1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

Oliver William Bourne Peabody in "The Decline of Poetry" North American Review [Boston] 28 (January 1829) 12-13.



Such a man requires to be excited by circumstances; and we accordingly find that he did not put forth his strength, till a rude attack from a Reviewer had made him furious. The poem in which he expressed his resentment, was fierce and powerful; but he forgot that the satirist must secure the sympathy of his readers. Their sympathy never goes very heartily nor very far with mere revenge, and always changes sides when that revenge falls on the innocent as well as the guilty. We expect to find him, when in Greece, inspired by her majestic desolation; and accordingly he pours out his soul in a voice like that of past ages. But when he leaves her scenes and ruins, the climate of the East spreads its luxurious influence over him, and though before, in the true spirit of intellectual glory, he had trampled on the poisonous laurels that grow in the field of blood, we find him now perversely employed in exalting robbers and pirates into heroes and martyrs. He rises again among the recollections of Rome, which suggested perhaps the best of his poems; though one would think that he had conceived the idea of writing it, like Gibbon, among the ruins at night. He seems like a guide walking mysteriously through the city, and when he comes to some striking fragment of antiquity, turning upon it the strong light of his dark lantern. But Italy, with her "fatal gift of beauty," seems to have enervated all his faculties, and unfortunately his associates were not of a character likely to redeem him. Shelley says in a letter, "Lord Byron is now reformed, and lives with a very beautiful and sentimental Italian lady." Mr. Hunt, too, declares himself very merciful to such arrangements; and with our impressions of Byron, it seems very natural that under such influences, he should have written canto after canto of a work which made many who were unused to blush, redden with shame far him. Again, when, weary of this debasement, he breaks the chain and goes to aid the Greeks, his energy is called out and he acts with a generosity, good sense, and decision that amazed even his admirers. Like Burns, he had a strong and manly understanding, which appeared where circumstances were favorable to its action. But he had nothing of that resolution, which gives those who possess it such a mastery over themselves and over weaker men. This shows why he appeared at different times so strong, so feeble, so lofty, and so low; why, with powers like an angel's to tower above his fellows, he so often sunk beneath them, and left in the hearts of his admirers, a memory, made up of strangely blended recollections of glory and of shame.

We cannot think that the greater proportion of Byron's poetry is likely to endure; too much of it is obscure, prosaic, and unnatural; though in the heavy clouds of smoke, we are occasionally startled by volcanic bursts of passion. He is irregular and unequal; there are few of his longer poems in which he sustains himself throughout; and if we were to select among his writings for immortality, we should pronounce his smaller pieces, like the one beginning "Oh lady! when I left the shore," most likely to be admired in future times. Many of these are unequalled for the depth and fulness of their sentiment and meaning, and the plaintive music of their flow. But his fame must be in a measure traditional, though monuments of his greatness will remain. Even if there were none, no one will ever doubt the power of him who made such an impression upon the world.