We have felt ourselves very much affected by the perusal of these poems, nor can we suppose that we are singular in our feelings. Other poets have given us their literary productions as the subject of criticism, impersonally as it were, and generally speaking, abstracted from their ordinary habits and feelings; and all, or almost all, might apply to their poetical effusions, though in somewhat a different sense, the l'envoy of Ovid.
Sine me, Liber, ibis in urbem.
The work of the poet is indeed before the public, but the character, the habits of the author, the events of his life and the motives of his writing, are known but to the small circle of literary gossips, for whose curiosity no food is too insipid. From such, indeed, those supposed to be in intimacy with the individual have sometimes undergone an examination which reminds us of the extravagances of Arabella in the Female Quixote, who expected from every lady she met in society a full and interesting history of her life and adventures, and which could only be answered in the words of the "Weary Knife-grinder," — "Story! God bless you, I have none to tell, Ma'am!" — The time therefore appeared to be passed when the mere sin of having been dipped in rhyme was supposed to exclude the poet from the usual business and habits of life, and to single him out from the herd as a marked deer expected to make sport by his solitary exertions for escape. Whether this has arisen from the diminished irritability of the rhyming generation, or from the peculiar habits of those who have been distinguished in our time, or from their mental efforts having been early directed to modify and to restrain the excess of their enthusiasm, we do not pretend to conjecture; but it is certain, that for many years past, though the number of our successful poets may be as great as at any period of our literary history, we have heard little comparatively of their eccentricities, their adventures, or their distresses. The wretched Dermody is not worth mentioning as an exception, and the misfortunes of Burns arose from circumstances not much connected with his powerful poetical genius.
It has been, however, reserved for our own time to produce one distinguished example of the Muse having descended upon a bard of a wounded spirit, and lent her lyre to tell, and we trust to soothe, afflictions of no ordinary description, afflictions originating probably in that singular combination of feeling which has been called the poetical temperament, and which has so often saddened the days of those on whom it has been conferred. If ever a man could lay claim to that character in all its strength and all its weakness, with its unbounded range of enjoyment, and its exquisite sensibility of pleasure and of pain, it must certainly be granted to Lord Byron Nor does it require much time or a deep acquaintance with human nature to discover why these extraordinary powers should in many cases have contributed more to the wretchedness than to the happiness of their possessor.
The "imagination all compact," which the greatest poet who ever lived has assigned as the distinguishing badge of his brethren, is in every case a dangerous gift. It exaggerates, indeed, our expectations, and can often bid its possessor hope, where hope is lost to reason: but the delusive pleasure arising from these visions of imagination, resembles that of a child whose notice is attracted by a fragment of glass to which a sun-beam has given momentary splendour. He hastens to the spot with breathless impatience, and finds the object of his curiosity and expectation s equally vulgar and worthless. Such is the man of quick and exalted powers of imagination. His fancy overestimates the object of his wishes, and pleasure, fame, distinction, are alternately pursued, attained, and despised when in his power. Like the enchanted fruit in the palace of a sorcerer, the objects of his admiration lose their attraction and value as soon as they are grasped by the adventurer's hand, and all that remains is regret for the time lost in the chase, and astonishment at the hallucination under the influence of which it was undertaken. The disproportion between hope and possession which is felt by all men, is thus doubled to those whom nature has endowed with the power of gilding a distant prospect by the rays of imagination. These reflexions, though trite and obvious, are in a manner forced from us by the poetry of Lord Byron, by the sentiments of weariness of life and enmity with the world which they so frequently express — and by the singular analogy which such sentiments hold with incidents of his life so recently before the public. The works before its contain so many direct allusions to the author's personal feelings and private history, that it becomes impossible for us to divide Lord Byron from his poetry, or to offer our criticism upon the continuation of Chide Harold, without reverting to the circumstances in which the commencement of that singular and original work first appeared.
Distinguished by title and descent from an illustrious line of ancestry, Lord Byron shewed, even in his earliest years, that nature had added to those advantages the richest gifts of genius and fancy. His own tale is partly told in two lines of Lara:
Left by his Sire, too young such loss to know,
Lord of himself, that heritage of woe.
His first literary adventure and its fate are well remembered. The poems which he published in his minority had, indeed, those faults of conception and diction which are inseparable from juvenile attempts, and in particular might rather be considered as imitations of what had caught the ear and fancy of the youthful author, than as exhibiting originality of conception and expression. It was like the first essay of the singing bird catching at and imitating the notes of its parent, ere habit and time have given the fullness of tone, confidence, and self-possession which renders assistance unnecessary. Yet though there were many, and those not the worst judges, who discerned in these juvenile productions, a depth of thought and felicity of expression which promised much at a more mature age, the errors did not escape the critical lash; and certain brethren of ours yielded to the opportunity of pouncing upon a titled author, and to that which most readily besets our fraternity, and to which we dare not pronounce ourselves wholly inaccessible, the temptation, namely, of shewing our own wit, and entertaining our readers with a lively article without much respect to the feelings of the author, or even to the indications of merit which the work may exhibit. The review was read and raised mirth; the poems were neglected, the author was irritated, and took his revenge in keen iambics, not only on the offending critic, but on many others, in whose conduct or writings the juvenile bard had found, or imagined he had found, some cause of offence. The satire which has been since suppressed, as containing opinions hastily expressed, contained a spirit at least sufficiently poignant for all the purposes of reprisal; and although the verses might, in many respects, be deemed the offspring of hasty and indiscriminating resentment, they bore a strong testimony to the ripening talents of the author. Having thus vented his indignation against the critics and their readers, and put many, if not all the laughers upon his side, Lord Byron went abroad, and the controversy was forgotten for some years.
It was in 1812, when Lord Byron returned to England, that Childe Harold's Pilgrimage made its first appearance, producing an effect upon the public, at least equal to any work which has appeared within this or the last century. Reading is indeed so general among all ranks and classes, that the impulse received by the public mind on such occasions is instantaneous through all but the very lowest classes of society, instead of being slowly communicated from one set of readers to another, as was the case in the days of our fathers. "The Pilgrimage," acting on such an extensive medium, was calculated to rouse and arrest the attention in a peculiar degree. The fictitious personage, whose sentiments, however, no one could help identifying with those of the author himself, presented himself with an avowed disdain of all the attributes which most men would be gladly supposed to possess. Childe Harold is represented as one satiated by indulgence in pleasure, and seeking in change of place and clime a relief from the tedium of a life which glided on without an object. The assuming of such a character as the medium of communicating his poetry and his sentiments indicated a feeling towards the public, which, if it fell short of contemning their favour, disdained, at least, all attempt to propitiate them. Yet the very audacity of this repulsive personification, joined to the energy with which it was supported, and to the indications of a bold, powerful, and original mind which glanced through every line of the poem, electrified the mass of readers, and placed at once upon Lord Byron's head the garland for which other men of genius have toiled long, and which they have gained late. He was placed preeminent among the literary men of his country by general acclamation. Those who had so rigorously censured his juvenile essays, and perhaps "dreaded such another field," were the first to pay warm and, we believe, sincere homage to his matured efforts; while others, who saw in the sentiments of Chide Harold much to regret and to censure, did not withhold their tribute of applause to the depth of thought, the power and force of expression, the beauty of description, and the energy of sentiment which animated the "Pilgrimage." if the volume was laid aside for a moment, under the melancholy and unpleasing impression that it seemed calculated to phase hope from the side of man, and to dim his prospects both of this life and of futurity, it was immediately and almost involuntarily assumed again, as our feeling of the author's genius predominated over our dislike to contemplate the gloomy views of human nature which it was his pleasure to place before us. Something was set down to the angry recollection of his first failure, which might fairly authorize so high a mind to hold the world's opinion in contempt; something was allowed for the recent family losses to which the poem alluded, and under the feeling of which it had been partly written: and it seemed to most readers as if gentler and more kindly features were, at times, seen to glance from under the cloud of misanthropy, which the author had flung around his hero. Thus, as all admired the Pilgrimage of Childe Harold, all were prepared to greet the author with that fame which is the poet's best reward, and which is chiefly and most justly due to one who, in these exhausted days, strikes out a new and original line of composition.
It was amidst such feelings of admiration that Lord Byron entered, we may almost say for the first time, the public stage on which he has, for four years, made so distinguished a figure. Every thing in his manner, person, and conversation, tended to maintain the charm which his genius had flung around him; and those admitted to his conversation, far from finding that the inspired poet sunk into ordinary mortality, felt themselves attached to him, not only by many noble qualities, but by the interest of a mysterious, undefined, and almost painful curiosity.
