Lord Byron: “Lara” 1/3
Byron’s Notes: The reader of “Lara” may probably regard it as a sequel to a poem that recently appeared: whether the cast of the hero’s character, the turn of his adventures, and the general outline and colouring of the story, may not encourage such a supposition, shall be left to his determination. [The poem is “The Corsair.”]
CANTO THE FIRST.
The Serfs are glad through Lara’s wide domain,
And slavery half forgets her feudal chain;
He, their unhoped, but unforgotten lord —
The long self-exiled chieftain is restored:
There be bright faces in the busy hall,
Bowls on the board, and banners on the wall;
Far chequering o’er the pictured window, plays
The unwonted fagots’ hospitable blaze;
And gay retainers gather round the hearth,
With tongues all loudness, and with eyes all mirth.
The chief of Lara is return’d again:
And why had Lara cross’d the bounding main?
Left by his sire, too young such loss to know,
Lord of himself; — that heritage of woe,
That fearful empire which the human breast
But holds to rob the heart within of rest! —
With none to check, and few to point in time
The thousand paths that slope the way to crime;
Then, when he most required commandment, then
Had Lara’s daring boyhood govern’d men.
It skills not, boots not, step by step to trace
His youth through all the mazes of its race;
Short was the course his restlessness had run,
But long enough to leave him half undone.
And Lara left in youth his fatherland;
But from the hour he waved his parting hand
Each trace wax’d fainter of his course, till all
Had nearly ceased his memory to recall.
His sire was dust, his vassals could declare,
‘Twas all they knew, that Lara was not there;
Nor sent, nor came he, till conjecture grew
Cold in the many, anxious in the few.
His hall scarce echoes with his wonted name,
His portrait darkens in its fading frame,
Another chief consoled his destined bride,
The young forgot him, and the old had died;
“Yet doth he live!” exclaims the impatient heir,
And sighs for sables which he must not wear.
A hundred scutcheons deck with gloomy grace
The Laras’ last and longest dwelling-place;
But one is absent from the mouldering file,
That now were welcome to that Gothic pile.
He comes at last in sudden loneliness,
And whence they know not, why they need not guess;
They more might marvel, when the greeting’s o’er,
Not that he came, but came not long before:
No train is his beyond a single page,
Of foreign aspect, and of tender age.
Years had roll’d on, and fast they speed away
To those that wander as to those that stay;
But lack of tidings from another clime
Had lent a flagging wing to weary Time.
They see, they recognise, yet almost deem
The present dubious, or the past a dream.
He lives, nor yet is past his manhood’s prime,
Though sear’d by toil, and something touch’d by time;
His faults, whate’er they were, if scarce forgot,
Might be untaught him by his varied lot;
Nor good nor ill of late were known, his name
Might yet uphold his patrimonial fame.
His soul in youth was haughty, but his sins
No more than pleasure from the stripling wins;
And such, if not yet harden’d in their course,
Might be redeem’d, nor ask a long remorse.
And they indeed were changed — ’tis quickly seen,
Whate’er he be, ’twas not what he had been:
That brow in furrow’d lines had fix’d at last,
And spake of passions, but of passion past;
The pride, but not the fire, of early days,
Coldness of mien, and carelessness of praise;
A high demeanour, and a glance that took
Their thoughts from others by a single look;
And that sarcastic levity of tongue,
The stinging of a heart the world hath stung,
That darts in seeming playfulness around,
And makes those feel that will not own the wound:
All these seem’d his, and something more beneath
Than glance could well reveal, or accent breathe.
Ambition, glory, love, the common aim
That some can conquer, and that all would claim,
Within his breast appear’d no more to strive,
Yet seem’d as lately they had been alive;
And some deep feeling it were vain to trace
At moments lighten’d o’er his livid face.
Not much he loved long question of the past,
Nor told of wondrous wilds, and deserts vast,
In those far lands where he had wander’d lone,
And — as himself would have it seem — unknown:
Yet these in vain his eye could scarcely scan,
Nor glean experience from his fellow-man;
But what he had beheld he shunn’d to show,
As hardly worth a stranger’s care to know;
If still more prying such inquiry grew,
His brow fell darker, and his words more few.
