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Lord Byron :
Arnold and Swinburne


Professor H. J. C. Grierson

[From the Proceedings of the British Academy \ Vol IX~\


Published for the British Academy

By Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press

Amen Corner, E.C.

Price Two Shillings net





By Peofessob II. J. C. GRIEIISON
Read November 24, 1920


It will next year be forty years l since Matthew Arnold, in the
preface to a selection from the Poetry of Byron, made the claim for
Wordsworth and Byron which awakened in Swinburne a fury of
eloquent anger, and served for the time to depreciate rather than to
enhance the reputation of the younger but far more widely celebrated
poet. ' Wordsworth and Byron ', he told us, ' 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 a more con-
summate poetic gift than either of them ; but he died having pro-
duced 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.'

The immediate effect of Arnold's challenge was not to enhance the
reputation of Byron, but rather to dispel the glamour which still for
many minds invested his almost legendary name. ' Byron is dead ',
Carlyle and Jane Welsh had written to one another in 1824, in a
tone of awe ; ' Byron is dead ', Tennyson scratched on a rock, ' on
a day when the whole world seemed darkened for me'. That feeling
had departed, and not a few readers of Arnold's selections felt as
though scales had fallen from their eyes, and they realized that for
them the poetry of Byron was valueless — wanting in art, felicity of

1 Poi'try of Byron chosen and arranged l>y Matthew Arnold, 1H81.
IX z



phrase; and harmony of verse, deficient in real depth of inspiration.
*A line of Wordsworth's \ Land) had written, when he too heard of
Hvron's death, ' is a lever to lift the immortal spirit! Byron can only
move the Bpleen. He was at best a Satyrist,— in any other way he
was mean enough/

But this was not quite the point of view of the critics of the
'eighties and 'nineties of last century. They did not write as
champions of Wordsworth. While paying due respect to Words-
worth, Swinburne championed against both poets the claims of
Coleridge and Shelley ; and among those who followed Swinburne to
the charge there were not wanting depredators of Wordsworth too.
It was no ' moral Clytemnestra ' that struck Byron down again, no
champion of the peculiar English blend of honest prudery and hypo-
critical respectability, such as drove him from England in 1816, nor
vet of that higher, purer spirituality which Lamb is thinking of when
he speaks of Wordsworth's verse as ' a lever to lift the immortal
spirit '. It was in the name, not of morals, but of art, that Byron
was arraigned by the poets of the 'sweet new style'' of Rossetti and
Morris and Swinburne. He was stricken in the house of his friends
in another sense than in 1815, treated with contumely by those who
had entered most fully into the inheritance of artistic freedom, free-
dom in the choice of subject and the portrayal of passion, exemption
from the pressure of the spirit which would have all poetry be edify-
ing, for which Byron in his own way — without any theory of art for
art's sake— had fought a single-handed and splendid battle. His was
a harder fate but a robuster spirit than that of the poet whose health
of body and peace of mind were impaired by an article on The
Fleshly School :

'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuffed out by an article,

or even of the turbulent young man the audacities of whose Poems
and Ballads were so purely literary and reconstructive achievements.
For it was the author of Poems and Ballads, a volume which roused
the moral British public as nothing had done since Cain and Don
Juan, who led the assault ; and, forgetting the generous, discriminat-
ing and eloquent appreciation with which in 1866 he prefaced a
happier selection than Arnold's, proceeded now to empty upon
Byron's head the frothing vials of his shrill and exuberant vitupera-
tion. He was followed, after a preliminary protest in Letters to
Dead Authors :

Ah ! were you here. I wonder would you flutter
O'er such a foe the tempest of your wing,


by Andrew Lang ; and Mr, Saintsbury, whose admiration of the
Rossetti-Morris-Swinburne group is unabated, joined in the cry and
has pursued Byron's reputation ever since with a curious rancour
which has not coloured his often equally severe criticism of Words-
worth and his heresies. Only Henley refused to take part in the
1 pogrom ' ; and he alas ! died before completing his work as champion,
critic, and editor of Byron.

