« PreviousContinue »
'Tis answer'd—“ Well ye speed, my gallant crew!
So much Confusion magnifies his foe!' How many a chilled, crushed, ill-mated heart will beat in unison with Gulnare's, when she indignantly exclaims
My love stern Seyd's ! Oh-No-No-not my love-
Oh! hard it is that fondness to sustain,
And chill'd remembrance shudders o'er the rest.' In the dedication of this poem to Moore (dated January 7th, 1814), Byron speaks of it as the last production with which he shall trespass on public patience for some years. On the 9th of April he writes: *No more rhyme for-or rather from—me. I have taken my leave of that stage, and henceforth will mountebank it no longer.” That very evening a Gazette Extraordinary announced the abdication of Fontainebleau, and in the diary for the 10th we find : To-day I have boxed one hour-written an Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, copied it-eaten six biscuits-drunk four bottles of soda-water, and idled away the rest of my time.' The ode was a decided failure, and although published anonymously was made the occasion of some bitter criticisms and personalities, depreciatory of both genius and character, which cut him to the quick, and on the 29th of the same month he came to the determination not only to write no more, but to purchase back the whole of his copyrights, and suppress every line he had ever written. “For all this,' he said in the letter to
Mr. Murray enclosing a draft for the purchase-money, 'it might be as well to assign some reason. I have none to give except my own caprice, and I do not consider the circumstance of consequence enough to require explanation. This outburst of pique and pettishness did not last longer than forty-eight hours, at the end of which he requests Mr. Murray to tear the draft and go on as usual. In the May following he set to work on Lara,' which was published in August, 1814, in the same volume with Rogers' • Jacqueline.' This union of Larry and Jacquey (as he christened them) caused a good deal of merriment and surprise at the indiscretion of the graver poet in trusting his innocent heroine in the company of a returned pirate and his paramour, Kaled, a lady who did not stand upon trifles and wore small clothes. Continuations rarely answer when a work has been accepted as complete; and 'Lara,' a continuation of the ‘Corsair,' formed no exception to the rule. Neither the conception nor execution can be commended; but that the rich vein which had been worked so prodigally remained unexhausted, was proved by “The Siege of Corinth' and Parisina,' composed in 1815, and published, the first in January, and the second in February, 1816. The opening of Parisina' may be taken as a specimen of the graceful versification of the poem :
It is the hour when from the boughs
The nightingale's high note is heard;
Scem sweet in every whisper'd word;
As twilight melts beneath the moon away.' The subject of this poem-an incestuous passion—would have been forgiven him, as many an admitted error or offence against propriety had been condoned in consideration of youth and genius, in the hey-day of his popularity. Then, his countrymen and country women could see nothing wrong, where now they saw nothing right. The crisis had arrived: a terrible reaction had set in, and it was not the less terrible because it was irrational and indefensible. What had the literary or fashionable world to do with a domestic quarrel ? What could they possibly 2 B 2
know about the merits of one that was only whispered about in a one-sided shape by the friends of the wife? When an attempt was made to drive Kean from the stage for a breach of the Seventh Commandment, there were law proceedings to testify against him; but where were the pièces justificatives when the cry was raised against Byron ? The most brilliant of our essayists and historians has declared that he knew no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality. • In general, elopements, divorces, and family quarrels pass with little notice. We read the scandal, talk about it for a day, and forget it. But once in six or seven years our virtue becomes outrageous. We cannot suffer the laws of religion and decency to be violated. We must make a stand against vice. Accordingly, some unfortunate man, in no respect more depraved than hundreds whose offences have been treated with lenity, is singled out as an expiatory sacrifice.' Byron was so singled out; and, it so happened, was singled out at a time when he was undergoing the utmost extent of humiliation to which a haughty spirit could be exposed by pecuniary embarrassment.
The letters from his wife to his sister (first published in this Journal) prove that the presence of bailiffs in his house maddened him, and that he was on the verge of downright insanity for some weeks. It is astonishing that he passed unscathed intellectually, we mean) through the fiery furnace. He not only passed through it with his genius unimpaired, but (we think) refreshed, renewed, and re-invigorated by the shock. The life he led prior to this violent disruption of all the social and domestic ties which bound him to England, was distracting and enervating; and the half-formed resolution to write no more may have been prompted by an inward consciousness that his mind wanted rest or change.
In the remarkable novel of Gerfault, the hero, a dramatic author and poet in the flood-tide of fame, suddenly finds his creative powers giving way. The brain has been overworked, and will no longer answer to the call. He is advised to try either counter-irritation or repose. He prefers counter-irritation, and fortune so far favours him that he gets involved in an intrigue with a married woman, which ends in a frightful catastrophe. The husband falls by his hand in an abnormal kind of duel, and the wife commits suicide. His share in the catastrophe, attributed to an unforeseen casualty, is unsuspected, and he departs for the East under a flourish of trumpets from the journalists, who hope that 'the glowing climes of Asia will prove a mine of new inspirations for the celebrated poet who has gloriously marked out his place at the head of our literature.' Their hopes are realised. He returns improved, though saddened; with genius heightened and enriched, but clad in mourning garb. *He is daily congratulated on this black chord recently added to his lyre, the vibrations of which surpass in mortal sadness the sighs of Renè and the reveries of Obermann. None are aware that his bitterly-passionate pages are written under the inspiration of a funereal vision; and that this melancholy and sombre colour, which they take for the phantasy of imagination, has been tempered with blood and brayed in the heart.' Byron's lyre was similarly re-strung, the chief difference being that the source of his renewed inspiration was patent to the world. It is impossible not to see and feel the changed and deepened hue of the despondency with which all his writings are imbued. His tone, after leaving England for the last time, is no longer that of the satiated epicure, the sufferer from fancied sorrows, but the expression of genuine sadness, of hopeless despondency, welling up from the depths of the heart; and his despairing or reproachful communings with Nature often remind us, by their sublime intensity, of Lear:
'I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness,
You owe me no subscription.'
• Ye toppling crags of ice!
And hamlet of the harmless villager.' The Third and Fourth Cantos of Childe Harold,' immeasurably superior to the First and Second, abound in instances:
Thy sky is changed !--and such a change! Oh night,
And Jura answers, through her misty shroud,
How the lit lake shines, a phosphoric sea,
Of the loud hills shakes with its mountain-mirth, As if they did rejoice o'er a young earthquake's birth. • The “ fierce and far delight” of a thunder-storm,' wrote Scott, is here described in verse almost as vivid as its lightnings. The live thunder “ leaping among the rattling crags” - the voice of mountains, as if shouting to each other—the plashing of the big rain-the gleaming of the wide lake, lighted like a phosphoric sea-present a picture of sublime terror, yet of enjoymeut, often attempted, but never so well, certainly never better, brought out in poetry.'
• Byron,' says Herr Elze, reaches the highest pinnacle when he succeeds in blending his individual woe with the universal ; when he pours himself out into Nature, and finds in her the occasion for recollections of and reflexions on the world's history. For this reason, the two last Cantos of “Childe Harold” belong to his richest and greatest productions.'
The fine stanzas on the Ocean’ should be read in connection with the Storm in Don Juan':
“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean-roll,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
• Thy shores are empires, changed in all save thee-
Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow;
* This is the correct reading. The older editions have
• Thy waters wasted them while they were free,' but upon reference to the poet's MS., we find that he wrote the line as printed in the text.