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This article is taken from PN Review 180, Volume 34 Number 4, March - April 2008.

The Condition of Simplicity (Part One) David Gervais

Let the poem be my place of asylum
        And friendly garden... let me walk and dwell

In a secure simplicity while outside
          Wave on wave the colossal unsteady times
                         Are roaring... (Hölderlin)1


When Byron entered the Lords, he took to appraising the oratory he heard there. Any young poet might have done the same. Soon, a spirited declamation became the hallmark of his early poetry. Childe Harold gives a Romantic fillip to the classical manner he took from Pope:

He, who grown aged in this world of woe,
In deeds, not years, piercing the depths of life,
So that no wonder waits him - nor below
Can Love or Sorrow, Fame, Ambition, Strife,
Cut to his heart again with the keen knife
Of silent, sharp endurance...


Such a high style, uniting force with elegance, now seems suspect, not quite serious. It has been frowned on ever since the excesses of Victor Hugo and the effusions of Swinburne. We still heed Verlaine's war-cry: 'Prends l'éloquence et tords-lui son cou!' Yet do such scruples entitle us to disparage poetry like Byron's or Hugo's that chooses to take advantage of rhetoric when we don't? Why shouldn't poets flex their muscles? The artifice of Childe Harold did not prevent Byron from writing a lyric of such Burns-like directness as 'We'll go no more a roving'; it may even been ...


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