But the names of the critics who condemned as of the one who
stood aloof are significant, for it is not entirely to be wondered that
the school of Rossetti and Morris and Pater and Swinburne and
Andrew Lang did not respond appreciatively to the challenge of
Matthew Arnold and subscribe to the poetic greatness of Byron.
Between his poetry and theirs was no medium except the freedom
from moralist restrictions to which I have referred. In the poetry of
the pre-Raphaelites, as one may for convenience call them, one phase
of the Romantic Revival — not the whole of that complex phenomenon,
but an aspect which it had presented from the date of Percy's
Rcliques and Chatterton's Rowley Poems to The Blessed Damozel and
Atalanta in Calydon — attained its most complete manifestation.
Never has there been in English literature a more cunningly wrought
poetry of artistic reconstruction, the reconstruction of old moods
and old modes, Greek or Mediaeval, especially the latter. Percy's
faked ballads, Chatterton's faked Middle English, are crude things
compared Avith the sophisticated mediaevalism of The Blessed
Damozel, the romantic historic ballad as reconstructed by Rossetti
in The Kings Tragedy, or in those border ballads of Swinburne's
which Mr. Gosse has published since that poet's death. And what
of the same poet's canzoni and roundels, and sestine and double
scstine, and carols and miracle play ? Russell Lowell's complaint as to
Atalanta and Erechtheus came just to this, that they were too like the
original. But it is not a mere matter of this or that precise form
revived. The whole tone and tune, spirit and art of Morris's Defence
of Guenevere poems, with his mediaeval retelling of old stories in the
manner of Chaucer, of Rossetti's ballads and House of Life, of
Swinburne's poems, pagan or mediaeval, is a reconstruction of old
moods of feeling, of old fashions of utterance. Never was a poet at
once so spontaneous and so purely literary as Swinburne. His poems
are not, as Byron's or Burns's, the vibrating response to the agitations
of experience and passion — ' the dream of my sleeping passions — their
somnambulism ' to use Byron's own phrase, which is, I suppose, just
Wo ids worth's 'emotion recollected in tranquillity'. Swinburne's are
the record of emotions begotten in the library, begotten of overmuch



reading 'of Elizabethan plays and Greek tragedy and Lyric, and Old
French and Italian song, or if Ins inspiration is more modern he
sings of liberty and hahic-s and the sea, as Victor Hugo had done
before him.

Was it any wonder thai these masters of cunning technique, gold-
smiths who could carve and chase with the art of a Benvenutd
Cellini cups and chalices of antique fashion, or the lesser moulders of
ballads in blue china, fragrant with the pot-pourri of the romantic
Middle Ages, were startled and indignant when commanded to do
reverence to the crudities of Byron's earliest verses, the flamboyant
improvisations of his verse tales and even of the greater Childe
Harold, supported by short selections from the rich and abounding
life of that shocking and delightful poem Don Juan, that great epic
of modern Europe? All attempts to rehabilitate Byron, Professor
Saintsbury felt able to declare in 1896, 'have certainly never vet
succeeded either with the majority of competent critics or with the
majority of readers of poetry'. And in his vivacious record of
personal adventures in the French novel he tells us roundly that
while Byronism did much mischief on the Continent, ' with us, though
it made a great stir, it really did little harm except to some " silly
women.' 1 . . . Counter-jumpers like Thackeray's own Fogson worshipped
"the noble poet" ; boys of nobler stamp like.Tennyson thought they
worshipped him, but if they were going to become men of affairs
forgot all about him ; if they were to be poets took to Keats and
Shelley as models, not to him. Critics hardly took him seriously,
except for non-literary reasons.'

