The 35th International Byron Society Conference: 'Lord Byron and History' 6-13 September 2009 Messolonghi and Athens

Article excerpt

- 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!

The Corsair, III, 1223-30

The 35th annual International Byron Conference took place in Messolonghi and Athens (with visits to Mycenae, Epidaurus and Nafplion) from 6 to 13 September 2009. 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 honoured a significant Byronic bicentennial, taking place almost exactly 200 years after the poet's first arrival in 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, an impressive neoclassical building, with 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, Joint President of the International Byron Society, Professor M. B. Raizis, and the Chair of the conference's Organising Committee, Mrs Rodanthi-Rosa Florou. After the welcoming words and heart-felt good wishes came 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 (Virginia) then gave an 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, delegates were ushered to the adjacent patio and treated to a wine reception. In spite of rainy spells, spirits were high and Byronists enjoyed their first evening in Athens.

The second day in Athens offered especially interesting events and proved, by general consensus, one of the highlights of the conference. The first event took place in the Congress Hall of the Old Parliament Building, home to the country's National Historical Museum. Our group was offered the chance to peruse items of Byron memorabilia (his helmet, sword, writing desk and some letters), which were moved into the Congress Hall for the purposes of this conference by courtesy of the Museum's General Secretary, Mr Ioannis Mazarakis Ainian. Seated on the benches of this historic chamber, we were treated to a fascinating lecture by William St Clair (Cambridge) 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: the local people, visitors from abroad and the writers, painters and engravers who fictionalised 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 in 1809-11, an event organised and presented by the Division of Arts and Humanities and the Interdisciplinary Center for Hellenic Studies of the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. …