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Scholarly Horizons: University of Minnesota, Morris Undergraduate Journal

Abstract

The outbreak of the Greek Revolution of 1821 against the Ottoman Empire animated the radical European intelligentsia in a way unseen since the French Revolution 30 years before. The British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley joined the chorus of philhellenes (meaning one who loves Greece) by extolling the Greek cause in his epic poem, Hellas. Scholarship has traditionally seen Shelley’s representation of the revolution either as an overly classicized literary indulgence or as a purely polemical defense of a political event. By identifying ways in which Shelley uses the classical past to engage the reader with the subject, I will show how both interpretations fail to properly grasp the significance of language in nuancing the relationship between reality and ideality in the poem. By complicating this relationship, Shelley created an imagined proximity between the reader and the Greek subject, which transgressed real spatial and cultural differences that otherwise hindered such political solidarity. This proximity stemmed from a set of ‘shared’ historical and philosophical traits rooted in ancient Greece and standardized during the early 19th century. By using popular literature to create commonalities between disparate people, Shelley also intended to link the revolution to a wider struggle against the ‘despotic courts’ of Europe. Shelley’s vision of a classicized Greek people (and their cause) was neither idealistic nor realistic. Instead, it employed literature and language in a revolutionary way to create a universalist portrayal of the Greek revolution that engendered sympathy on the part of a reader otherwise far removed from the conflict.

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