But Byronism is not quite the same thing as Byron. Nor, rare
and artistic poets as they are, do the names of Tennyson, Rossetti,
Morris, and Swinburne represent all the qualities that make poetry
great and satisfying. The Idylls of the King and In Memoriam, The
Blessed Damozel and the House of Life, Tzvo Red Roses across the
Moon and The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon, Atalanta
in Calydon, and Tristram of Lyoncsse — these are preciously wrought
works of art such as Byron could never have composed, no more than
his imagination could have lived and sported in the rarefied and
enchanting atmosphere of the Witch of Atlas or sung the nympho-
leptic strains of Epipsychidion. But is it quite certain that they are
in every respect greater poems than the last cantos of Childe Harold or
Byron's Prometheus or Cain or The Vision of Judgement or Don Juan ?
Of Shelley I will speak later ; but regarding the others I confess I do
not feel so sure as when I was a student in the 'eighties of last
century. Their beauty seems to me a beauty of things somewhat


remote from life ; the languid passion of Morris, the stormier music of
Swinburne seem to breathe of a land indeed east of the sun and west
of the moon. It is in a very timid fashion after all that Tennyson in
the finished stanzas of In Memoriam, or even the robuster Browning
of Christina* Eve and Easter Day ventured into the stormy waters of
doubt, death, and the tragic hints of the significance of life, timidly
keeping the bathing machine of an orthodox and optimistic faith well
in sight upon the beach as a shelter to run to for safety and warmth
and reinvigoration : ,

O yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill.

And so even the exquisite art of these poems seems touched with
decadence, as Shelley found the erotic poets of Greece decadent, not
from any quality they possess but because of what they lack ; and
some of the qualities they want I seem to rediscover in the less
finished, more obviously faulty, poetry of Byron — life and strength,
passion and virility, wit and humour. ' Close your Byron ; open
your Goethe ', says Carlyle ; but for Goethe most English readers and
critics have inclined to substitute Wordsworth. ' Close your Byion ;
open your Keats and Tennyson and Rossetti and Swinburne', says,
or might say, Professor Saintsbury, ' for here is art, "the faultless and
fervent melodies " of pure poetry, not the resonant improvisations and
vulgar discords of Byron's rhetoric.'' Yet the serene wisdom and
golden beauty of Goethe, the ministering medicine of Wordsworth's
hills and streams and leech-gatherers, the melody and colour of
Keats and Tennyson, the exotic passion and music of Rossetti and
Swinburne, sometimes pall ; and it is with a powerful requickening
of our blood that we hear again the rolling guns and clattering
squadrons of the stanzas on Waterloo, the storm and passion of the
night by Lake Leman. The old thrill comes back when we read
again of ' the Niobe of nations ',

Childless and crownless in her voiceless woe,

her tombs and ruined Forum, the empty moonlit Coliseum ; or hear
the old moral, in accents of reverberating intensity, of the vanity of
human life, the intoxicating sweetness of love, the sublimity and
indifference of nature. Goethe and Wordsworth speak of wisdom
and love, of duty and resignation :

Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren ;

but folly and rebellion and hatred appeal to our complex nature also,
and we can at times turn with relief from the Leech-gatherer or the
second part of Faust to enjoy the scorn and mockery, the buoyant


humour and splendid satire of Beppo and the Vision of Judgement
and Don Juan. It is, at least, not without significance that while
Arnold and Swinburne were debating and mid-Victorian criticism
was passing final sentence on Byron, a young poet was just about to
repeal in a measure the experience for his readers and for himself of
the Byron of Child e Harold and the tales and some of the earlier
lyrics. Mr. Kipling has been, I sometimes think, ' le Byron de nos
jours 1 , not in the sense of Browning's poem, but in virtue of the
quickening and immediate effect of his poetry on an audience as wide
at least as the English-speaking world, an audience not confined to
the usual readers of poetry ; and because Mr. Kipling, too, found the
best material for romance and song, not in the reconstructed world of
Greece or the Middle Ages, but in the actualities of life in his own
day in India and England, the army, the workshop, and the tramp-
steamer. The romantic and Hellenic revival was yet to produce
some exquisite poetry, as that of Mr. Yeats ; but on the whole the
trend of poetry, since Mr. Arnold's prophetic date has passed, has
been in the direction of a simpler art, a closer touch with actuality ;
and it is this which has tempted me to ask myself whether, now that
Byronism is certainly a thing of the past, Byron may not yet be alive,
and if so what are the elements in his work which have proved most


