Lord Byron documentary

I found this 2009 Lord Byron documentary on YouTube, aptly titled “The Scandalous Adventures of Lord Byron.”

Actor Rupert Everitt is the host. To Americans he is probably most familiar for his role as “George” in My Best Friend’s Wedding, starring Julia Roberts.

I found him off-putting at first. He’s a bit enamored with himself, his jokes fall flat, and his crass comments on Byron’s sex life can be jarring in the context of a BBC documentary. He also enjoys taking his clothes off for the camera, but I suppose that’s intended to titillate viewers. But at least he’s having fun, and even if he’s not a Byron scholar, his enthusiasm is sincere. Considering that the major premise of the show is to draw parallels between a celebrity-actor host and his admittedly narcissistic subject, you can’t fault him for succeeding.

A highlight for me was his strolling amid the ruins of a castle in Albania, where Byron visited the region’s powerful ruler, Ali Pasha. After walking past graffiti that read “Tupac 2008” and descending through a passage awash with trash bags, Everitt and his guide stepped beneath the same gateway Byron did 200 years earlier, to behold a beautiful vista of the surrounding mountains and valley below.

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Wanted: a poem celebrating life-long monogamy

“For a man to be a poet he must be in love, or miserable.”  – Lord Byron

I defy you, dear reader, to find one poem by a major poet — one poem — that celebrates lifelong monogamy. Hallmark anniversary cards do not count. Why is there such a yawning void when it comes poems addressing this subject? Perhaps because poets understand the transitory nature of love more fully than most. Poets celebrate love, not love’s longevity. Poetry will help you woo your woman, but after that… good luck.

Please understand, I support marriage, as I support modern civilization. That doesn’t mean it isn’t problematical for a whole host of reasons. And I’m not a complete cynic. When I see old couples dancing, it makes me believe. Couples can love each other, with mutual respect, with rewarding emotional initimacy and affection, for many years. But love — passion and giddiness — you’re not going to retain. The best you can hope for is a warm glow that flares up now and again on rare occasions — and that’s if you’re compatible and properly devoted.

But enough of what I think. Let’s hear what Lord Byron has to say on the topic. He slept with quite a number of married women, so he knows what he’s talking about. I give you two stanzas from Canto III, from his best work, Don Juan:

V.

‘Tis melancholy, and a fearful sign
Of human frailty, folly, also crime,
That Love and Marriage rarely can combine,
Although they both are born in the same clime;
Marriage from Love, like vinegar from wine —
A sad, sour, sober beverage — by Time
Is sharpened from its high celestial flavour
Down to a very homely household savour.

VIII.

There’s doubtless something in domestic doings
Which forms, in fact, true Love’s antithesis;
Romances paint at full length people’s wooings,
But only give a bust of marriages;
For no one cares for matrimonial cooings,
There’s nothing wrong in a connubial kiss:
Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch’s wife,
He would have written sonnets all his life?

connubial = of or relating to the married state : conjugal <connubial relations>

Coming soon… who is Petrarch?

Tuscan poet and literary figure Petrarch

Tuscan poet and literary figure Petrarch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Byron Spends the Night with Spanish Ladies

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage continues… Spain is beset by war, and Harold is on his way to Seville (Sevilla). I recommend first reading the stanzas and going back a second time to enjoy my excessive commentary.

XLV.

Full swiftly Harold wends his lonely way
Where proud Sevilla triumphs unsubdued:
Yet is she free? the Spoiler’s wished-for prey!
Soon, soon shall Conquest’s fiery foot intrude,
Blackening her lovely domes with traces rude.
Inevitable hour! ‘Gainst fate to strive
Where Desolation plants her famished brood
Is vain, or Ilion, Tyre might yet survive,
And Virtue vanquish all, and Murder cease to thrive

Ilion = Ilos was the founder of Illium or Illion, also known as Troy, which of course was destroyed by the Greeks.

Tyre = An ancient seaport. Despite being an island city fortified with walls, Alexander the Great managed to conquer it in a siege in 332 B.C. He built a causeway allowing him to bring his catapults (ballistas) within firing range.

XLVI.

