- Byron’s War: Romantic Rebellion, Greek Revolution by Roderick Beaton
Byron often referred to his mission in Greece as ‘the Cause’. As Roderick Beaton points out, this is an allusion to what Othello calls his ‘mission’ in setting out to murder his innocent wife (‘[i]t is the cause – it is the cause, my soul’). Later, Beaton quotes Byron again, writing that the situation Alexander Mavrocordatos finds himself in is ‘perplexing in the extreme’. This is another quotation from Othello, from the end of the same scene: ‘[…] one not easily jealous, but being wrought / Perplex’d in the extreme […]’ – it is as huge a piece of self-delusion as the first, for Othello is very easily jealous indeed. And if Mavrocordatos was perplexed at Missolonghi, how much more perplexed was Byron? The need to find literary archetypes for his own activities never left Byron, for whom Art and Life were the same:
A better Swimmer you could scarce see Ever, He could, perhaps, have passed the Hellespont,As Once (a feat on which ourselves we prided)Leander, Mr. Ekenhead, and I did.– (DJ, II, 105)
Other self-images which Byron used to cheer himself up over his Greek disaster are Napoleon (John Clubbe’s most favoured one, needless to say); Prometheus (Peter Graham, and, here, Beaton); and last but not least, Frankenstein – but an unsuccessful Frankenstein: Medwin reports Byron as saying ‘that the Greeks were so fallen, that it would be a vain attempt to raise them. One might as well hope to re-animate a corpse […]’ – a point alluded to by Beaton. People take from Byron (or put into him) whatever their predispositions dictate: Richard Lansdown, in The Cambridge Introduction to Byron (2012), would have him an inspirer of the state of Israel, where Malcolm Kelsall, in his contribution to Lord Byron A Multidisciplinary Open Forum (1999) would have him inspiring Leni Riefenstahl.
Beaton’s book is the most thorough examination of Byron’s Greek expedition ever written, and must be read by all, but its upbeat conclusion – that at Missolonghi Byron at last ‘forged a consistent path’ for himself – will not do. Beaton claims that:
[n]o ‘byronic hero’ ever submitted in this way to anybody or anything higher than himself; that is the nature of the Byronic hero, his ‘tragic flaw’. And for years Byron had played up to that stereotype in his own life. After the decision for Greece, no longer.
It may be so with his cheap, sensational, popular heroes – Harold, Conrad, Lara, and the rest, cut-rate Coriolanuses all; but it is not so with his most real hero, Don Juan, who is entirely passive; and was not so with Byron himself:
[…] for surely they’re sincerestWho are strongly acted on by what is nearest? – [End Page 193]
* In French, Mobilité. I am not sure that mobility is English – but it is expressive of a quality which rather belongs to other climates – though it is sometimes seen to a great extent in our own. It may be defined as an excessive susceptibility of immediate impressions, at the same time without losing the past, and is – though sometimes apparently useful to the possessor – a most painful and unhappy attribute.– – – (DJ, XVI, 97, and authorial note)
Here, Byron writes from personal experience. This over-impressionable, too-easily-led unhappiness is clearest in the two worst decisions of Byron’s life: to get married, when he was persuaded by Lady Melbourne and Augusta, and to cross from Cefalonia to Missolonghi, when he was influenced by Mavrocordatos. In October 1823 Mavrocordatos wrote to Byron: ‘[v]otre présence pourra faire le plus grand bien, nos troupes seront électrisées, tous les esprits seront disposés à suivre l’impulsion que vous leur donnez, ne perdons pas cette belle occasion’ (text taken from N.L.S.Ms.43519; see Μνημεία της Ελληνικής Ιστορίας, ed. E.G. Protopsaltis, III, 545). Writing to Hobhouse in December Byron jokes about the mention of ‘électrisées’: ‘P.S. Mavrocordato’s letter says that my presence will...