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Insight: Poetic Visions of the Past Volume 53 Number 2, March/April 2000
by James Wiseman

(Illustration by Ray Bartkus)

During the year since the publication of "The Muse Within Us," (January/February 1999), which featured archaeological allusions by several poets, from Lord Byron to Loren Eiseley, a number of readers have written to me of their own encounters with an archaeological Muse, a few even sent poems they themselves had written (my thanks to all!). I have also benefited from the reflections of several friends who kindly responded to a question I posed somewhat as follows: "Which poems do you think deal most memorably with archaeology?" I discuss in this column responses from three: an archaeologist, a literary critic and editor, and a poet. My departmental colleague in archaeology, Norman Hammond, a scholar of the Maya world and archaeological reporter for The Times of London, is also a lover of poetry. He noted that I had cited in the previous article George Seferis' poem "Mycenae," and commented that he also much admired Seamus Heaney's "Mycenae Lookout." So do I. Heaney, Nobel laureate in literature for 1995, digs more deeply into the mythic past in this poem than did Seferis, Nobel laureate in 1963, in "Mycenae," where he focuses on the inescapable burden of the past on the Greeks of today. Readers familiar with ancient Greek drama will recognize Heaney's "Lookout" as the watchman of Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy, first produced in Athens in 458 B.C. At the opening of the play, the watchman, looking out from the roof of the palace at Mycenae for the beacon fire that will announce the fall of Troy and the return of King Agamemnon, speaks delicately but powerfully of his loyalty to his king and his foreboding of Queen Clytemnestra's treachery. In "The Watchman's War," the first of the five-part "Mycenae Lookout," Heaney retains the loyalties and fears of Aeschylus' dramatic character, much of the delicacy, and all the power. In referring to his knowledge of Clytemnestra's intrigue with her lover Aegisthus in the palace, the watchman says he is like:

...a sheepdog stretched in grass,
Exposed to what I knew, still
To concentrate attention out beyond
The city and the border, on that line
Where the blaze would leap the hills when
Troy had fallen.

And when he sees at last "...clouds bloodshot with the red / Of victory fires," he speaks less subtly of Clytemnestra's betrayal:

Up on my elbows, head back, shutting out
the agony of Clytemnestra's love-shout
That rose through the palace like the yell
of troops
Hurled by King Agamemnon from the

In part two, Cassandra, doomed by Apollo to prophesy truth to disbelievers and brought as a slave by Agamemnon from Troy, foresees that she will be murdered along with her oppressor, and yet (still recalling Aeschylus):

in she went
to the knife,
to the killer wife
to the net over
her slaver,
the Troy reaver,
saying, 'A wipe
of the sponge,
that's it.
The shadow-hinge
swings unpredict-
ably and the light's blanked out.'

The watchman envisions a war he did not see, and, in part four, regrets that he did not, after all, warn his king of the sexual bond between his queen and Aegisthus, which proved to be the prelude to the murder of Agamemnon. But the most direct archaeological allusion in the poem occurs in part five, "His Reverie of Water." Here, after describing a freshwater bath by a warrior at Troy, the watchman turns to the Athenian Acropolis,

And the well at Athens too.
Or rather that old lifeline leading up
and down from the Acropolis
to the well itself, a set of timber steps
slatted in between the sheer cliff face
and a free-standing, covering spur of rock,
secret staircase the defenders knew
and the invaders found, where what was to
be Greek met Greek....

The "old lifeline" can only be the Mycenaean stairway from the Acropolis down its north slope, which descends to a well hidden in the crevice created by a prehistoric collapse of a portion of the plateau rock. This secret passage was discovered and excavated in the 1930s by the Swedish-American archaeologist Oscar Broneer (an occasional poet; see ARCHAEOLOGY, January/February 1999), and has been ever since a highlight of visits to the Acropolis' north slope by budding archaeologists and classicists studying in Athens. Introducing selections from the work of Seamus Heaney in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing III, Seamus Deane writes: "His poetry is excavatory in every sense, reaching down into the ground and back into the past." And so it is especially in "Mycenae Lookout."

My query about poems with archaeologial allusions prompted Norman Hammond to suggest a second poem, very different in tone and subject: "Homage to the British Museum" by Sir William Empson.

