The first thing that strikes a student of Byron's collected works is the quantity of poetry produced by him in a short lifetime. The second is the variety of forms attempted — the scope and range of intellectual power displayed. The third is the inequality of the performance, due apparently in certain cases to baste of composition, in others to imperfect sympathy with the subjects treated, or again to some contemptuous compliance with a fashion which the author only tolerated.
Byron's character is stamped upon his work in a remarkable degree; and his character was powerfully biassed by external circumstance. The critic cannot therefore neglect his biography. In early childhood he was left to the sole care of a violent and injudicious mother. Impressed with the importance of the title to which he succeeded at the age of ten, he yet had neither friends nor connections of his own rank, and but slender means for sustaining its dignity. Handsome, active, and ambitious, he was debarred from engaging in field-sports by the malformation of his ankle. Thus, from the first, he lived under conditions eminently unfavourable for the growth of an equable temperament or for the acquisition of just views about society. His mental powers were acute and vigorous; his emotions sincere and direct; the impressions made upon his sensitive nature by the persons with whom he came in contact were vivid and indelible. Yet his judgment of the world was prematurely warped, while his naturally earnest feelings were overlaid with affectations and prejudices which he never succeeded in shaking off. He was constitutionally shy, uncertain in society, preferring the solitude of hills and woods and water, to the men and women whom he learned to misconceive and misinterpret. Though he strove to conceal this shyness beneath an assumption of off-handed ease, his manners to the last were awkward. It was his misfortune to be well-born but ill-bred, combining the pride of a peer with the self-consciousness of a parvenu. He rarely suffered his true opinions and emotions to be visible. What he proffered his acquaintance in their stead was stamped with artificiality. Trelawny thought that Byron was what London in the days of the Prince Regent made him. But we must go further back, and recognise that from his boyhood he began to construct and wear a masquerade costume that could not be abandoned. When Shelley discerned the "canker of aristocracy" and "perverse ideas" in one whom he admired but never made his friend; when Goethe complained of his "Empeiria" or taint of worldliness, they laid their fingers on this radical blot. The ostentation which repels us in Byron's correspondence and in the records left of him by his associates, the swaggering tone that spoils so much of his best work and makes it impossible to love the man as we should like to do, may be ascribed to a habit early acquired of self-sophistication. He veneered the true and noble self which gave life to his poetry with a layer of imperfectly comprehended cynicism and weak misanthropy, that passed with him for worldly wisdom. There are two distinct Byrons, interpenetrative, blended in his life and work. To disentangle them is wellnigh impossible; for he cherished his inferior self, and mistook its weakness and its falsehood for strength and sincerity of insight.
Byron began to write verse while still a boy. He published Hours of Idleness at the age of nineteen. Though this collection of juvenile lyrics did not deserve high commendation, it might have been spared the mangling it received from the blunt tomahawk of the Edinburgh Review. His next essay was the product of mere rage against his critics and against the men of letters who, he thought, had neglected him. English Bards and Scotch Reviewers is an imitation of Gifford's satirical style, full of such stinging epigrams as proved that the poet of Hours of Idleness had thenceforth to be reckoned with. At the present time it is chiefly valuable for the light it throws on Byron's psychological development. Being of an exceptionally retentive temperament, each style that he essayed left something ineffaceable upon his habit of composition. The satire in question was begotten by indignation, and dealt in invective. We trace an element of indignation, not seldom of a less than sterling alloy, in nearly all his subsequent poems, which break too frequently into invectives against unworthy or mistaken objects of his spleen. Byron, it may be said at once, was destitute of critical insight. Therefore not only are the judgments of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers worthless, but his maturest works are marred by strictures on contemporaries which now appear ridiculous. If Byron desired fame, he achieved it in fair and full measure by his satire. But disappointed by his reception into London society, he resolved on leaving England. His genius received its first true awakening upon his travels. Greece made him a poet, and he returned to England with two Cantos of Childe Harold ready for publication. It is difficult to speak in measured terms of a poem which has suffered more from eulogy and popularity than any other poem of equal excellence from depreciation or neglect. The celebrated passages of Childe Harold, quoted, extracted, learned by heart at school, and incorporated into guide-books, have become a bye-word and a weariness to the present generation. We do not know how to render justice to the sonorous rhetoric and the often magnificent poetry of a masterpiece that has been subjected to processes so vulgarising. Some deductions, on sounder critical grounds, must also be made from the first enthusiasm that welcomed Childe Harold. The poem is written in a declamatory style, which savours of an age when Campbell's Pleasures of Hope was thought to soar above the level of prize poetry. The Pilgrim is a rococo creation, to whom Byron failed to communicate the breath of life. When this fictitious hero disappears from the scene, the stanzas invariably improve. Therefore the third and fourth Cantos, written in the plenitude of Byron's power, where Childe Harold has been all but forgotten, might pass for a separate composition. With the person of the Pilgrim, the affectation of Spenserian language, sparely but awkwardly employed in the first Canto, is dropped. The vein of meditation is richer, deeper, more dignified in utterance. The personal emotion of the poet, saddened and elevated by his cruel experience of life, finds vent in larger harmonies and more impassioned bursts of eloquence. His sympathy with the oppressed, and his sense of the world's past greatness, attain the altitude of lyrical inspiration in the apostrophe to Rome; while his enjoyment of nature in her grander aspects, and the consolation he received from her amid the solitudes of sea and lake and mountain, are expressed with sublimity in the passages upon the Ocean and the Jura thunderstorm.
After the publication of the first two Cantos, Byron woke in London and "found himself famous." What was far worse for him than fame, fashion claimed the new poet for her own. Though still isolated from true friends and family connections, he became the darling of society, poured forth for its amusement those Oriental tales, of which The Giaour alone retains sufficient vitality or perfume of true poetry to make its perusal at the present day desirable. Byron did not excel in the art of telling a simple story, unvaried by digressions, unassisted by contrasts of pathos and humour. One of his latest compositions in the narrative style, The Island. is a total failure. The best of his earlier tales, The Prisoner of Chillon and Mazeppa were produced after the period of his fashionable fame, when, in the quietude of exile, he wrote with sobered feelings for himself. They owe, moreover, their greater purity of outline and sincerity of feeling to the form of monologue adopted. For the moment Byron becomes Bonnivard and Mazeppa, speaking through their lips of sufferings with which he felt the liveliest sympathy.
The life he led in London between 1812 and 1816, confirmed Byron's affectations and increased his tendency to cynicism. But while warping his character and enslaving his genius to trumpery standards of taste, it supplied him with much of the material which was to be wrought up into Don Juan. We have therefore no reason to deplore the fact that he lived through it. On the other hand we may perhaps be thankful that his uncongenial union with Lady Byron came to an abrupt conclusion at the beginning of 1816. His temper needed to be deepened by pain; nor was it till the blow of Lady Byron's separation struck him, that the gravest chords of his genius uttered a note. From that time forward, in the ennobled Cantos of Childe Harold, no less than in occasional lyrics, the sorrow which drove him into exile and flung him for repose and consolation upon Nature, formed one of the principal topics of his purest poetry. The public who raved about Lara and The Corsair, must have felt that there was yet a greater Byron to arise, when they read the Domestic Pieces, so indiscreetly committed by friends to the pages of the London newspapers. Even though we may condemn, on principles of taste, the self-revelation which from this time forward became one of Byron's habits, though we may fail to appreciate the professed scorn of the world which he mingled with a free recourse to its confidence and sympathy upon delicate matters of his private life, there is no disputing the energy communicated to his genius by these trials.
The formation of Shelley's friendship at this epoch must be reckoned one of the most fortunate and decisive events of Byron's life. The immediate result of their intercourse at Geneva was evident in the poems composed during 1816 and 1817; in the loftier inspiration of Childe Harold, in the lyrical gravity of Prometheus, and in the maturer reflections of Manfred. The reading of Goethe's Faust was not without its share of influence, manifest in the general conception of both Manfred and The Deformed Transformed. Yet neither of these plays can be said to have been modelled upon Faust. Byron's genius could not work upon the same lines as Goethe's; nor can dramas, hurriedly conceived and rapidly executed, without a distinct philosophical intention, be compared with the slowly elaborated masterpiece of a lifetime, which condenses and anticipates the profoundest thoughts of the nineteenth century. In Manfred the type of character which had previously been sketched by Byron in his romantic poems, receives more concentrated expression. Manfred is the incarnation of a defiant, guilty, self-reliant personality, preserved from despair by its disdainful pride, linked to the common joys and sorrows of humanity by the slender but still vital thread of a passion which is also an unforgotten and unforgivable crime. The egotism which is the source and secret of his vaunted strength, foredooms Manfred to destruction; yet at the close of his course, he does not flinch. Such self-sustained stubbornness was Byron's ideal. But he infected the type with something melodramatic, which lowered it below the defiance of the Greek Prometheus, and he prepared no reconciliation of opposing motives in his dramatic scheme. Tested by common experience, the character he created in Manfred was soon found wanting in the essential elements of reality.
