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

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Constantinople.—Description.—The dogs and the dead.—Landed at Tophana.—The masterless dogs.—The slave-market.—The seraglio.—The defects in the description.

The spot where the frigate came to anchor affords but an imperfect view of the Ottoman capital. A few tall white minarets, and the domes of the great mosques only are in sight, interspersed with trees and mean masses of domestic buildings. In the distance, inland on the left, the redoubted Castle of the Seven Towers is seen rising above the gloomy walls; and, unlike every other European city, a profound silence prevails over all. This remarkable characteristic of Constantinople is owing to the very few wheel-carriages employed in the city. In other respects the view around is lively, and in fine weather quickened with innumerable objects in motion. In the calmest days the rippling in the flow of the Bosphorus is like the running of a river. In the fifth canto of Don Juan, Lord Byron has seized the principal features, and delineated them with sparkling effect.

The European with the Asian shore,
Sprinkled with palaces, the ocean stream
Here and there studded with a seventy-four,
Sophia’s cupola with golden gleam;
The cypress groves; Olympus high and hoar;
The twelve isles, and the more than I could dream,
Far less describe, present the very view
Which charm’d the charming Mary Montague.

In the morning, when his Lordship left the ship, the wind blew strongly from the north-east, and the rush-
ing current of the Bosphorus dashed with great violence against the rocky projections of the shore, as the captain’s boat was rowed against the stream.

The wind swept down the Euxine, and the wave
Broke foaming o’er the blue Symplegades.
’Tis a grand sight, from off the giant’s grave,
To watch the progress of those rolling seas
Between the Bosphorus, as they lash and lave
Europe and Asia, you being quite at ease.

“The sensations produced by the state of the weather, and leaving a comfortable cabin, were,” says Mr. Hobhouse, “in unison with the impressions which we felt, when, passing under the palace of the sultans, and gazing at the gloomy cypresses, which rise above the walls, we saw two dogs gnawing a dead body.” The description in The Siege of Corinth of the dogs devouring the dead, owes its origin to this incident of the dogs and the body under the walls of the seraglio.

And he saw the lean dogs beneath the wall,
Hold o’er the dead their carnival.
Gorging and growling o’er carcase and limb,
They were too busy to bark at him.
From a Tartar’s scull they had stripp’d the flesh,
As ye peel the fig when its fruit is fresh,
And their white tusks crunched on the whiter scull,
As it slipp’d through their jaws when their edge grew dull.
As they lazily mumbled the bones of the dead,
When they scarce could rise from the spot where they fed.
So well had they broken a lingering fast,
With those who had fallen for that night’s repast.
And Alp knew by the turbans that rolled on the sand,
The foremost of these were the best of his band.
Crimson and green were the shawls of their wear,
And each scalp had a single long tuft of hair,
All the rest was shaven and bare.
The scalps were in the wild dogs’ maw,
The hair was tangled round his jaw.
But close by the shore on the edge of the gulf,
There sat a vulture flapping a wolf,
Who had stolen from the hills but kept away,
Scared by the dogs from the human prey;
But he seized on his share of a steed that lay,
Pick’d by the birds on the sands of the bay.

This hideous picture is a striking instance of the uses to which imaginative power may turn the slightest hint, and of horror augmented till it reach that extreme point at which the ridiculous commences. The whole compass of English poetry affords no parallel to this passage. It even exceeds the celebrated catalogue of dreadful things on the sacramental table in Tam O’ Shanter. It is true, that the revolting circumstances described by Byron are less sublime in their associations than those of Burns, being mere visible images, unconnected with ideas of guilt, and unlike
The knife a father’s throat had mangled,
Which his ain son of life bereft:
The gray hairs yet stuck to the heft.
Nor is there in the vivid group of the vulture flapping the wolf, any accessory to rouse stronger emotions, than those which are associated with the sight of energy and courage, while the covert insinuation, that the bird is actuated by some instigation of retribution in pursuing the wolf for having run away with the bone, approaches the very point and line where the horrible merges in the ludicrous. The whole passage is fearfully distinct, and though in its circumstances, as the poet himself says, “sickening,” is yet an amazing display of poetical power and high invention.

The frigate sent the travellers on shore at Tophana, from which the road ascends to Pera. Near this landing-place is a large fountain, and around it a public stand of horses ready saddled, attended by boys. On some of these Lord Byron and his friend, with the officers who had accompanied them, mounted and rode up the steep hill, to the principal Frank Hotel, in Pera, where they intended to lodge. In the course of
the ride their attention was attracted to the prodigious number of masterless dogs which lounge and lurk about the corners of the streets; a nuisance both dangerous and disagreeable, but which the Turks not only tolerate but protect. It is no uncommon thing to see a litter of puppies with their mother nestled in a mat placed on purpose for them in a nook by some charitable Mussulman of the neighbourhood; for notwithstanding their merciless military practices, the Turks are pitiful-hearted Titans to dumb animals and slaves. Constantinople has, however, been so often and so well described, that it is unnecessary to notice its different objects of curiosity here, except in so far as they have been contributory to the stores of the poet.

