17 March 2009

Maid of Athens

Here is the poem "Maid of Athens, Ere We Part" (1810) by George Gordon, Lord Byron:

Maid of Athens, ere we part,
Give, oh, give back my heart!
Or, since that has left my breast,
Keep it now, and take the rest!
Hear my vow before I go,
Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.

By those tresses unconfined,
Wooed by each Aegean wind;
By those lids whose jetty fringe
Kiss thy soft cheeks' blooming tinge;
By those wild eyes like the roe,
Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.

By that lip I long to taste;
By that zone-encircled waist;
By all the token-flowers that tell
What words can never speak so well;
By love's alternate joy and woe,
Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.

Maid of Athens! I am gone:
Think of me, sweet! when alone.
Though I fly to Istambol,
Athens holds my heart and soul:
Can I cease to love thee? No!
Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.

The Greek refrain (which, of course, ends with a rhyme for go, roe, woe, and no) is meant to make the whole poem understandable to the Greek object of love. The use of Greek can be read in at least two ways. One, the poet wants the woman to know that he really loves her, so he uses her language rather than his; in fact, he takes the trouble to learn the language of the other (the most intimate action of love, next of course to sex). Second (and on the other hand), since Greek is not his first language, saying "I love you" in a second language is a subterfuge; he really does not love her and does not want to lie to himself by saying it in his own language. Which of these two contradictory meanings is true? That is the beauty of poetry: they are both true! Outside literature, the principle of non-contradiction holds true (or should hold true); within literature, contradictions rule. We call self-contradiction irony, paradox, ambiguity, shifting signifiers, or whatever. Btw, the woman (or girl) who was the maid of Athens was only 12 years old at the time Byron wanted to buy her (yes, buy, not marry); if we use biographical criticism, we could add a third meaning: the Greek line is obviously a device to seduce the girl, not an expression of a real emotion. Like a true literary text, this poem by Byron can be read a multitude of ways.

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