LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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The Life of Lord Byron
Chapter XVII

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Athena.—Byron’s character of the modern Athenians.—Visit to Eleusis:—Visit to the caverns at Vary and Keratéa.—Lost in the labyrinths of the latter.

It has been justly remarked, that were there no other vestiges of the ancient world in existence than those to be seen at Athens, they are still sufficient of themselves to justify the admiration entertained for the genius of Greece. It is not, however, so much on account of their magnificence as of their exquisite beauty, that the fragments obtain such idolatrous homage from the pilgrims to the shattered shrines of antiquity. But Lord Byron had no feeling for art, perhaps it would be more correct to say he affected none: still, Athens was to him a text, a theme; and when the first rush of curiosity has been satisfied, where else can the palled fancy find such a topic.

To the mere antiquary, this celebrated city cannot but long continue interesting, and to the classic enthusiast, just liberated from the cloisters of his college, the scenery and the ruins may for a season inspire delight. Philosophy may there point her moral apophthegms with stronger emphasis, virtue receive new incitements to perseverance, by reflecting on the honour which still attends the memory of the ancient great, and patriotism there more pathetically deplore the inevitable effects of individual corruption on public
glory; but to the man who seeks a solace from misfortune, or is “aweary of the sun;” how wretched, how solitary, how empty is Athens!

Yet to the remnants of thy splendour past
Shall pilgrims, pensive, but unwearied throng;
Long shall the voyager, with th’ Ionian blast,
Hail the bright clime of battle and of song;
Long shall thy annals and immortal tongue
Fill with thy fame the youth of many a shore;
Boast of the aged! lesson of the young!
Which sages venerate and bards adore,
As Pallas and the Muse unveil their awful lore!

Of the existing race of Athenians Byron has observed, that they are remarkable for their cunning: “Among the various foreigners resident in Athens there was never a difference of opinion in their estimate of the Greek character, though on all other topics they disputed with great acrimony. M. Fauvel, the French consul, who has passed thirty years at Athens, frequently declared in my hearing, that the Greeks do not deserve to be emancipated, reasoning on the ground of their national and individual depravity—while he forgot that such depravity is to be attributed to causes which can only be removed by the measures he reprobates.

M. Roque, a French merchant of respectability long settled in Athens, asserted with the most amusing gravity, ‘Sir, they are the same canaille that existed in the days of Themistocles.’ The ancients banished Themistocles; the moderns cheat Monsieur Roque: thus great men have ever been treated.

“In short, all the Franks who are fixtures, and most of the Englishmen, Germans, Danes, &c., of passage, came over by degrees to their opinion, on much the same grounds that a Turk in England would condemn the nation by wholesale, because he was wronged by his lackey and overcharged by his washerwoman.
Certainly, it was not a little staggering when the Sieurs
Fauvel and Lusieri, the two greatest demagogues of the day, who divide between them the power of Pericles and the popularity of Cleon, and puzzle the poor Waywode with perpetual differences, agreed in the utter condemnation of the Greeks in general, and of the Athenians in particular.”

I have quoted his Lordship thus particularly because after his arrival at Athens he laid down his pen. Childe Harold there disappears. Whether he had written the pilgrimage up to that point at Athens I have not been able to ascertain; while I am inclined to think it was so, as I recollect he told me there that he had then described or was describing the reception he had met with at Tepellené from Ali Pashaw.

After having halted some time at Athens, where they established their headquarters, the travellers, when they had inspected the principal antiquities of the city (those things which all travellers must visit), made several excursions into the environs, and among other places went to Eleusis.

On the 13th of January they mounted earlier than usual, and set out on that road which has the site of the Academy and the Colonos, the retreat of Œdipus during his banishment, a little to the right; they then entered the Olive Groves, crossed the Cephessus, and came to an open, well-cultivated plain, extending on the left to the Piraeus and the sea. Having ascended by a gentle acclivity through a pass, at the distance of eight or ten miles from Athens, the ancient Corydallus, now called Daphné-rouni, they came, at the bottom of a piny mountain, to the little monastery of Daphné, the appearance and situation of which are in agreeable unison. The monastery was then fast verging into that state of the uninhabitable picturesque so much admired by young damsels and artists of a romantic vein. The pines on the adjacent mountains hiss as they
ever wave their boughs, and somehow, such is the lonely aspect of the place, that their hissing may be imagined to breathe satire against the pretensions of human vanity.

After passing through the hollow valley in which this monastic habitation is situated, the road sharply turns round an elbow of the mountain, and the Eleusinian plain opens immediately in front. It is, however, for a plain, but of small dimensions. On the left is the Island of Salamis, and the straits where the battle was fought; but neither of it nor of the mysteries for which the Temple of Ceres was for so many ages celebrated, has the poet given us description or suggestion; and yet few topics among all his wild and wonderful subjects were so likely to have furnished such “ample room, and verge enough” to his fancy.

The next excursion in any degree interesting, it a qualification of that kind can be applied to excursions, in Attica, was to Cape Colonna. Crossing the bed of the Ilissus and keeping nearer to Mount Hymettus, the travellers arrived at Vary, a farm belonging to the monastery of Agios Asomatos, and under the charge of a caloyer. Here they stopped for the night, and being furnished with lights, and attended by the caloyer’s servant as a guide, they proceeded to inspect the Paneum, or sculptured cavern in that neighbourhood, into which they descended. Having satisfied their curiosity there, they proceeded, in the morning, to Keratéa, a small town containing about two hundred and fifty houses, chiefly inhabited by rural Albanians.

The wetness of the weather obliged them to remain several days at Keratéa, during which they took the opportunity of a few hours of sunshine to ascend the mountain of Parné in quest of a cave of which many wonderful things were reported in the country. Having found the entrance, kindled their pine torches, and taken a supply of strips of the same wood, they let
themselves down through a narrow aperture; creeping still farther down, they came into what seemed a large subterranean hall, arched as it were with high cupolas of crystal, and divided into long aisles by columns of glittering spar, in some parts spread into wide horizontal chambers, in others terminated by the dark mouths of deep and steep abysses receding into the interior of the mountain.

The travellers wandered from one grotto to another until they came to a fountain of pure water, by the side of which they lingered some time, till, observing that their torches were wasting, they resolved to return; but after exploring the labyrinth for a few minutes, they found themselves again close beside this mysterious spring. It was not without reason they then became alarmed, for the guide confessed with trepidation that he had forgotten the intricacies of the cave, and knew not how to recover the outlet.

Byron often described this adventure with spirit and humour, magnifying both his own and his friend’s terrors; and though, of course, there was caricature in both, yet the distinction was characteristic. Mr. Hobhouse, being of a more solid disposition naturally, could discern nothing but a grave cause for dread in being thus lost in the bowels of the earth; Byron, however, described his own anxiety as a species of excitement and titillation which moved him to laughter. Their escape from starvation and being buried alive was truly providential.

While roaming in a state of despair from cave to cell; climbing up narrow apertures; their last pine-torch fast consuming; totally ignorant of their position, and all around darkness, they discovered, as it were by accident, a ray of light gleaming towards them; they hastened towards it, and arrived at the mouth of the cave.

Although the poet has not made any use of this incident in description, the actual experience which it gave
him of what despair is, could not but enrich his metaphysical store, and increase his knowledge of terrible feelings; of the workings of the darkest and dreadest anticipations—slow famishing death—cannibalism and the rage of self-devouring hunger.