The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale, by George Byron

Introduction to The Giaour

In a letter to Murray, dated Pisa, December 12, 1821 (Life, p. 545), Byron avows that the “Giaour Story” had actually “some foundation on facts.” Soon after the poem appeared (June 5, 1813), “a story was circulated by some gentlewomen . . . a little too close to the text” (Letters to Moore, September 1, 1813, Letters, 1898, ii. 258), and in order to put himself right with his friends or posterity, Byron wrote to his friend Lord Sligo, who in July, 1810, was anchored off Athens in “a twelve-gun brig, with a crew of fifty men” (see Letters, 1898, i. 289, note 1), requesting him to put on paper not so much the narrative of an actual event, but “what he had heard at Athens about the affair of that girl who was so near being put an end to while you were there.” According to the letter which Moore published (Life, p. 178), and which is reprinted in the present issue (Letters, 1898, ii. 257), Byron interposed on behalf of a girl, who “in compliance with the strict letter of the Mohammedan law,” had been sewn in a sack and was about to be thrown into the sea. “I was told,” adds Lord Sligo, “that you then conveyed her in safety to the convent, and despatched her off at night to Thebes.” The letter, which Byron characterizes as “curious,” is by no means conclusive, and to judge from the designedly mysterious references in the Journal, dated November 16 and December 5, and in the second postscript to a letter to Professor Clarke, dated December 15, 1813 (Letters, 1898, ii. 321, 361, 311), “the circumstances which were the groundwork” are not before us. “An event,” says John Wright (ed. 1832, ix. 145), “in which Lord Byron was personally concerned, undoubtedly supplied the groundwork of this tale; but for the story so circumstantially set forth (see Medwin’s Conversations, 1824, pp. 121, 124) of his having been the lover of this female slave, there is no foundation. The girl whose life the poet saved at Athens was not, we are assured by Sir John Hobhouse (Westminster Review, January, 1825, iii. 27), an object of his Lordship’s attachment, but of that of his Turkish servant.” Nevertheless, whatever Byron may have told Hobhouse (who had returned to England), and he distinctly says (Letters, 1898, ii. 393) that he did not tell him everything, he avowed to Clarke that he had been led “to the water’s edge,” and confided to his diary that to “describe the feelings of that situation was impossible — it is icy even to recollect them.”

For the allusive and fragmentary style of the Giaour, The Voyage of Columbus, which Rogers published in 1812, is in part responsible. “It is sudden in its transitions,” wrote the author, in the Preface to the first edition, “ . . . leaving much to be imagined by the reader.” The story or a part of it is told by a fellow-seaman of Columbus, who had turned “eremite” in his old age, and though the narrative itself is in heroic verse, the prologue and epilogue, as they may be termed, are in “the romance or ballad-measure of the Spanish.” The resemblance between the two poems is certainly more than accidental. On the other hand, a vivid and impassioned description of Oriental scenery and customs was, as Gifford observed, new and original, and though, by his own admission, Byron was indebted to Vathek (or rather S. Henley’s notes to Vathek) and to D’Herbelot’s Bibliothèque Orientale for allusions and details, the “atmosphere” could only have been reproduced by the creative fancy of an observant and enthusiastic traveller who had lived under Eastern skies, and had come within ken of Eastern life and sentiment.

In spite, however, of his love for the subject-matter of his poem, and the facility, surprising even to himself, with which he spun his rhymes, Byron could not persuade himself that a succession of fragments would sort themselves and grow into a complete and connected whole. If his thrice-repeated depreciation of the Giaour is not entirely genuine, it is plain that he misdoubted himself. Writing to Murray (August 26, 1813) he says, “I have, but with some difficulty, not added any more to this snake of a poem, which has been lengthening its rattles every month;” to Moore (September 1), “The Giaour I have added to a good deal, but still in foolish fragments;” and, again, to Moore (September 8), “By the coach I send you a copy of that awful pamphlet the Giaour.”

But while the author doubted and apologized, or deprecated “his love’s excess In words of wrong and bitterness,” the public read, and edition followed edition with bewildering speed.

The Giaour was reviewed by George Agar Ellis in the Quarterly (No. xxxi., January, 1813 [published February 11, 1813]) and in the Edinburgh Review by Jeffrey (No. 54, January, 1813 [published February 24, 1813]).

Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05