Jessica Sun : Chapter I § ii

Wilde the Classicist


ALGERNON: If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated.[1]

Wilde’s unique take on the classics, and his self-fashioning as a devout Hellenist, lies in his individual interpretation of classical themes, and his ability to create his own poetic vision of antiquity – a subject which had been romanticised and idealized since the Renaissance, and even since antiquity itself: the Greeks by the Romans, the Republic by the Empire, even the virtuous Romans by the early Church.  In fact, a contributing factor to Wilde’s attraction to Roman Catholicism was that he saw the Holy Roman Church as a legacy of the Roman Empire, a view not uncommon in post-classical times. [2]

In 1870, Rome was officially made part of the new Kingdom of Italy and no longer under the control of the Catholic Church, to the outrage of many Catholics. Wilde, in his phase of enthused religiosity, expressed his sympathies for papal Rome in “Urbs Sacra Aeterna” (“Sacred and Eternal City”), but it is Rome’s glorious history with which Wilde begins his description of the city’s grandeur: “In the first days thy sword republican / Ruled the whole world for many an age’s span: Then of the peoples thou wert crownéd Queen”. In “Italia”, another sonnet on the same topic, Wilde imagines the Roman armies of the old Empire rushing to defend its independence: “with sheen / Of battle-spears thy clamorous armies stride / From the north Alps to the Sicilian tide!” Despite the allegiance Wilde poetically pledges to papal Rome, it is pagan Rome which, for Wilde, gives the sacred city its sense of grandeur and heroism.

But as much as Wilde was in awe of pagan Roman glories, his preference was for all things Greek. In the nineteenth-century, aesthetes and elitists like Wilde were “anxious to keep their distance from conventional religion and popular enthusiasms” and “eager in a romantic age to stay away from brutish practicalities and to stay close to original genius” and so sustained an “eccentric enthusiasm” for Greece. [3]

While Latin was becoming commonplace in the nineteenth-century, taught as a compulsory linguistic discipline at schools, Greek studies became “a largely gentlemanly preserve” for the educated, literary man.[4] A mastery of Greek “drew a recognisable distinction between the true and the amateur scholar”.[5] The vogue for Greek vocabulary was also “a conspicuous feature of decadent sensibility”.[6]  In Wilde’s time, a slow shift in interest and artistic preference from Latin to Greek was taking place: previously, in classical education since the Renaissance, even Greek literature and artworks were mediated through Latin culture, and it was only in the late eighteenth-century that Greece slowly began to reclaim its individual, unadulterated glory within the classical tradition.[7] Hellenism was fervently anti-philistine, as the ideal Greek citizen was “an enemy of barbarism”, and an impeccable example of civility, “a living pattern of the values of civilisation”.[8]

The ardent fascination for the Greek world was fanned by the display of the Elgin Marbles in 1807, a key event in the development of Romantic Hellenism.[9] The British Museum’s eventual decision to purchase the Marbles represented “the cultural value of ancient Greece in modern times”, and symbolically marked “the assimilation of ancient Greece into the cultural identity of the nation.”[10] The beauty of antiquity preserved in ancient sculpture was a theme which inspired Romantic poems such as Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. Greek sculptures embodied for Wilde the ideal type of human beauty, as seen when Dorian Gray is described as possessing “beauty such as old Greek marbles kept for us.” (37)

For Wilde, however, even classical genres presented their own inherent paradoxes, which were enough to keep him intellectually and poetically occupied. “Pan”, subtitled “Double Villanelle”, is a two-part poem which bizarrely compares the classical pastoral scene with glum modern England, and then with Renaissance England, in a strange assortment of references and contradictions which leave the reader unsure of the exact kind of “Hellenic ideal” Wilde is advocating:


O GOAT-FOOT God of Arcady!
This modern world is grey and old,
And what remains to us of thee?

No more the shepherd lads in glee
Throw apples at thy wattled fold,
O goat-foot God of Arcady!

Nor through the laurels can one see
Thy soft brown limbs, thy beard of gold,
And what remains to us of thee?

And dull and dead our Thames would be,
For here the winds are chill and cold,
O goat-foot God of Arcady!

Then keep the tomb of Helice,
Thine olive-woods, thy vine-clad wold,
And what remains to us of thee?

Though many an unsung elegy
Sleeps in the reeds our rivers hold,
O goat-foot God of Arcady!
Ah, what remains to us of thee?

Engaging with the classical pastoral tradition was a conventional trope in late nineteenth-century poetry, as the “pastoral was a means of contrasting the glowing Classical past with the sordid industrial present.”[11] In Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young (1894), Wilde had himself written “Industry is the root of all ugliness”[12], suggesting that, in this aspect at least, Wilde was a Romantic at heart.

