“Oh sadness! Oh sadness! The miracle of Europe,
the pride of Great Britain,
the idol of his friends, the savior of Greece –
Lord Byron no longer exists ”
(Byron‘s death announcement in the newspaper Telegrafo Greco from Messolonghi)
George Gordon Noel Byron, Lord Byron (London 1788 – Messolonghi 1824). His name is synonymous with Philhellenism. His death in Messolonghi, on April 19, 1824, caused an international shock, led “the whole universe to darken”, paraphrasing the words of the then fifteen-year-old poet Alfred Tennyson. Ironically, the “heroic failure” of his death, resulted in his greatest contribution to the Greek Struggle, which he supported mentally, materially, politically, diplomatically and artistically. The tragic loss of the “pop star” Byron (an object of worship and envy in Great Britain), of the adored “Milord” in Messolonghi, spotlighted the Greek Struggle yet again, revived the philhellenic movement internationally and set a series of actions in motion, which resulted in the founding of the modern Greek state. In this way, Byron became a national hero of another country, not of his own. “I gave [Greece] my time, my health, my property, and now I give my life. What could I do more?”, he wondered, sensing his end approaching.
“Angel or demon”, according to the French poet, Alphonse de Lamartine, a personality that united contradicting tendencies: he was a romantic revolutionary and a political realist, an idealist and an adventurist, a “victimizer” in love and a victim of love, a brave man who was born with a physical disability, but gained the status of an athlete. Numerous publications and biographies of Byron have so far failed to completely decipher this enigmatic figure, who continues to attract heterogeneous crowds around him, even almost two hundred years after his passing. His legendary life made him a role model for the greatest names of art and intellect in his time: every soul that felt suffocated in the traditional establishment wanted to look like him. His 39-year-old elder, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), considered him to be his spiritual descendant. “What words should I trust to the one with the stormy soul, to the one who knows how to face the blows of Fate? […] And as I imagined him, let him be in fact!”: Goethe farewelled Byron with these tender words for his transition to Greece, the “noble struggle he has undertaken”, although they never met. When the poet lost his life for this fight, the whole city of Messolonghi cried for him: from the youngest child, to the toughest warrior.
He was the most famous Briton, not only of the 19th century, but of all time. In 1823, he was also the most famous man on earth. According to Spyridon Trikoupis, he was the man who gave his name to the 19th century. “I woke up one day and I was famous“, it is said that he expressed with some kind of casualness, one day after the rapid success of the publication of his most famous work, Childe Harold´s Pilgrimage (1812). Did this destiny surprise him or had he already felt its voice echoing inside him? Maybe the poet wished to be at the forefront of action or celebrity, in some way. After all, he had showed his tendencies, from a young age, towards scandal, sin, or rebellion. Not without any cost, of course. He was a Calvinist, yet he angrily strived to “penetrate the wall of the ultimate destination“. Was the expectation of (self) punishment pending for everything that he so indecently dared? And in that way he became, as he indirectly confesses in one of his verses from the poem Epistle to Augusta (1816), “the careful navigator of my (his) own misery“?
The Byronic hero of his poems, the “hypersensitive, cynical, lonely, honest, melancholic” type, with whom the poet identified, drew his origin from the experiences of his youth. As a child, he happily recollected the glory of his ancestors: the Burons (an older spelling of his name), a family descending from the Normans, were William the Conqueror’s companions (1027-1087, King of England from 1066). Byron’s immediate predecessor in the title of lord was the “evil lord”, his grandfather’s brother (the 5th lord Byron), who bequeathed the ownership of the tower of Newstead Abbey to the ten-year-old George Byron. Aside from the honor of services to the royal crown, this title carried the dishonor of some crimes. Byron, who had already experienced the guilt and loneliness of a “dissenter” – due to his congenital malformation in one of his legs- was fascinated by the figure of his predecessor. His mother’s criticism of his disability, and his parents’ poor marriage, were both factors that shaped Byron’s sense of non-belonging and his tendency to flee.
His mother, Catherine Gordon of Gight, descended from an old Scottish, noble family, with a well-known violent prehistory, and her father probably committed suicide. She married Captain John Byron in 1785, Mad Jack, as his fellow officers called him, whose sole purpose in life was to celebrate and have fun. He squandered Catherine’s fortune, as he had previously done with his ex-wife and mother of Byron’s half-sister, Augusta – Mary Byron. The pregnant Catherine abandoned him, gave birth to her son, George Gordon Byron in London (22 January 1788) and settled with him in Aberdeen. The father was absent, and made brief reappearances. He died, ironically, at the age of 36 in a foreign country (France), as it would happen to his son 23 years later in Greece.
Byron, however, defended his “rascal” father. Their common feature was the tendency to enter into dangerous or inappropriate relationships. Young Byron’s “greatest sin” was his relationship with his half-sister Augusta, a secret kept by his later friend, John Cam Hobhouse (1786 – 1869). Given the difficult relationship he had with his mother, Augusta had probably been the only female in his family who could offer him love and protection. Despite his mother’s insistence on referring to her glorious relatives, the boy grew up in unfavorable conditions. Did a nostalgia for some glorious past develop in him during those years? A nostalgia which would later make him sympathize with the enslaved descendants of ancient Greeks?
