LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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The Life of Lord Byron
Chapter XX

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Local pleasures.—Byron’s Grecian poems.—His departure from Athens.—Description of evening in the Corsair.—The opening of the Giaour.—State of patriotic feeling then in Greece.—Smyrna.—Change in Lord Byron’s manners.

The genii that preside over famous places have less influence on the imagination than on the memory. The pleasures enjoyed on the spot spring from the reminiscences of reading; and the subsequent enjoyment derived from having visited celebrated scenes, comes again from the remembrance of objects seen there, and the associations connected with them.

A residence at Athens, day after day, is but little more interesting than in a common country town: but afterwards, in reading either of the ancient or of the modern inhabitants, it is surprising to find how much local knowledge the memory had unconsciously acquired on the spot, arising from the variety of objects to which the attention had been directed.

The best of all Byron’s works, the most racy and original, are undoubtedly those which relate to Greece; but it is only travellers who have visited the scenes that can appreciate them properly. In them his peculiar style and faculty are most eminent; in all his other productions, imitation, even mere translation may be often traced, and though, without question, everything he touched became transmuted into something more beautiful and precious, yet he was never so masterly as in describing the scenery of Greece, and Albanian manners. In a general estimate of his works, it may be found that he has produced as fine or finer
passages than any in his Grecian poems; but their excellence, either as respects his own, or the productions of others, is comparative. In the Grecian poems he is only truly original; in them the excellence is all his own, and they possess the rare and distinguished quality of being as true to fact and nature, as they are brilliant in poetical expression.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is the most faithful descriptive poem which has been written since the Odyssey; and the occasional scenes introduced into the other poems, when the action is laid in Greece, are equally vivid and glowing.

When I saw him at Athens, the spring was still shrinking in the bud. It was not until he returned from Constantinople in the following autumn, that he saw the climate and country with those delightful aspects which he has delineated with so much felicity in The Giaour and The Corsair. It may, however, be mentioned, that the fine description of a calm sunset, with which the third canto of The Corsair opens, has always reminded me of the evening before his departure from Athens, owing to the circumstance of my having, in the course of the day, visited the spot which probably suggested the scene described.

It was the 4th of March, 1810; the Pylades sloop of war came that morning into the Piraeus, and landed Dr. Darwin, a son of the poet, with his friend, Mr. Galton, who had come out in her for a cruise. Captain Ferguson, her commander, was so kind as to offer the English then in Athens, viz., Lord Byron, Mr. Hobhouse, and myself, a passage to Smyrna. As I had not received my luggage from Specia, I could not avail myself of the offer, but the other two did: I accompanied Captain Ferguson, however, and Dr. Darwin, in a walk to the Straits of Salamis; the ship, in the meantime, after landing them, having been moored there.

It was one of those serene and cloudless days of the early spring, when the first indications of leaf and
blossom may just be discerned. The islands slept, as it were, on their glassy couch, and a slight dun haze hung upon the mountains, as if they too were drowsy. After an easy walk of about two hours, passing through the olive groves, and along the bottom of the hill on which
Xerxes sat to view the battle, we came opposite to a little cove near the ferry, and made a signal to the ship for a boat. Having gone on board and partaken of some refreshment, the boat then carried us back to the Piraeus, where we landed, about an hour before sundown—all the wide landscape presenting at the time the calm and genial tranquillity which is almost experienced anew in reading these delicious lines:

Slow sinks more lovely e’er his race be run,
Along Morea’s hills, the setting sun
Not, as in northern climes, obscurely bright,
But one unclouded blaze of living light.
O’er the hush’d deep the yellow beam he throws,
Gilds the green wave that trembles as it flows.
On old Egina’s rock, and Idra’s isle,
The god of gladness sheds his parting smile;
O’er his own regions lingering, loves to shine,
Though there his altars are no more divine;—
Descending fast, the mountain shadows kiss
Thy glorious gulf, unconquer’d Salamis!
Their azure arches, through the long expanse,
More deeply purpled meet his mellowing glance,
And tenderest tints, along their summits driven,
Mark his gay course, and own the hues of heaven;
Till darkly shaded from the land and deep,
Behind his Delphian cliff he sinks to sleep.

The opening of The Giaour is a more general description, but the locality is distinctly marked by reference to the tomb above the rocks of the promontory, commonly said to be that of Themistocles; and yet the scene included in it certainly is rather the view from Cape Colonna, than from the heights of Munychia.

No breath of air to break the wave
That rolls below the Athenian’s grave,
That tomb, which, gleaming o’er the cliff,
First greets the homeward-veering skiff,
High o’er the land he saved in vain—
When shall such hero live again!

