Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Jousting for the Honour of Greece and 'A Certain Miss Phrosyne': Baron Byron and Gally Knight Clash over Costume, Correctness, and a Princess

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Jousting for the Honour of Greece and 'A Certain Miss Phrosyne': Baron Byron and Gally Knight Clash over Costume, Correctness, and a Princess

Article excerpt


This article attempts to rescue Henry Gally Knight (1786-1846), architectural writer and antiquary, from the footnotes of literary history. Few Romantic writers of Oriental verse tales travelled to the East, and the work of this friend of Walter Scott and William Wilberforce, patron of Turner, and contemporary of Byron's at Cambridge warrants reconsideration. The article compares redactions of the Kyra Phrosine story, footnoted in Byron's The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale and featured in Knight's Phrosyne: A Grecian Tale, to show how this beautiful victim of Asiatic arbitrary power became central to the Greek fight for independence.

In a letter from Venice of Thursday, 8 January 1818, Byron penned a joking 'Epistle to Mr. Murray' in response to his publisher's 'damned hurry' to receive the last canto of Childe Harold. Byron seizes the opportunity to survey the current London literary scene and, with a knowing nod to Pope's epistle To Mr Murray, (1) which opens: 'Not to Admire, is all the Art I know', treats a rival Oriental talesman to a drubbing:

   In the mean time you've 'Galley'
   Whose verses all tally,
   Perhaps you may say he's a Ninny,
   But if you abashed are
   Because of 'Alashtar',
   He'll piddle another 'Phrosine'.
   (ll. 13-18) (2)

His piddling target is the knight of my title: Henry Gally Knight (1786-1846), a close friend of Walter Scott and William Wilberforce, a patron of and provider of sketches for Turner, and a contemporary of Byron's at Cambridge. Also in Murray's stable, Knight was the author of Ilderim: A Syrian Tale (1816) and Phrosyne: A Grecian Tale. Alashtar: An Arabian Tale (1817). The violence of Byron's vituperation is generally in a direct ratio to his fears of competition, and when one learns that Knight had travelled as a young man through Spain, Sicily, Greece, Albania, Egypt, (3) Palestine, and Syria, and thus outdone Milord in Orientalist wanderings and on-the-spotness, one begins to comprehend the significance of the animus.

The interrelationship is complicated, however, by the fact that just over four years earlier, in December 1813, Byron had acted as the wide awake and admiring reader for Murray of an unattributed manuscript of one of Knight's Oriental verse tales:

I have redde through your Persian tale, and have taken the liberty of making some remarks on ye. blank pages--There are many beautiful passages and an interesting story; and I cannot give a stronger proof that such ismy opinion, than by the date of the hour 2 o'clock--till which it has kept me awake, without a yawn.--The conclusion is not quite correct in costume: there is no Mussulman suicide on record--at least for love. But this matters not--the tale must be written by some one--who has been on the spot--and

I wish him--& he deserves success.--Will you apologise to the author for the liberties I have taken with his MS.--had I been less awake to, & interested in his theme--I had been less obtrusive--but you know I always take this in good part--& I hope he will. It is difficult to say what will succeed--& and still more to pronounce what will not--I am at this moment in that uncertainty--(on our own score) & it is no small proof of the author's powers--to be able to charm & fix a mind's attention on similar subjects and climates in such a predicament--that he may have the same effect upon all his readers is very sincerely the wish--and hardly the doubt, of yours truly, B. (4)

This would seem as positive a report as might be hoped for--from the horse's mouth of the Oriental verse tale, who had pointed out only that August to Thomas Moore that 'the public are orientalizing'. (5) But can we be certain that Byron had been reading Henry Gally Knight? Marchand throws some doubt upon Prothero's assumption that Knight's Ilderim: A Syrian Tale was the subject of Byron's praise as it was simply not a 'Persian Tale'; nor was it published until 1816. …

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