1st International Student Byron Conference

General Theme: “Byron and Greece”
May 11-18, 2002
Organized by the Messolonghi Byron Society
Messolonghi, Greece

The Research Center of the Messolonghi Byron Society held its first International Student Byron Conference May 11-19, 2002. Organized by Rodanthe-Rosa Florou with Byron Raizis and Peter Graham as academic advisors, the conference brought together seventeen students–a diverse group representing seven nationalities, eleven universities, and academic levels ranging from undergraduate to doctoral dissertator. The Messolonghi experience was part symposium, part pilgrimage, and part cultural event. It gave students a chance to exchange and develop their ideas on Byron, to discuss their work with established Byron scholars who also offered lectures, to deepen their personal and scholarly understanding of Byron’s life and work by visiting places known and loved by him, and to gain an understanding of the land and people of Greece. Along with the indefatigable and ever-gracious Messolonghi Byron Society, many people and institutions supported this venture, among them the District Governor of Aetolia and Arcanania, the mayor and deputy mayors of Messolonghi, the mayors of Aitoliko and Dodona, the Technological Educational Institution of Messolonghi, the University of Athens, and Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Participants in the conference found themselves media stars–a fate far commoner for Byron than for those studying him–as local, regional, and national papers and television channels covered various activities.

Saturday May 11 was a day of arrivals that involved organizational meetings involving the professors of the International Advisory Board who were then present (Byron Raizis, Drummond Bone, and Peter Graham), a dinner reception at the lagoon-front Theoxenia Hotel offered by the Messolonghi Byron Society, and, for those not overwhelmed by jetlag, a casual stroll culminating in a visit the nightspots of Messolonghi’s central historic district.

Sunday brought conference registration at the three-room suite of the Messolonghi Byron Research Center at 1 Eleftheriou Venizelou Street and a chance to see the center, which in its eight-months’ existence has grown to include a library, an administrative office, and a technology room in which the center’s holdings are being catalogued online. A walking tour then allowed the participants to visit the Cathedral of Agios Spyridon as Byron did, to see a special exhibition of original engravings of the Greek War of Independence at the the Christos and Sofia Moscandreou Modern Art Gallery, and to visit the house of the Greek national poet Kostis Palamas, still furnished as it was in the poet’s day. Following lunch, the group boarded a coach and traveled to the historic village of Katochi in the municipality of Oiniades. First stop: the ancient theatre of Oinades (carved into its sheltering hillside, not built) and its Homeric-era port. Next, a visit to the workshop of Mr. Nikos Plakidas, maker of beautiful and authentic ethnic costumes. During this visit three lucky students (Kristina Stankeviciute, Linda Neiberg, and Evan Gurney) were dressed in Greek finery Byron himself would have envied. A walk along the Acheloos River led to a waterfront restaurant, where Mr. Gerassimos Nestoratos, the Mayor of Oiniades, offered a dinner featuring musical entertainment by the Plucked Orchestra, a string ensemble of young people directed by Mr. Spyros Holevas.

Papers began Monday May 13, when Dr. Theodoros Veltsistas, President of the Technological Educational Institution of Messolonghi, welcomed the group to campus, where he graciously provided classroom space and free lunches. Steven M. Lane of the University of British Columbia and Malaspina University College, inaugurated the formal academic portion of the conference with an astute examination of place in Wordsworth’s and Byron’s poetry. Likening Wordsworth’s sense of place to a police map and Byron’s sense of place to a hypertext, Steven’s talk set a precedent for perceptive interpretation upheld throughout the rest of the papers. Peter Allender of the University of Bristol then offered a cogently argued and admirably detailed comparative study of Hazlitt’s and Byron’s responses to the political transformation of post-Napoleonic Europe. Cheryl A. Wilson of the University of Delaware followed in a similarly comparative vein, carefully contrasting the Greek origins of Byron’s and Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s of poetic identities. While Byron found his poet-rebel persona in the Greek wars of independence, argued Cheryl, Landon located a female poetic identity in the classical figures of Sappho and Erinna. The session’s chair Professor Peter Myrian, President of the University of Indianapolis-Athens, capped the first series of presentations with a probing consideration of Byron’s influence on the Greek poet George Drosinis. Myrian’s talk culminated in a close examination of Drosinis’ poem “The Death of the Swan”.

After a break for lunch and perhaps a swim for the speedy, the second session opened with Yioshie Kimura of Liverpool University, who thoroughly examined Byron’s metaphor of rape in “The Curse of Minerva” and its relation to Byron’s personal outrage concerning the Elgin Marbles. Kao (Pamela) She-ru of the University of Bristol surveyed Byron’s use of figures from his personal history, including Ali Pasha, in his formulation of such literary figures as Lambro and Don Juan and argued that Byron’s reworking the character of Ali Pasha in these literary characters reveals an ambivalent, even Oedipal, attitude. Kristina Stankviciute of Vilnius University then offered the theories of Michel Foucault as a lens through which to understand the character and sexuality of Don Juan. The chair, Professor Jonathan Gross of DePaul University, closed the second session with a improvisational talk touching upon a range of topics, from the anatomizing of body parts in Byron’s life and poetry to Thomas Jefferson’s intriguingly Byronic spirit. Dinner at the T. E. I. or in town and a free evening concluded the day.

