Verse > Lord Byron > Poems
Lord Byron (1788–1824).  Poetry of Byron.  1881.
WHEN at last I held in my hand the volume of poems which I had chosen from Wordsworth, and began to turn over its pages, there arose in me almost immediately the desire to see beside it, as a companion volume, a like collection of the best poetry of Byron. Alone amongst our poets of the earlier part of this century, Byron and Wordsworth not only furnish material enough for a volume of this kind, but, also, as it seems to me, they both of them gain considerably be being thus exhibited. There are poems of Coleridge and of Keats equal, if not superior, to anything of Byron or Wordsworth; but a dozen pages or two will contain them, and the remaining poetry is of a quality much inferior. Scott never, I think, rises as a poet to the level of Byron and Wordsworth at all. On the other hand, he never falls below his own usual level very far; and by a volume of selections from him, therefore, his effectiveness is not increased. As to Shelley there will be more question; and indeed Mr. Stopford Brooke, whose accomplishments, eloquence, and love of poetry we must all recognise and admire, has actually given us Shelley in such a volume. But for my own part I cannot think that Shelley’s poetry, except by snatches and fragments, has the value of the good work of Wordsworth and Byron; or that it is possible for even Mr. Stopford Brooke to make up a volume of selections from him which, for real substance, power, and worth, can at all take rank with a like volume from Byron or Wordsworth.  1
  Shelley knew quite well the difference between the achievement of such a poet as Byron and his own. He praises Byron too unreservedly, but he sincerely felt, and he was right in feeling, that Byron was a greater poetical power than himself. As a man, Shelley is at a number of points immeasurably Byron’s superior; he is a beautiful and enchanting spirit, whose vision, when we call it up, has far more loveliness, more charm for our soul, than the vision of Byron. But all the personal charm of Shelley cannot hinder us from at last discovering in his poetry the incurable want, in general, of a sound subject-matter, and the incurable fault, in consequence, of unsubstantiality. Those who extol him as the poet of clouds, the poet of sunsets, are only saying that he did not, in fact, lay hold upon the poet’s right subject-matter; and in honest truth, with all his charm of soul and spirit, and with all his gift of musical diction and movement, he never, or hardly ever, did. Except, as I have said, for a few short things and single stanzas, his original poetry is less satisfactory than his translations, for in these the subject-matter was found for him. Nay, I doubt whether his delightful Essays and Letters, which deserve to be far more read than they are now, will not resist the wear and tear of time better, and finally come to stand higher, than his poetry.  2
  There remain to be considered Byron and Wordsworth. That Wordsworth affords good material for a volume of selections, and that he gains by having his poetry thus presented, is an old belief of mine which led me lately to make up a volume of poems chosen out of Wordsworth, and to bring it before the public. By its kind reception of the volume, the public seems to show itself a partaker in my belief. Now Byron, also, supplies plenty of material for a like volume, and he too gains, I think, by being so presented. Mr. Swinburne urges, indeed, that “Byron, who rarely wrote anything either worthless or faultless, can only be judged or appreciated in the mass; the greatest of his works was his whole work taken together.” It is quite true that Byron rarely wrote anything either worthless or faultless; it is quite true, also, that in the appreciation of Byron’s power a sense of the amount and variety of his work, defective though much of his work is, enters justly into our estimate. But although there may be little in Byron’s poetry which can be pronounced either worthless or faultless, there are portions of it which are far higher in worth and far more free from fault than others. And although, again, the abundance and variety of his production is undoubtedly a proof of his power, yet I question whether by reading everything which he gives us we are so likely to acquire an admiring sense even of his variety and abundance, as by reading what he gives us at his happier moments. Varied and abundant he amply proves himself even by this taken alone. Receive him absolutely without omission or compression, follow his whole outpouring stanza by stanza and line by line from the very commencement to the very end, and he is capable of being tiresome.  3
