The visitor in Greece

The visitor in Greece

A Poem by Robert Nelson

This is the first eclogue in an unpublished collection, possibly entitled Eclogues upon the ruins of modernity


Eclogue 1


The visitor in Greece





In the search for the sacred, the wayfarer visiting Hellas

Is drawn to the countryside.  No one believes that the city

Reflects an authentic reality steeped in the past.

You imagine agrarian haunts with a vigilant goatherd

Who tends to his flock with an ease that encourages thinking,

A great contemplation on nature and love and existence

That almost inheres in the landscape, so cushioned from politics.

Greece as retreat!  Both in time and the timeless agenda

Of farming with natural rhythms in step with the seasons,

A planetary logic that argues a ponderous pace

And expatiates, filling the forest with wide speculation.

We yearn for that innocence.  O to return to that Greece

Where a pastoral life might support a poetic existence

And nature and thought coexist as if language and breath!

In the cool of the glades, you imagine a shepherd at rest

In the lyrical style of the noble Italian baroque

Where the classical past was conceived as a summertime elegy,

Picturing idylls of vaguely religious enchantment.

In tune with the ambling and nonchalant livestock, the shepherd

Composes his lays on a pipe or a wooden recorder

That echoes throughout the adorable glen: the ideal

Where the fantasy thrives and we generate further and further

Like notes on the flute that successively spawn one another

In rising and falling accounts of agreeable harmony!

Hundreds of poets have tried to recover this idyll

Where culture seems natural: that is the substance of myth.

To return to these pastures, you have to prohibit reality,

Banish its tangible imprint and shed the awareness,

Pretend that you came like a wanderer, free of a timetable,

Free of those zealous designs for a boastful experience.

Innocence can’t be regained as if somehow you’re cleansed

Of your former competitive life and the stressful ambitions

Are washed from you consciousness. How, when already the trip

Is strategically planned like a business to maximize profit?

And even if somehow you tell yourself stories of yesteryear

Nothing today will respond to your call to illusion.

The place where you’ve come is as hostile to pastoral culture

As cars are the arrogant foe of pedestrian rhythms.

In Greece, as in anywhere else, one traverses the freeways,

A signposted network of roads that you’d roll upon anywhere,

Legible even when racing at motorized speed.

The adorable place-names of legendary timbre are imprinted

In English and Greek that equates them with anywhere else

In the globalized style to which cars and their freeways belong

In their infinite span and connexion with commerce and airports.

Modernity always encroaches on all of your fantasies,

Hedging their charm with the chains of superior capital.

Nothing original stays as it was.  It’s co-opted

And makes itself serve the directives of dominant markets.

It’s true that agrarian practice persists in this country

That mirrors an earlier paradigm.  Livestock and trees

Are the same since antiquity. Thousands of years of disruption

Have hardly eroded the fields in their sunny fertility.

Sheep can be heard in the hills with those sonorous bells

That have tinkled since time immemorial, matching the pace

Of an earlier age that could measure its voices in metre

And sing with a deity’s blessing by regular feet

In the natural way that the sheep produce milk and the clip. 

But in seeking these instances, tucked in remote sequestration

Away from the forces of capital, poor in the mountains

Where services hardly obtain but the air remains fresh,

You are visiting ruins, the living remains of a culture

No longer supported by time and its sharp synchronicity.

Ruins of lifestyles preserved in an indigent timewarp,

These remnants are loveable, rich in pathetic fragility.

Often the hardy survival of practices goes with the ageing

The folk who remember the noble preglobalized world

Where the values were never determined by corporate marketing.

Now, like their humble utensils, they’re crooked and frail,

Unaware that their country at large has succumbed to a narrative

Different from theirs.  They were raised in a world of contentment.

So long as essential provisions were garnered for living 

And ethical habits applied in a decent community,

Few aspirations unsettled their vigorous work,

Their fulfilment in manual travails and prolonged conversation.

Beyond unexceptional wine, there was little luxurious.

Now, on the other hand, life is besieged by ambitions.

Desire is installed artificially: advertising reaches you

Tempting you first, but then failing your miserable wherewithal

Making you feel incomplete, unresourced and inadequate.

Living a plain uncompetitive life without fashion

Belongs to the past: it’s a ruin in spite of its virtue.

