More than a reaction

We have an image of the age of revolution as being, as historian Eric Hobsbawm describes it, a dual revolution between the industrial which first took place in England, and the political, which first took place in France. These dual revolutions had the effect of completely upturning the social landscape of the subsequent century.

What was the literary experience during this great uprooting? How could the Classical Tradition possibly survive while all other traditions were cast aside as artificial, as a façade hiding man’s true ability and reason? Certainly, there was a resurfacing of Medieval interest, often taking the name of Romance during this period. But who could believe Shelley’s Promoetheus Unbound, Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, Goethe’s Roman Elegies, Chateaubriand’s The Martyrs, and the tragedies of Alfieri were anti-classical? If anything it was the medieval romance that was more superficial. The best authors and poets of the time were deeply steeped in the classical world. They were not reacting against a classical worldview. Indeed, most conceptions of history, art, or psychology which are based on action-and-reaction are shallow: they are patterns of thought borrowed from physics, and from a physics which is now known to be inadequate. Observing their changing world, literary figures were enthralled by antiquity’s ability to endure, its apparent moral simplicity, its civilizational self-confidence. Many revolutionaries believed themselves to be more classical than their opponents, and what they chiefly attacked was the survival of medieval institutions such as feudal privileges of the nobles and the temporal power of the church.

Prometheus Bound: The Torment of the Revolutionary Poet

Where Racine and Gibbon were rigid and constraint, poets and playwrights would right and publish enormous, unbalanced, works like Goethe’s Faust, unfinished works like Byron’s Childe Harold or Coleridge’s Christabel or Kubla Khan. Much of the attack on rigidity was warranted. In baroque times it was not unknown for Homer to be called vulgar, and Aeschylus mad. Many principals added by baroque had nothing to do with classics, but entered falsely into a perceived idea of Graeco-Roman ‘correctness’. It affected not just metre and rhyme, but also character development. Characters were primarily hampered by emotional restrained, a high virtue for baroque, but not necessarily for the ancients. A baroque hero could weep, but not get drunk; he could go mad, but he would either conquer that madness or die from it; he would not escape from the prison of existence. Constraint, to be fair to baroque literature, works well for focus and produce. The revolutionary writer was more easily overawed by the scale of his ambition – Don Juan was never finished, The Recluse was never finished; Goethe completed Faust at eighty; Schiller died ill-content with his works on classical subjects.

Let us then treat the revolutionaries with the subtlety they warrant. Like the Renaissance, it was an epoch of rapid and often violent political change. There was a widespread belief in the unbounded soul of man and his capabilities which would often in in despair. It would give fresh social and aesthetic concepts, and as an epoch can be said to last right up until 1914, when the Great War would bury its ambitions just as the revolutionaries had buried the baroque.

Toward Greece

For the writers of the revolutionary era, Greece meant beauty and nobility in poetry, in art, in philosophy, and in life. This may sound obvious in light of contemporary art and our current view of beauty in the eye of the artist, but it was important to the revolutionaries in overcoming les biencéances. Chief amongst those who sought beauty above all are some of the biggest names of the age – Keats, Goethe, Byron. Part of the liberation was sexual – Byron, ever after sexual liberty, linked his adoring couple to Greece in this regard in his Don Juan:

“a group that’s quite antique,

Half-naked, loving, natural, and Greek.”

The interpretation of antiquity as sexually free is also the view in Keats’ Endymion as well as Goethe’s Roman Elegies.

In politics, both Greece and Rome meant freedom from oppression, and in particular republicanism. They believed the best art was produced away from tyranny. In this sense the revolutionaries were drawing on Tacitus’ Dialogue on Orators and ‘Longinus’ On the Sublime. No more keenly, in the eyes of the likes of Byron, was the rebellion from oppression required than the theatre of Greece and its struggle against the Ottomans. Liberating Greece ran hand-in-hand with asserting the virtues of antiquity over the modern world. See Byron’s The Isles of Greece, Shelley’s Hellas, Holderlin’s Hyperion and Hugo’s Les Orientales.

In religion, the cult of paganism returned to thwart Catholic orthodoxy. Who was Christ but a pale and impotent Jew against the energy and charm of the Olympians? Goethe returned from Rome a militant pagan, notably attacking Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason. His lack of Christianity plagued his attempts at completing Faust, a quintessentially Christian telling. In France, ground zero of revolution, the cathedral of Our Lady was re-consecrated to the goddess of Reason, conceived as a classical deity and incarnated in the pretty body of a contemporary actress. Building on the back of anti-Christian sentiments of Voltaire and Gibbon, the church would find itself waning continuously throughout the nineteenth century. Out of this attack came Ménard, Swinburne, and Nietzsche’s Antichrist. Many cults would attempt to take the place of the Church, most notably the alluded to cult of reason, but also the cult of nature. With regard to nature, revolutionaries saw the classics as a gateway. Knowing Greek and Latin literature was no, as is often assumed, to subject oneself to an arid and crippling discipline, but to learn more about the nature of the world and of beauty. The poets sought out nature through three mediums:

  1. Folk-Poetry – Examples include Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner and Schiller’s The Ring of Polycrates.
  2. Homer – The earliest bard was seen to be closer to natural man than all others
  3. Greek Drama – coming as it did from the Dionysian festival, the chorus could be a trance toward the natural state of man.

Pamphlets and essays were printed examining what the natural Greek life entailed. They sought to live again as the ancients did – Goethe, in his trip to Italy, bought the famous treaties by Palladio (1518-80) on classical architecture. Such architecture would help create the natural environment. None was more influential than Lessing 1769 pamphlet How the Ancients represented Death – as natural a process as birth, not a terror but a completion of a cycle.

All of these attitudes resulted in the Graeco-Roman world as an avenue for escapism, the kind yearned for by Mignon in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. They wished to see Greece not as the poor, verminous and Turkish-held province it was, but as ideal Hellas. The conflict between the two Greeces can be seen in Chateaubriand’s Journey from Paris to Jerusalem (1811), and Kinglake’s Eothen (1844), and Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812).

Having laid out the scene, we will now look into the individual literature and symbolism of five great nations during the revolutionary period – Germany, France, the United States, Britain, and Italy.

Germany Emergent (Winckelmann & Lessing)

In the words of German philosopher Paul Hensel, Germany has experienced not one but two Renaissances. The second of these, linking the names of Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, and Winckelmann, resulted at last in Germany’s emergence at the top table of literary nations. Germany’s first Renaissance was limited to religion and to Luther. Now was the time for the full intellectual, aesthetical, and cultural rebirth that had come upon the likes of Italy, France, and England some centuries prior. True, Germany had had notable Latin humanists before, such as Ulrich von Hutten, but even these paled in comparison to the Dutch Erasmus. In literature their greatest Renaissance figure is Hans Sachs, writing largely in outworn medieval form and failed to penetrate to wider society.

