Love conquers age
Lord Byron and Persia
May 14, 2003
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
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
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)
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