by Lord Byron
From the introduction to The Corsair by Lord Byron:
Lord Byron ended the year of 1813 in its penultimate month, and in less than three weeks (December 18, 1813) 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 this day, 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), 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. 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.
The opening stanza of CANTO THE FIRST follows:
"——nessun maggior dolore,
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
Dante, Inferno, v. 121.*
"O'er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free,
Far as the breeze can bear, the billows foam,
Survey our empire, and behold our home!
These are our realms, no limits to their sway—
Our flag the sceptre all who meet obey.
Ours the wild life in tumult still to range
From toil to rest, and joy in every change.
Oh, who can tell? not thou, luxurious slave!
Whose soul would sicken o'er the heaving wave; 10
Not thou, vain lord of Wantonness and Ease!
Whom Slumber soothes not—Pleasure cannot please—
Oh, who can tell, save he whose heart hath tried,
And danced in triumph o'er the waters wide,
The exulting sense—the pulse's maddening play,
That thrills the wanderer of that trackless way?
That for itself can woo the approaching fight,
And turn what some deem danger to delight;
That seeks what cravens shun with more than zeal,
And where the feebler faint can only feel— 20
Feel—to the rising bosom's inmost core,
Its hope awaken and its spirit soar?
No dread of Death—if with us die our foes—
Save that it seems even duller than repose;
Come when it will—we snatch the life of Life—
When lost—what recks it by disease or strife?
Let him who crawls, enamoured of decay,
Cling to his couch, and sicken years away;[hk]
Heave his thick breath, and shake his palsied head;
Ours the fresh turf, and not the feverish bed,— 30
While gasp by gasp he falters forth his soul,
Ours with one pang—one bound—escapes control.
His corse may boast its urn and narrow cave,
And they who loathed his life may gild his grave:
Ours are the tears, though few, sincerely shed,
When Ocean shrouds and sepulchres our dead.
For us, even banquets fond regret supply
In the red cup that crowns our memory;
And the brief epitaph in Danger's day,
When those who win at length divide the prey, 40
And cry, Remembrance saddening o'er each brow,
How had the brave who fell exulted now!"
*trans. "There is no greater pain than to remember a happy time when one is in misery."
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The Corsair is available online at Project Gutenberg