1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:395-98.



Scott retreated from poetry into the wide and open field of prose fiction as the genius of Byron began to display its strength and fertility. A new, or at least a more finished, nervous, and lofty style of poetry was introduced by the noble author, who was as much a mannerist as Scott, but of a different school. He excelled in painting the strong and gloomy passions of our nature, contrasted with feminine softness and delicacy. Scott, intent upon the development of his plot, and the chivalrous machinery of his Gothic tales, is seldom personally present to the reader. Byron delighted in self-portraiture, and could stir the depths of the human heart. His philosophy of life was false and pernicious; but the splendour of the artist concealed the deformity of his design. Parts were so nobly finished, that there was enough for admiration to rest upon, without analysing the whole. He conducted his readers through scenes of surpassing beauty and splendour — by haunted streams and mountains, enriched with the glories of ancient poetry and valour; but the same dark shadow was ever by his side — the same scorn and mockery of human hopes and ambition. The sententious force and elevation of his thoughts and language, his eloquent expression of sentiment, and the mournful and solemn melody of his tender and pathetic passages, seemed, however, to do more than atone for his want of moral truth and reality. The man and the poet were so intimately blended, and the spectacle presented by both was so touching, mysterious, and lofty, that Byron concentrated a degree of interest and anxiety on his successive public appearances, which no author ever before was able to boast. Scott had created the public taste for animated poetry, and Byron, taking advantage of it, soon engrossed the whole field. For a few years it seemed as if the world held only one great poet. The chivalry of Scott, the philosophy of Wordsworth, the abstract theory and imagination of Southey, and even the lyrical beauties of Moore and Campbell, were for a time eclipsed by this new and greater light. The rank, youth, and misfortunes of Byron, his exile from England, the mystery which he loved to throw around his history and feelings, the apparent depth of his sufferings and attachments, and his very misanthropy and scepticism (relieved by bursts of tenderness and pity, and by the incidental expression of high and holy feelings), formed a combination of personal circumstances in aid of the legitimate effects of his passionate and graceful poetry, which is unparalleled in the history of modern literature. Such a result is even more wonderful than this laureled honours awarded to Virgil and Petrarch, if we consider the difference between ancient and modern manners, and the temperament of the northern nations compared with that of the "sunny south." Has the spell yet broke? Has the glory faded into "the common light of day?" Undoubtedly the later writings of the noble bard helped to dispel the illusion. To competent observers, these works added to the impression of Byron's powers as an original poet, but they tended to exorcise the spirit of romance from his name and history; and what Don Juan failed to effect, was accomplished by the biography of Moore. His poetry, however, must always have a powerful effect on minds of poetical and warm sensibilities. If it is a "rank unweeded garden," it also contains glorious fruits and plants of celestial seed. The art of the poet will be a study for the ambitious few; his genius will be a source of wonder and delight to all who love to contemplate the workings of human passion, in solitude and society, and the rich effects of taste and inspiration.

The incidents of Byron's life may be briefly related. He was born in Holles Street, London, on the 22d of January 1788, the only son of Captain John Byron of the Guards, and Catherine Gordon of Gight, an Aberdeenshire heiress. The lady's fortune was soon squandered by her profligate husband, and she retired to the city of Aberdeen, to bring up her son on a reduced income of about £130 per annum. The little lame boy, endeared to all in spite of his mischief, succeeded his grand-uncle, William Lord Byron, in his eleventh year; and the happy mother sold off her effects (which realised just £74, 17s. 4d.), and left Aberdeen for Newstead Abbey. The seat of the Byrons was a large and ancient, but dilapidated structure, founded as a priory in the twelfth century by Henry II., and situated in the midst of the fertile and interesting district once known as Sherwood Forest. On the dissolution of the monasteries, it was conferred by Henry VIII. on Sir John Byron, steward of Manchester and Rochdale, who converted the venerable convent into a castellated mansion. The family was ennobled by Charles I., in consequence of high and honourable services rendered to the royal cause during the civil war. On succeeding to the title, Byron was put to a private school at Dulwich, and from thence he was sent to harrow. During his minority, the estate was let to another party, but its youthful lord occasionally visited the scat of his ancestors; and whilst there in 1803, he conceived a passion for a young lady in the neighbourhood, who, under the name of Mary Chaworth, has obtained a poetical immortality. So early as his eighth year; Byron fell in love with a simple Scottish maiden, Mary Duff; and hearing of her marriage, several years afterwards, was, he says, like a thunder-stroke to him. He had also been captivated with a boyish love for his cousin, Margaret Parker, "one of the most beautiful of evanescent beings," who died about a year or two afterwards. He was fifteen when he met Mary Chaworth, and "conceived an attachment which, young as he was even then for such a feeling, sunk so deep into his mind as to give a colour to all his future life." The father of the lady had been killed in a duel by Lord Byron, the eccentric grand-uncle of the poet, and the union of the young peer with the heiress of Annesley Hall "would," said Byron, "have healed feuds in which blood had been shed by our fathers; it would have joined lands broad and rich; it would have joined at least mine heart, and two persons not ill matched in years (she was two years my elder), and — and — and — what has been the result?" Mary Chaworth saw little in the lame boy, and became the betrothed of another. They had one parting interview in the following year, which, in his poem of the Dream, Byron has described in the most exquisite colours of descriptive poetry:—

