Constantine Petrou Cavafy (Greek Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης) (April 29, 1863 – April 29, 1933) is a renowned Greek poet who was born in 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt, to Greek parents.
Following is an original text written by him in 1891, which is the first artifact clearly showing the questioning and the movement repatriating the Parthenon Marbles has started as early as 120 years ago.
From the Cavafy Archives
In the number for March the Nineteenth Century has published, under the heading of «The joke about the Elgin Marbles», an article which is in one sense remarkable.
The learned and eloquent Mr. Frederic Harrison advocated the restitution in his article, «Give back the Elgin Marbles», in the Nineteenth Century. I will not dwell on the merits of Mr. Harrison’s article, beyond to remark that all his statements and arguments are well-founded, besides being generous; but, strange to say, some people consider generosity incompatible with common sense.
The article, «The joke about the Elgin Marbles», is written by the Editor of the Nineteenth Century, Mr. James Knowles, and purports to answer Mr. Harrison. According to Mr. Knowles, Mr. Harrison is not in earnest; his article is merely a test of his countrymen’s sense of humour and a specimen of the art of the modern demagogue, who finds arguments in support of any theory.
Such is the opinion of Mr. Knowles. He appears to be thoroughly convinced, which is not unimportant, —it being thus certain that his doctrine has at least one follower. —But the impartial reader will differ, I think, from Mr. Knowles in spite of his fervency of faith which, it is commonly believed, is catching. His article is at once ungenerous and poor in argument. Aridity in style and prolixity of cheap wit render its perusal a heavy task even for those to whom the restitution of the Elgin Marbles is of direct interest, —I mean the true friends of Hellas and of the unity of Hellenic tradition.
Under the influence of his excitement —for I do not doubt that the article was written in a moment of mental paroxysm— Mr. Knowles makes the most audacious statements. He extols the vandalic act of Elgin, and his gratitude is so great that he would fain give Elgin a place amongst the benefactors of mankind — δίος ανήρ, καλός καγαθός ανήρ. He vilifies Byron. He associates the carrying away of the marbles with the glorious victories of Nelson. He thinks that if the marbles are restored, Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, India must be given away also —forgetting that if those possessions are necessary to British trade and to the dignity and safety of the British Empire, the Elgin Marbles serve no other purpose than that of beautifying the British Museum. He regards as trivial Mr. Harrison’s remark that the climate of Bloomsbury is injurious to the sculptures and expresses the fear that, if handed over to Greece, they may be destroyed «any day in the next great clash of the Eastern question», — forgetting that wisdom dictates the remedy of present evils before guarding against future ills. He observes that were Mr. Harrison’s advice followed «and what we hold in trust given back to Greece, how soon might not one of its transitory Governments yield to the offer of a million sterling from Berlin, or two millions sterling from New-York — or for dividing and scattering them among many such buyers». This is a grave imputation on the character of Greek statesmen, and rests on no foundation of fact. To the best of my knowledge the «transitory», or other, Governments of Greece have taken the utmost care in their power of ancient monuments; they have made laws prohibiting illegal traffic in Greek antiquities; and they have established several well-stocked and well-managed Museums. He appears to question the claim to the marbles of «the mixed little population which now lives upon the ruins of ancient Greece», — which is treading on slippery ground as, although I know nothing of Mr. Knowles’ ability in historical criticism, it is doubtful whether he is able to prove a theory, in attempting to support which even the renowned Fallmerayer failed. Mr. Knowles states also the financial part of the question. He says that Lord Elgin in all spent ístg. 74.000, and that the mere cash value of the marbles is at the present moment reckoned in millions. A very advantageous venture! — and so many millions’ loss to Greece.
But I will transcribe no more of the remarks of the Editor of the Nineteenth Century. It is not clear to me what motive prompted him to write this article; whether solicitude for the artistic wealth of his country, or mere literary «cacoethia scribendi»? If the former, it ought to be borne in mind that it is not dignified in a great nation to reap profit from half-truths and half-rights; honesty is the best policy, and honesty in the case of the Elgin Marbles means restitution. If the latter, and he wrote merely in order to outrival the eloquent, clever and sensible article of Mr. Harrison, it is much to be regretted that he did not consider the great French author’s wise warning: «Qui court après l’esprit attrape la sottise».
Original text by Constantine Cavafy
Κ.Π. Καβάφης, Τα πεζά (1882;-1931), Φιλολογική επιμέλεια Mιχάλης Πιερής, Ίκαρος Εκδοτική Εταιρία, 2003