A Time of Gifts The Byron Conference in Greece

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By 2017-09-23

Rajiva Wijesinha

I have included here my long report on the Byron Conference, which I had attended at the behest of Seelia Wickremesinghe, the dynamic Secretary of the Sri Lankan Byron Society. It had been founded by Sir Arthur Ranasinghe, who had chosen Seelia as his principal support. She was the widow of a fellow civil servant, the brilliant scholar Hugh Wickremesinghe. He had died young, and Seelia had not only seen their two children through university, but had involved herself heavily in cultural activity. She was related to us and in fact had stayed with Aunt Esme, as she called my grandmother, when my grandfather was Government Agent in Anuradhapura and Hugh his assistant. Seelia's father had been a Member of the Legislative Council for the area. Her daughter Shan, though she had married a fellow undergraduate at Cambridge, and now lives in Canada, still continues a close friend.

My report on the Byron Conference, the first international conference I attended, conveys I think the enthusiasm I have for such conferences since they bring people together, and also my doubts about their academic content or intellectual impact. I found both the style and the substance fascinating when I reread it after many years.

Corpus Christi College Oxford

8 September 1976

Hope this gets to you before you leave – I meant to write as I got back, but was too exhausted yesterday to do anything – even read Dickens. I moved in to a temporary room here where I shall be till the 21st – in London then till you arrive. Could you let me know soon how long you'll be here for and where you plan to stay, or should I arrange something? I suggest we don't come here till the 4th, as Corpus has a Gaudy over the weekend and requires rooms. I'm afraid they've allocated me a bed-sit – rather pleasantly situated but I'll miss the expansiveness of a set. Must see what can be done. I want to start entertaining again – do bring some duty–free – which means working in bed might be out for fear of untidiness!

The Byron Conference was enormous fun and I don't think I appeared too reprehensible. I shall send a full report. I stopped in Belgrade on the way and stayed with Walter J. and had tea before with Elmo Joseph and his wife who were extremely kind (the more admirable, as I must have looked exceedingly scruffy) and sent their regards. On the way back I dropped in in Milan on Tilaka Hitchcock's sister but they were out, so, I left behind a bottle of Greek wine. I'm getting as bad as you are. Due to various trains being late, my last day's journey was on an invalid ticket which had the merit of providing me with some sort of occupation in constructing an argument to justify it – despite which I was relieved at not being challenged. Met Gaji yesterday, who's back at work as well already – he'll be on a field trip till 6 October (and hopes you'll stay on till then) but will come down to meet Anila on the 24th. I shall write to Jean today to find out what the situation is re staying in London.

My shoe size is 8 and black and brown would be welcome. Trouser size 32 (I think length 34), dark colours (but not black). Blue, perhaps, and grey. Also, if (and only if) the sports coat I hacked last summer has not been used meanwhile and is expendable, could I have it? I think my present one requires to be pensioned off – more particularly after a month on trains during which it often served as a pillow.

The renal colic at the Chalet turned out to be a bad case of piles and had to be helped back up again. I felt very saintly, especially as my attempt to hand over the responsibility to Leslie was refused by the patient on the grounds that he'd only laugh. I drew back, however, at the application of the ointments – which was left to an eminent QC, Chairman of the Monopolies Commission and Fellow of All Souls – I'm sure there's a moral there.

Report on the Byron Seminar

Greece 28 August to 4 September 1976

Central Square of Missolonghi was packed with people when I arrived there, late on the night of the 30th of August. For a moment I thought I was late, and that the Seminar had begun. Not at all – this was merely the after effects of the inauguration of a 'Greek Festival of Poetry' which was run in harness with the Byron Seminar. It was a splendid idea of the organizers at Missolonghi, anxious to advance the town's prestige in all eyes, to join the two events – not least because the participants in the Seminar were accorded magnificent treatment by the commune.

The siege of Missolonghi had ended a hundred and fifty years ago, and the present day inhabitants were determined that, that event should be considered a watershed in the struggle for Greek Independence. Hence, doubtless, the theme of the seminar: 'The effect on Europe and America of Byron's death in Greece'. The intention was to rouse foreign attention to Missolonghi as the cause of the contributions that led to success. Such a project had necessarily to be based on Byron, no better advertisement one might have thought. Nevertheless, it proved difficult of accomplishment.

On the morning of the 31st, with some help from the Town Hall – which was very gracious throughout – I found my way to the Hotel Theoxena where the Seminar was due to take place. The co-ordinator from the Greek Minister of Culture, Mr. Maraghides (who was also called, for a reason I could never quite fathom, Spiro - it was certainly not his name), was the only other person to have arrived already, and he told me the rest would be expected after tea. I spend the rest of the day pottering around the town, swimming in a warm but murky sea that seemed to exude an unhealthy miasma (this could quite well have been merely Byronic imagination) and visiting the place where Byron died – the house has been broken down and all that remains is a column in a small square patch of grass. The atmosphere was very different from that of the Peloponnese, whence I'd arrived. The town, though small, was active, the people sharp and swift.

Olympia, though the most commercialized place in the South, seemed dreamlike in comparison.

The main body of delegates were late in arriving at the Theoxenia. While Spiro and I waited, another 'freelance', Professor Prince Alexandre Mavrocordato, collateral descendant of Byron's leader at Missolonghi, bustled in. He was full of some letters he had discovered in the Bodleian at Oxford from the earlier Mavrocordato to Mary Shelley, and was just suggesting that his ancestor had been Mary's lover when the rest of the delegates arrived.

There was some disappointment that I wasn't Prof Halpe, but on the whole any delegate from Sri Lanka seemed a source of satisfaction.

