The Works of Lord Byron (ed. Coleridge, Prothero)/Poetry/Volume 3/Parisina
INTRODUCTION TO PARISINA.
Parisina, which had been begun before the Siege of Corinth, was transcribed by Lady Byron, and sent to the publisher at the beginning of December, 1815. Murray confessed that he had been alarmed by some hints which Byron had dropped as to the plot of the narrative, but was reassured when he traced "the delicate hand that transcribed it." He could not say enough of this "Pearl" of great price. "It is very interesting, pathetic, beautiful—do you know I would almost say moral" (Memoir of John Murray, 1891, i. 353). Ward, to whom the MS. of Parisina was shown, and Isaac D'Israeli, who heard it read aloud by Murray, were enthusiastic as to its merits; and Gifford, who had mingled censure with praise in his critical appreciation of the Siege, declared that the author "had never surpassed Parisina."
The last and shortest of the six narrative poems composed and published in the four years (the first years of manhood and of fame, the only years of manhood passed at home in England) which elapsed between the appearance of the first two cantos of Childe Harold and the third, Parisina has, perhaps, never yet received its due. At the time of its appearance it shared the odium which was provoked by the publication of Fare Thee Well and A Sketch, and before there was time to reconsider the new volume on its own merits, the new canto of Childe Harold, followed almost immediately by the Prisoner of Chillon and its brilliant and noticeable companion poems, usurped the attention of friend and foe. Contemporary critics (with the exception of the Monthly and Critical Reviews) fell foul of the subject-matter of the poem—the guilty passion of a bastard son for his father's wife. "It was too disgusting to be rendered pleasing by any display of genius" (European Magazine); "The story of Parisina includes adultery not to be named" (Literary Panorama); while the Eclectic, on grounds of taste rather than of morals, gave judgment that "the subject of the tale was purely unpleasing"—"the impression left simply painful."
Byron, no doubt, for better or worse, was in advance of his age, in the pursuit of art for art's sake, and in his indifference, not to morality—the dénouement of the story is severely moral—but to the moral edification of his readers. The tale was chosen because it is a tale of love and guilt and woe, and the poet, unconcerned with any other issue, sets the tale to an enchanting melody. It does not occur to him to condone or to reprobate the loves of Hugo and Parisina, and in detailing the issue leaves the actors to their fate. It was this aloofness from ethical considerations which perturbed and irritated the "canters," as Byron called them—the children and champions of the anti-revolution. The modern reader, without being attracted or repelled by the motif of the story, will take pleasure in the sustained energy and sure beauty of the poetic strain. Byron may have gone to the "nakedness of history" for his facts, but he clothed them in singing robes of a delicate and shining texture.
SCROPE BERDMORE DAVIES, ESQ.
THE FOLLOWING POEM
BY ONE WHO HAS LONG ADMIRED HIS TALENTS
AND VALUED HIS FRIENDSHIP.
January 23, 1816.
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.—[B.]
"Under the reign of Nicholas III. [A.D. 1425] Ferrara was polluted with a domestic tragedy. By the testimony of a maid, 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. iii. p. 470.—[Ed. 1837, p. 830.]
It is the hour when from the boughs
But it is not to list to the waterfall
And what unto them is the world beside,
With many a lingering look they leave
And Hugo is gone to his lonely bed,
He clasped her sleeping to his heart,
He plucked his poniard in its sheath,
And with the morn he sought and found, 120
He was not one who brooked delay:
And still,—and pale—and silently
And he for her had also wept,
And Azo spake:—"But yesterday
And here stern Azo hid his face—
He ceased—and stood with folded arms,
The Convent bells are ringing,
It is a lovely hour as yet
The parting prayers are said and over 430
Still as the lips that closed in death,
Hugo is fallen; and, from that hour,
And Azo found another bride, 530
- ["Ferrara is much decayed and depopulated; but the castle still exists entire; and I saw the court where Parisina and Hugo were beheaded, according to the annal of Gibbon."—Vide Advertisement to Lament of Tasso.
- "This turned out a calamitous year for the people of Ferrara, for there occurred a very tragical event in the court of their sovereign. Our annals, both printed and in manuscript, with the exception of the unpolished and negligent work of Sardi, and one other, have given the following relation of it,—from which, however, are rejected many details, and especially the narrative of Bandelli, who wrote a century afterwards, and who does not accord with the contemporary historians.
