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Though the strained mast should quiver as a reed,
Flung from the rock, on ocean's foam to sail,
With this voluntary exile he entered upon a new era of authorship, in which he attained to the full maturity of his powers. At Geneva he wrote the third, and at Venice the fourth canto of "Childe Harold," and at once placed himself among the great masters of English verse. Landscapes of unsurpassed majesty and beauty are portrayed; history lives again; our feelings are stirred with deep emotion. Treasures are found on every page. For example:
"The sky is changed! - and such a change! O night,
Of a dark eye in woman! Far along,
From peak to peak, the rattling crags among,
Or again :
"I see before me the gladiator lie:
He leans upon his hand - his manly brow
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one,
Like the first of a thunder shower; and now
The arena swims around him - he is gone,
Ere ceased the inhuman shout that hailed the wretch who won."
"There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
I love not man the less, but nature more,
At Geneva he wrote the touching story of Bonnivard, “The Prisoner of Chillon."
From Switzerland, Byron went to Italy, living for a time at Venice, Ravenna, Piza, and Genoa. His Italian life was voluptuous and immoral. In every place of sojourn, however, he continued to write, composing many works of high excellence. "Cain" is a powerful drama. One of the characters is Lucifer, of whom Byron apologetically says, "It was difficult for me to make him talk like a clergyman upon the same subjects." "Manfred" and "Sardanapalus" are other dramas. The "Vision of Judgment," a satire on George the Third and "Bob Southey," is not reverent, but it is the wittiest production of its class in our language. "Don Juan," his longest poem, is a conglomerate of wit, satire, and immorality, relieved at intervals by sage reflection and delicate poetic sentiment. It shows at once the author's genius and degradation.
At length the aimless and voluptuous life he was leading filled him with satiety. He had drained the cup of pleasure to its dregs of bitterness. He began to long for a life of action. "If I live ten years longer," he wrote in 1822, “you will see that it is not all over with me. I don't mean in literature, for that is nothing—and I do not think it was my vocation; but I shall do something."
Greece was at this time struggling for independence from Turkish tyranny. Byron was a friend of liberty; the struggling Greeks touched his sympathies. Accordingly he embarked for Greece in 1823 to aid them in their struggle. As he was about to depart, the shadow of coming disaster fell upon him. "I have a sort of boding," he said to some friends, “that we see each other for the last time, as something tells me I shall never return from Greece."
He was received at Mesolonghi with salvoes of musketry and music. He received a military commission, and in his subsequent movements displayed ability and courage. But before he had been of much assistance to the Greeks, he was seized with a virulent fever, and died April 9, 1824. The cities of Greece contended for his body; but it was taken to England, where, sepulture in Westminster Abbey having been refused, it was conveyed to the village church of Hucknall.
Such lives are unutterably sad. Byron possessed what most men spend their lives for in vain - genius, rank, power, fame; yet he lived a wretched man. His peace of mind was broken and his body prematurely worn by vicious passions. He was himself oppressed with sense of failure; and less than three months before his death he wrote:
'My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
The worm, the canker, and the grief,
Are mine alone!"
Life had lost its charm; and all he sought was a martial death in that land of ancient heroes.
"Seek out, less often sought than found,
A soldier's grave - for thee the best;
THE PRISONER OF CHILLON.
My hair is gray, but not with years,
As men's have grown from sudden fears:
For they have been a dungeon's spoil,
And mine has been the fate of those
Six in youth, and one in age,
Proud of persecution's rage;
For the God their foes denied;
There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,
A sunbeam which hath lost its way,
And through the crevice and the cleft
And in each ring there is a chain;
For in these limbs its teeth remain,
They chain'd us each to a column stone,
But even these at length grew cold.
A grating sound- not full and free