Emily A. Bernard Jackson asks this question concerning Byron in a TLS review of Roderick Beaton’s Byron’s War: Romantic Rebellion, Greek Revolution . It’s a “troublesome” question for Byron scholars:

“Byron was certainly political: he maintained a lively interest in politics, and his poems were often partisan; he frequently evinced a belief that poetry was a piddling profession and action was the thing. On the other hand, for the most part his involvement in politics was at best tangential. The Italian revolution that never came off – ‘the very Poetry of politics!’ – was as close as he got before 1823, and even then (as the quotation suggests) he was too sensible to invest in it fully. Even Byron’s involvement with the Greek Revolution is difficult to parse. Do three helmets made specially for him according to descriptions of Hector’s armour indicate determination or fantasy? Does the fact that Byron put aside Don Juan for Greece mean that he was done with poetry now that he had a real chance at politics, or was he simply taking a break and planning to resume once Greece was free? In all ways, the problem of whether Byron was a poet with political interests or a frustrated politician who poeticized in compensation remains unresolved.”

Beaton’s book helps, Jackson thinks.

First, he uncovers early contacts with Greek revolutionaries: “At the beginning of his first stay in Greece in 1809, for example, Byron spent time with a group of klefts, Greek hired bandits, and Beaton suggests that their code of ‘anti-social freedom’ may have had a significant influence on the personality of the Byronic hero.”

He also links Byron’s interest in Greek independence to his relationship with Shelley: “Beaton’s careful research makes it unarguable that it was Shelley who first committed himself to the Greek revolution, and who interested Byron in it. Shelley befriended Alexandros Mavrokordatos long before Byron encountered him, and he and Mary Shelley sent translations of the Greek declaration of independence to English newspapers.” Yet, Jackson thinks that Beaton overstates his case when he attributes Byron’s engagement in Greece to Byron’s guilt over an unresolved breach with Shelley.

For a poet and a romantic one at that, Byron took a sensible view of Greece’s future: ” he was not interested in the usual British approach of imposing Anglo-Saxon norms on the native government; rather, he told his friend Charles Parry that a ‘system of government must and will arise suitable to the knowledge and the wants of the people.’ He advocated a strong Greek national government and clear economic and foreign policies. Beaton calls him a realist and a relativist.” And maybe a politician after all.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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