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poetic melancholy, equally far from a speechless despair and
from gay and reckless licence, by contemplation of the loveli-
ness of external nature, and the great exploits and perishing
monuments of man in the past ; but he, equally with the others,
embodies the paradoxical hope that angry isolation and fretful
estrangement from mankind are equivalent to emancipation from
their pettiness, instead of being its very climax and demon-
stration. As if freedom of soid could exist without orderly
relations of intelligence and partial acceptance between a man

272 BYRON.

and the sum of surrounding circumstances. That universal
protest which rings through Byron's work with a plangent
resonance, very different from the whimperings of punier men,
is a proof that so far from being free, one's whole being is
invaded and laid waste. It is no ignoble mood, and it was a
most inevitable product of the mental and social conditions of
western Europe at the close of the eighteenth century. Ever-
lasting protest, impetuous energy of will, melancholy and
despondent reaction ; вАФ this is the revolutionary course. Cain
and Conrad ; then Manfred and Lara and Harold.

In studying that portion of the European movement, which
burst forth into flame in France between the fall of the Bastille
and those fatal days of Vendemiaire, Fructidor, Floreal,
Brumaire, in which the explosion came convulsively to its end,
we seem to see a microcosm of the Byronic epos. The succes-
sion of moods is identical. Overthrow, rage, intense material
energy, crime, profound melancholy, half-cynical dejection.
The Revolution was the battle of Will against the social forces
of a dozen centuries. Men thought that they had only to will
the freedom and happiness of a world, and all nature and
society would be plastic before their daring, as clay in the
hands of the potter. They could only conceive of failure as
another expression for inadequate will. Is not this one of the
notes of Byron's Ode on the fall of Bonaparte ? ' L'audace,
I'audace, et toujours l'audace.' If Danton could have read
Byron, he woiild have felt as one in front of a magician's glass.
Every passion and fit, from the bloody days of September down
to the gloomy walks by the banks of the Aube, and the prison-
cry that ' it were better to be a poor fisherman than to meddle
with the governing of men,' would have found itself there. It
is true that in Byron we miss the firmness of noble and generous

BYRON. 273

hope. This makes him a more veritable embodiment of the
Revolution than such a precursor as Rousseau, in whom were
all the unclouded anticipations of a dawn, that opened to an
obscured noon and a tempestuous night. Yet one knows not,
in truth, how much of that violence of will and restless activity
and resolute force was due less to confidence, than to the urgent
necessity which every one of us has felt, at some season and some influence, of filling up spiritual vacuity by energetic
material activity. "Was this the secret of the mysterious
charm that scenes of violent strife and bloodshed always had
for Byron's imagination, as it was perhaps the secret of the
black transformation of the social faith of '89 into the worship
of the Conqueror of '99 ? Nowhere does Byron's genius show
so much of its own incomparable fire and energy, nor move
with such sympathetic firmness and amplitude of pinion, as in
Lara, the Corsair, Harold, and other poems, where ' Red Battle
stamps his foot,' and where

The Giant on the mountain stands,
His blood-red tresses deep'ning in the sun,
"With death-shot glowing in his fiery hands,
And eye that scorcheth all it glows upon.

Yet other and intrinsically nobler passages, where this splendid
imaginative energy of the sensations is replaced by the calmer
glow of social meditation, prove that Byron was penetrated
with the distinctively modern scorn and aversion for the military
spirit, and the distinctively modern conviction of its being the
most deadly of anachronisms. Such indirect satisfaction to the
physical energies was to him, as their direct satisfaction was to
the disillusioned France of '99, the relief demanded by a
powerful nature for the impotence of hope and vision.

However this may have been, it may be confessed that
Byron presents less of the flame of his revolutionary prototypes,

274 BYRON.

and too much of the aslies. He came at the end of the experi-
ment. But it is only a question of proportion. The ashes
belong as much and as necessarily to the methods of the
Revolution, in that phase, as do the blaze, that first told men of
possible light and warmth, and the fire, which yet smoulders
with abundant life underneath the grey cinders. And we have
to remember that Byron came in the midst of a reaction ; a
reaction of triumph for the partisans of darkness and obstruc-
tion, who were assured that the exploded fragments of the old
order would speedily grow together again, and a reaction of
despondency for those who had filled themselves with illimit-
able and peremptory hopes. Silly Byronical votaries, who
only half understood their idol, and loved him for a gloom, that
in their own case was nothing but a graceful veil for selfishness
and mental indolence, saw and felt only the melancholy con-
clusion, and had not travelled a yard in the burning path that
led to it. They hugged Conrad's haughty misery, but they
would have trembled at the thought of Conrad's perilous
expedition. They were proud despondent Laras after their
manner, ' lords of themselves, that heritage of woe,' but the
heritage would have been still more unbearable, if it had in-
volved Lara's bodily danger.

This shallowness has no part in Byron himself. His
weariness was a genuine outcome of the influence of the time
upon a character consumed by passion. His lot was cast among
spent forces, and, while it is no hyperbole to say that he was
himself the most enormous force of his time, he was only half
conscious of this, if indeed he did not always inwardly shrink
from crediting his own power and strength, as so many strong
men habitually do, in spite of noisy and perpetual self-assertion.
Conceit and presumption have not been any more fatal to the
world, than the waste which comes of great men failing in their

BYRON. ~ /

hearts to recognise how great they are. Many a man whose
affectations and assumptions are a proverb, has lost the mag-
nificent virtue of simplicity, for no other reason than that he
needed courage to take his own measure, and so finally confirm
to himself the reality of his pretensions. With Byron, as with
some of his prototypes among the men of action in France and
elsewhere, theatrical ostentation, excessive self-consciousness,
extravagant claims, cannot hide from us that their power was
secretly drained by an ever-present distrust of their own aims,
their own methods, even of the very results they seemed to
have achieved.

