VIP Lord Byron

Lord Byron (January 22, 1788 - April 19, 1824)


Know ye the land of the cedar and vine?
Where the flowers ever blossom, the beams ever shine,
Where the light wings of Zephyr, oppress'd with perfume,
Wax faint o'er the gardens of Gúl in her bloom;
Where the citron and olive are fairest of fruit,
And the voice of the nightingale never is mute;
Where the tints of the earth, and the hues of the sky,
In colour though varied, in beauty may vie,
And the purple of Ocean is deepest in dye,
Where the virgins are soft as the roses they twine,
And all, save the spirit of man, is divine?
'Tis the clime of the East; 'tis the land of the Sun ...

--Lord Byron, The Bride of Abydos: A Turkish Tale

At the age of 21,George Gordon Byron took his seat in the House of Lords, and prompty departed to take his customary world tour, heading East. The Napoleonic wars had closed much of Europe to travel, and 1809 Treaty of the Dardanelles ended hostilities between Britain and Turkey, and interest in the Middle East and Orient was on the rise. From 1808-1810, Lord Byron traveled East to Albania, Greece (including Eleusis) and Constantinople, collecting his reminiscences in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Eastern Tales (1813).

Byron was to a generation of authors what the Beats were to the Hippies. He opened the East with its exotic habits to Westerners, and many like Wordsworth, Shelly, Flaubert and Emerson followed his lead.

In letters from his travels, Byron describes himself as ”smoking and staring at mountains and twirling his moustachios," writes his biographer Fiona MacCarthy. " He had developed a taste for Turkish tobacco and for chewing mastic, a device he used to stave off hunger on his travels. He had let his facial hair grow, as he was wont to do when out of England, a gesture of defiance to his unenlightentened country, a symbol of his openness to a new experience.” He wrote from Smyrna, “In England, the vices in fashion are whoring & drinking, in Turkey, Sodomy & smoking, we prefer a girl and a bottle, they a pipe and pathic.” As Byron himself enjoyed young men, he was in many ways in paradise. 

What was Turkish tobacco? At the American Economic Association’s 1903 meeting in New Orleans, Dr. J. B. Killebrew, a Tennessee Agricultural official, identified Turkish and Hungarian tobacco as Nicotaina rustica, a narrow-leafed variety that contains psychoactive harmalines. This is thought to be the variety that Columbus’s men reported being used by the Taino Awawak Indians in San Salvador and Cuba, later replaced by the broad-leafed and nonpsychedelic Nicotania tabacum, introduced from Yucatan by the Spaniards around 1535.

Possibly, Byron’s tobacco was mixed with hashish. To this day, fishermen in Morocco smoke kif, sifted Cannabis sativa, mixed with Nicotiana rustica to improve their night vision. "Tobacco/hemp mixtures were freely available in Europe until 1925, and during Gotthelf's time [1797-1854] a pipe filled with hemp and tobacco was known as a Sonntagspfeife [Sunday pipe]." (Kurt Lussi, Verboten Lust; quoted in Marijuana Medicine by Christian Ratsch).

In his epic poem “The Island,” (1823) inspired by the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty and by accounts of the peoples of the Tonga islands, Byron writes:

Sublime Tobacco! which from East to West
Cheers the tar's labour or the Turkman's rest;
Which on the Moslem's ottoman divides
His hours, and rivals opium and his brides;
Magnificent in Stamboul, but less grand,
Though not less loved, in Wapping or the Strand;
Divine in hookas, glorious in a pipe,
When tipped with amber, mellow, rich, and ripe;
Like other charmers, wooing the caress,
More dazzlingly when daring in full dress;
Yet thy true lovers more admire by far
Thy naked beauties--Give me a cigar!

Words n’er inspired by the likes of Marlboro or Camel.

Back in England, Byron turned to drink, depression, and an incestuous relationship with his half-sister. He died while fighting for Greek independence against the Turks.

Image: Thomas Phillips, Lord Byron in Albanian Dress (1985)

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