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Victorian Poetry

Lord Byron

The poet George Gordon, known as Lord Byron (1788-1824), was one of the Romantic movement's most important and versatile writers.

 Lord Byron, 1814 Byron was born in London on January 22, 1788. His father died three years later. His childhood was dominated by a sternly Calvinist mother, a nurse who sexually abused and beat him, and painful medical treatment for his club foot. He began his schooling in Aberdeen, Scotland.
He succeeded to the title and estates of his granduncle William, 5th Baron Byron, upon William's death in 1798. Lord Byron adopted the name Noel as his third given name in 1822, in order to receive an inheritance from his mother-in-law.
In compensation for his deformity he prided himself on his physical prowess, particularly in swimming. While at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge he gained a reputation for atheism, radicalism and loose-living, keeping a bear as a pet for a time.
In 1809 Byron took his seat in the House of Lords. Also in 1809 he began two years of travel in Portugal, Spain, Malta, Albania, Greece, and Turkey, involving himself in self-consciously romantic adventures. He swam across the Hellespont like Leander in the Greek legend, and dressed in Albanian costume.
Lionized in society by his new found literary fame, and pursued by various women (including Lady Caroline Lamb), in 1815 Byron decided to marry Anna Isabella Milbanke, a naive and inexperienced young woman. After giving birth to a daughter, Augusta Ada, Byron's only legitimate child, Lady Byron left her husband, despairing of ever reforming him. In 1816, Byron agreed to legal separation from his wife. Rumors about his incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, which produced a daughter, Medora, and doubts about his sanity led to his being ostracized by society. Deeply embittered, Byron left England in 1816 and never returned.
Byron then met up with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (the future Mary Shelley) in Switzerland. Along with Mary's half-sister Claire Clairmont, and Byron's doctor, Polidori, they spent the summer together entertaining each other with horrific stories from their imaginations. These stories were the seed of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. A child was produced from his relationship with Claire Clairmont around this time, but Allegra, as she was named, died in infancy.
He next travelled to Italy where, after a period of sexual promiscuity with all kinds of women, he eventually fell in love with Countess Teresa Guiccioli, the 19-year-old wife of an elderly Italian nobleman. After following her to Pisa in 1821, he finally became uncomfortable in the role of tolerated lover.
When his good friend Shelley died by drowning in 1822, he decided to throw himself into the cause of Greek independence from the Turks. He not only recruited a regiment for the cause of Greek independence but contributed large sums of money to it. The Greeks made him commander in chief of their forces in January 1824.
In Greece he also had a disappointed passion for a youth, Loukas, and began to feel his age, expressed poignantly in the lyric "On this Day I complete my Thirty-Sixth Year". He contracted malaria, was bled several times by his doctors, and died at Missolonghi on April 19, 1824.

Some examples of Byron's work:

A Very Small Part of Canto II of 'Don Juan'


With slow and staggering effort he arose,

But sunk again upon his bleeding knee

And quivering hand; and then he look'd for those

Who long had been his mates upon the sea;

But none of them appear'd to share his woes,

Save one, a corpse, from out the famish'd three,

Who died two days before, and now had found
An unknown barren beach for burial ground.


And as he gazed, his dizzy brain spun fast,

And down he sunk; and as he sunk, the sand

Swam round and round, and all his senses pass'd:

He fell upon his side, and his stretch'd hand

Droop'd dripping on the oar (their jurymast),

And, like a wither'd lily, on the land

His slender frame and pallid aspect lay,
As fair a thing as e'er was form'd of clay.


How long in his damp trance young Juan lay

He knew not, for the earth was gone for him,

And Time had nothing more of night nor day

For his congealing blood, and senses dim;

And how this heavy faintness pass'd away

He knew not, till each painful pulse and limb,

And tingling vein, seem'd throbbing back to life,
For Death, though vanquish'd, still retired with strife.


His eyes he open'd, shut, again unclosed,

For all was doubt and dizziness; he thought

He still was in the boat and had but dozed,

And felt again with his despair o'erwrought,

And wish'd it death in which he had reposed;

And then once more his feelings back were brought,

And slowly by his swimming eyes was seen
A lovely female face of seventeen.


