Lord Byron and Malta

Amongst the many illustrious visitors who set foot on Malta throughout the 19th century there were some very distinct men of letters. Whether their stay was a brief one or else of a longer duration, this was due to the tenure of Malta by the British, first as a ‘protectorate’ (from 1800 – 1814) and then as a British colony (1814 – 1964). Certainly, amongst the most celebrated visitors was Lord George Gordon Byron. He stopped here twice, the first time in 1809, during the initial stages of his Grand Tour of the Mediterranean littoral, and then on his return journey from the same adventure in 1811, while on his way back to England.

Lord Byron was born in 1788 to Catherine Gordon, heiress of Gight, in Aberdeenshire and Captain John Byron of the Guards. Byron grew up into a handsome young man. However, he suffered from a limp since childhood, perhaps due to an infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis) or a failure of the bones to form properly (dysplasia). The common hearsay that he was club-footed is not true, as his limp was not that severe. Indeed in his youth at college he sometimes had a go at cricket and boxing. Yet, throughout his life he remained very self conscious of his handicap. His failure to walk steadily must have been the reason for him to complain when in Malta, of the often steep stepped streets that abound in Valletta.

 Adieu, ye cursed streets of stairs!
(How surely he who mounts you swears!)

 

Triq SAn Gwann il-Belt

(See the whole poem, Farewell to Malta below at the very end of this article).

Surely, just as disturbed by his physical handicap, Byron must have felt frustrated by his family relationship. His father squandered his mother’s inheritance and often went missing from his life as a youth. His mother took to drinking and it is also believed, she was sometimes mentally abusive towards the young Byron. Perhaps it was this state of affairs that made him become a rebellious and fiery person, constantly seeking affection through his amorous relationships, whether platonic or physical, both with eligible as well as with married women, and with many others of his own gender. Indeed, Byron grew up to become a dissolute and promiscuous character. One of his paramours was the aristocratic novelist Lady Caroline Lamb. Although she went along with him, she once notoriously described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.

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By the age of nineteen, Byron had already become quite famous for his literary skills, the more so when in 1807 he published his collection of poems, Hours of Idleness. On the death of his uncle,  5th Baron Byron of Rochdale in 1809, he was entitled to succeed him in the House of Lords. He had only been thus engaged in his political career for a very brief while (13 March – 11 June 1809) when he decided to embark on a Grand Tour. His poem To a Lady: On Being Asked My Reason for Quitting England in the Spring, a poem dedicated to his former lover, Mary Chaworth will easily reveal his real reason why he wanted to leave England. He might have also sought to flee his homosexual experiences, or perhaps, to indulge in them more freely elsewhere, as in Britain, homosexuality was then an offence punishable by hanging. Besides the above, he always harboured an attraction to Greek and Levantine culture.

Given that at the time Britain was at war with France and that most of Europe was in turmoil because of the Napoleonic Wars, Byron chose a southern route, and so he travelled by sea to Portugal, accompanied by his close friend John Cam Hobhouse. From Lisbon they travelled overland to Seville, Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz and Gibraltar, then to Sardinia, Sicily and Malta. The Townshend, the packet boat on which they were travelling entered the Grand Harbour on August 31.

Hobhouse provides us with a diary of their stay in Malta, albeit not a very detailed account. On arrival Byron was disappointed not to have received the salute he felt he should have been welcomed with; apparently by that time he was already full of himself, firstly because of his status as a peer and a member of the House of Lords and secondly due to his being an established and popular poet. At that time, any famous poet in England was treated as if he were a diva.

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Byron took up residence in a house known as Casa di Saint Poix, situated at the top of Strada Forni, close to Strada Mezzodi, Valletta. Incidentally, this is the same house in which Samuel Taylor Coleridge had lived in, five years earlier when he had served as Secretary to Malta’s British Commissioner, Alexander Ball. As to the lack of courtesy provided by the latter on arrival, this was made up when he later was invited to dine with the Commissioner and his wife, at San Anton Palace in Attard. Separately from this, there were many other evenings when he was entertained by other notable British expats, such as Brigadier General, Hildebrand Oakes, then the commander of military affairs in Malta.