The influence of Byron on the best minds of his own generation
has, I think, never been better expressed than by the late Mr.
William Hale White in The Revolution in Tanners Lane, and, thoiigh
it is a work of fiction, one could easily make it good from the
evidence of Ruskin and others. ' Zachariah ', he says, speaking of his
hero, ' found in the Corsair exactly what answered to his own inmost
self, down to its very depths. The lofty style, the scorn of what is
mean and base, the courage — root of all virtue — that dares and ever-
more dares in the very last extremity, the love of the illimitable, of
freedom, and the cadences like the fall of waves on a sea-shore, were
attractive to him beyond measure. More than this, there was love.
His own love was a failure, and yet it was impossible for him to
indulge for a moment his imagination elsewhere . . But when he. came
to Medora's song —

Deep in my soul that tender secret dwells,
Lonely and lost to light for evermore,

Save when to thine my heart responsive swells,
Then trembles into silence as before.


and more particularly the second verse —

There, in its centre, a sepulchral lamp

Burns the slow flame, eternal — but unseen ;

Which not the darkness of Despair can damp,
Though vain its ray as it had never been.

love again asserted itself. It was not love for a person ; perhaps it
was hardly love so much as the capacity for love. Whatever it may
be, henceforth this is what love will be in him, and it will be fully
maintained, though it knows no actual object. It will manifest itself
in suppressed force, seeking for exit in a thousand directions ; some-
times grotesque perhaps, but always force. It will give energy to
expression, vitality to his admiration of the beautiful, devotion to his
worship, enthusiasm to his zeal for freedom. , This is how Byron
spoke to many of his own generation besides silly women and under-
bred Pogsons, and it goes to the heart of the matter. They heard
again the authentic tones of passionate feeling ; felt life and love
reclaiming their rights from prudence and morality ; poetry reassert-
ing itself as something more than ' the art of uniting pleasure with
truth by calling imagination to the help of reason '. Such an
emancipation, indeed, had already begun, unmarked in Blake's
poetry, disguised in the Lyrical Ballads by the poets'* choice of theme,
of other passions than that of love, — maternal affection — the affections
in short rather than love as between the sexes, and a new and
profound, passionate, and mystical love of nature. In the region of
passion, in the more limited sense of the word, Coleridge was never
more than a sentimentalist, a metaphysical sentimentalist or sentimental
metaphysician. Wordsworth, it would seem, had indeed been
a passionate lover, but that phase was soon over, that impulse cut
somewhat deliberately out of his experience, and he had become the
lover who could spend his honeymoon walking with Mary on one
side and Dorothy on the other while he contemplated nature and
meditated political sonnets. Byron was a lover, masculine and
passionate, as Donne and Burns had been before him. He was no
nympholept like Shelley ; he could never have written Epipsychidion.
Keats' s sensuousness, the temperament to which the 'lucent syrops
tinct with cinnamon ' and dishes of gold and silver ' filling the chilly
room with perfume light 1 were as entrancing as the soul of Madeline,
offended Byron on the personal side, and he was not quite artist
enough in words to appreciate the felicity of Keats 1 s sensuous diction.
For Byron, strange as it may seem, was not a sensual, he was not
even a sensuous poet. Love was for him a passion in which soul and


Bense arc inextricably blended. The love he exalts is an unchange-
able, a spiritual passion :

But this was taught me by the dove,
To die — and know no second love.

And let the fool still prone to range
And sneer at all who cannot change
Partake his jest with boasting boys ;
I envy not his varied joys ;
But deem such feeble, heartless man,
Less than yon solitary swan ;
Far, far beneath the shallow maid
He left believing and betrayed.

In commenting on some of Burns's unpublished letters, he declares :
* A true voluptuary will never abandon his mind to the grossness of
reality. It is by excluding the earthly, the material, the physique of
our pleasures, by veiling these ideas, by forgetting them altogether
or, at least, never naming them hardly to oneself, that we alone can
prevent them from disgusting. 1

