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BYRON. 259

and friend of the most truly spiritual of all English poets,
Shelley, he was himself among the most essentially political.
Or perhaps one will be better understood, describing his
quality as a quality of poetical woyldliness, in its enlarged and
generous sense of energetic interest in real transactions, and a
capacity of being moved and raised by them into those lofty
moods of emotion, which in more spiritual natures are only
kindled by contemplation of the vast infinitudes that compass
the human soul round about. That Shelley was immeasurably
superior to Byron in all the rarer qualities of the specially
poetic mind appears to us so unmistakably assured a fact, that
difierence of opinion upon it can only spring from a more funda-
mental difierence of opinion as to what it is that constitutes
this specially poetic quality. If more than anything else it
consists in the power of transfiguring action, character, and
thought, in the serene radiance of the purest imaginative intel-
ligence, and the gift of expressing these transformed products
in the finest articulate vibrations of emotional speech, then
must we not confess that Byron has composed no piece which
from this point may compare with Prometlteus or the Cenci,
any more than Rubens may take his place with Titian ? We
feel that Shelley transports the spirit to the highest bound and
limit of the intelligible ; and that with him thought passes
through one superadded and more rarefying process than the
other poet is master of. If it be true, as has been written, that
' Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge,' we
may say that Shelley teaches us to apprehend that further
something, the breath and finer spirit of poetry itself Con-
trasting, for example, Shelley's Ode to the West Wind with
the famous and truly noble stanzas on the eternal sea which
close the fourth canto of Childe Harold, who does not feel that
there is in the first a volatile and unseizable element that is

s 2

260 BYRON.

quite distinct from tlie imagination and force and high
impressiveness, or from any indefinable product of all of these
united, which form the glory and power of the second'? We
may ask in the same way whether Manfred, where the spiritual
element is as predominant as it ever is in Byron, is worth half
a page of Promet/iciis.

To perceive and admit this is not to disparage Byron's
achievements. To be most deeply penetrated with the differ-
entiating quality of the poet, is not, after all, to contain the
whole of that admixture of varying and moderating elements,
which goes to the composition of the broadest and most effective
work. Of these elements, Shelley, with all his rare gifts of
spiritual imagination and winged melodiousness of verse, was
markedly wanting in a keen and omnipresent feeling for the
course of human events. All nature stirred him, except the
consummating crown of natural growth.

We do not mean anything so untrue as that Shelley was
wanting either in deep humanity or in active benevolence, or
that social injustice was a thing indifferent to him. I do not
forget the energetic political propagandism of his youth in
Ireland and elsewhere. Many a furious stanza remains to show
how deeply and bitterly the spectacle of this injustice burnt
into his soul. But these pieces are accidents. They do not
belong to the immortal part of his work. An American original,
uncqnsciously bringing the revolutionary mind to the climax
of all utterances possible to it, has said that ' men are degraded
when considered as the members of a political organisation.' ^
Shelley's position was on a yet more remote pinnacle than this.
Of mankind he was barely conscious, in his loftiest and divinest
flights. His muse seeks the vague translucent spaces, where
the care of man melts away in vision of the eternal forces,

(1) Thorcau.


of whicli man may be but tlie fortuitous manifestation of an

Byron, on the other hand, is never moved by the strength
of his passion or the depth of his contemj)lation quite away
from the round earth, and the civil animal who dwells upon it.
Even his misanthroj^y is only an inverted form of social solici-
tude. His practical zeal for good and noble causes might
teach us this. He never grudged either money or time or per-
sonal peril for the cause of Italian freedom, and his life was the
measure and the cost of his interest in the liberty of Greece.
Then again he was full not merely of wit, which is sometimes
only an affair of the tongue, but of humour also, which goes
much deeper ; and it is of the essence of the Rumoristic nature,
that whether sunny or saturnine, it binds the thoughts of him
who possesses it to the wide medley of expressly human things.
Byron did not misknow himself, nor misapprehend the most
marked turn of his own character, when he wrote the lines : —

I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these oiu: interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the universe and feel
What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal.

