its range and appeal that it should be prescribed for courses in classics and gender studies no less than those on the English romantics or the history of modern Greece.

Paul Cartledge is reader in Greek history, University of Cambridge.

Shelley and Greece: Rethinking Romantic Hellenism

Author - Jennifer Wallace
ISBN - 0 312 16548 X
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £37.50
Pages - 261

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