THE OSCHOLARS LIBRARY

 

 

Oscar Wilde and Greece.

Patrick Sammon

[This is a paper that Patrick Sammon gave in June 2006 to the Third European Conference of Modern Greek Studies in Bucharest. Click here , but it is mostly in modern Greek. A shorter version, based on a paper given at the Irish Institute of Hellenic Studies at Athens (Institiúid Éireannach san Ataen don Léann Heilléanach) ConferenceNational University of Ireland, Galway September 19th-21st 2003, is published in The Lure of Greece edited by J.V Luce Dublin, 2007), but here we reprint the entire text in English with the kind permission of Patrick Sammon, who welcomes critical comment. Readers may like to use our discussion forum for this – Editor, THE OSCHOLARS]

Oscar Wilde and Greece

‘We Irish are too poetical to be poets; we are a nation of brilliant failures, but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks.’[1]

Many aspects of Oscar Wilde have been explored in recent years, notably his Irish background [2]. The importance to his life and work of the Greek language and literature and of ancient Greece itself was well understood until recent decades. However, the decline in the study of classics in schools has allowed the all-pervasive nature of the study of the classics in the original Greek and Latin in the education of the sons of gentlemen in Victorian times to become obscured. [3] If Oscar Wilde inherited snobbery from his parents [4], he also had the Greek language 'in his genes': his mother, Jane Francesca Wilde ('Speranza'), unusually for a girl at this date, had studied Greek from an early age. [5] A biographer describes her in the aftermath of her husband's death in 1876: ‘...after his death there was no money and the bailiffs were in the house she sat in the Merrion Square drawing-room unconcerned, reading [Aeschylus's] Prometheus Bound aloud to herself in Greek.’ [6]

Sir William Wilde, Oscar's father

From September 1837, unusually for his time, when he was a young surgeon of just 22, William Wilde toured the Mediterranean, including many places he would have known from ancient Greek history: Sicily, Egypt [7], Rhodes, Cyprus, Syria, Palestine and Greece. [8] ‘[William Wilde] revelled in the antiquities of Egypt and Greece and he compared modern Greeks most unfavourably with their ancient forebears who had listened to 'the strains of Sophocles and Euripides', and who had witnessed 'the performances of Aeschylus and Aristophanes.' [9] William was elected when only 24 to membership of the Royal Irish Academy, in 1839, when the mathematical genius William Rowan Hamilton was President (from 1837). [10] Hamilton himself had been reading Latin, Greek and Hebrew at the age of three or four. William Wilde was knighted at Dublin Castle in 1864 by the Lord Lieutenant. In that year also George I ascended the throne as King of the Hellenes, at the urging of the United Kingdom, which also ceded the Ionian Islands to Greece. When Sir William (as Oscar referred to his father) died in 1876 he left only a small estate and many debts. Oscar inherited little, but used some of the money to fund his trip to Greece in April 1877. Oscar Wilde's early years

Oscar was born on 16th October 1854 (a few days before the Charge of the Light Brigade took place in the Crimean War), at 21 Westland Row, just across from one of Dublin's finest Greek revival buildings, the Doric St Andrew's Church (Roman Catholic) built in 1832. Beside this stands the station from which Ireland's first train had departed, in 1834. Wilde would have known St Stephen's Church (Church of Ireland, 1824) in Mount Street, which was visible at the end of a wonderful vista only 200 yards from his house on Merrion Square. It consists of a wonderful amalgamation of three buildings he would later see in Athens: the portico of the Erechtheum, on the Acropolis, the Tower of the Winds in the Roman Agora, and the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, at the eastern foot of the Acropolis, near Hadrian's Arch. On the other side of the Liffey St George's Church of 1802 bore a large inscription in Greek: ???? ?? ???S???S T?O? [Glory to God in the highest]. Dublin in Wilde's youth

Within a year of Oscar's birth, the family moved up in the world, to 1 Merrion Square, which physically was no more than 200 yards away, but socially on a different level. [11] There is now a statue of Wilde in Merrion Square – facing the house where he spent his boyhood. It was erected in 2000, on the centenary of his death.