It was this which made Byron a social force, a far greater
force than Shelley either has been or can be. Men read in
each page that he was one of like passions with themselves ;
that he had their own feet of clay, if he had other members of
brass and gold and fine silver which they had none of; and
that vehement sensibility, tenacious energy of imagination, a
bounding swell of poetic fancy, had not obliterated, but had
rather quickened, the sense of the highest kind of man of the
world, which did not decay but waxed stronger in him with
years. His openness to beauty and care for it were always

262 BYRON.

inferior in keenness and in hold upon lilm. to his sense of
human interest, and the suj)eriority in certain respects of Marino
Faliero, for example, where he handles a social theme in a
worthy spirit, over Manfred, where he seeks a something
tumultuously beautiful, is due to that subordination in his
mind of aesthetic to social intention, which is one of the most
strongly distinctive marks of the truly modern spirit. The
admirable wit both of his letters, and of pieces like the Vision
of Judgment and Don Juan, where wit reaches as high as any
English writer has ever carried it, shows in another way the same
vividness and reality of attraction, which every side of human
affairs possessed for this glowing and incessantly animated spirit.
In spite of a good many surface affectations, which may
have cheated the lighter heads, but which may now be easily
seen through, and counted off for as much as they are worth,
Byron possessed a bottom of plain sincerity and rational
sobriety, which kept him substantially straight, real, and
human, and made him the genuine exponent of that immense
social movement which we sum up as the Revolution. If
Keats' s whole soul was absorbed by sensuous impressions of the
outer world, and his art was the splendid and exquisite repro-
duction of these ; if Shelley on the other hand distilled from the
fine impressions of the senses by process of inmost meditation
some thrice ethereal essence, ' the viewless spirit of a lovely
sound ' ; we may say of Byron that, even in the moods when the
mightiness and wonder of nature had most effectually possessed
themselves of his imagination, his mind never moved for very
long on these remote heights aj)art from the busy world of men,
but returned again like the fabled dove from the desolate void of
waters to the ark of mortal stress and human passion. Nature,
in her most dazzling aspects or stu^^eudous parts, is but the
background and theatre of the tragedy of man.

BYRON. 263

We may find a secondary proof of tliis in tlie fewness of
those fine descriptive strokes and subtle indirect touches of
colour or sound, which arise with incessant spontaneity, where
a mastering passion for nature steeps the mind in vigilant,
accurate, yet half- unconscious, observation. It is amazing
through how long a catalogue of natural objects Byron some-
times takes us, without afiixing to one of them any but the
most conventional term, or a single epithet which might show
that in passing through his mind it had yielded to him a
beauty or a savour that had been kept a secret from the com-
mon troop. Eyron is certainly not wanting in commanding
image, as when Manfred likens the lines of foaming light flung
along from the Alpine cataract to ' the pale courser's tail, the
Giant steed, to be bestrode by death.' But imaginative power
of this kind is not the same thing as that susceptibility to the
minutest properties and unseen qualities of natural objects,
which reveals itself in chance epithet of telling felicity, or
phrase that opens to us hidden lights. Our generation is more
likely to think too much than too little of this ; for its favourite
poet, however narrow in subject and feeble in moral treatment,
is without any peer in the exquisitely original, varied, and
imaginative art of his landscape touches.

This treatment of nature was in exact harmony with the
method of revolutionary thought, which, from the time of
Eousseau downwards, had appealed in its profound weariness
of an existing social state to the solitude and seeming freedom
of mountain and forest and ocean, as though the only cure for
the woes of civilisation lay in annihilating it. This was an
appeal less to nature than from man, just as we have said that
Byron's was, and hence it was distinct from the single-eyed
appreciation and love of nature for her own sake, for her beauty
and terror and unnumbered moods, which has made of her the