It is well known how wide the doors of society are opened in London to literary merit even of a degree far inferior to Lord Byron's, and that it is only necessary to be honourably distinguished by the public voice to move as a denizen in the first circles. This passport was not necessary to Lord Byron who possessed the hereditary claims of birth and rank. But the interest which his genius attached to his presence, and to his conversation, was of a nature far beyond what these hereditary claims could of themselves have conferred, and his reception was enthusiastic beyond any thing we have ever witnessed, or even heard reported. We have already noticed that Lord Byron is not one of those literary men of whom it may be truly said, "Minuit praesentia famam." A countenance, exquisitely modeled to the expression of feeling and passion, and exhibiting the remarkable contrast of very dark hair and eye-brows, with light and expressive eyes, presented to the physiognomist the most interesting subject for the exercise of his art. The predominating expression was that of deep and habitual thought, which gave way to the most rapid play of features when be engaged in interesting discussion; so that a brother poet compared them to the sculpture of a beautiful alabaster vase, only seen to perfection when lighted up from within. The flashes of mirth, gaiety, indignation, or satirical dislike which frequently animated. Lord Byron's countenance, might, during an evening's conversation, be mistaken by a stranger, for the habitual expression, so easily and so happily was it formed for them all; but those who had an opportunity of studying his features for a length of time, and upon various occasions, both of rest and emotion, will agree with us that their proper language was that of melancholy. Sometimes shades of this gloom interrupted even his gayest and most happy moments, and the following verses are said to have dropped from his pen to excuse a transient expression of melancholy which overclouded the general gaiety.
When from the heart where Sorrow sits,
Her dusky shadow mounts too high,
And o'er the changing aspect flits,
And clouds the brow, or fills the eye—
Heed not the gloom that soon shall sink:
My thoughts their dungeon know too well;
Back to my breast the captives shrink,
And bleed within their silent cell.
It was impossible to behold this interesting countenance, expressive of a dejection belonging neither to the rank, the age, nor the success of this young nobleman, without feeling an indefinable curiosity to ascertain whether it had a deeper cause than habit or constitutional temperament. It was obviously of a degree incalculably more serious than that alluded to by Prince Arthur—
I remember when I was in France,
Young gentlemen would be as sad as night
Only for wantonness—
But howsoever derived, this, joined to Lord Byron's air of mingling in amusements and sports as if he contemned them, and felt, that his sphere was far above the frivolous crowd which surrounded him, gave a strong effect of colouring to a character whose tints were otherwise romantic. Noble and far descended, his mind fraught with ancient learning and modern accomplishment, the pilgrim of distant and savage countries, eminent as a poet among the first whom Britain has produced, and having besides cast around him a mysterious charm arising from the sombre tone of his poetry, and the occasional melancholy of his deportment, Lord Byron occupied the eyes, and interested the feelings of all. The enthusiastic looked on him to admire, the serious with a wish to admonish, and the soft with a desire to console. Even literary envy, a base sensation, from which, perhaps, this age is more free than any other, forgave the man whose splendour dimmed the fame of his competitors. The generosity of Lord Byron's disposition, his readiness to assist merit in distress, and to bring it forward where unknown, deserved and obtained the general regard of those who partook of such merit, while his poetical effusions, poured forth with equal force and fertility, shewed at once a daring confidence in his own powers, and a determination to maintain, by continued effort, the high place he had attained in British literature. This rapidity of composition and publication we have heard blamed as endangering the fame of the author, while it gave such proofs of talent. We are inclined to dispute the proposition, at least in the present instance.
We are sometimes tempted to blame the timidity of those poets, who, possessing powers to arrest the admiration of the public, are yet too much afraid of censure to come frequently forward, and thus defraud themselves of their fame, and the public of the delight which they might afford us. Where success has been unexpectedly, and perhaps undeservedly, obtained by the capricious vote of fashion, it may be well for the adventurer to draw his stake and leave the game, as every succeeding hazard will diminish the chance of his rising a winner. But they cater ill for the public, and give indifferent advice to the poet, supposing him possessed of the highest qualities of his art, who do not advise him to labour while the laurel around his brows yet retains its freshness. Sketches from Lord Byron are more valuable than finished pictures from others; nor are we at all sure that any labour which he might bestow in revisal would not rather efface than refine those outlines of striking and powerful originality which they exhibit, when flung rough from the hand of the master. No one would have wished to condemn Michel Angelo to work upon a single block of marble, until he had satisfied, in every point, the petty criticism of that Pope, who, neglecting the sublime and magnificent character and attitude of his Moses, descended to blame a wrinkle in the fold of the garment. Should it be urged, that in thus stimulating genius to unsparing exertion, we encourage carelessness and hurry in the youthful candidates for literary distinction, we answer, it is not the learner to whom our remarks apply; they refer to him only, who, gifted by nature with, the higher power of poetry, an art as difficult as it is enchanting, has made himself master, by application and study, of the mechanical process, and in whom, we believe, frequent exertions upon new works awaken and stimulate that genius, which might be cramped and rendered tame, by long and minute attention to finish to the highest possible degree any one of the number. If we look at our poetical library we shall find, generally speaking, the most distinguished poets have been the most voluminous, and that those who, like Gray, limited their productions to a few poems, anxiously and sedulously corrected and revised, have given them a stiff and artificial character, which, far from disarming criticism, has rather embittered its violence, while the Aristarch, like Achilles assailing Hector, meditates dealing the mortal wound through some unguarded crevice of the supposed impenetrable armour, with which the cautious bard has vainly invested himself. Our opinion must be necessarily qualified by the caution, that as no human invention can be infinitely fertile, as even the richest genius may be, in agricultural phrase, cropped out, and rendered sterile, and as each author must necessarily have a particular style in which he is supposed to excel, and must therefore be more or less a mannerist; no one can with prudence persevere in forcing himself before the public when from failure in invention, or from having rendered the peculiarities of his style over trite and familiar, the veteran "lags superfluous on the stage," a slighted mute in those dramas where he was once the principal personage. To this humiliation vanity frequently exposes genius, and it is no doubt true that a copious power of diction joined to habitual carelessness in composition, has frequently conduced to it. We would therefore be understood to recommend to authors, while a consciousness of the possession of vigorous powers, carefully cultivated, unites with the favour of the public, to descend into the arena, and continue their efforts vigorously while their hopes are high, their spirits active, and the public propitious, in order that, on the slightest failure of nerves or breath, they may be able to withdraw themselves honourably from the contest gracefully, giving way to other candidates for fame, and cultivating studies more suitable to a flagging imagination than the fervid at of poetry. This, however, is the affair of the authors themselves: should they neglect this prudential course, the public will no doubt have more indifferent books on their table than would otherwise have loaded it; and as the world always seizes the first opportunity of recalling the applause it has bestowed, the former wreaths of the writers will for a time be blighted by their immediate failure. But these evils, so far as the public is concerned, are greatly overbalanced by such as arise from the timid caution, which bids genius suppress its efforts, until they shall he refined into unattainable perfection-and we cannot but repeat our conviction that poetry being, in its higher classes, an art which has for its elements sublimity and unaffected beauty, is more liable than any other to suffer from the labour of polishing, or from the elaborate and composite style of ornament, and alternate affectation of simplicity, and artifice, which characterize the works, even of the first poets when they have been over-anxious to secure public applause, by long and reiterated correction. It must be remembered that we speak of the higher tones of composition; there are others of a subordinate character, where extreme art and labour are not bestowed in vain. But we cannot consider overanxious correction as likely to be employed with advantage upon poems like those of Lord Byron, which have for their object to rouse the imagination, and awaken the passions.
It is certain, to return to the subject from which we have gone somewhat astray, that the rapidity with which Lord Byron's poems succeeded each other, during four years, served to arrest as well as to dazzle and delight the public; nor did there appear room to apply to him, in the height of his fame and the flower of his age, the caution which we might whisper to other bards of popular celebrity. The Giaour, the Bride of Abydos, the Corsair, Lara, the Siege of Corinth, followed each other with a celerity, which was only rivalled by their success; and if at times the author seemed to pause in his poetic career, with the threat of forbearing further adventure for a time, the public eagerly pardoned the breach of a promise by keeping which they must have been sufferers. Exquisitely beautiful in themselves, these tales received a new charm from the romantic climes into which they introduced us, and from the oriental costume so strictly preserved and so picturesquely exhibited. Greece, the cradle of the poetry with which our earliest studies are familiar, was presented to us among her ruins and her sorrows. Her delightful scenery, once dedicated to those deities who, though dethroned from their own Olympus, still preserve a poetical empire, was spread before us in Lord Byron's poetry, varied by all the moral effect derived from what Greece is and what she has been, while it was doubled by comparisons, perpetually excited, between the philosophers and heroes who formerly inhabited that romantic country, and their descendants, who either stoop to their Scythian conquerors, or maintain, among the recesses of their classical mountains, an independence as wild and savage as it is precarious. The oriental manners also and diction, so peculiar in their picturesque effect that they can cast a charm even over the absurdities of an eastern tale, had here the more honourable occupation of decorating that which in itself was beautiful, and enhancing by novelty what would have been captivating without its aid. The powerful impression produced by this peculiar species of poetry confirmed us in a principle, which, though it will hardly he challenged when stated as an axiom, is very rarely complied with in practice. It is, that every author should, like Lord Byron, form to himself, and communicate to the reader, a precise, defined and distinct view of the landscape, sentiment, or action which he intends to describe to the reader. This simple proposition has been so often neglected that we feel warranted in giving it a little more consideration and illustration than plain men may at first sight think necessary.
