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5.4.16

On Byron's Trail in Athens


Greece Embracing Lord Byron (Athens)
"Slow sinks, more lovely ere his race be run,
Along Morea's hills the setting sun;
Not, as in northern climes, obscurely bright,
But one unclouded blaze of living light;
O'er the hush'd deep the yellow beam he throws,
Gilds the green wave that trembles as it glows:
On old Aegina's rock and Hydra's isle
The god of gladness sheds his parting smile;
O'er his own regions lingering loves to shine,
Though there his altars are no more divine.
Descending fast, the mountain-shadows kiss
The glorious gulf, unconquer'd Salamis!
Their azure arches through the long expanse,
More deeply purpled, meet his mellowing glance
And tenderest tints, along their summits driven,
Mark his gay course, and own the hues of heaven,
Till, darkly shaded from the land and deep,
Behind his Delphian rock he sinks to sleep.

On such an eve his palest beam he cast,
When, Athens! here thy wisest look'd his last.
How watch'd thy better sons his farewell ray,
That closed their murder'd sage's latest day;†
Not yet—not yet—Sol pauses on the hill,
The precious hour of parting lingers still;
But sad his light to agonizing eyes,
And dark the mountain's once delightful dyes;
Gloom o'er the lovely land he seem'd to pour,
The land where Phoebus never frown'd before;
But ere he sunk below Cithaeron's head,
The cup of woe was quaff'd—the spirit fled;
The soul of him that scorn'd to fear or fly,
Who lived and died as none can live or die."

† Socrates

-- Lord Byron, The Curse of Minerva (excerpt)

Byron penned this poem (or at least the beautiful start of it) on March 17, 1811, when he was staying at the Capuchin Convent here in Athens. He later withdrew it from publication, and its later stanzas, in which Athena herself appears to the poet to condemn the destruction of her most sacred temple, on the city's acropolis, by Lord Elgin, are more than a little hokey. The Capuchin monastery used to be in a building that incorporated the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, from the 4th century B.C. Known as the first structure to feature the Corinthian architectural order in an exterior context, it is a monument to a wealthy citizen of Athens who supported the musicians and chorus in the sacred plays of the Dionysia. Once erroneously called the Lantern of Demosthenes, the monument can still be seen in what is now known as Lysicrates Square in the Plaka neighborhood of Athens.

On our last day in Athens, we also saw the Greek monument to Lord Byron, located in a prominent place at the edge of the National Garden in the city center. It shows the maternal figure of Greece welcoming Byron as her own son. Our terrific guide on the Athens part of this trip, visibly emotional, said about the monument, "Lord Byron was one of the most important supporters of Greece during the fight for independence. For us, he is not British, he is Greek." Our guide also became quite sad as she recounted the story of Lord Elgin's deception, when he destroyed so many of the sculpted parts of the Parthenon, taking them down, cutting them into pieces, and taking them back to London. It was a catastrophe that Byron railed against in more than one of his poems. "We should not honor him by naming those sculptures the 'Elgin Marbles'," our guide added. "We should call them simply the sculptures of the Parthenon in Athens."

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