Lord Byron, from The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale

Lord Byron (1788–1824; see the author introduction in NAEL 8, 2.607–11), the most "major" of the writers gathered here for the topic of Romantic Orientalism, began writing Oriental tales in verse in the wake of the phenomenal success of the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, published in March 1812 (these were the occasion of the poet's awakening to find himself internationally famous overnight). The earliest versions of The Giaour were drafted between September 1812 and March 1813, and a version of close to seven hundred lines was published in June of that year. Six or seven more editions appeared before the year was out, each one longer than the preceding, until the poem had grown to 1334 lines. It had gone through fourteen editions by 1815, when it was incorporated into the first collected edition of Byron's poems. It was the smash hit of the publishing season.

"Stick to the East," Byron urged his friend Tom Moore in a letter of late August 1813, adding that "the public are orientalizing." Following his own advice, he dashed off and published three more "Turkish tales" before the next year was out — The Bride of Abydos (published in December 1813 and reissued in ten further editions of 1814 and 1815), The Corsair (published in February 1814 — selling ten thousand copies on the first day — and reissued in eight or more editions through 1815), and Lara (published in August 1814, with five or six subsequent editions in the next couple of years). Never before had "colonial anxiety and imperial guilt" done so well at the box office. Byron himself was the best early commentator on his success with a popular audience, in these lines from a wry digression in Beppo (1818):

Oh! that I had the art of easy writing
      What should be easy reading! . . .
How quickly would I print (the world delighting)
      A Grecian, Syrian, or Assyrian tale;
And sell you, mixed with western Sentimentalism,
Some samples of the finest Orientalism.

The Giaour is formally more complicated than any of these other narratives, a purposely fragmentary work with three narrators (and three points of view) of the disjointed events. The main story, in the Oxford Companion to English Literature's concise description, "is of a female slave, Leila, who loves the Giaour . . . and is in consequence bound and thrown in a sack into the sea by her Turkish lord, Hassan. The Giaour avenges her by killing Hassan, then in grief and remorse banishes himself to a monastery." The word "giaour" means foreigner or infidel, and in this Moslem context Byron's hero is a Christian outsider, in a situation enabling contrasts of ideas about love, sex, death, and the hereafter. The extract below, the Giaour's deathbed confession to the abbot of the monastery, makes an interesting comparison with Manfred's dying speech to an abbot in a much more dramatic display of Byronism four years later (NAEL 8, 2.666–69).

 






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                         * * *

"Father! thy days have passed in peace,
      'Mid counted beads, and countless prayer;
To bid the sins of others cease,
      Thyself without a crime or care,
Save transient ills that all must bear,
Has been thy lot from youth to age;
And thou wilt bless thee from the rage
Of passions fierce and uncontrolled,
Such as thy penitents unfold,
Whose secret sins and sorrows rest
Within thy pure and pitying breast.
My days, though few, have passed below
In much of Joy, but more of Woe;
Yet still in hours of love or strife,
I've 'scaped the weariness of Life:
Now leagued with friends, now girt by foes,
I loathed the languor of repose.
Now nothing left to love or hate,
No more with hope or pride elate,
I'd rather be the thing that crawls
Most noxious o'er a dungeon's walls,
Than pass my dull, unvarying days,
Condemned to meditate and gaze.
Yet, lurks a wish within my breast
For rest — but not to feel 'tis rest.
Soon shall my Fate that wish fulfil;
      And I shall sleep without the dream
Of what I was, and would be still,
      Dark as to thee my deeds may seem:
My memory now is but the tomb
Of joys long dead; my hope, their doom:
Though better to have died with those
Than bear a life of lingering woes.
My spirit shrunk not to sustain
The searching throes of ceaseless pain;
Nor sought the self-accorded grave
Of ancient fool and modern knave:
Yet death I have not feared to meet;
And in the field it had been sweet,
Had Danger wooed me on to move
The slave of Glory, not of Love.
I've braved it — not for Honour's boast;
I smile at laurels won or lost;
To such let others carve their way,
For high renown, or hireling pay:
But place again before my eyes
Aught that I deem a worthy prize —
The maid I love, the man I hate —
And I will hunt the steps of fate,
To save or slay, as these require,
Through rending steel, and rolling fire:
Nor needst thou doubt this speech from one
Who would but do — what he hath done.
Death is but what the haughty brave,
The weak must bear, the wretch must crave;
Then let life go to Him who gave:
I have not quailed to Danger's brow
When high and happy — need I now?

