Lord Byron's compositions do not entitle him to be called the best of our present poets; but his personal character, and the history of his life have clearly rendered him the most interesting and remarkable of the persons who now write poetry. If he is not, as we have said of another, "the author we would most wish to be," he is certainly the living author who is chiefly "the marvel, and the show" of our day and generation — leaving the word "boast" out of the quotation, as leading to premature discussions. — Whatever general judgment we may pronounce on his qualities as a writer, guiding ourselves by the rules of criticism, there can be no doubt of his standing a towering object in the moral and intellectual horizon of his age; and he is destined so to endure, and to captivate and astonish the eye of posterity, when all that is common of our possessions is forgotten, and all that is weak and little is crumbled into dust; when the outline of that busy and crowded portion of space and time which is so much to us, will be traced, like that of an ancient city, by a few single, elevated, and imperishable monuments.
It does seem scarcely possible to pay too much for the glorious assurance of so enduring, to be so hereafter regarded; — yet, by Lord Byron, it has been purchased at a most serious, and even appalling expense in more than one kind of earthly good. Never, — in our opinion at least, — has that which is properly called notoriety been so intimately united with the more noble essence of true fame, as it is in the case of this writer; and, what strikes us as more strange still, he even reconciles those dubious and questionable qualities, which fall under the head of empirical, with the acquirement of sterling renown. — The personal interest, we believe, has always been above the poetical in Lord Byron's compositions; and, what is much worse, they appear to have been, in almost every instance, studiously calculated to produce this effect. It is true, the noble author has never distinctly offered us a professed portrait of himself in any of his heroes; but his plan, we think, has been a more objectionable one. While he has introduced, in most of them, features so odious and anti-social, that self-exposure in such a light might be regarded as an unnatural offence, and one more directly insulting to moral feeling than the bare practice of vice, — he has boldly and bare-facedly coupled the histories of his bravoes and villains with the incidents of his own life; mingled their feelings with even affectedly open disclosures of his own; — nay, he has sketched from the most sacred recesses of his own privacy, to the injury of other sensibility than his own, accompaniments to the scenes of debauchery, despair, and violence of which he has chiefly formed his poetical representations. Rousseau's confessions were avowedly of himself: whatever may be their absolute truth, they are most curiously true as an exhibition of character: their minute moral anatomy is as stupendous as the system of the blood-vessels and capillary tubes of the body; and, though indecent and offensive as a piece of self-exposure, they are coupled, all the way through, with so much evidence of actual. personal responsibility, that the fancy is kept in subordination to the moral judgment of the reader, and the usual rules of social intercourse and human duty are not respited in his mind. Lord Byron's creations, however, are addressed to the poetical sympathies of his readers, while their main interest is derived from awakening a recollection of some fact of the author's life, or a conviction of an analogy to the author's own character. A confusion is thus occasioned, in the breast of him whose attention is captivated by the productions in question, unfavourable altogether to right and pure feeling. The impression left on the mind, is neither strictly that of a work of art, to be pronounced upon according to the rules applicable to art, — nor of a matter-of-fact, appealing to the principles of sound judgment in such cases; — but what is striking in poetry is made a set-off against what is objectionable in morals, — while that which would be condemned as false, theatrical, or inconsistent, according to the laws of poetical criticism, is often rendered the most taking part of the whole composition by its evident connection with real and private circumstances, that are of a nature to tickle the idle, impertinent, and most unpoetical curiosity of the public. This sort of balancing system is not fair: — Lord Byron should either give us Childe Harold, Conrad, &c. as what painters call historical portraits of himself, or he should leave us free to judge of them as we would judge of a statue, or of a picture, or of any strictly poetical personage. As it is, the literary imperfections of the Childe, &c. merge in the personal peculiarities of the author; — and again, where it might be useful to hold the latter to answer personally for certain licenses, rendered stimulating and seductive by irregular and unfit allusions, he escapes from this responsibility into the fictitious hero — after perhaps mortally corrupting principle by touching the sensibility with traits that derive all their force from his own history. The unsoundness of this style of composition, is of a double nature: it depraves the taste as well as taints the purity of the moral feeling.
A personal interest of this nature by no means enters legitimately amongst the qualities that form poetical power and beauty: if the reflection of the author's character must be seen in such compositions as profess to be imaginative, it too should take an imaginative hue, and lie deep and dim in the heart of the strain, going, shadow-like, with all the variations of it current. Lord Byron's egotism, therefore, we consider to be one of those properties displayed in his works, which we alluded to at the commencement as partaking of an empirical nature. Its effect is to give a prodigious interest to his compositions with the common run of the readers and buyers of books: it forms admirable matter for table-talk — not such as that in the LONDON MAGAZINE, but such as is to be heard about the west-end of the town — to be enabled, on his lordship's own authority, to discuss his lordship's remorse, and misanthropy, and withered feelings, and youthful disappointments, and faded hopes! — Lord Byron's genius should he above supplying matter for such heartless gossip: — if he really have (as we earnestly hope he has not) genuine cause for melancholy reminiscences, approaching to the horror of despair, he should "instruct his sorrows to be proud;" otherwise his own line verse tells against himself—
The rock, the vulture, and the chain,
"All that the proud can feel of pain,
The agony they do not show,"
The suffocating sense of woe
Which speaks but in its loneliness,
And then is jealous lest the sky
Should have a listener, nor will sigh
Until its voice is echoless.
