More on poetry from The Atlantic Monthly.
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Flashbacks: "The Byron Complex" (September 12, 2002)
Jacques Barzun, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others assess the controversial life and poetry of Lord Byron.
The Atlantic Monthly | April 1907
t is now some years since the "revival" of Byron was widely announced; but, thus far, the potency of the revival has been evident chiefly in certain valuable new editions of Byron's poems, and of his letters and journals. Nor is it clear that the import of such a revival has been broadly estimated, even by those whose vocation is the creation, or the criticism, of literature; still less, by those who merely find in literature the fuel and the kindling spark of their mental excitement. The contrast between Byron's vogue in his own day and its rapid and apparently conclusive wane has been an obvious theme for comment. Many reasons, some wise and some shallow, have been assigned for both. No writer was ever more unreservedly praised by the judicious of his own generation; and no writer of equal reputation was ever so uncompromisingly disparaged by his successors, so pitilessly expunged from the roll of honor by the masters of his craft. Is there anything to be learned from the rise and fall of the Byronic empire? And is there, at present, anything to be gained by restoring Byron to a position of eminence? Was there any virtue of permanence in that strange apparition of human energies which, by turns, astonished, dazzled, and wounded the imagination of his countrymen, and led all Europe captive? Or was it a mere sport of time, "a school-boy's tale, the wonder of an hour," which has no relation to the deep-seated principles of society and of art?
Byron in Our Day
"Is there anything to be learned from the rise and fall of the Byronic empire? And is there, at present, anything to be gained by restoring Byron to a position of eminence?"
by J. F. A. Pyre
Many a literary specialist still smiles, charitably, at the critic who ventures to discuss, au grand sérieux, the claims of so faded a superstition to rational analysis and valuation. He may explain Byron's contemporary power in England and America as an accident, of the "Zeitgeist," his continued reign on the continent of Europe as founded on an obsession, not so soon shaken off abroad as at home; when well cornered, he may resort to the query of Mr. Saintsbury,—why, "as it was doubted by a great thinker, whether whole nations might not go mad like individuals, ... it should be regarded as impossible, that whole continents should go mad like nations." Surely, such rhetorical peregrinations help us but little to understand a genius which was ranked by Goethe as the first of its time; which was a regenerative force in its effect upon the literatures of modern Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, and creative with respect to those of the Slavic peoples; which, if in one aspect it moulded the revolutionary literature of the early nineteenth century, was in another aspect not without its formative relation to the revolutionary literature of the latter part of the same era. Is it a paradox, or is it according to some law of literary evolution, that the people who got their Hamlet back from Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century should, at the beginning of the twentieth, be going to the continent for the true content of their Don Juan?
The truth is, that nothing less than a readjustment of the principles upon which poetry is produced and estimated will have to precede a just estimate of Byron's poetry, of Byron as a force in the society which speaks the language he wrote. An instance of the cocksureness of each provincial generation of men, is our assumption, latterly, that our standards of taste have settled to a constant. The principle upon which poets, critics, and cultivated readers now mostly proceed is about as follows: a certain very lovely group of emotions is set aside from others, and we are instructed that these are the emotions which are awakened by poetry; whatever awakens any other sensations may be all very well, but it is not poetry. "It's clever, but is it art? " This standard of poetic emotion is accompanied by a standard of delicate craftsmanship pertaining particularly to details, still in versification and in verbal melody, preciosity or simplesse of diction. With these standards in full sway the subject-matter of the poet is naturally limited to what can be best treated in such a manner. The result we all know. Poetry—contemporary poetry—has ceased to have any sufficient relation to life. Its "dead but sceptred sovereigns still rule us from their urns;" but the living voice is seldom heard. Meanwhile, our criticism has become flaccid and over-tolerant; we do not hear, so often as formerly, the sturdy protests of "men who are competent to look, and who do look, with a jealous eye, to the honour of English Literature;" such men as Keats was so nobly willing to "conciliate." Rather, we adopt an elegiac tone; we set the seal
upon the usefulness of poetry, regretfully owning that the world has changed and that the divinest of the arts has become the trivial pursuit of the esoteric and the delicate voluptuary; the poet is a meaningless ornament of society, "the idle singer of an empty day." The world has changed! There is the old Alexandrian cry. With a culture more widely disseminated than the English-speaking peoples have ever enjoyed, we are without one single writer of verse of the first magnitude.
The decadence of modern English poetry began from Keats. Pure Romanticism attained its highest excellence in Christabel of Coleridge and in Keats's St. Agnes' Eve. Cut off before his ardor for beauty had time to ripen under a sound and adequate experience of life, Keats left to his successors a vessel of art, full to overflowing with rich and sensuous appeal and upon the rim of the bowl which held the Circean draught, he inscribed this motto:—
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
With this were the followers of lacchus made drunk. In other words, the influence of Keats determined the main direction of English poetry. Tennyson in his early period owed too much to Shakespeare and Milton, and to his own temperament, to be regarded as directly imitative of Coleridge and Keats; but he is like them in æsthetic method and quality. No one else lamented Tennyson's abandonment of the Lotus land so much as FitzGerald. Perhaps this was not an accident in the critic who was also the poet of the Omar Quatrains,—lovely verses, full of exquisite sensualism and unfaith. Some facts lie outside of the movement, of course; but even Browning was not untouched by æstheticism, and only his fullness of intellect and rugged individuality preserved him strong and single.
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
Next, the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers, Rossetti in chief, made even religion voluptuous, allied English poetry as never before with the sister arts, searched with a new and morbid sensitiveness alike into the sensuous elements of the Arthurian Legend and the Christian Myth, and overlaid them with a filigree of rare detail. Mr. Swinburne, somewhat swayed
by Shelley, and flushed by the eroticism of some of the French Romantics, carried technique, particularly that of sound, to the point where meaning merges into music. He was by no means lacking in passion and ideas of his own; but from him the creed of poetry as a verbal art received powerful and "damnable" iteration. From this time on, thin and quavering parodies innumerable fill the air. Tennysonian maidens and Pre-Raphaelite damosels, and angels "in bright aureoles," "gleam and glimmer in shimmering shoals." Poetry begins to be confused with choir-stalls, organ-lofts, tapestry-hangings, peacock-screens, and
variegated backgrounds; deep chloral fumes settle over The City of Dreadful Night; we get farther and farther from normal human experience, into a region where white peacocks wander about in gas-lit gardens of green chrysanthemums and yellow carnations, and other perverted vegetables; finally, we have for gain the patchouli and lingerie of London Nights. One would like to hear at last the large laugh and primitive bestiality of Rabelais, or even the hearty blasphemies of Don Juan, clearing through this atmosphere of insipid and effeminate pruriency. But our revolt to the natural world finds us nothing more new than a plaintive little band of Gaelic minstrels "sitting on a green knoll apart," piping a slender Irishism, remotely reminiscent of the posy, "Beauty is truth, that is all you know."
appear, after all, to him who has his eyes upon life, not to him who turns from it. Those who pursue the vision of beauty and pleasure too deeply into the wilderness of dreams, grasp only the Dead Sea apples of inspiration, strain after the mirage of poetry, glimpse at last but the corpse-light above the place where it lies buried. Romanticism has run out. It has gone, not to seed, but to a seedless pod; and no out-crossing can regenerate the species. We require a new stock.
The light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration and the poet's dream,
"Æstheticism," said Ibsen, in a letter written as long ago as 1865, "is as fatal to poetry, as theology is to religion." In the recognition of that principle, there lay the promise of a man in literature, not a mere musician, or bundle of nerves, quivering tunefully to each wandering air and sighing tremulously after a "land of heart's desire." Here is promise of a poetic instrument, stretched with strings of iron, to be struck by a mighty hand. In our own poetry, only one manly voice has been heard for a generation; it is not a great voice, and yet how Mr. Kipling has called to the heart of his time, we all know, perfectly well, the health of poetic art, more than of any other, depends upon a close and nourishing connection with the society which gives it being, and when that relation ceases to exist the art is doomed to perish.
n order to state properly Byron's place in such a scheme of criticism, it is necessary to state, first, his relation to his art and to society.
The most damaging things that be said of Byron as a writer are that he had an unsatisfactory philosophy, that his scholarship, though wide, was superficial, and that he was an imperfect artist. But if there is one thing certain about Byron, it is that he would have scorned the proposition that philosophy, scholarship, and art are the most important things in life. Neither would he have admitted that the two first are particularly
important ingredients of poetry. And finally, he would have scouted the imputation that he himself was primarily an artist. That he was so, he rightly regarded as a mere accident of necessary self-expression. The professional artist, as such, he despised. He would, perhaps, have agreed with Johnson's view of the artistic temperament, which came out
so cruelly in his half-truth about Garrick: "After all Davy is only a monkey."
Byron is full of jibes concerning writers as a class, and literature as a trade. He instinctively refused, at first, to profit by his copyrights; but necessity and humorous good sense combined to convince him that he was quite as well entitled to the incidental profits of his publications,
as a cluster of parasites, most of them ungrateful, like Dallas and Coleridge. One of the chief sources of his aversion for Wordsworth was the smugness with which (as he saw it) that poet assumed the rôle of professional good man and priestly bard. In due time he learned to drive a snug bargain with Murray; but this was chiefly due to an amused sense of the fitness of things, resulting from the discovery that writers of inferior merit and popularity were being better paid by the same publisher. Nevertheless, he always regarded his poetry as only a limb of
himself, or at most a natural emanation,—as indeed it was. And yet, though Byron was an imperfect or unequal artist, though he never acquired, for example, any sureness in blank verse,—still, he had, from the beginning, a literary knack of extraordinary cleverness and versatility, and he got by use a command of at least some forms of verse which belongs to genius, and to genius only. Scholar he never became, to be sure; but his reading was generous and of a surprising range, and he had an eye for salient points, and a memory superlatively retentive and ready. Nor had he indeed, any sane or consistent philosophy; he was not, perhaps never could have been, one of the truly wise; but he did a vast deal of thinking, and he thought shrewdly, clearly, and with great freedom.
Against Byron as a social being, the fundamental charge is that of insincerity and theatricality. He had, truly, a certain histrionic instinct for "doing the part;" as when, at the height of his early lionship, he out-dandied the dandies of London, for a season or two. But his posing was mostly harmless,—as superficial as the swagger and millinery of the soldier—merely adventitious to the genuine strength and gallantry underneath. It is true that he was often whimsical and unreasonable; that he indulged in ungenerous outbursts toward and concerning friends; that he was not careful enough to ascertain the facts before passing judgment; and that he was rather revengeful. On the other hand, his violences were usually the signs of fearlessness rather than disloyalty, and disdain of a lurking meanness often led him to ignore conventional chivalries. He was given to strong language; but about the worst thing he could say of anybody was what he said, probably with
justice, of Coleridge, whom he had signally befriended who repaid by
snuffling scandal: "No more of him. He is a shabby fellow." It must be
granted, finally, that, though capable of fine magnanimity, of lively and
inspiring companionship, even of intense affection, he was apt to slip into
arrogance and inclined to be distrustful. Equal friendship with him, though
possible, was precarious.
His inferiors he seems to have treated with practically uniform firmness
and kindliness, overshot, no doubt, with occasional flashes of irritability.
He had a lavish hand for charity and disbursed one quarter of his income
in this way, during his residence abroad. To be weak or unfortunate was
to disarm him in a moment. He inspired in his servants the most dog-like
trust and fidelity. The valet, Fletcher, who went with him on his boyish
travels, remained at his side through all his fortunes and in many climes,
was with him when he died at Missolonghi, saw to the embalming of
his body, and was its guardian until it was laid away, three months later,
in the church at Hucknall Torkard. One of the most affecting documents
among the many painful memorials of Byron's life is the letter, full of
cockneyisms and bad spelling and without commas, but also without
vulgarity, in which Fletcher transmitted to Murray the news of his master's
death at Missolonghi. "After twenty years of service, he was more to me
than a father," wrote the heartbroken valet.
For his unfairness toward women as a class and for his conduct toward individuals, it is impossible that Byron should ever be forgiven. Women were always indispensable to him, on a high, as well as on a low plane; yet he was almost habitually cynical in his observations on the sex as a whole. He is full of shrewd comments and had a keen eye for feminine foibles; but his general interpretation of the sex is shallow. The portraits of women, in the serious poems, are mostly favorable, but are, with few exceptions, romanticized out of all resemblance to life. He was too well satisfied to class women with such solaces of life as music, flowers, and wine, and too ready to sympathize with the Turk. "The Turks shut up their women and are much happier; give a woman a looking-glass and burnt almonds, and she will be content," is one of his random cynicisms. Intellectual women, blue-stockings, prudes, precisians, and mathematical prodigies, he mostly turned to laughter, as "benign ceruleans of the second sex."
Yet some of you are most seraphic creatures,
That much of this sort of thing was mere banter, is clear, if we compare such utterances with the apostrophe to Astarte in Manfred, and the characterization of Adah in Cain, and recall the profound tenderness with which he tells the story of Haidee, and the exalted mood in which he almost invariably addresses his sister Augusta.
But times are altered since, a rhyming lover,
You read my stanzas, and I read your features,
And—but no matter, all those things are over;
Still I have no dislike to learned natures,
For sometimes such a world of virtue cover;
I knew one woman of that purple school,
The loveliest, chastest, best, but—quite a fool.
In his many liaisons, there was usually some heart,—more or less,—but his moral code was certainly not that of a Meredithian hero; it was more nearly that of the average young man of fashion of his day. And yet, it may be doubted if the critics have done justly, in treating his delinquencies less leniently than those of Shelley and Burns. There was less of cowardice and cruelty in Byron's treatment of women than was the case with either Burns or Shelley,—more adherence to the code of the man of the world,—not a high standard, certainly,—but Byron chose to see things as they were and lacked the sustained sentimentalism of the one, and the blinding self-righteousness of the other. It must be remembered, too, that if ever a being was the quarry of the Superman, it was he.
Upon the subject of Byron's separation from his wife, volumes have been written, but it need not detain us here. There was much wrong on both sides in that matter. The important thing is, that this event and his subsequent unpopularity and expatriation had more effect on Byron, for better and for worse, than any other event in his life. It shook him to the last fibre, and stimulated, if it did not actually awaken, his genius.
However one may see fit to dispose the lights and shadows in the character and conduct of "this unfortunate great man," what remains, after any and all deductions, is a superb personal force; powerful, and on the whole splendid; imperfect, but fearless and free; weakened by pride, but by that very quality hardened to keep its identity intact; "a personality, in eminence such as has never been yet and is not likely to come again," said Goethe; a "fiery mass of living valor," hurling itself upon life, with unparalleled emotional energy. Both mind and will were of more than common force; irony modified all his perceptions; yet his passions lifted him and whirled him away. Rage, love, hatred, pity, laughter, convulsed him by turns. When he unexpectedly met Lord Clare in the road near Bologna, he became shuddering and speechless, overpowered by the recollections which thronged upon him, of their boyish friendship and the days at Harrow. La Guiccioli tells a similar story of a meeting with Hobhouse at Pisa. On one occasion, enraged over a tradesman's bill, he dashed his favorite watch into the fireplace and ground it to pieces with the tongs. His wife was present; no wonder she thought him mad. Kean, as Sir Giles Overreach, Alfieri's "Myrrha," threw him into hysterical sobs, so that he was compelled to leave the theatre. In one of his sister's letters, written at the time of the separation, a sort of report to Lady Byron, we come across this mysterious sentence, "The screams have ceased." He was not mad; he was merely "eaten up with passion." This fountain of passion, usually under control, was the source of his inspiration and of his influence over others. " All other souls in comparison with his seem inert," says Taine.
And with Byron passion was not merely a gift; it was a doctrine. In one of his letters to Miss Milbanke, there is an observation which comes very near to expressing the central principle of his existence. "The great object of life is sensation—to feel that we exist—even though in pain." To him, one of the chief curses of society was its ennui, the
futility of its conventional pursuits, which all recognize, but most endure. He was for fanning the coal of life into a blaze. The vitality of his emotions demanded this. Hence, when friendship stagnated, when love lapsed back into the inevitable mediocrity and torpor, he fretted or fled. In ordinary terms, he was fundamentally and abnormally impatient of being bored.
A being thus constituted, and cherishing so dangerous a doctrine, naturally found no peace in this life, but was goaded on from pleasure to pleasure, or from one violence to another. Passionate friendships, savage quarrels, gaming, carousing, travel and adventure, hard reading, hard riding, flirtations, and intrigues of varying intensity and duration, playing the social and literary lion, parliament, marriage, occupied but did not satisfy him. Avid of sensation, avid of power, he threw himself impetuously into his pursuits, lavished his life with the reckless waste of a cataract, and seemed as inexhaustible. He was too clear-sighted not to perceive the triviality of many of his occupations, and though too willful to change his ways, or employ his ample will power in self-restraint, he was not sordid enough to be happy so. Hence, he became a malcontent. Love soothed him, nature appeased him, for a time; and in the presence of either, he soared into realms of serene delight and contemplation. But "he could not keep his spirit at that height;" say, perhaps, he was not a dreamer; his passion called for outlet in action, in enterprise; and he became—a writer!
It has been said that Byron had the making of a matchless orator, possibly of a great publicist. The career was open to him. From the age of ten he had been a peer of England, and at his majority he became entitled to a seat in Parliament, and a share in its deliberations. He took
his seat, and made a speech or two; but his vanity was not tremendously gratified, and he scarcely entered the hall again. After all, he was too impatient ever to have made a statesman. The truckling, the compromises, the checks and balances by which nations are ruled, would have been maddening to a spirit so haughty and intolerant as Byron's in his youth. "Strength of endurance is worth all the talent in the world," he once said; but he added, "I love the virtues that I cannot share." And yet, during the last months of his life in Greece, he showed to a remarkable degree the fortitude and self-possession of an executive. Still, paradoxical as it may seem, fate and instinct probably led him to the field which offered the best scope for his vehement and random energies.
Fate and instinct,—for Arnold is somewhat misleading when he tells us that Byron "threw himself upon literature." The very title, Hours of Idleness, which the young lord affixed to his maiden volume, sufficiently indicated the lackadaisical spirit in which he came before the public, and he further promised in his preface not to offend again. Of course this protestation is not to be taken too seriously, for Byron periodically resolved never to publish again; but it was his resentment at the severe handling of his first volume by the Edinburgh Review which really committed him to literature. Like Don Juan, when surprised in a compromising situation,—
His blood was up; though young, he was a Tartar,
"They knocked me down; but I got up again," he boasted, many years later. Elsewhere, he recalls, with relish, the counsel of his old boxing-master, Jackson, with reference to conduct in a mêlée: "Mill away, right and left; don't stop to pick out your friends." These instructions Byron followed faithfully in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. His third volume was the result of his native impulse to expression, a series of descriptive sketches and reflections, poured out in verse during his travels through Spain, Greece, and the Levant, and dominated by a thinly veiled, somewhat theatrical portrait of himself. Convention is probably right in attributing the success of this volume to the fact that it precisely met the taste of the time. Byron's faculty for hitting out telling phrases is nowhere better illustrated than by the now hackneyed words in which he described the suddenness of the sensation produced by Childe Harold: "I awoke one morning and found myself famous." Henceforth, whatever he chose to write was sure of an immediate audience. Now, indeed, he "threw himself upon literature." It was not alone that his vanity was flattered by the reception of his works; more and more he found in poetry an outlet for his fiery opinions; in the world of his own creation, he lived the life of sensation, of boundless energy, of unmitigated intensity for which he burned.
And not at all disposed to prove a martyr.
'T is to create
From this time on, there was no question of his vocation; he wrote voluminously and with steadily increasing power, to the time of his fatal expedition to the fever camps of Greece, which was to terminate his energies at the age of thirty-six. Taine is certainly wrong when he says that Byron was worn out, that his power flags toward the close; Byron himself was certainly wrong on this point. Some of the most vigorous, most sincere, and most engaging verse he ever wrote is to be found in the last cantos of Don Juan, and his prose of the same period is glorious for its swiftness, lucidity, and strength.
And by creation live a being more intense,
That we endow with form our fancy.
Byron's was not one of those great, unselfish imaginations, like that of Shakespeare, or even like that of Goethe, which can take up into itself all that it finds in the life of the world, and recreate it into splendid wholes of artistic consistency and loveliness. But his mind was of the same general order. It is true, he could not get away from himself; but this does not mean, as some have asserted, that he had no imagination; it means only that his gift was not dramatic. The power which seizes with a mighty grasp upon the salient realities of the world and subdues them to unity, he had in a high measure; but the law to which he subdues them is the law of his own being. On the one hand, this is the source of all that is pitiful and childish in him; but, on the other, it is the source of all his might. We find something ennobling and stirring in the arrogance which sees, in all the enterprises and all the convulsions of nature and of society, the prototypes of his own fiery life. One man stands up and says to all the world, " This is is I: I am one with the storm! The rolling thunder-stone, reverberating through the abysses of the Alps, is the echo of my own soul! All desolate lands and cities—Greece, unhappy Greece, Venice with her faded grandeurs, and Rome, a plundered ruin—express me. But I am greater than these symbols, myself, one and indivisible,—a tortured human soul, unconquered, unsurrendering." This it was which made conquest of reviving Europe. To an age of awakening individuality, he proclaimed the dogma of rebellion, of freedom and defiance. And he became as a pillar of fire to superannuated peoples who had but to doff the lethargy of custom to find themselves young.
