12th International Student Byron Conference Proceedings
12th International Student Byron Conference, 19-24 May 2017 Messolonghi, Greece
“Byron and Nature”
Friday 19 May 2017
On Friday 19 May, the 12th International Student Byron Conference began in Messolonghi. Students and professors from around the globe arrived throughout the morning and early afternoon to pleasant weather in the city to check in at the Theoxenia Hotel on the edge of the lagoon. Several members of the conference enjoyed an early lunch and walk about the town before settling into the opening proceedings late that afternoon. The participants registered at the administrative office of the Messolonghi Byron Society and its Byron Research Society located in the Byron House, situated nicely on the edge of the water. Participants were warmly welcomed with pastries and coffee by Rosa Florou, President of the Messolonghi Byron Society, as well as Christina Tsekoura, the center’s librarian and other members of the MBS. Professor Peter Graham (Virginia Tech) extended additional greetings and, along with Mrs. Florou, officially opened the conference. Following this initial meeting, participants of the conference gathered at the Gallery of “Christos and Sophia Moschandreou” to see an exhibition of modern paintings and pictures of Byron that gracefully captured both Byron’s poetry and life in a visually pleasing aesthetic.
Following the visit to the gallery, the members of the conference proceeded to the Center of Literature & Arts “Diexodos” Museum, for the exhibition of the Ancient treasures found in the excavations of the new Ionian motor way, and were guided by archaeologist Ms. Katerina Leontariti, who enthusiastically showed the group several intriguing finds, including an authentic burial site moved from its original location to the museum. Following the visit to the “Diexodos” Museum, conference participants then moved on to visit the Municipal Museum of History and Art Municipal Gallery, where they were greeted graciously by the Deputy-Mayor of Messolonghi, Mr. Spyros Karvelis, on behalf of Mr. Nikos Karapanos, Mayor of Messolonghi, after which they were given a tour of the art gallery, featuring many of a famous painting and sculpture, including an exhibit on Byron himself.
Late that evening, after the adventures and meetings, members of the 12th ISBC were treated to a wonderful dinner at the fish restaurant “Avgo tou Kokora.” The dinner consisted of fresh fish, many different types of salads and appetizers, and a traditional Greek Ice Cream dish. Mrs. Florou gave a toast to the members of the conference, after which, despite many miles of traveling, many of the participants enjoyed a walk around town and the surrounding lagoon.
Saturday 20 May 2017
Saturday began with breakfast at the Hotel Theoxenia, followed by the participants travelling by bus to the Byron House for the first of the academic sessions. Before the official panels began, David McClay, Consultant Librarian for the Messolonghi Byron Research Center, gave a talk on “The Nature of Letters: Byron and the John Murray Archive” offering an overview of the important holdings of the John Murray archive as they relate to Byron’s life and work. Currently completing an edition of letters from the Murray archive, David McClay showed with wit and panache the intimate relationship John Murray enjoyed with his authors. The first panel, chaired by Professor Naji Oueijan, began with Professor Young-Ok An’s (St. Thomas University) talk on “The Trauma of Unnatural Catastrophe in Byron’s Cain”. She showed how Cain might be understood today in terms of what many are calling our present Anthropocene epoch. Professor Young-Ok An pointed out that Byron, one of Cuvier’s early readers who embraced the theory of catastrophism, “could not have anticipated the details of what we now call the Anthropocene epoch, but seems remarkably prescient and insightful about those details.”
Following the first paper, Sharon Choe (York University) gave a paper on “Dreams of Blindness and Losing the Self: Byron’s Authority in ‘Darkness’”. She explored how Byron used the natural world and its failings to articulate personal anxieties about his status as a writer. By tracing Byron’s voice as the narrator, she examined how he shaped the dreamscape in order to remain within the darkness and establish his literary authority over the voices of the public. Madison Chapman (University of Chicago) rounded off the first panel with her examination of “Byron and the Poetics of Decay”. In her paper, she examined Byron’s mobilization of environmental, botanical and animal references in three poems, “Lines Inscribed upon a Cup formed from a Skull” (1808), “And thou art dead, as young and fair” (1812) and “On this day I complete my thirty sixth year” (1824). Ms. Chapman demonstrated how these texts directly respond to 19th century anxieties over specific gaps in scientific awareness of overlapping processes of decay and (re)growth in nature.
