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Corfu - Writing

Greece - Corfu, originally published 1899

Twenty Five years ago I had the sharp zest of the explorer. It whets one's curiosity to a feather-edge to enter a country which, so far as modern civilization is concerned, is devoid of a past; where there are no works of man except the few traces of nomadic Indian occupancy and the only history revealed is that written by the great forces of Nature. Thus it was very interesting to enter the Black Hills with Custer in 1874; to penetrate a country unmapped and unnamed; to see washed out the first thimbleful of gold ; to plant the standard of nationality and civilization on a lofty height and listen to strains of patriotic music resounding for the first time through those silent hills. We were the harbingers of a new civilization. The practical question to the enthusiastic miner was, " Where shall I stake my claim?"

There is another zest, more delicate but not less keen. It is the zest of the mythologist, the archaeologist, the philologist and the student of letters whose interest in a country is heightened by its long past, the mellowed accretions of myth, tradition and language, its rich treasures of art and the resplendent glow of imaginative literature which invests it like a halo. That is the difference between the Black Hills and Greece. Greece was an illuminated palimpsest, the Black Hills a blank page.

There are two ways of entering Greece. You may sail directly to the Piraeus, the port of Athens, and come at once under the spell of Propylaea and Parthenon. That is to enter by the front door. Or you may land at Corfu, and go from one to another of the Ionian Islands. That is to go through the back lane of Homeric tradition. When I went to Greece, I determined, if possible, to enter by the portal of the Odyssey, and to leave by the portal of the Iliad. If I had lived in the Orient, I should have reversed the programme; but, living in the Occident, it was easier to read the second story first. The centre of the Odyssey is Ithaca; the centre of the Iliad is Troy. In going from one to the other, my trip included nearly all the most important isles and shrines of Greece.

Hardly less important than Ithaca in the Odyssey, and more fascinating in charm of incident and beauty of description, is the land of the Pheacians, the ancient Scheria. The island and its inhabitants are invested with a certain mythical and superhuman character, and the poet gives full rein to his imagination in describing its marvellous fertility and beauty. It is the island which tradition, rightly or wrongly, has identified with the modern Corfu. As we entered the harbor it seemed as if we were sailing into mythic waters. But the captain sails by a modern chart.

Of the seven Ionian Islands, Corfu, called by the Greeks Kerkyra, is the largest and the most important. It holds, too, the palm for beauty and fertility. It has an area of 422 square miles and a population of 25,000 souls. Its veritable history can be traced back to the settlement of a Corinthian colony there, 734 B. C. As in our own history, the colony soon quarrelled with the mother country. In 655 B. C., the Corcyraeans, as they were called, beat the Corinthians in a naval battle. The island took the part of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Later it passed into the hands of the Romans. When the Crusaders insanely dismembered the Byzantine Empire, this island jewel dropped easily into the hands of Venice, and though the Neapolitan kings secured it for a hundred years, and the Turks besieged it twice, the Venetians ruled it until the beginning of this century. Their occupation and that of the Neapolitans covered a period of six centuries. The French secured possession for seven years, from 1807 to 1814. For forty-eight years thereafter, until 1863, it formed one of the seven Ionian Islands grouped into a State under the protection of Great Britain. In 1863, when King George was called to the throne of Greece, the desire for political union with that country was so strong, as expressed by a vote of their people, that England gave tip her protectorate, and the Ionian Islands thenceforth became a part of the kingdom of Greece. Here, in brief outline, are the epochs in the history of Corfu. The charm of the island lies in its physical beauty, its halo of tradition and the picturesque and archaic features of its modern life.

