February 08, 2004

Christmas in the Elgin Room

The Elgin Marbles are among the most famous cultural artifacts in European history, but sometimes, it seems, they aren't considered in their full historical context. After all, it's easy to see the controversy surrounding them in ahistorical terms--we remember that a British noble named Lord Elgin seized a group of sculptures from the frieze of the Parthenon in the 1804 and that the Greeks now want them back, but we've largely forgotten the events that transpired between Elgin's day and our own.

The Elgin Marbles aren't just the center of a contemporary political debate, however: they were also the subject of a series of atrocious English poems. Those poems are worth looking at today, I believe, if only for their entertainment value.

Lord Byron was undoubtedly the most famous of Elgin's literary detractors. One of his best-known poems, "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," denounces Elgin as a "modern Pict" and even includes the following lines (according to the website for a British campaign to return the Marbles) :

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 snatch'd thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

Byron also wrote a long, satirical, and boring poem called "The Curse of Minerva." It was published against Byron's will in Philadelphia in 1815, and was published again after Byron died; reading the verse, it's clear why Byron didn't want it to see the light of day. Nevertheless, some say that Elgin was plagued by this curse: he developed a nasty skin disease in Turkey, which made his nose fall off and really disgusted his wife. Then Lady Elgin then began a high-profile affair with a politician and mineral collector named Robert Ferguson, forcing her husband to sue Ferguson for 10,000 pounds over the collapse of his marriage.

Thomas Hardy took a different tack in his 1905 poem "Christmas in the Elgin Room," which considers the fate of the Marbles from the perspective of the Greek gods. In Hardy's view, the gods--as represented by the statues from the Parthenon frieze--are cooped up, unhappy, in the British Museum, upset at the course of history that has led to their own fall and to the rise of Christianity:

"O it is sad now we are sold--
We gods! for Borean people's gold,
And brought to the gloom
Of this gaunt room
Which sunlight shuns, and sweet Aurore but enters cold.

"For all these bells, would I were still
Radiant as on Athenai's Hill."
--"And I, and I!"
The others sigh,
"Before this Christ was known, and we had men's good will."

Hardy never tells us what should be done with the Marbles, but his views seem clear nonetheless: the British Museum is a bleak, unhappy place, and the statues would be better off back in Greece.

Which leads to an interesting question: What conclusions should we draw from these poems? On one level, I'd argue, they tell us something about English intellectual history: as Mary Beard recently pointed out, there's a long history of British writers who've had trouble confronting the Marbles' mythic fame. At the same time, they remind us that--in certain quarters--Lord Elgin's actions were as controversial in the nineteenth century as they are today. That's an important lesson to remember as the world debates the Marbles' fate.

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