One of the great features of the poetry of the eighteenth century was the predominance of words over thoughts, of style over substance, of the mere polish of language over the matter conveyed. Poets did not deal with topics of everyday life, or with those objects which new forms of civilization were constantly bringing into view but with the old themes, with which they had no relationship, except through the medium of the fancy, and which they could only clothe with freshness by imparting to them a new dress. Even Thomson cannot describe the approach of Spring without imaging her as a goddess descending like the nymph in a transformation scene, in a galaxy of roses from a cloud; or so common a subject as a pattering spring shower, without anticipating the style of Della Crusca:—
The clouds consign their treasures to the fields,
And softly shaking on the dimpled pool
Prelusive drops, let all their moisture flow
In large effusion o'er the feathered world.
Cowper, who dealt with some of the commonest incidents of his life, and who even did not think the knitting-needles of Mrs. Unwin below the subject of his muse, is more remarkable for the raciness and elegant force of his language than for the boldness of his imagination or the newness of his thoughts. His sphere was too confined, his intellectual horizon too restricted, to enable him to do more than merely point out the direction in which the change should be made. The Wartons attempted, on the other hand, to impart a new phase to the poetry of the epoch by an infusion of the Gothic element, — but did really nothing more than bring fresh ornaments to the treatment of the old range of subjects. Poetry never got further with them than Odes to Fancy, Contemplations in Solitude, Addresses to Morning, and all those subjects which the poet sports with in his fancy, rather than enters into with his heart. Burns is the only poet who sang as it were out of the necessities of his nature. He extended Cowper's realistic treatment, and sculptured all his experiences in verse. But from his limited culture, he only effected a reform. It needed men of wider range of thought, of more comprehensive sympathy, and more commanding eminence, to achieve a revolution. Wordsworth was the first writer who struck the balance between the naked conceptions and mere verbal or adventitious ornaments of poetry; and Byron the first poet who actually inverted the old position of things, by showing how ideas may outstrip language by the very impetuosity of the fountain from which they have their source. On the shoulders of these two men, the mantle of poetry sat as the visible raiment of their souls; and, perhaps, the history of any literature, certainly that of our own, does not present another instance of two contemporary bards occupying so high an eminence in their art, unconsciously conspiring to effect the same revolution, yet treading in paths so opposite to each other.
Byron and Wordsworth, though moving in spheres of thought so divergent, were the resultants of the same forces acting upon different temperaments, in one direction. The French Revolution had taught inquiring minds to examine into everything, and irreverent minds to obey the ruling impulse of the hour, with a blind fanaticism. The mere babyism of literature, the display of tinsel decorations without spiritual substance, could no longer be endured. Wordsworth entered upon his new mission with a strong moral will, every thought repugnant to which was only called up to receive merited castigation; Byron, with an intensity of passion which could brook no restraint, and which was the more indulged, because he felt the rottenness and insincerity of most of the barriers which society opposed to its gratification. The muse of Wordsworth found a home in sounding the depths of philosophy, in unveiling the analogies which bind the material and the spiritual universe into one system; that of Byron, in laying bare the intricate mazes of the feelings, in fathoming the darker recesses of the human heart, in displaying nature in its grandest energies, whether as imaged in the sea-storm and mountain tempest, or in the tumults of the soul, aroused from its lethargies by the allurements of heroic enterprise or passionate guilt. Society, to Wordsworth, was governed by recondite moral laws; to Byron, it was the sport of chance. Wordsworth saw in the physical universe the temple of the soul, with all things munificently arranged therein for its security and happiness. Byron, though acknowledging in the material world certain fixed laws, saw little relationship in these laws to man, beyond the product of a large amount of discomfort and misery. Wordsworth inveighed against human institutions, as the only fount of the evils which afflicted society. Byron went considerably further, including nature in the record, and carrying the arraignment up to the throne of God Himself.
It is, however, in relation to Christianity that the intellectual discrepancy of the two men is most apparent. Wordsworth regarded the religious institutions of the country as the very ark of humanity; Byron, as mere spiritual shams, rather obstacles to be removed than levers to help men forward in their progressive course to a nobler future. Wordsworth believed in rites and formularies as the outer embodiments of the Christian spirit; Byron seems to have believed that such spirit was dead, and that its rites and formularies were encumbering ground which ought to be taken up with new creations, more germane to that universal brotherhood of love which such formularies tended rather to extinguish than develope. Wordsworth appeared to think that creeds should be estimated by the quantity of abstract or absolute truth they conveyed; Byron, by their fitness to the wants of the epoch;
Religions die out every thousand years,
Or need a new refreshment from the spheres.
Both held that the outer universe partook in a large degree of the effulgence, if not of the nature, of the Divinity. But Wordsworth expressly maintained that the human soul, pure at its birth, encountered no temptations to evil but those from without; while Byron regarded it as smitten with disease in its source, and subject to internal impulses to crime which it could not resist. It is singular that Wordsworth, though so persistent a supporter of Christian formularies, should have entertained convictions diametrically at war with them; while Byron, who repudiated such formularies, held opinions which to a great extent afforded them a dogmatic basis!