An author occasionally forgets that it is his business rather to excite than to satiate the imagination of his readers; rather to place before him such a distinct and intelligible sketch as his own imagination can fill up, than, by attempting to exhaust all that can be said on the subject, to confuse the apprehension and wear the attention. There should be, even in poetical description, that keeping and perspective which is demanded in the sister art of painting, and which alone can render the scenes presented by either distinct, clear and intelligible. Here the painter has, in some degree, the advantage of the poet, for perspective is the very foundation of his art. The most stupid bungler that ever took brush in hand is aware that his objects must diminish as they withdraw from the eye, that he is not entitled to render the rocks of his distance too distinct, and that the knowledge that such things do actually exist will not justify him in painting with minuteness the lichens and shrubs, which grow on their surface and in their crevices, at a distance from which these minute objects cannot be discovered by the eye. Yet suppose such a novice a follower of the Muses, and he will not hesitate a moment to transgress this wholesome rule. Every thing which he knows to exist in fact, he will, with the confused minuteness of a Chinese painter, labour to introduce into his description, and, by confounding that which is important to his purpose with that which is subordinate, he will produce a mass of images more or less splendid, according to the vivacity of his imagination, but perplexing, incongruous and unsatisfactory, in all respects, to the reader, who, in vain, endeavours to reduce them in his own mind into one distinct landscape whose parts shall bear a just proportion to each other. Such a poet has assembled, perhaps, excellent materials for composition, but he does not present them in intelligible arrangement to the reader, and he fails to produce upon the mind of others the desired effect, probably because the picture has never been presented to his own with sufficient accuracy.
This is more particularly the case with such authors as, lacking the erudition of Southey or the personal experience of Lord Byron, attempt to lay their scene in countries or ages with the costume and manners of which they are but imperfectly acquainted. Such adventurers are compelled to draw heavily on their slender stock of knowledge on every occasion, and to parade, as fully as they can, before the eye of the reader, whatsoever their reading has gleaned concerning their subject. Without Chatterton's genius, they fall into Chatterton's error, who, not considering that in the most ancient authors scarcely one word in ten has become obsolete, wrote a set of poems in which every second word was taken from a glossary, and necessarily remitted to one, under the idea that he was imitating the language of the ancients. Thus, when a poet deals in materials of which he is not fully master, he is obliged, at the risk of outraging both taste and nature, to produce as frequently, and detain before the reader as long as possible, those distinctive marks by which he means to impress him with the reality of his story; and the outrage is committed in vain; for it is not enough for the representation of an eastern landscape, that the foreground should be encumbered with turbans and sabres, and the fantastic architecture of the kiosk or the mosque, if the distance be not marked by those slight but discriminating touches which mark the reality of the scene, the lightly indicated palm-tree, which overhangs the distant fountain, or the shadowy and obscure delineation of the long column of the caravan retreating through the distance; or the watchman who rests on his lance while his tribe slumber around him, as in the following exquisite picture taken from one of the poems before us.
The Boy was sprung to manhood: in the wilds
Of fiery climes he made himself a home,
And his Soul drank their sunbeams; he was girt
With strange and dusky aspects; he was not
Himself like what he had been; on the sea
And on the shore he was a wanderer;
There was a mass of many images
Crowded like waves upon me, but he was
A part of all; and in the last he lay
Reposing from the noon-tide sultriness,
Couched among fallen columns, in the shade
Of ruin'd walls that had survived the names
Of those who rear'd them; by his sleeping side
Stood camels grazing, and some goodly steeds
Were fastened near a fountain; and a man
Clad in a flowing garb did watch the while,
While many of his tribe slumber'd around:
And they were canopied by the blue sky,
So cloudless, clear, and purely beautiful,
That God alone was to be seen in Heaven.
The Dream, p. 40.
This is true keeping — an Eastern picture perfect in its foreground, and distance, and sky, and no part of which is so dwelt upon or laboured as to obscure the principal figure. It is often in the slight and almost imperceptible touches that the hand of the master is shewn, and that a single spark, struck from his fancy, lightens with a long train of illumination that of the reader.
It is another remarkable property of the poetry of Lord Byron, that although his manner is frequently varied — although he appears to have assumed for an occasion the characteristic stanza and style of several contemporaries, yet not only is his poetry marked in every instance by the strongest cast of originality, but in some leading particulars, and especially in the character of his heroes, each story so closely resembled the other, that managed by a writer of less power, the effect would have been an unpleasing monotony. All, or almost all, his heroes, have somewhat the attributes of Chide Harold: — all, or almost all, have minds which seem at variance with their fortunes, and exhibit high and poignant feelings of pain and pleasure; a keen sense of what is noble and honourable, and an equally keen susceptibility of injustice or injury, under the garb of stoicism or contempt of mankind. The strength of early passion, and the glow of youthful feeling, are uniformly painted as chilled or subdued by a train of early imprudences or of darker guilt, and the sense of enjoyment tarnished, by too intimate and experienced an acquaintance with the vanity of human wishes. These general attributes mark the stern features of all Lord Byron's heroes, from those which are shaded by the scalloped hat of the illustrious Pilgrim, to those which lurk under the turban of Alp, the Renegade. The public, ever anxious in curiosity or malignity to attach to fictitious characters real prototypes, were obstinate in declaring that in these leading traits of character Lord Byron copied from the individual features reflected in his own mirror. On this subject the noble author entered, on one occasion, a formal protest, though, it will be observed, without entirely disavowing the ground on which the conjecture was formed.
"With regard to my story, and stories in general, I should have been glad to have rendered my personages more perfect and amiable, if possible, inasmuch as I have been sometimes criticised, and considered no less responsible for their deeds and qualities than if all had been personal. Be it so — if I have deviated into the gloomy vanity of 'drawing from self,' the pictures are probably like, since they are unfavourable; and if not, those who know me are undeceived, and those who do not, I have little interest in undeceiving. I have no particular desire that any but my acquaintance should think the author better than the beings of his imagining; but I cannot help a little surprize, and perhaps amusement, at some odd critical exceptions in the present instance, when I see several bards, (far more deserving, I allow,) in very reputable plight, and quite exempt from all participation in the faults of those heros, who, nevertheless, might be found with little more morality than 'The Giaour,' and perhaps — but no — I must admit Childe Harold to be a very repulsive personage; and as to his identity, those who like it must give him whatever 'alias' they please."
It is difficult to say whether we are to receive this passage as an admission or a denial of the opinion to which it refers: but Lord Byron certainly did the public injustice, if he supposed it imputed to him the criminal actions with which many of his heroes were stained. Men no more expected to meet in Lord Byron the Corsair, who "knew himself a villain," than they looked for the hypocrisy of Kehama on the shores of the Derwent Water, or the profligacy of Marmion on the banks of the Tweed: yet even in the features of Conrad, those who have looked on Lord Byron will recognise some likeness.
—to the sight
No giant frame sets forth his common height;
Yet, in the whole, who paused to look again,
Saw more than marks the crowd of vulgar men;
They gaze and marvel how — and still confess
That thus it is, but why they cannot guess.
Sun-burnt his cheek, his forehead high and pale
The sable curls in wild profusion veil;
And oft perforce his rising lip reveals
The haughtier thought it curbs, but scarce conceals.
Though smooth his voice, and calm his general mien,
Still seems there something he would not have seen
His features' deepening lines and varying hue
At times attracted, yet perplexed the view.
The Corsair, p. 11.
And the ascetic regimen which the noble author himself observed, was no less marked in the description of Conrad's fare.
Ne'er for his lip the purpling cup they fill,
That goblet passes him untasted still—
And for his fare — the rudest of his crew
Would that, in turn, have passed untasted too;
Earth's coarsest bread, the garden's homeliest roots,
And scarce the summer luxury of fruits,
His short repast in humbleness supply
With all a hermit's board would scarce deny. — Id. p. 4.
The following description of Lara suddenly and unexpectedly returned from distant travels, and reassuming his station in the society of his own country, has in like manner strong points of resemblance to the part which the author himself seemed occasionally to bear amid the scenes where the great mingle with the fair.
—'tis quickly seen
Whate'er he be, 'twas not what he had been;
That brow in furrow'd lines had fix'd at last,
And spake of passions, but of passions past;
The pride, but not the fire, of early days,
Coldness of mien, and carelessness of praise;
A high demeanour, and a glance that took
Their thoughts from others by a single look;
And that sarcastic levity of tongue,
The stinging of a heart the world hath stung,
That darts in seeming playfulness around,
And makes those feel that will not own the wound;
All these seem'd his, and something more beneath
That glance could well reveal, or accent breathe:
Ambition, glory, love, the common aim
That some can conquer, and that all would claim,
Within his breast appear'd no more to strive,
Yet seem'd as lately they had been alive;
And some deep feeling it were vain to trace
At moments lighten'd o'er his livid face. — Lara, pp. 6, 7.
