Lord Byron, The Isles of Greece
Recorded in April 2020. First published in 1819, in the third canto of Don Juan. This poem is written as if from the point of view of a modern Greek poet, during the time of Turkish subjugation.
Sappho: One of the greatest poets of antiquity; sometimes called the tenth muse.
Delos: The birthplace of Apollo, or Phoebus. Phoebus, as the god of the muses, stands here for art, music, and literature.
The grammatical antecedent of “them” and “their” is “the isles of Greece.”
Scian muse: Homer, who was said to have been born in Chios (in Italian, Scio).
Teian muse: The poet Anacreon, one of the nine lyric poets. He was famous for his drinking-songs and hymns.
Islands of the Blest: Semi-legendary islands in the Atlantic ocean, said to be an earthly paradise. The meaning of this stanza is: Culture, liberty, and the classics, have fled Greece, their homeland, and come to the West instead; including America, a place which, in antiquity, was, of course, undiscovered.
Marathon: The site of a famous battle where Greece prevailed over Persian invaders.
A king: This is the Persian king Xerxes, who, according to Herodotus, invaded Greece with an army of five million men. He was finally defeated at the sea-battle of Salamis.
And where are they: In this fifth stanza, the poet laments the death of high culture and military valour in Greece.
A fettered race: At the time when this poem was composed, Greece had languished under Turkish subjugation for centuries.
Thermopylae: This is one of the most celebrated battles in the history of the world. According to Herodotus, an army of three hundred Spartans held their own, and fought to the death, against an army of five million Persians.
Leave battles to the Turkish hordes: In the 19th century, Greece had long been under the subjugation of Turkey. The Turks are called hordes because they were originally nomads.
Bacchanal: The devotees of Bacchus, the god of wine, had a reputation in antiquity for drunken revelry. Hence the poet uses the word as a term of reproach to describe his fellow Greeks.
Pyrrhic: The Pyrrhic dance was a Greek war-dance. The Pyrrhic phalanx was a famous battle-formation involving a close massing of troops.
The letters Cadmus gave: According to legend, Cadmus, a Phoenician king, introduced the alphabet, and hence the foundation of literature, to Greece. This story has a grain of truth to it, since the Greek alphabet is based upon the Phoenician one.
The eleventh stanza is the most confusing in the poem, in both grammar and sense. Two thought-groups are conveyed: 1) Anacreon of Samos was famed for his drinking-songs; and the poet contemptuously and sarcastically intends to stick to that model of life and literature, because heroism is lost in Greece. 2) The poet reflects that Anacreon lived under an autocracy, not a democracy; but then observes further that Polycrates, his monarch, was both a benevolent ruler, and a fellow-Greek, not a Turk.
Miltiades: This man, although he was an autocrat, prevailed over the Persian invaders at the battle of Marathon, and so preserved the liberty of Greece. The poet reflects that, even without democracy, a heroic Greek monarch would be far superior to Turkish subjugation.
Suli: Byron admired the people of this place when he was travelling through Albania; he visited Suli in 1809.
Parga: A town on the sea-coast of Ionia.
Doric: The family of Greeks to which the Spartans belonged.
Heracleidan: A descendant of Heracles, or Hercules.
Franks: “Frank” is a classical term for “French”; but, after the Crusades, it became a generic term for a Western European. Muslims even called our part of the world “Frankistan.” What Byron’s poet is saying is, “My fellow Greeks, do not exchange a Turkish for a French or English master.”
Latin: Another generic term for Western Europe is “Latin,” because we traditionally spoke Latin here as a lingua franca.
Sunium. A cape, and town, to the south of Athens.
|Category||Arts & Literature|
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