There cannot, I think, be a doubt that the field of Byron's triumphs was much more adapted to the spirit of poetry than that chosen by Wordsworth, since the sphere of passion breathing the sentiments of the heart, is more capable of being idealized than that of reflection, the province of the brain. Nor can there, I think, be a doubt that Byron displayed in his higher poetical sphere, his superiority to Wordsworth in the limited province within which that poet confined himself. Had Byron in the treatments of his subjects only equalled Wordsworth, he must have evinced greater powers than his contemporary, as his was a higher range of art. But Byron's superiority is evinced by the fact that he frequently combines passion with grand bursts of reflection, while Wordsworth never disturbs the limpid stream of reflection by grand bursts of passion. In "The Excursion" it would be impossible to produce a line which conveys, with the rapidity of a conductor, electric shocks of feeling to the depths of the heart. But "Childe Harold," while crowded with such passages, exhibits in the last two cantos as much psychological analysis as would furnish a very good chapter of metaphysics. The commanding powers of Byron led him through a much wider range of subjects than Wordsworth, and enabled him to obtain superior excellence in all. Satire was so alien to Wordsworth's nature that he was utterly incapacitated from attempting it; but satire was a department in which Byron excelled. Wordsworth only tried his hand at one narrative poem, which has the unlucky distinction of being the worst in the language; Byron wrote several, and nearly all of first-class excellence. Wordsworth wrote only one play, which has never been acted, and which no one cares to read; Byron wrote many, which, though only of second-rate merit, had, and still possess, a certain amount of popularity. In lyrical poetry, the comparison is still more to the disadvantage of Wordsworth, who can hardly be said to have tried this department of his art, in which Byron covered himself with glory. In the sonnet and reflective poem, I confess Wordsworth's superiority; but these belong to a lower range of art than the narrative, the lyrical, and dramatic sphere, in which Byron infinitely distanced his competitor. As reflective poets, the difference between Byron and Wordsworth, to the advantage of the latter, is not half so great as the difference between them, to the advantage of the former, in any of the departments in which Byron pre-eminently excelled. That difference appears to me to consist in this: that, whereas the reflections of Byron's hero are desultory, springing out of the country which Harold visits, and the scenery and monuments with which he is brought in contact, those of Wordsworth's heroes are systematic and introspective — the principles expounded deriving their elucidation rather from the general world of man than from the narrow specifications of time and place. Wordsworth's reflections are the product of the mind reposing on the heights of abstract thought, descending occasionally for illustration among the range of material phenomena, upon which it habitually looks as from a lofty eminence; those of Byron have their mainspring in material phenomena, though their flights are often so Titanic as to seem to touch the threshold of heaven. They are, taken singly, in point of artistic finish and glowing beauty, grander than anything of a similar character in Wordsworth. But when we consider their straggling nature, and their utter want of subservience to a moral aim, the superiority of his rival becomes manifest. Wordsworth moves through the regions of speculation self-supporting, with his thoughts revolving on their own axis, shaping his course with a fixed design, regulated by the attraction of the moral law; Byron, like a meteor which frequently returns to its volcanic source to be replenished with light, but shedding a far fuller though a more erratic blaze than his contemporary. But there are so many inconsistencies in Wordsworth, he is so prolix, he pins his faith to so many obsolete institutions, believes in so many exploded fallacies, that his system of concatenated thought loses much of its excellence even as a work of art; while the dashing vigour of Byron, the intensity of force arising from his concentrated earnestness, his absolute freedom from the fetters of prejudice, his manner of allying feeling with reflection, of illuminating his subjects rather with the flashes of wit than with the slower processes of the reason, — all these go far to make up for the disjointed and fragmentary nature of his reflections, which the structure of his poem, no less than that of his own mental constitution, imposed upon him. For Byron appears to have been incapable of digesting his thoughts into a system upon any subject. So far, his inferiority to Wordsworth is immense. Could he have done so, his poetic illustration of his principles would have surpassed even that of his rival. This, however, is the province of the reason preparing the ground for the poet, rather than that of the poet himself. And in all the essential constituents of poetry, apart from its moral end and aesthetic completeness, "Childe Harold" need not fear comparison with "The Excursion." But "Childe Harold" is by no means the most eminent of Byron's productions in the same sense in which "The Excursion" is the first of Wordsworth's productions. Had Byron written nothing else than this poem, he would have been entitled to a place in the same group as Wordsworth, if not upon a higher seat. For no meditative poem, deriving its topics from an objective source, ever accomplished half so much. The hero is brought in contact with every scene which suggests the most stirring events of the antique and modern world, and the cast of his thoughts impart even dignity to the ennobling associations he recalls. The sublimity of Swiss scenery, illumined by the genius of the men who from its quiet recesses revolutionized the spirit of modem society; the proud chivalry of Spain, peeping, like a landscape behind ruins, through the vista of moral debasement; the classical sternness of Greece rebuking from her broken Parthenon and rifled Theseus the fantastic barbarism of her invaders; the solemn grandeur of Rome mocked by the triumphs of Christian art; the festivities of Venice associating the glories of the middle ages with modern degeneracy; — all these are mirrored forth in the poet's mind with such distinctness as to make the pigmy features of the present fade before the mighty phases of the past, and bring those aspects of humanity nearest to us which are most worthy of being remembered. The fourth canto of "Childe Harold," for what it accomplishes in so small a compass, is indeed a marvel of art unapproached and unapproachable in its abstract grandeur, like that gigantic power the poet attempts to reconstruct, and from the ruins of which he derives his text for the instruction of the nations. For Byron, in this canto, not only etherealizes some of the most bewitching scenery of Italy, till it assumes the hues of a crystalline landscape, — he not only untombs the ancient crowds of the Capitol, and bids them live again, surging round the forum of the tribune, or awakening with their shouts the sleeping recesses of the Flavian amphitheatre, — he not only invests every phase of that commonwealth which conquered the world, with a freshness, as if it were present, and with an ideality which retains the material in subservience to its spiritual aspects; but the poet lays bare with the dissecting-knife of the psychologist all those laws of the mind by which these wonders are accomplished. In this canto Byron is poet, philosopher, historian, artist, moralist, antiquarian, and metaphysician. The soul is thrown back upon itself; its spiritual recesses explored, and the occult links revealed by which external objects arouse its passions or absorb its sympathies. When he turns to the objective world, with what power does he strike off in a few lines the spiritual features of Greek art, steeping the productions of the genius of antiquity in the glowing colours of his own mind, until they appear invested with new splendour:—
There, too, the Goddess loves in stone, and fills
The air around with beauty; we inhale
The ambrosial aspect, which, beheld, instils
Part of its immortality; the veil
Of heaven is half undrawn; within the pale
We stand, and in that form and face behold
What Mind can make, when Nature's self would fail;
And to the fund idolaters of old
Envy the innate flash which such a soul could mould:
We gaze and turn away, and know not where,
Dazzled and drunk with beauty.
