1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

Thomas Barnes, "Portraits of Authors. Mr. Byron" The Champion (7 May 1814) 118.



Almost every poet of eminence has been remarkable for some peculiarity of thinking, some characteristic feeling which entirely separates one individual from another, and is in general the most delightful as well as the most distinct feature in the portrait of each. Homer was evidently a good-humoured social being, fond of the domestic charities and the snug comforts of common life: even in the description of war and death, he will turn aside perpetually to make some refreshing allusion to his favourite topics. Virgil was a man of melancholy temperament, and had disciplined his mind with the severest studies, but tenderness seems to have been his predominant feeling. The pangs of despised love, the anguish of parents over the untimely fate of their offspring, the early extinction of the beautiful, the gay, the gallant, and the good — these were the darling themes with which he cherished his own melancholy, and softens and improves the hearts of all who read him. Petrarch is distinguished for purity, and Milton for elevation of thought. Tasso for the sweetness of his disposition, and Ariosto for the gaiety of his. In all these instances, and in many more, which it would be easy to quote, it is observable, that various as these peculiarities are, they are none of them unamiable; but every child of the muses has, under different modifications, shewn, as might be expected, the kindly and love inspiring symptoms of his celestial origin. It remained for Lord Byron to combine the hitherto incompatible qualities of the selfish misanthrope and the lover of poetry, to convert the best gift of heaven into a vehicle of savage ill-nature, and to change the muses of Parnassus into the furies of Tartarus. Before his time, even satirists had been eager to shew that their abhorrence of particular vices had not destroyed their affection for the good. Juvenal has sufficiently proved the gentleness of his nature by his beautiful apostrophe to preceptors, by his noble sentiment on tears, and by the endearing kindness with which he speaks of his friends and his servants: nor is there on record a more interesting piece of the pathetic than the affectionate address of Persius to his tutor Cornatus. Not so Lord Byron: in his sweeping invectives there are no kindnesses reserved for the select few: age, and rank, and talent, are hurled about in one common vortex. The firebrand is thrown about indiscriminately, and we are asked to laugh and think it sport. — For this disgusting character of his lordship's poetry, two reasons are assigned: his lordship is young, and, forsooth! his lordship is melancholy. Each excuse is equally unfounded and ridiculous. If the charge against him had been debauchery or extravagance, youth might be admitted as a plea: but what connection is there between the open simplicity and good-natured confidence of boyhood, and the fierce hate which cannot be satisfied with less than an assault on all mankind. Then he is melancholy. To this I answer, without any knowledge of his lordship, that he has not one true symptom of such a disposition about him. Grief never did, nor ever will, indulge itself in the utterance of ill-natured and malignant remarks. It may be angered, and may now and then drop a peevish word: but it is its nature to be gentle, to sympathise, and to look about for objects of sympathy, conscious that its sufferings require support, and are an unanswerable claim to the most intimate union with human society, whose common bond is destined to be misery. Grief never hates: but rushes with eagerness from the recollection of injury, to love and doat on the first face that bears one smile of compassion. I know a man whose body is worn down by continual and torturing pain, whose mind is agitated by unavoidable embarrassments, and whose friends begin to shew symptoms of weariness at his presence; yet the native candour of his soul is not one tittle abated, nor has he for one moment been disposed to consider his individual sufferings a reason for branding all mankind as villains. I knew a lady, whose life, for several years, was a succession of the acutest torments, bodily and mental, and who had long been taught that she must not expect the slightest respite, except in the grave; — yet that gentle being never uttered an angry or a peevish word: her mind overflowed with affection to all about her, and the greatest delight of which she seemed capable, was to hear of the happiness even of her remotest acquaintance. He would be an impudent and vulgar-minded slanderer, who should impute to either of these persons the least imbecility: their's was the grand irrepressible energy of patience, which is always just and venerable, while the most boisterous complainer shews only the convulsive strength of anger, which is at once despicable and hateful.

