Monday, June 9, 2014

Byron and Shelley and the Man from the Foreign Office

During Byron’s days in the war for Greek Independence, while he was planning an attack on the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto, Shelley sailed to join him at Missolonghi. On the boat with him was a functionary from the British Foreign office, a little whisper of a man named Burn, who revealed to Shelley in the course of a drunken conversation that he was not only a spy, but was carrying secret papers to Byron which would help the Greek cause. “But you must not breathe a word of this to anyone,” Burn declared.

Shelley quite naturally agreed, and was more than a little amused when Burn proceeded to act so secretive and mysterious over the next two days that everyone on board knew that he was a confidential agent of some sort. He became a secret figure of fun for everyone; whenever he made an appearance in the dining room or along the rails, a passenger would raise his hands in wide eyed shock and declare “Oh Mr. Burn, I hope you don’t think that I was SPYING on you,” or a man in a deck chair would pull his blanket up around his chin and announce, “Your pardon, sir, for not greeting you immediately; I was UNDERCOVER.”

Many such verbal manifestations of middle-class hilarity assaulted poor Burn for the duration of his sea voyage, and by the time the ship anchored on the coast of Greece he had become as introverted as a turtle and suspicious as a criminal, leaving Shelley the task of making travel arrangements to get the two men to Byron without encountering the ever-present Turkish army.

After a midnight ride through the mountains, the two men reached the village where Byron was planning his assault, and Burn immediately introduced himself and handed Byron a packet of sealed letters. The poet scrutinized the documents intently, then suddenly took Burn by the hand, dragged him into his bedchambers, and slammed the door behind them. After a few moments of silence, during which Shelley pondered the meaning behind Byron’s abrupt departure, there came from behind the bedroom door a series of low moans, followed by a loud groan and the sound of something heavy being thrown to the floor. The groans increased in frequency, and were succeeded by high-pitched yelps of such intensity that Shelley was reminded of a scene of exquisite torture he had witnessed once as a school boy at Eaton. Then the yelps ended abruptly in a final coloratura, a long “O” which rose and fell like the death of an opera tenor, after which the door to the bedroom opened and a very disheveled Byron re-entered the room.

“My God, man,” said Shelley. “What were you Doing in there?”

“Only what I was ordered to do,” Byron replied.

“Ah,” said Shelley. “So you were ordered to torture the unfortunate messenger, then.”

“On the contrary,” said Byron, running a hand through his hair. “I was ordered to have wild passionate sex with him.”

“Good God, man," said Shelley with alarm. "Is this typical British Foreign Office Procedure?”

“It is in this case,” said Byron ruefully. He snatched up the letters and held them out to Shelley. “See? It’s right there at the bottom. Big block letters. PLEASE BURN AFTER READING.”