Portora Royal School

His early education was under private tutors until he was nine. He then went to Portora [12] Royal School in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, which he detested, presumably because of the Spartan conditions then common in public schools, and the emphasis on sporting activities, in which he did not participate. [13] Frank Harris, his Galway-born biographer, quotes Wilde: ‘I was nearly sixteen when the wonder and beauty of the old Greek life began to dawn upon me. Suddenly I seemed to see the white figures throwing purple shadows on the sun-baked palaestra; 'bands of nude youths and maidens moving across a background of deep blue as on the frieze of the Parthenon.' [14]; 'I began to read Greek eagerly for love of it all, and the more I read the more I was enthralled…The head master was always holding my brother Willie up to me as an example; but even he admitted that in my last year at Portora I had made astounding progress. I laid the foundation there of whatever classical scholarship I possess….I told him what I should have done had I been Alexander, or how I'd have played king in Athens, had I been Alcibiades [15]. As early as I can remember I used to identify myself with every distinguished character I read about, but when I was fifteen or sixteen I noticed with some wonder that I could think of myself as Alcibiades or Sophocles more easily than as Alexander or Caesar. The life of books had begun to interest me more than real life.’ [16] In 1871 he won an entrance exhibition [17] to Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and another exhibition from Portora.

Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and Greek

Founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592, Dublin University had had a Regius Professorship of Greek since 1761. The philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753), later Bishop of Cloyne, had lectured in Greek at Trinity, and endowed it with a font of Greek type and a solid gold medal for students of Greek, in c. 1734. Oscar Wilde won this medal in 1874 [18]. John Kells Ingram [19] (1823-1907) was Regius Professor of Greek, and founder in 1873 with Mahaffy and Tyrrell and others of the journal Hermathena, which is still being published. Tyrrell also founded Kottabos (the name comes from a game played at symposia in classical Greece) a magazine of Greek, Latin and English verse composed by fellows and graduates of TCD, including Wilde.

John Pentland Mahaffy

The first holder of the Chair of Ancient History in TCD was John Pentland Mahaffy (from 1869). [20] Wilde helped Mahaffy in his house in Howth, Co. Dublin, with the proofs of Greek Social Life from Homer to Menander (1874). The book caused controversy, since it was the first to deal frankly to a large English-language readership with the widespread custom in classical Greece for men both to be married and to have relations with beautiful youths. It refers to the 'strange and to us revolting perversion' of what is now called homosexuality. The passage did not appear in subsequent editions. Mahaffy was a pioneer among classical academics of the time in stressing the need to visit the ancient sites. He had a great appreciation of the geography, history and mores of Greece, both ancient and contemporary. Wilde at Trinity College Dublin

Wilde entered Trinity on October 19th, 1871, just three days after his seventeenth birthday, as (in Edward Sullivan's words) 'A thoroughly good classical scholar of a brilliant type'. [21] ‘It was the fascination of Greek letters and the delight I took in Greek life and thought…which made me a scholar. I got my love of the Greek ideal and my intimate knowledge of the language at Trinity from Mahaffy and Tyrrell; they were Trinity to me; Mahaffy was especially valuable to me at that time. Though not so good a scholar as Tyrrell, he had been in Greece, had lived there and saturated himself with Greek thought and Greek feeling.’ [22] Wilde sat his examinations for Entrance Exhibitions and for Foundation Scholarship in the Public Theatre ('Exam Hall') in Front Square, after the College bell rang out from the Campanile, constructed in 1852. In 1873 he became a Foundation Scholar in Classics, sixth out of ten successful candidates. The examination was demanding and required physical stamina as much as hours of intense study. In 1874, at the age of 20, won the Berkeley Gold Medal on Meineke's Greek Comic Fragments [23]. Prominent among the authors was Menander, whose one-liners (monostichs) had often turned into proverbs: ‘The property of friends is common’, ‘Whom the gods love die young’, ‘Evil communications corrupt good manners’. No doubt this intensive study of Greek comic writing influenced the author of many one-liners and the ever-popular comic masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde never graduated from TCD: he won all the highest honours other than that of moderating. He was barely twenty when he left for Oxford in October 1874, after winning a Demyship (scholarship) for five years to Magdalen College. Oxford

