LETTER 410. TO MR. MURRAY.
Ravenna, January 27. 1821.
I differ from you about the Dante, which I think should be published with the tragedy. But do as you please: you must be the best judge of your own craft. I agree with you about the title. The play may be good or bad, but I flatter myself that it is original as a picture of that kind of passion, which to my mind is so natural, that I am convinced that I should have done precisely what the Doge did on those provocations.
I am glad of Foscolo's approbation.
Excuse haste. I believe I mentioned to you that — I forget what it was; but no matter.
Thanks for your compliments of the year. I hope that it will be pleasanter than the last. I speak with reference to England only, as far as regards myself, where I had every kind of disappointment — lost an important law-suit — and the trustees of Lady Byron refusing to allow of an advantageous loan to be made from my property to Lord Blessington, &c. &c. by way of closing the four seasons. These, and a hundred other such things, made a year of bitter business for me in England. Luckily, things were a little pleasanter for me here, else I should have taken the liberty of Hannibal's ring.
Pray thank Gifford for all his goodnesses. The winter is as cold here as Parry's polarities. I must now take a canter in the forest; my horses are waiting.
Yours ever and truly.
Notes to the text:
Murray - The recipient of this letter was John Murray, Byron's publisher.
Dante - This is Byron's play The Prophecy of Dante.
tragedy - This is probably Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice, an Historical Tragedy found in Dramatic works of Lord Byron; including Manfred, Cain, Doge of Venice, Sardanapalus, and the Two Foscari, together with his Hebrew melodies and other poems (1840). See extensive critical comments published in the Quarterly Review, below.
that kind of passion - In the play the Doge sides with low-born city dwellers against the Venetian nobility who wish to exculpate a criminal who has accused the Doge's wife of infidelity. The Doge's passion is Romantic. He deplores the petty hypocrisy of the nobles yet they are his peers and he does not exult in his decision to side with the 'common ruffians' against them. He says: 'Oh Men! What are ye, and our best designs, / That we must work by crime to punish crime?' He is activated by his own passion against injustice in general and in particular what he sees as a wrong done to him personally. Yet he is restrained by his better judgment, his respect for constitutional law. Early in the play he says:
Oh for one year! Oh! but for even a dayDoge - The Doge of Venice.
Of my full youth, while yet my body served
My soul as serves the generous steed his lord,
I would have dash'd amongst them, asking few
In aid to overthrow these swoln patricians;
But now I must look round for other hands
To serve this hoary head; — but it shall plan
In such a sort as will not leave the task
Herculean, though as yet 'tis but a chaos
Of darkly-brooding thoughts: my fancy is
In her first work, more nearly to the light
Holding the sleeping images of things
For the selection of the pausing judgment. —
Foscolo - This is the writer, Ugo Foscolo.
Blessington - Husband to Byron's friend, Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington.
Hannibal's ring - An allusion to suicide.
Non gladii, non saxa dabunt, non tela; sat illeSuch was the end of Hannibal: the Romans, who never thought themselves secure while he lived, no sooner heard that he had taken shelter at the court of Prusias, than they sent Q. Flaminius to demand him. Hannibal, who was well acquainted with the weakness of the Bithynian prince, and determined to die free, saw no other resource but swallowing poison; which, to be prepared against the worst, he always carried with him in the hollow of a ring! (Gifford)
Cannarum vindex, ac tanti sanguinis ultor, Annulus. Juvenal, Sat. x.
Nor swords, nor spears, nor stones from engines hurl'd,
Shall quell the man whose frown alarm'd the world:
The vengeance due to Cannae's fatal field.
And floods of human gore, a ring shall yield."
- source for this note: Life, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron.
Gifford - This is William Gifford. He edited the Quarterly Review. A TLS review of a book of Murray's letters to Byron says: 'Though Byron resisted Murray’s prurient attempts to tone down Don Juan, he allowed Gifford great latitude to decide on revisions of first drafts of the tales and dramas, respecting him as an upholder of Augustan literary standards. Murray fed him titbits of Gifford’s praise, while Gifford warned Murray not to overexpose him: “After all he is a wonderful creature – if I had him, I would keep him up carefully, & shew him only on high days and holydays”.'
Parry's polarities - Refers to the Arctic explorer, William Edward Parry. See his Journal of a voyage for the discovery of a North-West Passage.
Byron. § 3. Life at Venice and Ravenna.
