Lord Byron’s “Giaour – A Fragment of a Turkish Tale”

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Introduction

“Greece was the mostly sought Eastern country by travelers during the 19th century.” (1)

Lord Byron visited Greece for the first time in his 1809-1810 travels to the South of Europe.

While in Greece, he heard a story about a woman who experienced terrible death by been thrown into the sea alive inside a bag.

This story gave Lord Byron the material for his poem “The Giaour”.

The “Giaour” is Byron’s only narrative poem, and the first of four Turkish tales that he wrote.

It is also a poem that in a way contributed the birth of the “vampire”, albeit a vampire different from the one we are accustomed in the 21st century.

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George Gordon Noel, sixth Baron Byron

George Gordon Noel, sixth Baron Byron, was born on 22 January 1788 in London.

In July 1823, Byron left Italy to join the Greek insurgents who were fighting a war of independence against the Ottoman Empire.

On 19 April 1824 he died from fever at Messolonghi, in modern day Greece.

His death was mourned throughout Britain. His body was brought back to England and buried at his ancestral home in Nottinghamshire.

Byron had enormous influence on the romantic movement and European poetry. One of the poets greatly influenced by Byron was Goethe.

He is also the only English  poet Bertrand Russell included in his History of Western Philosophy.

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Orientalism

“Romantic Orientalism, then, became part of the larger movement of British Romanticism, which was further enthused by Napoleon‟s invasion of Egypt (1798–1799) and Greece‟s War of Independence (1821–1828). To Romantic travelers, scholars, artists and men of letters the Orient constituted a distant world which conveniently suited their search for the exotic and sublime experiences.” (1)

In his book “Orientalism”, Edward Said observes: “Popular Orientalism during the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth attained a vogue of considerable intensity”

Apparently Byron was not driven to orientalism by accident. In “Interrogating Orientalism”, the editors observe (3):

In late August 1813, Byron had advised his friend Tom Moore to read Antoine Laurent Castellan’s Moeurs, usages, costumes des Othomans (1812) for poetic materials:

“Stick to the East; the oracle, Stael, told me it was the only poetic policy. The North, South, and West, have all been exhausted; but from the East, we have nothing but Southey’s unsaleables. . . . The little I have done in that way is merely a “voice in the wilderness” for you; and, if it has had any success, that also will prove that the public are orientalizing, and pave the path for you. (Letters and Journals 3:101)”

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). (6)

Eugene Delacroix: Combat of the Giaour and the Pasha
Eugene Delacroix: Combat of the Giaour and the Pasha, 1827, The Art Institute of Chicago

The Giaour

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 Giaour was started in London between September 1812 and March 1813, first published by John Murray in late March 1813, and finally completed December 1813, after having, in Byron’s words, “lengthened its rattles” (BLJ III 100) from 407 lines in the first draft to 1334 lines in the twelfth edition. (4)

According to one of Byron’s letters, the story in the poem was a tale he’d overheard “by accident recited by one of the coffee-house story tellers who abound in the Levant,” and he blamed the fragmented style on a “failure of memory,”

The narrative is built around a doomed love triangle, composed of the Giaour, a nameless Christian, Hassan and one of his wives, Leila. Leila « breaks her bower, » goes out into the world of men and taking the Giaour as a lover, lashes out against the values that structure her society. Hassan attemps to reestablish the balance by confining her to a space even smaller than the harem : a canvas bag which is then summarily thrown over the side of a boat unbeknownst to its crew and the reader, to whom this episode is recounted through the eyes of a fisherman. The Giaour takes his revenge, ambushing Hassan in a mountain pass, then, crushed by his part in Leila’s death, spends the rest of his days spurning the solace offered him by a man of the cloth, representative of orthodoxy. (7)

Leila

The heroine of the poem, Leila is a silent and passive heroine.

Another Leila in Byron’s Don Juan has a similar profile (8)

Delacroix (5)

Following a visit to England in 1825, Eugène Delacroix, the leading Romantic painter in France, based this painting on the poem The Giaour (pronounced jor) written by English poet Lord Byron in 1813. The subject—passions avenged on the faraway Greek battlefield—is perfectly suited to the Romantic vision of exotic locales and unleashed emotion.

