The Corsair, by Byron

Introduction to The Corsair.

A seventh edition of the Giaour, including the final additions, and the first edition of the Bride of Abydos, were published on the twenty-ninth of November, 1813. In less than three weeks (December 18) Byron began the Corsair, and completed the fair copy of the first draft by the last day of the year. The Corsair in all but its final shape, together with the sixth edition of the Bride of Abydos, the seventh of Childe Harold, and the ninth of the Giaour, was issued on the first of February, 1814.

A letter from John Murray to Lord Byron, dated February 3, 1814 (Memoir of John Murray, 1891, i. 223), presents a vivid picture of a great literary triumph—

“My Lord,—I have been unwilling to write until I had something to say. . . . I am most happy to tell you that your last poem is—what Mr. Southey’s is called—a Carmen Triumphale. Never in my recollection has any work . . . excited such a ferment . . . I sold on the day of publication—a thing perfectly unprecedented—10,000 copies. . . . Mr. Moore says it is masterly—a wonderful performance. Mr. Hammond, Mr. Heber, D’Israeli, every one who comes . . . declare their unlimited approbation. Mr. Ward was here with Mr. Gifford yesterday, and mingled his admiration with the rest . . . and Gifford did, what I never knew him do before—he repeated several stanzas from memory, particularly the closing stanza—

“‘His death yet dubious, deeds too widely known.’

“I have the highest encomiums in letters from Croker and Mr. Hay; but I rest most upon the warm feeling it has created in Gifford’s critic heart. . . . You have no notion of the sensation which the publication has occasioned; and my only regret is that you were not present to witness it.”

For some time before and after the poem appeared, Byron was, as he told Leigh Hunt (February 9, 1814; Letters, 1899, iii. 27), “snow-bound and thaw-swamped in ‘the valley of the shadow’ of Newstead Abbey,” and it was not till he had returned to town that he resumed his journal, and bethought him of placing on record some dark sayings with regard to the story of the Corsair and the personality of Conrad. Under date February 18, 1814, he writes—

“The Corsair has been conceived, written, published, etc., since I last took up this journal [?last day but one]. They tell me it has great success; it was written con amore [i.e. during the reign of Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster], and much from existence.”

And again, Journal, March 10 (Letters, 1898, ii. 399),

“He [Hobhouse] told me an odd report,—that I am the actual Conrad, the veritable Corsair, and that part of my travels are supposed to have passed in privacy [sic;?piracy]. Um! people sometimes hit near the truth; but never the whole truth. H. don’t know what I was about the year after he left the Levant; nor does any one—nor—nor—nor—however, it is a lie—but, ‘I doubt the equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth.’”

Very little weight can be attached to these “I could an I would” pronouncements, deliberately framed to provoke curiosity, and destined, no doubt, sooner or later to see the light; but the fact remains that Conrad is not a mere presentation of Byron in a fresh disguise, or “The Pirate’s Tale” altogether a “painting of the imagination.”

That the Corsair is founded upon fact is argued at some length by the author (an “English Gentleman in the Greek Military Service”) of the Life, Writings, Opinions, and Times of the R. H. George Gordon Noel Byron, which was published in 1825. The point of the story (i. 197–201), which need not be repeated at length, is that Byron, on leaving Constantinople and reaching the island of Zea (July, 1810), visited [“strolled about”] the islands of the Archipelago, in company with a Venetian gentleman who had turned buccaneer malgré lui, and whose history and adventures, amatory and piratical, prefigured and inspired the “gestes” of Conrad. The tale must be taken for what it is worth; but it is to be remarked that it affords a clue to Byron’s mysterious entries in a journal which did not see the light till 1830, five years after the “English Gentleman” published his volumes of gossiping anecdote. It may, too, be noted that, although, in his correspondence of 1810, 1811, there is no mention of any tour among the “Isles of Greece,” in a letter to Moore dated February 2, 1815 (Letters, 1899, iii. 176), Byron recalls “the interesting white squalls and short seas of Archipelago memory.”

How far Byron may have drawn on personal experience for his picture of a pirate chez lui, it is impossible to say; but during the year 1809–11, when he was travelling in Greece, the exploits of Lambros Katzones and other Greek pirates sailing under the Russian flag must have been within the remembrance and on the lips of the islanders and the “patriots” of the mainland. The “Pirate’s Island,” from which “Ariadne’s isle” (line 444) was visible, may be intended for Paros or Anti–Paros.

For the inception of Conrad (see Canto I. stanza ii.), the paradoxical hero, an assortment rather than an amalgam of incongruous characteristics, Byron may, perhaps, have been in some measure indebted to the description of Malefort, junior, in Massinger’s Unnatural Combat, act i. sc. 2, line 20, sq.—

“I have sat with him in his cabin a day together,

. . . . .

Sigh he did often, as if inward grief

And melancholy at that instant would

Choke up his vital spirits. . . .

When from the maintop

A sail’s descried, all thoughts that do concern

Himself laid by, no lion pinched with hunger

Rouses himself more fiercely from his den,

Then he comes on the deck; and then how wisely

He gives directions,” etc.

The Corsair, together with the Bride of Abydos, was reviewed by Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review of April, 1814, vol. xxiii. p. 198; and together with Lara, by George Agar Ellis in the Quarterly Review of July, 1814, vol. ii. p. 428.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51