LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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The Life of Lord Byron
Chapter XXII

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Embarks for Constantinople.—Touches at Tenedos.—Visits Alexandria.—Troas.—The Trojan plain.—Swim the Hellespont.—Arrival at Constantinople.

On the 11th of April Lord Byron embarked at Smyrna, in the Salsette frigate for Constantinople. The wind was fair during the night, and at half past six next morning, the ship was off the Sygean promontory, the north end of the ancient Lesbos or Mitylene. Having passed the headland, north of the little town of Baba, she came in sight of Tenedos, where she anchored, and the poet went on shore to view the island.

The port was full of small craft, which in their voyage to the Archipelago had put in to wait for a change of wind, and a crowd of Turks belonging to these vessels were lounging about on the shore. The town was then in ruins, having been burned to the ground by a Russian squadron in the year 1807.

Next morning, Byron, with a party of officers, left the ship to visit the ruins of Alexandria Troas, and landed at an open port, about six or seven miles to the south of where the Salsette was at anchor. The spot near to where they disembarked was marked by several large cannon-balls of granite; for the ruins of Alexandria have long supplied the fortresses of the Dardanelles with these gigantic missiles.

They rambled some time through the shaggy woods, with which the country is covered, and the first vestiges of antiquity which attracted their attention were two
large granite sarcophagi; a little beyond they found two or three fragments of granite pillars, one of them about twenty-five feet in length, and at least five in diameter. Near these they saw arches of brick-work, and on the east of them those magnificent remains, to which early travellers have given the name of the palace of Priam, but which are, in fact, the ruins of ancient baths. An earthquake in the course of the preceding winter had thrown down large portions of them, and the internal divisions of the edifice were, in consequence, choked with huge masses of mural wrecks and marbles.

The visitors entered the interior through a gap, and found themselves in the midst of enormous ruins, enclosed on two sides by walls, raised on arches, and by piles of ponderous fragments. The fallen blocks were of vast dimensions, and showed that no cement had been used in the construction—an evidence of their great antiquity. In the midst of this crushed magnificence stood several lofty portals and arches, pedestals of gigantic columns and broken steps and marble cornices, heaped in desolate confusion.

From these baths the distance to the sea is between two and three miles—a gentle declivity covered with low woods, and partially interspersed with spots of cultivated ground. On this slope the ancient city of Alexandria Troas was built. On the north-west, part of the walls, to the extent of a mile, may yet be traced; the remains of a theatre are also still to be seen on the side of the hill fronting the sea, commanding a view of Tenedos, Lemnos, and the whole expanse of the Ægean.

Having been conducted by the guide, whom they had brought with them from Tenedos, to the principal antiquities of Alexandria Troas, the visitors returned to the frigate, which immediately after got under way. On the 14th of April she came to anchor about a mile and a half from Cape Janissary, the Sygean promontory,
where she remained about a fortnight; during which ample opportunity was afforded to inspect the plain of Troy, that scene of heroism, which, for three thousand years, has attracted the attention and interested the feelings and fancy of the civilized world.

Whether Lord Byron entertained any doubt of Homer’s Troy ever having existed, is not very clear. It is probable, from the little he says on the subject, that he took no interest in the question. For although no traveller could enter with more sensibility into the local associations of celebrated places, he yet never seemed to care much about the visible features of antiquity, and was always more inclined to indulge in reflections than to puzzle his learning with dates or dimensions. His ruminations on the Troad, in Don Juan, afford an instance of this, and are conceived in the very spirit of Childe Harold.

And so great names are nothing more than nominal,
And love of glory’s but an airy lust,
Too often in its fury overcoming all
Who would, as ’twere, identify their dust
From out the wide destruction which, entombing all,
Leaves nothing till the coming of the just,
Save change. I’ve stood upon Achilles’ tomb,
And heard Troy doubted—time will doubt of Rome.
The very generations of the dead
Are swept away, and tomb inherits tomb,
Until the memory of an age is fled,
And buried, sinks beneath its offspring’s doom.
Where are the epitaphs our fathers read,
Save a few glean’d from the sepulchral gloom,
Which once named myriads, nameless, lie beneath,
And lose their own in universal death?

No task of curiosity can indeed be less satisfactory that the examination of the sites of ancient cities; for the guides, not content with leading the traveller to the spot, often attempt to mislead his imagination, by directing his attention to circumstances which they suppose to be evidence that verifies their traditions. Thus,
on the Trojan plain, several objects are still shown which are described as the self-same mentioned in the
Iliad. The wild fig-trees, and the tomb of Ilus, are yet there—if the guides may be credited. But they were seen with incredulous eyes by the poet; even the tomb of Achilles appears to have been regarded by him with equal scepticism; still his description of the scene around is striking, and tinted with some of his happiest touches.

There on the green and village-cotted hill is
Flanked by the Hellespont, and by the sea,
Entomb’d the bravest of the brave, Achilles—
They say so. Bryant says the contrary.
And farther downward tall and towering still is
The tumulus, of whom Heaven knows it may be,
Patroclus, Ajax, or Protesilaus,—
All heroes, who, if living still, would slay us.
High barrows without marble or a name,
A vast untill’d and mountain-skirted plain,
And Ida in the distance still the same,
And old Scamander, if ’tis he, remain;
The situation seems still form’d for fame,
A hundred thousand men might fight again
With ease. But where I sought for Ilion’s walls
The quiet sheep feeds, and the tortoise crawls.
Troops of untended horses; here and there
Some little hamlets, with new names uncouth,
Some shepherds unlike Paris, led to stare
A moment at the European youth,
Whom to the spot their schoolboy feelings bear;
A Turk with beads in hand and pipe in mouth,
Extremely taken with his own religion,
Are what I found there, but the devil a Phrygian.

