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The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 12453

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"The Two Foscari"-"Werner"-"The Deformed Transformed"-"Don Juan"-"The Liberal"-Removes from Pisa to Genoa

I have never heard exactly where the tragedy of The Two Foscari was written: that it was imagined in Venice is probable. The subject is, perhaps, not very fit for a drama, for it has no action; but it is rich in tragic materials, revenge and affection, and the composition is full of the peculiar stuff of the poet's own mind. The exulting sadness with which Jacopo Foscari looks in the first scene from the window, on the Adriatic, is Byron himself recalling his enjoyment of the sea.

How many a time have I

Cloven with arm still lustier, heart more daring,

The wave all roughen'd: with a swimmer's stroke

Flinging the billows back from my drench'd hair,

And laughing from my lip th' audacious brine

Which kiss'd it like a wine-cup.

The whole passage, both prelude and remainder, glows with the delicious recollections of laying and revelling in the summer waves. But the exile's feeling is no less beautifully given and appropriate to the author's condition, far more so, indeed, than to that of Jacopo Foscari.

Had I gone forth

From my own land, like the old patriarchs, seeking

Another region with their flocks and herds;

Had I been cast out like the Jews from Zion,

Or like our fathers driven by Attila

From fertile Italy to barren islets,

I would have given some tears to my late country,

And many thoughts; but afterward address'd

Myself to those about me, to create

A new home and first state.

What follows is still more pathetic:

Ay-we but hear

Of the survivors' toil in their new lands,

Their numbers and success; but who can number

The hearts which broke in silence of that parting,

Or after their departure; of that malady {291a}

Which calls up green and native fields to view

From the rough deep with such identity

To the poor exile's fever'd eye, that he

Can scarcely be restrained from treading them?

That melody {291b} which out of tones and tunes

Collects such pastime for the ling'ring sorrow

Of the sad mountaineer, when far away

From his snow-canopy of cliffs and clouds,

That he feeds on the sweet but poisonous thought

And dies.-You call this weakness! It is strength,

I say-the parent of all honest feeling:

He who loves not his country can love nothing.

MARINA

Obey her then, 'tis she that puts thee forth.

JACOPO FOSCARI

Ay, there it is. 'Tis like a mother's curse

Upon my soul-the mark is set upon me.

The exiles you speak of went forth by nations;

Their hands upheld each other by the way;

Their tents were pitch'd together-I'm alone-

Ah, you never yet

Were far away from Venice-never saw

Her beautiful towers in the receding distance,

While every furrow of the vessel's track

Seem'd ploughing deep into your heart; you never

Saw day go down upon your native spires

So calmly with its gold and crimson glory,

And after dreaming a disturbed vision

Of them and theirs, awoke and found them not.

All this speaks of the voluntary exile's own regrets, and awakens sympathy for the anguish which pride concealed, but unable to repress, gave vent to in the imagined sufferings of one that was to him as Hecuba.

It was at Pisa that Werner, or The Inheritance, a tragedy, was written, or at least completed. It is taken entirely from the German's tale, Kruitzner, published many years before, by one of the Miss Lees, in their Canterbury Tales. So far back as 1815, Byron began a drama upon the same subject, and nearly completed an act when he was interrupted. "I have adopted," he says himself, "the characters, plan, and even the language of many parts of this story"; an acknowledgment which exempts it from that kind of criticism to which his principal works are herein subjected.

But The Deformed Transformed, which was also written at Pisa, is, though confessedly an imitation of Goethe's Faust, substantially an original work. In the opinion of Mr Moore, it probably owes something to the author's painful sensibility to the defect in his own foot; an accident which must, from the acuteness with which he felt it, have essentially contributed to enable him to comprehend and to express the envy of those afflicted with irremediable exceptions to the ordinary course of fortune, or who have been amerced by nature of their fair proportions. But save only a part of the first scene, the sketch will not rank among the felicitous works of the poet. It was intended to be a satire-probably, at least-but it is only a fragment-a failure.

Hitherto I have not noticed Don Juan otherwise than incidentally. It was commenced in Venice, and afterward continued at intervals to the end of the sixteenth canto, until the author left Pisa, when it was not resumed, at least no more has been published. Strong objections have been made to its moral tendency; but, in the opinion of many, it is the poet's masterpiece, and undoubtedly it displays all the variety of his powers, combined with a quaint playfulness not found to an equal degree in any other of his works. The serious and pathetic portions are exquisitely beautiful; the descriptive have all the distinctness of the best pictures in Childe Harold, and are, moreover, generally drawn from nature, while the satire is for the most part curiously associated and sparklingly witty. The characters are sketched with amazing firmness and freedom, and though sometimes grotesque, are yet not often overcharged. It is professedly an epic poem, but it may be more properly described as a poetical novel. Nor can it be said to inculcate any particular moral, or to do more than unmantle the decorum of society. Bold and buoyant throughout, it exhibits a free irreverent knowledge of the world, laughing or mocking as the thought serves, in the most unexpected antitheses to the proprieties of time, place, and circumstance.