I saw two beings in the hues of youth
Standing upon a hill; a gentle hill,
Green and of mild declivity, the last
As 'twere the cape of a long ridge of such,
Save that there was no sea to lave its base,
But a most living landscape, and the wave
Of woods and corn-fields, and the abodes of men
Scattered at intervals, and wreathing smoke
Arising from such rustic roofs; — the hill
Was crowned with a peculiar diadem
Of trees, in circular array, so fixed,
Not by the sport of nature, but of man:
These two, a maiden and a youth, were there
Gazing — the one on all that was beneath
Fair as herself — but the boy gazed on her;
And both were young, and one was beautiful:
And both were young — yet not alike in youth.
As the sweet moon on the horizon's verge,
The maid was on the eve of womanhood;
The boy had fewer summers, but his heart
Had far outgrown his years, and to his eye
There was but one beloved face on earth,
And that was shining on him.

This boyish idolatry nursed the spirit of poetry in Byron's mind. He was recalled, however, from his day-dreams and disappointment, by his removal to Trinity college, Cambridge, in October 1805. At Harrow he had been an idle irregular scholar, though he eagerly devoured all sorts of learning, excepting that which was prescribed for him; and at Cambridge he pursued the same desultory course of study.

In 1807 appeared his first volume of poetry, printed at Newark, under the title of Hours of Idleness. There were indications of genius in the collection, but many errors of taste and judgment. The vulnerable points were fiercely assailed, the merits overlooked, in a witty critique in the Edinburgh Review (understood to be written by Lord Brougham), and the young poet replied by his vigorous satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, which disarmed, if it did not discomfit, his opponent. While his name was thus rising in renown, Byron left England for a course of foreign travel, and in two years visited the classic shores of the Mediterranean, and resided some time in Greece and Turkey. In the spring of 1812 appeared the two first cantos of Childe Harold, the fruit of his foreign wanderings, and his splendidly enriched and matured poetical taste. "I awoke one morning," he said, "and found myself famous." A rapid succession of eastern tales followed — the Giaour and the Bride of Abydos in 1813; the Corsair and Lara in 1814. In the Childe, he had shown his mastery over the complicated Spenserian stanza: in these he adopted the heroic couplet, and the lighter verse of Scott, with equal freedom and success. No poet had ever more command of the stores of the English language. At this auspicious and exultant period, Byron was the idol of the gay circles of London. He indulged in all their pleasures and excesses — studying by fits and starts at midnight, to maintain the splendour of his reputation. Satiety and disgust succeeded to this round of heartless pleasures, and in a better mood, though without any fixed attachment, he proposed and was accepted in marriage by a northern heiress, Miss Milbanke, daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanke, a baronet in the county of Durham. The union cast a shade on his hitherto bright career. A twelvemonth's extravagance, embarrassments, and misunderstandings, dissolved the union, and the lady retired to the country seat of her parents from the discord and perplexity of her own home. She refused, like the wife of Milton, to return, and the world of England seemed to applaud her resolution. One child (now the Countess of Lovelace) was the fruit of this unhappy marriage. Before the separation took place, Byron's muse, which had been lulled or deadened by the comparative calm of domestic life, was stimulated to activity by his deepening misfortunes, and he produced the Siege of Corinth and Parisina.

