Greeklessness, race, gender and class

In a collection of essays, Grose remarks that ‘Greek is almost as rare among military people as money’.22 The same could be said in the 18th century of many more middle- and upper-class men than would have cared to admit it. The result was that Greek acquired a totem-like status, and often appeared in rhetorical situations where exclusion from not only polite society but even fundamental rights as a human being were at stake; for example, when white people wanted to distinguish their intellectual abilities from those of black ones. An African American named Alexander Crummell travelled to Cambridge University and learned Greek during his theological studies at Queen’s College (1851-1853), financed by Abolitionists. He later said that he had partly been motivated by a conversation he heard as a free but impoverished errand boy in Washington DC in 1833 or 1834, when pro-slavery thinkers were on the defensive. The Senator for South Carolina, John C. Calhoun, declared at a dinner party that only when he could ‘find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax’ could he be brought to ‘believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man’.23

The author of a Cornwall/Devon newspaper article, written in 1852, sneers at what he sees as do-gooders with cranky views on education, the sort of‘educated man who believes that an ignorant servant, who cannot with both her eyes read “slut” visibly written on a dusty table, can ... read a Greek chorus with her elbows’.24 The rhetorical effect here comes from the manifest absurdity of imagining that a working-class female could achieve the educational standard symbolised by reading Greek lyric verse. The point depends on extreme class snobbery as well as misogyny: the serving girl’s brain can never be developed (the body part mentioned is her elbows, symbol of manual labour). She is only by a syntactical hairsbreadth not dismissed as sexually depraved as well as educationally retarded.25

Of all forms of Greek, the words of the Greek tragic chorus seemed the most potent symbol of the elitist class connotations of the classical curriculum. For Victorians, the chorus symbolised esoteric intellectual matters, as people today talk about ‘rocket science’ or ‘brain surgery’. In the polemics of educational reformers, such as those who established the College of Physical Science at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1871, the metres of the Greek chorus become the emblem of useless’ education for its own sake. In 1871 a Yorkshire advocate of reformed, utilitarian and science-based education wrote an article in The Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser entitled ‘Useful versus Ornamental Learning’: he said,

Many men brought up in the strict traditions of academical learning will look with eyes of scorn upon the new College of Physical Science, just opened in Newcastle-upon-Tyne ... How can a nation prosper, will old college Dons think, whose sons let their wits go wool-gathering after chemistry and natural philosophy, when they ought to be hard at work unravelling the intricacies of a Greek chorus, which sounds remarkably well in the sonorous rhythms of Eurypides [sir], but which is found to be a trifle vague, not to say idiotic, when translated. Verily will our Don think the old order changeth when hydraulics and hydrostatics are prized above choriambics and catalectic tetrameters.26

The new College grew out of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers, a response to the horrendous mining catastrophes in the earlier 19th century. The first session, in 1871-1872, entailed 8 teaching staff, 173 students and the 4 subjects of Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Geology. But the antithesis between practical science which could save miners’ lives and ‘useless’ classical scholarship was curiously subverted in the figure of John Herman Merivale, the College’s first student, who became its first Professor of Mining.

He was warmly supported in his desire to alleviate mining conditions by his father, the Very Reverend Charles Merivale, Dean of Ely Cathedral, classical scholar, translator of Homer into English and author of A History of the Romans under the Empire (1850-1862). Merivale Senior also translated Keats’ Hyperion into Latin verse (1863).

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