The object of the poem is to describe the progress of a libertine through life, not an unprincipled prodigal, whose profligacy, growing with his growth, and strengthening with his strength, passes from voluptuous indulgence into the sordid sensuality of sys

tematic debauchery, but a young gentleman, who, whirled by the vigour and vivacity of his animal spirits into a world of adventures, in which his stars are chiefly in fault for his liaisons, settles at last into an honourable lawgiver, a moral speaker on divorce bills, and possibly a subscriber to the Society for the Suppression of Vice. The author has not completed his design, but such appears to have been the drift of it, affording ample opportunities to unveil the foibles and follies of all sorts of men-and women too. It is generally supposed to contain much of the author's own experience, but still, with all its riant knowledge of bowers and boudoirs, it is deficient as a true limning of the world, by showing man as if he were always ruled by one predominant appetite.

In the character of Donna Inez and Don José, it has been imagined that Lord Byron has sketched himself and his lady. It may be so; and if it were, he had by that time got pretty well over the lachrymation of their parting. It is no longer doubtful that the twenty-seventh stanza records a biographical fact, and the thirty-sixth his own feelings, when,

Poor fellow! he had many things to wound him,

Let's own, since it can do no good on earth;

It was a trying moment that which found him

Standing alone beside his desolate hearth,

Where all his household gods lay shiver'd round him:

No choice was left his feelings or his pride,

Save death or Doctors' Commons.

It has been already mentioned, that while the poet was at Dr Glennie's academy at Dulwich, he read an account of a shipwreck, which has been supposed to have furnished some of the most striking incidents in the description of the disastrous voyage in the second canto in Don Juan. I have not seen that work; but whatever Lord Byron may have found in it suitable to his purpose, he has undoubtedly made good use of his grandfather's adventures. The incident of the spaniel is related by the admiral.

In the licence of Don Juan, the author seems to have considered that his wonted accuracy might be dispensed with.

The description of Haidee applies to an Albanian, not a Greek girl. The splendour of her father's house is altogether preposterous; and the island has no resemblance to those of the Cyclades. With the exception of Zea, his Lordship, however, did not visit them. Some degree of error and unlike description, runs indeed through the whole of the still life around the portrait of Haidee. The fête which Lambro discovers on his return, is, however, prettily described; and the dance is as perfect as true.

And farther on a group of Grecian girls,

The first and tallest her white kerchief waving,

Were strung together like a row of pearls,

Link'd hand in hand and dancing; each too having

Down her white neck long floating auburn curls.

Their leader sang, and bounded to her song,

With choral step and voice, the virgin throng.

The account of Lambro proceeding to the house is poetically imagined; and, in his character, may be traced a vivid likeness of Ali Pasha, and happy illustrative allusions to the adventures of that chief.

The fourth canto was written at Ravenna; it is so said within itself; and the description of Dante's sepulchre there may be quoted for its truth, and the sweet modulation of the moral reflection interwoven with it.

I pass each day where Dante's bones are laid;

A little cupola, more neat than solemn,

Protects his dust; but reverence here is paid

To the bard's tomb and not the warrior's column.

The time must come when both alike decay'd,

The chieftain's trophy and the poet's volume

Will sink where lie the songs and wars of earth,

Before Pelides' death or Homer's birth.

The fifth canto was also written in Ravenna. But it is not my intention to analyze this eccentric and meandering poem; a composition which cannot be well estimated by extracts. Without, therefore, dwelling at greater length on its variety and merits. I would only observe that the general accuracy of the poet's descriptions is verified by that of the scenes in which Juan is placed in England, a point the reader may determine for himself; while the vagueness of the parts derived from books, or sketched from fancy, as contrasted with them, justifies the opinion, that invention was not the most eminent faculty of Byron, either in scenes or in characters. Of the demerits of the poem it is only necessary to remark, that it has been proscribed on account of its immorality; perhaps, however, there was more of prudery than of equity in the decision, at least it is liable to be so considered, so long as reprints are permitted of the older dramatists, with all their unpruned licentiousness.

But the wheels of Byron's destiny were now hurrying. Both in the conception and composition of Don Juan he evinced an increasing disregard of the world's opinion; and the project of The Liberal was still more fatal to his reputation. Not only were the invidious eyes of bigotry now eagerly fixed upon his conduct, but those of admiration were saddened and turned away from him. His principles, which would have been more correctly designated as paradoxes, were objects of jealousy to the Tuscan Government; and it has been already seen that there was a disorderliness about the Casa Lanfranchi which attracted the attention of the police. His situation in Pisa became, in consequence, irksome; and he resolved to remove to Genoa, an intention which he carried into effect about the end of September, 1822, at which period his thoughts began to gravitate towards Greece. Having attained to the summit of his literary eminence, he grew ambitious of trying fortune in another field of adventure.

In all the migrations of Lord Byron there was ever something grotesque and desultory. In moving from Ravenna to Pisa, his caravan consisted of seven servants, five carriages, nine horses, a monkey, a bulldog, and a mastiff, two cats, three peafowl, a harem of hens, books, saddles, and firearms, with a chaos of furniture nor was the exodus less fantastical; for in addition to all his own clanjamphry, he had Mr Hunt's miscellaneous assemblage of chattels and chattery and little ones.

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