After the conclusion of the first panel, there was a lively discussion-and-answer session followed by a coffee break. The second panel, chaired by David McClay, began shortly thereafter with Dana Harb (Notre Dame University, Lebanon) who spoke on “Oriental Women and Mother Nature,” discussing the implications of the British environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy, who believes that nature is not something separate from us, but that we “are nature”. Goldsworthy’s works on Time (2000), Wood (1996), and Stone (1994) have changed how academics view the environment. She applied his writings to illustrations of Don Juan, The Corsair, The Bride of Abydos, and The Giaour, demonstrating the relationship of Byron’s female heroines to nature and the environment. Next, Jana Nasr, (Notre Dame University, Lebanon) highlighted nature’s “unnaturing“ aspects. Her essay, entitled “Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the Motherhood of Nature” demonstrated how Byron’s complex relationship with his mother ensured that his view of Europe, during the Napoleonic wars, would seek some recompense from a failed relationship at home. “Harold’s sublime encounter with Mother Nature throughout his pilgrimage was affected by the absence of the “mother” figure in Byron’s life,” as she put it. “Harold was capable of finding beauty, and intense emotions and thoughts in desolate lands; those replaced his sense of melancholy with the sense of love.” Professor Naji Oueijan (Notre Dame University, Lebanon) closed the session with “Lord Byron’s ‘Prayer of Nature”’. By focusing on this less studied work, written when Byron was only 19, Prof. Oueijan showed how the poem comes close to endorsing a religious view of nature. As Prof. Oueijan notes, “This godliness of Nature does not necessarily belong to any specific dogma but to his own understanding of a Supreme Creator, whose mysterious, beautiful, and powerful attributes are reflected on his creation.” Byron professes, “all [everything in Nature], save the spirit of man, is divine.” A provocative discussion on the nature of Byron’s religious commitments followed this panel, with other students raising interesting points.
After yet another lengthy series of questions, the group made their way to the Pelada Cafeteria-restaurant in the Port of Messolonghi where they ate lunch under covered pavilions and reminisced about the papers from earlier that morning. After lunch, many of the group returned to the hotel for a few hours of sleep before assembling in the lobby and boarding the bus. The participants spent the evening following Byron’s footsteps in Messolonghi, participating in the wreath-laying ceremony at the newly-renovated moment to Lord Byron established in 1924 by the University of Athens and renovated in 2015, by the Messolonghi Byron Society on the spot of Byron’s last breath. Following this humble moment, the group visited the House-Museum of the prominent statesman, diplomat, and historiographer of the Greek Revolution of 1821, Spyridon Trikoupis, who delivered Lord Byron’s oration. Trikoupis’ son, Charilaos, would go on to become the seven-time prime minister of Greece.
The participants ended the night officially by journeying to the Garden of Heroes, a hauntingly quiet place that stretches along the defensive walls of Messolonghi and is home to the memorial garden that honors the Greek fighters and Philhellenes who fought or fell during the sieges and the great Exodus of Messolonghi. In the garden stands a tall statue of Lord Byron, under which, the conference goers were told, resides the lungs of the poet. After a walking of the garden, the participants were released to spend the night as they saw fit, with many having dinner around the city.
Sunday 21 May 2017
Sunday began early with a light breakfast in the hotel, following which the conference participants boarded a coach for a visit to the Greek city of Thermo. On the way, they stopped at the 11th century Byzantine Monastery of Panagia Myrtias, where the Abbot, who had prepared snacks and a reception for them, warmly welcomed them. Following this visit, the members drove down a mountainside and explored the thousands of years old ruin of the Temple of Thermios Apollo, a very sacred archaeological site of the Greeks. The participants were guided on a tour of the site, as well as the local museum, by the archaeologist Ms. Katerina Leontariti, whom they had met early on Friday. Ms. Rosa Florou introduced the group to the mayor of Thermo Mr. Spyros Konstandaras and the participants had coffee and sweets in the town square offered by the Mayor, before a lunch on the edge of the lake.
Monday 22 May 2017
The third session began with a pair of presenters, both from Virginia Tech, who offered anticipatory cameos of Christine Kenyon-Jones’s keynote focus on Byron and animals. First Professor Peter Graham spoke on “Byron, ‘Mazeppa’, and Horses.” Peter argued that wild and domestic horses are the true heroes and athletes in the last of Byron’s tales and that Byron’s acknowledgment of the essential kindred of horses and humans, especially on the battlefield where “all are fellows in their need,” shows that his ethic of compassion is humane but not anthropometric. Next Matthew Denton-Edmundson addressed “The Fire-Ringed Scorpion in Byron’s ‘The Giaour’.” Resourcefully blending close reading with attention to Byron’s naturalist sources, subsequent scientific discoveries, and personal experience (a weekend spent observing a scorpion called Matilda), Matthew assessed and contextualized Byron’s famous animal simile, a vivid figuration of the passionately self-destructive human propensity for remorse.
This was followed by a session in which Professor Jonathan Gross (DePaul University) explored “Nature’s Spirits and Freemasonry in Byron’s Manfred”. He focused on the third act of that drama, arguing that Masonic symbolism was more important to the play than had been previously acknowledged. Jake Spangler (DePaul University) argued in “This Visible World: Byron’s Avatar in Manfred” that Byron’s play and John Martin’s paintings present doubling images for their author in a complex form of self-projection that owes much to game theory as explored by Peter Otto in his book, Multiplying Worlds. He developed a novel theory of the avatar to explain the power of Byronic self-representation, comparing Byron’s Manfred with paintings inspired by it.
Following a coffee break, the fourth session began with Professor Roderick Beaton’s (King’s College London, UK) lecture entitled “From ‘Franguestan’ to Frankenstein: Modern Greece as Vampire in the Work of Byron and Mary Shelley”. Professor Beaton was unable to attend, but Christine Kenyon-Jones read his stimulating lecture tracing vampires in major works of Romantic legend, especially as drawn from Greek sources. Dr. Stephen Minta (York University, UK) in “Byron and the Politics of Landscape” showed the Greek landscape from another vantage point, noting how deeply imbued Byron’s poetry is with the historical resonance of the places he visited in Greece. No country better rewards a liberal arts education, Minta memorably argued, than Greece: “But where the majority of poets favoured a relatively simple relationship, based on nostalgia and regret that Greece was no longer what it had once been, Byron, while drawing full emotional power from the same theme, developed a much more complex attitude towards the contemporary Greece that he came to know well.”
Professor Minta’s paper was followed by in “Scenes sublime”: Viewing Nature through Byronic Windows.” In this essay, Professor John S. Gatton (Bellarmine University) argued, “Byron’s dramatic monologue The Prisoner of Chillon: A Fable and his historical tragedies Sardanapalus and The Two Foscari play out in dungeons and great halls, closed spaces fraught with violence, corruption, intrigue, and death. Into these oppressive atmospheres, characters welcome nature by looking out windows and describing and reflecting on “scenes sublime,” picturesquely framed by architecture.”
Finally, Deirdre Mikolajcik (University of Kentucky) examined the relationship between Lord Byron and Elizabeth Barrett Browning through their representations and gendering of Italy. Her essay, “’A Ruin Amidst Ruins’: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Reframing of Lord Byron’s Italy, considered the importance of cosmopolitanism, gender, and nature in Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV (1818) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s verse novel Aurora Leigh (1857), focusing on the way the language of the later poem and the portrayal of Italian spaces and nature echoes the language of the earlier poem.
A lunch followed this panel in which many of the participants further explored the town and ate at their leisure. As night fell, the scholars returned to the Hotel Theoxenia where there was an Official Ceremony for the conference and a traditional Greek Gala. Professor Peter Graham and the President of the Messolonghi Byron Society, Rodanthi-Rosa Florou, introduced the ceremony. After acknowledging several members of the society and awarding them with artwork, two keynote talks were given. The first, by Dr. Christine Kenyon-Jones (King’s College London, UK) on “Byron’s Response to Animals” provided an illustrated lecture that explored Byron’s use of animal topics as a challenge to the established conventions of his own time. It demonstrated how Byron’s responses to animals were not just a personal preference or biographical idiosyncrasy, nor simply an instance of the growing sensibility and sentimentality about animals in this period, but a real political and ideological concern, reflected in many different ways in his writing and his life.
