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Sunday
Apr102011

On Lord Byron (part 2)

The conclusion to an essay by this French man of letters on this English poet.  You can read the original here.

And when necessary, this literature does not hesitate to involve itself in public disagreements so as to judge or pacify them.  For we are no longer in the days of bucolic songs, and it is not the muse of the nineteenth century who can say:

I am not agitated by the rods of the populace, but by the purple of kings.

Nevertheless this literature, like all the matters of humanity, presents in its very unity both its somber and its consoling aspects.   In its bosom two schools have been formed which represent the dual situation where our political woes have left, respectively, their spirits, resignation and despair.  Both of them recognize what a philosophy of mockery had denied: namely, the eternity of God, the immortal soul, the primordial truths and the revealed truths.  But one is to be adored and one to be damned.  The first sees to the very top of heaven; the second to the very depths of hell.  The first places in the cradle of man an angel whom he will find again on his deathbed; the second surrounds him with its demon steps, phantoms and sinister apparitions.  The first asks for his trust because he will never be alone; the second scares him by isolating him unceasingly.  Both of them possess the ability to sketch gracious scenes and outline terrible figures; but the first, careful never to break one's heart, provides the most somber pictures with some kind of divine gleam; the second, careful always to sadden, spreads an infernal light into his happiest pictures.  The first, in short, resembles Emmanuel, soft and strong, traversing his kingdom in a chariot of lightning and illumination; the second is proud Satan [2] who bore with him so many stars in his fall when he tumbled from the sky.  These two twin schools, founded upon the same basis, and born, as it were, in the same cradle, seem to us, at least in European literature, to be exemplified by two illustrious geniuses, Chateaubriand and Byron.            

Leaving behind our prodigious revolutions, two political orders were fighting on the same soil.  An old society had just collapsed, and a new society was beginning to develop.  Here were ruins, there were sketches and blueprints.  Lord Byron, in his funereal lamentations, expressed the last convulsions of the dying society; Chateaubriand, with his sublime inspiration, attended to the initial needs of the reanimated society.  The voice of one is like a swan song at the hour of its death; the voice of the other is akin to the call of the phoenix rising in rebirth from the ash. 
 By the sadness of his genius, by the arrogance of his character, by the tempests of his life, Lord Byron's is the type of poetry of which he was the poet.  All his works are profoundly marked by the stamp of his individuality.  It is invariably a somber and haughty figure that the reader sees in each poem as if through a mourning veil.  Subject at times, as are all deep thinkers, to vagueness and obscurity, he has words which probe every corner of one's soul, sighs which recount an entire existence.  It seems that his heart is ajar to every potentially rattling thought like a volcano which spews forth lightning flashes.   Pain, joy, and passion are to him no mysteries at all, and he only allows himself to view real objects through a veil, stripping bare the ideal areas.  One may reproach him for his absolute negligence of order in his poems; a serious flaw, since a poem which lacks order is an edifice without a framework or a painting without perspective.  He also pushes too far the lyrical disdain of his transitions.  And sometimes it would be desirable for this painter so faithful to inner emotions to cast less fantastic lights and less vaporous hues upon his physical descriptions.  Too often his genius resembles a person out on an aimless stroll who dreams as he walks and who, absorbed by his profound intuition, can only relay a confused image of the places he traverses.  Whatever he may be, even in his least beautiful works, this capricious imagination raises him to heights unreachable without wings.  Even though the eagle wishes to keep his eyes focused on the ground, he cannot keep himself from that sublime view whose reach stretches to the sun [3].  It has been thought that the author of Don Juan belonged, in some aspect of his mind, to the school of the author of Candide.  Quite wrong!  There is a profound difference between the laughter of Byron and the laughter of Voltaire: Voltaire did not suffer. 
 Here would be the place to say something about the very tormented life of the noble poet.  But in our uncertainty about the real causes of the domestic woes which had rendered his character sharper and more bitter, we would do better not to say a word, for fear that our pens would stray despite our efforts.  Not knowing Lord Byron apart from through his poems, it comforts us to imagine a life for him in accordance with his soul and his genius.  Like all great men he certainly fell prey to calumny; to that last violence upon him we can attribute the noise that has long since accompanied the name of the poet.  Besides, the person offended by these wrongs was surely the first to forget them in the presence of his death.  We hope that these have been forgiven, for we count ourselves among those who do not think that hate and vengeance have anything to carve on a tombstone.
And for this reason let us forgive him his faults and errors, including the works in which he seemed to have descended from the twin heights of his character and his talent.  Let us forgive him: after all he has died so nobly, falling as a great man!  And in so doing he was much like a warlike emissary of a modern muse in the land of ancient muses.  A generous auxiliary to glory, religion and liberty, he brought his sword and his lyre to the descendents of the first warriors and the first poets, and already the weight of his laurels tipped the balance in favor of the unhappy Hellenes.  We owe him, we in particular, profound acknowledgment.   He proved to Europe that the poets of the new school, however they may no longer adore the gods of pagan Greece, still admire its heroes; and that if they have deserted Olympus, at least they never bid farewell to Thermopyles.   
The death of Byron has been received throughout the continent by signs of universal grief.  The cannon of the Greeks long saluted his remains, and a national period of bereavement was consecrated to the loss of this stranger amidst all the public calamities.  The prideful doors of Westminster opened as if by themselves so that the tomb of the poet may honor the sepulcher of kings.  What will we say to that?  Amidst these glorious marks of general affliction we looked for what kind of solemn expression of enthusiasm Paris, that capital of Europe, rendered to the heroic shadow of Byron, and found only a bauble that insulted his lyre and trestles that blasphemed his coffin [4]!
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[2] : Here a simple reference would not suffice to justify the title of 'Satanic school' by which a talented man once designated the school of Lord Byron.