  Byron has told us himself that the Giaour “is but a string of passages.” He has made full confession of his own negligence. “No one,” says he, “has done more through negligence to corrupt the language.” This accusation brought by himself against his poems is not just; but when he goes on to say of them, that “their faults, whatever they may be, are those of negligence and not of labour,” he says what is perfectly true. “Lara,” he declares, “I wrote while undressing after coming home from balls and masquerades, in the year of revelry, 1814. The Bride was written in four, the Corsair in ten days.” He calls this “a humiliating confession, as it proves my own want of judgment in publishing, and the public’s in reading, things which cannot have stamina for permanence.” Again he does his poems injustice; the producer of such poems could not but publish them, the public could not but read them. Nor could Byron have produced his work in any other fashion; his poetic work could not have first grown and matured in his own mind, and them come forth as an organic whole; Byron had not enough of the artist in him for this, nor enough of self-command. He wrote, as he truly tells us, to relieve himself, and he went on writing because he found the relief become indispensable. But it was inevitable that works so produced should be, in general, “a string of passages,” poured out, as he describes them, with rapidity and excitement, and with new passages constantly suggesting themselves, and added while his work was going through the press. It is evident that we have here neither deliberate scientific construction, nor yet the instinctive artistic creation of poetic wholes; and that to take passages from work produced as Byron’s was is a very different thing from taking passages out of the Œdipus or the Tempest, and deprives the poetry far less of its advantage.  4
  Nay, it gives advantage to the poetry, instead of depriving it of any. Byron, I said, has not a great artist’s profound and patient skill in combining an action or in developing a character,—a skill which we must watch and follow if we are to do justice to it. But he has a wonderful power of vividly conceiving a single incident, a single situation; of throwing himself upon it, grasping it as if it were real and he saw and felt it, and of making us see and feel it too. The Giaour is, as he truly called it, “a string of passages,” not a work moving by a deep internal law of development to a necessary end; and our total impression from it cannot but receive from this, its inherent defect, a certain dimness and indistinctness. But the incidents of the journey and death of Hassan, in that poem, are conceived and presented with a vividness not to be surpassed; and our impression from them is correspondingly clear and powerful. In Lara, again, there is no adequate development either of the character of the chief personage or of the action of the poem; our total impression from the work is a confused one. Yet such an incident as the disposal of the slain Ezzelin’s body passes before our eyes as if we actually saw it. And in the same way as these bursts of incident, bursts of sentiment also, living and vigorous, often occur in the midst of poems which must be admitted to be but weakly-conceived and loosely-combined wholes. Byron cannot but be a gainer by having attention concentrated upon what is vivid, powerful, effective in his work, and withdrawn from what is not so.  5
  Byron, I say, cannot but be a gainer by this, just as Wordsworth is a gainer by a like proceeding. I esteem Wordsworth’s poetry so highly, and the world, in my opinion, has done it such scant justice, that I could not rest satisfied until I had fulfilled, on Wordsworth’s behalf, a long-cherished desire;—had disengaged, to the best of my power, his good work from the inferior work joined with it, and had placed before the public the body of his good work by itself. To the poetry of Byron the world has ardently paid homage; full justice from his contemporaries, perhaps even more than justice, his torrent of poetry received. His poetry was admired, adored, “with all its imperfections on its head,”—in spite of negligence, in spite of diffuseness, in spite of repetitions, in spite of whatever faults it possessed. His name is still great and brilliant. Nevertheless the hour of irresistible vogue has passed away for him; even for Byron it could not but pass away. The time has come for him, as it comes for all poets, when he must take his real and permanent place, no longer depending upon the vogue of his own day and upon the enthusiasm of his contemporaries. Whatever we may think of him, we shall not be subjugated by him as they were; for, as he cannot be for us what he was for them, we cannot admire him so hotly and indiscriminately as they. His faults of negligence, of diffuseness, of repetition, his faults of whatever kind, we shall abundantly feel and unsparingly criticise; the mere interval of time between us and him makes disillusion of this kind inevitable. But how then will Byron stand, if we relieve him too, so far as we can, of the encumbrance of his inferior and weakest work, and if we bring before us his best and strongest work in one body together? That is the question which I, who can even remember the latter years of Byron’s vogue, and have myself felt the expiring wave of that mighty influence, but who certainly also regard him, and have long regarded him, without illusion, cannot but ask myself, cannot but seek to answer. The present volume is an attempt to provide adequate data for answering it.  6
