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Outlines of English and American Literature
George Gordon, Lord Byron
by Long, William J.


In the life of George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), is so much that call for apology or silence that one is glad to review his career in briefest outline.

Of his family, noble in name but in nothing else, the least said the better. He was born in London, but spent his childhood in Aberdeen, under the alternate care or negligence of his erratic mother. At ten he fell heir to a title, to the family seat of Newstead Abbey, and to estates yielding an income of some 1400 per year,--a large income for a poet, but as nothing to a lord accustomed to make ducks and drakes of his money. In school and college his conduct was rather wild, and his taste fantastic For example, he kept a bulldog and a bear in his rooms, and read romances instead of books recommended by the faculty. He tells us that he detested poetry; yet he wrote numerous poems which show plainly that he not only read but copied some of the poets. [Footnote: These poems (revised and published as Hours of Idleness) were savagely criticized in the Edinburgh Review. Byron answered with his satiric English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, which ridiculed not only his Scottish critics but also Wordsworth, Scott,--in fact, most of the English poets, with the exception of Pope, whom he praised as the only poet ancient or modern who was not a barbarian.]

A Literary Lion

At twenty-one Byron entered the House of Lords, and almost immediately thereafter set sail for Lisbon and the Levant. On his return he published the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which made him famous. Though he affected to despise his triumph, he followed it up shrewdly by publishing The Giaour, The Corsair and Lara, in which the same mysterious hero of his first work reappears, under different disguises, amid romantic surroundings. The vigor of these poems attracted many readers, and when it was whispered about that the author was recounting his own adventures, Byron became the center of literary interest. At home he was a social lion; abroad he was acclaimed the greatest of British poets. But his life tended more and more to shock the English sense of decency; and when his wife (whom he had married for her money) abruptly left him, public opinion made its power felt. Byron's popularity waned; his vanity was wounded; he left his country, vowing never to return. Also he railed against what he called British hypocrisy.

In Geneva he first met Shelley, admired him, was greatly helped by him, and then grossly abused his hospitality. After a scandalous career in Italy he went to help the Greeks in their fight for independence, but died of fever before he reached the battle line.

The Poetry of Bryon

There is one little song of Byron which serves well as the measure of his poetic talent. It is found in Don Juan, and it begins as follows:

  'T is sweet to hear
    At midnight on the blue and moonlit deep
  The song and oar of Adria's gondolier,
    By distance mellow'd, o'er the waters sweep;
  'T is sweet to see the evening star appear;
    'T is sweet to listen, as the night-winds creep
  From leaf to leaf; 't is sweet to view on high
  The rainbow, based on ocean, span the sky.

  'T is sweet to hear the watch-dog's honest bark
    Bay deep-mouthed welcome as we draw near home;
  'T is sweet to know there is an eye will mark
    Our coming, and look brighter when we come;
  'T is sweet to be awaken'd by the lark,
    Or lulled by falling waters; sweet the hum
  Of bees, the voice of girls, the song of birds,
  The lisp of children, and their earliest words.


That is not great poetry, and may not be compared with a sonnet of Wordsworth; but it is good, honest sentiment expressed in such a melodious way that we like to read it, and feel better after the reading. In the next stanza, however, Byron grows commonplace and ends with:

  Sweet is revenge, especially to women,
  Pillage to soldiers, prize-money to seamen.


And that is bad sentiment and worse rime, without any resemblance to poetry. The remaining stanzas are mere drivel, unworthy of the poet's talent or of the reader's patience.

It is so with a large part of Byron's work; it often begins well, and usually has some vivid description of nature, or some gallant passage in swinging verse, which stirs us like martial music; then the poem falls to earth like a stone, and presently appears some wretched pun or jest or scurrility. Our present remedy lies in a book of selections, in which we can enjoy the poetry without being unpleasantly reminded of the author's besetting sins of flippancy and bad taste.

