General theme: "Byron: Humanism, Liberalism, Philhellenism"
The Fifth International Student Byron Conference (‘Byron: Humanism, Liberalism, Philhellenism’) was held 25-30 June 2007. As usual, the conference featured an international cast, with attendees from the Czech Republic, Lebanon, the United States, Ireland, England, Scotland, and Greece of all classifications academic—undergraduate, graduate student, and professor—and occupational—journalist, engineer, and scientist. Undeterred by the -isms of the conference theme and undaunted by the unusually hot weather, the participants came together for yet another enlightening and enjoyable conference on Byron’s life and works.
It would be tempting to start thus: upon arriving at Messolonghi, the intense June heat was exceeded only by the warmth of the reception. But let’s save this brand of eloquence for past and future annalists of the annual Greek adventure. Seriously now. The conference opened on Monday afternoon with the gathering of the participants in the lobby of the lagoon-side Theoxenia Hotel. Having exchanged salutations, participants boarded a coach bound for the town centre. After a tour of the Municipal Gallery of History and Art and the “Diexodos” gallery, along with a quick visit to the 18th-century Monastery of St. Simeon on the outskirts of town, the group proceeded to the beautiful neoclassical residence of the pillar of the local Byron Society, Mrs. Sonia Bombota, and the internationally renowned decorator, Mr. Nikos Yagiozis, for dinner. Those unaccustomed to the local hospitality and the native viands soon became admirers of the one and authorities on the other. With dinner finished, the company headed back to the hotel for some much-needed rest.
The academic portion of the conference commenced on Tuesday morning at the newly air-conditioned Byron Research Center. After introductory remarks by Mrs. Rodanthi-Rosa Florou, conference organizer and the President of the Messolonghi Byron Society, Professor M. Byron Raizis, Joint President of the International Byron Society, and Professor Peter W. Graham of Virginia Tech, Director of International Relations of the Messolonghi Byron Research Center, the opening session displayed the diversity of topics encompassed by the conference theme. Session chair Professor Andrew Hubbell from Susquehanna started things off with “Byron: Mad, Bad…and Green?” Considering Byron’s views of Greece in light of modern ecocritical thought, Drew argued forcefully for Byron’s awareness of the interdependence of Greek culture and its surrounding natural environment—what Hubbell called the “green thinking” at the center of Byron’s philhellenism. Next, Emily Maurer of Susquehanna contested Byron’s reputation as an anti-feminist in her paper “Byron’s Views of Women.” By tracing the similarities between Don Juan and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, Emily ably demonstrated that a commitment to female liberation was central to Byron’s liberalism. Sarah Welteroth, also from Susquehanna, followed with “Byron: An Advocator for Education,” a discussion of the influence of Greek humanist ideals on Byron’s poetry. Ashley Foerster from Virginia Tech concluded with “Byron at Messolonghi: The Public and Private Faces of Philhellenism.” Through close readings of Byron’s final poems, Ashley revealed the personal and political motivations behind Byron’s going to Greece. The session was punctuated by a coffee break, during which participants took the opportunity to admire the Research Center’s ever-expanding library holdings, including the items recently donated by the Director of the Australian Byron Society, Mrs. Jacqueline Voignier-Marshall.
With the academic portion of the day finished, Tuesday afternoon found the conference participants in a less bookish locale: the scenic seaside village of Krioneri. For conference veterans, it proved a welcome return to a familiar spot; for conference first-timers, it promised the first of the next several day’s many adventures. After the bus ride, participants were ferried by fishing boat to a secluded beach at the base of Mount Varassova. Led by the intrepid Drew Hubbell, students climbed the steep, twisting trail leading from the beach to the beautiful 11th-century cave church of Agios Nikolaos, which offered a stunning view of the surrounding area. There were a few stumbles on the way down, but the hikers didn’t much mind bruising their carcasses in honour of the ancients: afterwards they had ample time to salve their wounds in the Mediterranean. Upon returning to shore, the swimmers found a bountiful mezedes-and-ouzo feast awaiting them, provided by Mr. and Mrs. Marcos Stefanatos at their seaside residence. Before the night was done the students witnessed yet another feat of hiking prowess, this time by a trio of mountain goats, but all agreed that it hardly equaled Drew’s nimble performance.
