George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), known as Lord Byron, like many other great English romantic poets, was fascinated with life in the far-away lands. His early poems were bitterly criticized in England shortly after publication; therefore, Byron decided to leave England in 1809. His two years of travel through Spain, Malta, Albania, Greece and the Aegean resulted in the first part of his long poem “Childe Harold's Pilgrimage” (1812).
Byron had an ambitious plan for exploring the Orient. He composed a series of exotic narrative poems including “The Bride of Abydos” (1813), “The Giaour” (1813) and “The Corsair” (1814). He travelled to Constantinople from mid-May to mid-July 1810 and was very disappointed when his plan for travelling to Persia and India were thwarted by financial difficulties. He visited some of the Oriental cities that had fascinated him since childhood and about which he had long ago conducted a very extensive reading.
Byron's love of the Orient also stems from his appreciation of Greek civilization and his struggle for liberty, which is often couched in his propagandistic allusions to the heroic, and Edenic past when dreams were true and life was sacred. In 1823 Byron went to Greece to join the revolution against the Turkish occupation and died of rheumatic fever at Missolonghi on 19 April 1824 before seeing battle.
In “Childe Harold's Pilgrimage” (1812), Byron describes the adventures of a self-styled melancholy and defiant pilgrim whose wanderings resemble those of Byron's. He describes how this pilgrim, tired of his sinful life, finds distraction by travel. He travels through Portugal, Spain, Albania, Belgium, the Rhine, the Alps and Jura. He praises Albania and its wild and exotically clad people and laments the lost liberty of his beloved Greece.
In canto II, Byron writes about Albania and Ali Pasha, the Albanian leader who sought independence from Greece and the Ottoman empire and whose court Byron visited in 1802.
In this canto, after describing Pasha having been surrounded by “Muslim luxury”, lush scenery, gentle winds, green trees and peaceful rusticity and the Muslim manner of prayer and fasting, Byron writes about Muslim women who devote themselves to their families and whose voices are never heard, nor are their faces ever seen.
He then alludes to the renowned Persian mystic poet, Hafiz, and to his faith in the power of love and the belief that age cannot deter one from loving or being loved (perhaps taking his inspiration from these lines of Hafiz: “Though I am old hold me in your warm embrace for a night / Because by your embrace I will rise fresh and young at the dawn”):
It is not that yon hoary lengthening beard Ill suits the passions which belong to youth; Love conquers age – so Hafiz hath averr'd So sings the Teian, and he sings in sooth – But crimes that scorn the tender voice of Ruth, Beseeming all men ill, but most the man In years, have mark'd him with a tiger's tooth; Blood follows blood, and through their mortal span, In bloodier acts conclude those who with blood began (Stanza 63).
Byron's “Don Juan” (1819-24) describes the adventures of a young man who is shipwrecked and rescued by the daughter of a pirate, sold as a slave in Constantinople to a sultana who falls in love with him and who eventually escapes to the Russian army which is besieging the Turkish city of Ismail and is sent on a political mission to England.
Byron starts canto XVI of his famous “Don Juan” with an allusion to the old Persian manner of bringing up their children. He refers to the Persians who teach their children how to draw a bow, ride on horseback and, in accordance with the principles of Zoroastrianism, to be truthful. Byron borrows this piece of information from Herodotus's Histories. :
The antique Persians taught three useful things, To draw the bow, to ride, and speak the truth. This was the mode of Cyrus, best of kings- A mode adopted since by modern youth. Bows have they, generally with two strings; Horses they ride without remorse or ruth; At speaking truth perhaps they are less clever, But draw the long bow better now than ever (Stanza 1).
In Canto XIII diplomatic relations bring Don Juan (“the envoy of a secret Russian mission”) and Lord Henry together. Lord Henry befriends Juan and makes him a frequent guest at their London mansion. When Lord Henry and Lady Adeline Amundeville (the “queen bee, the glass of all that's fair, / Whose charms made all men speak and women dumb”) invite Juan to their country seat, Byron writes about Lord Henry's strong and determined character and judgement and compares them to the laws of the Persians:
In judging men – when once his judgment was Determined, right or wrong, on friend or foe, Had all the pertinacity pride has, Which knows no ebb to its imperious flow, And loves or hates, disdaining to be guided, Because its own good pleasure hath decided. His friendships, therefore, and no less aversions, Though oft well founded, which confirm'd but more His prepossessions, like the laws of Persians And Medes, would ne'er revoke what went before. His feelings had not those strange fits, like tertians, Of common likings, which make some deplore What they should laugh at – the mere ague still Of men's regard, the fever or the chill (Stanza 17).