There is a Supreme God in the
ethnological section;
A hollow toad shape, faced with a blank shield.
He needs his belly to include the Pantheon,
Which is inserted through a hole behind.
At the navel, at the points formally
stressed, at the organs of sense,
Lice glue themselves, dolls, local deities,
His smooth wood creeps with all the creeds
of the world.

The "Supreme God" is Tangaroa, one of the principal Polynesian deities, indeed, the creator of all other gods and humans, who is shown in the act of creation in the image in the museum. In a second, final stanza Empson urges:

Attending there let us absorb the cultures of nations
And dissolve into our judgment all their codes.

and, at last:

Let us offer our pinch of dust all to this God,
And grant his reign over the entire building.

Christopher Ricks, the distinguished literary critic and editor, in his critique, "Empson's Poetry," calls this Empson's "most gruffly lucid and humorous poem," noting that it belongs to the mock-heroic world of literature and admiring "the shrewd calm with which the poem contemplates the greatest-ever act of begetting...." Christopher Ricks, as it happens, is also one of the friends I resolved particularly to consult at the conception of my quest for poems with archaeological allusions. I know no one more knowledgeable, and with greater sensitivity, about poetry, and so took up the issue in conversation with him recently, shortly after the publication of The Oxford Book of English Verse (1999), which he edited. His response, after some deliberation, was to cite two poems, both by Alfred Tennyson, poet laureate of England in the second half of the nineteenth century, and whose works he had edited (in three volumes) in 1987. The first poem (no. 372, following Ricks' enumeration) was written in response to an official invitation to prepare verses to be inscribed on "Cleopatra's Needle," a great Egyptian obelisk (68 1/2 feet high) of red granite given to England by Ismail Pasha in 1878. The poem, according to the invitation, was to be "expressive of what [the obelisk's] history represents."

Here, I that stood in On beside the flow
Of sacred Nile, three thousand years
ago!-- A Pharaoh, kingliest of his kingly race,
First shaped, and carved, and set me in
my place. A Caesar of a punier dynasty
Thence haled me toward the
Mediterranean sea,
Whence your own citizens, for their own
renown, Through strange seas drew me to your
monster town. I have seen the four great empires
disappear. I was when London was not. I am here.

The obelisk was one of two that had been erected in the fourteenth century B.C. by Tuthmosis III at Heliopolis (the biblical On, as cited in the poem), both of which were removed and re-erected at Alexandria during the reign of Augustus (Tennyson's "Caesar of a punier dynasty"). They came to be known popularly as "Cleopatra's Needles," and, as gifts from Ismail Pasha, one went to England, where it was set up in London on the embankment of the Thames, and the other went to New York City, where it was erected in Central Park (1880). The poem of Tennyson was not inscribed on the obelisk, perhaps, Ricks speculates (following an earlier commentator), because Erasmus Wilson, who had paid for shipping the monument from Egypt, was offended by the phrase "for their own renown."

The second Tennyson poem (Ricks, no. 419) was dedicated to Professor R. C. Jebb, one of the foremost Greek scholars of his day and an acquaintance of Tennyson, who had sent the poet a copy of an ode in Greek that he had composed (hence the reference to poet Pindar in the first stanza):

Fair things are slow to fade away,
Bear witness you, that yesterday
From out the Ghost of Pindar in you
Rolled an Olympian; and they say
That here the torpid mummy wheat
Of Egypt bore a grain as sweet
As that which gilds the glebe of England,
Sunned with a summer of milder heat.
So may this legend for awhile,
If greeted by your classic smile,
Though dead in its Trinacrian Enna,
Blossom again on a colder isle.

During our conversation Ricks recited (in fine voice!) the second stanza, particularly relishing the phrase "torpid mummy wheat," which he notes in his edition of Tennyson's works was "a variety grown in Egypt and said to come from grains found in mummy-cases"; there was a claim in the 1840s that mummy wheat had been resuscitated in England. Tennyson's resurrection of the past in the mummy wheat and the Ghost of Pindar, and the objectifying of the past in "Cleopatra's Needle" are part of the Romantic-period quest for roots and origins that began, paradoxically, at the revolutionary end of the eighteenth century, and brilliantly exemplified by the generation of Romantic poets whose lives survived the turn of the century: Byron, Keats, and Shelley, to whose proud company should be added Ugo Foscolo, if we follow the ranking of Glauco Cambon, the Italian critic, translator, and poet (p. 10 in his Ugo Foscolo, Poet of Exile, Princeton University Press, 1980).