Irish people made up 42% of the foreign-born population of Britain in 1850. Many had fled there during the Great Famine of 1845-49. The poor Irish were known by the slang name of 'Grecians' (first recorded in 1853). It is not surprising when Wilde states that ‘My accent was one of the things I lost at Oxford’. If Wilde had blossomed as a scholar in Greek in the last year of his studies in Portora, and further in his two years in TCD, it was in Oxford that he really felt in 'paradise': he was older than the other students, and was more used than them to moving in high circles – with the eminent Fellows in TCD, and the bon ton of Merrion Square and Dublin Castle. At Oxford he was in his element, particularly with the likes of John Addington Symonds, whose Studies in the Greek Poets has just been published in 1876; John Ruskin, the first Slade Professor of Fine Art, who had been delighted with the new Museum Building in TCD (1855), as expressing his artistic principles in concrete form; and the humanist, Walter Pater, fellow of Brasenose College, whose Studies in the history of the Renaissance had appeared in 1873. Visit to Italy, 1875

Wilde went in 1875 on a trip to Italy with Mahaffy. He did not get as far as Rome on this occasion, but was impressed by the mosaics in Ravenna [24]. Mahaffy had proceeded on his first visit to Greece, in 1875, with a Cambridge undergraduate, William Goulding. Wilde and Mahaffy visit Greece, April 1877

Wilde's visit to Greece with Mahaffy in 1877 had a great effect on him. In Wilde's own words Mahaffy's purpose was ‘to see Mykenae and Athens’. The reason for this choice is clear: the pioneering archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann had made extraordinary finds in late 1876 at Mycenae. The excavations took place between August 7 and December 3, 1876. The mask was discovered on November 30, 1876. On discovering the Shaft Graves with their skeletons and gold, such as the so-called Mask of Agamemnon, Schliemann cabled King George: ‘With great joy I announce to Your Majesty that I have discovered the tombs which the tradition proclaimed by Pausanias indicates to be the graves of Agamemnon, Cassandra, Eurymedon and their companions, all slain at a banquet by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthos.’ The first edition of Mahaffy's Rambles and Studies in Greece, based on his trip there in 1875, was published in 1877. It went through many editions (and was reprinted again in 2003) and can still be read with pleasure: it covers the geography of the then Kingdom of Greece, Greek history, and Greek visual art, particularly sculpture. Mahaffy makes the observation, for example, that while the Italian and the Greek peninsulas are neighbours, the vital difference is that the cities in Italy all look west, whereas those in Greece face east. Wilde's visit in April 1877 was conducted mostly on horseback; ten years later Mahaffy was to lament: ‘Now, alas! I hear there is a railway open from Athens to Corinth. I am glad I saw Greece before that change took place.’ [25] We have two of Wilde's letters from Greece, both from Corfu, and a draft of a third, possibly written there. One is postmarked 2 April, to Reginald Harding: ‘…Mahaffy my old tutor carried me off to Greece with him to see Mykenae and Athens. ..We went to Genoa, then to Ravenna [26], and left Brindisi last night, catching sight of Greece at 5.30 this morning. We go tomorrow to Zante and land near Olympia and then ride through Arcadia to Mykenae…’ [27]. It is clear that the main object of this visit to Greece was Mycenae (or Mykenae as Wilde spells it): Heinrich Schliemann had excavated a large number of gold items there during the previous winter. We can get some idea of the route taken by the party, Mahaffy, Wilde and William Goulding [28], by looking at the third edition of Mahaffy's Rambles and Studies in Greece [29], which he published in 1887.

Corfu

A number of factors brought the newly-independent Kingdom of Greece closer to the then United Kingdom in general, and Dublin and Oxford in particular, than may now be appreciated. In 1815, the year in which William Wilde was born, the year of Waterloo, ‘a string of a dozen islands which run down the west coast of Greece from Corfu to Zante …had been made a British protectorate in an almost absent-minded disposition of the spoils of victory in 1815.’ [30] They had previously been dominated and fortified by the Venetians, who viewed the Adriatic as their sole domain. When George I became King in 1864, the Ionian islands were ceded to the Kingdom of Greece. The people of Corfu were so grateful that they presented the new King with a mansion in Mon Repos [31]. ‘I think a market day in Corfu, with those royal-looking peasant lads, who came clothed in sheepskins from the coast, and spend their day handling knives and revolvers with peculiar interest at the stalls, is among the most picturesque sights to be seen in Europe.’ [32]

Zante (Zákinthos)

Wilde's brief stay here is mentioned in his Impression de Voyage from Poems (1881), originally published in Waifs and Strays in March 1880:

The sea was sapphire coloured, and the sky Burned like a heated opal through the air; We hoisted sail; the wind was blowing fair For the blue lands that to the eastward lie. From the steep prow I marked with quickening eye Zakynthos, every olive grove and creek, Ithaca's cliff, Lycaon's snowy peak, And all the flower-strewn hills of Arcady. The flapping of the sail against the mast, The ripple of the water on the side, The ripple of girls' laughter at the stern, The only sounds:- when 'gan the West to burn, And a red sun upon the seas to ride, I stood upon the soil of Greece at last!

