My spirit is too weak—mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined 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 keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.
(‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles’ – John Keats)
In March 1817, soon after the Elgin Marbles first went on display in the British Museum, John Keats went to see them with his friend, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. Within a week, Keats had written his poem, ‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles’, and had it published in The Examiner. Ancient Greece was for Keats, and for many other poets and artists, a touchstone, albeit an anxiety-producing touchstone.
It’s difficult, at a distance of two hundred years, to understand the impact these carvings had on the English imagination at the time. When Parliament passed the motion approving the purchase, on behalf of the nation, of the marbles from Lord Elgin the year before, a leader in The Times expressed the cultural jubilation:
Those invaluable relics of the most splendid era of Greek genius will soon, we trust, be secured to the only nation that has ever rivalled Greece in eloquence and poetry — the only nation whose policy has corresponded with the picture drawn by PERICLES, and has been animated by the sentiments of DEMOSTHENES. Whether we can boast any painter equal to ZEUXIS or APELLES, there are now no means of ascertaining; but we have before us the remains of the school of PHIDIAS, and we need not hesitate to say that they leave English sculpture far behind. The stimulus which they have already given to our artists to emulate their excellence, affords the best presage of that improvement to which they will undoubtedly lead. We do not, therefore, hesitate to say that their price should be no object in comparison with the benefits to be derived from them. Add to this the just pride that we shall feel in possessing the most precious collection in existence, when these are united to the PHIGALIAN and TOWNLEY marbles. If the French could boast of the plunder collected in the Louvre, much greater reason have we to rejoice in having rescued from destruction the ornaments of the Parthenon! We have thus stepped in between barbarism and its prey, and we have saved the arts from a loss which could never have been repaired.
There is a lot of imperial swagger in that excerpt, but there is also a genuine sense that Britain is safeguarding the heritage of European civilization. Even so, there were dissenting voices, most notably, that of Lord Byron. The mad, bad poet shared the English adulation of Ancient Greece, but unlike many of his compatriots, his philhellenism extended to the modern-day ancestors of Homer and Pericles. A staunch supporter of Greek independence, Byron was furious about Elgin’s export of the Parthenon marbles.
In his long poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron lamented what he saw as British cultural vandalism:
Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
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 snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorr’d!
I went to see the Parthenon Sculptures (that seems to be the official name now) again recently, a periodic pilgrimage when I’m in a Keatsian mood. By coincidence the BBC reported a few days later that ’an agreement to return the Parthenon Sculptures – better known in the UK as the Elgin Marbles – is at “an advanced stage”, according to a Greek newspaper’. I wonder if that will be the last time I see them in London? Probably not — these deals take years to implement, even after they’re agreed.
One thing I noticed about the coverage of the putative agreement and the reaction to it is a consensus that Lord Elgin ‘stole’ the marbles and/or that his actions were somehow ‘illegal’. Neither assertion is true, but that hardly matters in the current cultural moment. Elgin was a man of his time and certainly wasn’t acting out of pure altruism, but he was driven by a desire to preserve a European heritage that was being gradually destroyed under Turkish rule (Greece at this time was a province of the Ottoman Empire).
As Mary Beard has pointed out:
In Elgin’s day…the Parthenon stood in the middle of the small village-cum-garrison base that then occupied the hill. It was encroached upon by houses and gardens, and by all kinds of Byzantine, medieval and Renaissance remains. It is quite wrong to imagine Elgin removing works of art from the equivalent of a modern archaeological site – it was more of a seedy shanty town.
Over the centuries, the Parthenon has suffered natural decay and intentional destruction. In 1687, a Venetian missile caused severe damage when it ignited a gunpowder store the Ottomans had located inside the building. When there wasn’t a war on, local people carted off stone to recycle into new housing and tourist guides encourage visitors to chip off bits of sculpture as souvenirs. Even after Greece’s independence in 1832, successive Greek governments neglected the Parthenon for more than a century, until 1975.
The recasting of English, French and German collectors, scholars and archaeologists as villains is a sign of our times. The men who began the discovery and preservation of ancient monuments and artefacts, at great expense and in conditions of great hardship, are dismissed as being solely in it for the money. That’s not to say that swindling and theft didn’t occur. No doubt, most of them had mixed motives, but no more so than the rabble-rousing politicians whose calls for ‘decolonization’ of Western museums are usually an attempt to divert attention from their own incompetence and venality.
Let’s not forget too, that the Parthenon itself was the product of an imperial slave-owning power: classical Athens. The Mary Beard essay I’ve quoted from was written in 2011 and gives a balanced view of the arguments, without coming down on one side or the other. Personally, I worry that the endgame of the ‘decolonize the museums’ crowd is the emptying out of the museums of Europe, leaving behind only that produced by the majority group indigenous to the particular country. Call it a form of leftist ethnonationalism.
The Parthenon can never be fully restored, never be made pristine again. Too much has been lost and destroyed. Last year, the Greek Ministry of Culture published a digital reproduction of the sculptures, based on the remains held in several European museums, combined with drawings made before further destruction occurred. It’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to a full restoration.
I can understand why the Greeks want the Parthenon Sculptures to go back to Athens. And I think, despite my misgivings and mainly for romantic reasons, it’s time they did. I think too it’s what John Keats would have wanted.