Foscolo's poem "The Sepulchers" was the recommendation to me of Rosanna Warren, a prize-winning poet and professor of comparative literature at Boston University. As she talked with me, she became increasingly enthusiastic about Foscolo, a great Italian poet who, she said, is not as widely known or as appreciated as he should be. Her enthusiasm was so contagious I rushed off to the library the next morning to seek out both Foscolo and Cambon, and now share with you the results of that quest.

An officer in the Napoleonic army, Foscolo spent most of his life in exile, first from his adoptive city Venice, and later, after Waterloo, from Milan, where he had written a novel and some of his finest poetry, including "The Sepulchers" (in 1806); he spent the last years of his life in England, where he free-lanced as a literary critic and historian until his death in 1827. "The Sepulchers" is narrated in blank verse as a conversation between Foscolo and his friend Ippolito Pindemonte, also a poet. The poem is ostensibly a protest against a new French law, which forbade burial within urban space for reasons of hygiene, but the poetic barbs were more directly aimed at nameless mass burials anywhere. The thematic thread running throughout the poem is the importance of tombs, of remembering the past, of the immortality the dead gain through memorials and the memory of the living. Another theme is the importance of the bards who sing of heroes, including the exiled bard, Foscolo himself, as in the first passage below (lines 225-234, translation by Cambon).

And me, whom the complexion of the times
and steadfastness in honor drive to flee
through alien nations, me may the Muses summon
to evoke all heroes, for the Muses only
forever breathe life into human thought.
They sit to watch the sepulchers, and when
Time with its cold wings there sweeps away
even the last ruins, the Pierian sisters gladden
the desert wastes with their singing, and harmony
overwhelms the silence of a thousand ages.

The powerful culmination of the themes arrives at the end, where Homer is portrayed as a blind beggar awakening the dead in their tombs to learn from them so that he may sing their tales and make them known and, therefore, deathless throughout the world:

...One day you will see
a blind beggar roam among your ancient shades,
and grope his way into the burial chambers,
and embrace the urns, and interrogate them.
At this, a moan will issue from the secret
vaults, and the whole tomb will tell the story
of Ilion twice razed and twice rebuilt
in tragic splendor on the silent streets
only to enhance the glory of Peleus'
children in their last trophy. The sacred bard,
soothing the hurt of those souls with his song,
will make Greek princes immortal through all
the lands that father Ocean embraces.
And you, Hector, will be honored by tears
wherever blood shed for one's homeland is
holy and revered, and as long as the sun
keeps shining on the disasters of mankind.

Near the close of his analysis of "The Sepulchers," Cambon emphasizes that the "prophetic vehemence" of the poem points to certain developments in nineteenth-century Europe, especially to "the vast enterprise of archeological recovery which brought to light so many buried worlds."

It was the fruitlessness of memorials that Foscolo's contemporary, Percy Bysshe Shelley, celebrated in the poem most often mentioned by those I queried (including all those cited here), a sonnet written in 1817, "Ozymandias."

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert...Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias is the Greek name of Ramesses II, third pharaoh of Dynasty XIX, who ruled Egypt for 66 years beginning in 1279 B.C. Shelley learned of Ozymandias and the core of his tale from the History of Diodorus Siculus, a Greek writer of the mid-first century B.C., who in turn derived his account from a history of Egypt written about 300 B.C. by Hecataeus of Abdera. It was Hecataeus who described Ramesses' mortuary complex at Thebes, the Ramesseum, and the remains of a colossal seated statue there bearing the inscription, which he translated into Greek: "I am Ozymandias, King of Kings. If anyone wishes to know how great I am, let him surpass one of my works!" Parts of this enormous monolithic statue, which was originally 66 feet high and weighed a thousand tons, can still be seen at the Ramesseum, and the surrounding sands still seem "boundless and bare," still seem to "stretch far away." Is there another poem that deals with the ravages of time with such perfect irony as Shelley's?

* See also "Shall I Compare Thee to a Backfill Pile?"

* For more on Peleus, see:
* For more on the Pierian sisters, see:"

James Wiseman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and is professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University. The author thanks Boston University colleagues Norman Hammond, Christopher Ricks, and Rosanna Warren.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America