Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.02.04 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.02.04

Iain Ross, Oscar Wilde and Ancient Greece. Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, 82.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. xv, 274.  ISBN 9781107020320.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Serena Witzke, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (


Iain Ross's impressive analysis of Oscar Wilde's engagement with ancient Greece and Hellenism examines the way trends in Victorian scholarship, institutions, and texts influenced Wilde's lifelong love affair with Greek language and culture. Ross consults not only the editions of texts that Wilde used, but also, whenever possible, Wilde's own texts themselves with marginalia and extensive annotation, and provides interpretive analysis of this contradictory writer's often- complicated comments. This dedication to primary source material makes Oscar Wilde and Ancient Greece an indispensible resource for anyone studying Wilde's engagement with the Classics, a topic that has only recently attracted the attention of scholars in Victorian Studies and Classical Reception.1

The introduction outlines Ross's method, that is, an investigation of the texts that most affected Wilde's development of his Hellenism, and the notes, journalism, criticism, and fiction that engaged with them. Underpinning the volume is the problem of professionalization of academia and the popularization of Hellenism, both of which challenged Wilde to "reconcile a Hellenism that had formerly depended on the cultivation of personal response to Greek literature and art with a Hellenism that seemed increasingly dominated by the consumption of spectacle and the science of objects" ((2). Ross introduces the reader to three key texts in Wilde's education and critical thinking, each representing a different philosophy of Hellenism: Matthew Arnold's "Hebraism and Hellenism" in Culture and Anarchy, Walter Pater's "Winckelmann" in Studies in the History of the Renaissance, and the final chapter of John Addington Symonds's Studies of the Greek Poets.

Chapter 1, "Paideia," traces Wilde's educational development from archaeological excavations in Ireland, in his youth, with his amateur archaeologist father Sir William Wilde, to Trinity College in Dublin, to Oxford to, finally, his trip to Greece. This chapter introduces the reader to the scholars most influential to Wilde's Classical development. At Royal Portora School Wilde was spared some of the grammar grind—his instructors supplemented courses on the ancient languages with historical context, something of a rarity for the time. At Trinity Wilde continued his studies under J. P. Mahaffy (Ancient History) and R. Y. Tyrrell (Latin Studies). Mahaffy would shape Wilde's Classics career for many years to come, though Tyrrell's influence, Ross tells us, should not be underestimated. Under their tutelage Wilde earned a scholarship to Oxford, where he would continue his interest in archaeological approaches to Greek texts, and traveled to Greece in 1877.

The second chapter, "Poiêsis," tackles a number of subjects that can be distilled into an overarching theme: the new, scientific approach to Greece versus the traditional, romantic reception of Greek literature and culture. Ross begins by treating a problem in the interpretation of myth in the late Victorian period, that is, the tension between allegorizing (the scientific approach) versus myth as story-making (the traditional approach). Wilde rejected the former and notably used myth, particularly that of the royal foundling, in two children's stories, "The Young King" and "The Star Child." Next we see the development of this theme in Wilde's poetry and his relation in particular to Keats in the way he treats Greek material. Ross notes that Wilde's poem "Charmides" attempted to emulate Keats's "Endymion" and "Lamia," but ultimately fell flat when he couldn't reconcile geographic exactitude with elements of the supernatural: his pedantry makes "Charmides" an "uncomfortable hybrid" (80).

Chapter Three reviews two simultaneous phenomena in Great Britain, both of which influenced Wilde's literary efforts: a growing public demand for archaeological spectacle and an increasing professionalization of academia, motivated by competition with German scholarly Totalitätideal. Throughout the 1880s, after Wilde had graduated from Oxford, he reviewed a number of translations and Greek theatrical productions for the Pall Mall Gazette, longing for a position in academia. He also joined a number of other scholars in the creation of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies in 1879. At this time, public hunger for exhibitions of finds in Greek archaeology led to an 'archaeologizing' of theatrical performances (attempts to make the productions more authentic and foreign-looking). Wilde initially applauded these archaeological efforts, but in time public favor waned, as did his interest, and by 1890 Wilde rejected archaeology as a discipline, feeling that it had grown overly scientific, and that it detracted from the purer modes of interpretation of the antiquarian. This break with archaeology also corresponded to a break with his career as a scholar and critic: Wilde reinvented himself as a prose fiction author.

Chapter 4, "Philologia," is the strongest chapter: Ross traces the influence of Plato, Aristotle, and Euripides through Wilde's "Critic As Artist," "Decay of Lying," Picture of Dorian Gray, "Soul of a Man Under Socialism," and The Importance of Being Earnest. Ross first surveys Wilde's break with Mahaffy over their contradictory philosophies of Hellenism, then offers re-readings of Wilde's works through the lens of his Greek scholarship. Wilde saw Plato and Aristotle as the critics of their age, preferring Aristotle, and rejected A. Grant's dismissal of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, as a product of its time relevant only to a Classical Greek. Wilde, by contrast, saw the Ethics as a "practical manual for fashioning oneself" (145) and engaged with it in a number of his texts. Ross traces Aristotle's concepts of prohairesis, praxis, poiêsis, hexis, and energeia through several of Wilde's works, and demonstrates the influence of Aristotle's philosophy more generally on Wilde's "Soul of a Man Under Socialism." He also, to great effect, examines Wilde's engagement with Plato's Theory of Forms in The Picture of Dorian Gray, offering a fresh analysis of Wilde's most controversial work.

