Herman Melville’s 1891 Reminiscence of Syros in 1856

Herman Melville’s 1891 Reminiscence of Syros in 1856 2000 1269 REVICTO

Herman Melville first arrived at the island of Syra (Syros) on board the steamship Egyptian on Tuesday, December 2, 1856. He saw the place a second time, again in December, and a third time, returning from the same journey through Europe and the Near East in early February 1857 (Georgoudaki 1). Much later (probably during the 1880s), Melville, perhaps consulting the Journal he kept during his tour, composed the poem “Syra (A Transmitted Reminiscence)” and included it in his collection of forty-two poems Timoleon (1891).

 

Syra                                            

(A Transmitted Reminiscence)

 

Fleeing from Scio’s smouldering vines

(Where when the sword its work had done

The Turk applied the torch) the Greek

Came here, a fugitive stript of goods,

Here to an all but tenantless isle,

Nor here in footing gained at first,

Felt safe. Still from the turbaned foe

Dreading the doom of shipwrecked men

Whom feline seas permit to land

Then pounce upon and drag them back,

For height they made, and prudent won

A cone-shaped fastness on whose flanks

With pains they pitched their eyrie camp,

Stone huts, whereto they wary clung;

But, reassured in end, come down —

Multiplied through compatriots now,

Refugees like themselves forlorn —

And building along the water’s verge

Begin to thrive; and thriving more

When Greece at last flung off the Turk,

Make of the haven mere a mart.

 

I saw it in its earlier day —

Primitive, such an isled resort

As hearthless Homer might have known

Wandering about the Ægean here.

Sheds ribbed with wreck-stuff faced the sea

Where goods in transit shelter found;

And here and there a shanty-shop

Where Fez-caps, swords, tobacco, shawls

Pistols, and orient finery, Eve’s —

(The spangles dimmed by hands profane)

Like plunder on a pirate’s deck

Lay orderless in such loose way

As to suggest things ravished or gone astray.

 

Above a tented inn with fluttering flag

A sunburnt board announced Greek wine

In self-same text Anacreon knew,

Dispensed by one named “Pericles.

Got up as for the opera’s scene,

Armed strangers, various, lounged or lazed,

Lithe fellows tall, with gold-shot eyes.

Sunning themselves as leopards may.

 

Off-shore lay xebecs trim and light,

And some but dubious in repute.

But on the strand, for docks were none,

What busy bees! no testy fry;

Frolickers, picturesquely odd,

With bales and oil-jars lading boats,

Lighters that served an anchored craft,

Each in his tasseled Phrygian cap,

Blue Eastern drawers and braided vest;

And some with features cleanly cut

As Proserpine’s upon the coin.

Such chatterers all! like children gay

Who make believe to work, but play.

I saw, and how help musing too.

Here traffic’s immature as yet:

Forever this juvenile fun hold out

And these light hearts? Their garb, their glee,

Alike profuse in flowing measure,

Alike inapt for serious work,

Blab of grandfather Saturn’s prime.

When trade was not, nor toil, nor stress,

But life was leisure, merriment, peace,

And lucre none and love was righteousness.

                                                      (Melville 62-65)

 

The poem opens with an evocation of the island’s history detailing how refugees from Chios (“Scio”) sought shelter at Syros in an effort to escape the Turks who had previously ravaged their own island. The fleeing islanders are shown to have reached Syros (Syra) completely stripped of their belongings and still fearing for their lives. The impoverished lot headed to the higher grounds of the island and over the course of time settled down and built a new life. Melville’s philhellenism is apparent in this incisive narrative that leads up to the liberation from the Ottomans (“Greece at last flung off the Turk”). The gradual establishment of the island as a commercial hub (“mart”) in the wake of the Greek struggle brings the first stanza to a close and introduces the discussion of Syros’s economic life.

 

Departing from the more general overview, the second stanza directly focuses on the island’s commercial activity. When Melville visited Syros, the harbour city was thriving and yet “the poet acknowledges that the people there spontaneously lived primitive, innocent lives” (Monfort n.p.), perhaps pointing to an inherent antithesis between what Melville saw and what he consciously decided to represent in the poem. As historians argue, Syros was at the time financially sophisticated (Loukos, Gekas), but under Melville’s western eyes, the island comes across as [p]rimitive”, “hearthless”, a shelter for “goods in transit”, where the occasional  “shanty-shop” lacks in sophistication and objects “[l]ay orderless in such loose way” . Melville’s emphasis is rather placed on the islanders proximity to nature and a sense of a simpler existence.

 

The third stanza reinforces the idea of primordiality by focusing on the human geography of the island. The poet reads a continuity in the use of the Greek language from Anacreon, the lyric poet who celebrated wine, to the words now inscribed on boards that advertise wine. Similarly, the cupbearer’s name is Pericles” alluding to the champion of Athenian democracy. Melville’s impression of people is distilled in the vision of the islanders “[s]unning themselves as leopards” in a simile that underscores the idea of life lived out in the open, unspoilt by the ramifications of civilisation. In David Roessel’s words, Melville’s verse “describes the Greek islanders as free from the ills of American materialism” (304), as “‘noble savages’ living the natural life” (315).

 

The concluding stanza opens with a salute to the shipping activity of Syros and  constitutes a  evaluation of the people of Syros presenting them as “busy” and playful, talkative and “gay”. The poet finds that islanders are “inapt for serious work”, but rather apt to inspire a journey through time, when life was bereft of “trade”, “toil”, and “stress”. Melville seems to eagerly reproduce the representation of the Greek as the idealized, unsophisticated man, whose innate benevolence is yet to be corrupted by civilization. The American novelist, short story writer, and poet was certainly no stranger to the concept of the “noble savage”. Queequeg, Daggoo, and Tashtego, the three harpooners of the ship Pequod in his earlier Moby Dick (1851), have consistently been read as such examples. His poetic representation of the Greek island of Syros seems to revisit the concept wilfully choosing to ignore any modern signs of commercialisation.                     

 

 

 

References

 

Gekas, Athanasios. “A Sector most beneficial to commerce: Marine Insurance Companies in Nineteenth-Century Greek Port Cities”. Entrepreneurial History Discussion Papers #001 (2008):1-15. Accessed at https://www.dept.aueb.gr/sites/default/files/econ/dokimia/GEKAS%206.pdf

 

Georgoudaki, Ekaterini. Herman Melvilles Trip to Syra in 1856-57,” Melville Society Extracts 74(September 1988): 1-8. Accessed at https://sites.hofstra.edu/melville-society-extracts/wp-content/uploads/sites/96/2020/01/Melville-Extracts_074.pdf

 

Loukos, Christos. Dying on Syros in the 19th Century: Testimony of the Wills. Crete: University Press, 2000. [In Greek, Λούκος, Χριστός. Πεθαίνοντας στη Σύρο τον 19ο αιώνα. Ηράκλειο, 2000].

 

Melville, Herman. Timoleon, Etc. New York: The Caxton Press: 1891.

 

Monfort, Bruno. “Proserpine upon the Coin: Melvilles Quest for Greek Beauty in ‘Syra’”, Transatlantica 2 (2015): n.p. Accessed at https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.7782

 

Roessel, David. In Byrons Shadow: Modern Greece in the English and American Imagination.Oxford: OUP, 2001.

 

 

 

Featured Image: Syros, Miaouli Square, 1915. Published by: Caloutas, Francois, Syros. Repository: Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive Society (ELIA). http://www.elia.org.gr/digitized-collections/collections-tour/