The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

George Gordon Lord Byron (1788-1824)—Critical Poem

The following illustrates that poets of the canon used to name names, criticizing other poets.  One does not see this at all in today's world of poesy.  Note the bold printed verse.  Text taken from

Don Juan: Dedication
Difficile est proprie communia dicere
                     HOR. Epist. ad Pison

              1Bob Southey! You're a poet--Poet-laureate,
              2     And representative of all the race;
              3Although 'tis true that you turn'd out a Tory at
              4     Last--yours has lately been a common case;
              5And now, my Epic Renegade! what are ye at?
              6     With all the Lakers, in and out of place?
              7A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye
              8Like "four and twenty Blackbirds in a pye;

              9"Which pye being open'd they began to sing"
            10     (This old song and new simile holds good),
            11"A dainty dish to set before the King,"
            12     Or Regent, who admires such kind of food;
            13And Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,
            14     But like a hawk encumber'd with his hood,
            15Explaining Metaphysics to the nation--
            16I wish he would explain his Explanation.

            17You, Bob! are rather insolent, you know,
            18     At being disappointed in your wish
            19To supersede all warblers here below,
            20     And be the only Blackbird in the dish;
            21And then you overstrain yourself, or so,
            22     And tumble downward like the flying fish
            23Gasping on deck, because you soar too high, Bob,
            24And fall, for lack of moisture quite a-dry, Bob!

            25And Wordsworth, in a rather long "Excursion"
            26     (I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
            27Has given a sample from the vasty version
            28     Of his new system to perplex the sages;
            29'Tis poetry--at least by his assertion,
            30     And may appear so when the dog-star rages--
            31And he who understands it would be able
            32To add a story to the Tower of Babel.

            33You--Gentlemen! by dint of long seclusion
            34     From better company, have kept your own
            35At Keswick, and, through still continu'd fusion
            36     Of one another's minds, at last have grown
            37To deem as a most logical conclusion,
            38     That Poesy has wreaths for you alone:
            39There is a narrowness in such a notion,
            40Which makes me wish you'd change your lakes for Ocean.

            41I would not imitate the petty thought,
            42     Nor coin my self-love to so base a vice,
            43For all the glory your conversion brought,
            44     Since gold alone should not have been its price.
            45You have your salary; was't for that you wrought?
            46     And Wordsworth has his place in the Excise.
            47You're shabby fellows--true--but poets still,
            48And duly seated on the Immortal Hill.

            49Your bays may hide the baldness of your brows--
            50     Perhaps some virtuous blushes--let them go--
            51To you I envy neither fruit nor boughs--
            52     And for the fame you would engross below,
            53The field is universal, and allows
            54     Scope to all such as feel the inherent glow:
            55Scott, Rogers, Campbell, Moore and Crabbe, will try
            56'Gainst you the question with posterity.

            57For me, who, wandering with pedestrian Muses,
            58     Contend not with you on the winged steed,
            59I wish your fate may yield ye, when she chooses,
            60     The fame you envy, and the skill you need;
            61And, recollect, a poet nothing loses
            62     In giving to his brethren their full meed
            63Of merit, and complaint of present days
            64Is not the certain path to future praise.

            65He that reserves his laurels for posterity
            66     (Who does not often claim the bright reversion)
            67Has generally no great crop to spare it, he
            68     Being only injur'd by his own assertion;
            69And although here and there some glorious rarity
            70     Arise like Titan from the sea's immersion,
            71The major part of such appellants go
            72To--God knows where--for no one else can know.

            73If, fallen in evil days on evil tongues,
            74     Milton appeal'd to the Avenger, Time,
            75If Time, the Avenger, execrates his wrongs,
            76     And makes the word "Miltonic" mean "sublime,"
            77He deign'd not to belie his soul in songs,
            78     Nor turn his very talent to a crime;
            79He did not loathe the Sire to laud the Son,
            80But clos'd the tyrant-hater he begun.

            81Think'st thou, could he--the blind Old Man--arise
            82     Like Samuel from the grave, to freeze once more
            83The blood of monarchs with his prophecies
            84     Or be alive again--again all hoar
            85With time and trials, and those helpless eyes,
            86     And heartless daughters--worn--and pale--and poor;
            87Would he adore a sultan? he obey
            88The intellectual eunuch Castlereagh?

            89Cold-blooded, smooth-fac'd, placid miscreant!
            90     Dabbling its sleek young hands in Erin's gore,
            91And thus for wider carnage taught to pant,
            92     Transferr'd to gorge upon a sister shore,
            93The vulgarest tool that Tyranny could want,
            94     With just enough of talent, and no more,
            95To lengthen fetters by another fix'd,
            96And offer poison long already mix'd.

            97An orator of such set trash of phrase
            98     Ineffably--legitimately vile,
            99That even its grossest flatterers dare not praise,
          100     Nor foes--all nations--condescend to smile,
          101Not even a sprightly blunder's spark can blaze
          102     From that Ixion grindstone's ceaseless toil,
          103That turns and turns to give the world a notion
          104Of endless torments and perpetual motion.

          105A bungler even in its disgusting trade,
          106     And botching, patching, leaving still behind
          107Something of which its masters are afraid,
          108     States to be curb'd, and thoughts to be confin'd,
          109Conspiracy or Congress to be made--
          110     Cobbling at manacles for all mankind--
          111A tinkering slave-maker, who mends old chains,
          112With God and Man's abhorrence for its gains.