Not unrejoiced to see him once again,
Warm was his welcome to the haunts of men;
Born of high lineage, link’d in high command,
He mingled with the magnates of his land;
Join’d the carousals of the great and gay,
And saw them smile or sigh their hours away;
But still he only saw, and did not share
The common pleasure or the general care;
He did not follow what they all pursued,
With hope still baffled, still to be renew’d;
Nor shadowy honour, nor substantial gain,
Nor beauty’s preference, and the rival’s pain:
Around him some mysterious circle thrown
Repell’d approach, and showed him still alone;
Upon his eye sate something of reproof,
That kept at least frivolity aloof;
And things more timid that beheld him near,
In silence gazed, or whisper’d mutual fear;
And they the wiser, friendlier few confess’d
They deem’d him better than his air express’d.
‘Twas strange — in youth all action and all life,
Burning for pleasure, not averse from strife;
Woman — the field — the ocean — all that gave
Promise of gladness, peril of a grave,
In turn he tried — he ransack’d all below,
And found his recompence in joy or woe,
No tame, trite medium; for his feelings sought
In that intenseness an escape from thought:
The tempest of his heart in scorn had gazed
On that the feebler elements hath raised;
The rapture of his heart had look’d on high,
And ask’d if greater dwelt beyond the sky:
Chain’d to excess, the slave of each extreme,
How woke he from the wildness of that dream?
Alas! he told not — but he did awake
To curse the wither’d heart that would not break.
Books, for his volume heretofore was Man,
With eye more curious he appear’d to scan,
And oft, in sudden mood, for many a day
From all communion he would start away:
And then, his rarely call’d attendants said,
Through night’s long hours would sound his hurried tread
O’er the dark gallery, where his fathers frown’d
In rude but antique portraiture around.
They heard, but whisper’d — “that must not be known —
The sound of words less earthly than his own.
Yes, they who chose might smile, but some had seen
They scarce knew what, but more than should have been.
Why gazed he so upon the ghastly head
Which hands profane had gather’d from the dead,
That still beside his open’d volume lay,
As if to startle all save him away?
Why slept he not when others were at rest?
Why heard no music, and received no guest?
All was not well, they deem’d — but where the wrong?
Some knew perchance — but ’twere a tale too long;
And such besides were too discreetly wise,
To more than hint their knowledge in surmise;
But if they would — they could” — around the board,
Thus Lara’s vassals prattled of their lord.
It was the night — and Lara’s glassy stream
The stars are studding, each with imaged beam:
So calm, the waters scarcely seem to stray,
And yet they glide like happiness away;
Reflecting far and fairy-like from high
The immortal lights that live along the sky:
Its banks are fringed with many a goodly tree,
And flowers the fairest that may feast the bee;
Such in her chaplet infant Dian wove,
And Innocence would offer to her love.
These deck the shore; the waves their channel make
In windings bright and mazy like the snake.
All was so still, so soft in earth and air,
You scarce would start to meet a spirit there;
Secure that nought of evil could delight
To walk in such a scene, on such a night!
It was a moment only for the good:
So Lara deem’d, nor longer there he stood,
But turn’d in silence to his castle-gate;
Such scene his soul no more could contemplate.
Such scene reminded him of other days,
Of skies more cloudless, moons of purer blaze,
Of nights more soft and frequent, hearts that now —
No — no — the storm may beat upon his brow,
Unfelt — unsparing — but a night like this,
A night of beauty mock’d such breast as his.
He turn’d within his solitary hall,
And his high shadow shot along the wall;
There were the painted forms of other times,
‘Twas all they left of virtues or of crimes,
Save vague tradition; and the gloomy vaults
That hid their dust, their foibles, and their faults;
And half a column of the pompous page,
That speeds the specious tale from age to age:
When history’s pen its praise or blame supplies,
And lies like truth, and still most truly lies.
He wandering mused, and as the moonbeam shone
Through the dim lattice o’er the floor of stone,
And the high fretted roof, and saints, that there
O’er Gothic windows knelt in pictured prayer,
Reflected in fantastic figures grew,
Like life, but not like mortal life, to view;
His bristling locks of sable, brow of gloom,
And the wide waving of his shaken plume,
Glanced like a spectre’s attributes, and gave
His aspect all that terror gives the grave.
‘Twas midnight — all was slumber; the lone light
Dimm’d in the lamp, as loth to break the night.
Hark! there be murmurs heard in Lara’s hall —
A sound — voice — a shriek — a fearful call!
A long, loud shriek — and silence — did they hear
That frantic echo burst the sleeping ear?
They heard and rose, and tremulously brave
Rush where the sound invoked their aid to save;
They come with half-lit tapers in their hands,
And snatch’d in startled haste unbelted brands.
