For all of Byron’s breaking of ground in the realm of poetry—the intimate epic Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the verse-novel Don Juan—a charming little lyric tends to be remembered and loved: “Maid of Athens, Ere We Part.”
Perhaps that’s because there’s a sweet tale connected to it. In 1809 when Byron was in Athens on his Grand Tour, enjoying sexual tourism and drafting Childe Harold, he rented a room in the house of the widow of Prokopis Makris, who had been consul of England to Athens.
Mrs. Makri had three daughters but it was the youngest, 12 year old Teresa, who most delighted Byron, and he wrote “Maid of Athens” for her. It’s a bit of a ditty, feather-weight stuff for a major poet, with its teenagey exclamation points and sing-songy rhymes. Here are the opening lines:
Maid of Athens, ere we part,
Give, oh, give me back my heart!
Or, since that has left my breast,
Keep it now, and take the rest!
It goes on to sing praises to her “tresses unconfined / Woo’d by each Aegean wind” as well as her “soft cheeks’ blooming tinge” and “wild eyes like the roe.”
Each stanza ends with a line in Greek: Ζώη μου, σας αγαπώ (Zoe mou, sas agapo).Translated: My life, I love you. My Modern Greek language professor and his American wife, when breathless young wooers, English literature students both, had Ζώη μου, σας αγαπώ engraved on the inside of their wedding bands. That’s the lasting charm this poem has had.
I love that story.
The story of Teresa Makri doesn’t unfold quite as R/romantically as we might expect, given this early intimation of immortality. Poor thing, she found herself on the circuit, desired viewing by hordes of travelers to Greece when the success of the Greek War of Independence opened the country for tourism. A nineteenth-century traveler’s account describes going to visit her in 1836, when she is married to a Scotsman, one Mr. Black (variously said to be a professor and a consul from Britain), and living on the island of Aegina. The visitor remarks on her “liquid hazel” eyes (the “wild eyes like the roe”) and annoying Scottish terrier who barks and snaps at their heels. (Other Scottie lovers out there: it’s nothing new; they’ve always been that way.) Here is a portrait of the former maid of Athens in 1870:
On the second floor of the Benaki Museum is displayed an 1829 painting, “Greek Maiden” by Henry Pickersgill, that’s tempting to think of as the Maid of Athens, grouped as it is with paintings of Byron and of early nineteenth-century Greece, all cast in an idealizing golden light.
The Makris house no longer stands. You’ll find in its place, in the neighborhood of Psyrri, a parking lot. (Which happens to be right next door to my friend Pandelis’ leather workshop). I’m sorry not to be able to show you the group shot of my In Byron’s Shadow students there (scroll down to the previous post if you don’t know why), but thanks to Wikipedia images, here’s an image of the lot (with outline of the demolished house?)
Invariably the students read “The Maid of Athens” symbolically, with the maid as a figure for the city of Athens itself. It gets inside your heart, beating as your life. As you walk down the street you may feel an overwhelming urge to cry out, My life, I love you!
You can wave goodbye with the closing of the poem, in which Byron is leaving for Istanbul but pledging his love and loyalty to the maid of Athens:
Though I fly to Istambol [just substitute “cold St. Paul” for approximate rhyme & meter]
Athens holds my heart and soul:
Can I cease to love thee? No!
Zoe mou, sas agapo.