Miserable, reckless, yet conscious of his own newly-awakened strength, Byron left England — "Once more upon the waters, yet once more!" — and visiting France and Brussels, pursued his course along the Rhine to Geneva. Here, in six months, he had composed the third canto of, Childe Harold, and the Prisoner of Chillon. His mental energy gathered force from the loneliness of his situation, and his disgust with his native country. The scenery of Switzerland and Italy next breathed its inspiration: Manfred and the Lament of Tasso were produced in 1817. In the following year, whilst residing chiefly at Venice, and making one memorable visit to Rome, he completed Childe Harold, and threw off his light humorous poem of Beppo, the first fruits of the more easy and genial manners of the continent on his excitable temperament At Venice, and afterwards at Ravenna, Byron resided till 1821, writing various works — Mazeppa, the first five cantos of Don Juan, and his dramas of Marine Faliero, Sardanapalus, the Two Foscari, Werner, Cain, the Deformed Transformed, &c. The year 1822 he passed chiefly at Pisa, continuing Don Juan, which ultimately extended to fifteen cantos. We have not touched on his private history or indulgences. His genius had begun to "pale its fire:" his dramas were stiff; declamatory, and undramatic; and the successive cantos of Don Juan betrayed the downward course of the poet's habits. The wit and knowledge of that wonderful poem — its passion, variety, and originality — were now debased with inferior matter; and the world saw with rejoicing the poet break away from his Circean enchantments, and enter upon a new and nobler field of exertion. He had sympathised deeply with the Italian Carbonari in their efforts for freedom, but a still more interesting country and people claimed his support.

His youthful travels and poetical enthusiasm still endeared the "blue Olympus" to his recollection, and in the summer of 1823 he set sail for Greece, to aid in the struggle for its independence. His arrangements were made with judgment, as well as generosity. Byron knew mankind well, and his plans for the recovery and regeneration of Greece evinced a spirit of patriotic freedom and warm sympathy with the oppressed, happily tempered with practical wisdom and discretion. He arrived, after some danger and delay, at Missolonghi, in Western Greece, on the 4th of January 1824. All was discord and confusion — a military mob and contending chiefs — turbulence, rapacity, and fraud. In three months he had done much, by his influence and money, to compose differences, repress cruelty, and introduce order. His fluctuating and uncertain health, however, gave way under so severe a discipline. On the 9th of April be was overtaken by a heavy shower whilst taking his daily ride, and an attack of fever and rheumatism followed. Prompt and copious bleeding might have subdued the inflammation, but to this remedy Byron was strongly opposed. It was at length resorted to after seven days of increasing fever, but the disease was then too powerful for remedy. The patient sank into a state of lethargy, and, though conscious of approaching death, could only mutter some indistinct expressions about his wife, his sister, and child. He lay insensible for twenty-four hours, and, opening his eyes for a moment, shut them for ever, and expired on the evening of the 19th of April 1824. The people of Greece publicly mourned for the irreparable loss they had sustained, and the sentiment of grief was soon conveyed to the poet's native country, where his name was still a talisman, and his early death was felt by all as a personal calamity. The body of Byron was brought to England, and after lying in state in London, was interred in the family vault in the village church of Hucknall, near Newstead.

Byron has been sometimes compared with Burns. Death and genius have levelled mere external distinctions, and the peer and peasant stand on the same elevation, to meet the gaze and scrutiny of posterity. Both wrote directly from strong personal feelings and impulses; both were the slaves of irregular, uncontrolled passion, and the prey of disappointed hopes and constitutional melancholy; and both died, after a life of extraordinary intellectual activity and excitement, at the same early age. We allow for the errors of Burns's position, and Byron's demands a not less tender and candid construction. Neglected in his youth — thwarted in his first love — left without control or domestic influence when his passions were strongest — "Lord of himself, that heritage of wo" — intoxicated with early success and the incense of almost universal admiration, his irregularities must be regarded more with pity than reprehension. After his unhappy marriage, the picture is clouded with darker shadows. The wild license of his continental life it would be impossible to justify. His excesses became habitual, and impaired both his genius and his strengths. He struggled on with untamed pride and trembling susceptibility, but he had almost exhausted the springs of his poetry and his life; and it is too obvious that the pestilential climate of Missolonghi only accelerated an event which a few years most have consummated in Italy.

