“The slightest object from the Acropolis is a jewel.”
“but molest not yon defenceless urn:
Look on this spot – a nation’s sepulchre.”
Lord Byron famously remarked, probably in reaction to his friend, the Romantic poet Percy Shelley’s love of ancient Greece that he despised antiquities. Nonetheless, he considered the ancient ruins of Greece to be the sepulchre, or burial ground of a lost civilisation and thus, these took on a sacred character for him. As such, their removal was tantamount to desecration. As he wrote in his seminal poem, “Childe Harold”: “Remove yon skull from out the scatter’d heaps: Is that a temple where a God may dwell?”
Lord Byron thus poured considerable scorn upon Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, who obsessed with “Phidian freaks, / Mis-shapen monuments and maimed antiques” as he removed most of the friezes from the Acropolis and shipping them to England. As the ravaged Parthenon became even more despoiled, Byron railed at the ultimate degradation of what he considered to be the corpse of a whole culture: “Tis Greece – but living Greece no more! So coldly sweet, so deadly fair, We start – for soul is wanting there.”
Filled with indignation, he channelled his immense rage against the ignoble depredations of the rapacious Elgin in many stanzas of “Childe Harold,” thus:
“But most the modern Pict’s ignoble boast,
To rive what Goth, and Turk, and Time hath spared:
Cold as the crags upon his native coast,
His mind as barren and his heart as hard,
Is he whose head conceived, whose hand prepared,
Aught to displace Athena’s poor remains:
Her sons too weak the sacred shrine to guard,
Yet felt some portion of their mother’s pains,
And never knew, till then, the weight of Despot’s chains.
Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorr’d!”
Yet this indignation is nothing compared to the shrieking maledictions he utters in his vitriolic poem: “The Curse of Minerva.”
In that poem, Lord Byron sits alone within the walls of the ruined Parthenon. He invokes a golden Olympian sunset that illumines the whole of Greece:
“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 hushed deep the yellow beam he throws, Gilds the green wave that trembles as it glows…”
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Suddenly, Minerva, the Roman name of the goddess Athena, appears in front of him. He can hardly recognise her as she has been completely ravaged, by Elgin:
“Yes,’twas Minerva’s self; but, ah! how changed,
Since o’er the Dardan field in arms she ranged!
Not such as erst, by her divine command,
Her form appeared from Phidias’ plastic hand:
Gone were the terrors of her awful brow,
Her idle ægis bore no Gorgon now;
Her helm was dinted, and the broken lance
Seemed weak and shaftless e’en to mortal glance;
The Olive Branch, which still she deigned to clasp,
Shrunk from her touch, and withered in her grasp;
And, ah! though still the brightest of the sky,
Celestial tears bedimmed her large blue eye;
Round the rent casque her owlet circled slow,
And mourned his mistress with a shriek of woe!”
She addresses Lord Byron: “Mortal! -’twas thus she spake – that blush of shame Proclaims thee Briton, once a noble name; First of the mighty, foremost of the free, Now honour’d less by all, and least by me: Chief of thy foes shall Pallas still found. Seek’st thou the cause of loathing? -look around.”
Minerva then reveals that the goddess Venus has avenged her: Lord Elgin’s cuckolding and divorce are a punishment for his sacrilege against the Greeks: “Yet still the gods are just, and crimes are cross’d See here what Elgin won, and what he lost! Another name with his pollutes my shrine: Behold where Diana’s beams disdain to shine! Some retribution still might Pallas claim, When Venus half avenged Minerva’s shame.”
Further in the poem, Minerva attacks Elgin’s Scottish homeland, which paradoxically, is also the ancestral homeland of Byron, likening it to Boeotia, which he considered an infertile and uncultured part of Greece, using this motif in order to call Elgin’s pretensions to culture into question. Ingeniously, in order to avoid being tarred by his own brush, he identifies with the Boeotian poet Pindar, claiming that just as Boeotia produced a few great men, so too was there hope for selected Scots, “the letter’d and the brave”, provided they were prepared to leave their native land. The poet’s reply, is thus a skilled attempt at blame shifting, one that is necessary, since Byron was not averse to defacing monuments such as the temple at Sounion, upon which he carved his name:
“Daughter of Jove! in Britain’s injured name,
A true-born Briton may the deed disclaim.
