1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

Allan Cunningham, in "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the last Fifty Years" The Athenaeum (16 November 1833) 771.



The cynical, sneering, and sarcastic spirit of our times — the doubting of everything, and believing in nothing — found a poet in George Gordon Lord Byron. He was born with the noblest faculties: his imagination was boundless, his intellect lofty and vigorous, his application unceasing: nor did he want a passionate energy, and a sensibility keen and acute — in short, a union of those fine qualities which fit a man for the highest flights of poetry. How and when much of this was blighted and seared, will perhaps never be discovered: of the sterner and darker parts of his character, there is no intimation in his first publication, the Hours of Idleness, and the change which came over him, as a cloud comes over the sun, has been imputed to the contemptuous and unjust criticism in the Edinburgh Review, which nearly drove him distracted — turned his blood to gall, and dipped his pen in nitric acid, and influenced all his future compositions. This is not easily reconciled with the circumstance mentioned by Moore, that a good deal of his satire on the reviewers was written before the critique alluded to appeared: I know not how it came to pass, but it is certain, that from this period Byron became cynical and moody, and recalled too often for his own peace of mind, the language of the article, which he continued long to resent.

His high birth and singular story united in helping him on to fame. He was born in London in 1788: his father was a spendthrift and a libertine, and his mother an heiress, who paid as a penalty for her ill-placed love, her whole fortune, save some two hundred a year, on which this descendant of princes educated her only child, and maintained her household. Between the poet and a lordship many life-like people stood; but by the time he had half completed his education, relations were removed one by one, till at last the title descended to him, and he found himself lord of Newstead, and of himself — "that heritage of woe." Like Burns, whom in many things he resembled, with him began love and poetry: when some twenty-years old, he gathered his poems into a volume — the source of all his fame, and much of his sorrow: in reply to its reception from the critics of the north, wrote that sharp satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, and having done so, sailed away, to give his wrath a cooling on Mount Parnassus and in the Hellespont. He was beginning to be forgotten, when he returned suddenly to England, surprised the country by publication of the Childe Harold, and his whig reviewers, by siding with them in the Lords, and uttering biting speeches against the Tories. This noble poem raised him at once above criticism, and gave him rank with the highest spirits of English poesie.

From this time forward, he continued to pour his verse before the public, with a rapidity only equalled by the originality of his conceptions, and the brightness of his handling. A succession of poems, all impressed with an eastern character, and wearing the hue and lineament of the people with whom he had sojourned among the Mediterranean isles, confounded the critics, and awakened such rapturous applause as had only been heard when the Ariosto of Scotland sent forth his Marmion and Lady of the Lake. Of these, The Giaour, The Corsair, The Siege of Corinth, The Bride of Abydos, and Lara, appeared within a wondrous short space of time; which proves that poet's passions, like those of another bard, raged like so many devils, till they got vent in verse. Having wearied himself rather than the public with rhyme, he took a sudden stride into realms of blank verse, and gave us his mysterious Manfred, his splendid prodigal Sardanapalus, with other dramatic compositions scarcely less regal and surprising. Having on many occasions displayed an irritability of nature, and a quick susceptibility in all things personal, together with a love of showing that he was inflammable and voluptuous, his friends, in the joy with which mariners welcome a storm-tossed ship to a secure and calm anchorage, hailed his marriage with a lady reckoned every way worthy of her envied fortune. The result was unfortunate; from the moment of his marriage his muse was silent: his creditors were not so: three executions in this proud man's house invaded his studies and hurt his temper: his lady, under pretence of a journey to the country, forsook him: the world, always ready to strike the proud, and trample on the famous, assailed him with its thousand weapons, and drove him in a moment of despair from the land which gave him birth, and now inherits his glory. His course from this moment was wayward, and more like a will-o'-wisp than an inspired being: yet, between this and the grave, he wrote some of his boldest compositions; he concluded Childe Harold, wrote Mazeppa, and alarmed the sedate with his wild Don Juan. The poet seems to have been sitting between angels of light and darkness when he wrote it, and to have been influence by the former at the rate of ten stanzas to the canto. It exhibits some of his brightest and some of his blackest moods. How he tried to restore the extinguished fire of liberty to Italy, and, with a helmet of a Spartan pattern on his head, sailed to revive heroism among the hordes of Greece — how he failed, and how he fell, have been made known to the world. He died at Missolonghi, and was buried at Newstead, after being refused admission into Westminster Abbey.

The poetry of Byron is singularly bold in conception: the thoughts are generally new and striking, and the language audaciously powerful and fluent. He looks at nature through his own eyes: he refuses to feel with others; and this is visible in the characters he employs, as well as in thoughts on the present and the future, which he scatters always with a daring and sometimes with a profane prodigality. He has no desire to claim the virtues of mercy and generosity for his bandit heroes; he dips them in the hues of darkness, and then seeks to bring them back towards humanity, by shedding on them one ray or so of virtue, which, like a light in a charnel-house, renders all more ghastly around. His heroines are neither feminine nor natural: they seem formed on the Nut Brown Maid pattern, whom neither robbery, bloodshed, nor love elsewhere bestowed, could appall. This is an offence against the feeling and pride of woman's heart, which all the other charms in which he sometimes endows them, cannot atone for. Yet, with all the repulsiveness of his men, and the melo-dramatic sort of characters of his women, he invests them with such life — paints their thoughts so truly, and their actions with such wondrous force of light and shade, as render them welcome, with all their sins against virtue and decorum. His chief excellence is in the calm dissection of the human heart, and in expressing sentiments dark and terrible. We follow him, not through the charm of love, but the spell of fear; and while we cannot find an echo in our own hearts for a third of the fearful things he utters, we follow him still. His radical defect is a want of sympathy with universal nature: in this, the peasant Burns far surpasses the lordly Byron: the humble tiller of the ground, who had but the sweat of his brow and seven pounds a year for his inheritance, loved the earth more than did the Lord of Newstead, with his high rental, and pedigree reaching to the Conquest. The noble poet did not see and feel great Nature's plan, as the rustic felt it: he wrote of everything as if in scorn; he treated virtue as an accident, and error as a certainty; and his fame must pay the penalty of his pride or his presumption. We read his noblest strains with an uneasy heart and a troubled brow: those who desire to draw the honey of happiness from divine verse, will not readily obtain it in the works of the gifted Byron.