                         * * * * *

"I loved her, Friar! nay, adored —
      But these are words that all can use —
I proved it more in deed than word;
There's blood upon that dinted sword,
      A stain its steel can never lose:
'Twas shed for her, who died for me,
      It warmed the heart of one abhorred:
Nay, start not — no — nor bend thy knee,
      Nor midst my sins such act record;
Thou wilt absolve me from the deed,
For he was hostile to thy creed!
The very name of Nazarene
Was wormwood to his Paynim spleen.
Ungrateful fool! since but for brands
Well wielded in some hardy hands,
And wounds by Galileans given —
The surest pass to Turkish heaven —
For him his Houris still might wait
Impatient at the Prophet's gate.
I loved her — Love will find its way
Through paths where wolves would fear to prey;
And if it dares enough, 'twere hard
If Passion met not some reward —
No matter how, or where, or why,
I did not vainly seek, nor sigh:
Yet sometimes, with remorse, in vain
I wish she had not loved again.
She died — I dare not tell thee how;
But look — 'tis written on my brow!
There read of Cain the curse and crime,
In characters unworn by Time:
Still, ere thou dost condemn me, pause;
Not mine the act, though I the cause.
Yet did he but what I had done
Had she been false to more than one.
Faithless to him — he gave the blow;
But true to me — I laid him low:
Howe'er deserved her doom might be
Her treachery was truth to me;
To me she gave her heart, that all
Which Tyranny can ne'er enthrall;
And I, alas! too late to save!
Yet all I then could give, I gave —
'Twas some relief — our foe a grave.
His death sits lightly; but her fate
Has made me — what thou well mayst hate.
      His doom was sealed — he knew it well,
Warned by the voice of stern Taheer,
Deep in whose darkly boding ear
The deathshot pealed of murder near,
      As filed the troop to where they fell!
He died too in the battle broil,
A time that heeds nor pain nor toil;
One cry to Mahomet for aid,
One prayer to Alla all he made:
He knew and crossed me in the fray —
I gazed upon him where he lay,
And watched his spirit ebb away:
Though pierced like pard by hunters' steel,
He felt not half that now I feel.
I searched, but vainly searched, to find
The workings of a wounded mind;
Each feature of that sullen corse
Betrayed his rage, but no remorse.
Oh, what had Vengeance given to trace
Despair upon his dying face!
The late repentance of that hour
When Penitence hath lost her power
To tear one terror from the grave,
And will not soothe, and cannot save.

                         * * * * *

"The cold in clime are cold in blood,
Their love can scarce deserve the name;
But mine was like the lava flood
      That boils in Ætna's breast of flame.
I cannot prate in puling strain
Of Ladye-love, and Beauty's chain:
If changing cheek, and scorching vein,
Lips taught to writhe, but not complain,
If bursting heart, and maddening brain,
And daring deed, and vengeful steel,
And all that I have felt, and feel,
Betoken love — that love was mine,
And shewn by many a bitter sign.
'Tis true, I could not whine nor sigh,
I knew but to obtain or die.
I die — but first I have possessed,
And come what may, I have been blessed.
Shall I the doom I sought upbraid?
No — reft of all, yet undismayed
But for the thought of Leila slain,
Give me the pleasure with the pain,
So would I live and love again.
I grieve, but not, my holy Guide!
For him who dies, but her who died:
She sleeps beneath the wandering wave —
Ah! had she but an earthly grave,
This breaking heart and throbbing head
Should seek and share her narrow bed.
She was a form of Life and Light,
That, seen, became a part of sight;
And rose, where'er I turned mine eye,
The Morning-star of Memory!

"Yes, Love indeed is light from heaven;
      A spark of that immortal fire
With angels shared, by Alla given,
      To lift from earth our low desire.
Devotion wafts the mind above,
But Heaven itself descends in Love;
A feeling from the Godhead caught,
To wean from self each sordid thought;
A ray of Him who formed the whole;
A Glory circling round the soul!
I grant my love imperfect, all
That mortals by the name miscall;
Then deem it evil, what thou wilt;
But say, oh say, hers was not Guilt!
She was my Life's unerring Light:
That quenched — what beam shall break my night?
Oh! would it shone to lead me still,
Although to death or deadliest ill!
Why marvel ye, if they who lose
      This present joy, this future hope,
      No more with Sorrow meekly cope;
In phrensy then their fate accuse;
In madness do those fearful deeds
      That seem to add but Guilt to Woe?
Alas! the breast that inly bleeds
      Hath nought to dread from outward blow:
Who falls from all he knows of bliss,
Cares little into what abyss.
Fierce as the gloomy vulture's now
      To thee, old man, my deeds appear:
I read abhorrence on thy brow,
      And this too was I born to bear!
'Tis true, that, like that bird of prey,
With havock have I marked my way:
But this was taught me by the dove,
To die — and know no second love.
This lesson yet hath man to learn,
Taught by the thing he dares to spurn:
The bird that sings within the brake,
The swan that swims upon the lake,
One mate, and one alone, will take.
And let the fool still prone to range,
And sneer on all who cannot change,
Partake his jest with boasting boys;
I envy not his varied joys,
But deem such feeble, heartless man,
Less than yon solitary swan;
Far, far beneath the shallow maid
He left believing and betrayed.
Such shame at least was never mine —
Leila! each thought was only thine!
My good, my guilt, my weal, my woe,
My hope on high — my all below.
Earth holds no other like to thee,
Or, if it doth, in vain for me:
For worlds I dare not view the dame
Resembling thee, yet not the same.
The very crimes that mar my youth,
This bed of death — attest my truth!
'Tis all too late — thou wert, thou art
The cherished madness of my heart!