'T was bending dose o'er his, and the small mouth

Seem'd almost prying into his for breath;

And chafing him, the soft warm hand of youth

Recall'd his answering spirits back from death;

And, bathing his chill temples, tried to soothe

Each pulse to animation, till beneath

Its gentle touch and trembling care, a sigh
To these kind efforts made a low reply.


Then was the cordial pour'd, and mantle flung

Around his scarce-clad limbs; and the fair arm

Raised higher the faint head which o'er it hung;

And her transparent cheek, all pure and warm,

Pillow'd his death-like forehead; then she wrung

His dewy curls, long drench'd by every storm;

And watch'd with eagerness each throb that drew
A sigh from his heaved bosom -- and hers, too.


And lifting him with care into the cave,

The gentle girl and her attendant, -- one

Young, yet her elder, and of brow less grave,

And more robust of figure, -- then begun

To kindle fire, and as the new flames gave

Light to the rocks that roof'd them, which the sun

Had never seen, the maid, or whatsoe'er
She was, appear'd distinct, and tall, and fair.


Her brow was overhung with coins of gold,

That sparkled o'er the auburn of her hair --

Her clustering hair, whose longer locks were roll'd

In braids behind; and though her stature were

Even of the highest for a female mould,

They nearly reach'd her heel; and in her air

There was a something which bespoke command,
As one who was a lady in the land.


Her hair, I said, was auburn; but her eyes

Were black as death, their lashes the same hue,

Of downcast length, in whose silk shadow lies

Deepest attraction; for when to the view

Forth from its raven fringe the full glance flies,

Ne'er with such force the swiftest arrow flew;

'T is as the snake late coil'd, who pours his length,
And hurls at once his venom and his strength.


Her brow was white and low, her cheek's pure dye

Like twilight rosy still with the set sun;

Short upper lip -- sweet lips! that make us sigh

Ever to have seen such; for she was one

Fit for the model of a statuary

(A race of mere impostors, when all's done --

I've seen much finer women, ripe and real,
Than all the nonsense of their stone ideal).


I'll tell you why I say so, for 't is just

One should not rail without a decent cause:

There was an Irish lady, to whose bust

I ne'er saw justice done, and yet she was

A frequent model; and if e'er she must

Yield to stern Time and Nature's wrinkling laws,

They will destroy a face which mortal thought
Ne'er compass'd, nor less mortal chisel wrought.


And such was she, the lady of the cave:

Her dress was very different from the Spanish,

Simpler, and yet of colours not so grave;

For, as you know, the Spanish women banish

Bright hues when out of doors, and yet, while wave

Around them (what I hope will never vanish)

The basquina and the mantilla, they
Seem at the same time mystical and gay.


But with our damsel this was not the case:

Her dress was many-colour'd, finely spun;

Her locks curl'd negligently round her face,

But through them gold and gems profusely shone:

Her girdle sparkled, and the richest lace

Flow'd in her veil, and many a precious stone

Flash'd on her little hand; but, what was shocking,
Her small snow feet had slippers, but no stocking.


The other female's dress was not unlike,

But of inferior materials: she

Had not so many ornaments to strike,

Her hair had silver only, bound to be

Her dowry; and her veil, in form alike,

Was coarser; and her air, though firm, less free;

Her hair was thicker, but less long; her eyes
As black, but quicker, and of smaller size.


And these two tended him, and cheer'd him both

With food and raiment, and those soft attentions,

Which are (as I must own) of female growth,

And have ten thousand delicate inventions:

They made a most superior mess of broth,

A thing which poesy but seldom mentions,

But the best dish that e'er was cook'd since Homer's
Achilles ordered dinner for new comers.


I'll tell you who they were, this female pair,

Lest they should seem princesses in disguise;

Besides, I hate all mystery, and that air

Of clap-trap which your recent poets prize;

And so, in short, the girls they really were

They shall appear before your curious eyes,

Mistress and maid; the first was only daughter
Of an old man who lived upon the water.


A fisherman he had been in his youth,

And still a sort of fisherman was he;

But other speculations were, in sooth,

Added to his connection with the sea,

Perhaps not so respectable, in truth:

A little smuggling, and some piracy,

Left him, at last, the sole of many masters
Of an ill-gotten million of piastres.


