Francis Jeffrey Jeffrey.

Selections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey online

. (page 11 of 21)
Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 11 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Canto the Third. By Lord Byron. 8vo, pp. 79. London, 1816. ^

If the finest poetry be that which leaves the deepest
impression on the minds of its readers — and this is not
the worst test of its excellence — Lord Byron, we think,
must be allowed to take precedence of all his distin-
5 guished contemporaries. He has not the variety of
Scott — nor the delicacy of Campbell — nor the absolute
truth of Crabbe — nor the polished sparkling of Moore ;
but in force of diction, and inextinguishable energy of
sentiment, he clearly surpasses them all. " Words that

10 breathe, and thoughts that burn," are not merely the
ornaments, but the common staple of his poetry ; and
he is not inspired or impressive only in some happy
passages, but through the whole body and tissue of his
composition. It was an unavoidable condition, perhaps,

15 of this higher excellence, that his scene should be

1 1 have already said so much of Lord Byron with reference to
his Dramatic productions, that I cannot now afford to repubUsh
more than one other paper on the subject of his poetry in general :
And I select this, rather because it refers to a greater variety of
these compositions, than because it deals with such as are either
absolutely the best, or the most characteristic of his genius. The
truth is, however, that all his writings are characteristic ; and lead,
pretty much alike, to those views of the dark and the bright parts
of his nature, which have led me, I fear (though almost irresistibly)
into observations more personal to the character of the author, than
should generally be permitted to a mere literary censor.


narrow, and his persons few. To compass such ends as
he had in view, it was necessary to reject all ordinary
agents, and all trivial combinations. He could not
possibly be amusing, or ingenious or playful ; or hope to
maintain the requisite pitch of interest by the recitation 5
of sprightly adventures, or the opposition of common
characters. To produce great effects, in short, he felt
that it was necessary to deal only with the greater
passions — with the exaltations of a daring fancy, and
the errors of a lofty intellect — with the pride, the 10
terrors, and the agonies of strong emotion — the fire and
air alone of our human elements.

In this respect, and in his general notion of the end
and the means of poetry, we have sometimes thought
that his views fell more in with those of the Lake poets, 15
than of any other existing party in the poetical common-
wealth : And, in some of his later productions especially,
it is impossible not to be struck with his occasional
approaches to the style and manner of this class of
writers. Lord Byron, however, it should be observed, 20
like all other persons of a quick sense of beauty, and
sure enough of their own originality to be in no fear
of paltry imputations, is a great mimic of styles and
manners, and a great borrower of external character.
He and Scott, accordingly, are full of imitations of all 25
the writers from whom they have ever derived gratifica-
tion ; and the two most original writers of the age might
appear, to superficial observers, to be the most deeply
indebted to their predecessors. In this particular instance,
we have no fault to find with Lord Byron. For undoubt- 3°
edly the finer passages of Wordsworth and Southey have
in them wherewithal to lend an impulse to the utmost
ambition of rival genius ; and their diction and manner
of writing is frequently both striking and original. But


we must say, that it would afford us still greater pleasure
to find these tuneful gentlemen returning the compliment
which Lord Byron has here paid to their talents ; and
forming themselves on the model rather of his imitations,
5 than of their own originals. — In those imitations they
will find that, though he is sometimes abundantly mystical,
he never, or at least very rarely, indulges in absolute
nonsense — never takes his lofty flights upon mean or
ridiculous occasions — and, above all, never dilutes his

10 strong conceptions, and magnificent imaginations, with a
flood of oppressive verbosity. On the contrary, he is, of
all living writers, the most concise and condensed ;
and, we would fain hope, may go far, by his example, to
redeem the great reproach of our modern literature — its

15 intolerable prolixity and redundance. In his nervous
and manly lines, we find no elaborate amplification of
common sentiments — no ostentatious polishing of pretty
expressions ; and we really think that the brilliant success
which has rewarded his disdain of those paltry artifices,

20 should put to shame for ever that puling and self-admiring
race, who can live through half a volume on the stock of
a single thought, and expatiate over divers fair quarto,
pages with the details of one tedious description. In
Lord Byron, on the contrary, we have a perpetual stream

25 of thick-coming fancies — an eternal spring of fresh-
blown images, which seem called into existence by the
sudden flash of those glowing thoughts and overwhelming
emotions, that struggle for expression through the whole
flow of his poetry — and impart to a diction that is often

30 abrupt and irregular, a force and a charm which frequently
realize all that is said of inspiration.

