A student at Cambridge in 1792, Coleridge entered the competition for the university's Brown Medal ‘for a poem written in imitation of Sappho’. He worked hard composing his 100-line Greek ode, taking as his topic the evils of the slave trade, and in June he won the gold medal, formally reciting his winning ode before an audience of Fellows on 3rd July 1792. It’s not a poem that has endured, though: rarely discussed even by specialists and ignored or mocked by more general Coleridgeans. Richard Holmes [Coleridge: Early Visions (1989), 43] records that ‘Richard Porson, the new Professor of Greek, privately offered to show 134 examples of bad Greek in it … more than one error per line.’ Over a beer (we were at a conference I think) Edith Hall once asked me if I liked the poem, adding ‘it’s really not very good, I think’. Her Ancient Greek is vastly better than mine, so you should probably trust her assessment. Still: the claim that there are ‘134 examples of bad Greek’, even including the (notoriously tricky) judgement of dodgy metrical calls, is, simply, an untruth. Classicist James Diggle, more sober-headed than most Coleridge scholars, notes that ‘the reputation of Coleridge’s ode has never recovered from the blow that was dealt by an anonymous reviewer of Biographia Literaria in 1817’. He quotes the relevant passage:
His classical knowledge was found at the University to be equally superficial. He gained a prize there for a Greek Ode which for ever blasted his character as a scholar; all the rules of that language being therein perpetually violated. We were once present in a literary company, where Porson offered to shew in it, to a gentleman who was praising this Ode, 134 examples of bad Greek. [Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 2(1817), 12]But despite the fact this story has often been reported (as Diggle says) ‘as if it were authenticated fact’ it is highly unlikely to be true. Porson offered to show 134 example of bad Greek in the poem?
I doubt it; and I doubt if he offered to. The reviewer begins with two sentences of humbug which he justifies in the third by invoking the authority of Porson. Since Porson was dead and the rest of the ‘literary company’ remains unnamed, the reviewer could cite Porson without fear of contradiction. ‘134 examples’: why, and when, did Porson made such a precise count? As an examiner? An examiner who could find so many (more than one per line) could not award the medal. Perhaps he was not an examiner; but, if not, motive and occasion are even harder to divine. At all events, only a few months later (January 1793) we find Porson examining Coleridge for the Craven Scholarship and judging him worthy to be on the shortlist of four out of seventeen candidates. Coleridge himself, who at this time idolized Porson, believed he had Porson’s vote. And he believed he would have won the medal again in the following year if only Porson had been an examiner. The idolatry continued even after the review was published. [Diggle, ‘Coleridge’s Greek Ode on the Slave Trade’, Notes and Queries (March 2002)].Diggle, whose expertise really is ungainsayable, identifies maybe twelve instances of ‘wrong or dubious’ Greek in the poem, most of them pretty trivial (he also finds ‘a few false quantities’, which is venal rather than mortal sinning, I feel). Otherwise this is a pretty sound Greek ode. In other words: the ‘134 errors’ line is a canard, and insofar as there are errors they fall within the parameters not only of modern imitations of Ancient Greek verse, but of actual Ancient Greek verse, where such ‘errors’ are often found, are called ‘cruces’, and are either emended, explained away as ‘poetic licence’ or else ignored.
It raises an interesting, or interesting-to-me, question, though. How far are we even able to read a poem like this? We can decipher it, perhaps situate it in its particular neo-Greek tradition, register its various (sometimes rather clonking) intertextual allusions and games. But where I trust my sense of how an English poem works, how form and content work together, how expressive it may be in terms of imagery, how metrically monotonous or inventive and so on, I can't pretend that I have the same intuitive sense of how a Greek or Latin poem works. For instance, I understand (more or less) the prosodic rules to which these poems conform, and can, with a bit of labour, map out metrical patterns; but I can't really hear verse patterned according to long and short vowels. I simply don't tune-in to quantity in the way I can hear, and indeed grok pretty well, ictus, patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. Quantity is not intuitive for me in the way ictus is. That may be a shaming confession to make, I don't know; and there is a lot we don't know about how the ancients heard their verse (ictus may have played a larger part than is sometimes thought). But I daresay it does hamstring my critical faculties a little bit.
