1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 164-78.



The premature appearance of George Gordon, Lord Byron, a minor, and his crushing by Lord Brougham in the Edinburgh Review, are matters too well known to need anything here beyond mere allusion and the English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, his satire in "retort courteous," may be passed over — vigorous and venomous as it was — in an equally summary manner. Even in the early volume, however, mixed up with much crudeness and juvenility, there were undoubted sparkles of that genius which afterwards astonished the world and in the maturer satire — rash, presumptuous, and ill-judged as it was — indications of an ardent temperament and masculine intellect. But these glimpses were heliacal: the true morning of Byron's genius manifested itself in Childe Harold, — a work of transcendent power and beauty, rich in its descriptions, passionate in its tones, majestic in its aspirings, sublime in its very doubts — which at once stamped his reputation as a great and prevailing poet. Its effect was electric — its success was instantaneously recognised. The star of his popularity shot with a burst to the zenith; and, as he himself expresses it, "I got up one fine morning, and found myself famous."

The poetry of Byron may be divided into three great sections; each pretty distinctly different from the other, in regard alike to subject and to manner. The first, commencing with the opening cantos of Childe Harold, includes The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, Lara, the lyrics to Thyrsa, and some minor pieces. The second comprehends The Siege of Corinth and Parisina, Mazeppa, the concluding cantos of Clulde Harold, The Prisoner of Chillon, The Lament of Tasso, and Manfred. The third, starting with Beppo, and comparatively dosing or prosing through the tragedies and mysteries, characteristically terminated with Don Juan. Sad that it should have been so — but "what is writ is writ."

In all the works of the first section, we have the history of an individual mind, as regarded in different phases; — for Harold, the Giaour, Selim, Conrad, and Lara, are all and each the same person, placed in some novel and romantic situation. Nor widely different is the renegade Alp, or the reckless Mazeppa, or the guilty Hugo. But the compositions in which the three last-named characters occur, indicate a transition state between those before mentioned and those which were to follow. Up to this period all the works of Lord Byron were characterised by passionate energy, by indomitable self-will, by point and antithesis — by emphatic sarcasm, and by brief but beautiful descriptive touches of men and nature. With much' quite his own, we had mach to remind us of Burns, of Scott, and of Crabbe; occasionally also of Campbell, but certainly nothing — not a vestige — of the Lake School. The composition of the third canto of Childe Harold, and of The Prisoner of Chillon, however, opened up a new era in his mental history, — evidently brought about by the writings of Wordsworth, Wilson, and Coleridge. He began to substitute contemplation for action, and the softer affections of humanity for its sterner and darker passions. We had now a keener sensibility to the charms of nature — it love of stars and flowers, and lakes and mountains and descriptions which were formerly dashed off in general outline, were now filled up with elaboration, and graced with all the minuteness of picturesque detail. Take, as an example of this contrast in matter and manner, a stanza from the first, and then another from the third canto of the Childe.

Childe Harold had a mother — not forgot,
Though parting from that mother he did shun;
A sister whom he loved — but saw her not
Before his weary pilgrimage began.
If friends he had, he bade adieu to none;
Yet deem net thence his breast a breast of steel:
They who have known what 'tis to deaf upon
A few dear objects, will in sadness feel
Such partings break the heart they fondly hope to heal.

This is the language of passion, and blighted affection, and baffled hope, looking not for, nay disdaining, that consolation which the other afterwards finds in the contemplation of the majestic and beautiful in the material world.

Where rose the mountains, there to him were friends;
Where rolled 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 spoke
A mutual language clearer than the bane,
Of his land's tongue, which he would oft forsake
For Nature's pages glassed by sunbeams on the lake.

It is here, and elsewhere, that we observe the brooding influence of the pantheism of Wordsworth — the poet seeming to feel his existence less as an individual of a particular species, than as a portion of an eternal spirit, animating and pervading all things within the dominion of nature.

I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me; and to me
High mountains are a fooling, but the hum
Of human cities torture: I can see
Nothing to loathe in nature save to be
A link reluctant in a fleshly chain,
Classed among creatures, when the soul can flee,
And with the sky, the peak, the heaving plain
Of ocean, or the stars, mingle, and not in vain.