During the baroque age, the German states were devastated by the Thirty Years War, and it was a slow after-process that the German lands brought in artforms from the west – Dresden, Vienna, Munich, and Dusseldorf all sprang up in imitation of Versaille, and Italian music filtered through to neighbouring Austria (resulting in Mozart’s collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte in both Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro respectively.

During Mozart’s lifetime, German literature was going through what the Germans call their Romantic movement, marked by Storm and Stress (Sturm und Drang). Its originator was a cobbler’s son called Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68) who, with the persistence and penetration of genius, taught himself the essentials of Graeco-Roman culture, supplemented them by a mediocre training in the existing German educational institutions, and with incredible suffering learn the best of Greek literature, Homer, Plato, Sophocles, Herodotus, and Xenophon, by staying up half the night while working during the day as a hack schoolmaster. His first book, Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1755), was to be the spark that ignited Germany’s love of all things Greek.

Greater Greek knowledge and thought had been collected and disseminated by the English, and Winckelmann drew on their influence – The Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) wrote essays on the aesthetic and moral senses, and in 1732 a group of English gentlemen founded the so-called Society of Dilettanti (or ‘Delighters’) to explore and appreciate classical art. From this group was produced The Antiques of Athens Measure and Delineated (1762) of Stuart and Revett; Antiquities of Ionia (1769) by Chandler, Revett and Pars; and Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer, with a Comparative View of the Ancient and Present State of the Troade (1769) by Robert Wood. Winckelmann was also indebted to Italian and Italianate Englishman such as Sir William Hamilton’s ancient art collections, which he studied vigorously.

What Winckelmann brought to the table in A Hisory of Art among the Ancients (1764) was the view of the history of art not as a timeless phenomenon, nor as a history of individual artists, but as a manifestation of the life of the societies which produced it. The history of art was, for Winckelman a ‘part of the growth of the human race’. Winckelmann was to art what Gibbon was to history – an immense forerunner in a field concerning ancient understanding. Winckelmann an exponent into the world of literature through one Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81), writer of the essay Laocoon (1766), named after the famous ancient sculpture.

Laooon was a Trojan priest, and is found amidst the Trojan Cycle, warning his fellow countrymen that the Trojan horse is not a gift but rather a trap. The sea-god Poseidon, who hated Troy and sought its destruction, sends two huge serpents out of the sea which seize and destroy Laocoon and his two sons before the onlooking Trojans. The ancient sculpture depicting the priest and his two sons as they grapple desperately with the serpents trying to avoid their inevitable doom. The work, carved in Rhodes around 25 BC, is a masterpiece. The sculpture group as a whole, and each of its figures, fall into a balanced shape as graceful as it is grimacing. It is as technically formidable as the triangles forming Leonardo’s Last Supper. Lessing, using the Laocoon as a single artistic example of Winckelmann’s wider adoration of the Greek beauty, felt it imbued the classical ideal. The problem with this is that it is too obviously gruesome. It is telling that the sculpture stems from the Roman age, not the Athenian. For the Greeks, death was an eternal calm. No Greek painter showed Agamemnon at the sacrifice of his daughter; Greek playwrights would not permit Medea to murder her children or Oedipus to blind himself before the audience. It was loved the more by the 18th century German artistic sphere because it portrayed tension, that most captivating of Baroque tastes. Whether an apt representation of Greek sculpture or not, it taught the Germany and the world to see it other Greek statues, not with the cool and sometimes patronising eye of the Enlightenment, but with enthusiasm and love which make great criticism, and which were intrinsic elements of the thought of the revolutionary era.

Lessing went on to produce works building on classical books and principles, particularly his Letters on Modern Literature and his Hamburg Dramatic Journal. He was moving away from his earlier admiration of Voltaire, whose shallow tragedies and glib criticisms no longer sufficed. He now read and interpreted Aristotle’s Poetics for the eighteenth-century German. Lessing saw Aristotle not as law but as guidance, a real turning-point in German literary history. The Greeks, far from constraining imagination, could help foster and enrich new ideas. Germany was no in an excited literary state. In the universities, new translations of Greek works were being snapped up eagerly. Chief translator was Johann Heinrich Voss (1751-1826), professor of classics at Heidelberg, producing the Odyssey in German hexameter in 1781 before adding the Iliad and Hesiod and a large Roman repertoire.

Sturm und Drang (Schiler-Holderlin-Goethe)

Such was the scene when Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), leader of the Sturm und Drang movement, convinced a 21-year-old Goethe to return to his Greek studies in 1770. Homer, Plato, Xenophon, Theocritus, Pindar, Greek tragedy – this as the learning trajectory that fuelled the movement which came to be known as Sturm und Drang. Authors read in order to write. No creative writer can work on his own experience alone. Admitting the power of Greek myth and poetry into their minds, the German poets were elevating the language to a greater literary status. Three figures of the time require closer scrutiny: Schiller, Holderlin, and of course Goethe.

  1. Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805)

Impressed by the power of Greek legend, wrote The Bride of Messina in attempt to fuse Greek themes with Italian intrigues of love and jealousy. In so doing, Schiller got the ball rolling toward what would culminate in the great operatic works of Wagner and Verdi.

Schiller was an admirer of both the ballad and the ode. Of the former, he wrote two works on Greek folk-tale; The Ring of Polycrates and The Cranes of Ibycus. Of the latter, he took the Pindaric method as developed by Klopstock and poured into it the sentimental idealism of the revolutionary era. His most famous is perhaps his Ode to Joy, largely due to its influence of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

“Joy, thou lovely spark of godhead!

Maiden from Elysium!”

The Ode to Joy has a melancholy counterpart, The Gods of Greece (1788), a lament for the dead Greek deities – dead not of their own accord, but because something within man himself has given way. It is Schiller’s lament on man’s growing materialism, a loss of the divine that would make man sub-human, a ticking pendulum. Its English equivalent is William Wordsworth’s The World is too much with Us.

  1. Friedrich Holderlin (1770-1843)

Holderlin was the truest Greek of all revolutionary writers, his work sadly cut short when he went mad in 1802. Beginning by mirroring Schiller, Holderlin developed a supreme other-worldiness which isolated him from both Schiller and Goethe, though his prose romance Hyperion was given its due praise. It tells of a modern Greek who attempts to recapture the glory of ancient Attica with help from his noble master Adamas (modelled off Schiller).

