In the Arms of an Angel
W. Ruth Kozak on Lord Byron
At the corner of Lysikrates and Vironos streets, in Athens’ Plaka, stands a choragic monument awarded during a Festival of Dionysus in ancient Athens. Next to this monument was once a French Capuchin convent where the English Romantic poet Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron, 1788-1824) stayed when he was in the city. The panels between the columns of the monument had, by Byron’s time, been removed, so he used the space as his study. He composed part of his autobiographical narrative poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, there in 1810-11.
In Greek, “Vironos” means Byron–Byron’s Street. I used to live in Athens and often spent time at the little milk shop, now a posh coffee shop, at that same corner. The convent was destroyed in a fire, but a monument to Byron was erected on the spot where it stood.
While in Athens, Bryon sometimes lodged with a widow, Tarcia Macri, whose daughter Teresa is celebrated in his poem “The Maid of Athens.”
Maid of Athens, ere we part/Give, oh give me back my heart!/Or, since that has left my breast,/ Keep it now, and take the rest!/Hear my vow before I go,/
The house, in the district of Psiri at Odos Agias Theklas, is marked with a plaque. There are traces of Byron in various other locations throughout the city, too. If you visit the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, you will see his name carved in the marble steps that he wrote of in “The Isles of Greece.”
Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,/ Where nothing, save the waves and I,/ May hear our mutual murmurs sweep.
Byron first visited Greece in 1809, landing in the town of Parga. From there he went north to Ioannina, where the infamous Ali Pasha, who had an even shadier reputation with women than the poet, held sway. Like Bryon, Ali Pasha also appreciated beautiful young men. He was enchanted by Byron, noting his delicate small ears, considered a mark of good breeding. It was during his stay in Ioannina that Byron began Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to commemorate his meeting with Ali Pasha, who had lavished hospitality on him. Byron knew that behind Ali’s deceptively friendly countenance were “deeds that lurk” and “stain him with disgrace.”
Byron traveled the country extensively, often visiting the islands. His surroundings appeared in his poems. On Lefkada (Levkas), for example, “Childe Harold” saw the hovering star above Leucadia’s far projecting rock of woe. This was at the site of ancient Leukadas, a precipitous cliff where a temple to Apollo once stood. Legend has it that the lyric poet Sappho jumped off the cliff here, killing herself, in 570 B.C. Today the spot is known as Sappho’s Leap.
During his travels, Byron not only grew to love the country but also was impressed with the moral tolerance of the people. He became involved in the War of Independence against the Turks. The struggle was supported by many intellectuals and poets who, like Lord Byron, volunteered to fight and become leaders of the revolution. When Byron arrived in Messolonghi (a port on the Gulf of Corinth), the western outpost of the resistance movement against the Ottomans, he was greeted with a 21-gun salute. In spite of despairing “in this realm of mud and discord,” he donated 4,000 pounds of his own money to prepare the Greek fleet for sea service, employed a fire master to prepare artillery, and paid the Souliot soldiers, who were reputed to be the bravest of the Greek resistance fighters.
On Suli’s rock, and Parga’s shore,/ Exists the remnant of a line/ Such as the Doric mothers bore:/And there, perhaps, some seed is sown,/ The Heracleidan blood might own./ Trust not for freedom to the Franks-/ They have a king who buys and sells;/ In native sword and native ranks,/ The only hope of courage dwells:/ But Turkish force and Latin fraud/ Would break your shield, however broad.
– “The Isles of Greece”
During the spring of 1824 Byron became ill and, during his recovery, contracted a severe cold. The common treatment of the day, bleeding, aggravated his body and may have caused sepsis. He died on April 19, 1824, at the age of 37.
The Greeks considered Byron a hero. A beautiful monument depicting him in the arms of an angel stands at the edge of the National Garden of Athens. Each time I’m there I visit it and think of the life and poetic words of this exceptional and intriguing man of literature.
W. Ruth Kozak is an ardent traveler who has lived in, and often visits, Greece, where she spends time browsing archaeological sites and doing research. She is fond of the Greek writers and poets, both ancient and modern. Ruth edits and publishes her own online travel magazine, Travel Thru History(www.travelthruhistory.com). She is a published travel writer and writing instructor. Find her atwww.ruthkozak.com.