We are not writing Lord Byron's private history, though from the connection already stated between his poetry and his character, we feel ourselves forced upon considering his literary life, his deportment, and even his personal appearance. But we know enough even of his private story to give our warrant that, though his youth may have shared somewhat too largely in the indiscretions of those left too early masters of their own actions and fortunes, falsehood and malice alone can impute to him any real cause for hopeless remorse or gloomy misanthropy. To what, then, are we to ascribe the singular peculiarity which induced an author of such talent, and so well skilled in tracing the darker impressions which guilt and remorse leave on the human character, so frequently to affix features peculiar to himself to the robbers and corsairs which he sketched with a pencil as forcible as that of Salvator? — More than one answer may be returned to this question; nor do we pretend to say which is best warranted by the facts. The practice may arise from a temperament which radical and constitutional melancholy has, as in the case of Hamlet, predisposed to identify its owner with scenes of that deep and arouzing interest which arises from the stings of conscience contending with the stubborn energy of pride, and delighting to be placed in supposed situations of guilt and danger, as some men love instinctively to tread the giddy edge of a precipice, or, holding by some frail twig, to stoop forward over the abyss into which the dark torrent discharges itself. Or it may be that these disguises were assumed capriciously as a man might chuse the cloak, poniard, and dark-lantern of a bravo, for his disguise at a masquerade. Or feeling his own powers in painting the sombre and the horrible, Lord Byron assumed in his fervour the very semblance of the characters he describes, like an actor who presents on the stage at once his own person and the tragic character with which for the time he is invested. Nor is it altogether incompatible with his character to believe that, in contempt of the criticisms which on this account had attended Chide Harold, he was determined to shew to the public how little he was affected by them, and how effectually it was in his power to compel attention and respect, even when imparting a portion of his own likeness and his own peculiarities to pirates, and outlaws.
But although we do not pretend to ascertain the motive on which Lord Byron acted in bringing the peculiarities of his own sentiments and feeling so frequently before his readers, it is with no little admiration that we regard these extraordinary powers, which, amidst this seeming uniformity, could continue to rivet the public attention, and secure general and continued applause. The versatility of authors who have been able to draw and support characters as different from each other as from their own, has given to their productions the inexpressible charm of variety, and has often secured them against that neglect which in general attends what is technically called mannerism. But it was reserved to Lord Byron to present the same character on the public stage again and again, varied only by the exertions of that powerful genius, which searching the springs of passion and of feeling in their innermost recesses, knew how to combine their operations, so that the interest was eternally varying, and never abated, although the most important personage of the drama retained the same lineaments. It will one day be considered as not the least remarkable literary phenomenon of this age, that during a period of four years, notwithstanding the quantity of distinguished poetical talent of which we may be permitted to boast, a single author, and he managing his pen with the careless and negligent ease of a man of quality, and chusing for his theme subjects so very similar, and personages bearing so close a resemblance to each other, — did, in despite of these circumstances, of the unamiable attributes with which he usually invested his heroes, and of the proverbial fickleness of the public, maintain the ascendancy in their favour, which he had acquired by his first matured production. So however it indisputably has been; and those comparatively small circles of admirers excepted, which assemble naturally around individual poets of eminence, Lord Byron has been for that time, and may for some time continue to be, the Champion of the English Parnassus. If his empire over the public mind be in any measure diminished, it arises from no literary failure of his own, and from o triumph of his competitors but from other circumstances so frequently alluded to in the publications before us, that they cannot pass without some notice, which we will study to render as brief as it is impartial.
The poet thus gifted, thus honoured, thus admired, no longer entitled to regard himself as one defrauded of his just fame, and expelled with derision from the lists in which he had stood forward a candidate for honour, but crowned with all which the public could bestow, was now in a situation apparently as enviable as could be attained through mere literary celebrity. The sequel may be given in the words in which the author, adopting here more distinctly the character of Childe Harold than in the original poem, has chosen to present it to us, and to assign the cause why Childe Harold has resumed his pilgrim's staff when it was hoped he had sat down for life a denizen of his native country. The length of the quotation will be pardoned by those who can feel at once the moral interest and poetical beauty with which it abounds.
Something too much of this: — but now 'tis past,
And the spell closes with its silent seal.
Long absent HAROLD re-appears at last;
He of the breast which fain no more would feel,
Wrung with the wounds which kill not, but ne'er heal;
Yet Time, who changes all, had altered him
In soul and aspect as in age: years steal
Fire from the mind as vigour from the limb;
And life's enchanted cup but sparkles near the brim.
His had been quaff'd too quickly, and he found
The dregs were wormwood; but he fill'd again
And from a purer fount, on holier ground,
And deem'd its spring perpetual; but in vain!
Still round him clung invisibly a chain
Which gall'd for ever, fettering though unseen,
And heavy though it clank'd not; worn with pain,
Which pined although it spoke not, and grew keen,
Entering with every step, he took, through many a scene.
Secure in guarded coldness, he had mix'd
Again in fancied safety with his kind,
And deem'd his spirit now so firmly fix'd
And sheath'd with an invulnerable mind,
That, if no joy, no sorrow lurk'd behind;
And he, as one, might midst the many stand
Unheeded, searching through the crowd to find
Fit speculation! such as in strange land
He found in wonder-works of God and Nature's hand.
But who can view the ripened rose, nor seek
To wear it? who can curiously behold
The smoothness and the sheen of beauty's cheek,
Nor feel the heart can never all grow old?
Who can contemplate Fame through clouds unfold
The star which rises o'er her steep, nor climb?
Harold, once more within the vortex, roll'd
On with the giddy circle, chasing Time,
Yet with a nobler aim than in his youth's fond prime.
But soon he knew himself the most unfit
Of men to herd with Man; with whom he held
Little in common; untaught to submit
His thoughts to others, though his soul was quell'd
In youth by his own thoughts; still uncompell'd,
He would not yield dominion of his mind
To spirits against whom his own rebell'd;
Proud though in desolation; which could find
A life within itself, to breathe without mankind.
Where rose the mountains, there to him were friends;
Where roll'd the ocean, thereon was his home;
Where a blue sky, and glowing clime, extends,
He had the passion and the power to roam;
The desert, forest, cavern, breaker's foam,
Were unto him companionship; they spake
A mutual language, clearer than the tone
Of his land's tongue, which he would oft forsake
For Nature's pages glass'd by sunbeams on the lake.
Like the Chaldean, he could watch the stars,
Till he had peopled them with beings bright
As their own beams; and earth, and earth-born jars,
And human frailties, were forgotten quite:
Could be have kept his spirit to that flight
He had been happy; but this clay will sink
Its spark immortal, envying it the light
To which it mounts, as if to break the link
That keeps us from yon heaven which woos us to its brink.
But in Man's dwellings he became a thing
Restless and worn, and stern and wearisome,
Droop'd as a wild-born falcon with clipt wing,
To whom the boundless air alone were home;
Then came his fit again, which to o'ercome,
As eagerly the barr'd-up bird will beat
His breast and teak against his wiry dome
Till the blood tinge his plumage, so the heat
Of his impeded soul would through his bosom eat.
Self-exiled Harold wanders forth again,
With nought of hope left, but with less of gloom;
The very knowledge that he lived in vain,
That all was over on this side the tomb,
Had made Despair a smilingness assume,
Which, though 'twere wild, — as on the plundered wreck
When mariners would madly meet their doom
With draughts intemperate on the sinking deck,—
Did yet inspire a cheer, which he forbore to check.
Canto III. — p. 7-11.
The commentary through which the meaning of this melancholy tale is rendered obvious, has been long before the public, and is still in vivid remembrance; for the errors of those who excel their fellows in gifts and accomplishments are not soon forgotten. Those scenes, ever most painful to the bosom, were rendered yet more so by public discussion; and it is at least possible that amongst those who exclaimed most loudly on this unhappy occasion, were some in whose eyes literary superiority exaggerated Lord Byron's offence. The scene may be described in a few words: — the wise condemned — the good regretted — the multitude, idly or maliciously inquisitive, rushed from place to place, gathering gossip, which they mangled and exaggerated while they repeated it; and impudence, ever ready to hitch itself into notoriety, "hooked on," as Falstaff enjoins Bardolph, blustered, bullied, and talked of "pleading a cause" and "taking a side."
The family misfortunes which have for a time lost Lord Byron to his native land have neither chilled his poetical fire, nor deprived England of its benefit. The Third Canto of Childe Harold exhibits, in all its strength and in all its peculiarity, the wild, powerful and original vein of poetry which, in the preceding cantos, first fixed the public attention upon the author. If there is any difference, the former seem to us to have been rather more sedulously corrected and revised for publication, and the present work to have been dashed from the author's pen with less regard to the subordinate points of expression and versification. Yet such is the deep and powerful strain of passion, such the original tone and colouring of description, that the want of polish in some of its minute parts rather adds to than deprives the poem of its energy. It seems, occasionally, as if the consideration of mere grace was beneath the care of the poet, in his ardour to hurry upon the reader the "thoughts that glow and words that burn;" and that the occasional roughness of the verse corresponded with the stern tone of thought, and of mental suffering which it expresses. We have remarked the same effect produced by the action of Mrs. Siddons, when, to give emphasis to some passage of overwhelming passion, he has seemed wilfully to assume a position constrained, stiffened, violent, diametrically contrary to the rules of grace, in order, as it were, to concentrate herself for the utterance of grief, or passion which disdained embellishment. In the same manner, versification, in the hands of a master-bard, is as frequently correspondent to the thoughts it expresses as to the action it describes, and the "line labours and the words move slow" under the heavy and painful thought; wrung, as it were, from the bosom, as when Ajax is heaving his massy rock. It is proper, however, to give some account of the plan of the poem before we pursue these observations.
