The Corsair by Lord Byron

“The Corsair, A Tale.” is a narrative poem written by Lord Byron in verse and published by John Murray in 1814.

Looking at the first edition of the “The Corsair” found at the special collections SFU Burnaby Bennett library, content of the book compromises of Half title page – full title page (Title / signed author / Epigraph / publisher / printer) – dedication to Thomas Moore – Corsair: A Tale (3 cantos) – and Notes. 

Unlike the sequel of “The Corsair” (“Lara, a tale”) , Lord Byron is the Signed author. John Murray first published Lara anonymously and had no “signed” authorship but the audience cognize elements like “travel and the Byronic hero” – (Deborah).

Edges to protect from ware and usage

The outside physical description of the book is fairly simple and in good workable condition; it makes the readers focus more on the text and less on the nonverbal. The book is in Octavo format (8 leaves). Scant gilt sides and has decorative square marble-like front cover that cuts on the edges of the leather book to the simple spine, protecting it from ware and usage. The simple spine reads “The Corsair, A Tale.”.

Examining the interior, Linguistic and non-linguistic codes carry meaning through the paratext, usage of white space, typography, and whether there are engravings/advertisements or not. This creates the embodiment of simplicity; making readers pay a closer look to the text itself.

Full Title Page

                                                          The paratext situates the poem in a particular way (Levy) and interacts with the text by looking closer into the epigraphs, dedication, or the references in the notes. There are four Epigraphs in the poem. One in the title page by Torquato Tasso and one in the start of every canto by Dante Alighieri. The Epigraph in the title page is from “Jerusalem delivered”, an epic poem by the Italian poet Tasso about the first crusades to get Jerusalem back from its invaders; it’s interesting because it puts the story in motion and brings to mind Lord Byron’s personal military battles. In the start of every canto, he quotes Dante’s divine comedy “The Inferno” which is about the journey of Dante going through the nine stages (circles) of hell to get to the other side; metaphor for salvation and redemption.

Dedication to Thomas Moore

On the other hand Byron “Dedicates” this oriental Turkish tale to Thomas Moore, and speaks of Milton’s blank verse, mentions Spenserian form to be “too slow and dignified for narrative”, and explains his usage of the heroic couplet in “The Corsair”. The second part of the dedication can be seen targeted to his audience or readers. Byron talks about his personage, conscience of the other and reception; he admits Child Harold to be a very “repulsive personage” and perhaps alluding himself in his tales “in general”. Lord Byron may feel judged by society for the characters “deeds and qualities” as his own, he may not care what others than his acquaintances think of the author being “better than the beings of his imagining”, nonetheless he finds “surprise” and “amusement” in such reactions.

The usage of paper and white space is “lavish” in respect to their time and era. An example is the couple vacat pages in the beginning, using a half title page, and not having condensed texts (enough space between lines and new cantos start in the next page). Regarding the transparent Watermark in page 55, it reads “1813”, which is probably the year the sheet of paper was made (Levy).

Epigraph ; White space ; Typography

Similarly, the choice of Typography is fairly simple, no gothic (black-lettering such as the “Prisoner of Chillon and other poems”) or multiple kinds of fonts. There are No engravings, illustrations or advertisements (Lara, A Tale has an advertisement in the content) whatsoever inside “The Corsair”.

There are no editorial margins or conclusions/notes after every canto, only the Notes in the end by the author himself (page 97 to 100) which explains some of the cultural references or differences; like for instance note 16 that explains a death custom in the Levant or note 12 that explains the length of the day in Greece or defining the term “Kiosk” in note 13 (a Turkish summer house). 

Remediating the text in its original form allows us as present-day readers to embody and experience what the book was like when it was first published in 1814. The book’s physical description (binding, typography, white space, paratext) is simple and straightforward, no fancy typographies or any illustrations/advertisements, thus focusing more on the tale and idea.

Publishing such book did not require as much effort and cost as others with say fancy bindings, engravings or added illustration concepts. Published by John Murray in 1815, Revenant T.R Malthus work “Observations on the Corn Laws” last pages included advertisements and other books published by Murray with prices. “The Corsair” in seventh edition, one of the books advertised is charged at 5s.6d per piece, a fair and typical price for the work/publisher.

Line 33 “‘Tis he-’tis Conrad-here-as wont-alone” is where The Pirate is first introduced. Conrad “The Corsair”  tries to raid the Pasha, Seyd (High rank officer/chief) but gets seized (Line 801) and “fetter’d” (Line 972) while doing so – due to his vulnerability to the powerless women in the harem (House designed for concubines and wives). Conrad eventually gets freed by a female Heroine (Gulanre, the harem queen Line 829)) and runs away with him. Upon returning to his home island, Medora, his previous love who he left (Line 579) to raid his foe dies from grief.

Elements of Byron is clear throughout the tale. Mediterranean Travels, Byronic and Oriental elements in the story are apparent. Orientalism is shown through the usage of Arabic/Turkish language (Pasha, Kiosk, Harem,etc..) and muslim components such as Alla, Moslems, Haram, “Mecca’s dome” (Line 737), “Dervish” (Line 765), and the “Sultan’s throne” (Line 734). Gulnare can be seen as the “Byronic Heroine” here by portraying the contrary of a harem queen and revolting against the Pasha. “Proud Conrad” (Line 930)  is an outlaw with a weakness to females and both him and Gulnare are generally rebellious in nature.

The work is representative of the year and the romantic theme with the ending being “sublime” and other elements like John Murray Publishing, Thomas Moore dedication, Byronic Hero (or Heroine) and Travel.

Works Cited

Byron, George Gordon. “The Corsair, A Tale”. London: John Murray, 1814. Print.

Levy, Michelle. “Special Collections visit” English 376 Seminars. Simon Fraser                University. Vancouver. 19 Oct. 2016. Seminar.

Malthus, T. R. “Observations On The Effects Of The Corn Laws”. London: J. Murray, 1815. Print.

Moe Marjani