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Lead book review

Byron’s War, by Roderick Beaton - review

Although Lord Byron is hailed as a national hero in Greece, his legacy has been largely destructive, says David Crane

1 June 2013

9:00 AM

1 June 2013

9:00 AM

Byron’s War: Romantic Rebellion, Greek Revolution Roderick Beaton

CUP, pp.338, £30

On 16 July 1823 a round-bottomed, bluff-bowed, dull-sailing collier-built tub of 120 tons called the Hercules made its slow, log-like way out of the port of Genoa. Roderick Beaton writes:

Aboard were a British peer, who happened to be one of the most famous writers of the day, a Cornish adventurer, an Italian count, a Greek count, a doctor and a secretary (both Italian), half a dozen servants of several nationalities, five horses, two dogs and a prodigious amount of money in silver coin and bills of exchange.

The Hercules was not the most glamorous vessel to carry Lord Byron towards Greece and immortality, nor was the ship’s company the most bellicose to have sailed to a ‘seat of war’, but then little about Byron’s last days has ever corresponded with legend. In the years since the outbreak of the Greek revolution in 1821 there had been some desultory talk of volunteering, but the Byron who went aboard the Hercules in the summer of 1813 might just as easily have gone to Spain or a South Sea island as dedicate his fortune and life to a country, a people and a dream that he had invariably seen with a very un-Philhellenic clarity.

It is unlikely that Byron himself could have said what finally induced him to quit Italy — memories of his earlier eastern travels with John Hobhouse, ennui, conscience, a sense of his own mortality, duty, flattery, a hankering after a life of action, destiny — but for Beaton the answer is far simpler. ‘Above all, there was Shelley,’ he concludes, as he at last launches Byron on his Greek adventure with an explanation of how he got there,

Over the years, the persuasive ‘Snake’ had become his conscience, inverting the biblical role of the evil tempter. If Byron was the ‘satanic’ fallen angel, Shelley’s was the voice of the good which he had denied in himself and in his many fictional creations. While Shelley lived, even his persuasive powers had had their limits. It was Shelley’s death that catapulted Byron into commitment of a kind he might never otherwise have made. Byron’s war, as it entered its final phase, was to be above all a tribute to everything that Shelley had come to represent in his imagination.

It is an intriguing and bold inversion of the traditional sense of their relationship — it would certainly have surprised Shelley, the ‘Glow Worm’ to Byron’s ‘Sun,’ as he called himself — but Byron has a record of making the most sceptical historians slip their scholarly moorings. The influence of Shelley on Byron’s verse has never been in question, but Beaton goes way beyond that to construct an argument for Shelley’s moral and political ascendancy over ‘The Pilgrim of Eternity’ that stops only just short of turning Byron into a kind of executive arm for Shelleyan idealism.


I don’t believe it — the argument is constructed around an armature of conjectural ‘perhapses’, ‘may have beens’ and ‘musts’ that quietly take on the status of established facts — but the great thing about Byron is that if the biographical evidence does not quite stack up, there is always the poetry to fall back on. In ‘doubling the doppel-ganger, Byron outdoes Goethe, Calderon, the Shelleys and himself,’ Beaton writes of The Deformed Transformed, Byron’s unfinished tale of the hideously deformed Arnold (Byron), who is given the body of Achilles (Shelley, in Beaton’s reading) by a demonic ‘Stranger’ (also Byron) who then, in his turn, assumes the hunchback’s shape of the erstwhile Arnold to accompany the newly minted Shelley/Byron/Achilles/Arnold to the sack of Rome in 1527,

The Deformed Transformed becomes Byron’s fantasy of exchanging his own identity (the composite made up of Arnold and the Stranger/Devil), not quite for that of Shelley, but, rather, for the embodiment of the Shelleyan ideal. On this reading, Shelley and his unearthly ideals tormented Byron as the ‘other’ that he himself could never be.

Byron has only himself to blame that his poetry offers so many hostages to this sort of biographical literalism, but it is still a dangerous route to go down. In tale after tale he was more than ready to hang out his washing or his sister in public, but the fact is that Byron  was never remotely ‘Byronic’ enough to suit his romantic admirers, and if Beaton had spent a fraction of the time he gives to The Deformed Transformed or The Island to the Byron of his wonderful  letters or Don Juan then he might be less surprised to find the man who arrived in Greece acting with the courage, intelligence, humanity and resolve that he showed.

For all the posturing, Byron never was Lara, the Giaour or the ludicrous Arnold, and he would no more have thrown in his lot with the war lords in the civil wars that undermined the Greek cause than he would have swallowed the naive gush of Shelley’s prologue to Hellas. It was all very well for Shelley to announce from the safety of Italy that ‘We are all Greeks’, but Byron had been there and knew perfectly well that they weren’t, and it is this unsentimental and pragmatic clarity of vision that, in the final part of this book, Beaton at last comes to describe so well.

All the usual sources are here — Gamba, Millingen, Trelawny, Finlay, Parry, Kennedy,  the ludicrous Benthamite Colonel Stanhope — but what makes Byron’s War different is that Beaton is peculiarly well equipped to fill in those gaps and answer those questions that anyone dependent on Philhellene narratives has largely had to guess at. The state of Greek archives always used to be a source of either patronising sorrow or amusement to foreign researchers, but Beaton has deployed his Greek sources to produce as detailed and compelling a study of Byron’s crucial alliance with the westernised Mavrokordatos in the battle for a centralised Greek nation state as we are ever likely to get.

This is rigorous, scrupulous academic history — readers who have never accused Mavrokordatos of indecision in the first place will not be surprised now to find him acquitted of the charge — but there is another vein running through the book of a more general and urgent interest. To the power struggles that surrounded Byron’s months in Missolonghi and followed his death can be traced the internal fissures that have bedevilled Greek political life ever since.  And to the incompetently managed and criminally misused ‘Greek Loan’ that was raised in London on the prestige of Byron’s name can similarly be dated  the historic strains in Greece’s external relations with Europe.

It has been a destructive legacy and still is. Europe learned to distrust Greece and Greece learned to beware of strangers bearing gifts. ‘It is a fear that has haunted Greek society and political life ever since,’ Beaton writes, in what sounds very much like a prospectus for the sequel to Byron’s War, and events since have shown it was not unfounded. Indeed, distrust of foreign interests, and still more of those of fellow-Greeks who might be supposed to have sold out to them, has probably done more than any other single factor to stunt the growth and self-confidence of the Greek state, from Byron’s time, through the long schism of the 20th century, to the debt crisis that broke out in 2010.

But that, as Roderick Beaton says, ‘is another story waiting to be told.’


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