Lord Byron on Poets & Poetry

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Embedded in canto III of Don Juan – stanzas 78-100 – is what can be consider’d Lord Byron’s ‘Apologie to poetry.’ It is a glorious mix of acute insight & criticism that reads amongst the best of his works. In the middle of the stanzas we can also find one of his most beautful ballads – named ‘The Isles of Greece’ – which invokes & laments the freedom of Greece. The extract begins with Juan & his recently acquired ladyfriend, Haidee, are lavishly entertaining in her father’s house, who they think as actually dead. Among the entertainers there is a famous poet which becomes the mouthpiece for Byron’s panaramic exposition of poetry.


And now they were diverted by their suite,
Dwarfs, dancing girls, black eunuchs, and a poet,
Which made their new establishment complete;
The last was of great fame, and liked to show it:
His verses rarely wanted their due feet;
And for his theme—he seldom sung below it,
He being paid to satirize or flatter,
As the psalm says, ‘inditing a good matter.’

He praised the present, and abused the past,
Reversing the good custom of old days,
An Eastern anti-jacobin at last
He turn’d, preferring pudding to no praise—
For some few years his lot had been o’ercast
By his seeming independent in his lays,
But now he sung the Sultan and the Pacha
With truth like Southey, and with verse like Crashaw.

He was a man who had seen many changes,
And always changed as true as any needle;
His polar star being one which rather ranges,
And not the fix’d—he knew the way to wheedle:
So vile he ‘scaped the doom which oft avenges;
And being fluent (save indeed when fee’d ill),
He lied with such a fervour of intention—
There was no doubt he earn’d his laureate pension.

But he had genius,—when a turncoat has it,
The ‘Vates irritabilis’ takes care
That without notice few full moons shall pass it;
Even good men like to make the public stare:—
But to my subject—let me see—what was it?-
O!—the third canto—and the pretty pair—
Their loves, and feasts, and house, and dress, and mode
Of living in their insular abode.

Their poet, a sad trimmer, but no less
In company a very pleasant fellow,
Had been the favourite of full many a mess
Of men, and made them speeches when half mellow;
And though his meaning they could rarely guess,
Yet still they deign’d to hiccup or to bellow
The glorious meed of popular applause,
Of which the first ne’er knows the second cause.

But now being lifted into high society,
And having pick’d up several odds and ends
Of free thoughts in his travels for variety,
He deem’d, being in a lone isle, among friends,
That, without any danger of a riot, he
Might for long lying make himself amends;
And, singing as he sung in his warm youth,
Agree to a short armistice with truth.

He had travell’d ‘mongst the Arabs, Turks, and Franks,
And knew the self-loves of the different nations;
And having lived with people of all ranks,
Had something ready upon most occasions—
Which got him a few presents and some thanks.
He varied with some skill his adulations;
To ‘do at Rome as Romans do,’ a piece
Of conduct was which he observed in Greece.

Thus, usually, when he was ask’d to sing,
He gave the different nations something national;
‘T was all the same to him—’God save the king,’
Or ‘Ca ira,’ according to the fashion all:
His muse made increment of any thing,
From the high lyric down to the low rational:
If Pindar sang horse-races, what should hinder
Himself from being as pliable as Pindar?

In France, for instance, he would write a chanson;
In England a six canto quarto tale;
In Spain, he’d make a ballad or romance on
The last war—much the same in Portugal;
In Germany, the Pegasus he ‘d prance on
Would be old Goethe’s (see what says De Stael);
In Italy he ‘d ape the ‘Trecentisti;’
In Greece, he sing some sort of hymn like this t’ ye:


THE ISLES OF GREECE.

The isles of Greece, the Isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.

The Scian and the Teian muse,
The hero’s harp, the lover’s lute,
Have found the fame your shores refuse;
Their place of birth alone is mute
To sounds which echo further west
Than your sires’ ‘Islands of the Blest.’

The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians’ grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.

A king sate on the rocky brow
Which looks o’er sea-born Salamis;
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations;—all were his!
He counted them at break of day—
And when the sun set where were they?

And where are they? and where art thou,
My country? On thy voiceless shore
The heroic lay is tuneless now—
The heroic bosom beats no more!
And must thy lyre, so long divine,
Degenerate into hands like mine?

‘T is something, in the dearth of fame,
Though link’d among a fetter’d race,
To feel at least a patriot’s shame,
Even as I sing, suffuse my face;
For what is left the poet here?
For Greeks a blush—for Greece a tear.

Must we but weep o’er days more blest?
Must we but blush?—Our fathers bled.
Earth! render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae!

What, silent still? and silent all?
Ah! no;—the voices of the dead
Sound like a distant torrent’s fall,
And answer, ‘Let one living head,
But one arise,—we come, we come!’
‘T is but the living who are dumb.

In vain—in vain: strike other chords;
Fill high the cup with Samian wine!
Leave battles to the Turkish hordes,
And shed the blood of Scio’s vine!
Hark! rising to the ignoble call—
How answers each bold Bacchanal!

You have the Pyrrhic dance as yet,
Where is the Pyrrhic phalanx gone?
Of two such lessons, why forget
The nobler and the manlier one?
You have the letters Cadmus gave—
Think ye he meant them for a slave?

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
We will not think of themes like these!
It made Anacreon’s song divine:
He served—but served Polycrates—
A tyrant; but our masters then
Were still, at least, our countrymen.

