My connection to the poem “Hellas” by Percy Bysshe Shelley spans 20 years and grows with each unexpected turn in this journey called life.
It started in high school, while acquainting myself with the Romantic period and developing a particular fondness for Shelley and Lord Byron, and John Keats to a lesser extent. Confused by words I hadn’t seen before and verse sometimes too sophisticated to comprehend, I favored simpler works that rhymed, such as “When we two parted” and “Ode on a Grecian urn.” I vaguely recall reading “Hellas” but cannot remember ever knowing each poet’s tragic biography or his connection to Hellenism.
Ten years ago I came to know each man better by being lost in Rome. I carry no guidebook when traveling and happened upon Keats’ house near the Spanish Steps, then got off at the wrong metro stop and wandered into a cemetery (Cimitero acattolico), while trying to figure out why there was a pyramid (Cestius) in Italy. A gravekeeper greeted me, placed a map in my hand and explained in Italian that I might be interested. I never used the map because I was content to be somewhere quiet for a change, roaming amongst the Russian, American and German elite, thinking what interesting and intelligent conversation was possible if ghosts could speak.
In front of Shelley’s grave at the back wall, I stood in contemplation for at least a half hour before coming to terms that he was indeed mortal and not just a fictional character who wrote poetry three centuries ago. Keats was there too, albeit in a greener, sunnier plot with flowers adorning his nameless tombstone. It was somehow a little too real, but also the most impressionable memory I took away from my time in Rome. After a week in Venice to celebrate Carnival, I set foot in Greece for the first time.
Greece was not somewhere I’d always dreamed about, nor planned on going during my winter in Europe. It was a destination that my friend Janisse and I had planned together in Lyon because she had friends in the capital, but she instead went to London to mend a broken heart and I to Athens. My first impression was unfortunately not a good one — people pawing me as I disembarked, streets full of garbage, pollution and smoke, a cement jungle of depressing grays and no green. Now I live here, and I wonder how this happened.
Feeling discontent with my first landlord in Plaka, I moved across the street from the American Embassy to an apartment that had a painting of Lord Byron in the entry way. He watched over me. I would later spend the majority of my 10 years living in a shadow of the poet’s name, even if there was nothing poetic about the municipality itself.
Today, someone gave me a photo containing a verse I recognized as being from Shelley’s “Hellas.” It makes me think that perhaps my journey has come full circle.
The world’s great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn:
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.
A brighter Hellas rears its mountains
From waves serener far;
A new Peneus rolls his fountains
Against the morning star.
Where fairer Tempes bloom, there sleep
Young Cyclads on a sunnier deep.
A loftier Argo cleaves the main,
Fraught with a later prize;
Another Orpheus sings again,
And loves, and weeps, and dies.
A new Ulysses leaves once more
Calypso for his native shore.
Oh, write no more the tale of Troy,
If earth Death’s scroll must be!
Nor mix with Laian rage the joy
Which dawns upon the free:
Although a subtler Sphinx renew
Riddles of death Thebes never knew.
Another Athens shall arise,
And to remoter time
Bequeath, like sunset to the skies,
The splendour of its prime;
And leave, if nought so bright may live,
All earth can take or Heaven can give.
Saturn and Love their long repose
Shall burst, more bright and good
Than all who fell, than One who rose,
Than many unsubdu’d:
Not gold, not blood, their altar dowers,
But votive tears and symbol flowers.
Oh cease! must hate and death return?
Cease! must men kill and die?
Cease! drain not to its dregs the urn
Of bitter prophecy.
The world is weary of the past,
Oh might it die or rest at last!
≈ End ≈
Written in honor of Greece’s struggle for freedom during the War of Independence, interpretations can be found here.