With all these undoubted claims to our admiration,
however, it is impossible to deny that the noble author
before us has still something to learn, and a good deal to


correct. He is frequently abrupt and careless, and some-
times obscure. There are marks, occasionally, of effort
and straining after an emphasis, which is generally
spontaneous ; and, above all, there is far too great a
monotony in the moral colouring of his pictures, and too 5
much repetition of the same sentiments and maxims.
He delights too exclusively in the delineation of a
certain morbid exaltation of character and feeling — a
sort of demoniacal sublimity, not without some traits of
the ruined Archangel. He is haunted almost perpetually 10
with the image of a being feeding and fed upon by
violent passions, and the recollections of the catas-
trophes they have occasioned : And, though worn out
by their past indulgence, unable to sustain the burden
of an existence which they do not continue to animate : 15
— full of pride, and revenge, and obduracy — disdaining
life and death, and mankind and himself — and trampling,
in his scorn, not only upon the falsehood and formality
of polished life, but upon its tame virtues and slavish
devotion : Yet envying, by fits, the very beings he de- 20
spises, and melting into mere softness and compassion,
when the helplessness of childhood or the frailty of
woman make an appeal to his generosity. Such is the
person with whom we are called upon almost exclu-
sively to sympathise in all the greater productions of 25
this distinguished writer : — In Childe Harold — in the
Corsair — in Lara — in the Siege of Corinth — in Parisina,
and in most of the smaller pieces.

It is impossible to represent such a character better
than Lord Byron has done in all these productions — or 30
indeed to represent any thing more terrible in its anger,
or more attractive in its relenting. In point of effect, we
readily admit, that no one character can be more poetical
or impressive : — But it is really too much to find the


scene perpetually filled by one character — not only in
all the acts of each several drama, but in all the different
dramas of the series ; — and, grand and impressive as it
is, we feel at last that these very qualities make some

5 relief more indispensable, and oppress the spirits of
ordinary mortals with too deep an impression of awe
and repulsion. There is too much guilt in short, and
too much gloom, in the leading character ; — and though
it be a fine thing to gaze, now and then, on stormy seas,

10 and thunder-shaken mountains, we should prefer passing
our days in sheltered valleys, and by the murmur of
calmer waters.

We are aware that these metaphors may be turned
against us — and that, without metaphor, it may be said

15 that men do not pass their days in reading poetry — and
that, as they may look into Lord Byron only about as
often as they look abroad upon tempests, they have no
more reason to complain of him for being grand and
gloomy, than to complain of the same qualities in the

20 glaciers and volcanoes which they go so far to visit.
Painters, too, it may be said, have often gained great
reputation by their representations of tigers and other
ferocious animals, or of caverns and banditti — and
poets should be allowed, without reproach, to indulge

25 in analogous exercises. We are far from thinking that
there is no weight in these considerations ; and feel how
plausibly it may be said, that we have no better reason
for a great part of our complaint, than that an author, to
whom we are already very greatly indebted, has chosen

30 rather to please himself, than us, in the use he makes of
his talents.