After witnessing such instances as these, one cannot express sufficient scorn and indignation for the mock-sorrows of a Childe Harold, who, in the full vigour of his healthful youth, is made to traverse the fairest scenes of creation, merely to pollute them with the breathings of discontent, and who surveys the noblest actions of man with the eye which Satan cast on the innocence of Paradise. Lord Byron is very properly anxious to convince his readers that Harold is a fictitious person: to be sure he is, — there never could exist a wretch so purely detestable: but why does Lord Byron waste his talents in the composition of such unnatural portraits: why does he appear occasionally to adopt his creature's most hateful opinions; why has he thought fit to record all the lucubrations of a selfish libertine, who hates all the excellence which smiles around him, for no better reason than because he is satiated with bad wine and disreputable amours? Had it ever been his lordship's misfortune to meet with a being at all similar, and had he conceived that the example might be salutary to the world, in that case he should have exhibited him as an object to be hated, he should have beset his way with contempt and abhorrence; and he might have pointed his moral by shewing the probable end of such a man, which would be, after discharging his impotent malice on invulnerable virtue, to retire to some obscure corner, feed on his own heart, and perish on the poisonous repast. His lordship may yet, in some future edition, alter his poem, and thus save himself from the ignoble task of vindicating his own character from any identity with Harold.

His lordship's other poems have not the same offensive peculiarities, yet there is in all a very bad moral taste: an admiration amounting almost to wonderment for the sentimental qualities of mysterious robbers and sentimental murdering sultanas; — of solemn Giaours who tell horrid tales on their death-beds, and of Pacha's sons who have a taste for piracy. The late poem on Buonaparte is still worse, for it shews that his lordship's admiration for that unique, ceases at the point where he begins to be at all admirable; when at least he is wearing the appearance of magnanimity, and seems to shew that he knows how to endure as well as to combat. A fierce uneducated soldier, like Augereau, may with perfect consistency, be astonished that Napoleon does not shoot himself, but Lord Byron, the man of cultivated intellect, the philosopher and poet, should know better than to confound the impatience of disappointed rage with the determinations of calculating and deliberate courage.

After all, this puerile taste is the result of impetuous feeling, rather than of calm thinking; and as his lordship has promised to wait some years before he again comes before the world, we may reasonably hope that his passions will be somewhat abated, and his understanding liberalized into juster views of things. Should this be the case, there would be little wanting to make his lordship a poet of considerable stamp. His vivid descriptions of scenery, his delightful portraitures of female loveliness, the spirited rapidity of his narrative, and the vigour, of some of his sentiments, have already not only sufficiently redeemed his faults among the generality of readers, but made him exceedingly popular; when, to these qualities, shall be added, a taste corrected of all paltry affectations and childish fondnesses for such things as giants and gigantic achievements, his lordship may then challenge public opinion, with a proud consciousness that he has deserved the praises of the wise, as well as the stupid admiration of the vulgar and unthinking.

There is still another reason which should induce his lordship to endeavour to give a new object and effect to his future writings. From several parts of his works he appears to be, in the best sense of the word, a lover of the female sex; let him not, then, by false pictures of character, and extravagant descriptions of passion, help to delude a race, who are, above all others, the most apt to be deluded; whose minds, being enslaved by a narrow education, and whose comparative seclusion from the world, render them unable to distinguish the voice of truth from the voice of deception. As he is a lord and a poet, he will always be read by women; I entreat him, then, not to lose the glorious opportunity afforded to him, of strengthening those minds, which it were a foul shame to weaken; let him awaken their capabilities, by exciting their moral ambition, instead of (doing what every boy can do) melting their hearts by talking of blue eyes and golden hair. His lordship aims at originality, — and here is a path but little trod by poets. Let him follow it, and he may be assured of the gratitude as well as the admiration of the world; his early perversions of taste will be forgiven, and the loudest acclamations of congratulation would come from those quarters where it is now thought a duty to reprobate the pernicious sentiments of the Childe Harold.