Report of the 35th IBS Conference

The 35th International Byron Conference
Messolonghi and Athens,

Greece 6-13 September, 2009
“Lord Byron and History”

—why turn my thoughts to thee?
Oh! who can look along thy native sea,
Nor dwell upon thy name, whate’er the tale,
So much its magic must o’er all prevail?
Who that beheld that Sun upon thee set,
Fair Athens! could thine evening face forget?
Not he—whose heart nor time nor distance frees,
Spell-bound within the clustering Cyclades!

Byron, The Corsair, canto III. 1223-30

The 35th Annual International Byron Conference took place in Messolonghi and Athens (with visits to Mycenae, Epidaurus and Nafplion) from September 6 to 13. Messolonghi, a town rightfully linked to Byron’s heritage, co-hosted along with the city of Athens 120 Byronists from 20 countries around the world, making this year’s conference a truly cosmopolitan and multicultural event. At the same time, the conference honored a significant Byronic bicentennial, namely, 200 years from the poet’s first journey to Greece, on 26 September 1809. This felicitous coincidence granted the conference a commemorative feel with delegates coming as pilgrims to the actual places where Byron lived, created, and “dream’d that Greece might still be free.”

On the evening of Sunday 6 September, conference delegates—among them Lord Byron and his family— made their way to the Central Building of Athens University, the impressive neoclassical building with the beautiful frescoes right in the heart of Athens, and to its Great Hall where the Official Opening Ceremony was held. There were welcome addresses by the Rector of Athens University, Professor Christos N. Kittas, the British Ambassador to Greece Dr. David Landsman, the Joint President of the IBS Professor M.B. Raizis, and the Chair of the Organizing Committee, Mrs Rodanthi-Rosa Florou. After the welcoming words and heartfelt wishes followed the central event of the evening: Professor Jerome McGann’s receipt of an honorary doctorate from the University of Athens, a moving ceremony for everyone present. Professor McGann’s address entitled “Byron Awakening and the Dream of Greece” reflected insightfully on Byron’s passion for Greece and on how this strong feeling marked his personal, poetic and political life from his first experience of Greece in 1809 to his last, fatal journey to Messolonghi in 1824. Inspired by the wonderful talk and by the ceremony’s warm and lively atmosphere, we were ushered to the adjacent patio and treated to a rich wine reception. In spite of the rainy spells, spirits were high and Byronists enjoyed their first evening in Athens meeting one another after a long time.

The second day in Athens offered especially interesting events and proved, by general consensus, one of the highlights of the conference. First came the Athenian session which took place in the Congress Hall of the Old Parliament Building, home to the country’s National Historical Museum. The group was offered the chance to peruse some of Byron’s memorabilia (his helmet, sword, writing desk and letters) which were moved in the Congress Hall for the purposes of this conference by courtesy of the Museum’s honorable general secretary, Mr Ioannis Mazarakis Ainian. Seated in the benches of this historic chamber, we were treated to a fascinating lecture by Dr. William St Clair on how the Acropolis of Athens was viewed and perceived in the age of Lord Byron. Drawing on a variety of historical sources and images—some never previously shown—St Clair argued for three genres of viewing the Acropolis at the time: the philosophical, the topographical and the aesthetic. He discussed the viewing experiences of three main constituencies of viewers, namely, the local people, visitors from abroad, and the writers, painters and engravers who fictionalized the landscape of Athens and, who, ultimately, made its meanings. St Clair’s excellent address was followed by a dramatic reading of Byron’s letters from his first journey to Greece (1809‒1811), an event organized and presented by the Division of Arts and Humanities and the Interdisciplinary Center for Hellenic Studies of the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. Patrick Judd delivered a beautiful portrayal of young Lord Byron—writing, meditating and soliloquizing by his escritoire—making us imagine the poet in the city of Athens 200 years ago.