Holderlin was a keen translator of Sophocles and attempted his own tragedy, the incomplete The Death of Empedocles (the subject was later tackled with greater success by Matthew Arnold in his Empedocles on Etna). In many ways Holderlin was the German Keats – the young artist burning out so soon, the unhappy love affair, the encapsulation with the Greek ideal. Keats would go on to write his own Hyperion. Both felt their onrushing doom with prescience. For Keats’ line in When I have Fears (1817):

“When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain…”

Holderlin had already penned his An die Parzen (1799):

“Only one summer grant me, powerful spirits!

One autumn, one, to ripen all my songs,

So that my heart, sated with sweet

Delight, may more willingly die”

If Schiller was a spark, Holderlin was a blaze. He wrote under the name of Diotima – the half-mythical priestess from whom Socrates learned that through love the vision of ideal beauty and goodness may be attained. Holderlin’s tragedy was that he was never to attain that ideal in his lifetime.

Goethe meets Napoleon
Revolutionary Minds: Goethe meets Napoleon
  1. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832):

Considered the father of modern German literature, Goethe’s many non-classical influences – love, travel, science, oriental, court, folk – all occupied their place in his great mind. But the Graeco-Roman was the most extant. First drawn to Greek by the eulogies of Herder and Winckelmann’s friend Oeser, he quickly took on the mantel of the German Propertius (as Schiller modelled him). The year 1786 was pivotal to Goethe’s growing classicism, in which he escaped to Rome and wrote his Roman Elegies, building on previous classical themed works such as 1785’s Anacreon’s Grave. His would career subsequently be defined by his intimations on antiquity. The Elegies combined much of Goethe’s life – his love-affairs, his aesthetic experiences in Rome, and his reading of the classical elegists.

In 1787 Goethe revisited his earlier prose work Iphigenia at Taruis, turning it to verse in his attempt to better emulate Euripides. Like Racine, Goethe added an unmistakeably modern morality to the tale, partly based on Christian virtues. In verse, Goethe was fond of the elegiac couplet, thought struggled to make it as elegant in German as it was in Latin or Greek. In such experimentation, Goethe was following the footsteps of the German Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803), who caused a stir writing the first three cantos of The Messiah (1748) in hexameters. Goethe’s technical difficulty was reconciling the modern couplet’s stressed and unstressed syllables with antiquities long and short syllabic form. The writer in German must in essence use any dissyllabic word and leave it to the reader to match the rhythm to the dactyls and spondees required for the metre.

The publishing of Roman Elegies in 1795 saw Goethe’s reputation grow even larger. On the back of this wave he published Xenia (1796) in collaboration with Schiller. The name Xenia was taken from the epigrammatist Martial and was a direct attempt to match Martial in that form.

By this time, the French Revolution’s repercussions were echoing throughout the continent of Europe. Goethe was deeply shocked, and in his revulsion penned the escapist love-story Hermann and Dorothea (1798). Using pastoral tone with classical hexameter, an epic idyll in an adaptation of the Homeric manner. It is a blend of Homer with the peasant Hesiod and the pastoral Theocritus. The same kind of poem appears later in British and American literature, with Clough’s The Bothie and Longfellow’s Evangeline, and its mood was also matched by contemporary English poems such as Cowper’s The Task and Wordsworth’s Peter Bell. For the Homeric idyll in music, go to Strauss’ Domestic Symphony.

Goethe had been moved to rival Homer by Friedrich August Wolf’s Introduction to Homer (1795), building on an earlier Robert Wood’s Essay on the Original Genius of Homer. Wolf was professor of classics at Halle just as Goethe was developing his intimate connection with antiquity. Wolf was, as successor to the Mabillon and Bentley line of thought, naturally inclined toward the history of Homeric epics. It is Wolf who helped develop the understanding that Homeric poems came out of the illiterate age of the bard – that both the Iliad and Odyssey were the result of lays that had been gathering around the Peloponnese for centuries. The conclusion was that there was no Homer. There were only bards, called ‘Homerids’ or ‘sons of Homer’; and epics were agglomerations of folk-poetry. It was that great tyrant of Athens, Pesistratus (fl. 540 B.C.) who had them first put together. Goethe would be at first encouraged by Wolf’s theory of folk-tale become epic. But as Goethe attempted his own epic, Achilleis, and his all-encompassing large-scale

Helen of Troy, Evelyn de Morgan
Helen of Troy: Symbolically Significant in Faust

drama, Faust, he became convinced that behind the epic stood at least one majestic genius. He would eventually publish a retraction of his belief in Wolf’s Homeric theory. This change of heart belongs to the second half of Goethe’s illustrious career, that which was dominated by his attempts to finish Faust. It is worthy of some further discussion.

Goethe followed Hermann and Dorothea with a play built on Pindaric lyrics, The Natural Daughter, but would not return to classical themes until Faust II. The gap between the publication of Faust I and Faust II is almost a quarter of a century. Part One follows the Faustian myth more closely – the gifted magician, his meeting with Mephistopheles and his pact with the devil to obtain ultimate knowledge and satisfaction. In the first part Goethe has Faust indulge in the pleasures of the senses – to no avail. Part II takes Faust through the higher levels of man’s existence – spiritual, artistic, an attempt of obtaining true greatness through war and court-life. Faust’s fulfilment is found in working for the rest of mankind.

Wildly unclassical in form, consisting of virtually independent acts and an ever-varying metre with countless symbolic events, the play owes itself to more than just Greece and Rome. One episode, however, is highly classical and highly important in Faust’s development – his conjuring of Helen of Troy at the behest of Mephistopheles. Beautiful, alluring, miraculous – she vanishes as Faust attempts an embrace of her. The idea that the magician Faust conjured up Helen of Troy and made love to her was part of  the original medieval legend; but there it was merely a supreme sensual satisfaction. Goethe’s portrayal of the episode is deeper.  Let us explore some of its meanings:

  1. Helen symbolises Greece as the home of supreme physical beauty
  2. Helen represents aesthetic experience, a beauty greater than Faust’s seduction of the lovely but simple Margaret in Faust I
  3. Helen is aesthetic beauty of culture as well as of woman, and Greek culture in particular
  4. Helen represents the charm of rarity, and man’s difficult path to viewing that aesthetical cultural beauty – Faust makes his way to her via a ‘classical witches’ sabbath
  5. Helen is a stimulus, not a possession – modern man cannot live in constant close association with the highest beauties of art – although he can and must try to reach them and make them his for a time
  6. Euphorion, the son of Helen and Faust, whose name means energy, is the product of constant stimulus. Euphorion will respond more and more actively to every challenge until at last he meets the challenge that is too strong for him. As a result, he dies young. (Think Byron swimming the Hellespont, Shelley in Ireland, Chénier’s Hermes, Holderlin’s Empedocles, Coleridge’s Pantisocracy). For Goethe this was not ‘romantic revival’. It came from Greece.
  7. Faust, representing Goethe himself, can only meet Helen through the guise of a medieval German noble. In other words, one must go through their own (in Goethe’s case German) history to get to Greece.

