'When the year 1900 is turned, and our nation comes to recount her poetic glories in the century which has then just ended, the first names will be Wordsworth and Byron.' Thus wrote Matthew Arnold in 1881, and now that the century's last autumn is passing away, a new edition of Byron's works appears in the fullness of time to quicken our memories and rekindle our curiosity, by placing before us a complete record of the life, letters, and poetry of one whom Macaulay declared in 1830 to be the most celebrated Englishman of the nineteenth century, and who seventy years later may still be counted among its most striking and illustrious figures.
As the new edition is issued by installments, and several volumes are still to come, to compare its contents, arrangement, and the editorial accessories with those of preceding editions might be thought premature. We may say, however, that a large number of Byron's letters, not before printed, have now been added; and that the text of this new material has been prepared from originals, whereas it is now impossible so to collate the text of the greater number of the letters heretofore published. Moore is supposed to have destroyed many of those entrusted to him; and moreover he handled the originals very freely, making large omissions, and transposing passages[Pg 178] from one letter to another, though we presume that he did not re-write and amplify passages after the fashion in which certain French editors have dealt with recent memoirs. The letters now for the first time published by Mr. Murray were for the most part inaccessible to Moore. But for all these details we may refer our readers to the concise and valuable prefaces appended to the three volumes of Letters and Journals.
We have now, therefore, a substantial acquisition of fresh and quite authentic material, though it would be rash to assume that all important documents are included, for the family archives are still held in reserve. It is admitted by the editor that the literary value of the letters now printed for the first time is not high, but he explains that in publishing, with a few exceptions, the whole available correspondence, he has acted on the principle that they form an aggregate collection of great biographical interest, and may thus serve as the best substitute for the lost memoirs. We may agree that any scrap of a great man's writing, or even any words spoken, may throw some light upon his character, whether the subject be trivial or tremendous, a business letter to his solicitor or a defiance of society; for even though careless readers chance to miss some pearl strung at random on a string of commonplaces, to the higher criticism nothing is quite valueless. In this instance, at any rate, no pains have been spared to place the real Lord Byron, as described more or less unconsciously by himself, before his fellow-countrymen; and the result is to confirm his reputation as a first-class letter-writer. The private and confidential correspondence of eminent literary men would be usually more decorous than interesting; but Byron, though he is not always respectable, is never dull. The correspondence and journals, taken all together,[Pg 179] constitute the most interesting and characteristic collection of its kind in English literature.
In regard to the effect upon his personal reputation, we have long known what manner of man was Byron; nor is it likely that, after passing in review the complete array of evidence collected in these volumes, the general verdict of posterity will be sensibly modified. Those who judge him should bear in mind that perhaps no famous life has ever been so thoroughly laid bare, or scrutinised with greater severity. The tendency of biographers is to soften down errors and praise where they can; and in an autobiography the writer can tell his own story. But the assiduous searching out and publication of every letter and diary that can be gathered or gleaned is a different ordeal, which might try the reputation of most of us; while in the case of an impulsive, wayward, high-spirited man, exposed to strong temptations, with all a poet's traditional irritability, whose rank and genius concentrated public attention on his writings from his early youth, this test must be extremely severe. Many of the letters are of a sort that do not ordinarily appear in a biography. Byron's letters to his wife at the time of their separation, which are moderate and even dignified, are supplemented by his wife's letters to him and to her friends, full of mysterious imputations; and there are letters to and from the lady with whom his liaison was notorious. His own reckless letters from Venice to Moore, and those from Shelley and others describing his dissipated habits, were clearly never intended for general reading after his death. Of course most of these are not now produced for the first time, nor do we argue that they ought never to have appeared, for the biographical interest is undeniable. Our point is that the publication of such private and damaging correspondence is so very unusual in biographies that it[Pg 180] places Byron at a special disadvantage, and that when we pass our judgment upon him we are bound to take into account the unsparing use that has been made of papers connected with the most intimate transactions of a lifetime which was no more than a short and stormy passage from youth to manhood; for he was cut off before the age at which men abandon the wild ways of their springtide, and are usually disposed to obliterate the record of them. At least one recent biography might be mentioned which would have read differently if it had been compiled with similar candour.
The annotations subjoined to almost every page of the text are so ample and particular as to furnish in themselves extensive reading. The notices of every person named would go far to serve as a brief biographical dictionary of Byron's contemporaries, whether known or unknown to fame. We get a concise account of Madame de Staël—her birth, books, and political opinions—very useful to those who had no previous acquaintance with her. Lady Morgan and Joanna Southcote obtain quite as much space as would be allotted to them in any handbook of celebrities. Beau Brummell and Lord Castlereagh are treated with similar liberality. There is a full account, taken from the Examiner, of the procession with which Louis XVIII. made his entry into London in 1814. The notes—of about four pages each—upon Hobhouse and Lord Carlisle may be justified by their close connection with Byron's affairs; though some of us might have been content with less. Allusions to such notorious evildoers as Tarquin are explained, and stock quotations from Shakespeare have been carefully verified. The result is that a reader might go through this edition of Byron with the very slightest previous knowledge of general literature or of contemporary history, and might[Pg 181] give himself a very fair middle-class education in the process, although the consequence might be to imbue him with what Coleridge has called 'a passion for the disconnected.' Nevertheless we readily acknowledge the thorough execution of this part of the editorial work, and the very meritorious labour that has been spent upon bringing together every kind of document and reference that can inform or enlighten us upon the main subjects of Byron's life and writings. In the poems the practice of giving in notes the rough drafts and rejected versions of passages and lines, so as to show the poet at work, seems to us not altogether fair to him, and is occasionally distracting to those readers who enjoy a fine picture without asking how the colours were mixed, or are not anxious about the secrets of a good dinner. Yet to students of method, to the fellow-craftsman, and to the literary virtuoso, these variant readings, of which there are sometimes four to a single line, may often be of substantial interest, as throwing light on the tendencies and predilections of taste which are the formative influences upon style in prose or poetry.