The environs of the Piraeus were indeed, at that time, well calculated to inspire those mournful reflections with which the poet introduces the Infidel’s impassioned tale. The solitude, the relics, the decay, and sad uses to which the pirate and the slave-dealer had put the shores and waters so honoured by freedom, rendered a visit to the Piraeus something near in feeling to a pilgrimage.

Such is the aspect of this shore,
’Tis Greece, but living Greece no more!
So coldly sweet, so deadly fair,
We start, for soul is wanting there.
Hers is the loveliness in death,
That parts not quite with parting breath;
But beauty with that fearful bloom,
That hue which haunts it to the tomb,
Expression’s last receding ray,
A gilded halo hov’ring round decay,
The farewell beam of feeling past away.
Spark of that flame, perchance of heavenly birth,
Which gleams, but warms no more its cherish’d earth.

At that time Lord Byron, if he did pity the condition of the Greeks, evinced very little confidence in the resurrection of the nation, even although symptoms of change and reanimation were here and there perceptible, and could not have escaped his observation. Greece had indeed been so long ruined, that even her desolation was then in a state of decay. The new cycle in her fortunes had certainly not commenced, but it was manifest, by many a sign, that the course of the old was concluding, and that the whole country felt the assuring auguries of undivulged renovation. The influence of that period did not, however, penetrate the bosom of the poet; and when he first quitted Athens, assuredly he cared as little
about the destinies of the Greeks, as he did for those of the Portuguese and Spaniards, when he arrived at Gibraltar.

About three weeks or a month after he had left Athens, I went by a circuitous route to Smyrna, where I found him waiting with Mr. Hobhouse, to proceed with the Salsette frigate, then ordered to Constantinople, to bring away Mr. Adair, the ambassador. He had, in the meantime, visited Ephesus, and acquired some knowledge of the environs of Smyrna; but he appeared to have been less interested by what he had seen there than by the adventures of his Albanian tour. Perhaps I did him injustice, but I thought he was also, in that short space, something changed, and not with improvement. Towards Mr. Hobhouse, he seemed less cordial, and was altogether, I should say, having no better phrase to express what I would describe, more of a Captain Grand than improved in his manners, and more disposed to hold his own opinion than I had ever before observed in him. I was particularly struck with this at dinner, on the day after my arrival. We dined together with a large party at the consul’s, and he seemed inclined to exact a deference to his dogmas, that was more lordly than philosophical. One of the naval officers present, I think the captain of the Salsette, felt, as well as others, this overweening, and announced a contrary opinion on some question connected with the politics of the late Mr. Pitt with so much firm good sense, that Lord Byron was perceptibly rebuked by it, and became reserved, as if he deemed that sullenness enhanced dignity. I never in the whole course of my acquaintance saw him kithe so unfavourably as he did on that occasion. In the course of the evening, however, he condescended to thaw, and before the party broke up, his austerity began to leaf, and hide its thorns under the influence of a relenting temperament. It was, however, too evident—at least it was so to me—
that without intending wrong, or any offence, the unchecked humour of his temper was, by its caprices, calculated to prevent him from ever gaining that regard to which his talents and freer moods, independently of his rank, ought to have entitled him. Such men become objects of solicitude, but never of esteem.

I was also on this occasion struck with another new phase in his character; he seemed to be actuated by no purpose—he spoke no more of passing “beyond Aurora and the Ganges,” but seemed disposed to let the current of chances carry him as it might. If he had any specific object in view, it was something that made him hesitate between going home and returning to Athens when he should have reached Constantinople, now become the ultimate goal of his intended travels. To what cause this sudden and singular change, both in demeanour and design, was owing, I was on the point of saying, it would be fruitless to conjecture; but a letter to his mother, written a few days before my arrival at Smyrna, throws some light on the sources of his unsatisfied state. He appears by it to have been disappointed of letters and remittances from his agent, and says:

“When I arrive at Constantinople, I shall determine whether to proceed into Persia, or return—which latter I do not wish if I can avoid it. But I have no intelligence from Mr. H., and but one letter from yourself. I shall stand in need of remittances, whether I proceed or return. I have written to him repeatedly, that he may not plead ignorance of my situation for neglect.”

Here is sufficient evidence that the cause of the undetermined state of his mind, which struck me so forcibly, was owing to the incertitude of his affairs at home; and it is easy to conceive that the false dignity he assumed, and which seemed so like arrogance, was the natural effect of the anxiety and embarrassment he suffered, and of the apprehension of a person of his rank
being, on account of his remittances, exposed to require assistance among strangers. But as the scope of my task relates more to the history of his mind, than of his private affairs, I shall resume the narrative of his travels, in which the curiosity of the reader ought to be more legitimately interested.