A Grecian Turn: Byron's Travels Revisited
Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
The writer Stephen Minta, back in Greece 30 years after his first time there in 1965, was spending an evening watching "the relaxed street theater of Mediterranean life." Mr. Minta, in his workaday world a lecturer in comparative literature at the University of York, England, had crossed the Ambracian Gulf from Preveza and was in Arta. The poet Byron and his friend, John Cam Hobhouse, passed through the town in 1809 on their way north into Albania, looking for the colorful despot Ali Pasha.
When Mr. Minta was there, the local mayor was making a lengthy speech that included "one of those tours of history and culture that are popular with Greek politicans." The Englishman listened for a while, then ambled off looking for something eat, finding nothing but "lukewarm patsas, a pigs' feet and tripe soup that is a delicacy in the Balkans, and which often tastes even worse than it sounds."
So he went back to hear a bit more of the mayor of Arta's speech, in which, after getting through the period of ancient Roman occupation and the Middle Ages, at last reached the 19th-century War of Independence, "until, sure as autumn, the name of Lord Byron sounded over the square."
It is autumn in the book, as it was for Byron and Hobouse in 1809, on their way northward into Albania as far as Tepelena, then south again and, crossing west to east by way of the Gulf of Corinth, and Thebes, to Athens. It is a lovely season in Greece, a time when knowing northern hearts yearn to fly to south of the line - Mr. Minta invokes the historian Fernand Braudel's tracing of it - above which the olive tree will not grow.
"Be young as long as long as you can," Byron would write to Hobouse years later from his self-imposed exile in Venice; and being young was in large measure what Byron's time in Greece, 1809-11, was about. The poet's second sojourn on "The Voiceless Shore," from August, 1823 to Byron's death the following April - possibly from rheumatic fever exacerbated by his doctors' excessive bloodletting - would be another matter. "Greece," as Mr. Minta concludes, "began as a celebration of the phsyicality of life itself. It ends as a fantasy of stillness and death."
Less is known of Byron's two spells in Greece than other periods in his life: first, because of the nine months he spent alone in Athens (after Hobhouse returned to England), where, according to letters home he gave himself over to homoerotic indulgence on a stupendous scale; second, inasmuch as during the second trip, Byron wrote little hardly any poetry and his surviving correspondence tends to be matter-of-fact. Greece is of high importance to Byron scholars though, not least because as it was where the poet's bisexuality was allowed freest play.
Mr. Minta attributes Byron's eagerness to sail from Falmouth in 1809 to an early, homoerotic commitment to life on the margin of English society. It is an interesting view, and gives added weight to the homosexual tilt Phyllis Grosskurth gave her biography published last year. But Byron is never simple, as Mr. Minta argues later in making another of his key points. If Byron was so committed in 1809 at the tender age of 21, then his disastrous marriage to Annabella Milbanke in 1815-16, and the domestically settled years with Italian countess Teresa Guiccioli, 1819-23, were equally impressive attempts to go a more socially acceptable route.
So far as his book is to be judged as biography, Mr. Minta is especaially strong on Byron's second stay in Greece, thanks to on-site research (Greek archives, he says, have plenty more to offer) and his own appreciation of the unusual complexity of the poet's character. The big question has always been whether Byron's months in Greece, 1823-24 - first almost five months on the island of Keffalinia wondering what to do next, then in a Mesolongi beseiged by the Turks - were a time of drift and encroaching silence, or heroic self-sacrifice in liberty's cause. …