Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Frankenstein (1818)


Is there anything new to say about this work, one of the most discussed and reinterpreted Gothic novels ever published? Well, there are the standard points, of course, some of which have become platitudes: that it is the first SF novel; the first great fable of the scientific age, a penetrating story of man’s material-technical overreaching and the danger of unintended consequences; or more specifically that it is a myth about the way Western science’s masculinist bias circumvents the feminine principle with disastrous consequences. There are critics who approach the novel from a biographical point of view, and argue that it embodies Shelley’s ambivalence to the Romantic and radical circles in which she moved, or that it encodes her horror at her miscarried pregnancy. This speaks to the multivalent nature of Shelley’s success, here, although it also points up the dangers of reductionism when trying to get a handle on what makes the book (for all its clumsinesses and awkward moments) so dream-haunting.

It probably is fair to say that most people know this book through its myriad adaptations than its early nineteenth-century prose, at least in the first instance; such that actually reading it, particularly the rather prosy outer frame narrative (an Englishman called Walton is exploring the Arctic, eager to push-back the boundaries of geographical knowledge; and he writes home to his sister with accounts of his voyage), can be rather estranging. The novel starts slowly; and even when Watson encounters Frankenstein, at the point of exhaustive collapse, pursuing a strange figure across the ice, it takes a while for the novel to start generating its distinctive, eerie and suggestive tone and affect. Frankenstein’s own first-person narrative is folded into Walton’s account here; and after his detailed account of his upbringing, his desire to conquer death, his researches and the creation of his monster—not to mention his horror at his own actions, a period of hysterical amnesia—he himself relates the monster’s own life story. This first-person narration nestles, the third, as the smallest Russian-doll inside the nested structure of the novel, is the one most people think of as ‘the story’ of Frankenstein. Indeed, the celerity with which adaptors and filmmakers stripped away Walton’s frame narrative (Branagh’s 1994 movie is an exception, here) suggests that it’s the relationship between the creator and his creation that really ignites the imagination, not the third party explorer and observer, the figure akin to us as readers. The issue here isn’t really one of story-details so much as tone. Filmmakers aim for a heightened intensity, a (melo)dramatic pitch; but Shelley’s own approach reaches its peculiar dark sublimity by going, as it were, down rather than up. Bring to mind any cinematic version you may have seen of the moment where the monster is brought to life: crashing thunder and lightning, dramatic music, the hysterical scientist screaming ‘live, my creation, live!’. To turn to the beginning of the novel's chapter 5 is to be stuck by how far Shelley herself was prepared to dial-down this crucial moment:
It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
Not quite anticlimactic, but more cannily downbeat, this. It speaks to something important about the way the novel has been creatively read, of course. Which is to say: Frankenstein the novel does deal with those intensities of the Romantic Sublime (‘sense of wonder’, ‘enchantment’) that get the hairs stirring on the backs of our necks; but it does so by descent, rather than ascent, and via an apprehension of the guilt of creation rather than human technological hubris. If you bear with me, I’ll explain what I mean.


Here’s something I wrote about Frankenstein in a book called 50 Key Figures in Science Fiction (Routledge 2009):
The novel’s core story is probably well-enough known not to need extensive summary. Scientist Victor Frankenstein constructs and animates an eight-foot-tall artificial man, but, obscurely horrified by what he has done, abandons his creation and temporarily loses his memory. The creature (it is never named) comes into the world physically strong, but mentally a tabula rasa to be written upon my experience—as it transpires, mostly the experience of others’ hostility towards its hideous appearance. It learns not only to speak but, improbably enough, to read and write by eavesdropping unnoticed on a peasant family. Thereafter it becomes murderous, a consequence not only of others’ hostility but also its reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and identifying with the outcast Satan. Lonely, it seeks out its maker demanding that he create a monstrous bride. Frankenstein agrees and builds a second, female creature, but belatedly alarmed at the implication of his two creations breeding and populating the world with monsters, he tears it to pieces. In revenge the monster kills Frankenstein’s own wife. Frankenstein then pursues his creation to the arctic wastes, where he dies; the novel ends with the creature still alive, but promising to kill itself. Summarised so baldly, this perhaps seems clumsily plotted (Shelley was 19 when she wrote it) and the novel itself does sometimes lapse into a rather melodramatic crudeness. But it also possesses remarkable imaginative power, not least in the embodiment, in both heart-wracked scientist and sublime monster, of two enduringly iconic archetypes of the genre.
The opinion that science fiction starts with Mary Shelley’s novel has had several adherents (and several dissenters) but is most closely associated with British SF author and critic Brian Aldiss. For Aldiss, Frankenstein encapsulates ‘the modern theme, touching not only on science but man’s dual nature, whose inherited ape curiosity has brought him both success and misery’ [Aldiss, Billion Year Spree 26]. Aldiss wrote his own oblique fictional treatment of the same story, Frankenstein Unbound (1974), in which a modern man propelled by ‘timeslips’ back to the Romantic era meets not only Mary Shelley, but Frankenstein and his monster too—this latter proving an eloquent commentator upon man’s capacity for dialectically interconnected creation and destruction. As a description of the novel, and an implicit characterisation of sf as a whole, this has persuaded many.

Frankenstein, as every schoolchild knows, is the name of the scientist, not the name of the monster (although transferring the name from creator to creation is now so widely disseminated a solecism as hardly to merit rebuke). The monster has no name (its namelessness, indeed, strikes me as being a function of its motherlessness). What, then, is Frankenstein’s creature? It is a monster. Now, monster is an interesting word. It derives from the Latin, monstrum, which means (I pluck Lewis and Short from my shelf) ‘a divine omen, indicating misfortune, an evil omen, portent’. This word is in turn from moneo: ‘to teach, instruct, tell, inform, point out; to announce, predict, foretell’ (from this we get the French ‘montre’, and the English ‘demonstrate’). Originally a calf (say) born with two heads would be a monster in the sense of being ominous: through it the gods would be trying to tell us something. Though the word now has the connotation of a large and terrifying fantastical beast, the earlier meaning still haunts it. Godzilla, say, is a monster in the contemporary vulgar sense, but also in the sense that he is trying to tell us something (in his case, something about the evils of nuclear testing). Frankenstein’s monster, of course, is often read as a book trying to tell us something about science, or man’s hubris, or about the nature of creation itself. Me, I wonder if the monster’s main function, and the ground of its prodigious success, is that it demonstrates something closer to home: you. Yes, I mean you madam; and you sir. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

