Monday, 17 February 2014

The Conquest of Time

I was entranced last weekend by some classical Greek vases in Room 1 of the British Museum, London identified as Greek, not Etruscan, by diplomat Sir William Hamilton, husband of Emma Hamilton, mistress of Admiral Nelson.

There was a model of Greek tomb, discovered in southern Italy (below) in which swords and kraters (wine containers) were found (as shown). The vases on display were properly attributed by Hamilton to Greek vase painters (see list here). This artist could have been born in Magna Graecia.

Greek urns are enduring. While the swords (in front of the model above) are mangled by age, the black coating of the kraters (below) probably dating from around 500 BC is lustrous and appears new. The three figures below include not a winged angel, but Nike, winged victory, patron of speed and strength, a musical man (possibly Apollo) playing a lyre and a beautiful woman, listening. They fully bear out the idea of John Keats in his famous “Ode on a Graecian Urn” that figures on Greek vases live in a parallel universe, forever young. Greek urns stand outside time. In that sense, they are free from change, and suffering. Scripture is similar, in that it transcends Time. The psalms are older than these urns.

I was invited to handle a small black Greek pot (500 BC), which the British Museum archeologists said was used to carry oil to the gymnasium. I asked if it once had a cork and they replied that Greeks did not use cork. It was perfect and undamaged. Again, the resilience of Greek pots came to my mind. I was holding something already buried, lost or unvalued, when, as Shakespeare wrote, "those blessed feet walked the fields of Palestine".  Greek art still stubbornly reflects a pagan world of animal sacrifice which has long since been eradicated by Christianity.

John Keats was an avid visitor to the British Museum so I sought the actual Urn he was inspired by when composing his poem. Sadly, it does not exist. Part of his inspiration may have been the famous Portland Vase or the Roman Townley Vase. His "heifer lowing to the skies” is not on a vase, but in the Parthenon frieze.
Ode on a Graecian Urn by John Keats

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loath?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal---yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unweari-ed,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

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