Wednesday, January 28, 2009

the feeling of a former world and future

From the Journals of Lord Byron
January 28, 1821.

Lugano Gazette did not come. Letters from Venice. It appears that the Austrian brutes have seized my three or four pounds of English powder. The scoundrels! — I hope to pay them in ball for that powder. Rode out till twilight.

Pondered the subjects of four tragedies to be written, (life and circumstances permitting,) to wit, Sardanapalus, already begun; Cain, a metaphysical subject, something in the style of Manfred, but in five acts, perhaps, with the chorus; Francesca of Rimini, in five acts; and I am not sure that I would not try Tiberius. I think that I could extract a something, of my tragic, at least, out of die gloomy sequestration and old age of the tyrant — and even out of his sojourn at Caprea — by softening the details, and exhibiting the despair which must have led to those very vicious pleasures. For none but a powerful and gloomy mind overthrown would have had recourse to such solitary horrors, — being also, at the same time, old, and the master of the world.


What is poetry? — The feeling of a Former world and Future.

Thought Second.

Why, at the very height of desire and human pleasure, worldly, social, amorous, ambitious, or even avaricious, - does there mingle a certain sense of doubt and sorrow - a fear of what's to come - a doubt of what is - a retrospect to the past, leading to a prognostication of the future? (The best of Prophets of the future is the Past.) Why is this, or these? - I know not, except that on a pinnacle we are most susceptible of giddiness, and that we never fear falling except from a precipice - the higher, the more awful, and the more sublime; and, therefore, I am not sure that Fear is not a pleasurable sensation; at least Hope is; and what Hope is there without a deep leaven of Fear? and what sensation is so delightful as Hope? and, if it were not for Hope, where would the Future be? - in hell. It is useless to say where the Present is, for most of us know; and as for the Past, what predominates in memory? — Hope baffled. Ergo, in all human affairs, it is Hope - Hope - Hope. I allow sixteen minutes, though I never counted them, to any given or supposed possession. From whatever place we commence, we know where it all must end. And yet, what good is there in knowing it? It does not make men better or wiser. During the greatest horrors of the greatest plagues, (Athens and Florence, for example - see Thucydides and Machiavelli,) men were more cruel and profligate than ever. It is all a mystery. I feel most things, but I know nothing except
— — — — — — — — — — — — —
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
{Byron put dashes in the journal something like this.
His editor says he made them "with impatient strokes of the pen."}

Thought for a Speech of Lucifer, in the Tragedy of Cain
Were Death an evil, would I let thee live?
Fool I live as I live — as thy Father lives,
And thy son's sons shall live for evermore.
Past Midnight. One o' the clock.

I have been reading W. F. Schlegel (brother to the other of the name) till now, and I can make out nothing. He evidently shows a great power of words, but there is nothing to be taken hold of. He is like Hazlitt, in English, who talks pimples — a red and white corruption rising up, (in little imitation of mountains upon maps,) but containing nothing, and discharging nothing, except their own humours.

I dislike him the worse, (that is, Schlegel,) because he always seems upon the verge of meaning; and, lo, he goes down like sunset, or melts like a rainbow, leaving a rather rich confusion, — to which, however, the above comparisons do too much honour.

Continuing to read Mr. Frederick Schlegel. He is not such a fool as I took him for, that is to say, when he speaks of the North. But still he speaks of things all over the world with a kind of authority that a philosopher would disdain, and a man of common sense, feeling, and knowledge of his own ignorance, would be ashamed of. The man is evidently wanting to make an impression, like his brother, — or like George in the Vicar of Wakefield, who found out that all the good things had been said already on the right side, and therefore 'dressed up some paradoxes' upon the wrong side — ingenious, but false, as he himself says — to which 'the learned world said nothing, nothing at all, sir.' The 'learned world,' however, has said something to the brothers Schlegel.

It is high time to think of something else. What they say of the antiquities of the North is best.

Notes to the text:

Lugano Gazette - A Swiss publication to which Byron subscribed. Lugano is an Italian-speaking town in the south of Switzerland bordering on Italy. In a letter to John Murray the previous fall, Byron had said that the Italians were eager for foreign news such as that which the Gazette contained: "divided and miserable as they are, and with neither leisure at present to read, nor head nor heart to judge of any thing but extracts from French newspapers and the Lugano Gazette." - source: Life; with his letters and journals.

English powder - Gunpowder. Byron had agreed to store procure and store weapons, ammunition, and the like for the local Carbonari. It seems the Austrians intercepted a shipment of powder that was being brought to him.

ball - Bullets.

four tragedies - Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice was published in 1821. Sardanapalus, a Tragedy. The Two Foscari, a Tragedy. and Cain, a Mystery were published in 1822, all by Byron's publisher John Murray in London.

Manfred - Manfred is a dramatic poem by Byron written in 1816-17 while he was living in Switzerland. It is about a man who is doomed to destroy those whom he loves and who himself dies refusing forgiveness or his own redemption.

Tiberius - He did not write a play about Tiberius.

those very vicious pleasures - While in Capri Suetonius records that Tiberius became paranoid and engaged in sexual perversity and cruelty. Before then he had executed his actual or perceived political rivals.

Continuing to read Mr. F. Schlegel - Refers to a translation of Schlegel's Lectures on the History of Literature which was published in 1818.

George in the Vicar of Wakefield - In Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield the Vicar's son George says: 'Finding that there was no great degree of gentility affixed to the character of an usher, I resolved to accept his proposal; and having the highest respect for literature, hailed the antiqua mater of Grub-street with reverence. I thought it my glory to pursue a track which Dryden and Otway trod before me. I considered the goddess of this region as the parent of excellence; and however an intercourse with the world might give us good sense, the poverty she granted I supposed to be the nurse of genius! Big with these reflections, I sate down, and finding that the best things remained to be said on the wrong side, I resolved to write a book that should be wholly new. I therefore drest up three paradoxes with some ingenuity. They were false, indeed, but they were new. The jewels of truth have been so often imported by others, that nothing was left for me to import but some splendid things that at a distance looked every bit as well. Witness you powers what fancied importance sate perched upon my quill while I was writing. The whole learned world, I made no doubt, would rise to oppose my systems; but then I was prepared to oppose the whole learned world. Like the porcupine I sate self collected, with a quill pointed against every opposer.'

Some sources:

Life of Lord Byron, Vol. IV With His Letters and Journals / Moore, Thomas, 1779-1852

Works (1904)

The Works of Lord Byron (1853)

The Works of Lord Byron (1854)

Life; with his letters and journals

Lord Byron's Tragedies. Quarterly Review (february, 1822.)

The Life of Lord Byron

Life of Lord Byron, With His Letters And Journals, Vol. 5

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

Links to pages of works by and about Byron

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