Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Byron’s ‘The Giaour’ (1813): Leila’s Fate

That’s Leila, there, from an 1820s steel engraving illustration of Byron’s poem. Her fate is not jolly. A member of the harem of an Ottoman lord called Hassan, she has an affair with the infidel (that is, Christian) Giaour — a Venetian nobleman, not otherwise named in the tale. This Giaour (rhymes with ‘tower’) is the work’s Byronic locus: handsome, charismatic, driven, passionate, sexy, more than a little diabolic. At any rate, Hassan discovers Leila’s infidelity with the infidel, puts Leila in a sack and drowns her off a Greek island. Thereafter the plot of The Giaour (1813) is simple: the titular hero thunders through on his black steed, like a meteor, ‘scathed by fiery passion’s brunt’, vengeance on his mind. He catches up with Hassan, not to mention the twenty vassals in Hassan’s train, ambushes them, and kills them all. Then he thunders off again to a Christian monastery where with the help of a generous financial donation to the Abbot he buys a cell, solitude and the chance to brood darkly over his loss, otherwise taking no part in monkish life. The only wrinkle in the telling of this tale, written in fluent and onrushing rhymed tetrameters, is that Byron chops it up and mixes it about; different sections are told by different individuals, but there’s no hint as to which is which or who is whom. Some parts are narrated by a Greek fisherman, whose boat is appropriated by Hassan to take Leila out into the bay and sink her. Some parts are narrated by Hassan, and the later portions by one of the monks at the monastery, who proves no friend of the Giaour’s. It’s possible some portions are narrated by the Giaour himself.

None of it is narrated by Leila.

Byron is upfront about this fragmentary textual strategy. THE GIAOUR: A FRAGMENT OF A TURKISH TALE yells the title page, and then:

So the chopabout shifts of p.o.v. are by design, not by inadvertence. As for the story, there are various hints that we’re being invited to read it as both an individual tale of melodrama, romance and revenge and as a fuzzy-at-the-edges allegory for the situation of Greece itself. Hassan is the Ottoman empire; Leila is beautiful Greece, slain by Ottoman tyranny; the Giaour is the West, intervening as Byron himself was later to do (indeed, as he was to die doing) too late. The opening lines of the poem point us in this direction:

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?

This Athenian hero to which this makes reference is Themistocles, whose clifftop tomb overlooks the Aegean. Themistocles, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, was the man who persuaded Athens to spend its windfall silver-mine wealth on a great navy rather than disbursing it equally amongst the citizenry. such that they were subsequently able to repulse Persian aggression, hold back the Spartans and build an Athenian empire. Once upon a time, Byron is saying, Greece was a land of heroes capable of opposing tyranny and assault, able to preserve and promote democracy and all the glories of Attic culture. But now? Now Greece is dead, although, according to a weirdly morbid-erotic extended simile inserted near the beginning of the poem, only just dead:

He who hath bent him o’er the dead
Ere the first day of Death is fled,
The first dark day of Nothingness,
The last of Danger and Distress,
(Before Decay’s effacing fingers
Have swept the lines where Beauty lingers,)
And marked the mild angelic air,
The rapture of Repose that’s there,
The fixed yet tender thraits that streak
The languor of the placid cheek,
And — but for that sad shrouded eye,
That fires not, wins not, weeps not, now,
And but for that chill, changeless brow,

Where cold Obstruction’s apathy
Appals the gazing mourner’s heart,
As if to him it could impart
The doom he dreads, yet dwells upon;
Yes, but for these and these alone,
Some moments, aye, one treacherous hour,
He still might doubt the Tyrant’s power;
So fair, so calm, so softly sealed,
The first, last look by Death revealed!
Such is the aspect of his shore;
‘T is 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 hovering round decay,
The farewell beam of Feeling past away!

