The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

II. Byron

§ 10. The Verse-tales

In the years which elapsed between Byron’s return from foreign travel and his final departure from England in 1816, the form of poetry which chiefly occupied his mind was the romantic verse-tale. The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, Lara, The Siege of Corinth and Parisina all fall within this period; they were written in hot haste, partly to satisfy the public taste for work of this character, and partly to wring the poet’s thoughts from reality to imagination. After taking up his residence on the continent, other forms of poetry claimed his first attention; but the appearance of The Prisoner of Chillon in 1816, Mazeppa in 1819 and The Island in 1823 shows that Byron never wholly relinquished his delight in the verse-tale. Moreover, though it was the early stories of oriental life which most impressed his contemporaries, it is probable that the later tales will live longest. In essaying the verse-tale, Byron entered into direct rivalry with Scott, imitating his metric art and making the same bold appeal to the instincts of the age for stirring adventure and romantic colour. But, whereas Scott sought his themes chiefly in the pages of history, Byron was content to draw largely upon personal experience; instead of the clash of passion between lowlander and highlander, or cavalier and roundhead, we witness the antagonism of Christian and Mussulman, of Greek and Turk. The spirit of medieval chivalry in which the wizard of the north delighted, is, in Byron, replaced by the fanaticism of the Moslem, and by that love of melodrama which we invariably associate with the Byronic hero. Byron lacks Scott’s gift of lucid narrative, nor has he that sense of the large issues at stake which gives to the Scottish lays something of epic massiveness; but he has greater passion, and, within certain strictly defined limits, offers a more searching disclosure of the human heart. In these early oriental tales, we meet with the true Byronic hero, first faintly outlined in Childe Harold and culminating, a little later, in Manfred and Cain. He figures under many names, is sometimes Mussulman and sometimes Christian, but, amid all his disguises, retains the same essentials of personality and speaks the same language. He is a projection of a certain habit of mind on the part of Byron himself into surroundings which are partly imaginary, and partly based on personal experience. In The Corsair and Lara, Byron seems to have outgrown the influence of Scott and to have fallen under that of Dryden. With the change from the octosyllabic to the decasyllabic couplet, the style grows more rhetorical: the speeches of Conrad-Lara and Gulnare-Kaled acquire something of that declamatory character which we meet with in the heroes and heroines of Dryden’s Fables, and, though Byron preserves the romanticist’s delight in high-pitched adventure and glowing colours, he also displays the neo-classic fondness for conventional epithets and the personification of abstractions. In Parisina, and, still more, in The Prisoner of Chillon, there is a welcome return to a simpler style: the gorgeous east no longer holds him in fee, and he breaks away both from rhetorical speech and melodramatic situations. In Parisina, he invests a repellent, but deeply tragic, theme with dignity and restrained beauty; no artifice of rhetoric mars the sincerity of the passion, and nowhere else does Byron come so near towards capturing the subtle cadence of the Christabel verse. In The Prisoner of Chillon, he advances still farther in the direction of sincerity of emotion and simplicity of utterance. Love of political freedom, which was always the noblest passion in Byron’s soul, inspired the poem, and, here, as in the third canto of Childe Harold, written about the same time, we are conscious of the influence of Wordsworth. The Sonnet on Chillon is as generous in emotion and as sonorous in its harmony as Wordsworth’s sonnet On the extinction of the Venetian Republic; and, in his introduction into the poem itself of the bird with azure wings that seemed to be the soul of Bonnivard’s dead brother, there is something of that delicate symbolism in which both Wordsworth and Coleridge found peculiar delight.

A new note is struck in Mazeppa. The mood of The Prisoner of Chillon is one of elegiac tenderness, whereas, here, we are conscious of the glory of swift motion, as we follow the Cossack soldier in his life-in-death ride across the Russian steppes. Scott had essayed a similar theme in his picture of Deloraine’s ride to Melrose abbey, and, in either case, we feel ourselves spell-bound by the animation of poets to whom a life of action was a thing more to be desired than the sedentary ease of a man of letters. The Island is the last of Byron’s verse-tales and the last of his finished works. Written in 1823, just before he set sail for Greece, it shows that neither the classic spirit which he displays in many of his dramas, nor the cynical realism of much of Don Juan, could stifle in him the glow of high romance. In the love-story of Torquil and Neuha, we have a variation from the Juan-Haidée episode, set against a background of tropical magnificence, and told with a zest which shows that advancing years availed nothing to diminish the youthful ardour of Byron.