  Byron has been over-praised, no doubt. “Byron is one of our French superstitions,” says M. Edmond Scherer; but where has Byron not been a superstition? He pays now the penalty of this exaggerated worship. “Alone among the English poets his contemporaries, Byron,” said M. Taine, “atteint à la cîme,—gets to the top of the poetic mountain.” But the idol that M Taine had thus adored M. Scherer is almost for burning. “In Byron,” he declares, “there is a remarkable inability ever to lift himself into the region of real poetic art,—art impersonal and disinterested,—at all. He has fecundity, eloquence, wit, but even these qualities themselves are confined within somewhat narrow limits. He has treated hardly any subject but one,—himself; now the man, in Byron, is of a nature even less sincere than the poet. This beautiful and blighted being is at bottom a coxcomb. He posed all his life long.”  7
  Our poet could not well meet with more severe and unsympathetic criticism. However, the praise often given to Byron has been so exaggerated as to provoke, perhaps, a reaction in which he is unduly disparaged. “As various in composition as Shakespeare himself, Lord Byron has embraced,” says Sir Walter Scott, “every topic of human life, and sounded every string on the divine harp, from its slightest to its most powerful and heart-astounding tones.” It is not surprising that some one with a cool head should retaliate, on such provocation as this, by saying: “He has treated hardly any subject but one, himself.” “In the very grand and tremendous drama of Cain,” says Scott, “Lord Byron has certainly matched Milton on his own ground.” And Lord Byron has done all this, Scott adds, “while managing his pen with the careless and negligent ease of a man of quality.” Alas, “managing his pen with the careless and negligent ease of a man of quality,” Byron wrote in his Cain:
        “Souls that dare look the Omnipotent tyrant in
His everlasting face, and tell him that
His evil is not good;”
or he wrote:
              “… And thou would’st go on aspiring
To the great double Mysteries! the two Principles!” 1
One has only to repeat to oneself a line from Paradise Lost in order to feel the difference.
  Sainte-Beuve, speaking of that exquisite master of language, the Italian poet Leopardi, remarks how often we see the alliance, singular though it may at first sight appear, of the poetical genius with the genius for scholarship and philology. Dante and Milton are instances which will occur to every one’s mind. Byron is so negligent in his poetical style, he is often, to say the truth, so slovenly, slipshod, and infelicitous, he is so little haunted by the true artist’s fine passion for the correct use and consummate management of words, that he may be described as having for this artistic gift the insensibility of the barbarian;—which is perhaps only another and a less flattering way of saying, with Scott, that he “manages his pen with the careless and negligent ease of a man of quality.” Just of a piece with the rhythm of
        “Dare you await the event of a few minutes’
or of
        “All shall be void—
is the diction of
        “Which now is painful to these eyes,
Which have not seen the sun to rise;”
or of
        “.… there let him lay!”
or of the famous passage beginning
        “He who hath bent him o’er the dead;”
with those trailing relatives, that crying grammatical solecism, that inextricable anacolouthon! To class the work of the author of such things with the work of the authors of such verse as
        “In the dark backward and abysm of time”—
or as
        “Presenting Thebes, or Pelops’ line,
Or the tale of Troy divine”—
is ridiculous. Shakespeare and Milton, with their secret of consummate felicity in diction and movement, are of another and an altogether higher order from Byron, nay, for that matter, from Wordsworth also; from the author of such verse as
        “Sol hath dropt into his harbour”—
or (if Mr. Ruskin pleases) as
        “Parching summer hath no warrant”—
as from the author of
        “All shall be void—
With a poetical gift and a poetical performance of the very highest order, the slovenliness and tunelessness of much of Byron’s production, the pompousness and ponderousness of much of Wordsworth’s, are incompatible. Let us admit this to the full.
