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.,:
To us, we confess, the fastidiousness, the reluctance, the scruple, displayed by Conrad, to take the life of a man who has doomed him to the most cruel death ; and his subsequent horror at Gulnare’s conduct, appear inconsistent with his general character. The man who could harbour such feelings as are assigned to Conrad on this occasion, could not, we think, lead the life which Conrad has led, or act as Conrad has acted.
—Original Criticism: Lord Byron’s The Bride of Abydos and The Corsair, 190 The AntiJacobin Review and True Churchman’s Magazine 209, 232 (March 1814).
The poem is not Byron’s best, but it is not without its virtues: chief among them some of the great art that it inspired, including Greenough’s statue of Medora.
While I was in graduate school, the Medora lived at the Baltimore Museum of Art (though the BMA’s website seems to have no knowledge of the piece now). Because Hopkins students were given free access to the museum, and because the museum is a wonderful, wonderful place, I would spend much of my free time there wandering the galleries, working myself into reveries and episodes of Stendhal syndrome. At some point during nearly every visit, I would wander into the BMA’s American Art gallery to ponder the Medora, to examine the whorls and crevices in the marble, to tarry in the vain hope that Medora would finally awake from her slumber. She never did.
The Medora is a bit odd: it is ever so slightly smaller than real-life scale, the proportions are off in places, the gratuitously naked breasts are awkwardly round and perky. Perhaps the oddest aspect, though, is that it does not give an impression of death at all—if one stares at it long enough, if one really absorbs the piece, one slowly comes to feel as if a tiny, pale woman is sleeping soundly on a thin, uncomfortable, rush-filled mattress (though in a position in which no person has ever slept before), and can almost begin to hear a soft snoring. Perhaps it is her toes sticking straight up despite the blanket pulling them downward, maybe it is her right arm still held, unsupported, across her body in defiance of gravity. The stone piece fails entirely to convey its subject’s lifeless state! Dead Medora, carved from stone, appears merely to be sleeping.
But this feature of the statue, which on first encounter might appear to be a failing of the sculptor, may actually be a success; it is a feature drawn directly from the poem that inspired it:
Excerpt from The Corsair
by George Gordon, Lord Byron
He gazed—how long we gaze despite of pain,
And know, but dare not own, we gaze in vain!
In life itself she was so still and fair,
That Death with gentler aspect withered there;
And the cold flowers her colder hand contained,
In that last grasp as tenderly were strained
As if she scarcely felt, but feigned a sleep—
And made it almost mockery yet to weep…
And it is this feature of the statue—this appearance of sleep in defiance of death—that drives Dana’s poem above. I love that Dana, a Harvard-trained1 lawyer who largely spurned his practice for more literary pursuits, found inspiration in the same feature of Greenough’s statue that so captivated me when I was in graduate school. His poem is no great work, but it does capture the essence of the enigma of the Medora, and for that, I can read it with considerable enjoyment.