And thus I am absorbed, and this is life
I look upon the peopled desert past,
As on a place of agony and strife,
Where, for some sin, to sorrow I was cast,
To act and suffer, but remount at last
With a fresh pinion; which I feel to spring,
Though young, yet waxing vigorous as the blast
Which it would, cope with, on delighted wing,
Spurning the clay-cold bonds which round our being cling.

Are not the mountains, waves, and skies a part
Of me, and of my soul, as I of them?
Is not the love of these deep in my heart
With a pure passion? Should I not contemn
All objects if compared with these? and stem
A tide of suffering, rather than forego
Such feelings for the hard and worldly phlegm
Of those whose eyes are only turned below,
Gazing upon the ground, with thoughts which dare not glow?

Well has Solomon said, "There is nothing new under the sun;" and if there be anything intelligible in the quasi-new nebulous psychology of Emerson different from what is contained in these stanzas, pray what is it — or in where does it consist? and "Echo answers — where!"

Take another example in the solitude of the Giaour, as opposed to that of the Prisoner of Chillon: the one all anguish and despair, and over-boiling passion — the hyena dashing itself against the bars of its cage; the other all heavenly benevolence, holy resignation, and tranquil regret. The Giaour is one "whose heart may break, but cannot bend:" his elements are fire and air alone. He spurns sympathy, and will not be comforted. Having lost what he alone prized, he looks on all else as worthless: he is swallowed up in a gloomy and engrossing selfishness. Not so the Prisoner. He turns from his own sorrows to sympathise with and console his brethren. He indulges in no demoniacal ravings — the thought of revenge never enters his gentle heart. Feeding on bitter fruits, he accuses not fate; and chastens down his spirit to drink without murmuring the cup of bitterness, while all the lights of life are, one by one, being successively extinguished around him. The milk of his nature turns not to gall — his faith forbids it; and even the stones of his dungeon come to be looked upon by him with the regard due to "familiar faces." So, when his chain is broken, so far is it from the love of Nature having been extinguished in his heart, that, with rapturous delight, he scrambles up to the barred lattice—

To bend upon the mountains high
The quiet of a loving eye.
I saw them, and they were the same,
They were not changed like me in frame;
I saw their thousand years of snow
On high — their wide long lake below,
And the blue Rhone in fullest flow:
I hoard the torrents leap and gush
O'er channelled rock and broken bush;
I saw the white-walled distant town,
And whiter sails go shimmering 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 seemed 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 towers growing,
Of gentle breath and hue:
The fish swam by the castle wall,
And they seemed joyous each and all;
The eagle rode the rising blast,
Methought he never flew so fast
As then to roe he seemed to fly.

We have no trace here of Spenser and Thomson, of Dryden and Crabbe, of Scott and Campbell, as in Byron's earlier productions. The prisoner of Chillon is constructed throughout on the principles of Wordsworth, and seems intended to show, by its purity, its pathos, and calm beauty, how consonant these are with the finest purposes of poetry, when freed from the puerilities, the verbose diffuseness, and the mean prolixity of detail, which so frequently mar their effect, even in the hands of their great promulgator. Let me now take a rapid glance at the Tales on which, after the publication of the opening cantos of Childe Harold, the fame of Lord Byron was principally grounded — The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, and Lara.

The soliloquising of the Giaour is in the same tone of baffled, and with even a bitterer spirit of misanthropy than the Childe himself, who, in his milder moods, is only a melancholy moraliser. He is like a caged eagle, the very oracle of impassioned wretchedness. His baffled and blighted love does not die away with the loss of its object, but continues to blaze and burn on with the fierceness and fervour of a volcano. The memory of the past throws forward fiery shadows on the dark sky of the future. He has glutted his revenge on his foes he has sought and taken retribution in blood for blood, and has withdrawn to the shades of the cloister, not in humility of heart, but to live on "with naught to love or hate," an idler among the living — breathing the air that has "a vitality of poison," and looking listlessly on the day, whose sunshine brings no cheerfulness. To him all is a wild mockery, mere "vanity and vexation of spirit." Earth holds nothing like that which he has lost, "or if it doth, in vain for him." The holy calm and the religious feeling around him have no influence. Despising sympathy, he keeps aloof from all; and it is not till his hair turns grey, and his strength fails, and the shadows of welcome death are hovering over him, that, to the Friar who vainly endeavours to console and soothe him, he pours out the long pent-up lava-torrent of his sufferings, "in thoughts that breathe and words that burn."

Think me not thankless — but this grief
Looks not to priesthood for relief;
My soul's estate in secret guess,
But wouldst thou pity more, say less.
When thou canst bid my Leila live,
Then will I sue thee to forgive;
Then plead my cause in that high place,
Where proffered masses purchase grace.—
Go where the hunter's hand hath wrung
From forest cave her shrieking young,
And calm the lonely lioness;
But soothe not, mock not my distress!
Waste not thine orison: Despair
Is mightier than thy pious prayer;
I would not, if I might, be blest—
I want no paradise, but rest.

Selim, in The Bride of Abydos, is merely the Giaour under less exciting circumstances — circumstances that subdued him to despair; like day-beams breaking in on a captive in his dungeon only to show him that escape from it is impossible. The whole tale is one of gentle affection and chastened beauty. An intellectual sweetness pervades it, and even tones down the bloody catastrophe by which it is wound up. Nothing can be more dramatically fine than the garden scene — a scene that indelibly impresses itself on the heart and fancy. Nature seems to exult in the very luxury of her beauty; yet a mysterious awe broods over all, and we feel that the lovers are then and there met together for the last time. Selim tells Zuleika of his fears:—

But ore her lip, or even her eye,
Essayed to speak or look reply,
Beneath the garden's wicket porch
Far flashed on high a blazing torch!
Another — and another — and another—
Far, wide, through every thicket spread,
The fearful lights are gleaming red;
Nor these alone — for each right hand
Is ready with a sheathless brand.

With a hasty embrace they part for ever;

One hound he made, and gained the sand:
Already at his feet hath sunk
The foremost of the prying band,
A gaping head, a quivering trunk;
Another falls, but round him close
A swarming circle of his foes;
From right to left his path he cleft,
And almost met the meeting wave;
His boat appears not five oars' length—
His comrades strain with desperate strength—
Oh, are they yet in time to save?
His feet the foremost breakers lave;
His band are plunging in the bay,
Their sabres glitter through the spray;
Wet, wild, unwearied in the strand
They struggle — now they touch the land!
They come — 'tis but to add to slaughter—
His heart's best bleed is on the water.

Such is the rapid energy of Byron's narrative action now for his wild, solemn, yet passionate sentiment:—

By Helle's stream there is a voice of wail
And woman's eye is wet, man's cheek is pale:
Zuieika! last of Giaffir's race
Thy destined lord is come too late;
He sees not — ne'er shall see thy face!
Can he not hear
The loud Wul-wulleh warn his distant ear?
Thy handmaids weeping at the gate,
The Koran chanters of the hymn of fate!
Sighs in the hail, and shrieks upon the gale,
Tell him thy tale!
Thou didst not view thy Selim fall!
That fearful moment when he left the cave
Thy heart grew chill:
He was thy hope — thy joy — thy love — thine all!
And that last thought of him thou couldst not save
Sufficed to kill;
Burst forth in one wild cry — and all was still.
Peace to thy broken heart and virgin grave!

The idea of the bird coming at even-tide, and singing above the tomb of Zuleika, is conceived in a fine tone of poetical feeling; as is also that of the white rose springing up from her virgin ashes.

Conrad "the Corsair" is only "the Giaour" exhibited in the bustle of agitated existence. His portrait, however, is not drawn, like that of the other, in bold, rapid master-strokes, but is brought out by elaborate and diligent re-touching. He is delineated physically and morally; and although we are told that he is a man with but "one virtue and a thousand crimes," we know him only as a proud, sullen, unhappy, and impassioned being — miserable in all save his love. Medora is one of Byron's most exquisite personifications of female character — worthy to stand in the same class with the Desdemona, Ophelia, and Imogene of Shakspeare, and the Belvidera of Otway. The parting scene with her husband, and that which brings him back a widower to his silent home, are among the most touchingly pathetical ever conceived in a poet's heart.

