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Lord Byron of Bulgaria

August 14, 1988|DAVID STAMP | Reuters

SOFIA, Bulgaria — English romantic Lord Byron enjoys almost as much fame for his outrageous sex life as for his great works of poetry. Except in Bulgaria.

Bulgaria is commemorating the 200th birthday of George Gordon Byron, revolutionary hero.

"The Bulgarians really play down the aspects of his life that we play up, like the boozing and the womanizing," said one Western diplomat.

Byron, born in 1788, died of fever in 1824 at age 36 while helping Greece in its struggle for independence from Ottoman Turkey.

This explains his popular appeal in Bulgaria, itself under Ottoman rule for 500 years.

To mark the 200th anniversary of his birth, Bulgaria is this year organizing concerts, recitals and presentations on his life and works.

The authorities of the Eastern European Communist country have also launched a national competition for translations of Byron's work, and Bulgarian radio plans to devote a whole day to him.

"Bulgarians see Byron as a great revolutionary liberation figure," said Peter Lyner, who as British Council representative in Sofia promotes British culture.

Neither Western biographers nor film makers have shied from documenting Byron's private life, including his scandalous love affair with Lady Caroline Lamb.

Literary historians say nurse May Gray awoke "precocious passions" in Byron when he was only 9 years old. Scarcely out of adolescence, he embarked on numerous liaisons with partners ranging from married women to a choir boy.

His epic poem, "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," begun in 1812, made him a celebrity, but his affairs outraged London society, and he was forced into exile in 1815 after a scandal over a liaison with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh.

Bulgarians, however, remember the remaining nine years of Byron's life, during which he wrote his other great work, "Don Juan," and roamed Europe helping liberation movements in Italy and Greece.

Earlier this year, the Bulgarian weekly, Narodna Kultura (People's Culture), carried a lengthy article on George Gordon Byron--the Communist authorities skate around his aristocratic background by omitting his title.

Narodna Kultura described Byron as "an outstanding representative of revolutionary romanticism, a dramatist, brilliant orator, publicist and polyglot. His name and work will be forever linked with the revolutionary movement in Italy and Greece."

The Byron festivities are the eighth stage in "a long-term comprehensive program for raising the role of art and culture for the harmonious development of the individual and society."

Byron is in great company. Previous stages have been devoted to Leonardo da Vinci, V. I. Lenin and St. Cyril, who invented the Cyrillic alphabet used in the Bulgarian and Russian languages.

Western diplomats said Byron's support for Greek independence from the Turks added to his popular appeal.

Bulgaria lived for 500 years under Ottoman rule and this month celebrated what it called the 110th anniversary of its "liberation from the Turkish yoke."

Relations between Sofia and Ankara, Turkey, remain tense to this day, and the two governments have had exchanges over Bulgaria's treatment of its Turkish minority in recent years.

"Apart from the Communist takeover in 1944, the big thing in Bulgarian history is the freedom struggle against the Turks," said one diplomat.

"The Bulgarians see Byron as a revolutionary who fought the Turks. That's enough for them."

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