1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

Anonymous, "Literature of the Nineteenth Century: Lord Byron" Literary Magnet 3 (1825) 161-63.



Lord Byron is, our opinion, not only the first poet of the age he lived in, but in many qualities the first poet this country ever produced; and in making this assertion, we are not unmindful that such spirits as Spenser, Shakspeare, Milton, and Dryden, have hallowed the world with their ethereal presence. If sublimity of conception dare alone snatch the laurel of immortality, Byron must forego his claim to that bright distinction. But if intensity of feeling, grasp of thought, and power of description, are of equal pretensions, he holds, in our mind, as ample a right to the crown of excellence, as either of those whose heads it already distinguishes. It was the attribute of Milton to soar into the bosom of the heavens, and there to quaff divine draughts of inspiration — to contemplate mankind in their pristine grandeur, and on his own pinions to lift the mind into the clouds, and look down upon the world which gave him birth — look down upon it with the superiority of an unearthly being! It was for Shakspeare to dwell on the harmonies and sublimities of nature; to catch, as it were, the golden chain of reason that seemed flung downward by the Ruler of the Universe, to bind to him denizens of the earth. It was for him to throw aside the veil which hid from the unhallowed view of mortals the innermost, and most awe-inspiring charms o the Great Spirit which owned him as her favourite child! But it was left for Byron to explore the deeper mysteries of our formation, to open the most secret core of our hearts, and to tear from its hiding-place every nerve, and thrill it with the spirit-stirring touch of his lyre: to wind up the strings of our affections into the highest pitch of passionate harmony, or to make the soul startle back with the fearfulness of her own darings: to ignite with his never-dying touch the secret minings of passion: to make the soul swim in the luxuriance of its own emotions with the soft melody of love — swell with the enthusiastic glow of patriotism, or burn with the fiery touch of passionate intensity.

Lord Byron has unquestionably formed a new era in the poetical history of our country. He does not merely delight us with the delicacies of his fancy, or the overpowering weight of his imagination, but he makes us forget that he is possessed of either of those great qualities, and directs his power towards the excitement of our feelings, and expanding the heart, as if for the reception of his own lofty inspirations. His own thoughts seem to breathe within us, and his own passions burn in our blood: we are, for the moment, the mere creatures of his purpose, mere slaves to his will, whom be can lift up to the third heaven of poetical rapture one minute, and sink by the next into the lowest abyss of earthly despondency!

But he is gone! the elements of his soul have fled to the skies, of whose essence they were formed, where the spirits of Homer, of Virgil, of Shakspeare, have gone before him! His faults and his failings are fading from our memory, while his virtues still remain as green as ever in our souls: even they who, from envy or malice, once injured his fame, new throw garlands round his tomb. The lyre that once trembled to his wizard touch — that waked the soul to love, to liberty, to fame, is shattered and unstrung! The heart that once rose high with the consciousness of immortality, now is mingling with the dust front whence it was borrowed — we feel [Greek characters: Thou sleep'st at the sleep of death — Achilles! | But are we unmindful of thee? ah! no: in life, in death, | Thou art still our veneration and regard]. And if in future ages the tongues of posterity shall ask, who was he that, like the eagle, when first he feels the strength of his pinions, soars away from his comrades, and on the summit of some frowning promontory, directs his soul-searching gaze on the world beneath him — who, born to be the admiration and wonder of the world, fled from its gaze, and in the wild recesses of uncultivated regions, poured forth the musing of his soul — who flung a never-fading charm around the witcheries of life, called into life or aroused feelings that were before unknown or dormant: who, from the energies of his mind, created a mimic world, peopled it with the children of his fancy, and gifted them with the attributes of beings immortal; who, when he wafted his magical wand over the existing world, turned the currents of its opinions, gave a new impetus to the imagination, and consequently held sovereign dominion over the actions and will of mankind — who tore from his breast the heart that beat within it, and half in bitterness, and half in triumph, exclaimed, See what a thing of flowers and weeds, what a minglement of the airs of heaven with the blasts of hell — the muse of history shall reply, while our children will glow at the sound — The man was Byron!