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

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Residence in Ravenna.—The Carbonari.—Byron’s part in their plot.—The murder of the military commandant.—The poetical use of the incident.—Marino Faliero.—Reflections.—The prophecy of Dante.

Lord Byron has said himself, that except Greece, he was never so attached to any place in his life as to Ravenna. The peasantry he thought the best people in the world, and their women the most beautiful. “Those at Tivoli and Frescati,” said he, “are mere Sabines, coarse creatures, compared to the Romagnese. You may talk of your English women; and it is true, that out of one hundred Italian and English you will find thirty of the latter handsome; but then there will be one Italian on the other side of the scale, who will more than balance the deficit in numbers—one who, like the Florence Venus, has no rival, and can have none in the North. I found also at Ravenna much education and liberality of thinking among the higher classes. The climate is delightful. I was not broken in upon by society. Ravenna lies out of the way of travellers. I was never tired of my rides in the pine forest: it breathes of the Decameron; it is poetical ground. Francesca lived and Dante was exiled and died at Ravenna. There is something inspiring in such an air.

“The people liked me as much as they hated the government. It is not a little to say, I was popular with all the leaders of the constitutional party. They knew that I came from a land of liberty, and wished well to their cause. I would have espoused it too,
and assisted them to shake off their fetters. They knew my character, for I had been living two years at Venice, where many of the Ravennese have houses. I did not, however, take part in their intrigues, nor join in their political coteries; but I had a magazine of one hundred stand of arms in the house, when everything was ripe for revolt—a curse on
Carignan’s imbecility! I could have pardoned him that, too, if he had not impeached his partisans.

“The proscription was immense in Romagna, and embraced many of the first nobles: almost all my friends, among the rest the Gambas (the father and brother of the Countess Guiccioli), who took no part in the affair, were included in it. They were exiled, and their possessions confiscated. They knew that this must eventually drive me out of the country. I did not follow them immediately: I was not to be bullied—I had myself fallen under the eye of the government. If they could have got sufficient proof they would have arrested me.”

The latter part of this declaration bears, in my opinion, indubitable marks of being genuine. It has that magnifying mysticism about it which more than any other quality characterized Lord Byron’s intimations concerning himself and his own affairs; but it is a little clearer than I should have expected in the acknowledgment of the part he was preparing to take in the insurrection. He does not seem here to be sensible, that in confessing so much, he has justified the jealousy with which he was regarded.

“Shortly after the plot was discovered,” he proceeds to say, “I received several anonymous letters, advising me to discontinue my forest rides; but I entertained no apprehensions of treachery, and was more on horseback than ever. I never stir out without being well armed, nor sleep without pistols. They knew that I never missed my aim; perhaps this saved me.”

An event occurred at this time at Ravenna that
made a deep impression on
Lord Byron. The commandant of the place, who, though suspected of being secretly a Carbonaro, was too powerful a man to be arrested, was assassinated opposite to his residence. The measures adopted to screen the murderer proved, in the opinion of his Lordship, that the assassination had taken place by order of the police, and that the spot where it was perpetrated had been selected by choice. Byron at the moment had his foot in the stirrup, and his horse started at the report of the shot. On looking round he saw a man throw down a carbine and run away, and another stretched on the pavement near him. On hastening to the spot, he found it was the commandant; a crowd collected, but no one offered any assistance. His Lordship directed his servant to lift the bleeding body into the palace—he assisted himself in the act, though it was represented to him that he might incur the displeasure of the government—and the gentleman was already dead. His adjutant followed the body into the house. “I remember,” says his Lordship, “his lamentation over him—’Poor devil he would not have harmed a dog.’”

It was from the murder of this commandant that the poet sketched the scene of the assassination in the fifth canto of Don Juan.

The other evening (’twas on Friday last),
This is a fact, and no poetic fable—
Just as my great coat was about me cast,
My hat and gloves still lying on the table,
I heard a shot—’twas eight o’clock scarce past,
And running out as fast as I was able,
I found the military commandant
Stretch’d in the street, and able scarce to pant.
Poor fellow! for some reason, surely bad,
They had him slain with five slugs, and left him there
To perish on the pavement: so I had
Him borne into the house, and up the stair;
The man was gone: in some Italian quarrel
Kill’d by five bullets from an old gun-barrel.
The scars of his old wounds were near his new,
Those honourable scars which bought him fame,
And horrid was the contrast to the view—
But let me quit the theme, as such things claim
Perhaps ev’n more attention than is due
From me: I gazed (as oft I’ve gazed the same)
To try if I could wrench aught out of death
Which should confirm, or shake, or make a faith.

