Many poets — Wordsworth, for instance — have been conscious in their old age that an interest attaches to the circumstances of the composition of their poems, and have furnished their friends and admirers with explanatory notes. Byron recorded the motif and occasion of the Bride of Abydos while the poem was still in the press. It was written, he says, to divert his mind, “to wring his thoughts from reality to imagination — from selfish regrets to vivid recollections” (Diary, December 5, 1813, Letters, ii. 361), “to distract his dreams from . . . ” (Diary, November 16) “for the sake of employment” (Letter to Moore, November 30, 1813). He had been staying during part of October and November at Aston Hall, Rotherham, with his friend James Wedderburn Webster, and had fallen in love with his friend’s wife, Lady Frances. From a brief note to his sister, dated November 5, we learn that he was in a scrape, but in “no immediate peril,” and from the lines, “Remember him, whom Passion’s power” (vide ante, p. 67), we may infer that he had sought safety in flight. The Bride of Abydos, or Zuleika, as it was first entitled, was written early in November, “in four nights” (Diary, November 16), or in a week (Letter to Gifford, November 12) — the reckoning goes for little — as a counter-irritant to the pain and distress of amour interrompu.
The confession or apology is eminently characteristic. Whilst the Giaour was still in process of evolution, still “lengthening its rattles,” another Turkish poem is offered to the public, and the natural explanation, that the author is in vein, and can score another trick, is felt to be inadequate and dishonouring — “To withdraw myself from myself,” he confides to his Diary(November 27), “has ever been my sole, my entire, my sincere motive for scribbling at all.”
It is more than probable that in his twenty-sixth year Byron had not attained to perfect self-knowledge, but there is no reason to question his sincerity. That Byron loved to surround himself with mystery, and to dissociate himself from “the general,” is true enough; but it does not follow that at all times and under all circumstances he was insincere. “Once a poseur always a poseur” is a rough-and-ready formula not invariably applicable even to a poet.
But the Bride of Abydos was a tonic as well as a styptic. Like the Giaour, it embodied a personal experience, and recalled “a country replete with the darkest and brightest, but always the most lively colours of my memory” (Diary, December 5, 1813).
In a letter to Galt (December 11, 1813, Letters, 1898, ii. 304, reprinted from Life of Byron, pp. 181, 182) Byron maintains that the first part of the Bride was drawn from “observations” of his own, “from existence.” He had, it would appear, intended to make the story turn on the guilty love of a brother for a sister, a tragic incident of life in a Harem, which had come under his notice during his travels in the East, but “on second thoughts” had reflected that he lived “two centuries at least too late for the subject,” and that not even the authority of the “finest works of the Greeks,” or of Schiller (in the Bride of Messina), or of Alfieri (in Mirra), “in modern times,” would sanction the intrusion of the μισητὸν [misêto\n] into English literature. The early drafts and variants of the MS. do not afford any evidence of this alteration of the plot which, as Byron thought, was detrimental to the poem as a work of art, but the undoubted fact that the Bride of Abydos, as well as the Giaour, embody recollections of actual scenes and incidents which had burnt themselves into the memory of an eye-witness, accounts not only for the fervent heat at which these Turkish tales were written, but for the extraordinary glamour which they threw over contemporary readers, to whom the local colouring was new and attractive, and who were not out of conceit with “good Monsieur Melancholy.”
Byron was less dissatisfied with his second Turkish tale than he had been with the Giaour. He apologizes for the rapidity with which it had been composed — stans pede in uno — but he announced to Murray (November 20) that “he was doing his best to beat the Giaour,” and (November 29) he appraises the Bride as “my first entire composition of any length.”
Moreover, he records (November 15), with evident gratification, the approval of his friend Hodgson, “a very sincere and by no means (at times) a flattering critic of mine,” and modestly accepts the praise of such masters of letters as “Mr. Canning,” Hookham Frere, Heber, Lord Holland, and of the traveller Edward Daniel Clarke.
The Bride of Abydos was advertised in the Morning Chronicle, among “Books published this day,” on November 29, 1813. It was reviewed by George Agar Ellis in the Quarterly Review of January, 1814 (vol. x. p. 331), and, together with the Corsair, by Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review of April, 1814 (vol. xxiii. p. 198).
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05