LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron
Byron's Heaven and Hell; Prophecy of Dante

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IN THE YEARS 1821 AND 1822.




Christopher North, in Noctes Ambrosianae

“‘Heaven and Earth’ was commenced,” said he, “at Ravenna, on the 9th October last. It occupied about fourteen days. Douglas Kinnaird tells me that he can get no bookseller to publish it. It was offered to Murray, but he is the most timid of God’s booksellers, and starts at the title. He has taken a dislike to that three-syllabled word Mystery, and says, I know not why, that it is another ‘Cain.’ I suppose he does not like my making one of Cain’s daughters talk the same language as her father’s father, and has a prejudice against the family. I could not make her so unnatural as to speak ill of her grandfather. I was forced to make her aristocratical, proud of her descent from the eldest born. Murray says, that whoever prints it will have it pirated, as ‘Cain’ has been,—that a Court of justice will not sanction it as literary property. On what plea? There is nothing objectionable in it, that I am aware of. You have read it; what do you think? If ‘Cain’ be immoral (which I deny), will not the Chancellor’s refusal to protect, and the cheapness of a piratical edition, give it a wider circulation among the lower classes? Will they not buy and read it for the very reason that it is considered improper, and try to discover an evil tendency where it was least meant? May not impiety be extracted by garbling the
Bible? I defy the common people to understand such mysteries as the loves of the Angels, at least they are mysteries to me.
Moore, too, is writing on the same text. Any thing that he writes must succeed.”

I told him that the laughter of the fiends in the Cave of Caucasus reminded me of the row of the Furies in the ‘Eumenides’ of Aeschylus.

“I have never read any of his plays since I left Harrow,” said Lord Byron. “Shelley, when I was in Switzerland, translated the ‘Prometheus’ to me before I wrote my ode; but I never open a Greek book. Shelley tells me that the choruses in ‘Heaven and Earth’ are deficient. He thinks that lyrical poetry should be metrically regular. Surely this is not the case with the Greek choruses that he makes such a fuss about. However, Hunt will be glad of it for his new periodical work. I talked of writing a second part to it; but it was only as Coleridge promised a second part to ‘Christabel.’ I will tell you how I had an idea of finishing it:

“Let me see—where did I leave off? Oh, with Azazael and Samiasa refusing to obey the summons of Michael,
and throwing off their allegiance to Heaven. They rise into the air with the two sisters, and leave this globe to a fate which, according to
Cuvier, it has often undergone, and will undergo again. The appearance of the land strangled by the ocean will serve by way of scenery and decorations. The affectionate tenderness of Adah for those from whom she is parted, and for ever, and her fears contrasting with the loftier spirit of Aholibamah triumphing in the hopes of a new and greater destiny, will make the dialogue. They in the mean time continue their aerial voyage, every where denied admittance in those floating islands on the sea of space, and driven back by guardian-spirits of the different planets, till they are at length forced to alight on the only peak of the earth uncovered by water. Here a parting takes place between the lovers, which I shall make affecting enough. The fallen Angels are suddenly called, and condemned,—their destination and punishment unknown. The sisters still cling to the rock, the waters mounting higher and higher. Now enter Ark. The scene draws up, and discovers Japhet endeavouring to persuade the Patriarch, with very strong arguments of love and pity, to receive the sisters, or at least Adah, on board. Adah joins in his entreaties, and endeavours to cling to the sides of
the vessel. The proud and haughty Aholibamah scorns to pray either to God or man, and anticipates the grave by plunging into the waters. Noah is still inexorable. The surviving daughter of Cain is momentarily in danger of perishing before the eyes of the Arkites. Japhet is in despair. The last wave sweeps her from the rock, and her lifeless corpse floats past in all its beauty, whilst a sea-bird screams over it, and seems to be the spirit of her angel lord. I once thought of conveying the lovers to the moon, or one of the planets; but it is not easy for the imagination to make any unknown world more beautiful than this; besides, I did not think they would approve of the moon as a residence. I remember what
Fontenelle said of its having no atmosphere, and the dark spots being caverns where the inhabitants reside. There was another objection: all the human interest would have been destroyed, which I have even endeavoured to give my Angels. It was a very Irish kind of compliment Jeffrey paid to Moore’sLalla Rookh,’ when he said the loves were those of Angels; meaning that they were like nothing on earth. What will he say of ‘The Loves of the Angels?’—that they are like (for he has nothing left) nothing in Heaven?”