Frown not on England; England owns him not:
Athena, no! thy plunderer was a Scot.”
Minerva bids him to carry her curse home to his native shore. The pronouncement of Minerva’s curse is severe: Lord Elgin, like Eratostratus, who set fire to the temple of Diana at Ephesus, will be forever hated. Furthermore, the British State, a receiver in stolen goods, will also bear her curse:
“First on the head of him who did this deed
My curse shall light,—on him and all his seed:
Without one spark of intellectual fire,
Be all the sons as senseless as the sire:
If one with wit the parent brood disgrace,
Believe him of a brighter race:
Still with his hireling artists let him prate,
And Folly’s praise repay for Wisdom’s hate;
Long of their Patron’s gusto let them tell,
Whose noblest, native gusto is—to sell:
To sell, and make—may shame record the day!—
The State—Receiver of his pilfered prey.”
In a remarkable diatribe against colonialism, Byron presciently predicts that Britain will be punished for her crime against Greece, through the loss of her colonial Empire. Ominously, the revolt of India is envisaged:
“Look to the East, where Ganges’ swarthy race
Shall shake your tyrant empire to its base;
Lo! there Rebellion rears her ghastly head,
And glares the Nemesis of native dead;
Till Indus rolls a deep purpureal flood,
And claims his long arrear of northern blood.
So may ye perish!—Pallas, when she gave
Your free-born rights, forbade ye to enslave.”
Ultimately, and eerily considering the present surreal Brexit climate, Byron foresees that Minerva will strike at home too. Britain will fade into obscurity, an impoverished nation, bereft of values, isolated, with political leaders that are laughable:
“Look last at home—ye love not to look there
On the grim smile of comfortless despair:
Your city saddens: loud though Revel howls,
Here Famine faints, and yonder Rapine prowls.
See all alike of more or less bereft;
No misers tremble when there’s nothing left.
‘Blest paper credit;’ who shall dare to sing?
It clogs like lead Corruption’s weary wing.
Yet Pallas pluck’d each Premier by the ear,
Who Gods and men alike disdained to hear;
But one, repentant o’er a bankrupt state,
On Pallas calls,—but calls, alas! too late:
Then raves for’——’; to that Mentor bends,
Though he and Pallas never yet were friends.
Him senates hear, whom never yet they heard,
Contemptuous once, and now no less absurd.
So, once of yore, each reasonable frog,
Swore faith and fealty to his sovereign ‘log.’
Thus hailed your rulers their patrician clod,
As Egypt chose an onion for a God.”
Is Theresa May therefore a mere manifestation of Athena’s curse against Lord Elgin, delivered so long ago? Will Boris Johnson be the rod of our righteous anger, in whose hand is the club of our wrath?
In a note to his book “A Journey through Albania and other provinces of Turkey in Europe and Asia to Constantinople,” Hobhouse, Byron’s travel companion in Greece, wrote: “I cannot forbear mentioning a singular speech of a learned Greek of Ioannina who said to me: “You English are carrying off the works of the Greeks – our forefathers preserved them well -we Greeks will come and re-demand them.”
Of all philhellenes, the cynical Lord Byron perhaps understood us the best, writing to Ioannis Marmarotouris in 1811: “To talk, as the Greeks themselves do, of their rising again to their pristine superiority, would be ridiculous.” His prescience was appreciated by Allen Upward, who wrote: “If Britain gives birth to Byrons, she also gives birth to Elgins; and the Byrons are usually in exile, while the Elgins are in office.”
Yet to those who despair of Britain ever returning the Parthenon Marbles to Greece and being the recipient of retribution, or even of Modern Greece ever becoming a viable country, Lord Byron, in “Childe Harold” provides perfect consolation, for those willing to play the long game, a game as exceedingly long as Byron’s…stanzas:
“A thousand years scarce serve to form a state;
An hour may lay it in the dust: and when
Can man its shatter’d splendour renovate,
Recall its virtues back, and vanquish Time and Fate.”
Let the wait begin.