This is one of the most necrophiliac passages of English Romantic verse: a tone of weird leching over a female corpse, ‘so coldly sweet, so deadly fair’. But then again, this is the tenor of the poem as a whole. Manifest ‘story’ of the poem’s plot aside, this is a work that is about the way some dead things refuse to be dead, but carry on living; and more to the point, continue exerting a weirdly compelling attraction after their undeath. This is the text, several years before Polidori’s The Vampyre (itself, of course, based on a Byronic idea, and cementing in itself a mode of the Byronic persona) that first brings vampires into the English literary mainstream. After he has killed Hassan, the Giaour is cursed by Hassan’s people:

But thou, false Infidel! shalt writhe
Beneath avenging Monkir’s scythe;
And from its torment ‘scape alone
To wander round lost Eblis’ throne;
And fire unquenched, unquenchable,
Around, within, thy heart shall dwell;
Nor ear can hear nor tongue can tell
The tortures of that inward hell!
But 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;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse:
Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.
But one that for thy crime must fall,
The youngest, most beloved of all,
Shall bless thee with a father’s name —
That word shall wrap thy heart in flame!
Yet must thou end thy task, and mark
Her cheek’s last tinge, her eye’s last spark,
And the last glassy glance must view
Which freezes o’er its lifeless blue;
Then with unhallowed hand shalt tear
The tresses of her yellow hair,
Of which in life a lock when shorn
Affection’s fondest pledge was worn,
But now is borne away by thee,
Memorial of thine agony!
Wet with thine own best blood shall drip
Thy gnashing tooth and haggard lip;
Then stalking to thy sullen grave,
Go — and with Gouls and Afrits rave;
Till these in horror shrink away
From spectre more accursed than they!

Whole libraries have been written about the vampire as symbolic articulation of appalling-appealing transgressive sex, of course; and here the Byronic Giaour is cursed to feed on his own beautiful wife and daughters in a way that fills him with shame from which no death can quit him. Odds are that, at the time of writing The Giaour, Byron had not yet begun his incestuous relationship with his sister Augusta Leigh (she is much more a presence in the follow-up tale, The Corsair), but that’s not to say that he wasn’t already thinking in terms of the closed-loop of arid intrafamilial desire that short-circuits life and death. Greece is dead, but Byron still loves her. Leila is dead, but she remains the centre of Giaour’s life. Byron is dead but Byron goes on living.

As for Leila herself, she has no voice, and is given no lines to speak in this poem. Of her beauty, the poem speaks in more-or-less conventionalized manner:

Her eye’s dark charm ‘twere vain to tell,
But gaze on that of the gazelle,
It will assist thy fancy well;
As large, as languishingly dark,
But soul beamed forth in every spark
That darted from beneath the lid,
Bright as the jewel of Giamschild.

Still, re-reading The Giaour recently I was very struck by the passage that describes Leila’s death. Hassan instructs the fisherman to row his boat out to the middle of the bay. The fisherman himself reports what happens next (the ‘it’ referred to here is the ‘burden’ Hassan is carrying, a parcel that ‘claims his utmost care’ and which the fisherman assumes ‘holds some precious freight’):

Sullen it plunged, and slowly sank,
The calm wave rippled to the bank;
I watched it as it sank, methought
Some motion from the current caught
Bestirred it more, — ’twas but the beam
That checkered o’er the living stream:
I gazed, till vanishing from view,
Like lessening pebble it withdrew;
Still less and less, a speck of white
That gemmed the tide, then mocked the sight;
And all its hidden secrets sleep,
Known but to Genii of the deep,
Which, trembling in their coral caves,
They dare not whisper to the waves.

This is an extraordinary piece of verse: the love-object sinking into the depths, diminishing and then vanishing. What’s so remarkable is the way this vignette emblemmatises the emotional and erotic core of the whole: it’s rather like the scene at the end of James Cameron’s Titanic, where Jack (is it?) drops into the fathomless and chill depths of the Atlantic, a moment that consummates the overwrought romance between the di Caprio character and the Kate Winslett one. This, rather than the actual copulation inside that steamy automobile, is where the romance storyline finds its perfect expression. If you’re tempted to say: ‘that’s a rather morbid thought, though, isn’t it?’ I wouldn’t disagree with you. But just as all those sexy vampire tales, so prominently a feature of 21st-century cultural life, can trace their lineage back, through Dracula, and Heathcliffe, and Polidori’s Vampyre, back to Byron himself, so does this imagistic expression perfection of erotic deathlove/lovedeath spread out from a Byronic kernel, here. Death is the true seal on love.

