“On Seeing the Elgin Marbles”

I did a little extra research about other poets who wrote about the Elgin Marbles. Herman Melville wrote a poem about being amazed by them. Also, it turns out that Lord Byron was very opposed to the bringing of these friezes to Britain; another poet named Roger Casement agreed, and I found this poem of his (titled “Verses”):

Give back the Elgin marbles; let them lie

Unsullied, pure beneath an Attic sky.

The smoky fingers of our northern clime

More ruin work than all the ancient time.

How oft the roar of the Piraen sea

Through column’d hall and dusky temple stealing

Hath struck these marble ears, that now must flee

The whirling hum of London, noonward reeling.


Ah! let them hear again the sounds that float

Around Athene’s shrine on morning’s breeze,—

The lowing ox, the bell of climbing goat

And drowsy drone of far Hymettus’ bees.

Give back the marbles; let them vigil keep

Where art still lies, o’er Pheidias’ tomb, asleep.

As I read on Wikipedia, Roger Casement was an Irish Revolutionary who attempted to help in the rise against the British; he also investigated imperial abuse of power in the Congo Free State. He was executed by the British during World War I when he tried to get the Germans to help the Irish. It was interesting to me that Casement chose this topic to write about, as he was actually not in Ireland when he wrote these verses. I can imagine that the stealing of the Elgin Marbles must have seemed like another abuse of power in the long history of British imperialism; Casement had felt the effects of this himself, which must be why he went out of his way to address the issue.

I believe that a number of lines in “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” by Keats can also be interpreted as mourning the fact that the British stole these friezes from the Parthenon. Two lines in particular that stood out to me as examples of this are, “My spirit is too weak—mortality / Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep…” (1-2). These lines convey Keats’ amazement at the great Marbles that he is seeing. They could also be interpreted as making Keats consider the fact that if these marbles can be moved and stolen after standing as a piece of art in one place for over two thousand years, is that not a misuse of power? Humans are mortal, and yet they handle these practically immortal pieces of art as if their history and location do not matter.

3 thoughts on ““On Seeing the Elgin Marbles””

  1. I really like the interpretation of the Elgin Marbles weighing on his soul because the British stole them. I think the line “So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,” also lends itself to this analysis—it seemed strange to me the mix of wonderment and sadness Keats seemed to experience from seeing the sculptures, but this idea makes sense.

  2. Wonderful post, Eileen. I like the research you did here, which helps us to understand how contested the marbles are, and that this is not a recent phenomenon.

  3. I had never read this poem this way before, but I think you’re right — in my mind, the push toward repatriation of stolen artifacts is quite new, and it’s both troubling and relieving to see that it isn’t. It does give me a powerful sense of connection to these writers for them to care about the same issue that we care about, not a past iteration of it, but the exact same issue. It also highlights the stagnant opposition that’s managed to persist for two centuries now.

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