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À mon chevet: 'The Isles of Greece'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
The Isles of Greece! the isles of Greece
   Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
   Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set. [...]

The mountains look on Marathon—
   And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
   I dream'd that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians' grave,
I could not deem myself a slave. [...]

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
   Our virgins dance beneath the shade—
I see their glorious black eyes shine;
   But gazing on each glowing maid,
My own the burning tear-drop laves,
To think such breasts must suckle slaves.

Place me on Sunium's marbled steep,
   Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
   There, swan-like, let me sing and die;
A land of slaves shall ne'er be mine—
Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!

-- Lord Byron, The Isles of Greece (from Don Juan), selected stanzas
This week a colleague and I are leading a student group on a spring break tour of Greece, a place whose ancient art and architecture I have taught for many years. Seeing these sites has transformed the way I think about them, and accompanying my thoughts have been the words of another deeply affected traveler, Lord Byron. On the first day of our visit, we took the students to see the Temple of Poseidon, built on the rocky Cape Sounion, overlooking the glittering Aegean. By tradition it is the place where King Aegeas watched anxiously for the return of his son Theseus from Crete after his attempt to kill the Minotaur. Forgetting his promise to his father, Theseus thoughtlessly neglected to fly a white sail when he neared Cape Sounion, as a sign that he was still alive. Seeing a black sail, Aegeas threw himself into the sea, giving his life to the body of water that now bears his name. Lord Byron visited the place a couple times on his first trip through Greece, in 1810 and 1811, supposedly inscribing his name on a block of stone still forming part of one of the temple's square columns. This seems hard to believe, given Byron's pleading to all fellow visitors of Greece in other poems, where he deplores the stealing and defacing of Greek antiquities, but one felt a frisson of excitement seeing the name inscribed there nonetheless.

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