  Moreover, while we are hearkening to M. Scherer, and going along with him in his fault-finding, let us admit, too, that the man in Byron is in many respects as unsatisfactory as the poet. And, putting aside all direct moral criticism of him,—with which we need not concern ourselves here,—we shall find that he is unsatisfactory in the same way. Some of Byron’s most crying faults as a man,—his vulgarity, his affectation,—are really akin to the faults of commonness, of want of art, in his workmanship as a poet. The ideal nature for the poet and artist is that of the finely touched and finely gifted man, the [Greek] of the Greeks; now, Byron’s nature was in substance not that of the [Greek] at all, but rather, as I have said, of the barbarian. The want of fine perception which made it possible for him to formulate either the comparison between himself and Rousseau, or his reason for getting Lord Delawarr excused from a “licking” at Harrow, is exactly what made possible for him, also, his terrible dealings in, An ye wool; I have redde thee; Sunburn me; Oons, and it is excellent well. It is exactly, again, what made possible for him his precious dictum that Pope is a Greek temple, and a string of other criticisms of the like force; it is exactly, in fine, what deteriorated the quality of his poetic production. If we think of a good representative of that finely touched and exquisitely gifted nature which is the ideal nature for the poet and artist,—if we think of Raphael, for instance, who truly is [Greek] just as Byron is not,—we shall bring into clearer light the connexion in Byron between the faults of the man and the faults of the poet. With Raphael’s character Byron’s sins of vulgarity and false criticism would have been impossible, just as with Raphael’s art Byron’s sins of common and bad workmanship.  10
  Yes, all this is true, but it is not the whole truth about Byron nevertheless; very far from it. The severe criticism of M. Scherer by no means gives us the whole truth about Byron, and we have not yet got it in what has been added to that criticism here. The negative part of the true criticism of him we perhaps have; the positive part, by far the more important, we have not. Byron’s admirers appeal eagerly to foreign testimonies in his favour. Some of these testimonies do not much move me; but one testimony there is among them which will always carry, with me at any rate, very great weight,—the testimony of Goethe. Goethe’s sayings about Byron were uttered, it must however be remembered, at the height of Byron’s vogue, when that puissant and splendid personality was exercising its full power of attraction. In Goethe’s own household there was an atmosphere of glowing Byron-worship; his daughter-in-law was a passionate admirer of Byron, nay, she enjoyed and prized his poetry, as did Tieck and so many others in Germany at that time, much above the poetry of Goethe himself. Instead of being irritated and rendered jealous by this, a nature like Goethe’s was inevitable led by it to heighten, not lower, the note of his praise. The Time-Spirit, or Zeit-Geist, he would himself have said, was working just then for Byron. This working of the Zeit-Geist in his favour was an advantage added to Byron’s other advantages, an advantage of which he had a right to get the benefit. This is what Goethe would have thought and said to himself; and so he would have been led even to heighten somewhat his estimate of Byron, and to accentuate the emphasis of praise. Goethe speaking of Byron at that moment was not and could not be quite the same cool critic as Goethe speaking of Dante, or Molière, or Milton. This, I say, we ought to remember in reading Goethe’s judgments on Byron and his poetry. Still, if we are careful to bear this in mind, and if we quote Goethe’s praise correctly,—which is not always done by those who in this country quote it,—and if we add to it that great and due qualification added to it by Goethe himself,—which so far as I have seen has never yet been done by his quoters in this country at all,—then we shall have a judgment on Byron, which comes, I think, very near to the truth, and which may well command our adherence.  11
  In his judicious and interesting Life of Byron, Professor Nichol quotes Goethe as saying that Byron “is undoubtedly to be regarded as the greatest genius of our century.” What Goethe did really say was “the greatest talent,” not “the greatest genius.” The difference is important, because, while talent gives the notion of power in a man’s performance, genius gives rather the notion of felicity and perfection in it; and this divine gift of consummate felicity by no means, as we have seen, belongs to Byron and to his poetry. Goethe said that Byron “must unquestionably be regarded as the greatest talent of the century.” 2 He said of him moreover: “The English may think of Byron what they please, but it is certain that they can point to no poet who is his like. He is different from all the rest, and, in the main, greater.” Here, again, Professor Nichol translates: “They can show no (living) poet who is to be compared to him;”—inserting the word living, I suppose, to prevent its being thought that Goethe would have ranked Byron, as a poet, above Shakespeare and Milton But Goethe did not use, or, I think, mean to imply, any limitation such as is added by Professor Nichol. Goethe said simply, and he meant to say, “no poet.” Only the words which follow 3 ought not, I think, to be rendered, “who is to be compared to him,” that is to say,“who is his equal as a poet.” They mean rather, “who may properly be compared with him,” “who is his parallel.” And when Goethe said that Byron was “in the main greater” than all the rest of the English poets, he was not so much thinking of the strict rank, as poetry, of Byron’s production; he was thinking of that wonderful personality of Byron which so enters into his poetry, and which Goethe called “a personality such, for its eminence, as has never been yet, and such as is not likely to come again.” He was thinking of that “daring, dash, and grandiosity,” 4 of Byron, which are indeed so splendid; and which were, so Goethe maintained, of a character to do good, because “everything great is formative,” and what is thus formative does us good.  12
  The faults which went this greatness, and which impaired Byron’s poetical work, Goethe saw very well. He saw the constant state of warfare and combat, the “negative and polemical working,” which makes Byron’s poetry a poetry in which we can so little find rest; he saw the Hang zum Unbegrenzten, the straining after the unlimited, which made it impossible for Byron to produce poetic wholes such as the Tempest or Lear; he saw the zu viel Empirie, the promiscuous adoption of all the matter offered to the poet by life, just as it was offered, without thought or patience for the mysterious transmutation to be operated on this matter by poetic form. But in a sentence which I cannot, as I say, remember to have yet seen quoted in any English criticism of Byron, Goethe lays his finger on the cause of all these defects in Byron, and on his real source of weakness both as a man and as a poet. “The moment he reflects, he is a child,” says Goethe;—“sobald er reflectrict ist er ein Kind.”  13
  Now if we take the two parts of Goethe’s criticism of Byron, the favourable and the unfavourable, and put them together, we shall have, I think, the truth. On the one hand a splendid and puissant personality, a personality “in eminence such as has never been yet, and is not likely to come again;” of which the like, therefore, is not to be found among the poets of our nation, by which Byron “is different from all the rest, and, in the main, greater.” Byron is, moreover, “the greatest talent of our century.” On the other hand, this splendid personality and unmatched talent, this unique Byron, “is quite too much in the dark about himself;” 5 nay, “the moment he begins to reflect, he is a child.” There we have I think, Byron complete; and in estimating him and ranking him we have to strike a balance between the gain which accrues to his poetry, as compared with the productions of other poets, from his superiority, and the loss which accrues to it from his defects.  14
  A balance of this kind has to be struck in the case of all poets except the few supreme masters in whom a profound criticism of life exhibits itself in indissoluble connexion with the laws of poetic truth and beauty. I have seen it said that I allege poetry to have for its characteristic this: that it is a criticism of life; and that I make it to be thereby distinguished from prose, which is something else. So far from it, that when I first used this expression, a criticism of life, now many years ago, it was to literature in general that I applied it, and not to poetry in especial. “The end and aim of all literature,” I said, “is, if one considers it attentively, nothing but that:—a criticism of life.” And so it surely is; the main end and aim of all our utterance, whether in prose or in verse, is surely a criticism of life. We are not brought much on our way, I admit, towards an adequate definition of poetry as distinguished from prose by that truth; still a truth it is, and poetry can never prosper if it is forgotten. In poetry, however, the criticism of life has to be made conformably to the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. Truth and seriousness of substance and matter, felicity and perfection of diction and manner, as these are exhibited in the best poets, are what constitute a criticism of life made in conformity with the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty; and it is by knowing and feeling the work of those poets, that we learn to recognise the fulfilment and non-fulfilment of such conditions.  15
  The moment, however, that we leave the small band of the very best poets, the true classics, and deal with poets of the next rank, we shall find that perfect truth and seriousness of matter, in close alliance with perfect truth and felicity of manner, is the rule no longer. We have now to take what we can get, to forego something here, to admit compensation for it there; to strike a balance, and to see how our poets stand in respect to one another when that balance has been struck. Let us observe how this is so.  16
  We will take three poets, among the most considerable of our century: Leopardi, Byron, Wordsworth. Giacomo Leopardi was ten years younger than Byron, and he died thirteen years after him; both of them, therefore, died young, Byron at the age of thirty-six, Leopardi at the age of thirty-nine. Both of them were of noble birth, both of them suffered from physical defect, both of them were in revolt against the established facts and beliefs of their age; but here the likeness between them ends. The stricken poet of Racanati had no country, for an Italy in his day did not exist; he had no audience, no celebrity The volume of his poems, published in the very year of Byron’s death, hardly sold, I suppose, its tens, while the volumes of Byron’s poetry were selling their tens of thousands. And yet Leopardi has the very qualities which we have found wanting to Byron; he has the sense for form and style, the passion for just expression, the sure and firm touch of the true artist. Nay, more, he has a grave fulness of knowledge, an insight into the real bearings of the questions which as a sceptical poet he raises, a power of seizing the real point, a lucidity, with which the author of Cain has nothing to compare. I can hardly imagine Leopardi reading the
          “… And thou would’st go on aspiring
To the great double Mysteries! the two Principles!”