Griefs revolting in their cause, and poisonous and cureless in their effects, ought to be kept a secret as a mortal cancer, — which no one who pines under it ever thinks of displaying to company, to have its gangrenous colours admired, and made a theme for the exclamations of silly wonder. Sufferings calculated to excite deep commiseration and kind pity, when sustained with dignity, and expressed with reserve, are justly regarded as public nuisances when they court display and are obtruded on our senses, — not merely as offensive spectacles, but as dangerous causes of the deformity of others by operating on susceptible dispositions with their diseased and monstrous influence. Besides, there is but too much reason for suspecting, that there is more of trick than calamity in many of these exhibitions: the seemingly infirm object, who painfully limps on crutches before the passengers in the street, calling their attention to his old, but unhealed wounds; his festering sores which he must carry about with him to his dying day, — is often known to join the merry dance in the evening, with other active cripples, and healthful bed-ridden! In the pauses of the fiddle they count the gains which they owe to their afflictions, — and chirp over their cups on the strength of the supply which their agonies have procured to them.
Is there no ground for suspicion that Lord Byron's grief, and despair, are for ever at the end of his pen, except when he is writing notes to his poems, and those New Moralities, Beppo and Don Juan, are in a good measure feelings of ceremony. They are certainly excellent prompters of phrase; they supply solemn poetical apparel for public occasions; and invest the person of the author, in the imaginations of the daughters of noblemen, and the wives of tradesmen, with the charm of a melancholy air, — set off by a cap-and-feather look of desperation, and gestures of gentlemanly ferocity. The first play we ever saw, or at least that we recollect seeing, was Lewis's Castle Spectre; and, that the exhibition might lose nothing of its full effect on our minds, it was not at Covent Garden or Drury Lane but in a town far north of the Tweed. We remember well the impression then made on our fancy by the gentleman who played Osmyn: his complexion was very sallow, his brows were corked to appear large and black, his physiognomy was sad, and shaded by an ostrich-plume. Now, from what we hear young ladies, and younger gentlemen, sometimes say of Lord Byron, we are inclined to think they contemplate him as presenting just such another image of theatrical woe.
Seared in heart, and lone, and blighted-
More than this, I scarce can die:—
thus concludes Lord Byron's Farewell, on the occasion of his leaving England, and we have had good reason since to admire the strength of the vivacious principle in his breast. His subsequent productions have seemed to intimate that dying was as far from his own thoughts, as his death is far from the wishes of booksellers, and book-readers, and the admirers of genius, and they who desire to see one of England's most distinguished children restored to her under circumstances in every way satisfactory. But it absolutely makes one angry, in the midst of high-toned strums of energetic feeling, sounding a requiem over departed glory, or a celebration of immortal genius, or a hymn to natural beauty, glowing and enkindling as the rays of morning, to have our touched sympathies interrupted by the stage-trick of a displayed pocket-handkerchief or the strut of theatrical magnanimity in martyrdom.
Mean time I seek no sympathies, nor need;
The thorns which I have reaped are of the tree
I planted: they have torn me, — and I bled;
I should have known what fruit would spring from such a seed.
Childe Harold, Canto 4.
