1830 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

Anonymous, in "Lord Byron's Character and Writings" Southern Review [Charleston] 5 (May 1830) 518-19.



The literary reputation of Lord Byron has been established beyond all possibility of change or decay. We do not believe — notwithstanding some apparent exceptions — that the opinions of contemporaries, in regard to the works of men of genius, have ever materially differed from those of posterity. But this is especially true of those writers who have addressed themselves more to the feelings of mankind, than to the imagination. Milton, although his works were far more justly appreciated by his own age, than is commonly thought, certainly did not hold exactly as high a rank in general estimation then, as has been conceded to him since. But — besides the character of that wretched age — Milton's poetry is addressed to the learned. It bears upon every line of it, the impress of vast erudition and consummate art. It is true, he is the greatest master of the sublime that any language has to boast of — greater than Shakespeare — greater than Dante — greater than Homer. But it requires study and reflection, objects of comparison and a competent familiarity with literature, to perceive the amazing magnitude of this glorious orb. A vulgar eye might glance over him a thousand times, and still mistake this "ocean of flame" for a star of an inferior class. This is a great obstacle to his popularity — and it is one not less formidable, that he is deficient in pathos, and in topics of general interest. Byron wrote because he felt and as he felt. It may be said most justly of his genius — "furor arma ministrat." Instead of "lisping in numbers" as Pope did, he sighed and groaned and cursed in them. He spoke to the hearts of men, and, however the spirit of most of his productions is to be censured, his voice, whether for good or for evil, has seldom failed to find an echo there.

It may, in general, be remarked of his poetry, as of most of that of the present age, that it is not sufficiently elaborated. Many feeble, prosaic, and even unmeaning lines abound every where in his finest compositions. English criticism is less fastidious, in this respect, than that of any other language, and things are pardoned or passed over by it, which would endanger the success of a work in France or Italy, and would have destroyed it at Athens. But it is impossible to read any of Byron's masterpieces along with the best passages in our classical poetry, without being struck with the general inferiority and carelessness of his diction, as well as with the great inequality of his style. Compare, for instance, any thing that he has done, (except, of course, some highly wrought passages) in the Spenserian Stanza, with Spenser himself, or with the first part of Thomson's "Castle of Indolence." Whatever may be thought of their relative merits in other respects, we fancy every body who has either ear or taste, must agree that, as far as mere language goes, there is a richness, harmony and uniform finish in the works of those masters, which are sadly wanting in Byron. So in satire, he has produced nothing to be talked of in comparison of Dryden's vigorous and bold pen, or the condensed and sententious elegance of Pope. Nothing can be more powerful and pathetic than his poetry in his loftier vein — but the same objection lies here to the want of that "limae labor," which entitles a work of genius to be classed among perfect specimens of art. Lord Byron threw off some, probably most of his compositions, with almost as much rapidity as a hackneyed writer for the daily press. Not the least instructive part of Mr. Moore's book, is the insight it gives us into his manner of composing — from which the fact just mentioned appears, along with another more important, if not quite so remarkable. This is, that many of the greatest beauties of those poems, were put in as corrections and improvements, on second thought and with great care — the true secret of the "curiosa felicitas" in all times and tongues.