It was not traditionally grand: England was at war, and Napoleon controlled France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Italy; so Byron spent most of his two-year trip in Albania, Greece, and Turkey, with considerable effect on his politics, his views of women and marriage, and his death. He left £13,000 of debts behind him, and took four servants with him. He found Lisbon impoverished even beyond wont by the Peninsular War; every native seemed hostile, and Byron carried two pistols wherever he went. His party moved on horseback to Seville and Cádiz, and thence by a British frigate to Gibraltar (where he released all of his servants except his accustomed valet, William Fletcher), and on to Malta. There (September 1–18, 1809) he fell in love with Mrs. Spencer Smith, and so conspicuously that a British captain commented on his precipitance. Byron sent him a challenge, with an added flourish: “As the vessel on which I am to embark must sail with the first change of wind, the sooner our business is arranged, the better. Tomorrow at six will be the best hour.” The captain sent his regrets.
On September 19 Byron and Hobhouse left Malta on the brig Spider. A week’s sail brought them to Patras. There they went on shore briefly, if only to set foot on Greek soil; but on the same evening they reboarded the Spider and continued past Missolonghi and Penelope’s Ithaca, and debarked at Preveza, near the Actium so fatal to Anthony and Cleopatra. Thence they moved north on horseback through Epirus and into Albania, from whose capital the terrible Turk, Ali Pasha, ruled Albania and Epirus with sword and style. He accorded Byron all the honors judiciously due to a British lord; for (he told the poet) he knew him to be of aristocratic lineage by his small hands and ears.
On October 23 Byron and company turned back, and on the 27th they reached Janina, capital of Epirus. There he began to record his impressions of his tour in the autobiographical Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. On November 3 the party traveled south through the modern Aetolia, escorted (by order of the Pasha) by a band of Albanian mercenaries each noted for his skill in murder and robbery. They fell in love with their new master, partly because he seemed fearless of death. When Byron came down with a fever they threatened to kill the doctor if his patient died; the doctor ran away, and Byron recovered. On November 21 the party took ship from Missolonghi to Patras; thence, with a new guard, they proceeded on horseback through the Peloponnesus and Attica, saw Delphi and Thebes, and entered Athens on Christmas Day of 1809.
It must have been for the two pilgrims a day of mingled joy and gloom. The evidences of ancient grandeur and modern decay, and the apparently humble acceptance of Turkish rule by a once proud people now reduced from strength to subtlety, and content with the business and gossip of the day, amused Hobhouse but saddened Byron, who incarnated the spirit of independence and the pride of race. The poet made Childe Harold cry out for revolt, and thought of how he might help these heirs of greatness to be free.
In any case their women were beautiful, with their dark, inflammatory eyes and their yielding grace. Byron and Hobhouse were housed and served by the widow Macri, who had three daughters, all of them under fifteen. The young roué learned to feel for them an affection that rejoiced in their innocence. Apparently it was Theresa, aged twelve, who taught him the melodious greeting Zoé mou sas agapo—“Life of my life, I love you.” Around that tender phrase he wrote his famous song: “Maid of Athens, ere we part, / Give, oh give me back my heart!”
On January 19, 1810, Byron and Hobhouse set out, with a servant and a guide, and two men to care for the horses, to visit one of the most inspiring sights in Greece. The ride took them four days, but the end justified the means: they came in sight of the surviving columns of a temple to Poseidon raised, in the heroic past, on Sunium Promontorium (Cape Colonna) to tell mariners that they had sighted Greece. It was in remembering that shattered perfection, and the seemingly smooth Aegean far below, that Byron composed “The Isle of Greece,” later inserted into the third canto of Don Juan. From Sunium it was but a day’s ride to Marathon, where the poet was moved with feelings that soon took form in famous lines:
The mountains look on Marathon,
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dreamed that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians’ grave
I could not deem myself a slave.
On March 5 Byron and Hobhouse left Athens on an English vessel, the Pylades, for Smyrna. Forced to wait there for a month, the poet completed Canto 11 of Childe Harold. A side trip of three days to Ephesus revealed the ruins of a city that had lived through three zeniths—Greek, Christian, and Mohammedan. “The decay of three religions,” Hobhouse remarked, “is there presented to one view.”7
On April 11 they took passage on the frigate Salsette for Constantinople. Contrary winds and diplomatic obstructions kept the vessel anchored for a fortnight at the Asiatic side of the Dardanelles. Byron and Hobhouse trod the Troad plain, hoping that it covered Homer’s Ilium, but Schliemann had not yet been born. On April 15 Byron and an English naval officer, Lieutenant William Ekenhead, had themselves conveyed across the Hellespont to the European side, and then tried to swim back; but the strength of the current and the coldness of the water were too much for them. On May 3 they tried again, crossing from Sestos in European Turkey to Abydos in Asia Minor; Ekenhead accomplished the feat in sixty-five minutes, Byron in seventy. At that point the channel is one mile wide, but the current forced the new Leanders to swim over four miles.8
The tourists reached Constantinople on May 12, admired the mosques, and left on July 14. On the 17th their vessel anchored in the harbor of Zea on the island of Keos, where they parted; Hobhouse continued to London, Byron and Fletcher changed to a boat bound for Patras. Again they crossed overland to Athens. There Byron resumed his long inquiry into feminine differences; he boasted of his conquests, contracted gonorrhea, and adopted melancholy as a career. On November 26 he wrote to Hobhouse: “I have now seen the world…. I have tested all sorts of pleasure; … I have nothing more to hope, and may begin to consider the most eligible way of walking out of it…. I wish I could find some of Socrates’ Hemlock.”9 In January, 1811, he took rooms for himself and some servants in a Capuchin monastery at the foot of the Acropolis, and dreamt of monastic peace.
On April 22 he left Athens for the last time, stayed a month in Malta, and went on to England. He reached it on July 14, two years and twelve days after leaving it. While busy renewing contacts in London he received news that his mother had died, aged forty-six. He rushed up to Newstead Abbey, and spent a night sitting in the dark beside her corpse. When a maid begged him to retire to his room, he refused, saying, “I had but one friend in the world, and she is gone!” He had said the same thing in an epitaph for his Newfoundland dog Boatswain, who had died in November, 1808, and had been buried in the Abbey garden vault:
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never had but one,—and here he lies.
In August, 1811, Byron drew up a will entailing the Abbey to his cousin George Byron, specifying gifts for his servants, and leaving directions for his burial: “I desire that my body may be buried in the vault of the garden of Newstead, without any ceremony or burial service whatever, and that no inscription, save my name and age, be written on the tomb tablet; and it is my will that my faithful dog may not be removed from the said vault.”10 Having arranged his death, he proceeded to conquer London.