There are two writers, in modern literature, whose extraordinary power over the minds of men, it may truly be said, has existed less in their works than in themselves, — Rousseau and Lord Byron. They have other points of resemblance. Both are distinguished by the most ardent and vivid delineations of intense conception, and by an intense sensibility of passion, rather than of affection. Both, too, by this double power, have held a dominion over the sympathy of their readers, far beyond the range of those ordinary feelings which are usually excited by the mere efforts of genius. The impression of this interest still accompanies the perusal of their writings: But there is another interest of more lasting, and far stronger power, which the one has possessed, and the other now possesses, — which lies in the continual embodying of the individual character, — it might almost be said, of the very person of the writer. When we speak or think of Rousseau or Byron, we are not conscious of speaking or thinking of an author. We have a vague but empassioned remembrance of men of surpassing genius, eloquence and power, — of prodigious capacity both of misery and happiness. We feel as if we had transiently met such beings in real life, or had known them in the dim and dark communion of a dream. Each of their works presents, in succession, a fresh idea of themselves; and, while the productions of other great men stand out from them, like something they have created, theirs, on the contrary, are images, pictures, busts of their living selves, — clothed, no doubt, at different times in different drapery, and prominent from a different background, — but uniformly impressed with the same form, and mien, and lineaments, and not to be mistaken for the representations of any other of the children of men.
But this view of the subject, though universally felt to be a true one, requires perhaps a little explanation. The personal character of which we have spoken, it should be understood, is not, altogether, that on which the seal of life has been set, — and to which, therefore, moral approval or condemnation is necessarily annexed, as to the language or conduct of actual existence. It is the character, so to speak, which is prior to conduct, and yet open to good and to ill, — the constitution of the being, in body and in soul. Each of those illustrious writers has, in this light, filled his works with expressions of his own character, — has unveiled to the world the secrets of his own being, — the mysteries of the framing of man. They have gone down into those depths which every man may sound for himself, though not for another; and they have made disclosures to the world of what they beheld and knew there — disclosures that have commanded and enforced a profound and universal sympathy, by proving that all mankind, the troubled and the untroubled, the lofty and the low, the strongest and the frailest, are linked together by the bonds of a common but inscrutable nature.
Thus, each of these wayward and richly-gifted spirits has made himself the object of profound interest to the world, — and that too, during periods of society when ample food was everywhere spread abroad for the meditations and passions of men. What love and desire, — what longing and passionate expectation hung upon the voice of Rousseau, the idol of his day! — That spell is broken. We now can regard his works in themselves, in great measure free from all the delusions and illusions that, like the glories of a bright and vapoury atmosphere, were for ever rising up and encircling the image of their wonderful creator. Still is the impression of his works vivid and strong. The charm which cannot pass away is there, — life breathing in dead words, — the pulses of passion, — the thrilling of the frame, — the sweet pleasure stealing from senses touched with ecstasy into sounds which the tongue frames, and the lips utter with delight. All these still are there, — the fresh beauty, the undimmed lustre — the immortal bloom and verdure and fragrance of life. These, light and vision-like as they seem, endure as in marble. But that which made the spirits of men, from one end of Europe to the other, turn to the name of Rousseau, — that idolizing enthusiasm which we can now hardly conceive, was the illusion of one generation, and has not survived to another. And what was the spell of that illusion? Was it merely that bewitching strain of dreaming melancholy which lent to moral declamation the tenderness of romance? Or that fiery impress of burning sensibility which threw over abstract and subtle disquisitions all the colours of a lover's tale? These undoubtedly — but not these alone. It was that continual impersonation of himself in his writings, by which he was for ever kept brightly present before the eyes of men. There was in him a strange and unsated desire of depicturing himself, throughout all the changes of his being. His wild temper only found ease in tracing out, in laying bare to the universal gaze, the very groundwork, the most secret paths, the darkest coverts of one of the most wayward and unimaginable minds ever framed by nature. From the moment that his first literary success had wedded him to the public, this was his history, — and such his strange, contradictory, divided life. Shy, and shunning the faces of men in his daily walks, yet searching and rending up the inmost recesses of his heart for the inspection of that race which he feared or hated. As a man, turning from the light, as from something unsupportably loathsome, and plunging into the thickest shades. Yet, in that other existence which he held from imagination, living only in the presence of men, — in the full broad glare of the world's eye, — and eagerly, impetuously, passionately, unsparingly seizing on all his own most hidden thoughts — his loneliest moods — his most sacred feelings — which had been cherished for the seclusion in which they sprung — for their own still deep peace — and for their breathings of unbeheld communions, — seizing upon all these, and flinging them out into the open air, that they might feed the curiosity of that eager, idle, frivolous world from which he had fled in misanthropical disgust — that he might array an exhibition to their greedy gaze, — and that he, the morbid and melancholy lover of solitude, might act a conspicuous and applauded part on the crowded theatre of public fame.
It might, on a hasty consideration, seem to us, that such un disguised revelation of feelings and passions, which the becoming pride of human nature, jealous of its own dignity, would, in general, desire to hold in unviolated silence, could produce in the public mind only pity, sorrow, or repugnance. But, in the case of men of real genius, like Rousseau or Byron, it is otherwise. Each of us must have been aware in himself of a singular illusion, by which these disclosures, when read with that tender or high interest which attaches to poetry, seem to have something of the nature of private and confidential communications. They are not felt, while we read, as declarations published to the world, — but almost as secrets whispered to chosen ears. Who is there that feels, for a moment, that the voice which reaches the inmost recesses of his heart is speaking to the careless multitudes around him? Or, if we do so remember, the words seem to pass by others like air, and to find their way to the hearts for whom they were intended, — kindred and sympathizing spirits, who discern and own that secret language, of which the privacy is not violated, though spoken in hearing of the uninitiated, — because it is not understood. There is an unobserved beauty that smiles on us alone; and the more beautiful to us, because we feel as if chosen out from a crowd of lovers. Something analogous to this is felt in the grandest scenes of Nature and of Art. Let a hundred persons look from a hilltop over some transcendent landscape. Each will select from the wide-spread glory at his feet, for his more special love and delight, some different glimpse of sunshine, — or solemn grove, — or embowered spire, — or brown-mouldering ruin, — or castellated cloud. During their contemplation, the soul of each man is amidst its own creations, and in the heart of his own solitude; — nor is the depth of that solitude broken, though it lies open to the sunshine, and before the eyes of unnumbered spectators. It is the same in great and impressive scenes of art, — for example, in a theatre. The tenderest tones of acted tragedy reach our hearts with a feeling as if that inmost soul which they disclose revealed itself to us alone. The audience of a theatre forms a sublime unity to the actor; but each person sees and feels with the same incommunicated intensity, as if all passed only before his own gifted sight. The publicity which is before our eyes is not acknowledged by our minds; and each heart feels itself to be the sole agitated witness of the pageant of misery.
But there are other reasons why we read with complacency writings which, by the most public declaration of most secret feelings, ought, it might seem, to shock and revolt our sympathy. A great poet may address the whole world in the language of intensest passion, concerning objects of which, rather than speak, face to face, with any one human being on earth, he would perish in his misery. For it is in solitude that he utters what is to be wafted by all the winds of heaven. There are, during his inspiration, present with him only the shadows of men. He is not daunted, or perplexed, or disturbed, or repelled by real living breathing features. He can updraw just as much as he chuses of the curtain that hangs between his own solitude and the world of life. He thus pours his soul out, partly to himself alone, — partly to the ideal abstractions, and impersonated images that float round him at his own conjuration, — and partly to human beings like himself, moving in the dark distance of the every-day world. He confesses himself, not before men, but before the Spirit of Humanity. And he thus fearlessly lays open his heart, — assured that nature never prompted unto genius that which will not triumphantly force its wide way into the human heart. We can thus easily imagine the poet whom, in real life, the countenances and voices of his fellow-men might silence into shame, or fastidiousness, or timidity, or aversion or disdain, — yet kindling in his solitude into irrepressible passion and enthusiasm towards human nature and all its transitory concerns, — anxiously moulding himself into the object of men's most engrossing and vehement love or aversion, — identifying his own existence with all their strongest and profoundest passions, — claiming kindred with them, not in their Virtues alone, but in their darkest vices and most fatal errors; — yet, in the midst of all this, proudly guarding his own prevailing character, so that it shall not merge in the waves of a common nature, but stand "in shape and gesture proudly eminent," contemplated with still-increasing interest by the millions that, in spite of themselves, feel and acknowledge its strange and unaccountable ascendency.
