Byron’s Hebrew Melodies
Among the Victorian junk I inherited from a gaggle of great-aunts is a set of editions of Byron’s early poems, still in their original dirty-brown paper covers. Several of them are first editions, though their market value is inconsiderable. I must admit that I have not noticed any thumbmarks or marginal exclamations to indicate that any member of the family ever read any of the volumes. And why on earth should they? Before Beppo (a minor master-piece) and a few stanzas from Childe Harold, a still fewer lyrics perhaps, what was there really for Byron to awaken and find himself famous for?
But there is no doubt that Byron is one of the five great English Romantic poets. The moment of transition from the poet of the dressing rooms to the poet to whom even Goethe accorded a superiority therefore deserves a closer attention than it has received—and above all the reasons and causes underlying that transition. If Thomas L. Ashton’s elaborate—indeed, grotesquely overelaborate—edition of the Hebrew Melodies does not answer the central question that Byron’s poetry poses for the critic, it at least provides the material for such an answer.
The thirty separate poems are arranged here, not as Byron or his publisher arranged them, but in the chronological order of their composition. A minor consequence of this reshuffle is to liberate “She Walks in Beauty” from any Israelite or Jewish context. This is one of Byron’s most successful flirtations with Romanticism, but the young lady who is both “dark and bright” is not, it seems, an Oriental charmer but a certain Mrs. Wilmot, the wife of a second cousin of Byron’s, who was unknown to him until the previous evening. The “thou” of “I speak not—I trace not—I breathe not” (written a week or at most a month earlier) was also English, but there is no neoclassic detachment in this very remarkable poem. Its object was his half-sister Augusta Leigh—as the candid Augusta frankly admitted to Byron’s wife soon after their separation.
A special intensity derived from a special self-involvement characterizes the poem and makes it quite different from Byron’s earlier verse. The key lines in Byron’s own breathless punctuation are:
We repent—we abjure—we will break from our chain;
We must part—we must fly—to unite it again.
Oh! thine be the gladness and mine be the guilt.
In the autograph draft, “madness” takes the place of “gladness.” Psychologically this is the language of incest, a sexual perversion to which the Romantic poet was peculiarly liable. Shelley accused Wordsworth of it with his sister Dorothy; the Quarterly Review even accused Shelley of it with his sister. It was a favorite theme too of Continental Romanticism. But the degree to which a half-sister can commit incest with a half-brother, one not seen for several years, must clearly be a moot point.
It is difficult to take such a relationship very solemnly today …
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Pure Incest October 18, 1973