Following the Athenian session at the National Historical Museum, the group traveled by coach to the new Acropolis Museum, which just opened in June of this year. The museum was closed to the public, but we were warmly welcomed by its President himself, Professor Dimitris Pantermalis, and we were offered a special guided tour of the wonderful collection. Flooded with natural light and designed in a spare, modern style, the museum offered us a chance to see the wonders of ancient Greek sculpture and design; many of us were struck afresh by the serene beauty of the statuary. Excavations visible below the flooring showed the remains of symposia of ages past, while the glorious top floor presented the Parthenon sculptures arranged opposite windows opening onto a view of the Acropolis itself. The visit certainly added weight to the Resolution circulating among IBS members to request the return of the British Museum Parthenon stones (the Elgin Marbles) to their rightful place in Athens. Following the tour, desultory groups pursued lunch and separate activities until the evening reception at Venizelos Mansion, the home of the British Ambassador Dr. David Landsman. In these elegant surroundings, we drank to the health of Byron and Greece beneath the famous Thomas Phillips portrait of Lord Byron in Albanian costume. The group enjoyed the gracious hospitality of the Ambassador; it was an excellent conclusion to the Athens portion of the conference.

On Tuesday 8 September, following breakfast, we boarded the coaches to take us to Messolonghi. Although we started off in cloudy weather, the sun soon came out bringing into focus the beauties of the countryside and the panoramic views of the Corinthian gulf. First came into view the famous Corinth Canal which divides the Peloponnese from the Greek Mainland. Delegates had the opportunity to marvel at it from close distance and even cross the Canal bridge on foot during a short break for coffee at a roadside café. The rest of our journey through the coastal zone revealed a beautiful and diverse nature amidst sun and sea: lovely beaches, pine forests, olive groves and hills. By way of the Harilaos Trikoupis suspension bridge we made our way back to the mainland, entered the county of Aitoloakarnania and got on the winding road to Messolonghi, looking up onto the surrounding craggy mountains and far inside the closed sea, the mesmerizing lagoon. The “Sacred City” welcomes its visitors with a telling scripture on its entrance walls: “Every free man is a citizen of Messolonghi”; this is a thought to treasure during and after one’s stay.

After a delicious lunch at Radiomegaro restaurant delegates were taken by coach to their hotels (Theoxenia and Liberty) for check-in. At 16.30 the group met at the Nomarchia’s Ktirio (Prefect’s Building), the conference venue, for the start of the academic programme. Delegates separated for parallel sessions which took place in two welcoming halls named after the two most famous Messolongian poets, Kostis Palamas and Georgios Drosinis. In the “Scandals” session, chaired by Peter Myrian, Richard Cronin (Glasgow) discussed Byron and Edmund Kean as the particular subjects of scandals in an era, after Waterloo, of increasing uncertainty about the relation of private and public lives. Timothy Webb (Bristol) offered a lively and insightful paper on Byron’s fascination with the power of gossip and rumour as a shaping force in his life and work. Finally, Julia Markus (Hofstra) presented a ground-breaking account Annabella’s friendship with Anna Jameson, who also was close to Ada Lovelace and Medora. Bringing Jameson forward allowed us to see Annabella with fresh, perhaps more sympathetic eyes, and cast new light on the Beecher Stowe affair as well. Ekaterini Douka-Kabitoglou (Aristotle, Thessaloniki) opened the session entitled “Change and Historicity” chaired by M.B. Raizis with an illuminating discussion of Byron as a philosopher, metaphysician and existentialist. The paper suggested that there are links between Byron’s existentialism and Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutics as a fundamental act for human existence. Next, Stephen Minta (York) presented a thought-provoking paper on the competing claims of consistency and change which inform Byron’s politics, paying particular attention to the poet’s two periods in Greece. The session closed Young-Ok An’s (St Thomas, Minnesota) very interesting paper on the historical and political ramifications of Manfred’s Prometheanism. Drawing on various theoretical sources, the speaker addressed the juncture between Manfred’s personal struggle and the political struggles occurring in the rising modern European state.

