'Though we have broken their statues,
though we have driven them out of their temples,
the gods did not die because of this.
O Ionian land, it is you they still love,
it is you their souls still remember.
When the August morning dawns upon you,
a vigour from their life moves through your air;
and at times a figure of ethereal youth,
indistinct, in rapid stride,
crosses over your hills.'
It is Ionian Song (Ionikon) by the Alexandrian poet Constantin Cavafy - memorably described by Forster as 'a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe'. It's an elegant little poem that needs no gloss, and is one of six Greek Poems on the Underground, a series launched last month. Greek poems they are, but by English and Irish poets too, with Keats's great and glorious sonnet On First Looking into Chapman's Homer rightly included, and a stanza from Byron's The Isles of Greece (not, alas, this one -
|'Fill high the bowl with Samian wine !|
|Our virgins dance beneath the shade—|
|I see their glorious black eyes shine ;|
|But gazing on each glowing maid,|
|My own the burning tear-drop laves,|
|To think such breasts must suckle slaves.')|
Why this set of Greek poems? It is to mark Greece's current Presidency of the European Union - which must be nice for them, having a stint as Presidents of the union that's engaged in pauperising them.