Byron's removal to Venice in 1817 marks a no less important epoch in his career than the meeting with Shelley at Geneva. He now came into close contact with the Italian genius in its raciest expression. He studied the writers of burlesque, and fastened with partiality on Pulci, two books of whose Morgante Maggiore he afterwards translated. It must not be imagined that the new form he was about to invent for English literature was borrowed from the Italian. Hookham Frere, in the octave stanzas of Whistlecraft, had already naturalized the Tuscan humoristic style. But neither the example of Frere nor the far more powerful influence of the Italian poets will suffice to account for Beppo and Don Juan. The blending of satire with description, of realism with imagination, of drollery with ideal beauty, were Italian possessions before Byron seized on them. But he added something characteristically his own. In Beppo he treated the incidents of a Venetian novella. At the same time he stood so completely outside his subject, and informed it with humour at once so far more pungent and so far more universal than pervades the best work of his supposed models, that Europe received at his hands a species hitherto unguessed and undiscovered. Beppo seems to have revealed to Byron the power that had been latent in him from the earliest days of boyhood; but which, partly from modesty and partly from the misdirection of his faculties, due to critical incapacity, had lain dormant. He found that he possessed an unrivalled command of comedy. Beppo was but a prelude to the two great works, Don Juan and The Vision of Judgment, on which his fame will ultimately rest, and last as long as there are minds to comprehend their many-sided excellence.
In the year 1818 Byron began Don Juan. Until his death in 1824 he used it as the channel of expression for the varied reminiscences of past experience, and for the miscellaneous pictures of society and human life with which his mind was stored. It was a poem without a plan, and for this very reason well adapted to his purpose. Juan is a name the fact that his parentage and earliest adventures are Spanish does not bring him into competition with the Don Juan of Spanish legend. He has but little in common with the hero of Moliere's play or Mozart's opera. Juan's biography is the thread on which Byron hangs descriptions, episodes, satirical digressions, and reflective passages of brilliant audacity. That Don Juan, as Byron began it in the extant sixteen cantos, should have arrived at a conclusion, seems inconceivable. It was therefore scarcely a misfortune that death cut the poet short, when he had closed the fourth chapter of his hero's adventures. Byron, it may be observed, was essentially an occasional poet. He needed some substratum of fact or personal emotion for his imaginative edifices, and wrote best when he was least hampered by self-imposed theories of art. Childe Harold and Don Juan may therefore be regarded as continuous poetic journals. He used them as receptacles for the ideas that every passing day suggested. "If things are farcical," he once said to Trelawny, during their voyage to Greece, "they will do for Don Juan; if heroical, you shall have another canto of Childe Harold." This accounts for the defect of structure in both poems. But while the change of style and tone in Childe Harold has been already pointed out, no such failure can be indicated in Don Juan. Within itself, and judged by the laws of its own nature, it is vigorously organised. The flux and reflux of contrasted incidents, the balance of emotions between pathos and, comedy, humour and satire, — the correspondence of voluptuous and piquant, sensual and tender, touches, — the passage from Donna Julia to Haidee and Dudu, — the siege succeeding to the shipwreck, — the picture of St. Petersburgh under Catherine followed by that of England ruled by Whig and Tory peers; — this counterpoise of interests, this rapid modulation from key to key, gives to Don Juan, fragment as it is, a fine artistic coherence.
