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Parting Thought on Ancient Greek Exploits and Sites

Melville’s poem “Syra” is subtitled “A Transmitted Reminiscence.” Imagining those Greeks who have inhabited the island since ancient times, the speaker of the poem declares that “I saw it its earlier day-- / Primitive, such an isled resort / As hearthless Homer might have known / Wandering about the Ægean here” (NN PP 309-10). Melville the poet had “seen” that “earlier day” not only in the words of Homer but in his print of Achilles in Sciro.

Melville had also seen Syra in those more recent days after “Greece at last flung off the Turk” (in the words of the poem). He had seen this more contemporary Greece in his own Aegean “wandering” as well as in Fielding’s picturesque view of The Temple of Minerva at Ægina. Melville’s own imagination continually shuttled between the picturesque present and the ancient past during the three visits he made to the island of Syra in 1856-57 (NN J 53-54, 71-72, 98). Among the many “Frolickers, picturesquely odd,” who populate that site in his poem “Syra” are “some with features cleanly cut / As Proserpine’s upon the coin” (NN PP 310).

By the time Melville published “Syra” in 1891, the “reminiscence” of Greece in its “primitive” day had been “transmitted” to him through the engravings of ancient coins, battles, busts, reliefs, temples, and landscapes he had collected. Each of these graphic images supplemented the words of the books in his library, the impressions of the Mediterranean he had seen with his own eyes, and those passages in his own poetry and prose which combined gleanings from “books, pictures, and the face of nature” into his own inimitable artistry.

Musing upon Greece’s inimitable legacy of ancient art in the mid-19th century (when much of its finest statuary had been removed to English or German museums), Christopher Wordsworth evoked The Persians by Aeschylus as evidence that verbal arts are less susceptible to physical erosion, theft, or destruction than are visual or tactile arts: “While the colours of the Painter have faded, and the marble of the Sculptor is broken and banished to a distant land, the work of the Poet lives every where; Æschylus, in his drama of The Persians, has painted, in honour of Salamis, a Portico which will never fade, and erected a Temple of Victory which will never fall” (116).