The problem with ruins is not that they’re fragile and crumbling

But rather that anything wishfully raised in your fantasy

Ends as a morbid projection upon what remains.

Like the great Alexander who visits the tomb of Achilles,

It’s all about him as he ponders in envy and melancholy,

Thinking that no one will trumpet his conquering exploits

Like Homer�"that sonorous archetype�"voicing the fame

Of the hero whose actions remain archetypical also.

It mightn’t be fame that inspires the wistful projection

Or not necessarily fixed by a resonant name.

Like the scene of Arcadian shepherds who come to a tomb

That Poussin had created in *Et in Arcadia ego*�"

‘I too was in Arcady’�"ruins enfold your belonging,

Proposing that you, the spectator, have captured an ancestry,

Noble, romantic, you too, in the wonder of robes

Of undateable epoch that go with the elegant postures

And bounteous knowledge in magical deep contemplation.

I too have existed in graciously mythical times

Where the perished experience grants me a home like a charity.                                      

Homeland abroad!  This impoverished virtual *patria*

Beckons my vanity, offering imaginary blandishments,

Tempting my view of myself with a grander identity.

Somehow I walk among reveries, dreams from the past

That bespeak an exalted existence in infinite futures.

I stride upon ruins to reach an illusory privilege,

Built on conceits and identification with ghosts;

And yet it’s sustaining, this vision, this view that is nothing,

A quaint immaterial longing, no more than a daydream.

I too can can seductively retail the classical stockpile

And pass the inheritance on like a tutor of poets.

These ruins, these phantoms, betoken inalienable ownership.

Rightly or wrongly I own what I seem to construct

And it helps if there’s missing material, gaps among shards

Where I smartly interpolate content that springs from desire.

Archaeology flatters the egotist.  Anything ancient

Promotes my clairvoyance as one with the gift of a seer

Who decocts an invisible tale from material ruins.

They’re at my disposal, untended, just left there by fortune

For me to appropriate, arrogate into experience,

Even when nothing occurred in my distant vicinity.

Well, it’s the tale of a traveller.  I live in Australia

Where Greece is the subject of longing among the expatriates

Stuck in a place with a richer material welfare

But sadly impoverished contact with kin and community,

Language and culture, traditions remaining in Greece.

There are noble traditions and myths in Australia as well

That belong to Indigenous people; but that is the catch.

We have limited access and when we presume to interpret

The sense of the Dreaming, we visit their culture like thieves;

Whereas Greece is our patrimony: Greece as a hallowed antiquity

Seems to belong to us, giving us language and concepts

That deeply inform the sophisticated folk who we are.

To the yearning of immigrants, now we can add the remainder.

To live so remotely from Hellas is felt as a delicate penury,

Kinder than exile but still it’s a bland deprivation,

Where contact with nourishing cultural symbols seems tenuous.

Certainly, distance contracts through the gate of an airport

But then you’re a traveller and that’s the depressing condition.

Of course you can relish the beautiful place that you enter

But all on a timer.  The trip is defined by a clock

Whose inexorable ticking is counting both money and time

And your presence is weighed by jet-fuel that’s thrown in the air.

Every hour that is spent overseas can be measured in petrol,

The total consumption divided by all of your time there;

And then there’s the travel by car with an equal convenience,

Also a cost to the planetary health and ecology,

Filling the air with invisible carbon emissions

That elevate temperatures globally.  Isn’t it scandalous?

Isn’t there transport that uses our bodies instead

Like in Greece for the holiest epochs, where pilgrims would walk

And observe the topography, townships and legendary sanctuaries

More as participant, lending reciprocal effort

By going with ponderous footsteps as gestures of piety.

Walking is surely a sacrament, placing the body

In mutual organic rapports with the ground it traverses.

The speed of our travel through space is impious, unholy,

a travesty mocking the monuments, impudent sacrilege

Strafing the landscape with speed of irreverent disdain.

Expressing impatience, our hurry discredits our purpose.

To hurtle so rashly disables the reverie.  Yonder,

That’s surely the glade where a shepherdess met with a god

And was seized from her swain by almighty immoral seduction;

It’s here that the poems were hatched of unthinkable age

Where the humble ascended to heights of inordinate magic.

