War and Politics in Portugal
My bizarre project to personally annotate Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage continues. For the first time, I feel I might be getting in over my head — Byron’s poem addresses a swirling turmoil of events with which I’m not familiar. I encourage you to add any insights, or offer corrections. My sources are the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Wikipedia, and quaint footnoted editions I come across in Google Books. If learning about the politics of early 19th century Portugal tests your patience, please hang in there, because Byron is about to enter Spain.
The next three stanzas (24-26) of Canto I deal with the Cintra Convention (1808).
When the French invaded Portugal, they were stopped by a British general who came to be known as the Duke of Wellington. The victors agreed to let the weakened French army return home as part of the Cintra Convention. This peace agreement angered Byron.
The Cintra Convention occurred within the context of the Peninsular War (1808-1814), that portion of the Napoleonic Wars taking place on the Iberian Peninsula. After Napoleon made a pact with Russia in 1807, only two countries remained allied or friendly to Britain: Sweden and Portugal. Russia would deal with Sweden.
Napoleon wanted Portugal to close their ports and declare war on Britain, but when the Portuguese hesitated, he invaded, and Spain, a former ally, switched sides when the French crossed into their territory and occupied part of the country (Spain refers to the Peninsular War as the War of Independence or Guerra de la Independencia.) Of course, that’s just the gist of it. Here is a great image of the Battle of Vimiero, the village near Lisbon where Wellington defeated the French.
Continuing with Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage…
Behold the hall where chiefs were late convened!
Oh! dome displeasing unto British eye!
With diadem hight foolscap, lo! a fiend,
A little fiend that scoffs incessantly,
There sits in parchment robe arrayed, and by
His side is hung a seal and sable scroll,
Where blazoned glare names known to chivalry,
And sundry signatures ador the roll,
Whereat the urchin points, and laughs with all his soul.
“diadem hight foolscap” — A diadem is a royal band or crown, and “hight” means “named.” Byron regards the king of Portugal as a “little fiend” whose crown might as well be the cap of a fool. The signatures probably refer to those who signed the treaty. Even poor street kids — urchins — recognize Portugal’s folly in this agreement, Byron says.
One theme of continuing interest and surprise to me is the political feistiness of poets, a trait perhaps not appreciated by modern readers, who probably think poets of the past just whiled away their time sniffing flowers. Poets, barely a blip on our cultural radar, once dared to shape public opinion.
Convention is the dwarfish demon styled
That foiled the knights in Marialva’s dome:
Of brains (if brains they had) he them beguiled,
And turned a nation’s shallow joy to gloom.
Here Folly dashed to earth the victor’s plume,
And Policy regained what Arms had lost:
For chiefs like ours in vain may laurels bloom!
Woe to the conquering, not the conquered host,
Since baffled Triumph droops on Lusitania’s coast.
Byron says the treaty was signed in Cintra, “in Marialva’s dome”, but historian Napier, author of the History of the Peninsular War, says it was signed 30 miles away. Also, it turns out Byron omitted some verses from the original manuscript, “at the entreaty of his friends” because of the insults he hurled at those in power.
Lusitania is the ancient name of Portugal. (In an unrelated note, the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915 by German U-Boats, as you might recall, created public outrage in America, leading to its entry into WWI.)
And ever since that martial synod met,
Britannia sickens, Cintra, at thy name;
And folks in office at the mention fret,
And fain would blush, if blush they could, for shame.
How will posterity the deed proclaim!
Will not our own and fellow-nations sneer,
To view these champions cheated of their fame,
By foes in fight o’erthrown, yet victors here,
Where Scorn her finger points through many a coming year?
Byron disparagingly calls the convention a “martial synod” (synods refer to ecclesiastical assemblies).
One odd note: in Texas, the name Cintra (a Spanish multinational) is associated with the controversial construction of privatized toll roads.
So deemed the Childe, as o’er the mountains he
Did take his way in solitary guise:
Sweet was the scene, yet soon he thought to flee,
More restless than the swallow in the skies:
Though here awhile he learned to moralise,
For Meditation fixed at times on him,
And conscious Reason whispered to despise
His early youth misspent in maddest whim;
But as he gazed on Truth, his aching eyes grew dim.
To horse! to horse! he quits, for ever quits
A scene of peace, though soothing to his soul:
Again he rouses from his moping fits,
But seeks not now the harlot and the bowl.
