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Poetry in Honor of the Bicentennial of Greek Independence

The National Herald

Lord Byron (1788-1824) in a portrait by French painter and lithographer Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In honor of the 200th anniversary of the start of the Greek Revolution, there are several books to add to your reading list. The literary heritage of the Revolution is vast and crosses international borders. Even before March 25, 1821, Greeks and Philhellenes wrote about freedom from Ottoman oppression.

Rigas Feraios (Velestinlis) is probably best known as a proto-martyr in the Greek Revolution. An influential writer, political thinker, and revolutionary Enlightenment figure, Rigas Feraios envisioned liberation for all the Romioi, not only Greeks, and his Charta (Map) includes the Balkan countries as well as what is now the Hellenic Republic.

Rigas' writings: Anthology of Physics (1790), Hellenic Republic (Vienna, 1797), School for Delicate Lovers (Vienna, 1790), New Map of Wallachia, General Map of Moldavia (Vienna, 1797), Thourios or Battle hymn (poem) (Vienna, 1797), New Political Constitution of the Inhabitants of Roumeli, Asia Minor, the Islands of the Aegean and the Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia (Vienna, 1797), and New Anacharsis (Vienna, 1797) were written in Demotic Greek.

The line from Thourios which Lord Byron translated as “Better one hour of free life than forty years of slavery and prison” became a rallying cry of the Revolution. The poem was set to music by composer Christos Leontis and performed in the 1970s by the legendary Cretan musician Nikos Xylouris.

Byron's Don Juan includes “The Isles of Greece” section of Canto III, which was written in 1819 and features some of the English poet's most famous Philhellenic lines that inspired many to support the Greek cause. Byron died from a fever at Missolonghi in 1824 at the age of 36.

Εθνικός Κήρυξ

The statue of Rigas Feraios at the University of Athens. Photo: C messier, via Wikimedia Commons

In May 1823, Dionysios Solomos completed the Hymn to Liberty, 158 stanzas, inspired by the 1821 start of the Greek Revolution. The poem was published in Greece in 1824 and throughout Europe one year later. Solomos' reputation soon spread throughout Greece and abroad. The Hymn to Liberty was set to music by Nikolaos Mantzaros, and is the longest national anthem in the world by length of text. In 1865, the first three stanzas (and later the first two) officially became the National Anthem of Greece and, from 1966, also that of the Republic of Cyprus.

The unfinished epic The Free Besieged (Greek: Οι Ελεύθεροι Πολιορκημένοι, Oi Eleftheroi Poliorkimenoi) by Solomos was inspired by the third siege of Missolonghi (1825–1826), a crucial conflict in the Greek Revolution. It consists of three separate poems in fragmentary form, and though never completed, The Free Besieged is considered one of Solomos' greatest poems.

The verse drama Hellas by Percy Bysshe Shelley was written in 1821 and published in 1822 by Charles and James Ollier in London. Written while Shelley was living in Pisa, he hoped it would raise money for the Greek War of Independence. The last poem published during Shelley's lifetime, the drama is dedicated to “Ηis Εxcellency Prince Alexander Mavrocordato late secretary for foreign affairs to the Hospodar of Wallachia the drama of Hellas is inscribed as an imperfect token of the admiration, sympathy, and friendship of the author. Pisa, November 1, 1821.”

Mavrocordato met Shelley while in Pisa from 1818 to 1821.

The poems mentioned above are available online.