Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Romans and Romanticism

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Romans and Romanticism

Article excerpt

Romantic classicism usually refers to Latin survivals and Hellenic inventions, a text-based Roman culture, which was authentic, and a Hellenic one, based on artifacts, which was not. The native and authentic classicism of Roman Britain, however, which lasted four hundred years and survived in a combination of texts and artifacts, was, until recently, either overlooked or disregarded as irrelevant to British culture and identity.

Reading and writing Latin, and by extension the publication of Latin texts, was, by 1800, like Gibbons' history, a tale of declining empires, surviving among poets, novelists, tutors, the clergy, children, naturalists, physicians for diseases and body parts, and scientists for stars, strata, fossils, and the Linnaean system of classification. During the Napoleonic wars and the nationalism they provoked, Latin, Greek and the rhetorical study that accompanied them were gradually overcome by an evolving standard English in which street slang was a more fashionable refinement than French, and Latin served as comic relief: monkish buffoons and hapless scholars spouted it on stage, in gothic novels such as The Monk or in parodies such as Nightmare Abbey.

In periodic revivals, Latin and the Roman values it conveyed served an array of social, religious, legal, scientific and aesthetic functions. However, when manufacturing and entrepreneurial classes shaped education to their own needs during the 18th century, classical languages declined and English became the language of the British. Studied from militaristic or theological texts, Latin and Greek were, as Blake observed, identified with conflict: "it is the Classics & not Goths nor Monks, that desolate Europe with Wars" (On Homer's Poetry.) Rome was Napoleon's model, but Latin was also the elitist language of the Roman Catholic church. Educated women such as Mary Wollstonecraft or Maria Edgeworth could, if they chose, write translations, textbooks, poems on Greek and Roman themes, teach languages, how to spell, pronounce, and write them in an attractive hand, but refrained from using Greek and Latin in public (Pearson). In The Governess, Sarah Fielding, herself an acclaimed translator of Xenophon, ridiculed the classically trained female as "Mrs. Classic," a pedant. While gifted and intelligent women such as Mary Robinson identified with Sappho, she was the model for a victimized female poet suffering from unrequited love whose reputed suicide by jumping off a cliff was considered as "sublime" as her surviving verse (Reynolds).

The Anglo-American colonists, the displaced aristocrats who became the founders and shapers, created the new country in the old Roman style: the philosophy, rhetoric, architecture, and education reflected and extended the dying European system the colonialists were rebelling against. Roman influence was so profound that it survives in the coinage, government buildings, the legal and educational institutions such as the Latin schools of Boston (founded in 1635 and teaching Latin and Greek without interruption except from 1776 to 1778, when classes were suspended to beat off the British invaders, to whom, these Latinate rebels were insurgents). Even in the 21st century, nowhere, except perhaps the Vatican, is Latin pursued with more fervor than in America, an instrument of control, regulation, exclusivity, and profound prejudice, summed up neatly, too neatly, by E. Christian Kopf in The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition (1999). Indeed, just as in England, committed classicists in the 18th century believed that a love of Latin would lead to a love of England, so in America, the founders and their disciples believed that a knowledge of Latin was the beginning of patriotism (Colley).

To be a Hellenist or even an anti-Hellenist during the Romantic period did not require literacy in any language, not even Greek. A mixed bag of fractured statues, opaque drapery, furniture, coiffure, and mythic allusions, Hellenism, the enthusiasm for the art, architecture, style, mythology, philosophy, and literature of an ancient Greece, was a primitivist fiction, a counter culture, a refuge for those who, like Wordsworth, would prefer to be "a Pagan suckled on a creed outworn" than deal with contemporary life. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.