Monday, July 28, 2014


Gideon Nisbet, Greek Epigram in Reception: J. A. Symonds, Oscar Wilde, and the Invention of Desire, 1805-1929. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. 389. ISBN 9780199662494. $125.00.

Reviewed by Simon Goldhill, King's College, Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site


As classicists, we all should be well aware that the intellectual tastes and styles of engagement in antiquity are often quite different from our contemporary horizons of expectation—and, as classicists, we are accustomed to using such differences as a royal route as much to defamiliarize the present as to explore the past. It's part of why we are classicists. There is, however, a temptation to think that the more recent past can be approached in an unmediated manner—a tendency enshrined and exaggerated by our continuing, pious use of the commentaries and scholarly work of the nineteenth century, as if they were not works from another country (as Benedict Anderson would have it). So any shock to such comfortable false familiarity should be embraced. One such shock for me—although I work both on the Victorian period and on the ancient epigrams collected in what is known as the Greek Anthology—was when I came across the casual anecdote that Matthew Arnold liked to relax in the evenings from his toils as school inspector and grand arbiter of English taste, by reading and translating for himself epigrams from the anthology. Could it really be that the man whose polarization of Hellenism and Hebraism defined a cultural self-positioning for the Victorian elite, and who sadly intoned from Dover Beach that 'Sophocles heard it long ago', sat up late lovingly translating Antipater and Meleager? Most surprising of all, the anecdote was offered as if it were not surprising at all, but exactly what one might expect of someone so committed to the best that has ever been said and written. Gideon Nisbet's excellent, lengthy study Greek Epigram in Reception has thoroughly removed any lingering surprise I may be nurturing about the image of the Victorian grandee toying insouciantly with his Garland.

Nisbet's book has a clear and strong central argument, which takes as its hero and icon John Addington Symonds. Symonds has become something of a superstar of recent cultural criticism primarily because of his unique and uniquely fascinating autobiographical writings, which Phyllis Grosskurth edited in 1983, after writing his biography in the 1960s. Symonds, friend of the sexologist Havelock Ellis, the philosopher Henry Sidgwick, and of Edmund Gosse—who wrote one of the most moving autobiographical accounts of growing up in a fiercely evangelical Plymouth Brethren family—was part of a highly self-conscious group of male Victorian intellectuals who knew that they desired other men, and reflected on it carefully, seriously, and in intense conversations apart from the public eye. Symonds' autobiographical writings record his slow and painful journey towards physical expression of his desire, and his equally painful exposure to the scorn of evangelical Christian critics in particular, when his studies of classics revealed too clearly the lure of hankering after young male beauty. Symonds' relationship to Sidgwick has been superbly analyzed by Bart Schultz; and his minutely analyzed sexual awakening, preceded by his privately circulated study, A Problem in Greek Ethics, has been repeatedly used by historians, including most recently Daniel Orrells and Alistair Blanshard, as an insight into the world of Victorian homosexuality (as it would gradually come to be known). But Nisbet focuses specifically on Symonds' ground-breaking work on the Greek Anthology and its representations of male desire. Symonds' essays in Studies of the Greek Poets changed the public and scholarly understanding of this vast collection of epigrams. Translating epigrams, as Nisbet shows, was indeed a pastime of the military man, the diplomat, the lord on his estate. Many of these highly selective translations, in slim volumes, struggled with the veils of Hellenized passions; others bluntly did not, concealing the gender of the poems' addressees as well as resolutely dismissing in particular Strato's obsessive variations on erotic games with boys. I particularly liked the stories of the imperialist, conservative Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromer, ruling Egypt for the Empire, opposing the suffragettes, and still translating Meleager on the side. It is here where Arnold's lucubrations find their place. What's more, where many have discussed Symonds' celebrated description of the glistening, idealized Greek youth, this book shows most clearly how the expression of desire interlinks with the description of genre and the articulation of literary history as a developmental scheme. It is not by chance that Edward Carpenter turns both to Symonds and to Darwin to claim that his model of idealized male-male desire was an evolutionary climax of civilization, rather than the sin against nature it had so often been declared to be. With a rare richness, Nisbet has collected many of these slim volumes, and tells a compelling history with Symonds at its centre.

