1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

James McHenry, "Lord Byron" American Monthly Magazine [Philadelphia] 2 (July 1824) 68-71.



The death of this extraordinary personage, has excited a sensation in the public mind, greater, perhaps, than could have been produced by that of any other individual of the present times, with the exception, probably, of the mysterious writer of the Waverley novels. His decease is, indeed, the extinction of a luminary in the world of letters, on which the eyes of men, for more than ten years, have been fixed, if not always with delight, at least with uniform wonder and curiosity. Many have totally disapproved of his productions; some on account of their immoral tendency, and others on account of the bad taste displayed in their composition, especially of his latter performances; but none could withhold from them the attention excited by the curiosity attached to the works of a man so singular in his manners, his fortunes, and his actions. He was truly an original character. Every thing he did, and every thing he wrote, however badly it might have been done or written, seemed the spontaneous result of uncontrolled impulse, without reference to a model, and without regard to consequence. Hence he became an object of high admiration to all who delight in boldness and eccentricity, and who can overlook aberrations from the true line of propriety and beauty, if they are only treated with novelty. Those who believed that his originality was owing to such aberrations, might deny their approbation, but they could not restrain their curiosity to know whatever should be said, or written, or done, by one who possessed so many votaries, and was, therefore, sure to make n impression on society. His talents every one acknowledged; but his manner of employing them was condemned by thousands, nay, in some of his writings, it was to thousands, and these too of fine taste, cultivated understandings, and sound judgment, absolutely disgusting. These insisted that it was of no consequence to them how great might be his talents; it was only with what these talents produced that they had any concern. To these men, even the votaries of Byron were obliged to admit that he produced much deserving of condemnation. On their part it may be triumphantly asked, what has he produced to call forth our gratitude? In respect to profit, what work of his has rendered mankind wiser or better? or in a literary point of view, what truly valuable addition has he made to the intellectual treasures of our language? Goldsmith, Gray, and Collins, have each of them written but little poetry; but who would part with either the "Deserted Village," the "Elegy in a Country Church Yard," or the "Ode on the Passions," for the whole collection of Byron's works? These are questions which every genuine lover of poetry, who wishes to form a true estimate of the value of Byron's productions, should ask himself.

That Lord Byron failed to produce any work of much advantage to literature, was chiefly owing to his careless habits of composition, which habits proceeded from the most inexcusable of all feelings a writer can possess — a disregard of public opinion and a contempt for the established canons of good taste. He was, to use a favourite phrase of his own, too reckless about every thing, to infuse uniform excellence into any thing. He was of that disdainful, unsocial, unaccommodating character, which will submit to no restrictions, and confine itself within no bounds, however proper, decorous, or even necessary for well-doing. It is true, some may designate such a character by the more recommendatory epithets of lofty, independent, and original; but such lofty, independent, original people are generally both unamiable and unprofitable to the rest of mankind; and more frequently become distinguished for their discontented peevishness, and ill-humoured singularities, than for the benefits they confer, or the glory they reflect on their species. Lord Byron's peevishness, however, appears to us to have been rather the result of circumstances, than the innate bent of his mind. He was in his childhood left to the guidance of his own inclinations, with the most ample means of gratifying every whim and propensity. No wonder, therefore, that when he mingled in the society of men, he should feel the restraints which the safety and harmony of social life have rendered necessary to be imposed on its members, irksome to be borne, and should rebel against them. Hence the yoke of marriage lay heavy on his shoulders, and the restraints of good writing on his pen. He broke through them both: and in his life roamed after whatever loves attracted his wild desires, and in his writings, pursued with reckless extravagance, whatever themes his undisciplined fancy suggested. Yet both in his life and his writings, he occasionally exhibited an excellence, which was evidently the result of his inherent goodness and greatness of mind exerting itself in despite of the evil influences of the unlucky circumstances that governed his course, and formed his character.

We regret much that this nobleman was not spared until mellowing years bad ripened his understanding, and strengthened his judgment sufficiently to enable him to see, and to controul, the waywardness of his mischievous fancies. He might then have appeased the spirit of social morality for his offences against her laws; and the insulted genius of literary taste might have beheld him bending in penitence at her shrine, and making atonement for past transgressions, by offering on her altar, the glorious productions of a mind regenerated in its views and dispositions, but still retaining the same unrivalled capacity for the conception of mighty and splendid thoughts. But the consideration, which, more than any other, causes us to regret the untimely fate of Lord Byron, is the loss which it will be to the cause of Greece. To this sacred cause, with a romantic ardour, which will for ever hallow his memory in the minds of all true friends of human rights, and induce many who disapproved of his moral and literary delinquencies, to forgive, and to love him, he had devoted both his person and his property, and what was, perhaps, of more real benefit to the Greeks, the influence of his illustrious name. In combating for liberty on those classic plains which had been so often the favourite themes of his song, thousands fondly anticipated that he would have gathered laurels that would bloom in the eyes of posterity, long after his bays should be withered and forgotten.

In short, the good and the bad qualities of this great man, were so conspicuous, undisguised, glowing and candid, and at the same time, so nearly balanced, that we scarcely know whether to censure or applaud him most. Admire him we must, even for many things deserving of censure; for his very vices had an indefinable redeeming quality about them, which compelled us, even in the midst of our displeasure, to feel respect, and to confess admiration.

Such, in our opinion, was Byron. He is gone; and we cannot but lament his loss; for he was a being, with whom, notwithstanding all his faults, we felt that it was an honour to be cotemporary.

There is considerable agitation in the public mind concerning the destruction of a Memoir of this nobleman's life written by himself, and presented in manuscript to Moore, the poet, with an injunction that it should not be published until after his death. From Moore, Mr. Murray, the bookseller, purchased this manuscript for a considerable sum; but a becoming delicacy to Byron's relatives, induced Murray to submit the work to their inspection, previous to its appearance, with a determination to regulate his proceeding by their decision. No doubt, on perusing the manuscript, he found it to contain matter which rendered such a course not only proper, but necessary, if he wished to treat the feelings of virtuous and respectable individuals with due respect. On inspection they found that it contained what determined them to oppose the publication: and they hesitated not to reimburse to Murray the money he had paid for the manuscript, in order to procure its destruction, and it was accordingly committed to the flames. Such is the statement concerning this affair which is now in circulation. The public seem to repine at the result; but we think without reason. The gratification of curiosity concerning certain mysterious events of Byron's life, which his recklessness of the world's opinion, no doubt, permitted him undisguisedly and broadly to detail, may be disappointed; but any one who reflects on the circumstances of the case, and the character of the man, will agree, that it is probable that not only delicacy would have been wounded, and morality shocked, but the best principles of society would have been insulted, by the appearance of the work. Instead, therefore, of repining, we believe the world has reason to rejoice at its suppression.