Lord Byron never visited the Yucatán. But Trinity Fellow, Professor Adrian Poole, found his writings about the ruins of the ‘Old World’ invaluable when reflecting on Maya ruins today.
The great pyramid at the Maya ruins of Cobá in the northern Yucatán swarms with intrepid tourists. Yet the site is not nearly as infested by the fairground ambience at the more commercial sites of Chichén Itzá and Tulúm, where vendors endlessly tout Maya this and Maya that, including cheap hotel deals on the Maya Riviera.
Not so different, I found myself thinking, from the circus surrounding ‘Old World’ sites such as Mont St Michel, the Colosseum in Rome or the Acropolis in Athens. What would Byron and his successors have made of it all? For Byron was essential reading for Victorian travellers to the ruins celebrated and lamented in his poetry, especially Childe Harold.
John Lloyd Stephens was no exception. Stephens was the American traveller who along with the English artist Frederick Catherwood brought the Maya ruins to general attention with the first of two best-selling books in 1841, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (there’s a copy in Trinity’s Wren Library). The first stop on Stephens’ tour of Europe and the Near East had been Missolonghi in Greece, where the poet had famously died fighting for Greek independence. In Odessa he narrowly avoided having his copy of Byron confiscated by Russian border-control.
I was grateful for the connection between Byron and Stephens. I had been invited to give a paper in Mérida at an international conference on ‘Alexander von Humboldt and Travellers in the Yucatán’. I was shamefully ignorant about Humboldt, the great natural scientist, explorer and writer, and the enormous influence of his work, especially on the Continent and Latin America, though I learned much at high speed from Andrea Wulf’s superb recent biography, The Invention of Nature.
But I am increasingly interested in ruins. (I am still trying to understand why.) And I became particularly interested in the way ruins spoke both to Byron and Stephens – not just about the past but its relations to the present and the future. In the early decades of the nineteenth century Byron was travelling across a Europe devastated by years of war and full of new ruins. And everywhere Stephens went a few years later the world was on edge if not in chaos, on the eastern borders of Europe and beyond, in the heart of Central America.
Or, to use a term to which Stephens was drawn, a state of ‘distraction’. The word normally implies now something quite mild, a matter of irritation or pleasure, a ‘diversion’. Though it’s true that there’s been a recent surge in its application to political tactics and the manipulation of the media. The enduring context in which we use the word in a stronger sense is when we speak of being ‘driven to distraction’ and the related adjective ‘distraught’.
Byron is drawing on this older meaning when he writes of boating on Lake Leman, that ‘This quiet sail is as a noiseless wing / To waft me from distraction’. He is thinking of a state of violent disturbance, the turbulence of a world set on fire by the French Revolution and its consequent ruins, and then the new dungeons and thrones that followed.
The Latin roots of the word ‘distraction’ are about tearing or being torn apart. It is in this sense that Stephens keeps referring to the ‘distracted state of the country’ into which he ventures. Of Greece on his first arrival; of Central America, a country ‘distracted by a sanguinary civil war’; and at the end of his volume on the Yucatán, when he laments the eruption of civil strife, again:
Alas! before these pages were concluded, that country which we had looked upon as a picture of peace, and in which we had met with so much kindness, was torn and distracted by internal dissensions, the blast of civil war ….
As I read more of Stephens I found myself at odds with the scholars who describe his archaeological interests as being ‘diluted’ or ‘undercut’ by contemporary politics. Stephens may have joked about the flimsiness of the diplomatic mission conferred on him by President Martin van Buren to identify a government in Central America with whom the US could do business. Locating these old Maya ruins was so much easier. But the living history was real. Only a few years later the US and Mexico would engage in a war that changed the whole future of the continent.
By 1847 Stephens had moved beyond Maya ruins to new business interests in railways across the Panama isthmus and steamships across the Atlantic. That year he sailed with one of the new mail-steamers to Bremen, and on his way back he travelled to Potsdam to meet his great predecessor in the exploration of Central America. But Humboldt didn’t want to talk about the Maya ruins. He was much more interested in the war going on at that very moment between Mexico and the US. War is a great distraction from archaeology, and vice-versa. Nothing makes ruins more swiftly than war – in Greece, in the Yucatán, wherever.
There is a famous line in the poem ‘Ozymandias’ by Byron’s friend Shelley about an ancient ruined statue in the desert that announces:
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Looking at the great Maya ruins with these lines in mind – including the magnificently restored pyramid at Uxmal – I could understand the impact they make with new clarity. They scramble our sense of time and of history. They speak from a past that is over and done with, but they preserve a present that once had a future. What is more, they insist on a present-and-future that we share with them, right now, whether as tourists, travellers, archaeologists, or historians, and citizens of here, there and everywhere.
Like Byron, Stephens and Catherwood could not know what lay ahead for the ruins they uncovered. They would be surprised to see what’s been made of the Acropolis, of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. As we would be 100 years from now. Or sooner.
Photographs © Margaret de Vaux