One of the things you may have discovered when paraphrasing Byron’s verse was its extreme compression. You may have also found out that by comparison to the verse form your prose was much longer, much clumsier and, you might imagine, much more difficult and less rewarding to memorise and to quote. In the next activity, you’re going to practise some more basic techniques of understanding the sort of verse form Byron is using here. These are essential skills for pursuing the study of English Literature, and they are helpful in practising creative writing too. So here goes.
You’re going to start with the question of rhyme. Return to the opening stanza that was paraphrased in the previous section. This time you’re going to ignore the argument of the verse entirely and concentrate on its form. You’re going to start with the rhymes Byron uses at the ends of his lines – what is generally called ‘a rhyme scheme’.
The first rhyme has been marked as ‘A’, the second as ‘B’, the third as ‘C’ and so on. (This is a bit like taking apart a mechanical watch to see how it works.) This is how it looks:
|ARCHES on arches! as it were that Rome,||A|
|Collecting the chief trophies of her line,||B|
|Would build up all her triumphs in one dome,||A|
|Her Coliseum stands; the moonbeams shine||B|
|As ’twere its natural torches, for divine||B|
|Should be the light which streams here, to illume||C|
|This long-explored but still exhaustless mine||B|
|Of contemplation; and the azure gloom||C|
|Of an Italian night, where the deep skies assume||C|
What this shows is that the stanza splits into two sets of four lines (each of these is called a quatrain), but that the last line of the second quatrain is also part of a concluding couplet. As it happens, it’s a bit more complicated and clever than this suggests because rhyme ‘A’ is almost a half rhyme with rhyme ‘C’ (it isn’t so very far from ‘Rome’ to ‘gloom’). And although couplets are typically used to clinch the end of a stanza’s argument, in this instance the sentence doesn’t finish but floats off into the next stanza in an appropriately obscure and shadowy and contemplative way. Compare that effect to the way that the first three lines, which all call naturally for a breath at the end, produce an effect of witty statement – and very quotable statement, too. You might now like to try marking up the rhyme scheme yourself on a stanza of your choice.
Hopefully you have enjoyed your virtual tour of the Colosseum with Byron. The main point you should take away is the sense that modern eyes see ancient ruins through the lens of present circumstances, personal and historical. In Byron’s case, this means that we see a Romantic subjectivity meditating on ancient imperial ruins in the ruins of Napoleon’s empire. Byron’s take on the Colosseum centred all subsequent nineteenth-century tourist accounts and arguably outlined a distinctively modern tourist sensibility. This, put very simply, might be that the sensitive soul contemplates the past in silence and solitude, and in an obscure light. This might seem like a very different way of consuming the Colosseum to that celebrated in the Grand Tour portraits that you studied in the last section. A sense of classical civilisation as something to emulate through connoisseurship and social display is replaced by solitary musing at the site of a civilisation’s collapse. Or you might take the view that the Grand Tourist and Byron are nonetheless engaged in a broadly similar enterprise – creating modern identities in relation to the ancient past. Encountering the ancient past in a city like Rome certainly encourages the artistic and literary expression of a range of personal responses. As the next section will show, a more detailed look at the process of literary creativity can also provide a useful complement to your study of poetic texts like Byron.