What about the creator’s name, ‘Frankenstein’? It’s a common-enough Germanic moniker (the invaluable Wikipedia tells us: ‘Mary Shelley maintained that she derived the name “Frankenstein” from a dream-vision. Despite her public claims of originality, the significance of the name has been a source of speculation. … The name is associated with various places in Germany, such as Castle Frankenstein (Burg Frankenstein) in Hesse or Castle Frankenstein in Frankenstein, Palatinate.’) But I have a fanciful theory about the name; or half-fanciful, and I intend to air it here. The half that’s less fanciful is the first syllable, which seems to me very likely, in its reference to France, to encode a symbolic allusion to the French Revolution. The half that’s more fanciful would link the stone (‘-Stein’ in German) with the French for stone, –pierre, as a sort of sidestep towards Robespierre, architect of the French revolutionary Terror … like Frankenstein, a well-bred, well-educated man impatient with old forms, who wished to conquer the injustices of the world but who ended up creating only a monster of Terror. This may strike you are more tortuously implausible than it does me, not just because I tend to see in this rebus (Frankenstein = French ‘stone’ = French [robes]-pierre) an example of the way the creative subconscious works, but because there are a great many people who share my sense than the novel is in a symbolic sense ‘about’ the French revolution. Chris Baldick’s book, In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford 1987) traces the many appropriations of Shelley’s monster in the culture of the century noting how very often revolution, upheaval or popular dissent was troped precisely as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’. Like the Revolution, the monster is a creature of power and uncanny novelty, brought into being with the best intentions, but abandoned by its architect and running into bloodsoaked courses of remorseless violence and terror. Which is to say: the monster emblematises Revolution because it focuses terror. Indeed, for an English liberal in the first decades of the 19th-century there were two key Revolutions in recent history: the French and the American. It may not be a coincidence that, after making his European monster, the French-Swiss Frankenstein is persuaded to make a second, on the understanding that the pair will emigrate to America. He changes his mind:
Even if they were to leave Europe and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.
That last word—terror—is crucial for the novel. The word ‘terror’ chimes like a bell through the whole text. Terror, of course, was Robespierre’s touchstone: here, for example, he is in his Discours sur les principes de morale politique (February 1794):
Si le ressort du gouvernement populaire dans la paix est la vertu, le ressort du gouvernement populaire en révolution est à la fois la vertu et la terreur : la vertu, sans laquelle la terreur est funeste ; la terreur, sans laquelle la vertu est impuissante. La terreur n’est autre chose que la justice prompte, sévère, inflexible ; elle est donc une émanation de la vertu ; elle est moins un principe particulier, qu’une conséquence du principe général de la démocratie, appliqué aux plus pressants besoins de la patrie.

[If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country.]
Terror is an emanation of virtue because it is the purest form of justice; and Frankenstein’s mythic heft and potency derives surely in large part from the sense that there is a cruel, implacable justice behind the monster’s violence. If people had treated him well, and seen past his hideous exterior, he would have repaid their trust. Because they treated him with violence and disgust, those are the human qualities he mirrors back. This comes close to the secret brilliance of the book: it is that our creations will punish us, they will pursue us (as we pursue them, seeking to punish them); and that this will happen because, in a crucial sense, they are us. It is that out of ourselves and against ourselves comes the fiercest and most unrelenting urge to punish, to bring to justice, the most acute terror. I’m reminded of something Hazlitt wrote (this is from his essay ‘On Will Making’ (1821):
It is the wound inflicted upon our self-love, not the stain upon the character of the thoughtless offender, that calls for condign punishment. Crimes, vices may go unchecked or unnoticed; but it is the laughing at our weaknesses, or thwarting our humours, that is never to be forgotten. It is not the errors of others, but our own miscalculations, on which we wreak our lasting vengeance. It is ourselves that we cannot forgive.
I can’t think of a book that is as eloquent in its apprehension of the dark truth embedded in that last sentence as Frankenstein.

What, then, is Frankenstein? It is Revolution (and its bloody aftermath) as myth; it is the excavation of the guilt of Enlightenment creation and action. It is, in short, a descent into Hell. Indeed, I would suggest, we can read the novel as a thoughtfully structured piece of mythic intertextuality about this great theme. I’m thinking of Western culture’s many narratives about infernal descent; in particular, think about Dante’s great divina commedia. Dante’s Hell is a funnel shaped cavern located inside the earth—something Shelley’s own ‘funnel-shaped’ narrative structure apes, with Walton’s frame narrative containing the smaller but deeper account of Frankenstein himself, and that circle of story containing again the smaller yet more profound narrative of the monster. Thinking in these terms perhaps explains some of the odder moments in Shelley’s text; or at least, I’m prepared to be persuaded so. For example: one stumbling block for many readers is Frankenstein’s weird hysterical amnesia—having spent months making his creation, he is so horrified by the result that he stumbles away and forgets all about it until four months later, when the monster’s murders bring it all back to him. A reader who judges by standards of psychological verisimilitude will find this hard to swallow; but if we read with a sense of the mythic provenance—for of course entry to the underworld happens only after the shades of the dead have drunk of the waters of Lethe, or forgetfulness. By the same token, the novel’s final scenes in the frozen polar wasteland (striking and memorable stuff, if something rather gnashingly written by Shelley) are modelled on Dante’s final encounter with Satan at the conclusion of the Inferno: trapped forever not in fire, but embedded in a vast field of ice. The monster’s self-identification with the devil (via Milton) only reinforces this hellish troping. The hell of Enlightenment liberalism is you, or your hideous, monstrous doppelganger, your creation, your child.


Frankenstein is amongst other things a novel about being part of a family, about the generation of life and the toll taken by familial pressures. American critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar read Shelley as ‘this orphaned literary heiress’ for whom ‘highly charged connections between femaleness and literariness must have been established early’ particularly ‘in relation to the controversial figure of her dead mother.’ [Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven, Yale University Press 1979), 222] That mother, Mary Wollstonecroft was—of course—the author of a foundational text of Western feminist thought, Vindication of the Rights of Women. Gilbert and Gubar’s big, inspiring, occasionally wayward study of female writers was foundational in a smaller way, of the second wave of postwar academic feminist enquiry. Certainly their feminist reading of the novel, as a female appropriation of previously masculine myths of authorship and creation—a Romantic proto-feminist act of bibliogenesis—proved influential in academe.