The subject is the same as in the preceding Cantos of the "Pilgrimage." Harold wanders over other fields and amid other scenery, and gives vent to the various thoughts and meditations which they excite in his breast. The poem opens with a beautiful and pathetic, though abrupt, invocation to the infant daughter of the author, and bespeaks at once our interest and our sympathy for the self-exiled Pilgrim.
Is thy face like thy mother's, my fair child!
Ada! sole daughter of my house and heart?
When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled,
And then we parted, — not as now we part,
But with a hope.—
Awaking with a start,
The waters heave around me; and on high
The winds lift up their voices: I depart,
Whither I know not; but the hour's gone by,
When Albion's lessening shores could grieve or glad mine eye.
Once more upon the waters! yet once more!
And the waves bound beneath me as a steed
That knows his rider. Welcome, to their roar!
Swift be their guidance, wheresoe'er it lead!
Though the strain'd mast should quiver as a reed,
And the rent canvass fluttering strew the gale,
Still must I on; for I am as a weed,
Flung from the rock, on Ocean's foam, to sail
Where'er the surge may sweep, the tempest's breath prevail.
Canto III. pp. 3, 4.
The theme of Childe Harold is then resumed, and the stanzas follow which we have already quoted, and which, it must be allowed, identify the noble author with the creature of his imagination more intimately than in the former Cantos. We do not mean to say that all Childe Harold's feelings and adventures must be considered as those of Lord Byron, but merely that there is much of Lord Byron in the supposed Pilgrim.
On the plan itself we may briefly remark, that the localities of which it necessarily treats connect it with the real as well as the beautiful. An ingenious friend has well observed, that the plain, the rock, the hillock, which marks the scene of some distinguished event, has frequently an effect more powerful upon the mind than even the monuments of art designed expressly to preserve its memory. These localities have also the merit of imperishability, and carry back their associations to periods far more remote than art can refer to. Pictures fade and statues moulder and temples decay, and cities perish: but the sod of Marathon is immortal — and he who has trode it has identified himself with Athenian story in a manner which neither painter, nor poet, nor sculptor could have accomplished for him. Shakspeare, whom nothing escaped, hints, in the celebrated passage already quoted, that it is one of the highest offices of poetry to connect our ideas with some "local habitation." In this respect, poetry has been falsely characterized as dealing in fiction. History may do so perhaps too often; but poetry, at least good poetry, is connected only with the realities either of visible or of moral nature. It is therefore with no ordinary pleasure that we follow the Pilgrim through scenes to which his poetry gives new interest, while it recals that attached to them by historical or moral associations.
He arrives on Waterloo, — a scene where all men, where a poet especially, and a poet such as Lord Byron, must needs pause, and amid the quiet simplicity of whose scenery is excited a moral interest, deeper and more potent even than that which is produced by gazing upon the sublimest efforts of Nature in her most romantic recesses.
That Lord Byron's sentiments do not correspond with ours is obvious, and we are sorry for both our sakes. For our own, — because we have lost that note of triumph with which his harp would otherwise have rung over a field of glory such as Britain never reaped before; and on Lord Byron's account, — because it is melancholy to see a man of genius duped by the mere cant of words and phrases, even when facts are most broadly confronted with them. If the poet has mixed with original, wild, and magnificent creations of his imagination, prejudices which he could only have caught by the contagion which he most professes to despise, it is he himself must be the loser. If his lofty muse has soared in all her brilliancy over the field of Waterloo without dropping even one leaf of laurel on the head of Wellington, his merit can dispense even with the praise of Lord Byron. And as, when the images of Brutus were excluded from the triumphal procession, his memory became only the more powerfully imprinted on the souls of the Romans, — the name of the British hero will be but more eagerly recalled to remembrance by the very lines, in which his praise is forgotten.
We would willingly avoid mention of the political opinions hinted at by Childe Harold, and more distinctly expressed in other poems of Lord Byron; — the more willingly, as we strongly suspect that these effusions are rather the sport of whim and singularity, or at best the suggestion of sudden starts of feeling and passion, than the expressions of any serious or fixed opinion. A French author, (Le Censeur du Dictionnaire des Girouettes,) who has undertaken the hardy task of vindicating the consistency of the actors in the late revolutions and counter-revolutions of his country, gives it as his decided opinion, that poets in particular are not amenable to censure whatever political opinions they may express, or however frequently these opinions may exhibit marks of inconsistency. — "Le cerveau d'un poete est une cire molle et flexible ou s'imprime naturellement tout ce qui le flatte, le seduit et l'alimente. La Muse du chant n'a pas de parti: c'est une etourdie sans consequence, qui folatre egalement et sur de riches gazons et sur d'arides bruyeres. Un poete en delire chante indifferemment went Titus et Thamasp, Louis XII. et Cromwell, Christine de Suede et Fauchon la Vielleuse."
We suspect that Lord Byron will not feel much flattered by the opportunity we have given him of sheltering himself under the insignificance which this Frenchman attaches to the political opinions of poets. But if he renounces the defence arising from the difficulty of resisting a tempting subject, and the pleasure of maintaining a paradox, it will be difficult for him to escape from the charge of inconsistency. For to compare Waterloo to the battle of Cannae, and speak of the blood which flowed on the side of the vanquished as lost in the cause of freedom, is contrary not only to plain sense and general opinion, but to Lord Byron's own experience, and to the testimony of that experience which he has laid before the public. Childe Harold, in his former Pilgrimage, beheld in Spain the course of the "tyrant and of the tyrant's slaves." He saw "Gaul's vulture with her wings unfurled," and indignantly expostulated with Fate on the impending destruction of the patriotic Spaniards.
And must they fall, — the young the proud, the brave,
To swell one bloated Chief's unwholesome reign,
No step between submission and a grave,
The rise of rapine, and the fall of Spain!
Childe Harold saw the scenes which he celebrates, — and does he now compare to the field of Cannae the plain of Waterloo, and mourn over the fall of the tyrant and the military satraps and slaves whose arms built his power, as over the fall of the cause of liberty? We know the ready answer which will be offered by the few who soothe their own prejudices, or seek to carry their own purposes by maintaining this extravagant proposition. They take a distinction: Buonaparte, according to their creed, fell a tyrant in 1814, and revived a deliverer in 1815. A few months' residence in the Isle of Elba had given him time for better thoughts , and had mortified within his mind that gorging ambition for which, Russia was not too great, nor Hamburgh too small a morsel; which neither evaporated under the burning sun of Egypt nor was chilled by the polar snows; which survived the loss of millions of soldiers and an incalculable tract of territory, and burned as fiercely during the conferences of Chatillon, when the despot's fate was trembling in the scales, as at those of Tilsit, when that of his adversary had kicked the beam. All the experience which Europe had bought by oceans of blood and years of degradation ought, according to these gentlemen, to have been forgotten upon the empty professions of one whose word, whensoever or wheresoever pledged, never bound him an instant when interest or ambition required a breach of it. Buonaparte assured the world he was changed in temper, mind and disposition; and his old agent and minister (Fouche of Nantes) was as ready to give his security as Bardolph was to engage for Falstaff. When Gil Blas found his old comrades in knavery, Don Raphael and Ambrose de Lamela, administrating the revenues of a Carthusian convent, he shrewdly conjectured that the treasure of the holy fathers was in no small danger, and grounded his suspicion on the old adage "Il ne faut pas mettre a la cave un ivrogne qui a renonce au vin." But Europe — when France had given the strongest proof of her desire to recover what she termed her glory, by expelling a king whose reign was incompatible with foreign wars, and recalling Napoleon to whom conquest was as the very breath of his nostrils — Europe, most deserving, had she yielded to such arguments, to have been crowned with "the diadem, hight foolscap," is censured for having exerted her strength to fix her security, and confuting with her own warlike weapons those whose only law was arms, and only argument battle. We do not believe there lives any one who can seriously doubt the truth of what we have said. If, however, there were any simple enough to expect to hail Freedom restored by the victorious arms of Buonaparte, their mistake (had Lord Wellington not saved them from its consequences) would have resembled that of poor Slender, who, rushing to the embraces of Anne Page, found himself unexpectedly in the gripe of a lubberly post-master's boy. But probably no one was foolish enough to nourish such hopes, though there are some — their number is few — whose general opinions concerning the policy of Europe are so closely and habitually linked with their party prejudices at home, that they see in the victory of Waterloo only the triumph of Lord Castlereagh; and could the event have been reversed, would have thought rather of the possible change of seats in St. Stephen's, than of the probable subjugation of Europe. Such were those who, biding perhaps secret hopes with affected despondence, lamented the madness which endeavoured to make a stand against the Irresistible whose military calculations were formed on plans far beyond the comprehension of all other minds; and such are they who, confuted by stubborn facts, now affect to mourn over the consequences of a victory which they had pronounced impossible. But, as we have already hinted, we cannot trace in Lord Byron's writings any systematic attachment to a particular creed of politics, and he appears to us to seize the subjects of public interest upon the side in which they happen to present themselves for the moment, with this qualification, that he usually paints them on the shaded aspect, perhaps that their tints may harmonize with the sombre colours of his landscape. Dangerous as prophecies are, we could almost hazard a prediction that, if Lord Byron enjoys that length of life which we desire for his sake and our own, his future writings may probably shew that he thinks better of the morals, religion, and constitution of his country, than his poems have hitherto indicated. Should we fall in a hope which we cherish fondly, the disgrace of false prophecy must rest with us, but the loss will be with Lord Byron himself.