This is weak if sincere, and weak if affected. Indeed, affected it is, whether it be sincere or not. What we chiefly object to, is the mawkishness of such passages: their decency as confessions, and their consistency, with self-respect, and the respect of others, in the mouth of a fashionable nobleman of these days, who writes elsewhere of "lobster sallad" and "Champaign punch," are matters we leave to his lordship's own reflection. If Lord Byron has ever appeared in Rotten-row on horseback, he seems to us precluded from talking, even in his own poetry, in such a strange ranting sort of way of his sorrows and errors. His station in society, and his manners as an English gentleman, turn the laugh against his sombre heroics. We dare say he has done nothing sufficiently worse than other people, if all were known, to justify, or even render excusable, his rhymed remorse. If we are too severe in saying this, we are sorry for it; but really our own strong suspicion is, however mortifying it might be to his lordship to know it were he ever likely to see this article, — that he has by no means outdone many of its in improprieties; — that, notwithstanding his numerous hints, which have set his admirers on hunting out deeds without names to lay to his door, he is not distinguished by one unpardonable or abominable vice; that, his private history is by no means enriched with crimes of deep dye; and that, were he now to return to his native land, and sit down as chairman of a bench of justices at the quarter sessions, he might discharge the duties of his office, with an easy conscience, against all offenders likely to be placed at the bar — with the exception of those very unfortunate persons, who have to answer to their parish officers for "loving not wisely, but too well." We repeat, that our regret would be most sincere were we to be convinced, hereafter, that we had dealt too hardly by his lordship, in expressing this disbelief: but, though he chooses to tell us that his "springs of life are poisoned," and that he "must bear what time cannot abate," and that he may justly have incurred a mortal wound "for his ancestral faults, or his own," — we persist in discrediting that there is any thing in the past necessarily calculated to throw a shadow over the future portion of his lordships life. What his ancestors have done amiss we can forgive and forget, when we know what it is: — whatever it may be, we can overlook Lord Byron's share of the guilt committed by his forefathers, were it only in gratitude for the following lines, in which he so exquisitely introduces us to one of his mothers:
Dear Nature is the kindest mother still,
Though always changing in her aspect mild;
From her bare bosom let me take my fill,
Her never wean'd, though not her favoured child!
Childe Harold, Canto 2.
His own sin-roll, we have no doubt, he over-estimates, as well as the criminal horrors of his ancestors: the fuss he has made about his faults we dare say would turn out their worst feature. It was a foolish and a very wrong thing to write the Farewell; and not a well-judged thing to write the Sketch from private life: but it was also foolish and wrong in the public to raise such an outcry in a matter that would not at all have concerned them, but for these unlucky publications, and which they made much more of than even these publications warranted. — To say the truth, then, we long to see Lord Byron once more amongst us, stripped of all the adventitious, and, we must call them, surreptitious advantages, as an author, which he has derived from being considered as too bad for repentance, and too desperate to be pitied. We wish to see him trying his strength fairly with other writers, without other pretentions than those which we are confident he has never forfeited — viz, to private honour, and the respectability of an unsullied title. — That he is beloved as a friend we know; that he is generous, or rather magnificent, in his temper; hospitable and kind when occasion serves frank to forgive causes of offence, — we also know. Although, in the course of this article, we shall have laid grave faults to his charge, they are not faults of an unpardonable nature, — nor are they committed with apparent struggles, — nor hinted at in his confessions, — nor do we believe that he yet repents of them, — nor, when he does, will any very heavy penance he imposed upon him by society. He must not, therefore, pique himself too much on the censure which we shall apply to him in the conscientious discharge of the duties of criticism, — for we have been obliged to state some very large sets-off of good qualities, to be subtracted from the sum total of blame to which we think him fairly entitled.
To return, however, from this — which has become almost a digression. His frequent allusions to his own private history; his almost constant appeals to sickly sensibility by tricked-out representations of disreputable and garrulous sorrow and suffering; and the false and inconsistent character of many of his heroes, in whom strong effect is purchased at the expense of propriety of every kind, constitute faults in Lord Byron's style of composition, palpable to an eye of any discernment. But, more unfortunately, they are hurtfully seductive to inexperienced and uninstructed taste, and most mischievously calculated to give ascendancy to the heterodox judgments, generated in the heat and rankness of fashionable manners. It is the popularity of these faults that has made us feel it necessary to commence our observations by noticing them. We not have deemed ourselves free to give full vent to our admiration of the marvellous flowers of this remarkable intellect, if we had not at the outset entered a protest against its various heresies. That Lord Byron irradiates the literature of the day by his genius, is incontestable; but that it can be said of him, that he elevates the general reputation of the literature of his country, we doubt. The truth is, he mingles up many questions that are not literary, but of a more serious and important nature, with the consideration of his literary merits. It is his misfortune to have done this; for not only, we apprehend, must a verdict be given against him whenever the inquiry is directed towards moral tendency, personal fairness, and public decency, but the worst faults of his style are, we think, clearly traceable to that looseness of feeling which is the unhappy source of so much irregularity of another nature staining his works — often demanding indulgence, and often forbidding it altogether. Lord Byron's last work is avowedly licentious; — it is a satire on decency, on fine feeling, on the rules of conduct necessary to the conservation of society, and on some of his own near connections. Having said this, we need say no more on its character independently of literary considerations: he would himself, we are sure, allow it to be all we now say; his publisher has done so by scrupling to put his name in the title-page. — The only questions, agreeably to the known frankness of his disposition, which it is probable he would think of discussing, would be the degree of mischief it is likely to do; and whether jokes on the inconsistencies of human professions and practice, and exposures of the ridiculous side of social institutions and domestic observances, have not before been ventured, quite as pointed as Don Juan, without incurring on their parents the heavy charge of being arrayed in hostility against the best interests of their fellow men. — We would be disposed to concede a good deal to his lordship on these points: the world has by this time been pretty-well accustomed to see the vivacity of talent employed in raising a laugh against things which do honour to conduct, and passing as pleasantry what is discreditable. Man, in fact, is at once a laughing animal, and a laughable one; he is not, and cannot be, consistent. His nature is made up of absurdities, as they now appear, — which are probably only enigmas, the solution of which is reserved for another state of being. Hence, very considerable freedom has always been taken with the stricter doctrines of the moralist, and the most essential regulations of social intercourse, in the vivacity of penetrating intellects, seeing through disguises, and solemn hypocrisies, — and necessary, but unreal pretensions, and all the solemn masquerade of serious life. The temptation to irreverent mirth and dangerous ridicule is so great, that we are obliged to seek securities against their effects, rather than to prohibit or severely condemn their exercise. It is now pretty well understood, what these poetical licences are worth; their language may introduce impure terms and images into breasts that would otherwise have remained, for some time longer at least, unsullied: so far they are mischievous and reprehensible; but as to actually furnishing grounds of conduct, or leading to the formation of false principles, we do not think that these evident caricatures of manners are likely, to do this. They pass as exaggerations, or caprices on their side: they are considered to be intentionally wide of the truth: their authors are supposed to be prepared to say with Prior, "Gadzooks, who would swear to the truth of a song!"
