Love conquers age
May 14, 2003
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"):
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.
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:
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
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: