| 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.
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.
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.