During his years at Trinity College, Cambridge University (1805-1807), he evolved from a “colorless” young man, to a poet of ever-increasing fame. He had now a thin figure, due to his physical training (boxing, swimming, etc.). He gradually formed a circle of loyal friends around him. Friendship for Byron has always been a priority over love, and he believed that the feelings of love and friendship cannot coincide for one person. Upon the loss of his mother, he remarkably exclaimed that he “lost the only friend he had”. Her death in 1811 crushed him, although in one of his letters to Augusta he refers to her as his “tormentor”. During his youth he developed various romantic relationships with boys. One of them was with John Edleston in Cambridge, whose loss he would mourn in 1811. This socially maladapted young man had already acquired the air of an “aristocratic guerrilla”, according to Bertrand Russell. He spent more money than he had, loved a good life and felt a “secret connection” with Napoleon Bonaparte, his country’s enemy, the only man alive who bore the same initials as him (“NB”: Byron acquired the name Noel, when his mother-in-law, Lady Judith Noel Milbanke, died in 1822. In Messolonghi he was addressed as “Lord Noel Byron”).
He burned his first poems (“Fugitive Pieces”, late 1806 / early 1807) because they were described as “obscene”, and distributed his second collection of poems (“Poems on various occasions”) only to friends. He chose a rather “understating” title for his third collection of poems expressing real pain, “Hours of Idleness” (1807), but was not spared the arrows of Francis Jeffrey (1773 – 1850), publisher of the Edinburgh Review, a Whigs journal in Scotland. The frustration shocked him, but also inspired him to write a thousand satirical lyrics under the title English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.He became famous by publishing this satire anonymously, targeting not only Jeffrey, but his later friend and biographer, Thomas Moore, as well. Moore felt insulted by Byron’s satire. The misunderstanding was however resolved after Samuel Rogers’ intervention (1763 -1855), who acted as a catalyst for the birth of a long-standing friendship between Byron and Moore. Moore later tried to make up for the loss of Byron’s Memoirs, which the poet had entrusted to him in 1819, in order to publish them after his death. Byron’s inner circle had destroyed these writings in order to preserve his memory, and Moore decided to write a biography of his friend in order to fill the void left by the loss of the original memoirs.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
The importance of Byron as a poet is somehow often overlooked, as more emphasis is being put on his turbulent life. It suffices to say, that his first literary success, Childe Harold´s Pilgrimage, was the first best seller in the USA, even in 1828. A remarkable fact, considering that Byron was an English writer, and it had not been a long time since the United States gained their independence. The second best seller of that year belonged to the American Philhellene Samuel Howe for his work An Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution. Also remarkable is the fact that Byron had almost a new publishing success every year. His brilliance as a poet could be compared to that of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
The unique movement called Byronism, interacted with Romanticism and Liberalism and revived the whole Philhellenic Movement. The Byronic hero in Literature defined European thought and creation. Top representatives of this movement are, among others, Alexander Pushkin (1799 – 1837) and Mikhail Lermontov (1814 – 1841). It also defined Greek Literature, reaching its peak during the 1860s. As the national poet of Greece, Kostis Palamas (1859 – 1943), once put it, Greek poetry “had dived into Byronism for a period of over forty years”.
Although Lord Byron had already expressed his will to write poetry while studying at Cambridge, the romantic poet Byron emerged in Greece: “If I am a poet … the air of Greece has made me one“. His decision to travel to the Mediterranean in 1809, marked the beginning of his emerging as a poet, as well as the gradual alienation from his homeland England. He was accompanied by Hobhouse on this journey, his most precious friend, his ”Argos“ until the end. Both of them were politically radical. Byron, a member of the House of Lords, who in 1812 did not hesitate to publicly defend the Luddites, set out on a journey in search of exotic pleasures. Hobhouse followed him having his own historical, archaeological and scientific interests. He was later imprisoned for his political views (1819 – 1820) and eventually won a seat in the House of Commons (1820). The tour started in Plymuth on July 2, 1809, bound for Lisbon, then Seville, Cadiz, Gibraltar, Malta and Preveza. The different phases are described through Byron’s letters to his mother. During this Journey, Byron began to conceive himself as Childe Harold, the archetype of byronic figure, that inspired his later heroes.
In September 1809 they arrived at the French-occupied Ionian Islands. On September 26, they entered the Corinthian Gulf, in the direction of Patras, and moved towards Preveza, after seeing Messolonghi for the first time. They continued their route to Ithaca, Lefkada and landed in Preveza, three days later. On October 3, they set out for Ioannina, in order to meet, according to Byron, the “Muslim Bonaparte”, Ali Pasha. When the two young men faced a human arm along with a part of a body, hanging from a tree at the city’s entrance, they realized what Ali’s rule in Epirus really meant. They belonged to the guerrilla priest Efthimios Vlachavas. This spectacle caused them disgust. They finally met Ali in Tepeleni and received a warm welcome, as Englishmen. Byron seems to have developed mixed feelings for this man, guilty for the most heinous crimes. Byron will soon come in contact with Ali’s “constant headache”, the Souliotes, and he will express himself positively for them in the second Canto of Childe Harold.
