8th International Student Byron Conference Proceedings
The 8th International Student Byron Conference took place in Messolonghi from 27-31 May 2013. The conference, which was hosted by the Messolonghi Byron Society, brought together undergraduate students, graduate students, and professors from Lebanon, the United States of America, England, Greece, and Canada. The conference theme was “Byron’s Years of Fame”.
Participants arrived in Messolonghi on Monday 27 May and registered at the Messolonghi Byron Society’s International Research Center for Lord Byron & Philhellenism. Participants were also treated to a tour of the Center’s extensive Byron collection. Afterwards, attendees visited the Municipal Museum for a welcome ceremony with the Mayor of Messolonghi, Mr. Panayiotis Katsoulis, and for a guided tour of the museum’s paintings and artifacts. The day ended with a dinner at Archontiko restaurant, where the conference attendees had the opportunity to learn more about each other.
On 28 May, the academic program officially began at the Messolonghi Byron Society’s International Research Center for Lord Byron & Philhellenism. We had a warm welcome by its President Mrs. Rodanthi-Rosa Florou, the joint President of the International Byron Society Professor Naji Oueijan, and the Director of the International Relations Professor Peter Graham. Session One, which was chaired by Peter Myrian, began with a paper by Naji Oueijan entitled “Byron’s Audience and the East.” In his presentation, Oueijandiscussed Byron’s so-called “years of fame” (1812-16) and how the poet, unprecedentedly, managed to become instantly famous in 1812. Oueijan, who focused predominantly on Byron’s “Oriental Tales,” argued that Byron’s “cognitive sensibility” to reality—that is, how one observes reality to see beyond the veil—made him different from all the other Romantics and contributed to his immense fame. According to Oueijan, Byron immersed himself in Oriental culture when in the East. For this reason, Oueijan sets the poet apart from other authors who wrote about the East: Byron was not a detached exoticizer of the East like many of his contemporaries, suggests Oueijan, but instead an active participant in Eastern culture. In concluding, Oueijan argued that Byron’s Eastern works became so popular because they offered readers a “myth-like dream” or “an escape” from reality, even if the poet himself never quite envisioned the East in this way.
In “Lord Byron and Greek Mythology,” the second paper of Session One, Stephanie Baroud argued that Ancient Greek mythology influenced both Byron’s poetry and personal life. According to Baroud, Byron embodied Greek mythology in his life by modeling the Greek myths that he knew. In her paper, Baroud compared Byron and Annabella Milbanke’s marriage to that of Persephone and Hades (Byron called his new-wife Persephone on their first night together); suggested that Byron swam the Hellespont in order to emulate Leander (although, Byron writes that “I swam for glory, not for love,” setting him apart from the ancient hero); and argued that Byron saw himself, as an aristocratic friend of the people, as a kind of Prometheus. This latter role was particularly evident when Byron traveled to Greece in 1823-24 to help the Greeks in their War of Independence. Concluding her presentation, Baroud proposed that Byron’s embodiment of Greek mythology represents the great goals he set out for himself as both poet and person.
Session Two, also on 28 May and chaired by Naji Oueijan, featured three papers. In the first, entitled “Eastern Superstition in Byron’s The Giaour,” Myriam Iliovits examined Byron’s engagement with Oriental superstition, including the Evil Eye, talismans, and “super beings.” According to Iliovits, Byron would have learned about Oriental superstition both through his own readings (she provided William Beckford’s Vathek as an example) and his experiences in the East (which his travelling companion John Cam Hobhouse details in his own writing). Iliovits concluded that Byron’s blend of scholarly knowledge and personal experience, and the fact that he did not belittle Eastern practices, made his writing about Oriental superstition unique and contributed to his Eastern writings’ popularity.
