The Greek War of Independence inspired many to take up arms and join the struggle. It also captured the hearts and minds of artists at that time and continues to inspire artists to the present day. Among them, French painter Eugene Delacroix is perhaps best-known for Massacre at Chios, the iconic image of the horrific episode in history.
In literature and poetry in particular, Dionysios Solomos, the national poet of Greece, comes to mind immediately, as do philhellenes Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Surprisingly, French author Jules Verne, known for his adventure stories and prophetic science fiction in works like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, was also inspired by the Greek War of Independence.
In May 1823, Solomos completed the Hymn to Liberty, 158 stanzas, inspired by the 1821 start of the Greek Revolution. The poem was published in Greece in 1824 and throughout Europe one year later. Solomos’ reputation soon spread throughout Greece and abroad. The Hymn to Liberty was set to music by Nikolaos Mantzaros, and is the longest national anthem in the world by length of text. In 1865, the first three stanzas (and later the first two) officially became the National Anthem of Greece and, from 1966, also that of the Republic of Cyprus.
The unfinished epic The Free Besieged (Oi Eleftheroi Poliorkimenoi) by Dionysios Solomos was inspired by the third siege of Missolonghi (1825–1826), a crucial conflict in the Greek Revolution. It consists of three separate poems in fragmentary form, and though never completed, The Free Besieged is considered one of Solomos’ greatest poems.
The verse drama Hellas by Percy Bysshe Shelley was written in 1821 and published in 1822 by Charles and James Ollier in London. Written while Shelley was living in Pisa, he hoped it would raise money for the Greek War of Independence. The last poem published during Shelley’s lifetime, the drama is dedicated, “Τo Ηis Εxcellency Prince Alexander Mavrocordato late secretary for foreign affairs to the Hospodar of Wallachia the drama of Hellas is inscribed as an imperfect token of the admiration, sympathy, and friendship of the author. Pisa, November 1, 1821.”
Mavrocordato met Shelley while in Pisa from 1818 to 1821. Written from the Ottoman Sultan’s point of view, and inspired by Aeschylus’ Persae, the drama depicts the Sultan Mahmud, who controls the Turkish attacks on Greece, and his restless sleep. Seeking help for his recurring nightmare from the Wandering Jew, Ahasuerus, but the Sultan sinks into despair as he finds himself on the losing side of the war, despite reports of Turkish victories.
In between the sections of dialogue, a chorus of enslaved Greek women voice their hope for freedom’s victory. Though not directly focused on the Greek Revolution, the chorus expresses a general anti-war sentiment. Shelley’s work may be unique with its use of the Sultan’s Turkish point of view to depict Turkish defeat while also providing the chorus’ view of the Greek victory.
Hellas’ final chorus is among the most quoted of Shelley’s verse:
The world’s great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn:
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam,
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.
Oh, cease! must hate and death return?
Cease! must men kill and die?
Cease! drain not to its dregs the urn
Of bitter prophecy.
The world is weary of the past,
Oh, might it die or rest at last!
Jules Verne’s adventure novel, The Archipelago on Fire (French: L’Archipel en feu, 1884) is set during the Greek War of Independence and was first published in English in 1885 in New York and in London in 1886. The original French version is available on Project Gutenberg.
Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint. Photo: Public domain