This also opens questions of audience. To read Sappho, or Pindar (or whoever), is a process of translation in a linguistic but also a cultural sense, one guided by a more or less tacit the original audience would have x'd or y'd to such a poem... With Coleridge's ode there was no ancient audience, and hypothecating one is only to emphasise the extent to which the poem is, inevitably, a fake antique. I mean, STC is perfectly above board about his poem's fakeness, not only in its authorship but in the body of the text itself: Thanatos, Themis and the other Greek divinities are period-appropriate, but there's no Ἰλβρεφωρoς [line 63] in the ancient world. But, see, that's interesting: presumably Coleridge wants us to read his Hellenization of Wilberforce's name and say to ourselves something like: ‘clearly this name would have started with a digamma in pre-classical Greek, but by Sappho's time ϝίλβρεφωρoς had become Ἰλβρεφωρoς...’ That's quite a sophisticated metatextual game, I'd say, even if it is one forced on Coleridge by classical Greek's lack of a ‘W’.
So my sense is that there's quite a lot of striking poetry in this Greek ode, for all that it's an exercise confected to a large extent out of bits and pieces from Aeschylus, Pindar and university text-books. Which is to say it's not merely an exercise, and several of these lines are nicely euphonious: Death flying the souls of murdered slaves over the uneven swell of the vast ocean Δασκίοις ἐπὶ ἀιρόμενοι πτερoισι/Tραχὺ μακρῶ Ὠκεᾰνῶ [lines 9-10] is a couplet with a lovely rise and fall musicality to it; or there's the insistent but not over-played k-alliteration of ρῶ Κήρυκ' Ἐλέω, κλάδοισιν/Ὠς κατάσκιον κεφελὰν ἐλάιας! [lines 61-62], presaging the arrival of Wilberforce as if clanging a bell. Some of the imagery is stock-footage, but some is striking, and the whole thing reads to me as heartfelt. See what you think:
Ω σκότω πύλας, Θανατε, προλείπων
Ές γένος σπεύδων ἵθι ζεύχθεν
Ὀυ ξενισθήσῃ γενύων σπαραγμοῖς
Ἀλλὰ καὶ κύκλοισι χοροιτύποισιν
Κἀσμάτων χαρᾷ; φοβερὸς μὲν ἐσσί,
Ἀλλ' ὁμῶς Ἐλευθερίᾳ συνοικεῖς,
Δασκίοις ἐπὶ ἀιρόμενοι πτερoισι
Tραχὺ μακρῶ Ὠκεᾰνῶ δι’οἶδμα 
Ἀδονᾶν φῐ́λας ἐς ἔδρας πέτωνται
Γαν τε πατρώαν
Ἔνθα μὰν ἔρασταὶ ἐρωμένῃσιν
Ἀμπὶ κρουνοῖσιν κιτρίων ὑπ' ἀλσῶν,
Oἶα πρὸς βροτῶν ἔπαθον βροτοί, τὰ
Φευ, κόρω Nᾶσοι φονίω γέμουσαι
Δυσθεατοῖς ἀμφιθαλεῖς κακοῖσι
Πᾶ νοσεῖ λιμὸς, βρέμεταί τε πλάγα
Ἀμμέων ἴω ποσάκις πρόσηζεν
Ὀππάτεσσι δακρυόεσσ' ὀμίχλη,
Ποσσάκις κ' ᾄμα κραδία στέναζεν!
Δουλίᾳ γέννᾳ Βαρέως συναλγῷ,
Ὠς ἀφωντήῳ στεναχεῦντι πενθεῖ,
Ὠς πόνων δίναις στυγέρων κύκλουνται,
Ἀμέπῃσ' ἔπει ἀφιλῃσιν ἄμπι
Κᾶυμα, καὶ Λοιμὸς, Καματός τ' ἄφερτος 
Μάρναται, καὶ Μναμοσύνας τὰ πικρὰ
Φεῦ· κάμοντας Μάστις ἄγρυπνος ὀρμα,
Ἄλιον πρίν ἄν ἐπέγειρεν Ἄως·
Κ' Ἄματος δύνει γλυκύδερκες ἄστρον,
Πένθεα δ' ἀνθεῖ
Ἐις ἄεν· ψυχὰν γὰρ ἀωρόνυκτα
Δέιματ' ἐμπλήττει, κότον ἐμπνέοντα·
Ὄμμα κοιμᾶται μελέοις Φόβος δὲ
Ὄυδεποτ' ὐπνοῖ. 