In Ioannina he had begun to compose the first verses of his great poetic novel Childe Harold´s Pilgrimage. It was his own journey, which Byron named a pilgrimage from the beginning. In his literal and his literary pilgrimage, he studied his inner nature and landscape, other people’s mentality and history. In his second Canto, which was completed in Athens and Smyrna, he enriched English literature with the sites of Pindos, Souli, Zitsa and Ioannina.
The pilgrimage continued in the direction of Athens. On their way, they stopped in Delphi, where they performed their own revival of the Olympic Games. They observed the traces of English travelers as they approached the Attic land, and noticed the looting and disastrous traces left by their compatriots. Byron had already criticized Elgin in his work English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. By the time he arrived in Athens, in the autumn of 1809, and had met Lord Elgin’s agent, the Neapolitan painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1755-1821), he had already witnessed several operations of marble trading. The rage he felt for “those who commit this vile looting” led to a brutal attack on Elgin, with his poem “The Curse of Minerva”. He composed it in Athens in 1811, and published it a little later. The poem led to Lord Elgin’s public disgrace and his retirement to a quiet life.
He remained in Athens for ten weeks and visited Sounio, Marathon, and Eleusis. Thanks to his Greek-centered classical education, he valued antiquities. But he differed from his companion, Hobhouse, as his interest was not limited to a theoretical, or distanced approach to Greece and the Greeks. His sincere interest and sympathy for the enslaved Greeks of that time set him apart from most foreign travelers. He was a man of action, not of art or theory. He believed that if there is action, poetry is superfluous. He learned some modern Greek, in order to socialize with his contemporary Greeks, participating in their conversations and intervening with audacity. An incident mentions Byron’s wrath, when in a discussion about the murder of a Greek slave, nobody referred to the murderer as a Turk, but as a Lamia, a demonic creature in Greek mythology. Byron stood up shouting: “Does this Lamia swallow only Greeks? Will she not eat any Turks?” He had already begun to identify himself with the Greek struggles and anxieties.
His interest in Greek things pre-existed. When he met Andreas Londos (1784 – 1846) in Vostitsa, he already knew who Rigas Feraios was, for whom Londos so passionately talked. He was an excellent connoisseur of the intellectual activity of Greek scholars inside and outside Greece: Adamantios Korais (1748 – 1833), Panagiotis Kodrikas (1762 – 1827), Athanasios Psalidas (1767 – 1829), who sharply criticized civilized Europe for its attitude towards the Greeks. Byron reacted to his compatriots’ “sensitivity”, and gave the Greeks every right to revolt, literally and figuratively:
“Now, in the name of Nemesis! For what are they to be grateful? … They are to be grateful to the Turks for their fetters, and to the Franks for their broken promises and lying counsels. They are to be grateful to the artist who engraves their ruins, and to the antiquary who carries them away; to the traveler whose janissary flogs them, and to the scribbler whose journal abuses them. This is the amount of their obligations to foreigners”.
(From a note he wrote in January 1811 in Athens).
He was romantic, yet a realist, and noticed the neglect of the modern Greeks towards the ancient Greeks: “they have been abandoned to the Turkish tyranny of their masters, although it takes only a very small effort to remove their bonds… The Greeks never lost hope”.
The growing interest of the time for the East brought him to Izmir (October 1809 – April 1810) and Constantinople (May 1810), where he spent two months and witnessed horrific spectacles once again. He achieved Leander‘s task and swam the Hellespont from Sistos to Abydos, an accomplishment that meant more to him than any “political, poetic or rhetorical” glory. Less known is his climbing of the Symplegades or Clashing Rocks. This was his only visit to Turkey. He returned to Athens in July 1810. There he expressed his (imaginary) love for the three daughters of the Deputy Consul of England in Athens, Prokopis Makris (1764 – 1799), in whose house he was hosted during his first stay. He was mainly fascinated by his youngest daughter, the twelve-year-old Teresa, for whom he composed “Maid of Athens” (1810). After the poem was published in England in 1812, Makris’ House became a target of curiosity for the British visiting Athens.
Return to England
He returned to England after two years, on July 14, 1811. On the way to Newstead, the news of his mother’s death devastated him. In 1811 death left a mark on his personal life, taking three of his friends away: his former classmates, Charles Skinner Matthews, John Wingfield and John Edleston, for the loss of whom Byron composed melodic and painful elegies. On the other hand, it was the year that filled the void with new faces and prospects: Lord Byron’s fame took off just 15 days after the first issue of Childe Harold´s Pilgrimage, which ran out in three days. At the end of the year he acquired a permanent collaboration with the publisher of the first two Cantos, John Murray (1778 – 1843). He became famous and an object of desire for both women and men.