When Southey denounced the Satanic School of poetry, the school
of Byron and Shelley, it was Cain and religious scepticism he had
chiefly in view, but also Don Juan and this note of passion. And it
is Byron's most essential contribution to the requickening of English
poetry, the note which echoed in Zachariah's heart with inspiring,
liberating, ennobling effect. For the Satanic poet, if a troubler of
the waters, may give them in troubling the power to invigorate the
human spirit. He is the poet who, like Donne or Marlowe, Byron
or the Swinburne of the first Poems and Ballads, shocks and startles
and also enchants his age by the challenge which his poetry offers to
the accepted moral conventions, disturbing its scale of moral values,
especially the accord which every age endeavours to secure between
morals and art. For art and poetry are the spontaneous expression
of man's sense of values, the record of his joys, his loves and hates,
his need of beauty, of pleasure, the demand of the spirit of man that
he shall not only live but live well. But the concern of morality is
not so much immediate pleasure as the necessity of making us take
pleasure in the right things, ■qSecrOai oh Su, and knowing the power
of poetry the moralist would fain enlist her services, and moralize the
poet's song. But if, like Plato, he is both a great moralist and
a poet, he knows that it is not easy to curb the wild, free spirit of
poetry, so apt to reveal to men what they really love and hate, which
are not always the things society would have us hate and love ; he
knows that there is no room in a Republic where natural impulses are


to be disciplined or eradicated for the poet who waters our natural
desires. He calls the poet a liar, but what he really fears is his
terrible, his revealing sincerity; it may be unconscious sincerity, for
poets least of all men know what they are about.

And the moralist would be right. It would be true to say with
Dryden that ' supposing verses are never so beautiful and pleasing yet
if they contain anything which shocks Religion or Good Manners they
are at best . . . versus inopes rerum, migaeque canorae ' ; that might
be true if articulate morality in any age ever represented quite
adequately the deepest and most enduring needs of our nature in
conflict with, striving to curb and correct, the aberrations of feeling
and the allurements of the moment. But articulate morality is in
great measure the expression of the real or fancied needs of a type of
society seeking to establish or protect itself, of a creed or a convention
resisting troublesome inquiry and disturbance ; and the human spirit
faints and the sense of the joy of life is dulled ; and then a Marlowe
comes singing of the soaring ambitions of a Tamburlaine, of Dr.
Faustus imperilling his immortal welfare that he might make blind
Homer sing to him ' of Alexander's love and Oenon's death ', and
might see again the face

that launched a thousand ships
And burned the topless towers of Ilium.

He will not even, like Spenser, endeavour to disguise his passion for
beauty and power, from himself and from others, by a veil of allegory
and conventional homage to the restrictive virtues ; and so the air is
cleared, the whole gamut of passionate experience is set open to
Shakespeare, and the human spirit recovers the sense of its own
infinite capacity, the joy of energy which is life and delight. ' The
road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.''

It was just so that the Giaour and the Corsair and the Bride of
Abydos and Parisina spoke to the generation of Mr. White's
Zachariah, after a century of moralizing, reflective, sentimental poetry,
admirable in its kind. This is what gave to Byron's verse-tales their
superior charm to Scott's. Scott's setting and scenery are to me
often preferable to Byron's ; his tone saner, more genial. But the
setting and scenery are everything, the characters and sentiments
entirely negligible, while the style, if not more careless than Byron's,
has more of cheap and facile phrasing and filling. With Byron the
Greek and Mediterranean setting is in itself of small importance.
The appeal that the south, the Mediterranean, made to Byron, as to
Marlowe and to Goethe, was that of lands where passions are more

ix z 3


intense and more unrestrained. And if the Byronism of Byron's tales
has lost its appeal, rather repels now than attracts us, one must not
go to the other extreme and lose sight of the sincerity and intensity
of feeling which quickened and still quickens these faulty poems, gave

them in their first freshness such power and beauty. Byron has
delineated as Wordsworth and none of his contemporaries did passion

and energy. His central theme is the infinite worth of love and
courage and endurance. If the immediate result in English poetry
\\as a hasty crop of crude and absurd Oriental tales, yet the true
inheritors of the spirit of Byron were, firstly, those poets who after
the reaction to edification and sentiment of the first Victorian genera-
tion reasserted the rights in poetry of passion and the free imagina-
tion, Rossetti, Swinburne, Morris, greater artists but less potent
personalities ; and, secondly, Kipling and his generation, who brought
poetry back from a too exotic cult of technique and strange moods to
the passions and hu mours, loves and hates of the world around us.

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