In our view of the matter, Lord Byron's serious poetry is of a much more deleterious tendency than his late compositions professing levity of purpose. The former is calculated to introduce disease into the heart through admiration excited in favour of false and hateful qualities of character: the latter address themselves only to the unscrupulous, and the experienced. To regard what is improper in them with approbation, would bespeak previous corruption. But the first ruin taste, infect feeling, and unsettle principle: what is showy in them wins and perverts; what is pathetic softens towards temptation; what is horrible familiarizes with evil, and misrepresents nature.
Still, however, it must be admitted, that Lord Byron has carried the licence of his levities farther than we have been accustomed to see men of his powers of mind care to commit themselves in such irregularities; and it is to be deplored, for his sake, as well as for ours, that, with such undoubted possession of genius as he certainly has, he should only vary his style of writing to make a new trespass. Much, too, do we regret, that a very suspicious circumstance attends the variation: the qualities that are objectionable in both his styles, equally belong to the class of expedients for cheaply gaining popularity: they are equally included within the set of resources which groveling souls have recourse to, in the absence of, talent, to realize their selfish schemes. Indecency is saleable; so are lampoons; so are pieces of overcharged colouring and staring effect; so are affected confidences, and allusions to domestic discords, private errors, and mental horrors . All of these present baneful stimuli to depraved appetites: — it is lucky for Lord Byron's reputation as a poet, that he has mingled much of the celestial fire, and of glowing feeling of that which is inspiring in the noblest terrestrial objects, with these baser materials of composition: he has done this to a degree quite sufficient to exculpate him from having sought to shelter his weakness by pandering to the baser desires: but what we have stated, — the candour of which we are sure cannot be denied by any reader of his works, — fully bears out what we affirmed of him at the commencement of this article; — viz. that he strangely reconciles those dubious and questionable qualities which fall under the head of empirical, with the acquirement of sterling renown. His pieces are indeed of a "mingled yarn:" the coarse is mixed with the fine; the subtlest texture with the veriest botch-work. — We would point out to his lordship's serious reflection, if we had any assurance of being honoured by his notice, as the features most degrading to the character of the author in his last compositions, those which are calculated to throw doubt altogether on the sincerity of his emotions, and the healthiness of his heart, putting joke and levity out of the question. Vivacious allusions to certain practical irregularities are things which it is to be supposed innocence is strong enough to resist, — otherwise, the commerce of the world forbids hope of its long life. But the quick alternation of pathos and profaneness, — of serious and moving sentiment and indecent ribaldry, — of afflicting, soul-rending pictures of human distress, rendered keen by the most pure and hallowed sympathies of the human breast, and absolute jeering of human nature, and general mockery of creation, destiny, and heaven itself — this is a sort of violence, the effect of which is either to sear or to disgust the mind of the reader — and which cannot be fairly characterized but as an insult and outrage. This is not an English fault; for it affects the sincerity of the writer's design, and the honour of his intentions. Some bad specimens of it exist in foreign literature, — but that of our own country has not hitherto been so contaminated. — Our writers have composed burlesque, and grossness, and caricature, and indecency; but they have not insulted the very principle of goodness, the image of God in the soul of man, by exciting the best affections of the spirit, and leading it to direct communion with the powers that scatter sublimity and beauty over this sublunary scene, in order to startle and shame it, by suddenly confronting it with a Satanic laugh at some mortifying slur thrown on what is best and fairest to human eye and thought, — and dearest to human feeling! To do this is to reduce reader, author, and subject to one general level of contempt: to make us, so far as he has power over despise and hate ourselves, him, and all about us. — Degradation of nature is felt to be suffered, when from so exquisite, so elaborate, so painfully exact a description of parental tenderness, hanging over the mortal agonies of a beloved child, as we find in the Don Juan, we are suddenly called upon to turn our sympathies to sneering jests and cruel mirth. What is the difference between doing thus in a poem, and doing it in real life? — and what should we say of the disposition