Byron’s lyric poems are uneven in subject matter and execution, a quality accounted for, perhaps, by their intensely personal nature and by the fact that in some instances they look back toward the eighteenth century, in others toward the nineteenth. At their best they exhibit depth of feeling, simplicity of structure, and quality of style; at their worst they are squibs and occasional pieces which bite and sting but accomplish little.
The first volume of his lyric poems received greater attention than it deserved. Published originally as FUGITIVE PIECES, it was soon withdrawn and then reissued a year later as HOURS OF IDLENESS. In his preface Byron struck a pose that was to grow through the years into the character of the dark, melancholy, brooding Byronic hero. Apparently the foreword was intended to anticipate criticism, but its tone was intolerably condescending. These verses, said the author, were written by a young man who had just completed nineteen years of life; they might afford some amusement to other nineteen year olds, and probably they would be the last given to the public by the young nobleman.
The literary critic of the Edinburgh Review attacked the volume viciously, hoping that indeed this would be the last publication by the young nobleman, who must be thought an intruder in the groves of literature. This slashing attack elicited from Byron his own vicious ENGLISH BARDS AND SCOTCH REVIEWERS, in which he attacked not only his critic but innocent bystanders against whom he held harsh feelings, including Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey.
The poems in this volume are indeed slight. There are numerous pieces such as “Translation from Catullus,” “Translation of the Epitaph on Virgil and Tibullus,” “Imitation of Tibullus,” and “Imitated from Catullus.” There are also numerous poems addressed to young ladies. Most are conventional and worthless. Occasionally there are pieces which promise a more vigorous and individualized poet. Such is “When I roved a Young Highlander,” which reveals at least the presence of the life, muscle, and vigor that would subsequently drive the poet hectically through life.
The lyrics of later years are still in every way occasional, covering virtually all aspects of Byron’s life. Though they all show a development over the juvenilia of the first volume, they too vary widely in quality.
On the weaker side is “To a Vain Lady,” in which he pleads to a young girl not to disclose the foolish and deceitful compliments and pledges made to her by men, who as is well known are insincere in their protestations. The poet ends his plea with the statement that for the girl who reveals these amorous nothings he can have pity, but he cannot love her.
A considerably better poem is the direct and economically executed “When We Two Parted,” though it is on the same subject as the poem mentioned above. The poet and his love parted tearfully but silently. The author asks how he should greet her if they should meet now after all these years; his feeling is still one of tears and silence.
An infinitely superior poem is the justly famous “Maid of Athens, Ere we Part,” one of Byron’s best. The poem was written to Theresa Macri, a young girl whom he met in Athens while on the Grand Tour. A brief work of only four stanzas, with a refrain in Greek “My life, I love you” is a clean, honest statement of love and of the continuation of this love:
Maid of Athens, ere we part,Give, oh give me back my heart!Or, since that has left my breast,Keep it now, and take the rest!Hear my vow before I go,Zetaomegaeta...
(The entire section is 1584 words.)