This, no doubt, seems both unreasonable and ungrate-
ful. But it is nevertheless true, that a public benefactor
becomes a debtor to the public, and is, in some degree,


responsible for the employment of those gifts which seem
to be conferred upon him, not merely for his own delight,
but for the delight and improvement of his fellows through
all generations. Independent of this, however, we think
there is a reply to the apology. A great living poet is 5
not like a distant volcano, or an occasional tempest. He
is a volcano in the heart of our land, and a cloud that
hangs over our dwellings ; and we have some reason
to complain, if, instead of genial warmth and grateful
shade, he voluntarily darkens and inflames our atmos- 10
phere with perpetual fiery explosions and pitchy vapours.
Lord Byron's poetry, in short, is too attractive and too
famous to lie dormant or inoperative ; and, therefore, if
it produce any painful or pernicious effects, there will
be murmurs, and ought to be suggestions of alteration. 15
Now, though an artist may draw fighting tigers and
hungry lions in as lively or natural a way as he can,
without giving any encouragement to human ferocity,
or even much alarm to human fear, the case is somewhat
different, when a poet represents men with tiger-like 20
dispositions: — and yet more so, when he exhausts the
resources of his genius to make this terrible being
interesting and attractive, and to represent all the lofty
virtues as the natural allies of his ferocity. It is still
worse when he proceeds to show, that all these precious 25
gifts of dauntless courage, strong affection, and high
imagination, are not only akin to guilt, but the parents
of misery ; — and that those only have any chance of
tranquillity or happiness in this world, whom it is the
object of his poetry to make us shun and despise. 3°

These, it appears to us, are not merely errors in taste,
but perversions of morality ; and, as a great poet is
necessarily a moral teacher, and gives forth his ethical
lessons, in general with far more effect and authority


than any of his graver brethren, he is pecuHarly liable
to the censures reserved for those who turn the means of
improvement to purposes of corruption.

It may no doubt be said, that poetry in general tends
5 less to the useful than the splendid qualities of our
nature — that a character poetically good has long been
distinguished from one that is morally so - — and that,
ever since the time of Achilles, our sympathies, on such
occasions, have been chiefly engrossed by persons whose

10 deportment is by no means exemplary; and who in many
points approach to the temperament of Lord Byron's ideal
hero. There is some truth in this suggestion also. . But
other poets, in they^rj-/ place, do not allow their favourites
so outrageous a monopoly of the glory and interest of the

15 piece — and sin less therefore against the laws either of
poetical or distributive justice. In the second place, their
heroes are not, generally, either so bad or so good as
Lord Byron's- — and do not indeed very much exceed the
standard of truth and nature, in either of the extremes.

20 His, however, are as monstrous and unnatural as centaurs,
and hippogriffs — and must ever figure in the eye of sober
reason as so many bright and hateful impossibilities. But
the most important distinction is, that the other poets
who deal in peccant heroes, neither feel nor express that

25 ardent affection for them, which is visible in the whole
of this author's delineations ; but merely make use of
them as necessary agents in the extraordinary adventures
they have to detail, and persons whose minged vices and
virtues are requisite to bring about the catastrophe of

30 their story. In Lord Byron, however, the interest of the
story, where there happens to be one, which is not always
the case, is uniformly postponed to that of the character
itself — into which he enters so deeply, and with so
extraordinary a fondness, that he generally continues


to speak in its language, after it has been dismissed
from the stage ; and to inculcate, on his own authority,
the same sentiments which had been previously recom-
mended by its example. We do not consider it as unfair,
therefore, to say that Lord Byron appears to us to be 5
the zealous apostle of a certain fierce and magnificent
misanthropy ; which has already saddened his poetry
with too deep a shade, and not only led to a great mis-
application of great talents, but contributed to render
popular some very false estijnates of the constituents of 10
human happiness and merit. It is irksome, however, to
dwell upon observations so general — and we shall prob-
ably have better means of illustrating these remarks, if
they are really well founded, when we come to speak of
the particular publications by which they have now been 15

