18 January 2010

'On Lonely Athos'—Two Romantic Poets & the Holy Mountain

Somehow I occasionally manage to forget how much more I have yet to learn about English poetry. Today, while doing a Google search for the recently published translation, Georgian Monks on Mount Athos: Two Eleventh-Century Lives of the Hegoumenoi of Iviron, trans. Tamara Grdzelidze (London: Bennett & Bloom, 2009) [1], I came across an article by one Innes Merabishvili called ‘Mount Athos for Lord Byron & Thomas Moore’ (here). Although the connection with Thomas Moore (the Irish poet of the 18th & 19th centuries, not the philosopher & Catholic martyr of the 16th) is a bit more tenuous, it turns out Lord Byron does indeed make a very interesting explicit reference to the Holy Mountain of which I was wholly unaware. In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, [2] Canto II.xxvii, the famous philhellene compares the solitude of the man in a crowd unfavourably with that of an Athonite hermit, writing:

More blest the life of godly Eremite,
Such as on lonely Athos may be seen,
Watching at eve upon the Giant Height,
Which looks o’er waves so blue, skies so serene,
That he who there at such an hour hath been
Will wistful linger on that hallowed spot;
Then slowly tear him from the ’witching scene,
Sigh forth one wish that such had been his lot,
Then turn to hate a world he had almost forgot. [3]

Of course, if one is tempted to go trying to read Childe Harold on the strength of this stanza alone, keep in mind that the poem is composed of four Cantos made up of from 93 to 185 stanzas each, featuring a hero that Lewis—or at least Screwtape—has described as ‘submerged in self-pity for imaginary distresses’. [4]

Thomas Moore’s ‘Those Evening Bells’ passes itself off as a Russian air, but Merabishvili argues that it is a translation from the Greek of an 11th-c. poem by the Georgian hymnographer, Giorgi Mtatsmindeli (George of Mt Athos). He also writes, ‘Though there is no mention of Mount Athos in Thomas Moore’s lyrical piece the emotions expressed here are very close to the emotions expressed by Byron concerning the “godly eremite”.’ Here is Moore’s poem:

Those Evening Bells.

Air—The Bells of St Petersburg.

Those evening bells! those evening bells!
How many a tale their music tells,
Of youth, and home, and that sweet time,
When last I heard their soothing chime!

Those joyous hours are past away!
And many a heart that then was gay,
Within the tomb now darkly dwells,
And hears no more those evening bells!

And so ’twill be when I am gone;
That tuneful peal will still ring on,
While other bards shall walk these dells,
And sing your praise, sweet evening bells! [5]

Moore also has another ‘Russian Air’, which makes explicit reference to Russian ecclesiastical music, yet has a Latin refrain!

Hark! The Vesper Hymn is Stealing.

Russian Air.

Hark! the vesper hymn is stealing
O’er the waters, soft and clear;
Nearer yet and nearer pealing,
Soft it breaks upon the ear
Jubilate, Amen.
Farther now, now farther stealing,
Soft it fades upon the ear,
Jubilate, Amen.

Now like moonlight waves retreating
To the shore, it dies along;
Now, like angry surges meeting,
Breaks the mingled tide of song.
Jubilate, Amen.
Hush! again, like waves, retreating
To the shore, it dies along,
Jubilate, Amen. [6]

[1] HT Athos Agion Oros.

[2] The ‘childe’ of the title is used in its old chivalric sense of a ‘young knight’ (Fernand Mossé, A Handbook of Middle English, trans. James A. Walker [Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1961], p. 433).

[3] Leslie A. Marchand, ed., Selected Poetry of Lord Byron, rev. ed. (NY: Modern Library, 1967), p. 49.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, with Screwtape Proposes a Toast (NY: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 64.

[5] Thomas Moore, The Poetical Works of Thomas Moore, Reprinted from the Early Editions with Explanatory Notes, etc., illust. Garrett, et al. (NY: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1888), pp. 522-3.

[6] Ibid., p. 525.

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