In the painting, a Venetian (my note: according to others, Giaour was a Christian without more specifics, but it does not really matter, does it?) known as the Giaour—a Turkish term for infidel—fights the Muslim Hassan to avenge the death of his lover, who was killed by Hassan after fleeing his harem. The stark setting and aggressive movements place the focus of the painting on these two main characters. Weapons poised, the enemies face off in mirrored poses: the Giaour in swirling white with bloodshot eyes, Hassan facing his opponent with his weapon raised. The dynamic motion and emotion of the composition, which looks back to the Baroque style of Peter Paul Rubens, is further heightened by the artist’s use of high-keyed colors and bold and loose brushwork. Delacroix’s handling of pigments was influenced by a mid-19th-century color theory that stated that a spot of color will appear to be surrounded by a faint ring of its complement. In Delacroix’s painting, the adaptation of this effect is seen in the artist’s use of complementary colors, rather than the addition of black pigment, to create shadows.

The Combat of the Giaour and Hassan was included in an exhibition at the Parisian Galerie Lebrun to benefit the Greeks and their war of liberation from the Ottoman Turks (1821–1832). This political cause inspired numerous Romantic artists, writers, and musicians, and was the subject of one of Delacroix’s best-known paintings, The Massacre at Chios. The latter painting was based on an actual incident in the Greek wars of independence, unlike the Art Institute’s painting, which is derived from a work of fiction. Both are examples of Orientalism in Romantic painting, in which depictions of the Middle East and North Africa emphasize the exotic appeal of the lands and their people.

Gericault: Portrait of Lord Byron
Gericault: Portrait of Lord Byron

Vampires

As an article in BBC informs us,

“Byron was one of the first authors to write about vampires and his image even inspired the look of the monsters.” (2) The following is an extensive quote from the article:

Dr Matt Green is a lecturer at the University of Nottingham. The Gothic expert said: “The vampire first comes into English literature around the end of the eighteenth century.

“One of the first poems the vampire features in is by Lord Byron. It’s a poem called The Giaour (a Turkish word for an infidel or nonbeliever).

“At one point the giaour is cursed by his enemy to become a vampire and to prey and feed on his descendents.”

The poem goes: “Bur first, on earth as Vampire sent, Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent: Then ghastly haunt thy native place, And suck the blood of all thy race.”

“At this stage the vampire in Byron’s poem and in English literature is more a zombie figure. He comes out of the ground and he eats those around him and then goes back into the ground. He can’t wander far from his place of birth and his family.”

That perception was about to change and Byron would be central to it.

The university lecturer said: “It’s not until a couple of years later that the vampire becomes this cosmopolitan, seductive figure. That has to do with Byron as well.”

Eugene Delacroix, Combat Between Giaour and Pasha, 1827, Art Institute of Chicago
Eugene Delacroix, Combat Between Giaour and Pasha, 1827, The Art Institute of Chicago

Excerpts of the poem

The maid for whom his melody,
His thousand songs are heard on high,
Blooms blushing to her lover’s tale:
His queen, the garden queen, his Rose,
Unbent by winds, unchilled by snows,
Far from winters of the west,
By every breeze and season blest,
Returns the sweets by Nature given
In soft incense back to Heaven;
And gratefu yields that smiling sky
Her fairest hue and fragrant sigh.

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Eugene Delacroix, The combat of the Giaour with the Pasha, 1835, Petit Palais, Paris, France

The foam that streaks the courser’s side
Seems gathered from the ocean-tide:
Though weary waves are sunk to rest,
There’s none within his rider’s breast;
And though tomorrow’s tempest lower,
‘Tis calmer than thy heart, young Giaour!
I know thee not, I loathe thy race,
But in thy lineaments I trace
What time shall strengthen, not efface:
Though young and pale, that sallow front
Is scathed by fiery passion’s brunt;
Though bent on earth thine evil eye,
As meteor-like thou glidest by,
Right well I view thee and deem thee one
Whom Othman’s sons should slay or shun.