A tour of picturesque sites around Messolonghi, some of them with particular Byronic associations, began the activities of Tuesday May 14. The group proceeded by coach along the lagoon causeway to Tourlida in the Gulf of Patras, then up the slopes of Mount Arakinthos to visit the 18th-century monastery of St. Simeon. Back in the lowlands, the group visited the island chapel of Panayia Finikias (the Virgin of the Palms). This little church, once the goal of Byron’s habitual equestrian excursions from Messolonghi, is today a beautiful site with melancholy associations of his “last ride.” Another ascent of Arakinthos followed: this time to the sublimely situated ruins of ancient Pleuron overlooking Messolonghi and the lagoon–a city with vestiges dating back to Neolithic times. Gazing out toward the Ionian Sea from the theatre’s stone seats, the group enjoyed Byronic readings and recitations offered by Cheryl Wilson, Gerry Lake, and Robert McColl.

Lunch at the T.E.I. preceded the third round of papers, held in downtown Messolonghi at the beautiful Diexodos Center of Art and Culture, a restored stone building containing a distinguished collection of contemporary art. The Diexodos Center was kindly offered for conference use by its president, Mr. Nikos Kordosis. Professor M. Byron Raizis of the University of Athens took the chair, and Stella Osborne of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State Universtiy led off with a highly useful bibliographic overview of contemporary reactions to Byron’s death. The published accounts Stella surveyed reveal that despite his checkered reputation during the last years of his life, Byron was overwhelmingly viewed as a Greek national hero when he died in 1824. Shannon Siggerman of the University of Delaware followed with an exploration of Byron’s largely unsung role as translator. Robert McColl of Liverpool then spoke on the subtleties of Byron’s poetic sense of place and space, a topic particularly well suited for exploration in Messolonghi and its environs. Closing the session, Greek author Loula Alexandropoulou, retired principal of Messolonghi High School, offered an informative and evocative slide lecture recounting the historical details of Byron’s arrival in Messolonghi. Afterwards, the coach departed for “the Venice of Greece”, Aitoliko–an island town visited by Byron. Exploring the twisty warren of narrow lanes offered glimpses of picturesque cottages and gardens and a chance to view the lovely and simple church of St. George with its walled rose garden. Then came a tour of the cathedral dedicated to the Panayia, known for its icon of the Holy Mother said to be painted by St. Luke and for the spring of fresh water that appeared after a Turkish bomb exploded there during the Revolutionary War. Concluding the evening was a dinner reception at which the group was welcomed by Mr. Evangelos Koltisdas, Mayor of Aitoliko, and entertained by the Cultural Society of Aitoliko, whose members (among them Rodanthe-Rosa Florou) dances to old mainland and island songs that sirenlike drew many conference participants onto the dance floor.

Wednesday May 15 offered a chance to juxtapose some of the many successive layers of Greek civilization on a coach tour that covered ground explored by Byron and Hobhouse during their time in western Greece. Climbing through mountain roads past the famed Bridge of Arta and the Ambracian Gulf, the group arrived at ancient Dodona, whose theatre Byron had admired en route to Ioannina without knowing its identity. After visiting the ruins and and the oracular oak sacred first to the Great Goddess of pre-Olympian times and subsequently to Zeus, the group enjoyed lunch on a terrace with sweeping prospects of Mount Tomaros. This hospitality was offered by Mr. Giorgos Papadiamandis, mayor of Dodona. Like Byron and Hobhouse, the group descended from the heights to the lakefront city of Ioannina. A short caique trip on the lake led to the island that served as Ali Pacha’s refuge during the last hours of his life. Here the group toured the house that was his final stronghold. Back on the mainland, there was time to explore the ruins of the castle before proceeding to the Xenia Hotel for a reception provided by Mr. Anastassios Papastavros, Ioannina’s mayor.

Academics dominated Thursday May 16. In the morning session at the T.E.I., Eleni Kalyva from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki opened with an exploration of Byron’s “Darkness” in relation to notions of entropy-a topic that engendered lively discussion. Peter Stein of DePaul University then offering a lucid close reading of Byron’s “On this Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year.” Evan Gurney of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill complemented Peter’s talk with a penetrating examination of the dichotomy of public duty and private feelings shown in “On this Day” and Byron’s other two last lyrics, the three poems he wrote in Messolonghi. Reverting to the theoretical emphasis that opened the session, Linda Neiberg of the City University of New York offered the ideas of Georges Bataille as a fresh way of understanding violence and death in Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Professor M. Byron Raizis, session chair, concluded the morning by carefully examining the influences of Byron and Shelley on the later writings of Greek poet Dionysios Solomos.