The spotlight was on him, not for his poetic work exclusively, but also for his public defense of the Luddite uprising in the House of Lords. He passionately defended the position that the human race must resist the domination of machines.
The conservative world of the time felt reserved about the poet’s agitation. But the Whigs’ parlors were wide open to welcome him. There, he met two influential women of the time, Lady Elizabeth Holland, and Lady Elizabeth Milbanke – Melbourne. He developed a very close bond with the sixty-two-year-old Melbourne, which could have been erotic, as he confessed. Melbourne stood by him even after hearing about his relationship with her son’s wife, Lady Caroline Lamb. Caroline’s husband was the twice Prime Minister of Great Britain (1834, 1835 – 1841), William Lamb. Lady Lamb referred to Byron as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.
In January 1815 Byron married Melbourne’s niece Anabella Milbanke, who gave birth to his daughter, Augusta Ada Byron (10/12/1815). A year before, Byron’s half-sister Augusta had given birth to a daughter, Elizabeth Medora Leigh (15/04/1814), and rumors started circulating about the paternity of her child. These rumors, combined with others’ envy for his success, financial hardship, and the mental alienation from Annabella (which made her abandon the marital home in London), were all factors that led Byron to self-exile in 1816.
The decade 1813 – 1823 was the most glorious period of Byron’s poetic production. Childe Harold, the character people identified him with – despite his objection – inspired numerous fictional heroes that followed. Byron was influenced by the “Mal du siècle”; he was referring to the deep pain, the “long labyrinth of sin”, his homeland that looked like a hermit cell. Harold relied on the poet’s personal experiences, while drawing on elements from earlier literary heroes: for example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Goethe’s Werther. René, Chateaubriand’s protagonist is his “twin brother”. The Byronic hero is a cynical and proud misanthrope, who despises the rules, but is capable of strong and deep affection. The love for man and the joy for his human actions are met in many of Byron’s works.
From mid-1812 to the beginning of 1816, Byron published six large tales with Orientalist themes:
The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale (1813),
The Bride of Abydos: A Turkish Tale (1813),
The Corsair: A Tale (1814),
The Siege of Corinth (1816).
In addition to their literary spread, Byronic heroes were depicted in works of art, as was the figure of Byron himself, which merged with that of Childe Harold. Paintings, ornate table clocks or French porcelain vases depicting figures of Byronic heroes, circulated throughout Europe. Gradually, Byron’s heroes became identified with emblematic figures of the Greek revolution, and the acquisition of such works, which promoted the Greek issue, became status symbols of the philhellenic salons. Thus, the Giaour, a subject that occupied the imagination of the French painters A. Scheffer, A.M. Colin, A.C.H. Vernet, E. Delacroix and T. Géricault, became identified as a Greek fighter. The victor, the “infidel” Giaour, who triumphantly steps on the slain Hassan, allegorically spoke of the victory of the Christian world over the Muslim.
The characters from the Bride of Abydos were identified with Souliotes refugees from Parga.
Scenes from The Corsair gave inspiration for the farewell of the Greek fighter. Images from Don Juan, Byron’s last masterpiece from 1818, were identified with the theme of the wounded Greek fighter, as well as with Byron in a woman’s arms, who was Greece.
Byron‘s second journey: Switzerland, Italy, Greece
“They made me an Exile / not a slave of me”
(The Prophecy of Dante, 1919)
When Hobhouse farewelled Byron on the coasts of England on April 25th, 1816, neither of them suspected that they would never reunite in their homeland. The poet left, in self-exile, the “hermit cell”, to end his life gloriously on the ground, where he felt happy for the first time, as he said.
Accompanied by his chamberlain, W. Fletcher, and the twenty-year-old doctor Dr. John Polidori (1795-1821), he headed via Ostend to Brussels. He visited the Battlefield of Waterloo, which he compared to the plain of Marathon. The sight of the landmark inspired two verses for Childe Harold’s third Canto, which he began writing while leaving his homeland. He continued his journey to Switzerland. Inspired by the patriot of Geneva, Francois-de-Bonnivard (1496 – 1570), he composed the poem The Prisoner of Chillon in Lausanne in an attempt to speak about the highest ideal of Freedom. In June 1816, he had already settled down in Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. A young woman, who had fallen in love with him, followed Byron on his tour. Her name was Claire Clairmont (1798 – 1879) and she happened to be half-sister to the author Mary Shelley, wife of Percy Shelley. Claire acted as an intermediate to bring the two English poets in contact. Hence a group of self-exiled, romantic intellectuals was formed in Geneva, which resulted in the creation of seminal works of literature. Byron was encouraged by Shelley to create Don Juan (that he wrote shortly afterwards in Pisa); Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein on a night the group was enjoying themselves with “ghost stories”; Polidori based his Vampyre – the progenitor of the whole romantic vampire genre – on Byrons’ personality.