These seven symbols best encapsulate the German classical experience in the Age of Revolution. Germany sought out Greece but did so with an energy that often erred on the wrong side of Euphorion. Their contact with Greece at its deepest produced brilliance and unhappiness in close proximity. Winckelmann was a frustrated homosexual, Holderlin went mad. Nietzsche would follow him in that tradition.

France: The Heart of the Revolution

A largely forgotten part of the French Revolution was its result of a rebirth of the spirit of Greece and Rome. The reason for this misinterpretation is that some thinkers and writers on the left today, who have little direct acquaintance with Greek and Latin literature, believe any recognition of its greatness is reactionary, and therefore bad. Not so, and it does not take much to discredit this. Did the revolutionary idea of the republic not stem from Rome itself?  One would hardly call the paintings of Jacques Louis David anti-classical, nor would you say the same for the architectural development of France during both the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. In spite of the barbarities of the Revolution – the guillotines, the mass drownings, the destruction of Christian Gothic art – it did transmit many positive values derived from Graeco-Roman civilisation. In this regard the French revolution of 1789 is quite different to the twentieth century Russian Revolution of 1917 with its new beginning under a single social and economic theory, or Nazism attempt to mould a new European culture on the ethics of the Iron Age. Instead we find Revolutionary France, like the United States shortly before it, forming a senate and a republic on the Roman model.

In Art: Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was undergoing the same revelation in Rome that had been experienced by Winckelmann and would be by Goethe. The French artistic scene was thriving under the guidance of Denis Diderot, amongst others, who had expounded the Winckelmann theory on the link between moral grandeur and great simple art. By 1780 David was producing his Give Belisarius a Penny (Date obolum Belisario) followed by a long string of vibrant and emotional classical works on Graeco-Roman themes – The Death of Socrates, The Rape of the Sabines – which fed seamlessly into his revolutionary and Bonapartist works – Marat assassinated, Napoleon pointing the way to Italy. The path is clear: David’s antimonarchism and revolutionary spirit is inextricable from his classical one.

In music: Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-87) may not have live to see the revolution, but he was to operatic stage what David was to the canvass. His attempt at Greek tragedy in Orpheus and Eurydice (1762) founded what we now consider modern opera. Simplify the theme, less but more vital characters, emphasise the chorus. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), the apostle of Nature, was deeply affected by Gluck’s works and even advised on the production of his Alcestis. Gluck was close to making a new form of tragedy, but was halted by the audience of the day and their insistence on a happy ending.

In education: The French revolutionary thinkers were all educated on the classical model, best described in H.T. Parker’s The Cult of Antiquity and the French Revolutionaries (1937). Robespierre and Desmoulins both attended the College Louis-le-Grand, Saint-Just and Danton to colleges supported by the religious order of the Oratoire. Others like Marat and Mme Roland studied the classics with private enthusiasm. The quotes of the Revolutionaries can be seen emanating from the particularly Roman curriculum they had gone through. So we find imbedded in their speech whispers from Cicero’s speeches, Sallust’s biography of the anti-republican conspirator Catiline, the opening books of Livy’s accounts of the young Roman republic, and Tacitus’ savage histories of the emperors. The only notable addition not found directly in their education is their fondness of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, largely thanks to Rousseau’s love of the ancient moralist. The Frenchman’s Discourse on Inequality shows that his exposure to Plutarch comes via Montaigne, a favourite of Rousseau.

Rousseau: Progenitor of Revolution

The effect of this artistic and educational social fabric would be put into practice on the back of revolutionary Rousseauian morality. The revolutionaries could not quite take his want to return to savage woodland primitivism, but would rather use his ambition of simplification and purification in a reforming mould. This is where the effect of Plutarch’s description of the early Roman republic, as well as the laws and virtues of Sparta, became significantly influential (Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus gives a positive view on Sparta’s moral education leading to the code of honour. Rousseau saw himself as the great moral legislator of his own times – a modern Roman Numa or Spartan Lycrugus. The Social Contract (1762) is lavished with Spartan praise. We can trace from Rousseau, through Plutarch, to the Cynics and Plato, that flow that culminated in Rousseau’s revolutionary equation:

A simple, disciplined republic = perfect virtue

Away from Rousseau, the effects of Plutarch on the revolutionary mind are still clear – Brissot ‘burned to resemble Phocion’. Mme Roland ‘wept at not having been born a Spartan or a Roman’. Charlotte Corday, Marat’s killer, was nurtured on the heroic biographies of Plutarch. By the end of his career Saint-Just was drawing up plans to impose on France a Spartan educational and civic discipline.

Taking France: Revolutionary Symbolism

When the revolutionaries took power, they filled France with Roman and Greek symbolism that is still extant to this day. An overview of these symbols is carried out in the table below:


Symbol Classical Connection
The Cap of Liberty Modelled on the cap worn in Rome by liberated slaves
Wreaths of laurel The emblem of immortal flame, used by signs of honour by the republican leaders and, after them, by Napoleon
The fasces Symbol of the authority of the republican magistrates
The eagles Once standards of the Roman legion, in Versaille there is a David painting of Napoleon distributing them to the French army
Interior simplicity Rococo was abandoned for the solemnity of the roman-pillared hall
Official phraseology Bonaparte became consul, then, by the senatus consultam of 18 May 1804 under the authority of the Tribunate, was made emperor
Adoration of classical personalities Saints were replaced with classical figures – Lycurgus, Solon, Camillus, and Cincinnatus all adorned the Convention of the Tuileries like saints in a Jesuit church
Architecture The Arc de Triomphe, the Panthéon, the Medeleine


During the revolution, a new school of oratory arose chiefly modelled off Cicero. The very name ‘republic’ is taken from the Latin phrase res publica or ‘the commonwealth’, found in Cicero. In England, such oratory had been thriving for some time. Pitt was now joined by the likes of Burke and Fox in top tier oratory. But Ciceronian oratory was new to France because before the revolution, there had been little to no oratory of the political kind in France. When we talked of Cicero and Demosthenes’ Baroque effects, it was the English Pitt or the French preacher Bossuet. Poltician became freely described as Catiline, Clodius, and Cicero. By October 29th 1792 Louvet was delivering a violent attack on a certain Catiline conspiring against the convention. The Caesar was still to come.