Katakolo – Olympia

Wilde and his party arrived in Greece at the port of Katákolo, where the ancient athletes and embassies from all around the Greek world arrived and travelled up to Olympia in the heat of the beginning of July. [33] Excavations at Olympia had begun in 1875, under Dr Wilhelm Dörpfeld, who was not present during their visit; they met Drs Hirschfeld, Weil and Purgold. The German excavators were able to put names on what they found because of the detailed account in Pausanias. The statue of Zeus was one of the ancient wonders of the world. Mahaffy commented: ‘We found the Alpheus a broad and rapid river, which we crossed on horseback with difficulty…The prospect of Olympia [is] truly disenchanting. However interesting excavations may be, they are always exceedingly ugly.’ [34] His picture of the ancient Olympics has an Irish touch: ‘When the drinking parties of young men began in the evening there may even have been a soupçon of Donnybrook Fair about it.’ [35] Wilde later claimed to have seen the actual excavation of the famous statue of Hermes by Praxiteles. This was wishful thinking. The statue, depicting Hermes holding the baby Dionysus, was indeed discovered in 1877, but later in the year. At the time of the discovery, Gustav Hirschfeld was directing the dig on site and personally lifted the statue out of the ground from the cella of the temple of Hera. It is now one of the most prized possessions of the Olympia Museum. When Oscar Wilde was rusticated (temporarily suspended) from Oxford for returning from a visit to Greece three weeks late for the beginning of term, he announced, ‘I was sent down from Oxford for being the first undergraduate to visit Olympia.’

Andritzena (Andrítsaina)

There was a ride of eleven hours south from Olympia to this remote village. Mahaffy tells us that ‘No bandit has been heard of in Arcadia since the year 1847’. This comment was of relevance to his readership, since they would doubtless have recalled a famous kidnapping case in 1870, when a part of some extremely well-connected English lords were captured by brigands, and because of what he describes as ‘incompetence’ by the British Minister in Athens and Greek Ministers, they ended up being killed, to the horror of the rest of the world [36].

Bassae [37]

From Andritzena they visited the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae, the best-preserved temple in Greece, set in wild scenery. From there they rode east across the Peloponnese.

Mycenae

Mycenae was the location for the opening scene of Aeschylus's Agamemnon, the first play of his Oresteia trilogy, which Wilde had studied in Portora, in TCD and at Oxford. (After his graduation from Oxford he arranged for a Greek-language performance of the play there, and later in London.) Mycenae was the richest city in Greece in its time. Schliemann's excavations at Mycenae during the winter of 1876 had been sensationally successful. He published his book Mycenae in 1877. Ellmann wrongly states that Wilde and party made 'a final excursion' to Mycenae from Athens 'where Mahaffy's name earned them access to Schliemann's recently discovered treasures'. In fact they had of course already visited Mycenae en route across the Peloponnese to Athens, and the treasures were in Athens. To quote Mahaffy: ‘Thus on my second visit [April 1877] to Athens, I found in the National Bank the wonderful treasures exhumed by Dr Schliemann at Mycenae, which are in themselves enough to induce any student of Greek antiquities to revisit the town, however well he may have examined it in former years.’ [38] Tiryns

They also visited the imposing prehistoric site of Tiryns in 1877 [39]. Heinrich Schliemann had in 1876 opened the first trenches in the Acropolis and the site outside the walls. Epidaurus and Aegina (Aígina)

From Nauplia (Náfplion) Mahaffy chose to ride to the port of Epidaurus (the harbour of the ancient city, fifteen miles inland, excavated only after 1881, whose ancient theatre is the largest and best-preserved from ancient Greece.) From there they made the short trip to Aegina: Mahaffy comments that ‘the very types [physical features] of the Parthenon frieze can be found among the inhabitants.’ [40] The potato had been introduced to Greece in 1828 at Aegina by an Irishman, W.B. Stevenson. From there they sailed on to the port of Athens, Piraeus. Athens

