Riga's Last Song

Table of contents

1. Riga's Last Song

I have looked my last on my native land,
And over these strings I throw my hand,
To say in the death-hour’s minstrelsy,3
Hellas,4 my country! farewell to thee!
I have looked my last on my native shore;
I shall tread my country’s plains no more;
But my last thought is of her fame;
But my last breath speaketh her name!
And though these lips shall soon be still,
They may now obey the spirit’s will;
Though the dust be fettered, the spirit is free—
Hellas, my country! farewell to thee!
I go to death—but I leave behind
The stirrings of Freedom’s mighty mind;
Her voice shall arise from plain to sky,
Her steps shall tread where my ashes lie!
I looked on the mountains of proud Souli,17
And the mountains they seemed to look on me;
I spoke my thought on Marathon’s plain,19
And Marathon seemed to speak again!
And as I journeyed on my way,
I saw an infant group at play;
One shouted aloud in his childish glee,
And showed me the heights of Thermopylæ!24
I gazed on peasants hurrying by,—
The dark Greek pride crouched in their eye;
So I swear in my death-hour’s minstrelsy,
Hellas, my country! thou shalt be free!
No more!—I dash my lyre29 on the ground—
I tear its strings from their home of sound—
For the music of slaves shall never keep
Where the hand of a freeman was wont32 to sweep!
And I bend my brows above the block,
Silently waiting the swift death shock;
For these lips shall speak what becomes the free—
Or—Hellas, my country! farewell to thee!
He bowed his head with a Patriot’s pride,
And his dead trunk fell the mute lyre beside!
The soul of each had past away—
Soundless the strings—breathless the clay!

2. Note on the text

Greek patriot and poet Rhigas Pheraios (1757?-98), also known as Rhigas Constantine or Rhigas of Velestinos, became a central figure in the movement leading up to the Greek war of independence (beginning in 1821). Inspired by the United States Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Revolution (begun in 1789), he published a revolutionary manifesto in 1797 and established the Hetaireia, a society to promote Greek liberation from the Ottoman Empire. Rhigas was subsequently arrested by the Austrians, turned over to Turkish authorities, and executed in 1798. His celebrated collection of national songs, circulated in manuscript until their publication in 1814, included a Greek version of the French Marseillaise (the hymn of the French revolution and national anthem of France), which Byron freely rendered into English as “Translation of the Famous Greek War Song” (“Sons of the Greeks, arise!”) in Occasional Pieces, 1807-1824. EBB’s dramatic lyric is reminiscent both of Byron’s work and of “Greek Songs” (1823) by Felicia Hemans (1793-1835) in its republican sentiments. As EBB’s mother observed of this and related poems in EBB’s 1826 volume, "What will be most exposed to censure, is the bold freedom of contempt, for those ‘brittle’ things, monarchs: but you do not mind that, & on the Greek cause, you will gain many warm adherents." She also commented with some irony that the young poet took “a bold poetic licence to make poor Riga sing from the scaffold” (BC 1:237, 229). Criticism: Avery and Stott (2003).

3. Explanatory Notes

minstrelsy the playing or singing of music; a song.

Hellas traditional Greek name for Greece.

Souli the mountains of Souli (near Paramythia) were inhabited by the Souliotes, Christian mountaineers who fiercely maintained their independence for many years in the face of a protracted siege by the Turks , until their defeat in 1803. Souliote women fought alongside the men; stories of their leaping to their deaths with their children rather than face capture inspired Felicia Hemans’s “The Suliote Mother” (pub. March 1825, New Monthly Magazine).

Marathon's plain site of the Athenians’ famous battle of 490 B.C.; see the headnote to EBB’s juvenile epic, The Battle of Marathon (1820).

Thermopylæ a narrow pass between Thessaly and Locris, site of the famous battle of 480 B.C. in which the Greeks under the King of Sparta heroically resisted the invading Persians.

lyre a stringed instrument resembling a harp, used from classical times to accompany recitations of poetry.

wont accustomed or used to.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: 2009-01-23
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