The other keynote lecture was given by Professor Andrew Hubbell (Susquehanna University, USA) on “In Quest of Cultural Ecology: A Romaunt and a Voyage’’. Hubbell argued that Lord Byron’s Pilgrimage to Greece and Alexander Von Humboldt’s Voyage to South America are part of the same discursive field that established social geography and the modern ecological study of human society. He compared the way both poet and scientist developed an environmental understanding of the places they visited by similar methods of empirical research, sympathetic immersion in place, and scholarship. They both represented their research findings in a similar way: with non-fictional prose and allegorical art–Humboldt’s “Tableau Physique” and Byron’s “Childe Harold”–that was designed to work dialogically. The evening ended with traditional Greek dancing and food at the Gala, which went late into the night.
Tuesday 23 May 2017
The final and fifth sessions took place in the Conference Room of Theoxenia Hotel and were presided over by Professor Stephen Minta. Sarah Pavey (St. Thomas University, USA) spoke on ‘’The Nature of Disability: Ableism and the Byronic Hero’’. She argued that Lord Byron’s unfinished play The Deformed Transformed portrays a disabled protagonist. “The narcissism in the character of Arnold is imbricated with cultural ableism from which Byron himself suffered during his lifetime. Byron uses disability as character motivation and internal psychological conflict, which leads to narcissism and further unhappiness. Arnold embodies Byron’s ableist feelings about his own disabilities.”
Next was Elisa Cozzi (York University, UK). In a paper entitled “`In darkness found a dwelling place’: The Prisoner of Chillon and Byron’s turn away from Nature,” Elisa focused on the third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, interweaving responses from Wordsworth and Walter Scott on the topos of the Prisoner of Chillon. She related the word ecology to the Greek word “oikos”, meaning “home”, “environment”, “dwelling place,” arguing with James McCusick’s Green Writing, that Byron reverses Wordsworth and Coleridge’s “conception of embeddedness and transcendent communion with the natural world … to heighten the prisoner’s consciousness of his deep solitude.”
Finally, Samantha Crain (University of Minnesota, USA) spoke on “Prisons, Nature, and The Prisoner of Chillon” She discussed how “individuals’ responses to nature are perverted by incarceration, ultimately leading to a kind of perversion of the natural order. The Prisoner of Chillon begins with the prisoner finding consolation in nature but… [the hero] ends by pining for his prison where he has learned to identify with lower-order animals including mice and spiders. In stanzas 148 to 151 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Canto IV, an incarcerated young woman breastfeeds her father in a scene whose emphasis on her “freshness” and equation of milk with blood heightens the fundamental tension of a child nursing her parent by employing vampiric imagery. Yet far from condemning father or daughter, the narrator heartily approves it.”
Following the end of the final papers and a brief question-and-answer period, the conference goers spent the later part of the day on a visit to the salt works and to the Chapel of Panayia Finikias, the island chapel dedicated to the Virgin of the Palms, the same chapel that Byron rode to at sunset from Messolonghi and where he fell ill under the heavy rain on 10 April 1824. From the chapel, a bus took the participants high up into the mountains overlooking the Messolonghi lagoon to the ancient ruins of the city of Plevron, named after the mythical hero Plevron. Here, under the guidance of Ms. Katerina Leontariti, the participants were given a tour of the theater and ancient cistern that still stand to this day. Following a light lunch, the conference headed out for its final series of destinations. Starting with a visit to the island town of Aetoliko, participants were given a walking tour of the town visited twice by Byron in February 1824. They stopped at the Church of Archangels to pay homage to the well that Byron saw as well as visit the garden tomb of Kyra Vassiliki, the wife of Ali Pasha. Following the visit to the church, the scholars explored the Vasso Katraki museum situated at the eastern edge of Aetoliko, the home of over five hundred works of Vasso Katraki, a painter and activist. After the conclusion of the tour at the museum, the group headed back to Messolonghi, where they ate a lively dinner at the Archontiko restaurant in the heart of the city. As the evening wound down, the guests found themselves packing and saying light goodbyes.
Wednesday 24 May 2017
The 12th Annual Student Byron Conference came to its end on the morning of 24 May, when the participants of the conference each made their own way back to Athens and to their respective homes. Some members stayed on in Greece to explore and take in that enchanted land, and all looked forward to yet another conference in Greece in 2018, when they would hopefully cross on to those enchanted shores yet again.
Written by Jake Spangler