Full text of "Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice : an historical tragedy, in five acts, with notes ; The prophecy of Dante : a poem"
Lord Byron's Life in Italy By Teresa Guiccioli
Biography of Deborah Docherty: Marguerite, Countess of Blessington (1789-1849)
A Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron with the Countess of Blessington
Life of Lord Byron, With His Letters And Journals, Vol. 5
William Parry (1790 - 1855)
A note on Byron's life at this time:
In Ravenna he was brought into closer touch with the life of the Italian people than he had ever been. He gave arms to the Carbonari and alms to the poor. It was one of the happiest and most productive periods of his life. He wrote The Prophecy of Dante; three cantos for Don Juan; the poetic dramas Marino Faliero, Sardanapalus, The Two Foscari, and Cain (all published in 1821); and his satire on the poet Robert Southey, The Vision of Judgment.
Murray informed Byron of the huge success his poem Childe Harold’s pilgrimage was enjoying. The first edition of canto one and two had sold out in three days, with 13,000 copies sold in the first two years. The first edition cost 50 shillings, a huge sum of money at the time, and it meant that only well off gentry or businessmen could afford it. Subsequent editions were cheaper but still expensive.
Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold’s pilgrimage describes the travels and reflections of a world-weary young man who is disillusioned with a life of pleasure and revelry. Partially autobiographical the hero Harold was originally called Burun. The poem would eventually have four cantos, or parts.
- source: George Gordon Noel Byron, 6th Baron Byron
In 1822 Murray's Quarterly Review published an extensive review of Byron's recent work. It shows the ambivalence of the English intelligentsia towards the man and his work. Here is an extract giving the critic's opinion of the Doge play:
SEVERAL years have passed away since we undertook the review of any of Lord Byron's Poetry. . . . We have altogether abstained from noticing those strange, though often beautiful productions, which, since the appearance of the Third part of his Childe Harold, have flowed on, wave after wave, redundant as that ocean which Lord Byron loves to describe, but with few exceptions, little less monotonous,—and stained, in succession, with deeper and yet deeper tokens of those pollutions, which, even in the full tide of genius, announce that its ebb is near. We knew not any severity of criticism which could reach the faults or purify the taste of Don Juan, and we trusted that its author would himself, ere long, discover, that if he continued to write such works as these, he would lose the power of producing any thing better.
In this hope we have not been disappointed. Whatever may be the other merits of his tragedies, on the score of morals they are unimpeachable. His females, universally, are painted in truer and worthier colours than we have been accustomed to witness from his pencil, and the qualities which he holds up, in his other characters, to admiration and to pity, are entirely unmingled with those darker and disgusting tints, from which even Childe Harold was not free, and which he appears to have thought necessary to excite an interest in such characters as Manfred, Lara, Alp, and the Giaour. ... It is better that Lord Byron should be a manichee, or a deist, — nay, we would almost say, if the thing were possible, it is better that he should be a moral and argumentative atheist, than the professed and systematic poet of seduction, adultery and incest; the contemner of patriotism, the insulter of piety, the raker into every sink of vice and wretchedness to disgust and degrade and harden the hearts of his fellow-creatures. The speculations of a Hume and a D'Alembert may be the objects of respectful regret and pity, while the Pucelle is regarded with unmingled contempt and detestation. The infidel may be, the adversary of good morals cannot be, under a mistake as to the tendency of his doctrines. . . .
Marino Faliero has, we believe, been pretty generally pronounced a failure by the public voice, and we see no reason to call for a revision of their sentence. It contains, beyond all doubt, many passages of commanding eloquence and some of genuine poetry, and the scenes, more particularly, in which Lord Byron has neglected the absurd creed of his pseudo-Hellenic writers, are conceived and elaborated with great tragic effect and dexterity. But the subject is decidedly ill-chosen. ... The Doge of Venice, to chastize the vulgar libel of a foolish boy, attempts to overturn that republic of which he is the first and most trusted servant; to massacre all his ancient friends and fellow-soldiers, the magistracy and nobility of the land. With such a resentment as this, thus simply stated and taken singly, who ever sympathized, or who but Lord Byron would have expected in such a cause to be able to awaken sympathy? It is little to the purpose to say that this is all historically true. A thing may be true without being probable, and such a case of idiosyncrasy as is implied in a resentment so sudden and extravagant, is no more a fitting subject for the poet than an animal with two heads would be for an artist of a different description.
It is true that, when a long course of mutual bickering had preceded, when the mind of the prince had been prepared, by due degrees, to hate the oligarchy with which he was surrounded and over-ruled, and to feel or suspect, in every act of the senate, a studied and persevering design to wound and degrade him, a very slight addition of injury might make the cup of anger overflow; and the insufficient punishment of Steno (though to most men this punishment seems not unequal to the offence) might have opened the last floodgate to that torrent which had been long gathering strength from innumerable petty insults and aggressions.