If one wished to settle down into the simple luxuries of physical existence, I know not where he could find them more perfectly combined than on this island. No fickleness of nature has marked its changing fortunes. The same clear sky, balmy air, refulgent sun and glorious prospects abide here as in the days of Homer. The fertility of the soil is remarkable. In the sense in which we speak of it in the latitude of Boston, there is no such thing as win-ter in Corfu. The snow falls on the Albanian mountains, or on the head of Monte San Salvatore, 3,000 feet high, but never whitens the streets of Corfu. Flowers bloom all the year round. The fields in November are gay with English daisies and cyclamen and heather, and we pick crocuses, snowdrops and chrysanthemums. Great walls of cactus and hedges of aloes run along the roadsides. There are vast groves of olives, some of them of great age. The five hundred years claimed for them may not be theirs; but it is easy to believe that they have outlived centuries. It is estimated that there are four million olive-trees on the island ; and nowhere else have I seen such beautiful growths of this historic tree. There are fine groves of oranges, lemons and figs, and the vineyards of Corfu send wine to France, Italy and elsewhere. Bananas, palms, magnolias and the eucalyptus flourish in the gar-dens. Few places are more kindly favored by nature with a generous soil, a genial and lovely prospect. To one who has been reared in the popular or academic fiction that Greek is a dead language, it is curiously exhilarating to land in Corfu and find it really alive. It refuses to be bound in the cerements of the academic pronunciation, to be immured in grammars or text-books ; it is as wing-worded as when it escaped the barriers of Homeric teeth. It is not too fine for common use. It is the language of bootblacks and hack-drivers, as well as of poets and historians; its vocabulary is conspicuously displayed in shop signs, bills of fare, public notices and the names of streets. If he has any of his old college Greek in his brain, now is the time for the traveller to get it out and burnish it up. Still more fortunate is he if he has taken time by the forelock and prepared for this trip by acquiring some knowledge of modern Greek, which is best described by Geldart as " old Greek made easy." It is nonsense to treat Greek as if it were a dead language. It is living in the speech, journalism and literature of the Greeks of today, just as Chaucer is living in the speech, journalism and literature of the English people. The letters, the accents, are the same. The old Greek has changed its form in modern usage. It is simpler, less accurate, less rich in moods and inflections; but it is, historically, essentially the same language. One may open his Homer and pick out on every page words that are in common usage to-day, after three thousand years of currency. The universal daily greeting xaipete is Homeric. The resemblance to the New Testament Greek is remarkable. The Greek Church has done much to preserve the vitality of the language, for the New Testament is used in all the services in the old Greek, and children say the Lord's Prayer by heart just as it stands in Matthew. "Never before," said Mavilla, "had Greek `sight translation' been half so interesting, or practical, as when we lingered along the narrow, crooked streets of the little town, trying to discover which was a baker's shop and which a barber's. The fruit and candy stalls we had no difficulty in recognizing."

The streets are narrow, the esplanade broad and partly shaded with trees. The ruins, with two or three exceptions, are not Greek, but Venetian. They consist mainly of the old Venetian forts, one of which, Fortezza Vecchia, is still used as a military post by the Greeks. But for the visitor the main interest is the magnificent view of harbor, town and island. Traditions grow as luxuriantly in Corfu as olives, figs and lemons. Some of them have a very intimate relation to the life and religion of the people. There is an Homeric tradition and a Christian tradition. The Homeric tradition is worked into the guide-books and comes down as a literary heritage. But the Christian tradition is woven into ritual, ceremony and procession in the Greek Church, and is still used to praise God and shame the devil. We had come to find the Homeric trail, but we could not lapse into luxuriant paganism until we had paid our respects to the lifeless and desiccated remains of Saint Spiridion. All Saints Day (in the Greek, not the Roman calendar), which was observed the day after we landed, was a civil, military and religious festival, all the town, the countryside, the garrison, the two brass bands, and the countless church officials joining in one interminable procession in honor of the patron saint of the island, Saint Spiridion. One of the semi-official lives of the saint states that he was born in Cyprus about 318 A. D. From a humble shepherd he became an archbishop, and many stories are told of the miracles he wrought. He died in 350 and his body was taken to Constantinople in 700, where it remained until 1453, when it was re-moved to Corfu. Instead of being burnt or buried, it is sacredly preserved in a silver coffin decorated with gold and jewels. Three times a year the body is taken out of the church and carried about the city in a palanquin with a glass case. This festival, like those of Easter and other holy days in Greece, is national and patriotic as well as religious. It brings out the whole populace of every grade and order, and the military solemnities are almost as conspicuous as the sacerdotal.

