Sunday, July 24, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Lord Byron, on Samuel Called From the Dead to Predict the Fate of King Saul)

“Death stood all glassy in his fixed eye:
His hand was wither'd, and his veins were dry;
His foot, in bony whiteness, glitter'd there,
Shrunken and sinewless, and ghastly bare;
From lips that moved not and unbreathing frame,
Like cavern'd winds, the hollow accents came.
Saul saw, and fell to earth, as falls the oak,
At once, and blasted by the thunderstroke.”—English Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), “Saul,” from Hebrew Melodies (1815)
One of the most notorious rakes of all time—and one who spiced many of his verses with biting wit—Lord Byron was, at first glance, the least likely of poets to write on a religious subject, let alone with anything like a reverent attitude.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered in an anthology of Byron’s work that he had not only written the lines above, describing the Old Testament King Saul’s encounter with the deceased prophet who set him on the path to ruling Israel, Samuel, but that he had written a whole collection of poems with an Old Testament setting, Hebrew Melodies.
The verses were meant to accompany melodies created by Byron’s Jewish friend, Isaac Nathan. As Louis Finkelman noted in a March 2011 article for The Forward, Nathan “adapted some of the melodies straight from those used in the Sephardic synagogues of London,” including, for the more secular poem “She Walks in Beauty,” the Sephardic tune for “Lekha Dodi.”
With “Saul,” Byron uses verses narrative—to which he would return more flamboyantly in his mock epic Don Juan—for a specific Bible episode (1 Samuel 28:3–25). A desperate Saul, unable to perceive a sign from God, calls on the “Witch of Endor” (in violation of his own royal decree banning mediums) -to summon from the dead Samuel, in order to advise Saul what to do on the eve of battle against the Israelites’ longtime foe, the Philistines.
The result is not at all what Saul expected or wanted. At the very sight of Samuel, Saul collapses, “blasted by the thunderstroke”—a foreshadowing of what will happen during battle, when, the “shrunken and sinewless” ghost advises him, not only will the Israelites lose, but Saul and his heir will die. And so it came to pass, as defeat led Saul to commit suicide, even as the captured Jonathan and his brothers are put to death by the Philistines.
So many scandals attached to Lord Byron even during his lifetime that any assessment of his overall morality is, at best, fraught. But at some level, what he read in the Bible left a deep impression on him (even if he did not, of course, conform to its strictures against adultery). In an October 9, 1821 letter to his friend John Murray, Byron wrote that he saw reading the New Testament as “a task,” but that he was a great reader and admirer” of the Old Testament and had even “read them through and through before I was eight years old.” The power of its stories and verses could not be erased.
[The image accompanying this post, The Shade of Samuel Appears to Saul, was created by Italian Baroque painter Salvator Rosa (1615 –1673).]

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