LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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The Life of Lord Byron
Chapter XXXI

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Byron determines to reside abroad.—Visits the plain of Waterloo.—State of his feelings.

From different incidental expressions in his correspondence it is sufficiently evident that Byron, before his marriage, intended to reside abroad. In his letter to me of the 11th December, 1813, he distinctly states this intention, and intimates that he then thought of establishing his home in Greece. It is not therefore surprising that, after his separation from Lady Byron, he should have determined to carry this intention into effect; for at that period, besides the calumny heaped upon him from all quarters, the embarrassment of his affairs, and the retaliatory satire, all tended to force him into exile; he had no longer any particular tie to bind him to England.

On the 25th of April, 1816, he sailed for Ostend, and resumed the composition of Childe Harold, it may be said, from the moment of his embarkation. In it, however, there is no longer the fiction of an imaginary character stalking like a shadow amid his descriptions and reflections—he comes more decidedly forward as the hero in his own person.

In passing to Brussels he visited the field of Waterloo, and the slight sketch which he has given in the poem of that eventful conflict is still the finest which has yet been written on the subject.

But the note of his visit to the field is of more importance to my present purpose, inasmuch as it tends
to illustrate the querulous state of his own mind at the time.

“I went on horseback twice over the field, comparing it with my recollection of similar scenes. As a plain, Waterloo seems marked out for the scene of some great action, though this may be mere imagination. I have viewed with attention those of Platea, Troy, Mantinea, Leuctra, Chævronea, and Marathon, and the field round Mont St. Jean and Hugoumont appears to want little but a better cause and that indefinable but impressive halo which the lapse of ages throws around a celebrated spot, to vie in interest with any or all of these, except perhaps the last-mentioned.”

The expression “a better cause,” could only have been engendered in mere waywardness; but throughout his reflections at this period a peevish ill-will towards England is often manifested, as if he sought to attract attention by exasperating the national pride; that pride which he secretly flattered himself was to be augmented by his own fame.

I cannot, in tracing his travels through the third canto, test the accuracy of his descriptions as in the former two; but as they are all drawn from actual views they have the same vivid individuality impressed upon them. Nothing can be more simple and affecting than the following picture, nor less likely to be an imaginary scene:

By Coblentz, on a rise of gentle ground,
There is a small and simple pyramid,
Crowning the summit of the verdant mound;
Beneath its base are heroes’ ashes hid,
Our enemies. And let not that forbid
Honour to Marceau, o’er whose early tomb
Tears, big tears, rush’d from the rough soldier’s lid,
Lamenting and yet envying such a doom,
Falling for France, whose rights he battled to resume.

Perhaps few passages of descriptive poetry excel that in which reference is made to the column of Avenches, the ancient Aventicum. It combines with
an image distinct and picturesque, poetical associations full of the grave and moral breathings of olden forms and hoary antiquity.

By a lone wall, a lonelier column rears
A gray and grief-worn aspect of old days:
’Tis the last remnant of the wreck of years,
And looks as with the wild-bewilder’d gaze
Of one to stone converted by amaze,
Yet still with consciousness; and there it stands,
Making a marvel that it not decays,
When the coeval pride of human hands,
Levell’d Aventicum, hath strew’d her subject lands.

But the most remarkable quality in the third canto is the deep, low bass of thought which runs through several passages, and which gives to it, when considered with reference to the circumstances under which it was written, the serious character of documentary evidence as to the remorseful condition of the poet’s mind. It would be, after what has already been pointed out in brighter incidents, affectation not to say, that these sad bursts of feeling and wild paroxysms, bear strong indications of having been suggested by the wreck of his domestic happiness, and dictated by contrition for the part he had himself taken in the ruin. The following reflections on the unguarded hour, are full of pathos and solemnity, amounting almost to the deep and dreadful harmony of Manfred:

To fly from, need not be to hate, mankind;
All are not fit with them to stir and toil,
Nor is it discontent to keep the mind
Deep in its fountain, lest it overboil
In the hot throng, where we become the spoil
Of our infection, till too late and long
We may deplore and struggle with the coil,
In wretched interchange of wrong for wrong
’Midst a contentious world, striving where none are strong.
There, in a moment, we may plunge our years
In fatal penitence, and in the blight
Of our own soul, turn all our blood to tears,
And colour things to come with hues of night;
The race of life becomes a hopeless flight
To those who walk in darkness: on the sea,
The boldest steer but where their ports invite;
But there are wanderers o’er eternity,
Whose bark drives on and on, and anchor’d ne’er shall be.

These sentiments are conceived in the mood of an awed spirit; they breathe of sorrow and penitence. Of the weariness of satiety the pilgrim no more complains; he is no longer despondent from exhaustion, and the lost appetite of passion, but from the weight of a burden which he cannot lay down; and he clings to visible objects, as if from their nature he could extract a moral strength.

