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Letters to Dead Poets: To Lord Byron

by Andrew Lang

My Lord,

   (Do you remember how Leigh Hunt
Enraged you once by writing My dear Byron?)
   Books have their fates,—as mortals have who punt,
And yours have entered on an age of iron.
   Critics there be who think your satire blunt,
Your pathos, fudge; such perils must environ
Poets who in their time were quite the rage,
Though now there’s not a soul to turn their page.
Yes, there is much dispute about your worth,
And much is said which you might like to know
By modern poets here upon the earth,
Where poets live, and love each other so;
And, in Elysium, it may move your mirth
To hear of bards that pitch your praises low,
Though there be some that for your credit stickle,
   As—Glorious Mat,—and not inglorious Nichol.

(This kind of writing is my pet aversion,
I hate the slang, I hate the personalities,
I loathe the aimless, reckless, loose dispersion,
   Of every rhyme that in the singer’s wallet is,
I hate it as you hated the Excursion,
But, while no man a hero to his valet is,
The hero’s still the model; I indite
The kind of rhymes that Byron oft would write.)

There’s a Swiss critic whom I cannot rhyme to,
   One Scherer, dry as sawdust, grim and prim.
Of him there’s much to say, if I had time to
Concern myself in any wise with him.
He seems to hate the heights he cannot climb to,
   He thinks your poetry a coxcomb’s whim,
A good deal of his sawdust he has spilt on
Shakespeare, and Molière, and you, and Milton.

Ay, much his temper is like Vivien’s mood,
   Which found not Galahad pure, nor Lancelot brave;
Cold as a hailstorm on an April wood,
He buries poets in an icy grave,
His Essays—he of the Genevan hood!
   Nothing so fine, but better doth he crave.
So stupid and so solemn in his spite
He dares to print that Molière could not write!

Enough of these excursions; I was saying
   That half our English Bards are turned Reviewers,
And Arnold was discussing and assaying
   The weight and value of that work of yours,
Examining and testing it and weighing,
   And proved, the gems are pure, the gold endures.
While Swinburne cries with an exceeding joy,
The stones are paste, and half the gold, alloy.

In Byron, Arnold finds the greatest force,
   Poetic, in this later age of ours;
His song, a torrent from a mountain source,
   Clear as the crystal, singing with the showers,
Sweeps to the sea in unrestricted course
   Through banks o’erhung with rocks and sweet with flowers;
None of your brooks that modestly meander,
But swift as Awe along the Pass of Brander.

And when our century has clomb its crest,
   And backward gazes o’er the plains of Time,
And counts its harvest, yours is still the best,
   The richest garner in the field of rhyme
(The metaphoric mixture, ’tis comfest,
   Is all my own, and is not quite sublime).
But fame’s not yours alone; you must divide all
The plums and pudding with the Bard of Rydal!

Wordsworth and Byron, these the lordly names
   And these the gods to whom most incense burns.
“Absurd!” cries Swinburne, and in anger flames,
   And in an Æschylean fury spurns
With impious foot your altar, and exclaims
And wreathes his laurels on the golden urns
Where Coleridge’s and Shelley’s ashes lie,
Deaf to the din and heedless of the cry.

For Byron (Swinburne shouts) has never woven
   One honest thread of life within his song;
As Offenbach is to divine Beethoven
   So Byron is to Shelley (This is strong!),
And on Parnassus’ peak, divinely cloven,
   He may not stand, or stands by cruel wrong;
For Byron’s rank (the examiner has reckoned)
Is in the third class or a feeble second.

“A Bernesque poet” at the very most,
   And “never earnest save in politics,”
The Pegasus that he was wont to boast
   A blundering, floundering hackney, full of tricks,
A beast that must be driven to the post
   By whips and spurs and oaths and kicks and sticks,
A gasping, ranting, broken-winded brute,
That any judge of Pegasi would shoot;

In sooth, a half-bred Pegasus, and far gone
   In spavin, curb, and half a hundred woes.
And Byron’s style is “jolter-headed jargon;”
   His verse is “only bearable in prose.”
So living poets write of those that are gone,
   And o’er the Eagle thus the Bantam crows;
And Swinburne ends where Verisopht began,
By owning you “a very clever man.”

Or rather does not end: he still must utter
   A quantity of the unkindest things.
Ah! were you here, I marvel, would you flutter
   O’er such a foe the tempest of your wings?
’Tis “rant and cant and glare and splash and splutter”
   That rend the modest air when Byron sings.
There Swinburne stops: a critic rather fiery.
Animis cælestibus tantæne iræ?

But whether he or Arnold in the right is,
   Long is the argument, the quarrel long;
Non nobis est to settle tantas lites;
   No poet I, to judge of right or wrong:
But of all things I always think a fight is
   The most unpleasant in the lists of song;
When Marsyas of old was flayed, Apollo
Set an example which we need not follow.

The fashion changes!  Maidens do not wear,
   As once they wore, in necklaces and lockets
A curl ambrosial of Lord Byron’s hair;
   “Don Juan” is not always in our pockets—
Nay, a New Writer’s readers do not care
   Much for your verse, but are inclined to mock its
Manners and morals.  Ay, and most young ladies
To yours prefer the “Epic” called “of Hades”!

I do not blame them; I’m inclined to think
   That with the reigning taste ’tis vain to quarrel,
And Burns might teach his votaries to drink,
   And Byron never meant to make them moral.
You yet have lovers true, who will not shrink
   From lauding you and giving you the laurel;
The Germans too, those men of blood and iron,
Of all our poets chiefly swear by Byron.

Farewell, thou Titan fairer than the Gods!
   Farewell, farewell, thou swift and lovely spirit,
Thou splendid warrior with the world at odds,
   Unpraised, unpraisable, beyond thy merit;
Chased, like Orestes, by the Furies’ rods,
   Like him at length thy peace dost thou inherit;
Beholding whom, men think how fairer far
Than all the steadfast stars the wandering star!