Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1584
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...
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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 Published originally as FUGITIVE PIECES, it was soon withdrawn and then reissued a year later as HOURS OF IDLENESS.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 muomicronupsilon, sigmaas agammaapiomega.By those tresses unconfined,Woo’d by each AEgean wind;By those lids whose jetty fringeKiss thy soft cheeks’ blooming tinge;By those wild eyes like the roe,Zetaomegaeta muomicronupsilon, sigmaas agammaapiomega.By that lip I long to taste;By that zone-encircled waist;By all the token-flowers that tellWhat words can never speak so well;By love’s alternate joy and woe,Zetaomegaeta muomicronupsilon, sigmaas agammaapiomega.Maid of Athens! I am gone:Think of me, sweet! when alone.Though I fly to Istambol,Athens holds my heart and soul:Can I cease to love thee? No!Zetaomegaeta muomicronupsilon, sigmaas agammaapiomega.
Another effective lyric is “So, We’ll Go No More A-Roving,” which is informed by a genuine and unmaudlin nostalgia for the joys of the past strengthened by the realization that all things, even love, must end.
ISo, we’ll go no more a-rovingSo late late into the night,Though the heart be still as loving,And the moon be still as bright.IIFor the sword outwears its sheath,And the soul wears out the breast,And the heart must pause to breathe,And love itself have rest.IIIThough the night was made for loving,And the day returns too soon,Yet we’ll go no more a-rovingBy the light of the moon.
Some of Byron’s best lyrics are those addressed to his very good friend, the poet Thomas Moore. These lyrics are masculine, lively, and expressive of genuine good spirits. Perhaps the best is entitled “To Thomas Moore,” in which Byron says that his boat is on the shore and his bark is on the sea, but before he sails away he will drink a double health to Tom Moore.
Without question, several of Byron’s most superb lyrics are the so-called “Hebrew Melodies,” which according to Byron’s prefatory remarks were written at the request of a friend, Douglas Kinnaird, and were to be set to traditional Hebrew tunes, as arranged by a young musician named Isaac Nathan. “She Walks in Beauty,” one of the best of these and one of the best known, was written the morning after Byron met a beautiful young cousin, Mrs. Robert John Wilmot, who was wearing a black mourning gown, the beauty of which was highlighted with spangles. The poem is a genuine, unposed, tender, and honest compliment to beauty and innocence.
IShe walks in beauty, like the nightOf cloudless climes and starry skies;And all tha’s best of dark and brightMeet in her aspect and her eyes:Thus mellow’d to that tender lightWhich heaven to gaudy day denies.IIOne shade, the more, one ray the less,Had half impair’d the nameless graceWhich waves in every raven tress,Or softly lightens o’er her face;Where thoughts serenely sweet expressHow pure, how dear their dwelling-place.IIIAnd on that cheek, and o’er that brow,So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,The smiles that win, the tints that glow,But tell of days in goodness spent,A mind at peace with all below,A heart whose love is innocent!
Another famous lyric from “Hebrew Melodies” is the well-known, “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” with the beginning lines that compare the onset of the Assyrian to that of the wolf on the fold, with the cohorts gleaming in gold and purple, with spears shining like stars on the sea of Galilee.
In both such pieces Byron was at his best, vigorous, fluent, easy, direct, honest, and without the pose that characterized his longer works and often his short ones as well.
One of Byron’s pieces that should be included in this discussion is scarcely a lyric at all except in the sheer power of the subject and of the author’s execution. It is “Darkness,” dated at Diodati in July, 1816. Written in blank verse, it depicts the end of the world, the final destruction of life on earth. It is a dream but more than a dream. The sun is extinguished; the stars wander in space. The earth is icy and swings back and forth aimlessly, cold and killing. The people are dying. The lucky ones are those who can warm themselves by volcanoes. All men are enervated by despair. Wild animals are tamed by the terror of their situations. Even the vipers are without sting, and are slain and eaten. War which had been stilled a moment broke out again in a struggle for the survival of the strongest. Finally, in this world of despair and tearing of the weak by the strong, only two persons survive, enemies. They meet beside an altar. Surviving for a moment on the ashes around that holy place, they suddenly look up and see each other, then shriek and die, slain by the hideousness of each other’s visage. The world is left in blackness and desolation, with Darkness the mistress of all:
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,And their masts fell down piecemeal:as they dropp’dThey slept on the abyss without asurge-—The waves were dead; the tides were intheir grave,The moon, their mistress, had expiredbefore;The winds were wither’d in the stag-nant air,And the clouds perish’d; Darkness hadno needOf aid from them—She was the Uni-verse.
This poem, like Byron’s lyrics at their best, is powerfully imagined and executed with true poetic skill and restraint.
Byron’s great lyrics are not numerous. Often they are weak or mediocre because of the speed of their writing; Byron once said that he had written most of his poetry while either dressing or undressing. Often they suffer from the nature of the subject, being trivial treatments of trivial themes. But when he exercised his best skill on worthy topics the results rank high indeed among lyric poems of the early nineteenth century.