George Gordon, Lord Byron

  (1788 - 1824)

Nature

Though not generally acclaimed as a poet of nature, Byron was nevertheless capable of producing competent verse demonstrating some feeling for nature, especially when it relates to the mountain landscapes he trod as a youth. His stay in Ballater in the Cairngorms as a young boy (of about eight years old) prompted the following poem composed when he was about nineteen years old. It is still sung and celebrated in Scotland:

Away ye gay landscapes! ye gardens of roses!
In you let the minions of luxury rove;
Restore me the rocks, where the snow-flake reposes;
Though still they are sacred to freedom and love.
Yet, Caledonia! belov'd are thy mountains,
Round their white summits though elements war,
Though cataracts foam, 'stead of smooth flowing fountains,
I sigh for the valley of dark Loch na Garr.

Ah! there my young footsteps in infancy wander'd;
My cap was the bonnet, my cloak was the plaid;
Of chieftains long perish'd my memory ponder'd,
As daily I strode through the pine-cover'd glade;
I sought not my home till the day's dying glory
Gave place to the rays of the bright polar star;
For fancy was cheer'd by traditional story,
Disclos'd by the natives of dark Loch na Garr.

'Shades of the dead! have I not heard your voices
Rise on the night-rolling breath of the gale?'
Surely the soul of the hero rejoices,
And rides on the wind, o'er his own Highland vale.
Round Loch na Garr while the stormy mist gathers,
Winter presides in his cold icy car;
Clouds there encircle the forms of my fathers;
They dwell in the tempests of dark Lock na Garr.

'Ill-starr'd though brave, did no visions foreboding
Tell you that fate had forsaken your cause?'
Ah! were you destined to die at Culloden,
Victory crown'd not your fall with applause:
Still were you happy in death's earthly slumber,
You rest with your clan in the caves of Braemar;
The pibroch resounds, to the piper's loud number,
Your deeds on the echoes of dark Loch na Garr.

Years have roll'd on, Loch na Garr, since I left you,
Years must elapse ere I tread you again:
Nature of verdure and flow'rs has bereft you,
Yet still are you dearer than Albion's plain.
England! thy beauties are tame and domestic
To one who has roved o'er the mountains afar:
Oh for the crags that are wild and majestic!
The steep frowning glories of dark Loch na Garr.

from Hours of Idleness, a series of poems original and translated, first published 1807 (19).

For a performance of the poem in song form, go here

For a walk in the area and a few photographs, go here

The appreciation of landscape is mediated through feelings of nostalgia, and perceived in terms of an opposition to the landscape of England. The poet wanders in his imagination from this comparison (England / Scotland) to remember his own walks in the mountains, and the stories of the inhabitants, though none of these stories are retold. The idea of his own association with the landscape by virtue of the fact that his ancestors walked in the same places forms perhaps the high point of the poem:

Clouds there encircle the forms of my fathers
They dwell in the tempests of dark Loch na Garr.

The lines require an imaginative leap in the mind of the reader to explain to himself why and how the poet's ancestors are evoked in his experience of the landscape. They imply or suggest a sort of mystic communion with the past through the landscape. But these generalities are quickly replaced by reflections on the immediate past, the defeat of the mainly Scottish highland forces at Culloden (near Aberdeen, and not far from Loch na Garr) in 1745.

In the notes to the poem given in the original printing, Byron writes:

I allude here to my maternal ancestors, the Gordons, many of whom fought for the unfortunate Prince Charles, better known by the name of the Pretender. This branch [ie of his maternal ancestors] was nearly allied by blood, as well as by attachment, to the Stuarts. George, the second Earl of Huntley, married the Princess Annabella Stuart, daughter of James the First (sic) of Scotland; by her he left four sons: the third, Sir William Gordon, I have the honour to claim as one of my progenitors.

and

Whether any perished in the Battle of Culloden I am not certain: but as [since] many fell in the insurrection, I have used the name of the principal action, pars pro toto. [as a part taken as representative of the whole]

This works less well, as we are brought immediately face to face with the snobbery of ancestral distinction. The poem, despite its Scottish patriotic gloss, is clearly directed at the upper class audience Byron is writing for in England.

He also notes that a 'pibroch' is a bagpipe and that the 'caves of Braemar' is a 'tract of the Highlands'.

There are two lines where the sense is difficult, viz line four of the first stanza:
Though still they are sacred to freedom and love.
'They' must refer to the rocks, but why they are 'sacred to freedom and love' is nowhere articulated, indeed 'freedom and love' seem to have been introduced simply because they are two good things. It is further not clear why the connective 'though' should be appropriate. In effect, both the sentiment itself and its expression are weak.

The second line where there seem to be problems of sense is line four of the fourth stanza: Victory crown'd not your fall with applause. Has victory ever crowned anybody's fall with applause? It is a nonsense, though one does understand what he wants to say. Probably there weren't enough syllables, and it is true that one must sometimes sacrifice sense to poetry (ie to rhythm and the sweep of the words), or some sense to poetry, or that the sense can be garbled a little and still have a certain force, or even perhaps more force (there are a good few examples of this in Milton, and when I get a minute, I will look them out), but this does not seem to be the case here, though one does get stuck on the line, as perhaps the Scottish forces at Culloden got stuck in the boggy ground.

Summing up, this is clearly an early piece, certainly good enough to sing as a sentimental Scottish ballad, with a rousing chorus, but the emotions expressed are distant artifacts, which, thou managed with adequate skill, are nevertheless lacking real conviction.

The poet biographies, criticism, translations, and textual notes on this site are the copyright of Paul Scott
www.adnax.com