French Writing and the Revolution: Repression, Retaliation, Resolution

While taking inspiration from Rome, France’s tragedy would be the revolution eating itself. The escalations toward the Terror stifled many great minds in an environment and social setting that sate away at itself with intense and unmeasured suspicion. The greatest French poet of the revolutionary era, André Chénier, is a good case to mention. Born in 1762 in Constantinople of a French father and a Greek mother, he was a natural candidate for writing in the Classical tradition. Educated at the College de Navarre he became, like Goethe and many others, deeply impressed by a visit to Italy. He wrote idylls in the manner of Theocritus, elegies in the manner of Propertius and Ovid, and a lovely dialogue Mnazile et Chloé, in the romance style.

Chenier's Fate
The Revolution Sours: Chénier’s Fate

He was on the Republican side of the revolution, but soon became disillusioned by the Terror, writing an ode to Charlotte Corday even a defence of Louis XVI. For this change of heart, he was arrested and guillotined in 1794. He wrote up until the end, his last work, his Iambics, smuggled out of his prison as he awaited his fate. His brother Marie-Joseph Chénier was also active during this time, producing a tragedy on the death of Gaius Gracchus in 1792. It was banned because it contained the following lines:

We seek laws, and not blood

In 1794 he saw the banning of another of his plays, Timoleon, which was suppressed directly by Robespierre.

Another great writer from Revolutionary France was Francois-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768-1848). Born in Brittany, he spent a year in 1791-2 in the new world searching for the northwest passage, lived as a pauper in London from 1794-99, returning under Napoleon. His works include The Genius of Christanity (1802), which timed well with Napoleon’s re-established the church, his epics The Natchez (1793-9) and The Martyrs (1809) and his late retrospective Memoirs from beyond the Tomb. It is in these works that we can gain Chateaubriand’s attitude to some of the patterns of French literature which had preceded him – his Martyrs is his answer to Fenelon’s Telemachus, his Genius of Christianity is his opinion on the pagan-Christian aspect of the Classical Dilemma. In the latter he famously justifies the French aristocracy to which he belonged. Where the Chéniers were repessed, Chateaubriand represented the French artist who retalitated.

Even though he was not born until some thirteen years after the events of Bastille, it is impossible to mention French Revolutionary writing without mentioning Victor Hugo (1802-85), the heir of the revolution. Such was this man’s impact on French literature, he can be said to have caused a French revolution of his own – one in poetry. By nine, he was translating Virgil at sight during the entrance examination to his exclusive Madrid school. Hugo would go on to have love-hate affair with Virgil, as expounded in A Guiard’s 1910 work Virgile et Victor Hugo. As Hugo’s life developed he saw the ideals of the revolution at odds with the life and works of the Roman poet. By the time Hugo went into exile during the reign of Napoleon III, he saw nothing left in Virgil but the courtier of the ‘tyrant’ Augustus. Whereas Virgil had faded, it was the satirist Juvenal and the anti-imperialist historian Tacitus who replaced him in Hugo’s heart. His Contemplations contained elements of Horace, as well as an insight into his revulsion for the bad teachers of the classics he encountered, who treated the subject as a discipline. This is a recurring problem within nineteenth century classical learning. It is meant to be difficult, sure, but it must not be made repellent, least of all the learning of great languages and of fine poetry. Like Byron, Hugo would never produce a truly classical work as great as his powers promised. His Legend of the Ages is only an Ozymandias group of colossal fragments, and not the epic of mankind.

Victor Hugo Funeral
Victor Hugo’s Funeral: Honoured as the Heir to Revolution

One element of Hugo’s work does, though, speak for itself. Les Misérables is his magnum opus, building on Fenelon and Chateaubriand to create the French War and Peace. It was Hugo who completed the long path to the great prose structure, the nineteenth century novel. He did more than achieve the final destination of this remarkable journey. In so doing he also reconciled the French literary mind to the legacy of the revolution. And it is for this that he is so widely respected in France.

The New World takes from the Old: Republicanism in America

America’s revolution may not carry with it the wild idealism of France but in it there are unavoidable classical aspirations nonetheless. The major institutions of America remain the Senate and the Capitol, both models on Rome. Indeed, the existence of the Union as it stands emerged from the Federalist essays (1787-8) by three men of classical stock: Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. Looking for answers to the ineffectual Confederation, they looked at Greek attempts at federative government in the likes of the Achaean League and the Amphictyonic Council. The ultimate Great Seal of the United States bears out their thinking and are straight out of Virgil’s playbook:

E pluribus unum

Novus ordo seclorum

Annuit coeptis

Like France, symbolism was rife. Whereas the French would create statues and name streets after the ancients, the Americans would go one better and name an entire city, Cincinnati, after Roman republican heroes. Others followed similar revamps – Vanderheyden’s Ferry, New York, was renamed Troy; there emerged an Athens, Georgia. The point was to emphasis the civilising of the wild American frontier. What could be more civil than to connect yourself with Greece and Rome?

Washington DC Capitol
A New Rome for a New World: The United States Capitol

The devotion to the Graeco-Roman was given new impetus in the 1790s as a result of America’s growing connections with revolutionary France. When Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) visited France, he was in awe of the Roman imagery that surrounded him. In Paris he met David, as well as the equally classical but more reposeful artists Houdon and Wedgwood. At Nimes, he studied the Roman buildings: the temple dedicated to Augustus’ adoptive sons Gaius and Lucius (the modern day Maison Carrée). He took back to the new world ideas of how to build the new society from the ground up – and he would build it to the Roman model. Thus, the University of Virginia library is the Roman Pantheon. The seed had started which would culminate in the construction of Washington D.C.’s most famous landmarks – The United States Capitol, the Washington monument, the Lincoln memorial.