Since the 1970s Frankenstein has been the subject of many perceptive feminist readings. Indeed, according to Diane Long Hoeveler this novel ‘has figured more importantly in the development of feminist literary theory than perhaps any other novel, with the possible exception of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre’ [Hoeveler, ‘Frankenstein, feminism and literary theory’, in Esther H. Schor (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 45]. The brilliantly imaginative ways in which the novel deconstructs traditional understandings of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ (not least in its new myth of the man who gives ‘birth’ to life thereby birthing death and terror too; which is to say, its effective critique of masculinist structures of society, science and literature) speaks both to the great change in conceptions of femaleness that was starting to gain momentum in Shelley’s day, and also to the potential of non-realist modes of art such as science fiction to represent, dramatise and disseminate precisely those changes. Not for nothing does Debra Benita Shaw’s 2000 feminist study describe SF as a whole as The Frankenstein Inheritance.

But having said that, I can’t help feeling that this success has its own limitations. Certainly Shelley’s own career has been overwritten by the impact of Frankenstein: she wrote many other things, but only specialists know anything about them. More to the point, it could be argued that the novel has been almost hijacked by its heritage. What I mean by this is: we tend to read it nowadays as a science fiction novel (which is to say, in ways conditioned by the habits of reading twentieth- and twenty-first-century SF) rather than reading it as it was originally read and reviewed, as a novel of philosophical speculation in the tradition of Voltaire’s Candide (1759), Mary Wollstonecroft’s Mary (1788) or Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794). To read the book this way would be to concentrate more upon the first section as a meditation on the proper boundaries of human knowledge, and to read the Monster’s first-person narrative as a bold attempt to dramatise the theory-of-mind of John Locke, and to pay less attention to the pitiful/Satanic intensities of the monster’s violence and alienation. But violence and alienation speak more directly to us today, I suppose.

Incidentally: the illustrations accompanying this post are from Bernie Wrightson's 1983 edition of Frankenstein. Amazing, aren't they.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

John Keats and the Woman Who Eats Toes

Here's a curious Keatsian story of toe-eating, from a letter to James Rice from December 1819:
My dear Rice,

As I want the coat on my back mended, I would be obliged if you will send me the one Brown left at your house, by the Bearer … If you do not see me soon it will be from the humour of writing, which I have had for three days, continuing. I must say to the Muses what the maid says to the Man---"take me while the fit is on me.”

Would you like a true Story[?] There was a Man and his Wife who being to go a long journey on foot, in the course of their travels came to a River which rolled knee deep over the pebbles---In these cases the Man generally pulls off his Back. This Man did so; and his Wife being pregnant and troubled, as in such cases is very common, with strange longings, took the strangest that ever was heard of. Seeing her Husband’s foot, a handsome one enough, look very clean and tempting in the clear water, on their arrival at the other bank she earnestly demanded a bit of it; he being an affectionate fellow and fearing for the comeliness of his child gave her a bit which he cut off with his Clasp Knife---Not satisfied she asked another morsel---supposing there might be twins he gave her a slice more. Not yet contented she craved another Piece. “You Wretch cries the Man, would you wish me to kill myself? take that!” Upon which he stabb’d her with the knife, cut her open and found three Children in her Belly two of them very comfortable with their mouth’s shut, the third with its eyes and mouth stark staring open. “Who would have thought it” cried the Widower, and pursued his journey …

Ever yours sincerely John Keats—
What to make of this? Roy Booth reports back from his reading of Simon Goulart’s Admirable and memorable histories containing the wonders of our time. Collected into French out of the best authors (1607), which includes a whole clutch of stories about pregnant women devouring their husbands, part or whole. He ponders what it all means:
Perhaps one can hazard something about the story type. Obviously, it’s about long-suffering men and demanding women, but there’s the myth of Chronos here somewhere: the recurrent feature of the pregnant woman demanding to eat part of the man’s legs, and her unborn child suffering if she doesn’t get it, perhaps speaks of the disabling effect of fatherhood, the man who loses part of his strength to the unborn generation, and has to accept as much.
This sounds about right to me, although having spent two separate portions of my life living with a pregnant woman I was also struck how much the stories Roy reports from Admirable and memorable histories channel a very common experience of pregnancy, viz. weird food cravings. We might say that the craving to eat a husband’s toes is an extreme form of craving, but it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility. Luckily my toes aren’t very tasty. Actually my wife is oddly phobic about toes, so perhaps that’s what saved me.

Toes might strike you as a trivial matter; but I would suggest that they're an important subject, one which bears further study. No parent who has ever played This Little Piggy Went To Market can doubt that there’s a particular connection between toes and babyhood. Being struck by the sheer delicious edibility of tiny little babies is one of my primary memories of becoming a father—that and the extraordinarily lovely smell to be found on the exact top of their heads. I can’t be the only father to have felt the urge to gobble up his delicious, delicious children. I’d probably start with the gorgeous little toes.

Perhaps eating toes has advantages over eating other organs in that toes seem more disposable; we feel we can do very well without toes in a way we don’t about noses, eyes, kidneys, hearts and so on. We don’t really use them for anything. They’re hidden away inside shoes most of the time, so nobody can be sure if I have toes or not. They embody a sort of pleasurable abjection; a playful sense of the body as dismantleable that goes hand in hand with the sense of the body as, as it might be, mantleable—capable of assembly. Which of course is what happens during pregnancy; the assemblage of a whole human being inside the uterus. Look at that Keats letter again: he asks for a coat to be sent to him. Clothing is a sort of detachable organ. Then he excuses his lack of social interaction because the Muse has been so demanding upon his time (‘the humour of writing, which I have had for three days, continuing. I must say to the Muses what the maid says to the Man---"take me while the fit is on me."’). This notion of a demanding woman metaphorically devouring a man leads him, associatively, to a story about a demanding woman literally devouring a man. The little narrative keeps reverting to detachable body parts, so that Keats says not “in these cases the Man generally gives his wife a piggy-back” but rather “in these cases the Man generally pulls off his Back”, as if his back can be unlatched and dropped to the floor. I said at the top there that the lady in Keats’s letter ate his toes; but actually Keats isn’t so specific:
Seeing her Husband’s foot, a handsome one enough, look very clean and tempting in the clear water, on their arrival at the other bank she earnestly demanded a bit of it; he being an affectionate fellow and fearing for the comeliness of his child gave her a bit which he cut off with his Clasp Knife.
Why ‘foot’, not ‘toe’? Because, of course, Keats’s mind is running on poetry; and feet is what poems walk on—what the poetic line breaks into. What the letter actually codes, I suppose, is a weird masculine dream of poetry as a bodying-forth from oneself, a quasi-pregnancy, a giving birth to new life. The man cuts his own feet off to satisfy the cravings of his poems (cravings for feet). The three feet-eating babies (wide-open mouth, mouth-comfortably-shut, mouth-comfortably-shut) themselves constitute a foot. Famously Keats had so little Greek he could only encounter Homer in Chapman’s translation; but I wonder if he didn’t know, or if he somehow intuited as a poet, that the Greek for toe is dactulos, same as finger (the same applies in Latin, where digitus means both finger and toe). The same word, dactyl, describes the metrical foot that Keats’s three babies embody: stressed, unstressed, unstressed, o - -.