But all unconscious of the coming doom,
The feast, the song, the revel here abounds;
Strange modes of merriment the hours consume,
Nor bleed these patriots with their country’s wounds:
Nor here War’s clarion, but Love’s rebeck sounds;
Here Folly still his votaries inthralls;
And young-eyed Lewdness walks her midnight rounds:
Girt with the silent crimes of Capitals,
Still to the last kind Vice clings to the tott’ring walls.

I’m sure other egregious anecdotes from history can attest to this unfortunate phenomenon: elites party while their countrymen die in war.

More trumpeting

More trumpeting (Photo credit: ianbckwltr)

clarion = a clarion is a medieval trumpet. As the familiar adjective, it means:  “brilliantly clear <her clarion top notes>; also : loud and clear <a clarion call to action>.

Detail from "Virgin among Virgins" (...

Detail from “Virgin among Virgins” (1509), by Gerard David (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

rebeck = a rebeck or rebec is a medieval, three-stringed instrument. See angel.

votaries = devotees / admirers / worshippers

inthralled = enthralled

In “The Making of the Poets, Byron and Shelley in Their Time” by Ian Gilmour, there is a great chapter describing the details of Byron’s grand tour, which, thanks to its juicy details, serves as the equivalent of a “VH1 – Behind the Pilgrimage” special. Here’s what happened in Seville:

“Owing to ‘the Grand Junta being settled here’, Hobhouse recorded, Seville had ‘30,000 more than ordinary inhabitants’, so he, Byron and the servants ended up ‘all in one little room’ in the house of two attractive Spanish ladies. From them, Byron soon found the ‘reserve [was] not the characteristic of … Spanish Belles’, who were ‘form’d for all the witching arts of love’. The night before he left, one of them, who was shortly to be married, invited Byron to ‘come to bed to’ her, an invitation made all the more enticing, presumably, by Byron’s overcrowded bedroom. But the lady wanted his ring as well, which he refused to give her. The resulting discord was perhaps part of the reason why Byron did not precede her future husband to bed. Although a few months later he wrote in Childe Harold that ‘Brisk confidence still best with woman copes’, another part of it may have been that never having made love to a lady of his own class — in that very limited sense he was still a virgin — Byron got stage fright. In any case he accepted a three-foot lock of the lady’s hair while rejecting the rest of her. Keeping quiet about the ring to his mother, he cheerfully told her that his ‘virtue’ had induced him to decline the lady’s invitation, an assertion which may have raised Catherine’s eyebrows.”

XLVII.

Not so the rustic—with his trembling mate
He lurks, nor casts his heavy eye afar,
Lest he should view his vineyard desolate,
Blasted below the dun hot breath of War.
No more beneath soft Eve’s consenting star
Fandango twirls his jocund castanet:
Ah, Monarchs! could ye taste the mirth ye mar,
Not in the toils of Glory would ye fret;
The hoarse dull drum would sleep, and Man be happy yet!

“the dun hot breath of War” – Dun is a word not commonly heard in the United States. It has several meanings, but to dun is to demand payment, in a persistent, pestering way. My guess is that here dun means pestering / plaguing; in the sense that war constantly demands payment in lives.

Eve = evening

Fandango = a Spanish dance, here personified. The dance is accompanied by guitars and castanets.

jocund = cheerful; merry; gay; blithe; glad

castanet = “either of a pair of concave pieces of wood held in the palm and clicked together, usually to accompany dancing” [dictionary.com]

XLVIII.

How carols now the lusty muleteer?
Of Love, Romance, Devotion is his lay,
As whilome he was wont the leagues to cheer,
His quick bells wildly jingling on the way?
No! as he speeds, he chants “Vivā el Rey!”
And checks his song to execrate Godoy,
The royal wittol Charles, and curse the day
When first Spain’s queen beheld the black-eyed boy,
And gore-faced Treason sprung from her adulterate joy.

Muleteer = one who drives mules; pronounced with three syllables. lay= song

execrate = to curse.

Goya's Manuel Godoy, Duke of Alcudia, Prince o...

Goya’s Manuel Godoy, Duke of Alcudia, Prince of the Peace, 1801. Godoy was Prime Minister of Spain during the 1808 Napoleonic invasion of Spain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Godoy = a most hated man! Byron, in his notes writes, “It is to this man that the Spaniards universally impute the ruin of their country.”

wittol = a man who knows of his wife’s infidelity and puts up with it, in this case, King Charles (Carlos)

Viva La Rey = “Long Live the King” / King Ferdinand the VII.

