1857 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

Samuel Griswold Goodrich, in Recollections of a Lifetime (1857) 2:100-07.



During the period in which Scott had been enchanting the world with his poetry — that is, from 1805 to 1815 — I had shared in the general intoxication. The Lady of the Lake delighted me beyond expression, and even now, it seems to me the most pleasing and perfect of metrical romances. These productions seized powerfully upon the popular mind, partly on account of the romance of their revelations, and partly also because of the pellucidity of the style and the easy flow of the versification. Everybody could read and comprehend them. One of my younger sisters committed the whole of the Lady of the Lake to memory, and was accustomed of an evening to sit at her sewing, while she recited it to an admiring circle of listeners. All young poets were inoculated with the octa-syllabic verse, and newspapers, magazines, and even volumes, teemed with imitations and variations inspired by the "Wizard harp of the North." Not only did Scott himself continue to pour out volume after volume, but others produced set poems, in his style, some of them so close in their imitation, as to be supposed the works of Scott himself, trying the effect of a disguise. At last, however, the market was overstocked, and the general appetite began to pall with a surfeit, when one of those sudden changes took place in the public taste, which resemble the convulsions of nature — as a whirlwind or a tempest in the tropics — by which a monsoon, having blown steadily from one point in the compass, for six months, is made to turn about and blow as steadily in the opposite direction.

It was just at the point in which the octa-syllabic plethora began to revolt the public taste, that Byron produced his first canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. In London, the effect was sudden, and the youthful poet who went to bed a common man, woke up in the, morning and found himself famous. This ready appreciation there, arose in a great degree from the fact that the author was a man of fashion and a lord, in this country, these adventitious attributes were less readily felt, and therefore the reception of the new poem was more hesitating and distrustful. For some time, only a few persons seemed to comprehend it, and many who read it, scarcely knew whether to be delighted or shocked. As it gradually made its way in the public mind, it was against a strong current both of taste and principle.

The public eye and ear — imbued with the genius of Scott — had become adjusted to his sensuous painting of external objects, set in rhymes resonant as those of the nursery books. His poems were, in fact, lyrical romances, with something of epic dignity of thought and incident, presented in all the simplicity of ballad versification. A person with tastes and habits formed upon the reading of these productions, opening upon Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, was likely to feel himself — amid the long-drawn stanzas and the deep, mystic meditations — in somewhat of a labyrinth. Scott's poems were, moreover, elevating in their moral tone, and indeed the popular literature of the day — having generally purified itself from the poisons infused into it by the spirit of the French Revolution — was alike conservative in manners and morals. Campbell's Pleasures of Hope and Rogers' Pleasures of Memory, were favorite poems from 1800 to 1815; and during the same period, Thaddeus of Warsaw, the Scottish Chiefs, the Pastor's Fireside, by Jane Porter; Sandford and Merton, by Day; Belinda, Leonora, Patronage, by Miss Edgeworth; and Coelebs in Search of a Wife, by Hannah More — were types of the popular taste in tales and romances. It was therefore a fearful plunge from this elevated moral tone in literature, into the daring if not blasphemous skepticisms of the new poet.

The power of his productions, however, could not be resisted: he had, in fact — in delineating his own moody and morbid emotions — seemed to open a new mine of poetry in the soul; at least, he was the first to disclose it to the popular mind. By degrees, the public eye — admitted to these gloomy, cavernous regions of thought — became adjusted to their dim and dusky atmosphere, and saw, or seemed to see, a majestic spirit beckoning them deeper and deeper into its labyrinths. Thus, what was at first revolting, came at last to be a fascination. Having yielded to the enchanter, the young and the old, the grave and the gay, gave themselves up to the sorceries of the poet-wizard. The struggle over, the new-born love was ardent and profound, in proportion as it had dallied or resisted at the beginning. The very magnitude of the change — in passing from Scott's romantic ballads to Byron's metaphysical trances — when at last it was sanctioned by fashion, seemed to confirm and sanctify the revolution. Thus in about five or six years after the appearance of the first canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage — The others having speedily followed — the whole poetic world had become Byronic. Aspiring young rhymers now affected the Spenserian stanza, misanthropy, and skepticism. As Byron advanced in his career of profligacy, and reflected his shameless debaucheries in Don Juan, Beppo, and other similar effusions, the public — seduced, bewildered, enchanted — still followed him, and condescended to bring down their morals and their manners to his degraded and degrading standard.

The secret of the power thus exercised lay in various elements. In England, the aristocratic rank of Byron added greatly to his influence over the public mind, and this was at last reflected in America. With little real feeling of nature, he had, however, an imagination of flame, and an amazing gift of poetic expression. The great fascination, however — that which creates an agonizing interest in his principal poems — is the constant idea presented to the reader that, under the disguise of his fictitious heroes, he is unconsciously depicting his own sad, despairing emotions. We always feel — whether in perusing Childe Harold, or Manfred, or Cain, or any of his more elaborate works — as if we were listening to the moans of Prometheus struggling with the vultures, or of Ixion toiling at his wheel. We could not, if we would, refuse our pity for such suffering even in a demon; how deep, then, must he our sympathy, when this is spoken to us in the thrilling tones of humanity, using as its vehicle all the music and melody of the highest lyrical art!

In vain, therefore, was it that the moralist resisted the diffusion of Byron's poems over the country. The pulpit opened its thunders against them — teachers warned their pupils, parents their children. I remember, even as late as 1820, that some booksellers refused to sell them, regarding them as infidel publications. About this time a publisher of Hartford, on this ground, declined being concerned in stereotyping an edition of them. It was all in vain. Byron could no more be kept at bay, than the cholera. His works have had their march over the world, and their victims have been probably not less numerous than those of that scourge of the nations. Byron may be, in fact, considered as having opened the gates to that tide of infidelity and licentiousness which sometimes came out boldly, as in the poems of Shelley, and more disguisedly in various other works, which converted Paul Clifford and Dick Turpin into popular heroes. He lowered the standard of public taste, and prepared a portion of the people of England and America to receive with favor the blunt sensualities of Paul de Kock, and the subtle infiltrations of deism by Madame George Sand. Happily, society has in its bosom the elements of conservatism, and at the present day the flood of license has subsided, or is subsiding. Byron is still read, but his immoralities, his atheism, have lost their relish, and are now deemed offenses and blemishes, and at the same time the public taste is directing itself in favor of a purer and more exalted moral tone in every species of literature. Longfellow, Bryant, and Tennyson are the exponents of the public taste in poetry, and hawthorne, Dickens, Thackeray, in romance. All the varied forms of light reading are taking a corresponding tone of respect for morals and religion.