The Shelleys reluctantly returned to England, with Claire carrying Byron’s child. Byron and Hobhouse left Villa Diodati on October 5, 1816. The two of them wandered the Bernese Alpes, where Byron conceived Manfred. A Dramatic poem, which he completed in Venice in 1817. Manfred’s Promethean character (an “inverted Faust”) was considered to be autobiographical. Its central ideas are sadness, guilt, a feeling of deep loneliness and the remembrance of a sinful love of the past. Manfred’s Astarte is linked to Augusta. Byron then wandered to the cities of Venice (1816 – 1819), Ravenna (1819 – 1821), Pisa (1821 – 1822) and Genoa (1822 – 1823), where he entered his productive Italian period; he composed eight plays, the fourth and last Canto of Childe Harold, his historical-political poem The Age of Bronze, the satirical work Beppo, and the sixteen Songs of Don Juan.
After reuniting with the Shelleys in Venice, and meeting his daughter from Claire, Allegra, he moved to Ravenna. His love for the young Countess Teresa Guiccioli, daughter of the fiery Italian patriot Count Ruggero Gamba Ghiselli, led him to this new destination. The Gambas introduced him to carbonarism. Pietro Gamba, the count’s son, had a great admiration for Byron and accompanied him to Greece. After Byron had already passed, he joined Fabvier’s regular army in Greece. Teresa, who became romantically involved with Byron, divorced her (older by 37 years) , Count Alessandro Guiciolli. Nevertheless, Teresa’s paternal family developed a great sympathy for Byron due to his political views.
1820 is the year that the liberal patriotic movements in Italy erupted. Italy was the melting pot of English romantics, Italian conspirators, modern Greek Enlighteners and members of the Filiki Eteria (Society of Friends). Ravenna’s enlightened aristocrats were Carbonari, and Byron found his place in the movement, as an honorary leader of its third branch, the Turba (“Mob”), made up mostly of workers. He chose this branch wishing to take action and not just to guide the movement. He offered weapons, protection and encouragement to the Italian fighters. In a letter he wrote: “the people will win in the end. I will not live to see it, but I predict it“. This wording does not sound in line with any particular ideology. Historian Roderick Beaton doubts that Byron fully embraced the revolutionary ideology of the Carbonari. It is probable that the poet was motivated by romance and enthusiasm for action, without being dedicated to a specific struggle or purpose at this point.
When the liberal movements in Italy finally failed, the Gambas were led into exile. Shelley, who had visited Ravenna to meet Allegra at the monastery her father had sent her, pulled Byron and Gamba to Pisa. It is his friend, Percy Shelley, and his wife, Mary, who will unhook him from the Italian issue and spark his philhellenic feelings. The first news of the events in Greece had begun to reach Italy as early as April 1821. Shelley composed his masterpiece poem Hellas in autumn 1821 and prophesied the triumph of the Greek Struggle for Independence, which was synonymous with the Struggle for Freedom and Justice. He dedicated this poem to his friend, Prince Alexandros Mavrokordatos, with whom the Shelleys were closely associated through the circle of Pisa.
The developments that took place in Pisa shaped the English poets’ Philhellenism. The co-founder of the Philomuse Society, Archbishop Ignatius, could safely act here, away from Metternich’s police. He gathered a group of people around him who sought to play an active role in Greek affairs, including Alexandros Mavrokordatos and the ruler of Wallachia, Ioannis Karatzas. John Eduard Trelawny (1792 – 1881) and Leigh Hunt (1784 – 1859) also arrived in the city in 1822. According to one version, the Shelleys introduced Mavrokordatos to Byron, while another version refers that the two men first met in Messolonghi. In any case, it seems that important mental and intellectual processes took place for Byron in Pisa, which led him to the decision to go to Greece. Before leaving this city, Byron witnessed the tragic drowning of his friend, Percy Shelley, whom he farewelled along with Hunt and Trelawny on the beach of Viareggio. He then moved with Teresa to Genoa in September 1822, having already mourned the loss of Polidori, Lady Milbanke (Anabella’s mother) and his five-year-old daughter, Allegra.
“I must stand by the Cause”
For two years after the outbreak of the Greek revolution of 1821, Byron remained uninvolved with this issue. His decision to dedicate himself to “The Cause”, as he called it, should be seen as “the culmination of a poetic and ideological development that had consistently sought to break through the limiting barrier of words, so as to change the course of things in the world of real politics and action”, according to R. Beaton. Greece as an ideal begun to gain ground in him after Shelley’s tragic loss.
In April 1823, he was ready to move from the world of ideas to that of action. He was visited in Genoa by two delegates of the London Philhellenic Committee: Andreas Louriotis, who negotiated the first two national loans to Greece in London, and British Captain Edward Blaquière. He was invited to go to Greece on behalf of the Philhellenic Committee, act as a referee between the Greeks, as well as to direct the aid sent there. He accepted the invitation, feeling “the urgent need to give a new direction to the course of his ideas”. The decision to fight for the liberation of Greece, was all of his own.
