‘When we two parted, Childe Harold, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Don Juan, George Gordon, George Gordon Lord Byron, Greek War of Independence, he Prisoner of Chillon, he two Foscari, Lord Byron, Lyrical Ballads, Marino Falieri, ottava rima, poems, Poetry, Robert Browning, Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, She walks in beauty, So we’ll go no more a’roving, The Lost Leader, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, William Wordsworth
The publication in 1798 of Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge certainly transformed poetry. Though The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was the most memorable (and by far the longest) poem in the book, Harold Bloom was right to single out Wordsworth as the seminal force in the enterprise, and he went on over the years to exemplify the new approach of an interpreting and interpreted consciousness. Or, rather, one should say he did this in the limited period in which he remained a major poetic force for, as Bloom notes, before long he was spent poetically, and turned into a rather sad old figure.
He was appointed Poet Laureate, in succession to his more radical and then more conservative contemporary Robert Southey, and became, in the words of a much younger poet, Robert Browning, ‘The Lost Leader’ (1845). But the change had been bewailed even earlier, by the generation of poets that immediately succeeded Wordsworth’s, notably in ‘To Wordsworth’ that Shelley published in 1816.
The leader of that group of poets was George Gordon, Lord Byron. Born in 1788, he was older than both Shelley and Keats and outlived them both, though like them he died comparatively young. He was only 36 when he died, in Missolonghi, where he had gone to join in the Greek War of Independence. More than a hundred and fifty years later, I was at a Conference in Missolonghi organized by the Byron Society to celebrate his continuing influence.
The various papers read at that Conference seemed to establish that his political influence had in fact been minimal, and the one literary paper, by one of the most distinguished of Byronic scholars, Andrew Rutherford, made a similar point about his literary influence. He argued that this was in part because of the early deaths of all three poets who might have carried on the romantic tradition, and also because literature had become ‘bourgeois’ and there was little room left for the Byronic hero.
All this is true, and Byron certainly did not transform poetry as Wordsworth did. But what he created was enormously powerful, and continues so. Also, he wrote on a range of themes in a variety of styles, and excelled in several of them. The lyrics such as ‘She walks in beauty’ or ‘When we two parted’ convey beauty, enthusiasm, regret, more compellingly than most; the elegies such as ‘So we’ll go no more a’roving’ or the poem on completing his 36th birthday evoke the past and illuminate the present with spirit rather than sentimentality; and the political clarion calls, such as ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’ or the ‘Ode to Napoleon’ express an idealism that can rouse us still.
There were plays too, which are powerful, though sometimes turgid. And ‘Marino Falieri’ and ‘The two Foscari’ can be quite moving in dealing with the conflicting demands of power and family. But more important than all these were the two epics Byron wrote, ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ which brought him fame and fortune when he was in his early twenties, and ‘Don Juan’, a romp he began in 1819, which was left unfinished at his death.
He used two different stanza forms for the two poems, forms that seem to govern also the different tones he uses. The first was reflective, nine lines rhyming ababbcbcc, which turns the verse in upon itself, as it were, creating a sense of introspection. This suits Childe Harold, who is a melancholy soul, seeking escape in travel from ‘the fulness of satiety….
And from his native land resolved to go,
And visit scorching climes beyond the sea;
With pleasure drugged he almost longed for woe,
And e’en for change of scene would seek the shades below’.
The four cantos of Childe Harold take us on a thoughtful tour of selected parts of Europe, with characteristically Byronic observations
Then slowly climb the many-winding way,
And frequent turn to linger as you go,
From loftier rocks new loveliness survey,
And rest ye at our “Lady’s house of woe;”
Where frugal monks their little relics show,
And sundry legends to the stranger tell:
Here impious men have punished been, and lo!
Deep in yon cave Honorius long did dwell,
In hope to merit Heaven by making earth a Hell.
These include the powerful account of the battle of Waterloo, which moves from a ball in Brussels
There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium’s capital had gather’d then
Her Beauty and her Chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o’er fair women and brave men
to the battlefield
Last noon beheld them full of lusty life,
Last eve in Beauty’s circle proudly gay,
The midnight brought the signal-sound of strife,
The morn the marshalling in arms, — the day
Battle’s magnificently-stern array!
The thunder-clouds close o’er it, which when rent
The earth is cover’d thick with other clay,
Which her own clay shall cover, heap’d and pent,
Rider and horse, — friend, foe, — in one red burial blent!
to the battlefield
All this is powerful stuff. But even more impressive is Don Juan, which is a romp, as befits the stanza form in which it is written. This is ottava rima, six lines of alternating rhymes and then a rhyming couplet. This last is often used to comment as it were on the substance of the rest of the stanza, and allows a distancing that allows Byron to intrude a wryly observant eye on the proceedings he describes. The commentary of the couplet here for instance allows a very vivid message –
What are the hopes of man? Old Egypt’s King
Cheops erected the first pyramid
And largest, thinking it was just the thing
To keep his memory whole, and mummy hid;
But somebody or other rummaging,
Burglariously broke his coffin’s lid:
Let not a monument give you or me hopes,
Since not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops.
Byron’s Don Juan is not the seducer of legend, but rather a boy who is rather seduced himself, by his mother’s friend Julia, the equally youthful Haidee on an idyllic Greek island, the Turkish Sultana Gulbeyaz, the Russian Empress Catherine, and so on. All this allows Byron a much more jolly pilgrimage through Europe than he described in Childe Harolde, with entertaining observations on life and love and morality. To give just a few examples of the exuberance, I cite a couple of the couplets which conclude some stanzas –
What men call gallantry, and gods adultery
Is much more common where the climate ‘s sultry.
Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda-water the day after.
To do justice to Don Juan would take aeons. I will therefore note just one aspect that I believe confirms Byron’s enduring appeal. Though the tone is light hearted throughout, and Byron treats human nature as entertainingly fallible, he does due justice to what is serious and should move us. The suffering that hits us and the feelings this rouses when love is lost are conveyed with an intensity and a dignity that few writers can rival.
I will conclude then with Byron’s account of a father and son in the longboat that survives the wreck of the ship taking Don Juan from Cadiz. But there is no food and water, and despite cannibalism, everyone (except of course Don Juan) dies.
The other father had a weaklier child,
Of a soft cheek and aspect delicate;
But the boy bore up long, and with a mild
And patient spirit held aloof his fate;
Little he said, and now and then he smiled,
As if to win a part from off the weight
He saw increasing on his father’s heart,
With the deep deadly thought that they must part.
And o’er him bent his sire, and never raised
His eyes from off his face, but wiped the foam
From his pale lips, and ever on him gazed,
And when the wish’d-for shower at length was come,
And the boy’s eyes, which the dull film half glazed,
Brighten’d, and for a moment seem’d to roam,
He squeezed from out a rag some drops of rain
Into his dying child’s mouth—but in vain.
The boy expired—the father held the clay,
And look’d upon it long, and when at last
Death left no doubt, and the dead burthen lay
Stiff on his heart, and pulse and hope were past,
He watch’d it wistfully, until away
‘T was borne by the rude wave wherein ‘t was cast;
Then he himself sunk down all dumb and shivering,
And gave no sign of life, save his limbs quivering.