The pastoral genre was thought to have been created by the third-century Greek poet Theocritus, whose Idylls had inspired Virgil’s Eclogues and various other bucolic poems. Wilde had already acknowledged Theocritus as the creator of the enchanting pastoral world in “Theocritus: A Villanelle”: indeed, “Pan: Double Villanelle” might be a variation on a theme. The villanelle itself, a French form of lyric verse, pays homage to the pastoral genre, “villa” being Latin for a country house or farm. [13]  In the second line, already a characteristic paradox in introduced: “This modern world is grey and old.” It is the ancient Pan who remains young and golden, while the “modern world” has aged beyond its years. Pan’s epithet, “Goat-Foot God” which is repeated numerous times throughout, is monosyllabic and consonant, suggesting rusticity, while the preceding “O”, in conjunction with the vowels in “Goat-Foot God”, draw out the line to the ear, despite its simplicity.

In “Theocritus”, Wilde addresses the poet in the same exaggerated manner, with the repeated “O Singer of Persephone!”, further suggesting that the sad absence of pastoral delights in the modern world – seen yet again in “Santa Decca” and “The Garden of Eros” – was a prominent thought in his mind. “Pan” contrasts the lush greenery of Pan’s Arcadia (“wattled fold”, “vine-clad”, “olive-woods”) with the dreary “chill and cold” of the Thames. The creatures of pastoral folklore seem to have been particularly appealing to Wilde, as already seen in “In the Forest”, where his beloved is idealised as a faun. Pan, as discussed earlier, represents the divided self, embodying both Apollonian cultivation and Dionysian sensuality. In the Renaissance, Pan was seen as a microcosmic representation of the universe: his upper-half represented cultivated men, his rugged lower-half the wild beasts, and the pipes he played represented celestial harmony.[14]

However, in Romantic imagination, Pan came to symbolise almost entirely the Dionysian half of the dichotomy, in opposition to Apollonian control. Wilde’s epithet alone, stressing the goat-half of Pan, places more emphasis on the unrestrained, sensual, animalistic side. The Romantic reception of Pan and Apollo is dramatically played out in Percy Shelley’s “Song of Apollo” and “Song of Pan”, where Pan is cast as the sun god’s antithesis and yet is portrayed with more sympathy and humanity.[15] In Shelley’s mind, “unlike Apollo, whose sphere is the sun’s orbit, his chief attributes those of constancy and harmony, Pan is a god of the earth and its processes, his chief attributes those of perpetual change and division.”[16] Therefore, although Pan might be robbed of his Apollonian side by the Romantics, he remains a symbol of humanity in all its imperfections:

Pan, much more than Apollo, is a god for human beings in their confusion, doubt, fickleness, and awareness of change. …Pan’s song is a warning against the overreaching hunger for the absolute that haunts the Romantic. Pan is a more useful god than Apollo because Pan’s deceptive ephemerality best reflects human experience and language.[17]

Wilde’s lamentation of Pan’s absence from the modern world is an appeal for this Dionysian sensibility of change and ephemerality being essential to human existence, an escape from the Apollonian perspective where mind dominates over matter, sense over sensation, and reason over emotion. [18] Apollo was an icon for all the virtues Wilde held dear – refinement, sophistication, culture and the arts – but he also stood for the excessive self-control that Euripides warned against, while the rustic Pan represents the unrestrained joy the modern world, according to Wilde’s poem, sadly lacks.

The kind of improvement Wilde wishes to see in the “grey and old” modern world is further confused in the second half of “Pan”:


Ah, leave the hills of Arcady,
Thy satyrs and their wanton play,
This modern world hath need of thee.

No nymph or Faun indeed have we,
For Faun and nymph are old and grey,
Ah, leave the hills of Arcady!

This is the land where liberty
Lit grave-browed Milton on his way,
This modern world hath need of thee!

A land of ancient chivalry
Where gentle Sidney saw the day,
Ah, leave the hills of Arcady.

This fierce sea-lion of the sea,
This England lacks some stronger lay,
This modern world hath need of thee!

Then blow some trumpet loud and free,
And give thine oaten pipe away,
Ah, leave the hills of Arcady!
This modern world hath need of thee!