In “Byron and Beauty: His Eastern Female Characters,” the session’s second paper, Rita Bou Khalil examined Byron’s fascination with Eastern women. According to Bou Khalil, Byron’s writing, like Lady Mary Montague’s before it, challenged the popular notion in Western writing that Eastern women are passive. Bou Khalil argued that, for Byron, Eastern female beauty was not restricted to their physical characteristics, but also to their mental and spiritual attributes. As examples, Bou Khalil discussed Leila in The Giaour, Zuleika in The Bride of Abydos, and Medora in The Corsair. Bou Khalil concluded her paper by suggesting that Byron’s Eastern heroines were often more robust characters than their Western counterparts and that Byron believed Eastern women possessed character traits that Western women lacked.
In the session’s (and the day’s) final paper—“Lord Byron’s Eastern Byronic Hero”—Lara El Mekkawi analyzed the poet’s Byronic heroes. Mekkawi began her paper by suggesting that Peter Thorslev’sclassic definition of the Byronic hero was too limited and went on to argue that the hero changes based on the culture that is being observed by the poet. As examples, El Mekkawi referenced the Giaour (The Giaour) and Selim (The Bride of Abydos).The characters’ Eastern backgrounds, El Mekkawi asserted, affected Byron’s rendering of them, making for a different brand of Byronic hero than that described by Thorslev. El Mekkawi made this distinction clear by comparing the Giaour to Manfred (the quintessential Byronic hero): although both characters are guilt-ridden and seek redemption, Manfred is more philosophical and meditative while the Giaour is instead more emotional and passionate. El Mekkawi concluded her paper by suggesting that Byron’s Eastern heroes deserve as much consideration as their Western counterparts as they reveal how the poet adapted his characterizations based on the different settings and cultures about which he was writing. At lunch time we enjoyed a lovely fish meal at the pedestrian road of the historic centre, offered by the owner of the sea food restaurant, “Dimitroukas’’.
On the morning of 29 May, the third day of the conference, attendees travelled to the site of the home where Byron died on 19 April 1824 and participated in a wreath-laying ceremony. After the ceremony, participants spent the afternoon visiting the Cathedral of Agios Spyridon (which Byron had visited), the Garden of Heroes (a memorial garden with many monuments commemorating those who fought in the Greek War of Independence), the site of Ancient Plevron (named after the mythical hero Plevron), the Chapel of Panayia Finikias (the Chapel to the Virgin of the Palms where Byron used to ride from Messolonghi and where he became ill under the heavy rain on 10 April 1824), and to the site of the Roman Baths in the village of Agios Thomas. In the evening, the group visited the village of Katochi (where some of the students dressed in traditional Greek garb at ‘’Nikos Plakidas ‘’traditional costume shop) and the historic Aitoliko visited by Byron (where attendees were treated to music by the community’s singing group).
The fourth day of the conference on 30 May began with Peter W. Graham’s Keynote Lecture, entitled “Childe Harold and Fitzwilliam Darcy, or A Tale of Two 200-Year-Old Heroes.” After being introduced by chair M. Byron Raizis, Graham went on to discuss the intertextual conversation between Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Although Byron’s poem was philosophical and cosmopolitan and Austen’s novel was local and empirical, both works managed to intrigue pre-Waterloo British audiences. According to Graham, the two works embodied the light and dark sides of the spirit of the age, most notably in their male heroes, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Childe Harold. Although both characters would have appealed to the female liberal class, Graham distinguished Darcy from Harold by suggesting that the former features in “a novel of home” and the latter in “a poem of away.”However, Graham suggested that, while Darcy is far from transgressive, he is comparable to Harold in that his consciousness too “awakens” over the course of Austen’s novel (although not “to woe,” as does Harold’s) and that he serves to spur the fantasy of domesticating the rebellious Byronic hero. To conclude his paper, Graham looked beyond 1812-13 when the two works were published and to their persistence in today’s culture. Graham noted that the Byronic hero has remained a famous type over the last two hundred years (seen in such varying characters from Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff to Don Draper from TV’s Mad Men) and that Darcy has, in recent renderings, been “darkened” to correspond more with the Byronic hero type (as in Joe Wright’s 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice).
