»  Lord Byron's "The Isles of Greece"

 

The Isles of Greece

by George Gordon, Lord Byron, 1788-1824

 

•  Background

"The Isles of Greece" is the best-known instance in the English language of a poem-within-a-poem, the runner-up being the lines "Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white …" embedded in Tennyson's long poem "The Princess."

The long poem here is Byron's Don Juan.  In the third canto of the poem, Don Juan has been shipwrecked on a Greek Island belonging to Lambro, a pirate chief, of whom Byron gives a witty description:

Let not his mode of raising cash seem strange,
    Although he fleeced the flags of every nation,
For into a prime minister but change
    His title, and 'tis nothing but taxation …

(Don Juan is a satirical poem.) When Don Juan comes ashore, Lambro is off a-pirating. He has left the island in charge of his daughter, Haidee. Don Juan and Haidee are having a love affair in no time, and Don Juan is living large in the palace.

At this point in the third canto, a sumptuous banquet is being held. One of the entertainments is a court poet, and Byron gives us a character sketch of the fellow — taking the opportunity, of course, to pass some scathing remarks on English poets of the time who, in Byron's opinion, had sold out to the political establishment.

This court poet in Don Juan, however, is not completely without principle. To be sure, he will willingly cobble up verses to flatter the prejudices and tastes of whichever audience, in whichever country, he's addressing; but

… now being lifted into high society,
    And having pick'd up several odds and ends
Of free thoughts in his travels for variety,
    He deem'd, being in a lone isle, among friends,
That, without any danger of a riot, he
    Might for long lying make himself amends;
And, singing as he sung in his warm youth,
Agree to a short armistice with truth.

Byron proceeds to imagine the kind of thing this fellow might have sung to his partying Greek listeners, who at this time were subjects of the Ottoman Turks. The imagined lines make careful fun of his listeners' dissolute ways, remind them of the glorious heritage of ancient Greece, bemoan Greece's present subjection, and end on a stirring note of patriotic despair.

"The Isles of Greece" has returned echoes from many a heart, in many a nation — including some nations not yet enslaved.


•  Notes

"The Scian and the Teian muse" — The spirits, that is, of the poets supposed to have been born on Scios (a medieval name for the island of Chios) and Teos. That would be Homer and Anacreon, respectively.

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•  Text of the poem

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 Scian and the Teian muse,
    The hero's harp, the lover's lute,
Have found the fame your shores refuse;
    Their place of birth alone is mute
To sounds which echo further west
Than your sires' 'Islands of the Blest.'

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.

A king sate on the rocky brow
    Which looks o'er sea-born Salamis;
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
    And men in nations; — all were his!
He counted them at break of day —
And when the sun set where were they?

And where are they? and where art thou,
    My country? On thy voiceless shore
The heroic lay is tuneless now —
    The heroic bosom beats no more!
And must thy lyre, so long divine,
Degenerate into hands like mine?

'Tis something, in the dearth of fame,
    Though link'd among a fetter'd race,
To feel at least a patriot's shame,
    Even as I sing, suffuse my face;
For what is left the poet here?
For Greeks a blush — for Greece a tear.

Must we but weep o'er days more blest?
    Must we but blush? — Our fathers bled.
Earth! render back from out thy breast
    A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae!

What, silent still? and silent all?
    Ah! no; — the voices of the dead
Sound like a distant torrent's fall,
    And answer, 'Let one living head,
But one arise, — we come, we come!'
'Tis but the living who are dumb.

In vain — in vain: strike other chords;
    Fill high the cup with Samian wine!
Leave battles to the Turkish hordes,
    And shed the blood of Scio's vine!
Hark! rising to the ignoble call —
How answers each bold Bacchanal!

You have the Pyrrhic dance as yet,
    Where is the Pyrrhic phalanx gone?
Of two such lessons, why forget
    The nobler and the manlier one?
You have the letters Cadmus gave —
Think ye he meant them for a slave?

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
    We will not think of themes like these!
It made Anacreon's song divine:
    He served — but served Polycrates —
A tyrant; but our masters then
Were still, at least, our countrymen.

The tyrant of the Chersonese
    Was freedom's best and bravest friend;
That tyrant was Miltiades!
    O! that the present hour would lend
Another despot of the kind!
Such chains as his were sure to bind.

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
    On Suli's rock, and Parga's shore,
Exists the remnant of a line
    Such as the Doric mothers bore;
And there, perhaps, some seed is sown,
The Heracleidan blood might own.

Trust not for freedom to the Franks —
    They have a king who buys and sells;
In native swords, and native ranks,
    The only hope of courage dwells;
But Turkish force, and Latin fraud,
Would break your shield, however broad.

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!