Gilbert Murray

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Gilbert Murray

George Gilbert Aimé Murray, OM (2 January 1866 – 20 May 1957) was an Australian-born British[1] classical scholar and public intellectual, with connections in many spheres. He was an outstanding scholar of the language and culture of Ancient Greece, perhaps the leading authority in the first half of the twentieth century. He is the basis for the character of Adolphus Cusins in his friend George Bernard Shaw's play Major Barbara, and also appears as the chorus figure in Tony Harrison's play Fram.

Early life

Murray was born George Gilbert Aimé Murray in Sydney, Australia. His father, Sir Terence Aubrey Murray, who died in 1873, had been a Member of the New South Wales Parliament; Gilbert's mother, Agnes Ann Murray (née Edwards), ran a girls' school in Sydney for a few years. Then, in 1877, Agnes emigrated with Gilbert to the UK, where she died in 1891.[2]

Murray was educated at Merchant Taylors' School and St John's College, Oxford.


Academic career

In 1889–1899, Murray was Professor of Greek at the University of Glasgow.[3] There was a break in his academic career from 1899 to 1905, when he returned to Oxford; he interested himself in dramatic and political writing. After 1908 he was Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Oxford.[4]

From 1925–1926 Murray was the Charles Elliot Norton Lecturer at Harvard University.

Greek drama

Murray is perhaps now best known for his verse translations of Greek drama, which were popular and prominent in their time. As a poet he was generally taken to be a follower of Swinburne; and had little sympathy from the modernist poets of the rising generation.[5] The staging of Athenian drama in English did have its own cultural impact.[6] He had earlier experimented with his own prose dramas, without much success.

Over time he worked through almost the entire canon of Athenian dramas (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides in tragedy; Aristophanes in comedy). From Euripides, the Hippolytus and The Bacchae (together with The Frogs of Aristophanes; first edition, 1902);[7] the Medea, Trojan Women, and Electra (1905–1907); Iphigenia in Tauris (1910); The Rhesus (1913) were presented at the Court Theatre, in London.[8] In the United States Granville Barker and his wife Lillah McCarthy gave outdoor performances of The Trojan Women and Iphigenia in Tauris at various colleges (1915).

The translation of Œdipus Rex was a commission from W. B. Yeats.[9] Until 1912 this could not have been staged for a British audience. Murray was drawn into the public debate on censorship that came to a head in 1907[10] and was pushed by William Archer, whom he knew well from Glasgow, George Bernard Shaw,[11] and others such as John Galsworthy, J. M. Barrie and Edward Garnett. A petition was taken to Herbert Gladstone, then Home Secretary, early in 1908.

The Ritualists

He was one of the scholars associated with Jane Harrison in the myth-ritual school of mythography.[12] They met first in 1900.[13] He wrote an appendix on the Orphic tablets for her 1903 book Prolegomena; he later contributed to her Themis (1912).[14]

Francis Fergusson wrote

In public life

Liberal Party politics

He was a lifelong supporter of the Liberal Party, lining up on the Irish Home Rule[16] and non-imperialist sides of the splits in the party of the late nineteenth century. He supported temperance,[17] and married into a prominent Liberal, aristocratic and temperance family, the Carlisles. He made a number of moves that might have taken him into parliamentary politics, initially by tentative thoughts about standing in elections during the 1890s. In 1901-2 he was in close contact with the Independent Labour Party.[18] But the overall effect of the Second Boer War was to drive him back into the academic career he had put on hold in 1898, resigning his Glasgow chair (effective from April 1899).

He stood five times unsuccessfully for the University constituency of Oxford between 1919 and 1929. He continued support for the Asquith faction of Liberals, after the party was split again by Lloyd George.[19][20][21] During the 1930s the Liberals as a party were crushed electorally, but Liberal thinkers continued to write; Murray was one of the signatory Next Five Years Group formed around Clifford Allen.[22]


As Regius Professor and literary figure, he had a platform to promote his views, which were many-sided but Whig-liberal.[23] In 1912 he wrote an introduction to The Great Analysis: A Plea for a Rational World-Order, by his friend William Archer.[24] During World War I he became a pamphleteer, putting a reasoned war case. He also defended C. K. Ogden against criticism,[25] and took a public interest in conscientious objection.[26][27] Murray never took a pacifist line himself, and in fact broke an old friendship with Bertrand Russell early in the war.[28]

He was also involved as an internationalist in the League of Nations. He was a Vice-President of the League of Nations Society from 1916,[29] and in 1917 wrote influential articles in the Daily News.[30] At the invitation of Jan Smuts he acted in 1921/2 as a League delegate for South Africa.[31][32] Later he was a major influence in the setting-up of Oxfam[33][34] and of the Students' International Union (later the Institute of World Affairs).