It has been urged that his genius was all destructive, that he had no constructive wisdom. But his sense of the unsatisfactoriness of life is in itself recreative. One does not hate the false, unless his eyes, however bandaged, have had some glimpse of the truth. Byron is allied to the great minds of tragedy and comedy by his alertness to the incongruities of life, the grand and the trivial. What conformed to true design he could set forth with noble eloquence, and, at times, with superb poetic beauty; but he was more at home in the passions of discontent. Over what seemed but splendid failures in the scheme of things, he grieved with incomparable melancholy; the trivial, he lashed with diabolic mockery and scorn. His flippancy arises out of those moods in which all things seem trivial,—moods to which a Shakespeare or a Goethe never succumbs. Yet when all is said and done, such is the effect of his delight in the exercise of his own force, his own "boldness, dash, and daring," that we are not depressed but exhilarated; the total effect is not that of despair but of defiant will. We come out of the tumult, the vastness, and the gloom, energized, lifted up, electrified, as he himself came from the embraces of the sea, the caress of the night and the storm.
But his eloquence lacks the sustained distinction, his comedy the light-heartedness, of the very greatest. "The mind in creation is as a fading coal," said Shelley. In Byron, the poetic fire often fades suddenly and leaves us staring at blackened spots in his creations. He was dependent upon his volleying passion for illumination, and this failing, he had no assured art of style, or lacked the patience, to patch up his transitions or overlay with conciliating decoration the blotches where inspiration cooled. And this grave defect is very unsatisfactorily remedied by representing him in extracts, such as those chosen by Arnold. One must feel the long sweep, the general buoyancy of Byron, in order to understand him. It is this which is exhilarating, which carries us triumphantly over many a flagrant delinquency of metre or of diction. The critic who comes "to peep and botanize" will find nothing but misery in Byron's style, unless, indeed, he come, as many critics do, to gloat. There are few single lines of magical appeal, as in Keats and Coleridge. It is almost impossible to select a single stanza, even from the best parts of Childe Harold, that is not disappointing if examined too closely. And yet, somehow, we are sustained and swept onward.
Awaking with a start,
This is rhetoric, perhaps,—call it what you will,—but it is rhetoric which attains its object. Here is the feel of the wave, the sound of the wind, the passion of the traveler, conveyed in words that shout and sting, in verse that swells and billows with the sea.
The waters heave around me and on high
The winds lift up their voices....
Once more upon the waters! Yet once more!
And the waves bound beneath me as a steed
That knows his rider. Welcome to their roar!
Swift be their guidance wheresoe'er it lead!
Though the strained mast should quiver as a reed,
And the rent canvas fluttering strew the gale,
Still must I on; for I am as a weed,
Flung from the rock, on Ocean's foam to sail
Where'er the surge may sweep, the tempest's breath prevail.
There is a now famous article by Mr. Swinburne, in which, infuriated at the villainy of Matthew Arnold in ranking Byron above Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats, he threw himself upon Byron with a determination to eradicate him, root and branch. The article is a powerful and a cunning one, though weakened by hydrophobic symptoms, here and there. It contains numerous instances of the unfair kind of criticism by which the fame of Byron has been injured. For example, to prove Byron's deafness to style and metre, Mr. Swinburne selects a rather crude passage from one of the less mature poems, The Siege of Corinth, and not satisfied with wrenching the four wretched verses from their context, he insults over the sense and breaks the metre with marks of exclamation and parenthetical (sic). Considered as an example of verbal melody, the lines are poor enough.
Mount ye, spur ye, skirr the plain,
But let one read these verses in their context,—the description of a scene immediately preceding a cavalry charge,—particularly let him read them aloud, and he finds that what seemed crude and inert is awakened to life by the energy of the whole, and plays its due part in a general effect of somewhat coarse and melodramatic, but indisputable, vigor and reality. Had the critic wished to be only half fair to his victim, he might have chosen some lines from the description of the preceding night, about a page back, the passage beginning,—
That the fugitive may flee in vain,
When he breaks from the town; and none escape,
Aged or young, in the Christian shape.
" 'T is midnight; on the mountains brown
But no one would think of basing the title of Byron to poetic importance upon poetry of this class. It was in Don Juan that he found himself. "I see you still insist on regarding me as a gloomy personage," he once wrote to Miss Milbanke. "The fact is I am a very facetious fellow." "We have laughed for four days," he wrote after one of Moore's visits; many years later. The grand, gloomy, and self-torturing misanthrope who dominates all Byron's early romances, as well as Childe Harold, Manfred, and Cain, illustrates only one phase of an exceedingly complicated and variable temperament. When Byron discovered himself in Don Juan, his mind had matured, his way of life had become more wholesome, his technical ability had reached its height; what was of particular importance, he had learned to write more slowly and with greater patience; his daily stint was two octaves of Don Juan. The scheme of the poem was such as to allow him to deploy all his powers. Flesh and blood narrative, description which is the thing, satire in all keys, sentiment, trenchant reflection, are woven together with a mastery and ease which continually astonish, and never tire, though they sometimes shock. He is, by turns, comical and savage, pathetic and terrible, romantic and burlesque, earnest and reckless, intellectual and voluptuous; he laughs and weeps, prays and blasphemes, sings, shouts, threatens, cajoles, caresses, stabs right and left. Half a dozen stanzas as cleverly keyed and turned as the one quoted above to illustrate his satire of the blue-stockings would be sufficient to make the fame and determine the bent of a minor poet, such as Praed; and this represents only one of a thousand moods. And yet, Don Juan is not a series of passages; the narrative swims forward without effort; our eyes are continually on the hero; our heart aches with the meaning of it all. It is a shallow view of this poem which regards it as a mere string of studied disenchantments, lewdnesses, cynicisms, and blasphemies. It is the panorama of life as Byron saw it, "with all its imperfections on its head," a mixture of good and evil, which he was bound to render frankly as it appeared to him, and as he lived and judged it,—not well perhaps, but passionately, fearlessly, and as a citizen of the world. Byron's recent editor is not wrong in calling Don Juan the "epic of modern life."
The cold round moon shines deeply down."
Byron's view of life was, after all, essentially moral. He was deeply and sincerely interested in the moral aspect of things; only, he laid the stress elsewhere than on the conventional morality of his day. That conventional morality—often a mere matter of appearances—he stigmatized as cant; he hated that cant, not comically, at bottom, but earnestly, savagely; and he assailed it with furious blows, shocked it without mercy or caution. There is no doubting his sincerity when he cries out in his letters, "It is the most moral of poems;" his contempt is as genuine as it is bitter, when he says to the British nation,—
"You're not a moral people and you know it,
But he was less interested in private domestic morality than in public, political morality. Nothing could more clearly present this contrast than his terrible arraignment of George III, in The Vision of Judgment. And herein, he took a large, a continental view,—not an insular, British view. Perhaps he was wrong, but he was sincere. Further, his treatment of this theme is essentially poetical. He creates a myth, a political myth. His assaults on individuals are not, for the most part, the result of personal rancor, though this sometimes added to the zest of his attack. He erected a mythus of political devildom, and its heroes were Castlereagh and Wellington and George III, and, most of all, Southey, the recalcitrant laureate, the idealization, in his mind, of pusillanimous time-serving, of scribbling, prosperous British cant.
Without the need of too sincere a poet."
There is no doubt that Don Juan is often shocking; perhaps the sum total of its impression is that of a terrible disorder of enormous and varied powers, often ill-directed. There is no mistaking the inferiority of Byron's force to that of Shelley, in attractiveness, in sweetness, radiance, and charm; but there is, likewise, no mistaking Byron's superiority in massiveness, in variety, and in effectiveness. Shelley, who understood Byron thoroughly, was not deceived on that point; he well knew which was the mightier spirit. Shelley, too, not being one of the canters, readily saw that in Don Juan the immense talent of his great contemporary had first found the means of freely rendering itself effective.
If we seek, now, to illustrate the qualities of this poem, we realize, at once, how surprising is its range, by the very absurdity of such an attempt. There is room for a single extract which will show the poet in one of his better moods; the language is simple and clear and direct; but the result is thoroughly poetical. These are the three stanzas in which the poet dismisses the story of Haidee, and then, as if dashing a tear from his eye, turns, with a subtle bravado, to Juan; if we read in this transitional stanza only a piece of brutal bathos, if we cannot see
the poet smiling through his tears, we have no business to be reading Don Juan.
