People - Lord Byron

Lord Byron

George Borrow - 1803-1881 ©Henry Wyndham Phillips
Lord Byron - 1788 - 1824

Lord Byron's visit to Andalucía was brief, a matter of days, but the impact it left on him and the legacy he left behind were significant.  In 1809, not long after leaving Cambridge, George Gordon, Lord Byron, arrived in the Iberian pennisula.  After an ambivalent start in Portugal, he reached Spanish soil and was smitten.  Two Andalusian cities featured prominently on his itinerary, Seville and Cádiz and both would make an appearance in the poem, Childe Harold, which made him the world's first modern literary celebrity.

In fact, Byron's choice of Andalucía as a route to Greece was largely an accident, a ploy to avoid Napoleonic forces, although he wasn't far from such action in Spain.  He was acutely aware of the plight faced by the country at the hands of French troops; initially a supporter of Bonaparte, he took the Spanish side in his poem: '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.'

Childe Harold is full of such rhetorical flourishes, imploring the brave Spaniards to arms in defence of their cities.  Such verses would lead one to believe that Byron's stay was a marshall experience - it wasn't.  He stayed in Seville at a guesthouse in what is now calle Fabiola, run by two unmarried ladies and, Byron being Byron, he couldn't avoid a bit of romantic intrigue.  In a letter home to his mother, he described the two as 'women of character, and the eldest a fine woman, the youngest pretty but not so good a figure as Donna Josepha'. 

He went on to say that he was surprised by the freedom they possessed and the lack of reserve they showed towards him. It seems that the aforementioned Doña Josefa was so smitten she invited the poet to share her apartments.  Out of supposed virtue Byron declined; an unlikely occurrence given his past and future track record.  Not to be outdone, she cut a lock of his hair and took the scissors to her own tresses, presenting him with a swathe of dark locks, which are still preserved today in the archive of his publisher, John Murray.

In general, Byron greatly appreciated the Mediterranean appearance of Josefa's female compatriots: 'Long dark hair, dark languishing eyes, clear olive complexions, and forms more graceful in motion than can be conceived by an Englishman used to the drowsy, listless air of his countrywomen'.  Sweeping generalisations, maybe, and laced with a touch of sexism, but they do indicate his mood.  A mood he captures in poetry, interspersed with fears for the country's future: 'With Spain's dark-glancing daughters deign to know, / There your wise Prophet's paradise we find, / His black-eyed maids of Heaven, angelically kind'.

Brooding on war, peace, merriment and attraction, Byron moved on from Seville to Cadiz via Jerez and an obligatory stop at the bodega of his namesake, Charles Gordon, where he 'quaffed at the Fountain head' - a proud boast as Britain was then still in thrall to the allure of sherry.  Cádiz struck him with enough force to replace Seville in his affections: 'Cadiz, sweet Cadiz! is the most delightful town I ever beheld, very different from our English cities in every respect except cleanliness'.  He accepted invitations from the local aristocracy to attend the opera, accompanying a certain Admiral Cordova, although he only had eyes for the admiral's daughter.  In another letter he extolls the behaviour of the Spanish married woman, whom he insists was happy to entertain a 'proposal which in England would bring a box on the ear'. 

Byron's gaditano biographer, the politician and writer Emilio Castelar, took exception to this attitude in an otherwise hagiographic portrait of the poet.  Knowing Byron had lauded the attributes of the Spanish male, he couldn't understand why he had portrayed the female of the species in such a manner, contrary to his own observations.  He misunderstood that the English aristocrat intended such comments as a compliment!

Byron gradually worked his way into the Spanish consciousness, particularly in his role as European literary celebrity and champion of their cause.  No less a figure than Benito Pérez Galdós included a Byronesque noble in his depiction of the city in the Episodios nacionales.  Lord Gray is a rakish Englishman with an ambivalent, hedonistic manner.  In the eponymously titled Cádiz, we learn that Gray arrived in the port some six months before the narration begins.  Curiously, Gray arrived with Byron, despite the character obviously sharing traits with the poet.

From the pennisula, via a Gibraltar he detested, Byron left for Malta and Greece.  Years later he returned to Spanish themes with his masterwork, Don Juan.  The title is a nod to the story of the infamous seducer Don Juan Tenorio, but represents a clever inversion of the stereotype, with Juan playing the seduced not the playboy.  The verses are full of delicious sarcasm, chiefly aimed at the sacred cows of English politics and literature.  However, Byron doesn't neglect the poem's original setting, noting Juan's mother 'knew by heart all Calderon and greater part of Lope'.  He evens uses a common laudatory phrase to Seville: 'he who has not see it will be much to pity'.

In many ways, Byron was never destined to reach a venerable old age.  Amid a scandal involving an incestuous and adulterous relationship with his half-sister and rumours of homosexual activity, Byron eventually fled England.  He led a dissolute yet intellectually vibrant life, chiefly in Italy, until he decided to throw his indebted fortune behind the cause of Greek independence.  He died in the malarial Greek lagoons of Missolonghi at the age of thirty-six.  Many Spanish romantic poets took their cue from his literary style, notably José de Espronceda.

Andrew and Suzanne Edwards have written Andalucia - A Literary Guide for Travellers, published in September 2016 by I. B.Tauris.  It may be purchased online directly from the publishers, Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers or from Amazon. This compliments their previous work, Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers (Literary Guides for Travellers)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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