The genius of Byron was as versatile as it was energetic. Childe Harold and Don Juan are perhaps the greatest poetical works of this century, and in the noble poet's tales and minor poems there is a grace, an interest, and romantic picturesqueness, that render them peculiarly fascinating to youthful readers. The Giaour has passages of still higher description and feeling — particularly that fine burst on modern Greece contrasted with its ancient glory, and the exquisitely pathetic and beautiful comparison of the same country to the human frame bereft of life:—

[PICTURE OF MODERN GREECE.]
He who hath bent him o'er the dead,
Ere the first day of death is fled—
The first dark day of nothingness,
The last of danger and distress—
Before decay's effacing fingers
Have swept the lines where beauty lingers,
And marked the mild angelic air,
The rapture of repose that's there—
The fixed yet tender traits that streak
The languor of the placid cheek—
And — but for that sad shrouded eye,
That fires not — wins not — weeps not — now—
And but for that chill changeless brow,
Whose touch thrills with mortality,
And curdles to the gazer's heart,
As if to him it could impart
The doom he dreads, yet dwells upen—
Yes — but for these — and these alone—
Some moments — ay — one treacherous hour,
He still might doubt the tyrant's power,
So fair — so calm — go softly sealed
The first — last look — by death revealed!
Such is the aspect of thus shore;
'Tis Greece — but living Greece no more!
So coldly sweet, so deadly fair,
We start — for soul is wanting there.
Hers is the loveliness in death,
That parts not quite with parting breath;
But beauty with that fearful bloom,
That hue which haunts it to the tomb—
Expression's last receding ray,
A gilded halo hovering round decay,
The farewell beam of Feeling past away!
Spark of that flame — perchance of heavenly birth—
Which gleams — but warms no more its cherished earth!

The Prisoner of Chillon is also natural and affecting: the story is painful and hopeless, but it is told with inimitable tenderness and simplicity. The reality of the scenes in Don Juan must strike every reader. Byron, it is well known, took pains to collect his materials. His account of the shipwreck is drawn from narratives of actual occurrences, and his Grecian pictures, feasts, dresses, and holiday pastimes, are literal transcripts from life. Coleridge thought the character of Lambro, and especially the description of his return, the finest of all Byron's efforts: it is more dramatic and life-like than any other of his numerous paintings. Haidee is also the most captivating of all his heroines. His Gulnares and Medoras, his corsairs and dark mysterious personages — "Linked with one virtue and a thousand crimes" — are monstrosities in nature, and do not possess one tithe of the interest or permanent poetical beauty that centres in the lonely residence in the Cyclades. The English descriptions in Juan are also far inferior. There is a palpable falling off in poetical power, and the peculiar prejudices and forced ill-natured satire of use poet are brought prominently forward. Yet even here we have occasionally a flash of the early light that "led astray." The sketch of Aurora Raby is graceful and interesting (compared with Haidee, it is something like Fielding's Amelia cooling after Sophia Western), and Newstead Abbey is described with a clearness and beauty not unworthy the author of Childe Harold. The Epicurean philosophy of the Childe is visible in every page of Don Juan, but it is no longer grave, dignified, and misanthropical: it is mixed up with wit, humour, the keenest penetration, and the most astonishing variety of expression, from colloquial carelessness and ease, to the highest and deepest tones of the lyre. The poet has the power of Mephistophiles over the scenes and passions of human life and society — disclosing their secret workings, and stripping them of all conventional allurements and disguises. Unfortunately, his knowledge is more of evil than of good. The distinctions between virtue and vice had been broken down or obscured in his own mind, and they are undistinguishable in Don Juan. Early sensuality had tainted his whole nature. He portrays generous emotions and moral feelings — distress, suffering, and pathos — and then dashes them with burlesque humour, wild profanity, and unseasonable merriment. In Childe Harold we have none of this moral anatomy, or its accompanying licentiousness: but there is abundance of scorn and defiance of the ordinary pursuits and ambition of mankind. The fairest portions of the earth are traversed in a spirit of bitterness and desolation by one satiated with pleasure, contemning society, the victim of a dreary and hopeless scepticism. Such a character would have been repulsive if the poem had not been adorned with the graces of animated description and original and striking sentiment. The poet's sketches of Spanish and Grecian scenery and Isis glimpses of the life and manners of the classic mountaineers, are as true as were ever transferred to canvass; and the meditations of the Pilgrim on the particular events which adorned or cursed the soil he trod, are marked with fervour and sublimity. Thus, on the field of Albuera, he conjures up an image of war, one of the noblest creations in poetry:—