          113If we may judge of matter by the mind,
          114     Emasculated to the marrow It
          115Hath but two objects, how to serve, and bind,
          116     Deeming the chain it wears even men may fit,
          117Eutropius of its many masters, blind
          118     To worth as freedom, wisdom as to Wit,
          119Fearless--because no feeling dwells in ice,
          120Its very courage stagnates to a vice.

          121Where shall I turn me not to view its bonds,
          122     For I will never feel them?--Italy!
          123Thy late reviving Roman soul desponds
          124     Beneath the lie this State-thing breath'd o'er thee--
          125Thy clanking chain, and Erin's yet green wounds,
          126     Have voices--tongues to cry aloud for me.
          127Europe has slaves--allies--kings--armies still,
          128And Southey lives to sing them very ill.

          129Meantime--Sir Laureate--I proceed to dedicate,
          130     In honest simple verse, this song to you,
          131And, if in flattering strains I do not predicate,
          132     'Tis that I still retain my "buff and blue";
          133My politics as yet are all to educate:
          134     Apostasy's so fashionable, too,
          135To keep one creed's a task grown quite Herculean;
          136Is it not so, my Tory, ultra-Julian?

1] Byron began the poem in July 1818, and the first two cantos were published in July 1819. It continued to appear in instalments of two or three cantos until March 1824, the month before his death. The Dedication, although written in 1818, was withheld and did not appear until 1833. The fragment of Canto the Seventeenth was first printed by E. H. Coleridge in 1903. Byron's letters are full of the most varied comments on Don Juan: in his first reference it is "meant to be a little quietly fa&cetious on everything"; in another it is "the sublime of that there sort of writing .... It may be profligate but is it not life, is it not the thing?" To his publisher he calls it "a Satire on abuses of the present states of Society" and improvises a prospectus for its future development: "to how many cantos this may extend, I know not, nor whether (even if I live) I shall complete it; but this was my notion: I meant to have made him a Cavalier Servente in Italy, and a cause for divorce in England, and a Sentimental 'Werther-faced man' in Germany, so as to show the different ridicules of the society in each of those countries, and to have displayed him gradually gàté, and blasé as he grew older, as was natural. But I had not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell, or in an unhappy marriage, not knowing which would be the severest. The Spanish tradition says Hell: but it is probably only an Allegory of the other state." #Difficile est propere communia dicere. This motto (from Horace's Epist. ad Pisones, II, iii, 128) is attached to the first edition both of Cantos I and II, and of III, IV, and V. Byron's footnote to his Hints from Horace, 183, discusses differences of opinion as to its meaning, and he himself made two rather different couplets out of it: "'Tis hard to venture where our betters fail/Or lend fresh interest to a twice-told tale" and "Whate'er the critic says or poet sings,/'Tis no slight task to write on common things."
Poet-laureate. In 1813 Southey was appointed Poet Laureate to succeed Pye.
5] Epic Renegade. Byron often satirized both Southey's epic pretensions (see English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, 189-234) and his conservative reaction from the radical views of his youth. He also believed that Southey had spread personal scandal about him.
6 ] Lakers. Southey, Wordsworth, and (occasionally) Coleridge lived in the Lake District, and Wordsworth often used it as a setting for his poetry. Hence the loose designation "Lake Poets," which the Edinburgh Review helped to popularize.
12] Regent. George III's madness made necessary the Regency Act of February 1811, by which the Prince of Wales became Regent.
13 ] taken wing: probably refers to the publication of the Biographia Literaria in 1817, which confirmed Coleridge's reputation for obscurity.
24 ] quite a-dry, Bob: refers not merely to the dullness of Southey's work, but also to its sterility, a "dry bob" being current slang for coition without emission.
25] Excursion: the longest and most pretentious of Wordsworth's published poems (1814).
46 ] Wordsworth has his place in the Excise. The Tory Earl of Lonsdale used his influence to get Wordsworth the sinecure of Distributor of Stamps for the county of Westmoreland. The following year Wordsworth dedicated The Excursion to him.
55] Scott, Rogers, Campbell, Moore and Crabbe. Samuel Rogers (1763-1855), author of The Pleasures of Memory, and Thomas Campbell (1777-1844), author of The Pleasures of Hope and numerous patriotic songs and exotic narratives, no longer retain even the minor poetic reputation of the other three.
70] Titan: name for the sun-god in Roman mythology.
73 ] Byron refers to Paradise Lost, VII, 25-26 and probably also to the following appeal for "fit audience though few."
79 ] Sire ... Son: Charles I and II.
82 ] Like Samuel: see 1 Samuel 28: 13-14.
88 ] Castlereagh. Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh (1769-1822) had a brilliant political career in a series of Tory governments, beginning with Pitt's and ending with Liverpool's. At one time secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, he occupied the War Office and later the Foreign Office (1812-22). Although Byron respected his courage, he detested his repressive and reactionary policies, particularly as architect of the post-Napoleonic peace, which re-established Austria in northern Italy.
90 ] Erin: Ireland.
97 ] orator. Castlereagh had a reputation for maladroit English. "How odd that you should all be governed by a man who can neither think nor speak English" (Byron to Hobhouse).
102] Ixion: figure in Greek myth, bound in hell to a wheel, whose perpetual turning Byron compares to Castlereagh's interminable speeches.
117 ] Eutropius. A eunuch who was minister of the Roman Emperor Arcadius (378-408). See also "intellectual eunuch" (xi) and "emasculated" (xv).
132 ] "buff and blue." "Mr. Fox and the Whig Club of his time adopted an uniform of blue and buff" (Moore's note).
136] Julian: Julian the Apostate, Roman emperor (361-363), who reverted from Christianity to the worship of the pagan gods.