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  • ‘Reality, Fiction and Madness’ The 41st International Association of Byron Societies Conference University of Gdańsk, Poland, 1–6 July 2015
  • Monika Coghen

Here the self-torturing sophist, wild Rousseau, The apostle of affliction, he who threw Enchantment over passion, and from woe Wrung overwhelming eloquence, first drew The breath which made him wretched; yet he knew How to make madness beautiful, and cast O’er erring deeds and thoughts, a heavenly hue Of words, like sunbeams, dazzling as they past The eyes, which o’er them shed tears feelingly and fast.

(CHP, III, 77)

Byron’s lines on Rousseau could serve as a motto of the 41st Annual Conference of the International Association of Byron Societies, entitled Reality, Madness and Fiction, as numerous speakers referred to them while exploring the subject of madness, transgression and their links to creativity in Byron’s works, life and afterlife. This year’s conference took place in Gdańsk, the old Hanseatic city and the cradle of the Polish Solidarity movement. It was high time for an International Byron Conference to be held in Poland, where Byron is seen as a crucial figure for the development of Romanticism, and particularly in Gdańsk, where Byron’s lines on Greece from The Giaour (‘For Freedom’s battle once begun, / Bequeathed by bleeding Sire to Son, / Though baffled oft is ever won’ [123–25]) had been placed on the cross erected at the entrance to the shipyard during the strike of 1980, which brought about the collapse of the Communist regime.

The main venue of the Conference was the campus of Gdańsk University, located in Gdańsk-Oliwa. The participants came from sixteen countries to share scholarship and enthusiasm for Byronic studies. However, one speaker was sadly missed—Peter Cochran, who had, as though presagefully, sent his paper instead of an abstract to the organisers. I caught myself expecting to hear Peter’s booming voice offering criticism, comments and expertise on many an occasion during the conference; instead, his name kept being recalled as numerous speakers paid homage to him at the beginning of their talks.

The Conference opening ceremony was held at the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre, which continues the tradition of the stage used in the seventeenth century by itinerant English players. After the opening address delivered by Mirosława Modrzewska and [End Page 163] Lord Byron, we witnessed a moving performance of The Burial of Byron by Andrew Mitchell. The performance, created by Gdańsk artists especially for the Opening Ceremony of the 2015 AIBS Conference, combined music and song, poetry and dance. It was directed by Anna Galikowska-Gajewska, eurhythmics and piano improvisation professor at the Stanisław Moniuszko Academy of Music in Gdańsk and performed by four dancers: Beata Oryl (choreographer), Kinga Jakubowska, Katarzyna Kozieł, Dorota Mentel, as well as the poet, Andrew Mitchell himself. Cezary Paciorek, a renowned Gdańsk composer and multi-instrumentalist, not only played his own music but also used lyrics and musical motifs from Songs by Women Composers: The Poetry of Lord Byron in English, German, Italian and Norwegian edited by Suzanne Summerville, a Byron scholar at Fairbanks (Alaska). And Karolina Dziwniel, a talented mezzo-soprano, performed songs from Byron’s works set to music by Lori Lange and Malvina Garrigues. In his keynote lecture, which followed the spectacle, Michael O’Neill (Durham), addressing a subject particularly proper for the venue, discussed Byron’s creative response to Shakespeare’s verses on madness, offering a brilliant close reading of selected passages. In the evening the participants had the opportunity to watch an Elizabethan-style performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor in Polish (with English and German subtitles).

The second day opened with the keynote lecture by Fredrick Burwick (California, Los Angeles), who addressed the issue of physical and mental transformations in Byron’s The Deformed Transformed in the context of Goethe’s criticism of Byron. The two morning sessions were devoted to ‘Byron’s Artistic Madness’. Bernard Beatty (Liverpool and St Andrews) proposed a reading of Byron’s 1816–1817 poems—The Dream, The Lament of Tasso, The Prisoner of Chillon and Manfred—in terms of dramatic monologues, offering ‘a spectacle of woe...


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