Since the time when, after the neglect of many years, all Europe began to write and to enquire concerning Shakspeare, — to examine his many-coloured works, and to collect the notices of his personal history, so scantily bequeathed to us, criticism and curiosity have found no subject so engaging as the life and writings of LORD BYRON. It is strange to look back and remember under how many aspects he has already been represented to us; — by a choir of enthusiastic admirers extolled above all modern poets; by a small but resolute body of dissenters all but denied the right to bear the poet's honoured title: followed out of England by popular opprobrium as an incarnation of evil — an outlaw without the pale of humanity; and sought out in his exile by not a few homages of the heart, precious enough to outbuy the most universal mob popularity. There is enough in these vicissitudes of reputation and fortune, and the series of poems which so brilliantly illustrate them, to make it more than probable, that so long as our literature shall endure, the poems and career of Byron will remain to be an object of interest and speculation.
But some will say that we have fallen upon days whose very essence is change and transiency; that, with the olden time so fruitful of contrasts, when the lonely student amassed his store of learning, and the poet girt himself for his altar-service in the midst of an uninstructed and superstitious multitude, has also passed away that Spirit of reverence, which hung, as it were, an ever-burning lamp before the effigies of the great ones of the Past. They will tell us that periods of haste and preparation, when the frame of society is hourly receiving shocks — and none can foresee how, when destroyed, it is to be reconstructed, — can only produce those whose names, however distinguished, are but as the plume of some renowned chief, for one hour borne hither and thither through the smoke and tumult of the battle field — and the next struck down, soiled, forgotten in the hurry of the struggle. If these be right — if our present is, indeed, never to become a past, then should the name and the works of Byron, as the poet of his time, be raised to a higher eminence among us; for whereas some have wrought for posterity, and some for antiquity, he was, beyond all his compeers, admirable in catching and uttering the spirit of a period, when Poetry was to walk the earth as a Mephistopheles — as a tempter, not a teacher; for who shall say that the destinies which bind her to the human race may not, at times of necessity, subject her to wear the sullied wings and the seared front of a fallen angel?
There are some objects whose features, however sublime, being few, can still be reduced, with some shew of clearness, within a small space. One of Michael Angelo's Sybils, for instance, might be diminished to a scale on which it would be impossible to represent a banquet-scene by Veronese. The life and genius of Byron belong to the number of subjects which cannot be set locket-fashion. It would be impossible, within our narrow bounds, to compress the rich material furnished by Moore's life, — to extract the few traits of reality from Mr. Hunt's distorted yet lively caricature, — to harmonize sketches so widely differing as those furnished by Mr. Dallas, Lady Blessington, good Dr. Kennedy, and Mr. Parry; and yet this should be done, if a new portrait were to have any distinguishable character of its own, and still bear a resemblance to its original. Perhaps the wisest course for us is to avail ourselves of the only satisfactory clue which has been given to the progress of Byron's mind in connection with his fascinating personal history, and, guided by it, briefly to advert to the leading events of the different periods into which his life divides itself. This clue, we think, is to be found in the prefatory paragraphs to Shelley's "Julian and Maddalo," where Lord Byron, under the name of the latter, is thus described:—
"He is a person of the most consummate energies, and capable, if he would direct his energies to such an end, of becoming the redeemer of his degraded country. But it is his weakness to be proud. He derives, from a comparison of his own extraordinary mind with the dwarfish intellects which surround him, an intense apprehension of the nothingness of human life. His passions and his powers are incomparably greater than those of other men, and instead of the latter having been employed in curbing the former, they have mutually lent each other strength. His ambition preys upon itself for want of other objects which it can consider worthy of exertion. I say that Maddalo is proud, because I can find no other word to express the impatient and concentrated feelings that consume him; but it is on his own hopes and affections only that he seems to trample." Thus far Shelley.