Involvement with Wells

For a brief period Murray became closely involved with the novelist H. G. Wells. Initially this was in 1917 and connection with groups supporting a future League: Wells promoted a League of Free Nations Association (LFNA), an idea not in fact exclusive to him, since it had been 'up in the air' since Woodrow Wilson had started considering post-war settlements. Wells applied through the British propaganda office with which Murray had been connected since 1914. The two men corresponded from 1917 about League matters.[35] Wells was bullish about pushing ahead with a British LFNA, Murray was involved already in the League of Nations Society (LNS), though not active.[29] The political position was delicate, as Murray understood and Wells may not have: the LNS overlapped with the Union of Democratic Control, which was too far towards the pacifist end of the spectrum of opinion to be effective. Eventually in 1918 the LFNA was set up around Welsh Liberal MP David Davies, and then shortly the LFNA and LNS merged as the League of Nations Union.[36]

Two years later, Wells called on Murray, and Murray's New College colleague Ernest Barker, to lend their names as advisers on his Outline of History. Their names duly appeared on the title page.[37] Murray had to give evidence in the plagiarism case Deeks v. Wells that arose in 1925.[38]


Murray is often identified as a humanist, typically with some qualification ('classical', 'scholarly', 'engaged', 'liberal'). He joined the Rationalist Press Association, and in 1952 attended a major humanist conference. He wrote and broadcast extensively on religion (Greek, Stoic and Christian); and wrote several books dealing with his version of humanism.[39]

A phrase from his 1910 lectures Four Stages of Greek Religion enjoyed public prominence: the "failure of nerve" of the Hellenistic world, of which a turn to irrationalism was symptomatic.[40] His daughter Rosalind (later Rosalind Toynbee), a Catholic convert, attacked his secularism in her book of apologetics, The Good Pagan's Failure (1939).

Murray was baptised as a Roman Catholic; his father was a Catholic, his mother a Protestant. About a month before he died, when he was bedridden, his daughter Rosalind called the local Catholic priest to see him.[41] Rosalind subsequently claimed that Murray was then reconciled to the Catholic Church; other family members, however, contested her version of the events.

Awards and honours

He refused a knighthood in 1912,[42] though he was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1941. He received honorary degrees from Glasgow, Birmingham, and Oxford.[43]

He gave the 1941 Andrew Lang lecture.


Murray's father was Sir Terence Aubrey Murray and his brother Sir Hubert Murray. Murray's mother, Agnes Ann Murray (née Edwards), was a cousin of the dramatist W.S. Gilbert.

Murray married Lady Mary Henrietta Howard (1865–1956), daughter of George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle. When her mother Rosalind Howard, Countess of Carlisle died in 1921, Castle Howard was left to Lady Mary. However, she passed it on to her surviving brother Geoffrey,[44] retaining an estate in Cumberland with an income of c£5,000pa.[45]

Gilbert and Lady Mary had five children, three daughters and two sons, including:

  • Basil Murray, 1903–1937, who was a well-known and rather louche figure, and friend of Evelyn Waugh.[46] His wife was a daughter of the artist Algernon Newton RA, and a sister of Robert Newton.
  • Agnes Elizabeth Murray (1895 – 1920) Attended Somerville College Oxford, but gave up her studies to spend two years nursing before serving as an RAF dispatch rider and as an ambulance driver for the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Corps.
  • Rosalind Murray (1890–1967), a writer, married Arnold J. Toynbee, and was the mother of
  • Stephen (February 1908 – July 1994) a radical lawyer, married the architect Margaret Gillet. Stephen gave up law and became a farmer and lived at "Greenside" farm, Hallbankgate, Cumbria. He was chairman of Border Rural District Council (1962–66), of Cumberland County Council, of the Lake District Special Planning Board (1977–81) and of Cumbria County Council (1985–87). They were parents of
    • Gilbert, killed in climbing accident in Fox's Glacier New Zealand in the 1950s
    • Alexander (Sandy), academic medievalist historian at Oxford University
    • Robin, academic, economist, Chair of Twin Trading.[6]
    • Hubert, architect, now practising in Boston, MA, USA