We can get some idea of Wilde in Athens from a work of fiction by an American writer who met him there. Julia C. Fletcher (writing as George Fleming) had Mirage published in Boston the following year, 1878. Mahaffy gloried in seeing the Parthenon: ‘Were [a man of culture] to revisit the Parthenon, as it stands, every year of his life, it would always be fresh, it would always be astonishing, whenever he beheld it. [41] The modern city of Athens was still being built – in the ruins of the classical and Roman city, many Byzantine churches were being demolished. The Kingdom of Greece had been created only in 1830, and its first King, Otho of Bavaria, had been on the throne only since 1833. Athens was then a small town, where many of the tiny local population (there were only 300 houses) spoke Albanian, not Greek. For years it was a construction site, with Bavarian architects and town-planners busy among the ancient ruins which were the major reason for its choice as capital of the new state. However, it was Constantinople, still referred to as H ?O?H, which remained the City par excellence. The new state's politicians and generals pursued the Megáli Idéa, the Great Idea of restoring Greece to its erstwhile extent under the Byzantine Emperors. Athens had a population of 63,374 in 1879, while the population of Greece was 1,679,561. [42] Schliemann's house, now the Numismatic Museum, was being built at the time of Wilde's visit; the Zappeion building in the then 'Royal Gardens' had been used for the 'Olympia' athletic festivals of 1870 and 1875. Connections between the United Kingdom and Greece

Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, had joined the 2nd battalion of the Grenadier Guards in camp at the Curragh, Co. Kildare, in August 1861/2, and the following month in Germany met his future wife, Princess Alexandra, eldest daughter of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg [43]. Her younger brother became George I of the Hellenes in 1864. Photograph of Wilde in traditional Greek dress

Ellmann's biography gives the false impression, that somehow Wilde had been photographed high up in the desolate mountains at Bassae. This much-reproduced photograph of Wilde was in fact taken in the studio of Petros Moraïtes (1832- c.1888) in Athens. The fustanella, a billowing white cloth skirt reaching to the knees, was the national Greek costume worn by men, and especially associated with those who fought in the fight for liberation in the 1820s. The national hero Ioannis Kolokotronis (who died only nine years before Wilde's visit, in 1868) wore one when photographed by Moraïtes, who had his premises in 82 Aiolou Street, and was photographer to the royal family. His work is well represented in photographic museums internationally. A wonderful book of his photographs by one of the foremost historians of Greek photography is available, in Greek: Alkis X. Xanthakis: 19th century Greece through the lens of Petros Moraïtes (2001). [44] The photograph of Mrs A. Skouzé wearing the costume of Attica, on page 92 (right) shows an identical backdrop, with the same rock, with the addition of a rock as footrest for the lady. The photograph on page 126 of the boy also shows this rock. Close inspection of the photograph of Wilde shows that it has been retouched to remove the stand which supported his head during the long exposure. There are traces of this stand to the left of Wilde's left leg.

Laurium

According to Oliver St. John Gogarty, the party met King George I: ‘The trip through Greece and the meeting with the King did little good for any humility a youth should have. Oscar heard his Master [Mahaffy] correct the King: 'I am afraid Your Majesty is labouring under a misapprehension. These tunnels are not catacombs. The Greeks were never so barbarous. They are entrances to silver mines. Plato, for all we know, may have been a profiteer.'‘ [45] This implies that Wilde and Mahaffy saw the ancient mines at Laurium (Lávrio) with the King in 1877. If so, it is likely that they also visited nearby Sunium (Soúnio). Since the return from Greece was most likely by ship from Piraeus to Naples, as Mahaffy recommends in his Rambles and Studies, they may have see Sunium from the ship.

Wilde's downfall, 1895

Eighteen years after the visit to Greece, when Wilde – at the height of his fame – suffered ruin in the courts in London in 1895, he was abandoned by most of his erstwhile friends [46]. Sir Robert Tyrrell (1844-1914), who had been Wilde's Professor of Latin in TCD (and of Greek from 1880) was, with W.B. Yeats, one of the few people in Ireland to support him. Mahaffy (‘We do not speak of Mr Oscar Wilde’) must have been scandalised by Wilde's doings, and perhaps later suspected that his failure to be made Provost of TCD in 1904 was caused by his early friendship with Wilde, and especially their joint work on the controversial Greek Social Life from Homer to Menander.

