Thursday, January 22, 2009

Poe and Byron

On 22 January 1788, George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, was born. Lord Byron would become well-known worldwide as an English poet and had a significant impact on a young American poet named Edgar Poe.

There's no doubt Poe's early poems (the ones that are not known by general Poe fans, and are certainly not quickly recognizable as Poe's) were slightly Byronic. Most notable is the title poem of Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), the edition famously credited tantalizingly "by a Bostonian." The heroine of the poem "Tamerlane" is named Ada, likely after Byron's daughter. The poem itself bears a resemblance to the works of Byron. Poe wrote "I reach'd my home — my home no more" only about three years after Byron wrote "He entered in the house—his home no more" in Don Juan, left unfinished at his death in 1824.

Poe's imitation of Byron didn't last forever. As he matured as a poet and built his own independent poetic theory, he distanced himself from the long poetic works that Byron (and many others) wrote and aimed for shorter pieces. But even before he wrote about keeping poems short in "The Philosophy of Composition," by May 29, 1829 — two years after Tamerlane and Other Poems — Poe writes to his foster-father John Allan: "I have long given up on Byron as a model—for which, I think, I deserve some credit."

Still, Poe would always respect Byron as a poet. In his essay "The Poetic Principle" (published posthumously in 1850), he takes a moment to praise Byron:

"Among the minor poems of Lord Byron is one which has never received from the critics the praise which it undoubtedly deserves: —

Though the day of my destiny's over,
And the star of my fate hath declined
Thy soft heart refused to discover
The faults which so many could find;
Though thy soul with my grief was acquainted,
It shrunk not to share it with me,
And the love which my spirit hath painted
It never hath found but in thee.

Then when nature around me is smiling,
The last smile which answers to mine,
I do not believe it beguiling,
Because it reminds me of shine;
And when winds are at war with the ocean,
As the breasts I believed in with me,
If their billows excite an emotion,
It is that they bear me from thee.

Though the rock of my last hope is shivered,
And its fragments are sunk in the wave,
Though I feel that my soul is delivered
To pain — it shall not be its slave.
There is many a pang to pursue me:
They may crush, but they shall not contemn —
They may torture, but shall not subdue me —
'Tis of thee that I think — not of them.

Though human, thou didst not deceive me,
Though woman, thou didst not forsake,
Though loved, thou forborest to grieve me,
Though slandered, thou never couldst shake, —
Though trusted, thou didst not disclaim me,
Though parted, it was not to fly,
Though watchful, 'twas not to defame me,
Nor mute, that the world might belie.

Yet I blame not the world, nor despise it,
Nor the war of the many with one —
If my soul was not fitted to prize it,
'Twas folly not sooner to shun:
And if dearly that error hath cost me,
And more than I once could foresee,
I have found that whatever it lost me,
It could not deprive me of thee.

From the wreck of the past, which hath perished,
Thus much I at least may recall,
It hath taught me that which I most cherished
Deserved to be dearest of all:
In the desert a fountain is springing,
In the wide waste there still is a tree,
And a bird in the solitude singing,
Which speaks to my spirit of thee.

"Although the rhythm here is one of the most difficult, the versification could scarcely be improved. No nobler theme ever engaged the pen of poet. It is the soul-elevating idea that no man can consider himself entitled to complain of Fate while in his adversity he still retains the unwavering love of woman."

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