Whether Marino Faliero was written at Ravenna or completed there, I have not ascertained, but it was planned at Venice, and as far back as 1817. I believe this is considered about the most ordinary performance of all Lord Byron’s works; but if it is considered with reference to the time in which it was written, it will probably be found to contain many great and impressive passages. Has not the latter part of the second scene in the first act reference to the condition of Venice when his Lordship was there? And is not the description which Israel Bertuccio gives of the conspirators applicable to, as it was probably derived from, the Carbonari, with whom there is reason to say Byron was himself disposed to take a part?

Know, then, that there are met and sworn in secret
A band of brethren, valiant hearts and true;
Men who have proved all fortunes, and have long
Grieved over that of Venice, and have right
To do so; having served her in all climes,
And having rescued her from foreign foes,
Would do the same for those within her walls.
They are not numerous, nor yet too few
For their great purpose; they have arms, and means,
And hearts, and hopes, and faith, and patient courage.

This drama, to be properly appreciated, both in its taste and feeling should be considered as addressed to the Italians of the epoch at which it was written. Had it been written in the Italian instead of the English language, and could have come out in any city of Italy, the effect would have been prodigious. It is, indeed, a work not to be estimated by the delineations
of character nor the force of passion expressed in it, but altogether by the apt and searching sarcasm of the political allusions. Viewed with reference to the time and place in which it was composed, it would probably deserve to be ranked as a high and bold effort: simply as a drama, it may not be entitled to rank above tragedies of the second or third class. But I mean not to set my opinion of this work against that of the public, the English public; all I contend for is, that it possesses many passages of uncommon beauty, and that its chief tragic merit consists in its political indignation; but above all, that is another and a strong proof too, of what I have been endeavouring to show, that the power of the poet consisted in giving vent to his own feelings, and not, like his great brethren, or even his less, in the invention of situations or of appropriate sentiments. It is, perhaps, as it stands, not fit to succeed in representation; but it is so rich in matter that it would not be a difficult task to make out of little more than the third part a tragedy which would not dishonour the English stage.

I have never been able to understand why it has been so often supposed that Lord Byron was actuated in the composition of his different works by any other motive than enjoyment: perhaps no poet had ever less of an ulterior purpose in his mind during the fits of inspiration (for the epithet may be applied correctly to him and to the moods in which he was accustomed to write) than this singular and impassioned man. Those who imagine that he had any intention to impair the reverence due to religion, or to weaken the hinges of moral action, give him credit for far more design and prospective purpose than he possessed. They could have known nothing of the man, the main defect of whose character, in relation to everything, was in having too little of the element or principle of purpose. He was a thing of impulses, and to judge of what he either said or did, as the results of prede-
termination, was not only to do the harshest injustice, but to show a total ignorance of his character. His whole fault, the darkest course of those flights and deviations from propriety which have drawn upon him the severest animadversion, lay in the unbridled state of his impulses. He felt, but never reasoned. I am led to make these observations by noticing the ungracious, or, more justly, the illiberal spirit in which
The Prophecy of Dante, which was published with the Marino Faliero, has been treated by the anonymous author of Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Lord Byron.

Of The Prophecy of Dante I am no particular admirer. It contains, unquestionably, stanzas of resounding energy, but the general verse of the poem is as harsh and abrupt as the clink and clang of the cymbal; moreover, even for a prophecy, it is too obscure, and though it possesses abstractedly too many fine thoughts, and too much of the combustion of heroic passion to be regarded as a failure, yet it will never be popular. It is a quarry, however, of very precious poetical expression.

It was written at Ravenna, and at the suggestion of the Guiccioli, to whom it is dedicated in a sonnet, prettily but inharmoniously turned. Like all his other best performances, this rugged but masterly composition draws its highest interest from himself and his own feelings, and can only be rightly appreciated by observing how fitly many of the bitter breathings of Dante apply to his own exiled and outcast condition. For, however much he was himself the author of his own banishment, he felt when he wrote these haughty verses that he had been sometimes shunned.