The reasons then are obvious, why a writer of very vivid sensibilities may, by empassioned self-delineation, hold a wondrous power over the entranced minds of his readers. But this power is in his living hands; and, like the wand of the magician, it loses its virtue on its master's death. We feel chiefly the influence of such a writer, while he lives — our cotemporary — going with us a fellow-voyager on the stream of life, and from time to time flashing towards us the emanations of his spirit. Our love — our expectation follow the courses of his mind, and, if his life repel us not, the courses of his life. It was the strange madness of Rousseau to pour the blaze of his reputation over the scandals of his life. But this was later in his career; and his name for a long time in Europe was that of an hermit-sage, — a martyr of liberty and virtue, — a persecuted good man loving a race unworthy of him, and suffering alike from their injustice and from the excess of his own spirit. He made a character for himself; — and whatever he had made it, it might have been believed. It was an assumed ideal impersonation of a character of literary and philosophical romance. At last, indeed, he broke up his own spell. But if he could have left the delusion behind him, he could not have left the power; — for the power hangs round the living man: it does not rest upon the grave.
When death removes such a writer from our sight, the magical influence of which we have spoken gradually fades away; and a new generation, free from all personal feelings towards the idol of a former age, may perhaps be wearied with that perpetual self-reference which to them seems merely the querulousness or the folly of unhappy or diseased egoism. It is even probable, that they may perversely withhold a portion of just admiration and delight from him who was once the undisputed sovereign of the soul, and that they may show their surprise at the subjection of their predecessors beneath the tyrannical despotism of genius, by scorning themselves to bow before its power, or acknowledge its legitimacy. It is at least certain, that by the darkness of death such luminaries, if not eclipsed, are shorn of their beams. So much, even in their works of most general interest, derives its beauty and fascination from a vivid feeling, in the reader's mind, of its being a portraiture of one with whom he has formed a kind of strange, wild and disturbed friendship, that they who come after, and have never felt the sorcery of the living man, instead of being kindled up by such pictures into impassioned wonder and delight, may gaze on them with no stronger emotion than curiosity, and even turn from them with indifference. Such must be more or less the fate of all works of genius, however splendid and powerful, of which the chief interest is not in universal truth, so much as in the intensity of individual feeling, and the impersonation of individual character.
It would, indeed, he in most violent contradiction to all we have formerly written of Lord Byron, were we to say that he stands in this predicament. Yet, there is a certain applicability of our observations even to him as well as to Rousseau, with whom, perhaps too fancifully, we have now associated his nature and his name. Posterity may make fewer allowances for much in himself and his writings, than his contemporaries are willing to do; nor will they, with the same passionate and impetuous zeal, follow the wild voice that too often leads into a haunted wilderness of doubt and darkness. To them, as to us, there will always be something majestic in his misery — something sublime in his despair. But they will not, like us, be withheld from sterner and severer feelings, and from the more frequent visitings of moral condemnation, by that awful commiseration and sympathy which a great poet breathes at will into all hearts, from his living agonies, — nor, by that restless, and watchful, and longing anxiety, to see again and again the princely sufferer rising up with fresh confessions of a still more magnificent sorrow, — nor, by that succession of affecting appeals to the frailties and troubles of our own hearts, which now keeps him vividly, and brightly, in our remembrance, wherever his soul, tempest-like, may have driven him over earth and sea, — nor, above all, by the cheering and lofty hope now felt by them who wish to see genius the inseparable companion of virtue, — that he whose inspiration holds us, always in wonder, and so often in delight, may come ere long to breathe a serener atmosphere of thought, — and, after all his wanderings, and all his woes, — with subsided passions, and invigorated intellect, calmly rest at last in the collected majesty of his power.
We are not now writing a formal critique on the genius of Byron, but rather expressing our notions of the relation in which he stands with the lovers of poetry. There is felt to be between him and the public mind, a stronger personal bond than ever linked its movements to any other living poet. And we think that this bond will in future be still more closely rivetted. During the composition of the first cantos of Childe Harold, he had but a confused idea of the character he wished to delineate, — nor did he perhaps very distinctly comprehend the scope and tendencies of his own genius. Two conceptions, distinct from each other, seem therein to be often blended, — one, of ideal human beings, made up of certain troubled powers and passions, — and one, of himself ranging the world of Nature and Man in wonder and delight and agitation, in his capacity of a poet. These conceptions, which frequently jostled and interfered with each other, he has since more distinctly unfolded in separate poems. His troubled imaginary beings, — possessing much of himself, and far more not of himself, he has made into Giaours, Conrads, Laras and Alps, — and his conception of himself has been expanded into Childe Harold, as we now behold him on that splendid pilgrimage. It is not enough to say that the veil is at last thrown off. It is a nobler creature who is before us. The ill-sustained misanthropy, and disdain of the two first Cantos, more faintly glimmer throughout the third, and may be said to disappear wholly from the fourth, which reflects the high and disturbed visions of earthly glory, as a dark swollen tide images the splendours of the sky in portentous colouring, and broken magnificence.
We have admitted, that much of himself is depicted in all his heroes; but when we seem to see the poet shadowed out in all those states of disordered being which such heroes exhibit, we are far from believing that his own mind has gone through those states of disorder, in its own experience of life. We merely conceive of it as having felt within itself the capacity of such disorders, and therefore exhibiting itself before us in possibility. This is not general — it is rare with great poets. Neither Homer, nor Shakspeare, nor Milton, ever so show themselves in the characters which they portray. Their poetical personages have no reference to themselves; but are distinct, independent creatures of their minds, produced in the full freedom of intellectual power. In Byron, there does not seem this freedom of power. There is little appropriation of character to events. Character is first, and all in all. It is dictated — compelled by some force in his own mind necessitating him, — and the events obey. These poems, therefore, with all their beauty and vigour, are not, like Scott's poems, full and complete narrations of some one definite story, containing within itself a picture of human life. They are merely bold, confused, and turbulent exemplifications of certain sweeping energies and irresistible passions. They are fragments of a poet's dark dream of life. The very personages, vividly as they are pictured, are yet felt to be fictitious; and derive their chief power over us from their supposed mysterious connexion with the poet himself, and, it may be added, with each other. The law of his mind is, to embody his own peculiar feelings in the forms of other men. In all his heroes we accordingly recognise — though with infinite modifications, the same great characteristics, — a high and audacious conception of the power of the mind, — an intense sensibility of passion, — an almost boundless capacity of tumultuous emotion, — a haunting admiration of the grandeur of disordered power, — and, above all, a soul-felt, blood-felt delight in beauty, — a beauty which, in his wild creations, is often scared away from the agitated surface of life by stormier passions, but which, like a bird of calm, is for ever returning, on its soft, silvery wings, before the black swell has finally subsided into sunshine and peace.
It seems to us, that this exquisite sense of beauty has of late become still more exquisite in the soul of Byron. Parasina, the most finished of all his poems, is full of it to overflowing; — it breathes from every page of the Prisoners of Chillon; — but it is, in Manfred that it riots and revels among the streams and waterfals, and groves, and mountains, and heavens. Irrelevant and ill-managed as many parts are of that grand drama, there is in the character of Manfred more of the self-might of Byron than in all his previous productions. He has therein brought, with wonderful power, metaphysical conceptions into forms, — and we know of no poem in which the aspect of external nature is throughout lighted up with an expression at once so beautiful, solemn and majestic. It is the poem, next to Childe Harold, which we should give to a foreigner to read, that he might know something of Byron. Shakspeare has given to those abstractions of human life and being, which are truth in the intellect, forms as full, clear, glowing as the idealized forms of visible nature. The very words of Ariel picture to us his beautiful being. In Manfred, we see glorious but immature manifestations of similar power. The poet there creates, with delight, thoughts and feelings and fancies into visible forms, that he may cling and cleave to them, and clasp them in his passion. The beautiful Witch of the Alps seems exhaled from the luminous spray of the Cataract, — as if the poet's eyes, unsated with the beauty of inanimate nature, gave spectral apparitions of loveliness to feed the pure passion of the poet's soul.
