Friday, December 12, 2014

Byron: The Corsair (1814)

Episode from The Corsair, watercolour by Eugène Delacroix (c. 1831)

[Image Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum]

The exotic location of The Corsair is clearly important, just as the location of Scott’s narrative poems is important. Byron, we are persuaded, knew the Mediterranean

            Flash’d the dipt oars, and sparkling with the stroke,
            Around the waves’ phosphoric brightness broke;
            They gain the vessel – on the deck he stands. (I, XVII)

The author annotates: “By night, particularly in a warm latitude, every stroke of the oar, every motion of the boat or ship, is followed by a slight flash like sheet lightning from the water.”

[We don’t know much more about it now. The effect is due to the bioluminescence of certain protozoa, mainly flagellates. It is produced only when the water is disturbed. Its function, if there is one, has not been conclusively explained.]

When Scott wrote of Scotland, he immersed us in details of myth and tradition; in his prose he would also give us a distinct local speech. Being a variety of English, it was more or less comprehensible to those readers south of the border, but it was also revelatory; for here was a different culture in full operation. Byron had no such interests as Scott’s, and besides, his own chosen locale would have meant foreign languages. Byron’s Mediterranean was more like a psychological state; a heady feeling (at least in the Northern European mind) that comprised freedom and energy, open space, and escape - from prudence, from strait-laced moral codes, from families, even from self-interest and self-preservation.  Probably the lack of linguistic community, the sense of uninvolvement, is one of the constituent factors in why this familiar dream persists. (Corsair, like Capri, Ibiza, Sirocco, etc, would eventually become the name of a car.) The waves of the Mediterranean still whisper to us: Miss the plane home.

Byron’s poem intends to be a Mediterranean structure (that’s why Canto III begins with a Mediterranean scene pilfered from an earlier poem, whose irrelevance Byron takes care to highlight). Perhaps he succeeds, though there are elements of chivalry and lachrymosity that we recognize as Northern European. The story has something of the stiff gestures of Scott’s poor attempt at exoticism, The Talisman – think of the scene where Conrad appears before the Pacha, disguised as a pious Dervise. Yet a “scene” is just what this isn’t. Byron’s poem is best approached as a kind of process without beginning or end; a humming machine, details of whose operation can be glimpsed only by looking quickly aside; in short, as a modern poem. Because of the swirls and eddies of the undisciplined verse, The Corsair is a formidable and exciting plunge into uncharted territory.

In The Corsair a certain Mediterranean hardness (“Hoarse o’er her side the rusting cable rings”) is yoked to a sentimental and domestic liquidity. Hence such an image as “Whose scattered streams from granite basins burst” (I, VI). Another loaded word is “grate”, which expresses a tragic intransigence. “Till grates her keel upon the shallow sand” places the word, stirringly enough, within the corsair’s own line of business. But later it traps him: “Close to the glimmering grate he dragg’d his chain” (III, VII) and makes an ironic note in Conrad’s delusive rescue (“Slow turns the grating bolt and sullen key” III, VIII). 

The rescue will indeed ignite haste, a central feature of the poem’s processes:

            No words are uttered – at her sign, a door
            Reveals the secret passage to the shore;
            The city lies behind – they speed, they reach
            The glad waves dancing on the yellow beach; (III, XII)

            Far on the horizon’s verge appears a speck –
            A spot – a mast – a sail – an armed deck! (III, XV)

(In this characteristic rush of haste, we might notice that “glad” has appeared before, and with the same sense of surprise. The poem begins:

            ‘O’er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
            Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free, (I, I))
These much-abbreviated successions, like drops of spindrift blown off a wave, describe an emanation of feeling. Feel (in the emotional sense) is one of the poem’s key words.

            And where the feebler faint – can only feel –
            Feel – to the rising bosom’s inmost core,
            Its hope awaken and its spirit soar?  (I, I)

            Scarce beat that bosom – where his image dwelt –
            So full – that feeling seem’d almost unfelt!  (I, XV)

            Within that meek fair form were feelings high,
            That deem’d not till they found their energy. (III, III)

Deem’d means “suspected the existence of”, as in II, IV: “They little deem of aught in peril’s shape”. Nevertheless, we more assume than read the general sense of the line. Byron allows himself a slight derangement of syntax which shows the rapidity, like the blur in a photo of someone running along a beach, snapped by someone else running alongside them. Or rather, it shows the suffering, which is what feeling in this poem amounts to. Only the inanimate waves are “glad”, like Byron’s exclamation marks, which record an inhuman joy at extremes of horror:

            His steps the chamber gain – his eyes behold
            All that his heart believed not – yet foretold! (III, XIX)

Hope and love are agonies broken up by death (“With nothing left to love – there’s nought to dread”). And suffering is not grammatical:

            By those, that deepest feel, are ill exprest
            the indistinctness of the suffering breast;  (III, XXII) 

I acknowledge being on unsafe ground here, since I’m reading a re-print of the first edition, complete with misprints.

