Students of the MA in English Literature at Notre Dame University-Louaize (NDU), Maria Sfeir, Rita Farah, and Leila El Khoury, accompanied Dr. Naji Oueijan, part-time Professor of the Department of English and Translation (DET) at the Faculty of Humanities (FH) and Joint President of the International Association of Byron Societies
(IABS), to the 15th International Student Byron Conference
(ISBC) in Messolonghi, Greece. Organized by the Messolonghi Byron Society
(MBS) and held at the Messolonghi Byron Research Center
(MBRC), the group presented their papers at the week-long conference and enjoyed the cultural climate of the town.
A key figure in Romanticism, Lord Byron had an extensive history in Messolonghi, having participated in the battle against the Ottoman Empire during the early 19th century, eventually passing away due to a severe fever. His contemporary, Percy Bysshe Shelley, likewise showcased an interest in the Greek Revolution, both poets contributing to the Philhellenism movement, a call for the revival of Greece’s culture and spirit as a means of emancipation from the Ottomans.
After a two-year delay due to the pandemic, the Conference providentially coincided with both the bicentennial anniversary of Greece’s independence and that of Shelley’s death. As such, the ISBC of 2022 honored the Philhellenism inspired by the era, celebrating not only Byron and Shelley’s involvement in the Greek Revolution, but also exploring various expressions of the cultural movement in the contexts of countries such as France, Norway, and Scotland.
University students and instructors convened for the presentation of papers in the attic of the MBRC, otherwise known as the Byron Library. The event was bookended by the NDU representatives, with Maria, Leila, and Dr. Oueijan giving the first two lectures on opening day, and Rita wrapping up the Conference at the end of the week.
Maria and Leila, co-authors of the paper, “The Evolution of the Byronic Heroine: Tracing Tragic Elements of Euripides’ Medea
in Lord Byron’s The Corsair
,” made the case for the role of Ancient Greek tragedies in influencing Byron’s Philhellene sentiments, particularly in shaping his protagonist, Gulnare, as the female representation and savior of Greece. The comparison to Medea, Euripides’ tragic heroine, is derived from either woman’s display of violence spurred by a righteous anger and passion, two figures of independence distinguished by a firm and subversive view of femininity and maternal love. Greece, argued Maria and Leila, is feminized in Byron’s narrative poem because revenge is feminized; the road to Greek independence is therefore a remembrance of the nation’s history as a mother of culture, with an emphasis on birth and rebirth, a reclamation of bloodshed.
In terms of direct commentary on the Ottoman rule, Dr. Oueijan referred to the works of French Romantic and painter, Eugène Delacroix, in his presentation titled, “Delacroix, Greece, and the Search for ‘truth idealized.’” Delacroix’s depictions of Messolonghi reference the tragedies that the town suffered during the Third Siege, including famine and epidemics. One such painting, described by Dr. Oueijan, was “Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi
:” Greece, here a woman in the likeness of the Virgin Mary, kneels in sorrow upon the city’s debris, with a corpse peaking from beneath the rubble. This painting in particular portrays the mass suicide the Greeks committed, preferring death to Ottoman captivity. Two other paintings Dr. Oueijan discussed were “The Massacre at Chios
,” showcasing Greeks killed by the Turkish forces, and one in a series of six, “The Combat of the Giaour and Hassan
,” citing Byron’s narrative poem, The Giaour
The concluding paper was Rita’s “The Byronic Struggle for Philhellenic Liberation in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
and ‘The Isles of Greece!,” documenting Byron’s sentiments regarding Greek liberation in a simultaneous glorification of and disillusionment with the nation’s circumstances. Childe Harold
, according to Rita, is an ode to a bygone era of Greek splendor, an attempt to reconstruct the present in the image of the past. “Isles!,” in comparison, follows a call-to-action form, wherein the Greeks’ suffering amidst the occupation is at the forefront of the narrative, thus underlining the imperative to revolt. Byron’s participation in the Revolution at Messolonghi can be interpreted as a frustration with Greece's cultural symbol. Rita’s closing statement consequently typifies Byron’s reverence for Greece, in true Philhellenic fashion, as largely derived from a nostalgia for an Ancient Greek glory, however vicarious.
Given the historical significance of Messolonghi, the academic dimension was far from the sole purpose of the visit to the Sacred City. Several tours were taken of the town, including the Monument to Byron where he spent his final weeks before his passing, the Garden of Heroes, the Archaeological Museum, and the Messolonghi Salt Museum. A formal Gala Dinner, per ISBC custom, was held at a restaurant to commemorate the event, with performances of Greek traditional dancing reminiscent of the shared Mediterranean spirit here in Lebanon.
Trips to the ruins of Nikopolis, the town of Preveza, a record of Greece’s history both ancient and recent, all a true cultural engagement wherein Dr. Oueijan and his students found an authentic connection to beauty in both space and time.
A special thanks is necessary for all the organizers who worked tirelessly to ensure that the Conference sparked a literary resurgence following the trials of the pandemic: Mrs. Rodanthi Rosa Florou, President of the MBS; Dr. Maria Schoina, Academic Advisor for the MBS; Dr. Roderick Beaton, King’s College London; Dr. Peter Graham, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; and Dr. Jonathan Gross, De Paul University.
An acknowledgment of the participating instructors, who did not disappoint in shedding light on the richness of the intersection between Romanticism and Philhellenism: Dr. Samantha Crain, University of Minnesota; Dr. William Davis, Colorado College; Dr. John Spalding Gatton, Bellarmine University; Dr. David McClay, University of Edinburgh; Dr. Stephen Minta, York University; Dr. Kyriaki Petryakou, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens; Dr. Matthew Scott, Reading University; and Dr. Andrew Stauffer, University of Virginia.
The students, the focal point of the gathering, likewise deserve their due credit: Niri Ragnvlad Johnsen, University of Agder; Vassilea Moschou and Eirini Nathanailidou, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki; John Murphy, De Paul University; Katie Smith, York University; and Cheng Zhen, University of London.