The isle is now all desolate and bare,
Byron has been accused of childishness by latter-day writers, because of his admiration and defense of Pope, and his stout adherence to classical theories of poetic art. Yet he was more than half classical himself, as his recent editor, Mr. More, has pointed out. Revolutionary though he was in his opinions, and many points as he had in common with the romantic school, he is classical in the directness and simplicity of his methods,
in the large lucidity of his aims, in his subordination of means to ends, in the roundness and sonority of his execution, his indifference to decoration. And I suspect that, even as a critic, if any one will
take the trouble to read him, he will be found to have known what he was talking about, rather better than the æsthetico-romanticists have been disposed to admit. "I said we were on a wrong tack," he once wrote to Moore, "but I never said that we did not sail well. Our fame will be hurt by admiration and imitation. When I say 'our,' I mean all (Lakers included) except the postscript of the Augustans ... the next fellows must go back to the riding school and the manège and learn to ride the 'great horse.' " Great as was the contrast between Byron's theories and his practice in poetry, it was not so great as has been represented. And unsatisfactory as his total output, in many ways, is, the power which he showed in literature was of a high order; only a narrow creed of poetry, a too narrowly æsthetic conception of its aims and its means, can exclude a large body of his work from that class.
Its dwellings down, its tenants passed away:
None but her own and father's grave is there,
And nothing outward tells of human clay:
Ye could not know where lies a thing so fair,
No stone is there to show, no tongue to say
What was: no dirge, except the hollow seas,
Mourns o'er the beauty of the Cyclades.
But many a Greek maid in a loving song
Sighs o'er her name; and many an islander
With her sire's story makes the night less long.
Valor was his, and beauty dwelt with her:
If she loved rashly, her life paid for wrong—
A heavy price must all pay who thus err,
In some shape; let none think to fly the danger,
For soon or late Love is his own avenger.
But let me change this theme, which grows too sad,
And lay this sheet of sorrows on the shelf;
I don't much like describing people mad,
For fear of seeming rather touched myself—
Besides, I've no more on this head to add;
And as my muse is a capricious elf,
We'll put about and try another tack
With Juan, left half-killed some stanzas back.
It has often been accounted a strange divagation of judgment in Matthew Arnold, that he saw in Byron one of the greatest poetic forces of modern times, a conviction which he uttered not once, but many times. The ranking of poets is a precarious and not always a profitable pastime, and yet it is not likely that Arnold's critical reputation will ultimately suffer to the degree that Mr. Swinburne and Mr. Saintsbury have presumed, from the fact that he chose Wordsworth and Byron as the two names of surpassing importance in the poetry of the nineteenth century. The sooner we escape from the bondage to æstheticism which forces a writer like Mr. Saintsbury to approve the saying of a brother critic, that "the first ten lines of Beddoes's Dream Pedlary contain more pure poetry than the entire works of Byron," the sooner will there be a sound hope that the "future of English Poetry" may be, what Arnold loved to say it would be, "immense." Despite the present disposition on the part of many clever little men to disparage our great standard critic, his approval will always be a strong card for Byron. Arnold was not only a critic; he was an advocate. To inculcate in his nation "the sense for style" was the mission which he took upon himself and which he so nobly discharged. Considering his aim, he might have been pardoned had he erred in applying his standard somewhat too drastically to such a writer as Byron. It is evidence of his admirable sanity as a critic, that, in spite of his aims as a teacher, he saw clearly the place to which Byron was entitled, not by the perfection of his style, but by the "'eminence" of his personality, by virtue of his personal force and fire and freedom and saliency.
These truly valiant qualities, which made Byron so enormously effective in his generation, may still give us pause. In our days of poetic puttering, when we can point to hundreds of clever technicians in verse, but not to one singer or maker who sways the time, we can ill afford to despise the memory of one who accomplished so much in his way and day. Though a great deal of Byron's subject matter is obsolete, though many of his ideas no longer interest us, so much, at least, is of perennial interest. Byron's liveness, Byron's directness, his intellectual dauntlessness, his ethical cogency, his wholesome contempt for social and artistic futility, his reckless valiancy of spirit, his very faults even, will be educative always, will always cry rebuke to the putterers and patchers of poetry.
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Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1907; Byron in Our Day; Volume 99, No. 3; page 542-552.