The four children were evacuated during the second world war from London to the "Sands House Hotel", Brampton, Cumberland, which was converted to temperance status by Lady Rosalind, and run by Mrs and Mrs James Warwick, formerly in her service, with their daughter Charlotte Elizabeth. She became an enduring friend of the boys, and, poignantly, an unfinished letter to her was found on Gilbert's body after the accident.



Classical studies

  • Greek Poetry and Life, Essays presented to Gilbert Murray on his Seventieth Birthday, 2 January 1936 (1936)


See also


  1. Australian by birth, he returned to Australia in the 1890s for a visit. It has been lamented that perhaps the most famous Australian of his time, [he] expressed no interest whatever in Australia. [1]
  2. Wilson, p.3
  3. The most famous of his students there was John Buchan, whom Murray helped to take a further degree at Oxford.[2] Others were H. N. Brailsford and Janet Spens. He left Glasgow because his health broke down.
  4. He was a noted and popular lecturer. Amongst those on whom he had a particular influence was Gilbert Highet.[3]
  5. T. S. Eliot was rude: As a poet, Mr. Murray is merely a very insignificant follower of the pre-Raphaelite movement. (from Euripides and Professor Murray, an essay in The Sacred Wood (1920)). Swinburne was in fact a youthful enthusiasm of Murray's, and Eliot's identification of it has stuck; but Murray probably preferred Tennyson for content among the Victorians (Mary Berenson reported this in 1903, and it still held good 50 years on, West p.249.)
  6. From the 1880s onwards, amateur performances in Greek had been popular, particularly for students dramaticals. See on this The Invention of Jane Harrison (2000) by Mary Beard.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 First published in: The Athenian Drama, vol. III: Euripides (Euripides: Hippolytus; The Bacchae. Aristophanes: The Frogs. Translated into English rhyming verse), 1902 (OCLC 6591082); many reprints (together, separate, repackaged).
  8. See The Court theatre 1904–1907: a commentary and criticism by Desmond MacCarthy, 1966 reissue with Stanley Weintraub.
  9. R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life I p.334; early 1905. Foster also notes that Yeats and Murray corresponded about the Stage Society. Yeats was being provocative: Oedipus Rex could not be publicly presented on the British stage [4], because the incest was unacceptable to the censors. Foster (II p.338) notes that it was two decades later that the play was actually performed, but by then Yeats had adapted the Murray text, and R. C. Jebb's, and made cuts, for a rather different result.
  10. Wilson p.172
  11. Shaw was a friend, from Murray's time around 1902 looking into Fabianism—Shaw had used Murray's marriage to Lady Mary Howard in 1905 as the basis for that of Barbara and Adolphus in Major Barbara; see for example Michael Holroyd's biography of Shaw, for Murray providing ideas for Act III; also "In More Ways than One": Major Barbara's Debt to Gilbert Murray, Sidney P. Albert, Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2 (May 1968), pp. 123–140
  12. Noel Annan (The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics and Geniuses, 1999, p.243) wrote Gilbert Murray's remark that no one can write about Greek religion without being influenced by Jane Harrison seems truer now than when he made it.
  13. West p.132 say 1902 in Cambridge; but Wilson p. 119 says 1900 in Switzerland. In both cases it was through A. W. Verrall. Both books say they met at Bernard Berenson's Florence home in 1903, as Harrison was finishing Prolegomena, and discussed it.
  14. Excursus on the Ritual Forms Preserved in Greek Tragedy; reprinted in The Myth and Ritual Theory (1998), edited by Robert A. Segal. The editorial introduction writes (p.95) Murray views tragedy as the legacy of the ritualistic enactment of the myth of the life and death of Dionysius.
  15. Fergusson, The Idea of a Theatre (1949), reprinted in Segal, p.260
  16. Wilson, p.20: Murray founded an Oxford Home Rule League in 1886
  17. Wilson, p.21
  18. Wilson, p.75
  19. Wilson, see index p.467 for details and his academic elections against Lloyd George and Bonar Law, which were equally unsuccessful.