[IMAGE OF WAR.]
Hark! heard you not those hoofs of dreadful note?
Sounds not the clang of conflict on the heath?
Saw ye not whom the reeking sabre smote;
Nor saved your brethren ere they sank beneath
Tyrants and tyrants' slaves? — the fires of death,
The bale-fires flash on high; — from rock to rock
Each volley tells that thousands cease to breathe;
Death rides upon the sulphury Siroc,
Red Battle stamps his foot, and nations feel the shock.

Lo! where the giant on the mountain stands,
His blood-red tresses deepening in the sun,
With death-shot glowing in his fiery hands,
And eye that scorcheth all it glares upon.
Restless it rolls, now fixed, and now anon
Flashing afar — and at his iron feet
Destruction cowers to mark what deeds are done;
For on this morn three potent nations meet,
To shod before his shrine the blood he deems most sweet.

In surveying the ruins of Athens, the spirit of Byron soars to its loftiest flight, picturing its fallen glories, and indulging in the most touching and magnificent strain of his sceptical philosophy:—

[ANCIENT GREECE.]
Ancient of days! august Athena! where,
Where are thy men of might? thy grand in soul?
Gone — glimmering through the dream of things that were
First in the race that led to Glory's goal,
They won, and passed away — is this the whole?
A schoolboy's tale, the wonder of an hour!
The warrior's weapon, and the sophist's stole,
Are sought in vain, and o'er each mouldering tower,
Dim with the mist of years, gray flits the shade of power.

Son of the morning, rise! approach you here!
Come, but molest not you defenceless urn:
Look on this spot — a nation's sepulchre!
Abode of gods, whose shrines no longer burn.
Even gods must yield — religions take their turn:
'Twas Jove's — 'tis Mahomet's — and other creeds
Will rise with other years, till man shall learn
Vainly his incense soars, his victim bleeds;
Poor child of Doubt and Death, whose hope is built on reeds.

Bound to the earth, he lifts his eye to heaven—
Is't not enough, unhappy thing! to know
Then art? Is this a boon so kindly given,
That being, then wouldst be again, and go,
Then know'st not, reck'st not, to what region, so
On earth no more, but mingled with the skies?
Still wilt then dream on future joy and we?
Regard and weigh yen dust before it flies:
That little urn saith more than thousand homilies.

Or burst the vanished hero's lofty mound:
Far on the solitary shore he sleeps:
He fell, and falling, nations mourned around;
But now net one of saddening thousands weeps,
Nor warlike worshipper his vigil keeps
Where demi-gods appeared, as records tell.
Remove yon skull from out the scattered heaps:
Is that a temple where a god may dwell?
Why, even the worm at last disdains her shattered cell.

Look on its broken arch, its ruined wall,
Its chambers desolate, and portals foul:
Yes, this was once ambition's airy hall,
The dome of thought, the palace of the soul:
Behold through each lack-lustre eyeless hole,
The gay recess of wisdom and of wit,
And passion's host, that never brooked control:
Can all saint, sage, or sophist ever writ,
People this lonely tower, this tenement refit?

Well didst thou speak, Athena's wisest son!
"All that we know is, nothing can be known."
Why should we shrink from what we cannot shun?
Each hath his pang, but feeble sufferers groan
With brain-born dreams of evil all their own.
Pursue what chance or fate proclaimeth best;
Peace waits us on the shores of Acheron:
There no forced banquet claims the sated guest,
But silence spreads the couch of ever-welcome rest.

