Sunday, January 24, 2010

Byron in Venice

During my Varsity days I read a selection of Byron’s letters. I was particularly struck by his descriptions of Venice, he swam in the canals, he had a succession of mistresses and he described the city in detail. Napoleon had recently captured and destroyed the republican regime. The sense of desolation and decay suited the poet’s mood as shown in 'Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage'. In another poem ‘Beppo’ he describes a gondola as it ‘glides along the water looking blackly,/ Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe.’

In 1816 he wrote ‘[Venice} has always been, (next to the East) the greenest island of my imagination. It has not disappointed me: though its evident decay, would perhaps, have that effect upon others But I have been familiar with ruins too long to dislike desolation. Besides,I have fallen in love, which, next to falling into the canal (which would be of no use, for I can swim), is the best or the worst thing I could do. I have some extremely good apartments in the house of a ‘Merchant of Venice’, who is a good deal occupied with business, and has a wife in her twenty-second year. Marianna, (that is her name), is in her appearance rather like an antelope.'

from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: Canto the Fourth

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter's wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O'er the far times, when many a subject land
Look'd to the winged Lion's marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, thron'd on her hundred isles!

She looks a sea Cybele, fresh from ocean,
Rising with her tiara of proud towers
At airy distance, with majestic motion,
A ruler of the waters and their powers:
And such she was; her daughters had their dowers
From spoils of nations, and the exhaustless East
Pour'd in her lap all gems in sparkling showers.
In purple was she rob'd, and of her feast
Monarchs partook, and deem'd their dignity increas'd.

In Venice Tasso's echoes are no more,
And silent rows the songless gondolier;
Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone--but Beauty still is here.
States fall, arts fade--but Nature doth not die,
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear,
The pleasant place of all festivity,
The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy!

But unto us she hath a spell beyond
Her name in story, and her long array
Of mighty shadows, whose dim forms despond
Above the dogeless city's vanish'd sway;
Ours is a trophy which will not decay
With the Rialto; Shylock and the Moor,
And Pierre, cannot be swept or worn away--
The keystones of the arch! though all were o'er,
For us repeopl'd were the solitary shore.

The beings of the mind are not of clay;
Essentially immortal, they create
And multiply in us a brighter ray
And more belov'd existence: that which Fate
Prohibits to dull life, in this our state
Of mortal bondage, by these spirits supplied,
First exiles, then replaces what we hate;
Watering the heart whose early flowers have died,
And with a fresher growth replenishing the void.


Ackroyd’s book about Venice is a good read. But it lacks the conviction of his earlier book about London. He loves London, knows its nooks and crannies, history and follies. His Venice is an affair of the mind. In Byron’s words it casts a spell even from afar. Ackroyd says the first act of Othello captures the feel of the place. Shakespeare never visited it, he wrote about an imagined city. That early conditioning of my mind by Byron shapes my memory of my brief visit. Past grandeur still magnificent in stone and art with an allure that seems timeless. A back-water? Some back-water!

I’ll let Byron have the last word. ‘With all its sinful doings I must say,/ That Italy’s a pleasant place to me.

Cybele Greek mythological earth mother figure
Tasso Italian Renaissance writer

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