Greenough’s Statue of Medora
by Richard Henry Dana
Medora, wake!—nay, do not wake!
I would not stir that placid brow,
Nor lift those lids, though light should break
Warm from the twin blue heavens that lie below.
Sleep falls on thee, as on the streams
The summer moon. Touched by its might,
The soul comes out in loving dreams,
And wraps thy delicate form in living light.
Thou art not dead!—These flowers say
That thou, though more thou heed’st them not,
Didst rear them once for him away,
Then loose them in thy hold like things forgot,
And lay thee here where thou might’st weep,—
That Death but hushed thee to repose,
As mothers tend their infants’ sleep,
And watch their eyelids falter, open, close,—
That here thy heart hath found release,
Thy sorrows all are gone away,
Or touched by something almost peace,
Like night’s last shadows by the gleaming day.
When he who gave thee form is gone,
And I within the earth shall lie,
Thou still shalt slumber softly on,
Too fair to live, too beautiful to die.
Greenough’s Medora has long been one of my favorite sculptures. The piece is based on a character from Byron’s ridiculous verse tale The Corsair, which tells the story of a pirate named Conrad who arrives home to see his love Medora after a long absence, only to depart an hour later, despite Medora’s impassioned entreaties, to lead an attack on the Turkish Pacha Seyd. During the raid, Conrad disguises himself as a Dervish and confronts the Pacha. Seyd sees through the disguise, orders Conrad captured and put to death, and a fight ensues. The pirates have the upper hand for a bit, and decide whimsically to set the city ablaze. Conrad, however, perhaps feeling a pang of conscience, decides that the pirates must attempt to free the Pacha’s harem, who are now threatened by the pirates’ pyre. Conrad rescues the Pacha’s favorite odalisque, Gulnare, but is subsequently captured and again sentenced to death, this time by impalement. Gulnare, now enamored with Conrad, attempts to intercede on his behalf, and provides Conrad an opportunity to kill Seyd and escape—whereupon Conrad commences much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the idea he might stoop to something so low. Gulnare then kills the Pacha herself and frees Conrad, who is horrified at her conduct. Conrad then returns home to find that Medora has died of grief, thinking Conrad dead himself.
Byron’s poem, which is far too long to post here, was a bit of a sensation, selling all 10,000 copies of the first printing on the first day it was offered for sale. It was also soundly criticized for its grossest contradictions, e.g.,: