Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Takes on Arcadia

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Takes on Arcadia

Article excerpt

Stephen Minta, On a Voiceless Shore: Byron in Greece. Henry Holt 1998. 292 pp. $25.00

David Solway, The Anatomy of Arcadia. Press 1992. 290 pp $18.00

Patricia Storace, Dinner with Persephone. Pantheon 1996. 398 pp. $25.00

"The ancient remains and the contemporary sorrow," wrote George Seferis, one of the greatest of modern Greek poets, capturing the poignant contrasts that await the traveler to Greece. Freud compared the psychoanalyst's excavations to those of the archaeologist: Layer after layer must be uncovered until the core, the mystery of the self, is laid bare. Once illuminated, that hidden treasure could be "returned to the possession of the ego." The celebrated treasures of Greece are stratified for the traveler: Neolithic remains, Classical ruins, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine . . . and that's only the architecture. Moreover, superimposed on the ancient remains in this palimpsest are the changing meanings of Greece for successive waves of travelers, many of whom thirst not to unearth what Seferis elsewhere calls "old stones that cannot be deciphered," but to follow the path of pleasure-seeking blazed by their predecessors.

In On a Voiceless Shore: Byron in Greece, Stephen Minta summarizes the phenomenon:

It is the country of eternal youth, framed by the eternally old. The holiday brochures are filled with ancient columns, plodding donkeys, and old women in black. These images live on, side by side with the glittering sea and the ripening flesh, proof that the serenity of age follows naturally on the frenzy of youth.

I would substitute "longing" for "belonging" (and I seriously question that last sentence) but Minta does ably capture the contrasts.

Greece is not only a palimpsest or an archaeological site, something to be burrowed into layer by layer; it's also a Rorschach test. Even if what drew and continues to draw successive generations of tourists is the "Greece of sun, sea and the body," that Greece-if only because plenty of the visitors have been writers-has been recorded and interpreted in strikingly various ways. Among the Anglophone poets and novelists who have tackled the topic of Greece since Byron (Durrell, Miller, and Merrill, to name only a few), different temperaments are at play on the same inscrutable reality that the books under review reflect.

An academic, or at least a sometime academic, Stephen Minta teaches Comparative Literature at the University of York; perhaps that explains why his On a Voiceless Shore is the only one of these books to come equipped with such useful accouterments as an index and a brief bibliographical note (Minta and Solway both provide maps; Storace lacks and needs one). Minta follows in the footsteps of Byron and his friend Hobhouse on their 1809 trip to Greece and Albania. Into his account of their journey, he deftly dovetails his own experiences along more or less the same route, which leaves him room for laconic commentary on travel in general as well as a few reticent asides about his own life. (This reticence, sometimes bordering on obscurity where the author's own past is concerned, turns out to be a shared feature of all three books.)

My problem with Minta is not that he has so little to say about himself, but that his book seems to lose bite and focus as it proceeds. Perhaps this slackening off is meant to be a subtle way of following in Byron's footsteps, since Byron's return trip to Greece, culminating in the poet's death in Missolonghi in 1824, Minta of course cannot follow to the end. Whatever the reason, On a Voiceless Shore turns from a kind of personal travel-cum-history into something much closer to plain history. Even Minta's comments (quoted above) on the perennial appeal of Greece seem oddly uninflected. Since Minta, though shrewd and observant, is too quiet a writer to supply much Byronic brio, it is to be found in this book only when Byron's actual words are quoted.

Despite also being stingy with autobiography, David Solway, in The Anatomy of Arcadia, and Patricia Storace, in Dinner with Persephone, play more distinctive roles in their own books. …

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