Beginning with the day of Byron's birth, which took place in Holles Street, London, on the 22nd of January, 1788, it is remarkable to observe how strangely nature and circumstance combined to make his passions "Grow with his growth, and strengthen with his strength." As an infant, he was remarkable for his "silent rages," though all around him have also remembered in him "a mixture of affectionate sweetness and playfulness, by which it was impossible not to be attached; and which rendered him then, as in later years, easily managed by those who loved and understood him sufficiently to be at once gentle and firm enough for the task." But the influences under which his early years were passed, were those least likely to call forth the better parts of his nature, and, by strengthening them, to enable him to become his own guide and moderator. His mother was a woman of violent temper — without refinement; without self-command: impoverished by her husband's extravagances, compelled by evil treatment to part from him, yet driven to distraction by the news of his death. It was owing to her false delicacy, at the time of her accouchement, that Byron was lame for life; it was owing to her coarse bitterness, that he was led, while yet a child, to regret his lameness as a curse — a Cain's mark. One day, stung by the consciousness of their narrow circumstances, she would vent her wretchedness of heart upon her son, and on the next, feed a spirit no less haughty and quick, though finer, than her own, with tales of his ancestry, not a few of which were as darkly fascinating as any romance. Byron was, indeed, sent by her to school; but, at least during their residence at Aberdeen, his masters appear to have been wholly incompetent to manage a boy who was "always more ready to give a blow than to take one," and more anxious to distinguish himself by prowess in all sports and exercises, than by advancement in learning, and who further manifested the precocity of his passions, at the age of eight years, by seriously (he tells us) falling in love with a little girl, Mary Duff. While he was busily making his court, her lesser sister sat by "playing with the doll."
It was in the year 1798, that the death of the last intermediate heir to Newstead placed Byron in possession of a title and an estate. The self-consciousness already implanted in him by a morbid sense of personal deformity, and the strange passion just mentioned, was now to be increased by a further change in his position — a change, though sudden, not unforeseen; for his mother, we are told, had always cherished a strong persuasion "that he was not only to be a lord, but a great man also." But his lot was made up of contrasts; his new possessions descended to him encumbered with the heavy drawbacks of debt and disorder. He was to be a lord, the possessor of fair and ancient domains, without the means of adequately maintaining his dignity. Here was a new influence, perhaps the strongest to disturb and embitter, to which a boy's mind can be subjected; and yet this was to gain an ascendency over him, in addition to, not in place of, those already pointed out. The torments to which he was subjected under the hands of the Nottingham quack, Lavender, and the discipline he underwent when subsequently placed under Dr. Glennie's care — and, yet more, the dreadful taunts of his mother, forbade him to forget that he was
not made like other creatures,
To share their sports or pleasures;—
while his childish love-fancies were revived by his second passion for his cousin Margaret Parker, the remembrance of which, be it noted, called forth the earliest display of his poetical powers; for it was upon her death that his first verses were written, unless we are to count his doggrel denunciation against the "curst old lady," who "lived at Swan Green," among the poems of his boyhood.
The next step in the development of Byron's mind was made by his removal to Harrow. We must, in alluding to this, dwell upon the earnestness of his school friendships, which, to use his own words, "with him were always passions." No one can forget the numerous illustrative passages which give so much life and heart to Byron's letters; his deep-felt sorrow at the death of his protege, Eddlestone, the chorister; his resolution to make a collection of the portraits of his school and college-mates before he went abroad; and his burst of indignation at the lukewarm friend who refused to pass a parting hour with him, because he was engaged to go upon a shopping expedition. This earnestness of Byron, alas! tended only to make the experiences of time and change, the losses and disappointments which every one must prove, doubly dreary and blanking; and we find him, accordingly, early possessed with, or at least professing the conviction that an evil fate was to attend all his hopes and friendships. This conviction was seriously rivetted upon his mind, by the irrevocable termination of his first real attachment. Who has not by heart the story of his unrequited love to Miss Chaworth, the sequel to "those six short summer weeks spent in her company?" — who, that has ever dreamed or felt, has not, with "thoughts that lie too deep for tears," hung over that most sadly impressive of all confessions, "The Dream," a poem which has connected the antique and mouldering hall of Annesley with far tenderer and more melancholy associations than the far-famed Paraclete or the rocks of Meillerie!