"By the above-mentioned Stella dell' Assassino, the Marquis, in the year 1405, had a son called Ugo, a beautiful and ingenuous youth. Parisina Malatesta, second wife of Niccolo, like the generality of step-mothers, treated him with little kindness, to the infinite regret of the Marquis, who regarded him with fond partiality. One day she asked leave of her husband to undertake a certain journey, to which he consented, but upon condition that Ugo should bear her company; for he hoped by these means to induce her, in the end, to lay aside the obstinate aversion which she had conceived against him. And indeed his intent was accomplished but too well, since, during the journey, she not only divested herself of all her hatred, but fell into the opposite extreme. After their return, the Marquis had no longer any occasion to renew his former reproofs. It happened one day that a servant of the Marquis, named Zoese, or, as some call him, Giorgio, passing before the apartments of Parisina, saw going out from them one of her chamber-maids, all terrified and in tears. Asking the reason, she told him that her mistress, for some slight offence, had been beating her; and, giving vent to her rage, she added, that she could easily be revenged, if she chose to make known the criminal familiarity which subsisted between Parisina and her step-son. The servant took note of the words, and related them to his master. He was astounded thereat, but, scarcely believing his ears, he assured himself of the fact, alas! too clearly, on the 18th of May, by looking through a hole made in the ceiling of his wife's chamber. Instantly he broke into a furious rage, and arrested both of them, together with Aldobrandino Rangoni, of Modena, her gentleman, and also, as some say, two of the women of her chamber, as abettors of this sinful act. He ordered them to be brought to a hasty trial, desiring the judges to pronounce sentence, in the accustomed forms, upon the culprits. This sentence was death. Some there were that bestirred themselves in favour of the delinquents, and, amongst others, Ugoccion Contrario, who was all-powerful with Niccolo, and also his aged and much deserving minister Alberto dal Sale. Both of these, their tears flowing down their cheeks, and upon their knees, implored him for mercy; adducing whatever reasons they could suggest for sparing the offenders, besides those motives of honour and decency which might persuade him to conceal from the public so scandalous a deed. But his rage made him inflexible, and, on the instant, he commanded that the sentence should be put in execution.
"It was, then, in the prisons of the castle, and exactly in those frightful dungeons which are seen at this day beneath the chamber called the Aurora, at the foot of the Lion's tower, at the top of the street Giovecca, that on the night of the 21st of May were beheaded, first, Ugo, and afterwards Parisina. Zoese, he that accused her, conducted the latter under his arm to the place of punishment. She, all along, fancied that she was to be thrown into a pit, and asked at every step, whether she was yet come to the spot? She was told that her punishment was the axe. She enquired what was become of Ugo, and received for answer, that he was already dead; at which, sighing grievously, she exclaimed, 'Now, then, I wish not myself to live;' and, being come to the block, she stripped herself, with her own hands, of all her ornaments, and, wrapping a cloth round her head, submitted to the fatal stroke, which terminated the cruel scene. The same was done with Rangoni, who, together with the others, according to two calendars in the library of St. Francesco, was buried in the cemetery of that convent. Nothing else is known respecting the women.
"The Marquis kept watch the whole of that dreadful night, and, as he was walking backwards and forwards, enquired of the captain of the castle if Ugo was dead yet? who answered him, Yes. He then gave himself up to the most desperate lamentations, exclaiming, 'Oh! that I too were dead, since I have been hurried on to resolve thus against my own Ugo!' And then gnawing with his teeth a cane which he had in his hand, he passed the rest of the night in sighs and in tears, calling frequently upon his own dear Ugo. On the following day, calling to mind that it would be necessary to make public his justification, seeing that the transaction could not be kept secret, he ordered the narrative to be drawn out upon paper, and sent it to all the courts of Italy.
"On receiving this advice, the Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari, gave orders, but without publishing his reasons, that stop should be put to the preparations for a tournament, which, under the auspices of the Marquis, and at the expense of the city of Padua, was about to take place, in the square of St. Mark, in order to celebrate his advancement to the ducal chair.
"The Marquis, in addition to what he had already done, from some unaccountable burst of vengeance, commanded that as many of the married women as were well known to him to be faithless, like his Parisina, should, like her, be beheaded. Amongst others, Barberina, or, as some call her, Laodamia Romei, wife of the court judge, underwent this sentence, at the usual place of execution; that is to say, in the quarter of St. Giacomo, opposite the present fortress, beyond St. Paul's. It cannot be told how strange appeared this proceeding in a prince, who, considering his own disposition, should, as it seemed, have been in such cases most indulgent. Some, however, there were who did not fail to commend him." [Memorie per la Storia di Ferrara, Raccolte da Antonio Frizzi, 1793, iii. 408-410. See, too, Celebri Famiglie Italiane, by Conte Pompeo Litta, 1832, Fasc. xxvi. Part III. vol. ii.]
- [The revise of Parisina is endorsed in Murray's handwriting, "Given to me by Lord Byron at his house, Saturday, January 13, 1816."]
- The lines contained in this section were printed as set to music some time since, but belonged to the poem where they now appear; the greater part of which was composed prior to Lara, and other compositions since published. [Note to Siege, etc., First Edition, 1816.]