Appear'dst thou not to Paris in this guise?
Or to more deeply-blest Anchises? or,
In all thy perfect goddess-ship, when lies
Before thee thy own vanquished Lord of War,
And gazing in thy face as toward a star,
Laid on thy lap, his eyes to thee upturn,
Feeding on thy sweet cheek! while thy lips are
With lava kisses melting while they burn,
Showered on his eyelids, brow, and mouth, as from an urn!
Glowing, and circumfused in speechless love,
Their full divinity inadequate
That feeling to express, or to improve,
The gods become as mortals, and man's fate
Has moments like their brightest; but the weight
Of earth recoils upon us; — let it go!
We can recall such visions, and create,
From what has been, or might be, things which grow
Into thy statue's form, and look like gods below.
The conceptions of the sculptor are here again moulded into language with the same force as they are expressed in stone:—
Or, turning to the Vatican, go see
Laocoon's torture dignifying pain—
A father's love and mortal's agony
With an immortal's patience blending; — vain
The struggle; vain, against the coiling strain
And gripe, and deepening of the dragon's grasp,
The old man's clench; the long envenomed chain
Rivets the living links, — the enormous asp
Enforces pang on pang, and stifles gasp on gasp.
Or view the lord of the unerring bow,
The god of life, and poesy, and light—
The Sun in human limbs arrayed, and brow
All radiant from his triumph in the fight;
The shaft has just been shot — the arrow bright
With an immortal's vengeance; in his eye
And nostril beautiful disdain, and might,
And majesty, flash their fill lightnings by,
Developing in that one glance the Deity.
But in his delicate form — a dream of love,
Shaped by some solitary nymph, whose breast
Long'd for a deathless lover from above,
And maddened in that vision-are expressed
All that ideal beauty ever blessed
The mind with in its most unearthly mood,
When each conception was a heavenly guest
A ray of immortality — and stood,
Starlike, around, until they gathered to a god!
After familiarizing us with the grandest organism in the world of man, he confronts us with the grandest element in the world of nature. The ocean has always been a familiar theme with poets, but surely none has ever risen to the full height of the subject like Lord Byron. It is hardly too much to say, that if the grandeur and dignity of Rome derives increased state and dignity when reflected in the glowing depths of his mind, the sublimity of the ocean derives renewed force from the grandeur of the images with which he has invested it:—
Thou glorious mirror, where the Almighty's form,
Glasses itself in tempests! * * *
The image of Eternity — the throne
Of the Invisible; even out of thy slime
The monsters of the deep are made; each zone
Obeys thee * * *
The armaments which thunderstrike the walls
Of rock-built cities, bidding nations quake,
And monarchs tremble in their capitals,
The oak leviathans, * * *
These are thy toys, and, as the snowy flake,
They melt into thy yeast of waves.
The majesty of Rome among civic structures, as the sublimity of the ocean among earthly elements, is supreme, but Byron has surrounded both with the grandeur of genius which is superior to either.
There are poets, first-class in their own department, who are not, and never could become, representative poets in any wide sense. Wordsworth could never represent anything out of himself. He seldom gives us the properties of anything he describes, but only his ow way of looking at it. And even of representative poets in a wider sense, some, like Scott, can only represent a peculiar section of the past, and others, like Crabbe, a peculiar feature of the present. They apply their minds to master the groundwork of some segment of humanity, they study the upholstery of their subject, and achieve their results as much by the force of talent as by the strokes of genius. But Byron is a representative poet in the highest sense. He is a more general representative poet of the past than Scott, and a far wider representative poet of the present than Crabbe; in fact, he is a representative poet in the same sense as Shakespeare was a representative poet, for he represents the past as well as the present, not indeed any partial cutting, but the whole structure of the age he would describe from copestone to base, the sorrows as well as the joys, the laughter and the groans of fleeting generations. In "Werner," we have Germany staggering under the blows of the Thirty Years' war; in "Marino Faliero," the pride of the Italian republic; in "The Two Foscari," the bloody factions of Venice; in "Sardanapalus," Nineveh tottering in the lap of effeminacy; in "Childe Harold," Rome stereotyped in all the splendour of her prime, just as the juicy succulence of her prosperity was mellowing into the first tinge of decay. I readily allow that his dramatic delineations are of an inferior order of merit, just as some of the historical plays of Shakespeare are of an inferior order of merit. But if Byron is beneath many of his rivals in depicting the past, he is superior to any in depicting the present; for no poet has left behind so faithful and general a portraiture of the lineaments of his age as that which Byron has drawn of the nineteenth century in "Don Juan."