of him who should turn from the death-bed of a fine boy, round which hearts are breaking, and from which hopes are departing, to crack scurril jokes on human weakness, calamity, and despair? Lord Byron would be as much shocked at this as any man; and, therefore, we must come to the conclusion, that he considers his authorship a mere piece of representation altogether, in which he is to perform the part of the moment, — now in tragedy, now in farce, as Garrick performed Hamlet and Abel Drugger in the same evening; and Kean, Othello and Harlequin. This we are pretty sure, from the general evidence of his works, is what he really does; but he ought not to do it to the injury either of personal or public feeling, or even to the perversion of taste. — He ought not, on such a system as this, to write such pieces as the Farewell, following them up by certain indelicate caricatures and offensive insults. Professions of tenderness, of generous fidelity, of clinging fondness, made in his own person, and used to the injury of the reputation of another party, are not justifiable, supposing them to be genuine — but if they form only a part of a poetical masquerade, in which the next character, supported by the same individual, may be a malicious satirist, or careless laughing profligate, they are very bad. In the same way, we would object, though with less zeal, to the author of Beppo talking so much of the "ruins of his years" — "though few, yet full of fate;" of his having calmly "borne good" and of none having "beheld decline on his brow," or "seen his mind's convulsions leave it weak." — On that principle of acting an assumed part, which we have above referred to, and which can alone render much that he has done at all excusable, he ought to leave his personal identity quite behind the scenes. Kemble, beyond an occasional cough, which he could not restrain, gave no sign of John Philip amidst the misanthropy of the Stranger, and the moodiness of Penruddock.
If, on this system of versatility and powerful exhibition, reckless of consistency, and careless about binding himself to his own real feelings, Lord Byron commences regular satirist, or rather lampooner, it is quite clear that, he will possess great advantages for the infliction of pain, and the excitement of interest, which, like those other advantages helping him to popularity, that we have been noticing, will be very inconsistent with the dignity of the poetical character, and, may we not add, with that respect for him as an individual, which his high rank and genius so naturally incline people to entertain. His Beppo and Don Juan lead us to fear that he has almost determined to take this course. After declaring it of himself, with reference to his own family, in language sufficiently pompous—
—there is that within me which shall tire
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire
Something unearthly which they deem not of.
Like the remembered tone of a mute lyre,
Shall on their softened spirits sink, and move,
In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love!
after this heroical, and solemn, and singular announcement from a British Peer, we certainly could not have surmised that his next appearance before the public, would have been as a merry burlesque tormentor of others. Nothing, after the above, seemed left for Lord Byron, but a sort of state existence, — a sort of demi-god sojourning below, in sedate grandeur, and sublime melancholy: instead, however, of being careful to maintain an appearance suitable to this serious self-devotion to immortality, the next time we hear of him, his mouth is full of laughing scandal, and barbed jeers. The incongruity here, is at least startling such a line as this,—
For one was in debt, and both were in liquor,
applied to two living individuals by name, for one of whom his Lordship had expressed respect, — is not at all in the style of the verse quoted just above: his lordship's nature seems suddenly changed: — it is as if the statue of Apollo, in the Vatican, had left its pedestal, to appear as that of Pasquin, the squib publisher, in the common Roman market place. He had but just invoked "the desart for his dwelling place,"
With one fair spirit for my minister,
That I might all forget the human race,
And, hating no one, love but only her.
Childe Harold, Canto 4.
all this is very touching — at least it is intended to be so: but if it be mere theatrical strut, it is not worthy of Lord Byron; and if it had been sincere, his next compositions would not have sparkled with jests on the "bustling Botherby's" of London, or with lampoons on Wordsworth and Southey. Satire and ridicule are free to Lord Byron as to any other writer; but there is much in his manner of handling these edge-tools, in which by the bye he has been unfortunate before, that renders it proper we should regard his pleasantry and severity as very similar to his melancholy, his mental tortures, and resignation under them, — and give weight to his satire accordingly.