or following Byron in his theological controversy with Dr. Kennedy, without having his features overspread by a calm and fine smile, and remarking of his brilliant contemporary, as Goethe did, that “the moment he begins to reflect, he is a child.” But indeed whoever wishes to feel the full superiority of Leopardi over Byron in philosophic thought and in the expression of it, has only to read one paragraph of one poem, the paragraph of La Ginestra beginning
        “Sovente in queste piagge,”
and ending
        “Non so se il riso o la pietà prevale.”
  In like manner, Leopardi is at many points the poetic superior of Wordsworth too. He has a far wider culture than Wordsworth, more mental lucidity, more freedom from illusions as to the real character of the established fact and of reigning conventions; above all, this Italian, with his pure and sure touch, with his fineness of perception, is far more of the artist. Such a piece of pompous dulness as
        “O for the coming of that glorious time,”
and all the rest of it, or such lumbering verse as Mr. Ruskin’s enemy,
        “Parching summer hath no warrant,”
would have been as impossible to Leopardi as to Dante. Where, then, is Wordsworth’s superiority? for the worth of what he has given us in poetry I hold to be greater, on the whole, than the worth of what Leopardi has given us. It is in Wordsworth’s sound and profound sense
        “Of joy in widest commonalty spread;”
whereas Leopardi remains with his thoughts ever fixed upon the essenza insanabile, upon the acerbo, indegno mistero delle cose. It is in the power with which Wordsworth feels the resources of joy offered to us in nature, offered to us in the primary human affections and duties, and in the power with which in his moments of inspiration he renders this joy and makes us, too, feel it; a force greater than himself seeming to lift him and to prompt his tongue, so that he speaks in a style far above any style of which he has the constant command, and with a truth far beyond any philosophic truth of which he has the conscious and assured possession Neither Leopardi nor Wordsworth are of the same order with the great poets who made such verse as
or as
        “In la sua volontade e nostra pace;”
or as
                  “… Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all.”
But as compared with Leopardi, Wordsworth, though at many points less lucid, though far less a master of style, far less of an artist, gains so much by his criticism of life being, in certain matters of profound importance, healthful and true, whereas Leopardi’s pessimism is not, that the value of Wordsworth’s poetry, on the whole, stands higher for us than that of Leopardi’s, as it stands higher for us, I think, than that of any modern poetry except Goethe’s.
  Byron’s poetic value is also greater, on the whole, than Leopardi’s; and his superiority turns, in the same way, upon the surpassing worth of something which he had and was, after all deduction has been made for his shortcomings. We talk of Byron’s personality, “a personality in eminence such as has never been yet, and is not likely to come again;” and we say that by this personality Byron is “different from all the rest of English poets, and in the main greater.” But can we not be a little more circumstantial, and name that in which the wonderful power of this personality consisted? We can; with the instinct of a poet Mr. Swinburne has seized upon it and named it for us. The power of Byron’s personality lies in “the splendid and imperishable excellence which covers all his offences and outweighs all his defects: the excellence of sincerity and strength.”  19
  Byron found our nation, after its long and victorious struggle with revolutionary France, fixed in a system of established facts and dominant ideas which revolted him. The mental bondage of the most powerful part of our nation, of its strong middle class, to a narrow and false system of this kind, is what we call British Philistinism. That bondage is unbroken to this hour, but in Byron’s time it was even far more deep and dark than it is now. Byron was an aristocrat, and it is not difficult for an aristocrat to look on the prejudices and habits of the British Philistine with scepticism and disdain. Plenty of young men of his own class Byron met at Almack’s or at Lady Jersey’s, who regarded the established facts and reigning beliefs of the England of that day with as little reverence as he did. But these men, disbelievers in British Philistinism in private, entered English public life, the most conventional in the world, and at once they saluted with respect the habits and ideas of British Philistinism as if they were a part of the order of creation, and as if in public no sane man would think of warring against them. With Byron it was different. What he called the cant of the great middle part of the English nation, what we call its Philistinism, revolted him; but the cant of his own class, deferring to this Philistinism and profiting by it, while they disbelieved in it, revolted him even more. “Come what may,” are his own words, “I will never flatter the million’s canting in any shape.” His class in general, on the other hand, shrugged their shoulders at this cant, laughed at it, pandered to it, and ruled by it. The falsehood, cynicism, insolence, misgovernment, oppression, with their consequent