“I wrote ‘The Prophecy of Dante’ at the suggestion of the Countess. I was at that time paying my court to the Guiccioli, and addressed the dedicatory sonnet to her. She had heard of my having written something about Tasso, and thought Dante’s exile and death would furnish as fine a subject. I can never write but on the spot. Before I began ‘The Lament,’ I went to Ferrara, to visit the Dungeon. Hoppner was with me, and part of it, the greater part, was composed (as ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’) in the prison. The place of Dante’s fifteen years’ exile, where he so pathetically prayed for his country, and deprecated the thought of being buried out of it; and the sight of his tomb, which I passed in my almost daily rides,—inspired me. Besides, there was somewhat of resemblance*
* “The day may come she would be proud to have
The dust she doom’d to strangers, and transfer
Of him whom she denied a home—the grave.”
“Where now my boys are, and that fatal she”—
“They made an exile, not a slave of me.”
in our destinies—he had a wife, and I have the same feelings about leaving my bones in a strange land.

“I had, however, a much more extensive view in writing that poem than to describe either his banishment or his grave. Poets are sometimes shrewd in their conjectures. You quoted to me the other day a line in ‘Childe Harold,’ in which I made a prediction about the Greeks*: in this instance I was not so fortunate as to be prophetic. This poem was intended for the Italians and the Guiccioli, and therefore I wished to have it translated. I had objected to the Versi sciolti having been used in my Fourth Canto of ‘Childe Harold;’ but this was the very metre they adopted in defiance of my remonstrance, and in the very teeth of it; and yet I believe the Italians liked the work. It was looked at in a political light, and they indulged in my dream of liberty, and the resurrection of Italy. Alas! it was only a dream!

* “Will Gaul or Muscovite redress ye? No.”
Childe Harold, Canto II. Stanza 75.

Terza Rima does not seem to suit the genius of English poetry—it is certainly uncalculated for a work of any length. In our language, however, it may do for a short ode. The public at least thought my attempt a failure, and the public is in the main right. I never persecute the public. I always bow to its verdict, which is generally just. But if I had wanted a sufficient reason for my giving up the Prophecy—the Prophecy failed me.

“It was the turn political affairs took that made me relinquish the work. At one time the flame was expected to break out over all Italy, but it only ended in smoke, and my poem went out with it. I don’t wonder at the enthusiasm of the Italians about Dante. He is the poet of liberty. Persecution, exile, the dread of a foreign grave, could not shake his principles. There is no Italian gentleman, scarcely any well-educated girl, that has not all the finer passages of Dante at the fingers’ ends,—particularly the Ravennese. The Guiccioli, for instance, could almost repeat any part of the ‘Divine Comedy;’ and, I dare say, is well read in the ‘Vita Nuova,’ that prayer-book of love.


Shelley always says that reading Dante is unfavourable to writing, from its superiority to all possible compositions. Whether he be the first or not, he is certainly the most untranslatable of all poets. You may give the meaning; but the charm, the simplicity—the classical simplicity,—is lost. You might as well clothe a statue, as attempt to translate Dante. He is better, as an Italian said, ‘nudo che vestito.’

“There’s Taafe is not satisfied with what Carey has done, but he must be traducing him too. What think you of that fine line in the ‘Inferno’ being rendered, as Taafe has done it?
“‘I Mantuan, capering, squalid, squalling.’

“There’s alliteration and inversion enough, surely! I have advised him to frontispiece his book with his own head, Capo di Traditore, ‘the head of a traitor;’ then will come the title-page comment—Hell!”

I asked Lord Byron the meaning of a passage in ‘The Prophecy of Dante.’ He laughed, and said:


“I suppose I had some meaning when I wrote it: I believe I understood it then.”*

“That,” said I, “is what the disciples of Swedenberg say. There are many people who do not understand passages in your writings, among our own countrymen: I wonder how foreigners contrive to translate them.”

“And yet,” said he, “they have been translated into all the civilized, and many uncivilized tongues. Several of them have appeared in Danish, Polish, and even Russian dresses. These last, being translations of translations from the French, must be very diluted. The greatest compliment ever paid me has been shewn in Germany, where a translation of the Fourth Canto of ‘Childe Harold’ has been made the subject of a University prize.
* “If you insist on grammar, though
I never think about it in a heat—”
Don Juan, Canto VII. Stanza 42.
“I don’t pretend that I quite understand
My own meaning when I would be very fine.”
Don Juan, Canto IV. Stanza 5.
But as to obscurity, is not
Milton obscure? How do you explain
The raven down of darkness till it smiled!’
Is it not a simile taken from the electricity of a cat’s back? I’ll leave you to be my commentator, and hope you will make better work with me than
Taafe is doing with Dante, who perhaps could not himself explain half that volumes are written about, if his ghost were to rise again from the dead. I am sure I wonder he and Shakspeare have not been raised by their commentators long ago!”