Today is the birthday of Lord Byron (1788-1824), well-known, of course, as an English poet, but less so as a student of Armenian. Many of us know
She walks in beauty like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes
but far fewer know of his efforts to learn Armenian. I first learned of the latter from a quotation at the beginning of Matthias Bedrossian’s New Dictionary, Armenian-English (Venice, 1875-1879, p. x). But we have more evidence, still directly from Byron himself, in the form of the posthumously appearing Lord Byron’s Armenian Exercises and Poetry (Venice, 1870), including letters, translation from Armenian into English (“to exercise himself in the arm. language”, 21), and a selection of Byron’s poetry with Armenian translation. The Armenian-English translations are from an “Armenian history”, something by Nerses Lambronac’i, and 3 Corinthians. The history is not further identified in the text, but it turns out to be that of Movsēs Xorenac’i, book 1, chs. 8-9, save the last two paragraphs, a discovery relatively easy to make thanks to the TITUS text database. The whole volume is beautifully typeset with Armenian and English pages facing each other.
Byron arrived in Venice in 1816 and found himself impressed with the monastery San Lazzaro degli Armeni “which appears to unite all the advantages of the monastic institution, without any of its vices” (4). There he studied Armenian. From a letter of Dec. 5, 1816 (10-13):
By way of divertisement, I am studying daily, at an Armenian monastery, the Armenian language. I found that my mind wanted something craggy to break upon; and this — as the most difficult thing I could discover here for an amusement — I have chosen, to torture me into attention. It is a rich language, however, and would amply repay any one the trouble of learning it. I try, and shall go on; — but I answer for nothing, least of all for my intentions or my success. There are some very curious Mss. in the monastery, as well as books; translations also from Greek originals, now lost, and from Persian and Syriac etc.; besides works of their own people.
And in a letter of the previous day (14-17), he says:
I wrote to you at some length last week, and have little to add, except that I have begun, and am proceeding in a study of the Armenian language, which I acquire, as well as I can, at the Armenian convent, where I go every day to take lessons of a learned friar, and have gained some singular and not useless information with regard to the literature and customs of that oriental people. They have an establishment here — a church and convent of ninety monks, very learned and accomplished men, some of them. They have also a press, and make great efforts for the enlightening of their nation. I find the languages (which is twin, the literal and the vulgar) difficult, but not invincible (at least I hope not). I shall go on. I found it necessary to twist my mind round some severer study, and this, as being the hardest I could devise here, will
be a file for the serpent.
So while we may recite some Byron in English today, we can commemorate him, too, by studying Armenian, and by persevering: “I shall go on,” he says, and “I try, and shall go on; — but I answer for nothing, least of all for my intentions or my success.”