Ἐι δὲ τὶ ψεῦδος μεθέπῳντι ἄδυ
Ἔλπιδος σκίαις μετ' ὀνειροφάντοις,
Ὺβρέως ἀνιστάμενοι τάχ' ὀιστροῖς
Ω κακοῖσι Δουλοσύνας χλίοντες,
Ἀθλίων ω βοσκόμενοι διοιγμοῖς,
Πᾶιδες ὔβρισται Κόρω, ἀυτάδελφον,
Ὀυ ρα προσδέρκει τάδ' ἄφυκτον
Ὄμμα; Ὀυ ρα κ'ἄμειψιν Νεμέσις τινάσσει 
Πυρπνόαν; ἀκούετ'; ἤ οὐκ ακούετ';
Ὠς χθόνα πάλλει
Πνεύματ' ἐκ ρίζων, καὶ ὐποστένοντι
Γᾶς μυχοὶ, βυθόι τε μυκῶνται ἀινῶς,
Ἐγκοτεῖν τοὺς νέρθεν ὐπεγγύωντες
Ἀλλὰ τίς μ' ᾄχω μελίγαρυς, οἶαι
Δωριᾶν ριπὰι κιθαρᾶν, προσέπτα;
Τίς ποτιστάζει ψιθύρισμον ἄδυν
Μάλθακα φώυα; 
Οἶ! ὀρῶ Κήρυκ' Ἐλέω, κλάδοισιν
Ὠς κατάσκιον κεφελὰν ἐλάιας!
Οἶ! λόγων τέων γάνος, Ἰλβρεφωρσεῦ
“Πάγα Δακρύων ὄσια, σταλαγμῶν
“Νῦν ἄλις τέων· στεροπᾷ ξεναρκεῖ
“Τᾶς δικᾶς ἀτυζόμενον τεθνάζει
“Ἐμπέσει δ' ἀκταῖς Λιβυκῇσιν οὐκέτ’
“Ἀ χάρις χρυσῶ ἄχαρις βδέλυκτα, 
“Οἴα ύ ἰππέυει καπυροῖς ἀήταις
“ Ἔκπνοα λοιμῶ
“Πάτριδος πόρρω συνομαιμένων τε
“Γῆρας οὐ μόχθοις ἀνόμος παλαίσει
“Τῶ βιῶ ποιφύγματα δύντοσαἴ· αἴ·
“ Ἄγρια φυσῶν.
“Ὀυ φόβῳ Μάθηρ ἄμα θεσπιωδῷ
“Στάθεσιν βρέφος πελάσει πινώδες·
“ Ὀυ· περισσῶς ἐκτέταται γὰρ ἤδη
“Δούλιον Ἆμαρ. 
“Ὄιτινες, Δούλοι βλοσυρῶν Δυνάστων,
“Δάκρυον τέυυειν Ελέω παρειὰν
“Οὐδαμῶς ἴδον, μελέοι, πάθοντες
“Ὕμμι τὰι Παῖδες Θέμιτος γενοῦνται
“Ἀνθεμίζουσαι βρόδα τᾶς Γαλανᾶς,
“ Ἴρον ἠδ' Ἐλευθερίας σέβας δὴ,
Τοῖ' ἔπεμψαν ἰμερόεντα μᾶλλον
Ἀῦραι ἤ Νίκας περ’ ὄχος βράδυνθεν 
Τῶν ἀνηριθμῶν ἰάχαι, Θριαμβω
Χᾶιρ’ ὄς εὖ νωμᾶς Ἐλέω τὸν οἴακ’!
Ἐργμάτων καλῶν Ἀγάπη πτεροῖσι
Δακρύων ἔντοσθε γέλωτα θεῖσα
Ἤδε Μοῖσα, τᾶν Ἀρετᾶν ὀπαδὸς,
Σεῖο μεμνᾶσθαι συνεχῶς φιλήσει·
Τλαμόνων ἤδ’ εὐλογίαις πρὸς ἄιθερ’
Οὔνομ’ ἀίζει. 
Departing through gates of darkness, O Death
you hurry to a folk chained by misery
not to be met with people tearing their cheeks
but instead with dancing in a circle
and songs of joy; for though you are fearful,
you also are where Freedom's dwelling is found,
sternest of Lords!
Carried on your colourless wings
over the uneven swell of the great Ocean, 
they fly to their yearned-for homes
in their native land.
There, beside the flowing fountains, where
lemon-tree groves abound, telling lovers how
men treated them, though they were themselves men,
with such horror.
How sad it is: islands crammed with killing
all around blooming with terrible evils
sickening famine, the sound of whips echo,
so much blood, 
how often, alas, has a tear-filled mist
descended over my eyes, how often
has my sorrow-filled heart groaned!
And the suffering
race of slaves has my weighted sympathy,
as they groan in unspeakable grief,
as they labour in their hateful circles:
During those loveless days when
Scorching heat, and hunger, and exhaustion 
they battle with the bitternesses of Memory's
Alas; the unsleeping Scourge drives them,
exhausted with work before the dawn;
Day's star, looking sweetly on, sinks down,
as sorrows still rise
and forever; their souls breathe midnight
terrors, and are struck down by angry force;
their eyes see only misery, and a Fear
that never sleeps . 
