John Keats tragically died of tuberculosis when he was just 25 years old. His fame centres around a small group of poems, the Odes, particularly the well-known Ode to a Nightingale (1819). Another is On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer (1816), which is, as the title suggests, about how enthusiastic Keats was when first reading George Chapman’s translation of, well, Homer. But the poem I have in mind right now is Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819) which, if you hadn’t guessed yet, is another example of how much Keats liked Ancient Greece. They all did in those days, but it’s Keats’ thoughts on the topic which have outlived most of the others.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the opening line of the urn poem – “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness” – you’ll probably have encountered the famous, if not easily understood, closing lines containing the quip “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. What Keats meant by this has been debated for two centuries, and many early reviewers decided the ending ruined an otherwise good poem. Since I have nothing original to contribute to the discussion, I’ll just note Keats established that any subject was a fit one for a poem, something not widely accepted before him. So, with the license offered by one Romantic poet, I’ll take for my subject a small whale-oil gas plant which lit a Presbyterian church in Cape Town. Don’t worry, I’m not going to inflict my poetry on you (no one deserves that), so the following meditations will be in good old-fashioned prose.
British landscape painter Thomas William Bowler was one of the top artists working in South Africa during the 19th century. After a brief stint as assistant astronomer in the Cape of Good Hope, Bowler settled in Cape Town, where he established a reputation as a talented artist and drawing teacher. Thanks to him, we have images of some 35 years of the Cape’s history, including a wonderful picture (c.1864) of the Presbyterian church in St Andrew’s Square. The church, called St Andrew’s of course, is in the fashionable Greek Revival style (there’s your callback to Keats) and was designed in 1827 by Henry Willey Reveley. Bowler and Reveley never met, since the former arrived in Cape Town in 1838, while Reveley had left in 1829 to accompany Captain James Stirling to the brand-new Swan River Colony in Western Australia. I’ll have much more to say about St Andrew’s in a moment, but for now I want to note the streetlamp, with inevitable dog next to it, in Bowler’s painting. A streetlamp, like the church itself, lit with whale extract from the plant installed at the church in 1842.
America dominated the whaling industry. ‘Yankee Whalers’ operated in the Indian Ocean from 1789 and were visiting Albany on Western Australia’s south coast in the 18th century. Seals were also their target here, and a stone kiln known as Sealers’ Oven (c.1800) near Cheyne Beach Whaling Station is the earliest remaining evidence of non-Aboriginal activity in the southwest of the State. Americans continued to hunt whales off the coast of WA, despite occasional attempts to keep them away, and the industry as a whole continued here to surprisingly recently in 1978. The influence of Yankee Whalers on Western Australia was celebrated in the most famous novel about a giant whale to have been written, Moby Dick (1851). In a chapter titled ‘The Advocate’, Herman Melville writes:
That great America on the other side of the sphere, Australia, was given to the enlightened world by whaleman. After its first blunder-born discovery by a Dutchman, all other ships, long shunned those shores as pestiferously barbarous; but the whale-ship touched there. The whale-ship is the true mother of that now mighty colony. Moreover, in the infancy of the first Australian settlement, the emigrants were several times saved from starvation by the benevolent biscuit of the whale-ship luckily dropping an anchor in their waters.
I’m going to give Melville a pass on the ‘barbarous’ gibe, since Moby Dick is surprisingly woke for its era. Many different cultures are treated with respect and the novel contains one of the most famous homoerotic scenes in world literature in the chapter ‘A Squeeze of the Hand’:
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,- Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
Yes, Melville knew exactly what he was doing and this is not just a humorous coincidence after meanings changed later. And this seems like a good moment, since you the reader and I are becoming such good friends, to confess I’ve never actually finished the novel. God alone knows how many times I’ve started it, occasionally getting towards the end. But never quite the end. I suppose, after this admission, I’ll have to start over. Just one of the consequences of our new friendship, so let us squeeze ourselves into each other as we set out on that voyage of discovery together.
But enough of Moby Dick. It’s time to look at some late poetry by Herman Melville, since that’s what we’ve really got together for. In 1891, the last year of his life, he published Timoleon, Etc which has a couple of very short poems we really need to read together. Greek Masonry seems like a good place to start:
Joints were none that mortar sealed:
Together, scarce with line revealed,
The blocks in symmetry congealed.
And that’s it, in its entirety. And Greek Architecture isn’t exactly a Moby Dick length epic either:
Not magnitude, not lavishness,
But Form—the Site;
Not innovating wilfulness,
But reverence for the Archetype.
You don’t need a PhD in Lit Crit to get the idea Melville quite likes Ancient Greek architecture. In fact, more than 70 years after Keats praised an urn (callback) and more than 60 years since Reveley turned a pagan temple into a South African church (callback), Greece remained the high point of all art and architecture ever. The tops, the best, the bee’s knees, the cat’s meow. And there’s another poem in Timoleon, Etc which attracts our attention here, Shelley’s Vision. The person in question is, of course, the poet with the weird middle name, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who happened to be mates with Keats. How does he figure in the story I’m telling here?
Shelley’s last published work is a lengthy verse drama, Hellas (1822). He wrote it in Pisa, and the profits from sales were intended to fund the Greek independence campaign in their struggle against the Ottoman Empire. Both Shelley and his sex god mate, Lord Byron, were active in raising money for and even joining the War of Independence. Their contribution was so welcomed, several Greek streets and even suburbs are named after them, and statues of the pair are everywhere there. Love of all things Ancient Greek wasn’t just restricted to admiration of art and architecture, but also highly political as well.
Hellas remained influential for a long time. In a remote corner of the former British Empire, Perth, Western Australia, it was quoted in 1944 by D. G. Joannides, president of the Greek Ex-Servicemen’s Association: “We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their roots in Greece. But for Greece, Rome the conqueror would have spread no illumination with her arms and we might still have been savages and idolators.” Joannides’ point was straightforward, Shelley showed the British and the Greeks had a long mutual history and, after the Nazis had been defeated, the relationship could continue as it had throughout history.
And now a twist you may not have seen coming: Shelley and Henry Willey Reveley were besties. The Greek independence campaigner and the Greek Revival architect had more in common than just a love of the classical arts. While St Andrew’s is undoubtedly Reveley’s masterpiece, he continued to design after arriving in the Swan River Colony. In fact, Perth’s oldest surviving building, the Old Courthouse, with its Greek Revival columns at the front, is one of his. But before I get ahead of myself, I need to fulfil an earlier promise and return to Cape Town.