The Corsair, Lord Byron, 1814
For a swashbuckling good time try Lord Byron’s The Corsair, a truly epic epic poem about everybody’s favorite type of outlaw: pirates! If you like your pirates tall, dark and angsty you will love Conrad, the leading man. Lord Byron kind of invented tall, dark and angsty. No, really, he developed a new literary prototype inspired by himself. Gone is the valiant, morally righteous young whippersnapper/knight errant. Enter the Byronic hero! He’s a smart, moody outcast. He’s mysterious, cynical and sexy. He’s an introverted rebel who scorns social norms and society generally. Most importantly, he has a dark, guilty past that torments his conscience. Yum.
Byron introduced this self-modeled hero in the epic poem Childe Harolde, a semi-autobiographical travelogue that I started reading and then was all “naw.” I found it boring and obscure. If you’ve been following this blog for a while you know that boring and obscure is right up my alley, but I am definitely not the perfect reader of Childe Harolde. I am not familiar with the ins and outs of world events circa 1814 or with the landmarks of continental Europe. When Byron refers to Colonel Thus-and-Such by some nickname, the allusion goes right over my head, because I’ve never heard of said Colonel or his diminutives. So, I skipped Childe Harolde and moved straight on to The Corsair. Whooeee, so much more fun.
Our anti-hero, Conrad, inspires extreme loyalty in his band of followers despite his dour demeanor. One day he’s sitting in his pirate hideout feeling a little glum about the troubled past that got him rejected from society. He decides to distract himself with his favorite occupation: piracy! It’s going to take a big victory to get him out of this funk, so he sets his sight on the home city of his arch nemesis. Enemy #1 is Seyd, a higher up in the Ottoman Empire. Conrad says goodbye to his beloved, sneaks into his rival’s palace and sets that place on fire! He’s feeling pretty good about himself when he sees that Seyd’s harem is burning. Oh no! Conrad will kill men left, right and center in the name of. . .robbing them, but no women. Ok? No women! He orders his men to run into the flaming harem and carry out a flaming lady. They prove their loyalty by following him into that burning building. Amid the smoke Conrad blindly clutches for a lady and runs out with her. Turns out she’s Seyd’s lead sex slave and she has such lovely charms. Her name is Gulnare, which is unfortunate, but I guess it rhymes with stuff.
Turning back to rescue the women costs Conrad the battle. He gets captured. Fortunately (?), Gulnare has fallen in love with Conrad, duh. Inspired by her love, she sneaks into Seyd’s chambers at night and assassinates the bejesus out of him, thus enabling Conrad’s escape. Conrad had been feeling some uncomfortable sensations of attraction toward the lovely Gulnare, but now that she’s a murderer he is completely repulsed by her. This guy kills people professionally and steals their lucre. But girls are supposed to be sweet and innocent, ya know. I can’t get over what a stinking hypocrite Conrad is. If murder is ever justifiable, and I’m not exactly saying that it is, killing the man who has made you his sex slave has got to be near the top of justifiable slayings. Way more morally correct than killing someone because they have money and you want it. Uhhhhhhhhhhgh.
Warning: feminist rant commencing now. If you are a patriarch it makes sense to perpetuate the idea that women should never dirty their hands. I know that I am probably about to make the error of conflating Byron with his character. In my defense, Byron typically tells the reader when he thinks his characters are making an error of judgment. I really thought he was going to point out how ridiculous Conrad is being when he scorns Gulnare’s crime. But he doesn’t. So, he perpetuates the patriarchal precept that if a woman is in a terrible situation she should just stay in it rather than lift her hand to free herself. Rage. Remember ladies, if you are feeling oppressed, don’t ever fight back. It’s unfeminine.
Anyway, aside from this giant glaring flaw, I really loved this poem. Byron is a fantastic poet. He really made me feel zeal for the open ocean and other piratey emotions. Let me supply you with a quote:
Oh, who can tell, save he whose heart hath tried,
And danced in triumph o’er the waters wide,
The exulting sense—the pulse’s maddening play,
That thrills the wanderer of that trackless way?
You might like The Corsair if:
- you love swashbuckling.
- you like The Three Musketeers.
- you are looking for “Pirates of the Caribbean” in epic poem form.
You might not like The Corsair if:
- you have no interest in the Romantic Era or epic poetry.
Final thoughts: I really enjoyed this poem. If you are curious about epic poetry and want to see if you have the appetite for it, The Corsair is a good starting point. It’s not too long and it has a lot of spirit. As far as long poems go, this one is easy to love.