By mentioning Sidney and Milton, Wilde widens the comparison between classical Arcadia and modern England to including Renaissance England too. In a poem which asks a pagan god to redeem the dreariness of the world, “the introduction of the Puritan Milton seems a jarring association”.[19] Sidney’s “land of ancient chivalry” is also a bizarre reference, “chivalry” being often associated with medievalism, the maladies of which inhibit the freedom of the Hellenic ideal, according to Henry Wotton. Wilde also seems confused about whether Arcadia is really in decay or not: he implores Pan to “leave the hills of Arcady, / Thy satyrs and their wanton play”, but two lines later, he declares “No nymph or Faun indeed have we, / for Faun and nymph are old and grey”. The reversed ordering of the nymph and Faun (lines 4-5), as well as the structure of the first two stanzas (“leave the hills”, imagery of mythical beings, absence of mythical beings, ending with “leave the hills”) forms a chiasmus, a popular device especially in Greek and Latin rhetoric. This chiasmic mirroring further confuses the already indistinct pastoral scene. The revelry of the youthful satyrs is contrasted to the “old and grey” nymphs and fauns, which in the previous line did not even exist, described with the same adjectives he describes modern England.

The constant repetition of “this” as the beginning of a line, particularly in the fifth stanza, creates an insistent, demanding voice, but what he is insisting on is very unclear. The poem ends with a plea for Pan to “blow some trumpet loud and free, / And give thine oaten pipe away”, thereby discarding the instrument most associated with Arcadia, and losing his pastoral identity completely, and introducing the brassy trumpet which completely clashes with any concept of Arcadia.

“Pan: Double Villanelle” is one of several poems which feature the pastoral, and is not quite in accordance with any other: in “Santa Decca”, “Great Pan is dead!”, along with the entire pastoral world (“all the wantoning / By secret glade and devious haunt is o’er”), while in “The Garden of Eros”, he imagines himself in the pastoral world and making “old Pan / Wonder what young intruder dares to sing / In these still haunts”. Pan is variously present, absent, never-aging, old, and the pastoral variously beautiful, barren, lively, and abandoned, all of which blur the barriers between the classical and the modern, idealism and reality.

An explanation for these inconsistencies is Wilde’s general uncertainty about the place and relevance of the classical pastoral genre in the modern world, and whether even the symbolic virtues of the rustic, arcadian life are adaptable and applicable to his times. The third stanza (first half) introduces a meta-poetic possibility.

Nor through the laurels can one see
Thy soft brown limbs, thy beard of gold,
And what remains to us of thee?

The laurels, symbolic of literary achievement and poetry itself, offer no glimpse of Pan, and the stanza ends with the recurring line specifying the current world. Even “through the laurels”, or through literature, the vision of a modern pastoral is seemingly impossible to construct.

All Wilde’s thoughts and queries on the topic, developed and tested in poems such as these, come into their most complete manifestation in The Importance of Being Earnest. Jack Worthing, who is “Ernest in town and Jack in the country”, represents the division between two very different kinds of lives. Ironically, it is in town where he seeks his particular type of “wanton play”, and it is in the country where Algernon finds his. The innocence and purity of the country, the residence of Cecily, the sweet country rose, and the well-meaning but ridiculous Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble, is contrasted with the city-types like the haughty Gwendolen (“I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade”[20]), the rakish Algernon and the formidable Lady Bracknell. Jack’s divided self is the bridge between the two. Just as Wilde’s poetic Pan is both old and young, present and absent, Jack is the grave, responsible guardian in the country, and the charming, eligible bachelor in the city, showing that this duality is an essential part of the modern pastoral. The country is where all the deceptions of double-lives and imaginary relatives become unspun, and Jack is “forced to speak the truth”: “it is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position.”[21] Just as the pastoral was a poetic trope in classical times, where poets could use analogy and metaphor to air their views under the guise of bucolic poetry, Wilde uses the country in Earnest as a place where fictions are both created and revealed. Through experiment in verse, Wilde uses the duality of the pastoral legacy to find it a place in modern life, and adapt the poetic space into a symbolically and aesthetically suitable setting for his most famous comedy.

[1] The Plays of Oscar Wilde, ed. Anne Varty (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2000) p392.

[2] Norman Vance, The Victorians and Ancient Rome (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997) pp5-6.

[3] Vance, p16.

[4] Vance, p15.

[5] Stefano Evangelista, British Aestheticism and Ancient Greece: Hellenism, Reception, Gods in Exile. Stefano Evangelista (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) p7.

[6] Richard Jenkyns, The Victorians and Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980) p159

[7] Evangelista, p9.

[8] Evangelista, p9.

[9] Jenkyns, p13.

[10] Evangelista, p8.

[11] Beckson and Fong, p59.

[13] Beckson and Fong, p59.

[14] Andrew Tooke’s Pantheon, quoted in Anthony John Harding, “The Contest of Apollo and Pan in Shelley’s Later Poetry” in The Reception of Myth in English Romanticism (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995) p189.

[15] Harding, p182ff.

[16] Harding, p189.

[17] Harding, pp190-91.

[18] Harding, p187.

[19] Beckson and Fong, p59.

[20] The Plays of Oscar Wilde, ed. Anne Varty (London: Wordsworth Classics 2000), p399.

[21] Plays, p402.


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