Chaucer was a representative poet, but he only represented the state of English society contemporary with himself. Dante was a representative poet, but he only represented the religious aspects of his age. Spenser and Ariosto were representative poets, but only of mediaeval chivalry. Byron is indeed the only one of the class who has extended his canvas over so broad an area as to embrace in one picture the manners, of various countries, and of conflicting civilizations: Russia, Turkey, Greece, Spain, England, succeed each other in this wonderful panorama, with the habits and courts of their people so faithfully sketched, that the portraiture bears all the stamp of living reality. Shipwrecks, land sieges and battles, political intrigues, harem strifes, piratical adventures, feminine coteries, love-making without end, fashionable parties, states' embassies, parliamentary ambitions, are each treated in a tone ever changing from grave to gay, facetious banter giving place to biting ridicule, and both alike alternating with exquisite pathos and deep philosophical reflection, till it is really difficult to determine which spirit most prevails, the mocking satire of Swift, the quiet raillery of Steele, the deep reflection of Young, the gushing tenderness of Rousseau, or the grave morality of Johnson. The powers of the poet are not less diversified than the scenes and characters he describes, though these are of every imaginable order. Wherever we move, the stage is always crowded with figures so distinct and palpable, that, though the creatures of the poet's brain, we firmly believe they have their prototypes in the real world around us. For they manifest the same selfishness, the same scepticism, the same voluptuousness, the same ardent spirit of inquiry, and the same reckless adventure which moulds the souls or directs the energies of most of the actors in the nineteenth century. The poet has really held his mirror up to nature — shown "vice her own deformity, virtue her own image, and every circumstance and habit of the time its form and pressure." We hardly know which to admire most, that cordial sympathy with which he enters into every condition and rank of life, that world-embracing instinct for the aesthetic and the true, under every sky, to which his conceptions owe much of their inborn fire and energy, or the spontaneous burst of classical language, unsurpassed for its chaste vigour and flexile sinuosity of strength, in which those conceptions are enshrined. In reading Spenser, we never get out of the world of ideality and romance. He never impresses us with the reality of his conceptions, and though there is music in his swelling cadences of the loftiest kind, and diversity in his characters, it is a music and diversity which repeat themselves in one unvarying round. But Byron is ever passing with untired wing from the world of imagination to the world of fact, equally supreme in both spheres; and when the last symphony dies away, or the previous actors disappear, it is only to give prominence to still more novel combinations of the ideal and the actual. I do not, therefore, think the critic will be far wrong in placing "Don Juan" on the topmost shelf of English literature, as the grandest representative poem in any language. I feel sure, if Englishmen were asked to select which of their literary treasures they would place first in order, the choice would fall on four or five of the leading dramas of Shakespeare; and if pressed to point out which they would select next, that work would be "Paradise Lost;" but I feel as sure, if their selection was put to a third proof, their choice would fall on "Don Juan."
To urge the incompleteness of "Don Juan" as a defect would be pre-eminently unfair, as it was evidently a work in progress, and the four cantos which Byron wrote in Greece were destroyed for fear of wounding the fashionable susceptibilities in whose flesh the shafts of his ridicule had most rankled. If the poem is purposeless, so far is it true to the age it would represent. For what era could be more aimless than the first quarter of the nineteenth century? The Napoleonic wars had just been concluded, without settling, and without being intended to settle, anything. The English nation had been fooled into spending its best blood, and taxing the energies of myriads yet unborn with hundreds of millions of debt, simply for the extinction of one man. Could anything have been more cruelly purposeless than that? No spiritual results had been achieved, or indeed so much as aimed at. The highest embodiments of statesmanship were beheld in the Percevals, and the Castlereaghs, under whom was carried out the great political juggle of the time — the union of England and Ireland, which was supposed to be consummated by the exclusion of nearly the whole of her population from the commonest civil rights. The high-road of national inquiry ended everywhere in the quagmire of scepticism. Nothing was valued except money, nothing appreciated save pleasure, nothing believed in but success. Those grand iron pathways, yoking steam and fire to the subservience of man's higher destinies, those electric nerves flashing his intelligence under seas, and making the impulses of his will felt almost as soon as they were conceived, at the antipodes, by which the century has done much to redeem its lack of soul, and spiritual remissness, had not arisen. The moral laxity inspired by a protracted war had flung back the energies of the soul, in the absence of any other vent, upon sensuous enjoyments, and the coarsest of these were covered by the thin gauze of conventional propriety, which often presented vice in the garb of religion. To reflect all these inconsistencies, the bard must pursue a course equally erratic with that of the age which he describes. He must appear to have no design beyond what momentary impulse inspires; he must launch his hero, as it were, upon the wave of chance, and make him the victim of the chapter of accidents, the product of an age which seems to have lost all belief in the control of a superintending Providence.