Thus proud, poor, passionate — instinct with genius, of which, as yet, he felt rather than had proved himself to be possessed, Byron was removed to Trinity College, Cambridge, in October, 1805. Though he subsequently wrote of this change, as one which made him heavyhearted, "to feel that he was no longer a boy," the five following years were not the least happy, nor, though thriftlessly wasted, the most unprofitable ones of his life; for, in spite of the confession just quoted, we cannot but feel that till Byron went abroad, he enjoyed, and erred from, that tumultuous superabundance of animal spirits, which is either wasted out or reasoned into subjection before the period of manhood may be rightly said to commence. He read (not studied) with a boyish eagerness; with a boyish enthusiasm drew round him a circle of lively companions, to whom the whim of the moment was their only law; spending his vacations among the sociable and sensible inhabitants of Southwell, where his mother was then residing, a fine, or frank-spoken, or petulant drawing-room hero, as the mood seized him; or revelling in the Fives Court and club-house life of London; and writing of its delights and dissipations with the paraded indifference of one with whom it was no new thing "to hear the chimes at midnight." That, in the course of a youth so spent, Byron's genius was not wholly driven out, is, in itself, a proof of the more than ordinary measure in which it had been vouchsafed to him. He seems at first to have tried his hand at verse-making, without any peculiar vigour of purpose or interest, as the " Hours of Idleness," which appeared in 1807, abundantly testify; for though we now read them by the light of his after-glories, we can but discern in them the germ of future greatness, by permitting our imagination to quicken our eyes; and must admit that there was nothing to excite attention to them, on their first appearance, beyond the title of their author. This it was, at least, which attracted the notice and awakened the spleen of the Edinburgh Review.
The most flippant or malevolent of critics is rarely without his use to the really gifted, whether as exciting in opposition the energies of the latter, or as laying bare faults which self-love and flattering friends are too apt to hide. But few of the stale pleasantries ever vented by wanton or malicious judges, ever produced effects so disproportionate as the sarcasms contained in that far-famed article. It is difficult in these days of critical abusiveness and trickery, to sympathise with the indignation excited in the young and noble poet by a cause so unworthy. There was something mock-heroic in his rage, and in the deliberation with which he distilled his resentment, for so many months, ere he poured it forth — a stream of concentrated bile — on the astonished and recoiling herd of poets and their patrons. But if his passion appeared causelessly violent in the eyes of others, it was to himself righteous and cogent as a motive. Had the criticism in question never appeared, Byron might have trifled on as a poetaster for some half a dozen years longer, might have turned his energy into other channels more suited to his rank and fortunes. As it was, having once spoken, it was impossible for him henceforward to be silent: the fountain being once unsealed, was not to be closed again. The "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers" startled the town in the month of March, 1809; and in the same month Byron took his seat in the House of Lords, a lonely and unwelcomed stranger; and at Midsummer, wearied, if not worn out by self-indulgence, excited by the sensation his satire had created, and harassed by his entangled fortunes, set forth on his travels.
The second of the three periods into which Byron's life divides itself, was illustrated by the appearing of the two first cantos of Childe Harold, the Bride of Abydos, the Giaour, the Corsair, Parisina, and the Siege of Corinth, besides a host of minor poems. During these years his passions and his powers had proceeded rapidly in their simultaneous course. As the first grew more diseasedly active — more habitual and less impulsive — the second, in proportion, became stronger. In his journey through Turkey and Greece, he had looked upon Nature in her fairest forms, but with a spirit already distempered, indisposed to be healed by the ministration of her
Her sunny hues, fair forms, and breathing sweets,
Her melodies of woods, and winds, and waters!
He had mixed with men but as an actor — not an observer. And every clay which had enlarged his treasury of poetical imagery, had also added a line to that lesson of disappointment, which even those least disposed to gloom and sadness must get by heart ere they know the world. Hence it was that in place of a common traveller's journal, the two first cantos of Childe Harold found themselves on paper: for that Byron regarded this poem as little more than a private record of passing emotions, is proved by the small estimation in which he held it, compared with his "Hints from Horace," and his indifference to its publication. But, inasmuch as even in diaries and journals, the imaginative are prone to dramatize and to exaggerate their real sensations, we cannot but think that Byron, in the two first cantos of Childe Harold, in some measure anticipated that dreary satiety and bitterness of spirit, whose real coming gave birth to Manfred, and Cain, and Don Juan. The tales, too, which followed, so delicious in the flow and fire of their verse, are more romantic in their sadness — less poignantly individual than the works which were produced after his second and final departure from England.
