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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

26 April 2024

On the bicentenary of Byron’s death, Malcolm Guite marvels at the poetry that he left us

LORD BYRON is much in the news, as anyone might have said in the early 19th century; for the great poet, and his scandalous life, were then a favourite subject for every gossip. But he is in the news again in our own century — the bicentenary of his death falls this month. Indeed, I write this on the very day, 19 April, when he breathed his last amid the marshes of Missolonghi, giving his life for the cause of Greek independence.

Perhaps that last philhellenic adventure was an attempt to redeem a life that, to many — and perhaps, sometimes, to Byron himself — seemed debauched and self-indulgent. It is no longer for us to judge: he has already met that judge who is also his saviour and ours. But it is for us to marvel at what he left us: his astonishingly fluent and always beautiful poetry.

I remember the thrill with which I first read Don Juan as a teenager, and the pleasure that so much of his lyric poetry continues to give me. His phrases seem to come fully formed, unforced, and natural:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes. . .

That poem comes from Hebrew Melodies, a collection that has always fascinated me. Byron wrote it at the request of Isaac Nathan, a Jewish composer and the son of a synagogue cantor in Canterbury, who was looking for lyrics to accompany a series of “Hebrew Melodies” that he was composing. It is remarkable, in an age of strong anti-Semitism, particularly among the aristocracy, that Byron gladly took this on and gave it some of his best poetry.

He was naturally drawn to the figure of David, the heroic poet king; but, given the dark and tempestuous side of Byron’s nature, he also identified strongly with Saul; and perhaps, in the story of how David’s harp could calm Saul in his madness, there was some echo of the two sides of Byron’s life: Byron the poet somehow calming and redeeming the other Byron, the one who was, in the words of Lady Caroline Lamb, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”.

Two poems in Hebrew Melodies express the dichotomy. Byron channels his inner David in “The Harp The Monarch Minstrel Swept”, in which he says of David’s music:

It softened men of iron mould,
It gave them virtues not their own;
No ear so dull, no Soul so cold,
That felt not, fired not to the tone,
Till David’s Lyre grew mightier than his throne!

Byron follows this with “My Soul Is Dark”, the poem that he writes in the voice of Saul. It opens with the lines:

My soul is dark — Oh! quickly string
The harp I yet can brook to hear. . .

But, in the second verse, it goes deeper still, and tells us a truth which our age sometimes forgets: that we must be allowed to lament, tears must be allowed to flow, grief must be given a voice:

But bid the strain be wild and deep,
Nor let thy notes of joy be first
— I tell thee — Minstrel! I must weep,
Or else this heavy heart will burst;
For it hath been by sorrow nursed,
And ached in sleepless silence long;
And now ’tis doomed to know the worst,
And break at once — or yield to song.

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