264 BYRON.

mistress and consoler of many men in tliese times. In tlie
days of old faith, while the catholic gods sat yet firm upon
their thrones, the loveliness of the universe shone to blind eyes.
Saint Bernard in the twelfth century could ride for a whole
day along the shore of the Lake of Geneva, and yet when in
the evening his comrades spoke some word about the lake, he
inquired, * What lake ? ' ^ It was not mere diiference of tem-
perament that made the preacher of one age pass by in this
marvellous unconsciousness, and the singer of another burst
forth into that tendei* invocation of ' clear, placid Leman,'
whose ' contrasted lake with the wild world he dwelt in '
moved him to the very depths. To Saint Bernard the world
was as wild and confused as it was to Byron ; but then he had
gods many and saints many, and a holy church in this world,
and a kingdom of heaven awaiting resplendent in the world to
come. All this filled his soul with a settled certitude, too
absorbing to leave any space for other than religious emotion.
The seven centui'ies that flowed between the spiritual mind of
Europe when Saint Bernard was its spokesman, and the
spiritual mind of which Byron was the interpreter, had
gradually dissolved these certitudes, and the faint lines of new
belief and a more durable order were still invisible. The
assurance of science was not yet rooted, nor had men as yet
learned to turn back to the history of their own kind, to the
long chronicle of its manifold experiences, for an adequate
system of life and an inspiring social faith. So they fled, in
spirit or in flesh, into unfamiliar scenes, and vanished from
society, because society was not sufficiently social.

The feeling was abnormal, and the method was fundamen-
tally artificial. A sentimentalism arose, which is in art what
the metaphysical method is in philosophy. Yet a literature

(1) Morison's Life of St. Bernard, p. 68 (2nd edit.)

BYRON. 265

•was born of it, whose freshness, force, elevation, and, above
all, a self-assertion and peculiar aspiring freedom that have
never been surpassed, still exert an irresistible attraction, even
over minds that are furthest removed from the moral storm and
disorder, and the confused intellectual convictions, of that
extraordinary group. Perhaps the fact that their active force
is spent, and that men find in them now only a charm and no
longer a gospel, explains the difference between the admiration
which some of us permit ourselves to feel for them, and the
impatient dislike which they stirred in our fathers. Then
they were a danger, because they were a force, misleading
amiable and highminded people into blind paths. Now this is
at an end, and, apart from their historic interest, the permanent
elements of beauty draw us to them with a delight that does
not diminish, as we recede further and further from the impo-
tence of the aspirations, which thus married themselves to lofty
and stirring words. To say nothing of Rousseau, the father
and founder of the nature-worship, which is the nearest
approach to a positive side that the Revolution has ever pos-
sessed, how much fine colour and freshness of feeling there is
in Rene, what a sense of air and space in Paul et Virginie, and
what must they have been to a generation that had just
emerged from the close parlours of Richardson, the best of the
sentimentalists of the proe-revolutionary type ? May we not
say, too, in parenthesis, that the man is the votary, not of
wisdom, but of a bald and shapeless asceticism, who is so
excessively penetrated with the reality, the duties, the claims,
and the constant hazards of civilisation, as to find in himself
no chord responsive to that sombre pensiveness into which
Obermann's unfathomable melancholy and impotence of will
deepened, as he meditated on the mean shadows which men are
content to chase for happiness, and on all the pigmy progeny

266 BYRON.

of giant effort ? C^est pen de chose, says Obermann, de n^Hre
point comme le vulgaire des hommes ; metis c'est avoir fait un pas
t'ers la sagesse, que de n'etre plus comme le vulgaire des sages.
This penetrating remark hits the difference between De Senan-
court himself and most of the school. He is absolutely free
from the vulgarity of wisdom, and breathes the air of higher
peaks, taking us through mysterious and fragrant pine- woods,
where more than he may find meditative repose amid the heat
and stress of that practical day, of which he and his school
can never bear the burden.