Keats's 'Belle Dame Sans Merci'

It has only belatedly occurred to me that Keats's ‘Belle Dame' is named for the triple goddess. That is to say, hers is three names in one: the beautiful young maiden (Belle), the mature matron (the Dame) and the old crone (the Beldame). But of course she is.

'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' may be my single favourite short poem in the language.

So, the image at the head of this post is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 1848 illustration to Keats's poem. I quite like its quasi-mannerist visual punning, such that the Belle Dame herself seems to blend seamlessly into the tree, as if she is some kind of forest spirit, which emphasizes her uncanny, supernatural quality. Cleverer, perhaps, is the knight. His slightly awkward almost-embrace is expressive of both his desire and his reluctance, and the result resembles the topmost arch of a narrow Gothic window, through which the Dame looks to be peering. And if his arm is the frame to a stone window, then it effectively positions him as part of the architecture of a church, and the addition of the little dog in the bottom left is there to put us distantly in mind of those supine stone statues of dead knights, with little stone dogs at their feet. It's all a way of implying without overtly stating that the knight is dead, and the lady Death.

Keats, of course, took his title and mood, if not much else, from French poet Alain Chartier's 856-line 'La Belle Dame sans Mercy' (probably written 1420). This was translated into English by a gentleman called Robert Roos, sometime in the mid 15th-century, and this version was often reprinted. Keats may have read it in Bell's Edition: The Poets of Great Britain (1782); we know that he read various of Bell's anthologies. Roos's version of Chartier's poem opens:
Halfe in a dreme, not fully well awaked,
The goldin Slepe me wrapped undir his wyng,
Yet not forthy I rose, and well nigh naked,
Al sodainly my self rememberyng
Of a mattir, leavyng all othir thyng,
Which I must doe withoutin more delaie
For them whiche I ne durst not disobaie.

My charge was this, to translate by and by,
(All thyng forgive) as parte of my penaunce,
A boke callid La bel Dame sans Mercy,
Whiche Maistir Aleine made of remembraunce,
Chief Secretarie with the Kyng of Fraunce;
And hereupon a while I stode musyng,
And in my self greatly imaginyng

What wise I should perform the said processe
Considiryng by gode advisement
My unconnyng and my grete simplenesse,
And ayenward the straite commaundement
Whiche that I had; and thus in myne entent
I was vexid and tournid up and doune,
And yet at last, as in condusioun,

I cast my clothis on, and went my waie,
This soresaid charge having in remembraunce,
Till I came to a lustie grene valaie
Full of flouris to see a grete plesaunce,
And so boldly, with ther benigne susssraunce
Which redin this boke, touching this matere
Thus I began, if it plese you to here.
This is the translator (obviously): not the original Alain Chartier. What's interesting about it, I think, is the way it foregrounds the poet as the palely-loitering one. Then the echt Chartier begins:
Not long ago, ridyng an esie paas,
I fell in thought of joyful desperate,
With grete disese and pain, so that I was
Of all lovirs the most unfortunate,
Sith by his dart moste cruill full of hate
The Deth hath take my ladie and maistresse,
And left me sole, thus discomfite and mate,
Sore languishing and in waie of distresse.
And so on. Death, of course. There's an inversion in the way the influence works. In the medieval French poem, it is the lady who is dead; in Keats's version she is alive, and the knight is the one who exists in a sort of half-life. Assuming she is alive, which, as I say above, I don't think is true. Not that she's dead. She is the death that happens to other people.

One question is how far the very un-martial Keats (one K-name) inscribes himself into the Knight-at-arms (another K-name) of his poem.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Ail brings the dipthong of Keats into the 'K[night]-at-[arm]s' of the poem (we tend to pronounced Keats keets, but he himself and his contemporaries tended to say kaits). Then again, the surname Keats, as the poet certainly knew, derives from the Old English for kite, the bird. If ever a poem was about a bird who fails to take these broken wings and learn to fly, it is this one. 'Sedge' refers to a variety of marsh grass; but sedge is also the term for a group of herons. It also glances as 'saids', as in 'the things said', and which has in this case withered. And no poets sing.

This is a poem (to quote another pop song by the same writer) about a lover, not a fighter. The pun on 'arms' is right there, in the first line: arms to fight with, arms to embrace and love with. Rossetti is drawing attention to precisely that pun in the image at the top of this post: his knight-at-arms abandoning his military arms and draping his actual arm over the lady. 'Palely loitering', perhaps the poem's most celebrated phrase, has always chimed in my ear as a jumbled-up version of 'lonely-poetling'. That, I readily concede, is an idiosyncratic and personal reaction.
O what can ail thee, poet-in-love,
Alone and palely loitering?
What's said has withered from the lake,
And no kites sing.
Wentworth House, where Keats was staying during his annus mirabilis and where he wrote this poem, is not far from a rather nice little lake (277 on the map, below). There's even sedge.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Byron's "The Giaour" (1813): Leila's Fate

That's Leila, up there, from an 1820s steel engraving illustration of Byron's poem. Her fate is not jolly. A member of the harem of Ottoman lord Hassan, she has an affair with the infidel (that is, Christian) Giaour—a Venetian nobleman, not otherwise named in the tale. This Giaour, rhymes with 'tower', is the work's Byronic locus: handsome, charismatic, driven, passionate, sexy, more than a little diabolic. At any rate, Hassan discovers Leila's infidelity with the infidel, puts Leila in a sack and drowns her off a Greek island. Thereafter the plot of The Giaour (1813) is simple: the titular hero thunders through on his black steed, like a meteor, 'scathed by fiery passion's brunt', vengeance on his mind. He catches up with Hassan, not to mention the twenty vassals in Hassan's train, ambushes them, and kills them all. Then he thunders off again to a Christian monastery where with the help of a generous financial donation to the Abbot he buys a cell, solitude and the chance to brood darkly over his loss, otherwise taking no part in monkish life. The only wrinkle in the telling of this tale, written in fluent and onrushing rhymed tetrameters, is that Byron chops it up and mixes it about; different sections are told by different individuals, but there's no hint as to which is which or who is whom. Some parts are narrated by a Greek (I think) fisherman, whose boat is appropriated by Hassan to take Leila out into the bay and sink her. Some parts are narrated by Hassan, and the later portions by one of the monks at the monastery, who proves no friend of the Giaour's. It's possible some portions are narrated by the Giaour himself.