The two sessions that followed the short coffee break bore in their titles the theme of the conference: history. In “18th and 19th Century History”, Gavin Sourgen (Oxford) presented an admirable paper that explored Byron’s attitude towards Gibbon and the historiographic implications of his narratives of fallen empires. Ludmilla Kostova (Veliko Turnovo) also took up issues of historiography, examining Byron’s relationship to Scottish Enlightenment thinkers as they bear upon cultural translation. Finally, David Roessel (Stockton) offered an illuminating reading of Byron in relation to the philhellene historian George Finlay. The session on “Modern History” was opened by Maria Schoina (Aristotle, Thessaloniki) who argued that the Byronic scholarship produced in Greece in 1974 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the poet’s death was variously conditioned by the troubled political and literary climate instilled by the country’s military regime and the voices against it. The next two papers reflected insightfully on the Polish perception of Byron. Illustrating photographic and archival material, Maria Kalinowska (Nicolaus Copernicus) traced the legend of Byron in 19th-century Poland while Miroslava Modrzewska (Gdansk) stressed the importance of Byron’s heroic figure in the shaping of Poland’s patriotic and civic values using the example of the national strike in 1980. Later that evening, we were invited to a welcome reception alfresco offered by the Mayor of Messolonghi. Under a starry night sky we relaxed, conversed over the day and enjoyed the exquisite food and wine; finally we were greatly entertained by the local “Kalitechniko Ergastiri” folk group dancing to lively songs associated with all regions of Greece.

Wednesday began with a session of papers on Byron’s reception in other cultures, a popular topic with this year’s conference. M.B. Raizis read a powerful anecdotal paper by Nina Diakonova (St. Petersburg), who was unable to attend, on Tatiana Gnedich’s translation of Byron’s Don Juan produced during Gnedich’s imprisonment in the years of Stalin’s terror. Martin Leszczyński (Nicolaus Copernicus) then presented a well-researched paper on Byron’s changing place in Polish literary history of the 19th and 20th century. Leszczyński argued that the historical moment as well as the methodological approach and moral hierarchy of particular critics or writers determined the Polish perception of Byron. Finally, Vitana Kostadinova’s paper (Plovdiv) explored thoughtfully academic constructions of British Romanticism—and of Byron especially— in Bulgarian textbooks of Comparative Literature, assessing the role of myth and ideology in the production of literary history. In the parallel session entitled “Materiality,” Joan Blythe (Kentucky) offered a well-illustrated talk on Byron and gardens, as refracted through his view of Milton and the Eden of Paradise Lost. John Clubbe, a President of the International Byron Society, discussed Byron’s career as a collector: of souvenirs, animals, women, books—and particularly Napoleana. Last, Tony Howe (Birmingham) showed how Byron’s recurring interest in sculptural forms and ruins shaped the moral and historical import of his work.

One of the next sessions revolved around episodes of Byron’s personal history. Donald Prell (Byron Society of America) delivered a lively paper on the history of Brig Hercules, the vessel on which Byron sailed from Genoa to Cephalonia on his way to Greece in 1823. Argyros Protopapas (Athens) followed the theme of sailing on a different note, namely by focusing on the epistemology of Shelley’s tragic experience on the “ominous” boat, Ariel. Jack D’Amico (Canisius) spoke about the combination of Romantic idealism and ironic humour which informed Byron’s involvement in the Carbonari movement as revealed in his letters, journals and poems of that period. In the “Evidence” session, Peter Cochran (Liverpool) began with a lively paper on “Byron’s Cavalier Way with Evidence,” demonstrating the frequent liberties he took with regard to historical and personal fact when it suited his interest, poetic or otherwise. David Radcliffe and Peter Graham (Virginia Tech) followed up with a presentation of their exciting new digital project, “Lord Byron and His Times,” which offers a growing, searchable database of the lives of Byron and his wide circle of associates. Rania Chatsiou (Wales Swansea) finished the session with an illuminating, well-researched paper on Byron’s composition of notes to his poems, based on her work on manuscripts and proofs in the Murray Archive. After a break for lunch at Theoxenia Hotel, delegates reconvened for the afternoon sessions. In a session devoted to Don Juan, Elsa Meihuizen (Zululand) compared Byron’s Don Juan with two Afrikaans dramas of the 1960s based on the Don Juan legend. She was especially interested in how the two dramatic works satirized Afrikaner politics and society. Catherine Addison (Zululand) went on to give a paper on the history of the simile, comparing its function in Homer and in Don Juan. Using textual evidence, she demonstrated Byron’s bold experimentation with the trope. Aaron J. Ottinger (Washington) closed the session with an interesting paper that explored the notion of conversion and its function in Don Juan, exemplifying how the idea of change affects the shape of the poem and steers its direction. A simultaneous session on “Likeness” began with Madeleine Callaghan (Durham), who helpfully characterized Byron’s competition with Wordsworth as being based in Byron’s defense of tradition and history, and an attempt to control the direction of poetry. Robert McColl (Alfaisal) presented an analysis of the Seige of Ismail section of Don Juan, finding there (via Ricoeur) signs of Byron’s felt responsibility to history and the imperative of the “kept word.” Chris Bundock (Western Ontario) concluded the session with a reading of Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon as a novel shaped by historiographic concerns in the wake of the French Revolution.