Wordsworth’s Philosophy: The View from Across the Channel

Despite its position as the reactionary adversary to revolutionary and Napoleonic France, England still stirred with revolutionary discontent, and in no less a place than amongst its poets. The most notable of these is one William Wordsworth, the great observer of nature and the natural. But what did the poet of lakes and mountains take from the classics? The answer is spiritual nobility, which is the ultimate goal that permeates his thoughts and life like a stalking spectre. He is haunted by both his own individual and humanities wider inability to achieve it. From his days as a Godwin anarchist and his stridence for national independence, to his morose depletion in the belief of political power as nothing but wicked and doomed if left immoral, we find virtues which resonated in antiquity. That indissoluble connexion between private virtue and public security and prosperity is seen in the noble Graeco-Roman tradition of the paideia – the belief that recording a book without an intention to better the readers’ soul was a redundant exercise. Some of is most profound thinking in this regard is contained in The Prelude. In it, when considering the effect of Beaupuy’s personality on his own and comparing it to that of Plato upon Dion Syracuse he utters

By the soul

Only, the nations shall be great and free

Along with the tradition of paideia we find the chief influence of Greek philosophy on Wordsworth’s thinking. He seems not to have read the Greek Stoics (apart from Epictetus, who belongs to the Roman period), but he knew a great deal of the Roman Stoics, particularly that difficult author Seneca. The Stoics held that man was a part of the physical world with that world being a manifestation of God. It is through

Wordsworth: Revolutionary mind turned Stoic

this Stoic belief that we identify Wordsworth’s wonder at nature’s grandeur and beauty. It is less that the world is divine because it is beautiful (a Platonic idea), but that it is divine because it is alive. He extended this view into morality, seeing moral obligations as a same part of the natural process as was the landscape. Moralities place in this universal process can be seen in his Character of the Happy Warrior and his Ode to Duty, both written in 1805, the latter prefaced by a motto from Seneca to stress its Stoical inspiration.

Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong;

And the most ancient heavens, through Thee, are fresh and strong.

Whereas Hugo progressed away from Virgil toward the French revolutionary ideal, then Wordsworth would deviate away from his Stoic perception of the world not toward the revolutionary ideal but away from it, toward Christianity, as seen in The Excursion.


As well as Stoicism there are traces of Platonism throughout his work, with which he has much in common with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Platonic philosophy is none more prominent than in his Intimations of Immortality from Reminiscences of Early Childhood. Asking why he no longer feels the same exulting beauty and joy in nature that he once did. His answer, that children enter the world from heaven and as such possess a soul greater to sought immortality, is the doctrine expressed by Plato through Socrates in the theory of Ideas, known perfectly in heaven before our birth and ‘recollected’ under proper stimulus in the world. Knowledge is recollection of heavenly knowledge.

If Wordsworth’s reaction to revolution was ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’, than his opposite must be George Gordon Byron. Nobody more symbolised Goethe’s Euphorion, the child of medieval energy and classical beauty, than the ambitious and sensual extravagance of England’s celebrity poet. And he was obsessed with Greece, in particular its physical lands and remaining ruins. He was a vociferous protester of Lord Elgin’s removal of the famous marbles from the Parthenon to the British Museum. For Byron, Greece must exist in our living and breathing environment as best it could. This is not to say he was not versed in the literature. We can see from reading his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and its notes. Like Hugo, though, there is a detestation of the method of classical teaching which presided at the time. In the shadow of the Soracte mountain which inspired Horace, Byron pointedly refused to quote the poet, such was his horrid recollection of the dreary classroom. Swinburne would later be similarly effected by the poor teaching of the classics. Yet wherever a figure of legend became palpably beautiful (like the Medici Venus in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage or Prometheus) Byron would still be overcome. In the end, no one could call the man anti-classical who swam the Hellespont to rival Leander and fought to evoke liberty for Greece in the name of Sappho. Byron is pure thunder. If we see him sneering at the classics it is only that Faustian dissatisfaction with the endless frontier, that unwillingness to settle. Not a dissatisfaction with the classics themselves.

Keats and Shelley: The Shakespeare and Milton of the Revolutionary Age

Shelley Funeral
The Death of Shelley: Worthy of Aeschylean Tragedy

Two more English poets of the revolutionary period are worthy of consideration, both of whom would take up the English literary mantle from famous predecessors. John Keats was the heir to Shakespeare – a stimulating yet incomplete education, his undistinguished descent and early poverty, his determination to write poetry, his fertility and productivity of mind to paper. In his Endymion and Hyperion he was channelling the sensuousness of Venus and Adonis and the grandeur of Antony and Cleopatra respectively.

Keats’ first great poem is his On first looking into Chapman’s Homer, a work which illustrates clearly his youthful infatuation with Greece. He poured over English books that attempted to conglomerate the literary traditions. He found in The Works of the English Poets from Chaucer to Cowper renderings of Hesiod and Apollonius of Rhodes. Like Shakespeare he was learning the mythos second hand. But his favourite English author was not Shakespeare but Shakespeare’s Elizabethan contemporary Spenser, whose classical expertise Keats greatly admired. He shared with Byron the love of seeing the physical ruins of antiquity – ironically spending considerable time gazing at the Elgin Marbles that Byron had so detested were brought to Britain in the first place. His reverie with Greece was its beauty. Keats so in Greek art and poetry a beauty that transcended the physical beauty of our own world. It was a spiritual beauty which brought man closer to eternity. A moment, whatever passion fills it, is only a bursting bubble unless it is eternalised by the spirit. Physical beauty exists noly as a symbol of spiritual beauty, and as a way to it.

From John Keats as revolutionary Shakespeare we move to Percey Shelley as the revolutionary John Milton. Their overlapping visions include their cosmological yearning, their obsession with the conflict between good and evil, and their incredible knowledge of the classics as a tool to portray their thoughts on this battle. In the case of Shelley, his friend Hogg says that at Oxford the poet read sixteen hours a day. Shelley had begun his classical learning at the age of seven or eight when he began Latin classes that would see him into an admirable schooling at Eton, as opposed to Byron’s Harrow. Such was his recollection of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that he borrowed the charming name of Ianthe not just in his work Queen Mab but as the name for his baby daughter.

Shelley’s favourite authors, though, were Greek. The first was Homer, whom Shelley read repeatedly. Next the Greek tragedians. He translated Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound to Byron in 1816, being so inspired by the work to produce a sequel, Prometheus Unbound. Shelley also made his Hellas as ‘a sort of imitation of The Persians’ of the ancient playwright. When he was drowned, or murdered, he was reading Sophocles, in whom he greatly enjoyed the Oedipus dramas (mentioned in the preface to both Shelley’s The Cenci) and Antigone, whose heroine resembles Beatrice. For Euripides, whom Shelley believed was cynical and negative, he cared less.

For a time, the brilliant imagination of Aristophanes fascinated Shelley. In fact, his greatest failure, Oedipus Tyrannus or Swellfoot the Tyrant, was an attempt at an Aristophanic farce-comedy based on the scandalous affair of Queen Caroline.

