On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

    MY spirit is too weak--mortality
    Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep
    And each imagin'd pinnacle and steep
    Of godlike hardship, tells me I must die
    Like a sick Eagle looking at the sky.
    Yet tis a gentle luxury to weep
    That I have not the cloudy winds to sweep
    Fresh for the opening of the morning's eye.
    Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
    Bring round the heart an indescribable feud;
    So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
    Which mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
    Wasting of old Time--with a billowy main--
    A sun--a shadow of a magnitude.

    John Keats (1795 - 1821)

To paraphase one expert writes:

    'The Elgin Marbles written about in this poem are the decorative sculptures from Athens. The 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce Elgin, arranged with the Turks who then occupied Greece to purchase the marble pieces and have them transported to England.'

Brought up on a neoclassical ideal of beauty, the 19th-century spectators like John Keats were stunned by the delicate intricacies of the Parthenon sculptures: the naturalistic depiction of anatomy, the social detail of the crowd, the fact that these were real people in a real place and time. When the marbles were put on display in 1817 in the British Museum, Keats returned time after time to sit before them. Was it to do with Greek nationalism or British imperialism? Was it because of the way Lord Elgin obtained them which has never really been resolved. (See Byron's Childe Harold, canto ii. for his thoughts in regards to it as an act of vandalism).

The British government determined it as a rescue. In either case if the statues had not been brought to London, Keats would have never seen them and would never have written On Seeing the Elgin Marbles (Life, Letters, and Literary Remains,1848). The return of the Elgin Marbles is still highly controversial today and he return of the Elgin marbles has been a rallying call for the British left from Lord Byron to Christopher Hitchens.

Not solely in sympathy for Greek nationalism, but also from the recognition of beauty as a political good. The Parthenon frieze is a monument to a democratic city-state, the beautiful vision of a radically democratic society that Byron and Keats went woozy over.


Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

acessed August 24, 2003.

CST Approved

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