Lara exhibits the same strength of conception, and the same beauty of execution; but its lines are less varied and more sombre, and its general aspect uninviting. The finest passage in the poem is the deathscene of the hero. In "the dark page" we recognise Gulnare, but in our remembrance of Medora, can scarcely sympathise with her devotedness.

In all these Tales passion and intellectual energy are invariably brought into time foreground; and description is made subservient to them. A change became perceptible in The Siege of Corinth and Parisina; and in the former we have not only the glowing morning scene, when the march of the invading army commences, which is all activity and commotion, but the glorious moonlight one, in which Alp and Francesca meet to part for ever — the one to die of a broken heart, and the other to perish in his apostasy.

There is a light cloud by the moon—
'Tis passing, and will pass full soon—
If by the time its vapoury sail
Hath ceased her shaded orb to veil,
Thy heart within thee is not changed,
Then God and man are both avenged;
Dark will thy doom be, darker still
Thine immortality of ill.

We have the same newly-developed descriptive power in the opening lines of Parisina, which depicture twilight, and in the sketch of the glowing summer west, when her paramour suffered death.

It is a lovely hour as yet
Before the summer sun shall set,
Which rose upon that heavy day,
And mocked it with his steadiest ray;
And his evening beams are shed
Full on Hugo's fated head,
As his last confession pouring
To the monk — his doom deploring
In penitential holiness,
He bends to hear his accent bless
With absolution, such as may
Wipe our mortal stains away.
That high sun on his head did glisten
As he there did bow and listen;
And the rings of chestnut hair
Curled half down his neck so bare;
But brighter still the beam was thrown
Upon the axe that near him shone
With a clear and ghastly glitter—
Oh that parting hour was bitter!
Even the stern stood chilled with awe.
Dark the crime, and just the law—
Yet they shuddered as they saw.

It is to be remarked, also, that in both of the poems last mentioned there is a freedom and a fearlessness of portraiture — a kind of recklessness even communicating itself to the rhymes — a disdain, as it were, of all preparation for appearing at a public tribunal, which were not apparent in Byron's former attempts combined with something like a conscious mastery — a confidence in commanding success. The same remarks apply to Mazeppa, with its nonchalant opening and ending — the card-playing scene being as quaint as if penned by Quarles or Cowley; while the monarch sleeping over his Hetman's adventures has a dash of the mock heroic. The whole poetry of the composition centres in the flight across the boundless steppes, with its exquisite episode of the wolves and ravens.

In The Lament of Tasso we have a gradual veering round to the Wordsworthian style and principles but the conversion was not complete until exhibited in the third canto of the Childe, and in The Prisoner of Chillon, which appeared nearly simultaneously. In these we have a complete secession from the misanthropic to the pantheistic feeling; and an intense love of external nature is mingled with a gentler spirit of humanity.

The magnificent drama of Manfred is formed of the same elements, thrown into new and even more striking combinations; indeed, it contains more true poetry than all his other dramas put together. At an earlier stage of Byron's career, Manfred would have been only another Lara, or Alp, or Harold for, like them, "he has no sympathy with breathing flesh;" but he has such an intense, passionate, ever-craving love for the majesty and beauty of nature, that, to gain communion with the spirits of the elements, he ventures to give up his own. To any who have a lingering doubt of the depth or delicacy of Byron's genius, I have only to crave a reference to the scenes on the summit of the Jungfrau, beside the cataract of the Alps, and in the interior of the tower, when the moonlight on the snow-shining mountains recalls the memory of the Coliseum—

—till the place
Became religion, and the heart ran o'er
With silent worship of the great of old!