The Drama lies outside the scope of this book. It is not therefore necessary to speak in detail about the tragedies, which occupied much of Byron's time at Venice and Ravenna, but which, neither as acting plays nor as poems, can be reckoned among his masterpieces. Cain and Heaven and Earth, called "Mysteries" by their author, detach themselves from the rest, because Byron's insufficiency as a dramatist was in both these cases covered by the peculiar piquancy of the subject-matter. Cain, on its first appearance, had a veritable success of scandal; but, since its day, our advance in religious toleration and freedom of speech has shorn its daring scenes of half their lustre. The case is very different with the Vision of Judgment. In this poem, composed upon an event of so ephemeral importance as George III's funeral, and inspired by so trivial a passion as spite against Southey, Byron displayed in short compass the range and scope of his peculiar powers. His humour, common sense, inventive faculty, and luminous imagination, are here, as nowhere else, combined in perfect fusion. We only miss the pathos and the sympathy with nature displayed in previous compositions of a different purpose. The octave stanza, which he had essayed in Beppo, and perfected in Don Juan, is used with unrivalled command of its resources. Like some elemental substance taking shape beneath a spirit-touch, the metre obeys his will, and from the slightest bias of his fancy assumes imperishable form. Satire, which at the outset of Byron's career crawled like a serpent, has here acquired the wings and mailed panoply of a dragon. The poetry of the Vision of Judgment, sustained by the companion pictures of Lucifer and Michael, is no less brilliant than its burlesque, expressed in St. Peter and the King.
Byron's best poetry admits of no selections being made from it. He was deficient in those qualities of ear and taste which are necessary for the production of studied perfection on a small scale. We must admire him for the sweep and strength of his genius, or not at all. With the exception of a few personal lyrics, characterised by simplicity of feeling and limpidity of style, his shorter pieces do not adequately represent him. He succeeded best in all the mixed specimens he attempted. But precisely because those poems blend so many qualities, contrasted and assimilated by the poet's power, they cannot be perused in fragments. We may reckon this impossibility of doing justice to Byron by selections among the reasons for his present comparative neglect. Yet the change of opinion which has taken place among cultivated people during the last half century in this respect, is so striking, that no critic of Byron can avoid discussing it. To do so is in fact the simplest way of ascertaining his place in literature. During his lifetime he enjoyed a renown which has rarely fallen to the lot of any living writer. At the present day it is common to hear people asserting that Byron was not a true poet. Some causes of this revolution are patent. In the first place he cannot be called a moral poet. His collected works are not of a kind to be recommended for family reading; and the poems in which his genius shines most clearly, are precisely those which lie open to the charges of cynicism, unorthodoxy, or licentiousness. Again, he suffers from the very range and versatility of his performance. Like the Roman Empire, "magnitudine laborat sua." His masterpieces are long, and make considerable demands upon the reader's patience. Byron has suffered even more from the mixed quality of his work. Not only are his poems voluminous, but they are exceedingly unequal; nor is it so easy, as in the case of Wordsworth, to separate what is worthless from the imperishable creations of his genius. The sudden burst of glory which followed upon the publication of Childe Harold, and the indiscriminate enthusiasm of his admirers, injured Byron during his lifetime by establishing the certainty that whatever he wrote would be read. It has injured him still more with posterity by stirring a reaction against claims in some respects so obviously ill-founded. Instead of subjecting the whole mass of Byron's poetry to a careful criticism, the world has been contented lately to reckon it among the nine days' wonders of a previous age. This injustice would, however, have been impossible, unless a current of taste inimical to Byron had set in soon after his death. Students of literature in England began about that period to assimilate Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Landor — those very poets whom Byron, in his uncritical arrogance, had despised or neglected. Their ears became accustomed to versification more exquisite and careful, to harmonies deeper and more refined if less resonant and brilliant. They learned to demand a more patient and studied delineation of natural beauty, passion more reserved, artistic aims at once more sober and more earnest, and emotions of a less obtrusively personal type. Tennyson and Browning, with all the poet-artists of the present generation, represent as sheer a departure from Byronian precedent as it is possible to take in literature. The very greatness of Byron has unfitted him for an audience educated in this different school of poetry. That greatness was his truth to fact, conceived as action, feeling, energy; not as the material for picture-painting, reflection, or analysis. Men