I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me; and to me,
High mountains are a feeling, but the hum
Of human cities tortures: I can see
Nothing to loathe in nature, save to be
A link reluctant in a fleshly chain,
Class’d among creatures, where the soul can flee,
And with the sky, the peak, the heaving plain
Of ocean, or the stars, mingle, and not in vain.

These dim revelations of black and lowering thought are overshadowed with a darker hue than sorrow alone could have cast. A consciousness of sinful blame is evident amid them; and though the fantasies that loom through the mystery, are not so hideous as the guilty reveries in the weird caldron of Manfred’s conscience, still they have an awful resemblance to them. They are phantoms of the same murky element, and, being more akin to fortitude than despair, prophesy not of hereafter, but oracularly confess suffering.

Manfred himself hath given vent to no finer horror than the oracle that speaks in this magnificent stanza:

I have not loved the world, nor the world me;
I have not flatter’d its rank breath, nor bow’d
To its idolatries a patient knee—
Nor coin’d my cheek to smiles—nor cried aloud
In worship of an echo;—in the crowd
They could not deem me one of such; I stood
Among them, but not of them; in a shroud
Of thoughts which were not of their thoughts, and still could,
Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued.

There are times in life when all men feel their sympathies extinct, and Lord Byron was evidently in that condition, when he penned these remarkable lines; but independently of their striking beauty, the scenery in which they were conceived deserves to be considered with reference to the sentiment that pervades them. For it was amid the same obscure ravines, pine-tufted precipices and falling waters of the Alps, that he afterward placed the outcast Manfred—an additional corroboration of the justness of the remarks which I ventured to offer, in adverting to his ruminations in contemplating, while yet a boy, the Malvern hills, as if they were the scenes of his impassioned childhood. In “the palaces of nature,” he first felt the consciousness of having done some wrong, and when he would infuse into another, albeit in a wilder degree, the feelings he had himself felt, he recalled the images which had ministered to the cogitations of his own contrition. But I shall have occasion to speak more of this, when I come to consider the nature of the guilt and misery of Manfred.

That Manfred is the greatest of Byron’s works will probably not be disputed. It has more than the fatal mysticism of Macbeth, with the satanic grandeur of the Paradise Lost, and the hero is placed in circumstances, and amid scenes, which accord with the stupendous features of his preternatural character. How then, it may be asked, does this moral phantom, that has never been, bear any resemblance to the poet himself? Must not, in this instance, the hypothesis which assigns to Byron’s heroes his own sentiments and feelings be abandoned? I think not. In noticing the deep and solemn reflections with which he was affected
in ascending the Rhine, and which he has embodied in the third canto of
Childe Harold, I have already pointed out a similarity in the tenour of the thoughts to those of Manfred, as well as the striking acknowledgment of the “filed” mind. There is, moreover, in the drama, the same distaste of the world which Byron himself expressed when cogitating on the desolation of his hearth, and the same contempt of the insufficiency of his genius and renown to mitigate contrition—all in strange harmony with the same magnificent objects of sight. Is not the opening soliloquy of Manfred the very echo of the reflections on the Rhine?

My slumbers—if I slumber—are not sleep,
But a continuance of enduring thought,
Which then I can resist not; in my heart
There is a vigil, and these eyes but close
To look within—and yet I live and bear
The aspect and the form of breathing man.

But the following is more impressive: it is the very phrase he would himself have employed to have spoken of the consequences of his fatal marriage:

My injuries came down on those who lov’d me,
On those whom I best lov’d; I never quell’d
An enemy, save in my just defence—
But my embrace was fatal.

He had not, indeed, been engaged in any duel of which the issue was mortal; but he had been so far engaged with more than one, that he could easily conceive what it would have been to have quelled an enemy in just defence. But unless the reader can himself discern, by his sympathies, that there is the resemblance I contend for, it is of no use to multiply instances. I shall, therefore, give but one other extract, which breathes the predominant spirit of all Byron’s works—that sad translation of the preacher’s “vanity of vanities; all is vanity!”

Look on me! there is an order
Of mortals on the earth, who do become
Old in their youth and die ere middle age,
Without the violence of warlike death;
Some perishing of pleasure—some of study—
Some worn with toil—some of mere weariness—
Some of disease—and some insanity—
And some of wither’d or of broken hearts;
For this last is a malady which slays
More than are number’d in the lists of Fate;
Taking all shapes, and bearing many names.
Look upon me! for even of all these things
Have I partaken—and of all these things
One were enough; then wonder not that I
Am what I am, but that I ever was,
Or, having been, that I am still on earth.