Gallery 18, The British Museum

A milk marble hall, glacier cool,
light-diffused, shadowless, contains
the sum of everything we are.
A dozen histories, too many lives to count.

More than a gallery – a debate between nations,
bound in division. More than a simple tale:
the Imperial power rescuing the past;
snatching perfection from the ruins; good job

done & blah de blah. But that’s not the half!
The Parthenon presents a pantheist facade –
with Greeks and Christians out, the Koran replaced
our babble of the west – with its Socratean

sacrifice, then handy three Gods in One.
At first, a redoubt of the Prophet, then a powder
house – if Seven Pillars are not explosive power
enough, the stage is set for blind destruction –

by Venetians. A mortar round creates,
the ruins that will stand for years.
Then Elgin starts his mission to preserve.
Copies he seeks at first, until removal

seems his better choice – his throw of marbles
that will attach his name to antiquity forever.
A dubious grant of passage by the Turks
appears, and back from the Sultan’s Ottoman

Bazaar, they come. At first the good lord thinks
they’d decorate his modest Scottish home,
but flogs them to satisfy a hunger for divorce.
By now the English cultural crowd is well alight.

Byron rails, and anger thunders
through the land. A game of sides:
Not good enough! some said – That vandal!
others cried – but come they did, to London

for give or take a modest 30,000 pounds.
So here we are: a good selection,
[by no means all] of chiseled skill and pride,
Now clear of paint that would have

wowed the Acropolitan elite.
As we now stand, and point our phones,
they too would look in awe, as feet above
their heads, they grasped the chase of war,

the languor of those robes, the genius of Phidias.
And how these strolling sages and philosophers
loved their centaurs and their acts of rape –
part maths, part myths, their minds

Emerging into mirrors and to smoke.
At home in Athens, remains the other half –
holed up in a gallery of its own,
while the battered Parthenon itself endures

in time – through use as treasury, and church,
as mosque and magazine – to stand for ruined
glory and the pulverized democracy the ancients
in their wisdom talked about and lost.

The Parthenon, The British Museum
July 2017



One thought on “Gallery 18, The British Museum

  1. As usual, John, in your travelogue poems, what impresses is your splendid evocation of place and your ability, so succinctly and authoritatively, to delineate both the sweeping gestures of history and its quotidian nuances.


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