While in Malta, Byron visited various places of interest, amongst which, St John’s church (then not yet elevated to a Co-Cathedral), the National Public Library, the old town of Mdina, St Paul’s Grotto and the Catacombs (presumably St Paul’s) in Rabat. Together with Hobhouse he often bathed in the inlet of Pietà. He also took some lessons in Arabic, in preparation for his planned travels further East. In the evening, between one invitation and another he attended various sorts of entertainment at the Manoel Theatre (then known as the Teatro Pubblico).

During his stay he picked up Constance Spencer Smith, a 24 year old pretty lady, married to the former British Minister to Stuttgart, as ‘his personal companion’. His affection towards her was later on implicitly manifested in his poem, To Florence. He also refers to her in his Second Canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, where he dubbed her as the ‘New Calypso’.

constance-spencer-smith

Because of this ‘affair’, he took umbrage over a snide remark expressed by a Captain Carey, Aide-de-Camp to Hildebrand Oakes. An altercation ensued which culminated into a  challenge to a duel meant to be held outside Port-de-Bombe, Floriana. This was never carried out, due to the timely apology by Carey to Byron.

Byron and Hobhouse left Malta on September 21 on the HMS Spider to proceed on their grand tour, in Albania, Greece and Constantinople. While in Athens, Byron met 14-year-old Nicolo Giraud, with whom he became quite close as the latter was teaching him Italian. It has been suggested that the two had an intimate relationship. Byron sent Giraud to Malta to get his education in a monastery and bequeathed him a will that sported the then huge sum of £700 pounds sterling. The will however, was later on withdrawn and Giraud returned to Greece.

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From Constantinople, Byron returned to Malta at the end of April 1811 on the HMS Hydra. Byron found out that Alexander Ball had died just about a month following his departure from Malta. Hildebrand Oakes was now the new Commissioner. Travelling from Constantinople via Greece to Malta, the ship and all passengers and crew aboard were obliged to follow strict quarantine regulations and thus the ship moored at Marsamxetto. This meant that Byron had to spend his eighteen days in confinement at the Lazzaretto on Manoel Island.

LazzarettoIMG_5976

Frustrated with his solitude and to while away the time, Byron penned his 56 verses, Farewell to Malta, a poem which was written in a bantering sort of way, wherein Byron vented out his criticism about almost anything that he recalled from his earlier stay. Apart from some adverse remarks on Malta, he rhymed some unfavourable comments on most of his fellow countrymen he had encountered on the island. Thus we read such verses as:

Adieu ye fools who ape your betters

And further down

Adieu, red coats, and redder faces!
Adieu, the supercilious air
Of all that strut ‘en militaire’!

During his confinement in the Lazzaretto Byron developed a fever and a swelling of the spleen. This was very possibly a case of Brucellosis, then a very common ailment amongst the British troops stationed in the Mediterranean, and in Malta in particular. For this reason the British labelled this ailment both as ‘Maltese’ and ‘Mediterranean Fever’. Some sources state that he could have well contracted this microbe from his journey in the Levant. Yet, Byron himself was convinced that this condition had originated whilst at the Lazzaretto.

 Adieu, thou damned’st quarantine
That gave me fever, and the spleen!

And further down …

Take my physic while I’m able
(Two spoonfuls hourly by the label),

Byron signed this poem with his initial ‘B’ and dated it May 16, 1811. He presented this poem to Commander Fraser, whose wife Susan whom he had lauded profusely in the same poem. Apparently he had also found Mrs Fraser just as attractive as Constance Spenser Smith to merit his adulatory verses. On receiving this poem, Mr Fraser seems to have bandied it around and it eventually fell into the hands of  Hildebrand Oakes, who was in Byron’s own words, ‘much puckered’ by it.