Look again at the passage quoted. In the original it is separated out from the rest of the poem:

Taken on its own this is a fourteen-line almost sonnet blending love-poem and elegy. Leila is ‘it’, not ‘she’; and she disappears downwards. The loved one is quiet, calm, motionless (perceived motion turns out to be ‘but the [sun]beam/That checkered o’er the living stream’). As ‘it’ goes ‘it’ changes, first to a pebble; then to ‘a speck of white/That gemmed the tide’ — a pearl, presumably. Finally Leila disappears into the realm of the sea’s ‘hidden secrets’

Known but to Genii of the deep,
Which, trembling in their coral caves,
They dare not whisper to the waves

We’re bound to think this metamorphosis of a woman into an exotic, uncanny thing recalls The Tempest: as Leila changes in the rhetoric of the poem from flesh into pearls and coral, we think back to ‘of his bones are coral made’ and ‘those are pearls that were his eyes’. My guess is that Byron is drawn, distantly, to this intertext for reasons similar to T S Eliot a century later: a disinclination, one, to separate out sexual desire and death, and, two, a flat inability to see death as either an end or as the opportunity for rebirth and new life. Instead the dead body marks a vampiric alteration into something neither alive nor dead, beautiful and inhuman and hidden:

Nought of [Leila] that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change.
Into something rich and strange.

Ultimately this hidden, metamorphoses creature of rich strangeness is desire itself, the structuring principle of the subconscious, the currency of the cult of Byronism. All of Byron’s verse is about this: it is hidden because it is buried deep in the psyche; but if it is hidden it must be shameful, and from shame grows guilt and guilt turns out to be the transgressive, undead truth of desire in the first place.

In case we miss it, Byron follows his core unsonnet, loving-grieving Leila’s drowning, with an image of a beautiful purple butterfly chased over the suspiciously artificial-sounding ‘emerald meadows’ of from-Greece-very-distant Kashmir; either a pointed underscoring of the great gulf separating the (male) lover and the possibility of apprehending what he desires, or else Orientalism 101, in which ‘the East’ is taken as a kind of catch-all single place:

As rising on its purple wing
The insect-queen of eastern spring,
O’er emerald meadows of Kashmeer
Invites the young pursuer near,
And leads him on from flower to flower
A weary chase and wasted hour,
Then leaves him, as it soars on high,
With panting heart and tearful eye.

The butterfly is the soul, I suppose; and here it symbolizes the tantalus impossibility of erotic consummation. And the transition from caterpillar to butterfly is a longstanding emblem of change itself. Except that, as we’ve already established, everything that changes in this poem changes into something richer and stranger and more vampiric than a purple papillon:

The verse-paragraph that follows this too-pretty butterfly switches-out its insect for something rather more severe:

The mind that broods o’er guilty woes,
Is like the scorpion girt by fire;
In circle narrowing as it glows,
The flames around their captive close,
Till inly searched by thousand throes,
And maddening in her ire,
One sad and sole relief she knows,
The sting she nourished for her foes,
Whose venom never yet was vain,
Gives but one pang, and cures all pain,
So do the dark in soul expire,
Or live like scorpion girt by fire;
So writhes the mind remorse hath riven,
Unfit for earth, undoomed for heaven,
Darkness above, despair beneath,
Around it flame, within it death!

This (‘full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!’) is a rather different Shakespearian intertext; but more to the point is replaces the mazy and evasive flight of the butterfly with a circle within a circle, a vampire state neither alive nor dead ‘unfit for earth, undoomed for heaven’ in which fire, pain and remorse complete the short-circuit circle of desire.



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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.