Childe Harold, though he shuns to celebrate the victory of Waterloo, gives us a most beautiful description of the evening which preceded the battle of Quatre Bras, the alarm which called out the troops, and the hurry and confusion which preceded their march. We are not sure that any verses in our language surpass the following in vigour and in feeling. The quotation is again a long one, but we must not and dare not curtail it.
There was a sound of revelry by night
And Belgium's capital had gathered then
Her Beauty and her Chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men;
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes look'd love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry. as a marriage-bell;
But hush! hark a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!
Did. ye not hear it? — No; 'twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o'er the stony street;
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing flours with flying feet—
But, hark! — that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before
Arm! arm! it is — it is — the cannon's opening roar!
Within a window'd niche of that high hail
Sate Brunswick's fated chieftain; he did hear
That sound the first amidst the festival,
And caught it's tone with Death's prophetic ear;
And when they smiled because he deem'd it near,
His heart more truly knew that peal too well
Which stretch'd his father on a bloody bier,
And roused the vengeance blood alone could quell:
He rush'd into the field, and, foremost fighting, fell.
Ah! then and there was hurrying to and fro,
And gathering tears, and tremblings of distress,
And cheeks all pale, which but an hour ago
Blush'd at the praise of their own loveliness;
And there were sudden partings, such as press
The life from out young hearts, and choking sighs
Which ne'er might be repeated; who could guess
If ever more should meet those mutual eyes,
Since upon nights so sweet such awful morn could rise?
And there was mounting in hot haste: the steed,
The mustering squadron, and the clattering car,
Went pouring forward with impetuous speed,
And swiftly forming in the ranks of war;
And the deep thunder peal on peal afar;
And near, the beat of the alarming drum
Roused up the soldier ere the morning star;
While throng'd the citizens with terror dumb,
Or whispering, with white lips — "The foe! They come! they come!"
And wild and high the "Cameron's gathering" rose!
The war-note of Lochiel, which Albyn's hills
Have heard, and heard, too, have her Saxon foes:
How in the noon of night that pibroch thrills,
Savage and shrill! But with the breath which fills
Their mountain-pipe, so fill the mountaineers
With the fierce native daring which instils
The stirring memory of a thousand years,
And Evan's, Donald's fame rings in each clansman's ears!
And Ardennes waves above them her green leaves,
Dewy with nature's tear-drops, as they pass,
Grieving, if aught inanimate e'er grieves,
Over the unreturning brave, — alas!
Ere evening to be trodden like the grass
Which now beneath them, but above shall grow
In its next verdure, when this fiery mass
Of living valour, rolling on the foe
And burning with high hope, shall moulder cold and low.
Last noon beheld them full of lusty life,
Last eve in Beauty's circle proudly gay,
The midnight brought the signal-sound of strife,
The morn the marshalling in arms, — the day
Battle's magnificently-stern array!
The thunder-clouds close o'er it, which when rent
The earth is covered thick with other clay,
Which her own clay shall cover, heaped and pent,
Rider and horse, — friend, foe, — in one red burial blent!
A beautiful elegiac stanza on the Honourable Major Howard, a relation of Lord Byron; and several verses in which the author contemplates the character and fall of Napoleon, close the meditations suggested by the field of Waterloo. The present situation of Buonaparte ought to exempt him (unless when, as in the following pages, he is brought officially before us) from such petty warfare as we can wage. But if Lord Byron supposes that Napoleon's fall was occasioned, or even precipitated by a "just habitual scorn of men and their thoughts," too publicly and rashly expressed, or as he has termed it in a note, "the continued obtrusion on mankind of his want of all community of feeling with or for them," — we conceive him to be under a material error. Far from being deficient in that necessary branch of the politician's art, which soothes the passions and conciliates the prejudices of those whom they wish to employ as instruments, Buonaparte possessed it in exquisite perfection. He seldom missed finding the very man that was fittest for his immediate purpose; and he had, in a peculiar degree, the art of moulding him to it. It was not, then, because he despised the means necessary to gain his end that he finally fell short of attaining it, but because confiding in his stars, his fortune, and his strength, the ends which he proposed were unattainable even by the gigantic means which he possessed. But if we are to understand that the projects of Napoleon intimated, too plainly for the subsistence of his power, how little he regarded human life or human happiness in the accomplishment of his personal views, and that this conviction heated his enemies and cooled his friends, his indeed may be called a scorn, but surely not a just scorn of his fellow-mortals.
But bidding adieu to politics, that extensive guiph whose eddies draw every thing that is British into their vortex, we follow with pleasure Childe Harold's wanderings up the enchanting valley of the Rhine:—
There Harold gazes on a work divine,
A blending of all beauties, streams, and dells,
Fruit, foliage, crag, wood, cornfield, mountain, vine,
And chiefless castles breathing stern farewells
From gray, but leafy walls, where Ruin greenly dwells.
These ruins, once the abodes of the robber-chivalry of the German frontier, where each free count and knight exercised within his petty domain the power of a feudal sovereign, call forth from the poet an appropriate commemoration of the exploits and character of their former owners. In a softer mood, the Pilgrim pours forth his greetings to one kind breast, in whom he can yet repose his sorrows, and hope for responsive feelings. The fall of Marceau is next commemorated; and Harold, passing with a fond adieu from the Rhin-thal, plunges into the Alps, to find among their recesses scenery yet wilder, and better suited to one who sought for loneliness in order to renew
Thoughts hid, but not less cherished than of old,
Ere mingling with the herd had penn'd "him" in their fold.
The next theme on which the poet rushes is the character of the enthusiastic and, as Lord Byron well terms him, "self-torturing sophist, wild Rousseau," a subject naturally suggested by the scenes in which that unhappy visionary dwelt, at war with all others, and by no means at peace with himself; an affected contemner of polished society, for whose applause he secretly panted, and a waster of eloquence in praise of the savage state in which his paradoxical reasoning, and studied, if not affected declamation, would never have procured him an instant's notice. In the following stanza his character and foibles are happily treated.
His life was one long war with self-sought foes.
Or friends by him self-banish'd; for his mind
Had grown Suspicion's sanctuary, and chose
For its own cruel sacrifice, the kind,
'Gainst whom he raged with fury strange and blind.
But he was phrenzied, — wherefore, who may know?
Since cause might be which skill could never find;
But he was phrenzied by disease or woe,
To that worst pitch of all, which wears a reasoning show.
In another part of the poem this subject is renewed, where the traveller visits the scenery of La Nouvelle Eloise.
Clarens, sweet Clarens, birth-place of deep love,
Thine air is the young breath of passionate thought,
Thy trees take root in love; the snows above
The very Glaciers have his colours caught,
And sun-set into rose-hues sees them wrought,
By rays which sleep there lovingly.
There is much more of beautiful and animated description, from which it appears that the impassioned parts of Rousseau's romance have made a deep impression upon time feelings of the noble poet. The enthusiasm expressed by Lord Byron is no small tribute to the power possessed by Jean Jaques over the passions: and to say truth, we needed some such evidence, for, though almost ashamed to avow the truth, which is probably very much to our own discredit, — still, like the barber of Midas, we must speak or die — we have never been able to feel the interest or discover the merit of this far-famed performance. That there is much eloquence in the letters we readily admit; there lay Rousseau's strength. But his lovers, the celebrated St. Preux and Julie, have, from the earliest moment we have heard the tale (which we well remember) down to the present hour, totally failed to interest us. There might be some constitutional hardness of heart; but like Lance's pebble-hearted cur, Crab, we remained dry-eyed while all wept around us. And still, on resuming the volume, even now, we can see little in the loves of these two tiresome pedants to interest our feelings for either of them; we are by no means flattered by the character of Lord Edward Bomston, produced as the representative of the English nation, — and, upon the whole, consider the dullness of the story as the best apology for its exquisite immorality. To state our opinion in language much better than our own, we are unfortunate enough to regard this far-famed history of philosophical gallantry as an "unfashioned, indelicate, sour, gloomy, ferocious medley of pedantry and lewdness; of metaphysical speculations, blended with the coarsest sensuality." Neither does Rousseau claim a higher rank with its on account of that Pythian and frenetic inspiration which vented
Those oracles which set the world in flame,
Nor ceased to burn till kingdoms were no more.
We agree with Lord Byron that this frenzied sophist, reasoning upon false principles, or rather presenting that show of reasoning which is the worst pitch of madness, was a primary apostle of the French Revolution; nor do we differ greatly from his lordship's conclusion that good and evil were together overthrown in that volcanic explosion. But when Lord Byron assures us, that after the successive changes of government by which the French legislators have attempted to reach a theoretic perfection of constitution, mankind must and will begin the same work anew, in order to do it better and more effectually, — we devoutly hope the experiment, however hopeful, may not be renewed in our time, and that the "fixed passion' which Childe Harold describes as "holding his breath," and waiting the "atoning hour," will choke in his purpose ere that hour arrives. Surely the voice of dear-bought experience should now at length silence, even in France, the clamour of empirical philosophy. Who would listen a moment to the blundering mechanic who should say, "I have burned your house down ten times in the attempt, but let me once more disturb your old-fashioned chimnies and vents, in order to make another trial, and I will pledge myself to succeed in heating it upon the newest and most approved principle"?