Paper presentations resumed on Wednesday morning. In the second session, chaired by Peter Graham, Robert Coppin from Bristol led off with “‘His name on every shore / Is famed and fear’d: The Search for Political Immortality in Byron’s The Corsair.” Bob expertly traced the similarities between Byron’s poem and his Parliamentary speeches, arguing that the former is best understood in the context of the latter political statements. Aaron Diehr from Depaul followed with “Byron, Juan, and the Narcissistic Narrator: Reformulating Homoeroticism in Don Juan as Self-Love.” Drawing on both biography and psychoanalytic theory, Aaron argued that Juan represented Byron himself, and the orphan Leila of Canto VIII represented the various younger men whom Byron had loved during his life. Professor Graham wrapped up this eclectic and engaging session with, “A Humanist in Love and on Love: “‘To the Po’ and Byron’s Letters.” Examining the rhetorical artifice of Romantic sincerity, Peter posited the paradox that Byron felt freest to speak in earnest when writing in a patently artificial genre. As with all the sessions, this one concluded with a round of audience questions and some animated debate.
After the interlude came the third round of papers, chaired by Professor Richard Cronin of the University of Glasgow. In “Footnotes or Headstones? Annotating The Age of Bronze,” Michael Edson from Delaware reflected on the experience of reading Byron’s heavily allusive satire. Mike suggested that Byron’s first readers might have seen the poem’s scarcity of notes as meaningful in a satire criticizing the same historical forgetfulness that makes footnoting necessary. Mirka Horova of Charles University in Prague followed with “Lord Byron’s The Deformed Transformed: The Ideals of Égalité, Fraternié, Liberté Betrayed,” an erudite discussion of Byron’s play as dramatizing “a crisis of humanism.” Then, in an energetically-delivered paper dubbed “The Geo-Politics of Byron’s Venetian Drama,” Professor Joshua D. Gonsalves of Rice University considered the difficulties faced by Byron in representing Venetian politics when the line between rule by terror and revolutionary Republicanism was not clear. With the session about to exceed the time limit, Professor Richard Cronin suggested that his paper be sacrificed, but the crowd would hear nothing of the sort. They were amply repaid for their insistence. Considering Byron’s use of slang from different occupations and social registers, Richard’s “‘And I will war at least in words’: The Diction of Don Juan and the Politics of Liberation,” brilliantly demonstrated the inclusiveness of Byron’s diction. And with that morning’s intellectual repast concluded, the group returned to the hotel for lunch.
The remainder of Wednesday saw the group board the coach and travel to the town of Nafpaktos to visit the Botzaris Mansion. Guided by their courtly and knowledgeable host Notis Botzaris, the students perused a fascinating collection of artwork commemorating the Venetian victory over the Turkish fleet at Lepanto in 1571. Students then proceeded to the nearby port to admire the fortifications and enjoy a snack provided by the Mayor of Nafpaktos, Mr. Thanassis Papathanassis. After that it was back to the Theoxenia. While most of the older generation retired for the night, the younger set repaired to the center of town. They spent the rest of the evening in true Greek fashion, enjoying a fish feast and indulging in the local libations.
Thursday morning brought the fourth academic session, chaired by Professor Naji Oueijan and featuring papers by three students from Notre Dame University of Lebanon. To start, Bassem Kamel posed the question, “Byron: Humanist or Anti-humanist?” Discussing Manfred’s failure to alleviate his angst through learning, Bassem contended that Byron doubted the importance of humanist education. Following Bassem’s thought-provoking talk was Diala Noufaily’s eloquent “Byron: Terrifying the Terrorists.” Diala showed how Byron exposes hypocrisy in Don Juan despite Juan’s acceptance of societal norms. Harvey Oueijan wrapped up the session with “Byron: A Liberator of Armenian Culture.” Discussing Byron’s overlooked work as translator, Harvey persuasively argued that translating works into the Armenian language was Byron’s means of liberating Armenian culture from Ottoman rule.
