I Dare Say -- ‘…in the midst of other woe…’ (3-25-43)

The Pittsburgh Press (March 25, 1943)


‘…in the midst of other woe…’

By Florence Fisher Parry

Why do I listen to the tales out of Greece? There are others to grip the soul. Stories from Norway, from Poland, all stretching out their wasted arms. What has Greece, to move me beyond the power of these other states? I do not know her people. Oh, a few; the Greek up home who has the restaurant, the Greek across the street from whom I get rare oil, the Greek who sits occasionally vis-à-vis and waxes eloquent (as all good Greeks do, being born orators).

Then why do I find myself, now and again, mourning Greece’s plight beyond the plight of others? Praising Greece beyond the praise of other no-less-heroic lands? Only the other day I set down, in this space, a little story out of Greece; today, again. No other subject grips me. True, Greece is celebrating today (and tragically enough!) her 122nd anniversary of independence; but other birthdays of independence go unattended; I could name a dozen countries with their red-letter days too!

I ask the question; but I know the answer. It is the poems we have read, the myths and legends that have been told us time out of mind. It is the story of Thermopylae; it is the lines of Keats and Byron and Poe. Greece, deathless though she be, was made so not by her history alone, but by the songs of poets. She was their muse, but they the true immortals!

The eternals

Now I was musing on this, and as one idly hums the snatches of old tunes, I found myself repeating vagrant and unplaced lines learned so long ago that the plastic mind of childhood was engraved forever with their syllables… And it amazed me to find how many poets are given to apostrophes to Greece as compared with other lands. The best that has been written seems to have stemmed from some remembered legend out of Greece, some urn or statue dug from her valiant soil, some façade of a temple.

And, looking to find the complete verses, I found myself immersed in such lofty beauty that hours whiled away and I was still bemused… And reading again the dear remembered passages, they conjured, not alone the Greece they celebrated, but random memories of teachers long since dead, of schoolmates long forgotten who had conned with me these very passages, ourselves then insensible of their beauty, unknowing of the surcease they were later to bring.

I thought of a broken, ruined man who stumbled into my home one day, all lost. Yet stricken as he was, he gathered his dignity about him and in a voice that grew stronger with each word, he said these lines:

[…] We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

I asked:

Why do you repeat such morbid lines?

To remind myself how old the world is, and its grief. It makes me remember how small is my own burden now. And helps me bear it.

The perfectionists

And so, today, the Greeks can dwell upon the legends of their past, knowing that this misery, too, will pass, and be immortalized as was their plight in the dark days when Byron Shelley, Keats, sang of them, making them immortal among the people of the world.

A king sate on the rocky brow
Which looks o’er sea-born Salamis;
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations;-- all were his!
He counted them at break of day–
And when the sun set, where were they?

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.

What debt we owe these purists, these perfectionists, these poets who found their greatest inspiration upon the isles of Greece!