Wilde and Modern Greek

With his intimate knowledge of ancient Greek, particularly New Testament Greek, Wilde would have had little or no problem in reading the katharévousa (purified) Greek which was the standard written language at the time of his visit. [47] Mahaffy spells it out: ‘There is really very little difference between the language of Plato and that of the present Greeks.’ [48]

A possible missing journal by Wilde of his visit to Greece?

We have little evidence in prose in Wilde's own words from his visit to Greece, apart from the two letters and the draft already cited. I believe that any journal he may have kept has gone missing or been destroyed. It seems highly improbable that after spending most of the time from the age of ten to twenty-three intensively learning the Greek language and Greek history, literature and art, Wilde would not have written more about the experience of his only visit there.

Reversals of fortune: Wilde and Mahaffy in hindsight

One of the features of the passage of time is the different perspective it gives on those long dead. The world knows that Oscar Wilde is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. J.P. Mahaffy, by contrast, who died in the Provost's House on Grafton Street just three months after the first Dáil (Irish Parliament) sat in the nearby Mansion House in Dawson Street, in 1919, is listed in various sources as being buried in Sutton (near his country home in Howth, Co. Dublin), Mount Jerome cemetery on the south side of Dublin City, and in Trinity College Chapel, where there is a memorial plaque to him in the entrance. Wherever he's buried, I'm sure that he must have turned in his grave at the thought of a window being dedicated to Oscar Wilde in Westminster Abbey (in 2000).

The Olympic Games of 1896

The year 2004 was the 150th anniversary of Wilde's birth. Wilde's spirit would no doubt have smiled at the idea of the Olympic Games being held that year in Athens: he spent the first modern Olympics (April 1896 – shortly before the prisoner referred to in The Ballad of Reading Gaol was hanged in July 1896) in prison. [49] But his real interest would have been in the cultural side of the Games: Wilde was an aesthete, not an athlete. His visit to Greece in 1877 had taken place soon after earlier attempts by Greeks to revive the Games in Athens. Wilde and the Greek New Testament

Oscar Wilde said that the Greek text of the Gospels was the most beautiful book in the World. [50] He won a prize for Greek Testament when at Portora [51], and his interest in the New Testament is shown by the fact that the book he put first on a list of books he requested when imprisoned was a Greek Testament. As part of his Oxford degree, he had to pass an examination in Divinity at Oxford, and – having arrived late - was asked to translate a very difficult passage, Acts 26, which is full of obscure nautical terms relating to St Paul's shipwreck. Wilde would doubtless have appreciated the fact that the earliest copies of the four gospels and of the Apocalypse are now in Dublin, in the Chester Beatty Library. (‘The Book of Life starts in a garden with a man and a woman. It ends with revelations.’) No doubt too Mahaffy, one of the founders of modern papyrology, would have agreed.

Notes.

