An Unpublished Poem by Byron
THE library of Harvard University received in 1874, as part of the bequest of Charles Sumner, a copy of The Poems of Ossian in two volumes, which has been carefully guarded as one of the treasures of the university. The edition (London, 1806) is not a notable one ; but that Sumner, in paying twenty guineas for it, drove a good bargain will be seen from a printed slip affixed above the Harvard book-plate, which describes the volumes as a “unique and most valuable copy, having extensive original annotations in the autograph of Lord Byron, and his signature on the fly-leaf of each volume. At the end of the first volume is an original unpublished poem in his autograph, being a rendering into verse of Ossian’s Address to the Sun.”
Byron’s notes on Ossian and his version of a portion of Carthon make no addition to what, in the good old-fashioned sense, we used to call literature ; for the notes are intrinsically of no value, and the value of the poem itself may fairly be a matter of dispute. But even the scraps from a great author’s waste-basket, if discreetly adjusted, have a certain definite biographical interest; and Byron’s notes furnish a pleasant little commentary on his critical ineptitude, and his poem gives additional evidence, if any were needed, of his astonishing facility. With two exceptions, the notes are of so general a nature that when brought together they give a fair, although disjointed idea of Byron’s critical estimate of Ossian.
The first note is on the fly-leaf of the first volume : “ The early and uncultivated periods of society, in which the age of Ossian must doubtless be ranked, were most favorable to the display of original poetical genius. Such a period will always be found to have the happiest influence on sentimental and descriptive poetry, whether sublime or pathetic ; though it must likewise be granted that civilized life will for the most part introduce a greater variety of incidents and character into poetical composition.”
After the poem Carthon, with which Byron was apparently most strongly impressed, he wrote on a blank page_ “ That the poet possesses the talent of raising to a great degree both the tender and more violent passions of the mind by his sentiments as well as by his descriptions will not be questioned by those who are themselves possessed of the smallest share of sensibility, and have read his poems with any measure of attention. These indeed are almost constantly addressed to the affections and to the heart, over which he maintains an absolute and uncontrolled power.”
On the blank page after the table of contents of the second volume, and sprawling across the false title of Fingal, Byron begins to grow more definite, and, if anything, more courageous : “ The portrait which Ossian has drawn of himself is indeed a masterpiece. He not only appears in the light of a distinguished warrior, generous as well as brave, and possessed of exquisite sensibility, but of an aged, venerable bard, subjected to the most melancholy vicissitudes of fortune, — weak and blind, the sole survivor of his family, the last of the race of Fingal.
“ The character of Fingal, the poet’s own father, is a highly finished one. There is certainly no hero in the Iliad or the Odyssey who is at once so brave and amiable as this renowned king of Morven. It is well known that Hector, whose character is of all the Homeric heroes the most complete, greatly sullies the lustre of his glorious actions by the insult over the fallen Patroclus. On the other hand, the conduct of Fingal appears uniformly illustrious and great, without one mean or inhuman action to tarnish the splendour of his fame. He is equally the object of our admiration, esteem, and love.”
The next note is in the second volume, at the beginning of the second book of Fingal. The italics are, of course, Byron’s.
“ One of the most consummate characters which the poet has contributed is that of Connal. This hero is the Ulysses of Ossian, though he is a far more complete character than the Grecian chief. Like him, he is distinguished by his profound wisdom, by his cautious prudence, and by his calm, temperate valour. But he is free of that cunning and artifice which so much distinguish Ulysses, and which rather diminish than aggrandize the true hero.
“ Ossian’s female characters are less distinctly marked. It was unnecessary to draw their pictures at full length, not being engaged in the active scenes of life, except when they sometimes attend their lovers in disguise. The poet, however, has hit off some striking features even of these. How happily, for instance, has he characterized his own mistress, afterwards his wife, by a single epithet, expressive of that modesty, softness, and complacency which constitute the perfection of feminine excellence : ‘ the mildly blushing Everallin.’ ”
Finally, we have Byron’s summing up of the whole matter on the four blank pages at the end of the book. “ I am of opinion,” he somewhat magnificently concludes, " that though in sublimity of sentiment, in vivacity and strength of description, Ossian may claim a full equality of merit with Homer himself, yet in the invention both of incidents and characters he is greatly inferior to the Grecian bard. This inferiority, however, evidently proceeds from the different periods of society in which the poets lived. Though the age in which Homer wrote his Iliad was far from being polished, yet were the arts of civility much farther advanced than they were in the age in which Ossian composed Fingal and Temora; and therefore it must have been easier for Homer to present us with a variety of characters, which he might partly have copied from life, partly created, and partly derived from tradition, — a source which in Greece could have supplied him with greater abundance both of incidents and characters for the conduct of an epic poem, than it could have done for Ossian, who had no materials for his imagination to work upon excepting what he collected from his own observation, and from the songs of preceding bards, either or both of which could afford little variety of characters or incidents in our unpolished age.