His first stop was Argostoli, Kefallinia (August 3, 1823), where he met with the English commander, Sir Charles James Napier (1782-1853). Together with Pietro Gamba he settled in the village of Metaxata until the end of the year, where a bust in front of the house he lived, reminds us of his presence today. He took good care of a group of Souliotes refugees he came across there, paying for their safe passage to Messolonghi. News were spread in Greece about Byron’s arrival. The kind hero of the Greek Revolution, Markos Botsaris, addressed his last letter ever to Lord Byron, before dying in Karpenisi. In this moving letter, he expressed his joy and desire to meet him in Messolonghi.
When he arrived in Greece, Byron had a fairly realistic picture of the disputes between the Greeks. But he kept a diplomatic distance from the two warring factions, which were both trying to join him. He hesitated whether he should go to Messolonghi in the autumn of 1823, before receiving clear instructions from the government (“Ektelestiko”). In order not to provoke the Mavromichalis – Kolokotronis government, he rejected Mavrokordatos’ invitation to meet him in Hydra. His delay in going to Messolonghi was not due to indecision, but to his practical and political wisdom. The moment the lord set foot in Greece, he was indeed transformed from a poet into a realist politician. Byron understood that there were three possibilities for the Greeks; to regain their freedom, to become a vassal of the European rulers, or to become a Turkish province again. He knew that a civil war could only lead to the last two options, and urged the Greeks to decide immediately if they wanted to be free and independent or not, otherwise they might never have the same opportunity again.
Historian George Finley estimates that if Byron had lived, he would have had a great impact in preventing two civil wars. His purpose in Greece was to unite, not to divide.
He arrived in Messolonghi on January 5, 1824. Crowds of civilians, soldiers, women and their children, anxiously awaited the arrival of their saviour. The famous oil painting “Byron’s Oath at Missolonghi” by Lodovico Lipparini (1824), as well as “The reception of Lord Byron in Messolonghi” by Theodoros Vryzakis (1861), demonstrate the enthusiasm that prevailed upon Byron‘s arrival.
He settled in the mansion of the Kapsalis family, which was blown up by Christos Kapsalis during the Heroic Exodus of Messolonghi, in April 1826. People in Messolonghi appreciated Byron for his conciliatory spirit, but also for his determination and bravery. The great poet was indeed ready for war. In fact, he considered that “the sword precedes the pen”, in contrast to the opinion of Colonel Leicester Stanhope (1784 – 1862), who had come to Greece believing that propaganda, through education and the press, was the main weapon in this Struggle. The reversal of qualities between a poet with zero combat experience and an experienced military man is remarkable. Byron assumed the post of commander-in-chief, while preparing a major military operation against Nafpaktos, which did not take place at the end. Byron made fun of himself for this position due to his disability, claiming that his best trait as a General, is his inability to flee. The title of General was kind of indifferent to him, and he wanted to be remembered as the conciliator of the Greeks.
During this period it was made clear that borrowing from abroad was a necessary condition for the success of the Greek Struggle. A loan would enable the chartering of a fleet of modern warships, the purchase of munitions, the avoidance of a civil war, and the overall protection from external enemies. Byron himself was willing to offer money for the Cause. He personally financed a part of the British loan to the Greeks in advance. He even financed the trip of Ioannis Orlandos (1770 – 1852) and Andreas Louriotis (1789 – 1854) to London (30/11/1823), so that they negotiate the first loan to Greece. He was an altruist, yet a realist, and worried if his actions and motivations could be misunderstood. Another of his concerns was whether the foreign aid and the handling of the loan could be a source of dispute between Greeks. He therefore considered that the first step towards freedom was the establishment of order and argued for the formation of a strong central government, which would be responsible for managing the loan. He envisioned a centralized state with a constitutional government, a novelty for his time, and Greece as a leading power within Europe.
His many years of wandering in Europe had acquainted him with the reality of politics (Realpolitik) and the Great Powers’ disposition. He was a man who could equally easily move in the salons of the aristocracy, converse with artists and politicians, or address the Greek people and the chieftains. His position in the House of Lords had offered him valuable acquaintances, e.g. with George Canning (1770-1827), whose policy he praised in his poem The Age of Bronze (1823). Byron and Shelley had already written poems against Canning’s political rival, the powerful man of the time, Castlereagh (Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, 1769 – 1822). Canning’s liberal foreign policy, inspired by the work of Lord Byron, dealt a decisive blow to the Holy Alliance, while favoring South Americans and Greeks. In March 1823, Great Britain recognized the legitimacy of the naval blockade imposed by the Greeks. The fact is of great importance, as it is the first act of recognition of the Greeks at war.