But in reality, so far is "Don Juan" from being purposeless, that under its seemingly erratic surface there lies an object of grand significance. The aim of this poem is to unmask hypocrisy, to silence superstition, to dethrone the popular idols and the spiritual shams so grossly misleading the people of the day. The object of the poet was to turn a shallow world inside-out, to show the social weaknesses lurking behind its apparent strength, and occasionally to electrify it by glimpses into the infinite depths of the spiritual element of which it was only an empty bubble on the surface. If here a ghostly pretension was exposed, if there a political blunder was laughed out of countenance, — if in one place he transfixed with his shaft the heartlessness of pompous conventionality turning poor human nature shivering, out of doors, if in another he derides dogmatic formularies which kill the Christian spirit, of which they affect to be the living exponent, — all this was only to array in more attractive colours the sublimities of man's spiritual nature, and the grandeur of the outer universe beating in symphony with it, a combination of glory upon which God had set His seal, revealing in its effulgent hieroglyphs the high destinies to which man might aspire, could be read his own nature aright, and not be deluded by the wretched scrawls blurred over the divine page by prejudice and custom. Byron does not propound, or appear himself to have formed, any systematic notion of the revelation in the palimpsest; but by erasing the absurdities on the surface, here and there, we get flashes of meaning glittering underneath, which shed a baleful glare on the delusions above, as the marble pavement of a Roman bath, when exhumed from the rubbish of centuries, reflects a broader light upon the barbarisms by which it has been concealed. It is these startling contrasts between the loftier yearnings of man's nature and the hollow mockeries of society which constitute alike the object and the charm of "Don Juan." The poet never destroys except to reveal. The outer frivolities of the poem are only a vehicle for the deepest earnestness wherewith the poet arraigns the institutions of his age, and would make their misshapen materials but the stepping-stones on which men might rise to higher things.
The charge of immorality alleged against this noble poem seems to me to be founded on a wrong notion of art, which in its representative character is bound to reflect all the features of its subject. It would be trite at this time of day to assert that all unchaste painting must be regarded from the object in view, and if this be not to excite lascivious ideas, but to present human nature in all its aspects, the picture is clearly justifiable. But people who deride conventual notions in real life, do not scruple to espouse such notions with zealous enthusiasm when they enter into the domain of art. Instead of making that domain include the whole of the actual and infinite existences beyond, they would restrict its functions to the representation of such bleak natures as never wandered beyond the walls of gloomy asceticism. If in artistic representation, passion is to be struck out of the heart of man, and he is to be depicted in no scenes except where he is the willing instrument of the virtues or the mere automaton of the intellect, there must be an end of artistic representation altogether for nothing indeed would then be represented as it is, but everything as it is not. It is not for the poet, to assume the gown and bands of the moral preacher, when he delineates vice; nor ought he to dwell any longer on the lascivious than is sufficient for the truthfulness of the representation, or to make such pictures more frequent than is required for the faithful portraiture of his subject. Now Byron was too consummate an artist to overstep the boundaries of nature in any of these particulars, and in the loosest of his pictures he never stoops to those obscene expressions of which we find so many examples in the Elizabethan dramatists, the Georgian novelists, and Leonine poets, although his age cloaked a far greater amount of vice under a deeper garb of sanctity. If the poet, true to the representative character of his poem, laid bare the disguise with too rude a hand, he is no more on that account to be denounced as immoral, than Shakespeare is to be stigmatized as immoral for the songs he puts into the mouth of Ophelia, or the picture of lechery he displays in the loves of Edgar, or for the loose language he puts into the mouth of Iago in the opening scenes of "Othello," or of Lucio in the closing scenes of "Measure for Measure." The aim of both was the exhibition of human nature in all its aspects, — to give us actual men and women, not the aspirations of angels mingled with the quintessence of brutes, not the monstrous abortions of Southey, with all the vices arrayed in one group of characters and all the virtues in the other. But Shakespeare never alludes to the religious features of his subject without the greatest reverence. The privilege is, therefore, extended to him of being as unchaste as the nature of his subject required; whereas Byron, on account of his slighting treatment of religious dogmas, is not allowed to undrape a neck or an ankle without being assailed with a cry of indignant remonstrance.
Considering Byron as the poet of passion in its intensest sense, considering that there is hardly a poem of any magnitude he ever wrote in which he does not depict love in its most fiery moods, surging the depths of the heart like volcanic lava, and shattering in its throes the restraints of conscience and the sovereignty of the reason; considering, likewise, the temptations of a mind unfettered by religious influences or social restraints, to overleap the boundaries of propriety, it is really wonderful that the poet has thrown so much of his immortal nature into his delineations, that he has succeeded far more powerfully than any other bard in steeping this fiery quintessence of dust in such ethereal light that, though employed upon objects of earth, it seems part of that fire which Prometheus filched from heaven. This is, perhaps, the most characteristic proof that the poet has given us of his grand powers: that, while treating love in its most sensuous aspects, he has so etherealized the passion as to submerge the corporeal in the spiritual element; so that we get all the charms of material enjoyment, lit up by the splendours of the ideal world. Love in the pages of Beaumont and Fletcher, or of Farquhar and Congreve, is a body without soul; love in the pages of Crashaw or More is a soul without body; but love in the pages of Byron is that union of both which makes the soul the predominating feature, casting over the fires of its corporeal agent that witchery of colour which leaves them all their vigour while it deprives them of all their coarseness. The loves in "Lara" and "Conrad" are of an illegitimate character; but the fervour is so intense, the mutual interlacing of passion is so spiritual, that we feel the body is but the passive agent of the soul, imparting to it the dead aliment which feeds the flame with undying lustre. It is sufficient to recall what Camoens did with his island in the African waters, though his lovers were chivalric seamen and ideal nymphs, and what Byron did with his island in the South Seas, though his lovers were bluff English sailors and the sensuous daughters of Otaheite, to prove that Byron could etherealize the most sensuous subject, and that the spiritual features of love were those which most dominated his soul. The picture in which we would expect the most refinement has all the coarseness of a Wapping casino; the other, in which we would expect to meet with the roughest sensuality, has all the refinement of a group by Titian. The fact is that the most licentious passion, in Byron's serious delineations, assumes an ethereal flush which makes the material element, even in its conquest over the higher powers of the soul, partake of that soul's glorified nature, dispersed though it be in fragmentary gleams; somewhat like those conquerors who have subjugated a country, only in turn to become the willing slaves of those arts and laws they had shattered into ruin. For all Byron's graver heroes, in their wildest of moods, lean only on one breast. Theirs is an intensity of passion for one object which defies time, or absence, or a multiplied surfeit of beauty, to work any change except that of increased adoration for the form with whose destiny their own is inseparably entwined. One tithe of such devotion would make married life a paradise. Byron carries into the heart of what society deems the irregular passions such fervour of spirit, and intensity of affection, as to make his love burn with a light of unquenched ardour to which the flames of conjugal affection are tame in comparison, and of which, if society furnished us with more examples, the stigmas so undeservedly applied to this feature of Lord Byron's poetry would be less inconsistent. If he has sinned in anything, it is in imparting to these attachments the durability and persistency of the virtues. He has thrown around the wild fevers of unrestrained love far more ethereal drapery, far loftier chastity of colouring than the most strait-laced poets impart to the tamer delineations of domestic felicity. The passions of his heroes partake of the infinite. Their yearnings are never cloyed, but increase in intensity as they experience repletion, because they spring from the soul, whose longings after beauty are as unsatiable as its cravings for the divine source from which it derives its birth.
