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À mon chevet: 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage'

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

book cover
   Oh, thou! in Hellas deem'd of heavenly birth,
   Muse! form'd or fabled at the minstrel's will!
   Since shamed full oft by later lyres on earth,
   Mine dares not call thee from thy sacred hill:
   Yet there I've wander'd by they vaunted rill;
   Yes! sigh'd o'er Delphi's long-deserted shrine,
   Where, save that feeble fountain, all is still;
   Nor mote my shell awake the weary Nine
To grace so plain a tale -- this lowly lay of mine.

   Oh thou, Parnassus! whom I now survey,
   not in the frenzy of a dreamer's eye,
   Not in the fabled landscape of a lay,
   But soaring snow-clad through thy native sky,
   In the wild pomp of mountain majesty!
   What marvel if I thee essay to sing?
   The humblest of thy pilgrims passing by
   Would gladly woo thine Echoes with his string,
Though from thy heights no more one Muse will wave her wing.

   Oft have I dream'd of thee! whose glorious name
   Who knows not, knows not man's divinest lore:
   And now I view thee, 'tis, alas! with shame
   That I in feeblest accents must adore
   When I recount thy worshippers of yore,
   I tremble, and can only bend the knee;
   Nor raise my voice, nor vainly dare to soar,
   But gaze beneath thy cloudy canopy
In silent joy to think at last I look on thee!

   Happier in this than mightiest bards have been,
   Whose fate to distant homes confined their lot,
   Shall I unmoved behold the hallow'd scene,
   Which others rave of, though they know it not?
   Though here no more Apollo haunts his grot,
   And thou, the Muses' seat, are not their grave,
   Some gentle spirit still pervades the spot,
   Sighs in the gale, keeps silence in the cave,
And glides with glassy foot o'er yon melodious wave.

-- Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto I (selections)
Lord Byron wrote Childe Harold's Pilgrimage shortly after he returned from his travels to Greece, among other places, and it is in some sense autobiographical, although Byron protested that it was not. When Byron visited what was once Delphi, the site was occupied by a Greek village, whose residents had reused some of the stone ruins to build houses and other structures. He saw the Castalian spring, once thought to contain the sacred waters imbibed by the Pythia before she spoke with the voice of Apollo. (Again he is supposed to have inscribed his name at the ruins of the gymnasium not far from the spring, although visitors are not at present allowed to go near those places because rocks recently fell from the mountain face above.)

Many of the things that he saw, like the oracle's "cave," have been shown to be fictions by the archaeological research carried out at the site at the turn of the 20th century. If Byron were to see Delphi now, with the village removed and more of the site understood, including the many statues and other artistic works now in the nearby archaeological museum, his reaction would likely be quite different. It is hard to say which version would move him more, the forgotten traces crushed under daily life or the more historical site we see today. One thing that pictures of Delphi cannot capture is the immensity of the location, with the snow-capped peak of Mount Parnassus looming above and the nearness of the sea below, even though neither one is visible from the sanctuary itself. It is for a poet or musician a breath-taking experience to be on the side of that mountain, where the Muses themselves were born, and to stand in front of the site's famous Bronze Charioteer or the column of three dancers that inspired Debussy's Danseuses de Delphes.

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