We speak of Manfred now, because it seems to us to hold a middle place between the Tales of Byron, and Childe Harold, as far as regards the Poet himself. But we likewise do so, that we may have an opportunity of saying a few words on the moral of this poem, and a few words on a subject that may scarcely seem to fall under the legitimate province of the critic, but which, in the case of this great writer, forms so profoundly-interesting a part of his poetical character — we mean, his scepticism.
The moral character of Byron's poetry has often been assailed, and we have ourselves admitted that some strong objections might be urged against it. But we think that his mind is now clearing up, like noon-day, after a stormy and disturbed morning; — and when the change which we anticipate has been fully brought about, the moral character of his poetry will be lofty and pure. Over this fine drama, a moral feeling hangs like a sombrous thunder cloud. No other guilt but that so darkly shadowed out could have furnished so dreadful an illustration of the hideous aberrations of human nature, however noble and majestic, when left a prey to its desires, its passions and its imagination. The beauty, at one time so innocently adored, is at last soiled, profaned and violated. Affection, love, guilt, horror, remorse and death come in terrible succession, yet all darkly linked together. We think of Astarte as young, beautiful, innocent — guilty — lost — murdered — buried — judged — pardoned; but still, in her permitted visit to earth, speaking in a voice of sorrow, and with a countenance yet pale with mortal trouble. We had but a glimpse of her in her beauty and innocence; but, at last, she rises up before us in all the mortal silence of a ghost, with fixed, glazed and passionless eyes, revealing death, judgement and eternity. The moral breathes and burns in every word, — in sadness, misery, insanity, desolation and death. The work is "instinct with spirit," — and in the agony and distraction, and all its dimly imagined causes, we behold, though broken up, confused and shattered, the elements of a purer existence.
On the other point, namely, the dark and sceptical spirit prevalent through the works of this poet, we shall not now utter all that we feel, but rather direct the notice of our readers to it as a singular phenomenon in the poetry of the age. Whoever has studied the spirit of Greek and Roman literature, must have been struck with the comparative disregard and indifference wherewith the thinking men of these exquisitely polished nations contemplated those subjects of darkness and mystery which afford, at some period or other of his life, so much disquiet — we had almost said so much agony to the mind of every reflecting modern. It is difficult to account for this in any very satisfactory, and we suspect altogether impossible to do so in any strictly logical manner. In reading the works of Plato and his interpreter Cicero, we find the germs of all the doubts and anxieties to which we have alluded, so far as these are connected with the workings of our reason. The singularity is, that those clouds of darkness, which hang over the intellect, do not appear, so far as we can perceive, to have thrown at any time any very alarming shade upon the feelings or temper of the ancient sceptic. We should think a very great deal of this was owing to the brilliancy and activity of his southern fancy. The lighter spirits of antiquity, like the more mercurial of our moderns, sought refuge in mere "gaiete du coeur" and derision. The graver poets and philosophers — and poetry and philosophy were in those days seldom disunited — built up some airy and beautiful system of mysticism, each following his own devices, and suiting the erection to his own peculiarities of hope and inclination; and this being once accomplished, the mind appears to have felt quite satisfied with what it had done, and to have reposed amidst the splendours of its sand-built fantastic edifice, with as much security as if it had been grooved and rivetted into the rock of ages. The mere exercise of ingenuity in devising a system, furnished consolation to its creators or improvers. Lucretius is a striking example of all this; and it may be averred that, down to the time of Claudian, who lived in the 4th century of our era, in no classical writer of antiquity do there occur any traces of what moderns understand by the restlessness and discomfort of uncertainty as to the government of the world, and the future destinies of Man.
There are three only even among the great poets of modern times, who have chosen to depict, in their full shape and vigour, those agonies to which great and meditative intellects are, in the present progress of human history, exposed by the eternal recurrence of a deep and discontented scepticism. But there is only one who has dared to represent himself as the victim of these nameless and indefinable sufferings. Goethe chose for his doubts and his darkness the terrible disguise of the mysterious Faustus. Schiller, with still greater boldness, planted the same anguish in the restless, haughty and heroic bosom of Wallenstein. But Byron has sought no external symbol in which to embody the inquietudes of his soul. He takes the world and all that it inherit for his arena and his spectators; and he displays himself before their gaze, wrestling unceasingly and ineffectually with the demon that torments him. At times there is something mournful and depressing in his scepticism; but oftener, it is of a high and solemn character, approaching to the very verge of a confiding faith. Whatever the poet may believe, we his readers always feel ourselves too much ennobled and elevated even by his melancholy, not to be confirmed in our own belief by the very doubts so majestically conceived and uttered. His scepticism, if it ever approaches to a creed, carries with it its refutation in its grandeur. Their is neither philosophy nor religion in those bitter and savage taunts which have been cruelly thrown out, from many quarters, against those moods of mind which are involuntary, and will not pass away; — the shadows and spectres which still haunt his imagination, may once have disturbed our own; — through his gloom there are frequent flashes of illumination; — and the sublime sadness which, to him, is breathed from the mysteries of mortal existence, is always joined with a longing after immortality, and expressed in language that is itself divine.
But it is our duty now to give our readers an analysis of the concluding Canto of Childe Harold; and as it is, in our opinion, the finest of them all, our extracts shall be abundant. The poem which it brings to an end is perhaps the most original in the language, both in conception and execution. It is no more like Beattie's Minstrel than Paradise Lost — though the former production was in the Noble author's mind when first thinking of Childe Harold. A great poet, who gives himself up, free and unconfined, to the impulses of his genius, as Byron has done in the better part of this singular creation, shows to us a spirit as it is sent out from the hands of Nature, to range over the earth and the societies of men. Even Shakespeare himself submits to the shackles of history and society. But here Byron traverses the whole earth, borne along by the whirlwind of his own spirit. Wherever a forest frowns, or a temple glitters — there he is privileged to bend his flight. He may suddenly start up from his solitary dream by the secret fountain of the desert, and descend at once into the tumult of peopled, or the silence of desolated cities. Whatever lives now — has perished heretofore — or may exist hereafter — and that has within it a power to kindle passion, may become the material of his all-embracing song. There are no unities of time or place to fetter him, — and we fly with mum from hilltop to hilltop, and from tower to tower, over all the solitude of nature, and all the magnificence of art. When the past pageants of history seem too dim and faded, he can turn to the splendid spectacles that have dignified our own days; and the images of kings and conquerors of old may give place to those yet living in sovereignty or exile. Indeed, much of the power which Harold holds over us is derived from this source, he lives in a sort of sympathy with the public mind — sometimes wholly distinct from it — sometimes acting in opposition to it — sometimes blending with it, — but, at all times, — in all his thoughts and actions having a reference to the public mind. His spirit need not go back into the past, — though it often does so, — to bring the objects of its love back to earth in more beautiful life. The existence he paints is — now. The objects he presents are marked out to him by men's present regards. It is his to speak of all those great political events which have been objects of such passionate sympathy to the nation. And when he does speak of them, he either gives us back our own feelings, raised into powerful poetry, or he endeavours to displace them from our breasts, and to substitute others of his own. In either case, it is a living speaker standing up before us, and ruling our minds. But chiefly he speaks our own feelings, exalted in thought, language and passion. The whole substance and basis of his poem is, therefore, popular. All the scenes through which lie has travelled, were, at the very moment, of strong interest to the public mind, and that interest still hangs over them. His travels were not, at first, the self-impelled act of a mind severing itself in lonely roaming from all participation with the society to which it belonged, but rather obeying the general motion of the mind of that society. The southern regions of Europe have been like a world opening upon its with fresh and novel beauty, and our souls have enjoyed themselves there, of late years, with a sort of romantic pleasure. This fanciful and romantic feeling was common to those who went to see those countries, and to those who remained at home to hear the narrations of the adventurers, — so that all the Italian, Grecian, Peninsular, Ionian and Ottoman feeling which pervades Childe Harold, singularly suited as it is to the genius of Byron, was not first brought upon the English mind by the power of that genius, but was there already in great force and activity.