Not even my guilt ridden denial of the Director's assertion that I'd come all the way from Sri Lanka for the Seminar damped the enthusiasm for what seemed evidence of the breadth of Bryon's fame.

The majority of the participants were quartered at another hotel, but as a freelance I was able to dine with the academics at the Theoxenia. The food was, regrettably, English rather than Greek, but this was more than made up for by the company.

There was a little ceremony after dinner, at which the Mayor of Missolonghi, the Prefect of the area and the President of the Academy of Greek Men of Letters made speeches of welcome, the last including an oblique reference to present day Greece in its affirmation of Byron's commitment to freedom. We proceeded then to the central square for a performance of Greek folk dances – vigorous, athletic and charmingly costumed, but I missed the graceful subtleties of our own art forms. At the end, of course, most of the delegates joined in, for an enthusiastic if shambolic display of international solidarity.

The seminar proper began next morning with a talk by Professor Douglas Dakin (Historian of Birkbeck College, author of a History of the Unification of Greece etc) on 'The historical and political effect in Britain of Byron's death'. His argument was that, while the immediate impression was strong, there was little lasting effect. The pro-English party that arose in Greece had little to do with Byron or Mavrocodato; English volunteers continued to be small. The sentimental force of his memory, however, is not to be underestimated, and provided a rallying point for British Philhellenes. This thesis did not quite appeal to the enthusiasts amongst us, and in the discussion that followed the Director of the UK Byron Society, Mrs Dangerfield, suggested that Byron had indeed been a serious politician as his three speeches in the House of Lords testified. Professor Mavrocordato suggested that the Greeks did miss Byron badly since there had been a plan to make him Regent of Greece. Not much evidence appeared on this either way, and on the whole Professor Dakin's theory seemed substantially accurate.

Effect of Byron's death

The next talk was the only deliberately literary one of the Seminar; on 'The effect of Byron's death on literature in Britain'. It was delivered by Andrew Rutherford, Professor of English Literature at Aberdeen, an authority on Byron whose books I have found original, instructive and entertaining. In his talk he formulated a distinction Professor Dakin had already touched on and one that was to be used extensively by the other speakers as well – between immediate 'impact' and long-term 'effect'. The former was extremely strong, as he proved by quoting numerous references, of powerful sentiment, by other writers to Byron's death; the latter was much less impressive.

Professor Rutherford attributed this in part to the early deaths of all three poets who might have carried on the romantic tradition. He described Tennyson's early political and semi-Byronic enthusiasms that soon turned to disillusionment. Byron was a more powerful force on the Continent than in England, where the Reform Bill of 1832 had settled the more violent civil confusions of the time. Professor Rutherford's argument was similar to that advanced by Mario Praz in The Hero in Eclipse – that literature had become 'bourgeois' and there was little room left for the Byronic hero. As emerged in the discussion, there were exceptions to these general trends. But the flippancy of 'Don Juan' served to alienate Byron from, for instance, Carlyle as well, whose heroes were much more deliberately so. Byron's extravagance and his cynicism debarred him from having a strong influence during the period of Victorian domesticity.

We broke up for lunch after these two papers, and another freelancer, who described herself as a Philhellene, introduced the two French Professors and me to a little Greek Taverna she had discovered the previous night. The two Frenchmen composed their own papers there over a long lunch, alcoholic and delicious.

Professor Mavrocordato chaired the next part of the Seminar, which was a talk by Professor Melchiori of Rome on 'The effect in Italy of Byron's death in Greece'. Professor Surel of Bordeaux followed with respect to France, and next morning Professors Giddey and Robinson, Lausanne and Delaware respectively, dealt with Switzerland and America. The last two dealt primarily with contributions to the Greek War of Independence, and traced connections to Byron but declared they were unable to prove these causal ones. The two former dealt more extensively with internal political activities in their respective countries as well, but were again unable to assert causation. Interesting points emerged, such as Cavours's youthful enthusiasm for Byron, and the French idealization that led to comparisons with Bonaparte, but the general impression was that the effect of Byron's death in Greece had not been particularly strong.

Professor Mavrocordato, indeed, in a brief but brilliant appendix to Professor Surel's, also lively, talk, demolished most forcefully the idea behind the Seminar's theme when he asserted that Byron had no particular enthusiasm for Greece. He had been quite as anxious to go to South America; it was the early Mavrocordato's influence over Mary Shelley, and the immediate practical possibility that had led to Byron's trip to Missolonghi.

The academics seemed to me to have made their point in the course of the Seminar. The hospitality of the Greeks, however, on behalf of one they were clearly determined to consider a hero of their War of Independence, was not to be regretted. After the papers on the first day we were taken once more to the town square, for the finale of the Greek Festival of Poetry, which was followed by a distribution of gifts to various officials of the Byron Society as well as to numerous Greek men of letters. The evening concluded with a dinner at a country taverna, in the course of which the ebullient Professor Surel began singing French folk songs. The Greeks, led by Spiro, set up their own little corner and the more spirited of the English ladies began a chorus of John Brown's Body. It was very touching, and I was quite sorry I had to leave early the next day and miss the outing to the Castle of Navplion with its dinner of 'roast lamb on spit and festival of Greek dancing'. I missed the last paper of the Seminar as well on The Greek Poets Praise the Britannic Muse by Professor Byron Raizis of Southern Illinois, and also the meeting of the International Council which I had not been sure I was entitled to attend.

Regrettably, when I learned I could, it was too late to alter my ticket. What I had experienced had been a delight. I trust at some stage it will be possible to have a Byron Seminar in Sri Lanka.

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