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That Greece Might Still Be Free

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William St Clair

16 Lord Byron Joins the Cause

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1The first success of the London Greek Committee was to recruit Lord Byron to its membership. He is the most famous and the most interesting Philhellene by such a large margin that it is now difficult to appreciate how much his expedition to Greece was a result of accident.

  • 1 Blaquiere to Reeves to be passed to Lord Liverpool, 28 October, 1823. British Library Additional M (...)

2As usual Edward Blaquiere played an important role. The energy of this man never ceases to astonish. No sooner had he escorted the Greek agent safely from Madrid to London in the spring of 1823 and made the first moves towards the establishment of the London Greek Committee, than he rushed off to Greece itself. His purpose was allegedly to discover the facts of the situation in Greece (a task for which his prejudices made him quite unsuitable). In reality his main object was to forestall secret French moves to help the Greeks by making promises of money and other help on behalf of the English liberals. As he declared to the Government when he dutifully passed on to them the murky intelligence he had discovered about the Knights of Malta, he ’felt a natural solicitude that all the glory and advantages to be derived from Greek regeneration should belong to England’.1

  • 2 * Trelawny also claims to have had a hand in introducing Blaquiere to Byron, but none of his statem (...)

3Blaquiere asked to call on Byron at Genoa on his way to Greece and spent a few hours with him there in March 1823. He was armed with a letter of introduction from Byron’s old friend John Cam Hobhouse, who was one of the original members of the London Greek Committee.*2 It is worth emphasizing, however, that at the time when Blaquiere called on Byron, the London Greek Committee hardly existed. All that had happened to date was that Blaquiere and Bowring had persuaded a few prominent liberal politicians including Hobhouse to give their permission to deal with the agents of the Greek Government in their name and to hint that massive British help might be forthcoming.

4In 1823 Byron was a more considerable man than he had been in the years before 1816 when his Grecian and Turkish tales had fanned a romantic literary philhellenism. He was more experienced, more tolerant, wiser. He was at work on his masterpiece, Don Juan, and, despite the continued adulation of a huge, mainly female, public for his earlier romantic poems, he now found them slightly juvenile and slightly shaming.

5Byron was no longer a young man. He had largely given up the life of riot and sexual adventure which had shocked the English, and was living a settled, almost domestic, life with the Countess Guiccioli to whom he had a sincere and lasting attachment. The old panache was still there – he still loved extravagance – but he was now more conscious of the passing of time. He had a distressing tendency to run to fat and his hair was noticeably thinner. In a desperate effort to preserve the good looks of which he was so proud, he took to starving himself. Every morning he scrupulously measured his wrists and waist and, if there was any change, he took a large dose of Epsom salts. For breakfast he had only a dish of green tea, followed by several hours’ hard exercise. Almost every day he took strong purgative pills and magnesia powders to try to cure the resulting indigestion. Some days he ate little or nothing but developed the habit of always having a glass of wine by him in the evening and of drinking immoderately late into the night. Byron felt life was slipping past him; that he had done nothing constructive since his disastrous scandal in 1816; that at the age of thirtyfive he was fated to be simply a man of unfulfilled promise, a curiosity remarked by the tourists. Although he was writing brilliant poetry, it brought him little satisfaction and he seems to have no longer regarded poetry as a serious occupation.

6The generosity of mind which, from the earliest days, had been one of his most attractive characteristics had not deserted him. The political idealism of his youth had not dried up as he grew older. His commitment to liberalism was totally sincere. Though he could see the absurdities of politicians and apparently sneer at them, this did not mean that he was not seriously concerned about political questions. He was a man who could see through the triviality, the pomposity, the injustice, the selfishness, and the tedium of the political process and yet was never tempted either to cynicism or to withdrawal. Unprotected by any comforting illusions, he never despaired and he never despised. These were rare and precious gifts.

7In many ways, however, Byron was also very much a man of his time. Like hundreds of lesser men who had already been lured to Greece he was bored, he longed for action, and he still believed that war could be glorious. Greece appealed to him mainly as a fight for liberty, not as a fight for Greeks as such. He had seriously considered that South America and then Spain might be suitable theatres for his energies. And he had taken part in an abortive revolution in Italy. In all these respects Byron was a typical Philhellene, resembling hundreds of men from all over Europe whose names appear in the list of volunteers in the Greek cause.

8Byron reacted to Blaquiere’s enthusiastic proposals for helping the Greeks in the same way as the students and soldiers of Germany had reacted to the proclamations in the newspapers. He allowed himself to be persuaded that his half-suppressed imaginings could become a reality. Blaquiere encouraged him to believe that he could be practical and helpful and gave him a quite misleading account of conditions in Greece:

  • 3 Blaquiere to Byron 28 April 1823. Copy sent to Gordon by Bowring with the news that Byron had told (...)

From all that I heard, it would be criminal in me to leave this without urging your Lordship to come up as soon as possible: – your presence will operate as a talisman and the field is too glorious, too closely associated with all that you hold dear to be any longer abandoned…. The cause is in a most flourishing state. I hope to be able to give your Lordship the result of the new elections in a few days. Meantime the effect produced by my mentioning the fact o f your intention to join it, has been quite electric: need I say one word on the result to your self of being mainly instrumental in resuscitating the Land already so happily illustrated by your sublime and energetic Muse…. Anxious to see your Lordship in this land of heroes, I remain most truly and devotedly yours, Edward Blaquiere.3

9Blaquiere assured Byron that the British authorities in the Ionian Islands would all be delighted to see him, and that any money he spent on buying military or medical supplies would soon be reimbursed. He had even made arrangements for Byron to be received and entertained by ’a distinguished young poet’ of the Ionian isles.