The poem proceeds to describe, in a tone of great beauty and feeling, a night-scene witnessed on the Lake of Geneva; and each natural object, from the evening grasshopper to the stars, "the poetry of heaven," suggests the contemplation of the connection between the Creator and his works. The scene is varied by the "fierce and fair delight" of a thunder-storm, described in verse almost as vivid as its lightnings. We had marked it for transcript, as one of the most beautiful passages of the poem; but quotation must have bounds, and we have been already liberal. But the "live thunder leaping among the rattling crags" — the voice of mountains, as if shouting to each other — the plashing of the big rain — the gleaming of the wide lake, lighted like a phosphoric sea, — present a picture of sublime terror, yet of enjoyment, often attempted, but never so well, certainly never better, brought out in poetry. The Pilgrim reviews the characters of Gibbon and Voltaire, suggested by their residences on time lake of Geneva, and concludes by reverting to the same melancholy tone of feeling with which the poem commenced. Childe Harold, though not formally dismissed, glides from our observation; and the poet, in his own person, renews the affecting address to his infant daughter:—
My daughter! with thy name this song begun—
My daughter! with thy name thus much shall end.
I see thee not, — I hear thee not, — but none
Can be so wrapt in thee; thou art the friend
To whom the shadows of far years extend:
Albeit my brow thou never should'st behold,
My voice shall with thy future visions blend,
And reach into thy heart, — when mine is cold,—
A token and a tone, even from thy father's mould.
He proceeds in the same tone for several stanzas, and then concludes with this paternal benediction:—
Sweet be thy cradled slumbers o'er the sea,
And from the mountains where I now respire,
Fain would I waft such blessings upon thee,
As with a sigh I deem thou might'st have been to me.
Having finished the analysis of this beautiful poem, we have the difficult and delicate task before us, of offering some remarks on the tone and feeling in which it is composed. But before discharging this part of our duty, we must give some account of the other fasciculus with which the fertile genius of Lord Byron has supplied us.
The collection to which the Prisoner of Chillon gives name, inferior in interest to the continuation of Childe Harold, is marked, nevertheless, by the peculiar force of Lord Byron's genius. It consists of a series of detached pieces, some of them fragments, and rather poetical prolusions, than finished and perfect poems.
Some of our readers may require to be informed, that Chillon, which gives name to the first poem, is a castle on the lake of Geneva, belonging of old to the dukes of Savoy, employed by them during the dark ages, as a state prison, and furnished of course with a tremendous range of subterranean dungeons, with a chamber dedicated to the purpose of torture, and all the apparatus of feudal tyranny. Here the earlier champions of the Reformation were frequently doomed to expiate their heretical opinions. Among the hardiest of these was Bonnivard, whom Lord Byron has selected as the hero of his poem. He was imprisoned in Chillon for nearly six years, from 1530, namely, to 1536, and underwent all the rigour of the closest captivity. But it has not been the purpose of Lord Byron to paint the peculiar character of Bonnivard, nor do we find any thing to remind us of the steady firmness and patient endurance of one suffering for conscience-sake. The object of the poem, like that of Sterne's celebrated sketch of the prisoner, is to consider captivity in the abstract, and to mark its effects in gradually chilling the mental powers as it benumbs and freezes the animal frame, until the unfortunate victim becomes, as it were, a part of his dungeon, and identified with his chains. This transmutation we believe to be founded on fact: at least, in the Low Countries, where capital punishments are never inflicted, and where solitary confinement for life is substituted in the case of enormous crimes, something like it may be witnessed. On particular days in the course of the year, these victims of a jurisprudence which calls itself humane, are presented to the public eye upon a stage erected in the open market-place, apparently to prevent their guilt and their punishment from being forgotten. It is scarcely possible to witness a sight more degrading to humanity than this exhibition: — with matted hair, wild looks and haggard features, with eyes dazzled by the unwonted light of the sun, and ears deafened and astounded by the sudden exchange of the silence of a dungeon for the busy hum of men, the wretches sit more like rude images fashioned to a fantastic imitation of humanity, than like living and reflecting beings. In the course of time we are assured they generally become either madmen or idiots, as mind or matter happens to predominate, when the mysterious balance between them is destroyed. But they who are subjected to such a dreadful punishment are generally, like most perpetrators of gross crimes, men of feeble internal resources. Men of talents like Trenck have been known, in the deepest seclusion, and most severe confinement, to battle the foul fiend melancholy, and to come off conquerors, during a captivity of years. Those who suffer imprisonment for the sake of their country or their religion have yet a stronger support, and may exclaim, though in a different sense from that of Othello—
It is the cause — it is the cause, my soul.
And hence the early history of the church is filled with martyrs, who, confident in the justice of their cause, and the certainty of their future reward, endured with patience the rigour of protracted and solitary captivity, as well as the bitterness of torture, and of death itself. This, however, is not the view which Lord Byron has taken of the character and captivity of Bonnivard, for which he has offered an apology in the following passage in the notes. "When the foregoing poem was composed, I was not sufficiently aware of the history of Bonnivard, or I would have endeavoured to dignify the subject by an attempt to celebrate his courage and his virtues." The theme of the poem is therefore the gradual effect of protracted captivity upon a man of powerful mind, tried at the same time by the successive deaths of his two brethren.
Bonnivard is represented as imprisoned with his brothers in a terrific dungeon in the Castle of Chillon. The second—
—pure of mind,
But formed to combat with his kind,
first drooped under the effects of protracted imprisonment, more bitter to one bred a warrior and a huntsman. The sickness and pining of the other, a youth of a milder and more affectionate character, is feelingly described.
But he, the favourite and the flower,
Most cherish'd since his natal hour,
His mother's image in fair face,
The infant love of all his race,
His martyred father's dearest thought,
My latest care, for whom I sought
To hoard my life that his might be
Less wretched now, and one day free;
He, too, who yet had held untired
A spirit natural or inspired—
He, too, was struck, and day by day
Was withered on the stalk away.
The effects of the survivor's sorrow succeed. At first, furious and frantic at feeling himself the only being "in this black spot," an every link burst which bound him to humanity, he gradually falls into the stupor of despair and of apathy, the loss of sensation of light, air, and even of darkness.
I had no thought, no feeling — none—
Among the stones I stood a stone,
And was, scarce conscious what I wist,
As shrubless crags within the mist;
For all was blank and bleak and grey.
There were no stars, no earth, no time,
No check, no change, no good, no crime;
But silence, and a stirless breath,
Which neither was of life or death,
A sea of stagnant idleness,
Blind, boundless, mute and motionless!
The effects produced on the mind of the captive, by the casual visit of a bird, and by the view of the lake from the loop-hole of his prison, are next described. An extract from the latter shall form our last specimen of the poem.
I heard the torrents leap and gush
O'er channell'd rock and broken bush;
I saw the white-wall'd distant town,
And whiter sails go skimming down;
And then there was a little isle,
Which in my very face did smile,
The only one in view;
A small green isle, it seem'd no more,
Scarce broader than my dungeon floor,
But in it there were three tall trees,
And o'er it blew the mountain breeze,
And by it there were waters flowing,
And on it there were young flowers growing,
Of gentle breath and hue.
Freedom at length comes when the captive of Chillon, reconciled to his prison, had learned to consider it as "a hermitage all his own," and had become friends with the very shackles which he wore.
It will readily be allowed that this singular poem is more powerful than pleasing. The dungeon of Bonnivard is, like that of Ugolino, a subject too dismal for even the power of the painter or poet to counteract its horrors. It is the more disagreeable as affording human hope no anchor to rest upon, and describing the sufferer, though a man of talents and virtues, as altogether inert and powerless under his accumulated sufferings. Yet as a picture, however gloomy the colouring, it may rival any which Lord Byron has drawn, nor is it possible to read it without a sinking of the heart, corresponding with that which he describes the victim to have suffered.
We have said that Lord Byron occasionally, though without concealing his own original features, assumes the manner and style of his contemporaries. Of these we have more than one instance in the present collection. It is impossible to read the Prisoner of Chillon without finding several passages-that last quoted, for example, — which strongly remind its of Wordsworth. There is another, called "Churchill's Grave," for which Southey seems to afford the model, not in his epic strains, but in his English eclogues, in which moral truths are expressed, to use the poet's own language in "an almost colloquial plainness of language," and an air of quaint and original expression, assumed to render the sentiment at once impressive and piquant. The grave of Churchill, however, might have called from Lord Byron a deeper commemoration; for though they generally differed in character and genius, there was a resemblance between their history and character. The satire of Churchill flowed with a more profuse, though not a more embittered stream; while, on the other hand, he cannot be compared to Lord Byron in point of tenderness or imagination. But both these poets held themselves above the opinion of the world, and both were followed by the fame and popularity which they seemed to despise. The writings of both exhibit an inborn, though sometimes ill regulated generosity of mind, and a spirit of proud independence, frequently pushed to extremes. Both carried their hatred of hypocrisy beyond the verge of prudence, and indulged their vein of satire to the borders of licentiousness. In the flower of his age Churchill died in a foreign land, — here we trust the parallel will cease, and that the subject of our criticism will long survive to honour his own.
