« PreviousContinue »
To whom the shadows of far years extend :
And reach into thy heart, --when mine is cold,-
• Sweet be thy cradled slumbers o'er the sea,
Fain would I waft such blessings upon thee,
The collection to which the Prisoner of Chillon gives name, inferior in interest to the continuation of Childe Harold, is marked, nevertheless, by the peculiar force of Lord Byron's genius. It consists of a series of detached pieces, some of them fragments, and rather poetical prolusions, than finished and perfect poems.
Some of our readers may require to be informed, that Chillon, which gives name to the first poem, is a castle on the lake of Geneva, belonging of old to the dukes of Savoy, employed by them during the dark ages, as a state prison, and furnished of course with a tremendous range of subterranean dungeons, with a chamber dedicated to the purpose of torture, and all the apparatus of feudal tyranny. Here the earlier champions of the Reformation were frequently doomed to expiate their heretical opinions. Among the hardiest of these was Bonnivard, whom Lord Byron has selected as the hero of his poem. He was imprisoned in Chillon for nearly six years, from 1530, namely, to 1536, and underwent all the rigour of the closest captivity. But it has not been the purpose of Lord Byron to paint the peculiar character of Bonnivard, nor do we find any thing to remind us of the steady firmness and patient endurance of one suffering for conscience-sake. The object of the poem, like that of Sterne's celebrated sketch of the prisoner, is to consider captivity in the abstract, and to mark its effects in gradually chilling the mental powers as it benumbs and freezes the animal frame, until the unfortunate victim becomes, as it were, a part of his dungeon, and identified with his chains. This transmutation we believe to be founded on fact : at least, in the Low Countries, where capital
punishments are never inflicted, and where solitary confinement for life is substituted in the case of enormous crimes, something like it may be witnessed. On particular days in the course of the year, these victims of a jurisprudence which calls itself humane, are presented to the public eye upon a stage erected in the open market-place, apparently to prevent their guilt and their punishment from being forgotten. It is scarcely possible to witness a sight more degrading to humanity than this exhibition : --with matted hair, wild looks and haggard features, with eyes dazzled by the unwonted light of the sun, and ears deafened and astounded by the sudden exchange of the silence of a dungeon for the busy hum of men, the wretches sit more like rude images fashioned to a fantastic imitation of humanity, than like living and reflecting beings. In the course of time we are assured they generally become either madmen or idiots, as mind or matter happens to predominate, when the mysterious balance between them is destroyed. But they who are subjected to such a dreadful punishment are generally, like most perpetrators of gross crimes, men of feeble internal resources. Men of talents like Trenck have been known, in the deepest seclusion, and most severe confinement, to battle the foul fiend melancholy, and to come off conquerors, during a captivity of years. Those who suffer imprisonment for the sake of their country or their religion have yet a stronger support, and may exclaim, though in a different sense from that of Othello
• It is the cause-it is the cause, my soul.' And hence the early history of the church is filled with martyrs, who, confident in the justice of their cause, and the certainty of their future reward, endured with patience the rigour of protracted and solitary captivity, as well as the bitterness of torture, and of death itself. This, however, is not the view which Lord Byron has taken of the character and captivity of Bonnivard, for which he has offered an apology in the following passage in the notes. When the foregoing poem was composed, I was not sufficiently aware of the history of Bonnivard, or I would have endeavoured to dignify the subject by an attempt to celebrate his courage and his virtues.' The theme of the poem is therefore the gradual effect of protracted captivity upon a man of powerful mind, tried at the same time by the successive deaths of his two brethren.
Bonnivard is represented as imprisoned with his brothers in a terrific dungeon in the Castle of Chillon. The second
pure of mind, But formed to combat with his kind,
first drooped under the effects of protracted imprisonment, more bitter to one bred a warrior and a huntsman. The sickness and pining of the other, a youth of a milder and more affectionate character, is feelingly described.
Most cherish'd since his natal hour,
Was withered on the stalk away.' The effects of the survivor's sorrow succeed. At first, furious and frantic at feeling himself the only being in this black spot, and every link burst which bound him to humanity, he gradually falls into the stupor of despair and of apathy, the loss of sensation of light, air, and even of darkness.
