Saturday, June 8, 2024

The Poet among the Ladies with Bronze Eyelashes


The korai on the Acropolis had bronze eyelashes and were painted in vivid colors.Buried under rubble for more than two millennia after the Persians sacked Athens in 480 bce, they retained traces of their original looks better than most classical sculpture. In the presence of five of these female statues in a darkened room in the Museum of the Acropolis in 1908, the Austrian poet, playwright and librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl received an epiphany:

"They stood around me in a semi-circle; I drew the curtain across the door and was alone with them. At that moment something happened to me: an indescribable shock. It came not from outside but from some immeasurable distance of an inner abyss: it was like lightning; the room…became for an instant filled with light…the eyes of the statues were all at once turned towards me and an unspeakable smile occurred on their faces. At the same time I know I am not seeing this for the first time – in some other world I have had some communion with them."

When they settle back into the stone, the maidens remain "overpowering, animal-like, divine…so real, with a breathtaking sensual presence." He exclaims, "How beautiful they are! Their bodies are more convincing to me than my own.”

He had wandered despondent among the ruins around the Parthenon before, missing the gods and glories of the past. Now the poet exclaims, “What then still stands between me and the Deity?”

Source: Hugo von Hofmannstahl, "Moments in Greece" in Selected Prose trans Mary Hottinger and Tania & James Stern. New York: Pantheon Books, 1952, pp. 184-7.

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