He left a Corsair’s name to other times,
Link’d with one virtue, and a thousand crimesLord Byron
On Tuesday February 1 1814, two very significant events occurred with the first being the lethal eruption of the volcano Mount Mayon in the Philippines which was to belch lava and dark ash upwards of thirty feet that would bury one town and kill over two thousand people.
The second significant event to occur on that day was the publication of Byron’s The Corsair which sold 10,000 copies on THE day of publication and a “thing perfectly unprecedented” according to His Lordship’s proud and increasingly successful publisher, John Murray.
Byron’s tale of Conrad, the pirate chief, the dashing romantic with his true love Medora, who performs heroic deeds with chivalry in colouful settings, excited and delighted all who read it in February 1814 including the Princess Charlotte.
Comparisons to the character of the haunted, reckless, brave and enigmatic Conrad and the pale, indiscreet, courageous and dashing Byron were immediate, particularly as Byron had admitted to writing The Corsair “con amore and much from existence”
He continued to encourage this comparison when he sat for Thomas Phillips which has become one of the most iconic images of the swashbuckling hero with that rather strange moustache!
Lone, wild and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt
His name could sadden, and his acts surprise;
But they that fear’d him dared not to despiseThe Corsair
It is not surprising that Conrad and his heroic tales of wild deeds and of his passionate love for Medora in exotic places was received with enthusiasm by those Regency ladies for within the restraint and tedium of their daily lives, a read of The Corsair must have felt truly liberating!
The Corsair even merits a mention in Persuasion, my favourite Jane Austen novel:
During their stay in Lyme, Anne Elliott and Captain Benwick spend an evening discussing the poetry of Sir Walter Scott and Byron; “trying to ascertain whether Marmion or The Lady of the Lake were to be preferred, and how ranked the Giaour and The Bride of Abydos and moreover, how the Giaour was to be pronounced.
And the following day as Anne was enjoying a stroll along the Cobb in the company of Captain Benwick and those “dark blue seas”, Austen had clearly drawn on the first line from The Corsair which begins “O’er the glad waters of the dark blue sea”
However, on the day of publication, the celebrated poet was ‘snowed under’, as it were within the cozy sprawl of his ancestral pile in Nottinghamshire with his sister, the Hon. Augusta Leigh for company:
From this place there is no stirring till the weather is better – Mrs L is with me & being in ye. family way – renders it doubly necessary to remain till the roads are quite safe….Lord Byron
Yes, Mrs L was indeed in ‘ye family way’ with a daughter born in April 1814 and who would be duly baptised ‘Elizabeth Medora’, however, the story of THIS particular infant is for another tale!
Byron’s Letters and Journals, Ed. Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray, 1973-97)
The Works of Lord Byron (Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1994)
Persuasion, Jane Austen (Penguin Books, 2003)