Conquerors, Congresses and 'The Debt of Nations' in Byron's the Age of Bronze (1823)

By Almeida, Joselyn M. | The Byron Journal, July 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Conquerors, Congresses and 'The Debt of Nations' in Byron's the Age of Bronze (1823)


Almeida, Joselyn M., The Byron Journal


'Asked about the Versailles analogy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "I never make historical comparisons"'.1

In a year of bicentenaries that saw the sumptuous reenactment of Waterloo, whose after-math in the Congresses of Vienna in 1815 and Verona in 1822 helped to shape Europe as we know it, Chancellor Angela Merkel's dismissal of history over the question of Greece is at best disingenuous. To be fair, she was asked about the comparison that Yanis Varoufakis had made between the Treaty of Versailles and the now infamous conditions that the troika initially imposed on Greece.2 Yet historical and literary echoes of the current moment abound, not the least in Byron's The Age of Bronze (1823), which he wrote after the Congress of Verona. As Jane Stabler elucidates, The Age of Bronze 'represents] Byron's search for a new political identity [...] a more carefully targeted repudiation of the cultural and political systems that his English friends wanted him to rejoin'.3 This essay builds on her insight to argue that Byron's performance of 'repudiation' goes well beyond Britain's national context. Byron deliberately dons the mask of the cosmopolitan Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, whom Plato called 'Socrates gone mad', to enact the practice ofparrhesia, an unrestrained freedom of speech that in its exercise restores the forensic force of poetic speech to hold those in power accountable. Through the performance of parrhesia, Byron as Diogenes creates a narrative of world history that situates Napoleon and the historical form of imperium in a dialectical relation to the 'incongruous' reality of the Congress of Verona in 1822 and its participants (AoB, 707), the representatives of the emergent post-Napoleonic order.4 Byron envisions how this new form of empire hinges on a global financial system that subsumes political sovereignty for the benefit of a transnational, elite rentier class, anticipating the work of theorists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and more recently, economist Thomas Piketty.

If Byron theatricalised his poetic persona and cultivated his celebrity status in relation to Napoleon in the decade of the teens, he realised how the personality cult underlies both aristocratic and dictatorial systems, and the danger this represented for the collective 'Sigh for freedom' of humanity. In the agon between the emperor and the philosopher, the poet finally throws in his lot with Diogenes, performingparrhesia as a condition of personal and political freedom. In this sense, he goes beyond Shelley's well-known dictum of poets being unacknowledged legislators in A Defence of Poetry by showing how the poet shapes rights in the polis? The Diogenes mask allows Byron to embody the exile as a political subject who has a right to freedom and to demand it, reminding readers of the Rousseauvian tenet that 'La liberté n'est dans aucune forme de gouvernement, elle est dans le coeur de l'homme libre; il la porte partout avec lui.'6 The Age of Bronze moreover validates the cosmopolitan position of the exile as a subject who can experientially understand the interrelations between countries as a condition of understanding the situation of one 's own nation in an economic and geopolitical world system.7

The first part of my essay explores how in The Age of Bronze Byron/Diogenes, whom Jerome McGann calls 'B's classical surrogate and alter ego', revisits the idea of the conqueror as madman and imperium as desolation, one he first advances in the 'Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte' (1814) and Childe HaroldIII (1816). Byron rewrites his relation to Napoleon as he considers the place of military leadership in the civic order and seriously contemplates involvement in armed conflict in 1823. Through Diogenes, Byron positions himself as aparrhesiastes, 'a philosopher [who] addresses himself to a sovereign, to a tyrant, and tells him his tyranny is [...] incompatible with justice, then the philosopher speaks the truth [.. …

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