We had the good fortune, we believe, to be among the
first who proclaimed the rising of a new luminary, on the
appearance of Childe Harold on the poetical horizon, —
and we pursued his course with due attention through 20
several of the constellations. If we have lately omitted
to record his progress with the same accuracy, it is by no
means because we have regarded it with more indifference,
or supposed that it would be less interesting to the
public — but because it was so extremely conspicuous as 25
no longer to require the notices of an official observer.
In general, w^e do not think it necessary, nor indeed
quite fair, to oppress our readers with an account of
works, which are as well known to them as to ourselves ;
or with a repetition of sentiments in which all the world 3°
is agreed. Wherever, a work, therefore, is very popular,
and where the general opinion of its merits appears to be
substantially right, we think ourselves at liberty to leave
it out of our chronicle, without incurring the censure of


neglect or inattention. A very rigorous application of
this maxim might have saved our readers the trouble of
reading what we now write — and, to confess the truth,
we write it rather to gratify ourselves, than with the hope
5 of giving them much information. At the same time,
some short notice of the progress of such a writer ought,
perhaps, to appear in his comtemporary journals, as a
tribute due to his eminence ; — and a zealous critic can
scarcely set about examining the merits of any work, or
lo the nature of its reception by the public, without speedily
discovering very urgent cause for his admonitions, both
to the author and his admirers.

The most considerable of [the author's recent publica-

15 tions,] is the Third Canto of Childe Harold; a work
which has the disadvantage of all continuations, in
admitting of little absolute novelty in the plan of the
work or the cast of its character, and must, besides,
remind all Lord Byron's readers of the extraordinary

20 effect produced by the sudden blazing forth of his
genius, upon their first introduction to that title. In
spite of all this, however, we are persuaded that this
Third Part of the poem will not be pronounced in-
ferior to either of the former ; and, we think, will prob-

25 ably be ranked above them by those who have been most
delighted with the whole. The great success of this
singular production, indeed, has always appeared to us
an extraordinary proof of its merits ; for, with all its
genius, it does not belong to a sort of poetry that rises

30 easily to popularity. — It has no story or action — very
little variety of character — and a great deal of reasoning
and reflection of no very attractive tenor. It is sub-
stantially a contemplative and ethical work, diversified
with fine description, and adorned or overshaded by the


perpetual presence of one emphatic person, who is some-
times the author, and sometimes the object, of the reflec-
tions on which the interest is chiefly rested. It required,
no doubt, great force of writing, and a decided tone of
originality to recommend a performance of this sort so 5
powerfully as this has been recommended to public notice
and admiration — and those high characteristics belong
perhaps still more eminently to the part that is now
before us, than to any of the former. There is the same
stern and lofty disdain of mankind, and their ordinary 10
pursuits and enjoyments ; with the same bright gaze on
nature, and the same magic power of giving interest and
effect to her delineations — but mixed up, we think, with
deeper and more matured reflections, and a more intense
sensibility to all that is grand or lovely in the external 15
world. — Harold, in short, is somewhat older since he
last appeared upon the scene — and while the vigour of
his intellect has been confirmed, and his confidence in
his own opinions increased, his mind has also become
more sensitive ; and his misanthropy, thus softened over 20
by habits of calmer contemplation, appears less active
and impatient, even although more deeply rooted than
before. Undoubtedly the finest parts of the poem before
us, are those which thus embody the weight of his moral
sentiments ; or disclose the lofty sympathy which binds 25
the despiser of Man to the glorious aspects of Nature.
It is in these, we think, that the great attractions of the
work consist, and the strength of the author's genius is
seen. The narrative and mere description are of far
inferior interest. With reference to the sentiments and 3°
opinions, however, which thus give its distinguishing
character to the piece, we must say, that it seems no
longer possible to ascribe them to the ideal person whose
name if bears, or to any other than the author himself. —


Lord Byron, we think, has formerly complained of those
who identified him with his hero, or supposed that Harold
was but the expositor of his own feelings and opinions ;
— and in noticing the former portions of the work, we
5 thought it unbecoming to give any countenance to such
a supposition. — In this last part, however, it is really
impracticable to distinguish them. — Not only do the
author and his hero travel and reflect together, — but, in
truth, we scarcely ever have any distinct intimation to

10 which of them the sentiments so energetically expressed
are to be ascribed ; and in those which are unequivocally
given as those of the noble author himself, there is the
very same tone of misanthropy, sadness, and scorn, which
we were formerly willing to regard as a part of the

15 assumed costume of the Childe. We are far from sup-
posing, indeed, that Lord Byron would disavow any of
these sentiments ; and though there are some which we
must ever think it most unfortunate to entertain, and
others which it appears improper to have published, the

20 greater part are admirable, and cannot be perused with-
out emotion, even by those to whom they may appear


Being a Portio)i of the Recluse, a Poem. By William Wordsworth.