But the life which Byron led in the years while his fame was young, was sure to urge him fast towards the springs of extremest bitterness. He awoke one morning, and found himself famous — seated on the throne which Scott had filled with so artless and generous a manliness; beset with almost delirious admiration; circled in society by those whom a comparison of his own mind with the dwarfish intellects which surrounded him, bade him scorn and despise, even while they crouched at his bidding, and he drunk in the sweet breath of their flatteries. His personal beauty, his rank, the rumours of his adventures in foreign lands, enhanced the fascinations of his new and seducing genius, and, for a while, opened to him opportunities for indulgence and triumph, of which he availed himself with all the recklessness of his uncurbed nature: while each new intrigue, each new adventure, added to the heap of distrust and sarcasm, which was silently accumulating in his mind-widened, imperceptibly, the gulph between himself and his fellow men; of whom, in their strength and purity, and self-denial, he knew nothing. But he was too much of a poet to dwindle down into a mere creature of the London world: and hence, was always startling his companions by some outbreak beyond the bounds of their curiously framed code of morals, or some flash of his generosity and affection as sudden as it was unfashionable. For a time these eccentricities were tolerated, nay, cherished as charming: but the sequel was inevitable. Iconoclasm must always succeed to idol-worship.
A few short feverish years were soon spent, when satiated with praise and popularity, weary of running the round of loves where love was not, Byron began to admit that some remedy was necessary for his disordered fortunes and jaded spirits. A female friend, more sanguine than judicious, recommended marriage; and the poet, faithless alike of the efficacy of any prescription, had no objection to try the nostrum recommended. Such, with, perhaps, one lurking grain of fancy and curiosity in the back ground, generated by the contrast between the lady on whom the lot fell and his more brilliant female friends, appears to have been the plain history of his proposal to Miss Milbanke. In an evil hour this was accepted, and the two were married on the second of January, 1815. For a month or two Byron seems to have tried to play at domestic happiness, as if this could be put on at a moment's warning, like the blue coat, in which he had resolved that he would not go through the ceremony! The lady, too, had reckoned without her host, who united her fortunes to his in the hopes of that serenity and mutual confidence which attend nuptials less distinguished; but she may have been dazzled, if not by the brightness of his fame, by the smaller, but yet more delusive, glimmer of the fancy that she — "knew the charm to make him meek and tame." It required but a few months of increased despondency and fitfulness on the part of the husband, — on the part of the wife of silent and unreproachful patience, — of executions at home, and the Drury Lane Committee abroad, to break the knot so inauspiciously tied. But absolutely nothing is still known of the real causes which led to the final separation; — to Lady Byron's departure at a time when her Lord's fortunes were at their lowest, — and to her unbroken resolution of thenceforth uttering no word which should confirm or absolve him from charges which were flung upon his name with all the violence of execration; for the public had become weary of being dragged at the poet's chariot wheels wherever he pleased. Some had begun to awaken from the intoxication into which he had charmed them, and they now chose in turn to compel and to sentence. Those too, in private, who had ministered most largely to his follies and licences, if not by participation, by the indirect stimulus of surprise, or faint remonstrance, now shrunk back from him, as if he had brought, rather than imbibed, a pestilence among them. His position was precisely calculated to call forth all his energies; he stood upon it as on a vantage ground; his pride rising to his assistance, and supporting him in the face of the storm, as strongly as if he had been stainless — the sinned against and not the sinning: — and forbidding him for an instant to own that his "hopes sapped, name blighted, life's life lied away" were the inevitable retribution which all must suffer, who not only err, but also revel in error. He had made the world fear as much as love him — the false sympathy which his works had excited, could not but be followed by reaction. But there was something wonderful, almost admirable, in the manner in which the man called the poet to his aid, and wrung unwilling homage from his detractors, even when their cry was loudest, by appeals breathing a pathos, a passion, a deep wretchedness, which few could resist, even while perceiving that the very publicity with which they were uttered, proved them to be in some wise artificial and imaginative. He then left England with the step and look of one unjustly persecuted, to return to it no more!
