Lord Byron: Poet and Humanitarian Interventionist

Byron dying in Greece

Lord Byron on His Deathbed, by Joseph-Denis Odevaere, c 1826

Thursday marked the 221st anniversary of Lord Byron (George Gordon)’s birthday.  To celebrate, a poem:


    HE walks in beauty, like the night
    Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
    And all that’s best of dark and bright
    Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
    Thus mellow’d to that tender light
    Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
    One shade the more, one ray the less,
    Had half impair’d the nameless grace
    Which waves in every raven tress,
    Or softly lightens o’er her face;
    Where thoughts serenely sweet express
    How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
    And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
    So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
    The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
    But tell of days in goodness spent,
    A mind at peace with all below,
    A heart whose love is innocent!

Now, that’s pretty and all, but what does it have to do with my usual topics?

What many poetry lovers might not know is that Lord Byron was one of the original “atrocitarians” – author and Princeton Professor Gary Bass’ term for advocates for humanitarian intervention in situations of mass atrocity and crimes against humanity.

In Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention, Bass gives an account of “The tradition of humanitarian intervention [that] once ran deep in world politics, long before Rwanda and Kosovo came to the world’s fitful attention”.

As it turns out, just as movements for humanitarian intervention didn’t begin with Rwanda or Bosnia, celebrity involvement in them began long ago as well.  Lord Byron was one of the first.  “Lord Byron first set foot on Greek soil in 1809, and in short order, as one would expect, he fell in love.”  “Greece would be Byron’s fatal political cause, and the muse for some of his best – and worst – poetry”.

Byron wrote poetry, such as Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, “trying to spur both the British and the Greeks into action”.

For foreign arms and aid they fondly sigh,

Nor solely dare encounter hostile rage,

Or tear their name defiled from Slavery’s mournful page.

Byron’s poetry in large part inspired the “Philhelene” movement – the group of concerned Britons who loved Greece, were inspired by the revolution there, and began to demand action from the British government to protect the civilians caught in the counter-revolutionary war.

But Bryon didn’t end his involvement at writing inspirational poetry and agitating at home.  He picked up, “loaded with cash, weapons, ostentatious uniforms, ammunition, and fourteen stanzas of his Don Juan, which he would never finish” and headed to the front.  (For the best), Byron, unlike our more modern celebrity activists, truly got fought for the cause.  He also died for it.

For anyone interested in the roots of popular movements to end mass atrocity, I would highly recommend Bass’s book.  In addition to compelling portraits of Byron, his accolades, and their fight for British humanitarian intervention in Greece, Bass chronicles the ‘atrocitarians’ who called for intervention in Syria and Bulgaria.

And, I recommend celebrating Lord Byron, acclaimed poet’s, birthday not just by looking at his art, but by learning about how his art and his actions led to the cessation of mass atrocity 200 years ago.

About Martha Heinemann Bixby

Advocacy. Politics. Life. Martha Heinemann Bixby.
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1 Response to Lord Byron: Poet and Humanitarian Interventionist

  1. Personally I don’t think that Mr. Handsome has received enough accolades for his humanitarian efforts. In my opinion a lot of celebrity do-gooders are totally phony and engage in so called good deeds merely for positive publicity. I have to say that I don’t think that George is one of the phonies out there in the world of celbrity do-gooders. I admire what he is doing for the Haitian people. I wish more celebrities were as real as he is when it comes to helping out those less fortunate in the world. So kudos to George and his desire to make this world a better place.

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