[1] Terence de Vere White: The Anglo-Irish (1972) p. 200, quoting Yeats. Oscar Wilde, at the height of his fame, said this to the young W.B. Yeats in London. Wilde was a founder of the Hellenic Society there in 1879.
[2] For general background see: W.B. Stanford: Ireland and the Classical Tradition (1976); J.V. Luce: Trinity College Dublin: the first 400 years (1992); Richard Ellmann: Oscar Wilde (1987), the standard biography, but see numerous corrections in Horst Schroeder: Additions and Corrections to Richard Ellmann's Oscar Wilde (Braunschweig, 2nd edition, privately printed 2000, copy in TCD Library).
[3] ‘Since custom and privilege had long enshrined the classics as the intellectual preserve of the most distinguished in society, a classical education, however inadequate, came to symbolize the breeding deemed essential to the gentleman. The classics marked out, as nothing else could, not so much the scholar as the gentleman.’ Patricia Phillips: The Scientific Lady : A Social History of Women's Scientific Interests 1520-1918 (1990) p. 8.
[4] Terence de Vere White: The Anglo-Irish (1972) p. 197.
[5] Horace Wyndham: Speranza: A Biography of Lady Wilde (1951) p. 13: ‘As a mere child Charles Elgee's daughter [Jane Francesca] was remarkably precocious. Thus, at an age when other little girls of her years were playing with dolls and looking at picture books this one was reading Latin and Greek 'for pleasure'.’
[6] Joy Melville: Mother of Oscar (1994) p. 142
[7] Champollion's decipherment of the hieroglyphics in the Rosetta Stone (1822-24) and the consequent ability to read ancient Egyptian made Egypt the centre of great interest internationally, including in Dublin, where Edward Hincks was to the fore in deciphering the demotic language. The Rosetta Stone, one of the most important inscriptions ever discovered, and it was the fact that it was written in Greek that allowed it to be deciphered. It was given to the British Museum by John Hely-Hutchinson, son of the Provost of TCD of the same name, who captured Cairo and Alexandria in 1801. The cast made of it at that time is in the Weingreen Museum in TCD.
[8]T.G. Wilson: Victorian Doctor – being the Life of Sir William Wilde (NY 1946) p2-3. William Wilde is likely to have learned Greek when he attended the Diocesan School, Elphin, Co. Roscommon (as had Oliver Goldsmith) before opting for a medical career.
[9] Davis Coakley Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish (1994) p. 14, quoting William Wilde: Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe and Along the Shores of the Mediterranean (1839) p. 339, 353-4.
[10] Hamilton had turned down Jane Wilde's request to be Oscar's godfather. His discovery of quaternions had taken place exactly nine years before Oscar's birth, on 16 October 1843, as he walked along the Royal Canal. He engraved his formula into the stone of Brougham Bridge. It was he who coined the words vector and scalar in their mathematical meanings.
[11] GB Shaw says in the Introduction to Harris (1938) p xlv: ‘Harris said that Wilde was a snob. I said that he was a snob (I, born in Dublin of a family of snobs, knew the Merrion Square variety only too well.).’ The word snob first occurs in its modern sense in Thackeray's Irish Sketch Book, 1843.
[12] The name Portora is from the Irish Port Abhla Faoláin, 'landing place of the apple trees of Faolán'; the school is on the north-west edge of Enniskillen.
[13] ‘We went down to the horrid regatta on Thursday last.’ Letter of 5 September 1868 to his mother, the earliest letter of Wilde's to survive. Merlin Holland & Rupert Hart-Davis: The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000) p. 4.
[14] quoting Gautier.
[15] Alcibiades, although a military leader and politician, is probably the figure in the ancient world with the greatest similarities to Wilde. He was a flamboyant aristocrat, who was given to a private life of excess.
[16] Frank Harris: Oscar Wilde (1916, corrected edition 1938) pp. 21-3, quoting an interview with Wilde.
[17] A monetary scholarship given to students on the results of special entrance examination.
[18] At the end of his life, in Paris, he used to pawn it for ready cash.
[19] Sean D. Barrett: Trinity Monday Discourse, 1998 econserv2.bess.tcd.ie/TEP/TEPNo9SB99.PDF
[20] W.B. Stanford and R.B. McDowell: Mahaffy: A biography of an Anglo-Irishman (1971).
[21] Harris p. 27.
[22] Harris p. 29.
[23] August Meineke: Graecorum comicorum fragmenta (1839-1857, the first volume contains an essay on the development of Greek comedy).
[24] While at Oxford, Wilde won the 1878 Newdigate Prize for his poem ‘Ravenna’. The choice of subject matter that year was very fortunate for Wilde, who had visited the city.
[25] Mahaffy: Rambles and Studies in Greece (3rd ed. 1887) p. 17 footnote.
[26] Wilde was impressed by the mosaics, as was W.B. Yeats subsequently: this was the nearest Yeats ever got to Greece, and he based his poems ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and ‘Byzantium’ on the effect of seeing them.
[27] Merlin Holland & Rupert Hart-Davis: The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000) p. 44.
[28] later a Senator in the Senate of the Irish Free State. His son was Sir Basil Goulding, husband of Lady Valerie Goulding.