We find our objections have run out to fill a larger proportion of our paper than we had anticipated, — for, when we set out, we felt chiefly our personal inclination to handle favourably the object of our intended remarks. We necessarily, however, put the volumes of this great and prolific author on the table before us, and their collected evidence has compelled us to what we have said. But how much remains to be said of a very different nature, with reference to the real poetical power displayed in these eloquent rhapsodies! We know there are critics who deny that Lord Byron is a distinguished poet, — affirming that his style is often false, and often feeble, — that his sentiments are often unnatural, his imagery tawdry, his effects forced, and in bad taste. We think so too, — and yet affirm him to be one of the greatest of poets. The mere vigour and rapidity of his course would almost be enough to constitute him a great poet, particularly when it is considered through what mighty scenery his curse has been directed. He has carried a countless number of readers, with glowing, untiring ardour, over almost the whole expanse of the poetical map, as it includes the marvels of history, of art, and external creation. What traveller in prose has ever conveyed such lively ideas of what is essential and peculiar in the aspect of climes and situations which have long fed our dreams of beauty, and of wonders, and to the influence of which he has now added tenfold efficacy? Whom have we amongst us to do any thing like what follows to bring home the of a classical land, and the enchantments of classical monuments as to make them bear with force on the mass of public feeling, and give a general elevation to the level of fancy and thought amongst us?
But when he saw the evening star above
Leucadia's far-projecting rock of woe,
And hail'd the last resort of fruitless love,
He felt, or deem'd he felt, no common glow:
And as the stately vessel glided slow
Beneath the shadow of that ancient mount,
He watch'd the billows' melancholy flow,
And, sunk albeit in thought as he was wont,
More placid seem'd his eye, and smooth his pallid front.
Morn dawns; and with it stern Albania's hills,
Dark Sulis' rocks, and Pindus' inland peak,
Robed half in mist, bedew'd with snowy rills,
Array'd in many a dun and purple streak,
Arise; and, as the clouds along them break,
Disclose the dwelling of the mountaineer:
Here roams the wolf, the eagle whets his beak.
Birds, beasts of prey, and wilder men appear,
And gathering storms around convulse the closing year.
So of Greece: — again of Italy—
Oh Rome! my country! city of the soul
The orphans of the heart must turn to thee,
Lone mother of dead empires! and controul
In their shut breasts their petty misery.
What are our woes and sufferance? Come and see
The cypress, hear the owl, and plod your way
O'er steps of broken thrones and temples, Ye!
Whose agonies are evils of a day—
A world is at our feet as fragile as our clay.
The Niobe of nations! there she stands,
Childless and crownless, in her voiceless woe;
An empty urn within her withered hands,
Whose holy dust was scatter'd long ago;
The Scipios' tomb contains no ashes now,
The very sepulchres lie tenantless
Of their heroic dwellers dost thou flow,
Old Tiber! through a marble wilderness?
Rise, with thy yellow waves, and mantle her distress!
This may not be the very purest of all styles of poetry, (though we confess our perceptions are not open to its faults), but at least it is noble declamation, rich with splendour, and sonorous with lofty music. It enlivens the circulation of thought and feeling, and raises the port of the imagination. The principal charm of Lord Byron's poetry consists, we are willing to confess, in its scenery, — but no one we think, but himself, could have brought it to bear so point-blank on the universal sympathy. It is the glory of the places and objects themselves that beams on his page, that has intoxicated his soul, and that inspires the reader: he seems to have been rendered poetical solely by the influence of his subjects — that is to say, when his object is not to make a representation of himself, or to wound others: with these exceptions he speaks as one full of the sacred inflatus. What vivacity of observation is apparent in his descriptions, what zeal in his celebrations, — how quick, varied, and bright, the running flame of his allusions! He is justly entitled to be the most popular of poets, though he is not the best, and though he so often condescends to improper lures of popularity. But he is entitled to be so, because, more than any other modern writer whom we can name, he is the minstrel of fame, whose lays are best adapted to gain the common ear, and find their way to the common heart. He fills galleries, long vistas of magnificence, with images of glory, with stories of passion and suffering, with the annals of departed greatness, and the sublimities of the world that never depart: and he issues an irresistible summons to thousands, to millions, to enter these, and admire and venerate what they see, and bow before that might of destiny which, while it seems to reduce individuals to nothing, gives grandeur and importance to the race, by storing human consciousness with vast and terrible images, that, — better than all the pleasures of existence, — prove its elevation in the scale of nature. Lord Byron, it is true, marks only the stronger divisions of the great picture; he is not skilful in running those cunning, delicate, and fine gradations, which the most refined fancies chiefly delight to distinguish; — but he raises the voice of poetry, as it was wont to be raised, when the excitement of animation in assembled crowds was the minstrel's design. The voice indeed is not now the same in its accents that it was then, but, if it were, it would not have the same effect: the auditors are changed. He, however, conjures up the common inspirations of bright and strong feeling, beauty, valour, danger, death, renown, and immortality; and these ideas he passes through the soul like quick-following