The tyrant of the Chersonese
Was freedom’s best and bravest friend;
That tyrant was Miltiades!
O! that the present hour would lend
Another despot of the kind!
Such chains as his were sure to bind.

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
On Suli’s rock, and Parga’s shore,
Exists the remnant of a line
Such as the Doric mothers bore;
And there, perhaps, some seed is sown,
The Heracleidan blood might own.

Trust not for freedom to the Franks—
They have a king who buys and sells;
In native swords, and native ranks,
The only hope of courage dwells;
But Turkish force, and Latin fraud,
Would break your shield, however broad.

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
Our virgins dance beneath the shade—
I see their glorious black eyes shine;
But gazing on each glowing maid,
My own the burning tear-drop laves,
To think such breasts must suckle slaves

Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swan-like, let me sing and die:
A land of slaves shall ne’er be mine—
Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!


Thus sung, or would, or could, or should have sung,
The modern Greek, in tolerable verse;
If not like Orpheus quite, when Greece was young,
Yet in these times he might have done much worse:
His strain display’d some feeling—right or wrong;
And feeling, in a poet, is the source
Of others’ feeling; but they are such liars,
And take all colours—like the hands of dyers.

But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think;
‘T is strange, the shortest letter which man uses
Instead of speech, may form a lasting link
Of ages; to what straits old Time reduces
Frail man, when paper—even a rag like this,
Survives himself, his tomb, and all that ‘s his.

And when his bones are dust, his grave a blank,
His station, generation, even his nation,
Become a thing, or nothing, save to rank
In chronological commemoration,
Some dull MS. oblivion long has sank,
Or graven stone found in a barrack’s station
In digging the foundation of a closet,
May turn his name up, as a rare deposit.

And glory long has made the sages smile;
‘T is something, nothing, words, illusion, wind—
Depending more upon the historian’s style
Than on the name a person leaves behind:
Troy owes to Homer what whist owes to Hoyle:
The present century was growing blind
To the great Marlborough’s skill in giving knocks,
Until his late life by Archdeacon Coxe.

Milton ‘s the prince of poets—so we say;
A little heavy, but no less divine:
An independent being in his day—
Learn’d, pious, temperate in love and wine;
But, his life falling into Johnson’s way,
We ‘re told this great high priest of all the Nine
Was whipt at college—a harsh sire—odd spouse,
For the first Mrs. Milton left his house.

All these are, certes, entertaining facts,
Like Shakspeare’s stealing deer, Lord Bacon’s bribes;
Like Titus’ youth, and Caesar’s earliest acts;
Like Burns (whom Doctor Currie well describes);
Like Cromwell’s pranks;—but although truth exacts
These amiable descriptions from the scribes,
As most essential to their hero’s story,
They do not much contribute to his glory.

All are not moralists, like Southey, when
He prated to the world of ‘Pantisocracy;’
Or Wordsworth unexcised, unhired, who then
Season’d his pedlar poems with democracy;
Or Coleridge, long before his flighty pen
Let to the Morning Post its aristocracy;
When he and Southey, following the same path,
Espoused two partners (milliners of Bath).

Such names at present cut a convict figure,
The very Botany Bay in moral geography;
Their loyal treason, renegado rigour,
Are good manure for their more bare biography.
Wordsworth’s last quarto, by the way, is bigger
Than any since the birthday of typography;
A drowsy frowzy poem, call’d the ‘Excursion.’
Writ in a manner which is my aversion.

He there builds up a formidable dyke
Between his own and others’ intellect;
But Wordsworth’s poem, and his followers, like
Joanna Southcote’s Shiloh, and her sect,
Are things which in this century don’t strike
The public mind,—so few are the elect;
And the new births of both their stale virginities
Have proved but dropsies, taken for divinities.

But let me to my story: I must own,
If I have any fault, it is digression—
Leaving my people to proceed alone,
While I soliloquize beyond expression;
But these are my addresses from the throne,
Which put off business to the ensuing session:
Forgetting each omission is a loss to
The world, not quite so great as Ariosto.

I know that what our neighbours call ‘longueurs’
(We ‘ve not so good a word, but have the thing
In that complete perfection which ensures
An epic from Bob Southey every spring),
Form not the true temptation which allures
The reader; but ‘t would not be hard to bring
Some fine examples of the epopee,
To prove its grand ingredient is ennui.

We learn from Horace, ‘Homer sometimes sleeps;’
We feel without him, Wordsworth sometimes wakes,—
To show with what complacency he creeps,
With his dear ‘Waggoners,’ around his lakes.
He wishes for ‘a boat’ to sail the deeps—
Of ocean?—No, of air; and then he makes
Another outcry for ‘a little boat,’
And drivels seas to set it well afloat.

If he must fain sweep o’er the ethereal plain,
And Pegasus runs restive in his ‘Waggon,’
Could he not beg the loan of Charles’s Wain?
Or pray Medea for a single dragon?
Or if, too classic for his vulgar brain,
He fear’d his neck to venture such a nag on,
And he must needs mount nearer to the moon,
Could not the blockhead ask for a balloon?

‘Pedlars,’ and ‘Boats,’ and ‘Waggons!’ Oh! ye shades
Of Pope and Dryden, are we come to this?
That trash of such sort not alone evades
Contempt, but from the bathos’ vast abyss
Floats scumlike uppermost, and these Jack Cades
Of sense and song above your graves may hiss—
The ‘little boatman’ and his ‘Peter Bell’
Can sneer at him who drew ‘Achitophel’!

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