Yet if they seek the sweet delusions
of hope, of dream-glimpsed shadows,
this is but Hubris and its waking sting
You who revel in slavery's evil,
richly fed by the groans of the wretched,
you overreaching children of Excess, who spill
your brothers' blood:
are you not seen by the Inescapable
Eye? Are you not threatened by Nemesis's 
fiery breath? Do you hear? Can't you hear?
how chthonic winds
shake the roots of the world, how caves
groan beneath us all, such terrible roars
from the bowels of the earth pledging revenge
against the killers!
And what honied echo, like the
strumming of a Dorian guitar, comes now?
What softness is this that sprinkles
such sweet whispers? 
There! I see a Herald of Pity, an olive-sprig
upon his brow to shade his head!
There! I hear your words, Wilberforce!
their golden joy!
“Fountain of holy tears, your pourings
“now must cease, dry-up, as the
“stranger-helping lightning flash of Justice
“No longer will Libya's shore oppress you,
“or the charm of charmless Gold bring horror, 
“or parching desert-storms carry
“Though fatherland and folk are far distant
“no longer will Old Age wrestle lawlessness
“as the last gasps of a life, alas, dying
“No longer, too, will the Mother feed
“her grimy child at her breast in fear.
“No longer! this already too much prolonged
“day of Slavery. 
“You who, the slaves of violent masters,
“never saw a single rolling tear of pity
“wet their cheeks, you who have suffered things
“staggering to hear.
“the daughters of Themis shall come to you
“with garlands of pale-blue honeysuckle
“ for peace, and holy Freedom shall come,
“Mother of Festivity.”
Breezes sent blowing with great love
accompanying the ever-delayed chariot of Nike, 
are the shouts of countless voices, of Triumph's
Hail, you whose hand steers the rudder of Pity!
High spiritual Love, winging all good deeds
blending laughter in among her tears, shall
crown you with honours.
And the Muse, Virtue's attendant,
will always remember you with love·
and the victims' blessings shall shoot to heaven
lifting up your name. 
The Dorian guitar of line 58 is actually a cither, κιθαρα, more lyre than stratocaster—but then again κιθαρα is the root of our word ‘guitar’, and STC is clear that his lyre is being strummed rather than plucked or bowed (and the intimate relationship between guitars and slave/post-slave traditions of lament we call the Blues, whence rock, roll and the entire edifice of contemporary popular music, seemed to me worth flagging, even in passing). The deities Death (Θάνατος in line 1) and Nemesis (line 50) are well-enough known, but it might be worth glossing Themis (line 85; she's the Greek goddess of law and justice), explaining that Nike in line 90 means ‘Victory’ and noting that the ‘Love’ Coleridge invokes at the poem's end is not Philia, Philautia or Eros but Agape.
It seems that Coleridge found in William Bowles's poem ‘The Dying Slave’ (1791) the notion of slaves believing their souls would return to their homeland if they died on the passage. As for William Wilberforce (1759-1833): the earnest young (at this point) MP and anti-slavery campaigner is surely well known, even today. Slavery had been illegal in Britain since the Somersett v Stewart lawsuit in 1772 (although it seems the Judge, Lord Mansfield, never said the words reputed to him: ‘the air of England is too pure for any slave to breathe’, more's the pity). But the triangular trade, as it was called, continued long after this date: slaves from Africa to the West Indes and America, tobacco, cotton and sugar from these plantations to Europe, rum and various goods from Europe to Africa. Coleridge himself urged his friends to foreswear sugar and tobacco, in the hope that commercial boycott might disrupt the slave trade. Wilberforce believed direct legislation a better prospect. After the general election of June 1790, Wilberforce introduced the first parliamentary bill to abolish the international slave trade in April 1791. It was debated for two days, but was then defeated by 163 votes to 88 (the British political climate was nervy about the French Revolution, as well as about increasing radicalism at home and reports of slave revolts in the French West Indies). Wilberforce reintroduced his bill in 1792 but it was again defeated, or more precisely was stymied: Home Secretary Lord Melville proposed a compromise amendment, so-called ‘gradual abolition’ over an unspecified number of years. With this the bill was passed by 230 to 85 votes, but the point of the compromise was to ensure that actual abolition would be delayed indefinitely. When Coleridge, in his ode, talks about ‘the ever-delayed chariot of Nike’ (or Victory) in line 90, this is what he's referring to. When another vote to abolish slavery was brought to Parliament, in February 1793. It was defeated by eight votes. Thereafter the war with France stole the cause's thunder and it wasn't picked up again until the early nineteenth-century.