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NOTE. — The frontispiece portrait is after the drawing by G. H. Harlow.
The vignette on the title-page represents Newstead Abbey, and is from an engraving by
THE main events of our poet's life are so well known that they may be rehearsed here with the utmost brevity. George Gordon was born in London, January 22, 1788. His mother's family, the Gordons, whose name he took owing to the will of a maternal ancestor, was Scottish but of French extraction. His father, Captain Byron, belonged to an ancient noble family which came to England with William the Conqueror. The poet's pride of ancestry was always one of the strongest traits of his character, mingled as it was, as in his hero Marino Faliero, with sincere republican feelings. The boy was born with a club foot, and this slight deformity bad much to do with the waywardness of his disposition. Captain Byron soon dissipated most of his wife's fortune and then left her in liberty. In 1790 she removed to Aberdeen with her child, and the poet's early recollections were thus colored by his life in the Scottish Highlands. His first schooling was at Aberdeen, and later he was sent to Harrow. Meanwhile, the death of the old Lord Byron at Newstead Abbey gave him the title, at the age of ten, in default of nearer heirs. This fifth Lord Byron, whom the poet succeeded, left him, besides the title, a disagreeable family feud. He had, under suspicious circumstances, killed his neighbor and kinsman, Mr. Chaworth, in a duel. The poet afterwards was to fall in love with Chaworth's grandniece, the Mary whose name occurs so often throughout the poems. The brother of the fifth baron was the poet's grandfather, the celebrated Admiral John Byron, a bold but unfortunate seaman whose narrative of a shipwreck formed the groundwork of the great description in the second canto of Don Juan.
From Harrow Byron went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he led a reckless and defiant life. Like many a better man and worse poet, he left without taking a degree. His drinking cup, made of a human skull, and his savage pets were notorious. were now passed chiefly at Newstead and in London. On coming of age he presented himself at the House of Lords, and even thought of taking up a political career. The report of his speeches later on and his cleverness as a pamphleteer suggest that, had he persisted, he might have made his mark in this field. But the spirit of adventure seized him. June 11, 1809, he left London with his friend Hobhouse and for two years traveled, passing through Portugal and Spain, where he was much impressed by the results of the Peninsular War, and wandering extensively in Greece and the Levant. He returned to England in July of 1811, with his head full of romantic notions. The first two cantos of Childe Harold and the Oriental Tales were the product of his travels, and immediately raised him into astonishing popularity. His life in London was now a union of social dissipation and feverish work. January 2, 1815, came his unfortunate marriage with Miss Milbanke, who, after the lapse of a year, separated from him, taking with her their infant daughter, Augusta Ada. Into the causes and mysteries of the divorce we may not enter. Byron was wild and his wife was a prude; it would seem that nothing more should need be said.
The public violently, and to a certain extent rightly, sided with Lady Byron, and the poet found it necessary to quit England. He sailed April 25, 1816, never to see his native land again. His greatest comfort seems to have been the loyal affection of his half-sister, Lady Augusta Leigh. Byron journeyed to Switzerland by way of the Rhine, and there,
on the banks of Lake Geneva, joined Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, with whom he was associated at intervals for a number of years. With the Shelleys was Jane Clairmont, a relative of Mary's, who became the mother of Byron's natural daughter Allegra. In the autumn of 1816 Byron made a tour through the Alps and then went down to Venice. Here his life for a while assumed a character of mad dissipation which is only too faithfully reflected in his letters. His salvation, if satiety and innate repugnance were not sufficient, came from an alliance formed after the Italian fashion of the day with the Countess Guiccioli, who remained a faithful companion to him during all the rest of his stay in Italy. Very soon, however, Byron began to interest himself in the revolutionary movements then stirring in Greece. At last he resolved to stake his fortune (the large income from his pen) and his life on that cause. On the 14th of July, 1823, he sailed for Greece, and at Missolonghi put himself at the head of the republican forces. Death seemed to envy the noblest of his acts. April 19, 1824, he died, honored and lamented by those about him. His body was carried to England and buried near Newstead, in the church of Hucknall-Torkard.
Much that might throw light on Byron's works is here omitted, and, despite all that has been written
on the subject, there is still room and need for a sympathetic study of his character. For one thing the basis of his character was undoubtedly a proud sincerity, yet his acts and words wore often the appearance of sham. To discriminate between that sincerity and that sham, and to show how they were related, would be as rich an exercise of psychology as a man might desire. But for an introduction to Byron's works there would seem to be still greater need of some discussion of the poems themselves and of the qualities which have made them, for almost a century, the object of opprobrium and of equally extravagant laudation. Manifestly the elements of his genius are diverse, to a certain extent even contradictory; and to this fact are due in part the extraordinary unevenness of his own work and the curious divergence of opinion regarding him.
In a word, the two master traits of Byron's genius are the revolutionary spirit and classical art. He was both of his age and apart from it, and if, in the following pages, an attempt is made to throw the composite nature of his genius into relief by contrasting him with the men who were more purely the product of the times, with Shelley in particular, this is not done through a feeling of narrow rivalry, but because in no other way may we so easily prepare ourselves for a right understanding, and hence a right enjoyment, of his work. On one side of his character he was drawn toward the romantic spirit of the day, but on the other side his sympathies, conscious and unconscious, threw him back more classical models of the past. By classical is meant a certain predominance of the intellect over the emotions, and a reliance on broad effects rather than on subtle impressions ; these two characteristics working harmoniously together and being subservient to human interest. And here straightway we may seem to run counter to a well-established criticism of Byron. It will be remembered that Matthew Arnold has quoted and judiciously enlarged upon Goethe's saying, “The moment he reflects, he is a child.' The dictum is perfectly true, but more often he is a child because he fails to reflect at all. Predominance of intellect does not necessarily imply true wisdom; for in reality an impulsive, restless activity of mind seems often to militate against calm reflection. It implies in Byron rather keenness of wit, pungency of criticism whether sound or false, precision and unity of conception. So, in the English Bards, the ruinous criticism of Wordsworth, that mild apostate from poetic rule,' is the expression of an irresistible mental impulse, but it is hardly reflection. When the poet came to reflect on his satire, he wisely added the comment, 'unjust.' When in Childe Harold he describes Gibbon as 'sapping a
solemn creed with solemn sneer,' he displays astonishing intellectual force in summing up the effect of a huge work in one sharp memorable phrase, such as can scarcely be paralleled from the poetry of his age. And in this case he is by chance right; reflection eould not modify or improve the judgment.
In its larger effect this predominance of intellect causes simplicity and tangibility of design. Thus, on reading Manfred, we feel that a single and very definite idea has been grasped and held throughout; and we in turn receive a single and definite impression which we readily carry away and reproduce in memory. But turn to Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and mark the difference. However much the ordinary reader may admire this drama, it is doubtful whether he could give any satisfactory account of its central idea, for the reason that this idea has been diverted and refracted through the medium of a wayward imagination and is after all an illusion of the senses. Love, all-embracing victorious love, is in a sense the motive of the poem; yet the most superficial analysis will show this to be an emotion or vague state of feeling, rather than a distinct conception of the intellect. The inconsistencies bewilder the reader, although, on a rapid perusal, they may escape his critical detection. Love is the theme, yet the speeches are full of the gall of hatred: in words Prometheus may forgive his enemy,
but the animus of the poem is unrelenting bitterness.
Yet the predominance of intellect, which forms so important a factor in classical art, is far from excluding all emotion. On the contrary, the simple elemental passions naturally provoke intense activity of mind. They almost inevitably, moreover, lead to an art that depends on broad effects instead of subtle and vague impressions. The passion of Byron is good evidence of this tendency. He himself somewhere remarks that his genius was eloquent rather than poetical, and in a sense this observation is true. His language has a marvelous sweep and force that carry the reader on through a sustained emotion, but in detail it is prosaic in comparison with the iridescent style of Shelley or of Keats. Marino Faliero, one of Byron's less important works, may be cited as a fair example of his eloquence and concentrated passion. The theme of the drama is perfectly simple, – the conflict in Marino's breast between aristocratic pride and the love of liberty (predominant characteristics, be it observed, of the poet himself); and about this conflict the whole action of the play revolves, without any minor issues to dissipate the effect. The mind is held gripped to one emotion and one thought; we seem to hear the mighty pleading of a Demosthenes. There is no poem of Shelley's (with the possible exception of The Cenci, where he resorts to monstrous and illegitimate means) which begins to leave on the mind so distinct and powerful an impression as this, yet the whole drama contains perhaps not a single line of the illusive charm to be found in passages on every page of Shelley's works. We know from Byron's letters and prefaces that he made a conscious effort to be, as he himself calls it, classical in this respect. Had his genius possessed also the subtle grace of the more romantic writers, he would have been classical in a still higher and broader sense; for the greatest poets, the true classics, Homer as well as Shakespeare, have embraced both gifts. As it is, we are left to contrast the vigorous, though incomplete, art of Byron with the wayward and often effeminate style of his rivals. And in this we are justified by the known hostility of Byron to the tendencies of his age and by the utterances of the romantic writers, from whom a volume of quotations might be culled showing that they deliberately look on poetry as a vehicle for the emotions and imaginations of the heart alone.
It was in no mood of mere carping at the present that Byron condemned the romantic spirit, and waged continuous, if often
indiscreet, warfare for Milton and Dryden and Pope.
His indifference to Shakespeare (if we may believe his critical statements; in reality no writer was ever more steeped in Shakespearian language) proves the sincerity of his opinion, however it may expose the narrowness of his judgment. He perceived clearly a real kinship, on one side of his genius, with the writers of Queen Anne, and was unflagging in his efforts to follow them as models. He was saved from their aridity by the revolutionary spirit, which was equally strong within him, and which he acknowledged by partially condemning himself with his contemporaries.
Were the subject not too technical, the radical difference between these two classes of poets might be shown by a study of their respective use of metaphor. Poetry hardly exists without metaphor. Besides the formal simile, there is in verse the more pervasive use of metaphorical language, by which the whole world of animate and inanimate nature is brought into kinship with the human soul, so that our inner life is enlarged and exalted by a feeling of universal dominion. The classical metaphor is simple and intellectual; through its means the vague is fixed and presented clearly to the mind by comparison with the more definite, the more complex by comparison with the simple, the abstract with the concrete, the emotional with the sensuous. Its rival, the romantic metaphor, appeals to the fancy by the very opposite method. It would be easy to take the Prometheus Unbound and show how Shelley persistently relaxes the mind by vague and abstract similes. The moments are said to crawl like .death-worms;' spring is compared with the memory of a dream,' with 'genius,' or 'joy which riseth up as from the earth;' the rushing avalanche is likened to thought by thought ... piled up, till some great truth is loosened, and the nations echo round.' In the famous and exquisitely beautiful singing-metaphor of that poem we have in miniature a complete picture of the romantic poet's art:
Meanwhile thy spirit lifts its pinions
In music's most serene dominions ;
And we sail on, away, afar,
Without a course, without a star,
But by the instinct of sweet music driven.' Perhaps nowhere could a more perfect expression of this wayward and delicate spirit of romance be found, unless in that brief phrase of A Winter's Tale :
'a wild dedication of yourselves
To unpath'd waters, undream'd shores.' Take away this subtle and baffling overgrowth of reverie, and the sturdier metaphor of the classical poets remains. Individual comparisons of this vague character may no doubt be cited from Byron (they are not altogether wanting even in Homer), but they are in him distinctly exceptions. In general the poetic medium in which he works has an intellectual solidity akin to the older masters.
Poetry is the most perfect instrument of expression granted us in our need of self-utterance, and it is something to have learned in what way this instrument is shaped to the hand of a strong poet. But this is not all. How does he deal with the great themes of literature? How does he stand toward nature and man? And here too we shall find a real contrast between Byron and his contemporaries.
There is a scene in Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford which to me has always seemed to set forth one of the aims of the romantic nature-poet in a charming light. It is the bewitching chapter where the ladies visit old Mr. Holbrook, the bachelor, and he, musing after dinner in the garden, quotes and comments on Tennyson:
• • The cedar spreads his dark-green layers of shade.'