1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

R., "Portraitures of Modern Poets: Lord Byron" Ladies' Monthly Museum S3 15 (February 1822) 86-91.



His lordship's first effusions were, "Hours of Idleness," a collection of those harmless trifles, that seldom meet the eyes of any but the select few of the author's friends. Every year gives us "The Poetic Garland," Trifles in Verse," &c. &c. and other attacks upon Reason under the guardianship of Rhyme. Now as no one takes the trouble of reading the delectable articles but "kinsfolk," the authors have little to fear on the score of criticism. Not so Lord Byron; his little work (certainly above the mediocrity of the generality of these attempts) was attacked with all the asperity of the Northern Critics.

Mr. Jeffrey, however, no sooner took up the cudgels, than his lordship drew his small sword, and "English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers," revenged his lordship, and amply compensated him by placing a laurel on his brow, which his "puerile poems" never could have gained him. This criticism was, on the whole, illiberal and uncalled for; for his "Hours," &c. was a production, which did not aspire to the dignity of such notice. Swift says, "A true critic in the perusal of a book, is like a dog at a feast, whose thoughts and stomach are wholly set upon what the guests fling away, and consequently is apt to snarl most when there are fewest bones." In this view of the subject, their severity is rather an honor than a disgrace to the noble bard.

No poet (of the present day at least) has written so much in so short a space of time as his lordship. "Childe Harold," "The Giaour," "Bride of Abydos," "Corsair," "Lara," "Siege of Corinth," "Prisoner of Chillon," "Parisina," "Manfred," "Beppo," "Maseppa," "Lament of Tasso" "Don Juan," "Marino Faliero," &c. &c. have alternately been produced, and yet he still seems to have an inexhaustible fund of brilliant ideas and glowing descriptions.

The chief fault of Lord Byron's productions is, that they have a direct tendency to demoralize mankind, by placing the disciples of vice in situations which command our pity and admiration, and by blending some ameliorating quality with the worst principles. Thus in his Corsair—

Fear'd, shunn'd, belied, eve youth had lost its force,
He hated man too much to feel remorse,
And thought the voice of wrath a sacred call
To pay the injuries of one on all.
He knew himself a villain — but he deem'd
The rest no better than the thing he seem'd;
And scorn'd the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath'd him crouch'd and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection, and from all contempt;
His name could sadden, and his acts surprise,
But they who fear'd him, dar'd not to despise:
Man spurns the worm, but pauses ere he wake
The slumbering venom of the folded snake.

Here is a character utterly alien to virtue, yet the very loftiness of his daring guilt forbids us to hate , and renders it impossible to despise, him. Conrad has, moreover, a powerful charm — he loves with warm and undivided devotion; and that passion, like the sun, is not only beautiful and brilliant in itself, but beautifies and illuminates every object on which it sheds its influence.

Yes, it was love — unchangeable — unchang'd,
Felt but for one from whom he never rang'd;
Though fairest captives daily met his eye,
He shunn'd nor sought, but coldly pass'd then by;
Though many a beauty droop'd in prison bow'r,
None ever sooth'd his most unguarded hour.
Yes — it was love — if thoughts of tenderness
Tried in temptation, strengthen'd by distress,
Unmov'd by absence, firm in ev'ry clime,
And yet — oh! more than all! — untir'd by time!
Which not defeated hope, or baffed wile,
Could render sullen, were she near to smile;
Nor rage could fire, nor sickness fret to vent
On her one murmur of his discontent;
Which still could meet with joy, with calmness part,
Lest that his look of grief should reach her heart.

These extracts are somewhat longer than I either wished or intended; but they so completely illustrate my remark, that I could so forbear giving them.

We see Hugo die, and though the seducer of his father's wife, 'tis with pity and regret. "This is not as it should be." Painters find it easier to paint a ugly, than a handsome face, and so may his lordship find it less trouble to exhibit the bad than the virtuous part of human nature. But why does not that transcendent genius, which, all admit and admire, seek to brave the hardest test to which it can be put? Might not all the description contained in Childe Harold have been as well connected with the tour of an amiable personage as that of the gloomy and repulsive misanthrope his lordship has described? He has not even the lighter shades of character which diversify and beautify the other delineations of the noble author. Oh! my lord, to use your own language—

Nor florid prose, nor honied lies in rhyme,
Can veil our evil deeds, or consecrate a crime.

