Byron’s “The Corsair.”

April 18, 2008 by aaron

Byron, intentionally or unintentionally, weaves himself into his poetry stamping it with his entire persona. His characters are part of himself; the poems are pieces of his mind; the events are based on experience. Byron’s poetry is an amalgamation of all aspects of Byron. This is truer in some poems than others: some are nearly biographical and others skillfully manipulate other’s perceptions of Byron. His poetry reveals the inner workings of his mind . Because of this, the voices in Byron’s poetry are not just the voices of Byron’s characters: they are the intermingling of the poet with the poem. One of the most pervasive and recognizable aspects of Byronic poetry is the Byronic hero who is a manifestation of parts of Byron’s own personality and thoughts. Byron’s “The Corsair” introduces the most Byronic of Byron’s heroes: Conrad. He then proceeds to emasculate him and proposes Gulnare, a former sex slave, as an alternative hero. Through Conrad, Gulnare and the entirety of “The Corsair” Byron questions the status quo by using heroic couplets with a social parasite, reversing gender roles, and ignoring conventions. In doing so, it demonstrates the multitude of Byron’s voices ((Aside from the artistic uses of the multiple Byronic personae, they also seem to argue that he was, as believed, bi-polar. At times, his poetry seems less of an argument with others than an internal conversation he was having with himself. A conversation that the reader just happens to overhear. In “The Corsair,” one sees the various Byronic personae fighting for artistic dominance with none seemingly coming to the forefront.)) most exquisitely.

Conrad is described very similarly to the way most would describe Byron: a man of few regrets and pleasures . He is seen by those closest to him as, “[t]hat man of loneliness and mystery, / Scarce seen to smile and seldom heard to sigh” (I.173-4). While Conrad is physically a normal man – “in [his] form seems little to admire,” – his persona demonstrates that something “more than marks the crowd of vulgar men,” and “[t]hough smooth his voice, and calm his general mien, / Still seems there something that [others] would not have seen” (I.195; I.200; I.206-7). Conrad is also described as being able to perceive into a person’s soul:

“He had the skill […] to probe [ones] heart and watch [ones] changing cheek,

At once the observer’s purpose to espy,

and on himself roll back his scrutiny,

Lest he to Conrad rather should betray

Some secret thought…” (I.217-21).

Byron is seemingly describing both Conrad and himself simultaneously. Conrad is more than just an outlaw fighting his personal chivalrous war against oppression, he is a part of Byron, and Byron attributes some of his most public personae to Conrad.

Conrad is the most “Byronic” of the characters in the story, but the behaviors of other characters also illustrate the way Byron inserts himself into his art. The story of “The Corsair” easily could be seen as a traditional damsel-in-distress story but Byron twists this: Conrad is the poetical hero, but he does not conquer the evil he fights and his quest fails. Gulnare must kill Pasha Seyd and rescue the “hero.” Conrad would rather allow himself to die than to lose his chivalrous beliefs, so Gulnare must step in and perform the fatal act of murder.

Byron presents Gulnare as a feminine mirror to Conrad. At first, she is passively and typically feminine, but in rescuing Conrad, she immediately shakes off the burdens of defined gender roles and becomes something more than just a damsel. In making up for Conrad’s inability to overcome his chivalrous absolutes, the more restrained he becomes the less she restrains herself. Byron could have reduced her role to that of a plot devise to allow Conrad to escape Pasha Seyd’s dungeon, but by allowing her to abandon her given place in life, she becomes the driving force of half the poem taking on an aspect that rivals Conrad’s own in importance. Conrad, for a moment, is almost the prop upon which Gulnare is allowed to grow.

Her transformation from clichéd former damsel-in-distress enamored by her rescuer: “[I] long to view that chief again, / If I but to thank for, what my fear forgot, The life – my loving lord remember’d not!” to vengeful murderer “That hated tyrant […] he must bleed” illustrates her total change from feminine victim to something more (III. 270-3; III.319). This change does not illustrate any feminist sympathies on the part of Byron because in becoming something more, Gulnare emasculates Conrad and destroys her innocence: the “spot of blood, that light but guilty streak, Had banish’d all the beauty from her cheek” (III.426-7). However, even by raising a woman to the status of Byronic hero, Byron blurs the line of gender roles. His attitude toward women in general is seen plainly when he requires that Gulnare sacrifice her feminine soul as she attains a masculine superiority and in the fact that he allows her voice to reach a fevered pitch before silencing her; thus, placing her voice subservient to Conrad again. This is also demonstrated when Conrad rejects Gulnare after the murder seeing only, “Gulnare, the homicide!” ((An interesting note is that the rhyme of “homicide” with the word “bride” of the previous line forms the following couplet: “He thought on her afar, his lonely bride; He turn’d and saw Gulnare, the homicide!” Thus, it foreshadows his lonely bride’s death, and, in a way, placing the blame for her death on Gulnare and her relationship with Conrad. Symbolically, the death of Medora may represent the betrayal of Conrad’s spirit when he kisses Gulnare because Gulnare is his true match. Medora and he are in love but they are not really “made” for each other, and Gulnare is Conrad’s equal both mentally and physically.)) (III.463). Gulnare has emasculated him, so he rejects her seeing only the negative aspects of her even after he realizes that “she for him had given / Her all on earth, and more than all in heaven!” (III.529-30).

