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Everyone finds the Alexander they are looking for. Discuss.

Everyone finds the Alexander they are looking for. Discuss.

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Katie Pavid. Originally submitted for Writing Alexander at Durham University, with lecturer Dr Edmund Richardson in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Katie Pavid. Originally submitted for Writing Alexander at Durham University, with lecturer Dr Edmund Richardson in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Abstract This essay aims to explore the legacy left by the elusive general, Alexanderthe Great. His personality has been reinvented by successive generations,nations and empires, until it has been transmuted perhaps beyond recognition.Even the earliest historians – Arrian, Diodorus, Rufus Curtius – could not agreeon the campaigns, actions, decisions, or attitude of the man, who quicklydissolved into legend. This essay uses the close reading of Victorian poetry toattempt to understand the nuances of Victorian society, refracted through thecharacter of Alexander. Even the nineteenth century saw Alexander recreatedin a variety of guises; from the exotic burlesque dancer to the all-conqueringintellectual soldier. The poetry of the Tennyson brothers not only captures themood of a generation, but equally captures the difficulties a historian is facedwith in their quest to unravel the past. Thus this essay does not pretend to make a claim itself on the legacy of Alexander, but seeks to point out that when ancient history and moderncivilisation meet, huge complications are faced because no man is impartial;each newcomer to the historical method cannot help but be a product of histime and thus his consciousness is fused with that of his ancient subjects. Eventhe most resilient of generals was unable to resist the forces of time andchange, and therein lies both the curse and the beauty of historical enquiry.1
Everyone finds the Alexander they are looking for. Discuss. This essay sets out to explore this question with regard to nineteenth centuryBritish constructions of Hellenism, Alexander and cultural identity. Examiningthe literary products of the Victorian era allows one to unpick the nuances of audience, as well as understand how the projection of the self or contemporarysociety on to any reworking of Alexander’s story underpins its focus. It willdeconstruct the effects of using poetry as a methodological approach to thenarrative of Alexander: this is not about story-telling, it is about using theimage of Alexander conceptually to approach contemporary nineteenthcentury problems. The discussion will centre on Charles Tennyson Turner’s whimsical poem, “Onseeing a little child spin a coin of Alexander the Great” (
Collected Sonnets
,1880). It begins: This is the face of him, whose quick resource/ Of eye and hand subduedBucephalus,And made the shadow of the startled horse/A foreground for his glory. The focus here is on face and image: this is the face of a hero. Victoriansociety displayed a great preoccupation with what it was to be a success,whether in industry, in trade, in marriage or in the Imperial sense.
Alexander’svery profile cannot help but project an identity and command attention; it is upto the onlooker to interpret that identity in such a way as is meaningful tothem. The poem at first presents what for many people is the ultimate success
This is especially true of Victorian conceptions of heroism and kingship, and Britain’scolonial activities in India. An alternative nineteenth century tradition makes Alexandera moral and military exemplar. See Kipling 1987 and Masson 1842.
story, beginning with a tone of authority and a fact which seemingly cannot berefuted by the reader - “This is the face”; it allows no room for the suggestionthat Alexander was not a success. The assertive words make a claim on thetruth, which the poem then goes on to destabilise. Alexander’s “life, his gloriesand misdeeds,” are first offered to the reader as a given, unquestioned,however the majority of the fourteen-line poem chooses to focus then on hisloss, his defeat in the great battle against time which every man faces:“And that abortive court of Babylon/ Where the world’s throne was leftamong the reeds.His dust is lost in the ancient dead/ A coin his only presence: he is gone:And all but this half mythic image fled...” The poem is self-aware, and through its progression makes the readerconscious that the scope of observation is broad: the reader observes the poet,who observes the child, who observes and dismisses the general. The distancebetween the reader and Alexander is at once boundless and finite. On the onehand, all we have left of “Alexander” the personality is a profile on a coin, yetwe are able to hold that coin and all it stands for in the palm of our hands, andif we wish, toss it away as if its value is minimal. This is not a text whichquestions conceptions of Alexander the man, nor does it ask the reader tobelieve anything ground-breaking about his life or personality. What it choosesto do is remind us of his ultimate fragility and the fallibility of power. The frailty of human happiness and prosperity, as well as the frailty of faithitself, are famous for being great Victorian preoccupations. Charles Dickens,George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell’s industrial and social novels exploreprosperity and its effects, and the movement of individuals up and down the3

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