[29] The first edition, of 1876, was based on Mahaffy's 1875 trip to Greece, when Wilde had run out of funds and returned home while the rest of party went on to Rome. The second edition (1878) was published too soon to include details of the April 1877 trip.
[30] Roy Jenkins: Gladstone (1995) p. 190
[31] Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who was born in Mon Repos in 1921, is the grandson of George I of the Hellenes.
[32] Mahaffy: Rambles and Studies p. 16.
[33] Mahaffy: Rambles and Studies p. 258, 260
[34] Idem p. 261, 262
[35] Idem p. 295.
[36] see Romilly Jenkins: The Dilessi Murders (1961).
[37] See picture at intranet.arc.miami.edu/rjohn/images/Hellenist ... The temple is in such an elevated and exposed site that it has been protected by a large tent for more than twenty years.
[38] Mahaffy: Rambles and Studies (3rd ed., 1887) p. 129. Ellmann evidently did not know Greek or Greece, and was fatally ill. See note 1 above re Schroeder.
[39] Mahaffy: Rambles and Studies p. 353.
[40] Mahaffy: Rambles and Studies p. 14.
[41] Mahaffy: Rambles and Studies p. X
[42] Karl Baedeker: Greece: Handbook for Travellers (1889) p. 36, xlii. The Editor in his preface thanks ‘for most acceptable aid in the preparation of the English edition…Professor Mahaffy of Trinity College, Dublin, especially for his revision of the section on the modern Greek language and for data in the route from Olympia to Patras’ (a summary of the description in Rambles and Studies, 3rd ed., based on his 1884 trip, and not that followed by Wilde.)
[43] Glücksburg is the surname by which the members of the former Greek royal family have been referred to by recent Greek governments.
[44] A?KHS ?. ?ANTAKHS: H E??A?A TOY 19OY AIONA ME TO FAKO TOY ?ETPOY MO?A?TH (??????S)
[45] A Picture of Oscar Wilde in Intimations (1950), originally in Esquire (August 1945).
[46] The cross-examining barrister defending the Marquess of Queensberry was Edward Carson, a contemporary (1854-1935) and old friend of Wilde's who had studied with him in Trinity. Carson was called to the bar in Dublin in 1877, the year of the visit to Greece. Carson was later leader of the Irish Unionists (1910). His statue in front of Stormont Castle outside Belfast portrays his central role in rejecting home rule for Ireland.
[47] John Sullivan (1861-1933), who like Wilde was educated at Portora and TCD, accompanied Mahaffy on his trip to Greece in 1884, later learned to speak modern Greek. (In 1896 he converted to Catholicism and led a saintly life as a Jesuit priest.) Baedeker's Guide (1889) states: ‘Modern literary or written Greek to a certain extent approximates to classic Greek, so that, e.g., the newspapers may be read with little difficulty by those who are acquainted with the latter. But with the spoken language it is very different.’
[48] Mahaffy: Rambles and Studies p. 359.
[49] On 25 May 1895 he was convicted of gross indecency under the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1886) and sentenced to two years' penal servitude with hard labour. The year 1896 was his second annus horribilis: his mother had died on 3 February. The prisoner, Trooper Charles Thomas Wooldridge, was hanged using the long drop formulated [in 1873, in Animal Mechanics] by Samuel Haughton, born in Carlow in 1821, who also knew his Greek, and was President of the RIA from 1887. He had the distinction of being conferred with three doctorates: in Divinity, Science and Philosophy.
[50] Quoted in Peter Levi: The Hill of Kronos (1981) p.10. Levi, translator of the indispensable two-volume Penguin Classics edition of Pausanias, says of the start of his own interest in Greek: ‘But I came late to Greece, at the age of thirty-two, in 1963. I had started to learn ancient Greek as a schoolboy, at a school where Greek was hardly taught. All I knew about Greece then was the Elgin Marbles… and the fact that Oscar Wilde, who in the summer of my fourteenth birthday had just become my literary idol, said the Greek text of the Gospels was the most beautiful book in the world. So I demanded to learn Greek, and changed schools in consequence. From that time I have never ceased to study the Greek language.’
[51] ‘Just at the close of his school career he won the 'Carpenter' Greek Testament Prize – and on presentation day was called up to the dais by Dr Steele, by all his names – much to Oscar's annoyance; for a great deal of schoolboy chaff followed….The classics absorbed almost his whole attention in his later school days, and the flowing beauty of his oral translations in class, whether of Thucydides, Plato or Virgil, was a thing not easily to be forgotten….We thought him a fair scholar but nothing extraordinary. However, he startled everyone the last year at school in the classical medal examination, by walking easily away from us all in the viva voce of the Greek play ('The Agamemnon').’ Frank Harris: Oscar Wilde (1918, 1938) pp.19-21, quoting Wilde's school and college contemporary Sir Edward Sullivan, and an unnamed observer.


Paddy Sammon was born in Dublin and educated at Belvedere College and Trinity College. He has a passion for languages and speaks Irish, French, German and Modern Greek. He has also studied Italian, Spanish, Russian, Turkish, Arabic and Japanese. He works in the Irish Diplomatic Service. See Mr Sammon’s website at www.greenspeak.info


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