Saturday, 18 February 2017

A mighty woman with a torch

The Colossus of Rhodes

In 280 BC the sculptor Chares of Lindos supervised the erection of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to commemorate the Greek island of Rhodes’s victory over Cyprus who had besieged the island 25 years before. The statue became known as the Colossus of Rhodes and apparently straddled the mouth of Rhodes harbour. Many writers and artists have attempted to imagine what it looked like from various contemporary descriptions. Illustrators of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones have used its concept to depict the Titan standing in the harbour of the Free City of Braavos.

How the mighty are fallen

The Colossus of Rhodes stood for 54 years but broke off at the knees during a devastating Earthquake in 226 BC. For nearly a century travellers would write about the immense ruin. Pliny the Elder couldn’t reach his arms around one of the fallen thumbs. There have been many famous statues since Chares’s Colossus and recently one particular statue has been haunting my imagination. I’ve been lucky enough to see it on a holiday in New York and was very moved by the poem carved into its pedestal, a poem that references the Colossus of Rhodes. The statue celebrates the immigrant founding of modern America and its words have been quoted many times (“world-wide welcome….Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me….”)  The words seem to have been forgotten for the moment, by far-right politicians and their supporters in America, Europe and Australia.

The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

I’ve quoted from Shelley’s Ozymandias before (here) in the context of life’s futility. It is a worthy companion poem to The New Colossus and a comforting, though tragic, idea when feeling in despair about global politics. Nothing lasts forever. The Colossus of Rhodes fell. The Statue of Liberty is currently an empty gesture. Ozymandias became a couple of legs and half a head. The mighty fall. In the musical Avenue Q the characters wisely sing that everything “Is only for now….” What will happen to us all? Time will tell.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”