After the necessary break for coffee and snacks we returned to the halls for the last two sessions of the day. Martin Procházka (Charles, Czech Republic) opened the session on “Supermen” chaired by Timothy Webb with a paper which connected Werner’s ethical problematics to the changing function of the stage. Specifically, he asserted that Werner is a play which responds to the dissolution of traditional ethics and of long-established representative functions of drama. Nic Panagopoulos (Athens) offered a nuanced comparative reading of the Byronic hero and of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, arguing that both literary personas are a commentary on the challenges of modernity, social change and ideas of progress. Finally, Innes Merabishvili (Tbilisi, Georgia) spoke eloquently on the significance of Byron’s allusions to mythological, biblical, literary and historical characters, asserting that his display of a gallery of “the great” in his writings is more than a rhetorical device, since Byron was inspired and guided by many of these figures. The session was followed by a lively discussion about Byron’s mental theatre and the challenges his plays pose to dramaturgy. A session on women writers, chaired by Alice Levine, was opened by Masae Kawatsu (Nagoya Keizai), who spoke on Byron’s debt to Sappho as both poet and historical-mythic figure of passionate love. Tilottama Rajan (Western Ontario) was unable to attend the conference, but her paper on Byron’s influence on Mary Shelley’s novel Falkner was read and well-received. Finally, Caroline Franklin (Wales Swansea) presented a provocative analysis of Byron’s impact on later 19th-century women writers such as George Eliot, who found in him a conflicted but nevertheless crucial inheritance.

The rest of the evening was particularly special as the group visited the Byron House, home to the Messolonghi Byron Society’s International Research Center for Lord Byron and Philhellenism. Housed in a beautiful reconstruction of the house Byron himself lived in while in Messolonghi, the Center evokes both the past and the future of Byron studies. From the top floor of the building, Byronists could look out across the lagoon to the mountains, while surrounded inside by books, prints, and other materials related to the study of Byron, housed in a room full of warm light and polished wood tables. A welcome was given by Rosa Florou, who encouraged all Byron scholars to make use of the Center and contribute back to it. When the visit was over, delegates were treated to a sumptuous dinner of fish at “Radiomegaro” offered by the Prefect of Aitoloakarnania. The day closed as Byronists broke into groups and either walked back to their hotels or wandered off into the city center.

