1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

George Milner, "On the Genius and Writings of Lord Byron" Imperial Magazine [Liverpool] 3 (March 1821) 254-57.



There perhaps never was a man, in the whole annals of English literature, who attained so high a station amongst the poets, within so short a space of time, as Lord Byron. When we reflect, however, that the tendency of all writing should be to the side of virtue and morality, and that every author is responsible for the ill effects which his writings produce, we cannot but look upon Lord Byron with a considerable degree of horror. The more powerful the genius of a man may be, if those powers are employed in the cause of vice and in the promotion of evil, the more they call for a louder denunciation against them and we feel, that to praise such a man, would only be heaping destruction upon his head. He may become the idol of many, and be acknowledged as a master spirit; but we must recollect, that with such qualities he is like the image which the king of Babylon saw in his dream, part gold and part silver, but part brass and clay; and such an one must inevitably fall in pieces.

When we speak of Lord Byron, we do it with a full consciousness of his mighty genius; we speak of him as or a man gifted beyond all mortal calculation, as exploring the "untravell'd deserts of the soul," and as one who drops his line of research "deeper than ever did plummet sound." But while we acknowledge his power, we regret that it should be so misdirected; we lament to see a mind, so noble in itself, wasting its greatness in portraying characters so detestable, in picturing murderers, adulterers, and assassins. Throughout all his writings there is none of that sweet balm, that holy tenderness, that supports and heals the troubled soul. The force of piety he has never felt; his hope is not hope, for it is not that "anchor of the soul" which points to a future and a better world. The rock of faith he cannot rest upon, and the still small voice of peace speaks not to him. The heavenly feeling that cheers to the latest moment, that smooths the brow of woe, and that renders placid the visage of old age, he is unacquainted with; and the star that shall rise beyond the dreary grave, telling the forgiveness of every fault, and welcoming the pilgrim to his home, is to him a dream, — a vision, — a deceit. His hope is annihilation, — futurity a jest, — and his religion despair. He laughs at the weakness, as he deems it, of his fellow-creatures, and tramples in cold-blooded mockery upon all the best interests of a true Christian. What can we think of the man who tells us of death as being

The first dark day of nothingness,
The last of danger and distress.
Giaour.

Again, in his song to Inez, in Childe Harold, he speaks of the mark

The fabled Hebrew wanderer bore,
That will not look beyond the tomb,
But cannot hope for rest before.

Another specimen, and then I have done; he tells us, that

—religions take their turn.
'Twas Jove's, 'tis Mahomet's, and other creeds
Will rise with other years — till man shall learn
Vainly his incense soars — his victim bleeds.
Childe Harold.

There is not a single passage in all he has ever written, that can shed one ray of hope, or cast one gleam of peace, upon the soul. We take up his poems, no matter which — all is gloom and despair — the hero lives — becomes a villain — dies, and "makes no sign." Look to his Manfred, his Giaour, his Lara, and all he has written. They are a chaos of fiendish wretchedness, horror, and misanthropy. He breathes — but it is the icy Sarsar wind of death: he looks — but it is the withering sneer of a demon.

He is as devoid of patriotism also as he is of every amiable virtue. The man who could pass over the ground whereon his countrymen fell and bled, and address them as

Ambition's honour'd fools — there let them rot,

deserves nothing but contempt. While his country was engaged in a desperate conflict, did he wield the sword — did be devote his own powerful genius in her behalf? No; rambling in a foreign land, he turned the powers be possessed against her, and falsely charged her as one

who fights for all — but ever fights in vain.

Love has been the theme of many poets. But Lord Byron's love is wholly Eastern: he knows nothing of that feeling which bends before the object of its earthly adoration in purity and truth; he never tells us of that "sweet constancy" that "happy time" in which

—a love-knot on a lady's brow
Is fairer than the fairest star in heav'n.
Wordsworth.

No; his beings are only lovely to him, in proportion as their feet and hands resemble the whiteness of marble, and their long tresses that of gold. The features of the body he pictures, but he never gives them the heavenly features of the soul — his hero's are monsters — his heroines are harlots. In Mazeppa there is adultery — in Parisina incest — and in Manfred that which makes us shudder to trace; — though the crime is obscurely told, yet there is sufficient to show us that he who can delight to revel in such scenes of wickedness is far gone indeed. From the shameless Don Juan I will not pollute my page with a quotation: it is loathsome beyond conception. How truly is it to be regretted, that the highest powers of poetry are so demean'd as to become the channels for so much impurity — we lament to see the whole strength of a man like Lord Byron, thrown away upon creatures with whose actions we are disgusted, and whom we are obliged to hate. But, however, it matters not, in his own estimation, what objects are chosen, or what crimes portrayed, for he tells us that the lyre is

The only heaven to which earth's children may aspire.
Childe Harold.

When we take up the works of a poet, we expect to find in them something that shall give us an exalted idea of God and heaven — that shall raise our thoughts — or that shall at least create in us such a train of feelings, that when we close the volume, we shall rise with a consciousness that though life be in some degree rough and thorny, yet the steady practice of religion and virtue will enable us to bear its ills with patience, looking unto the recompense of reward. But who ever took up one of Lord Byron's poems with such feelings, and did not find that it cast a chilling damp over his thoughts — a gloom which endeavoured to chain his soul to earth and earthly things? Who, I ask, ever found one persuasive to religion, or one incentive to virtue, in all he has ever written? His feelings are not those feelings which "wonder at their own sweet will," scattering beauty around them — and which picture this earth as a path

—a flowery path to heavenly skies.

No; he never touches upon these things — he draws but one portrait — it is that of a man laden with iniquity — who lives in settled gloom — gnashing his teeth in silence — and who views his own vicious actions without remorse. It is that of a man who keeps aloof from his fellow-creatures — devoid of every social feeling, and foremost in every crime. Burns, the dissipated Burns, had far loftier ideas of all that is great and good, than this man; and knew much more of the duty of a real poet — for in one of his letters he declares that an "irreligious poet is a monster."

But is there any hope of a change — of a renunciation of those infidel principles which he now cherishes? It is true that there are hints and passages in his writings, which indicate better feelings; but these recur but seldom, they "come like shadows, so depart." Perhaps it might be wrong to say that such a change is impossible; but we are obliged to say, it is unlikely, for tho' we may be willing to hope that he will one day come to that fountain which is open for sin and for uncleanness, yet we must recollect that men do not gather figs of thorns, or grapes of thistles.

Your's respectfully,

G. M.

Bridge Street, Derby.