Lord Byron – The Isles of Greece (Hellas)

.
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.
 .
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,
 .
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!
.

Analysis of The Isles of Greece by a Greek student:

ellas.jpg
The Greek flag.

Lord Byron is considered a national hero in my home country of Greece. Byron was captivated by the Greek struggle for independence and eventually moved to Greece and took part in the campaign. Byron battled along side the Greeks and eventually died in Messolongi while still actively participating in the revolution. In ‘The Isles of Greece’ he writes of the culture and of the history of the Greeks, honoring their ancestry and rich heritage. A Greek reading this poem can tell that Byron had lived in Greece and experienced the country first hand, he uses historical and mythological events correctly and captures the passionate voice of the Greek people. Essentially one could say that Byron fiery temperament found its home in the angry mountains and seas of Hellas and he belonged. As a Greek this is my interpretation and thoughts about the poem:

Byron begins the poem with two stanzas that takes us back the past glory and valor of the ancient world: “But all, except their sun, has set”. The western world studies and treasures the products and the light shed by this lost world but “their birth place alone is mute”, no more is it at its peak. In the third stanza we have Byron’s first direct reference to the independence efforts, he writes “I dream’d that Greece might yet be free”, while standing at the locations of a tremendous battle, such as that of Marathon or that of Salamina (refer to notes below) -described in the fourth stanza-, he feels that this land cannot be enslaved. A revolt must take place.

On from the fifth stanza Byron goes on a disappointed and angry outburst about the lack of action prior to this point in history, this is a perspective he shared with the members of the Resistance. How could our ancestors have fought and died so courageously for our freedom yet we seem unable to? “The heroic bosom beats no more!”, “For Greeks a blush- for Greece a tear”. The martyrs of ancient Greece would still return to die again for the land ‘“we come, we come!” Tis but the living who are dumb.’ His anger may seem out of place when one considers the events that did occur and how heroically the Revolution was fought by men, women and children but it is important to understand that Byron wrote this poem in 1819 and it was published in 1821, the first year of the official Revolution. Byron’s poem is included in a variety of pre-war literature written to bring awareness about the issue to the world.

Over the next few stanzas Byron presents a few more arguments for the revolution. Was this nation blessed with so much culture and skill to just stay enslaved? He uses the examples of the Pyrrhic phalanx (a military formation used by the ancient Greeks) and Cadmus, who according to history was the Phoenician prince from whom the Greeks got the idea for the formation of an alphabet. Byron also speaks of the Greek tyrants of old, he refers to Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, and Miltiades, the general who lead the Athenians to the victorious Marathon battle. Byron points out “A tyrant; but our masters then/ Were still, at least, our countrymen.”

Stanza thirteen represents a change in Byron’s attitude and approach. There were examples of sacrifice equal to that of the ancient world, such is the residents of Suli (refer to notes below), and there still “exists the remnant of a line”. “Trust not for freedom to the Franks” is a very important political statement Byron is making, the Greek rebel troops waited for years on end for assistance from the major powers of Europe, but this assistance only came toward the end when political interests came into play… Byron is encouraging the Greeks to become aware of the fact that they are alone in this battle. The last three verses of the poem are an expression of determination and the birth of hope in the narrators mind. He finally puts down his glass of wine and is the witness to the fact that his country will be free again.

Locations of historical or cultural significance:

Marathon: The small town and area of Marathon is located about a thirty minutes beautiful

n11303163_33248860_6734.jpg
The lake of Marathon.

drive away from the northern city boarders of modern day Athens. A significant location due
to the battle of Marathon, where the outnumbered Athenians cleverly defeated the invading
Persian army. Also the starting point of the original Marathon race, which follows the path believed to be run by the messenger of the Athenian army to declare the victory over the Persians to the rest of the city.
Persia’s grave: In Marathon lies the tomb of the Athenians lost in this battle. Lord Byron is referring to the battle of Marathon where Miltiadis, the Athenian general, managed to surround the Persians and save Athens from invasion. Byron cannot deem himself a slave as he stands here, no one can, he feels protected by its history.(see Marathon notes)
Salamis: Salamina is a large island located right across from the Pireas port of Athens. This golf was the location of another glorious battle in the ancient Greek history books. The battle of Salamis, to which Byron is referring in this stanza, was again a obstacle for the Persian warlord who outnumbered the Greek fleet but yet again was left with great losses.
Thermopylae: The famous battle of Thermopylae was the effort of the Spartans, lead by their king Leonidas, to slow down the Persians. The significance of this battle is the amazing dedication and determination of the 300 Spartans who cleverly positioned themselves at tight passage of Thermopylae where the Persians could only get through few at a time. The Spartans lost this battle and it is said that the sun was hidden by the storm of arrows but the Spartans sacrifice will never be forgotten in Greece. These verses also remind me of a song children sing at national celebrations of the 1821 Revolution- when Byron fought with the Greeks- it says in rough translation: “Oh 300 arise and come back to us again, and see how much alike you your children are”. In the days of Byron, the Greeks again unite to honor freedom with the same courage.
Suli: “on Suli’s rock, on Parga’s shore/ Exist the remnant of a line”, here Byron is honoring the sacrifice an courage of Suli. Suli was a mountain settlement which had successfully evaded the Ottoman rule over the years. When finally they were invaded the population fought heroically and the women & children, preferring to die than be anything but free Greeks, jumped from the village’s high cliffs. The Ottomans entered a dead town.
Sunium: Cape Sounion is the setting of Poseidon’s temple. Located right outside Athens this location is panorama of the golf and a beautiful sunset. A location of archaeological wonder.

http://www.johnderbyshire.com/Readings/islesofgreece.html

And here is Rodney Atkinson’s version of Byron’s poem (only one word difference):

“The mountains look on Marathon –

And Marathon looks on the sea,

And musing there an hour alone,

I dreamed that Greece might still be free;

For standing on the Euro’s grave,

I could not think myself a slave.”

image from http://montanawriter.com/2010/12/page/2/

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