I had no thought, no feeling-none-
Blind, boundless, mute and motionless ! The effects produced on the mind of the captive, by the casual visit of a bird, and by the view of the lake from the loop-hole of his prison, are next described. An extract from the latter shall form our last specimen of the poem.
• I heard the torrents leap and gush
O'er channelld rock and broken bush;
The only one in view ;
And o'er it blew the mountain breeze,
Of gentle breath and hue.' Freedom at length comes when the captive of Chillon, reconciled to his prison, had learned to consider it as ' a hermitage all his own,' and had become friends with the very shackles which he wore.
It will readily be allowed that this singular poem is more powerful than pleasing. The dungeon of Bonnivard is, like that of Ugolino, a subject too dismal for even the power of the painter or poet to counteract its horrors. It is the more disagreeable as affording human hope no anchor to rest upon, and describing the sufferer, though a man of talents and virtues, as altogether inert and powerless under his accumulated sufferings. Yet as a picture, however gloomy the colouring, it may rival any which Lord Byron has drawn, nor is it possible to read it without a sinking of the heart, corresponding with that which he describes the victim to have suffered.
We have said that Lord Byron occasionally, though without concealing his own original features, assumes the manner and style of his contemporaries. Of these we have more than one instance in the present collection. It is impossible to read the Prisoner of Chillon without finding several passages—that last quoted, for example,—which strongly remind us of Wordsworth. There is another, called Churchill's Grave,' for which Southey seems to afford the model, not in his epic strains, but in his English eclogues, in which moral truths are expressed, to use the poet's own language in an almost colloquial plainness of language,' and an air of quaint and original expression, assumed to render the sentiment at once impressive and piquant. The grave of Churchill, however, might have called from Lord Byron a deeper commemoration; for though they generally differed in character and genius, there was a resemblance between their history and character. The satire of Churchill flowed with a more profuse, though not a more embittered stream; while, on the other hand, he cannot be compared to Lord Byron in point of tenderness or imagination. But both these poets held themselves above the opinion of the world, and both were followed by the fame and popularity which they seemed to despise. The writings of both exhibit an inborn, though sometimes ill regulated generosity of mind, and a spirit of proud independence, frequently pushed to extremes. Both carried their hatred of hypocrisy beyond the verge of prudence, and indulged their vein of satire to the borders of licentiousness. In the flower of his age Churchill died in a foreign
land,—here we trust the parallel will cease, and that the subject of our criticism will long survive to honour his own.
Two other pieces in this miscellany recal to our mind the wild, unbridled, and fiery imagination of Coleridge. To this poet's high poetical genius we have always paid deference; though not uniforinly perhaps, he has, too frequently for his own popularity, wandered into the wild and mystic, and left the reader at a loss accurately to determine his meaning. Perhaps in that called the
Spell the resemblance may be fanciful, but we cannot allow it to be so in the singular poem called ' Darkness,' well entitled
• A dream which is not all a dream.' In this case our author has abandoned the art, so peculiarly his own, of shewing the reader where his purpose tends, and has contented himself with presenting a mass of powerful ideas unarranged, and the meaning of which we certainly confess ourselves not always able to attain. A succession of terrible images is placed before us fitting and mixing, and disengaging themselves as in the dream of a feverish man—Chimeras dire, to whose existence the mind refuses credit, which confound and weary the ordinary reader, and baffle the comprehension even of those more accustomed to the flights of a poetic muse. The subject is the progress of utter darkness, until it becomes, in Shakspeare's phrase, the burier of the dead, and the assemblage of terrific ideas which the poet has placed before us only fail in exciting our terror from the extravagance of the plan. These mystical prolusions do indeed produce upon us the effect described in Henry Mur's lines quoted in Southey's Omniana--
"A lecture strange he seem'd to read to me;
Some goodly thing.' But the feeling of reverence which we entertain for that whick is difficult of comprehension, gives way to weariness whenever we begin to suspect that it cannot be distinctly comprehended by any one.
To speak plainly, the framing of such phantasms is a dangerous employment for the exalted and teeming imagination of such a poet as Lord Byron, whose Pegasus has ever required rather a bridle than a spur. The waste of boundless space into which they lead the poet, the neglect of precision which such themes may render habitual, make them, in respect to poetry, what mysticisin is to religion. The meaning of the poet as he ascends upon cloudy wing becomes the shadow only of a thought, and having eluded the comprehension of others, vecessarily ends