Eugene Delacroix, The Giaour over the dead Pasha
Eugene Delacroix, The Giaour over the dead Pasha

Not thus was Hassan wont to fly
When Leila dwelt in his Serai.
Doth Leila there no longer dwell?
That tale can only Hassan tell:
Strange rumours in our city say
Upon that eve she fled away
When Rhamazan’s last sun was set,
And flashing from each minaret
Millions of lamps proclaimed the feast
Of Bairam through the boundless East.
‘Twas then she went as to the bath,
Which Hassan vainly searched in wrath;
For she was flown her master’s rage
In likeness of a Georgian page,
And far beyond the Moslem’s power
Had wronged him with the faithless Giaour.
Somewhat of this had Hassan deemed;
But still so fond, so fair she seemed,
Too well he trusted to the slave
Whose treachery deserved a grave:
And on that eve had gone to mosque,
And thence to feast in his kiosk.

Alexandre-Marie Colin, The Giaour
Alexandre-Marie Colin, The Giaour

‘Yes, Leila sleeps beneath the wave,
But his shall be a redder grave;
Her spirit pointed well the steel
Which taught that felon heart to feel.
He called the Prophet, but his power
Was vain against the vengeful Giaour:
He called on Allah – but the word.
Arose unheeded or unheard.
Thou Paynim fool! could Leila’s prayer
Be passed, and thine accorded there?
I watched my time, I leagued with these,
The traitor in his turn to seize;
My wrath is wreaked, the deed is done,
And now I go – but go alone.’

Eugene Delacroix: Combat of the Giaour and the Pasha (detail)
Eugene Delacroix: Combat of the Giaour and the Pasha (detail)

Yet died he by a stranger’s hand,
And stranger in his native land;
Yet died he as in arms he stood,
And unavenged, at least in blood.
But him the maids of Paradise
Impatient to their halls invite,
And the dark Heaven of Houris’ eyes
On him shall glance for ever bright;
They come – their kerchiefs green they wave,
And welcome with a kiss the brave!
Who falls in battle ‘gainst a Giaour
Is worthiest an immortal bower.

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”Tis twice three years at summer tide
Since first among our freres he came;
And here it soothes him to abide
For some dark deed he will not name.
But never at our vesper prayer,
Nor e’er before confession chair
Kneels he, nor recks he when arise
Incense or anthem to the skies,
But broods within his cell alone,
His faith and race alike unknown.
The sea from Paynim land he crost,
And here ascended from the coast;
Yet seems he not of Othman race,
But only Christian in his face:
I’d judge him some stray renegade,
Repentant of the change he made,
Save that he shuns our holy shrine,
Nor tastes the sacred bread and wine.

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To love the softest hearts are prone,
But such can ne’er be all his own;
Too timid in his woes to share,
Too meek to meet, or brave despair;
And sterner hearts alone may feel
The wound that time can never heal.
The rugged metal of the mine,
Must burn before its surface shine,
But plunged within the furnace-flame,
It bends and melts – though still the same;
Then tempered to thy want, or will,
‘Twill serve thee to defend or kill;
A breast-plate for thine hour of need,
Or blade to bid thy foeman bleed;
But if a dagger’s form it bear,
Let those who shape its edge, beware!
Thus passion’s fire, and woman’s art,
Can turn and tame the sterner heart;
From these its form and tone are ta’en,
And what they make it, must remain,
But break – before it bend again.

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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 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 needest 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?

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‘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 enthral;
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 mayest 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 Allah 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 I
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.

Thomas Phillips: Lord Byron in Albanian dress
Thomas Phillips: Lord Byron in Albanian dress

Sources

(1) Romantic Orientalism-LU Lecture, Naji B. Oueijan, Notre Dame University-Lebanon

(2) BBC Lord Byron’s image inspired modern take on vampires

(3) Interrogating Orientalism, edited by Diane Long Hoeveler and Jeffrey Cass, The Ohio State University Press

(4) BYRON’S “TURKISH TALES”: AN INTRODUCTION Peter Cochran

(5) The Combat of the Giaour and Hassan, The Art Institute of Chicago

(6) The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Lord Byron, from The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale

(7) A domesticated villain – Lord Byron’s The Giaour, DesOrient

(8) A Comparison Between two Turkish Heroines in Lord Byron’s Poetry: Leila in “The Giaour” and Leila in Don Juan, Mona Sulaiman Farraj Albalawi