We joined the waiting crowd at the door of Saint Spiridion's Church, standing on tiptoe to hear mass. The women were in full holiday dress, their breasts covered with masses of golden icons and heavy gold chains. Their soft, white veils were spotless, and their velvet bodices and silk aprons were of the gayest colors. As the chimes pealed for eleven o'clock, the procession started from the church. In the van were a number of small children dressed in sailor costume. The civil authorities and dignitaries were preceded by banner-bearers. Acolytes bore huge waxen columns,-candles if you please, - as long and as stout as a lamp-post. Then came priests and bishops in richest garments of gorgeous colors. The arch-bishop walked close to the body of his ancient and distinguished forerunner; then, in great state, came Saint Spiridion himself, in his sacred palanquin, borne by four men, the body upright, with head, trunk, and hands exposed to view. "Poor old thing," said Mavilla, "fifteen hundred years a withered mummy, and still jolted about the city three times a year!"

The multitude fell in behind the troops of soldiers, and, with their candles in their hands, marched the whole morning. When the procession reached the square, the palanquin was placed on the ground and prayers were offered, thanking the saint for delivering the island from an ancient plague. The benediction was pronounced in a forcible way by a battery of artillery. To some this service was apparently little more than a national festival; to the superstitious peasants it was full of solemn awe, - the veneration with which they regard the old saint amounts to that bestowed by their ancestors on the lesser divinities, - to others it furnished material for piety and gratitude. One old man who stood near me in the square was deeply moved and the tears rolled down his cheeks. I wondered in just what way the service touched his heart. But there was nothing Pharisaical in his tears, though they fell on a street corner.

But we had not come to Corfu to pay our respects to Saint Spiridion. Where were Nausicaa and the gardens of Alcinous, and the ship of the Phaeacians which the gods had turned to stone? Where was the ball which the princess had thrown into the river?

The Phaeacian episode is one of the most charming in the Odyssey; it is one of the most ingenious devices ever constructed for bridging a narrative. Homer - and here let me say that when I speak of Homer, I mean the man, the men, or succession of men who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey; he may have been blind, though I cannot think he was born so; he may have been born in seven different cities or more; he may have been a succession of rhapsodists whose narrative deliquesced into song. I am not given to dropping into controversy by discussing the Homeric question ; I simply inform the disputants that I recognize their claims and contentions, and "have filed them for future consideration." But I hope they will generously permit me to say " Homer" without accusing me of illiterate partisanship or blank idiocy - Homer, I was about to say, had adroitly brought his hero Odysseus into a most embarrassing predicament, a state of absolute nakedness and destitution in a strange land. He had been for many years on the fabled isle of Calypso. Through the intervention of the gods, she had granted him release and furnished him with timber and tools; he had made a raft, or boat, and launched forth on the deep for Ithaca. But the ocean god was not going to let him off so easily. In a tremendous storm the raft went to pieces, and if a submarine goddess had not given him a life-preserver he would have perished. He nears the shores of a strange isle. He is in danger of being dashed to pieces on its rocky cliffs; the skin is torn from his hands. At last he finds the mouth of a river, swims up, lands on the bank, heaps together a pile of leaves as a protection against rheumatism, and, half dead from exhaustion, sinks into a profound slumber.

Now, how is Homer to get him out of this naked pauperism and introduce him once more into organized and reputable society? Of course he had the whole pantheon of gods at his disposal and could use the deus ex machina whenever he wished. Nothing could have been easier than to ask Athene to come down, wake up the hero and give him a new suit of clothes. She does supply him from her wardrobe on one occasion. But as a general thing Homer does not care to drag in the gods by the ears. He is more fond of using them to give impulse and direction to human action. What, then, is the ingenious device he uses to wake up and clothe his hero? The laughing music, the playful scream of a girl's voice.

Nausicaa, a beautiful Diana-like princess, upon whose charms Homer loves to dilate, is sleeping in her chamber in the palace of King Alcinous, her father. The goddess Athene comes to her, -- not even here, however, with direct address, but in the form of one of her handmaids, who chides her for sleeping when she ought to be up and having a care for her household. She reminds her of the washing that must be done for her father that he may appear respectably among his counsellors, and for the bachelor brothers who are fond of going to the dance. She hints, too, about a day of marriage for the girl herself. The Puritan conscience of the maid is aroused. She gets up and goes to her father the king, and says, " Dear papa, may the servants yoke the mules to the wagon, - the good one with the high back, - that I may go with the washing for you and my brothers " (no hint about the day of her marriage, but the old man understands it). He gives her his best high-top wain. The mules are harnessed, and the queen puts up a nice luncheon. The princess takes the reins and, accompanied by her maids, drives with the clothes to the washing pools. When they get there the princess does not tie her mules to a tree all harnessed and with the check-rein up, as a city-bred girl might do; she considerately unharnesses them and lets them feed on the succulent grass. She and the maids go to the pools and wash the clothes with laughing rivalry. Then, while the clothes dry, comes the lunch, and after that a game of ball, the maids singing as they play. At last the royal pitcher makes a bad curve or a wild throw ; the fielders miss it, and the ball falls into the river. What happens, what must happen? What would a bevy of girls do under similar circumstances in any and every age? There is a loud, laughing scream of comic despair as the ball splashes in the river! It is this scream which wakes the sleeping hero.

Odysseus behaves with great propriety. Behind the shelter of a thick branch he appeals to the princess for protection. Her maids are frightened enough ; but she maintains her stately self-possession. She neither runs from the salty bushwhacker nor does she refer him to the Charity Organization Society. She calms her frightened maids, tosses some clothes to the suppliant, and, after she has harnessed her mules to the high-wheeled wain, she leads the. way to her father's home, using the whip on the mules " with discretion " (Homer was anxious to show that there was one woman who did know how to whip a mule). She only asks of the hero that when she gets to the town he will keep a good way behind the team, not to attract the attention of the idle gossips as they pass the loungers in the agora. Thus she leads him to her father's palace with its exquisite gardens, concerning whose beauty and fruit-fulness Homer waxes eloquent.

Messrs. Scott, Dumas, Van Lennep, Spielhagen, and all the rest of you, could you devise anything more ingenious, more natural, or more artlessly beautiful, to get your hero out of difficulty, and to lead him to the palace of a king, where he shall be received with abundant hospitality, and where his sojourn shall furnish a pretext for telling the whole history of his previous adventures, of which the reader was ignorant? In the Odyssey, Homer begins in the middle, and it is not until you are through a fourth of the volume that you get the first part of the story. How charmingly the episode is fitted together ! The reader has no suspicion at the beginning that this little pleasantry about the lusty bachelors going to the dance, or the reference to the king's need of clean linen, has anything to do with Odysseus, but later he perceives that had there been no men's clothes to wash, Odysseus would have been left in a ridiculous plight. Then that game of ball is so spontaneous, with the wild throw and the bad fielding, - which any college boy will condone in a club of girls, -leading to that explosive scream; it is all so artless and so modern that it might have happened yesterday. If you do not think so, read it over in the charming translation of Professor Palmer in Book VI. of the Odyssey.