“ It further deserves attention that Ossian never thought of trying the strength of his genius in the invention of the one or the other, which would by no means have corresponded with his design ; and if he had, it is impossible he should ever have succeeded in it as Homer has done, unless he had lived in the age and country of Homer.”
Even if we did not know that Byron’s criticisms, when not of the splenetic and underbred “Johnny Keats” kind, were characteristically immature, we should attribute this to a youthful writer ; for although the slight grandiloquence and the occasional excellent balance of the style give it an almost elderly. Johnsonian effect, the very cocksureness of tone and the superficiality of taste betray the youth of the critic. But at no time had Byron’s prose a more pompous elderliness of tone than when he was between the ages of fifteen and twenty. Take this, almost at random, written to his sister in his sixteenth year : “ Although, Mv ever Dear Augusta, I have hitherto appeared remiss in replying to your kind and affectionate letters ; yet I hope you will not attribute my neglect to a want of affection, but rather to a shyness naturally inherent in ray Disposition. I will now endeavour as amply as lies in my power to repay your kindness, and for the future I hope you will consider me not only as a Brother, but as your warmest and most affectionate Friend, and if ever Circumstances should require it, your protector.” The superficiality of taste is obvious in the discussion of Homer, where Byron writes more like a schoolboy than like a man whose mature soul has been moved by the great Greek.
Even if we did not know that Byron’s knowledge of books was limited (“ Lord Byron’s reading,” Scott wrote of him in 1815, “did not seem to me to have been very extensive either in poetry or history "), we should attribute the notes on Ossian to a youthful writer ; for no grown man of letters could be so magnificently ignorant of the contempt in which Macpherson’s semi-forgeries were held by many. Thirty-one years before Byron’s copy of Ossian was printed, Dr. Johnson challenged Macpherson’s honesty, and on Macpherson’s threatening him, after procuring a stout cudgel he wrote his famous reply, in which occurs the splendid phrase, “ I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat, by the menaces of a ruffian.” And on another occasion the doctor had exclaimed of the Ossianic “ translations,” “ Sir, a man might write such stuff forever, if he would abandon his mind to it.” As early, indeed, as 1760, Gray doubted whether Macpkerson’s Fragments of Ancient Poetry were “ the invention of antiquity or of a modern Scotchman.” But with Dr. Johnson alone in one pan of the critical scale, Lord Byron is bound to count for little in the other. Still, it is only fair to Byron to admit that in this instance Dr. Johnson’s antipathy for the Scotch carried him farther than posterity is now willing to follow ; and that greater men than Byron, and critics older and at least as well equipped, swallowed Macpherson as completely as Byron did. Itis, furthermore, but fair to Byron to add that his copy of Ossian is prefaced with nearly two hundred pages of what purports to be an impartial discussion of the Ossianic controversy, but is chiefly a reprint of Macpherson’s preface and Dr. Blair’s incredibly dull and one-sided critical dissertation supporting the socalled translator. It is much to be doubted, indeed, that Byron had the patience to read any of the preliminary matter. It was not until the following year, 1807, that Laing’s critical edition put Macpherson in more nearly a proper light.
Here we have, I think, good evidence as to the date of Byron’s notes. For in the same year that Laing’s Ossian appeared Byron published bis Hours of Idleness, in which he included an imitation of Ossian, The Death of Calmar and Orla. At the end of this he appends the following somewhat regretful note : “ I fear Laing’s late edition has completely overthrown every hope that Macpherson’s Ossian might prove the translation of a series of Poems, complete in themselves ; but while the imposture is discovered, the merit of the work remains undisputed, though not without faults, particularly, in some parts, turgid and bombastic diction. The present humble imitation will be pardoned by the admirers of the original, as an attempt, however inferior, which evinces an attachment to their favourite author.” Clearly, then, by 1807 Byron had read Ossian carefully enough to imitate it with moderate success (“ Sir, a man might write such stuff forever, if he would abandon his mind to it! ”) ; and at least by the time Hours of Idleness was in press (1807) he had been informed of the spurious nature of most of his model. His own copy of Ossian, dated 1806, is filled with notes expressive of nothing but enthusiastic admiration, and showing no consciousness of “ turgid and bombastic diction.” Obviously, even if internal evidence were wanting, the notes were written either in 1806 or in the early part of 1807, or, in other words, when Byron was about the age of eighteen.