Onward he flies, nor fixed as yet the goal
Where he shall rest him on his pilgrimage;
And o’er him many changing scenes must roll,
Ere toil his thirst for travel can assuage,
Or he shall calm his breast, or learn experience sage.
Byronic heroes, like Childe Harold, are moody and restless. There will be much traveling, until toil ends his wanderlust, or until he calms down or obtains wisdom. Speaking of toil, I assume he’s referring to the strain of travel, because as far as I can tell, Byron never had to work at a real job.
Yet Mafra shall one moment claim delay,
Where dwelt of yore the Lusians’ luckless queen;
And church and court did mingle their array,
And mass and revel were alternate seen;
Lordlings and freres—ill-sorted fry, I ween!
But here the Babylonian whore had built
A dome, where flaunts she in such glorious sheen,
That men forget the blood which she hath spilt,
And bow the knee to Pomp that loves to garnish guilt.
Mafra is northwest of Lisbon, site of the Palacio de Mafra.
fry = individuals; members of a group or class
ween = believe (another archaic word)
Why was the Maria I a luckless queen? Well, according to a footnote I found on Google Books: “The queen laboured under a kind of melancholy derangement, from which she never recovered.” Another footnote from an 1899 edition, edited by Earnest Hertley Coleridge, said that it was the death of her husband, combined with the death of her favorite confessor, and the death of her son that “turned her brain.” Although that fact that she married her uncle, Pedro III, makes me wonder whether she was all there to begin with.
O’er vales that teem with fruits, romantic hills,
(Oh that such hills upheld a free-born race!)
Whereon to gaze the eye with joyaunce fills,
Childe Harold wends through many a pleasant place.
Though sluggards deem it but a foolish chase,
And marvel men should quit their easy chair,
The toilsome way, and long, long league to trace.
Oh, there is sweetness in the mountain air
And life, that bloated Ease can never hope to share.
Oh, there is sweetness in the mountain air And life, that bloated Ease can never hope to share.
More bleak to view the hills at length recede,
And, less luxuriant, smoother vales extend:
Immense horizon-bounded plains succeed!
Far as the eye discerns, withouten end,
Spain’s realms appear, whereon her shepherds tend
Flocks, whose rich fleece right well the trader knows—
Now must the pastor’s arm his lambs defend:
For Spain is compassed by unyielding foes,
And all must shield their all, or share Subjection’s woes.
Spain is surrounded by enemies! (compassed = encompassed). I give credit to Byron — why hang out in a resort when you can enter a war zone?
Where Lusitania and her Sister meet,
Deem ye what bounds the rival realms divide?
Or e’er the jealous queens of nations greet,
Doth Tayo interpose his mighty tide?
Or dark sierras rise in craggy pride?
Or fence of art, like China’s vasty wall?—
Ne barrier wall, ne river deep and wide,
Ne horrid crags, nor mountains dark and tall
Rise like the rocks that part Hispania’s land from Gaul
Unlike the barrier that separates “Hispania’s land from Gaul” [Spain from France], there is no geographic barrier that separates “Lusitania and her Sister” [Spain and Portugal].
dark sierras = long jagged mountain chains. The word applies especially to mountain ranges having irregular or serrated outlines. (From Spanish serra, or saw.)
Tayo = Tajo, the largest river of the Iberian peninsula.
But these between a silver streamlet glides,
And scarce a name distinguisheth the brook,
Though rival kingdoms press its verdant sides.
Here leans the idle shepherd on his crook,
And vacant on the rippling waves doth look,
That peaceful still ‘twixt bitterest foemen flow:
For proud each peasant as the noblest duke:
Well doth the Spanish hind the difference know
‘Twixt him and Lusian slave, the lowest of the low.
the “silver streamlet” = the 1899 edition says this is the Caia River, a tributary of the Guadiana, mentioned next.
hind = by this word, Byron is referring to farmhands or rustics. Again with the bashing of the Lusians!
But ere the mingling bounds have far been passed,
Dark Guadiana rolls his power along
In sullen billows, murmuring and vast,
So noted ancient roundelays among.
Whilome upon his banks did legions throng
Of Moor and Knight, in mailed splendour drest;
Here ceased the swift their race, here sunk the strong;
The Paynim turban and the Christian crest
Mixed on the bleeding stream, by floating hosts oppressed.
roundelay = a song or poem with a refrain
Muslim and Christian forces clashed on the banks of the Guadiana. Byron’s eyes always seem to see past and present simultaneously.
Next up (if I have the energy) – Byron arrives in Spain.
The Guadiana river near Serpa, Portugal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)