4to, pp. 447. Lofidon, 1814.^

This will never do ! It bears no doubt the stamp of
the author's heart and fancy : But unfortunately not half
so visibly as that of his peculiar system. His former

1 1 have spoken in many places rather too bitterly and confidently
of the faults of Mr. Wordsworth's poetry : And forgetting that,
even on my own view of them, they were but faults of taste, or
venial self-partiality, have sometimes visited them, I fear, with an
asperity which should be reserved for objects of Moral reprobation.
If I were now to deal with the whole question of his poetical merits,
though my judgment might not be substantially different, I hope I
should repress the greater part of these vivacites of expression : and
indeed so strong has been my feeling in this way, that, considering
how much I have always loved many of the attributes of his Genius,
and how entirely I respect his Character, it did at first occur to me
whether it was quite fitting that, in my old age and his, I should
include in this publication any of those critiques which may have
formerly given pain or offence, to him or his admirers. But, when
I reflected that the mischief, if there really ever was any, was long
ago done, and that I still retain, in substance, the opinions which I
should now like to have seen more gently expressed, I felt that to
omit all notice of them on the present occasion, might be held to
import a retractation which I am as far as possible from intending ;
or even be represented as a very shabby way of backing out of
sentiments which should either be manfully persisted in, or openly
renounced, and abandoned as untenable.

I finally resolved, therefore, to reprint my review of " The Excur-
sion " ; which contains a pretty full view of my griefs and charges
against Mr. Wordsworth ; set forth too, I believe, in a more


poems were intended to recommend that system, and to
bespeak favour for it by their individual merit ; — but
this, we suspect, must be recommended by the system —
and can only expect to succeed where it has been
5 previously established. It is longer, weaker, and tamer,

temperate strain than most of my other inculpations, — and of
which I think I may now venture to say farther that if the faults are
unsparingly noted, the beauties are not penuriously or grudgingly
allowed ; but commended to the admiration of the reader with at
least as much heartiness and good-will.

But I have also reprinted a short paper on the same author's
" White Uoe of Rylstone," — in which there certainly is no praise,
or notice of beauties, to set against the very unqualified censures of
which it is wholly made up. I have done this, however, not merely
because I adhere to these censures, but chiefly because it seemed
necessary to bring me fairly to issue with those who may not concur
in them. I can easily understand that many whose admiration of the
Excursion, or the Lyrical Ballads, rests substantially on the passages
which I too should join in admiring, may view with greater indul-
gence than I can do, the tedious and flat passages with which they
are interspersed, and may consequently think my censure of these
works a great deal too harsh and uncharitable. Between such
persons and me, therefore, there may be no radical difference of
opinion, or contrariety as to piinciples of judgment. But if there
be any who actually admire this White Doe of Rylstone, or Peter
Bell the Waggoner, or the Lamentations of Martha Rae, or the
Sonnets on the Punishment of Death, there can be no such
ambiguity, or means of reconcilement. Now I have been assured
not only that there are such persons, but that almost all those who
seek to exalt Mr. Wordsworth as the founder of a new school of
poetry, consider these as by far his best and most characteristic
productions ; and would at once reject from their communion
any one who did not acknowledge in them the traces of a high
inspiration. Now I wish it to be understood, that when I speak with
general intolerance or impatience of the school of Mr. Wordsworth,
it is to the school holding these tenets, and applying these tests,
that I refer : and I really do not see how I could better explain the
grounds of my dissent from their doctrines, than by republishing my

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 11 of 21)