flashes of lightning. This is his talent: his reasoning is generally bad; his mere "moods of his own mind," when not closely connected with some external cause of excitement, are very bad; his conception of character is monotonous and false; his sentiments are not often profound, and very often mingle in wild inconsistency with each other: he is pensive or enthusiastic on a theme in one page, which in another he treats with sarcasm or expressions of disgust. In style he is frequently tortuous, involved, clumsy, and affected: we are often tempted to suppose he could not himself declare what his meaning was in particular passages, if they were referred to him for explanation. His metaphysics of the mind are in bad taste, and worse philosophy; and on his various offences in regard to moral tendency, and the respect which an author owes to himself, we have already too fully commented to have any occasion again to refer to them. Yet, with all these faults heaped on his writings, and staring the reader in the face, there is a principle of captivating power in them, supreme and triumphant above all faults; defying faults to lessen it; and attracting after the author, wherever he chooses to wander, a following train, formed of a nation's admiration and sympathy. He has awakened, by literary exertion, a more intense interest in his person than ever before resulted from literature. He is thought of a hundred times, in the breasts of young and old, men and women, for once that any other author is, — popular as are many of his living rivals. He casts his shadow from afar over the surface of our society; and he is talked of in book-clubs and ball-rooms as the only companion which the age has produced to the French revolution! Drawing much from deeper sources than his own, he has rendered palatable what the public taste before rejected. The most musical names of the world, — those that sound, even in the ears of the uninstructed, as equivalent to the noblest ideas and the deepest feelings, are closely associated with his; for he has repeated and celebrated them so as to redouble their empire. Athens, Arqua, Rome, and Venice, fall within the territory over which he is lord: he has visited Waterloo as a foreigner, and Thermopylae as an Englishman; celebrated Napoleon's fall as a friend of liberty, and sung with rapture his triumphs as the hard of despotism: he has received letters from young ladies, anxious for his salvation; has been inquired after by Maria Louisa, — "proud Austria's mournful flower," in a theatre, — and, in fine, he has swum across the Hellespont! He who has claims to have all this engraved on his tomb-stone, need not fear becoming soon a prey to "dumb forgetfulness."
The principle of "chiaroscuro" will account for much of the strong effect of his pieces. A sombre thought or image is introduced to give high relief to a lovely description: this is often done with too much show of design, — but it is also sometimes done with consummate skill and feeling, of which we have an instance in the following fine stanza.
The morn is up again, the dewy morn,
With breath all incense, and with cheek all bloom,
Laughing the clouds away with playful scorn,
"And living as if earth contained no tomb, — "
And glowing into day: we may resume
The march of our existence: and thus I,
Still on thy shores, fair Leman! may find room
And food for meditation, nor pass by
Much, that may give us pause, if pondered fittingly.
We know nothing, in the whole range of poetry, more true to experience, and at the same the more original, than the thought glanced across the mind in the line we have distinguished by Italics. It gives voice to an impression which has many a day lain on many a heart, without the consciousness being sufficiently awakened to it to define it exactly. — Again, on the other hand, how delightfully does he throw the beauty of silent ceaseless nature, over scenes of moral vicissitude, and historical melancholy!
Where'er we tread 'tis haunted, holy ground;
No earth of thine is lost in vulgar mould,
But one vast realm of wonder spreads around,
And all the Muse's tales seem truly told,
Till the sense aches with gazing to behold
The scenes our earliest dreams have dwelt upon:
Each hill and dale, each deepening glen and wold
Defies the power which crush'd thy temples gone:
Age shakes Athena's tower, but spares gray Marathon.
We have living Poets — several — whose contemplation is more intense, — whose passion is more exclusively poetical, — whose language is more pure, and expedients more select; but none whose spirit is so active, or range of sensibility so wide. He spreads himself out over nature and history, like a bird of prey; the storm does not beat down his wing, and he sails in the calm sunshine without fainting. The best specimens of poetry which the present day has produced, lie deep and clear like lakes: Byron's verse rushes like a mountain river through many realms; carrying down to one the productions of another; — often shallow, sometimes showing dry bald spots; but usually rushing forwards with vehement impetuosity: sometimes, too, collecting into depths equal to that of the lake — then again pouring onward, as if enlivened, excited, by the call of the roaring ocean.
Eloquence, rather than poetry, forms, perhaps, the great charm of Lord Byron's verses: like some of the loftier passages in Tasso, his finest morsels are generally declamatory; — the objects are all shown off in exhibition, but the exhibitor is evidently penetrated by their qualities; he anxiously adjusts the display, but lie feels them to be worth displaying. His descriptions of scenery, and the exquisite effects of nature, are what we think he does best.
The moon is up, and yet it is not night—
Sunset divides the sky with her — a sea
Of glory streams along the Alpine height
Of blue Friuli's mountains; Heaven is free
From clouds, but of all colours seems to be
Melted to one vast Iris of the West,
Where the day joins the past eternity
While, on the other hand, meek Dian's crest
Floats through the azure air — an island of the blest.
