Here, perhaps, is the root of the characteristically Wildean taste for entwining ostensibly incompatible qualities. His work encompassed, sometimes uneasily, what he saw as his “Gothic” and “Greek” sides, veering between a grandiose Romanticism and an astringent Classicism, the fusty nineteenth-century melodrama of most of his theater and the crisp modernism of his critical thought.
Mahaffy and Jowett weren’t the only Hellenists advocating a profoundly engaged approach to the classics during the latter half of the nineteenth century. During Wilde’s time at Oxford the literary critic and poet John Addington Symonds was publishing his two-volume Studies of the Greek Poets (1873, 1876). While their earnestness and dogged effort at comprehensiveness may have been exhaustingly typical of mid-Victorian criticism, these volumes were particularly celebrated (or derided) for their unusually passionate, personal, and florid style: a style that hinted at a more than purely academic degree of investment in the subject, and suggested, once again, that the Greeks could have more than a “dry as dust” meaning for the present day.
The Women of Homer now takes its place as the earliest of several youthful classical writings that amply display a precocious intellectual and critical aplomb. A disjointed mass of notes and paragraphs that Wilde produced in about 1877 was edited a century later into a misleadingly finished-looking “essay” called “Hellenism.” However unoriginal this account of Spartan culture often is, it sometimes betrays a shrewd and crisply unsentimental appreciation of the Greeks and their qualities—such shrewdness and lack of sentimentality being the very qualities that mark the “Greek” facets of Wilde’s own work. Not the least interesting of its assertions is that the Greek city-states’ “selfish feeling of exclusive patriotism, this worship of the πόλις [polis, city-state] as opposed to the πάτρια [patria, homeland]”—the quality with which the nineteenth-century admirers of Rome typically reproached the squabbling Greeks—was, in fact, the key to the Greek cultural achievement. It was this “selfishness” that, as Wilde saw it, saved the Greeks “from the mediocre sameness of thought and feeling which seems always to exist in the cities of great empires.”