The precursors to Symonds are duly dealt with, and later writers from Paton's laborious Loeb to the hugely influential selectivity of Mackail are explored, all in relation to Symonds. The initial critical impact, reaction against and then rediscovery of Symonds, is thereby well articulated. To study in this way the role of one genre as a genre is a particularly telling contribution to the current debate on reception—for three reasons. First, it shows vividly how the comprehension of a genre is a deeply ideological construct, tied up with notions of the progress from Greece to modernity—the developmental model which George Grote made essential to Greek history; and with specific and contested notions of literary value; and with broad cultural concerns of the period. All too often, genre has been treated as if it were defined in antiquity and passed on without loss to modernity. This book demonstrates how such attempts to define genre as an ancient idea are inevitably full of modern conceptual polemics, disavowed, disingenuously. Second, it gives a striking portrait of a type of reception quite different from the great man reading the great text of the past: instead, here we have different authors and poems being valued from within a collection, according to various agendas. It is very much a set of individual responses in dialogue with each other as much as with antiquity: a networked, distributed practice of reading. Third, it requires Nisbet to move between public and private circulations of texts, censorship, internal and external, and the long durĂ©e of the reception of Symonds' own reception of antiquity. This again leads to a more flexible and nuanced model of the cultural activity of engaging with the classical past than is commonly on offer.

This is, then, a valuable contribution to a multiform debate. I do have, however, four constructive worries. The first is perhaps the least significant: the subtitle of the book is J.A. Symonds, Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Desire, 1805-1929. Wilde does not get much of a look in—quite rightly, as although he read Symonds and was master of the 'epigrammatic' bon mot, he had almost nothing to do with the development of the reception of the Greek Anthology, and, what's more, he stands out from the other characters in the volume because of his flamboyant public defense of the ideals of Hellenic passion, as well as his flamboyant public display of his private life. It would seem that the name of Wilde is in the title to attract readers rather than because of his importance to the volume itself. Indeed, the 'invention of desire', with its echo of Tom Stoppard's celebrated play on precisely such matters, is also a rather grand description of what is narrated by Nisbet. The picture of desire itself is not much altered from the very fine and thoroughly well-known portrait completed by Linda Dowling, Jonathan Dollimore and many others duly cited and sometimes rather oversimplified by Nisbet. True, the epigram has not featured much in such discussions, but any expectation that we will learn a great deal more about the invention of desire is not fulfilled. Rather, we see how what we already knew about male-male desire finds a particular niche expression through translation and discussion of the Greek epigram tradition; and even Nisbet does not claim that it was a dominant or insistent route to self-expression, as opposed to a cute example for a rather limited audience. Oxford University Press is not usually known for its spinning of sexy titles to seduce the wandering eye of its public, but here an opportunity to emphasize the book's actual strengths is missed.

Second, and more importantly, the specific contribution of the epigram as an epigram is not fully drawn out. As I have just mentioned, we now know a great deal about the veils of desire that swirled around male expression in this era. What was it about the epigram that proved so attractive then—and neither before nor afterwards, at least to the same degree or with the same purchase? Is there something about the flash of insight, the unexpected turn of phrase, the vignette, the restraint of the shortest form, that spoke to the Victorian sense of self-expression? There is perhaps a start to be found in the repeated use of the imagery of gems ('This gem of a poem'), and the long connection between eighteenth-century aesthetics and the gemstone, which Nisbet alludes to in an appendix—but the argument remains systematically underdeveloped. I think it would take a good deal of work to tease out why so many men over these generations found epigram good for self-expression, but it would be work well-undertaken. Here, the work on genre lacks a telling conclusion.

Third, and perhaps more damagingly, there is a real confusion in Nisbet's thinking about the place of the biographical. Biography may be a ludicrous genre, as Adam Philips, in the voice of Freud, puts it, but Nisbet veers between several conflicting poles. From one side, he offers biographical vignettes which he takes as explanatory—who Evelyn Baring is and what his public roles and private beliefs were, are taken as instrumental in understanding his translations. From another angle, he sniffily dismisses—with whatever irony—'the literary-critical fashion crime of reading-in from the known biography'. Yet his comprehension of such complex sexual characters as Charles Kingsley or A.C. Benson is far too one-dimensional (it would have been deepened by looking at the voluminous bibliography on both), and this makes his use of them as figures unfortunately thin. He cannot decide if he wants to write a psycho-sexual literary history, a history of a genre, or an incunabula-led story of the publishing of the Anthology. These trajectories all interrelate and overlap, for sure, in any respectable cultural history of such a topic—but, to really sing, this project needs a more sophisticated critical framework about the place of the biographical. The invention of desire is necessarily both a social and a personal story and needs a strong account of how the biographical narratives are to be marshaled.

Fourth, after Mackail, the story rather falls apart. The end of the book is somewhat episodic; it lacks a strong motif; and it falls too easily into Edwardian value judgments of the competing 'charms' of various epigrammatic projects. There are a string of such (small) moments where the book lets drop its own standards (calling Wilde's Socratic fervor 'half-cocked' is a bad joke at best) and the ending, especially its very inconsequential and unreflective remarks on the digital, is unfortunately the larger-scale culmination of such infelicities.

Yet, as a picture of how a group of Victorian men changed the perception of a genre of antiquity and in so doing constructed a way to talk through their own sexual identities and attitudes to the past in such self-formation, Nisbet's book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the discipline of classics and its Victorian flourishing.

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