Probably the most favourable circumstance for a poet is that he should only be known, like the Divinity of Nature, from his works; or at least that, like Wordsworth, he should keep the noiseless tenor of his way down some secluded vale of life, whereby his poems stand out in clear relief like fine paintings on a plain wall. Is there any modern English poet of the first class, except Byron, whose entire prose writings and biography are bound up in standard editions with his poetry? The question is at any rate worth asking, because certainly there is no case in which the record of a poet's private life and personal fortunes has so greatly affected, for good or for ill, his poetic reputation. Those who detested his character [Pg 182]and condemned his way of living found it difficult to praise his verses; they detected the serpent under every stone. For those who were fascinated by the picture of a reckless prodigal, always in love and in debt, with fierce passions and a haughty contempt for the world, who defied public opinion and was suspected of unutterable things—such a personality added enormous zest to his poetry. But now that Byron's whole career has been once more laid out before his countrymen, with light poured on to it from every cranny and peephole, those who take up this final edition of his life and works must feel that their main object and duty should be to form an unbiased estimate of the true value, apart from the author's rank and private history, of poems which must always hold a permanent place in the high imaginative literature of England.
It may be said that every writer of force and originality traverses two phases of opinion before his substantive rank in the great order of merit is definitely fixed: he is either depressed or exalted unduly. He may be neglected or cheapened by his own generation, and praised to the sides by posterity; or his fame may undergo the inverse treatment, until he settles down to his proper level. Byron's reputation has passed through sharper vicissitudes than have befallen most of his compeers; for though no poet has ever shot up in a brief lifetime to a higher pinnacle of fame, or made a wider impression upon the world around him, after his death he seems to have declined slowly, in England, to a point far below his real merits. And at this moment there is no celebrated poet, perhaps no writer, in regard to whom the final judgment of critics and men of letters is so imperfectly determined. Here is a man whom Goethe accounted a character of unique eminence, with supreme creative power, whose poetry, he[Pg 183] admitted, had influenced his own later verse—one of those who gave strenuous impulse to the romantic movement throughout England, France, and Germany in the first quarter of this century, who set the fashion of his day in England, stirred and shaped the popular imagination, and struck a far resonant note in our poetry. Yet after his death he suffered a kind of eclipse; his work was much more unduly depreciated than it had been extolled; while in our own time such critics as Matthew Arnold and Mr. Swinburne have been in profound disagreement on the question of his worth and value as a poet. Nor is it possible for impartial persons to accept the judgment of either of these two eminent artists in poetry, since Arnold placed Wordsworth and Byron by anticipation on the same level at this century's end, whereas Wordsworth stands now far higher. And the bitter disdain which Sir. Swinburne has poured upon Byron's verse and character, though tempered by acknowledgment of his strength and cleverness, and by approbation of his political views, excites some indignation and a sympathetic reaction in his favour. One can imagine the ghost of Byron rebuking his critic with the words of the Miltonic Satan, 'Ye knew me once no mate For you, there sitting where ye durst not soar'; for in his masculine defiant attitude and daring flights the elder poet overtops and looks down upon the fine musical artist of our own day.
Some of the causes which have combined to lower Byron's popularity are not far to seek. The change of times, circumstance, and taste has been adverse to him. The political school which he so ardently represented has done its work; the Tory statesmen of the Metternich and Castlereagh type, who laid heavy hands upon nations striving for light and liberty, have gone down to their own place; the period of stifling repression has long ended in Europe.[Pg 184] Italy and Greece are free, the lofty appeals to classic heroism are out of date, and such fiery high-swelling trumpet notes as
'Yet, Freedom! yet, thy banner, torn, but flying, Streams like a thunderstorm against the wind,'
fall upon cold and fastidious ears. 'The day will come,' said Mazzini in after-years, 'when the democracy will acknowledge its debt to Byron;' but the demos is notoriously ungrateful, and the subject races have now won their independence. The shadow of discouragement and weariness which passed over sensitive minds at the beginning of this century, a period of political disillusion, has long been swept away by the prosperity and sanguine activities of the Victorian era; and the literary style has changed with the times. Melancholy moods, attitudes of scornful despair, tales of fierce love and bloody revenge are strange and improbable to readers who delight in situations and emotions with which they are familiar, who demand exactitude in detail and correct versification; while sweet harmonies, perfection of metre, middle-class pastorals, and a blameless moral tone came in with Tennyson. In short, many of the qualities which enchanted Byron's own generation have disenchanted our own, both in his works and his life; for when Macaulay wrote in 1830 that the time would come when his 'rank and private history will not be regarded in estimating his poetry,' he took no account of future editions enlarged and annotated, or of biographies of The Real Lord Byron; whereby it has come to pass, as we suspect, that the present world knows more of Byron's private history than of his poems. His faults and follies stand out more prominently than ever; his story is more attractive reading than most romances; and the stricter morality of the day condemns him more[Pg 185] severely than did the society to which he belonged. Psychological speculation is now so much more practised in literature than formerly, there is so much more interest in 'the man behind the book,' that serious moral delinquencies, authentically recorded and eagerly read, operate more adversely than ever in affecting the public judgment upon Byron's poetry, because they provide a damaging commentary upon it. His contemporaries—Coleridge, Keats, Shelley—lived so much apart from the great world of their day that important changes in manners and social opinion have made much less difference in the standard by which their lives are compared with their work. Their poetry, moreover, was mainly impersonal. Whereas Byron, by stamping his own character on so much of his verse, created a dangerous interest in the man himself; and his empeiria (as Goethe calls it), his too exclusively worldly experience, identified him with his particular class in society, rendering him largely the responsible representative of a libertinism in habits and sentiments that was more pardonable in his time than in our own. His poetry belongs also in another sense to the world he lived in: it is incessantly occupied with current events and circumstance, with Spain, Italy, and Greece as he actually saw them, with comparisons of their visible condition and past glories, with Peninsular battlefields, and with Waterloo. Of worldliness in this objective meaning his contemporaries had some share, yet they instinctively avoided the waste of their power upon it; and so their finest poetry is beautiful by its detachment, by a certain magical faculty of treating myth, romance, and the mystery of man's sympathetic relations with universal Nature.
A recent French critic of Chateaubriand, who defines the 'romantisme' of that epoch as no more[Pg 186] than a great waking up of the poetic spirit, says that the movement was moral and psychological generally before it spread into literature. In criticising Byron's poetry we have to bear in mind that he came in on the first wave of this flood, which overflowed the exhausted and arid field of poetry at the end of the last century, fertilising it with colour and emotion. The comparison between Byron in England and Chateaubriand in France must have been often drawn. The similarity in their style, their moody, melancholy outlook upon common humanity, their aristocratic temper, their self-consciousness, their influence upon the literature of the two countries, the enthusiasm that they excited among the ardent spirits of the generation that reached manhood immediately after them, and the vain attempts of the elder critics to resist their popularity and deny their genius—form a remarkable parallel in literary history. As Jeffrey failed at first to discern the promise of Byron, so Morellet could only perceive the obviously weak points of Chateaubriand, laying stress on his affectations, his inflated language, his sentimental exaggeration, upon all the faults which were common to these two men of genius, the defects of their qualities, the energetic rebound from the classic level of orderly taste and measured style. It was the ancient régime contending against a revolutionary uprising, and in poetry, as in politics, the leaders of revolution are sure to be excessive, to force their notes, to frighten their elders, and to scandalise the conservative mind. Yet just as Chateaubriand, after passing through his period of depression, is now rising again to his proper place in French literature, so we may hope that an impartial survey of Byron's verse will help to determine the rank that he is likely to hold permanently, although the high tide of Romance in poetry has at this moment fallen to a low ebb, and the spell which[Pg 187] it laid upon our forefathers may have lost its power in an altered world.
It must be counted to the credit of these Romantic writers that at any rate they widened and varied the sphere and the resources of their art, by introducing the Oriental element, so to speak, into the imaginative literature of modern Europe. They brought the lands of ancient civilisation again within the sphere of poetry, reviving into fresh animation the classic glories of Hellas, reopening the gates of the mysterious East, and showing us the Greek races still striving, as they were twenty-two centuries earlier, for freedom against the barbarous strength of an Asiatic empire. Byron was the first of the poets who headed this literary crusade for the succour of Christianity against Islam in the unending contest between East and West on the shores of the Mediterranean, and in this cause he eventually died. Chateaubriand, Lamartine, and Victor Hugo were also travellers in Asia, and had drawn inspiration from that source; they all instinctively obeyed, like Bonaparte, the impulse which sends adventurous and imaginative spirits toward that region of strong passions and primitive manners, where human life is of little matter, and where the tragic situations of drama and fiction may at any time be witnessed in their simple reality. The effect was to introduce fresh blood into the veins of old romance; and Byron led the van of an illustrious line of poets who turned their impressions de voyage into glowing verse, for the others only trod in his footsteps and wrote on his model, while Lamartine openly imitated him in his Dernier Chant de Childe Harold. For the first time the Eastern tale was now told by a poet who had actually seen Eastern lands and races, their scenery and their cities, who drew his figures and landscape with his eye on the objects, and had not mixed his local colours by the process of skimming[Pg 188] books of travel for myths, legends, costume, or customs, with such result as may be seen in Moore's Lalla Rookh and in Southey's Thalaba, or even in Scott's Talisman. The preface to this novel shows that Scott fully appreciated the risk of competing with Byron, albeit in prose, in the field of Asiatic romance, yet all his skill avails little to diminish the sense of conventional figure-drawing and of uncertainty in important details when they are not gathered in the field, but only transplanted from the library.
Byron has noticed in one of his letters the errors of this kind into which a great poet must fall whose accurate observation has been confined mainly to his own country. 'There is much natural talent,' he writes, 'spilt over the Excursion, yet Wordsworth says of Greece that it is a land of
'Rivers, fertile plains, and sounding shores Under a cope of variegated sky.
The rivers are dry half the year, the plains are barren, the shores still and tideless, the sky is anything but variegated, being for months and months beautifully blue.'
This may be thought trivial criticism, yet it is evidence of the attention given by Byron to precise description. His accuracy in Oriental costume was also a novelty at that time, when so little was known of Oriental lore that even Mr. Murray 'doubted the propriety of putting the name of Cain into the mouth of a Mohammedan.' With regard to his characters, we may readily admit that in the Giaour or the Bride of Abydos the heroes and heroines behave and speak after the fashion of high-flying Western romance, and that their lofty sentiments in love or death have nothing specifically Oriental about them. But this was merely the romantic style used by all[Pg 189] Byron's contemporaries, and generally accepted by the taste of that day as essential to the metrical rendering of a passionate love-story. It may be argued, with Scott, that when a writer of fiction takes in hand a distant age or country, he is obliged to translate ideas and their expression into forms with which his readers are, to some extent, familiar. Byron seasoned his Oriental tales with phrases and imagery borrowed from the East; but whatever scenic or characteristic effects might have thus been produced are seriously marred by the explanatory notices and erudite references to authorities that are appended to the text. This fashion of garnishing with far-fetched outlandish words, in order to give the requisite flavour of time or place, was peculiar to the new romantic school of his era; it was the poetical dialect of the time, and Byron employed it too copiously. Yet, with all his faults, he remains a splendid colourist, who broke through a limited mannerism in poetry, and led forth his readers into an unexplored region of cloudless sky and purple sea, where the serene aspect of nature could be powerfully contrasted with the shadow of death and desolation cast over it by the violence of man.
Undoubtedly this contrast, between fair scenery and foul barbarism, had been presented more than once in poetry; yet no one before Byron had brought it out with the sure hand of an eye-witness, or with such ardent sympathy for a nation which had been for centuries trodden under the feet of aliens in race and religion, yet still clung to its ancient traditions of freedom. Throughout his descriptive poems, from Childe Harold to Don Juan, it is the true and forcible impression, taken from sight of the thing itself, that gives vigour and animation to his pictures, and that has stamped on the memory the splendid opening of the Giaour, the meditations in Venice and Rome,[Pg 190] the glorious scenery of the Greek islands, and even such single lines as
'By the blue rushing of the arrowy Rhone.'
In the art of painting what may be called historical landscape, where retrospective associations give intellectual colour to the picture, Byron has very few rivals. His descriptions of the Lake of Geneva, of Clarens, of the Trojan plain—
'High barrows, without marble or a name, A vast, untilled, and mountain-skirted plain, And Ida in the distance'—
have the quality of faithful drawing illumined by imaginative power. They have certainly touched the emotions and enhanced the pleasure of all travellers in the last three generations whose minds are accessible to poetic suggestion; and if at the present day their style be thought too elaborate and the allusions commonplace, it cannot be denied that the fine art of English composition would be poorer without them. The stanzas in Childe Harold on Waterloo are full of the energy which takes hold of and poetically elevates the incidents of war—the distant cannon, the startled dancers, the transition from the ball-room to the battlefield, from the gaiety of life to the stillness of death. Nothing very original or profound in all this, it may be said; yet the great difficulty of dealing adequately with heroic action in contemporary verse, of writing a poem on a campaign that has just been reported in the newspapers, is exemplified by the fact that Walter Scott's two compositions on Waterloo are failures; nor has any poet since Byron yet succeeded in giving us a good modern battlepiece.
Nevertheless there is much in Byron's longer poems (excepting always Don Juan) that seems tedious to[Pg 191] the modern reader; there are descriptions and declamations too long drawn-out to sustain the interest; and there are many lines that are superfluous, untidy, and sometimes ungrammatical. One can only plead, in extenuation of these defects, that the fashion of his day was for long metrical romance, in which it is difficult to maintain the high standard of careful composition exacted by the latest criticism. It is almost impossible to tell a long story in verse that shall be throughout poetical. And one main reason why this fashion has nearly passed away may be surmised to be that the versified narrative cannot adapt itself in this respect to the present taste, which is impatient of fluent lengthy heroics, refusing to accept them for the sake of some finely executed passages. Southey's epics are now quite unreadable, and many of the blemishes in Byron's poetry are inseparable from the romantic style; they are to be found in Scott's metrical tales, which have much redundancy and some weak versification; while his chiefs and warriors often talk a stilted chivalrous language which would now be discarded as theatrical. Byron's personages have the high tragic accent and costume; yet one must admit that they have also a fierce vitality; and as for the crimes and passions of his Turkish pashas and Greek patriots, he had actually seen the men and heard of their deeds. The fact that he also portrayed more unreal characters in dismal drapery—Lara, Conrad, and Manfred, as the mouthpieces of splenetic misanthropy—has led to some unjust depreciation of his capacity for veritable delineation. Macaulay, for example, in his essay on Byron, observes that 'Johnson, the man whom Don Juan met in the slave-market, is a striking failure. How differently would Sir Walter Scott have drawn a bluff, fearless Englishman in such a situation!' and Mr. Swinburne echoes this criticism. But it is unfair[Pg 192] to compare a minor character, slightly sketched into a poem for the purposes of the plot, with the full-length portrait that might have been made of him by a first-class artist in prose. The proper comparison would be between the figures in the metrical romances of the two poets, whereby it might be shown that Scott could take as little trouble as Byron did about an unimportant subsidiary actor. In regard to the leading heroes and heroines, Scott's poetic creations are hardly more interesting or dramatic than Byron's; and whenever he makes, even in prose, an excursion into Asia, his figure-drawing becomes conventional. But he was usually at the disadvantage, from which Byron was certainly free, of being hampered by an inartistic propensity to make virtuous heroes triumph in the long run.
Yet it must be admitted that no poet of the same calibre has turned out so much loose uneven work as Byron. His lapses into lines that are lame or dull are the more vexatious to the correct modern ear when, as sometimes happens, they spoil a fine passage, and in the midst of a superb flight his muse comes down with a broken wing. In the subjoined stanza, for example, from the Waterloo episode in Childe Harold, the first five lines are clear, strenuous, and concise, while the next three are confused and clumsy; so that though he recovers himself in the final line, the general effect is much damaged:
'Last noon beheld them full of lusty life, Last eve in Beauty's circle proudly gay, The midnight brought the signal-sound of strife, The morn the marshalling in arms—the day Battle's magnificently stern array. The thunder-clouds close o'er it, which when rent, The earth is covered thick with other clay, Which her own clay shall cover, heaped and pent, Rider and horse—friend, foe—in one red burial blent.'
These blots, and there are many, become less pardonable when we observe, from the new edition, that Byron by no means neglected revision of his work. But his impetuous temper, and the circumstance of his writing far from the printing-press, encouraged hasty execution; and though the most true remark that 'easy writing is devilish hard reading' is his own, though he praised excessively the chiselled verse of Pope, he was always inclined to pose as one who threw off jets of boiling inspiration, and in one letter he compares himself to the tiger who makes or misses his point in one spring. He ranked Pope first among English poets, yet he learnt nothing in that school; he pretended to undervalue Shakespeare, yet he must have had the plays by heart, for his letters bristle with quotations from them. His avowed taste in poetry is hard to reconcile with his own performances: his verse was rushing, irregular, audacious, yet he overpraises the smooth composition of Rogers; he dealt in heroic themes and passionate love-stories, yet Crabbe's humble pastorals had their full charm for him. Except Crabbe and Rogers, he declared, 'we are all—Scott, Wordsworth, Moore, Campbell, and I—upon a wrong revolutionary poetical system, not worth a damn in itself;' but among these are some leaders of the great nineteenth-century renaissance in English verse; and Byron was foremost in the revolt against unnatural insipidity which has brought us through romance to realism, by his clear apprehension of natural form and colour, and even by the havoc which he made among conventional respectabilities. He dwelt too incessantly upon his own sorrows and sufferings; and in the gloomy soliloquies of his dramatic characters we have an actor constantly reappearing in his favourite part. Yet this also was a novelty to the generation brought up on the impersonal poetry of the classic school;[Pg 194] and here, again, he is a forerunner of the self-reflecting analytical style that is common in our own day; for there is a Byronic echo in the 'divine despair' of Tennyson. The melancholy brooding spirit, dissatisfied with society and detesting complacency, had for some time been in the air; it had affected the literature of France and Germany; Werther, Obermann, and René are all moulded on the same type with Childe Harold; yet Sainte-Beuve rightly says that this identity of type does not mean imitation—it means that the writers were all in the same atmosphere. There is everywhere the same reaction against philosophic optimism and the same antipathy to the ways of mankind 'so vain and melancholy,' They sought refuge from inborn ennui or irritability among the mountains, on the sea, or in distant voyages, and they instinctively embodied these moods and feelings in various personages of fiction, in the solitary wanderer, in the fierce outlaw, in the man 'with chilling mystery of mien,' who rails against heaven and humanity. Their literature, in short, however overcoloured it may have been, did represent a generally prevailing characteristic among men of excessive sensibility at a time of stir and tumult in the world around them; it was not a mere unnatural invention, though we must leave to the psychologist the task of tracing a connection between this mental attitude and the circumstances that generated it. But the self-occupied mind has no dramatic power, and so their repertory contained one single character, a reproduction of their own in different attitudes and situations. Chateaubriand may be said never to have dropped his mask; whereas Byron, whose English sense of humour must have fought against taking himself so very seriously, relieved his conscience by lapses into epigram, irony, and persiflage. Thus in the same year (1818), and from the same[Pg 195] place (Venice), he produced the fourth canto of Childe Harold, full of deep longing for unbroken solitude:
'There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, There is a rapture on the lonely shore, There is society, where none intrudes, By the deep sea, and Music in its roar;'
and also Beppo, a satirical sketch of the loose and easy Venetian society in which he was actually living. Here, again, his somewhat ribald letters from Venice do his romantic poetry some wrong; but in fact he had a diabolic pleasure in betraying himself, and his Mémoires d'Outre Tombe, if they had been preserved, would have been very different from Chateaubriand's elaborate autobiography.
It was the spectacle of Christians groaning under Turkish oppression, and of their heroic resistance, that inspired three of Byron's finest poems, the Giaour, the Bride of Abydos, the Siege of Corinth. On this subject he was so heartily in earnest that he could even lose sight of his own woes; and notwithstanding the exuberance of colour and sentiment, these tales still hold their place in the first rank of metrical romance. Their construction is imperfect, even fragmentary; yet while Scott could put together and tell his story much better, not even Scott could drive it onward and sustain the verse at a high level with greater energy, or decorate his narrative with finer description of scenery, or give more intensity to the moments of fierce action. The splendid apostrophe to Greece in the Giaour—
'Clime of the unforgotten brave! Whose land from plain to mountain cave Was Freedom's home or Glory's grave'—
has forty lines of unsurpassed beauty and fire, written in the manuscript, as a note tells us, in a hurried and[Pg 196] almost illegible hand—an authentic example of true improvisation which the elaborate poets of our own day may match if they can. The tumid phrase and melodramatic figuring—
'Dark and unearthly is the scowl That glares beneath his dusky cowl'—
are now worn-out theatrical properties; yet those who have seen the untamed Asiatic might find it hard to overdraw the murderous hate and sullen ferocity that his face, or his victim's, will occasionally disclose. The heroes, at any rate, love and die in a masculine way; it is the old tragic theme of bitter unmerited misfortune, of daring adventure that ends fatally, without any of the wailing sensuality that infects the more harmonious poetry of a later day. There are, perhaps, for modern taste, too many outlandish words and references to Eastern customs or beliefs, requiring glossaries and marginal explanations; nor does the profuse annotation of the present edition lighten a reader's burden in this respect. Byron had no business to write 'By pale Phingari's trembling light,' leaving us at the mercy of assiduous editors to expound that 'Phingari' is the Greek fe??a????, and stands here for the moon. And if he could have spared us such Orientalisms as 'Al Sirât's arch,' or 'avenging Monkir's scythe,' we should have mixed up less desultory reading with the enjoyment of fine passages. He gives us too much of his local colouring, he checks the rush of his verse by superfluous metaphors, he has weak and halting lines. The style is heated and fuming, yet the dainty art-critic who lays hands on such metal thrown red hot from the forge may chance to burn his fingers over it. Nor must we forget that in these poems Byron brought the classic lands of Greece and the Levant within the sphere of modern romance, and has unquestionably [Pg 197]added some 'deathless pages' to English literature.
Byron has told us why he adopted for the Corsair, and afterwards for Lara, 'the good old and now neglected heroic couplet':
'The stanza of Spenser is, perhaps, too slow and dignified for narrative, though I confess it is the measure after my own heart; Scott alone, of the present generation, has hitherto triumphed completely over the fatal facility of the octosyllabic verse; and this is not the least victory of his fertile and mighty genius; in blank verse Milton, Thomson, and our dramatists are the beacons that shine along the deep, but warn us from the rough and barren rocks on which they are kindled.'
We doubt much, from a comparison of the poems, whether the experiment of changing his metre was successful. The short eight-syllabled line displayed Byron's capacity for vigorous concision and swift movement; it is eminently suited for strength and speed; whereas in the slow processional couplet he becomes diffuse, often tedious; he has room for more rhetoric and verbosity; he falls more into the error of describing at length the character and sentiments of his gloomy heroes, instead of letting them act and speak for themselves. At moments when inspiration is running low, and a gap has to be filled up, the shorter line needs less padding, and can be more rapidly run over when it is weak. Whereas a feeble heroic couplet becomes ponderous and sinks more quickly into bathos—as in the following sample from the Corsair:
'Oh! burst the Haram, wrong not on your lives One female form—remember—we have wives.'
And the consequence has been that Lara and the[Pg 198] Corsair are now, we believe, the least readable of Byron's metrical romances.
Of Byron's dramas we are obliged to say that, to borrow his own metaphor, he would have fared better as a poet if he had taken warning from the beacons, and had given blank verse a wide berth, instead of setting himself boldly on a course which, as he evidently knew, is full of peril for fast-sailing, free-going versifiers. He saw that he could not approach the great masters of this measure, he was resolved not to imitate them; and so he appears to have chosen the singular alternative of writing nothing that should in the least resemble them. His general object as a playwriter is stated, in a letter about Sardanapalus, to have been 'to dramatise striking passages of history and mythology.'
'You will find,' he adds most truly, 'all this very unlike Shakespeare; and so much the better in one sense, for I look upon him to be the worst of models, though the most extraordinary of writers. It has been my object to be as simple and severe as Alfieri, and I have broken down the poetry as nearly as I could to common language.'
And undoubtedly he did break it down so effectually that much of his blank verse hobbles like a lame horse, being often mere prose printed in short lines. Here are two specimens, not cut into lengths, which have no metrical construction at all:
'Unless you keep company with him, and you seem scarce used to such high society, you can't tell how he approaches.'
'Where thou shalt pass thy days in peace, but on condition that the three young princes are given up as hostages,'
Many others of the same quality might be given,[Pg 199] in which the disjecti membra poetæ would be exceedingly hard to find. It is surprising that a writer of Byron's experience should have fallen into the error of supposing that simplicity could be attained by the mere use of common language. For even Wordsworth, who is a master of simple strength, could never allow his peasants to talk their ordinary vernacular without a fatal drop into the commonplace; and all verse that is to be plain and unaffected in style and thought requires the most studious composition. Byron seems scarcely to have understood that blank verse has any rules of scansion, and his signal failure in this metre has become less tolerable and more conspicuous, since Keats in his day, and Tennyson after him, have carefully studied the construction of blank verse, and have left us admirable examples of its capacity for romantic expression. It is indeed strange that Byron should have fancied that he could use so delicate an instrument with a rough unpractised hand.
There are some vigorous passages scattered through the plays, and we have it on record that Dr. Parr could not sleep a wink after reading Sardanapalus. Nevertheless, we fear that the present generation will find little cause for demurring to Jeffrey's judgment upon the tragedies, that they are for the most part 'solemn, prolix, and ostentatious.' They were not composed, as Byron himself explained, 'with the most remote view to the stage,' so that he had not before his eyes the wholesome fear of a critical audience. In truth it must be admitted that he lacked the true dramatic instinct; he could only set up his leading figures to deliver imposing speeches appropriate to a tragic situation; and one may guess that the consciousness of awkward handling weighed upon the spirit and style of his blank verse, for his ear seems to have completely misled him when it had[Pg 200] lost the guidance of recurrent rhyme. Of Cain: a Mystery, one must speak reverently, since Walter Scott, to whom it was dedicated, wrote that the author had 'matched Milton on his own ground'; yet in Lucifer, who leads the dialogue, we have little more than a spectral embodiment of Byron's own rebellious temper; and in this poem, as in Manfred, the discussion of metaphysical problems carries him beyond his depth. There are, nevertheless, some fine declamatory passages; and we may quote as a curiosity one soft line, fresh from the Swiss mountains:
'Pipes in the liberal air Mixed with the sweet bells of the sauntering herd,'
which is to be found in Manfred and might have been taken from the Excursion.
When we turn from the plays to the lyrics, we see at once the importance, to a poet, of choosing rightly the metrical form that is the best expression of his peculiar genius. In some of these shorter poems Byron rises to his highest level, and by these will his popularity be permanently maintained. They are certainly of very unequal merit; yet when Byron is condemned for artificiality and glaring colour, we may point to the poem beginning 'And thou art dead, as young and fair,' where form and feeling are in harmony throughout eight long stanzas, without a single line that is feeble or overcharged:
'The better days of life were ours; The worst can be but mine; The sun that cheers, the storm that lowers, Shall never more be thine. The silence of that dreamless sleep I envy now too much to weep; Nor need I to repine That all those charms have passed away, I might have watched through long decay.'
There is no novelty in the ideas, nor does he open the deeper vein of thoughts that touch the mind with a sense of mortality. Yet the verse has a masculine brevity that renders effectively the attitude in which men may well be content firmly to confront an irreparable misfortune.
In his poems of strenuous action, although Byron has not the rare quality of heroic simplicity, he could at times strike a high vibrating war note, and could interpret romantically the patriotic spirit. The two stanzas which we quote from the Hebrew Melodies show that he could now and then shake off the redundant metaphors and epithets that overload too much of his impetuous verse, and use his strength freely:
'Though thou art fall'n, while we are free Thou shalt not taste of death! The generous blood that flowed from thee Disdained to sink beneath; Within our veins its currents be, Thy spirit on our breath.
'Thy name, our charging hosts along, Shall be their battle word! Thy fall, the theme of choral song From virgin voices poured! To weep would do thy glory wrong; Thou shalt not be deplored.'
And we have another magnificent example of Byron's lyrical power in the Isles of Greece, where the two lines,
'Ah, no! the voices of the dead Sound like a distant torrent's fall,'
drop suddenly into the elegiac strain, into a mournful echo that dwells upon the ear, followed by the rising note of a call to arms. It must be remembered that nothing is so rare as a stirring war-song, and that in our time we have had a good many attempts—almost all failures; whereas the Isles of Greece will long continue to stir the masculine imagination of Englishmen.
On the other hand, it must be admitted that Byron's Occasional Pieces abound with cheap pathos, dubious fervour, and a kind of commonplace sentimentality that comes out in the form as well as in the feeling of his inferior work. The rhymes are apt to be hackneyed, the similes are sometimes tagged on awkwardly instead of being weaved into the texture, the expression has often lost its strength, and the emotion lacks sincerity. Byron, like his brother poets, wrote copiously what was published indiscriminately; but if the first-class work had not been very good it would never have buoyed up above sheer oblivion so much that was third-rate and bad. His pieces are much too occasional, for he was prone to indulgence in hasty verse whenever the fit was upon him, or as a method of enlisting public sympathy with his own misconduct, so that he was constantly appearing before the world as a perfidious sentimentalist, with a false air of lamentation over the misfortunes which he had brought upon himself, as in the Poems of the Separation. Yet when he shook off his personal grief and took to politics, no other poet could more vividly express his intense living interest in the great events of his time, or strike the proper note of some great catastrophe. It may be affirmed that the Ode to Napoleon is better than anything else that has been written in English upon the most astonishing career in modern history:
'The triumph and the vanity, The rapture of the strife— The earthquake-voice of Victory, To thee the breath of life; The sword, the sceptre, and that sway Which man seemed made but to obey, Wherewith renown was rife— All quelled; Dark Spirit, what must be The madness of thy memory!
'The Desolator desolate! The Victor overthrown! The Arbiter of others' fate A suppliant for his own! Is it some yet imperial hope That with such change can calmly cope? Or dread of death alone? To die a prince—or live a slave— Thy choice is most ignobly brave.'
[Pg 203]In the first of these two stanzas the seventh line is weak and breaks the rapid rush of the verse; but the high pressure and impetus of the poem are sustained throughout twenty stanzas, producing the effect of an improvisatore who stops rather from want of breath than from any other lack of inspiration. In this respect the ode is a rare poetical exploit; for all poems composed under the spur of the moment, upon some memorable incident that has just startled the world, must be more or less improvised, and must hit the right pitch of extraordinary popular emotion. It is the difficulty of turning out good work under such arduous conditions that has too often shipwrecked or stranded some unlucky laureate.
There is one province of verse, if not exactly of poetry, in which Byron reigns undisputedly, though it is far distant from the land of lyrics. In his latest and longest production, Don Juan, he tells us that his 'sere fancy has fallen into the yellow leaf':
'And the sad truth which hovers o'er my desk Turns what was once romantic to burlesque.'
It was in Beppo: a Venetian Story that he dropped, for the first time, the weapon of trenchant sarcasm and invective, with no very fine edge upon it, which he flourished in his youth, and took up the tone of light humorous satire upon society. He soon acquired mastery over the metre (which was suggested, as is[Pg 204] well known, by Hookham Frere's Whistlecraft); and in Don Juan he produced a long, rambling poem of a kind never before attempted, and still far beyond any subsequent imitations, in the English language. Of a certainty there is much that it is by no means desirable to imitate, for the English literature does not assimilate the element of cynical libertinism, which indeed becomes coarse on an English tongue. Yet it is remarkable that the Whistlecraft metre, although Byron could manage it with point and spirit, has never produced more than insipid pastiche in later hands. But while Beppo may be classed as pure burlesque, Don Juan strikes various keys, ironical and voluptuous, grave and gay, rising sometimes to the level of strenuous realistic narrative in the episodes of the shipwreck and the siege, falling often into something like grotesque buffoonery, with much picturesque description, many animated lines, and occasional touches of effective pathos. As a story it has the picaresque flavour of Gil Blas, presenting a variety of scenes and adventures strung together without any definite plot; as a poem its reputation rests upon some passages of indisputable beauty; while Byron's own experiences, grievances, and animosities, personal or political, run through the whole performance like an accompaniment, and break out occasionally into humorous sarcasm or violent denunciations. That the overheated fervour of a stormy youth should cool down into disdainful irony, under the chill of disappointment and exhaustion, was natural enough; and this unfinished poem may be regarded as typical of Byron's erratic life, full of loose intrigue and adventure, with its sudden and premature ending.
It is in Don Juan that Byron stands forth as the founder and precursor of modern realism in poetry. He has now finally exorcised the hyperbolic fiend[Pg 205] that vexed his youth, he has cast off the illusions of romance, he knows the ground he treads upon, and his pictures are drawn from life; he is the foremost of those who have ventured boldly upon the sombre actualities of war and bloodshed:—
'But let me put an end unto my theme, There was an end of Ismail, hapless town, Far flashed her burning towers o'er Danube's stream, And redly ran his blushing waters down. The horrid warwhoop and the shriller scream Rose still; but fainter were the thunders grown; Of forty thousand that had manned the wall Some hundreds breathed, the rest were silent all.'
'A versified paraphrase,' it may be said, 'of sober history,' yet withal very different from the most animated prose, which must be kept at a lower temperature of intense expression. If we turn to quieter scenes—which are called picturesque because the artist, like a painter, has selected the right subject and point of view, and has grouped his details with exquisite skill—we may take the stanzas describing the return of the pirate Lambro to his Greek island—
'He saw his white walls shining in the sun, His garden trees all shadowy and green'—
as a fine example of pure objective writing, which lays out the whole scene truthfully, with the direct vision of one who has seen it. One does not find here the suggestive intimations, the wide imaginative horizon of higher poetry; there are no musical blendings of sound and sense, as in such lines as Tennyson's
'By the long wash of Australasian seas.'
Yet in these passages Byron has after his own fashion served Nature faithfully, and he has preserved to us some masterly sketches of life and manners that have long since disappeared. The Greek islands have[Pg 206] since fallen under the dominion of European uniformity; the costume of the people, the form of their government, are shabby imitations of Western models. But the cloudless sky, the sun slowly sinking behind Morea's hills, the sea on whose azure brow Time writes no wrinkle, and the marbled steep of Sunium, are still unchanged; and the peaceful tourist in these waters will see at once that Byron was a true workman in line and colour, and will feel the intellectual pleasure that comes from accurate yet artistic interpretation of natural beauties.
The poem of Don Juan is, therefore, a miscellany, connected on the picturesque side with Childe Harold, and by its mocking spirit with Beppo and the Vision of Judgment, the two pieces that may be classed as pure burlesque. The irreverent persiflage of the Vision belongs to the now obsolete school of Voltaire, and in biting wit and daring ridicule the performance is not unworthy of that supreme master in diablerie. Nor can it be asserted that this lashing sarcasm was undeserved, or that all the profanity was in Byron's parody, for Southey's conception of the Almighty as a High Tory judge, with an obsequious jury of angels, holding a trial of George III., browbeating the witnesses against him and acquitting him with acclamation, so that he leaves the court without a stain on his character, was false and abject enough to stir the bile of a less irritable Liberal than Byron. There exists, moreover, in the mind of every good English Whig a lurking sympathy with the Miltonic Satan, insomuch that all subsequent attempts by minor poets to humiliate and misrepresent him have invariably failed. Southey's Vision, and Robert Montgomery's libel upon Satan, have each undergone the same fate of being utterly extinguished, knocked clean out of English literature by one single crushing onslaught of Byron and Macaulay respectively.
Our conclusion must be brief, for in fact it is not easy to propound to the readers of this Review any general observations, which shall be new as well as true, upon a man's life and works that have been subjected to incessant scrutiny and criticism throughout the nineteenth century. At the beginning of this period Byron found himself matched, in the poetic arena, against contemporary rivals of first-class genius and striking originality. And from his death almost up to the century's close there has been no time when some considerable poet has not occupied the forefront of English letters, and stamped his impression on the public mind. Variety in style and ideas has produced many vicissitudes of taste in poetry; it has been discovered that narrative can be better done in prose, and so the novel has largely superseded story-telling in verse. There have also been great political and social changes, and all these things have severely tested the staying powers of a writer who is too closely associated with his own period to be reckoned among those wide-ranging spirits whom Shelley has called 'the kings of thought.' Nevertheless the new edition of Byron is appearing at a moment which is, we think, not inopportune. There is just now, as by a coincidence there was in the year 1800, a dearth of poetic production; we have fallen among lean years; we have come to a break in the succession of notable poets; the Victorian celebrities have one by one passed away; and we can only hope that the first quarter of the twentieth century may bring again some such bountiful harvest as was vouchsafed to our grandfathers at the beginning of the nineteenth. In the meantime the reading of Byron may operate as a wholesome tonic upon the literary nerves of the rising generation; for, as Mr. Swinburne has generously acknowledged, with the emphatic concurrence of Matthew Arnold, his poems[Pg 208] have 'the excellence of sincerity and strength.' Now one tendency of latter-day verse has been toward that over-delicacy of fibre which has been termed decadence, toward the preference of correct metrical harmonies over distinct and incisive expression, toward vague indications of meaning. In this form the melody prevails over the matter; the style inclines to become precious and garnished with verbal artifice. Some recent French poets, indeed, in their anxiety to correct the troublesome lucidity of their mother-tongue, have set up the school of symbolism, which deals in half-veiled metaphor and sufficiently obscure allusion, relying upon subtly suggestive phrases for evoking associations. For ephemeral infirmities of this kind the straightforward virility of Byron's best work may serve as an antidote. On the other hand, we have the well-knit strenuous verse of extreme realism, wrought out by a poet in his shirt-sleeves, with rhymes clear-sounding like the tap of hammer on anvil, who sings of rough folk by sea and land, and can touch national emotion in regard to the incidents or politics of the moment. He paints without varnish, in hard outline, avoiding metaphor and ornamental diction generally; taking his language so freely out of the mouths of men in actual life that he makes occasional slips into vulgarity. He is at the opposite pole from the symbolist; but true poetry demands much more distinction of style and nobility of thought. And here again Byron's high lyrical notes may help to maintain elevation of tone and to preserve the romantic tradition. His poetry, like his character, is full of glaring imperfections; yet he wrote as one of the great world in which he made for a time such a noise; and after all that has been said about his moral delinquencies, it is certain that we could have better spared a better man.
In one of Tennyson's earlier letters is the following[Pg 209] passage, with reference to something written at the time in Philip van Artevelde:
'He does not sufficiently take into consideration the peculiar strength evolved by such writers as Byron and Shelley, who, however mistaken they may be, did yet give the world another heart, and a new pulse, and so we are kept going. Blessed be those who grease the wheels of the old world.'
This is the large-hearted, far-seeing judgment of one who could survey the whole line and evolutionary succession of English verse, being himself destined to close the long list of nineteenth-century poets, which was opened by Byron and his contemporaries. The time has surely now come when we may leave discussing Byron as a social outlaw, and cease groping after more evidence of his misdeeds. The office of true criticism is to show that he made so powerful an impression on our literature as to win for himself permanent rank in its annals, and that his work, with all its shortcomings, does yet mark and illustrate an important stage in the connected development of our English poetry.
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