Unlike Conrad, Gulnare is not specifically Byron; she is a powerful voice for a time, but not entirely that of the author himself. However, she could have been: as her personality shifts from feminine to masculine, her personality shifts towards that of Conrad, and thus, comes closer to Byron. The Byronic hero torch almost passes from Conrad to Gulnare with “Conrad following, at her beck, obeyd” (III. 448). The balance between the characters of Conrad and Gulnare come to its own conclusion as, “He clasp’d that hand – it trembled – and his own / Had lost its firmness, and his voice its tone.” (III.539-49). The shifting personalities had already blurred the two, and with that moment they physically merged as she “sunk into his embrace” (III. 544). The two personalities become one as Gulnare leaves the poem never to return. The shifting between the masculine and feminine reflects Byron’s own inability to fit his own identity within the narrow confines of European culture which required that his own impulses be subservient to a specifically masculine personae.

The characters themselves are only one way that the Byronic personae infiltrates his poetry, he also uses the trappings of poetry to twist the meanings and intonations of the final product: his childe is not much of a pilgrim, his ode is more satiric than honorific. The final words of poetry demonstrate the finality of Conrad’s position: “His death yet dubious, deeds too widely known. […] Link’d with on virtue, and a thousand crimes” (694-6, III). However, the final words of “The Corsair” are not intoned by the narrator or Conrad, but by Byron himself in a footnote of nearly 2,000 words whose importance to the piece is negligible at best. By inserting generic and unimportant footnotes into emotionally charged scenes such as Medora’s plea for Conrad to remain with her, he can control the way the reader reacts. Through devices such as the introduction, epitaphs and footnotes, Byron inserts even more of himself, but he also asserts his control over the reader by leading them where he wishes them to go.

The epitaphs are seemingly innocuous Latin quotes, but when one considers them in the context of the poem the epitaphs of “The greatest of all woes / Is to remind us of our happy days / In misery […]”, “So as his dim desires to recognize?”, “as thou seest, yet, yet it doth remain” for Cantos I, II, and III respectively take on new meanings that illuminate the events within. ((Epitaphs were translated by Byron in the poem “Francesca of Rimini” in lines (25-7), (24), and (9) respectively for Canto I, II, and III.)) The first epigraph clearly foretells that Canto I is to be considered the “happy days,” and highlights the coming doom. The third illustrates finality: there is no going back, but the second is a little less clear. If one takes dim to reference the clarity of Conrad’s desires, the second offers a muddle. What one desires should be clear, but for Conrad and Gulnare, it is not so. These three epitaphs set the emotional charge of the succeeding Canto, but they only do so after a second reading when their connotations are less “dim;” thus, simultaneously spoiling the story for the reader and asserting the creator’s superiority.

Byron further manipulates the reader using conventions, especially in the form of verse he uses, but he wholly admits this in his introduction:

I have attempted not the most difficult, but, perhaps, the best adapted measure to our language, the good old and now neglected heroic couplet. The stanza of Spenser is perhaps too slow and dignified for narrative…The heroic couplet is not the most popular measure certainly; but as I did not deviate into the other from a wish to flatter what is called public opinion, I shall quit it without further apology…

As stated earlier, heroic couplets are almost entirely based on rhymes whose final syllables are stressed, and used solely for “heroes,” but Byron uses unstressed rhymes and uses heroic couplets not only for his vagabond corsair but also for his feminine heroine. While it could be true that these minor things do not illustrate anything more than Byron’s own artistic choices, combined with his disregard for most other conventions, one may see this as just another way for Byron to insert a little more of himself into his art. Byron’s art is entirely Byron, even when he mimics other poets, the poetry is infused with enough of Byron’s own personality that it is clearly his own work.

The multitude of voices that are present within Byron’s poetry can be daunting, but as one reads they find that the voices all come from a single source: Byron. Either intentionally or unintentionally, Byron inserts his many personae into his poetry – sometimes they flow together undetectably and others they create confusion jarring the reader with the abrupt shifts. The characters and the events are so completely “Byron” that it is hard to resist drawing parallels to Byron’s own life because at times, the poem seems to illustrate Byron’s past and future . While we cannot assume that Byron intended this to be so, the mirroring of Byron’s personality and life with the lives and personalities of his characters evidences a far deeper connection between the two than that of creator and creation. The tragedy that affects the lives of all of the characters in “The Corsair” mirrors the constant tragedy that seemed to follow Byron throughout his life. Byron’s constant searching for happiness was simultaneously defeated by his own shortcomings and the confines of society just as the Corsair’s happiness was impossible because of his own shortcomings and those around him. Through these and other examples, one can see that the entirety of “The Corsair” and other poems are not just stories, but Byron speaking through his many personae which are all pieces of him, but none entirely so.

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