In the first days of March 1900, the “Art and Literature” section of several British newspapers included a short paragraph on a Greek lady who established an infant school in Athens and used her knowledge of the English language to translate English nursery rhymes such as “Jack and Jill” and “Old Mother Hubbard” into Greek.[i] “England is repaying the debt it owes to the literature of Greece with nursery rhymes”, the text read, which are “immensely popular with the Hellenic infants”. “English scholars who amuse themselves by turning ‘Mary had a little lamb’ and such like rhymes, into Greek iambics,” Leith Burghs Pilot wrote, “will find at last a use for their apparently futile exertions.” Here, the title of short text was “Repayment”.
The comparison of Greek iambics to the “classics” of English nursery rhyming and the reference to a literary debt paid along the way were the building blocks of the humorous strain of the text. The use of the term “Hellenic” instead of “Greek” to refer to the recipients of the offered knowledge only added to the humor with the “Hellenic infants” echoing Romantic imaginings of Greece as if the nursery rhymes had magically travelled through language and time.
Punch magazine did not miss out on the fun offering some illustrations “in the Greek style” as a response to the news that an “Athenian school-mistress has translated the old English nursery rhymes into Greek.” (21 March 1900)
The Punch illustrations attempted to visually translate the rhymes into Greek. Its readers were given a taste of what a Greek translation of an “old” English song would look like rendering the awkward match into scenes of what could have been Ancient Greek vase drawings.
This very short episode in the story of the representation of Modern Greece in the British press shows that the heritage of Greek antiquity was still the most popular means of imagining what “Greek” meant at the beginning of a new century.
[i] Published in the following newspapers from 1 to 3 March 1900: St. Austell Star 01 March 1900; Bicester Herald, Abergavenny Chronicle, Ashbourne News Telegraph 02 March 1900; Shipley Times and Express, Longford Journal, Exmouth Journal, Christchurch Times, Sheerness Times Guardian, Lake’s Falmouth Packet and Cornwall Advertiser, Norwood News 03 March 1900.
Images from Punch 1900, Vol. 118 available at the Internet Archive.