The outbreak of the Greek insurrection of 1821 gave rise to a peculiar sort of patriotic poetry, celebrating, not the poet’s own fatherland, but expressing solidarity with the Greek struggle against Ottoman rule: Philhellenic poetry.
Literary Philhellenism, the origins of which date back to the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (1453) and the Greek mainland (1460), linked admiration for an idealized Ancient Greece with the hope that the country might in the future be liberated from Turkish rule and restored among the Christian lands of Europe. In the 18th century, Philhellenism was bolstered by an increasing number of travels into the Levant, inspired by the American and French revolutions. and increasingly combined cultural and political sympathies.
A shift occurred around the insurrection of 1821, which is exemplified by the poetry of Lord George Byron. Pre-1821 writings such as Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage(1812-18) are dominated by meditations over ruins, the lament for “fallen” Greece, the lack of Greek patriotic consciousness and the absence of great modern leaders equal to those of Antiquity. After 1821, that mournful tone is replaced by one of optimism, admiration for the country’s re-awakening and militant feistiness.
Byron’s personal involvement in the insurrection and his death in Missolonghi made him a symbol of Philhellene engagement, inspiring other poets who eulogized him as a martyr who had fought with pen and sword. In Byron’s wake, Philhellenic poems were published in periodicals, books and brochures sold in aid of the Greek cause all over Europe and in America. Among the poets, intellectuals and public figures who endorsed the Greek cause there were (in Germany) Wilhelm Müller, Gustav Schwab, Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Adalbert von Chamisso and Bavaria’s king Ludwig I, as well as, in other countries, Aleksandr Puškin, Shelley, Victor Hugo and Casimir Delavigne.
Most of the Philhellenic poems were directly inspired by specific events or personalities of the war and are characterized by a tension between specific references to the concrete reality of the war and the idealization of Greece as the motherland of beauty, truth and civilization. Unlike patriotic verses written in honour of the poet’s own fatherland, the Philhellenic poet had neither an evident legitimation as the nation’s spokesman nor a direct link to the actual experience of his readers. Accordingly, the verse revolves around the rhetoric of moving and swaying the reader’s emotions, activating a limited repertoire of topics, themes and images.
The Greek right to revolt was proved by arguing that Ottoman domination was based on usurpation and cruel oppression; the moral obligation to identify with, and lend support to, the Greek cause was derived from the idea that Western civilization was rooted in Ancient Greece: “We are all Greeks”, as Shelley wrote in the preface to his verse drama Hellas (written in 1821, published in 1822). Stark oppositions between Greeks and Turks are also typical: the Greeks are presented either as valiant heroes or as innocent victims and martyrs, whereas the Turks are shown as bloodthirsty, merciless barbarians. The anti-Ottoman struggle is often represented in religious terms, as crusade in aid of threatened fellow-Christians. Recurrent invocations to Classical Greek literature and culture serve to drive home Europe’s debt of gratitude to the motherland of its civilization. The modern Greeks are represented as the direct descendants of Ancients (in particular Athenians and Spartans); parallels are drawn between modern military leaders and Themistocles or Leonidas, between the modern struggle and the Trojan War or the Persian Wars. The Greeks, their customs, warlike prowess and marked character, are praised as worthy offspring of their great ancestors.
In some cases, parallels are drawn between the Greek struggle and other national liberation movements. This occurs often in German Philhellenic poetry: while older tropes dating from the Turkish siege of Vienna (1683) are recycled, the Greek Revolt is also compared to the liberation wars of 1813-15. Indeed, Philhellenic poems appeal to national pride: Philhellenes show their own national virtue and love of freedom by their solidarity with Greece. In the context of the European domination of Metternich’s Holy Alliance, Philhellenic verses could become a coded way to express one’s own aspirations for liberty, democracy and national unity: thus among German liberal poets, Italian Carbonari, Russian Decembrists, and Whig authors of the Lord Holland circle. Philhellenic poetry was not only patriotic solidarity roaming abroad, but also resonated within the Philhellenes’ own nationality – both perspectives being based on the conception of the Greek cause as a European, or even as a universal one.
Ibrovac, Miodrag (1966). Claude Fauriel et la fortune européenne des poésies populaires grecque et serbe: Etude d’histoire romantique suivie du cours de Fauriel professé en Sorbonne (1831-1832) (Paris: Didier)