A fisher, therefore, was he, -- though of men,

Like Peter the Apostle, -- and he fish'd

For wandering merchant-vessels, now and then,

And sometimes caught as many as he wish'd;

The cargoes he confiscated, and gain

He sought in the slave-market too, and dish'd

Full many a morsel for that Turkish trade,
By which, no doubt, a good deal may be made.


He was a Greek, and on his isle had built

(One of the wild and smaller Cyclades)

A very handsome house from out his guilt,

And there he lived exceedingly at ease;

Heaven knows what cash he got or blood he spilt,

A sad old fellow was he, if you please;

But this I know, it was a spacious building,
Full of barbaric carving, paint, and gilding.


He had an only daughter, call'd Haidée,

The greatest heiress of the Eastern Isles;

Besides, so very beautiful was she,

Her dowry was as nothing to her smiles:

Still in her teens, and like a lovely tree

She grew to womanhood, and between whiles

Rejected several suitors, just to learn
How to accept a better in his turn.


And walking out upon the beach, below

The cliff, towards sunset, on that day she found,

Insensible, -- not dead, but nearly so, --

Don Juan, almost famish'd, and half drown'd;

But being naked, she was shock'd, you know,

Yet deem'd herself in common pity bound,

As far as in her lay, 'to take him in,
A stranger' dying, with so white a skin.


But taking him into her father's house

Was not exactly the best way to save,

But like conveying to the cat the mouse,

Or people in a trance into their grave;

Because the good old man had so much "nous,"

Unlike the honest Arab thieves so brave,

He would have hospitably cured the stranger,
And sold him instantly when out of danger.


And therefore, with her maid, she thought it best

(A virgin always on her maid relies)

To place him in the cave for present rest:

And when, at last, he open'd his black eyes,

Their charity increased about their guest;

And their compassion grew to such a size,

It open'd half the turnpike-gates to heaven
(St. Paul says, 't is the toll which must be given).


They made a fire, -- but such a fire as they

Upon the moment could contrive with such

Materials as were cast up round the bay, --

Some broken planks, and oars, that to the touch

Were nearly tinder, since so long they lay,

A mast was almost crumbled to a crutch;

But, by God's grace, here wrecks were in such plenty,
That there was fuel to have furnish'd twenty.


He had a bed of furs, and a pelisse,

For Haidée stripped her sables off to make

His couch; and, that he might be more at ease,

And warm, in case by chance he should awake,

They also gave a petticoat apiece,

She and her maid -- and promised by daybreak

To pay him a fresh visit, with a dish
For breakfast, of eggs, coffee, bread, and fish.


And thus they left him to his lone repose:

Juan slept like a top, or like the dead,

Who sleep at last, perhaps (God only knows),

Just for the present; and in his lull'd head

Not even a vision of his former woes

Throbb'd in accursed dreams, which sometimes spread

Unwelcome visions of our former years,
Till the eye, cheated, opens thick with tears.


Young Juan slept all dreamless: -- but the maid,

Who smooth'd his pillow, as she left the den

Look'd back upon him, and a moment stay'd,

And turn'd, believing that he call'd again.

He slumber'd; yet she thought, at least she said

(The heart will slip, even as the tongue and pen),

He had pronounced her name -- but she forgot
That at this moment Juan knew it not.


And pensive to her father's house she went,

Enjoining silence strict to Zoë, who

Better than her knew what, in fact, she meant,

She being wiser by a year or two:

A year or two's an age when rightly spent,

And Zoë spent hers, as most women do,

In gaining all that useful sort of knowledge
Which is acquired in Nature's good old college.


The morn broke, and found Juan slumbering still

Fast in his cave, and nothing clash'd upon

His rest; the rushing of the neighbouring rill,

And the young beams of the excluded sun,

Troubled him not, and he might sleep his fill;

And need he had of slumber yet, for none

Had suffer'd more -- his hardships were comparative
To those related in my grand-dad's "Narrative."


Not so Haidée: she sadly toss'd and tumbled,

And started from her sleep, and, turning o'er

Dream'd of a thousand wrecks, o'er which she stumbled,

And handsome corpses strew'd upon the shore;

And woke her maid so early that she grumbled,

And call'd her father's old slaves up, who swore

In several oaths -- Armenian, Turk, and Greek --
They knew not what to think of such a freak.