In that vulgaire des sages, of which De Senancourt had none,
Byron abounded. His work is in much the glorification
of revolutionary commonplace. Melodramatic individualism
reaches its climax in that long series of Laras, Conrads, Man-
freds, Harolds, who present the fatal trilogy, in which crime is
middle term between debauch and satiety, that forms the
natural develoj)ment of an anti- social doctrine in a full-blooded
temperament. It was this temperament which, blending with
his gifts of intellect, gave Byron the amazing copiousness and
force that makes him the dazzling master of revolutionary
emotion, because it fills his work with such variety of figures,
such free change of incident, such diversity of passion, such a
constant movement and agitation. It was this never-ceasing
stir, coupled with a striking concreteness and an unfailing
directness, which rather than any markedly correct or wide
intellectual apprehension of things, made him so much more
than any one else an effective interpreter of the moral tumult of
the epoch. If we look for psychological delicacy, for subtle
moral traits, for opening glimpses into unobserved depths of
character, behold, none of these things are there. These were
no gifts of his, any more than the divine gift of music was his.
There are some ^vriters whose words but half express the inde-

BYRON. 267

finable tliouglits that inspired tliem, and to wliom wc have to
surrender our whole minds with a peculiar loyalty and fulness,
independent of the letter and printed phrase, if we would
liquefy the frozen sj)eech and recover some portion of the im-
prisoned essence. This is seldom a necessity with Byron. His
words tell us all that he means to say, and do not merely hint
nor suggest. The matter with which he deals is gigantic, and
he paints with violent colours and sweeping pencil.

Yet he is free from that declamation with which some of the
French poets of the same age, and representing a portion of the
same movement, blow out their cheeks. An angel of reasonable-
ness seems to watch over him, even when he comes most dan-
gerously near to an extravagance. He is equally free from a
strained antithesis, which would have been inconsistent, not
only with the breadth of effect required by Byron's art, but
also with the pecidiarly direct and forcible quality of his genius.
In the preface to Marino Faliero, a composition that abounds in
noble passages, and rests on a fine and original conception of
character, he mentions his ' desire of preserving a nearer
approach to unity, than the irregularity which is the reproach
of the English theatre.' And this sound view of the import-
ance of form, and of the barbarism to which our English
genius is prone, from 'Goody Blake and Harry Gill' up to
the clownish savagery which occasionally defaces even Jjlays
attributed to Shakespeare, is collateral proof of the sanity and
balance, which marked the foundations of his character, and
which at no point of his work ever entirely failed him. Byron's
admiration for Pope was no mere eccentricity.

We may value this self-control the more, by remembering
the nature of his subjects. We look out upon a wild revolu-
tionary welter, of vehement activity without a purpose, bound-

268 BYRON-.

less discontent without a hope, futile interrogation of nature in
questions for which nature can have no answer, unbridled
passion, despairing satiety, impotence. It is too easy, as the
history of English opinion about Byron's poetic merit abun-
dantly proves, to underrate the genius which mastered so
tremendous a conflict, and rendered that amazing scene with
the flow and energy and mingled tempest and forlorn calm,
which belonged to the original reality. The essential futility
of the many moods which went to make up all this, ought not
to blind us to the enormous power that was needed for the
reproduction of a turbulent and not quite aimless chaos of the
soul, in which man seemed to be divorced alike from his
brother men in the present, and from all the long succession
and endeavour of men in the past. It was no small feat to rise
to a height that should command so much, and to exhibit with
all the force of life a world that had broken loose from its

It is idle to vituperate this anarchy, either from the jjoint
of view of a sour and precise Puritanism, or the more elevated
point of a rational and large faith in progress. "Wise men are
like Burke, who did not know how to draw an indictment
against a whole nation. They do not know how to think
nothing but iU of a whole generation, that lifted up its voice in
heartfelt complaint and wailing against the conceptions, forms,
and rulers, human and divine, of a society that the inward faith
had abandoned, but which clung to every outward ordinance ;
which only remembered that man had property, and forgot
that he had a spirit. This is the complaint that rings through
Byron's verse. It was this complaint that lay deep at the
bottom of the Hevolution, and took form in every possible kind
of protest, from a dishevelled neckcloth up to a profession of
atheism. Byron elaborated the common emotion, as the


earliest modern poets elaborated the common speecli. lie gave
it inflections, and distinguished its moods, and threw over it an
air of system and coherency, and a certain goodly and far-
reaching sonorousness. This is the usual function of the
spiritual leader, who leaves in bulk no more in the minds of
those whom he attracts than he found, but he leaves it arti-
culate with many sounds, and vivid with the consciousness of
a multitude of defined impressions.

