The Corsair "There Was A Laughing Devil In His Sneer"

Lord George Gordon Byron

"There Was A Laughing Devil In His Sneer"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Because of the popularity of Byron's poetry and the romanticism of the author, then at the peak of his popularity, ten thousand copies of The Corsair were sold on the day of its publication. It was dedicated to the Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779–1852), who had planned a series of oriental tales in verse, but was forestalled by Byron's writings. Moore did produce one of this sort, Lalla Rookh (1817), that earned him a European reputation. Byron entrusted to Moore the manuscript of his Memoirs, but with the explanation that its publication might do injustice to Byron, Moore let it be destroyed and himself wrote a life of the poet in 1830. In the Dedicatory Letter accompanying The Corsair, Byron declared it "the last production with which I shall trespass on noble patience for some years." He would not tempt any further the awards "of gods, men, nor columns." Actually Lara was published that same year; Hebrew Melodies appeared in 1815; and four important poems, including Canto III of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage were published in 1816. Obviously, he did not entirely cease writing. Concerning its poetic form, Byron wrote that while the Spenserian stanza, which he used for Childe Harold, is the one he liked best, it may be too slow and dignified for narration. Blank verse is a difficult form better used by dramatists, so he decided on heroic couplets. To the romanticists, the corsair or pirate was a popular figure. Romanticism has as its dominant tone a despair of the world. Sometimes the romantic hero is a highly sensitive person crushed by the cruelties of life, like Byron's Childe Harold. Sometimes he has stronger and more rebellious traits and reacts by a refusal to succumb to those cruelties and by a determination to wage unending war against life. As Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther is the archetype of the first, so The Robbers by Schiller represents the second type, often called "The Titan." And where can his personality be better displayed than in a pirate? Byron deals with a pirate in both The Bride of Abydos and The Corsair. The latter opens with a description of life on the Pirate's Isle, where the inhabitants carouse or prepare for a raid under the command of their chief, Lord Conrad, whose name is feared on every sea and shore. Stanza 9 of the first canto describes him. Unlike the handsome heroes of fiction, he is rather common in appearance, of average height, with sunburned cheeks, high forehead, and black, curly hair. His lips have a haughty curve, and his glance is the kind that strikes fear to anyone on whom his searching eyes fall.

He had the skill, when Cunning's gaze would seek
To probe his heart and watch his changing cheek,
At once the observer's purpose to espy,
And on himself roll back his scrutiny,
Lest he to Conrad rather should betray
Some secret thought, than drag that chief's to day.
There was a laughing Devil in his sneer,
That raised emotions both of rage and fear;
And where his frown of hatred darkly fell,
Hope withering fled, and Mercy sigh'd farewell!