Could Byron have grasped the ramifications of a comprehensive plot, could he have imparted symmetry of design to miscellaneous materials arising out of the development of united action, he might have surpassed Milton. Could he, in addition, have created characters with grand spiritual physiognomies evolved out of the incidents, and not merely panelled into the descriptions of his pieces, he might have equalled Shakespeare. But these were qualities in which Byron was most deficient. As he lacked the power of systematizing his thoughts, he was equally incompetent to melt down a mass of heterogeneous materials in the crucible of his brain,, and evolve therefrom some great design, breathing throughout the romantic variety and symmetrical proportion of its parts the grand unity of the whole. The cantos of "Don Juan" are only connected by the thread of the hero's name, which if we sever, all the incidents, like so many beads on a string, would fall asunder into so many pieces of isolated adventure. "Childe Harold" has not even the poor advantage of this slender ligament; for in the first two cantos the hero is regarded as quite distinct from the writer, and in the last two he is confounded with himself. So in his dramas he seldom strays out of the framework presented to him by history. He appears to have early felt the lack of constructive powers in his purely narrative poems, and to have thrown all his subsequent energies upon meditation and description. The outline of the mutiny story is just what an ordinary reader fresh from Bligh's narrative would have conceived. The "Giaour" and the "Bride of Abydos," the poet's first attempts at the concoction of anything like a plot, are perhaps the worst constructed tales in any language. In the "Corsair" and "Lara" he succeeds much better. But these poems, magnificent as the Herculean torso in their incompleteness, are still only fragments. They have no beginning; they are without an end. The marvel is that Byron, without any sustained interest arising out of the development of his plot, and with so little to satisfy the reader in the denouement of his stories, should have exercised such a spell over the sensational world.
Byron is more happy with his characters than his plots, though here his success is very limited owing to the lack of variety, and his constitutional tendency to paint nature on the darker side. In the coxcombry of his youth, when surrounded by the gaieties of London society, he delighted to affect the mysterious misanthrope, half pirate and half noble, who reeked his hatred upon men by deeds of rapine and violence, and evinced his love for women by seducing men's daughters, or running away with their wives. Conrad, Alp, Lara, Hafid, and Selim are only so many modifications of this character, differing in some particulars, but all evidently belonging to one family, as so many representatives of the frame of mind in which he loved to, indulge. In his incidental characters, Byron was to some extent coerced to go out of himself, and realize his conceptions in the broad field of nature. Lambro, Juan, Don Pedro, Johnson, and Suwarrow are all creations of lifelike force, imparting a rich diversity of colouring to the narrative they enliven by their vigour. His Cain and Lucifer belong to the same group of portraits as Milton's, stripped only of that terrific grandeur which dazzles while it oppresses the imagination. In "The Island," the bluff qualities of Ben Bunting and Jack Skyscrape are well contrasted with the thoughtful effeminacy of Torquil and the hardy nature of the rebellious mutineer. It would seem, then, that the poet's domestic quarrels, which drove him from the bosom of English society, shook out of his nature so much of that cynical affectation as led him in the early stage of his career to identify himself with proscribed outlaws, and paint humanity from its worst models. It is one of the strange inconsistencies of Byron's character, that while petted and feted in society, the only heroes he could paint were cynical pirates who set all its laws at defiance; and that it was only when society cast him from its bosom, his heart appeared to open to the genial influence of its customs, and he painted men not so much from the monstrous conceits of his imagination, as from the standards of nature.
