Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Byron: from Scoundrel to Hero

The British poet Byron squandered his extreme popularity in a series of scandals and flamboyant displays of pure egotism. Once beloved by the reading public, his reputation was so bad that he eventually had to leave England and roamed through Italy, Switzerland, and other parts of Europe. David Pryce-Jones, a scholar at Eton and Oxford, recounts the story from that point:

Back in London, the Greek Committee was established to fight for Greece's independence from the Ottomans. Here was a more rewarding cause than anything in Italy or South America, where Byron also thought of venturing. Several of his friends were members of this committee, and they arranged for him to be their official agent in Greece, well aware of the publicity he was bound to attract. He spent a fortune on specially designed helmets and uniforms, and on the costs of the voyage. Eventually he established himself on the Greek mainland at Missolonghi, more a mud-patch than a proper town.

Byron needed a cause: his life, full of potential at the beginning, had proven empty in the pursuit of mere pleasure and in the attempt to glorify his ego. He now wanted something outside himself: something bigger than himself. He was finally ready to be in the service of something other than himself. Old habits die hard, however, and there was still plenty of swagger in his altruism.

The cause needed Byron: Greece had been attacked, invaded, and occupied by the Islamic army. The resistance was no match for the Muslim military. A famous Englishman like Byron would bring resources to their struggle for freedom.

There he subsidized Greeks and wild Albanians, irregulars who valued his money far more than freedom. He imagined himself at the head of Byron's Brigade, leading a charge and driving the Turks out. Reality overtook fantasy when he caught some sort of fever and suffered mysterious and fatal convulsions. A lonely and untimely death followed; he was only 36.

An instance of Luther's dictum that each man is simultaneously saint and sinner: Byron's effort to help the Greeks was riddled with his own flawed nature, which overflowed into the mercenaries he hired. A moral paradox: he was indeed engaged in a noble task, to help the oppressed victims; but Byron, like all humans, carried his own ethical failings with him even as he did something clearly good.

The Greek Committee and his friends were quick to build the legend that Byron had sacrificed himself in the cause of Greek independence, a hero and martyr for the sacred ideal of freedom.

And indeed, Byron was a martyr who sacrificed himself - not as he might have hoped, gallantly on a battlefield - but rather in diseased mud. Yet his efforts did indeed help the effort to relieve the Greeks from the tyranny of the Islamic military. His life, and death, helped his fellow human beings - both because of his efforts, and despite his person.