There can be no limits set to the interest that attaches to a great poet thus going forth, like a spirit, from the heart of a powerful and impassioned people, to range among the objects and events to them most pregnant with passion, — who is, as it were, the representative of our most exalted intellect, — and who often seems to disclose within ourselves that splendour with which he invests our own ordinary conceptions. The consciousness that he is so considered by a great people, must give a kingly power and confidence to a poet. He feels himself entitled, and, as it were, elected to survey time phenomena of the times and to report upon them in poetry. He is the speculator of the passing might and greatness of his own generation. But though he speaks to the public, at all times, he does not consider them as his judges. He looks upon them as sentient existences that are important to his poetical existence, — but, so that he command their feelings and passions, he cares not for their censure or their praise, — for his fame is more than more literary fame; and he aims in poetry, like the fallen chief whose image is so often before him, at universal dominion, we had almost said, universal tyranny, over the minds of men.
Childe Harold is now in Italy; and his first strain rises from Venice, "the City of the Sea." There is, unquestionably, much vigour in his lament over her fallen greatness, — yet we confess, that, during the first thirty stanzas of this Canto, the poet's mind seems scarcely to have kindled into its perfect power; and that there is not much in them beyond the reach of a far inferior intellect. It seems to us, also, the only part of the poem in which he forces his own individual feelings into reluctant words, instead of giving vent to them, as is usual with him, in impassioned music. The following stanzas are fine.
Statues of glass — all shivered — the long file
Of her dead Doges are declined to dust;
But where they dwelt, the vast and sumptuous pile
Bespeaks the pageant of their splendid trust;
Their sceptre broken, and their sword in rust,
Have yielded to the stranger: empty halls,
Thin streets, and foreign aspects, such as must
Too oft remind her who and what enthrals,
Have flung a desolate cloud o'er Venice' lovely walls.
When Athens' armies fell at Syracuse,
And fettered thousands bore the yoke of war,
Redemption rose up in the Attic Muse,
Her voice their only ransom from afar:
See! as they chant the tragic hymn, the car
Of the o'ermastered Victor stops — the reins
Fall from his hands — his idle scimitar
Starts from its belt — he rends his captive's chains,
And bids him thank the Bard for Freedom and his strains.
Thus, Venice! if no stronger claim were thine,
Were all thy proud historic deeds forgot,
Thy choral memory of the Bard divine,
Thy love of Tasso, should have cut the knot
Which ties thee to thy tyrants; and thy lot
Is shameful to the nations, — most of all,
Albion! to thee: the Ocean queen should not
Abandon Ocean's children; in the fall
Of Venice think of thine, despite thy watery wall.
I loved her from my boyhood — she to me
Was as a fairy city of the heart,
Rising like water-columns from the sea—
Of Joy the sojourn, and of Wealth the mart;
And Otway, Ratcliffe, Schiller, Shakespeare's art,
Had stamped her image in me, and even so,
Although I found her thus, we did not part;
Perchance even dearer in her day of woe,
Than when she was a boast, a marvel, and a show. p. 10-12.
Escaping from Venice, he presents us with n exquisite moonlight landscape on the banks of the Brenta. Indeed, the whole of this Canto is rich in description of Nature. The love of Nature now appears as a distinct passion in his mind. It is a love that does not rest in beholding, nor is satisfied with describing what is before him. It has a power and being, blending itself with the poet's very life. Etherially and ideally beautiful and perfect, and therefore satisfying the longings of a poet's soul, Nature yet seems to woo with delight his very senses — to love him, frail, weak and lowly as he is, and to breathe upon him the blessedness and glory of her own deep, calm, and mighty existence. Though Byron had, with his real eyes, perhaps seen more of Nature than ever was before permitted to any great poet, yet he never before seemed to open his whole heart to her genial impulses. But in this he is changed; and, in the third and fourth Cantos of Harold, he will stand a comparison with the best descriptive poets, in this age of descriptive poetry.
The Moon is up, and yet it is not night—
Sunset divides the sky with her — a sea
Of glory streams along the Alpine height
Of blue Friuli's mountains; Heaven is free
From clouds, but of all colours seems to be,—
Melted to one vast Iris of the West,—
Where the Day joins the past Eternity;
While, on the other hand, meek Dian's crest
Floats through the azure air — an island of the blest!
A single star is at her side, and reigns
With her o'er half the lovely heaven; but still
Yon sunny Sea heaves brightly, and remains
Rolled o'er the peak of the far Rhaetian hill,
As Day and Night contending were, until
Nature reclaimed her order: — gently flows
The deep-dyed Brenta, where their hues instil
The odorous purple of a new-born rose,
Which streams upon her stream, and glassed within it glows,
Filled with the face of heaven, which, from afar,
Comes down upon the waters! all its hues,
From the rich sunset to the rising star,
Their magical variety diffuse:
And now they change — a paler Shadow strews
Its mantle o'er the mountains; parting Day
Dies like the Dolphin, whom each pang imbues
With a new colour as it gasps away—
The last still loveliest, till — 'tis gone — and all is gray. p. 16, 17.
Passing through Arqua, the mountain-village where Petrarch "went down the vale of years," he beautifully muses over the remains of his simple mansion and his sepulchre, and then starts away from the peacefulness of the hallowed scene, into one of those terrible fits, which often suddenly appal us in his poetry.
There is a tomb in Arqua; — reared in air,
Pillared in their sarcophagus, repose
The bones of Laura's lover: here repair
Many familiar with his well-sung woes,
The pilgrims of his genius. He arose
To raise a language, and his land reclaim
From the dull yoke of her barbaric foes:
Watering the tree which bears his Lady's name
With his melodious tears, he gave himself to fame.
They keep his dust in Arqua, where he died;
The mountain-village where his latter days
Went down the vale of years; and 'tis their pride—
An honest pride — and let it be their praise,
To offer to the passing stranger's gaze
His mansion and his sepulchre; both plain
And venerably simple, such as raise
A feeling more accordant with his strain
Than if a pyramid formed his monumental fane.
And the soft quiet hamlet where he dwelt
Is one of that complexion which seems made
For those who their mortality have felt,
And sought a refuge from their hopes decayed
In the deep umbrage of a green hill's shade,
Which shows a distant prospect far away
Of busy cities, now in vain displayed,
For they can lure no further; and the ray
Of a bright sun can make sufficient holiday,
Developing the mountains, leaves, and flowers,
And shining in the brawling brook, where-by,
Clear as its current, glide the sauntering hours
With a calm languor, which, though to the eye
Idlesse it seem, hath its morality.
If from society we learn to live,
'Tis Solitude should teach us how to die;
It hath no flatterers; vanity can give
No hollow aid; alone — man with his God must strive:
Or, it may be, with Demons, who impair
The strength of better thoughts, and seek their prey
In melancholy bosoms — such as were
Of moody texture from their earliest day,
And loved to dwell in darkness and dismay
Deeming themselves predestined to a doom
Which is not of the pangs that pass away;
Making the Sun like blood, the Earth a tomb,
The tomb a hell, and Hell itself a murkier gloom. 18-20.
In Ferrara, he vents his pity over the fate of Tasso, and his wrath against the tyrant Alphonso; and after some eloquent eulogiums on Italy and her finest spirits, we find him at Florence. The delight with which the pilgrim contemplates the ancient Greek statues there, and afterwards at Rome, is such as might have been expected from any great poet, whose youthful mind had, like his, been imbued with those classical ideas and associations, which afford so many sources of pleasure, through every period of life. He has gazed upon these masterpieces of art with, as it seems to us, a more susceptible, and in spite of his disavowal, we had almost said with a more learned eye, than can be traced in the effusions of an poet who had previously expressed, in any formal manner, his admiration of their beauty. It may appear fanciful to say so; — but we think the genius of Byron is, more than that of any other modern poet, akin to that peculiar genius, which seems to have been diffused among all the poets and artists of ancient Greece; and in whose spirit, above all its other wonders, the great specimens of Sculpture seem to have been conceived and executed. Modern poets, in general, delight in a full assemblage of persons or ideas or images, and in a rich variety of effect, something not far dissimilar from which is found and admired in the productions of Painters. Byron alone seems to be satisfied with singleness, simplicity and unity. He shares, what some consider to be the disadvantages of Sculpture, but what we conceive to be, in no small degree, the sources of that power, which, unrivalled by any other productions, save only those of the poet, breathes from the inimitable monuments of that severest of the arts. His creations, whether of beauty or of strength, are all single creations. He requires no grouping to give effect to his favourites, or to tell his story, His heroines are solitary symbols of loveliness, which require no foil; his heroes stand alone as upon marble pedestals, displaying the naked power of passion, or the wrapped up and reposing energy of grief. The artist who would illustrate, as it is called, the works of any of our other poets, must borrow the mimic splendours of the pencil. He who would transfer into another vehicle the spirit of Byron, must pour the liquid metal, or hew the stubborn rock. What he loses in ease, he will gain in power. He might draw from Medora, Gulnare, Lara, or Manfred, subjects for relievos, worthy of enthusiasm almost as great as Harold has himself displayed on the contemplation of the loveliest, and the sternest relics, of the inimitable genius of the Greeks.