Once more in “Don Juan” Byron alludes to Persia when he writes about the invasion of India by Nadir Shah. To Byron all the wars that result in misery and chaos are the result of the selfishness of the rulers who care only for their own personal aggrandizement. According to the poem, all the abuses in human society exist due to human flaws, such as self-love and inconsideration for the life of other people.
In canto IX, Don Juan, who has come to St. Petersburg, dressed as a war hero in military uniform, revels at his success in saving the life of a “sweet child”, the young orphaned Muslim girl, Leila, from two murderous Cossacks intent on killing her. Then he alludes to Nadir Shah's conquest of India, drawing a parallel between the conquest of India by the Persians and the Russians' attack on Ismail (a Turkish fort at the mouth of the Danube on the Black Sea, historically attacked in 1790) in which 40000 Turks, among them women and children were slaughtered.
Nadir Shah attacked India in 1738 and conquered that country after the King of India, Muhammad Shah, surrendered himself to Nadir's army. During his invasion of India, the Indians rebelled and killed a number of Persian soldiers. It was here that Nadir ordered the massacre of the Indian people and was later assassinated in a conspiracy after his temper had been exasperated by his extreme costivity to a degree of insanity to which Byron refers in the following lines.
Nadir suffered from melancholia caused by dropsy. In his The Indian Empire (1857) R. Montgomery Martin writes that Nadir became so mad that he ordered the Afghan chiefs to rise suddenly upon his Persian guard and seize the chief nobles. His plot was discovered, however, and the intended victims retaliated and some of them including Nadir's guard and the chief of his tribe Afshar, entered his tent at midnight and rushed upon him and killed him by repeated blows of sabres:
But Juan turn'd his eyes on the sweet child Whom he had saved from slaughter — what a trophy! Oh! ye who build up monuments, defiled With gore, like Nadir Shah, that costive sophy, Who, after leaving Hindostan a wild, And scarce to the Mogul a cup of coffee To soothe his woes withal, was slain, the sinner! Because he could no more digest his dinner (Stanza 33).
In another instance in canto XIII in “Don Juan”, Byron alludes to the “devilish doctrine of the Persian”, probably referring to Zoroaster's philosophy of the two forces of good and evil (Ormazd, as the force of light, life and creativity and Ahriman, as the force of darkness, death and evil) while writing about the cold Lady Adeline who is described as “beyond all price, / When once you have broken their confounded ice.”
Here Byron tries to philosophize about the cold nature of Lady Adeline and reasons with himself whether this can be part of the whole scheme of the world that is based upon kindness or that it should be attributed to the dual nature of the world as expressed in the philosophy of Zoroaster:
But heaven must be diverted; its diversion Is sometimes truculent — but never mind: The world upon the whole is worth the assertion (If but for comfort) that all things are kind: And that same devilish doctrine of the Persian, Of the two principles, but leaves behind As many doubts as any other doctrine Has ever puzzled Faith withal, or yoked her in (Stanza 41).
In “The Prophecy of Dante” (1820), canto II, Byron writes about Cambyses' plan to attack Egypt and the ordeal he and his army faced while crossing the deserts of Africa during his march to Egypt. Cambyses, the king of Persia who reigned from B.C. 529-522, sent an army to fight the Ammonians, which perished in the sands.
Although “The Prophecy of Dante” was written before Byron took up the cause of Italian independence, it evokes his deepest feelings for the liberation of Italy from the hands of the Bourbons or what he referred to as “barbarians” of all nations. Here Byron apostrophyzes Rome calling on her to crush her enemies just as the Persians were defeated in the desert:
Oh! Rome, the Spoiler or the spoil of France, From Brennus to the Bourbon, never, never Shall foreign standard to thy walls advance, But Tiber shall become a mournfull river. Oh! when the strangers pass the Alps and Po, Crush them, ye rocks! Floods whelm them, and for ever! Why sleep the idle Avalanches so, To topple on the lonely pilgrim's head? Why doth Eridanus but overflow The peasant's harvest from his turbid bed? Were not each barbarous horde a nobler prey? Over Cambyses' host the desert spread Her sandy ocean, and the Sea-waves' sway Rolled over Pharaoh and his thousands, – why, Mountains and waters, do ye not as they? And you, ye Men! Romans, who dare not die, Sons of the conquerors who overthrew Those who overthrew proud Xerxes, where yet lie The dead whose tomb Oblivion never knew, Are the Alps weaker than Thermopylae? (lines 97-116)