            Ev’n insects sing for aught they seek to save  (I, XIII)

Perhaps this is a misprint for “sting” (the subject of the line is courage).

            Alas! this love – that hatred are the first –
            Oh! could’st thou prove thy truth, thou would’st not start,
            Nor fear the fire that lights an Eastern heart,
            ‘Tis now the beacon of thy safety – now
            It points within the port a Mainote prow:  (III, VIII)

Byron's parentheses are sometimes used to continue a train of thought, sometimes to interrupt it; both usages appear in the first line of this quote. In the second line, “thy” looks like it should be “my”. But it would be a shame to tidy up when this semantic wildness improves the poem, and is consonant with a larger wildness that  cannot be “improved” away (how does a fire point? By being a beacon that signals a ship).

            And of its cold protector, blacken round
            But shivered fragments on the barren ground! (III, XXIII)

This is mightily inverted.  It means, if you care to spell it out, “And but (i.e. only) shivered fragments of its (i.e. the Lily’s) cold protector (i.e. Granite) blacken round on the barren ground.” (The lily and the granite are components of Conrad’s heart, by the way. That's a larger wildness too.)

            And must I say? albeit my heart rebel
            With all that woman feels, but should not tell –  (III, VIII)

Gulnare (the speaker) shifts her focus in mid-sentence. “Albeit” ought to introduce a reason for not saying, but the flood of feeling sweeps all before it, including the syntax. A few lines later:

            Reply not – tell not now thy tale again,
            Thou lov’st another – and I love in vain;
            Though fond as mine her bosom, form more fair,
            I rush through peril which she would not dare.
            If that thy heart to hers were truly dear,
            Were I thine own – thou wert not lonely here –
            An outlaw’s spouse – and leave her lord to roam!
            What hath such gentle dame to do with home?  (III, VIII)

“If that thy heart to hers were truly dear...” The point is sufficiently obvious for Gulnare to leave it unstated and to begin over again with a different hypothesis. In the last line “gentle dame” must mean “noble dame”; Gulnare is implying that it's only servants who hang around at home. But the alternative sense of “gentle”, i.e. that Medora is meek and unfit for adventure, makes the sentence start pushing in the wrong direction.

Gulnare is probing here at the crucial puzzle of The Corsair. Conrad’s infatuation with Medora simply doesn’t tally with the rest of his life. Medora is static. Her strength, though eventually critical, is a strength to die.

            The long dark lashes fringed her lids of snow –
            And veil’d – thought shrinks from all that lurk’d below –
            Oh! o’er the eye death most exerts his might,
            And hurls the spirit from her throne of light!
            Sinks those blue orbs in that long last eclipse,  (III, XX)

The reader's thought, naturally, does the opposite of shrink. We are invited to contemplate the soul-absence of those white, desiccated eyeballs (the word “eclipse” gives a helpful nudge to the imagination).

Medora’s eyes have occupied us before, as feeling and living organs.

            And then at length her tears in freedom gush’d,
            Big – bright – and fast, unknown to her they fell (I, XV)

Tears are a sign of her energy; but the blurry vision is a sign of her impotence.

            The tender blue of that large loving eye
            Grew frozen with its gaze on vacancy –
            Till – Oh, how far! it caught a glimpse of him –
            And then it flow’d – and phrenzied seem’d to swim
            Through those long, dark, and glistening lashes dew’d
            With drops of sadness oft to be renew’d. (I, XV)

In that same moment, so we suppose, Conrad looks back (I, XVII). Just as Medora doesn’t even notice her own tears, she later wanders “heedless of the spray” (III, III). To be at home is to be blind, to long to see outwards and instead to shrink within shadows. Conrad, who “leaps into the wave, Strives through the surge” (III, XIX) tries to bring some light in; the lamps have their own stubborn way; one of them “chequers o’er the shadowed floor” (III, XIX). He too will weep in due course, though only tricklingly, not dashingly as Medora does. Byron gives us an image of petrifaction, implying that Conrad’s life was always untenable:

            Each feeling pure – as falls the dropping dew
            Within the grot; like that had harden’d too; -  (III, XXIII)

And then Conrad absents himself; so the poem leaves us, like Medora, with our gaze on vacancy. 


