1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

Anonymous, in "The Augustan Age in England" The Album 1 (1822) 206-09.



First, in the splendid list of our living poets, stands LORD BYRON. If we were to cite any person as the personification of Genius, it would he him. Not the fantastic, dreamy, half-effeminate order of mind, which it has been usual to ennoble with this name, — but the union of sublime and imaginative thought — of intensity, majesty, and passion. His works, accordingly, have more power over the mind of his readers than we usually allow any fictitious composition to acquire. Our memories are peopled with the images of his poetry — our hearts commune with the beings of his creation. We now leave totally out of view the hackneyed and unpleasant subject of his personal character. We speak of his works as they appear in his printed volumes, and put aside entirely, and at once, the mass of folly, vulgarity, and ignorance, which the discussions on his private conduct present. In this view, we look on Lord Byron as standing at the head of the poets of his own age — almost of any. He has attempted nearly every style of poetical writing, and has transcendently succeeded in all. His Manfred is one of the sublimest pieces of meditative composition which ever was embodied in verse. His tales — more especially the Giaour and Parisina — are the most exquisite specimens of burning rapidity and passion. Childe Harold is a magnificent union of both these styles; its usual tone of fine contemplation is varied by occasional bursts of energetic and enthusiastic poetry. But it is, perhaps, in Don Juan, that Lord Byron has most shewn the wonderful extent of his powers. He has there displayed an union of all the beauties of poetry with humour and wit of the very first order, — to a degree which has been, perhaps, unknown since the days of Shakspeare. There is a laughing exuberance of wit — a careless squandering of his riches — which seem the unrestrained overflowings of the poet's mind, and give a verve to the whole performance, which is one of the highest attributes of poetical composition. The passing, from ludicrous images to the most splendid manifestations of touching or intense poetry, are among the finest parts of this work. They exhibit the progressive kindling of the author's mind, from the brilliant play of his wit to the lightning-like flashes of poetic fire. The transitions from these heights of poetry have not nearly such successful effect. Lord Byron has indulged in them, we think, for the mere purpose of shewing his power — but even his power is not equal to reconcile the excited mind to such violent and degrading changes. Lord Byron has been accused of too little sympathy with human nature. We do not think this reproach at all well founded: on the contrary, he has the most intimate knowledge of all its workings, and has drawn them with anatomical precision. When he does rise above the common concerns of humanity, it is in that superiority of genius, which all poets who deserve the name sometimes feel — and none so often or so much as Lord Byron. On these occasions indeed, his spirit, like the eagle, soars above the clouds which envelop our baser earth, and gazes undazzled on the mid-day sun. Like that king of birds, he wings his flight alone, and dwells amid the mountain and the storm. The tempest, indeed, whether of inanimate nature, or of the human heart, is the atmosphere in which he delights — the object which he loves most to paint, and succeeds best in painting.

We must be permitted to say a few words here concerning the moral tendency of Lord Byron's writings: — so great a cry has of late been raised against it, that we cannot well make notice of his works without alluding to this subject. That we are not at all disposed to coincide in this accusation, is sufficiently apparent from the terms of unreserved praise, in which we have spoken of Lord Byron's poetry. We should scarcely hold up to admiration productions which we considered of so deadly a nature as they have of late been represented to be. No effort has been spared to make Lord Byron's works appear the manual of vice — the effect, at once, and the cause of licentiousness and sin. Those who have been outstripped by his success, or who have smarted under the lash of his satire, have now burst forth against him with all the virulence of long-delayed revenge — have showered upon him the accumulated venom of years. Feeling the hopelessness of any attack upon his literary fame, they have endeavoured to impugn the moral tendency of his writings. They have aroused the prejudiced and frightened the weak, by trumpeting forth that he is the apostle of hell — the disciple of the devil. They have made sweeping assertions, and confirmed them by partial and perverted facts. They have cited every passage from his works confirmatory of their accusation, — but have made no mention of those by which they are so completely outnumbered and counteracted. They have displayed the poison, and concealed the antidote. We had hoped, however, that the origin and object of these attacks were sufficiently apparent to the world. We trusted, that there was no necessity for showing, that they were but the envy of disappointed rivalship, or the turning of the worm against the foot which had crushed it. But there has very recently appeared a condemnation of Lord Byron's writings from a quarter against which no such imputation can be urged-from those who are, as they have hinted, 'his natural defenders' — who have ever raised their voice in support and extension of his fame, and have taken pride in the splendour of his glory. It will be seen, that we allude to the paper in the last number of the Edinburgh Review on Lord Byron's late volume of Tragedies; which concludes with a philippic against the tendencies of his writings in general. He is accused of bringing into contempt and disbelief all noble and tender feelings — in a word, all virtue, whether pure or lofty. We must say, we never met with any charge more strikingly unjust. Where is there to be found such love of generosity and devotedness — such sympathy with the wronged — such indignation against the wronger — such scorn of the base — such admiration of the aspiring and the exalted — as in Lord Byron's burning pages? — Where do we see such feeling expressed for the degradation of the great — the enslavement of the free — the sinning of the virtuous? — Where does the mean spirit meet with such crushing contempt — the noble one with such vigorous excitement?

We are free to admit, that among Lord Byron's numerous and most miscellaneous writings, there are some voluptuous pictures too attractive — some delineations of passion too highly wrought; — but how much more frequent is the portraying the terrible and never-failing consequence of sinful indulgence? This we consider the staple of Lord Byron's poetry. The mention of the enjoyments of vice is short and unfrequent; while the whole force of his mighty powers is employed in painting the utter wretchedness of that heart which has been blasted by indulged passion. The regretful lookings-back of error — the agonizing remorse of deep crime — occupy, we will venture to assert, three-fourths of Lord Byron's writings; and yet they have been charged with wicked intention — with evil tendency. We look on that book as dangerous, which is likely to lead to sin. Now can any one, we must ask, be attracted by the withered and terrible state of mind of which we have been speaking? Can any one be led by these portraitures to act in a manner which would place them in a like condition? — Surely, No; — surely it must be a mind unreasoning indeed, which can see only the brief passages of sinful pleasure, and feel not a safeguard in those delineations of awful pain, from which the human heart almost shrinks shudderingly.

Our limits have necessarily confined us to a very brief defence — but the principle on which it has been made, we trust, is just; and we leave to our readers themselves more fully to develop it.