The poem was first published in a pirated edition in Hone’s Poems on his Domestic Circumstances (1816), and was later included in the more authoritative Works of Lord Byron (1832).

Incidentally, the original manuscript of this poem was auctioned at Bonhams on 29 March 2011 and fetched the sum of £17,400.

After the quarantine period was over, Byron was invited by Hildebrand Oakes to dinner at the Palace. There he met once more Constance Spenser Smith.

He boarded the HMS Volage to return to England on June 2, 1811.

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                                                              FAREWELL TO MALTA 

Adieu, ye joys of La Valletta!
Adieu, scirocco, sun and sweat!
Adieu, thou palace rarely entered!
Adieu, ye mansions where I’ve ventured!
Adieu, ye cursed streets of stairs!
(How surely he who mounts you swears!)
Adieu, ye merchants often failing!
Adieu, thou mob for ever railing!
Adieu, ye packets without letters!
Adieu, ye fools who ape your betters!
Adieu, thou damned’st quarantine
That gave me fever, and the spleen!
Adieu that stage which makes us yawn, sirs,
Adieu his ‘ Excellency’s’ dancers!
Adieu to Peter whom no fault’s in,
But could not teach a colonel waltzing;
Adieu, ye females fraught with graces!
Adieu, red coats, and redder faces!
Adieu, the supercilious air
Of all that strut ‘en militaire’!
I go but God knows when, or why,
To smoky towns and clouded sky,

 To things (the honest truth to say)
As bad but in a different way.
Farewell to these, but not adieu,
Triumphant sons of truest blue!
While either Adriatic shore,
And fallen chiefs, and fleets no more,
And nightly smiles, and daily dinners
Proclaim you war and woman’s winners
Pardon my Muse, who apt to prate is,
And take my rhyme because ’tis ‘gratis.’

And now I’ve got to Mrs. Fraser,
Perhaps you think I mean to praise her
And were I vain enough to think

My praises were worth this drop of ink,
A line or two were no hard matter,
As here, indeed, I need not flatter:
But here she must be content to shine
In better praises than in mine,
With lively air and open heart,
And fashion’s ease without its art;
Her hours can gaily glide along,
Nor ask the aid of idle song.

 And now, O Malta! since thou’st got us,
Thou little military hothouse!
I’ll not offend with words uncivil,
And wish thee rudely at the Devil,
But only stare from out my casement
And ask, for what is such a place meant ?
Then, in my solitary nook,
Return to scribbling, or a book,
Or take my physic while I’m able
(Two spoonfuls hourly by the label),
Prefer my nightcap to my beaver,
And bless the gods I’ve got a fever!

 

Martin Morana

5 February 2021

Other articles and publications by same author: https://kliemustorja.com/informazzjoni-dwar-pubblikazzjonijiet-ohra-tal-istess-awtur/

Bibliography

Bianchi Petra. George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788 – (1824)’ Encounters with Malta. Edited by Petra Bianchi and Peter Serracino Inglott. Vodafone Malta Ltd.

Cochran Peter, ‘Malta Diaries’,  https://petercochran.files.wordpress.com

Galea Michael, ‘Lord Byron in Malta’. Malta Year Book, 2006’.

Hill David, ‘Byron’s Europe’ in Sublime Sites – Exploration in the Footsteps of Turner, Cotman etc. sublimesites.co. https://sublimesites.co/2020/10/21/byron-and-the-idea-of-europe-1/

Vassallo Peter, ‘Lord Byron’s Confinement in the Lazzaretto’ Treasures of Malta, Christmas 2004, No 31, Vol XI, No 1.

‘Original manuscript of Byron’s Farewell to Malta for sale at Bonham’s’. Times of Malta, 18 March 2011. https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/original-manuscript-of-byrons-farewell-to-malta-for-sale-at-bonhams.355373

Wikisource https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Works_of_Lord_Byron_(ed._Coleridge,_Prothero)/Poetry/Volume_3/Farewell_to_Malta

 

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