That the whole movement, in spite of its energy, was crude,
unscientific, virtually abortive, is most true. That it was pre-
sided over by a false conception of nature as a benign and
purifjdng power, while she is in truth a stern force to be
tamed and mastered, if society is to hold together, cannot be
denied of the revolutionary movement then, any more than it
can be denied of its sequels now. Nor need we overlook its
fundamental error of tracing half the misfortunes and woes of
the race to that social union, to which we are really indebted
for all the happiness we know, including even this dignifying
sensibility of the woes of the race ; and the other half to a
fictitious entity styled destiny, j)laced among the nethermost
gods, which would be more rightly regarded as the infinitely
modifiable influence exercised by one generation of ourselves
upon those that follow.

Every one of these faults of thought is justly chargeable to
Byron. They were deeply inherent in the Revolution. They
coloured thoughts abovit government, about laws, about morals.
They efiected a transformation of religion, but, resting on no
basis of philosophical acceptance of history, the transformation
was only temporary. They spread a fantastic passion, of which
Byron was himself an example and a victim, for extraordinary
outbreaks of a peculiar kind of material activity, that met the
exigencies of an imperious will, while it had not the irksome-

270 btro:jt.

ness of the self-control whicli would have exercised the will to
more permanent profit. They destroyed faith in order, natural
or social, actual or potential, and substituted for it an enthu-
siastic assertion of the claims of the individual to make his
passions, aspirations, and convictions, a final and decisive law.

Such was the moral state which Byron had to render and
interpret. His relation to it was a relation of exact sympathy.
He felt the force of each of the many currents that united in
one destructive stream, wildly overflowing the fixed banks, and
then, when it had overflowed, often, it must be confessed, stag-
nating in lazy, brackish pools, while new tributaries began to
flow in together from far other quarters. The list of his poems
is the catalogue of the elements of the revolutionary spirit.
For of what manner is this spirit ? Is it not a masterful and
impatient yearning after many good things, unsubdued and
uninformed either by a just knowledge of the time, and the
means which are needed to bring men the fruits of their hope,
or by a fit appreciation of orderly and tranquil activity for the
common service, as the normal type of the individual life ?
And this is precisely the temper and the spirit of Byron.
Nowhere else do we see drawn in such traits that colossal
figure, which has haunted Europe these four-score years and
more, with its new-born passion, its half-controlled will, its
constant cry for a multitude of unknown blessings under the
single name of freedom, the one known and unadulterated word
of blessing. If only truth, which alone of words is essentially
divine and sacrosanct, had been the chief talisman of the Hevo-
lution, the movement would have been very different from that
which we know. But to claim this or that in the name of
truth, would have been to borrow the language which priests
and presbyters, Dominic and Calvin, had covered thick with
hateful associations. Freedom, after all, was the next best

BYRON. 271

thing, for it is an indispensable condition of tlie best of all ; but
it could not lead men until the spirit of truth, which means
science in the intellectual order, and justice in the social order,
had joined company with it.

So there was violent action in politics, and violent and
excessive stimulation in literature, the positive effects of the
force moved in each sphere being deplorably small in pro-
portion to the intense moral energy which gave the impulse.
In literature the straining for mental liberty was the more
futile of the two, because it expressed the ardent and hopeless
longing of the individual for a life, which we may perhaps best
call life unconditioned. And this unconditioned life, which
the Byronic hero vainly seeks, and not finding, he fills the
world with stormy complaint, is least of all likely to offer itself
in any approximate form to men penetrated with gross and
egotistical passions to their inmost core. The Byronic hero
went to clasp repose in a frenzy. All crimson and aflame with
passion, he groaned for evening stillness. He insisted on being
free, in the corroding fetters of resentment and scorn for men.
Conrad sought balm for disappointment of spirit in vehement
activity of body. Manfred represents the confusion common to
the type, between thirst for the highest knowledge and proud
violence of unbridled will. Harold is held in a middle way of

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 21 of 29)