None of it is narrated by Leila.

Byron is upfront about this fragmentary textual strategy. THE GIAOUR: A FRAGMENT OF A TURKISH TALE yells the title page, and then:

So the chopabout shifts of p.o.v. are by design, not by inadvertence. As for the story, there are various hints that we're being invited to read it as both an individual tale of melodrama, romance and revenge and as a fuzzy-at-the-edges allegory for the situation of Greece itself. Hassan is the Ottoman empire; Leila is beautiful Greece, slain by Ottoman tyranny; the Giaour is the West, intervening as Byron himself was later to do (indeed, as he was to die doing) too late. The opening lines of the poem point us in this direction:
No breath of air to break the wave
That rolls below the Athenian's grave,
That tomb which, gleaming o'er the cliff
First greets the homeward-veering skiff
High o'er the land he saved in vain;
When shall such Hero live again?
This Athenian hero to which this makes reference is Themistocles, whose clifftop tomb overlooks the Aegean. Themistocles, I'm sure I don't need to remind you, was the man who persuaded Athens to spend its windfall silver-mine wealth on a great navy rather than disbursing it equally amongst the citizenry. such that they were subsequently able to repulse Persian aggression, hold back the Spartans and build an Athenian navy. Once, Byron is saying, Greece was a land of heroes capable of opposing tyranny and assault, able to preserve and promote democracy and all the glories of Attic culture. But now? Now Greece is dead, although, according to a weirdly morbid-erotic extended simile inserted near the beginning of the poem, only just dead:
He who hath bent him o'er the dead
Ere the first day of Death is fled,
The first dark day of Nothingness,
The last of Danger and Distress,
(Before Decay's effacing fingers
Have swept the lines where Beauty lingers,)
And marked the mild angelic air,
The rapture of Repose that's there,
The fixed yet tender thraits that streak
The languor of the placid cheek,
And—but for that sad shrouded eye,
That fires not, wins not, weeps not, now,
And but for that chill, changeless brow,

Where cold Obstruction's apathy
Appals the gazing mourner's heart,
As if to him it could impart
The doom he dreads, yet dwells upon;
Yes, but for these and these alone,
Some moments, aye, one treacherous hour,
He still might doubt the Tyrant's power;
So fair, so calm, so softly sealed,
The first, last look by Death revealed!
Such is the aspect of his shore;
'T is Greece, but living Greece no more!
So coldly sweet, so deadly fair,
We start, for Soul is wanting there.
Hers is the loveliness in death,
That parts not quite with parting breath;
But beauty with that fearful bloom,
That hue which haunts it to the tomb,
Expression's last receding ray,
A gilded Halo hovering round decay,
The farewell beam of Feeling past away!
This is one of the most necrophiliac passages of English Romantic verse: a tone of weird leching over a female corpse, 'so coldly sweet, so deadly fair'. But then again, this is the tenor of the poem as a whole. Manifest 'story' of the poem's plot aside, this is a work that is about the way some dead things refuse to be dead, but carry on living; and more to the point, continue exerting a weirdly compelling attraction after their undeath. This is the text, several years before Polidori's The Vampyre (itself, of course, based on a Byronic idea, and cementing in itself a mode of the Byronic persona) that first brings vampires into the English literary mainstream. After he has killed Hassan, the Giaour is cursed by Hassan's people:
But thou, false Infidel! shalt writhe
Beneath avenging Monkir's scythe;
And from its torment 'scape alone
To wander round lost Eblis' throne;
And fire unquenched, unquenchable,
Around, within, thy heart shall dwell;
Nor ear can hear nor tongue can tell
The tortures of that inward hell!
But first, on earth as vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse:
Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.
But one that for thy crime must fall,
The youngest, most beloved of all,
Shall bless thee with a father's name--
That word shall wrap thy heart in flame!
Yet must thou end thy task, and mark
Her cheek's last tinge, her eye's last spark,
And the last glassy glance must view
Which freezes o'er its lifeless blue;
Then with unhallowed hand shalt tear
The tresses of her yellow hair,
Of which in life a lock when shorn
Affection's fondest pledge was worn,
But now is borne away by thee,
Memorial of thine agony!
Wet with thine own best blood shall drip
Thy gnashing tooth and haggard lip;
Then stalking to thy sullen grave,
Go - and with Gouls and Afrits rave;
Till these in horror shrink away
From spectre more accursed than they!
Whole libraries have been written about the vampire as symbolic articulation of appalling-appealing transgressive sex, of course; and here the Byronic Giaour is cursed to feed on his own beautiful wife and daughters in a way that fills him with shame from which no death can quit him. Odds are that, at the time of writing The Giaour, Byron had not yet begun his incestuous relationship with his sister Augusta Leigh (she is much more a presence in the follow-up tale, The Corsair), but that's not to say that he wasn't already thinking in terms of the closed-loop of arid intrafamilial desire that short-circuits life and death. Greece is dead, but Byron still loves her. Leila is dead, but she remains the centre of Giaour's life. Byron is dead but Byron goes on living.

