The Works of Lord Byron (ed. Coleridge, Prothero)/Poetry/Volume 3/The Corsair
——"I suoi pensieri in lui dormir non ponno."
Tasso, Gerusalemme Liberata, Canto X. [stanza lxxviii. line 8].
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.
BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE ON THE CORSAIR.
In comparison with the Giaour, the additions made to the Corsair whilst it was passing through the press were inconsiderable. The original MS., which numbers 1737 lines, is probably the fair copy of a number of loose sheets which have not been preserved. The erasures are few and far between, and the variations between the copy and the text are neither numerous nor important.
In one of the latest revises stanza x. was added to the First Canto. The last four lines of stanza xi. first appeared in the Seventh Edition.
The Second Canto suffered no alteration except the substitution of lines 1131-1133 for two lines which were expunged.
Larger additions were made to the Third Canto. Lines 1299-1375, or stanza v. (included in a revise dated January 6, 1814), stanzas xvii. and xxiii., numbering respectively 77, 32, and 16 lines, and the two last lines of stanza x., 127 lines in all, represent the difference between the text as it now stands and the original MS.
In a note to Byron's Poetical Works, 1832, ix. 257, it is stated that the Corsair was begun on the 18th and finished on the 31st of December, 1813. In the Introduction to the Corsair prefixed to the Library Edition, the poem is said to have been composed in ten days, "at the rate of 200 lines a day." The first page of the MS. is dated "27th of December, 1813," and the last page "December 31, 1813, January 1, 1814." It is probable that the composition of the first draft was begun on the i8th and finished on the 27th of December, and that the work of transcription occupied the last five days of the month. Stanza v. of Canto III. reached the publisher on the 6th, and stanzas xvii. and xxiii. on the 11th and 12th of January, 1814.
The First Edition amounted to 1859 lines (the numeration, owing to the inclusion of broken lines, is given as 1863), and falls short of the existing text by the last four lines of stanza xi. It contains the first dedication to Moore, and numbers 100 pages. To the Second Edition, which numbers 108 pages, the following poems were appended:—
To a Lady Weeping.
From the Turkish.
Sonnet to Genevra ("Thine eyes' blue tenderness," etc.).
Sonnet to Genevra ("Thy cheek is pale with thought," etc.).
Inscription on the Monument of a Newfoundland Dog.
These occasional poems were not appended to the Third Edition, which only numbered 100 pages; but they reappeared in the Fourth and subsequent editions.
The Seventh Edition contained four additional lines (the last four of stanza xi.), and a note (unnumbered) to line 226, in defence of the vraisemblance of the Corsair's misanthropy. The Ninth Edition numbered 112 pages. The additional matter consists of a long note to the last line of the poem ("Linked with one virtue, and a thousand crimes") on the pirates of Barataria.
Twenty-five thousand copies of the Corsair were sold between January and March, 1814. An Eighth Edition of fifteen hundred copies was printed in March, and sold before the end of the year. A Ninth Edition of three thousand copies was printed in the beginning of 1815.
TO THOMAS MOORE, ESQ.
My dear Moore,
I dedicate to you the last production with which I shall trespass on public patience, and your indulgence, for some years; and I own that I feel anxious to avail myself of this latest and only opportunity of adorning my pages with a name, consecrated by unshaken public principle, and the most undoubted and various talents. While Ireland ranks you among the firmest of her patriots; while you stand alone the first of her bards in her estimation, and Britain repeats and ratifies the decree, permit one, whose only regret, since our first acquaintance, has been the years he had lost before it commenced, to add the humble but sincere suffrage of friendship, to the voice of more than one nation. It will at least prove to you, that I have neither forgotten the gratification derived from your society, nor abandoned the prospect of its renewal, whenever your leisure or inclination allows you to atone to your friends for too long an absence. It is said among those friends, I trust truly, that you are engaged in the composition of a poem whose scene will be laid in the East; none can do those scenes so much justice. The wrongs of your own country, the magnificent and fiery spirit of her sons, the beauty and feeling of her daughters, may there be found; and Collins, when he denominated his Oriental his Irish Eclogues, was not aware how true, at least, was a part of his parallel. Your imagination will create a warmer sun, and less clouded sky; but wildness, tenderness, and originality, are part of your national claim of oriental descent, to which you have already thus far proved your title more clearly than the most zealous of your country's antiquarians.