Like Wordsworth, Shelley was deeply impressed by Greek philosophy, principally Plato. He translated The Symposium in 1818, and soon followed with his versions of Ion, Menexenus, parts of The Republic, and two of Plato’s love-poems. Creatively, the ceaseless mind of Shelley penned two long prose essays directed inspired by these Platonic studies: A Discourse of the Manners of the Ancients relative to the Subject of Love which is The Symposium for the early nineteenth century. In A Defence of Poetry Shelley is explicitly answering Plato’s attack on poetry in The Republic. In poetry his Epipsychidion is a rhapsody on Platonic themes.

Shelley also took on the pastoral or bucolic, reaming through Theocritus and attempting something akin to Milton’s Lycidas. When he heard of Keats’ death, cut off in his prime, he wrote an elegy Adonais in which he tried to evoke the old tales the youth, Adonis, who was so mourned by Venus upon his untimely demise at the hands of a wild mountainous boar. He fused an image of Keats somewhere between shepherd and the Adonis of legend.

In the Latin tradition, it was the young Stoic Lucan who most captivated Shelley. He believed the soul of man originates from a divine fire. The crossover with Wordsworth is notable. Shelley was enthralled with Lucan’s description of the snakes that attacked Cato’s legions in the African desert, a passage which had infatuated many poets before him – Dante references them in Inferno, 24, Milton into his own hell. That evocation of the monster, evil embodied is a recurring theme in Shelley’s work (The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound). The monster can be traced back through Milton and Dante to Lucan.

Other Latin authors which impacted Shelley include Lucretius, whose lines are found in the epigraph of Queen Mab. Virgil, with his pessimistic belief in the inevitability of war and his praise of empire, could mean little to Shelley except as a nature poet. The revolutionary age was not the age for Virgilian adoration. Yet that same old Virgil prophecy of the miraculous birth, his intimations of a thousand-year pattern of history finds a strange soulmate in Shelley’s Hellas:

The world’s great age begins anew,

The golden years return,

The earth doth like a snake renew

Her winter weeds outworn.

Shelley’s Italian tour stirred much of this grand cycle narrative. In his preface to Prometheus Unbound he says it was largely written among the ruins of Rome. Two generations earlier Gibbon had imagined The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while sitting among those same ruins. But whereas Gibbon sat among the ruins and looked backward toward the past, Shelley find in the ruins an inspiration for the future. This was the effect of the revolutionary age on the classical mind.

Above all else Shelley took from Greece the spirit of freedom, namely freedom of religion, political freedom, sexual freedom (as described in his Epipsychidion and practiced by Shelley with melancholy results), freedom of thought and freedom from slavery, the type the Greeks had fought for against the Persians. Like Byron, Shelley now hoped they would cast off the Ottoman. The nineteenth century would begin the path toward many of these freedoms Shelley so thought. Yet one suspects Shelley would find a frustration in society still. One wonders what his thoughts would be on a world where such freedoms had eroded the classics in the minds of the free. Would he see that there were prices to pay?

Alfieri and Foscolo: Revolution in the Land of Rome

‘Alas in agony is conceived and born the song of Italy’

For Italy, the corruption of the late baroque age had sunk more deeply. Their intellectual slump and the continued division of their country resulted in work unlike the serene lyricism of Keats and Chénier; it has none of the optimism of Shelley and Goethe; it has not the sombre Mazeppa energy of Byron. It is profoundly pessimistic. It is a cry from the abyss. But even that cry is music. We hear it in three voices:

  1. Tragic
  2. Elegiac
  3. Lyric

Count Vittorio Alfieri, born 1749, was of the old nobility of Italy, though he did not know Tuscan, the country’s literary language, but only French coupled with a local Piedmontese dialect. In his twenties he began to educate himself, feeding his starved mind with Montesquieu and Helvétius and Rousseau and Voltaire, through whom he met Plutarch. And he was enamoured. In his fascinating autobiography he says that, as Caesar, Brutus, and Cato, and then weep at his own misery in being a subject of a tyrannical government.

In 1775, he wrote his first tragedy, Cleopatra, working on the models available to him, Metastasio and Racine, and Voltaire, which inhibited him be still being that one step removed from Greece and Rome. If he resembled any of the revolutionary authors so far discussed in this chapter, it was Byron. But whereas Byron’s eloquence broke into a wide gallop and ran away from him. Alfieri, while quite as violent, still has a grip on the reins. As he built up his repertoire, some fine plays emerged: Myrrha, a powerful variation on the Oedipus theme, Merope, an intense intrigue where a mother almost orders her own son executed, and Saul, where the showcase is the struggle between violent madness and wise sanity. Nearly all contain bold denunciations of tyranny, and gallant eulogies of freedom. This is Alfieri’s social protest, wherein he resembles the ancient poet Seneca, despite not studying him as closely as the Renaissance playwrights.

Alfieri’s cry ‘Down with Tyranny!’ extends beyond the single tyrant, toward families, groups, and classes – even the working class can be a tyrant. Before he published his tratise On the Prince and Literature (1786), he read it to Chénier, who expressed similar ideals next year in his own Essay on the Perfection and Decadence of Literature and his idyll Liberty. His association with the French Revolution is quite strong, and it is from him that the Italian revolutionaries got their inspiration.

The most successful of these imitators were Vincenzo Monti (the Italian Southey), more successful in their day than Alfieri himself, and the poet Ugo Foscolo. The latter was a true revolutionary and Italian nationalist who, like many in his time, first welcomed Napoleon as liberator of nations, only to see him as oppressor of them. Foscolo was, like Beethoven tearing up his ‘Heroic symphony’, cruelly disappointed by that greatest of all revolutionists. He had fought in Napoleon’s armies, saluting him in his 1797 Ode to Bonaparte the Liberator. A few weeks later Napoleon sold the territory of Foscolo’s homeland, Venice, to Austria, by the treaty of Campo Formio. His despair is encapsulated in by the treaty of Campo Formio. His despair is encapsulated in The Last Letters of Iacopo Ortisi – an extension of Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther beyond individualism into patriotism.

Venice: Foscolo’s Home

Foscolo’s greatest work, On Tombs, an assertion that history is one of the values we live by, is filled with interpretations of the ancient and modern worlds. It is a warning that the present is dead if it forgets the past. It was partly inspire by the 1806 revolutionary government’s order to introduce equality and fraternity among the dead. All gravestones would be issued in a public cemetery to the same shape and size. Foscolo pondered on this order and grappled with the deeply human sentiment of burial. Where the tombs of great men lie are a focus of national life. The Holy Cross Church in Florence proudly held the graves of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo. It now houses Alfieri. It is a great sanctuary of Italy. The only form worthy of such a topic had to be the Gaeco-Roman elegy, and Foscolo knew it.