But Arno wins us to the fair white walls,
Where the Etrurian Athens claims and keeps
A softer feeling for her fairy halls:
Girt by her theatre of hills, she reaps
Her corn, and wine, and oil — and Plenty leaps
To laughing life, with her redundant Horn.
Along the banks where smiling Arno sweeps
Was modern Luxury of Commerce born,
And buried Learning rose, redeemed to a new Morn.
There, too, the Goddess loves in stone, and fills
The air around with Beauty; we inhale
The ambrosial aspect, which, beheld, instils
Part of its immortality; the veil
Of heaven is half undrawn; within the pale
We stand, and in that form and face behold
What Mind can make, when Nature's self would fail;
And to the fond Idolaters of old
Envy the innate flash which such a soul could mould:
We gaze and turn away, and know not where,
Dazzled and drunk with Beauty, till the heart
Reels with its fulness; there — for ever there—
Chained to the chariot of triumphal Art,
We stand as captives, and would not depart.
Away! — there need no words, nor terms precise,
The paltry jargon of the marble mart,
Where Pedantry gulls Folly — we have eyes:
Blood — pulse — and breast confirm the Dardan Shepherd's prize.
Appear'dst thou not to Paris in this guise?
Or to more deeply blest Anchises? or,
In all thy perfect goddess-ship, when lies
Before thee thy own vanquished Lord of War?
And gazing in thy face as toward a star,
Laid on thy lap, his eyes to thee upturn,
Feeding on thy sweet cheek! while thy lips are
With lava kisses melting while they burn,
Showered on his eyelids, brow, and mouth, as from an urn!
Glowing, and circumfused in speechless love,
Their full divinity inadequate
That feeling to express, or to improve,
The Gods become as mortals, and man's fate
Has moments like their brightest; but the weight
Of earth recoils upon us; — let it go!
We can recall such visions, and create,
From what has been, or might be, things which grow
Into thy statue's form, and look like gods below. p. 27-29.
With the same divine glow of enthusiasm he speaks of the Greek statues at Rome.
Or, turning to the Vatican, go see
Laocoon's torture dignifying pain—
A Father's love and Mortal's agony
With an Immortal's patience blending: — Vain
The struggle — vain, against the coiling strain
And gripe, and deepening of the dragon's grasp,
The old man's clench; the long envenomed chain
Rivets the living links, — the enormous Asp
Enforces pang on pang, and stifles gasp on gasp.
Or view the Lord of the unerring bow,
The God of life, and poesy, and light—
The Sun in human limbs arrayed, and brow
All radiant from his triumph in the fight;
The shaft hath just been shot — the arrow bright
With an immortal's vengeance; in his eye
And nostril beautiful disdain, and might
And majesty, flash their full lightnings by,
Developing in that one glance the Deity.
But in his delicate form — a dream of Love,
Shaped by some solitary nymph, whose breast
Longed for a deathless lover from above,
And maddened in that vision — are exprest
All that ideal Beauty ever bless'd
The mind with in its most unearthly mood,
When each conception was a heavenly guest—
A ray of immortality — and stood,
Starlike, around, until they gathered to a god!
And if it be Prometheus stole from Heaven
The fire which we endure, it was repaid
By him to whom the energy was given
Which this poetic marble hath arrayed
With an eternal glory — which, if made
By human hands, is not of human thought;
And Time himself hath hallowed it, nor laid
One ringlet in the dust — nor hath it caught
A tinge of years, but breathes the flame with which 'twas wrought. p. 83, 84.
While he vet remains at Florence, he meditates for a while on the ashes of the great men in Santa Croce and then, expressing a feigned scorn of those very works of art, which had awakened his inspiration, lie carries us at once into the bloody field of Thrasimine.
By Thrasimine's lake, in the defiles
Fatal to Roman rashness, more at home;
For there the Carthaginian's warlike wiles
Come back before me, as his skill beguiles
The host between the mountains and the shore,
Where Courage falls in her despairing files,
And torrents, swoll'n to rivers with their gore,
Reek through the sultry plain, with legions scatter'd o'er.
Like to a forest felled by mountain winds;
And such the storm of battle on this day,
And such the frenzy, whose convulsion blinds
To all save Carthage, that, beneath the fray,
An Earthquake reeled unheededly away!
None felt stern Nature rocking at his feet,
And yawning forth a grave for those who lay
Upon their bucklers for a winding sheet;
Such is the absorbing hate when warring nations meet!
The Earth to them was as a rolling bark
Which bore them to Eternity; they saw
The Ocean round, but had no time to mark
The motions of their vessel; Nature's law,
In them suspended, recked not of the awe
Which reigns when mountains tremble, and the birds
Plunge in the clouds for refuge, and withdraw
From their down-toppling nests; and bellowing herds
Stumble o'er heaving plains, and man's dread hath no words. p. 34, 35.
How delightful, after spell a terrible picture, is the placid and beautiful repose of what follows.
Far other scene is Thrasimene now;
Her lake a sheet of silver, and her plain
Rent by no ravage save the gentle plough;
Her aged trees rise thick as once the slain
Lay where their roots are; but a brook hath ta'en—
A little rill of scanty stream and bed—
A name of blood from that day's sanguine rain;
And Sanguinetto tells ye where the dead
Made the earth wet, and turned the unwilling waters red.
But thou, Clitumnus! in thy sweetest wave
Of the most living crystal that was e'er
The haunt of river-Nymph, to gaze and lave
Her limbs where nothing hid them, thou dost rear
Thy grassy banks whereon the milk-white steer
Grazes; the purest god of gentle waters!
And most serene of aspect, and most clear;
Surely that stream was unprofaned by slaughters—
A mirror and a bath for Beauty's youngest daughters!
And on thy happy shore a temple still,
Of small and delicate proportion, keeps
Upon a mild declivity of hill,
Its memory of thee; beneath it sweeps
Thy current's calmness; oft from out it leaps
The finny darter with the glittering scales,
Who dwells and revels in thy glassy deeps;
While, chance, some scattered water-lily sails
Down where the shallower wave still tells its bubbling tales. p. 35, 36.
This gentle scene is again suddenly disturbed by a description of the Cataract of Velino, which absolutely thunders in our like a reality. The passion with which the whole description is imbued, is peculiarly characteristic of Byron.
The roar of waters! — from the headlong height
Velino cleaves the wave-worn precipice;
The fall of waters! rapid as the light
The flashing mass foams shaking the abyss;
The hell of waters! where they howl and hiss,
And boil in endless torture; while the sweat
Of their great agony, wrung out from this
Their Phlegethon, curls round the rocks of jet
That gird the gulf around, in pitiless horror set,
And mounts in spray the skies, and thence again
Returns in an unceasing shower, which round,
With its unemptied cloud of gentle rain,
Is an eternal April to the ground,
Making it all one emerald: — how profound
The gulf! and how the giant element
From rock to rock leaps with delirious bound,
Crushing the cliffs, which, downward worn and rent
With his fierce footsteps, yield in chasms a fearful vent
To the broad column which rolls on, and shows
More like the fountain of an infant sea
Torn from the womb of mountains by the throes
Of a new world, than only thus to be
Parent of rivers, which flow gushingly,
With many windings, through the vale: — Look back!
