Lord Byron: Amor e morte in Greece
Updated: May 10, 2021
The British Romantic poet Lord Byron (1788-1824) first arrived in Greece in 1809 at the tender age of 21, in search of adventure and sexual liberation. He travelled around Epirus and Attica with his friend John Cam Hobhouse. In Athens he drafted parts of Child Harold while renting a room in the house of the widow of Prokopis Makris, who had been vice-consul of Britain to Athens.
Alexandre-Marie Colin, Byron as Don Juan, 1831. Private collection
Mrs. Makris had three daughters but it was the youngest, 12-year-old Teresa, who most delighted Byron, and he wrote Maid of Athens for her before departing for Constantinople. Here are the opening lines:
Maid of Athens, ere we part, Give, oh, give back my heart! Or, since that has left my breast, Keep it now, and take the rest! Hear my vow before I go, Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.
Each stanza ends with a line in Greek “Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ” (Zoe mou, sas agapo), which Byron translated as “My life, I love you”.
On his way back from Turkey to the Morea, on 17 July 1810, he stayed at Mrs. Makri’s house for another ten days. The widow had lined her daughter up for the great poet, but Byron had already fallen for a certain Nicolo Giraud, a 15-year-old local boy of French parentage. Byron moved out of his lodgings into the Capuchin monastery were Giraud was working. In a letter to John Hobhouse, who had already left for home, Byron penned the following:
“But my friend, as you may easily imagine, is Nicolo who by-the-by, is my Italian master, and we are already very philosophical. I am his ‘Padrone’ and his ‘amico’, and the Lord knows what besides. It is about two hours since, that, after informing me he was most desirous to follow me over the world, he concluded by telling me it was proper for us not only to live, but ‘morire insieme’ [die together]. The latter I hope to avoid – as much of the former as he pleases.”
The two spent their days studying, swimming, and taking in the landscape as Byron composed poetry, and when he left for England, Byron took Nicolo to Malta, where he arranged for his schooling. Other than his involvement with Byron, little is known of Giraud’s life.
Byron never met Nicolo nor Teresa again. His writings made him an overnight sensation and, when back in London in 1812, he proclaimed: “If I’m a poet it is the air of Greece which has made me one”. He came back to Greece in 1823 to join the Greek insurgents who were fighting a revolutionary war against the Ottoman Empire. However, on Easter Sunday 1824 he died from fever at Missolonghi, without seeing Greece independent. He was deeply mourned in England and became a national hero in Greece. His death proved effective in eliciting support for Greece’s struggle from all parts of the Western world.
Teresa eventually married to a Scotsman, one Mr. Black (variously said to be a professor and a British diplomat) and died impoverished in 1875 in Athens. Although the poet’s feelings for Teresa were probably no more than a literary fiction, the Athenian beauty became a romantic legend and inspired paintings representing frail virgins who, in the words of one art critic, “generally gaze shyly sideways out of the lower right-hand corner of their frames”.
Henry Pickersgill, Greek Maiden, 1829 © the Benaki Museum, Athens
Byron is commemorated in Athens by a splendid marble statue (on the corner of Amalia and Olga Avenue), a street in the old town (Plaka), a neighbourhood below Mount Hymettus, and a football team. The Makris residence,once easily distinguished by the flagpole from which the consul had flown the British flag, no longer stands; it was burned to the ground during the events that followed the Greek Revolution. You’ll find in its place, in Theklas Street in the neighborhood of Psyrri, a parking lot.
Words by Nicolas Nicolaides