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The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 13279

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Tragedy of "Sardanapalus" considered, with Reference to Lord Byron's own Circumstances-"Cain"

Among the mental enjoyments which endeared Ravenna to Lord Byron, the composition of Sardanapalus may be reckoned the chief. It seems to have been conceived in a happier mood than any of all his other works; for, even while it inculcates the dangers of voluptuous indulgence, it breathes the very essence of benevolence and philosophy. Pleasure takes so much of the character of virtue in it, that but for the moral taught by the consequences, enjoyment might be mistaken for duty. I have never been able to satisfy myself in what the resemblance consists, but from the first reading it has always appeared to me that there was some elegant similarity between the characters of Sardanapalus and Hamlet, and my inclination has sometimes led me to imagine that the former was the nobler conception of the two.

The Assyrian monarch, like the Prince of Denmark, is highly endowed, capable of the greatest undertakings; he is yet softened by a philosophic indolence of nature that makes him undervalue the enterprises of ambition, and all those objects in the attainment of which so much of glory is supposed to consist. They are both alike incapable of rousing themselves from the fond reveries of moral theory, even when the strongest motives are presented to them. Hamlet hesitates to act, though his father's spirit hath come from death to incite him; and Sardanapalus derides the achievements that had raised his ancestors to an equality with the gods.

Thou wouldst have me go

Forth as a conqueror.-By all the stars

Which the Chaldeans read! the restless slaves

Deserve that I should curse them with their wishes

And lead them forth to glory.

Again:

The ungrateful and ungracious slaves! they murmur

Because I have not shed their blood, nor led them

To dry into the deserts' dust by myriads,

Or whiten with their bones the banks of Ganges,

Nor decimated them with savage laws,

Nor sweated them to build up pyramids

Or Babylonian walls.

The nothingness of kingly greatness and national pride were never before so finely contemned as by the voluptuous Assyrian, and were the scorn not mitigated by the skilful intermixture of mercifulness and philanthropy, the character would not be endurable. But when the same voice which pronounced contempt on the toils of honour says,

Enough

For me if I can make my subjects feel

The weight of human misery less,

it is impossible to repress the liking which the humane spirit of that thought is calculated to inspire. Nor is there any want of dignity in Sardanapalus, even when lolling softest in his luxury.

Must I consume my life-this little life-

In guarding against all may make it less!

It is not worth so much-It were to die

Before my hour to live in dread of death. . . .

Till now no drop of an Assyrian vein

Hath flow'd for me, nor hath the smallest coin

Of Nineveh's vast treasure e'er been lavish'd

On objects which could cost her sons a tear.

If then they hate me 'tis because I hate not,

If they rebel 'tis because I oppress not.

This is imagined in the true tone of Epicurean virtue, and it rises to magnanimity when he adds in compassionate scorn,

Oh, men! ye must be ruled with scythes, not sceptres,

And mow'd down like the grass, else all we reap

Is rank abundance and a rotten harvest

Of discontents infecting the fair soil,

Making a desert of fertility.

But the graciousness in the conception of the character of Sardanapalus, is not to be found only in these sentiments of his meditations, but in all and every situation in which the character is placed. When Salamenes bids him not sheath his sword-

'Tis the sole sceptre left you now with safety,

the king replies-

"A heavy one;" and subjoins, as if to conceal his distaste for war, by ascribing a dislike to the sword itself,

The hilt, too, hurts my hand.

It may be asked why I dwell so particularly on the character of Sardanapalus. It is admitted that he is the most heroic of voluptuaries, the most philosophical of the licentious. The first he is undoubtedly, but he is not licentious; and in omitting to make him so, the poet has prevented his readers from disliking his character upon principle. It was a skilful stroke of art to do this; had it been otherwise, and had there been no affection shown for the Ionian slave, Sardanapalus would have engaged no sympathy. It is not, however, with respect to the ability with which the character has been imagined, nor to the poetry with which it is invested, that I have so particularly made it a subject of criticism; it was to point out how much in it Lord Byron has interwoven of his own best nature.

At the time when he was occupied with this great work, he was confessedly in the enjoyment of the happiest portion of his life. The Guiccioli was to him a Myrrha, but the Carbonari were around, and in the controversy, in which Sardanapalus is engaged, between the obligations of his royalty and his inclinations for pleasure, we have a vivid insight of the cogitation of the poet, whether to take a part in the hazardous activity which they were preparing, or to remain in the seclusion and festal repose of which he was then in possession. The Assyrian is as much Lord Byron as Childe Harold was, and bears his lineaments in as clear a likeness, as a voluptuary unsated could do those of the emaciated victim of satiety. Over the whole drama, and especially in some of the speeches of Sardanapalus, a great deal of fine but irrelevant poetry and moral reflection has been profusely spread; but were the piece adapted to the stage, these portions would of course be omitted, and the character denuded of them would then more fully justify the idea which I have formed of it, than it may perhaps to many readers do at present, hidden as it is, both in shape and contour, under an excess of ornament.