Leading off the fifth session was Aaron Ottinger from Depaul with “Byron’s Retreat to Action in the ‘Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte’.” Aaron traced Byron’s ambivalence about Napoleon’s political ambition, arguing that Byron sympathized with Napoleon because he saw much of himself in the French Emperor. Next came two presenters from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Eirini Kelmali’s “Lord Byron’s Ambiguous Philhellenism in ‘The Isles of Greece’” analyzed the ambivalences of Byron’s lyric poem. In this close reading tour de force, Eirini argued that the speaker’s shifts between hope and despair signaled Byron’s pessimism about the prospects of the Greek cause. The remainder of the session featured Stella Macidou’s “Gender Reversal in Don Juan: Women Who Transgress the Boundaries,” a bracing discussion of gender ambiguities in Byron’s poetry. A round of questions followed, along with some insightful comments by the session chair, Dr. Argyros Protopapas of Athens University.
After lunch came the sixth and final academic session chaired by Professor M. Byron Raizis. Argyros Protopapas began with “Humanism and the Romantic Self: Physical Aspects in ‘Julian and Maddalo’.” Besides considering physicality and psychology in P. B. Shelley’s humanism, Argyros eloquently performed several long excerpts from the poem. Naji Oueijan showed the impact of family and friends on Byron’s attitude towards America in “Byron’s Notions of the American Revolution.” In “Byron and Catholic Emancipation,” Dr. Allan Gregory of the Irish Byron Society discussed the reception of Byron’s parliamentary speeches, a fitting topic for a session distinguished by eloquent and impassioned deliveries. Allan contended that Byron’s speeches, consisting more of dramatic flair than principled argument, were not the typical stuff of political oratory. Byron Raizis closed the session with “The Greek Poets Praise the Britannic Muse,” an informative overview of Greek poetic responses to Byron. With the end of the session that day’s scheduled events also came to a close, and once again the young folks (including Allan) made a return trip to the town centre for dinner and dancing.
Friday morning’s agenda included a wreath-laying ceremony at the site of Byron’s house in Messolonghi and a visit to the Garden of the Heroes, the memorial garden commemorating the Europeans who fought in the Greek War of Independence. Then came stops at Aitoliko, an island town visited by Byron, and the island chapel of Panayia Finikias, the destination of Byron’s sunset equestrian excursions from Messolonghi. Lunch was back at the Theoxenia Hotel and the afternoon was free. For some participants, this meant time for shopping; for others, a bit of swimming at the nearby Tourlida beach.
In the evening students reassembled at the Prefecture’s Conference Center of Aitolia and Acarnania, joined now by Byron enthusiasts and political worthies from Messolonghi and beyond, for the conference’s official closing ceremony. The keynote lecture, introduced by Peter Graham, featured The Right Honorable Robin Lord Byron, President of the London Byron Society. Entitled “Byron and Greece,” Lord Byron’s paper movingly described Byron’s lifelong philhellenism, and the reasons that brought the poet to Messolonghi. The conclusion of Lord Byron’s talk brought the next event: a concert of Romaic music from the 17th through 20th centuries, ably performed by three musicians from the Technological Institute of Epirus, Eugenios Voulgaris, Sergios Voulgaris, and Markos Skoulios. After the concert, the conference participants removed to the nearby Plaza Restaurant for a dinner offered by the Mayor of Messolonghi, Mr. Yannis Anagnostopoulos. The day’s events ended with some traditional Greek dancing. By night’s end many of the conference participants had made their way to the dance floor, though a few escaped, perhaps by feigning a Byronic foot ailment.
But the conference did not end there. On Saturday morning the attendees packed up and hit the road through the Aitoloakarnanian countryside for Lefkada, one of the Ionian Islands. After checking-in at the Ionian Star Hotel, the group piled back on the bus for one of the highlights of the conference: an afternoon at the lovely Kathisma Beach, near the village of Agios Nikitas. Some participants tested their mettle by swimming, by all accounts, half way to the Bosphorus. Others opted to frolic in the wonderfully transparent shallows or flop down on the pebbly beach to soak up the sun. Thus concluded the conference’s official events. The students had the evening on their own, but they reassembled, drawn together as if by a magnet or perhaps the magnificent full moon, at a dockside restaurant for a last meal together. It was one final proof of the friendships that had been forged in the preceding days.
(written by Michael Edson)