  20. In 1921 Murray was trying a scheme on Asquith to promote a new progressive grouping under Edward Grey (West p.184); but this proved impractical kingmaking.
  21. Noel Annan, in Our Age: The Generation that made Post-War Britain (1990) provides (p.236) a list of Liberal Party intellectuals of the 1920s capable of attracting the younger generation; Murray is listed there with Maynard Keynes, Hubert Henderson, Walter Layton, Ramsay Muir, Ernest Simon, Roy Harrod. Another list including Murray (p.32) is with J. A. Hobson, L. T. Hobhouse, J. L. Hammond and his wife Barbara (both close friends of Murray), Graham Wallas, H. W. Nevinson and H. W. Massingham, as 'the newly educated classes of the left' and 'reformers'.
  22. ... after Lloyd George had become the Independent Liberal in 1931, many remaining Liberals participated in the Next Five Years group, who proposed an aggressive industrial policy and management of banking and finance similar to the Yellow Book. It is true that the group called themselves nonpartisan, and in fact one of the core members was Harold Macmillan. However, as Freeden indicates, the Liberal tendency of the group was obvious as a whole. Geoffrey Crowther and Salter, both Liberals, were responsible for the first section of the book dealing with domestic affairs. The signatories included Layton, Rowntree, Cadbury, Isaac Foot, H. A. L. Fisher, Gilbert Murray, J. L. Hammond, and Hobson, other than several Liberal MPs. From paper by Tomoari Matsunaga, PDF.
  23. Robert L. Fowler, who has read and reflected on a huge amount of Murray's work, places him in context: a Liberal concerned with social organization, a League of Nations supporter, a vegetarian offended by the slaughter of the Gadarene swine, decent and generous, deeply influenced by the historicism of Wilamowitz-Moellendorff. Murray wrote Five Stages of Greek Religion in part to "counteract Jane Harrison's exaltation of the chthonic spirits by a vigorous defence of the Olympian deities," who for Murray characterized the Greek mind during the period of "true Hellenism" ending with the end of the Peloponnesian War. Murray's gods were morally, intellectually, and politically good, opposing the "megalomania and blood-lust" of earlier Greek religion and favoring the city-state. This is from Daniel P. Tompkins writing in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review. Wiliamowitz and Murray had been in touch as correspondents since the mid-1890s (Wilson p.55).
  24. It proposed the founding of an International College of Systematic Sociology. Composed of scholars and politicians from all nations, the College would monitor and interpret global affairs, its university anticipating the crises to be solved by its parliamentarians. Archer solicited the introduction from Murray for this utopian scheme, and then had it published anonymously as far as identifying himself as author. Andrew Carnegie was approached for funding, without result. (Peter Whitebrook (1993) William Archer: A Biography. p.307.)
  25. Wilson p.236; this was in March 1917
  26. In the case of the Quaker Stephen Hobhouse, Murray wrote an introduction to a pamphlet I appeal unto Caesar: the case of the conscientious objector by his mother Margaret. His father, Henry Hobhouse, was a Liberal MP from 1885 to 1906, and although a 'country squire' (Concise Dictionary of National Biography) was a Privy Councillor; and brother to L. T. Hobhouse, an old friend of Murray's. Murray was incensed at the treatment meted out to Stephen Hobhouse, who had been rejected as not a genuine objector of conscience (The Soul as It is and How to Deal with It, 1918 paper), and further wrote an introduction to Hobhouse's post-war book on prisons.
  27. He intervened directly in the case of Raymond Postgate (Wilson p.237). In a scare about the possible application of martial law to objectors, he contacted Lord Derby, the Secretary of War, and H. H. Asquith the Prime Minister face-to-face (Wilson p. 239).
  28. Murray was active in helping Russell when the latter was imprisoned; see West p.145 on pacifism, Wilson p.241 on aid to Russell. Murray, close to H. H. Asquith, had no time for David Lloyd George who displaced him as Prime Minister.
  29. 29.0 29.1 Wilson p.247
  30. Wilson, p.248
