Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Byron's Dying Gladiator in Context

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Byron's Dying Gladiator in Context

Article excerpt

Stephen Larrabee's English Bards and Grecian Marbles (1943) marvellously unravelled and traced the genealogy of Byron's tale of the love-sick French maiden in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto IV, Stanza 162 (hereafter CHP, and quoted by canto number followed by stanza number), who fell in love with the marble Apollo Belvedere and died of the love she for the statue. He traced it back to Henry Hart Milman's 1812 Newdigate Prize poem "Belvidere Apollo," and also down to Barry Cornwall's 1823 story of Eva, the girl of Provence, in "The Girl of Provence" (Larrabee 262, 267-68). He curiously refrains from making any statements as to Byron's source for the stanzas on the statue of the Dying Gladiator (hereafter DG), although he enumerates Newdigate poems from 1810 to 1817 and 1826 including Chinnery's "The Statue of the Dying Gladiator" for 1810 (261). Larrabee further complicates matters by carelessly quoting (259) Samuel Chew's 1913 article in Modern Language Notes, thus allowing for free speculation that Byron had seen and been influenced by Croly's poem in his passage on the statue of the DG. (1) Grant Scott's essay, "Felicia Hemans and Romantic Ekphrasis." centred on Hemans and not on Byron, does not help trace the genealogy of the DG poem, beyond his general statement that "the annual Cambridge and Oxford prize poem ... helped create a vogue for poems on classical sculpture" (38). The purpose of the present paper is, first, to establish the climate in which the statue of the DG figured as one of the favourite themes of poems in the first two decades of the 19th century, then to trace, by comparison, a possible source of Byron's GD passage in CHP, IV, back to a passage in William Hayley's 1800 poem, which, I hope to argue, stands, thematically and stylistically, at the fountainhead of Chinnery's, Hemans's (2) and Byron's DG poems, and finally to show what those factual findings mean in the interpretation of the DG stanzas within the context of the Coliseum stanzas in CHP, IV.

Here is the poem Larrabee mentions (261), but does not clearly relate to Byron, and the poem which Scott claimed Hemans's DG poem is "closely modeled on" (38). It is the 1810 Newdigate Prize poem, George Robert Chinnery's The Statue of the Dying Gladiator.--

Will then no pitying sword its succour lend
The Gladiator's mortal throes to end,
To free the unconquer'd mind, whose generous pow'r
Triumphs o'er nature in her saddest hour?
     Bow'd low, and full of death, his head declines,
Yet o'er his brow indignant Valour shines,
Still glares his closing eye with angry light,
Now glares, now darkens with approaching night.
      Think not with terror heaves that sinewy breast,--
'Tis vengeance visible, and pain supprest;
Calm in despair, in agony sedate,
His proud soul wrestles with o'ermastering fate;
That pang the conflict ends--he falls not yet,
Seems every nerve for one last effort set,
At once by death, death's lingering pow'r to brave--
He will not sink, but plunge into the grave,
Exhaust his mighty heart in one last sigh,
And rally life's whole energy--to die!
      Unfear'd is now that cord, which oft ensnar'd
The baffled rival whom his falchion spar'd
Those clarions mute, which on the murd'rous stage
Rous'd him to deeds of more than martial rage;
Once poised by peerless might, once dear to fame,
The shield which could not guard, supports his frame;
His fixed eye dwells upon the faithless blade,
As if in silent agony he prayed,
"Oh might I yet, by one avenging blow,
"Not shun my fate, but share it with my foe!"
Vain hope!--the streams of life-blood fast descend;
That giant-arm's upbearing strength must bend;
Yet shall he scorn, procumbent, to betray
One dastard sign of anguish or dismay,
With one weak plaint to shame his parting breath,
In pangs sublime, magnificent in death!
      But his were deeds unchronicled; his tomb
No patriot wreaths adorn; to cheer his doom,
No soothing thoughts arise of duties done,
Of trophied conquests for his country won;
And he, whose sculptur'd form gave deathless fame
To Ctesilas--he dies without a name! … 
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