"The Fatal Gift Of Beauty"
Context: Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage was written and published piecemeal. The poet finished the first two cantos in 1812, and reaped instant glory. Canto III, generally considered the best, with its references to Bonaparte and the Battle of Waterloo, was published in 1816, but Canto IV did not get into print until 1818. Byron wrote it during his stay in Venice in 1817, where gossip reported him living licentiously, yet he had the time to write this canto, the narrative poems Beppo and Mazeppa, and to begin his famous Don Juan. Canto IV is prefaced by a letter to John C. Hobhouse, (1786–1869), who had traveled with Byron on the trip through the Mediterranean that had inspired the first canto. In the preface, Byron declares that Harold the Pilgrim no longer exists for him. His poem has now become his own personal reactions. The canto begins with the famous lines, "I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs,/ A palace and a prison on each hand." Originally he had intended to discuss contemporary Italian Literature and Manners, but the discussion would have made the composition much too long. He sees about him too many great writers who will leave their mark upon their country's literature. So instead, he writes of the loveliness of storied Venice, whose gondoliers used to sing verses by Tasso. The changes in the city remind him of the changes in himself. He pauses to remark that, though he has traveled far and learned many languages, he wants to die in England and be remembered there. Then back to Venice whose history he learned as a child through the plays of many of the world's dramatists. His thoughts expand to include all of Italy. He thinks of Petrarch's tomb in Arqua, and of the "Bards of Hell and Chivalry," that is, Dante and Ariosto. Their homeland whose beauty attracted all the world has, for that reason, lost some of its power and glory, for those attracted to it have sapped its power and wealth. So he exclaims in Stanza 42:
Italia! oh, Italia! thou who hastThe fatal gift of beauty, which becameA funeral dower of present woes and past,On thy sweet brow is sorrow plough'd by shame,And annals graved in characters of flame.Oh, God!, that thou wert in thy nakednessLess lovely or more powerful, and couldst claimThy right, and awe the robbers back, who pressTo shed thy blood and drink the tears of thy distress.