As for Leila herself, she has no voice, and is given no lines to speak in this poem. Of her beauty, the poem speaks in more-or-less conventionalized manner:
Her eye's dark charm 'twere vain to tell,
But gaze on that of the gazelle,
It will assist thy fancy well;
As large, as languishingly dark,
But soul beamed forth in every spark
That darted from beneath the lid,
Bright as the jewel of Giamschild.
Still, re-reading The Giaour again to teach it, I was very struck by the passage that describes Leila's death. Hassan instructs the fisherman to row his boat out to the middle of the bay. The fisherman himself reports what happens next (the 'it' referred to here is the 'burden' Hassan is carrying, a parcel that 'claims his utmost care' and which the fisherman assumes 'holds some precious freight'):
Sullen it plunged, and slowly sank,
The calm wave rippled to the bank;
I watched it as it sank, methought
Some motion from the current caught
Bestirred it more,—'twas but the beam
That checkered o'er the living stream:
I gazed, till vanishing from view,
Like lessening pebble it withdrew;
Still less and less, a speck of white
That gemmed the tide, then mocked the sight;
And all its hidden secrets sleep,
Known but to Genii of the deep,
Which, trembling in their coral caves,
They dare not whisper to the waves.
This is an extraordinary piece of verse: the love-object sinking into the depths, diminishing and then vanishing. What's so remarkable is the way this vignette emblemmatises the emotional and erotic core of the whole: it's rather like the scene at the end of James Cameron's Titanic, where Jack (is it?) drops into the fathomless and chill depths of the Atlantic, a moment that consummates the overwrought romance between the di Caprio character and the Kate Winslett one. This, rather than the actual copulation inside that steamy automobile, is where the romance storyline finds its perfect expression. If you're tempted to say: 'that's a rather morbid thought, though, isn't it?' I wouldn't disagree with you. But just as all those sexy vampire tales, so prominently a feature of 21st-century cultural life, can trace their lineage back, through Dracula, and Heathcliffe, and Polidori's Vampyre, back to Byron himself, so does this imagistic expression perfection of erotic deathlove/lovedeath spread out from a Byronic kernel, here. Death is the true seal on love.

Look again at the passage quoted. In the original it is separated out from the rest of the poem:

(Apologies for wonkiness, here: blame Google Books scanners). Taken on its own this is a fourteen-line almost sonnet blending love-poem and elegy. Leila is 'it', not 'she'; and she disappears downwards. The loved one is quiet, calm, motionless (perceived motion turns out to be 'but the [sun]beam/That checkered o'er the living stream'). As 'it' goes 'it' changes, first to a pebble; then to 'a speck of white/That gemmed the tide'—a pearl, presumably. Finally Leila disappears into the realm of the sea's 'hidden secrets'
Known but to Genii of the deep,
Which, trembling in their coral caves,
They dare not whisper to the waves
We're bound to think this metamorphosis of a woman into an exotic, uncanny thing recalls The Tempest: as Leila changes in the rhetoric of the poem from flesh into pearls and coral, we think back to 'of his bones are coral made' and 'those are pearls that were his eyes'. My guess is that Byron is drawn, distantly, to this intertext for reasons similar to T S Eliot a century later: a disinclination, one, to separate out sexual desire and death, and, two, a flat inability to see death as either an end or as the opportunity for rebirth and new life. Instead the dead body marks a vampiric alteration into something neither alive nor dead, beautiful and inhuman and hidden:
Nought of Leila that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change.
Into something rich and strange.
Ultimately this hidden, metamorphoses creature of rich strangeness is desire itself, the structuring principle of the subconscious, the currency of the cult of Byronism. All of Byron's verse is about this: it is hidden because it is buried deep in the psyche; but if it is hidden it must be shameful, and from shame grows guilt and guilt turns out to be the transgressive, undead truth of desire in the first place.

In case we miss it, Byron follows his core unsonnet, loving-grieving Leila's drowning, with an image of a beautiful purple butterfly chased over the suspiciously artificial-sounding 'emerald meadows' of from-Greece-very-distant Kashmir; either a pointed underscoring of the great gulf separating the (male) lover and the possibility of apprehending what he desires, or else Orientalism 101, in which 'the East' is taken as a kind of catch-all single place:
As rising on its purple wing
The insect-queen of eastern spring,
O'er emerald meadows of Kashmeer
Invites the young pursuer near,
And leads him on from flower to flower
A weary chase and wasted hour,
Then leaves him, as it soars on high,
With panting heart and tearful eye.
The butterfly is the soul, I suppose; and here it symbolizes the tantalus impossibility of erotic consummation. And the transition from caterpillar to butterfly is a longstanding emblem of change itself. But, we remember, the everything tha Except that, as we've already established, everything that changes in this poem changes into something richer and stranger than a purple papillon:

The verse-paragraph that follows this too-pretty butterfly switches-out its insect for something rather more severe:
The mind that broods o'er guilty woes,
Is like the scorpion girt by fire;
In circle narrowing as it glows,
The flames around their captive close,
Till inly searched by thousand throes,
And maddening in her ire,
One sad and sole relief she knows,
The sting she nourished for her foes,
Whose venom never yet was vain,
Gives but one pang, and cures all pain,
So do the dark in soul expire,
Or live like scorpion girt by fire;
So writhes the mind remorse hath riven,
Unfit for earth, undoomed for heaven,
Darkness above, despair beneath,
Around it flame, within it death!
This ('full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!') is a rather different Shakespearian intertext; but more to the point is replaces the mazy and evasive flight of the butterful with a circle within a circle, a vampire state neither alive nor dead 'unfit for earth, undoomed for heaven' in which fire, pain and remorse complete the short-circuit circle of desire.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Wordsworth’s “Guide to the Lakes” and the Picturesque Tradition

John, R. Nabholtz, 'Wordsworth’s “Guide to the Lakes” and the Picturesque Tradition', Modern Philology 61:4 (May 1964),288-297

Response by Abigail Turner:

Nabholtz investigates the question surrounding Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lake Country, asking why this Guide is “fundamentally different from those of its picturesque predecessors. Why Wordsworth should repeatedly invoke the tradition he is working outside of or against?” Before Wordsworth’s guide his predecessors such as John Brown and Thomas Gray had used the beauty of the landscape to direct the reader’s eye to the scenery. However, as Nabholtz uncovers, Wordsworth was not satisfied with a mere description of scenery, he wanted the readers to gain something more when they visited the lakes.

Wordsworth throughout the Guide emphasises repeatedly the use of one’s mind. The Guide becomes then one of thought as in its different sections Wordsworth uses the picturesque not only to reach the summits of beauty, but also to take this further to the sublime and dig deeper to the scenery’s origins. The picturesque then becomes a means to open the reader’s mind to a whole multitude of ways of thinking about, understanding, experiencing and appreciating the Lake Country. Nabholtz concludes, “Wordsworth’s appreciation of the picturesque beauty of the Lake Country was in reality a sign of his reverence for nature herself.” To get to this conclusion however Nabholtz must prove how the potent copying of Wordsworth’s predecessors can form an analysis directed to visual appearance that is in turn defined by picturesque standards.

