Monday, October 31, 2016

The Life and Travels of Herodotus

Review of:
“The Life and Travels of Herodotus in the Fifth Century before Christ” (by J. Talboys Wheeler, 1855).

If the reader of this book wants any more of the same kind, he has only to give a favourable reception to the present publication, and it will be followed, Mr. Wheeler informs us, by other works upon a similar plan. It is solely in order to deprecate such an infliction that we notice the Life and Travels of Herodotus.

A thoughtful writer in the Oxford Essays complained, not long since, of those “shameless abominations"—comic histories of Greece and Rome. It would, perhaps, be unjust to Mr. Wheeler to describe his book as a comic Herodotus, inasmuch as it undoubtedly consists mainly of a heterogeneous mass of what is known at the Universities as geographical “cram,” connected, more or less remotely, with the subjects upon which Herodotus did write or might have written. But its different parts are tacked together by an imaginary Life of Herodotus which resembles the feebler efforts of Mr. G. P. R. James, and would neutralize a much larger amount of useful information than this work contains.

Herodotus is, perhaps, better known to his readers than almost any other classical author. The repose and self-respect with which he writes, and his exquisite good taste, alike remote from fastidiousness and from vulgarity, are the most instructive features of his book. The real defence for the time devoted by our modern system of education to the study of classical literature is to be found in the degree in which it cultivates these qualities. It is right that our earliest impressions of literature should be noble—it is wrong that they should bear the impress of an eager, busy, excitement-loving age. Who would wish his son's eye to be educated by caricatures, or his taste to be developed by “screaming farces," and "stunning" melodramas? If the present rage for prostituting literature to the most casual purposes of temporary amusement continues, we shall expect that as we have sliced up our novels into shilling numbers, and boiled down our Blackstones and Niebuhrs into flabby hebdomadal drivel, we shall in recess of time have a comic prayer-book, and a Bible in monthly arts, with illustrations by Phiz.

If any teachers should be foolish enough to think that they are lending their pupils to study the classics by presenting them with these volumes, we will venture to say that, instead of the truthful, humble-minded gentleman who introduces himself to the readers of the real Herodotus, they will associate that name with the commonplace, vulgar hero of one of the silliest of romances, and with a certain unctuous cant calculated to injure Christianity as much as it distorts heathenism. We will not inflict upon our readers any elaborate analysis of the wanderings of Mr. Wheeler's hero. From the first, the book is a miracle of clumsiness. There are three false starts before we fairly get to Herodotus’ birth. First, Thurium is founded; then “ sixteen years elapse," and Herodotus appears aged sixty; then he is born at Halicarnassus; then we go back to the Trojan War; then forward to the Battle of Marathon; then we have Herodotus’ birth over again, with eight or ten pages about his infancy; then how his nurse slapped him with her sandals; how he played at “chytindra, like our hot cockles," and “epostrakismos, like our ducks and drakes"—with much other edifying matter. A long specification of the fairy tales of his hero's nurse suggests to Mr. Wheeler the following pious reflection:—
‘The modern reader, who has received the truths of Revelation and lived beneath the light of the Holy Gospel, will scarcely appreciate the simple piety and childlike superstitions of the great body of the Greek people. He knows that the stone cut without hands has shattered the heathenisms of the ancient world. His memory is filled with the inspired denunciations against those foul systems of paganism which surrounded Canaan on every side. His imagination is occurred by vivid pictures of the vile idolatries at Damascus and Babylon, of the Mount of Corruption and the Vale of Hinnom.’
We cannot follow Mr. Wheeler's hero through the three years which “elapsed" at Samos, nor through the details of his visit to Corinth. Here, in illustration of the proverb, he went through certain experiences, like some which, in Bekker's Charicles, are detailed with a simple stolid grossness that is to our minds less offensive than the rudery with which our author, after bringing in his hero to the brink of what he calls “gallantry," “throws a thick veil over the dark vices of the ancient world, in order to make his work lit for general perusal." Upon these subjects we think, with Justice Shallow, that “there are two ways—to tell them or not to tell them." If Greek domestic society cannot be described truthfully, it is better not to describe it at all.

After the Corinth episode, come more journeys and more dissertations, reflecting mutual dulness upon each other; and next we have a disappointment in love, and a marriage to the wrong person, when Herodotus “wandered out, crushed and almost cart-broken. Feverish and excited, the cool breeze from the Aegaean blew in vain upon his heated brow; friends greeted him in the streets and agora, but he heeded them not"—and so on in a style which is a kind of profanity when applied to such a man. After various wanderings, Herodotus goes to Sass, and has some interviews with Nehemiah, who tells him the history of the Jews, noting for the purpose a good deal of the seventh chapter of the Acts, some of the Epistle to the Romans, and the opinions of certain modern divines about “the scheme of redemption propounded for the salvation of mankind." It hers occurs to Mr. Wheeler that, “though it is probably well known to our readers," they would, perhaps, like to hear the story of Esther “as a pleasing illustration of Persian manners;" and he accordingly proceeds to relate it “in our own words," some of which we subjoin:—
‘Mordecai replied as follows:—“Do not expect to escape in the palace more than the Jews in the provinces. For if thou holdest thy peace at this time, deliverance will come from another quarter, but thou and thy father's house shall he utterly destroyed."
This startling appeal roused the patriot spirit of the youthful Queen. The timid Hebrew lady, who had passed her whole life in the seclusion of an Oriental harem, now acted worthy of her high lineage, her count, and her God. . . . . Three days passed away, and then the beautiful heroine decked herself in her robes, and, leaving the royal harem, penetrated into the inner court of the apartments of the Great King. . . . . The Great King might look upon the approach of Esther as an act of high treason; . . . . even the guards might slay her without appealing to their royal master; but the dauntless beauty thought of her kinsmen and her God, and passed proudly on.’
We have next a glimpse of Jerusalem, and of “a horseman who might have been seen riding slowly through the Valley of Jehoshaphat," who was not one of Mr. James’s heroes, but Nehemiah; and then come, in the words of the Table of Contents, “Pestilence, Avenging Nemesis, Sorrow and Affliction, Thurium, Athens, and Conclusion." As Mr. Macaulay said of the readers of the Fairy Queen, we suspect that they will be very few and very weary who are in at the death of the hero, not to mention his second marriage.

Mr. Wheeler can do, and we believe has done, much better things than this. Let him remember that it is not the place of a scholar and man of information to bid for readers as the manager of a theatre bids for playgoers. An author ought to feel that he confers an obligation on his readers, instead of receiving one from them. There is, we fear, no help for the inevitable tedium of school-teaching; and nothing good can be looked for from a writer so long as he is the victim of “an anxious desire to make his work as popular as possible," and to “clear ancient history from the dust of the schools and teach it in shady playgrounds and flowery gardens."

Saturday Review, November 10, 1855.

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