It was with a degree of urgency that the young Lord, aged 22, left England for Lisbon in July 1809. He was a relatively unknown poet and recent graduate from Cambridge University but his intimate friendship with a choir boy was on the verge of being exposed. Since homosexuality was punishable by hanging, he wisely decided to leave the country until the scandal had died down. His journey through Europe is retold in ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ and as he crosses the Bay of Biscay Harold recalls:
For he through Sin’s long labyrinth had run
Nor made atonement when he did amiss,
Had sigh’d to many but he loved but one
And that loved one, alas! Could ne’er be his.
Ten days after arriving in Lisbon Byron wrote to his platonic friend from university days, Francis Hodgson.
“I am very happy here, because I loves oranges, and talks bad Latin to the monks, who understand it, as it is like their own- and I rides on an ass or a mule and swears Portuguese and have got a diarrhea from the mosquitoes. But what of that? Comfort must not be expected by folks that go a pleasuring.”
Byron’s ‘pleasuring’ continued as he embarked on an affair with a married woman. Discovered by her outraged husband, he moved swiftly onto Sintra where fortunately – instead of human flesh – he fell in love with the misty hills, the promontories and cliff tops.
Relishing time spent in Sintra often passing by the National Palace, it was the monasteries that he found of special interest. He noted that the monk’s spoke superior Latin, adhered to strict rules of flagellation and had a diet excluding all meat and wine. He visited the dingy dwelling place of St. Honorius, a deceased hermit and in the poem Harold gives his lifestyle a special mention:
Deep in yon cave Honorius long did dwell,
In hope to merit Heaven by making earth a hell.
Harold seems to be in a similarly pious mood when he criticises an absent English resident of Sintra, William Beckford. He had inherited a large fortune and like Byron, he fled abroad to avoid homosexual rumors. Whilst living in Sintra he had been a key member of the social clique but now he was busy elsewhere with other self-indulgent projects and his house – the once magnificent Palace of Monserrate – was dilapidated and surrounded by overgrown gardens:
Here giant weeds a passage scarce allow
To halls deserted, portals gaping wide;
In two stanzas of the poem Harold passes grave judgment on England’s wealthiest son. A third stanza alludes to Beckford’s ‘unnamed crime’ but, perhaps recognizing his own hypocrisy, Byron did not include it in the published poem.
Walking from his hotel Byron frequently passed the ruined Monserrate and the Quinta do Relógio belonging to the aristocratic Count of Redondo. Over two centuries both buildings have gone through periods of decay but Byron would be pleased to see them today. Monserrate is a pristine building open to the public and the Quinta do Relógio is being restored into a family home by pop icon, Madonna.
Following the publication of ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ Byron became Britain’s first nation-wide celebrity. Poets at that time were the cultural equivalent of today’s superstars. In Childe Harold he gave expression to the popular view shared by many Englishmen that Portugal was an apathetic nation.
Poor, paltry slaves! Yet born midst noblest scenes –
Why, nature, waste thy wonders on such men?
Harold morosely dwells on the lack of martial spirit shown by Portuguese soldiers saying they only rose to challenge Napoleon when under British command. Byron’s evident Lusophobia has often been commented upon as unfair since Portugal was a small nation unlawfully attacked by Europe’s strongest military power.
The critic Francisco Costa asserts that Byron’s prejudice was due to malevolence in his character. In a second letter to Hodgson Byron continues to malign the Portuguese:
They have few vices except for lice and sodomy.
This letter and fourteen others penned by Byron to Hodgson were sold at Sotheby’s in 2009 for £277, 250. Full of controversial passages – Wordsworth for instance was referred to as “Turdsworth” – it was not only the Portuguese who were affronted by Byron’s acerbic wit!
Next time join Byron in Mafra.
A Series by Carolyn Kain
Photos: Neil Adamson