Happy Birthday, George Gordon, Lord Byron
I live in a town where Byron is Big. There is a beautiful statue of him being embraced by Ellas (Greece) on the corner of a main thoroughfare. There is a street named after him in the center, on which he also has an eponymous hotel. Heck, there is a whole neighborhood named after him. There are even people named after him--Byron has become a Greek given name (Vyronas).
The only place where Byron is Bigger is possibly Missolonghi (a helluva a backwater to die in), where any establishment not named Liberty is probably named Byron.
Don't tell Greeks Byron was Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know. Here is the ultimate Romantic figure--the Poet War Hero.
Oddly, in the West, this is characterized as little more than a tragic escapade, a celebrity stunt. But Byron's help was practical and extensive. The Greek fleet, crucial to the war effort, remained at anchor at Hydra because the sailors had not been paid--Byron used 4,000 pounds of his own money (God knows what that is in today's terms--literally, a fortune) to get the ships under sail. He also used his personal fortune to to rescue both Greek and Turkish civilians from the fighting. He was instrumental in getting the necessary loan from London to prosecute the war. And perhaps most importantly, and almost unique among 19th century travellors, he accepted the Modern Greeks for themselves, not looking at them merely through the distorting lens of a romanticized Ancient Greece and a gentleman's Classical Education.
A book I just love about Byron and Greece is called On a Voiceles Shore: Byron in Greece by Stephen Minta. It is biography, history, and travel book. I treasure its insights into both Byron and the under-travelled western reaches of Greece. Here is Minta on Missolonghi:
In a street that leads off the main square in modern Mesolongi, someone has written on a wall the English words, "Fuck Agrinio..." The unexpected, casual scrawl is years old. Whenever I go back to Mesolongi, I walk down the street to look, and it's always there, scarcely fading.
Agrinio is a small harmless town about twenty miles to the north. The writing on the wall, hardly original, it is true, still reminds us of two things. Of the dull hatreds we often reserve for those closest to us; and of the fact that there are worse places in the world than Mesolongi. Those writers who have, for so long, given Mesolongi a bad name, as the ultimate outpost at the end of the world, should spend a weekend in Agrinio and meditate on an eternity there.
Well! Did I mention I love this book?
Perhaps a little Byron himself is in order. I wish, I wish someone would carve this verse from "The Isles of Greece" from "Don Juan" in marble and set it up somewhere on the plain of Marathon:
The mountains look on Marathon
And Marathon looks on the sea,
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream'd that Greece might still be free:
For standing on the Persians' grave
I could not deem myself a slave.
If you are interested in poems set to music, I adore this setting of "So We'll Go No More Aroving" (track 2) by Boston songstressKris Delmhorst from her Strange Conversation CD.
And finally, one of my favorite poems of Byron's. Did I mention I am a sucker for pet elegies?:
Inscription on the Monument of a Newfoundland Dog
When some proud son of man returns to earth,
Unknown to glory, but upheld by birth,
The sculptor's art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rest below;
When all is done, upon the tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been:
But the poor dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his master's own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonour'd falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the soul he held on earth,
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.
Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power,
Who knows thee well must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, they friendship all a cheat,
Thy smiles hypocrisy, thy words deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye! who perchance behold this simple urn,
Pass on--it honours none you wish to mourn:
To make a friend's remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one,--and here he lies.
A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...