After a break that meant lunch for some, a swim for others, and naps for those miscreants who had expended precious nocturnal hours imbibing the Grecian nightlife, the final session of papers was held at the Diexodos Center, where English majors and faculty from Aristotle University joined the group. Professor Peter Graham of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University chaired the session, which was begun by Maria Schoina of Aristotle University, who considered Byron’s complex Anglo-Italian identity. Drawing upon various critical approaches, Maria contended that Byron saw identity as an active process of identification and detachment. Michael Edson of Virginia Tech followed by urging a reevaluation of Byron’s late satire The Age of Bronze. The poem’s biographical circumstances of composition and its preoccupation with the Greek insurgency suggest that it merits designation as a philhellenic poem. Next, Gerry Lake of Virginia Tech vigorously spoke about Byron’s personal embodiment of his freedom-seeking heroes’ values in joining the Greek struggle for independence. Given the theme of the conference, Gerry’s talk honoring this last phase of Byron’s life–the “last canto,” as Gerry phrased it–was an especially fitting way to conclude the student papers. Peter Graham then closed by exploring the various ways Byron served as mask, muse, and model for three women poets: Elizabeth Barrett, Anne Isabella Milbanke, and Lady Caroline Lamb. At the conclusion of this session, the group strolled through Messolonghi streets backlit by a particularly fine sunset to a terrace garden reception offered by Mr. Nikos Kordosis. The evening concluded with a restaurant dinner generously offered by the T.E.D.K. and its president Mr. Thymios Sokos.

English majors and faculty from Athens University joined the group on Friday May 17, which began with a televised wreath-laying ceremony at Byron’s statue in the Garden of Heroes and a tour of the memorial garden enclosed by the defensive walls that sheltered the town from Turkish invasion. After placing flowers at Byron’s marble feet and visiting the monuments to Philhellenes of various nationalities, the conference participants toured the Municipal Museum of History and Art, with its collection of art, artifacts, and sacred objects associated with the town, the Greek Revolution, and Byron. Mr. Kostas Repassos, Mayor of Messolonghi, welcomed the group and presented the town’s medal to Professors Jerome McGann, Byron Raizis, and Peter Graham-an honor bestowed on Drummond Bone earlier in the week. The tour of Byronic sites continued to site land where Byron’s Messolonghi house stood until 1826, its place now marked by a memorial column erected by the University of Athens to honor the centennial of Byron’s death. The group also visited the waterfront Byron House, a handsome stone building recently built to resemble the Messolonghi house where Byron had breathed his last. A lunch provided by Mr. Dimitris Stamatis, Governor of Aetolia and Acarnania, followed.

Later in the afternoon came the scholarly high point of the conference, the public keynote lecture at Messolonghi’s Trikoupis Municipal Cultural Center. After preliminary remarks by Mrs. Rodanthe-Rosa Florou, Peter Graham read a letter of welcome sent to the conference participants by the Earl of Lytton, Honorary President of the Messolonghi Byron Society’s Research Center. Next came the keynote lecture by Jerome J. McGann, the John Stewart Bryan University Professor of English at the University of Virginia, who was introduced by Byron Raizis. Speaking on “Romantic Scholarship and Culture, 1961-2001: A Byronic View,” McGann brilliantly blended personal narrative and professional anecdote, intellectual history and literary allusion as he traced the developments of Byron scholarship, an enterprise in which he has been crucially involved, through the last four decades. Following the lecture, Messolonghi’s Philocallitechnicus Society of choral singers presented a concert of vocal selections that included Byron lyrics set to music by Mr. Christos Vlachogiannis. A dinner reception offered by the mayor of Messolonghi followed at the Theoxenia Hotel: food, drink, song, and dance.

Saturday May 18 began with a short concluding session at which the International Advisory Board and the student delegates discussed their experiences at the conference and laid plans for future events. Free time occupied most of the day, which concluded with a lagoon sunset, the farewell dinner Mr. Sokrates Koufos, president of the Commercial and Industrial Society of Messolonghi, graciously sponsored at a Tourlida fish taverna and, for many of the participants, a final excursion to Messolonghi’s nightspots. On Sunday May 19, the participants in the Messolonghi Byron Research Center’s first student conference dispersed into the wider world. They left enriched with new friendships, keener appreciation for Byron’s works and the scholarship surrounding them, and deep gratitude for the warmth, kindness, and overwhelming hospitality of the Greek people.

(written by Dr. Peter Graham and Mr. Michael Edson)