Greece - A Bit Of Exegesis
( Originally Published 1899 )
THERE are some words whose meaning cannot be learned from the dictionary of a foreign tongue. They must be learned from life, manners, customs, scenery, climate. This is especially true of Greece, whose literature reflects so much of its life. To travel there is to give one a new conception of even the commonest words. " Sun," " sky," " light," " moon," " night," mean infinitely more to one after he has seen the rosy-fingered light of a Greek morn, the blaze of noon, the glory of a sunset, the wonderful beauty of the star-gemmed heavens at night. No one who lives habitually under a leaden sky can imagine the transparency of the Greek atmosphere. The scenery of Greece is beautifully reflected in its language. Mountains, hills, plains, groves and seas interpret the words which describe them. Greece is a small country; but if not vast, it is intense. It is a cameo, beautifully cut. Some words shrink in size when we have known it, but they do not shrink in significance. The word " river is an exception. A boy brought up on the banks of the Hudson or the Mississippi might jump over some of these Greek rivers without knowing that he had crossed them.
I learned while standing on the shaky soil of Zante the meaning of one word in Homer. It was worth coming hundreds of miles to see it unfolded in a beautiful illustration, one of the finest I have seen in Greece. Homer speaks of Ithaca as " far-seen," "rugged," "rocky." And so it is. Its mountain shapes are clearly cut in the sky line; and, when you cross to it from Cephalonia, you see what a rugged, rocky land it is, without marsh or pasture except for its browsing goats. You understand perfectly what Homer meant when he used these adjectives, and you see how well they fit into the picture. But there is another phrase not so easily explained, and I sailed away from Ithaca at night without knowing what it meant. I refer to Homer's characterization of it as " low-lying," an adjective which seems quite inconsistent with the others I have quoted. But, on climbing the lofty hill of Zante, crowned with its sturdy Venetian fortress, I discovered, as I looked toward the north, the meaning of Homer's epithet. The grand, impressive object was the island of Cephalonia. Its lofty mountain, Aenus, is the highest in the Ionian islands. So grand is the swell of its curve, as it rises majestically above the water, that it looks not like a peak set on a pedestal, but as if the whole island were a mountain standing up to its knees in the sea. To the east, on the right as you look from the south, nestles Ithaca under the shadow of the greater isle. It is by comparison alone that it is " low-lying." Traverse its hills and mountains and you will see how generally accurate is the description in the Odyssey. View it from Zante, and the epithet "low-lying " is perfectly explicable. It does not describe a flat island, but one which is low only when compared with the snow-crowned peaks of Cephalonia. This is but another proof that the poet was describing a region more or less familiar.
Homer and the New Testament are a good way apart, but they are both included in the marvellous unity of the Greek language. If I learned the meaning of one word of Homer, standing on the hill of Zante, I felt anew the force of a verse in the New Testament. It was the doxology to the Lord's Prayer, —" And Thine be the kingdom and the power and the glory." It was the power that first impressed me. What an immeasurable force had shaken this island to its foundation ! The prostrate villages, the shattered houses in the city below, were the melancholy proof. There is something terrible in the conception and experience of an energy which in a few seconds can turn a village into a heap of ruins. Yet, awful as are the destructive forces of Nature, they are not so grand as those which are constructive. What mighty Power reared those lofty mountains set in the bosom of the sea! Majestic masonry whose architect was the Eternal ! In a thunder-storm or an earthquake we are startled by the revelation of amazing power; but what a revelation of the silent energy of Nature is made to us all the time ! It was manifest in the little flower, in the tender grain growing at my feet, in the swell of the tide, the breath of the wind and the glare of the sun. Silently the shadows moved; but what an unspeakable Energy moved them ! — the Power that turns the world on its axis and sends it silently whirling on its pathway among the stars. Compared with this silent energy of light and shadow, the Zante earthquake seemed insignificant.
The royal yacht of the King of Greece was lying in the harbor, and a few cables off was the English war-vessel, the " Camperdown," which had come so quickly on its errand of mercy. Not far away lay an Italian ironclad and two Greek men-of-war, all on the same gospel mission. Three political kingdoms were represented by the flags in the harbor. The royal family of Greece added personality to vague and abstract conceptions of government. In honor of the king and queen, the Italian vessel was gayly decked with flags. A white puff of smoke from a port-hole ; and, four seconds afterward, the boom of the gun reached my ear on the hill-top. Another followed, and another, till the full compliment of thunder had been paid to the sovereign. But to my thought a kingdom was proclaimed in this suggestive scene not symbolized by any of the flags. More silently than the blazing guns, the willing lightning carried under the ocean the message of sorrow and devastation and the appeal to human brotherhood. Every one of these great war-vessels, native and foreign, had come in answer to that appeal. Each one had brought aid and comfort. What a majestic fulfilment of the prediction that the spear should be turned into the pruning-hook! To what nobler service can a war-vessel be put than to go on a mission of philanthropy, bearing bread for the hungry and shelter for the homeless? The music of that artillery was the angel song of peace on earth, good will to men. Each vessel bore the flag of its own kingdom, but also the invisible banner of the larger kingdom of love and brotherhood.
And the glory was not wanting. A wonderful illumination of sunlight flooded the landscape. " God said, Let there be light, and there was light." The snow on the distant mountains glistened, the sea glimmered, the rose and the cyclamen displayed their color. In this surpassing scene of natural beauty the glory of the Lord was enshrined. But more beautiful than the outward scene was the conception of the glory revealed in that Love and Goodness which, joined to Truth and Beauty, are welling up in the heart of man for the redemption of the world.