It is a bad compliment to the first poet of the age, that he feeds the vulgar mind "which delights in mystery." It is like an actor who debases himself by playing to the gallery. Such is "the wild and wondrous song" of Lara, who is a most mysterious personage, coming why and from whence no one knows. He is seared in his own castle by something, best, or indeed only, known to himself — he becomes melancholy — to chase which he goes to a ball, where he is as merry among the belles as the best — when a Sir Ezzeline discovers that he has seen Lara elsewhere, to the great annoyance of Lara, who challenges him, and retires in dudgeon, Sir Ezzeline determining "to fight the white-livered giant in the morning." Morning arrives; not so Sir E.; one Otho swallows more of Lara's steel than agrees with him; in consequence of which battles ensue, and the mysterious hero expires. Yet all this while I forgot to say, he has a certain slender page, who is no more a man than the Ann Page, loved by Slender, and who dies likewise; and that a peasant has seen something float in a neighbouring stream which was presumed to be the deceased Ezzeline. Now in the name of common sense what is there in all this, but what may be read in every mottled-covered romance from the days of Noah, to those of Mrs. Ratcliffe.

But there is something still worse in his lordship's productions — the pervading misanthropy and bitter sarcasm against mankind that they contain. In an epitaph on a favorite dog, he eulogizes him as a departed friend, and exclaims — "I never had but one, and here he lies."

On reading this, one is led to exclaim, in his own words—

How well the subject suits his "noble" mind,
A "fellow-feeling" makes us wondrous kind.

If there ever was an outrage upon the dictums of society, it was the publication of the poems actuated by his "family misfortunes." Private bickerings, or quarrels, (let his lordship name them as he pleases) are unfit subjects for public animadversions. If his lady's governess's cheek was made of parchment (a most durable commodity, by the bye, for a lady's skin), were his lordship's admirers necessarily to be made acquainted with it in an octavo pamphlet. Oh! fie, my lord, are your domestic brawls to be made the means of aiding your pecuniary wants? His lordship's marriage, and subsequent voluntary exile (for all the world knows it was voluntary) were the suggestions of his own heart. Lady B.'s tears might have been dried, and her complainings hushed, had his lordship condescended to make the experiment, but be preferred roaming—

and wandering to the cave of death
Searching its cause in its effect, to draw
From wither'd bones, and skulls, and heap'd up dust,
Conclusions most forbidden.

And if he has so little gallantry and good sense to prefer caves of death to halls of health and beams of beauty, let him enjoy his singularity of taste; but let him cease to abuse his less refined fellow-creatures because their ideas do not assimilate with his.

His lordship has made one attempt at a regular tragedy, and failed completely. There are many poetical beauties in Marino Faliere; for instance—

Joy's recollections are no longer joy;
But sorrow's memory is sorrow still.

But of force of character, or situation, it is wholly destitute.

An author who writes for fame must not strike against the sacred barriers of religion or morality; yet how many restrain themselves from putting his works into their library, lest the younger branches of their family should become allured by its beauties, and at the same moment injured by his immoralities.

It is painful to go on thus from bad to worse; but what are we to say of "Don Juan?" Of its impropriety his lordship must be well aware by never acknowledging it; nay, Mr. Murray refused to adorn the pages with his name, and poor Mr. Davison was obliged to become printer and publisher; as if what would disgrace Albemarle-street must not be equally obnoxious at Blackfriars. The description of the exploits or a libertine are a bad field for the display of extraordinary power, and that page should be for ever blotted from view, that cannot be perused by the female eye without diffusing a blush on the cheek.

That his lordship's genius is most brilliant is cheerfully admitted; that that genius is perverted, I lamentingly feel. That the hand that could so well paint the flowers of our existence should alone delight in pourtraying the noxious weeds — trample upon the sweets of life, and present us alone with the bitters, must excite our regret; — to say this is his nature is to wrong his heart; to say it is his humour is to wrong his head. That he is not the "Childe," he represents his actions prove; he is charitable and humane; why then does be persist in making his pen belie him? Stung, perhaps, by a repulsion which his soul could not brook, misanthropy may cast a cloud on his solitary moments, and a pen which can so powerfully describe all the emotions of the soul is used to develope dark imaginings of damning satire, levelling, at "one fell swoop," all mankind to the rank of demons or madmen.

Lord Byron's works abound with beauties. The erudite will admire him for his learning — the lover of nature for his simplicity — the young and ardent will glow over his descriptions, melt with his tale of melancholy, or smile at his witty sallies; but will the hand of age transmit his pages to youth as a treasure to enrich the mind and mend the heart, or will after ages applaud the man, though they immortalize the poet?

Dec. 1st. 1821.