This, of course, did not mean that Metternich’s spirit had completely disappeared in Europe. Byron was aware of that fact and knew that, in order to gain the sympathy of a wider spectrum of politicians in Europe for the Greek case, their demands should not appear in line with those of the Carbonari movement. He did not see the Greek and the French Revolution as directly linked to one another, nor to other revolutions in Europe, but understood that something much bigger was taking place in Greece. Τhe Declaration of the first National Assembly in Epidaurus (15 / 27.01.1822) spoke of a national and sacred war, the restoration of freedom, property and honor, goods which are enjoyed by all the neighboring peoples of Europe, except the Greeks, who suffer under Ottoman rule. The historian Dionysios Zakythinos (1905 – 1993) argued that the Greek liberation movement ”consists of a constant state of resistance“ and saw 1821 as a station in this long historical process. This evidence demonstrates the complexity and uniqueness of the Greek Revolution, which Byron understood and wanted to defend. For Byron, the struggle of the Greeks should primarily be (self) projected as a struggle between civilizations: of Christianity fighting to liberate itself from Islam. Only in this way it would gain its legitimacy in the eyes of the Europeans.
The presence of Byron in Greece was the driving force, and the guarantee, for the granting of the first loan from Great Britain in February 1824, amounting to 800,000 pounds. He was an appointed commissioner for the loan’s management, together with Lazaros Kountouriotis and Colonel Stanhope. During the last days of his life, he expressed his conviction to Pietro Gamba that, thanks to Canning’s policy, the Greeks would turn to England in a friendly way. In January 1825, when Byron had already lost his life in Messolonghi, a second loan was given to Greece in the form of a bond. The money was offered by ordinary citizens, who were touched by his death and revived the philhellenic movement from 1824 onwards.
“Heaven gives its favorites early death”
(Childe Harold´s Pilgrimage, Canto IV, C II.)
If thou regret’st thy Youth, why live? The land of honourable Death/Is here: — up to the Field, and give/Away thy breath!
Seek out — less often sought than found/A Soldier’s Grave, for thee the best;/Then look around, and choose thy Ground,/And take thy rest.
“On this day I complete my thirty – sixth year. Missolonghi, Jan. 22, 1824”
In the last days of March 1824, Byron often complained to Pietro Gamba about his health. He had already experienced an epileptic seizure in February. The incessant rains and the flooding of the city prevented him from taking his long walks, as usual. On April 10, he came out on horseback in the middle of a storm, which was fatal. Perhaps Byron had decided that Greece would be the last stop of his life. He used to say to Tita, his gondolier in Venice, who accompanied him to Greece: “I will never leave Greece again. The Turks, the Greeks or the climate, will not let me go“. Without a trace of remorse, he described the premonition of his inevitable end in the poem he wrote on his last birthday. “On this day I complete my thirty – sixth year. Missolonghi, Jan. 22, 1824”. On April 19, 1824, at dawn, in the midst of terrible weather, Byron, who was in his bed, unable to move, opened his eyes one last time, and immediately closed them again, forever.
The announcement of his death plunged Messolonghi into mourning. A 21-day general mourning was officially announced for the whole city. Thirty-seven cannonades were ordered to fall at sunrise of the following day, one every minute, for every year that he lived. His heart was placed in the church for the people to visit overnight. The people of Messolonghi demanded that the larynx and the lung of the one who “gave his voice and his breath for Greece” be kept in their city. A container with his lungs was eventually left in Messolonghi. His embalmed body was later transported to England. According to the testimony of his doctor, J.M. Millingen, Byron, who had accepted the fact that he is dying, demanded that no honorary ceremonies be held, and asked for his bones to remain in Greece. He was buried on April 10/22, near the tombs of Markos Botsaris and the great Philhellene, General Normann, in a wooden coffin covered with a black cloak, upon which a helmet, a sword and a laurel wreath were placed. Spyridon Trikoupis (1788 – 1873) delivered an excellent funeral speech for Lord Byron.
His death shocked the entire western world. The Times of London reported that the most remarkable Englishman of his time had passed away. The English public was shocked, “as if it was hit by an earthquake“, according to Hobhouse, who received his remains on May 2. A popular pilgrimage to the relics followed (May 9 – 11), with strong police forces guarding the crowd. The confusion was unprecedented, according to reports at the time. The officials who attended the ceremony were few (mostly from the pro-Greek opposition), the radical party, and the Whigs’ radical faction. The body was then taken to the village of Hucknall Torkard in Nottingham to be buried in the Byron family tomb. Uncontrollable acts of worship and despair took place during the second popular pilgrimage organized by Hobhouse.
The events of his untimely death were almost automatically identified with the support for the Greek Cause. The philhellenic movement was immediately revived after his death, with the British taking the lead from 1824 onwards. A year later, the Swiss banker Jean-Gabriel Eynard (1775 – 1863) pioneered the establishment of new philhellenic committees in Geneva, which aimed primarily at tackling malnutrition in Greece. The Paris Committee dealt with the deployment of the military and the education of Greek children in Paris. Later than their British counterparts, the French Romantics François-Auguste-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848), Victor Hugo (1802 – 1855) and Alphonse de Lamartine (1790 – 1869) argued in favor of the Greek Struggle, after having revised their monarchist political views; a remarkable fact, considering romanticism‘s influence on the spread of philhellenism. In New York, in Philadelphia, in Boston, where a significant philhellenic movement was already manifesting from the end of 1823, the death and the idolization of Byron awakened a real “Greek fever”. American volunteers arrived in Greece to help win the revolution. The first to arrive was George Jarvis (1797 – 1828), who took over as an assisting officer of Lord Byron in Messolonghi and educator of the Souliotes. After Byron‘s death, the soldier Jonathan Peckham Miller (1797 – 1847) and the doctor Samuel Howe (1801 – 1876) arrived in Greece. These three brave men offered a lot to Greece, inspired by the work of Lord Byron. In fact, Dr. Samuel Howe returned to the United States in 1828 and organized tours and fundraisers in favor of the Greek Cause. The main items he used to attract the interest of the Americans were Lord Byron’s personal objects. The great Philhellene poet was still there to help the cause of Greece even after he was dead.
