Research in Victorian newspapers and journals occupies much of my time away from these pages. The other day searching through the 1891 volume of WT Stead’s influential Review of Reviews, I came across an item which it seemed to me would be of great interest to many of our readers, a “lost poem” by no less a person than Roger Casement.
The editor of the journal, the notorious Stead himself, wrote:
“I publish with much pleasure the following verses which have been sent me from the Congo Free State in response to Mr Harrison’s appeal for the restoration of the Elgin Marbles to Greece. It is a remarkable instance of the large range of the Review and of the interest which many of our expatriated countrymen take in the problems of the old world which they have left behind: —
Give back the Elgin marbles; let them lie
Unsullied, pure, beneath an Attic sky.
The smoky fingers of our northern clime,
More ruin work than all the ancient time.
How oft the roar of the Piraen sea,
Through column’d hall and dusky temple stealing,
Hath struck these marble ears, that now must flee
The whirling hum of London, noonward reeling.
Ah! let them hear again the sounds that float
Around Athene’s shrine on morning’s breeze,—
The lowing ox, the bell of climbing goat,
And drowsy drone of far Hymettus’ bees.
Give back the marbles; let them vigil keep
Where Art still lies, o’er Pheidias’ tomb, asleep.
Roger Casement, Lukunga Valley, Cataract Region of the Lower Congo.
Though the place from which Casement, then working for the company developing the Congo Free State (virtually the private estate of King Leopold of the Belgians), wrote sounds to a modern ear like the remotest quarter of the “Dark Continent”, it is actually a quarter of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1891 it was only a decade old. Today with a population of some 15 million people, it is by far the most populous urbanised area in Africa.
But from what was in 1891 still a remote place Casement was contributing not to an Irish cause, as some might have expected, but another injustice of a cultural kind, one which still engages the friends of Greece in controversy with the British Museum, where the shattered relics of the Parthenon frieze are now lodged.
The poem serves to remind us that Casement was a man of generous spirit who abhorred all instances of corruption and injustice that he encountered. Irish freedom was not his only cause. All aspects of personal freedom moved him. Perhaps if we could see him clear of patriotic fame we might see Casement as a human being with fears and secret passions of his own. The Elgin Marbles, in the minds of many, remain an injustice.