I do not, however, think that Byron could portray any masculine character, in which his own feelings were not profoundly interested, with such force as to make it a gallery picture worthy of being ranked in the same class with Shakespeare's, or even with Sir Walter Scott's. There was too much of the cynic in his nature to allow him to enter into characters foreign to his own with such hearty sympathy as to see everything from their own point of view, and thus, as it were, from the bases of their nature to allow the peculiarities of his heroes to spring out of the action of circumstances upon the combination of two or three radical principles. This defect is most conspicuous in his dramas, where his characters rather declaim than act, where they impress their mental features on the spectators by set speeches rather than by dealing with the course of events. In his feminine embodiments, Byron's repulsive egotism did not stand in the way, and the consequence is a group of female portraits not surpassed in their diversity of form and freshness of colour by anything out of dramatic art. Zuleika is all tenderness, Gulbeyaz all fire, Gulnare a combination of both. In Haidee, we have the guileless affections of a young Greek islander developed without the fetters of religious restraint; in Donna Julia, the criminal passion of the matron setting such restraint at defiance. Adeline is a type of the women of ton, with no qualities but such as sparkle in the eyes of society. Medora is a type of a woman who has sacrificed society to an affection which swallows up her entire being. Dudu and Aurora Raby are admirable illustrations of those feminine natures which combine abyssmal depths of feeling under the quietest Quaker exterior, but the one chastened by Christian feeling, the other sensualized by the voluptuousness of the East. In these portraits we have a mixture of goodness and evil, but the goodness most predominates. Had Byron painted men as he drew women, his hold upon human sympathies would be far more general. But the blighting cynicism of his nature, which marred his masculine creations, was not always kept in check by his passion for beauty, or by that impassioned spirit of chivalry which arises out of devotion to the other sex; for the poet seldom loses an opportunity of jesting at their passions, and turning their foibles into ridicule. Even here, his uncontrollable habit of satirizing human weakness prevented him from manifesting that hearty sympathy with his object, so essential to place conceptions of feminine loveliness among the loftiest types of ideal creation.
It is owing to this cynical spirit in Byron, arising out of perverted views of humanity, that is to be ascribed much of that mocking spirit which pervades a large portion of his works, and which hindered him from going out of himself, and completely sinking his own idiosyncrasies in the characters he created for others. The feeling which led him to dethrone man from his natural position as the crowning feature of this planet, induced him to set himself up as the spirit in whose centre all the conflicting lines of the universe seem to meet. The mistake of exalting the powers of evil over those of good, the casualties of chance over the laws of design, was hardly surpassed by thrusting his own petty interests in front of those of general humanity. It was from these two fountains that most of those waters of bitterness flow which corrode all the conceptions of Byron, which destroy their moral aim, and which prevent him from surrounding humanity with those attributes of sweetness, arising out of the harmonious development of its faculties. He could not represent man reposing on the basis of his moral nature, who believed him to be the victim of demoniac influences, or the sport of blind chance. That egotism which made him regard self as the be-all and the end-all here, forced him to intrude his narrow subjectivity into most of his works, and circumscribe within its limits all the range of his creations. We turn over all his pages in vain for an adequate representation of the dignity of man, or the angelic purity of woman. If we are treated to the development of any virtue, such as courage, or hardihood, or constancy of affection, it is as furthering the perpetration of some crime which narrows the sensibilities of our nature. Double murder, incest, adultery, incendiarism, piratical violence, treasons, — such are the subjects which the poet has chosen to surround with the magic of his genius, and to invest their perpetrators with all those brilliant qualities which show that, if he did not actually intend them as models to follow, he certainly designed them to provoke our admiration. The consequence is that man is not represented in his natural position as fitting into the universe of things, but as wrenched out of his sphere, and in conflict with all the elements around him. Turbid misanthropy, the state of feverish excitement in which he lived, his reckless spirit of self-assertion, the feeling of hostility he manifested to the institutions with which he was brought into contact, are reflected in all his meditations, colour all his views, are more or less conspicuous in every character he conceived and every picture which he drew. Of the world of quiet human nature behind those factitious storms and tempests, into which Wordsworth dropped the plummet of his thoughts, and out of which Shakespeare evoked so many divine lineaments, Byron appears to have known little, and cared less. The unquiet passions in the heart of which he made his home, shut him out from the circle of the domestic affections, and from some of the most interesting features of the social world. They hindered him from realizing the mysterious harmonies between the different faculties of the soul, acting in concert with each other, and the still deeper sympathies in the material universe which exhibit natural phenomena, co-operating together to achieve certain fixed objects by an instinct as divine or more unerring than that in man. Byron, in fact, saw no purpose in the universal fitness of things. The world to him was objectless. Ruin might drive its ploughshare over creation without leaving things much worse than they are. As the universe, so were his works, without an object. They evince no unity of purpose, no moral design. His heroes, like the phenomena of the material world, appear to be driven about very much the sport of blind chance. The poet appears to be the only person who refers everything to his moral consciousness, and raves over that absence of design and beneficence of purpose which he so unceasingly displays himself. There is something sublime in this transfusion of all the social, material, and spiritual phenomena of the universe into the alembic of one mind, and finding all dross; in this summoning of the elements which furnish forth the whole of creation to the bar of his individual judgment, and the repudiation of all as worthless. But this is not the spirit for entering into the soul of things, for appreciating historic events, for weighing human action, or casting characters in the moulds of truth. It would be idle to expect from a state of mind so radically unsound, any ideal glimpses into that state of perfection to which man may not unreasonably aspire. Such a class of mind is competent to destroy, but it cannot possibly build up. It may represent with great vigour the darker phases of the past and the present, or the proud and restless agitations of unquiet minds; but the quieter aspects of humanity are to it a sealed book. The development of any action evolving good out of evil, or the expansion of the social virtues under circumstances calculated to stifle their growth, or the construction of an ideal future exhibiting a practical outlet from the miseries of the present, — of these things it knows nothing. Hence, a wide region of the functions of poetry is excluded from its sphere, though it may be supreme in the rest. Such was the genius of Lord Byron, — of unrivalled ascendency in the embodiment of passion and in the regions of abstract thought and contemplative grandeur, but singularly wanting in moral purpose, in aesthetic completeness, in that breadth of view which loses sight of no elements of human nature, but considers every object in its proper sphere, and which, instead of balancing all things upon the narrow axis of self, loses sight of its own existence in the ocean of being by which it is surrounded.