I’m going to have to leave it there for now, owing to the fact that developments in the Peninsular War are more complicated that I expected. I need to do a little more research.

Lord Byron in Spain – Critic of War

The following stanzas are from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. As part of an ongoing project, I’m attempting to make the poem more accessible by adding definitions of archaic words, relevant background material taken from a number of sources, and some of my own commentary.

The story so far — Byron has entered Spain, and his verse urges the Spaniards to rise up and defend themselves. Like all men, he is not entirely immune from the siren call of war, but he clearly recognizes its obscene and pointless waste. These stanzas are savagely anti-war. According to a BBC discussion of Childe Harold, Byron was one of the first English poets to take such a stance. What I think is interesting is how he entices the reader to feel the rousing excitement of war, only to unmask its illusion. Men, duped by spurious notions of glory and honor, are reduced to food for crows and fertilizer for fields. They are the broken, cast off tools of tyrants.

This is Byron at his best!

XXXVII

Awake, ye sons of Spain! awake! advance
Lo! Chivalry, your ancient goddess, cries,
But wields not, as of old, her thirsty lance,
Nor shakes her crimson plumage in the skies:
Now on the smoke of blazing bolts she flies,
And speaks in thunder through yon engine’s roar!
In every peal she calls— ‘Awake! arise!’
Say, is her voice more feeble than of yore,
When her war-song was heard on Andalusia’s shore?

Chilvary, personified as a goddess, has traded in her lance, “thirsty” for the blood of men, for the cannon, the modern engine of war. Andalusia is the southernmost region of Spain, comprised of eight provinces.

Harold”s words echo those of Satan in Paradise Lost, Book 1. For nine days and nights, the rebel angels plummet from heaven, landing in a lake of fire. Defeated, and floating vanquished upon the waters, Satan rouses his troops from their slumber: “Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n.”

XXXVIII.

Hark! heard you not those hoofs of dreadful note?
Sounds not the clang of conflict on the heath?
Saw ye not whom the reeking sabre smote;
Nor saved your brethren ere they sank beneath
Tyrants and tyrants’ slaves?—the fires of death,
The bale-fires flash on high:—from rock to rock
Each volley tells that thousands cease to breathe:
Death rides upon the sulphury Siroc,
Red Battle stamps his foot, and nations feel the shock.

heath = a : a tract of wasteland b : an extensive area of rather level open uncultivated land usually with poor coarse soil, inferior drainage, and a surface rich in peat or peaty humus

the reeking sabre smote = a sabre or saber is a curved sword, most likely of a type favored by the muslim invaders of Spain. “Reeking” is an odd word choice. Reeking originally meant to emit smoke; perhaps the swords are steaming with hot blood, which of course also has a distinct odor. Smote is the past tense of smite.

bale-fire = an outdoor fire often used as a signal fire

Siroc or sirocco = a hot dust-laden wind from the Libyan deserts that blows on the northern Mediterranean coast

XXXIX.

Lo! where the Giant on the mountain stands,
His blood-red tresses deepening in the sun,
With death-shot glowing in his fiery hands,
And eye that scorcheth all it glares upon;
Restless it rolls, now fixed, and now anon
Flashing afar,—and at his iron feet
Destruction cowers, to mark what deeds are done;
For on this morn three potent nations meet,
To shed before his shrine the blood he deems most sweet.

The “Giant” is Red Battle, War, the “eye that scorcheth all it glares upon.”  The three nations are Spain, Britain and France. This stanza makes me think of the Lord of the Rings and restless eye of Sauron.

XL.

By Heaven! it is a splendid sight to see
(For one who hath no friend, no brother there)
Their rival scarfs of mixed embroidery,
Their various arms that glitter in the air!
What gallant war-hounds rouse them from their lair,
And gnash their fangs, loud yelling for the prey!
All join the chase, but few the triumph share:
The Grave shall bear the chiefest prize away,
And Havoc scarce for joy can cumber their array.