The slave market was of course not unvisited, but the description in Don Juan is more indebted to the author’s fancy, than any of those other bright reflections of realities to which I have hitherto directed the attention of the reader. The market now-a-days is in truth very uninteresting; few slaves are ever to be seen in it, and the place itself has an odious resemblance to Smithfield. I imagine, therefore, that the trade in slaves is chiefly managed by private bargaining. When there, I saw only two men for sale, whites, who appeared very little concerned about their destination, certainly not more than English rustics offering themselves for hire to the farmers at a fair or market. Doubtless, there was a time when the slave market of Constantinople presented a different spectacle, but the trade itself has undergone a change—the Christians are now interdicted from purchasing slaves. The luxury of the guilt is reserved for the exclusive enjoyment of the Turks. Still, as a description of things which may have been, Byron’s market is probable and curious.

A crowd of shivering slaves of every nation
And age and sex were in the market ranged,
Each busy with the merchant in his station.
Poor creatures, their good looks were sadly changed.
All save the blacks seem’d jaded with vexation,
From friends, and home, and freedom far estranged.
The negroes more philosophy displayed,
Used to it no doubt, as eels are to be flayed.
Like a backgammon board, the place was dotted
With whites and blacks in groups, on show for sale,
Though rather more irregularly spotted;
Some bought the jet, while others chose the pale.
No lady e’er is ogled by a lover,
Horse by a black-leg, broadcloth by a tailor,
Fee by a counsel, felon by a jailer,
As is a slave by his intended bidder.
’Tis pleasant purchasing our fellow-creatures,
And all are to be sold, if you consider
Their passions, and are dext’rous, some by features
Are bought up, others by a warlike leader;
Some by a place, as tend their years or natures;
The most by ready cash, but all have prices,
From crowns to kicks, according to their vices.

The account of the interior of the seraglio in Don Juan is also only probably correct, and may have been drawn in several particulars from an inspection of some of the palaces, but the descriptions of the imperial harem are entirely fanciful. I am persuaded, by different circumstances, that Byron could not have been in those sacred chambers of any of the seraglios. At the time I was in Constantinople, only one of the imperial residences was accessible to strangers, and it was unfurnished. The great seraglio was not accessible beyond the courts, except in those apartments where the Sultan receives his officers and visitors of state. Indeed, the whole account of the customs and usages of the interior of the seraglio, as described in Don Juan, can only be regarded as inventions; and though the descriptions abound in picturesque
beauty, they have not that air of truth and fact about them which render the pictures of Byron so generally valuable, independent of their poetical excellence. In those he has given of the apartments of the men, the liveliness and fidelity of his pencil cannot be denied; but the
Arabian tales and Vathek seem to have had more influence on his fancy in describing the imperial harem, than a knowledge of actual things and appearances. Not that the latter are inferior to the former in beauty, or are without images and lineaments of graphic distinctness, but they want that air of reality which constitutes the singular excellence of his scenes drawn from nature; and there is a vagueness in them which has the effect of making them obscure, and even fantastical. Indeed, except when he paints from actual models, from living persons and existing things, his superiority, at least his originality, is not so obvious; and thus it happens, that his gorgeous description of the sultan’s seraglio is like a versified passage of an Arabian tale, while the imagery of Childe Harold’s visit to Ali Pashaw has all the freshness and life of an actual scene. The following is, indeed, more like an imitation of Vathek, than anything that has been seen, or is in existence. I quote it for the contrast it affords to the visit referred to, and in illustration of the distinction which should be made between beauties derived from actual scenes and adventures, and compilations from memory and imagination, which are supposed to display so much more of creative invention.

And thus they parted, each by separate doors,
Raba led Juan onward, room by room,
Through glittering galleries and o’er marble floors,
Till a gigantic portal through the gloom
Haughty and huge along the distance towers,
And wafted far arose a rich perfume,
It seem’d as though they came upon a shrine,
For all was vast, still, fragrant, and divine.
The giant door was broad and bright and high,
Of gilded bronze, and carved in curious guise;
Warriors thereon were battling furiously;
Here stalks the victor, there the vanquish’d lies;
There captives led in triumph droop the eye,
And in perspective many a squadron flies.
It seems the work of times before the line
Of Rome transplanted fell with Constantine.
This massy portal stood at the wide close
Of a huge hall, and on its either side
Two little dwarfs, the least you could suppose,
Were sate, like ugly imps, as if allied
In mockery to the enormous gate which rose
O’er them in almost pyramidic pride.