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‘A brighter Hellas’: rediscovering Greece in the 19th century

Lord Byron

Extract from The siege of Corinth by Lord ByronExtract from The siege of Corinth by Lord ByronIn 1809 Lord Byron (1788-1824) set sail on a grand tour of the Iberian Peninsula and the Levant. In November he visited Missolonghi, and then journeyed to Athens, Constantinople and the Peloponnese.

The Romantic poet fell in love with Greece and her antiquities. At the beginning of the 19th century the term ‘philhellene’ came into use to describe ‘lovers of Greece’, and Byron becamethe most celebrated philhellene of all, inspiring hundreds of European philhellenes to fight for Greece.

Byron worked the experiences of his Greek travels into the first two cantos of the narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, his first work to be published by John Murray. A succession of poems followed expressing philhellenic sentiments. In The siege of Corinth Byron wrote:

Despite of every yoke she bears,
That land is glory’s still and theirs!
‘Tis still a watch-word to the earth.
When man would do a deed of worth,
He points to Greece,and turns to tread,
So sanctioned, on the tyrant’s head:
He looks to her, and rushes on
Where life is lost, or freedom won.

In the third canto of his masterpiece Don Juan, written in 1820 on the eve of the Greek revolution, Byron conveyed his most famous philhellenic vision:

The mountains look on Marathon –
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might still be free …

In April 1823 Byron was formally elected to the London Greek Committee and in mid-July, urged by founding member Edward Blaquiere, he set sail for Cephalonia to fight for liberty in Greece. In January 1824, greeted by a 21 gun salute, the celebrated philhellene, dressed in his scarlet military uniform, arrived in Missolonghi to join the forces of Prince Mavrocordato.

Byron’s presence sparked a renewed interest from British philhellenes, and western Europeans throughout Greece congregated in the town. But the poet’s health quickly declined and on 19 April he died from a fever at Missolonghi. Although he had despaired at the ineffectiveness of the Greek military, Byron’s death gave the Greek forces renewed impetus in their efforts.

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