Yet if, as holiest men have deemed, there be
A land of souls beyond that sable shore,
To shame the doctrine of the Sadducee
And sophists, madly vain of dubious lore,
How sweet it were in concert to adore
With those who made our mortal labours light!
To hear each voice we feared to hear no more!
Behold each mighty shade revealed to sight,
The Bactrian, Samian sage, and all who taught the right!

The third canto of Childe Harold is more deeply imbued with a love of nature than any of his previous productions. A new power had been imparted to him on the shores of the "Leman lake." He had just escaped from the strife of London and his own domestic unhappiness, and his conversations with Shelley might also have turned him more strongly to this pure poetical source. An evening scene by the side of the lake is thus exquisitely described:—

It is the hush of night; and all between
Thy margin and the mountains, dusk, yet clear,
Mellowed and mingling, yet distinctly seen—
Save darkened Jura, whose capped heights appear
Precipitously steep; and drawing near,
There breathes a living fragrance from the shore,
Of flowers yet fresh with childhood on the ear
Drops the light drip of the suspended oar,
Or chirps the grasshopper one good-night carol more;

He is an evening reveller, who makes
His life an infancy, and sings his fill!
At intervals, some bird from out the brakes,
Starts into voice a moment — then is still.
There seems a floating whisper on the hill—
But that is fancy, for the star-light dews
All silently their tears of love instil,
Weeping themselves away, till they infuse
Deep into nature's breast the spirit of her hues.

A forcible contrast to this still scene is then given in a brief description of the same landscape during a thunder storm:—

The sky is changed! — and such a change! Oh night,
And storm, and darkness, ye are wondrous strong,
Yet lovely in your strength, as is the light
Of a dark eye in woman! Far along
From peak to peak, the rattling crags among,
Leaps the live thunder! not from one lone cloud,
But every mountain now hath found a tongue,
And Jura answers, through her misty shroud,
Back to the joyous Alps, who call to her aloud!

And this is in the night: most glorious night!
Thou wert not sent for slumber let me be
A sharer in thy fierce and far delight—
A portion of the tempest and of thee!
How the lit lake shines, a phosphoric sea,
And the big rain comes dancing to the earth!
And now again 'tis black — and new the glee
Of the loud hill shakes with its mountain-mirth,
As if they did rejoice o'er a young earthquake's birth.

In the fourth canto there is a greater throng of images and objects. The poet opens with a sketch of the peculiar beauty and departed greatness of Venice, rising from the sea, "with her tiara of proud towers" in airy distance. He then resumes his pilgrimage — moralises on the scenes of Petrarch and Tasso, Dante and Boccaccio — and visits the lake of Thrasimene and the temple of Clitumnus. His verses on the latter have never been surpassed:—

[TEMPLE OF CLITUMNUS.]
But thou, Clitumnus! in thy sweetest wave
Of the most living crystal that was e'er
The haunt of river-nymph, to gaze and lave
Her limbs where nothing hid them, thou dost rear
Thy grassy banks whereon the milk-white steer
Grazes; the purest god of gentle waters!
And most serene of aspect and most clear!
Surely that stream was unprofaned by slaughters,
A mirror and a bath for Beauty's youngest daughters!

And on thy happy shore a temple still,
Of small and delicate proportion, keeps,
Upon a mild declivity of hill,
Its memory of thee; beneath it sweeps
Thy current's calmness; oft from out it leaps
The finny darter with the glittering scales,
Who dwells and revels in thy glassy deeps;
While, chance, seine scattered water-lily sails
Down where the shallower wave still tells its bubbling tales.

The Greek statues at Florence are then inimitably described, after which the poet visits Rome, and revels in the ruins of the Palatine and Coliseum, and the glorious remains of ancient art. His dreams of love and beauty, of intellectual power and majesty, are here realised. The lustre of the classic age seems reflected back in his glowing pages, and we feel that in this intense appreciation of ideal beauty and sculptured grace — in passionate energy and ecstacy — Byron outstrips all his contemporaries. The poem concludes abruptly with an apostrophe to the sea, his "joy of youthful sports," and a source of lofty enthusiasm and pleasure in his solitary wanderings on the shores of Italy and Greece. The greatness of Byron's genius is seen in Childe Harold — its tenderness in the tales and smaller poems — its rich variety in Don Juan. A brighter garland few poets can hope to wear — yet it wants the unfading flowers of hope and virtue!