Lo! where it comes like an Eternity,
As if to sweep down all things in its track,
Charming the eye with dread, — a matchless cataract,
Horribly beautiful! but on the verge,
From side to side, beneath the glittering morn,
An Iris sits, amidst the infernal surge,
Like Hope upon a death-bed, and, unworn
Its steady dyes, while all around is torn
By the distracted waters, bears serene
Its brilliant hues with all their beams unshorn:
Resembling, 'mid the torture of the scene,
Love watching Madness with unalterable mien. p. 37-39.
There immediately follows this a passage, which produces a powerful effect on our imagination, as it would seem almost entirely by the mere enumeration of the names of famous mountains. We feel as if we, as well as the poet, had been eyewitnesses of all the sublimity.
Once more upon the woody Apennine,
The infant Alps, which — had I not before
Gazed on their mightier Parents, where the pine
Sits on more shaggy summits, and where roar
The thundering Lauwine — might be worshipped more;
But I have seen the soaring Jungfrau rear
Her never-trodden snow, and seen the hoar
Glaciers of bleak Mont Blanc both far and near,
And in Chimari heard the Thunder-Hills of fear,
Th' Acroceraunian mountains of old name;
And on Parnassus seen the eagles fly
Like spirits of the spot, as 'twere for fame,
For still they soared unutterably high:
I've looked on Ida with a Trojan's eye;
Athos, Olympus, Aetna, Atlas, made
These hills seem things of lesser dignity, &c. p. 39, 40.
But the Pilgrim now approaches — and enters that place whither all his visions were tending, and which surpasses in grandeur all that even his eyes had before witnessed on earth. He has not disappointed us in his poetical commemoration of the Eternal City. Souls the most untouched with that inspiration of which he has drunk so deeply, cannot gaze upon that most affecting of all earthly scenes, without being wrapt for a season into something of that high ecstasy which is the privileged element of genius, — without catching a Roman grandeur in the midst of the crumbled palaces of Rome. The Seven Hills themselves have mouldered into one mass of ruin. The concussions of war, time, and barbarism, have levelled the old land-marks with which we are familiar in the pages of Livy, Tacitus and Virgil, — they have bereaved not only the Palatine of its splendour, but the Tarpeian of its height. We descend, not ascend, to the Pantheon; and in a few damp, dreary, and subterranean dungeons, we survey the only relics of the gigantic palace of the Caesars, "the Domus Aurea," the wonder of the world. In the midst of this chaos and this desert — throned on the pathless labyrinth of her ruin, sits the Genius of the place — a personification which is not dreamlike or imaginary, but which rivets and rules the soul of the most prosaic observer, — the majestic image or memory of the fallen city. Here indeed the sombre spirit of Harold must have found a fitting resting-place. Here, indeed, there was no occasion for the exercise of that fearful power, with which it has been his delight to throw a veil over gladness, and make us despise ourselves for being happy even under the fairest influences of the bloom of Nature. The darkest soul might here revel in images of grief, without fearing any want of sympathy for its terrible creations. But Byron has wisely forborne to carry the impression further than was necessary; or rather, with the genuine submission and reverence natural to a truly great mind, he disdains to he other than passive on such an arena; and taking, as it were, the troubled fingers of his Pilgrim from the lyre, he sets up the trembling strings to answer, only as it may be spoken to them by the mournful breezes of the surrounding desolation.
Oh, Rome! my Country! City of the Soul!
The orphans of the heart must turn to thee,
Lone Mother of dead Empires! and control
In their shut breasts their petty misery.
What are our woes and sufferance? Come and see
The cypress, hear the owl, and plod your way
O'er steps of broken thrones and temples ,Ye!
Whose agonies are evils of a day—
A world is at our feet as fragile as our clay.
The Niobe of nations there she stands,
Childless and crownless, in her voiceless woe;
An empty urn within her withered hands,
Whose holy dust was scattered long ago;
The Scipios' tomb contains no ashes now;
The very sepulchres lie tenantless
Of their heroic dwellers: dost thou flow,
Old Tiber! through a marble wilderness?
Rise, with thy yellow waves, and mantle her distress!
The Goth, the Christian. Time, War, Flood, and Fire,
Have dealt upon the seven-hilled city's pride;
She saw her glories star by star expire,
And up the steep barbarian monarchs ride,
Where the car climbed the capitol; far and wide
Temple and tower went down, nor left a site:—
Chaos of ruins! who shall trace the void,
O'er the dim fragments cast a lunar light,
And say, "here was, or is," where all is doubly night?
The double night of ages, and of her,
Night's daughter, Ignorance, hath wrapt and wrap
All round us; we but feel our way to err:
The ocean hath his chart, the stars their map,
And Knowledge spreads them on her ample lap;
But Rome is as the desart, where we steer
Stumbling o'er recollections; now we clap
Our hands, and cry "Eureka!" it is clear—
When but some false mirage of ruin rises near.
Alas! the lofty city! and alas!
The trebly hundred triumphs! and the day
When Brutus made the dagger's edge surpass
The conqueror's sword in bearing fame away!
Alas, for Tully's voice, and Virgil's lay,
And Livy's pictured page! — but these shall be
Her resurrection; all beside — decay.
Alas, for Earth, for never shall we see
That brightness in her eye she bore when Rome was free!
Oh, thou, whose chariot rolled on Fortune's wheel,
Triumphant Sylla! Thou, who didst subdue
Thy country's foes ere thou wouldst pause to feel
The wrath of thy own wrongs, or reap the due
Of hoarded vengeance till thine Eagles flew
O'er prostrate Asia; — thou, who with thy frown
Annihilated senates; — Roman, too,
With all thy vices — for thou didst lay down
With an atoning smile a more than earthly crown—
Thy dictatorial wreath — couldst thou divine
To what would one day dwindle that which made
Thee more than mortal? and that so supine
By aught than Romans Rome should thus be laid?
She who was named Eternal, and arrayed
Her warriors but to conquer — she who veil'd
Earth with her haughty shadow, and displayed,
Until the o'er-canopied horizon fail'd,
Her rushing wings — Oh! she who was Almighty hail'd!
Here his mind reverts, in its passion, to the gent ruling spirits of his own country or age, in whom he discerns a dark and shadowy resemblance to the Syilas and Caesars of Rome; and, passing from Cromwell to Napoleon, he glances at the French Revolution, and fills several confused and turbid stanzas with political retrospects and prophecies. From these lucubrations, however, we confess we are not unwillingly brought back to the scene before him, by a very beautiful passage, which ends, like so many others, with the powerful expression of his own gloom and misanthropy. This strain, however, is soon discontinued. Among the ruins of Rome there is no stedfast resting-place for the indulgence of individual sorrow; and the pilgrim, rising into a loftier mood, thus blends his spirit with the glorious decay.
Then let the winds howl on! their harmony
Shall henceforth be my music, and the night
The sound shall temper with the owlets' cry,
As I now hear them, in the fading light
Dim o'er the bird of darkness' native site,
Answering each other on the Palatine,
With their large eyes, all glistening gray and bright,
And sailing pinions. — Upon such a shrine
What are our petty griefs? — let me not number mine.
Cypress and ivy, weed and wallflower grown
Matted and massed together, hillocks heaped
On what were chambers, arch crushed, column strown
In fragments, choked up vaults, and frescos steeped
In subterranean damps, where the owl peeped,
Deeming it midnight: — Temples — baths — or halls?
Pronounce who can: for all that Learning reaped
From her research hath been, that these are walls—
Behold the Imperial Mount! 'tis thus the mighty falls.
There is the moral of all human tales;
'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,
First Freedom, and then Glory — when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption, barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page, — 'tis better written here,
Where gorgeous Tyranny hath thus amassed
All treasures, all delights, that Eye or Ear,
Heart, soul could seek, tongue ask — Away with words! draw near,
Admire, exult — despise — laugh — weep, — for here
There is such matter for all feeling: — Man!
Thou pendulum betwixt a smile and tear,
Ages and realms are crowded in this span,
This mountain, whose obliterated plan
The pyramid of empires pinnacled,
Of Glory's gewgaws shining in the van
Till the Sun's rays with added flame were fill'd!
Where are its golden roofs? where those who dared to build?
Tully was not so eloquent as thou,
Thou nameless column with the buried base!
