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Byron, George Gordon, Lord (1788-1824)  
 
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This period of his life ended when the London Committee for Greek independence was formed in 1823. Byron's account of his travels in Greece in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage had helped fire interest in the cause of Greek freedom. Enthusiasm for Greek art in this period of the "Greek Revival" had been earlier aroused by the writings of the German critic Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose warm regard for Greek sculpture undoubtedly owed something to his own nature.

Shelley shared Winckelmann's admiration for Greek male beauty, but whether Shelley's preference is simply aesthetic or tinged by an unconscious erotic response is difficult to determine.

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Byron's poetry directly echoes famous passages from Winckelmann. It also shows an awareness of the heroic traditions of Greek love. In Childe Harold, Byron celebrates the heroism of Harmodius, and in his notes to the poem, speaks of Antinous as one "whose death was as noble as his life was infamous." Byron was apparently aware of the story that Antinous had sacrificed his life for his lover, the emperor Hadrian. But under the conventions of the day, Byron could refer to their love affair in a published work only if he appeared to condemn it.

Whether Byron anticipated further adventures with boys in Greece when he landed on the island of Cephalonia in August of 1823 is impossible to say. The last months of his life, however, saw him embroiled in just such an affair. On Cephalonia, he gave aid to a Greek widow who was a refugee from the war; later her fifteen-year-old son Lukas joined her there, and Byron fell desperately in love with him.

This important episode was not freely discussed by Byron biographers until the mid-twentieth century. The story may be pieced together from Byron's letters and from a series of three remarkable love poems, the last poems he wrote. Byron took Lukas into his suite as a page, gave him a splendid uniform and command of a troop of thirty soldiers.

On the voyage from Cephalonia to Missolonghi, Byron was afraid Turkish sailors might take Lukas prisoner. On a second voyage, he was apprehensive for his safety during a threatened shipwreck. When Lukas contracted a fever in Missolonghi, Byron nursed him and gave him his own bed. He was, however, irritated by Lukas's continual demands for money and luxuries. Lukas, unlike the boys of Byron's earlier Greek visit, did not reciprocate Byron's ardor and seems to have exploited the relationship to his own advantage.

The cycle of poems in which Byron expresses his feelings about Lukas begins with "On This Day I Complete My Thirty Sixth Year." These stanzas became widely known shortly after Byron's death and were regarded for many years as his final poetic testament. They begin with Byron's declaration that he is in love with someone who does not love him. However, he pledges to "tread these reviving passions down" and devote himself to the heroic struggle for Greek freedom, anticipating death on the battlefield.

The poem should have raised questions since Teresa's devotion to Byron was undoubted, and there was patently no other woman in his life. Certainly Byron's friends in Missolonghi were quite aware of his devotion to Lukas and were very uneasy about the complexion that might be placed on what one of them called this "mischievous topic."

For sixty years, "On This Day" was thought to be Byron's last poem. But John Cam Hobhouse, had in fact, preserved two later poems, which were not published until after his death in 1887. In "Last Words On Greece," a single stanza in the form of a truncated sonnet, Byron abandons the resolution of "On This Day." He declares that the fate of Greece and his own fame mean nothing to him when compared to the "maddening fascination" that has enthralled him.

"Love and Death" is explicitly autobiographical in a very detailed way. Byron enumerates the occasions in which Lukas's welfare had caused him worry: the threatened capture and shipwreck, an earthquake when he had been concerned for Lukas's safety, the boy's illness. The poem ends with Byron's despairing admission that Lukas does not and cannot love him "though it be my lot / To strongly--wrongly--vainly--love thee still."

We may wonder why so minutely autobiographical a poem was not read as an avowal of love for Lukas until seventy years after its appearance in print. The reason was that Hobhouse had left a note, purportedly by Byron himself, which was published with the poem in 1887, to the effect that it referred "to no one in particular" and was "a mere poetical Scherzo." Nevertheless, the overwhelming evidence of Byron's letters proves that Lukas is referred to in each of the six stanzas. The episode makes a poignant coda to the story of Byron's life and loves.

When news of Byron's death at Missolonghi reached London, Hobhouse (who had not read it) insisted that the pages of Byron's unpublished memoirs be burned; he was able to persuade John Murray, Byron's publisher, and Thomas Moore, to whom Byron had entrusted the manuscript, to do this against their better judgment.

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