Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Childe Harold's Songs 4: 'The castled crag of Drachenfels'

Byron picked up Childe Harold for a third fit, four years after the first two were published. This time, though, his hero has changed. Previously characterised by a kind of exhausted existential anomie, the Part 3 Harry is more tender-hearted and has, it seems, fallen in love. He travels across Belgium, surveys the field at Waterloo (where of course, the previous year, the epochal battle had been fought) and is moved by the loss of life. Then he passes along the Rhine for a while, and so on up into the Alps. Indeed, Childe Harold 3 is divided into two phases: a 'horizontal' phase when Harold-Byron moves across Europe, musing on the pitiable nature of mortal humanity; and then a 'vertical' phase when he climbs up into the mountains to commune with the sublimity of his own ego and the majesty of the landscape.
But these recede. Above me are the Alps,
The palaces of Nature, whose vast walls
Have pinnacled in clouds their snowy scalps,
And throned Eternity in icy halls
Of cold sublimity, where forms and falls
The avalanche—the thunderbolt of snow!
All that expands the spirit, yet appals,
Gathers around these summits, as to show
How Earth may pierce to Heaven, yet leave vain man below. [3:62]
The 'these' that recede in the first line of this stanza are the fertile fields and cities of lowland Germany, together with their population, 'a race of faces happy as the scene'; by the last line of this stanza these people have become vain mankind. That's the hockey-stick shape of the whole.

The canto's one lyric is, as it were, the hinge point of the horizontal-vertical shift. It starts with the vertically precipitous 'castled crag of Drachenfels', on the banks of the Rhine, then descends to the 'bosom' of the lowlands, water and meadow, 'strewed' with trees and cornfields and white cities. Down here the poet thinks of his absent lover, and sends her a flower, even though he knows it will have withered and died by the time it reaches her.
The castled crag of Drachenfels
Frowns o'er the wide and winding Rhine.
Whose breast of waters broadly swells
Between the banks which bear the vine,
And hills all rich with blossomed trees,
And fields which promise corn and wine,
And scattered cities crowning these,
Whose far white walls along them shine,
Have strewed a scene, which I should see
With double joy wert THOU with me!

And peasant girls, with deep blue eyes,
And hands which offer early flowers,
Walk smiling o'er this paradise;
Above, the frequent feudal towers
Through green leaves lift their walls of grey,
And many a rock which steeply lours,
And noble arch in proud decay,
Look o'er this vale of vintage bowers:
But one thing want these banks of Rhine,—
Thy gentle hand to clasp in mine!

I send the lilies given to me;
Though long before thy hand they touch,
I know that they must withered be,
But yet reject them not as such;
For I have cherished them as dear,
Because they yet may meet thine eye,
And guide thy soul to mine e'en here,
When thou behold'st them drooping nigh,
And know'st them gathered by the Rhine,
And offered from my heart to thine!

The river nobly foams and flows,
The charm of this enchanted ground,
And all its thousand turns disclose
Some fresher beauty varying round;
The haughtiest breast its wish might bound
Through life to dwell delighted here;
Nor could on earth a spot be found
To Nature and to me so dear,
Could thy dear eyes in following mine
Still sweeten more these banks of Rhine!
If the first stanza of this short poem descends from the peak of the castle crag down to the ground; and the second stanza launches back up again: 'Above' where the feudal towers, emblematic of a vertical social hierarchy, 'lift their walls of grey' through green leaves; where rock 'steeply lours' and ruins look down. Deleuzeguattari might talk of tall trees and rhizomes, but Byron's imagination goes somewhere in between the two: flowers.

So one way of reading this would be to take it at face value: the man is missing his woman, and sends her a flower—a lily, representative of the purity of his love—to remind her of him. The poem's rhyme-trick is to pair its setting, 'Rhine', with alternately 'thine' and 'mine', as if the river can somehow mediate the separated lovers. Mind you, Byron goes out of his way to stress how the blooms will be 'withered' and 'drooping' by the time they reach his woman. It's hard not to think there's some deliberate gesture here to Shakespeare's 'Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds' (Sonnet 94, of course). Shakespeare's point is that the summer's flower is summerishly sweet unless 'that flower with base infection meet'. Is that what this lyric encodes? A La Ronde-style sense that Byron is passing on an infectious something from the blue-eyed Rhine peasant girls to his, presumably, higher-born English lover? What might all this foamy flow mean, this thousand-fold repeated motion that spends itself upon the 'haughty breast'? Should we be worried that we notice a 'spot' afterwards?

Here's Byron's own note on Drachenfels' castle

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