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The Consolation of Classics

For some, Classics seems a backwards subject. It certainly is associated with some of history’s more problematic figures. But it has a good side too, and I hope to show in this article how it was that Literae Humaniores at Oxford in the late 19th Century helped to give homosexuality a more positive image. After all, this has been the discipline of admirable figures, as well as contemptible ones.

In the 1850s and 1860s, a movement developed in Oxford which sought to reform the University. With Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol and Regius professor of Greek as its informal figurehead, this movement hoped to underpin University teaching with values extracted from Plato’s dialogues. This didn’t mean teaching everyone Greek. Rather, Jowett hoped to morph the tutorial from the nebulous thing it was into a more rigorous affair. The reforms were liberal in aim, since Jowett also hoped to ditch the theological test still required to take some degrees. These efforts came to fruition in the Universities Tests Act (1871).

This reform movement itself had little to do with homosexuality. Unless, that is, like Geoffrey Faber in Oxford Apostles (1933), you believe that the suspicious intensity of Jowett’s tutorial relationships suggests a form of psychological sublimation. Linda Dowling in Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (1994) describes Jowett’s relationship with pupils as ‘tutor worship’ (p33). Nevertheless, since the reforms took Greek philosophy and history as their basis, the floodgates now opened for the more explicit proponents of homosexuality to exploit.

‘Homosexuality’ of course, was not a word in use at the time. One essential element the movement provided, though, was a language through which love between men could be expressed. Talk now began of the ‘Greek movement’, ‘Greek love’, and ‘Uranianism’. Poems appeared in undergraduate magazines which spoke of male love, and did so through this borrowed Greek language. The language of Greece is an important point. For many Victorians, especially educated ones, simply to associate something with Hellenism was enough to bestow upon it a sense of authority (see, for instance, Richard Jenkyns’ The Victorians and Ancient Greece (1980)).

The advocates of ‘Greek love’ came from various parts. Walter Pater, a fellow of Brasenose College, wrote an essay early in the movement known as ‘Diaphaneité’ (1864), which was not subtle in its admiration for a beautiful youth, Charles Shadwell, in typical Greek fashion. John Addington Symonds (‘Soddington Symonds’, as Swinburne dubbed him (The Swinburne Letters, ed. Cecil Y. Lang, 6:74)), a former pupil of Jowett’s, published A Problem in Greek Ethics in 1873. Many of his poems, composed prior to this but unpublished, portray a man in obvious anguish. Oscar Wilde matriculated in 1874, and was not afraid to remark of one athlete that ‘his left leg is a Greek poem’ (quoted in Ellman’s Oscar Wilde, p164). A Greek poem, notice; not another kind. His own poems of this period are obsessed with the beauty of youthful men of ancient Greece. Harmodius was ‘a beautiful boy in the flower of Greek loveliness.’ Another is ‘a fair slim boy not made for this world’s pain.’ With longing eyes and unkissed lips, these poems were unashamedly homoerotic. ‘Rose-red youth’ and ‘rose-white boyhood’, as Lord Henry describes Dorian, would later become a theme of Wilde’s work.

In 1895, the now famous and successful Oscar Wilde was put on trial for ‘acts of gross indecency with another male person’ (H. Montgomery Hyde, The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1948) p5). His passionate and eloquent defense of ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ at this trial shows all the traces of that Greek element of which he had drunk deeply at Oxford. It was, he said, a love ‘such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy.’ The Platonic influence Jowett had begun, Wilde was pushing to a level that Jowett would never have dreamed of. He continued his passionate defense: ‘It is in this century misunderstood… It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it.’ So charged and eloquent was his speech, that the courtroom listeners burst into applause. This applause marks a turning point in the attitudes towards homosexuality. It may have been momentary, but it was something. It could not have happened, at least not with the same force, without the essential language of Greek love, much of which we owe to a group of Oxford Classicists of the late 19th Century.

That is why it breaks my heart when people say Classics is a “fusty old subject”, associated above all with Boris Johnson and his ilk. When you next hear someone say they study Classics, think first of Pater and Symonds and Wilde, and the foundations they laid for the emergence of a positive view of male love. True, Classics is in some respects the home of right-wing reactionaries. But it is also an academic refuge for heroes of which this article mentions so few, and a refuge for the gay subculture that flourished in late Victorian Oxford. Flourished, that is, because it had the help of Classics, a subject with the protective guise of ‘Greek Love’ all over its written sources, so blatantly and abundantly that all the efforts of Victorian-minded censors could not repress it. I chose this subject precisely because it offered that refuge for me. I feel proud about that, intensely proud, but only when people recognise that it’s the laudable gay history I’m proud of, and am now part of, not the politics, colonialism, or exclusivity that now drags the subject’s reputation through the dirt. Literae Humaniores at Oxford played a vital role in changing attitudes towards homosexuality: from thoroughly contemptible, to marginally less than that. I’d like to dedicate this article, a small offering of thanks, to everyone who played a part in that.