Alright, this is technically more of an essay review than a book review, but never mind. Woolf’s short essay is included in a collection of her criticism published by Hesperus, and while the other essays collected in this brief volume do look interesting, I want to concentrate just on this one for today. There’s an electronic version of the text here, although the Greek quotations don’t come through.
I should start by pointing out that for Woolf to write an essay on not knowing Greek was actually rather pointed in 1925, when the piece was first published. At that stage, in terms of the education of women, while Newnham and Girton were now well established at Cambridge, and Jane Harrison, Eugenie Strong and their successors had amply demonstrated women’s competence in the field of classics, women still were not being given access to the same educational tools as men. Prep schools still put little boys into Latin at five or six, and Greek not long after, meaning that the girls who first encountered the languages later in the schoolroom were already many years behind their male peers. (This still happens – I first started Latin at age twelve, and then at Cambridge found myself in the company of young men who had started at six or seven, and even that difference created a confidence gap. Let’s not mention my Greek, which I first began during my gap year, meaning I lagged behind anyone who had had the chance to do GCSE, let alone A-level.) For a female writer in the 1920s to talk about not knowing Greek was a markedly deliberate act, a spikier version of which appears in A Room of One’s Own. It’s a statement about privilege, about opportunity, about social status, about gender and about class.
That said, Woolf doesn’t follow the point that the title implicitly makes (and arguably she doesn’t need to). In fact, her implicit dialogue with her title continues since she demonstrates that she actually knows Greek well enough to pick apart the language and comment on “useless” translations. The ‘not knowing’ to which her title refers is instead the inability to know how the Greeks thought, to pick up the resonances that the original reader would have heard – the foreign language holds us in thrall, but we cannot fully grasp its power. The only way to get anywhere close is to get back to Greek in the original, and Woolf devotes several paragraphs at the end of the essay expounding on the inherent beauty of the language.
Her overall point fastens on a central tenet of early twentieth century ways of thinking about antiquity – that the Greeks reflect something somehow pure. The characters of plays who have since become familiar types, like the King and the Queen, have a freshness: “here we meet them before their emotions have been worn into uniformity”. The Greeks become archetypal, even down to the language itself – “then, spare and bare as it is, no language can move more quickly, dancing, shaking, all alive, but controlled”. This balance of vitality and restraint is what draws Woolf to Greek, as does the sense of the Greeks’ paradoxical innocence: “their actions seem laden with beauty because they do not know that they are beautiful, have been born to their possessions, are no more self-conscious than children, and yet, all those thousands of years ago, in their little islands, know all that is to be known”.
The academic in me is, of course, brimming over with comments about unhelpful attitudes to the purity of Greece and how that fits into a cultural contruct of Greece vs. Rome and general ideas of moral and artistic integrity associated with Greek and how that fits into wider social interpretations of the classical world. But all of that scholarly background noise doesn’t detract from the beauty of Woolf’s own writing – her own sparseness of expression, her own engagement with the texts, and her own very deliberate proof that, actually, she does know Greek.