But up she got, and up she made them get,

With some pretence about the sun, that makes

Sweet skies just when he rises, or is set;

And 't is, no doubt, a sight to see when breaks

Bright Phoebus, while the mountains still are wet

With mist, and every bird with him awakes,

And night is flung off like a mourning suit
Worn for a husband, -- or some other brute.


I say, the sun is a most glorious sight,

I've seen him rise full oft, indeed of late

I have sat up on purpose all the night,

Which hastens, as physicians say, one's fate;

And so all ye, who would be in the right

In health and purse, begin your day to date

From daybreak, and when coffin'd at fourscore,
Engrave upon the plate, you rose at four.


And Haidée met the morning face to face;

Her own was freshest, though a feverish flush

Had dyed it with the headlong blood, whose race

From heart to cheek is curb'd into a blush,

Like to a torrent which a mountain's base,

That overpowers some Alpine river's rush,

Checks to a lake, whose waves in circles spread;
Or the Red Sea -- but the sea is not red.


And down the cliff the island virgin came,

And near the cave her quick light footsteps drew,

While the sun smiled on her with his first flame,

And young Aurora kiss'd her lips with dew,

Taking her for a sister; just the same

Mistake you would have made on seeing the two,

Although the mortal, quite as fresh and fair,
Had all the advantage, too, of not being air.


And when into the cavern Haidée stepp'd

All timidly, yet rapidly, she saw

That like an infant Juan sweetly slept;

And then she stopp'd, and stood as if in awe

(For sleep is awful), and on tiptoe crept

And wrapt him closer, lest the air, too raw,

Should reach his blood, then o'er him still as death
Bent with hush'd lips, that drank his scarce-drawn breath.


And thus like to an angel o'er the dying

Who die in righteousness, she lean'd; and there

All tranquilly the shipwreck'd boy was lying,

As o'er him the calm and stirless air:

But Zoë the meantime some eggs was frying,

Since, after all, no doubt the youthful pair

Must breakfast -- and betimes, lest they should ask it,
She drew out her provision from the basket.


She knew that the best feelings must have victual,

And that a shipwreck'd youth would hungry be;

Besides, being less in love, she yawn'd a little,

And felt her veins chill'd by the neighbouring sea;

And so, she cook'd their breakfast to a tittle;

I can't say that she gave them any tea,

But there were eggs, fruit, coffee, bread, fish, honey,
With Scio wine, -- and all for love, not money.


And Zoë, when the eggs were ready, and

The coffee made, would fain have waken'd Juan;

But Haidée stopp'd her with her quick small hand,

And without word, a sign her finger drew on

Her lip, which Zoë needs must understand;

And, the first breakfast spoilt, prepared a new one,

Because her mistress would not let her break
That sleep which seem'd as it would ne'er awake.


For still he lay, and on his thin worn cheek

A purple hectic play'd like dying day

On the snow-tops of distant hills; the streak

Of sufferance yet upon his forehead lay,

Where the blue veins look'd shadowy, shrunk, and weak;

And his black curls were dewy with the spray,

Which weigh'd upon them yet, all damp and salt,
Mix'd with the stony vapours of the vault.


And she bent o'er him, and he lay beneath,

Hush'd as the babe upon its mother's breast,

Droop'd as the willow when no winds can breathe,

Lull'd like the depth of ocean when at rest,

Fair as the crowning rose of the whole wreath,

Soft as the callow cygnet in its nest;

In short, he was a very pretty fellow,
Although his woes had turn'd him rather yellow.


He woke and gazed, and would have slept again,

But the fair face which met his eyes forbade

Those eyes to close, though weariness and pain

Had further sleep a further pleasure made;

For woman's face was never form'd in vain

For Juan, so that even when he pray'd

He turn'd from grisly saints, and martyrs hairy,
To the sweet portraits of the Virgin Mary.


And thus upon his elbow he arose,

And look'd upon the lady, in whose cheek

The pale contended with the purple rose,

As with an effort she began to speak;

Her eyes were eloquent, her words would pose,

Although she told him, in good modern Greek,

With an Ionian accent, low and sweet,
That he was faint, and must not talk, but eat.


