While still at Trinity, Wilde was asked on one exam to translate a fragment of a text about Odysseus into Elizabethan prose, and then was required to translate selections from Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and Matthew Arnold into Greek.
Luckily, Wilde, whose linguistic abilities were certainly formidable—years later, a former Portora schoolmate recalled his ability to “grasp the nuances of the various phases of the Greek Middle Voice and of the vagaries of Greek conditional clauses”—was to fall into the hands of the right professors. His Trinity master was the Reverend J.P. Mahaffy, a distinguished classicist who had a special interest in later Greek antiquity, and who was, too, a celebrated wit—a quality that must have appealed to his young student. (Informed that the current tenant of an academic post he coveted was ill, Mahaffy replied, “Nothing trivial, I hope?”)
In an 1874 book called Social Life in Greece, Mahaffy argued for a vision of the Greeks and their civilization as something more than a mausoleum of culture, “mere treasure-houses of roots and forms to be sought out by comparative grammarians.” Among other things, he showed a refreshing willingness to dust off contemporary attitudes toward one Hellenic institution that would have had a special if secret resonance for Wilde: homosexuality. “There is no field of enquiry,” Mahaffy wrote in Social Life in Greece, “where we are so dogmatic in our social prejudices, and so determined by the special circumstances of our age and country.”
Mahaffy’s advocacy of a living engagement with the civilization of the Mediterranean—still somewhat of a novelty at the time—would land the young Wilde in trouble. In the spring of 1877 he accompanied his former professor on a trip to Italy and Greece; after returning to Oxford several weeks late in the term, Wilde was “rusticated”—forced to leave university for the duration of term. The irony of being temporarily expelled from his classics curriculum for having immersed himself in the Greek world was not lost on the future master of the epigram, who observed that he “was sent down from Oxford for being the first undergraduate to visit Olympia.”
The Oxford that punished the unrepentant Wilde had, in fact, been shaking off the old ways, transformed by the energetic reforms of Benjamin Jowett, Regius Professor of Greek, Master of Balliol, and translator of Plato. It was Jowett who insisted that Greats include important currents in contemporary thought (as a young man he had been devoted to Kant); who saw, indeed, the classics as a natural conduit for modern liberal thought. Instrumental in shifting the emphasis of the curriculum from Roman to Greek authors, he made Plato central to it; not coincidentally, the philosopher’s dialectical method was embodied in the intimate one-on-one tutorial system.
The special Platonic emphasis at Oxford was clearly what animated Wilde’s later, admiring characterization of the curriculum as one in which one can be, simultaneously, brilliant and unreasonable, speculative and well-informed, creative as well as critical, and write with all the passion of youth about the truths which belong to the august serenity of old age.