What are the laurels of the Caesar's brow?
Crown me with ivy from his dwelling-place.
Whose arch or pillar meets me in the face,
Titus or Trajan's? No — 'tis that of Time:
Triumph, arch, pillar, all he doth displace
Scoffing; and apostolic statues climb
To crush the imperial urn, whose ashes slept sublime,
Buried in air, the deep blue sky of Rome,
And looking to the stars: they had contain'd
A spirit which with these would find a home,
The last of those who o'er the whole earth reign'd,
The Roman globe, for, after, none sustain'd,
But yielded back his conquests: — he was more
Than a mere Alexander, and, unstain'd
With household blood and wine, serenely wore
His sovereign virtues — still we Trajan's name adore.
Where is the rock of Triumph, the high place
Where Rome embraced her heroes? where the steep
Tarpeian? — fittest goal of Treason's race,
The promontory whence the Traitor's Leap.
Cured all ambition. Did the conquerors heap
Their spoils here? Yes; and in yon field below,
A thousand years of silenced factions sleep—
The Forum, where the immortal accents glow,
And still the eloquent air breathes — burns with Cicero! p. 56-59.
On the accidental recurrence to his mind of the character of Numa, his spirit falls into a passionate dream of the Egerian Grot, in which there breathes that full, delicate, and perfect sense of beauty which often steals upon him during moods of a very different kind, and wins him, somewhat reluctantly, away into scenes filled with images of stillness and peace.
Egeria! sweet creation of some heart
Which found no mortal resting-place so fair
As thine ideal breast; whate'er thou art
Or wert, — a young Aurora of the air,
The nympholepsy of some fond despair;
Or, it might be, a beauty of the earth,
Who found a more than common votary there
Too much adoring — whatsoe'er thy birth,
Thou wert a beautiful thought, and softly bodied forth.
The mosses of thy fountain still are sprinkled
With thine Elysian water-drops; the face
Of thy cave-guarded spring, with years unwrinkled,
Reflects the meek-eyed genius of the place,
Whose green, wild margin now no more erase
Art's works; nor must the delicate waters sleep
Prisoned in marble, bubbling from the base
Of the cleft statue, with a gentle leap
The rill runs o'er, and round, fern, flowers, and ivy, creep
Fantastically tangled; the green hills
Are clothed with early blossoms, through the grass
The quick-eyed lizard rustles, and the bills
Of summer-birds sing welcome as ye pass;
Flowers fresh in hue, and many in their class,
Implore the pausing step, and with their dyes
Dance in the soft breeze in a fairy mass;
The sweetness of the violet's deep blue eyes,
Kissed by the breath of heaven, seems coloured by its skies.
Here didst thou dwell, in this enchanted cover,
Egeria! thy all heavenly bosom beating
For the far footsteps of thy mortal lover;
The purple Midnight veil'd that mystic meeting
With her most starry canopy, and seating
Thyself by thine adorer, what befel?
This cave was surely shaped out for the greeting
Of an enamoured Goddess, and the cell
Haunted by holy Love — the earliest oracle!
And didst thou not, thy breast to his replying,
Blend a celestial with a human heart;
And Love, which dies as it was born, in sighing,
Share with immortal transports? could thine art
Make them indeed immortal, and impart
The purity of Heaven to earthly joys,
Expel the venom and not blunt the dart—
The dull satiety which all destroys—
And root from out the soul the deadly weed which cloys? p. 60-62.
But he will not allow himself to be held in the innocent enchantment of such emotions, and bursts again into those bitter communings with misery, without which it would absolutely seem he can have no continued existence, till at last he denounces a curse — the curse of forgiveness it is said to be — on all that has perturbed and maddened his spirit. We wish to avoid, as much as possible, all reference to such distressing passions. But here they give a dark and terrible colouring to the poem, and it is impossible to misunderstand them. Our business is only with the poetry — at least we desire not to extend our privilege: And of the poetry we must say, that the season when the wild curse is imprecated, midnight; the scene, the ruined site of the Temple of the Furies; the auditors, the ghosts of departed years; and the imprecator, a being whose soul, though endowed with the noblest gifts of nature, is by himself said to be in ruins like the grandeur around him — and even dark hints thrown out, that for its aberrations there may be found the most mournful of all excuses in the threatening of the most mournful of all human calamities; — all this renders the long age to which we allude, one of the most awful records of the agonies of man — perhaps the most painful and agitating picture of the misery of the passions, without their degradation, that is to be found in the whole compass of human language. Let us escape from it, and turn our eyes to the moonlight and indistinct shadow of the ruins of the Coliseum.
A ruin — yet what ruin! from its mass
Walls, palaces, half-cities, have been reared;
Yet oft the enormous skeleton ye pass,
And marvel where the spoil could have appeared.
Hath it indeed been plundered, or but cleared?
Alas! developed, opens the decay,
When the colossal fabric's form is neared:
It will not bear the brightness of the day,
Which streams too much on all years, man, have reft away.
But when the rising moon begins to climb
Its topmost arch, and gently pauses there;
When the stars twinkle through the loops of time,
And the low night-breeze waves along the air
The garland-forest, which the gray walls wear,
Like laurels on the bald first Caesar's head;
When the light shines serene but doth not glare,
Then in this magic circle raise the dead:
Heroes have trod this spot — 'tis on their dust ye tread. p. 74, 75.
We regret that our limits will not allow us to quote any more of his description of the Ancient City; — not even that of St. Peter's — in which the loftiest words and most majestic images render back an image of the august conceptions by which the mind of the poet seems to have been expanded in its contemplation. There are still, however, two passages in the poem which we would wish to lay before our readers — that on the death of our Princess — and that on the Ocean. On the first we have not yet heart to venture — and with the last, therefore, we shall conclude; in which the Poet bids us farewell in a more magnificent strain than we can hope to hear again till his own harp, which has assuredly lost none of its music, be once more struck — and may it then be with steadier hands and a more tranquil spirit!
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne'er express, yet can not all conceal.
Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean — roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin — his control
Stops with the shore; — upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man's ravage, save his own,
When, for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.
His steps are not upon thy paths, — thy fields
Are not a spoil for him, — thou dost arise
And shake him from thee; the vile strength he wields
For Earth's destruction thou dost all despise,
Spurning him from thy bosom to the skies—
And send'st him, shivering in thy playful spray
And howling, to his Gods, where haply lies
His petty hope in some near port or bay,
And dashest him again to Earth: — there let him lay.
The armaments which thunderstrike the walls
Of rock-built cities, bidding nations quake,
And Monarchs tremble in their capitals,
The oak leviathans, whose huge ribs make
Their clay creator the vain title take
Of lord of thee, and arbiter of war;
These are thy toys, and, as the snowy flake,
They melt into thy yeast of waves, which mar
Alike the Armada's pride or spoils of Trafalgar.
Thy shores are empires, changed in all save thee—
Assyria, Greece, Rome, Carthage, what are they?
Thy waters washed them power while they were free,
And many a tyrant since; their shores obey
The stranger, slave, or savage; their decay
Has dried up realms to deserts: — not so thou,
Unchangeable save to thy wild waves' play—
Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow—
Such as creation's dawn beheld, thou rollest now.
Thou glorious mirror, where the Almighty's form
Glasses itself in tempests; in all time,
Calm or convulsed — in breeze, or gale, or storm—
Icing the Pole, or in the torrid clime
Dark-heaving — boundless, endless, and sublime—
The image of Eternity — the throne
Of the Invisible; even from out thy slime
The monsters of the deep are made — each zone
Obeys thee — thou goest forth, dread, fathomless, alone.
And I have loved thee, Ocean! and my joy
Of youthful sports was on thy breast to be
Borne, like thy bubbles, onward: from a boy
I wantoned with thy breakers — they to me
Were a delight; and if the freshening sea
Made them a terror — 'twas a pleasing fear,
For I was as it were a child of thee,
And trusted to thy billows far and near,
And laid my hand upon thy mane — as I do here.
My task is done — my song hath ceased — my theme
Has died into an echo; it is fit
The spell should break of this protracted dream.
The torch shall be extinguished which hath lit
My midnight lamp — and what is writ, is writ,—
Would it were worthier! but I am not now
That which I have been — and my visions flit
Less palpably before me — and the glow
Which in my spirit dwelt is fluttering, faint, and low.
