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Great Names

by George Gordon Byron, 1881

(Don Juan, Canto iii. Stanzas 90–95, and 98–100.)

AND glory long has made the sages smile;
  ’Tis something, nothing, words, illusion, wind—
Depending more upon the historian’s style
  Than on the name a person leaves behind:
Troy owes to Homer what whist owes to Hoyle:
  The present century was growing blind
To the great Marlborough’s skill in giving knocks,
Until his late Life by Archdeacon Coxe.

Milton’s the prince of poets—so we say;
  A little heavy, but no less divine:
An independent being in his day—
  Learn’d, pious, temperate in love and wine;
But his life falling into Johnson’s way,
  We’re told this great high priest of all the Nine
Was whipt at college—a harsh sire—odd spouse,
For the first Mrs. Milton left his house.

All these are, certes, entertaining facts,
  Like Shakspeare’s stealing deer, Lord Bacon’s bribes;
Like Titus’ youth, and Cæsar’s earliest acts;
  Like Burns (whom Doctor Currie well describes);
Like Cromwell’s pranks;—but although truth exacts
  These amiable descriptions from the scribes,
As most essential to their hero’s story,
They do not much contribute to his glory.

All are not moralists, like Southey, when
  He prated to the world of “Pantisocrasy;”
Or Wordsworth unexcised, unhired, who then
  Season’d his pedlar poems with democracy;
Or Coleridge, long before his flighty pen
  Let to the Morning Post its aristocracy;
When he and Southey, following the same path,
Espoused two partners (milliners of Bath).

Such names at present cut a convict figure,
  The very Botany Bay in moral geography;
Their loyal treason, renegado rigour,
  Are good manure for their more bare biography.
Wordsworth’s last quarto, by the way, is bigger
  Than any since the birthday of typography;
A drowsy frowsy poem, call’d the “Excursion,”
Writ in a manner which is my aversion.

He there builds up a formidable dyke
  Between his own and others’ intellect;
But Wordsworth’s poem, and his followers, like
  Joanna Southcote’s Shiloh, and her sect,
Are things which in this century don’t strike
  The public mind—so few are the elect;
And the new births of both their stale virginities
Have proved but dropsies, taken for divinities.

We learn from Horace, “Homer sometimes sleeps;”
  We feel without him, Wordsworth sometimes wakes,—
To show with what complacency he creeps,
  With his dear “Waggoners,” around his lakes.
He wishes for “a boat” to sail the deeps—
  Of ocean?—No, of air; and then he makes
Another outcry for “a little boat,”
And drivels seas to set it well afloat.

If he must fain sweep o’er the etherial plain,
  And Pegasus runs restive in his “Waggon,”
Could he not beg the loan of Charles’s Wain?
  Or pray Medea for a single dragon?
Or if too classic for his vulgar brain,
  He fear’d his neck to venture such a nag on,
And he must needs mount nearer to the moon,
Could not the blockhead ask for a balloon?

“Pedlars, and “Boats,” and “Waggons!” Oh! ye shades
  Of Pope and Dryden, are we come to this?
That trash of such sort not alone evades
  Contempt, but from the bathos’ vast abyss
Floats scumlike uppermost, and these Jack Cades
  Of sense and song above your graves may hiss!—
The “little boatman,” and his “Peter Bell,”
Can sneer at him who drew “Achitophel!”

Published in Poetry of Byron

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