  31. Wilson p.249
  32. Murray's League activities extended to post-WWI intellectual revival, where he spoke up for funding for Germany (then not a League member); see E. M. Forster's life of Murray's deputy Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson.
  33. Oxfam was not initially known by that name at that point, post-WWII. A leading figure in this campaign was Professor Gilbert Murray (1866–1957).[...] He was a founder of the League of Nations Union, a citizen support group for international peace. As famine in Greece became severe in the autumn of 1941 the League of Nations Union appointed a 'Committee on Starvation in Occupied Countries'. In October 1941 Murray and Lord Robert Cecil, Viscount Chelwood (1864–1958), Joint presidents, sought a meeting with the Ministry of Economic Warfare to establish whether anything more could be done to relieve starvation in occupied countries.[...]Murray remained in Oxford after his retirement and was closely associated with the development of Oxfam as a founder and trustee. After the war he was joint president, 1945–1947 and 1949–1957, and sole president, 1947–1949, of the United Nations Association. From RTF file at .
  34. A Gilbert Murray Memorial Lecture for Oxfam has been given from 1959, endowed after his death. Speakers have included: Graça Machel (2005); Amartya Sen (2002); Gordon Brown (2000); Juan Sonavía (1996); Philippa Foot (1992); Desmond Tutu (1990); Crispin Tickell (1989); Smangaliso Mkhatshwa (1985); Prince Sadruddin (1983); David Owen (1978); August Lindt (1959); and by John Kenneth Galbraith, Conor Cruise O'Brien.
  35. A. B. McKillop, The Spinster and the Prophet (2000) p.143
  36. [The FNLA] members were mostly good haters of Germany and people of importance and influence [...] The idea of a League was becoming reputable chiefly owing to President Wilson [...] ... The 'Society' [LNS] sent its chairman W. H. Dickinson, G.L.D., J. A. Hobson and L. S. Woolf. The 'Association' [LFNA] sent C. A. McCurdy, Gilbert Murray, Wickham Steed, H. G. Wells. The dinner was a success [...]. E.M. Forster, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, p.169.
  37. The other advisers were E. Ray Lankester, Harry Johnston.
  38. McKillop, The Spinster and the Prophet covers this all thoroughly
  39. No one was exactly sure what Murray believed. His publisher Stanley Unwin took him as Rationalist and not Christian, but found him most Christian-like. (Memoirs of a Publisher). Ford Madox Ford, not always a reliable witness, describes in Return to Yesterday (p.229) a rigmarole Murray produced at a house party of Edward Clodd's, around 1905: Murray had some sort of patent faith of which all I can remember is that a black velvet coffin played a part in it. Murray's interest in some aspects of parapsychology is well documented. A. R. Orage's criticism of Murray (The New Age, 1913) as 'eclectic' applies. E. R. Dodds, Murray's pupil and successor, was advised to keep away from religion; Dodds might be taken as a more explicit rationalist in a line descending from Frazer. Murray's view on religion wasn't really separate from his Whiggishness.
  40. Stephen Weldon, writing on a humanist site, argues that In many ways, the failure of nerve thesis was merely one version of an anticlerical view of history common during the Enlightenment period, a view that depicted the religionists as cowards and the rationalists as heroes. Murray's innovation was to encapsulate that attitude in a compelling argument, expressing historical causality in terms of individual psychology. Weldon goes on to point to the way Sidney Hook later took up the theme.
  41. "The Faith and Dr Gilbert Murray", John Crozier, New Blackfriars, Volume 72, Issue 848, Page 188-193, April 1991
  42. Wilson p.193
  43. New International Encyclopedia
  44. Wilson, p.261-2. George Howard, who was Chairman of the British Broadcasting Corporation 1981-3, was Geoffrey's son.
  45. Charles Roberts: The Radical Countess, Steel Brothers, 1962, p158
  46. Basil Murray died in Spain, of pneumonia, having travelled out as a journalist to cover the Spanish Civil War. Wilson p.343.
  47. Obituary in The Guardian
  48. Philip's elder brother Lawrence married Jean Asquith, and had a reputation as an artist.[5]


External links