Edith Hall and Fiona Macintosh, in Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre 1660-1914 (Oxford, 2005, 151), noted the influence of the recognition scene of Euripides' Ion on Wilde's famous handbag scene in The Importance of Being Earnest. Ross expands on their point here with a brief examination of Wilde's engagement with New Comedy through Euripides and Menander. His analysis of the Euripidean elements in Earnest is quite strong, and suggests the value of exploring aspects of New Comedy in the rest of Wilde's Society Plays. On this subject, however, Ross is too influenced by Mahaffy's prescriptive definition of New Comedy (particularly on the insistence of "doubling," which is found in nearly all of Terence's dramas, but rarely in Menander's or Plautus's; and the sex of the foundling as female—in Terence yes, but often male in Menander and Plautus—as necessary features), and dismisses the many other parallels in plot, character, and theme in Wilde's Society Plays. Wilde systematically engages with Menander and New Comedy via Plautus and Terence, yet Ross underestimates Victorian knowledge of Menander and the extent to which New Comedy influences Wilde's plays. "Ion in Earnest" leads into a discussion of Wilde's engagement with J. A. Symonds on the topic of Menander's modernity, and offers a tantalizing conclusion: that Wilde perhaps sought, through his drama, a literary ancestor in Menander. Ross ends with a section entitled, "Hellenism Repudiated?" that traces Wilde's decreasing enthusiasm for the Classics through De Profundis and his renewed interest in Christianity.

Ross's volume concludes with six appendices of impressive primary sources: Wilde's syllabi from Trinity and Oxford, his exercises in Greek tragic and comic verse composition, and his notes on his time in Greece, Aristotle's Ethics, Pre-Socratic and Platonic philosophy recorded in Wilde's notebooks. The notes, though brief, offer a rare glimpse into the way Wilde studied, and we may certainly wish we had more extensive (or extant) notes on his trip to Greece.

Ross's volume is meticulously researched and full of analyses of a large number of primary sources that are relatively inaccessible, and thus his accounts (and often transcriptions) are invaluable to Wilde scholars. His organization, however, might have been easier to follow if it had more transitional sections, summations, and conclusions throughout. Books on reception are difficult for readers: scholars of the receiving culture are often not well versed in the originating culture, and vice versa. Here, classicists may founder on the sheer amount of engagement with Victorian scholars, artists, and thinkers; Ross provides very little contextualizing material, and presumes significant knowledge of Victorian cultural institutions. Readers would be advised to consult Frank M. Turner's Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (New Haven, 1984) and Richard Jenkyns's The Victorians and Ancient Greece (Oxford, 1980) for the necessary background material underpinning Ross's analyses.

In Ross's highly academic rendering of Wilde as a writer and thinker, what is most notably absent is any indication of Wilde's joie de vivre. The wit and paradoxical humor characteristic of his writing, even in philosophical texts such as the essays comprising Intentions, are lost in the morass of Victorian aesthetic philosophy. The most defining aspect of any Wilde text is its very indefinability: every phrase, even the apparently obvious one, hides levels of complexity and contradiction. Ross's intellectualizing analysis desiccates Wilde's prose and renders him another Pater or Arnold. Where is the urbane and witty author of "A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated"? Ross's volume may qualify as "over-educated," but it fails to bring Wilde's signature humor, his most famous characteristic, into his engagement with the Greeks. The focus here on Wilde's poetry and nonfiction works is somewhat misrepresentative: almost entirely absent are Wilde's prose fiction works—short stories, novels, and plays (both comic and tragic). Though Ross indicates that Wilde engaged with the Classics until his imprisonment, these works are given short shrift in the analysis of ancient Greece's influence on Wilde's oeuvre. Their omission seems almost an act of revisionist history: by focusing on Wilde's earlier career and intellectual output, Ross makes him into the professional scholar Wilde failed to be recognized as in his own lifetime.

While Ross demonstrates convincingly Wilde's deep engagement with ancient Greek texts, philosophy, and culture throughout his career in poetry and nonfiction, he stops short of explaining why his findings are relevant, that is, why we should attempt to trace Hellenism through Wilde's literary output, and seek to find how in particular he was influenced by different strains of Hellenism. In their study of Wilde, Guy and Small warn against the danger of "overzealous interpretation of Wilde's sources" and of making him into an "overly difficult writer."2 Though Ross makes a compelling case for 'how' Wilde incorporated complex readings of difficult Greek philosophy and literature, he often neglects the 'why?'. Classicists may be surprised and interested to learn that Wilde preferred Aristotle to Plato, but they will not discover here how reading Wilde might bring aspects of Aristotle into sharper focus. Ross has offered a thorough survey of Wilde's classical training and intellectual engagement, and has laid the groundwork for further investigation by anybody interested in Wilde or in Victorian New Hellenism, but a complete literary critique of the Classics throughout Wilde's works, and what this would mean for Classical studies, remains to be made.


1.   New and forthcoming entries to this field, not available to Ross, include my dissertation on Wilde's systematic usage of New Comedy (in particular Menander, Plautus, and Terence) in his Society Plays (to be filed in Spring 2014), and the work of Iarla Manny (Oxford) on Wilde's adaptation of ancient tragedy (particularly Euripides) in Salomé. In my article, "An Ideal Reception: Oscar Wilde, Menander's Comedy, and the Context of Victorian Classical Studies," in A. Sommerstein (ed.) Menander in Contexts (New York, 2013) 215-232, I reconsider some of Ross's analysis (in chapter 4, "Philologia") of Wilde's adaptation of New Comedy.
2.   J. Guy and I. Small, Studying Oscar Wilde: History, Criticism, and Myth (Greensboro, NC, 2006) 7-10.

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