If this date be accepted, one re-reads the notes with a heightened interest, for as the production of a youth of eighteen they are fairly notable in style; and when that youth is Byron, the indication they give of several trails of the writer which afterwards became more marked is very significant. Thackeray said of him, many years later, more sweepingly, perhaps, than fairly : “ That man never wrote from his heart; he got up rapture and enthusiasm with an eye to the public.” And even in these early notes, whether we accept in full or not Thackeray’s savage dictum, Byron seems almost to set his manuscript in one eye and the public in the other. Again, his admiration of " that modesty, softness, and complacency which constitute the perfection of feminine excellence,” shows that very early he cherished the somewhat gazelle-like ideal that, in one form or another, he was always faithful to. But to me the most interesting note is one written on the margin of page 194 of the first volume, which I have not previously given. The passage in Carthon which follows, Byron has underscored : “ Why dost thou build the hall, son of the winged days ? Thou lookest from thy towers to-day; yet a few years, and the blast of the desert comes; it howls in thy empty court, and whistles round thy half-worn shield.” Whereat Byron exclaims, “ This striking and beautiful sentiment is the natural dictate of that contemplative disposition, united with that melancholy which distinguishes every great genius, and which seems remarkably to have distinguished the character of Ossian.” Here, finally, we have Byron ipsissimus.
For fidelity to the text, for compactness of expression (with the exception of a single passage), for rhythmic fluency, Byron’s metrical version of Ossian’s Address to the Sun, which follows, is superior to any performance of a like nature, by a youth of eighteen, with which I am familiar. The manuscript of the poem covers the four blank pages at the end of the first volume. It is apparently rapidly written, with but a single erasure ; and I have followed the text accurately, with the exception of the punctuation. Throughout notes and poem Byron’s punctuation consists almost exclusively of dashes, — a system which commends itself to the reader but little more than that of another noble author, Lord Timothy Dexter.
A VERSION OF OSSIAN’S ADDRESS TO THE SUN.
Round as the orb of my forefather’s shield,
Whence are thy beams ? From what eternal store
Dost thou, O Sun! thy vast effulgence pour ?
In awful grandeur, when thou movest on high,
The stars start back and hide them in the sky ;
The pale moon sickens in thy brightening blaze,
And in the western wave avoids thy gaze.
Alone thou shinest forth — for who can rise
Companion of thy splendour in the skies !
The mountain oaks are seen to fall away;
Mountains themselves by length of years decay;
With ebbs and flows is the rough Ocean tost;
In heaven the moon is for a season lost;
But thou, amidst the fullness of thy joy,
The same art ever, blazing in the sky !
When tempests wrap the world from pole to pole,
When vivid lightnings flash and thunders roll,
Thou, far above their utmost fury borne,
Look’st forth in beauty, laughing them to scorn.
But vainly now on me thy beauties blaze ;
Ossian no longer can enraptured gaze !
Whether at morn, in lucid lustre gay,
On eastern clouds thy yellow tresses play,
Or else at eve, in radiant glory drest,
Thou tremblest at the portals of the west,
I see no more! But thou mayest fail at length;
Like Ossian lose thy beauty and thy strength;
Like him, but for a season, in thy sphere
To shine with splendour, then to disappear !
Thy years shall have an end, and thou no more
Bright through the world enlivening radiance pour,
But sleep within thy clouds, and fail to rise,
Heedless when morning calls thee to the skies !
Then now exult, O Sun! and gaily shine,
While youth and strength and beauty all are thine.
For age is dark, unlovely, as the light
Shed by the moon when clouds deform the night,
Glimmering uncertain as they hurry past.
Loud o’er the plain is heard the northern blast,
Mists shroud tile hills, and, ‘neath the growing gloom,
The weary traveller shrinks and sighs for home!
In Mr. Ernest Hartley Coleridge’s edition of Byron now appearing (Murray), among the early poems the reader will find a wholly different version of Ossian’s Address to the Sun, dated 1805, and transcribed, as Mr. Coleridge explains in a note, “from an autograph manuscript at Newstead, now for the first time printed.’’ The critical reader will find it interesting to compare the Newstead version with that of the later Harvard manuscript, to which is now given, it seems to me, an additional value. The Newstead version, because the earlier, is the more florid ; and after finishing Ossian’s song, Byron adds to it eighteen lines, the gist of which is not to be found in Macpherson. The Harvard version is incontestably superior, because, on the whole, more direct, and more faithful to the original both in text and in poetic feeling. Oddly enough, the two “ translations ” have not a single line in common. To one interested in Byron’s personality and in his literary technique it is very pleasant to have Mr. Coleridge’s new evidence of his temporary enthusiasm for Ossian, and to be able, from the two versions of Carthon, to trace in a unique way a single phase of his development.
Pierre la Rose.