As in all wars, Death / “The Grave” is the real winner.

havoc = wide and general destruction : devastation;  great confusion and disorder

cumber = encumber; array has a number of meanings, but here it an imposing group or body of soldiers.

Havoc, (destruction personified) eager and joyful, hardly weighs down these troops with its presence. (That’s how I translate that last line.) I’ll have to do some research on war-hounds…

XLI.

Three hosts combine to offer sacrifice;
Three tongues prefer strange orisons on high;
Three gaudy standards flout the pale blue skies.
The shouts are France, Spain, Albion, Victory!
The foe, the victim, and the fond ally
That fights for all, but ever fights in vain,
Are met—as if at home they could not die—
To feed the crow on Talavera’s plain,
And fertilise the field that each pretends to gain.

orisons = prayers

The battle of Talavera began July 27, 1809, and lasted two days. Byron was not there at the time. Writing to his mother, he said, “You have heard of the battle near Madrid, and in England they would call it a victory—a pretty victory! Two hundred officers and five thousand men killed, all English, and the French in as great force as ever. I should have joined the army, but we have no time to lose before we get up the Mediterranean.”

XLII.

There shall they rot—Ambition’s honoured fools!
Yes, Honour decks the turf that wraps their clay!
Vain Sophistry! in these behold the tools,
The broken tools, that tyrants cast away
By myriads, when they dare to pave their way
With human hearts—to what?—a dream alone.
Can despots compass aught that hails their sway?
Or call with truth one span of earth their own,
Save that wherein at last they crumble bone by bone?

sophistry = subtly deceptive reasoning or argumentation

myriad = a great number; in Greek it originally meant 10,000

XLIII.

O Albuera, glorious field of grief!
As o’er thy plain the Pilgrim pricked his steed,
Who could foresee thee, in a space so brief,
A scene where mingling foes should boast and bleed.
Peace to the perished! may the warrior’s meed
And tears of triumph their reward prolong!
Till others fall where other chieftains lead,
Thy name shall circle round the gaping throng,
And shine in worthless lays, the theme of transient song.

meed = earned reward or wage

Albuera was another scene of battle in the Peninsular War. The English defeated the French there in 1811.

XLIV.

Enough of Battle’s minions! let them play
Their game of lives, and barter breath for fame:
Fame that will scarce reanimate their clay,
Though thousands fall to deck some single name.
In sooth, ’twere sad to thwart their noble aim
Who strike, blest hirelings! for their country’s good,
And die, that living might have proved her shame;
Perished, perchance, in some domestic feud,
Or in a narrower sphere wild Rapine’s path pursued.

Byron “supports the troops” as we say in America, but he savagely mocks them as well. In truth, he says, it would be sad to prevent them — these blessed temp workers — from dying for their country. At home, they might have suffered from an ignoble death, like dying in bar fight, or they might have become robbers or thieves  (in other words, engaging in behavior that is considered criminal outside the context of war).

rapine = pillage, plunder

Lord Byron in Spain

This is one of a series of posts intended to fully decipher Lord Byron’s lengthy poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage — Canto I continues.

The story so far: Byron, after traveling to Portugal and criticizing its dirty, slavish inhabitants, moves on to Spain.

XXXV.

Oh, lovely Spain! renowned, romantic land!
Where is that standard which Pelagio bore,
When Cava’s traitor-sire first called the band
That dyed thy mountain-streams with Gothic gore?
Where are those bloody banners which of yore
Waved o’er thy sons, victorious to the gale,
And drove at last the spoilers to their shore?
Red gleamed the cross, and waned the crescent pale,
While Afric’s echoes thrilled with Moorish matrons’ wail.

Asturias refers to an independent Christian kingdom that existed between 718 and 910 A.D. (the map below is the modern principality, but the terrority is nearly the same as the medieval kingdom). Asturias was formed by Visigothic nobles and officials who had been displaced by the Muslim invasion of Spain. The Visigoths elected Pelagio (Pelayo) as the first Asturian king. Pelayo is a  legendary figure, serving as a leader and symbol of Christian resistance to the Moorish invaders.