You miss it with every degree of that shabby velocity,

So untoward, so uprooting of things that have grown there.

Modernity skews the perception of where you’re located,

Not just through gratuitous speed but the crazed expectation

To find a superior prospect in every experience.

Thus in the landscape one seeks the museum; contrariwise

In the museum one seeks what is proper to landscape.

The country requires this animism.  Figures from vases,

Sarcophagi, stelai, the nymphs on a sacrosanct parapet,

Press themselves into the prospect: you want to encounter them

Even though clearly the land is denuded of sentiments

Such as the galleries proffer; and hence the resentment

That nothing is there, because what you expected is fantasy.

Similarly, when you encounter the jars in their cabinets,

Scouring the bulbous and decorative vessels for spirit,

You somehow insinuate more than is there: you confabulate,

Placing a pastoral backdrop behind what you see

That belongs to the tangible world of the living.

Of course it’s forlorn, because two incompatible worlds

Are not reconciled easily, neither with speed nor technology. 

Sadly, aesthetic experience falls between columns

As if an elaborate lintel that spans its supports

Has a crack in the middle that augurs an imminent drop.

We can prop ourselves up on our book-learning, holding the page

Against certain collapse; we can speak of the venerable marbles

In language authentically taken from ancient vocabularies,

Hefting the weight of tradition on solid authorities

Only to find that the mighty entablature tumbled

For want of affection and use, like a scarf in a drawer

That was perfectly folded and yet it was eaten by moth.

Over time and neglect, the illustrious pediments perish

And with them the lofty beliefs in eternal divinities

Also collapsing in dust, unsustainable, empty

In spite of the glory and grandeur that bolstered their currency.

Now we believe in the future, our corporate godhead

Ordaining consumption as progress�"in this we believe�"

And technology gives us the tangible practical harbingers

Ushering futures beyond what we dreamt would become.

But with every advancement, a sandbank of failures and washouts

Builds up, an expanding accretion of cast-offs and junk

In a world panorama of things that no longer seduce us.

They’re ruins as well, only crushed and compressed into landfill

That sink by the weight of the burden that’s loaded on top

In the boundless supply of rejected mechanical promises.

Endlessly mounting, this physical waste is a token

Of wasted desire.  Aspirations, no less than appliances,

End at the tip where discarded dysfunctional property

Mirrors exhaustion of hope on industrial scale

Where the slide from ambition to rubbish is cushioned by apathy,

Sludge in the spirit that sets as congealed disappointment.

Despair is the ruin of hope and it seeps like a scum

From the giant metropolis, reaching the dumps on the outskirts

Where quickly it forms sedimentary layers like history

Multiplied crazily, laying deposits like Troy�"

Where the citadel sits beneath others from centuries earlier�"

Now in grotesque escalation and set to accelerate,

Smashing out hundreds of Troys in the span of a day.

Our production of ruins is monstrous, exceeding our footprint

And spilling invisibly into the muck-laden air

That is thick with our gaseous effluent flowing from petrol

In daily unstoppable gouts.  O uncanny coincidence:

What we describe as a fossil�"the term fossil fuel�"is our progress!

We take from the fossil and morbidly turn ourselves into it.

We are the fossil, predestined and doomed to revert

To the ruin of carbon that shades the remains of our globe.

And so ruin and now ruination conclude their agreement.

As vegetable fossils from billions of years are exhumed

From the sacrosanct peace of their deep subterranean gravesite

And fed into furious cars and then cast in the air

We determine that culture�"O mighty unprincipled capitalism!�"

Ends like a drain for the sickened and petrified world.

On the ruin of markets, deposit this epitaph gently:

We grabbed for utility more than we’d ever enjoy

And have left for the earth the remains that we couldn’t destroy.

© 2021 Robert Nelson

Author's Note

Robert Nelson
Thanks very much for looking at my verse! It's a pentameter with an extra syllable per foot relative to the old iambic rhythm.

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Added on July 22, 2021
Last Updated on July 22, 2021
Tags: Greece, metre, environment, ecology, tourism


Robert Nelson
Robert Nelson

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Art critic and scene painter for the late Polixeni Papapetrou, I love the studio environment and speculation about what inspires people. I’m obsessed with metrical verse but like to read anythi.. more..