unfailing crop of human misery, which were produced by this state of things, roused Byron to irreconcilable revolt and battle. They made him indignant, they infuriated him; they were so strong, so defiant, so maleficent,—and yet he felt that they were doomed. “You have seen every trampler down in turn,” he comforts himself with saying, “from Buonaparte to the simplest individuals.” The old order, as after 1815 it stood victorious, with its ignorance and misery below, its cant, selfishness, and cynicism above, was at home and abroad equally hateful to him. “I have simplified my politics,” he writes, “into an utter detestation of all existing governments.” And again: “Give me a republic. The king-times are fast finishing; there will be blood shed like water and tears like mist, but the peoples will conquer in the end. I shall not live to see it, but I foresee it.”  20
  Byron himself gave the preference, he tells us, to politicians and doers, far above writers and singers. But the politics of his own day and of his own class,—even of the Liberals of his own class,—were impossible for him. Nature had not formed him for a Liberal peer, proper to move the Address in the House of Lords, to pay compliments to the energy and self-reliance of British middle-class Liberalism, and to adapt his politics to suit it. Unfitted for such politics, he threw himself upon poetry as his organ; and in poetry his topics were not Queen Mab, and the Witch of Atlas, and the Sensitive Plant, they were the upholders of the old order, George the Third and Lord Castlereagh and the Duke of Wellington and Southey, and they were the canters and tramplers of the great world, and they were his enemies and himself.  21
  Such was Byron’s personality, by which “he is different from all the rest of English poets, and, in the main, greater.” But he posed all his life, says M. Scherer. Let us distinguish. There is the Byron who posed, there is the Byron with his affectations and silliness, the Byron whose weakness Lady Blessington, with a woman’s acuteness, so admirably seized: “his great defect is flippancy and a total want of self-possession.” But when this theatrical and easily criticised personage betook himself to poetry, and when he had fairly warmed to his work, then he became another man; then the theatrical personage passed away; then a higher power took possession of him and filled him; then at last came forth into light that true and puissant personality, with its direct strokes, its ever-welling force, its satire, its energy, and its agony. This is the real Byron; whoever stops at the theatrical preludings, does not know him. And this real Byron may well be superior to the stricken Leopardi, he may well be declared “different from all the rest of English poets, and, in the main, greater,” in so far as it is true of him, as M. Taine well says, that “all other souls, in comparison with his, seem inert;” in so far as it is true of him that with superb, exhaustless energy he maintained, as Professor Nichol well says, “the struggle that keeps alive, if it does not save, the soul:” in so far, finally, as he deserves (and he does deserve) the noble praise of him which I have already quoted from Mr. Swinburne; the praise for “the splendid and imperishable excellence which covers all his offences and outweighs all his defects: the excellence of sincerity and strength.”  22
  True, as a man, Byron could not manage himself, could not guide his ways aright, but was all astray. True, he has no light, cannot lead us from the past to the future; “the moment he reflects, he is a child.” The way out of the false state of things which enraged him he did not see,—the slow and laborious way upward; he had not the patience, knowledge, self-discipline, virtue, requisite for seeing it. True, also, as a poet, he has no fine and exact sense for word and structure and rhythm; he has not the artist’s nature and gifts. Yet a personality of Byron’s force counts for so much in life, and a rhetorician of Byron’s force counts for so much in literature! But it would be most unjust to label Byron, as M. Scherer is disposed to label him, as a rhetorician only. Along with his astounding power and passion, he had a strong and deep sense for what is beautiful in nature, and for what is beautiful in human action and suffering. When he warms to his work, when he is inspired, Nature herself seems to take the pen from him as she took it from Wordsworth, and to write for him as she wrote for Wordsworth, though in a different fashion, with her own penetrating simplicity. Goethe has well observed of Byron, that when he is at his happiest his representation of things is as easy and real as if he were improvising. It is so; and his verse then exhibits quite another and a higher quality from the rhetorical quality,—admirable as this also in its own kind of merit is,—of such verse as
        “Minions of splendour shrinking from distress,”
and of so much more verse of Byron’s of that stamp. Nature, I say, takes the pen for him; and then, assured master of a true poetic style though he is not, any more than Wordsworth, yet as from Wordsworth at his best there will come such verse as
        “Will no one tell me what she sings?”
so from Byron, too, at his best, there will come such verse as
        “He heard it, but he heeded not; his eyes
Were with his heart, and that was far away.”