Cold as the marble where his length was laid,
Pale as the beam that o’er his features play’d,
Was Lara stretch’d; his half-drawn sabre near,
Dropp’d it should seem in more than nature’s fear;
Yet he was firm, or had been firm till now,
And still defiance knit his gather’d brow;
Though mix’d with terror, senseless as he lay,
There lived upon his lip the wish to slay;
Some half-form’d threat in utterance there had died,
Some imprecation of despairing pride;
His eye was almost seal’d, but not forsook
Even in its trance the gladiator’s look,
That oft awake his aspect could disclose,
And now was fix’d in horrible repose.
They raise him — bear him: hush! he breathes, he speaks!
The swarthy blush recolours in his cheeks,
His lip resumes its red, his eye, though dim,
Rolls wide and wild, each slowly quivering limb
Recalls its function, but his words are strung
In terms that seem not of his native tongue;
Distinct but strange, enough they understand
To deem them accents of another land,
And such they were, and meant to meet an ear
That hears him not — alas! that cannot hear!
His page approach’d, and he alone appear’d
To know the import of the words they heard;
And by the changes of his cheek and brow
They were not such as Lara should avow,
Nor he interpret, yet with less surprise
Than those around their chieftain’s state he eyes,
But Lara’s prostrate form he bent beside,
And in that tongue which seem’d his own replied,
And Lara heeds those tones that gently seem
To soothe away the horrors of his dream;
If dream it were, that thus could overthrow
A breast that needed not ideal woe.
Whate’er his frenzy dream’d or eye beheld,
If yet remember’d ne’er to be reveal’d,
Rests at his heart: the custom’d morning came,
And breathed new vigour in his shaking frame;
And solace sought he none from priest nor leech,
And soon the same in movement and in speech
As heretofore he fill’d the passing hours,
Nor less he smiles, nor more his forehead lours
Than these were wont; and if the coming night
Appear’d less welcome now to Lara’s sight,
He to his marvelling vassals shew’d it not,
Whose shuddering proved their fear was less forgot.
In trembling pairs (alone they dared not) crawl
The astonish’d slaves, and shun the fated hall;
The waving banner, and the clapping door;
The rustling tapestry, and the echoing floor;
The long dim shadows of surrounding trees,
The flapping bat, the night song of the breeze;
Aught they behold or hear their thought appals
As evening saddens o’er the dark gray walls.
Vain thought! that hour of ne’er unravell’d gloom
Came not again, or Lara could assume
A seeming of forgetfulness that made
His vassals more amazed nor less afraid —
Had memory vanish’d then with sense restored?
Since word, nor look, nor gesture of their lord
Betray’d a feeling that recall’d to these
That fever’d moment of his mind’s disease.
Was it a dream? was his the voice that spoke
Those strange wild accents; his the cry that broke
Their slumber? his the oppress’d o’er-labour’d heart
That ceased to beat, the look that made them start?
Could he who thus had suffer’d, so forget
When such as saw that suffering shudder yet?
Or did that silence prove his memory fix’d
Too deep for words, indelible, unmix’d
In that corroding secresy which gnaws
The heart to shew the effect, but not the cause?
Not so in him; his breast had buried both,
Nor common gazers could discern the growth
Of thoughts that mortal lips must leave half told;
They choke the feeble words that would unfold.
In him inexplicably mix’d appear’d
Much to be loved and hated, sought and fear’d;
Opinion varying o’er his hidden lot,
In praise or railing ne’er his name forgot;
His silence form’d a theme for others’ prate —
They guess’d — they gazed — they fain would know his fate.
What had he been? what was he, thus unknown,
Who walk’d their world, his lineage only known?
A hater of his kind? yet some would say,
With them he could seem gay amidst the gay;
But own’d that smile, if oft observed and near,
Waned in its mirth and wither’d to a sneer;
That smile might reach his lip, but pass’d not by,
None e’er could trace its laughter to his eye:
Yet there was softness too in his regard,
At times, a heart as not by nature hard,
But once perceived, his spirit seem’d to chide
Such weakness, as unworthy of its pride,
And steel’d itself, as scorning to redeem
One doubt from others’ half withheld esteem;
In self-inflicted penance of a breast
Which tenderness might once have wrung from rest;
In vigilance of grief that would compel
The soul to hate for having loved too well.
