During my college days I studied Romantic Poetry with William Keach, now of Brown but then at Rutgers. He was an excellent professor, and particularly suited to this course. Not only was it his own area of expertise, but he had large, captivating eyes, very full lips, and Byronic hair. It was a heady combination.
Which may be why my first encounter with the Elgin Marbles was so memorable. I was in a conversation with Prof. Keach at some honors mixer, and he was talking to me about Keats and the Elgin Marbles. I could barely follow him. I had never heard of them, and the idea of Keats playing marbles was just baffling. Thankfully I knew enough to just smile and nod so that I actually stayed in the honors program.
Marbles in my life now are generally annoying clues in the NYTimes crossword, from aggies to alleys to taw, words I often don’t remember when I need to.
In between the two decades I did learn about the marble sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon and found their way to the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London, via Lord Elgin. Once the word metope entered my life, everything was very clear. Except for the issue of national ownership.
The Elgin Marbles are back in the news, after two hundred and three years, because of the new Acropolis Museum. It's a world-class institution in the historic area of Makriyianni, just 300 meters from the Acropolis in Athens, designed by Bernad Tschumi Architects, NY/Paris and Michael Photiadis, Athens. It is a stunning building of glass and light, with innovative ways of revealing excavations below the building.
The museum is also a locus for some 21-century brand of irony in the halls of its Parthenon gallery, the gallery from which you can look out and see, well, the actual Parthenon. Yes, that gallery, where there are now REPLICAS of the the metopes that adorned the 4 facades of the ancient temple. They are replicas because the real ones are in London.
One of the arguments for why there was some moral ground for the Brits keeping the plundered marbles was that they were safe, well cared for, and easy to see in London, while for decades Greece struggled to make their national treasures available to the public. Clearly that argument now has no legs. Go see the fabulous Acropolis Museum website.
The new Acropolis Museum opened June 21, 2009. The British Government tried to outflank the inevitable flack by offering to LOAN the marbles to the new museum, on the grounds that that Greece then formally recognize the British Museum’s ownership as part of the loan agreement. The Greek government declined.
The Brit claim is that Lord Elgin was given permission from the then-Ottoman ruler to take them. It’s possible, although the Ottoman Empire was itself a conqueror, so their “rights” over Greek property would be shady to start.
With all this swirling around, I went to see the Elgin Marbles when I was in London. The British Museum is a wonderful place, free to the public. Although one could look at it as a huge warehouse of stolen properties.
The Parthenon room is large, and the marbles are well displayed in running lines as they would have been on the building.
Brave New World
Another argument for not returning the marbles is that it would rend a tear in the very fabric of the museum world that could launch a vortex that sucks every foreign piece back to its country of origin. (If this were a film, that scene could be visually stunning.) Others argue that the Parthenon has a unique place in world history, and returning the marbles would not set a precedent.
I was on the fence myself, until I saw the pictures of the Acropolis Museum and the fake plaster replicas. The world is smaller than in the days of Lord Elgin, and it would be so very easy to deliver the pieces back to their home, so that visitors would be able to stand gazing at the temple, and then turn to the actual marbles that are centuries old.
The Poets Have Spoken
It’s a tale worthy of a Greek drama that England’s sense of national identity is so invested in Greek antiquity.
Byron was having none of it. His famous line from Childe Harold:
“Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands . . . ."
Keats on the other hand saw his own mortality in these ancient images of war and ceremony. The marbles went on display in 1817 and he died 4 years later.
On Seeing the Elgin Marbles for the First Time
by John Keats
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 indescribable 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.
Long Tawl End Game
England has given humanity much of what we consider world culture--ideas that transcend national boundaries. Shakespeare alone would have sealed their top-ten status, but there’s so much more. I love how many addresses from nonwestern countries find this blog searching on Thomas Hardy.
A people of such intelligence and depth should be able to see how different the world is from 1817. Instead, they’re playing Keepsies. Christopher Hitchens wrote a book arguing for the repatriation of the marbles. From a broader perspective, Tony Blair was mocked for his “Cool Britannica,” but an important idea lay beneath the kitsch ad tag: that England should not be entrenched in its own storied past. The scepter’d isle still has much to contribute to the world, and returning the marbles to within sight of the Parthenon with smiles and enthusiasm would be an excellent start to a distinctly 21 century sense of national greatness.
(photos: the top 2 and below, the real Parthenon marbles in London; middle photos show the replicas at the Acropolis Museum.)