Note 1: Incest

While writing this piece I came across occasional, but recurrent descriptions of The Corsair as “a poem of incestuous love”; for example, in a recent BBC feature on Byron (2003). This was intriguing, because there was nothing at all about incest in the text. I haven't done any proper research, but I made enquiries via the Internet, and got nowhere. No-one had any relevant information, and my question was generally misunderstood and condemned (Byron forums are, it seems, afflicted by visitors who only want to talk about incest). There is moreover no doubt about incestuous themes in some of Byron’s other poems and dramas, but I was interested in The Corsair. I was thinking about the oddness of Conrad’s relationship with Medora, and it seemed to me that, if this was indeed supposed to be incestuous, it might shed light on the poem.

Then I happened to read somewhere that Lara, a later tale, was a “sequel” to The Corsair. I'd never read it, so I was happy to believe this too. It certainly is a sequel in its form and style (heroic couplets), and also in its further development of many of the themes and “processes” mentioned above. But Lara makes no reference to the earlier tale, though (tantalizingly) anyone who reads it primed with the word “sequel” is on tenterhooks waiting for the revelation that its hero Lara is none other than the Conrad of the earlier poem. We do know that Lara has a murky past under hotter skies, and that his character as portrayed in Lara is indistinguishable from Conrad’s in The Corsair. But the revelation never comes, and in fact the whole point of Lara is that we spend all our time wondering about the hero’s story, and being built up for a revelation that is always just about to arrive but never does. The two tales, for all we can say to the contrary, are set centuries apart. If Lara is Conrad, then is Kaled Gulnare? The poem seems to reprove us for speculating, at the same time as it blatantly manipulates and toys with our mystification. Lara does contain an answer to my query, of sorts. It asserts that a reading of Byron’s tales cannot be “pure”, that any reader is more or less bound to get affected by the narcotic smoke of myth, rumour and circumstance that its author stirred up. In short, these poems “deliver” only when they are misread.

The best guess I can make is that this description of The Corsair as "a poem of incestuous love" is not referring to its content but to the circumstances in which it was written, i.e. it arose from Byron's well-known statement to Murray that the best-selling poem had been written "con amore and much from existence". This is thought to have been in December 1813 and Byron's remark is usually taken as referring to his brief romance with Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster. But perhaps there are some people out there who think Byron was talking about Augusta. He was certainly snowed up with her the following January. The Corsair was published on February 1st. Augusta's daughter Elizabeth Medora was born on 15 April. Byron could possibly have been her father; whether he was or not, her middle name didn't necessarily refer to The Corsair (information from Fiona MacCarthy, Byron: Life and Legend (2002)).

Whoever Byron was talking about, the connection between life and poem is evidently not on the level of literal narrative or one-to-one character correspondence. It may have seemed clearer to the Age of Byron than it does now. I suppose we must seek it in the tone of feeling: in electricity, passion, ecstasy and torment.

There’s something peculiarly unfair about poems that turn us into cheap gossips by portraying heroes whose main feature is their utter disdain for gossip. Only religious writings are normally as hard on their readers. These tales are seminal essays on celebrity but at the same time (indeed indistinguishably) concerned with forming an aspiration, on devotional lines. 

Note 2: Historical context. 

Byron wasn't interested in history in the way that Scott was. The setting of The Corsair is Aegean. Possibly the poem was suggested by what Byron had heard about Greek pirates while visiting islands near Constantinople in 1810 ( Much in the poem confirms what his name implies, that Conrad is a Christian protagonist. But Delacroix and some other illustrators show Conrad in Muslim garb (invariably, they illustrate the scene where Gulnare rescues him from prison - Canto II Stanza 13) I'm not sure if this is supposed to be Conrad's "pious Dervise" disguise - which, however, involved a high cap and has already been discarded by this stage of the action - or whether they really preferred to envisage the hero as an Ottoman corsair.

Note 3: Music, etc

Balzac's first literary effort (in c. 1819) is said to be a libretto for a projected comic opera called Le Corsaire, based on Byron's The Corsair.

"Hoarse o’er her side the rusting cable rings" suggests some of the thrills of Berlioz' overture "Le Corsaire", composed in 1844. It was performed as La Tour de Nice (it was composed in Nice), then the title was changed to Le Corsaire Rouge , with reference to Fennimore Cooper's The Red Rover. It was only on third thoughts that Berlioz decided to associate his music with Byron's poem.

(In case you were wondering, the French title of Scott's 1821 novel is Le Pirate, not Le Corsaire)

Also from 1844, fragments remain of Schumann's draft of an opera that would have followed Byron's poem much more closely. They include the opening "Chorus of Corsairs" and part of a Conrad aria. (In 1848 Schumann would go on to write a Byronic "dramatic poem with music" - a kind of semi-stageable realization of Manfred.)



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