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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 1880–1918.rnVol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti

Lord Byron (1788–1824)

Extracts from Don Juan: Haidée and Juan

[From Canto IV.]

NOTHING so difficult as a beginning

In poesy, unless perhaps the end;

For oftentimes when Pegasus seems winning

The race, he sprains a wing, and down we tend,

Like Lucifer when hurl’d from heaven for sinning;

Our sin the same, and hard as his to mend,

Being pride, which leads the mind to soar too far,

Till our own weakness shows us what we are.

But time, which brings all beings to their level,

And sharp Adversity, will teach at last

Man,—and, as we would hope,—perhaps the devil,

That neither of their intellects are vast:

While youth’s hot wishes in our red veins revel,

We know not this—the blood flows on too fast:

But as the torrent widens towards the ocean,

We ponder deeply on each past emotion.

As boy, I thought myself a clever fellow,

And wish’d that others held the same opinion:

They took it up when my days grew more mellow,

And other minds acknowledged my dominion;

Now my sere fancy ‘falls into the yellow

Leaf,’ and Imagination droops her pinion,

And the sad truth which hovers o’er my desk

Turns what was once romantic to burlesque.

And if I laugh at any mortal thing,

’Tis that I may not weep; and if I weep,

’Tis that our nature cannot always bring

Itself to apathy, for we must steep

Our hearts first in the depths of Lethe’s spring,

Ere what we least wish to behold will sleep:

Thetis baptized her mortal son in Styx;

A mortal mother would on Lethe fix.

Some have accused me of a strange design

Against the creed and morals of the land,

And trace it in this poem every line,

I don’t pretend that I quite understand

My own meaning when I would be very fine;

But the fact is that I have nothing plann’d,

Unless it were to be a moment merry,

A novel word in my vocabulary.

To the kind reader of our sober clime

This way of writing will appear exotic;

Pulci was sire of the half-serious rhyme,

Who sang when chivalry was more Quixotic,

And revell’d in the fancies of the time,

True knights, chaste dames, huge giants, kings despotic,

But all these, save the last, being obsolete,

I chose a modern subject as more meet.

How I have treated it, I do not know;

Perhaps no better than they have treated me,

Who have imputed such designs as show

Not what they saw, but what they wished to see;

But if it gives them pleasure, be it so,

This is a liberal age, and thoughts are free:

Meantime Apollo plucks me by the ear,

And tells me to resume my story here.

Young Juan and his lady-love were left

To their own hearts’ most sweet society;

Even Time the pitiless in sorrow cleft

With his rude scythe such gentle bosoms; he

Sigh’d to behold them of their hours bereft,

Though foe to love; and yet they could not be

Meant to grow old, but die in happy spring,

Before one harm or hope had taken wing.

Their faces were not made for wrinkles, their

Pure blood to stagnate, their great hearts to fail;

The blank grey was not made to blast their hair,

But like the climes that know nor snow nor hail,

They were all summer; lightning might assail

And shiver them to ashes, but to trail

A long and snake-like life of dull decay

Was not for them—they had too little clay.

They were alone once more; for them to be

Thus was another Eden; they were never

Weary, unless when separate: the tree

Cut from its forest root of years—the river

Damm’d from its fountain—the child from the knee

And breast maternal wean’d at once for ever,—

Would wither less than these two torn apart;

Alas! there is no instinct like the heart—

The heart—which may be broken: happy they!

Thrice fortunate! who of that fragile mould,

The precious porcelain of human clay,

Break with the first fall: they can ne’er behold

The long year link’d with heavy day on day,

And all which must be borne, and never told;

While life’s strange principle will often lie

Deepest in those who long the most to die.

‘Whom the gods love die young’ was said of yore,

And many deaths do they escape by this:

The death of friends, and that which slays even more—

The death of friendship, love, youth, all that is,

Except mere breath; and since the silent shore

Awaits at last even those who longest miss

The old archer’s shafts, perhaps the early grave

Which men weep over may be meant to save.

Haidée and Juan thought not of the dead.

The heavens, and earth, and air, seem’d made for them;

They found no fault with Time, save that he fled;

They saw not in themselves aught to condemn;

Each was the other’s mirror, and but read

Joy sparkling in their dark eyes like a gem,

And knew such brightness was but the reflection

Of their exchanging glances of affection.

The gentle pressure, and the thrilling touch,

The least glance better understood than words,

Which still said all, and ne’er could say too much;

A language, too, but like to that of birds,

Known but to them, at least appearing such

As but to lovers a true sense affords;

Sweet playful phrases, which would seem absurd

To those who have ceased to hear such, or ne’er heard.

All these were theirs, for they were children still,

And children still they should have ever been;

They were not made in the real world to fill

A busy character in the dull scene,

But like two beings born from out a rill,

A nymph and her beloved, all unseen

To pass their lives in fountains and on flowers,

And never know the weight of human hours.

Moons changing had roll’d on, and changeless found

Those their bright rise had lighted to such joys

As rarely they beheld throughout their round;

And these were not of the vain kind which cloys,

For theirs were buoyant spirits, never bound

By the mere senses; and that which destroys

Most love, possession, unto them appear’d

A thing which each endearment more endear’d.