May I add a few words on a subject on which all men are supposed to be fluent, and none agreeable?—Self. I have written much, and published more than enough to demand a longer silence than I now meditate; but, for some years to come, it is my intention to tempt no further the award of "Gods, men, nor columns." In the present composition I have attempted not the most difficult, but, perhaps, the best adapted measure to our language, the good old and now neglected heroic couplet. The stanza of Spenser is perhaps too slow and dignified for narrative; though, I confess, it is the measure most after my own heart; Scott alone, of the present generation, has hitherto completely triumphed over the fatal facility of the octosyllabic verse; and this is not the least victory of his fertile and mighty genius: in blank verse, Milton, Thomson, and our dramatists, are the beacons that shine along the deep, but warn us from the rough and barren rock on which they are kindled. The heroic couplet is not the most popular measure certainly; but as I did not deviate into the other from a wish to flatter what is called public opinion, I shall quit it without further apology, and take my chance once more with that versification, in which I have hitherto published nothing but compositions whose former circulation is part of my present, and will be of my future regret.
With regard to my story, and stories in general, I should have been glad to have rendered my personages more perfect and amiable, if possible, inasmuch as I have been sometimes criticised, and considered no less responsible for their deeds and qualities than if all had been personal. Be it so—if I have deviated into the gloomy vanity of "drawing from self," the pictures are probably like, since they are unfavourable: and if not, those who know me are undeceived, and those who do not, I have little interest in undeceiving. I have no particular desire that any but my acquaintance should think the author better than the beings of his imagining; but I cannot help a little surprise, and perhaps amusement, at some odd critical exceptions in the present instance, when I see several bards (far more deserving, I allow) in very reputable plight, and quite exempted from all participation in the faults of those heroes, who, nevertheless, might be found with little more morality than The Giaour, and perhaps—but no—I must admit Childe Harold to be a very repulsive personage; and as to his identity, those who like it must give him whatever "alias" they please. If, however, it were worth while to remove the impression, it might be of some service to me, that the man who is alike the delight of his readers and his friends, the poet of all circles, and the idol of his own, permits me here and elsewhere to subscribe myself,
His obedient servant,
January 2, 1814.
- [This political allusion having been objected to by a friend, Byron composed a second dedication, which he sent to Moore, with a request that he would "take his choice." Moore chose the original dedication, which was accordingly prefixed to the First Edition. The alternative ran as follows:—
"January 7th, 1814.
"My dear Moore,
"I had written to you a long letter of dedication, which I suppress, because, though it contained something relating to you, which every one had been glad to hear, yet there was too much about politics and poesy, and all things whatsoever, ending with that topic on which most men are fluent, and none very amusing,—one's self. It might have been re-written; but to what purpose? My praise could add nothing to your well-earned and firmly established fame; and with my most hearty admiration of your talents, and delight in your conversation, you are already acquainted. In availing myself of your friendly permission to inscribe this poem to you, I can only wish the offering were as worthy your acceptance, as your regard is dear to
"Yours, most affectionately and faithfully,
- [After the words, "Scott alone," Byron had inserted, in a parenthesis, "He will excuse the 'Mr.'—we do not say Mr. Cæsar."]
- ["It is difficult to say whether we are to receive this passage as an admission or a denial of the opinion to which it refers; but Lord Byron certainly did the public injustice, if he supposed it imputed to him the criminal actions with which many of his heroes were stained. Men no more expected to meet in Lord Byron the Corsair, who 'knew himself a villain,' than they looked for the hypocrisy of Kehama on the shores of the Derwent Water; yet even in the features of Conrad, those who had looked on Lord Byron will recognize the likeness—
"'To the sight
No giant frame sets forth his common height;
· · · · ·
Sun-burnt his cheek, his forehead high and pale
The sable curls in wild profusion veil. . . .'"
Canto I. stanza ix.
—Sir Walter Scott, Quart. Rev., No, xxxi. October, 1816.]