There was in him a vital scorn of all:
As if the worst had fall’n which could befall,
He stood a stranger in this breathing world,
An erring spirit from another hurled;
A thing of dark imaginings, that shaped
By choice the perils he by chance escaped;
But ‘scaped in vain, for in their memory yet
His mind would half exult and half regret:
With more capacity for love than earth
Bestows on most of mortal mould and birth,
His early dreams of good outstripp’d the truth,
And troubled manhood follow’d baffled youth;
With thought of years in phantom chase misspent,
And wasted powers for better purpose lent;
And fiery passions that had pour’d their wrath
In hurried desolation o’er his path,
And left the better feelings all at strife
In wild reflection o’er his stormy life;
But haughty still, and loth himself to blame,
He call’d on Nature’s self to share the shame,
And charged all faults upon the fleshly form
She gave to clog the soul, and feast the worm;
‘Till he at last confounded good and ill,
And half mistook for fate the acts of will:
Too high for common selfishness, he could
At times resign his own for others’ good,
But not in pity, not because he ought,
But in some strange perversity of thought,
That sway’d him onward with a secret pride
To do what few or none would do beside;
And this same impulse would, in tempting time,
Mislead his spirit equally to crime;
So much he soar’d beyond, or sunk beneath
The men with whom he felt condemn’d to breathe,
And long’d by good or ill to separate
Himself from all who shared his mortal state;
His mind abhorring this had fix’d her throne
Far from the world, in regions of her own;
Thus coldly passing all that pass’d below,
His blood in temperate seeming now would flow:
Ah! happier if it ne’er with guilt had glow’d,
But ever in that icy smoothness flow’d:
‘Tis true, with other men their path he walk’d,
And like the rest in seeming did and talk’d,
Nor outraged Reason’s rules by flaw nor start,
His madness was not of the head, but heart;
And rarely wander’d in his speech, or drew
His thoughts so forth as to offend the view.
With all that chilling mystery of mien,
And seeming gladness to remain unseen,
He had (if ’twere not nature’s boon) an art
Of fixing memory on another’s heart:
It was not love, perchance — nor hate — nor aught
That words can image to express the thought;
But they who saw him did not see in vain,
And once beheld, would ask of him again:
And those to whom he spake remember’d well,
And on the words, however light, would dwell.
None knew nor how, nor why, but he entwined
Himself perforce around the hearer’s mind;
There he was stamp’d, in liking, or in hate,
If greeted once; however brief the date
That friendship, pity, or aversion knew,
Still there within the inmost thought he grew.
You could not penetrate his soul, but found
Despite your wonder, to your own he wound.
His presence haunted still; and from the breast
He forced an all-unwilling interest;
Vain was the struggle in that mental net,
His spirit seem’d to dare you to forget!
There is a festival, where knights and dames,
And aught that wealth or lofty lineage claims,
Appear — a high-born and a welcomed guest
To Otho’s hall came Lara with the rest.
The long carousal shakes the illumined hall,
Well speeds alike the banquet and the ball;
And the gay dance of bounding Beauty’s train
Links grace and harmony in happiest chain:
Blest are the early hearts and gentle hands
That mingle there in well according bands;
It is a sight the careful brow might smooth,
And make Age smile, and dream itself to youth,
And Youth forget such hour was pass’d on earth,
So springs the exulting bosom to that mirth!
And Lara gazed on these sedately glad,
His brow belied him if his soul was sad,
And his glance follow’d fast each fluttering fair,
Whose steps of lightness woke no echo there:
He lean’d against the lofty pillar nigh
With folded arms and long attentive eye,
Nor mark’d a glance so sternly fix’d on his,
Ill brook’d high Lara scrutiny like this:
At length he caught it, ’tis a face unknown,
But seems as searching his, and his alone;
Prying and dark, a stranger’s by his mien,
Who still till now had gazed on him unseen;
At length encountering meets the mutual gaze
Of keen inquiry, and of mute amaze;
On Lara’s glance emotion gathering grew,
As if distrusting that the stranger threw;
Along the stranger’s aspect fix’d and stern
Flash’d more than thence the vulgar eye could learn.
“‘Tis he!” the stranger cried, and those that heard
Re-echo’d fast and far the whisper’d word.
“‘Tis he!” — “‘Tis who?” they question far and near,
Till louder accents rang on Lara’s ear;
So widely spread, few bosoms well could brook
The general marvel, or that single look;
But Lara stirr’d not, changed not, the surprise
That sprung at first to his arrested eyes
Seem’d now subsided, neither sunk nor raised
Glanced his eye round, though still the stranger gazed;
And drawing nigh, exclaim’d, with haughty sneer,
“‘Tis he! — how came he thence? — what doth he here?”
To be continued…