Byron’s big fat Greek frustration

Ok! That title is a cheap attempt at click-bait. Implausible, too. Byron hated “big fat” anything. He was obsessive about his weight… certainly neurotic, possibly anorexic from time to time.

But he was deeply frustrated by the Greeks, whom he loved from the time of his first youthful visit to the region in 1810-11. In Don Juan he rages at their unwillingness, or inability, to assert their national spirit in the face of a tired, half-attentive, but rapacious Turkish occupation.

Did the Greek’s even have a “national spirit”? Was there a Hellenic homeland? Or just a bunch of Ionian, Doric and Peloponnesian regions of “cis-Eurasia” that Western Europe romanticized as the territorial heritage of ‘classical Greece’? Was Byron’s assumption that any red-blooded Greek should be a pan-Hellenist just another example of his own hot-headed, lordly, liberalism getting ahead of the facts?

Honestly, I’m not sure. But that does not detract from my enjoyment of Byron’s eloquent radicalism in the Greek cause nor my sympathy with his frustration. He deserves sympathy on this account almost more than on any other. Not only (in the mid-1820s) did he put his “money where his mouth was” but he laid down his life — if not willingly, with determined resignation — in its cause.

In Canto III of Don Juan, Byron celebrates the fateful nuptial feast of Juan and his lover-savior Haidée the Pirate’s Daughter. The centerpiece of the feast is a lyric that has become one of the best-known and most anthologised of Byron’s verses; “The Isles of Greece…“. The song is not part of the ottava rima ‘rootstock’ of Don Juan, but a ‘sport’ of lyric verse that is both a poetic and narrative diversion. An unnamed Poet, a professional entertainer who is also the butt of several of Byron’s jokey allusions to his self-serving contemporaries, the ‘Laker’ poets, sings “The Isles of Greece” apparently because he believes his hosts will approve it. This ‘staging’ creates some distance between the sentiments in the verse and Byron; but, in truth, very little. The satire is too pointed, the verse too refined, to be any but Byron’s.

The verse is easy and the opening lines have the wistful character of “poesy”… Poetry editors for a hundred fifty hundred hundred years,* seeking some short, self-contained segment of Don Juan for their anthologies ignored the untypical character of the song and excerpted it for their collections.

But how many who know it’s opening lines would recall the sharpness of its later satire on the Greeks under Ottoman rule? Or it’s anger?

If, about now, you too are feeling some frustration at the character of Greece or even, perhaps, the rapaciousness of their neighbors… you might enjoy reviewing this surprising wedding address. Here is an extract from my recording of Canto III containing the “Isles of Greece”. If you like it, please let me know and I’ll push the whole Canto ‘out the door’.

Oh… and one last thing. The image at the head of this post is of the eccentric, brilliant aesthete Thomas Beechey Hope, the — initially anonymous — author of a much-praised comic satire on the “Greek” identity, Anastasius (available from the Internet Archive) published by John Murray published in 1819. Anastasius clearly inspired parts of Don Juan.


* Hmmm… the earliest evidence I can find is Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1900 Anthology “The Oxford Book Of English Verse 1250–1900”.

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prospero

Byron fan (not fanatic); poetry lover (not tragic); doctor of melancholia (not gloom).

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