On Thursday morning the papers delivered in Drosinis Hall offered very interesting readings of Byron’s relationship with the East and the Mediterranean. Naji Queijan (Notre Dame, Lebanon) gave a very fine paper on Byron’s representation of Eastern antique sites in his poetry. Professor Queijan asserted that Byron’s reconstruction of oriental history reflects a genuine interest in locating the self. Sona Seferian (Yerevan, Armenia) then offered an examination of 20th-century works which engage with Byron as a scholar and translator in the light of his knowledge of the Armenian language, history and literature. The session closed with an insightful paper on Byron’s anti-utopian images of Greece given by J.C.H. Potts (Cambridge). Using examples from the visual arts as well as from Byron’s philhellenic poetry, the paper argued that Byron’s portrayals of Greece rendered in images of eroticization, femininity and death complicated the poet’s political views about Greece. The simultaneous session, “Heaven and Hell”, chaired by Martin Procházka, began with a paper by Gale Bouchard (Mount Allison) on Cain, asking us to consider whether Byron achieved a prophetic stance in that poem. Piya Pal Lapinski (Bowling Green) gave an exciting paper on the demonic gaze as figured in Byron’s work, with connections to analogs including Gautier’s novella Jettatura. The session concluded with Alan Rawes (Manchester) offering a reconsideration of the importance of Calvinism for Byron’s thought and work, particularly in relation to ideas of freedom.

A session on aesthetics came right after the pause for coffee, and opened with a compelling paper on Byron and the aesthetics of history given by Michael O’Neill (Durham). Through close readings of poems, Professor O’Neill showed the ways in which Byron’s self-fashioning plays itself out in relation to constructions of history. Drawing on Foucault’s theoretical insights on history, Ivan Pregnolato’s (Nottingham) very fine paper investigated heterogeneous historiographical discourses in CHII: history as an antiquarian ethos and at the same time as a dynamic process in time. Finally, Steve Lane (Vancouver Island) utilized Bakhtin’s concepts of dialogism and heteroglossia to discuss Byron’s literary reputation and relationship with his audience; the paper convincingly showed how the latter developed as an ongoing conversation between the poet’s publications and the public responses to them. All three papers raised important issues about history and agency in the 19th century. In a session devoted to The Deformed Transformed, Marguerite Rousselot (French Byron Society) considered the play as a kind of philosophical fable or allegory of historical change. Reiko Yoshida (Ryukoku) focused on the figure of Richard III (in whom Byron was very interested) as a way of better understanding the characterization of Arnold in the play. Finally, Jonathan Gross (DePaul) gave an illuminating presentation on the role of race in Byron’s unfinished drama, focusing on the “blackness” of the stranger and the problem of judging by appearances. The ensuing discussions were energetically continued by delegates over another delicious lunch at Theoxenia Hotel.

The events of Thursday closed with three cultural visits. First we went to the Garden of the Heroes, a place where one can admire the busts and monuments of philhellenic heroes. In a prominent position is Byron’s statue, where we had a moving wreath-laying ceremony by the Earl of Lytton. Everyone’s emotions were stirred as our guide recounted in detail the history of the Exodus of Messolonghi. Then we boarded the coaches to visit Plevron, the ancient Homeric hillside town which offered a breathtaking view of the land of Messolonghi and the Ionian Sea. Delegates were given a tour of the archeological site and explored the area. As the sun set, we descended the hill and returned to the city for a visit to the Municipal Museum of History and Art-Municipal Gallery. We were guided through the rich selection of the Museum’s paintings, most of which are inspired by the Greek struggle and the Exodus. The room devoted to Byron was a spot of unique interest: we perused the poet’s letters and memorabilia, the numerous portraits and engravings. They all had a story to tell about Byron’s stays in Greece and beyond.

Friday 11 September began with a session on “Venice”: Mark Sandy’s paper (Durham) showed convincingly how the personal and the historical conflated in Byron’s poetic representations of Venice. Alice Levine (Hofstra) then spoke eloquently on the affinities between Verdi’s opera I due Foscari and Byron’s poem of 1821. Using audio excerpts from Verdi’s opera, Professor Levine illustrated the ways in which Verdi adapted Byron’s Venetian play to an opera piece. Carla Pomarè (Eastern Piedmont, Italy) followed the theme of Byron’s Venetian plays with an intriguing paper on the uses of historiography in Marino Faliero and The Two Foscari. She argued that Byron’s implementation of diverse and often contradictory accounts on the city’s history raises questions about the political implications of his playing the myth of Venice against the “anti-myth” of Venice. The stimulating discussion that followed revealed the numerous insights the three papers shared. In a parallel session on the representations of revolution, Halina Adams (Delaware) offered a fascinating analysis of Odaevaere’s painting “Lord Byron on his Death Bed,” showing how its visual rhetoric remade the poet from rake to icon. Daniele Sarrat (French Byron Society) gave a paper on the painter Alexandre Marie Colin, with a focus on his deep interest in both Byron and Greece. Suzanne Summerville (Alaska) closed the session with a musically-inflected presentation of a Greek war song composed by Ferdinand Reis (based on Byron’s translation of a text by Rhigas) and “Maid of Athens” as set to music by Irish Composer Henry R. Allen.