Of verse of this high quality, Byron has much; of verse of a quality lower than this, of a quality rather rhetorical than truly poetic, yet still of extraordinary power and merit, he has still more. To separate, from the mass of poetry which Byron poured forth, all this higher portion, so superior to the mass, and still so considerable in quantity, and to present it in one body by itself, is to do a service, I believe, to Byron’s reputation, and to the poetic glory of our country.
  Such a service I have in the present volume attempted to perform. To Byron, after all the tributes which have been paid to him, here is yet one tribute more:—
        “Among thy mightier offerings here are mine!”
not a tribute of boundless homage certainly, but sincere; a tribute which consists not in covering the poet with eloquent eulogy of our own, but in letting him, at his best and greatest, speak for himself. Surely the critic who does most for his author is the critic who gains readers for his author himself, not for any lucubrations on his author;—gains more readers for him, and enables those readers to read him with more admiration.
  And in spite of his prodigious vogue, Byron has never yet, perhaps, had the serious admiration which he deserves. Society read him and talked about him, as it reads and talks about Endymion to-day; and with the same sort of result. It looked in Byron’s glass as it looks in Lord Beaconsfield’s, and sees, or fancies that it sees, its own face there; and then it goes its way, and straightway forgets what manner of man it saw. Even of his passionate admirers, how many never got beyond the theatrical Byron, from whom they caught the fashion of deranging their hair, or of knotting their neck-handkerchief, or of leaving their shirt-collar unbuttoned; how few profoundly felt his vital influence, the influence of his splendid and imperishable excellence of sincerity and strength!  25
  His own aristocratic class, whose cynical make-believe drove him to fury; the great middle-class, on whose impregnable Philistinism he shattered himself to pieces,—how little have either of these felt Byron’s vital influence! As the inevitable break-up of the old order comes, as the English middle-class slowly awakens from its intellectual sleep of two centuries, as our actual present world, to which this sleep has condemned us, shows itself more clearly,—our world of an aristocracy materialised and null, a middle-class purblind and hideous, a lower class crude and brutal,—we shall turn our eyes again, and to more purpose, upon this passionate and dauntless soldier of a forlorn hope, who, ignorant of the future and unconsoled by its promises, nevertheless waged against the conservation of the old impossible world so fiery battle; waged it till he fell,—waged it with such splendid and imperishable excellence of sincerity and strength.  26
  Wordsworth’s value is of another kind. Wordsworth has an insight into permanent sources of joy and consolation for mankind which Byron has not; his poetry gives us more which we may rest upon than Byron’s,—more which we can rest upon now, and which men may rest upon always. I place Wordsworth’s poetry, therefore, above Byron’s on the whole, although in some points he was greatly Byron’s inferior, and although Byron’s poetry will always, probably, find more readers than Wordsworth’s, and will give pleasure more easily. But these two, Wordsworth and Byron, stand, it seems to me, first and pre-eminent in actual performance, a glorious pair, among the English poets of this century. Keats had probably, indeed, a more consummate poetic gift than either of them; but he died having produced too little and being as yet too immature to rival them. I for my part can never even think of equalling with them any other of their contemporaries;—either Coleridge, poet and philosopher wrecked in a mist of opium; or Shelley, beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain. Wordsworth and Byron stand out by themselves. When the year 1900 is turned, and our nation comes to recount her poetic glories in the century which has then just ended, the first names with her will be these.  27
Note 1. The italics are in the original. [back]
Note 2. “Der ohne Frage als das grösste Talent des Jahrhunderts anzusehen ist.” [back]
Note 3. “Der ihm zu vergleichen wäre.” [back]
Note 4. “Byron’s Kühnheit, Keckheit und Grandiositat, ist das nicht alles bildend?—Alles Grosse bildet, sobald wir es gewahr werden.” [back]
Note 5. “Gar zu dunkel über sich selbst.” [back]

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.