Francisca walks in the shadow of night,
But it is not to gaze on the heavenly light—
But if she sits in her garden bower,
'Tis not for the sake of its blowing flower.—
[Nathan, 1815, 1829.]
- There winds a step ——.—[Nathan, 1815, 1829.]
- [Leigh Hunt, in his Autobiography (1860, p. 252), says, "I had the pleasure of supplying my friendly critic, Lord Byron, with a point for his Parisina (the incident of the heroine talking in her sleep)."
Putting Lady Macbeth out of the question, the situation may be traced to a passage in Henry Mackenzie's Julia de Roubigné (1777, ii. lOl: "Montauban to Segarva," Letter xxxv.):—
"I was last night abroad at supper; Julia was a-bed before my return. I found her lute lying on the table, and a music-book open by it. I could perceive the marks of tears shed on the paper, and the air was such as might encourage their falling. Sleep, however, had overcome her sadness, and she did not awake when I opened the curtain to look on her. When I had stood some moments, I heard her sigh strongly through her sleep, and presently she muttered some words, I know not of what import. I had sometimes heard her do so before, without regarding it much; but there was something that roused my attention now. I listened; she sighed again, and again spoke a few broken words. At last I heard her plainly pronounce the name Savillon two or three times, and each time it was accompanied with sighs so deep that her heart seemed bursting as it heaved them."]
- —— Medora's—[Copy erased.]
- [Compare Christabel, Part II. lines 408, 409—
"Alas! they had been friends in youth;
But whispering tongues can poison truth.]
- [Compare the famous eulogy of Marie Antoinette, in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, in a Letter intended to have been sent to a Gentleman in Paris, London, 1790, pp. 112, 113—
"It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles.... Little did I dream ... that I should have lived to see such disasters fall upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour and of cavaliers, I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult."]
- As tear by tear rose gathering still.—[Revise.]
- [Lines 175-182, which are in Byron's handwriting, were added to the Copy.]
- [The meaning is plain, but the construction is involved. The contrast is between the blood of foes, which Hugo has shed for Azo, and Hugo's own blood, which Azo is about to shed on the scaflfold. But this is one of Byron's incurious infelicities.]
- Haught—haughty. "Away, haught man, thou art insulting me."—Shakespeare [Richard II., act iv. sc. 1, line 254—
"No lord of thine, thou haught insulting man."]
- [Lines 304, 305, and lines 310-317 are not in the Copy. They were inserted by Byron in the Revise.]
- [A writer in the Critical Review (February, 1816, vol. iii. p. 151) holds this couplet up to derision. "Too" is a weak ending, and, orally at least, ambiguous.]
- ["I sent for Marmion ... because it occurred to me there might be a resemblance between part of Parisina and a similar scene in Canto 2d. of Marmion. I fear there is, though I never thought of it before, and could hardly wish to imitate that which is inimitable.... I had completed the story on the passage from Gibbon, which, in fact, leads to a like scene naturally, without a thought of the kind; but it comes upon me not very comfortably."—Letter to Murray, February 3, 1816 (Letters, 1899, iii. 260). The scene in Marmion is the one where Constance de Beverley appears before the conclave—
"Her look composed, and steady eye,
Bespoke a matchless constancy;
And there she stood so calm and pale,
That, but her breathing did not fail,
And motion slight of eye and head,
And of her bosom, warranted
That neither sense nor pulse she lacks,
You must have thought a form of wax,
Wrought to the very life, was there—
So still she was, so pale, so fair."
Canto II. stanza xxi. lines 5-14.]
- ["I admire the fabrication of the 'big Tear,' which is very fine—much larger, by the way, than Shakespeare's."—Letter of John Murray to Lord Byron (Memoir of John Murray, 1891, i. 354).]
- [Compare Chrtstabel, Part I. line 253—
"A sight to dream of, not to tell!"]
- For a departing being's soul.—[Copy.]
- [For the peculiar use of "knoll" as a verb, compare Childe Harold, Canto III. stanza xcvi. line 5; and Werner, act iii. sc. 3.]
- [Lines 401-404, which are in Byron's handwriting, were added to the Copy.]
- His latest beads and sins are counted.—[Copy.]
- [For the use of "electric" as a metaphor, compare Coleridge's Songs of the Pixies, v. lines 59, 60—
"The electric flash, that from the melting eye
Darts the fond question and the soft reply."]
- But no more thrilling voice rose there.—[Copy.]
- [Here, again, Byron is supra grammaticam. The comparison is between Hugo and "goodly sons," not between Hugo and "bride" in the preceding line.]
- [Lines 539-544 are not in the Copy, but were inserted in the Revise.]
- [Lines 551-556 are not in the Copy, but were inserted in the Revise.]
- Ah, still unwelcomely was haunted.—[Copy.]
- Had only sealed a just decree.—[Copy.]