It was during the time that the Salsette lay off Cape Janissary that Lord Byron first undertook to swim across the Hellespont. Having crossed from the castle of Chanak-Kalessi, in a boat manned by four Turks, he landed at five o’clock in the evening half a mile above the castle of Chelit-Bauri, where, with an officer of the frigate who accompanied him, they began their
enterprise, emulous of the renown of Leander. At first they swam obliquely upwards, rather towards Nagara Point than the Dardanelles, but notwithstanding their skill and efforts they made little progress. Finding it useless to struggle with the current, they then turned and went with the stream, still however endeavouring to cross. It was not until they had been half an hour in the water, and found themselves in the middle of the strait, about a mile and a half below the castles, that they consented to be taken into the boat, which had followed them. By that time the coldness of the water had so benumbed their limbs that they were unable to stand, and were otherwise much exhausted. The second attempt was made on the 3d of May, when the weather was warmer. They entered the water at the distance of a mile and a-half above Chelit-Bauri, near a point of land on the western bank of the Bay of Maito, and swam against the stream as before, but not for so long a time. In less than half an hour they came floating down the current close to the ship, which was then anchored at the Dardanelles, and in passing her steered for the bay behind the castle, which they soon succeeded in reaching, and landed about a mile and a-half below the ship. Lord Byron has recorded that he found the current very strong and the water cold; that some large fish passed him in the middle of the channel, and though a little chilled he was not fatigued, and performed the feat without much difficulty, but not with impunity, for by the verses in which he commemorated the exploit it appears he incurred the ague.

If in the month of dark December
Leander who was nightly wont
(What maid will not the tale remember)
To cross thy stream, broad Hellespont,
If when the wintry tempest roar’d
He sped to Hero nothing loath,
And thus of old thy current pour’d,
Fair Venus! how I pity both.
For me, degenerate modern wretch,
Though in the genial month of May,
My dripping limbs I faintly stretch,
And think I’ve done a feat to-day.
But since he crossed the rapid tide,
According to the doubtful story,
To woo, and—Lord knows what beside,
And swam for love as I for glory,
’Twere hard to say who fared the best;
Sad mortals thus the gods still plague you;
He lost his labour, I my jest—
For he was drown’d, and I’ve the ague.

“The whole distance,” says his Lordship, “from the place whence we started to our landing on the other side, including the length we were carried by the current, was computed by those on board the frigate at upwards of four English miles, though the actual breadth is barely one. The rapidity of the current is such that no boat can row directly across, and it may in some measure be estimated from the circumstance of the whole distance being accomplished by one of the parties in an hour and five, and by the other (Byron) in an hour and ten minutes. The water was extremely cold from the melting of the mountain snows. About three weeks before, in April, we had made an attempt; but having ridden all the way from the Troad the same morning, and the water being of an icy chilliness, we found it necessary to postpone the completion till the frigate anchored below the castles, when we swam the straits as just stated, entering a considerable way above the European, and landing below the Asiatic fort. Chevallier says that a young Jew swam the same distance for his mistress; and Oliver mentions it having been done by a Neapolitan;
but our consul (at the Dardanelles), Tarragona, remembered neither of these circumstances, and tried to dissuade us from the attempt. A number of the Salsette’s crew were known to have accomplished a greater distance and the only thing that surprised me was, that as doubts had been entertained of the truth of Leander’s story, no traveller had ever endeavoured to ascertain its practicability.”

While the Salsette lay off the Dardanelles, Lord Byron saw the body of a man who had been executed by being cast into the sea, floating on the stream, moving to and fro with the tumbling of the water, which gave to his arms the effect of scaring away several sea-fowl that were hovering to devour. This incident he has strikingly depicted in The Bride of Abydos.

The sea-birds shriek above the prey
O’er which their hungry beaks delay,
As shaken on his restless pillow,
His head heaves with the heaving billow;
That hand whose motion is not life,
Yet feebly seems to menace strife,
Flung by the tossing tide on high,
Then levell’d with the wave—
What recks it tho’ that corse shall lie
Within a living grave.
The bird that tears that prostrate form
Hath only robb’d the meaner worm.
The only heart, the only eye,
That bled or wept to see him die,
Had seen those scatter’d limbs composed,
And mourned above his turban stone;
That heart hath burst—that eye was closed—
Yea—closed before his own.

Between the Dardanelles and Constantinople no other adventure was undertaken or befel the poet. On the 13th of May, the frigate came to anchor at sunset, near the headland to the west of the Seraglio Point; and when the night closed in, the silence and the darkness were so complete “that we might have
believed ourselves,” says
Mr. Hobhouse, “moored in the lonely cove of some desert island, and not at the foot of a city which, from its vast extent and countless population, is fondly imagined by its present masters to be worthy to be called ‘The Refuge of the World.’”