Now Juan could not understand a word,

Being no Grecian; but he had an ear,

And her voice was the warble of a bird,

So soft, so sweet, so delicately clear,

That finer, simpler music ne'er was heard;

The sort of sound we echo with a tear,

Without knowing why -- an overpowering tone,
Whence Melody descends as from a throne.


And Juan gazed as one who is awoke

By a distant organ, doubting if he be

Not yet a dreamer, till the spell is broke

By the watchman, or some such reality,

Or by one's early valet's curséd knock;

At least it is a heavy sound to me,

Who like a morning slumber -- for the night
Shows stars and women in a better light.


And Thou Art Dead, As Young and Fair

And thou art dead, as young and fair
As aught of mortal birth;
And form so soft, and charms so rare,
Too soon return'd to Earth!
Though Earth receiv'd them in her bed,
And o'er the spot the crowd may tread
In carelessness or mirth,
There is an eye which could not brook
A moment on that grave to look.

I will not ask where thou liest low,
Nor gaze upon the spot;
There flowers or weeds at will may grow,
So I behold them not:
It is enough for me to prove
That what I lov'd, and long must love,
Like common earth can rot;
To me there needs no stone to tell,
'T is Nothing that I lov'd so well.

Yet did I love thee to the last
As fervently as thou,
Who didst not change through all the past,
And canst not alter now.
The love where Death has set his seal,
Nor age can chill, nor rival steal,
Nor falsehood disavow:
And, what were worse, thou canst not see
Or wrong, or change, or fault in me.

The better days of life were ours;
The worst can be but mine:
The sun that cheers, the storm that lowers,
Shall never more be thine.
The silence of that dreamless sleep
I envy now too much to weep;
Nor need I to repine
That all those charms have pass'd away,
I might have watch'd through long decay.

The flower in ripen'd bloom unmatch'd
Must fall the earliest prey;
Though by no hand untimely snatch'd,
The leaves must drop away:
And yet it were a greater grief
To watch it withering, leaf by leaf,
Than see it pluck'd to-day;
Since earthly eye but ill can bear
To trace the change to foul from fair.

I know not if I could have borne
To see thy beauties fade;
The night that follow'd such a morn
Had worn a deeper shade:
Thy day without a cloud hath pass'd,
And thou wert lovely to the last,
Extinguish'd, not decay'd;
As stars that shoot along the sky
Shine brightest as they fall from high.

As once I wept, if I could weep,
My tears might well be shed,
To think I was not near to keep
One vigil o'er thy bed;
To gaze, how fondly! on thy face,
To fold thee in a faint embrace,
Uphold thy drooping head;
And show that love, however vain,
Nor thou nor I can feel again.

Yet how much less it were to gain,
Though thou hast left me free,
The loveliest things that still remain,
Than thus remember thee!
The all of thine that cannot die
Through dark and dread Eternity
Returns again to me,
And more thy buried love endears
Than aught except its living years.

                   On This day I Complete My Thirty - Sixth Year

                    'Tis time the heart should be unmoved,
                        Since others it hath ceased to move:
                    Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
                        Still let me love!

                    My days are in the yellow leaf;
                        The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
                    The worm, the canker, and the grief
                        Are mine alone!

                    The fire that on my bosom preys
                        Is lone as some volcanic isle;
                    No torch is kindled at its blaze--
                        A funeral pile.

                    The hope, the fear, the jealous care,
                        The exalted portion of the pain
                    And power of love, I cannot share,
                        But wear the chain.

                    But 'tis not thus--and 'tis not here--
                        Such thoughts should shake my soul nor now,
                    Where glory decks the hero's bier,
                        Or binds his brow.

                    The sword, the banner, and the field,
                        Glory and Greece, around me see!
                    The Spartan, borne upon his shield,
                        Was not more free.

                    Awake! (not Greece--she is awake!)
                        Awake, my spirit! Think through whom
                    Thy life-blood tracks its parent lake,
                        And then strike home!

                    Tread those reviving passions down,
                        Unworthy manhood!--unto thee
                    Indifferent should the smile or frown
                        Of beauty be.

                    If thou regrett'st thy youth, why live?
                        The land of honourable death
                    Is here:--up to the field, and give
                        Away thy breath!

                    Seek out--less often sought than found--
                        A soldier's grave, for thee the best;
                    Then look around, and choose thy ground,
                        And take thy rest.