Wordsworth does this through the mind, and by using the visual appearance in conjunction with thought he is able to set the standard of the picturesque through its discovery. For example Nabholtz uses the economy of nature as an example of how Wordsworth thinks through the movements of a lake to uncover the necessity and value of water. This is also seen in his descriptions of the mountains. Drawing upon his predecessors, he values the mountains for their limestone origins, which is vital to Yorkshire’s industry.

However, not only does Wordsworth dig deep into the origin of the Lake Country’s natural beauty he soars high with the natural processes of the sublime:
Sublimity is the result of Nature’s first great dealings with the superficies of the earth; but the general tendency of her subsequent operations is towards the production of beauty; by a multiplicity of symmetrical parts using in a constant whole.”(Guide, p.35)
The Sublime is an awe-inspiring movement that requires in this case a freeing of the surface vision, that Gray and Brown used in their Guides, to reach beyond to an appreciation that is thought through natural processes to create something that contains a personal story for the reader. A good example of how Wordsworth uses this is in his comparison of the Lake’s mountains to the Swiss Alps. He uses his own imagination and knowledge of the natural world to reach a beauty that is beyond the surface of the Lake’s. By doing so he is creating a narrative that is inspirational for it also encourages the reader’s reaction to be something somewhat similar; they are drawn along by his thought and are able to transcend this to imagine their own

‘Alps.’ Therefore, what Nabholtz has discovered is how Wordsworth utilises the picturesque descriptions of his predecessors through thought processes to rediscover again and again the magnitude and sublimity in nature’s natural processes.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Childe Harold's Songs 4: 'The castled crag of Drachenfels'

Byron picked up Childe Harold for a third fit, four years after the first two were published. This time, though, his hero has changed. Previously characterised by a kind of exhausted existential anomie, the Part 3 Harry is more tender-hearted and has, it seems, fallen in love. He travels across Belgium, surveys the field at Waterloo (where of course, the previous year, the epochal battle had been fought) and is moved by the loss of life. Then he passes along the Rhine for a while, and so on up into the Alps. Indeed, Childe Harold 3 is divided into two phases: a 'horizontal' phase when Harold-Byron moves across Europe, musing on the pitiable nature of mortal humanity; and then a 'vertical' phase when he climbs up into the mountains to commune with the sublimity of his own ego and the majesty of the landscape.
But these recede. Above me are the Alps,
The palaces of Nature, whose vast walls
Have pinnacled in clouds their snowy scalps,
And throned Eternity in icy halls
Of cold sublimity, where forms and falls
The avalanche—the thunderbolt of snow!
All that expands the spirit, yet appals,
Gathers around these summits, as to show
How Earth may pierce to Heaven, yet leave vain man below. [3:62]
The 'these' that recede in the first line of this stanza are the fertile fields and cities of lowland Germany, together with their population, 'a race of faces happy as the scene'; by the last line of this stanza these people have become vain mankind. That's the hockey-stick shape of the whole.

The canto's one lyric is, as it were, the hinge point of the horizontal-vertical shift. It starts with the vertically precipitous 'castled crag of Drachenfels', on the banks of the Rhine, then descends to the 'bosom' of the lowlands, water and meadow, 'strewed' with trees and cornfields and white cities. Down here the poet thinks of his absent lover, and sends her a flower, even though he knows it will have withered and died by the time it reaches her.
The castled crag of Drachenfels
Frowns o'er the wide and winding Rhine.
Whose breast of waters broadly swells
Between the banks which bear the vine,
And hills all rich with blossomed trees,
And fields which promise corn and wine,
And scattered cities crowning these,
Whose far white walls along them shine,
Have strewed a scene, which I should see
With double joy wert THOU with me!

And peasant girls, with deep blue eyes,
And hands which offer early flowers,
Walk smiling o'er this paradise;
Above, the frequent feudal towers
Through green leaves lift their walls of grey,
And many a rock which steeply lours,
And noble arch in proud decay,
Look o'er this vale of vintage bowers:
But one thing want these banks of Rhine,—
Thy gentle hand to clasp in mine!

I send the lilies given to me;
Though long before thy hand they touch,
I know that they must withered be,
But yet reject them not as such;
For I have cherished them as dear,
Because they yet may meet thine eye,
And guide thy soul to mine e'en here,
When thou behold'st them drooping nigh,
And know'st them gathered by the Rhine,
And offered from my heart to thine!

The river nobly foams and flows,
The charm of this enchanted ground,
And all its thousand turns disclose
Some fresher beauty varying round;
The haughtiest breast its wish might bound
Through life to dwell delighted here;
Nor could on earth a spot be found
To Nature and to me so dear,
Could thy dear eyes in following mine
Still sweeten more these banks of Rhine!
If the first stanza of this short poem descends from the peak of the castle crag down to the ground; and the second stanza launches back up again: 'Above' where the feudal towers, emblematic of a vertical social hierarchy, 'lift their walls of grey' through green leaves; where rock 'steeply lours' and ruins look down. Deleuzeguattari might talk of tall trees and rhizomes, but Byron's imagination goes somewhere in between the two: flowers.

So one way of reading this would be to take it at face value: the man is missing his woman, and sends her a flower—a lily, representative of the purity of his love—to remind her of him. The poem's rhyme-trick is to pair its setting, 'Rhine', with alternately 'thine' and 'mine', as if the river can somehow mediate the separated lovers. Mind you, Byron goes out of his way to stress how the blooms will be 'withered' and 'drooping' by the time they reach his woman. It's hard not to think there's some deliberate gesture here to Shakespeare's 'Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds' (Sonnet 94, of course). Shakespeare's point is that the summer's flower is summerishly sweet unless 'that flower with base infection meet'. Is that what this lyric encodes? A La Ronde-style sense that Byron is passing on an infectious something from the blue-eyed Rhine peasant girls to his, presumably, higher-born English lover? What might all this foamy flow mean, this thousand-fold repeated motion that spends itself upon the 'haughty breast'? Should we be worried that we notice a 'spot' afterwards?

Here's Byron's own note on Drachenfels' castle

Childe Harold's Songs 3: 'Tambourgi, Tambourgi!'

