1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

Robert Story, in Love and Literature; being the Reminiscences, Literary Opinions, and Fugitive Pieces of a Poet in Humble Life (1842) 174-79.



"The first two Cantos of 'Childe Harold,' written on subjects with which I was comparatively unacquainted, were read by me with little interest. The great political drama, which concentrated upon it the anxious eyes of all Europe, had been partly performed ere I was of age to note its progress; and I looked on its closing scenes, therefore, splendid as they were, with the vacant astonishment of one who, ignorant of the play, comes into a theatre at the end of the fourth act. The throne and sceptre of Napoleon passed from my gaze like a pageant of the stage, and I perceived the importance of the catastrophe by its effects on others, rather than from emotions excited in myself. Lord Byron's sneers at the Convention of Cintra, with his allusions to battles then recent, were consequently thrown away upon me; though I could not be insensible to the splendour of his writing. I knew enough of ancient Greece, too, and of her present degradation, to enable me to enjoy his grand apostrophe to Athens, and to feel with him in his indignant lament over the self-abasement of her sons. But on the whole, I was incapable, from ignorance, of entering into the full spirit of his descriptions; and I gladly forsook 'Childe Harold,' in favour of the smaller poems that accompanied it. These, as they seemed to come from the heart of the noble poet, either found, or waked, a ready echo in mine. Accordingly I read them, till they became a part of myself, and lent a portion of their pathos to my own attempts. I recollect only one passage that I did not sympathize with:—

Count o'er the joys thy hours have seen;
Count o'er thy days from anguish free;
And know, whatever thou hast been,
'Tis something better not to be.

The world was still too beautiful — my heart was still too light — Hope still showed, in far and fairy-like perspective, too many scenes of enjoyment — to prevent my coincidence with the morbid sentiment!

"Among the first objections made to the poems of Lord Byron, was their obscurity. But it was soon perceived that this was distinct from the obscurity which proceeds from sterility or confusion of ideas. It was not the obscurity of one who 'Means not, but blunders round about a meaning.' It was that of a poet original and uncommon in his conceptions, and by a natural consequence, original and uncommon in his language. His poetry was found to be like an Indian stream, whose bed is impervious to the eye, not from the impurity of its water, but from the greatness of its depth; and the diving mind could always find gold at the bottom.

"Still, the poetry of Byron, with all the energy and all the genius it displays, was never poetry after my own heart. If I entered on one of his tales, indeed, it was impossible for me to give up the perusal till the music of the final line had rung in my ear; but 1 felt as if compelled, rather than allured, to proceed. I was dragged onwards by the invisible chain of an invisible sorcerer, as it were, through gloomy labyrinths, and amid horrible objects, without the power to pause, or to return. The writings of most other English poets have, from frequent readings, become to me like 'household words;' but to his I seldom recur, because I do not like to have my feelings tortured on the rack for hours together. What I could not reflect on with delight, it was not natural that I should attempt to imitate. My imitations were confined to the smaller poems already mentioned; nor have they since extended to his more genial productions. There cannot be a second 'Don Juan,' or a second 'Childe Harold.'"

'TIS SAID THAT STARS HAVE FALLEN.
'Tis said that stars have fallen, yet have left
No 'tell-tale blank i' th' blue sky — stars remote,
Whose light till then had never reached the eye,
Filling the gap to vision. But not so
Hast thou descended from the heaven of song—
Thou wast a star of wildest and most marked
Effulgence, and thy fall bath left a blank,
A lonely and a mournful blank, which none—
No — none shall ever fill again!

O Byron!
How much of admiration and of hope,
Of worship deep from hearts thy strains have touched,
Of grief from those who watched thy wanderings
And wept them — hath been centred in thy name!

E'en in thy boyhood's efforts might be traced
The embryo-giant. This the critic saw not,
And struck and stung thee — in his turn to writhe
Within thy mighty grasp. With what a strength
Of ray, that lightened through the gloomy clouds
Which formed his palace, rose th' unsetting sun
Of thine own Harold's glories! How our hearts
Thrilled at thy young Giaour's wild and broken tale!
How bled they o'er the melancholy fates
Of the two lovers of Abydos — one
Mixing his life-blood with the dashing wave,
One dying in her terror's agony!
There was no pause to wondering — as to flash
Succeeds a brighter flash, when summer storms
Robe the dim mountains with sublimity,
So song magnificent gave place to song
Still more magnificent, — until the eye,
Dazzled with splendour, scarcely deigned to look
On mightiest of contemporary bards,
Whose laurels seemed to wither, as if scorched
By the fierce lightning! and the critic fly-swarm
Joined in a vile-breath'd humming of applause;
For they had marked thy soaring flight, and felt
They now could batten on thy fame.

Alas!
'Twas then that, loathing their rank praise, or wrung
In heart to find domestic bliss a dream,
Thy pen was dipped in bitterness; and scorn,
Licentiousness, and ribaldry combined
To dim — no, not thy genius! — for e'en there
It shone pre-eminent, and half redeemed
The sullied page; but to disgrace thy name,
Thy morals, and thy heart! Thousands who made
Part of that world thy strains profess to hate,
Have felt an inward and a silent pang
To think thou wert thine own worst enemy!

At length it came, the hour retributive,
When, goaded by th' accumulated wrongs
Of centuries, the long-sunk Greek assumed
His ancient spirit, and in battle-field
Met his oppressor. Who among the first
Flew to his aid, and cheered his heart from fight
Of dubious or disastrous issue? Who
But Thou! the warm and ceaseless advocate
Of Greeks and their high cause. And what a field
There opened to thy genius! 'Twas our hope
That thou wouldst win their battles, free their clime
Of beauty from the ruthless Turk, and then
Bid thy unrivalled Lyre resound the strain
Of Greece's Independence—

All is o'er!
That lyre is shivered, and the band that waked
Its harmony is nerveless!

Loftier harps—
Aye, loftier far than mine — shall ring thy dirge,
And I may blush to see my poor attempt
Look poorer still in the comparison:
Yet hath it soothed me, and thy vital name
May save when less honoured lays have perished!