Two other pieces in this miscellany recal to our mind the wild, unbridled, and fiery imagination of Coleridge. To this poet's high poetical genius we have always paid deference; though not uniformly perhaps, he has, too frequently for his own popularity, wandered into the wild and mystic, and left the reader at a loss accurately to determine his meaning. Perhaps in that called the "Spell" the resemblance may be fanciful, but we cannot allow it to be so in the singular poem called "Darkness," well entitled
A dream which is not all a dream.
In this case our author has abandoned the art, so peculiarly his own, of shewing the reader where his purpose tends, and has contented himself with presenting a mass of powerful ideas unarranged, and the meaning of which we certainly confess ourselves not always able to attain. A succession of terrible images is placed before us flitting and mixing, and disengaging themselves as in the dream of a feverish man — Chimeras dire, to whose existence the mind refuses credit, which confound and weary the ordinary reader, and baffle the comprehension even of those more accustomed to the flights of a poetic muse. The subject is the progress of utter darkness, until it becomes, in Shakspeare's phrase, the "burier of the dead," and the assemblage of terrific ideas which the poet has placed before us only fail in exciting our terror from the extravagance of the plan. These mystical prolusions do indeed produce upon us the effect described in Henry Mur's lines quoted in Southey's Omniana—
A lecture strange he seem'd to read to me;
And though I did not rightly understand
His meaning, yet I deemed it to be
Some goodly thing.
But the feeling of reverence which we entertain for that which is difficult of comprehension, gives way to weariness whenever we begin to suspect that it cannot be distinctly comprehended by any one.
To speak plainly, the framing of such phantasms is a dangerous employment for the exalted and teeming imagination of such a poet as Lord Byron, whose Pegasus has ever required rather a bridle than a spur. The waste of boundless space into which they lead the poet, the neglect of precision which such themes may render habitual, make them, in respect to poetry, what mysticism is to religion. The meaning of the poet as he ascends upon cloudy wing becomes the shadow only of a thought, and having eluded the comprehension of others, necessarily ends by escaping from that of the author himself. The strength of poetical conception, and beauty of diction, bestowed upon such prolusions, is as much thrown away as the colours of a painter, could he take a cloud of mist, or a wreath of smoke for his canvass.
Omitting one or two compositions of less interest we cannot but notice the "Dream," which, if we do not misconstrue it, has a covert and mysterious relation to the tale of Childe Harold. It is written with the same power of poetry, nor have we here to complain of obscurity in the mode of narrating the vision, though we pretend not to the skill or information necessary to its interpretation. It is difficult, however, to mistake who or what is meant in the conclusion, and more especially as the tone too well agrees with similar passages in the continuation of Childe Harold.
The Wanderer was alone as heretofore,
The beings which surrounded him were gone,
Or were at war with him; he was a mark
For blight and desolation, compass'd round
With Hatred and Contention.
Through that which had been death to many men,
And made him friends of mountains: with the stars
And the quick Spirit of the Universe
He held his dialogues; and they did teach
To him the magic of their mysteries;
To him the book of Night was opened wide,
And voices from the deep abyss reveal'd
A marvel and a secret — Be it so. — pp. 44, 45.
The reader is requested to contrast these lines with the stern and solemn passage in which Childe Harold seems to bid a long and lasting farewell to social intercourse, and, with exceptions so cautiously restricted and guarded as to be almost none, brands the mass of humanity whom he leaves behind him as false and treacherous.
I have not loved the world, nor the world me;
I have not flattered it's rank breath, nor bow'd
To it's idolatries a patient knee,—
Nor coin'd my cheek to smiles, — nor cried aloud
In worship of an echo; in the crowd
They could not deem me one of such; I stood
Among them, but not of them; in a shroud
Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could
Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued.
I have not loved the world, nor the world me,—
But let us part fair foes; I do believe,
Though I have found them not, that there may be
Words which are things, — hopes which will not deceive,
And virtues which are merciful, nor weave
Snares for the failing: I would also deem
O'er others' griefs that some sincerely grieve
That two, or one, are almost what they seem,—
That goodness is no name, and happiness no dream. — pp. 61, 62.
Though the last of these stanzas has something in it mystic and enigmatical, yet with the passage already quoted from the "Dream," and some other poems which are already before the public, they remove the scrupulous delicacy with which otherwise we would have avoided allusion to the mental sufferings of the noble poet. But to uncover a wound is to demand a surgeon's hand to tent it. With kinder feelings to Lord Byron in person and reputation no one could approach him than ourselves: we owe it to the pleasure which he has bestowed upon us, and to the honour he has done to our literature. We have paid our warmest tribute to his talents — it is their due. We will touch on the uses for which he was invested with them — it is our duty; and happy, most happy, should we be, if, in discharging it, we could render this distinguished author a real service. We do not assume the office of harsh censors; — we are entitled at no time to do so towards genius, least of all in its hour of adversity; and we are prepared to make full allowance for the natural effect of misfortune upon a hold and haughty spirit.
—When the splitting wind
Makes flexible the knee of knotted oaks,
And flies fled under shade, the Thing of Courage
As roused with rage, with rage doth sympathise,
And, with an accent tuned in self-same key,
Returns to chiding fortune.
But this mode of defiance may last too long, and hurry him who indulges it into further evils; and to this point our observations tend. The advice ought not to be contemned on account of the obscurity of those by whom it is given: — the roughest fisherman as an useful pilot when a gallant vessel is near the breakers; the meanest shepherd may be a sure guide over a pathless heath, and the admonition which is given in well meant kindness should not be despised, even were it tendered with a frankness which may resemble a want of courtesy.
If the conclusion of Lord Byron's literary career were to be such as these mournful verses have anticipated — if this darkness of the spirit, this scepticism concerning the existence of worth, of friendship, of sincerity, were really and permanently to sink like a gulph between this distinguished poet and society, another name will be added to the illustrious list to whom Preston's caution refers.
Still wouldst thou write? — to tame thy youthful fire
Recall to life the masters of the lyre;
Lo every brow the shade of sorrow wears,
And every wreath is stained with dropping tears!
But this is an unfair picture. It is not the temper and talents of the poet, but the use to which he puts them, on which his happiness or misery is grounded. A powerful and unbridled imagination is, we have already said, the author and architect of its own disappointments. Its fascinations, its exaggerated pictures of good and evil, and the mental distress to which they give rise, are the natural and necessary evils attending on that quick susceptibility of feeling and fancy incident to the poetical temperament. But the Giver of all talents, while he has qualified them each with its separate and peculiar alloy, has endowed the owner with the power of purifying and refining them. But, as if to moderate the arrogance of genius, it is justly and wisely made requisite, that he must regulate and tame the fire of his fancy, and descend from the heights to which she exalts him, in order to obtain ease of mind and tranquillity. The materials of happiness, that is of such degree of happiness as is consistent with our present state, lie around us in profusion. But the man of talents must stoop to gather them, otherwise they would be beyond time reach of the mass of society, for whose benefit, as well as for his, Providence has created them. There is no royal and no poetical path to contentment and heart's-ease: that by which they are attained is open to all classes of mankind, and lies within the most limited range of intellect. To narrow our wishes and desires within the scope of our powers of attainment; to consider our misfortunes, however peculiar in their character, as our inevitable share in the patrimony of Adam; to bridle those irritable feelings, which governed are sure to become governors; to shun that intensity of galling and self-wounding reflection which our poet has so forcibly described in his own burning language:
—I have thought
Too long and darkly, till my brain became,
In its own eddy, boiling and o'erwrought,
A whirling gulf of phantasy and flame—
—to stoop, in short, to the realities of life; repent if we have offended, and pardon if we have been trespassed against; to look on the world less as our foe than as a doubtful and capricious friend, whose applause we ought as far as possible to deserve, but neither to court nor contemn — such seem the most obvious and certain, means of keeping or regaining mental tranquillity.
Tranquillae per virtutem patet unica vitae.
We are compelled to dwell upon this subject: for future ages, while our language is remembered, will demand of this why Lord Byron was unhappy? We retort this query on the noble poet himself while it is called "to-day." He does injustice to the world, if he imagines he has left it exclusively filled with those who rejoice in his sufferings. If the voice of consolation be in cases like his less loudly heard than that of reproach or upbraiding, it is because those who long to conciliate, to advise, to mediate, to console, are timid in thrusting forward their sentiments, and fear to exasperate where they most seek to soothe; while the busy and officious intrude, without shame or sympathy, and embitter the privacy of affliction by their rude gaze and importunate clamour. But the pain which such insects can give only lasts while the wound is raw. Let the patient submit to the discipline of the soul enjoined by religion, and recommended by philosophy, and the scar will become speedily insensible to their stings. Lord Byron may not have loved the world, but the world has loved him, not perhaps with a wise or discriminating affection, but as well as it is capable of loving any one. And many who do not belong to the world, as the word is generally understood, have their thoughts fixed on Lord Byron, with the anxious wish and eager hope that he will bring his powerful understanding to combat with his irritated feelings, and that his next efforts will shew that he has acquired the peace of mind necessary for the free and useful exercise of his splendid talents.
I decus, i nostrum, melioribus utere fatis.