In 1812, Lord Byron was suddenly acknowledged as a literary genius. “I awoke one morning and found myself famous,” he explained.
This was due, at least in part, to his visit to Portugal three years earlier, which inspired his highly praised epic poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’.
Despite his protests to the contrary, it is generally recognised that the work is autobiographical.
Childe Harold is the main character, a young nobleman embarking on a Grand Tour of Europe. Arriving in Lisbon by boat, he gives his first impression of the city from the River Tagus.
What beauties doth Lisboa
Her image floating on that
Just like Byron, Childe Harold hints at having a sordid sexual secret. As the poem unfolds, he creates around himself a sense of intrigue and asserts exceptionally liberal views. He is forthright in expressing his contempt for the British military in Portugal and the folly of a recently signed peace treaty permitting Napoleon’s weakened army to return to France.
Worse still, it allowed the troops to go back home taking with them the spoils of war. Far from being Portugal’s ally, the British let the French strip the nation of its wealth and artistic heritage. Childe Harold articulates a popular opinion held in Britain at the time that a child would recognise the treaty as a laughable disgrace!
Whereat the urchin points, and laughs with all his soul.
Portugal was under continuing threat of further French invasions, and this impacted on Byron’s experiences in Lisbon. Eighteen months earlier, the Portuguese royal family and 10,000 people – including most of the aristocracy – fled from Napoleon’s troops to Brazil.
Leaving behind a downtrodden and fearful population, it is Byron as Childe Harold who sums up the city and its inhabitants.
For hut and palace show
The dingy denizens
are reared in dirt
Lord Byron, at that time only 21, and his travelling companion John Hobhouse were shocked by many aspects. Although they were broad-minded young men, even by their standards Lisbon was a den of iniquity and lawlessness.
Amongst a list of unpleasant episodes, they were cheated when exchanging money and physically attacked by four men when riding in their carriage. Fortunately, Byron was carrying his pocket pistol and fended off the vagabonds with threats.
Hobhouse remarked in his diary about the numbers of beggars and vicious dogs wandering the streets, and dead bodies awaiting burial. He was appalled by the apparent sexual deviances of the clergy, the ready availability of male and female prostitutes and a scandalous theatrical show performed by “very, very indecent Spanish dancers!”
Despite his prudish reservations, it is almost certain on past form that the pair would have indulged their personal desires for drink and sex. Being the more promiscuous of the two, Byron also probably kept company with preadolescent boys. One Sunday, Hobhouse meekly notes: “We atoned for all our misdeeds this day.”
They were staying at Barnewell’s English Hotel where, to their surprise, they were provided with an exceptionally large cask of water in the bedroom. They were informed that this was common practice throughout Lisbon since the earthquake and subsequent fire of 1755.
When sightseeing round the city, they noticed that the Public Library no longer had any books. Plundered by French troops, it was enough to make Childe Harold curse Napoleon, referring to him as:
Gaul’s unsparing lord
Portugal was by now under the control of Lord Beresford, the British Governor who had been appointed by the Portuguese Prince Regent in Brazil.
On one occasion, Byron and Hobhouse went to watch a military parade of Portuguese soldiers directed by British officers under the command of General Crauford. Other distractions included places that tourists would visit today such as Rossio, the Praça do Comércio and the Jerónimos Monastery.
From there they hired a boat and rowed across the Tagus. Diving into the river from the south bank, Byron swam a distance of almost two miles, coming ashore at the Torre de Belém.
Born with a deformed right foot and lower leg, surprisingly Byron was expert at several sports including boxing, horse riding and swimming. Constantly worrying about his weight that fluctuated throughout his adult life from nearly 14 stone (88kg) to less than 9 stone (57kg), he had periods of being obsessed with diet and exercise.
The following year, taking on a greater challenge than the Tagus, Byron swam three miles across the Hellespont. This is a tumultuous strait of water known today as the Dardanelles, connecting the Black Sea to the Aegean.
So began Byron’s love affair with Greece, an infatuation that 15 years later would end in his death. His first passion though in continental Europe was the countryside retreat of Sintra. After leaving Lisbon, that is where he went to next.
Lo! Cintra’s Glorious Eden intervenes. In variegated maze of mount and glen.
Join Byron in Sintra in the next episode.
A Series by Carolyn Kain