Session Three, chaired by Stephen Minta, featured two papers. In the first—“Holding the Mirror to the ‘Spirit of the Age’: Byron, his Hero, and Celebrity Culture”—Elli Karampela argued that the “Byron phenomenon” of the early nineteenth century was due to the socio-political matrix of the period. Although Byron’s age was marked by a deep conservatism, there was an equal drive for change; claimed Karampela. Focusing specifically on the figure of the Byronic hero, Karampela proposed that this character-type was so popular because his political and social freedom appealed to Byron’s readers and their own feelings of individuality. However, although the Byronic hero was an independent being, he was simultaneously enslaved by his despondency, making him a kind of’’ mirror” for his own age. In the second half of her paper, Karampela postulated that an active reader was required to understand how Byronic heroes like Childe Harold and the Giaour functioned in the poet’s works and concluded that these heroes become active agents in their own fates who invited readers to reflect on their own selves as individuals living in early nineteenth-century Britain.
In “Byron’s Allegra and the Shelleys: The Eagle and the Snake Wreathed in Scandal,” the session’s second paper, Argyros Protopapas examined the short life of Clara Allegra Byron (Allegra),the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont. In his paper, Protopapas focused on Allegra’s three main appearances in Shelley’s Julian and Maddalo and suggested that an examination of her presence in this poem, and of her life in general, can help flesh out the biographical details of Byron’s, Clairmont’s, and the Shelleys’ lives. For example, Protopapas suggested that Byron and Shelley’s disagreement over Allegra’s care became a pretext for the two poets to insult one another and that her life, therefore, reflects the reality of Shelley’s relationship with Byron. Protopapas finished his paper by comparing Allegra in Julian and Maddalo to Ianthe in Queen Mab: while Shelley used the latter as a tool through which to express his revolutionary thoughts and philosophical principles, the poet used Allegra, argued Protopapas, in order to draw courage from the young girl at a time when he was most miserable in his life, having recently suffered the loss of his own children and estrangement from his wife Mary.
Session Four, the final session, was chaired by Peter W. Graham. In the first paper, “Byron’s Political Pronouns: Parliamentary Debates and Manfred,” Andrew Van Horn considered Byron’s political career, and in particular his parliamentary speeches. Van Horn focused specifically on Byron’s use of second person pronouns in his speeches—you, your, thee—and deemed his politics one of “benevolent alienation.” Byron’s pronoun use in his parliamentary speeches (on Catholic emancipation, on the Frame Breakers Bill), suggested Van Horn, was often inflammatory and therefore not effective in helping to change policy. However, Byron used second person pronouns to greater effect, argued Van Horn, in his later poetry; namely, in Manfred. Van Horn noted that, while Byron introduces Manfred’s concerns with humanity using similar strategies that he did to introduce his grievances in his parliamentary speeches, his second person pronoun use in Manfred is instead used to express positive feelings; for example, the Abbot uses second person pronouns in the poem to express sympathy for a clearly conflicted Manfred. Van Horn concluded his paper by suggesting that, although Byron’s politics were shaped by his time in parliament, the way he alters his use of second person pronouns in his poetry reveals that the poet became more mature in his politics once his political career was over.
In the session’s second paper, “Childe Harold as Imperial Agent: Felicia Hemans’s Literary Engagement with Byron in Modern Greece,” Alex Grammatikos examined Felicia Hemans’s intertextual relationship with Byron. Specifically, Grammatikos argued that Hemans’s Modern Greeceserved as a defence of Lord Elgin in light of Byron’s chastisement of him in Canto II of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimagefor his plunder of the Parthenon Marbles. Grammatikos contended that Hemans supported Elgin in his mission because she believed the British to be the the true cultural ancestors of the Ancient Greeks, a position she supports in the poem by making her main character –“the wanderer”, a Byron-like figure—more knowledgeable about the ancient past than are the Modern Greeks. Grammatikos concluded his paper by suggesting that Hemans’s response to and revision of Byron’s poem can help inform Romantic Hellenism today as the poem forces scholars to think about such questions as how culturally akin nineteenth-century Europeans felt to the Ancient Greeks, how Greek nationalism was constructed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and how committed Byron was to Greek independence.
