1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 14.



GEORGE GORDON BYRON was born in Holles Street, London, on the 22nd of January, 1788. He was the grandson of the celebrated Admiral, and succeeded his great uncle, William Lord Byron, in 1798. On his elevation to the peerage, he was removed from the care of his mother, and placed at Harrow, by his guardian, — the Earl of Carlisle. In 1805, he was entered at Trinity College, Cambridge; and took up his permanent residence at Newstead Abbey, the family seat. In 1807, he published at Newark, his Hours of Idleness: they were attacked with considerable bitterness in the Edinburgh Review, and his memorable "Satire" followed. His various Works succeeded with wonderful rapidity. In 1815, he married the daughter of Sir Ralph Milbank Noel: a separation took place soon afterwards, and the Poet went abroad, — residing at Geneva, and in various cities of Italy. In August, 1823, he embarked in the cause of Greece; and died at Missolonghi, on the 19th of April, 1824.

Lord Byron was, thus, a young man when he died. Personal descriptions of the Poet are abundant. In 1823, Lady Blessington was intimately acquainted with him, at Genoa. According to her account, his appearance was highly prepossessing; "his head," she says, "is finely shaped, and the forehead open, high, and noble; his eyes are grey, and full of expression, but one is visibly larger than the other; his mouth is the most remarkable feature in his face — the upper lip of Grecian shortness, and the corners descending; the lips full and finely cut: his chin is large and well shaped; his face is peculiarly pale." She adds, that, "although slightly lame, the deformity of his foot is but little remarkable."

The biographies of Lord Byron are almost as numerous as his Works. The wonderful genius of the Poet procured for him an extent of popularity unparalleled in his age; and the public sought eagerly for every anecdote that could afford the smallest insight into his character. Few men could have borne so searching a test. His biographers, without exception, have arrived at conclusions prejudicial to his character; it is, therefore, impossible for an Editor who would sum up their evidence, to recommend any other verdict, than that which has been given. It is time to discard the old superstition, NIL NISI BONUM, as at once unphilosophical and derogatory to the character of any man, who seeks to live "for aye, in Fame's eternal temple." NIL NISI VERUM, should be the motto of the dead. It may be ungracious to disobey the mandate, "Lift not thy spear against the Muse's bower;" but the warning cannot have reference to the spear of Ithuriel. Truth is so precious, that it never costs too much. We protest at the outset of our labours against all reference to PRIVATE character, and comment upon PRIVATE life; but we must always except cases where they are mixed up with published writings which influence, and are designed to influence, the universal mind. Many of the Poems of Lord Byron have a dangerous tendency: they are calculated to remove the hideous features of Vice, and present it, if not in a tempting, at least in a natural and pardonable light. Whether it was a genuine sentiment, or a gross affectation, it matters not; but it was the frequent boast of the Poet, that he scorned and hated human kind; and out of this feeling, or this pretension, grew his labours to corrupt it. It was not alone against THINGS held sacred by society, that his spleen and venom were directed: he strove to render odious some of the best and purest men that have ever lived; and his attacks were not the momentary ebullitions of dislike, but the produce of deep and settled hatred, the more bitter in proportion as the cause was small. To the various circumstances that are said to have warped his mind, we cannot here refer. We perform an imperative duty, in a work which must find its way among the young and enthusiastic, when we warn the reader of his exquisite poetry, that danger lurks under the leaves. The Poems of Byron will live, as he had a right to anticipate they would, "with his land's language." The amazing power he possessed of searching into and pourtraying character, — his prodigious skill in versification, — his fine perception of the sublime and beautiful in nature, — his graceful — and unforced wit, — his deep readings of human passion, — his accurate knowledge of the secret movements of the heart, — were so many keys to his wonderful and universal success.