"And she was lost — and yet I breathed,
      But not the breath of human life:
A serpent round my heart was wreathed,
      And stung my every thought to strife.
Alike all time, abhorred all place,
Shuddering I shrank from Nature's face,
Where every hue that charmed before
The blackness of my bosom wore.
The rest thou dost already know,
And all my sins, and half my woe.
But talk no more of penitence;
Thou seest I soon shall part from hence:
And if thy holy tale were true,
The deed that's done canst thou undo?
Think me not thankless — but this grief
Looks not to priesthood for relief.
My soul's estate in secret guess:
But wouldst thou pity more, say less.
When thou canst bid my Leila live,
Then will I sue thee to forgive;
Then plead my cause in that high place
Where purchased masses proffer grace.
Go, when the hunter's hand hath wrung
From forest-cave her shrieking young,
And calm the lonely lioness:
But soothe not — mock not my distress!

"In earlier days, and calmer hours,
      When heart with heart delights to blend,
Where bloom my native valley's bowers,
      I had — Ah! have I now? — a friend!
To him this pledge I charge thee send,
      Memorial of a youthful vow;
I would remind him of my end:
      Though souls absorbed like mine allow
Brief thought to distant Friendship's claim,
Yet dear to him my blighted name.
'Tis strange — he prophesied my doom,
      And I have smiled — I then could smile —
When Prudence would his voice assume,
      And warn — I recked not what — the while:
But now Remembrance whispers o'er
Those accents scarcely marked before.
Say — that his bodings came to pass,
      And he will start to hear their truth,
      And wish his words had not been sooth:
Tell him — unheeding as I was,
      Through many a busy bitter scene
      Of all our golden youth had been,
In pain, my faltering tongue had tried
To bless his memory — ere I died;
But Heaven in wrath would turn away,
If Guilt should for the guiltless pray.
I do not ask him not to blame,
Too gentle he to wound my name;
And what have I to do with Fame?
I do not ask him not to mourn,
Such cold request might sound like scorn;
And what than Friendship's manly tear
May better grace a brother's bier?
But bear this ring, his own of old,
And tell him — what thou dost behold!
The withered frame, the ruined mind,
The wrack by passion left behind,
A shrivelled scroll, a scattered leaf,
Seared by the autumn blast of Grief!

                         * * * * *

      "Tell me no more of Fancy's gleam,
No, father, no, 'twas not a dream;
Alas! the dreamer first must sleep,
I only watched, and wished to weep;
But could not, for my burning brow
Throbbed to the very brain as now:
I wished but for a single tear,
As something welcome, new, and dear:
I wished it then, I wish it still;
Despair is stronger than my will.
Waste not thine orison, despair
Is mightier than thy pious prayer:
I would not, if I might, be blest;
I want no Paradise, but rest.
'Twas then — I tell thee — father! then
I saw her; yes, she lived again;
And shining in her white symar
As through yon pale gray cloud the star
Which now I gaze on, as on her,
Who looked and looks far lovelier;
Dimly I view its trembling spark;
To-morrow's night shall be more dark;
And I, before its rays appear,
That lifeless thing the living fear.
I wander — father! for my soul
Is fleeting towards the final goal.
I saw her — friar! and I rose
Forgetful of our former woes;
And rushing from my couch, I dart,
And clasp her to my desperate heart;
I clasp — what is it that I clasp?
No breathing form within my grasp,
No heart that beats reply to mine —
Yet, Leila! yet the form is thine!
And art thou, dearest, changed so much
As meet my eye, yet mock my touch?
Ah! were thy beauties e'er so cold,
I care not — so my arms enfold
The all they ever wished to hold.
Alas! around a shadow prest
They shrink upon my lonely breast;
Yet still 'tis there! In silence stands,
And beckons with beseeching hands!
With braided hair, and bright-black eye —
I knew 'twas false — she could not die!
But he is dead! within the dell
I saw him buried where he fell;
He comes not — for he cannot break
From earth; — why then art thou awake?
They told me wild waves rolled above
The face I view — the form I love;
They told me — 'twas a hideous tale! —
I'd tell it, but my tongue would fail:
If true, and from thine ocean-cave
Thou com'st to claim a calmer grave,
Oh! pass thy dewy fingers o'er
This brow that then will burn no more;
Or place them on my hopeless heart:
But, Shape or Shade! whate'er thou art,
In mercy ne'er again depart!
Or farther with thee bear my soul
Than winds can waft or waters roll!

                         * * * * *

"Such is my name, and such my tale.
      Confessor! to thy secret ear
I breathe the sorrows I bewail,
      And thank thee for the generous tear
This glazing eye could never shed.
Then lay me with the humblest dead,
And save the cross above my head,
Be neither name nor emblem spread,
By prying stranger to be read,
Or stay the passing pilgrim's tread."
He passed — nor of his name and race
Hath left a token or a trace,
Save what the Father must not say
Who shrived him on his dying day:
This broken tale was all we knew
Of her he loved, or him he slew.

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