Byron, like Burns, was a prodigy of genius; nor were they at all dissimilar in temperament, although the peer, even from early boyhood, was much more than the other the spoiled child of circumstances. In this respect he approaches nearer to Alfieri and Rousseau, both of whom, in some strong features, he resembles — in much, certainly, of their wayward daring — their tendency to self-anatomy — and, I fear also, in much of their reckless perversion or disregard of moral principle, as occasions required. In Don Juan he seemed to consider himself "a chartered libertine," free to speak out on all subjects unreservedly, heedless of praise or blame — nay, contemptuously disdainful of consequences. Sad that this should have been so for that extraordinary poem is bright with some of the richest gems of his genius — as the shipwreck in the second canto — the Greek feast in the third — the death of Haidee in the fourth — and the magnificent stanzas on "The Isles of Greece." Putting morality aside, the return-home scene in Beppo is also quite inimitable for its commixture of light-hearted wit and effervescent frivolity. The parties are a Venetian, who has unexpectedly turned up after having been long among the Moslem, and his lady, who, in wild and solitary despair, has, for consolation, taken to herself another partner:—

They entered, and for coffee called — it came,
A beverage for Turks and Christians both,
Although the way they make it's not the same.
Now Laura, much recovered, or less loth
To speak, cries "Beppo! what's your pagan name?
Bless me your beard is of amazing growth!
And how came you to keep away so long
Are you not sensible 'twas very wrong?

"And are you really, truly, now a Turk?...
Is it true they use their fingers for a fork?
Well — that's the prettiest shawl, as I'm alive!
You'll give it me? They say you eat no pork,
And how so many years did you contrive
To — bless me! did I ever? No! I never
Saw a man grown so yellow! how's your liver?

"Beppo! that beard of yours becomes you not;
It shall he shaved before you're a day older:
Why do you wear it? Oh! I had forgot—
Pray, don't you think the weather here is colder?
How do I look? You shan't stir from this spot
In that queer dress, for fear that some beholder
Should find you out, and make the story known.
How short your hair is! Lack! how grey it's grown!

How different is this, in tone and spirit, from his early verses "To Mary," on paying her a visit after that marriage with another which, I cannot help thinking, was the star of wormwood that embittered all the after-thoughts of Byron's young heart, blighted its most deeply-rooted hopes of happiness, and left him bankrupt of bliss in life — "a reckless roue." The following stanzas seem the very wringings-out of the agony of affection:—

Well I thou art happy, and I feel
That I should thus be happy too;
For still my heart regards thy weal
Warmly, as it was wont to do.

Thy husband's blest, and 'twill impart
Some pangs to view his happier lot;
But let them pass! — oh! how my heart
Would hate him if he loved thee not!

When late I saw thy favourite child,
I thought my jealous heart would break;
But when the unconscious infant smiled,
I kissed, it for its mother's sake.

I kissed it, and repressed my sighs,
Its father in its face to see;
But then it had its mother's eyes,
And they were all to love and me.

Mary, adieu! I must away:
While thou art blest I'll not repine;
But near thee I can never stay;
My heart would soon again be thine.

I deemed that time, I deemed that pride
Had quenched at length my boyish flame;
Nor knew, till seated by thy side,
My heart in all, save hope, the same.

Yet was I calm; I knew the time
My breast would thrill before thy look;
But now to tremble were a crime!
We met, and not a nerve was shook.

I saw thee gaze upon my face,
Yet meet with no confusion there;
One only feeling couldst thou trace—
The sullen calmness of despair.

Away! away! my early dream
Remembrance never must awake:
Oh! where is Lethe's fabled stream—
My foolish heart, be still, or break!

It is somewhat remarkable that the two most impassioned poets of modern times — Robert Burns and Lord Byron — should each have died at the early age of thirty-seven — as if the blade of such temperaments soon wore through the scabbard. Although so far dissociated by place in society, their fates and fortunes, as I have hinted, had many common points of resemblance. In the zenith of his dazzling reputation, Byron could not help exclaiming, "I have not loved the world, nor the world me;" and Burns, doomed to a destiny so irreconcilable with his feelings and aspirations, must have often felt, like Southey's Thalaba, that he indeed was — "A lonely being, far from all he loved!" Light lie the earth on these two glorious human creatures; and let every cloud perish and pass away from their immortal memories!