The final paper of the session, and of the conference, was Stephen Minta’s “Byron and Memory.” In his paper, Minta discussed the function of nostalgia in Byron’s oeuvre. Although nostalgia is traditionally interpreted as being inherently sentimental, apolitical, and reactionary, Minta suggested that recent scholarship has sought to redeem it from such criticism. Minta’s main focus was on Byron’s relationship with Greece, a popular source of nostalgia for Westerners who see in the country the historical childhood of humanity. Minta argued that, while Byron promoted the idea that his engagement with Greece was different from that of his contemporaries as he focused on place and the present, the opening of Canto II of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is a classic nostalgic account in which the present is devoid of significance without reference to the past. However, Minta proposed that Byron’s report of Greece differed from that of other travel writers’ in that he translated his nostalgia for the past into love for present-day Greece as a physical space; nostalgia for a past landscape opened up for Byron a political reading of the present landscape. Minta concluded his paper by looking at one element of Byron’s nostalgia: freedom. Minta suggested that freedom operated emotionally and culturally for Byron like another Eden—that is, as a place to which humanity cannot fully return but for which it always strives nonetheless. Discussing the trimmer-poet in Canto III of Don Juan, Minta argued that, by putting his most powerfully nostalgic words about freedom into the mouth of an unworthy poet, Byron meant to demonstrate the unstoppable appeal of nostalgia. Minta ended by asserting that, as readers examine Byron’s attitudes toward nostalgia, they can see it as being both constructive (in that it serves as a source for creativity) and limiting (in that it presents a challenge for how to move on).
In the evening of 30 May conference participants were treated to a farewell dinner at Theoxenia Hotel, with a variety of foods prepared by the members of the Messolonghi Byron Society, who also attended the dinner. A ceremony was held to honour the organizers of the Student Byron Conferences. Naji Oueijan, Joint President of the International Byron Society, presented awards to Peter W. Graham, Rodanthi-Rosa Florou, and M. Byron Raizis for their contribution to advancing junior Byron scholarship. After the ceremony, dinner guests watched the dance group of “The Cultural Centre of the Municipality of Messolonghi” perform Greek traditional dances. The night ended with dinner guests themselves dancing and teaching newcomers to Greek traditional dance how it was done.
On Friday 31 May, conference attendees went on an excursion to Zitsa, where they saw the Theogefyro (“God’s Bridge”), Kalamas River (which inspired Byron to write his famous stanza on Zitsa in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage), and the Monastery of Prophet Elias (where Byron and Hobhouse stayed in October 1809). The group was also offered a feast of local delicacies (including Zitsa’s famous wine) by the “Politistikos Syllogos of Zitsa,” After Zitsa, conference participants made their way to Ioannina, the capital of Epirus in north-western Greece. The group visited the town’s medieval fortress, walked around the picturesque Lake Pamvotis, and ended their day by taking a boat ride to Kyra Frosini Island, where they had the opportunity to visit the Ali Pasha Museum (named after the despot Ali Pasha whom Byron and Hobhouse had met in Ioannina in 1809), which houses a number of fascinating artifacts such as revolutionary-era lithographs and Ali Pasha’s 1.62 meter long smoking pipe.
The conference, all attendees agreed, was an incredible success. After five days of academic papers, cultural outings, and local experiences, participants learned more about Byron’s life and work, as well as the dynamic and interesting scholarship their peers are conducting. Visiting the sites that Byron himself would have visited for the first time just over 200 years ago was a highly thrilling and educational experience for all involved. Special thanks must go to Mrs. Rodanthi-Rosa Florou, for organizing the conference, to Naji Oueijan, and Peter W. Graham for their valuable academic guidance and to the people of Messolonghi and Zitsa for their warm hospitality.
Department of English Language and Literature,
Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada