- Wilde & the Classics
Wilde’s expertise as a classical scholar, exhibited during his undergraduate studies at Trinity College, Dublin and then at Magdalen College, Oxford, has long been acknowledged by his various biographers, but it was not until Philip E. Smith II and Michael S. Helfand’s 1989 edition of Wilde’s Oxford Notebooks that a sustained case was made for the importance of this education for his later writing career. For Smith and Helfand, the foundations of both Wilde’s critical and creative works were laid in what they termed (in their introduction) “the reading and writing he did during and shortly after his years at Oxford”; and it was a neglect of this body of early material which, they maintained, had led to his oeuvre being “misunderstood and undervalued.” Although Smith and Helfand took care to emphasize the range of Wilde’s reading, and the complexity of what they viewed as his attempted “synthesis” of contemporary scientific, historical, and classical scholarship, it was primarily Wilde’s study of ancient Greek texts that caught the imagination of subsequent critics. As a result, for the last two decades the dominant paradigm for discussing the significance of Wilde’s undergraduate education, one which follows the lead established by Richard Jenkyns and Linda Dowling, has been exploring how the emphasis on Greek rather than Latin texts (and especially on the Dialogues of Plato) in the Oxford Literae Humaniores syllabus, undertaken at the instigation of Benjamin Jowett, made available to Wilde and his contemporaries a language for exploring and legitimating same-sex relationships: the famous “love that dare not speak its name.” Iain Ross’s Oscar Wilde and Ancient Greece is indebted to this critical legacy, but it also departs from it in significant ways.
Like Smith and Helfand, Ross grounds his study in hitherto neglected manuscript evidence, not in the Oxford notebooks, but in even earlier documents: primarily, Wilde’s jottings from his time studying at Trinity. Transcribed in a useful series of appendices, they are to be found in two notebooks Wilde used while studying for the Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek examination at Trinity in February 1874 (and now in the Berg Collection and Clark Library); in a notebook kept in late 1872/1873, probably while Wilde was at Trinity (also now in the Clark library); marginal jottings in his personal copy of J. E. T. Rogers’s Aristotelis Ethica Nicomachea (1865) (in the use of this source we see the influence of Thomas Wright’s Oscar’s Books, 2008); and some undated [End Page 539] manuscript notes (in the Berg Collection) likely to have been made during Wilde’s 1877 trip to Greece with his Trinity tutor, John Pentland Mahaffy (MS Clark Library), for a proposed (but probably never completed and certainly never published) article for the Dublin University Magazine. Unlike Smith and Helfand, Ross is cautious in the way he treats this evidence, acknowledging that its fragmentary nature and status as juvenilia pose serious interpretive challenges. The difficulty, as Ross explains, is knowing whether, say, an underlining by Wilde indicates “assent, disagreement, passages to return to later, puzzlement, surprise, or mechanical highlighting of points that might have been useful for an essay or exam.”
Ross’s other main point of departure is to focus attention on Aristotle rather than on Plato, a decision which leads him to situate Wilde’s interest in ancient Greece, his “Hellenism,” in relation to contemporary debates about the nature and significance of classical scholarship in general, rather than the alleged homoeroticism of certain canonical classical works. This debate centred on a tension between two modes of classical study: Jowett’s humanist, text-based engagement with the classical past; and the claims of a newer, classical archaeology which suggested that it was artifacts rather than textual evidence that gave the more immediate, and by implication, more rewarding engagement with ancient culture. Ross’s argument is that Wilde’s distinctive form of Hellenism was shaped by his attempt to negotiate this conflict between text and artefact, one which can also be understood in terms...