Part 2 of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812) is the Greece and Albania section. It's better than Part 1, and not just because of its subject matter. I say so even though I am personally more interested in Greece than in Spain, and for reasons similar to Byron (possibly the only point at which I could be described as in any way Byronic), to do with the shaping power of a education in the Classics. But that's not it: the verse itself better here, more fluent and reflective and muscular throughout. Perhaps obeying some invisible law of balance, the one inset lyric of this section is rather worse than the inset lyrics in the other sections. It comes after some vivid Spenserian stanzas lamenting Greece's occupation by the Turks; a sideswipe at Lord Elgin for pinching the Parthenon Marbles; and then Harold sailing on up to Albania. He pities Greece, but he admires Albania; and the canto's lyric is a stomping little piece addressed to a 'Tambourgi', Turkish for Drummer:
Tambourgi! Tambourgi! thy larum afar
Gives hope to the valiant, and promise of war;
All the sons of the mountains arise at the note,
Chimariot, Illyrian, and dark Suliote!

Oh! who is more brave than a dark Suliote,
To his snowy camese and his shaggy capote?
To the wolf and the vulture he leaves his wild flock,
And descends to the plain like the stream from the rock.

Shall the sons of Chimari, who never forgive
The fault of a friend, bid an enemy live?
Let those guns so unerring such vengeance forego?
What mark is so fair as the breast of a foe?

Macedonia sends forth her invincible race;
For a time they abandon the cave and the chase:
But those scarves of blood-red shall be redder, before
The sabre is sheathed and the battle is o'er.

Then the pirates of Parga that dwell by the waves,
And teach the pale Franks what it is to be slaves,
Shall leave on the beach the long galley and oar,
And track to his covert the captive on shore.

I ask not the pleasure that riches supply,
My sabre shall win what the feeble must buy:
Shall win the young bride with her long flowing hair,
And many a maid from her mother shall tear.

I love the fair face of the maid in her youth;
Her caresses shall lull me, her music shall soothe:
Let her bring from her chamber the many-toned lyre,
And sing us a song on the fall of her sire.

Remember the moment when Previsa fell,
The shrieks of the conquered, the conqueror's yell;
The roofs that we fired, and the plunder we shared,
The wealthy we slaughtered, the lovely we spared.

I talk not of mercy, I talk not of fear;
He neither must know who would serve the Vizier;
Since the days of our prophet, the crescent ne'er saw
A chief ever glorious like Ali Pasha.

Dark Muchtar his son to the Danube is sped,
Let the yellow-haired Giaours view his horsetail with dread;
When his Delhis come dashing in blood o'er the banks,
How few shall escape from the Muscovite ranks!

Selictar! unsheath then our chief's scimitar:
Tambourgi! thy larum gives promise of war.
Ye mountains that see us descend to the shore,
Shall view us as victors, or view us no more!
It's a strange poem, this, and you couldn't really say it works. This may have something to do with its uncertain balance between 'the Byronic voice' on the one hand, and the poet ventriloquising a markedly un-Byronic persona on the other. That is to say, this is a poem that exists oddly on the borderline between the familiar Byronic poem and something formally newer and more experimental, an early kind of dramatic monologue. 'I love the fair face of the maid in her youth' is a standard-enough Byronic sentiment; but, sexual predator though he was, Byron's poetic mode is not elsewhere this nakedly aggressive:
My sabre shall win what the feeble must buy:
Shall win the young bride with her long flowing hair,
And many a maid from her mother shall tear.
That's not the usual Byronic smack. There is, surely, clearly blue water between Byronic 'wickedness' and the actual savagery of Albanian ruler Ali Pasha, who was a byword for rapacious cruelty long before his death. Ali's Wikipedia page dedicates a whole section to his atrocities. Byron's contemporaries agreed:
His craving for additional power was insatiable ... Inflexible in his hatred, his love of revenge was the vice which at last, in conjunction with his avarice, caused the downfall of Ali. ... Ali had been guilty of an incestuous intercourse with Zobeide, the wife of Veli. Having previously administered to her a soporific potion, he stole to her bed, and consummated his crime. The unfortunate wife of Veli remained ignorant of the fact till she became pregnant, when her suspicions were excited by the dark hints of her female attendants, whom Ali had threatened with death if they disclosed his infamous conduct. In her despair she sent to desire an interview with the author of her misery. His only reply was an avowal of his criminality. With much difficulty he put a stop to her tears and lamentations, and prevailed on her to promise silence respecting the atrocious deed; a deed which he soon after rendered more atrocious, by the murder of the unborn babe. Nor did Ali stop here. To remove all witnesses of his guilt, he ordered the women who were privy to it to be thrown into the lake by his black mutes. [Richard A. Davenport, The life of Ali Pasha of Tepebni, Vizier of Epirus (1837), 359]
That's just one of a whole litany of Ali Pasha's nastiness recorded by Davenport in a book whose title-page (epigraph: 'there is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger') makes slightly wrongfooting reading for the fan of C S Lewis's Narnia books:

Aslan indeed! Davenport's theme is that Ali's ‘utter contempt of truth and honour and his reckless shedding of blood afford a melancholy proof of the evils which result from the possession of unlimited authority and the absence of moral or religious restraints’. By adopting the voice of an enthusiastic Albanian warrior in Ali's army, calling on the Drummer to rouse up everybody's spirits for some slaughter and rapine, Byron runs the risk of revealing how close his more characteristic quasi-in-propria-persona works sound to this Ali-style extremity.

I don't want to make heavy weather of this. 'Tambourgi, Tambourgi!' is, on one level, a standard, even a constitutive example of Orientalism 101. But larding the verse with so many exotic-sounding 'foreign' words doesn't glamorise, or more to the point doesn't distance the poem as much as you might think. 'Tambourgi' sounds very outlandish; but etymologically it is linked to such homely English words for 'drum' as tabor and tambour, all in turn derived via the French tambour ‎(“drum”) from Arabic طُنْبُور ‎ṭunbūr. 'Ilyrian' is familiar from Shakespeare; and if we take the poem to be straightforwardly Islamophobic we may be surprised to discover that the Suliotes ('Oh! who is more brave than a dark Suliote?') were a Christian people. 'Camese' and 'capote' are French, not Turkish or Arabic, words. And so on: it is a poem as much concerned with the passage back into Europe ('Dark Muchtar his son to the Danube is sped') as it is with the imaginative projection further east into an Orientalised sexualised violence.

The bottom line is the tabor-banging insistence of this Tambourgi-metre; all those galloping anapests, that on-running prosodic fluency. It's about, and conceivably it tacitly critiques, the notion that people can get so caught up in the drumbeat urgency of the moment they commit atrocity. And the line 'Selictar! unsheath then our chief's scimitar' is either a horrid lapse into uneuphonious sibilance, or else an onomatopoeic mimicking of the sound a blade makes as it is whisked out of its scabbard. Hard to say, really.