1826 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

Richard Ryan, in Poetry and Poets: being a Collection of the choicest Anecdotes relative to the Poets of every Age and Nation (1826) 3:236-38.



Every reader of poetry has heard of Lord Byron's celebrated goblet, at Newstead Abbey, formed of a human skull, on which the fine verses beginning, "Start not, nor deem my spirit fled," are inscribed. It is mounted in silver, somewhat after the fashion of the wine-cups formed of the shell of the ostrich-egg, and in depth and capaciousness would, probably, rival the great and blessed Bear of the Baron Bradwardine, should that memento of ancient Scottish hospitality be yet upon the face of the earth. A superabundance of gratuitous horror has been expended on the circumstance of Lord Byron's having converted the head-piece of one of his ancestors into a stoup to hold his wine. But this fancy of the noble Bard is, by no means, an original one.

Mandeville tells us of the old Guebres, who exposed the dead bodies of their parents to the fowls of the air, reserving only the skulls, of which, says he, "the son maketh a cuppe, and therefrom drynketh he with gret devocion." The Italian Poet, Marino, to whom our own Milton owes many of the splendid situations in Paradise Lost, makes the conclave of devils, in his Pandemonium, quaff wine from the cranium of Minerva; and we have, also, a similar allusion in Runic Ode, preserved by Wormius, where Lodbrog, disdaining life, and thinking of the joys of immortality, which he was about to share in the hall of Odin, exclaims,

Bibamus cerevisiam
Ex concavis craniorum crateribus.

In Middleton's Witch, the Duke takes out a bowl of a similar description, when the Lord-Governor ejaculates, "A skull, my Lord!" and his Grace replies,—

Call it a soldier's cup....
Our Duchess, I know, will pledge us, "though the cup
Was once her father's head," which, as a trophy,
We'll keep till death.

The same singular appropriation of dead men's sconces is referred to, on one or two occasions, by Massinger; and from the following quotation from a speech of Torrenti, in Dekker's Wonder of a Kingdom, we may presume, that Lord Byron was not the first person who mounted human skulls in silver.

Would I had here ten thousand soldiers' heads,
"Their skulls set all in silver to drink healths"
To his confusion who first invented war.