nursed on the idyllic or the analytic kinds of poetry can hardly do him justice; not because he is exactly greater, or they indisputably less, but because he makes his best points in a region which is alien to their sympathy. The idyll was a species invented by the Greeks in their decline, when the passion, action and practical energy — the lyrical emotion and the dramatic fervour of their past literature — had become fit subjects for little pictures, jewels of verse, refracting the light cast on them by culture, and returning it to the eyes of the beholder in a prism of suggestive hues. Our age is in a somewhat similar sense idyllic. We are now accustomed to the art which appeals to educated sensibilities, by suggestions and reflections, by careful workmanship and attentive study of form, by artistically finished epitomes of feeling, by picturesquely blended reminiscences of realism, culture, and poetical idealism. Byron's work is too primitive, too like the raw material of poetry, in its crudity and inequality, to suit our Neo-Alexandrian taste. He wounds our sympathies; he violates our canons of correctness; he fails to satisfy our subtlest sense of art. He showers upon us in profusion what we do not want, and withholds the things for which we have been trained to crave. His personality inspires no love, like that which makes the devotees of Shelley as faithful to the man as they are loyal to the poet. His intellect, though robust and masculine, is not of the kind to which we willingly submit. As a man, as a thinker, as an artist, he is out of harmony with us. Nevertheless nothing can be more certain than Byron's commanding place in English literature. He is the only British poet of the nineteenth century who is also European; nor will the lapse of time fail to make his greatness clearer to his fellow-countrymen, when a just critical judgment finally dominates the fluctuations of fashion to which he has been subject.
It is desirable in all disputed cases to readjust the balance of criticism by reference to authorities who command attention. This disposes me to quote the opinions of Byron's most eminent contemporaries, not because they seem to represent the final truth about his poetry, but because their deliberate enthusiasm must force the reader to a reconsideration of his merits. Shelley, who was no mean critic, and who was certainly not blinded to Byron's faults by their close intimacy, wrote of him in private correspondence thus: "He touched the chord to which a million hearts responded, and the coarse music which he produced to please them, disciplined him to the perfection to which he now approaches." This was in 1822. Again, in an earlier letter of the same year: "Space wondered less at the swift and fair creations of God when he grew weary of vacancy, than I at this spirit of an angel in the mortal paradise of a decaying body." Goethe, in conversation with Eckermann, after death had removed the English peer and poet above all reach of flattery, said. "The English may think of Byron as they please; but this is certain, that they can show no poet who is to be compared with him. He is different from all the others, and for the most part, greater." That this was no hasty utterance, is proved by Euphorion's part, assigned to Byron, in Faust, as the typical modern poet, and by many parallel passages in Eckermann's book of Table Talk. Mazzini, to quote an authority of a different type, breaks, at the end of his essay on Goethe and Byron, into the following vindication of the poet's claim: "The day will come when Democracy will remember all that it owes to Byron. England too will, I hope, one day remember the mission — so entirely English, yet hitherto overlooked by her — which Byron fulfilled on the continent; the European role given by him to English literature, and the appreciation and sympathy for England which he awakened amongst us. Before he came, all that was known of English literature was the French translation of Shakespeare, and the anathema hurled by Voltaire against the "intoxicated barbarian." It is since Byron that we Continentalists have learned to study Shakespeare and other English writers. From him dates the sympathy of all the true-hearted amongst us for this land of liberty, whose true vocation he so worthily represented among the oppressed. He led the genius of Britain on a "pilgrimage throughout all Europe."
The judgments I have cited are of value when we seek to discern Byron's merits with eyes unblinded by contemporary prejudice. If we measure him from the standpoint of British literature, where of absolute perfection in verse there is perhaps less than we desire, he will scarcely bear the test of niceness to which our present rules of taste expose him. But if we try him by the standards of universal literature, where of finish and exactitude in execution there is plenty, we shall find that he has qualities of strength and elasticity, of elemental sweep and energy, which condone all defects in technical achievement. Such power, sincerity and radiance, such directness of generous enthusiasm and disengagement from local or patriotic prepossessions, such sympathy with the forces of humanity in movement after freedom, such play of humour and passion, as Byron pours into the common stock, are no slight contributions. Europe does not need to make the discount upon Byron's claims to greatness that are made by his own country.