Lord Byron: Parisina

This poem is based on a true story . . . with a few changes by Byron. He noted these differences in a letter, dated July 20, 1819, upon learning more of its history on a visit to Ferrara, Italy a few years after the publication of Parisina.Byron’s tale is close enough to the real tragedy of Ugo of the House of Este and Parisina Malatesta of Rimini, that his version is certainly worth reading.
The following poem is grounded on a circumstance mentioned in Gibbon’s “Antiquities of the House of Brunswick.”— I am aware, that in modern times the delicacy or fastidiousness of the reader may deem such subjects unfit for the purposes of poetry. The Greek dramatists, and some of the best of our old English writers, were of a different opinion: as Alfieri and Schiller have also been, more recently, upon the Continent. The following extract will explain the facts on which the story is founded. The name of Azo is substituted for Nicholas, as more metrical.

“Under the reign of Nicholas III. Ferrara was polluted with a domestic tragedy. By the testimony of an attendant, and his own observation, the Marquis of Este discovered the incestuous loves of his wife Parisina, and Hugo his bastard son, a beautiful and valiant youth. They were beheaded in the castle by the sentence of a father and husband, who published his shame, and survived their execution. He was unfortunate, if they were guilty; if they were innocent, he was still more unfortunate; nor is there any possible situation in which I can sincerely approve the last act of the justice of a parent.” — Gibbon’s Miscellaneous Works, vol. 3d. p. 470, new edition.



It is the hour when from the boughs

The nightingale’s high note is heard;

It is the hour when lovers’ vows

Seem sweet in every whisper’d word;

And gentle winds, and waters near,

Make music to the lonely ear.

Each flower the dews have lightly wet,

And in the sky the stars are met,

And on the wave is deeper blue,

And on the leaf a browner hue,

And in the heaven that clear obscure,

So softly dark, and darkly pure,

Which follows the decline of day,

As twilight melts beneath the moon away.


But it is not to list to the waterfall

That Parisina leaves her hall,

And it is not to gaze on the heavenly light

That the lady walks in the shadow of night;

And if she sits in Este’s bower,

‘Tis not for the sake of its full-blown flower —

She listens — but not for the nightingale —

Though her ear expects as soft a tale.

There glides a step through the foliage thick,

And her cheek grows pale — and her heart beats quick.

There whispers a voice through the rustling leaves,

And her blush returns, and her bosom heaves:

A moment more — and they shall meet —

‘Tis past — her lover’s at her feet.


And what unto them is the world beside

With all its change of time and tide?

Its living things — its earth and sky —

Are nothing to their mind and eye.

And heedless as the dead are they

Of aught around, above, beneath;

As if all else had passed away,

They only for each other breathe;

Their very sighs are full of joy

So deep, that did it not decay,

That happy madness would destroy

The hearts which feel its fiery sway:

Of guilt, of peril, do they deem

In that tumultuous tender dream?

Who that have felt that passion’s power,

Or paused, or feared in such an hour?

Or thought how brief such moments last:

But yet — they are already past !

Alas ! we must awake before

We know such vision comes no more.


With many a lingering look they leave

The spot of guilty gladness past;

And though they hope, and vow, they grieve,

As if that parting were the last.

The frequent sigh — the long embrace —

The lip that there would cling for ever,

While gleams on Parisina’s face

The Heaven she fears will not forgive her,

As if each calmly conscious star

Beheld her frailty from afar —

The frequent sigh, the long embrace,

Yet binds them to their trysting-place.

But it must come, and they must part

In fearful heaviness of heart,

With all the deep and shuddering chill

Which follows fast the deeds of ill.


And Hugo is gone to his lonely bed,

To covet there another’s bride;

But she must lay her conscious head

A husband’s trusting heart beside.

But fevered in her sleep she seems,

And red her cheek with troubled dreams,

And mutters she in her unrest

A name she dare not breathe by day,

And clasps her lord unto the breast

Which pants for one away:

And he to that embrace awakes,

And, happy in the thought, mistakes

That dreaming sigh, and warm caress,

For such as he was wont to bless;

And could in very fondness weep

O’er her who loves him even in sleep.


He clasped her sleeping to his heart,

And listened to each broken word:

He hears — Why doth Prince Azo start,

As if the Archangel’s voice he heard?

And well he may — a deeper doom

Could scarcely thunder o’er his tomb,

When he shall wake to sleep no more,

And stand the eternal throne before.

And well he may — his earthly peace

Upon that sound is doomed to cease.

That sleeping whisper of a name

Bespeaks her guilt and Azo’s shame.

And whose that name? that o’er his pillow

Sounds fearful as the breaking billow,

Which rolls the plank upon the shore,

And dashes on the pointed rock

The wretch who sinks to rise no more, —

So came upon his soul the shock.

And whose that name? ’tis Hugo’s, — his —

In sooth he had not deem’d of this !

‘Tis Hugo’s, — he, the child of one

He loved — his own all-evil son —

The offspring of his wayward youth,

When he betrayed Bianca’s truth,

The maid whose folly could confide

In him who made her not his bride.


He plucked his poignard in its sheath,

But sheathed it ere the point was bare —

Howe’er unworthy now to breathe,

He could not slay a thing so fair —

At least, not smiling — sleeping — there —

Nay more: — he did not wake her then,

But gazed upon her with a glance

Which, had she roused her from her trance,

Had frozen her sense to sleep again —

And o’er his brow the burning lamp

Gleamed on the dew-drops big and damp.

She spake no more — but still she slumberd —

While, in his thought, her days are numbered.


And with the morn he sought, and found,

In many a tale from those around,

The proof of all he feared to know,

Their present guilt, his future woe;

The long-conniving damsels seek

To save themselves, and would transfer

The guilt — the shame — the doom — to her:

Concealment is no more — they speak

All circumstance which may compel

Full credence to the tale they tell:

And Azo’s tortured heart and ear

Have nothing more to feel or hear.


He was not one who brooked delay:

Within the chamber of his state,

The chief of Este’s ancient sway

Upon his throne of judgment sate;

His nobles and his guards are there, —

Before him is the sinful pair;

Both young, — and one how passing fair !

With swordless belt, and fettered hand,

Oh, Christ ! that thus a son should stand

Before a father’s face !

Yet thus must Hugo meet his sire,

And hear the sentence of his ire,

The tale of his disgrace !

And yet he seems not overcome,

Although, as yet, his voice be dumb.


And still, and pale, and silently

Did Parisina wait her doom;

How changed since last her speaking eye

Glanced gladness round the glittering room,

Where high-born men were proud to wait —

Where Beauty watched to imitate

Her gentle voice — her lovely mien —

And gather from her air and gait

The graces of it’s queen:

Then, — had her eye in sorrow wept,

A thousand warriors forth had leapt,

A thousand swords had sheathless shone,

And made her quarrel all their own.

Now, — what is she? And what are they?

Can she command, or these obey?

All silent and unheeding now,

With downcast eyes and knitting brow,

And folded arms, and freezing air,

And lips that scarce their scorn forbear,

Her knights and dames, her court — is there:

And he, the chosen one, whose lance

Had yet been couched before her glance,

Who — were his arms a moment free —

Had died or gained her liberty;

The minion of his father’s bride, —

He, too, is fettered by her side;

Nor sees her swoln and full eye swim

Less for her own despair than him:

Those lids o’er which the violet vein —

Wandering, leaves a tender stain,

Shining through the smoothest white

That e’er did softest kiss invite —

Now seemed with hot and livid glow

To press, not shade, the orbs below;

Which glance so heavily, and fill,

As tear on tear grows gathering still.

To be continued…