It was this Nausicaa and her beautiful maids, - so much more interesting than the wizened body of Saint Spiridion,-it was this fabled garden of Alcinous that I was seeking to find. I was half confident that if I could only put a spade somewhere near the shore where Odysseus landed I might, perhaps, find buried in the sand the ball which the princess had thrown. What a magnificent trophy that would be ! I should be made an honorary member of every college ball team in the country. The garden of Alcinous, teeming with luscious fruit, is not difficult to find. The garden of the present king might rival it in fruitfulness. And is there not a street named after Alcinous, and is it not the site of the famous palace on a hill overlooking the sea? We rode thither from the city, winding past King George's beautiful garden, into which we looked from our open carriage. At the roadside were groups of dark-eyed children with bunches of flowers and clusters of oranges which they plucked from the walls. They flung their spoils into the carriages, and we tossed a few coins into the dusty road. "Not a gleam of the bronze doors of Alcinous," says Mavilla, " shone through the trees on the hill-top, but imagination restored all in more than the original splendor. Although we fancied we could hear girlish laughter ringing through the olive grove, and I caught a glimpse of white arms in the surf on the beach below, yet we did not find Nausicaa. Nevertheless, the walk to the crest well repaid us, for there we had the whole world at our feet, -a sunny, flowery little world amid seas. There were garden valleys, little villages straggling up the wooded slopes, and bold hills dropping abruptly into the sea."

We drove along through the centre of the peninsula to the one-gun battery, the lake of Kalikiopoulo on our right, the sea beyond the hills to the left. The view from the gun battery at the extreme point of the peninsula is charming. If Homer tells the truth, the ship of the Phaeacians who were kind enough to take Odysseus to Ithaca, was turned into, stone by angry Poseidon when they came back. And if tradition tells the truth, the little island before us was originally the old ship. But elsewhere there is another island claimant for this honor, and I admit that I am not enough of a naval architect to decide between them. The question occurs, also, whether the mouth of this bay was the place where Odysseus landed. If so, where were the rocky cliffs against which he was in danger of being dashed? Mr. Stillman, in his charming book " On the Track of Odysseus," has discussed the question in detail, and has found elsewhere the rocky cliffs. But a work so highly mythical and imaginative as the Odyssey, though so true to life and nature, cannot be reduced to exact bounds of topography or geography. It is not likely that any island, starting as the basis of a tradition or story, would preserve its configuration wholly after floating in the warm imagination of the rhapsodists. Instead of making the story conform to the topography, the topography would be made to conform to the story. More accuracy is demanded of the modern historical novelist, but how easy to find slips and anachronisms in description! In his "Chevalier de la Maison Rouge," Dumas has given a description of the Conciergerie at Paris. As I tried not long since to fit the story to the prison, my guide shrugged his shoulders and said, "When Dumas did not find what he wanted he made it." I suspect Homer did the same. The literary traveller on the trail of Homer must not harden into an archeological literalist. He must keep his own imagination fluent and sympathetic or he will miss that of the poet. Later on, at Tiryns, Mycenae, and at Troy, it will be well worth while to remember how much of fact and history have been brought to light from taking the truth of the Homeric narrative for granted. But for the Island of Scheria we cannot solidify the fluent, misty, auroral tradition. All that is needed is to find an island which might furnish in fertility, beauty, clime, and general topography the conditions necessary for the Phaeacian episode, and tradition was evidently satisfied that Corfu fulfilled them.

I was not willing to leave Corfu without an effort to see Nausicaa. I had no desire to see her mummified in a coffin like Saint Spiridion. I wanted her with some life in her eye and grace in her limbs. Is it unreasonable to ask a girl to keep her youth for twenty-five or thirty centuries? If the fountain of perpetual youth is to be found anywhere, is it not in this land of fruit and flowers?

