Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
By Sir Walter Scott (17711832)
AMIDST the general calmness of the political atmosphere, we have been stunned, from another quarter, by one of those death-notes, which are pealed at intervals, as from an archangels trumpet, to awaken the soul of a whole people at once. Lord Byron, who has so long and so amply filled the highest place in the public eye, has shared the lot of humanity. He died at Missolonghi, on the 19th of April, 1824. That mighty genius, which walked among men as something superior to ordinary mortality, and whose powers were beheld with wonder, and something approaching to terror, as if we knew not whether they were of good or of evil, is laid as soundly to rest as the poor peasant whose ideas never went beyond his daily task. The voice of just blame, and that of malignant censure, are at once silenced; and we feel almost as if the great luminary of heaven had suddenly disappeared from the sky, at the moment when every telescope was levelled for the examination of the spots which dimmed its brightness. It is not now the question, what were Byrons faults, what his mistakes; but how is the blank which he has left in British literature to be filled up? Not, we fear, in one generation, which, among many highly gifted persons, has produced none who approached Byron in originality, the first attribute of genius. Only thirty-seven years oldso much already done for immortalityso much time remaining, as it seemed to us shortsighted mortals, to maintain and to extend his fame, and to atone for errors in conduct and levities in composition,who will not grieve that such a race has been shortened though not always keeping the straight path, such a light extinguished though sometimes flaming to dazzle and bewilder? One word on this ungrateful subject ere we quit it for ever.
The errors of Lord Byron arose neither from depravity of heartfor nature had not committed the anomaly of uniting to such extraordinary talents an imperfect moral sensenor from feelings dead to the admiration of virtue. No man had ever a kinder heart for sympathy, or a more open hand for the relief of distress; and no mind was ever more formed for the enthusiastic admiration of noble actions, providing he was convinced that the actors had proceeded on disinterested principles. Lord Byron was totally free from the curse and degradation of literatureits jealousies, we mean, and its envy. But his wonderful genius was of a nature which disdained restraint, even when restraint was most wholesome. When at school, the tasks in which he excelled were those only which he undertook voluntarily; and his situation as a young man of rank, with strong passions, and in the uncontrolled enjoyment of a considerable fortune, added to that impatience of strictures or coercion which was natural to him. As an author he refused to plead at the bar of criticism; as a man he would not submit to be morally amenable to the tribunal of public opinion. Remonstrances from a friend, of whose intentions and kindness he was secure, had often great weight with him; but there were few who could or dared venture on a task so difficult. Reproof he endured with impatience, and reproach hardened him in his error; so that he often resembled the gallant war-steed who rushes forward on the steel that wounds him. In the most painful crisis of his private life, he evinced this irritability and impatience of censure in such a degree as almost to resemble the noble victim of the bull-fight, which is more maddened by the squibs, darts, and petty annoyances of the unworthy crowds beyond the lists, than by the lance of his nobler, and, so to speak, his more legitimate antagonist. In a word, much of that in which he erred, was in bravado and scorn of his censors, and was done with the motive of Drydens despot, to show his arbitrary power. It is needless to say, that his was a false and prejudiced view of such a contest; and that if the noble bard gained a species of triumph, by compelling the world to read poetry, though mixed with baser matter, because it was his, he gave, in return, an unworthy triumph to the unworthy, besides deep sorrow to those whose applause, in his cooler moments, he most valued.
It was the same with his politics, which on several occasions assumed a tone menacing and contemptuous to the constitution of his country; while, in fact, Lord Byron was in his own heart sufficiently sensible, not only of his privileges as a Briton, but of the distinction attending his high birth and rank, and was peculiarly sensitive of those shades which constitute what is termed the manners of a gentleman. Indeed, notwithstanding his having employed epigrams, and all the petty war of wit, when such would have been much better abstained from, he would have been found, had a collision taken place between the aristocratic and democratic parties in the state, exerting all his energies in defence of that to which he naturally belonged. His own feeling on these subjects he has explained in the very last canto of Don Juan; and they are in entire harmony with the opinions which we have seen expressed in his correspondence, at a moment when matters appeared to approach a serious struggle in his native country. If we are to fall, he expressed himself to this purpose, let the independent aristocracy and gentry of England suffer by the sword of an arbitrary prince, who has been born and bred a gentleman, and will behead us after the manner of our ancestors; but do not let us suffer ourselves to be massacred by the ignoble swarms of ruffians, who are endeavouring to throttle their way to power. Accordingly, he expresses in the strongest terms his purpose of resisting to the last extremity the tendency to anarchy, which commercial distress had generated, and disaffection was endeavouring to turn to its own purposes. His poetry expresses similar sentiments.
We are not, however, Byrons apologists,for now alas! he needs none. His excellences will now be universally acknowledged, and his faults (let us hope and believe) not remembered in his epitaph. It will be recollected what a part he has sustained in British literature since the first appearance of Childe Harold, a space of nearly sixteen years. There has been no reposing under the shade of his laurels, no living upon the resource of past reputation; none of that coddling and petty precaution, which little authors call taking care of their fame. Byron let his fame take care of itself. His foot was always in the arena, his shield hung always in the lists; and, although his own gigantic renown increased the difficulty of the struggle, since he could produce nothing, however great, which exceeded the public estimate of his genius, yet he advanced to the honourable contest again and again and again, and came always off with distinction, almost always with complete triumph. As various in composition as Shakespeare himself (this will be admitted by all who are acquainted with his Don Juan) he has embraced every topic of human life, and sounded every string on the divine harp, and from its slightest to its most powerful and heart-astounding tones. There is scarce a passion or a situation which has escaped his pen; and he might be drawn, like Garrick, between the weeping and the laughing muse, although his most powerful efforts have certainly been dedicated to Melpomene. His genius seemed as prolific as various. The most prodigal use did not exhaust his powers, nay, seemed rather to increase their vigour. Neither Childe Harold nor any of the most beautiful of Byrons earlier tales contain more exquisite morsels of poetry than are to be found scattered through the cantos of Don Juan, amidst verses which the author appears to have thrown off with an effort as spontaneous as that of a tree resigning its leaves to the wind. But that noble tree will never more bear fruit or blossom! It has been cut down in its strength, and the past is all that remains to us of Byron. We can scarce reconcile ourselves to the ideascarce think that the voice is silent for ever, which, bursting so. often on our ear, was often heard with rapturous admiration, sometimes with regret, but always with the deepest interest
With a strong feeling of awful sorrow, we take leave of the subject. Death creeps upon our most serious, as well as upon our most idle employments; and it is a reflection solemn and gratifying that he found our Byron in no moment of levity, but contributing his fortune, and hazarding his life in behalf of a people only endeared to him by their past glories, and as fellow-creatures suffering under the yoke of a heathen oppressor.