Farewell! a word that must be, and hath been—
A sound which makes us linger; — yet — farewell!
Ye! who have traced the Pilgrim to the scene
Which is his last — if in your memories dwell
A thought which once was his — if on ye swell
A single recollection — not in vain
He wore his sandal-shoon, and scallop-shell;
Farewell! with him alone may rest the pain,
If such there were — with you, the moral of his strain. p. 92-96.
The Pilgrimage of Childe Harold has now been brought to its close; and of his character there remains nothing more to be laid open to our view. It is impossible to reflect on the years which have elapsed since this mysterious stranger was first introduced to our acquaintance, without feeling that our own spirits have undergone in that time many mighty changes — sorrowful in some it may be, in others happy changes. Neither can we be surprised, knowing as we well do who Childe Harold is, that he also has been changed. He represented himself, from the beginning, as a ruin; and when we first gazed upon him, we saw indeed in abundance the black traces of recent violence and convulsion. The edifice has not been rebuilt; but its hues have been sobered by the passing wings of time, and the calm slow ivy has had leisure to wreathe the soft green of its melancholy among the fragments of the decay. In so far, the Pilgrim has become wiser. He seems to think more of others and with a greater spirit of humanity. There was something tremendous, and almost fiendish, in the air with which he surveyed the first scenes of his wanderings; and no proof of the strength of genius was ever exhibited so strong and unquestionable, as the sudden and entire possession of the minds of Englishmen by such a being as he then appeared to be. He looked upon a bull-fight, and a field of battle, with no variety of emotion. Brutes and men were, in his eyes, the same blind, stupid victims of the savage lust of power. He seemed to shut his eyes to every thing of that citizenship and patriotism which ennobles the spirit of the soldier, and to delight in scattering the dust and ashes of his derision over all the most sacred resting-places of the soul of man.
Even then, we must allow, the original spirit of the Englishman and the poet broke triumphantly, at times, through the chilling mist in which it had been spontaneously enveloped. In Greece, above all, the contemplation of Athens, Salamis, Marathon, Therinopylae and Plataea, subdued the prejudices of him who had gazed unmoved upon the recent glories of Trafalgar and Talavera. The nobility of manhood appeared to delight this moody visitant; and he accorded, without reluctance, to the shades of long-departed heroes that reverent homage, which, in the strange mixture of envy and scorn wherewith the contemplative so often regard active men, he had refused to the living, or to the newly dead.
At all times, however, the sympathy and respect of Childe Harold — when these have been excited by any circumstances external to himself — have been given almost exclusively to the intellectual, and refused to the moral greatness of his species. There is certainly less of this in his last Canto. Yet we think that the ruins of Rome might have excited within him not a few glorious recollections, quite apart from those vague lamentations and worshippings of imperial power, which occupy so great a part of the conclusion of his Pilgrimage. The stern purity and simplicity of domestic manners — the devotion of male and female bosoms — the very names of Lucretia, Valeria, and the mother of the Gracchi, have a charm about them at least as enduring as any others, and a thousand times more delightful than all the iron memories of conquerors and consuls. — But the mind must have something to admire — some breathing-place of veneration — some idol, whether of demon or of divinity, before which it is its pride to bow. Byron has chosen too often to be the undoubting adorer of Power. The idea of tyrannic and unquestioned sway seems to be the secret delight of his spirit. He would pretend, indeed, to be a republican, — but his heroes are all stamped with the leaden signet of despotism; and we sometimes see the most cold, secluded, immitigable tyrant of the whole, lurking beneath the "scallop-shell and sandal-shoon" of the Pilgrim himself.
In every mien and gesture of this dark being, we discover the traces of one that has known the delights, and sympathized with the possessors of intellectual power; but too seldom any vestiges of a mind that delights in the luxuries of quiet virtue, or that could repose itself in the serenity of home. The very possession of purity would sometimes almost seem to degrade, in his eyes, the intellectual greatness with which it has been sometimes allied. He speaks of Pompey with less reverence than Caesar; and, in spite of many passing visitings of anger and of scorn, it is easy to see that, of all cotemporary beings, there is ONE only with whom he is willing to acknowledge mental sympathy — one only whom he looks upon with real reverence — one only whose fortunes touch the inmost sanctuaries of his proud soul — and that this one is no other than that powerful, unintelligible, unrivalled spirit, who, had he possessed either private virtue or public moderation, might still have been in a situation to despise the offerings of even such a worshipper as Harold.
But there would be no end of descanting on the character of the Pilgrim, nor of the moral reflections which it awakens. Of the Poet himself, the completion of this wonderful performance inspires us with lofty and magnificent hopes. It is most assuredly in his power to build up a work that shall endure among the most august fabrics of the genius of England. Indeed, the impression which the collective poetry of our own age makes upon our minds is, that it contains great promise of the future; and that, splendid as many of its achievements have been, some of our living poets seem destined still higher to exalt the imaginative character of their countrymen. When we look back and compare the languid, faint, cold delineations of the very justest and finest subjects of inspiration, in the poetry of the first half of the last century, with the warm, life-flushed and life-breathing pictures of our own, we feel that a great accession has been made to the literature of our day, — an accession not only of delight, but of power. We cannot resist the persuasion, that if literature, in any great degree, impresses and nourishes the character of a people, — then this literature of ours, pregnant it is with living impressions, — gathered from Nature in all her varieties of awfulness and beauty, — gathered too from those high and dread Passions of men, which our ordinary life scarcely shows, and indeed could scarcely bear, but which, nevertheless, have belonged, and do belong, to our human life, — and held up in the powerful representations of the poets to our consciousness at times, when the deadening pressure of the days that are going by might bereave us of all genial hope and all dignified pride, — we say it is impossible for us to resist the belief that such pregnant, glowing, powerful poetry, must carry influences into the heart of this generation, even like those which are breathed from the heart of Nature herself — or like those which lofty passions leave behind them in bosoms which they have once possessed. The same spirit of poetical passion which so uniformly marks the works of all our living poets, must exist very widely among those who do not aspire to the name of genius; it must be very widely diffused throughout the age, and, as we think, must very materially influence the reality of life. Yet highly as we estimate the merits of oar modern poetry, it is certain, that the age has not yet produced any one great epic or tragic performance. Vivid and just delineations of passion there are in abundance, — but of moments of passions — fragments of representation. The giant grasp of thought, which conceives, and brings into full and perfect life, full and perfect passion — passion pervading alike action and character, through a majestic series of events, and at the same time cast in the mould of grand imagination, — this seems not to be of our age. In the delineation of external nature, which, in a poet's soul, requires rather moral beauty than intellectual strength, this age has excelled. But it has produced no poem gloriously illustrative of the agencies, existences, and events, of the complex life of man. It has no Lear — no Macbeth — no Othello. Some such glory as this Byron may yet live to bring over his own generation. His being has in it all the elements of the highest poetry. And that being he enjoys in all the strength of its prime. We might almost say, that he needs but to exercise his will to construct a great poem. There is, however, much for him to alter in what may be called, his Theory of Imagination respecting Human Life. Some idols of his own setting-up he has himself overthrown. There are yet some others, partly of gold, and partly of clay, which should be dashed against the floor of the actuary. We have already spoken of his personal character, as it shines forth in his poetry. This personal character exists in the nature of his imagination, and may therefore be modified — purified — dignified by his own will. His imagination does, to his own eyes, invest him with an unreal character. Purposes, passions, loves, deeds, events, may seem great and paramount in imagination, which have yet no power to constrain to action; and those which perhaps may govern our actions, vanish altogether from our imagination. There is a region — a world — a sphere of being in imagination, which, to our real life, is no more than the world of a dream; yet, long as we are held in it by the transport of our delusion, we live, not in delight only, but in the conscious exaltation of our nature. It is in this world that the spirit of Byron must work a reformation for itself. He knows, far better than we can tell him, what have been the most hallowed objects of love and of passion to the souls of great poets in the most splendid eras of poetry, — and he also knows well, that those objects, if worshipped by him with becoming and steadfast reverence, will repay the worship which they receive, by the more fervent and divine inspiration which they kindle.