We applied at the old residence, but the princess had moved. The garden was blooming, but where was the maid? I felt confident that we must go to some of the wash pools to find her. Gastouri, a suburb of the town, is renowned for the beauty of its women, -why not there? Mavilla declares that" the drives on the island of Corfu are beyond the power of pen or camera," which may be a gentle hint to me that I must not attempt to describe them. " Even the warmth of the painter's brush is unsatisfactory. The sweetness of the air, the delicious heat of the November sun, and the fascination of being there are inseparable." Nevertheless, Mavilla would have been sorry enough if I had not taken my camera. Perhaps the hint, after all, is that I had better quote from her diary instead of trying to improve on it:

"We saw but few people as we drove toward the Empress of Austria's summer palace. One or two little whitewashed cottages basked in sunny gardens. Under the trees by the roadside were shepherds with their flocks, idle and peaceful, as if life contained neither care nor worry. In front of a group of tiny cottages sat three old women, spinning in the sun-shine. I was sure that they were the sister Fates, and so looked anxiously for the shears. Evidently they had no thought of cutting off our pleasure, for they responded cordially to our salutations.

Near the palace is a little hamlet, where children were playing in the road. We refused their entreaties to take us through the grounds, and asked only for a cosey spot for picnicking. As guide, we chose a dear little lame fellow with a heavenly face. We left the carriages in the shade, and scrambled up a steep hill after the crippled laddie, who hobbled over the rocks with his one bare foot and crutch faster than we could with our walking boots. "Our luncheon tasted like nectar and ambrosia, served on the slopes of Olympus. For the time being, the American sovereigns decided to become immortal gods.

On the pinnacle of the hill above us, suggesting some of Durer's impossible mountain shrines, was a tiny chapel. To us, who like to have our churches convenient, of easy access to the electric cars, the situation of this chapel was striking. Even on that beautiful day, the wind from the sea was so strong that it was hard to keep our footing as we toiled up the winding trail over the rocks. Once there, we lay in the lea of the little stone building, and picked crocuses while we got our breath. Faded wreaths hung over the church door, but the windows were nailed up, and the rough little edifice could not be entered. Even the bell-rope in the tiny campanile was decayed. For many years a priest had lived in a cell built against the end of the chapel, but he had died, our little guide told us, and this hilltop shrine is now used only on special occasions. But we had come to see the shrines, and this was one of them.

Whether Gastouri ran down to the valley or struggled up the hill, it matters not, for now it is just half way. Our angel-faced guide swung himself out of the carriage in front of a rose-wreathed cottage, and smilingly said, - "This is my home; down there is Gastouri."

We went down afoot, for the cobble-paved alleys were so steep that even mules are of little use in Gastouri. Each house looks down on the roof of the one below; so the doings of every household are carefully supervised. The highest building was a real country store, with the usual post-office, tobacco, candy, and loungers. A few of the houses had court-yards, where women sat combing one another's hair, and wreathing it about their heads, while the children and the cats played around. Where the houses opened directly on the alley, the women were spinning in the open doorway. They all had a pleasant word for us, especially if we noticed their children - the dear roly-poly little things ! At Gastouri more than elsewhere in Corfu one sees the traces of Italian blood, and the mixture of the languages from the time of the Venetian supremacy. The women have the beauty and grace of both nations, and some of them are the grandest creatures I have seen.

In the valley, in the shade of a colossal plane-tree, was a covered well. The earthen roof was arched, and looked centuries old. Here the girls of the village were drawing water and washing in the rough stone troughs on the bank. We begged a drink from one pretty creature who was filling her jug from a tin pail. "Then, while we stood talking with the girls who were treading the clothes and at the sylvan picture of shepherd and shepherdess sauntering together, exchanged greetings with a hunter who was cutting 'cross country, and stared curiously at the snug, white farmhouses barricaded with hedges of aloes.

Yes, we had found Greece, - olives, figs, palms; oranges, grapes, and cyclamen,-our dreams were beginning to come true. The Grecian seven by this time were thorough Hellenists, but Corfu was not all, - there were other fairy isles to visit."

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