[3] : At a time where all of Europe is paying stupendous homage to the genius of Lord Byron, declared a great man since the time of his death, the reader may be curious to reread here a few quotes from that remarkable article in which the Edinburgh Review, an accredited newspaper, mentioned the illustrious poet and his first efforts.  Moreover, it is in precisely this tone that certain newspapers entertain us every morning or evening on the subject of the foremost talents of our era:

"The poesy of this young lord belongs to the class which neither God nor man are said to permit .... His effusions are spread over a dead flat, and can no more get above or below the level than if they were so much stagnant water.  As an extenuation of this offence, the noble author is peculiarly forward in pleading minority .... He possibly means to say, 'See how a minor can write!' .... But, alas, we all remember the poetry of Cowley at ten, and Pope at twelve; and, so far from hearing with any degree of surprise that very poor verses were written by a youth from his leaving school to his leaving college inclusive, we really believe this to be the most common of all occurrences;-that it happens in the life of nine men in ten who are educated in England, and that the tenth man writes better verse than Lord Byron.

"In truth, it is this consideration only that induces us to give Lord Byron's poems a place in our Review, besides our desire to counsel him, that he do forthwith abandon poetry, and turn his talents, which are considerable, and his opportunities, which are great, to better account.

""With this view we must beg leave seriously to assure him, that the mere rhyming of the final syllable, even when accompanied by the presence of a certain number of feet; nay, although (which does not always happen) these feet should scan regularly, and have been all counted upon the fingers, is not the whole art of poetry. We would entreat him to believe that a certain portion of liveliness, somewhat of fancy, is necessary to constitute a poem; and that a poem in the present day, to be read, must contain at least one thought, even in a little degree different from the ideas of former writers, or differently expressed.

""Lord Byron should also have a care of attempting what the greatest poets have done before him, for comparisons (as he must have had occasion to see at his writing-master's) are odious.

"As to his Ossian poesy, we are not very good judges; being, in truth, so moderately skilled in that species of composition, that we should, in all probability, be criticising some bit of genuine Macpherson itself, were we to express our opinion of Lord Byron's rhapsodies.... we can so far venture an opinion in their favour, that they look very like Macpherson; and we are positive they are pretty nearly as stupid and tiresome.

"As the author has dedicated so large a part of his volume to immortalize his employments at school and college, we cannot possibly dismiss it without presenting the reader with a specimen of these ingenious effusions [the quote follows].

"But whatever judgment may be passed on the poems of this noble minor, it seems we must take them as we find them, and be content for they are the last we shall ever have from him .... whether it succeeds or not, it is highly improbable, from his situation and pursuits, that he should again condescend to become an author. Therefore, let us take what we get and be thankful. What right have we poor devils to be nice? We are well off to have got so much from a man of this lord's station .... Again we say, let us be thankful; and, with honest Sancho, bid God bless the giver, nor look the gift-horse in the mouth.

Lord Byron would deign to avenge this miserable jumble of platitudes, the perpetual topic endlessly reproduced by envious mediocrity against genius.  The authors of the Edinburgh Review were compelled to recognize his talent beneath the blows of a satiric whip.  The example seems good to follow; nevertheless, we will declare that we would have preferred to see Lord Byron show them the silence of contempt.  If it hadn't been at the behest of his best interest, it could at least have been the advice of his dignity.

[4] : Several days after the news of Lord Byron's death one could still find playing, in some tawdry theater whose name escapes me, a farce of bad tone and taste in which this noble poet is cast as a character with the ridiculous name of Lord Three-Star.

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