I am not disposed to lay any stress on Lord Byron's private circumstances, as affording any palliation for the morbid misanthropy and reckless egotism in which he indulged. These obliquities were, doubtless, produced by youthful excesses, and the early feeling of the emptiness of material enjoyment, the only meteor which seemed to guide his steps through the tortuous mazes of this world. His domestic troubles, which just came in time to confirm this tendency, were also of his own creation. The family estates were, doubtless, unequal to support his rank, but his genius was fully adequate to make up the deficiency. Yet, with a deep assurance of such fact, he chose to marry an heiress of temper incompatible with his own, and a strict zealot in the cause of evangelical principles which he repudiated, in order to recruit his finances, while he was bestowing the copy-rights of his works on his friends. Even for a considerable period after his marriage, the poet lived in a style of reckless extravagance, without wasting a thought upon his competence to meet his bills. If a man will so far tread opposite to the paths of prudence, if he will place himself in a position so incompatible with duty and common sense, he has no right, when the reckoning-day arrives, to blame the Fates for the evils he has brought upon himself. Had Lord Byron's fortune been ample, he never would have married Miss Millbank. This was the "fons et origo malorum." He took to his arms a person whom he supposed to be a Christian lamb, and he found her a religious termagant. As his inducement was money, the world will exclaim, he was well punished for his pains. This was the most unpoetical act of his life. But it led to a change of plans and purposes most fruitful in the development of his poetical genius, and the aggrandizement of his fame. It drove him from the allurements of a factitious life into the bosom of nature. It led him to seek out a home among Alpine solitudes, by the lonely ocean, or in cities peopled by the spectres of the past. The change made itself at once felt in pluming his genius for greater flights than it had previously sustained.
Indeed, so far were the private fortunes of the noble bard from imposing trammels on the healthy development of his faculties, that it would be difficult, had those faculties not been warped by selfish indulgence and turbulent passions, to imagine a set of circumstances better calculated to foster their strength, to stimulate their growth, and mature their powers. A boyhood passed upon the mountains of Aberdeenshire, listening to the roar of the distant ocean, brought out in salient contrast the features of the great public school, to which he was subsequently transferred. Here, was gilded conventionality following hard upon the embraces of genuine nature. But the aesthetic pleasures of rural life might have taught him to distrust, if not despise, the hollow prestige of rank, or those flashy distinctions which mere wealth can alone produce for its possessors. The effect, however,
of the display of luxuries which he could not share, was only to sour his disposition, to engender spleen, and to turn his mind upon itself. Cambridge was only a wider Harrow; but Byron abandoned the intellectual struggles, to drown his cares in the convivialities, of the place. Then came three years of foreign travel through the grandest scenery and most interesting countries in the world; then three years of London society, — in which he mingled with all classes, from the pugilist and the cock-fighter, to the proudest scions of the aristocracy, — followed by foreign travel again. No career, perhaps, could be imagined better fitted to extend the intellectual horizon of a man, or to lead to any rectification of his aesthetic or moral principles, if he set out with such upon a wrong basis. But Byron does not appear to have availed himself of such experiences to obliterate his misanthropy, or to counteract, to any large extent, that tendency to self-exaggeration, in which he so early indulged. These, though somewhat modified, still continued to be the plague-spots which overshadowed his career, down to his last struggles on the coast of Missolonghi. Neither experience of the world, or converse with nature or himself, could ever check that biting spirit of ridicule, — that sneer at man and his ways, which overflows all his works, and which seem to have been one of the engrained principles of his nature. This precluded him from that logical appreciation of events, the absence of which is so evident in his dramas. It also shut him out from that hearty sympathy with social life, which is the main spring to the successful embodiment of character. The lesson, therefore, to be gleaned from Byron's career is simply this, that there is a close connection between the moral and intellectual faculties of man, and that, if the heart be wrong, the highest gifts of genius will be warped in their development, if not deprived of a large portion of their heritage. Byron as a poet I hold to be superior to Spenser, yet it is very questionable whether, in his influence over the public mind, he is destined to exercise so much influence as Thomson or Cowper, men of far inferior calibre, but who cultivated the talents they possessed upon a philanthropic basis. Men do not like being told they are hated; nor are they disposed to submit their necks to establish the empire of a man who regards them as serfs, and himself as the only creature whose destinies are worthy of any consideration. Sovereignty in literature is not like the tyrannies of the lower empire, to be established by force and supported by fear. Praise cannot be extorted. Men will not be coerced into admiration. There can be no passport to permanent and universal masterdom over men's minds, unless that which is raised upon a genuine sympathy with their interests, and a hearty love for their kind. Hence Byron's genius, like Churchill's, is never likely to realize its fair meed of praise. Born with talents fitted to rule mankind, he allowed the sceptre to be grasped by far meaner spirits, who, because they pursued a direct course, have been thought to soar higher, though, in truth, they have not possessed one tithe of his contemplative depth, or his ideal splendour.