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, but 1809's 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, Shelley, 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 Yucatån 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). Reportedly, Harrison Ford once offered an interviewer for Britian's Ritz magazine a toke of the "all-American reefer" he was smoking. "This is not Cannabis indicta, [sic] or Cannabis sativa, this is Cannabis rutica," he said. "A real strong dope." There is no such thing as Cannabis rutica. (Source: Harrison Ford: Imperfect Hero by Garry Jenkins, Citadel Press, 1998)

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.

In a letter from December 6, 1813, Byron wrote, "[Thomas] Campbell last night seemed a little nettled at something or other—I know not what. We were standing in the ante-saloon, when Lord H. [Holland] brought out of the other room a vessel of some composition similar to that which is used in Catholic churches, and, seeing us, he exclaimed, 'Here is some incense for you.' Campbell answered—'Carry it to Lord Byron, he is used to it.'"

He closes the letter, "I shall now smoke two cigars, and get me to bed. The cigars don't keep well here. They get as old as a donna di quaranti anni in the sun of Africa. The Havannah are the best;—but neither are so pleasant as a hooka or chiboque. The Turkish tobacco is mild...I have just thrown a poem into the fire (which it has relighted to my great comfort), and have smoked out of my head the plan of another. I wish I could as easily get rid of thinking, or, at least, the confusion of thought."

Back in England, Byron turned to drink and depression. He died while fighting for Greek independence against the Turks at the age of 36.

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

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