“Lord Byron’s portrait on the wall

And the cast iron statuette

With folded arms and eyes bent low,

Cocked hat and melancholy brow.” – Pushkin, Eugene Onegin

Only the initiated are possessed of the knowledge that when I write the Diatribe column in Neos Kosmos I summon up the spirits of Lord Byron to expunge superfluous cantos and Theophilus to subtract hyperbole. I have been obsessed with Byron from the time when as a child, I saw his portrait in a Greek history book and realised that he is the only Westerner who can plausibly pull off wearing the foustanella. Time and further reading have not served to dissuade me from my original conclusion.

How can one not love such a polyvalent, mercurial and ultimately tragic human being. My appreciation of him only grew when I discovered that in the notes to the second canto of ‘Childe Harold’ Lord Byron wrote of the modern Greeks that:

“they suffer all the moral and physical ills that afflict humanity… They are so unused to kindness that when they occasionally meet it they look upon it with suspicion, as a dog often beaten snaps at your fingers if you attempt to caress him.”

When I read those lines, I was certain that he must have visited the organised Greek community of Melbourne and taken extensive sociological and anthropological notes.

The Hellenic Museum’s recently launched “The Spirit of Byron” exhibition, is the only exhibition in Australia to mark the bicentennary of the death of Lord Byron.

It is comprised of the collection of Byron aficionado Dr John Robertson and is also the fruit of a lifelong love affair with the poet who was perhaps the greatest popstar of the Western world in his time. Significantly, the exhibition encompasses both artefacts concerning Byron and the reconstruction of Greece in the Western mind. This is an important dichotomy which emerges via the expert curation of the collection by Dr Sara Princa, in collaboration with art historian Dr Spiridoula Dimitriou. There is Byron and then there is the idea of Byron and the exhibits, comprising of travel journals that reference Lord Byron’s sojourn in Greece, etchings, original editions of Lord Byron’s poetry as well as artwork inspired by him serve as tesserae, coalescing to form a broader narrative about a man who defies stereotypes altogether.

Two British Philhellenes have swum the Hellespont: Lord Byron who did so when he was twenty-two and considered it his greatest achievement and Patrick Leigh Fermor, when he was sixty nine. Both have served as poster boys for Philhellenes in their respective eras and it is this semi-mythological aspect to Lord Byron’s legend that the various exhibits subtly highlight.

Take for example the exquisite etching of Lipparini’s “Lord Byron’s oath on the tomb of M Bozzari in Missolunghi.” More ancient hero than nineteenth century freedom fighter, the allusions to Greece’s classical past (which were necessary to make the freedom of the Balkan Greeks more palatable to western tastes) artfully obscure the fact that when Lord Byron arrived in Messolongi he hired himself a bodyguard of five hundred Souliotes as a private army and entourage. They were so obnoxious and made such a nuisance of themselves that after repeated complaints by the inhabitants of the town, Byron was forced to disband them.

The exhibition juxtaposes the deification of the hero with contemporary satirical sketches, in books such as “Pug’s Tour Through Europe, Or the Travell’d Monkey” of Europeans like him travelling through Greece, though while espousing fashionable causes of liberty, beating a retreat at the slightest whiff of danger. Lord Byron himself was amused by the phenomenon of well-heeled Europeans with nothing much to do, adopting liberalism and philhellenism as a fashion and trotting over to Greece in search of martial glory, writing in 1820:

“When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,

Let him combat for that of his neighbours;

Let him think of the glories of Greece and Rome,

And get knock’d on the head for his labours.

To do good to mankind is the chivalrous plan,

And is always so nobly requited;

So battle for freedom wherever you can,

And, if not shot or hang’d, you’ll get knighted.”

Incidentally, it is from Lord that we learn that the American exclamation used to express triumph “Booyah!” actually comes from the Souliote War Cry “Boowah!” and we have Lord Byron’s poem “Song to the Suliotes” where he faithfully records this exclamation to prove it.

The interplay between Byron’s own writings, historical records and blatant propaganda set pieces in the exhibition’s narrative is important because it highlights the ambivalence of a historical figure’s use as a symbol of Philhellenism. After all this is the same man who while dying in the cause of Greek liberty, was initially sceptical about the whole enterprise, writing in ‘Childe Harold’ (the exhibition’s copy has been loaned to the Musum by Roula Rozakeas):

“A thousand years scarce serve to form a state;

An hour may lay it in the dust; and when

Can man its shatter’d splendour renovate,

Recall its virtues back, and vanquish Time and Fate?”

Rather than having in Byron a staunch and uncritical advocate of all things Greek, in Byron, we are compelled to see beyond the foustanella, to the titled member of the nobility, with all the biases and prejudices of his class and ethnicity. Thus, in October 1823, Lord Byron visited a landslide in Mataxata, Caphallonia, where a dozen road workers had been buried. Spectators declared it was not worth digging them out as the ground may be unstable. Byron, outraged at the lack of compassion shown by the Greeks, “ordered his valet to get off his horse and thrash them soundly if they did not get to work.” He also seized a spade and began to dig furiously, no doubt to show those effete orientals how it is done.