That the character of Myrrha was also drawn from life, and that the Guiccioli was the model, I have no doubt. She had, when most enchanted by her passion for Byron-at the very time when the drama was written-many sources of regret; and he was too keen an observer, and of too jealous a nature, not to have marked every shade of change in her appearance, and her every moment of melancholy reminiscence; so that, even though she might never have given expression to her sentiments, still such was her situation, that it could not but furnish him with fit suggestions from which to fill up the moral being of the Ionian slave. Were the character of

Myrrha scanned with this reference, while nothing could be discovered to detract from the value of the composition, a great deal would be found to lessen the merit of the poet's invention. He had with him the very being in person whom he has depicted in the drama, of dispositions and endowments greatly similar, and in circumstances in which she could not but feel as Myrrha is supposed to have felt-and it must be admitted, that he has applied the good fortune of that incident to a beautiful purpose.

This, however, is not all that the tragedy possesses of the author. The character of Zarina is, perhaps, even still more strikingly drawn from life. There are many touches in the scene with her which he could not have imagined, without thinking of his own domestic disasters. The first sentiment she utters is truly conceived in the very frame and temper in which Byron must have wished his lady to think of himself, and he could not embody it without feeling that-

How many a year has pass'd,

Though we are still so young, since we have met

Which I have borne in widowhood of heart.

The following delicate expression has reference to his having left his daughter with her mother, and unfolds more of his secret feelings on the subject than anything he has expressed more ostentatiously elsewhere:

I wish'd to thank you, that you have not divided

My heart from all that's left it now to love.

And what Sardanapalus says of his children is not less applicable to Byron, and is true:

Deem not

I have not done you justice: rather make them

Resemble your own line, than their own sire;

I trust them with you-to you.

And when Zarina says,

They ne'er

Shall know from me aught but what may honour

Their father's memory,

he puts in her mouth only a sentiment which he knew, if his wife never expressed to him, she profoundly acknowledged in resolution to herself. The whole of this scene is full of the most penetrating pathos; and did the drama not contain, in every page, indubitable evidence to me, that he has shadowed out in it himself his wife, and his mistress, this little interview would prove a vast deal in confirmation of the opinion so often expressed, that where his genius was most in its element, it was when it dealt with his own sensibilities and circumstances. It is impossible to read the following speech, without a conviction that it was written at Lady Byron:

My gentle, wrong'd Zarina!

I am the very slave of circumstance

And impulse-borne away with every breath!

Misplaced upon the throne-misplaced in life.

I know not what I could have been, but feel

I am not what I should be-let it end.

But take this with thee: if I was not form'd

To prize a love like thine-a mind like thine-

Nor dote even on thy beauty-as I've doted

On lesser charms, for no cause save that such

Devotion was a duty, and I hated

All that look'd like a chain for me or others

(This even rebellion must avouch); yet hear

These words, perhaps among my last-that none

E'er valued more thy virtues, though he knew not

To profit by them.

At Ravenna Cain was also written; a dramatic poem, in some degree, chiefly in its boldness, resembling the ancient mysteries of the monasteries before the secular stage was established. This performance, in point of conception, is of a sublime order. The object of the poem is to illustrate the energy and the art of Lucifer in accomplishing the ruin of the first-born. By an unfair misconception, the arguments of Lucifer have been represented as the sentiments of the author upon some imaginary warranty derived from the exaggerated freedom of his life; and yet the moral tendency of the reflections are framed in a mood of reverence as awful towards Omnipotence as the austere divinity of Milton. It would be presumption in me, however, to undertake the defence of any question in theology; but I have not been sensible to the imputed impiety, while I have felt in many passages influences that have their being amid the shadows and twilights of "old religion";

"Stupendous spirits

That mock the pride of man, and people space

With life and mystical predominance."

The morning hymns and worship with which the mystery opens are grave, solemn, and scriptural, and the dialogue which follows with Cain is no less so: his opinion of the tree of life is, I believe, orthodox; but it is daringly expressed: indeed, all the sentiments ascribed to Cain are but the questions of the sceptics. His description of the approach of Lucifer would have shone in the Paradise Lost.

A shape like to the angels,

Yet of a sterner and a sadder aspect,

Of spiritual essence. Why do I quake?

Why should I fear him more than other spirits

Whom I see daily wave their fiery swords

Before the gates round which I linger oft

In twilight's hour, to catch a glimpse of those

Gardens which are my just inheritance,

Ere the night closes o'er the inhibited walls,

And the immortal trees which overtop

The cherubim-defended battlements?

I shrink not from these, the fire-arm'd angels;

Why should I quail from him who now approaches?

Yet he seems mightier far than them, nor less

Beauteous; and yet not all as beautiful

As he hath been, or might be: sorrow seems

Half of his immortality.

There is something spiritually fine in this conception of the terror or presentiment of coming evil. The poet rises to the sublime in making Lucifer first inspire Cain with the knowledge of his immortality-a portion of truth which hath the efficacy of falsehood upon the victim; for Cain, feeling himself already unhappy, knowing that his being cannot be abridged, has the less scruple to desire to be as Lucifer, "mighty." The whole speech of Lucifer, beginning,

Souls who dare use their immortality,

is truly satanic; a daring and dreadful description given by everlasting despair of the Deity.

But, notwithstanding its manifold immeasurable imaginations, Cain is only a polemical controversy, the doctrines of which might have been better discussed in the pulpit of a college chapel. As a poem it is greatly unequal; many passages consist of mere metaphysical disquisition, but there are others of wonderful scope and energy. It is a thing of doubts and dreams and reveries-dim and beautiful, yet withal full of terrors. The understanding finds nothing tangible; but amid dread and solemnity, sees only a shapen darkness with eloquent gestures. It is an argument invested with the language of oracles and omens, conceived in some religious trance, and addressed to spirits.

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