It is also possible that an old man, doatingly fond of a young and beautiful wife, yet not insensible to the ridicule of such an unequal alliance, might for months or years have been tormenting himself with the suspected suspicions of his countrymen; have smarted, though convinced of his consort's purity, under the idea that others were not equally candid, and have attached, at length, the greater importance to Steno's ribaldry from apprehending this last to be no more than an overt demonstration of the secret thoughts of half the little world of Venice. . . .
With all these defects there is much to praise in the Doge of Venice. The soliloquy of Leoni is exquisite, and increases our regret that, with such powers of pleasing, Lord Byron has not always condescended to please. The conception of the principal character is good. The dignified tenderness of the Doge towards his young wife is very fine and impressive, and the struggle of feelings with which he undertakes the conspiracy is admirably contrasted with the ferocious eagerness of his low-born associates; and only loses its effect because we cannot but be sensible that the man who felt thus, could not have gone on with his guilty project unless stimulated by some greater and more accumulated injuries than are, in the course of the present tragedy, brought before the perception of the reader. The Duchess is formal and cold, without even that degree of love for her old husband which a child might have for her parent, or a pupil for her instructor. Even in her longest and best speech, at the most touching moment of the catastrophe, she can moralize, in a strain of pedantry less natural to a woman than to any other person similarly circumstanced, on lions stung by gnats, Achilles, Helen, Lucretia, the siege of Clusium, Caligula, Caaba and Persepolis! The lines to which we allude are fine in themselves, indeed, and if they had been spoken by Benintende as a funeral oration over the duke's body, or, still more perhaps, if they had been spoken by the duke's counsel on his trial, they would have been perfectly in place and character. But that is not the highest order of female intellect which is disposed to be long-winded in distress; nor does any one, either male or female, who is really and deeply affected, find time for wise saws and instances ancient and modern.
It must be owned, however, that the Duke himself bears his calamities with a patience which would be more heroic if it were less wordy. It is possible, that a condemned man might recollect his quarrel with the Bishop of Treviso and the evil omen which accompanied his solemn landing at Venice. But there are not many condemned men who, during a last and stinted interview with a beloved wife, would have employed so much time in relating anecdotes of themselves, and we should least of all expect it in one whose fiery character would have induced him to hurry forward to his end. The same objection applies to his prophecy of the future miseries of Venice. Its language and imagery are, doubtless, extremely powerful and impressive; but we cannot allow that it is either dramatic or characteristic. A prophecy (which we know to be ex post facto) is, under any circumstances, one of the cheapest and least artificial of poetic machines. But under such circumstances as the present no audience could have endured so long a speech without disgust and weariness; and Marino Faliero was most likely to have met his death like our own Sydney,With no harangue idly proclaim'd aloudHis last speech to the executioner would, probably, have been his only one.
To catch the worthless plaudit of the crowd;
No feeble boast, death's terrors to defy,
Yet still delaying, as afraid to die!Slave, do thine office!On the whole the Doge of Venice is the effect of a powerful and cultivated mind. It has all the requisites of tragedy, sublimity, terror and pathos—all but that without which the rest are unavailing, interest! With many detached passages which neither derogate from Lord Byron's former fame, nor would have derogated from the reputation of our best ancient tragedians, it is, as a whole, neither sustained nor impressive. The poet, except in the soliloquy of Leoni, scarcely ever seems to have written with his own thorough good liking. He may be suspected throughout to have had in his eye some other model than nature; and we rise from his work with the same feelmg as if we had been reading a translation. For this want of mterest the subject itself is doubtless in some measure to blame, though, if the same subject had been differently treated, we are inclined to believe a very different effect would have been produced. But for the constraint and stiffness of the poetry, we have nothing to blame but the apparent resolution of its author to set (at whatever risk) au example of classical correctness to his uncivilized countrymen, and rather to forego success than to succeed after the manner of Shakspeare.
Strike as I struck the foe! strike as I would
Have struck those tyrants! strike deep as my curse!
Strike, and but once.
THE QUARTERLY REVIEW. VOL. XXVII. APRIL & JULY. LONDON: JOHN MURRAY, ALBEMARLE STREET. 1822. Issue No. LIV.
Art. X.—1. Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice, an Historical Tragedy.—2. Sardanapalus, a Tragedy.—3. The Two Foscari, a Tragedy.—4. Cain, a Mystery.