Don Pelayo closeup

Don Pelayo closeup (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“… the Moors did not find mountainous territory easy to conquer, and the lands along Spain’s northern coast never fully became part of Islamic Spain.” – wikipedia

Asturias_in_Spain.svg

Cava’s traitor-sire = Count Julian. In 711 A.D. Julian allowed the moors to enter Spain. This was done out of vengeance against Don Roderick, who had violated his daughter, Cava. (Roderick, also spelled Roderic, or in Spanish Rodrigo, was king of Visigothic Spain).

Okay, what’s all this about? Well:

According to an historian writing a century and a half after the events, Julian sent one of his daughters to Roderic’s court at Toledo for education and Roderic subsequently made her pregnant. When Julian learned of the affair he removed his daughter from Roderic’s court and, out of vengeance, betrayed Hispania to the Muslim invaders, thus making possible the Umayyad conquest of Hispania. Later ballads and chronicles inflated this tale, Muslims making her out as an innocent virgin who was ravished, Christians making her a seductress. In Spanish she came to be known as la Cava Rumía. But this might well only be a legend. Personal power politics were more likely at play… – from Wikipedia

“Cava Rumia” translates as “the wicked Christian woman.” Miguel de Cervantes refers to a place named after her in his novel, Don Quixote. This is an awful lot of background for one stanza. Moving on…

XXXVI.

Teems not each ditty with the glorious tale?
Ah! such, alas, the hero’s amplest fate!
When granite moulders and when records fail,
A peasant’s plaint prolongs his dubious date.
Pride! bend thine eye from heaven to thine estate,
See how the mighty shrink into a song!
Can volume, pillar, pile, preserve thee great?
Or must thou trust Tradition’s simple tongue,
When Flattery sleeps with thee, and History does thee wrong?

Darkness – Lord Byron’s Apocalyptic Poem

Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken…
– Matthew 24:29

Byron’s poem Darkness is an anomaly, completely different in form and subject matter than his other works, and it was inspired by a true event.

The year 1816 became known as the Year without a Summer. Record cold temperatures and inexplicable darkness at noon threw the general populace into a panic.

The summit caldera of the volcano.

The summit caldera of the volcano. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Speculation only fueled the hysteria seizing Europe. The underlying cause, unknown at the time, was a massive volcanic eruption in faraway Sumbawa Island, Indonesia. Mount Tambora, in the largest eruption in recorded history, spewed so much ash into the atmosphere that the average global temperature dropped by 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit!).

After giving Darkness a read, you might want to try the mash-up at the very end of the post. It succeeds – well, almost. Unfortunately, the instrumental track, though pleasantly minimal at first, becomes too distracting for my taste (if only the guitar solo could be snipped out). The lengthiness of the poem doesn’t help either.

The voice is that of “Tom O’Bedlam” of SpokenVerse, a man who dominates the YouTube poetry niche (he’s uploaded over a 1,000 videos). Ever since I started this blog, I’ve wondered who he is.

His voice is magnificent! If I had a voice like that, I would read poetry aloud all day myself. My only quibble is that his readings are so invariably melancholic. The word “lugubrious” comes to mind as well. Nevertheless, for a poem like this, that’s exactly what we’re looking for. Tom, if you’re reading this, please pardon my criticism. I do enjoy your work and your selections!  I should add that the mash-up remix was not done by him — I’ve included his original video:

Darkness

 I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came, and went — and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chilled into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires — and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings — the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed,
And men were gathered round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contained;
Forests were set on fire — but hour by hour
They fell and faded — and the crackling trunks
Extinguished with a crash — and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnashed their teeth and howled: the wild birds shrieked
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawled
And twined themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless — they were slain for food:
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again: a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought — and that was death
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails — men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assailed their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famished men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress — he died.
The crowd was famished by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heaped a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they raked up,
And shivering scraped with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other’s aspects — saw, and shrieked, and died —
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful — was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless —
A lump of death — a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropped
They slept on the abyss without a surge —
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expired before;
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perished; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them — She was the Universe.

Lord Byron in Portugal – final installment

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.

785px-Batalha_do_VimeiroContinuing with Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage…

XXIV.

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.

XXV.

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.)

XXVI.

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.

XXVII.

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.

XXVIII.

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.

XXIX.

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.

XXX.

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.

XXXI.

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?

XXXII.

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.

XXXIII.

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!

XXXIV.

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.

The Guadiana river near Serpa, Portugal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)