The adoration of Lord Byron became a way of life almost all over the western world. It had an impact on literature (Heinrich Heine, Wilhelm Müller, A. Pushkin, M. Lermontov, Oscar Wilde, V. Hugo, A. Dumas, among others), music (F. Liszt, G Rossini, H. Berlioz, G. Verdi, etc.), fine arts (E. Delacroix, Colin, Vernet, Gericault, Liparirni, Philips, etc.), portraiture, and even 19th century clothing (the open shirt was named Byron’s collar). He became an object of worship, not only for intellectuals and artists, but also for ordinary people – a person who acquired an almost metaphysical dimension. There are some very touching stories about the level of popular adoration Byron reached; it is mentioned, that many people tried to get some alcohol from the container with his body, as an amulet; another moving story, is the one of the young girl from Messolonghi, who held his slippers for protection during the heroic Exodus from the besieged city.
When on April 10, 1826, the besieged civilians of Messolonghi made their heroic Exodus from the city, Greece was again in the international spotlight. Almost two years had passed since the poet’s death. The Greek Cause was internationalized, as Byron himself wished, and resulted in the involvement of the three powers (Great Britain, France, Russia) in Navarino (October 8/20, 1827), which rescued the Greek Revolution. The connection of Byron’s name with Messolonghi, contributed decisively to these developments. The road to Greek independence was now open.
The national poets of Greece, Dionysios Solomos (1798 – 1857) and Andreas Kalvos (1792 – 1867) composed two great Odes in his honor. The Ode of D. Solomos under the title “Τo the death of Lord Byron” (Zakynthos, 1825) consists of 166 quatrains and is written in the same meter he used for the national anthem of Greece. It starts with the well-known turn:
“Liberty, cease for a moment/ Striking hard with your sword/ Now approach here to lament/ By the body of this noble lord”.
The Ode closes by recalling Byron’s agony for national solidarity among the Greeks:
“Discord in Greece again reigns/ If the two of them you can sever/ BY THE WORLD THATALL CONTAINS/ Your name shall live forever!”
Kalvos wrote The British Muse, consisting of 24 quatrains, in 1826. He addresses Byron with the following words:
“Oh Byron, exquisite spirit,
Offspring of the Britannic
Muses and unfortunate
Friend of glorious
An epigram for Byron was also written by Kostis Palamas, one hundred years after his death, summarizing the essence of his life and death in just one verse:
“Even if you lived as Dionysus, you died a Messiah.”
The Greek citizens showed their gratitude for Lord Byron as well. On October 21, 1881, a statue and monument in his honor was unveiled in the garden of the Heroes of Messolonghi. The initiative for the construction belonged to the Philological Association “Byron”. The design was assigned to a sculptor from Syros, Georgios Vitalis, who used Byron‘s statue by Bertel Thorvaldsen as a model. The funding was based on offers, for the collection of which Admiral Kanaris was appointed responsible by royal decree.
In Athens, one of the most beautiful statues of the capital, also known as the statue of Byron, was erected at the junction of Vasilissis Amalias and Vasilissis Olgas streets, which bears the inscription “Greece (crowns) Byron“. In the form of a half-naked, seated woman, Greece crowns Byron with a palm branch, as a sign of gratitude. Behind the two figures of the sculptural complex, rests a kneeling, enslaved Greek, reminding us whom Byron really benefited. The work was completed after the death of its financier and president of the “Byron” Association, Dimitrios Stefanovik Skylitsis, as well as its first sculptor, Henri Michel Antoine Chapu (1833-1891). It was continued by the sculptor Jean Alexandre Joseph Falquiere (1831-1900) and completed by Lazaros Sochos (1857 or 1862 – 1911). The statue was ready in 1924, on the hundredth anniversary of the poet’s death. A well-known urban area of Athens was named Byron (Vyronas).
For contemporary Greeks, Lord Byron is the personification of a noble hero who loved Greece and sacrificed himself for their freedom. The life and contribution of this great man, is the embodiment of Philhellenism itself.
Lord Byron died as an outlaw for the High Porte (the Ottoman government), as a Benefactor for Messolonghi and its Honorary Citizen, Savior of Greece. These titles state briefly, but eloquently, the Cause that he served, and the side with which the poet fought in his life: that of Freedom and the values of Hellenism.
SHP, Greece and the Greeks will forever honor this great man.
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