He later wrote that though he had come to the Ionian islands prejudiced against Britain’s tight government of the Greeks: “I have now changed my opinion. They are such barbarians, that if I had the government of them, I would pave these roads with them.” Tough love, after all, is true love.

The exhibition fittingly displays a number of etchings of the Parthenon and other ancient ruins, causing us to appreciate Byron’s love of Greece’s classical past. Unlike other westerners, who sought to appropriate that past, Byron’s key aim, expressed through his poetry, was its mere preservation. It is in this vein that he wrote:

“but molest not yon defenceless urn:

Look on this spot – a nation’s sepulchre.”

Accordingly, Lord Byron could not be but scathing when contrasting his own stance on the Greek antiquities with those of Lord Elgin. In his 1811 poem “The curse of Minerva” he immotalises Elgin’s desecration of the Parthenon thus: “England owns him not: Athena no! thy plunderer was a Scot,” and this even though Byron was half Scottish. In Childe Harold’s Pigrimage, the second canto is also devoted to the atrocities of pillage: “Dull is the eye that will not weep to see/ Thy walls defac’d, thy mouldering shrines remov’d/ By British hands.”

While the exhibition does not directly confront the orientalistic approach to Greece of Lord Byron and other Philhellenes, it does hint at it rather artfully. In keeping with Edward Said’s contention that the West has fashioned a narrative that feminises, or demeans the East in order to dominate it, prominently displayed are beautiful contemporary etchings of Greece as a woman in need of rescue, of vulnerable women that personify Greece in similar stances, such as Charles Lanseer’s “The Maid of Athens” and even Delacroix’s (also the artist of the highly sexualised painting: “The Massacre of Chios”) illustrations of Byron’s own “The Bride of Abydos” written after he had swum the Hellespont between Abydos and Sestos in imitation of Leander. The inference is clear. The West will only love Greece and hasten to her aid if it can woo her, make her beholden to it and ultimately possess her.

The exhibition thus causes us to consider that Byron’s depiction of the Orient in works like “The Giaour,” “The Corsair,” and “Don Juan” (on display) often presents a romanticized and exoticized vision of the East, filled with lush landscapes, sensual pleasures, and mysterious allure. This portrayal reflects the Orientalist tropes prevalent in European literature and art of the time, where the East was often depicted as a place of sensuality, exoticism, and danger.

However, Byron’s Orientalism cannot be reduced to mere exoticism or Orientalist stereotypes. He also demonstrates a keen awareness of the political, social, and cultural complexities of the Eastern societies he portrays. In works like “The Siege of Corinth” and “The Giaour,” Byron criticizes European colonialism and imperialism, and he often sympathizes with the oppressed and marginalized peoples of the Orient, such as the Greeks fighting for independence from Ottoman rule.

What emerges from the inspired curation of the exhibition, is that Byron’s Orientalism, is polyvalent in that it encompasses both the exoticized fantasy of the Orient and a more nuanced engagement with its realities. It reflects the ambivalence and contradictions inherent in Romantic Orientalism, where fascination and critique coexist.

Consequently, “The Spirit of Byron,” is fittingly not content to confine itself only to the romanticising element in Byron’s character. Contemporary reports of his activities also reveal beneath the layers of the dashing hero, the louche libertine and the valiant freedom-fighter, engaged on a more physically strenuous grand tour than most, a hard pragmatist, willing to transcend the boundaries of class and nation in order to give the right advance when needed. Thus, responding to news of the Civil War between the Greek captains and the politicians during the Revolution, Lord Byron wrote to Alexandros Mavrokordatos presciently:

“the great Powers of Europe, of which none was an enemy of Greece, and which seemed favourably inclined to agree with the establishment of an independent Greek state, will be persuaded that the Greeks are not capable of governing themselves and will arrange some means for putting an end to your disorder which will cut short all your most noble hopes.”

We went on to say that Greece had to choose one of three possible courses:

“either to win her liberty – or to become a dependency of the European sovereigns or a Turkish province. .. But civil war cannot lead to anything but the last two.”

Dr John Robertson’s extensive collection would have been augmented by mention of the fact that the first Greek woman to arrive in Australia Ekaterini Plessas, from Epirus, was the daughter of Vasiliki, wife of Muhtar, son of the notorious Ali Pasha of Ioannina.

During her long and fascinating life before she arrived in Australia in 1835 after marrying English officer James Crummer, she actually met Lord Byron at Messolongi , highlighting the Australian connection.

Alexander Dumas may once have been moved to comment upon the death of Lord Byron:

“The great man had no notion that, in dying for the Greeks, he was only dying so that Europe, as the duke of Orléans once expressed it to me, might have the pleasure of eating sauerkraut at the foot of the Parthenon.”

The Spirit of Byron, however, now showing at the Hellenic Museum, invites us to explore the multi-faceted nature of legends, stereotypes, critiquing identity constructs and deconstructing national narratives, politely articulating counter-narratives, discretely offering pathways for discussion and enthralling the visitor. It must not be missed.