Manfred

Of the longer poems of Byron, which took all Europe by storm, only three or four are memorable. Manfred (1817) is a dramatic poem, in which the author's pride, his theatric posing, his talent for rhythmic expression, are all seen at their worst or best. The mysterious hero of the poem lives in a gloomy castle under the high Alps, but he is seldom found under roof. Instead he wanders amidst storms and glaciers, holding communion with powers of darkness, forever voicing his rebellion, his boundless pride, his bottomless remorse. Nobody knows what the rebellion and the remorse are all about. Some readers may tire of the shadowy hero's egoism, but few will fail to be impressed by the vigor of the verse, or by the splendid reflection of picturesque scenes. And here and there is a lyric that seems to set itself to music.

  Mont Blanc is the monarch of mountains,
    They crowned him long ago
  On a throne of rocks, in a robe of clouds,
    With a diadem of snow


Cain (1821) is another dramatic poem, reflecting the rebellion of another hero, or rather the same hero, who appears this time as the elder son of Adam. After murdering his brother, the hero takes guidance of Lucifer and explores hell; where, instead of repentance, he finds occasion to hate almost everything that is dear to God or man. The drama is a kind of gloomy parody of Milton's Paradise Lost, as Manfred is a parody of Goethe's Faust. Both dramas are interesting, aside from their poetic passages, as examples of the so-called Titan literature, to which we shall presently refer in our study of Shelley's Prometheus.

Childe Harold

The most readable work of Byron is Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, a brilliant narrative poem, which reflects the impressions of another misanthropic hero in presence of the romantic scenery of the Continent. It was the publication of the first two cantos of this poem in 1812, that made Byron the leading figure in English poetry, and these cantos are still widely read as a kind of poetic guidebook. To many readers, however, the third and fourth cantos are more sincere and more pleasurable. The most memorable parts of Childe Harold are the "Farewell" in the first canto, "Waterloo" in the third, and "Lake Leman," "Venice," "Rome," "The Coliseum", "The Dying Gladiator" and "The Ocean" in the fourth. When one has read these magnificent passages he has the best of which Byron was capable. We have called Childe Harold the most readable of Byron's works, but those who like a story will probably be more interested in Mazeppa and The Prisoner of Chillon.

The Byronic Hero

One significant quality of these long poems is that they are intensely personal, voicing one man's remorse or rebellion, and perpetually repeating his "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!" They are concerned with the same hero (who is Byron under various disguises) and they picture him as a proud, mysterious stranger, carelessly generous, fiendishly wicked, profoundly melancholy, irresistibly fascinating to women. Byron is credited with the invention of this hero, ever since called Byronic; but in truth the melodramatic outcast was a popular character in fiction long before Byron adopted him, gave him a new dress and called him Manfred or Don Juan. A score of romances (such as Mrs. Radcliffe's The Italian in England, and Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland in America) had used the same hero to add horror to a grotesque tale; Scott modified him somewhat, as the Templar in Ivanhoe, for example; and Byron made him more real by giving him the revolutionary spirit, by employing him to voice the rebellion against social customs which many young enthusiasts felt so strongly in the early part of the nineteenth century.

Two Views of Byron

The vigor of this stage hero, his rebellious spirit, his picturesque adventures, the gaudy tinsel (mistaken for gold) in which he was dressed,--all this made a tremendous impression in that romantic age. Goethe called Byron "the prince of modern poetry, the most talented and impressive figure which the literary world has ever produced"; and this unbalanced judgment was shared by other critics on the Continent, where Byron is still regarded as one of the greatest of English poets.

Swinburne, on the other hand, can hardly find words strong enough to express his contempt for the "blare and brassiness" of Byron; but that also is an exaggeration. Though Byron is no longer a popular hero, and though his work is more rhetorical than poetical, we may still gladly acknowledge the swinging rhythm, the martial dash and vigor of his best verse. Also, remembering the Revolution, we may understand the dazzling impression which he made upon the poets of his day. When the news came from Greece that his meteoric career was ended, the young Tennyson wept passionately and went out to carve on a stone, "Byron is dead," as if poetry had perished with him. Even the coldly critical Matthew Arnold was deeply moved to write:

  When Byron's eyes were closed in death
     We bowed our head, and held our breath.
  He taught us little, but our soul
     Had felt him like the thunder roll.


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