Childe Harold, Canto 4.
After passages of this class, the bitterness, of sceptical emotion in his compositions seems most marked by energy and earnestness. As a moral philosopher, and even as a misanthrope, he is childishly inconsistent; and his inconsistency would lead its to doubt, or more than doubt, his cherishing any real sentiment corresponding with his expressions in such passages. For instance, in stanza 176, of his fourth Canto of Childe Harold, he makes it his boast that he can
—reap from earth, sea, "joy almost as dear
As if there were no man to trouble what is clear."
This is very school-boy like; but, what is worse, it is not felt with the sincerity of the schoolboy; for, in stanza 178, he tells us that he "Loves not man the less, but nature more," for these pleasures enjoyed in the "pathless woods," and "by the deep sea:" and then again, in stanza 180, we find him exulting in the idea, that his favourite, the ocean, is in the habit of sending human beings "shivering in its playful spray, and howling to their gods" — then dashing them to the earth, — "where let them lay!" — which last exclamation is bad grammar, and idle rhodomontade. — We could multiply instances of these inconsistencies from all his compositions.
His females are fair and pellucid formations, without distinct features, or definite properties. The female character is reduced in them to a certain intense power of communicating delight to man, and awakening enthusiasm in his breast: — they love, dazzle, and die. Their model is altogether an Eastern one:
Where the virgins are soft as the roses they twine,
And all save the spirit of man is divine.
Bride of Abydos.
They are houris, intended to gratify the pleasures of sense with celestial charms. They are made soft, and silent, and yielding, and devoted; just such blessed creatures as man might wish to form for himself to administer to his enjoyment, exempt from all partnership with him in the dominion of the world. Their looks fall on him like moon-light; their breath sighs in his ear, like the whisper of evening; their forms are delicate as the master-pieces of art; their hair is long and flowing for his fingers to play with; they live but in his countenance, and he adores them as the beauty and delight of his existence. But we must not look in Lord Byron's poetry for traces of that tenderness of soul, which has its depth in reason and will; that concession of self; which has its value in worth and weight of character; that full companionship, and closely and entirely associated sympathy, which give importance and solemnity to the union of the sexes, at the same the increasing its zest.
Haidee, in the Don Juan, is by much his best female portrait. Her tenderness seems connected with a greater range of feeling; it is marked by a nobility of sentiment, which is generally wanting to the fondness of Lord Byron's heroines. Perhaps the following stanza may be as proper as any to serve as a specimen of his particular manner in the description of women.
Fair — as the first that fell of womankind—
When on that dread yet lovely serpent smiling,
Whose image then was stamp'd upon her mind—
But once beguiled — and ever more beguiling;
Dazzling — as that, oh! too transcendant vision
To Sorrow's phantom'd-people slumber given,
When heart meets heart again in dreams Elysian,
And paints the lost on Earth revived in Heaven—
Soft as the memory of buried love—
Pure — as the prayer which childhood wafts above—
Was she — the daughter of that rude old chief.
Who met the maid with tears — but not of grief.
Who hath not proved — how feebly words essay
To fix one spark of beauty's heavenly ray?
Who doth not feel — until his failing sight
Faints into dimness with its own delight—
His changing cheek — his sinking heart confess
The night — the majesty of Loveliness?
Such was Zuleika — such around her shone
The nameless charms unmark'd by her alone—
The light of love — the purity of grace—
The mind — the music breathing from her face!
The heart whose softness harmonized the whole—
And, oh! that eye was in itself a Soul!
Bride of Abydos, Canto 1.
It is but fair to say, however, that his women are well adapted to his men, — and give a suitable grace to the pictures in which they are introduced. His heroes — the Giaour, Corsair, Alp the renegado, &c. cannot be said to have characters; they are placed in glaring lights; the circumstances around them are disposed for effect; they have certain strong natural instincts. They are brave, vindictive, unfortunate, and unyielding. They all love, fight, despair, and die. Manfred and Lara alone raise intellect above passion; and the poems, of which they are the heroes, are noble creations of a poetical mind. But which of Lord Byron's is not? They all glow with the fire of genius; — their faults are to be reasoned about; their power is instantaneously felt. Our author is, in short, a genuine master in his art, though his style is false, and his resources are often unworthy of his talents. — We have heard him called a bad poet; but if his poetry be bad, we can only say, that we like it better than much that is allowed to be good. Who denies that Salvator Rosa was a genuine artist, — because signs of affectation, and false ambition, are to he discerned in his pictures? Lord Byron's last compositions — Beppo and Don Juan — are wonderful proofs of the versatility of his powers; but they pitilessly sacrifice personal consistency and dignity in the caprice of a petulant disdain of opinion, or a distasteful avidity for notoriety as a man and an author.