Byron’s The Isles of Greece Revisited in 1897

Byron’s The Isles of Greece Revisited in 1897 1240 1755 REVICTO
The date is March 4, 1897. Henry Labouchère’s widely circulated London society journal the Truth publishes a parody of Byron’s ‘The Isles of Greece’ under the following introduction: 

Byron is very much in the air just now. I have been overwhelmed during the past week with parodies of that well-known poem of his, “The Isles of Greece.” One of these I have determined to publish, for I think that, duly allowing for the rhapsodical language which we expect from a bard, its verses express sentiments which are by no means uncommon in Englishmen’s hearts to-day. (Truth, 4 March 1897, 518)

Presenting material in a more personal and less formal tone, society journals promoted what was also referred to as personal journalism ‘both for its personal style of writing and for its introduction of the discussion of personalities as well as policies and opinions in political and other commentary.’ (Weber, 39). On the eve of the 1897 Greco-Turkish war, the parody of Byron’s ‘The Isles of Greece’ was triggered by a rumour that the French Minister for Foreign Affairs had said that France ‘should have entered the Dardanelles and seized the Sultan in his Palace’. A couple of weeks earlier, a piece titled ‘Bravo, Greece!’ had been published in the Truth in the ‘Scrutator’ column. This we now read as a prelude to the poem. The piece congratulated Greece for ignoring ‘the European Concert of inaction’ and for taking action to support Greeks in Crete subjected ‘to the vilest ill-usage by the Turks at the bidding of the Sultan.’:

So long as the Sultan knows that the Great Powers are prepared to maintain the integrity of his Empire, he must remain master of the situation. I was not for our armed interference in Armenia, for the very plain reason that I did not see how we could interfere with effect, as Russia thoroughly distrusts our ” philanthropy ” and with good reason, in view of our base trickery in respect to Cyprus and Egypt. But the Sultan has no fleet that can hold the sea, and Greece unaided can free Crete from Turkish rule, provided that the Great Powers do not interfere to prevent her. […] The plague of Jingoism in its most virulent form, with which we have been cursed during the last few years, has been due to the influence which the financing crew has acquired in the national councils, and to the dread which is entertained by the classes of the sure but silent advance of the Democratic tide. (Truth, 18 February 1897, 397)

‘The Isles of Greece’ published in the 1897 society journal criticised Britain for being a slave to ‘British gold-bags’. Here it is in its entirety:

The Isles of Greece, the Isles of Greece!
Where Byron loved, and fought, and sung,
‘Tis time our talk of those should cease
Now Britons’ heads in shame are hung;
‘Tis time their memories to forget,
When their foul tyrants we abet.

‘Tis time we gagged that ardent muse
Which hastened Freedom to salute,
Now that we shiver in our shoes,
And do what despots may depute;
Now that we do their dirty work
And still uphold the fiendish Turk.

The mountains look on Marathon,
But what is that beyond they see
They see our battleships sail on
And fight that Crete may not be free.
They see our tars, once prompt to save,
Re-fix the fetters on the slave.

Our history, candour must allow,
Has records one would fain dismiss,
But we have never joined till now
In such a cowardly deed as this.
Dead statesmen, heroes, martyrs, say
Our proud traditions—where are they?

Aye, where are they? And where art thou,
My country? Resolute of yore
Thy righteous purpose to avow,
Does Justice nerve thine arm no more?
And wilt thou stand resigned and meek,
And mute,’forsooth, when tyrants speak?

This right at least we still may claim,
Who share perforce our land’s disgrace,
To feel a patriot’s burning shame
When England stoops to be so base–
Tyrants, who Liberty would crush,
Still leave to us the right to blush.

‘Tis all that we can do, alack!
We can but blush—our fathers bled.
Oh, that the earth could give us back
The heroes whom those fathers led!
For they would dare, a land to free,
To risk a new Thermopylae.

We have our British gold-bags yet,
Where has our British valour gone?
Has England’s star for ever set,
That once so clearly, proudly shone?
Well may our dead turn in their graves
Now Englishmen are Europe’s slaves.

The Cretans, in their hour of need,
For England’s help all vainly call.
What is her answer when they plead
A Curzon quibble, that is all.
Deaf to their shrill ear-piercing cry,
Diplomats daily whilst they die.

“Trust not for freedom to the Franks,”
Lord Byron was constrained to say:
And in the Cretans’ shell-torn yanks,
The same advice holds good to-day.
“Trust not the Franks for anything!”
Our hissing bomb-shells seem to sing.

I looked o’er Canea’s crowded bay,
And saw our battle ships steam by,
Above them, as in Nelson’s day,
I saw the flag of England fly;
But horror rushed into my brain,
For on that ensign was a stain!

I shuddered as that stain I saw,
I bowed in bitter shame my head,
And then methought I heard with awe
A voice that cried, as from the dead,
“Tarnish no more that glorious rag,
Haul down, haul down, the British flag!”

Work cited

Gary Weber, ‘Henry Labouchere, “Truth” and the New Journalism of Late Victorian Britain’, Victorian Periodicals ReviewVol. 26, No. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp. 36-43.

Featured Image: Illustrated London News, Cover illustration, March 13, 1897.

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