"A Gallant Company"
Context: Evidence of the change in public feeling toward Byron's poetry over a century and a half can be found in the modern attitude toward his group classified as "Tales, Chiefly Oriental." At their publication, they were bought and read by thousands. With their flow of life and magnificent egotism, they represented the revolutionary side of Byron's character, his passion for vivid color and exotic adventure. Works by Shelley and Keats were rated considerably below them by most contemporaries. But with the passing of time, a better knowledge of the East and an increasing sophistication brought realization of the falsity and melodrama of their rhetoric, and nowadays few read them. First came The Giauor (1813) about a female slave thrown into the sea for infidelity, and her revenge by her Venetian lover. Then The Bride of Abydos (1813) and The Corsair (1814) followed. In 1816, Byron published The Siege of Corinth, based on history. However, while history does tell of an explosion of 600 barrels of gunpowder in the Turkish camp, the explosion is considered an accident and not an act of vengeance by an outraged father. And Francesca and her renegade lover do not appear on the pages of the history books. The narrator begins the Prologue of his story in 1810, sitting on "Acro-Corinth's brow," the hill from which Corinth could best be seen. He recounts what happened to that city a century earlier when the Turks, who held most of Greece under Sultan Achmet (or Ahmed) III (1673–1736), were determined to capture Morea and the Ionian Islands from the Venetians. The Sultan thought it necessary first to capture the fortified city of Corinth. The protagonist in this thirty-three stanza story told in rhymed couplets of varied meters, is "Alp, the Adrian renegade," once Lanciotto, a Venetian gentleman but now wearing the turban, and eager to capture Corinth because of his love for Francesca, daughter of its governor, Minotti. As Alp paces under the walls against which an attack will soon be made, he sees a shadowy figure beside him, his Francesca, who begs him to give up his treason and return to the side of Venice. When indignantly he refuses to change loyalties again, "He turned, but she is gone! nothing is there but the column stone." Had she been real, or a ghost, or only a figment of his imagination? "Hath she sunk in the earth, or melted in air?/ He saw not–he knew not–but nothing is there." The next morning Corinth falls. Into the city dashes Alp. He finds Minotti and demands to know the whereabouts of Francesca. The grieving father reports her death the previous night. While Alp is reeling from the fatal news, a shot from a nearby church slays the renegade. Minotti hastens to the church. When the Paynim host tries to capture it, "Old Minotti's hand/ Touched with the torch, the train," and the holy building, with friend and foe inside, is destroyed. The Prologue begins:
In the year since Jesus died for men,Eighteen hundred years and ten,We were a gallant company,Riding o'er land and sailing o'er sea.Oh, but we went merrily!. . .Whether we lay in the cave or the shed,Our sleep fell soft on the hardest bed.. . .Fresh we woke upon the morrow.All our thoughts and words had scope,We had health, and we had hope,Toil and travel, but no sorrow.