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Two centuries on, Greece loves Byron more than ever | Greece

Two centuries on, Greece loves Byron more than ever | Greece
Two centuries on, Greece loves Byron more than ever | Greece

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On Wednesday 18 August 1880, a sale was held at Sotheby’s in London. Among the items up for grabs were “interesting relics of Lord Byron”. The articles, once the property of Augusta Leigh, the poet’s half-sister, included the crown of Greek laurel placed on the aristocrat’s coffin “when laying in state” in Great George Street.

Joannes Gennadius, a diplomat-cum-scholar born and raised in Athens, ensured he was there. Fifty-six years had elapsed since the great Romantic poet died on 19 April 1824 in Missolonghi, spearheading the Greeks’ revolt against Ottoman rule.

Raised by his patriot father on Byron’s legendary contribution to the cause, Gennadius successfully contrived to outdo his fellow bidders. It would be the start of a formidable collection of Byroniana that today includes a lock of the peer’s distinctly auburn hair – cut by his distraught valet, William Fletcher as his master lay on his deathbed – rare manuscripts, Byron’s gold watch, paintings and a fragment of the Scottish plaid cloak Byron, then Europe’s most celebrated writer, wore in Missolonghi.

Last week, as Greece marked the bicentenary of Byron’s death, the artefacts brought an air of excitement to the august reading room of the library that Gennadius, who would become one of the country’s foremost benefactors, bequeathed to the American School of Classical studies at Athens.

For Alicia E Stallings, Oxford University’s professor of poetry, laying eyes on objects once so intimate to the poet was tantamount to being “at one remove” from him and nothing short of “thrilling”.

“I think it’s very important they’ve ended up in Greece,” said the American who, long based in Athens where she has written several acclaimed books of verse, has found herself “inevitably” thinking about Byron and his relationship with the nation he would ultimately sacrifice his life for. “There’s little sense or understanding [abroad] of how important he was to Greece. I often find myself having to explain that it’s not a celebrity stunt, it’s no joke, that the gravity of the appreciation [for him] is genuine.”

On Friday – exactly 200 years after Byron succumbed to fever barely 100 days after arriving in the land whose liberty he had championed so vociferously – it was an appreciation that the Greeks went out of their way to display. With a pomp usually afforded visiting dignitaries, a brass band performed next to a guard of honour outside the Athens parliament as officials laid wreaths before the tomb of the unknown soldier to commemorate foreign philhellenes, starting with Byron, whose support, courage and influence were key to the war’s eventual success.

In Missolonghi, scene of an unprecedented “homage” to the poet, celebrations ranged from exhibition openings to the world premiere of The Last Days of Byron, an opera commissioned by Oxford’s Institute for Digital Archaeology.

Greece’s war of independence was brutal. More than 350 soldiers from Europe and America are believed to have died on the battlefield at the hands of the Ottomans. Raised on the classics, most despaired at the calamitous state the Orthodox Christians had been reduced to by centuries of Ottoman rule.

For Alexis Sotiropoulos, mayor of Vyronas, the Athenian suburb named after the poet, that Byron should die before he could prove himself in battle – fever took hold as he was about to lead troops out of the malaria-ridden town – matters little.

In a country where nearly every city has a street named after the Englishman and many men are called Vyrona in his honour, the hero’s status remains undisputed. “Byron may not have fought but he gave us his everything, he gave us his life,” the mayor explained, a bust of the poet perched behind him in an office brimming with flags, bags and mugs emblazoned with Byron’s silhouette. “In life it’s all about what you leave behind, and ultimately he left behind a free Greece. Without him it might not have happened.”

The revolutionary spirit that led Byron into the marshes of Missolonghi – propelled by a valour hailed by those who accompanied him on the doomed expedition – was much bigger than the whiff of scandal that pushed him into self-exile or any of his flaws, said the soft-spoken Sotiropoulos. “Perhaps he had weaknesses,” he mused. “But he was a democrat, ahead of his time, a man of unimpeachable ideals. We are forever grateful.”

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Historians believe that had it not been for Byron’s generosity or influence, London might never have consented to the loans so badly needed by the provisional government in Greece. His own support – parting with a huge amount of his fortune to underwrite the war effort – while backing the pro-western polyglot Alexandros Mavrokordatos at a time when the uprising was plagued by factional intrigues, is seen as crucial in the creation of the modern nation state.

In England, where the rebel poet is best remembered as being “mad, bad and dangerous to know” – the inimitable putdown uttered by his spurned lover, Lady Caroline Lamb – it is a political role that is often overlooked.

But the commemorative events marking the milestone anniversary also offer opportunity for reappraisal, says Roderick Beaton, emeritus professor of Modern Greek at King’s College London and the author of Byron’s War, the definitive account of his involvement in the revolution.

“There’s a huge mismatch in the way he is remembered in the UK and Greece,” the academic noted, lamenting that most of Byron’s poetry, like his surviving correspondence, had “astonishingly” never been translated into Greek.

“In this anniversary there’s a great opportunity for the Greeks to get to know him better as a poet, and for the Brits to open up beyond the clichés, and taint of scandal, to see Byron’s contribution to the creation of a European nation state. It’s important because he really is part of the story and the self-identity of Greece.”

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