The modern ancestor of the elegy was the 18th Century English elegiac meditaion: Blair’s The Grave, Young’s Night Thoughts, Gray’s Elegy written in a Country Churchyard. The French had delivered the reflective poem through Legouvé and Delille. The tradition begins with Homer – that central source in European culture. It is the lament on the Trojan war. Meditation is inserted through Christian piety and Dante. But in On Tombs Foscolo is writing a pagan poem. In so doing he is closer to Homer than his English or French predecessors. Tombs, like poems, are a record of past greatness and a stimulus to future achievement. The Muses both remember and inspire.

The Saddest Poet

Why does Count Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) bear the moniker ‘the saddest poet’? With his ruinous health, his mothers neglect, his darkened isolated soul, it is not hard to tell why. The genius one step removed from society is a common recurrence. And Leopardi was a one such genius. He wrote a history of astronomy at fifteen, was distinguished in Greek by sixteen, translating two works of Hesychius, and

Leopardi: Profoundly 

Pessimisticcompiled Latin biographies and commentaries including on Porphyry’s life of the Neoplationist philosopher Plotinus. At seventeen he produced an Essay on the Popular Errors of the Ancients, translated the poems of Moschus as well as the mock epic The Battle of Frogs and Mice.

Despite this ever-active mind, he would travel from city to city finding no one to talk to except an occasional foreign savant like Niebuhr, or , rarely, an Italian littératur like Giordani.

By 1817 his translations of a Hymn to Neptune and odes ‘from the Greek’ showed higher aspirations – because there was no such hymn. Nor such odes. Leopardi had invented them and passed them off as translations. The odes he ‘would gladly ascribe to Anacreon’. Just as Chatterton had done some fifty years earlier, an unhappy boy had produced original poems of remarkable merit and disguised them as relics of the past he admired.

Leopardi, like Shelley, gave up on Christianity, taking to Italian nationalism. His hope for a new Renaissance resulted in his works To Italy, On the monument of Dante, and To Angelo Mai after his Discovery of Cicero’s ‘On the Commonwealth’. Like Foscolo’s On Tombs, Leopardi teaches that men cannot live by the present alone, for the present alone, without becoming as dull and cowardly as a ruminating beast. Heroism is built on history. Also like Foscolo, Leopardi’s nationalism would be overcome by disillusionment and derailment. That clear-eyed hopeless agony of De Quincey’s Our Lady of Darkness comes close to the mark:

‘She droops not; and her eyes rising so high might be hidden by distance…the fierce light of a blazing misery, that rests not for matins or for vespers…may by read from the very ground’

Leopardi concluded that life was either meaningless or cruel. Love could not be uncoupled from death. In his pessimism he is a precursor for Schopenhauer, and through Schopenhauer on to Nietzsche the philosopher, James Thompson’s The City of Dreaful Night as a poem, and Charles Baudelaire as a poet, Paganini as a musician. As he matured, Leopardi would turn his pessimism into something approaching a complete philosophy. He wrote a dialogue modelled of Lucian, Short Works on Morals, in which he explored this philosophy  like a grinning skull. In it he returns to the Neoplatonists he commented upon in his youth, Porphyry and Plotinus, discussing suicide. Through these Greeks, the modern Italian played out his longing for death he so often felt. He even inserted himself in the dialogue under the sombre name of Tristan. In the dialogues, Leopardi’s own materialist conception of life is clear. Why are we alive at all if we are no greater than the insects floating on a ball in the universe? In this sense he is like Lucretius the Epicurean, believing that creation and the life of man were a pure accident, having no significance beyond itself.

On the other hand, if anything gave Leopardi a push toward the spiritual and the eternal, it was the classics. We see in his poem On an Ancient Grave-relief he took both thought and words from a tragedy of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, which deals with the ultimate fate of its accursed protagonists and plays with the theme of personal responsibility in light of destiny. Leopardi was also a lover of Sappho, writing a poem Sappho’s Last Song on the same situation as Ovid’s Letter of Sappho to Phaon. In Dream, Leopardi evokes Propertius’ elegies, having reached him through Petrarch’s Triumph of Death. But a materialist Leopardi remained. He admires the Greek deities, though he knows they no true connection with our world. Life as a cruel agony where death is welcome – the harsh mercantilism and industrialism of the early nineteenth century, with its heavy soot cloud and coughing lungs, was wearing the poets down. But even Leopardi found solace in Lucretius’s conclusion that was liveable. The Italian still resonates with us today because he could harness his deep passion with a perfect aesthetic control which is truly Greek. Even to the arch-pessimist, the classics have their way.

A Revolution Exhausted

Byron’s Death

Napoleon died in 1821 in isolation on St Helena. Shelley drowned off the coast of Italy in 1822. Byron perished fighting in Greece in 1824. Goethe handed in his final draft of Faust II only weeks before exiting from the stage of the world in 1832. By 1837 Leopardi had at last parted from the world in Naples. These were the last of the revolutionary minds in literature. Others – Keats, Chénier, Holderlin – had perished young or gone completely mad. We have touched on the plague of poor education on the revolutionary mind – Horace also began to find hatred in France. William Blake decried ‘The Classics! It is the Classics, and not Goths, nor Monks, that Desolate Europe with Wars!’

As the revolution waned, so, it appears, did the passion for antiquity. But the revolution did not die entirely, and nor would the classical tradition. Taking from the Italian scene, it was nationalism that started to encapsulate the mood as those great revolts of 1848 loomed large. Before we move on to the effects of the nineteenth century industrialism, nationalism and renewed imperialism, and the place of the classical tradition within that setting, a few notable names that have been overlooked here deserve to be mentioned. These are, in no particular oder:

  • Franz Grillparzer, Austrian, 1791-1872, whose finest work is the Ovidian inspired Laments from the Black Sea
  • The Polish poets Casimir Brodzinski and Kajetan Kozmian, who put the spirit of the Polish country-side into Theocritean idylls and Vergillian georgics
  • Zygmunt Krasinski, who wrote a drama, Irydion, on the revolt of Greece against the Romans

Thus concludes the largest and most complex chapter on the tradition. After 1789, the world would never be the same again. And the classics had more than played their part in shock to the system. For some, it provided an escape from the hateful world of materialism and oppression – this theme continues on into the nineteenth century. Some were inspired by it to emulate the ideal of a balanced psychical and physical life which sings in Greek poetry and shines out form the Greek statues. And some, the greatest, took from their studies of antiquity a deeper sense of one of the central truths in human life – the fact that civilisation is a continuous achievement.