The poems which belong to the third period of Byron's life, and are included between the 25th of April 1816, when he left England, and the month of July 1823, when he withdrew from Italy to Greece, illustrate, yet more vividly than their predecessors, the truth of Shelley's character of the poet, who had now reached the summit of his powers — for he was more undividedly under the dominion of his passions than at any earlier period. "The silent rages" of his infancy, then only occasionally excited, had eaten into his heart, and coloured its every thought; the desires of his youth had ceased to furnish delight, but had woven a chain round him too strong to be laid aside. The sense of persecution and injustice on the part of his countrymen, the constant wish to maintain his poetical empire, in spite of their disapprobation and reproach, — more than all, the impassive silence of her from whom he had so lately parted, furnished him with an untiring spring of energy, and implanted in him the resolved purpose of piling "on human heads the mountain of his curse." And though there were moments when, raised above, or charmed out of, himself by the contemplation of Nature, or by the associations of by-gone days, he could paint other feelings or features than his own, this spirit — how feverish and false in its strength! may be traced through all Byron's subsequent poems; whether he muses with Childe Harold on
the place of sculls,
The grave of France, the deadly Waterloo.
or stands "in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs," or closes his pilgrimage, mocking at man's nothingness, by the side of the "deep and dark blue ocean:" whether he kindles with the wrongs of Marino Faliero — or gives a speech to the doubts and discontent of the first murderer, or with Anah and Aholibamah, and their seraph lovers, beholds the approach of overwhelming doom and destruction — there is a leaven of negation and bitterness, far more pervading than runs through the works of the poet's youth. At times, as in "Manfred," a withering voice of misery, piercing enough to stir the ashes of the dead, will have way — at times, as in "Sardanapalus," the poet would argue the question between passion and reason, and prove the philosophy of the former to be the best. But it is remarkable to observe, throughout his course of passion, apparently so spontaneous and inevitable, how stedfastly the eyes of the exile were fixed on England — how, when he most seemed to scorn them, he was most eager in keeping alive his name in the hearts of his countrymen: whether he girt himself for controversy with Mr. Bowles in defence of "the little nightingale of Twickenham," or whether he met Mr. Southey's criticisms with philippics no less severely unjust — or whether, in an hour of defiance, he steeped himself in the licences of his Venetian career — orgies of which it was necessary he should partake, ere his mind could become capable of conceiving and executing his last and greatest work, the "Don Juan" — ere he could learn to regard every affection which ennobles, every desire which debases our nature, with equal indifference — ere, out of habit, rather than purpose, he could trifle, with equal levity, with the nobleness and the uncleanness of the human heart, and holding up each in turn with a master's hand to the gaze of mankind, turn round and exclaim, — not sadly but laughingly, — "All is vanity!"
From these last excesses, too late, however, to call him back in his poetical career, Byron was redeemed by his connection with Madame Guiccioli. We can trace its influence in his works; in the "more love" which he found it necessary to infuse into his "Sardanapalus," in the decent veil which he consented to throw over the latter cantos of "Don Juan." It is questionable whether he could have been reclaimed to the use of his poetical powers at the expense of his passions, by a sincere and holy affection: this was not of the number — the chain, whether real or imagined, which bound him to England, was not yet broken: and while "the stranger" did suit and service, "par amours," to the "lady of the land," his mind was still vexed by yearnings half-wistful, half self-reproachful, towards "Ada, sole daughter of his house and heart;" and the silence of her for the sake of whose handwriting he could treasure up a common household book, was a counterinfluence as strong as, if not stronger than, the blue eyes and the flowing hair of the enchantress of Ravenna. For ourselves we cannot imagine that the mind, the child of whose maturity was "Don Juan," could either proceed further or retrace its steps: and we find that during its progress Byron began to speak of poetry as not being his real vocation; and that his latest productions, the "Island," and the "Deformed Transformed," (excepting in the latter the splendid Chorus of Spirits above the walls of Rome) exhibit something of the feebleness, if not the decrepitude of the children of decay and old age. While he still continued weaving the many coloured web of "Don Juan," other thoughts began to possess him. The same better angel as suggested to him the creation of Aurora Raby in its last Canto, and as wakened him, by a touch of natural feeling, to engage in that exquisite description of the home of his fathers, over which he lingers like a lover, possessed him also with a scarcely understood wish to retrieve himself — called into action the love of liberty which had. always been a predominating trait in his character, and turned to good account that capricious avarice whose growth he had encouraged in his eagerness to prove a new sensation. He conversed with Carbonari, and befriended the persecuted and unpopular; entered into correspondence with the Greek Committee, and placed himself and his fortune at their service. The day of his poetry we think was done: but a better day was commencing — of his exertions as a man in the cause of truth and freedom. This was, alas! cut short, as in the grey of the morning, by his melancholy death, of a weary heart and a shattered constitution, which took place at Missolonghi on the 19th of April, 1824.