10Flattery, combined with an ingenuous charm and apparently boundless energy, is a potent weapon. Shortly afterwards, Byron wrote to the Committee that he intended to go to Greece if the accounts in Blaquiere’s letter could be confirmed.

11Meanwhile in England, the London Committee, under Bowring’s practised hand, skilfully exploited Byron’s name to draw attention to themselves, leaking his confidential letters to the press without his approval. Nor did they see any objection to practising their publicist arts on Byron himself. It was seven years since Byron had left England; the posts were slow; news of home was scanty; and in any case Byron was not greatly interested in the day-to-day issues of English politics. With the exception of Hobhouse, the men who were organizing the London Greek Committee were largely unknown to him. He did not appreciate how small a section of British public opinion they represented and how difficult they were finding it to make any impact.

12The Committee continued to overwhelm Byron with flattery. They encouraged him to write long letters about the Greek situation, implying that they valued his advice above all others. They even wrote to inform him that he had been elected a member of the Committee in terms which implied that this was a great honour open to few – a well-known recruiting trick of unsuccessful organizations. For a time the bandwagon rolled as they had hoped. Men allowed their names to be added to the Committee’s membership out of respect or liking for Byron and the apparent widening of the political base of the Committee induced others to join. But, despite appearances, the vast majority of the distinguished men whose names ornamented the London Greek Committee took no part in its activities. Throughout its life it was exclusively administered by a small group of doctrinaire Benthamites. It was only when he reached Greece that Byron was to begin to appreciate the true nature of the London Greek Committee with whom he had tied his fortunes and his reputation. The process of disenchantment was to be a painful one.

13A few days after Blaquiere left Genoa, another episode turned Byron’s thoughts to Greece. Two German Philhellenes, a Württemberger and a Bavarian, knowing his reputation for kindness, came to beg help to pay for their journey back to Germany. They had both been members of General Normann’s party and the Württemberger had been present at Peta. Leaving Greece together in September 1822 they had wandered from island to island and eventually reached Smyrna. They had benefited from the kindness of the French Consul and had been given a free passage to Ancona, but at Trieste they had been turned back by the Austrians. They now had no money, clothes, or shoes.

  • 4 * This was perhaps Adolph von Lübtow whose book appeared in 1823 in Berne.
  • 5 This incident is described in Gamba and in letters by Byron. The two men cannot be identified for (...)

14Byron took a personal interest in the two men and invited them to his house several times before sending them happily on their way. He was able to converse about the places which he had visited in his youth and his mind was drawn back to happier days. He examined them closely about the state of affairs in Greece and learnt a good deal of more or less accurate information about the attitude of the Greeks to foreigners and their aversion to European methods of warfare. The two young men were clearly typical of the best of the 1822 generation of Philhellenes. As Byron wrote in a letter to Bowring: ’Both are very simple, full of naïveté, and quite unpretending: they say the foreigners quarrelled among themselves, particularly the French with the Germans, which produced duels…. One of them means to publish his Journal of the campaign.*4 The Bavarian wonders a little that the Greeks are not quite the same with them of the time of Themistocles’.5

15After the visit of the Germans, Byron’s enthusiasm for an expedition to Greece grew rapidly. Everyone with whom he discussed the idea pressed him to indulge his wishes. Count Gamba, the young brother of Byron’s mistress, who had shared in the debacle of the revolution in Central Italy, was bursting like so many of his countrymen to continue the struggle for Italian independence in Greece. Blaquiere bombarded Byron with letters, urging him to go to Greece without delay and promising to meet him there.

  • 6 Trelawny and Hamilton Browne.

16At last on 13 July 1823 Byron left Genoa in a chartered vessel. He had on board a domestic retinue of nine servants – including a doctor specially recruited – five horses, two small cannon, a store of medicines, 10,000 Spanish dollars in cash and bills for a further 40,000. Passage was given to a few volunteers.6 There is no doubt that Byron regarded the expedition as a serious one, almost as a sacrifice – any suggestions that he was simply out for adventure were firmly discounted. Yet it is no slur on his main motives to say that he also hoped that he would enjoy himself, that he would again be a figure in the land, and even that glory might come his way. Like many a lesser Philhellene, Byron gave himself away by his wardrobe. The fascination of the appurtenances of war just could not be resisted. He took half a dozen military uniforms in many colours and all lavishly decorated with gold and silver braid with sashes, epaulettes, waistcoats, and cocked hats to match. He took two gilded helmets decorated with the family motto ’Crede Byron’ and at least ten swords. On the way he persuaded his friend Trelawny to give him his black American groom since he knew that it added to a man’s dignity in the East to have a black man as a servant.

Notes

1 Blaquiere to Reeves to be passed to Lord Liverpool, 28 October, 1823. British Library Additional Manuscripts 38, 297 f. 166.

2 * Trelawny also claims to have had a hand in introducing Blaquiere to Byron, but none of his statements can be accepted without confirmation.

3 Blaquiere to Byron 28 April 1823. Copy sent to Gordon by Bowring with the news that Byron had told the Committee that he would proceed instantly to Greece if the accounts contained in Captain Blaquiere’s letter were confirmed in his next communication. Gordon Papers.

4 * This was perhaps Adolph von Lübtow whose book appeared in 1823 in Berne.

5 This incident is described in Gamba and in letters by Byron. The two men cannot be identified for sure, although one was perhaps Adolph von Lübtow who was later killed at Missolonghi.

6 Trelawny and Hamilton Browne.

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