After a coffee break, sessions resumed in Drosinis Hall with a paper by Nicholas Meihuizen (Zululand) on Byron’s Mazeppa and its importance to the South African poet Roy Campbell as a model for thinking about history. Pamela Kao (National Taiwan University) presented a paper on the first Chinese translations of Byron’s poetry, done by Su Man-Shu in Tokyo in 1909, refashioning the Byron myth in a Chinese context. Anahit Bekaryan (National Academy of Sciences, Armenia) closed the session with a paper on the novels of Irving Wallace, who in the 1960s followed Byron’s footsteps to the Mekhitarist monastery and drew inspiration for his work there. The last session of the academic program chaired by John Clubbe began with an interesting and well-presented paper given by Anna Camilleri (Oxford) on Byron’s creative relationship with female figures. Using textual evidence, Camilleri argued that Byron’s heroines articulate an active model of female character which departs from contemporary models of womanhood. Next, Kathleen Ann O’Donnell-Kassimatis (British School, Athens) offered a review of mid- and late 19th century translations of Ossian’s and Byron’s poetry in South Eastern Balkans and examined the role of the Democratic Eastern Federation in the dissemination of Byron’s poetry. In the last paper of the session—and of the conference— appropriately entitled “Leaving Greece,” Andrew Stauffer (Virginia) brought to our attention the composition and publication history of Byron’s little-known lyric “When I left thy shores, O Naxos” which he examined in the context not only of Byron’s lyrics set to music but also of the poet’s relation to Greece. Peter Cochran’s affecting singing of Byron’s lyric was an ideal addition to Professor Stauffer’s engaging presentation.

After a superb lunch of fish in the cafeteria of the Higher Technological Educational Institute of Messolonghi, offered by its President Professor Vangelis-Politis Stergiou, delegates attended the Annual General Meeting of the International Byron Society. The meeting began with memorial tribute and minute of silence in honor of Maureen Crisp, the presiding spirit of many past international conferences, who passed away in July of 2008. This was followed by a spirited discussion on future directions and opportunities for the IBS. The farewell conference Gala, which was offered by the General Secretary of the region of West Greece, was held at Theoxenia Hotel. Excellent food and wine lifted the Byronists’ spirits, the most daring of whom joined in the Municipality’s Cultural Center folk group’s dancing. This was a particularly festive evening, and an appropriate finale to the Messolonghi portion of the conference.

On Saturday, delegates departed by coach for a day-long tour of Mycenae and Epidaurus. At Mycenae, we were thrilled to see the Tomb of Clytemnestra and the dark Treasury of Atreus, to pass through the spectacular Lion’s Gate, and wind our way up to the windy acropolis where once stood the palace of Agamemnon. At Epidaurus, we toured the ruins of the Asclepieion, the healing center of the Classical world, and lingered in the great amphitheater, where Peter Cochran delivered Shakespearian soliloquies from memory to great applause. Looking out across the mountains of Argos, we bid farewell to the Greek Byron Conference, which will long remain in our memories as one of the most successful of the many great international conferences held in recent years. Thanks most to the Chair of the Organizing Committee, Mrs. Rodanthi-Rosa Florou, and to Peter Graham, the Chair of the Academic Committee, for making the conference such a success.

Andrew Stauffer and Maria Schoina