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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