December 15, 2017

Byron's Corsair

On this day in 1814 Lord Byron's "The Corsair" was published, selling out its entire first run of 10,000 copies. The poem was one of a handful of melodramatic verse-tales written by Byron between 1812-16, a period in which he was at the height of poetic fame in England. Pirate captain Conrad is the Byronic homme fatale, one who will risk all, including his beloved Medora, in order to rescue Gulnare, chief slave in the Turkish Pacha's harem, although he will not stoop to kill the sleeping Pacha in order to rescue himself. By this specific chivalry, and a life of dash and passion, "He left a Corsair's name to other times, / Linked with one virtue and a thousand crimes."

Byron drew upon his recent tour of the Mediterranean region for the colorful setting, but the autobiographical element comes more from it being written, said Byron, "con amore, and much from existence." He was having affairs with a handful of Medora-Gulnares at the time, being most embroiled with three: Lady Annabella Milbanke, because she was uncertain about the uncertain marriage proposal he had made; his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, who was pregnant with a child almost certainly his; and Lady Caroline Lamb, she of the famous line describing Byron as "mad, bad and dangerous to know." Lamb held her own in this regard -- disguising as a man in order to get past Byron's door, burning his likeness and letters in a public bonfire around which the neighborhood children danced, slashing herself on her arms to get his attention at a party, sending him a lock of hair (pubic) and getting back not a lock of his own but one cut from his new mistress (non-pubic). . . .

Byron received the news of the first-day Corsair sales -- still a record, says one biographer -- while staying with Augusta at Newstead Abbey, his ancestral home in Nottinghamshire. Invited back to London by his publisher for a night on the town, he replied that "success is most savored at a distance -- & I enjoy my solitary self-importance -- in an agreeable sulky way of my own." Soon the Abbey would be sold and Byron would be permanently removed to Europe, driven out by debt, his unhappy marriage, the clamor over his bisexuality and his child by Augusta -- named Elizabeth Medora, after The Corsair. There would be six years of this exile before death at thirty-six. This came as it might have to "proud Conrad fetter'd and alone": in Greece, fighting for Greek independence, with troops that he outfitted and paid himself. His last letters and journals show some of Conrad's doubt and turmoil, too:

There is a war, a chaos of the mind,
When all its elements convulsed, combined,
Lie dark and jarring with perturbed force,
And gnashing with impenitent Remorse --
That juggling fiend, who never spake before
But cries 'I warn'd thee!' when the deed is o'er. . . .

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