This difladence was an inseparable consequence of the vast
predominance of exalted passion over reflection, which is one
of the revolutionary marks. Byron was fundamentally and sub-
stantially, as has been already said, one of the most rational of
men. Hence when the passionate fit grew cold, as it always
does in temperaments so mixed, he wanted for perfect strength
a justification in thought. There are men whose being is so
universally possessed by phantasies, that they never feel this
necessity of reconciling the visions of excited emotion with the
ideas of ordered reason. Byron was more vigorously con-
stituted, and his susceptibility to the necessity of this recon-
ciliation combined, with his inability to achieve it, to produce
that cynicism which the simple charity of vulgar ojainion
attributes to the possession of him by unclean devils. It was
his refuge, as it sometimes is with smaller men, from the
disquieting confusion which was caused by the disproportion
between his visions and aspirations, and his intellectual means
for satisfying himself seriously as to their true relations and
substantive value. Only the man arrives at practical strength
who is convinced, whether rightly or wrongly, that he knows
all about his own ideas that needs to be known. Byron never

276 BYRON.

did thus know himself, either morally or intellectually. The
higher part of him was consciously dragged down by the
degrading reminiscence of the brutishness of his youth and its
connections and associations, which hung like miasma over his
spirit. He could not rise to that subKmest height of moral
fervour, when a man intrepidly chases from his memory past
evil done, suppresses the recollection of old corruptions, declares
that he no longer belongs to them nor they to him, and is not
frightened by the past from a firm and lofty respect for present
dignity and worth. It is a good thing thus to overthrow the
tyranny of the memory, and to cast out the body of our dead
selves. That Byron never attained this good, though he was
not unlikely to have done so, if he had lived longer, does not
prove that he was too gross to feel its need, but it explains a
moral weakness, which has left a strange and touching mark
on some of his later works.

So in the intellectual order, he knew too much in one sense,
and in another too little. The strong man is not conscious of
gaps and cataclysms in the structure of his belief, or else he
woidd in so far instantly cease to be strong. One living, as
Byron emphatically did, in the truly modern atmosphere, was
bound by all the conditions of the atmosphere to have mastered
what we may call the natural history of his own. ideas and
convictions ; to know something of their position towards fact
and outer circumstance and possibility ; above all to have some
trusty standard for testing their value, and assuring himself
that they do really cover the field which he takes them to cover.
People with a faith and people living in frenzy are equally
under this law ; but they take the completeness and coherency
of their doctrine for granted. Byron was not the prey of
habitual frenzy, and he was without a faith. That is to say,
he had no firm basis for his conceptions, and he was aware that



lie had none. The same unrest which drove men of that epocli
to Nature, haunted them to the end, because they had no
systematic conception of her working, and of human relations
with her. In a word, there was no science. Byron was a
warm admirer of the genius and art of Goethe, yet he never
found out the central secret of Goethe's greatness, his luminous
and coherent positivity. This is the crowning glory of the
modern spirit, and it was the lack of this, which went so far to
neutralise Byron's hold of the other chief characteristics of that
spirit, its freedom and spaciousness, its humaneness and wide
sociality, its versatility and manysidedness, and passionate
feeling for the great natural forces.

This positivity is the cardinal condition of strength for
times when theology lies in decay, and the abstractions which
gradually replaced the older gods have in their turn ceased to
satisfy the intelligence and mould the will. All competent
persons agree that it is the first condition of the attainment of
scientific truth. Nobody denies that men of action find in it
the first law of successful achievement in the material oi'der.
Its varied but always superlative power in the region of aesthetics
is only an object of recent recognition, though great work
enough has been done in past ages by men whose recognition
was informal and inexpress. It is plain that, in the different
classes of aesthetic manifestation, there will be difierences in
objective shape and colour, corresponding to the varied limits
and conditions of the matter with which the special art has to
deal ; but the critic may expect to find in all a profound unity
of subjective impression, and that, the impression of a self-
sustaining order and a self-sufficing harmony among all those
faculties and parts and energies of universal life, which come
within the idealising range of art. In other words, the cha-


racteristically modern inspiration is the inspiration of law.
The regulated play of forces shows itself as fit to stir those
profound emotional impulses which wake the artistic soul, as
ever did the gracious or terrible gods of antique or middle
times. There are glories in Turner's idealisation of the energies
of matter, which are at least as nobly imaginative and elevated,
in spite of the conspicuous absence of the hmnan element in
them, as the highest products of the artists who believed that
their work was for the service and honour of a deity.

It is as mistaken to suppose that this conviction of the
supremacy of a cold and self-sustained order in the universe is
fatal to emotional expansion, as it would be to suppose it fatal
to intellectual curiosity. Experience has shown in the scientific
sphere, that the gradual withdrawal of natural operations from
the grasp of the imaginary volitions of imaginary beings has
not tamed, but greatly stimulated and fertilised, scientific
curiosity as to the conditions of these operations. Why should
it be otherwise in the aesthetic sphere ? Why should all that
part of our mental composition which responds to the beautiful
and imaginative expression of real truths, be at once inflamed
and satisfied by the thought that our whole lives, and all the
movements of the universe, are the objects of the inexplicable
caprice of Makers who are also Desti'oyers, and yet grow cold,
apathetic, and unproductive, in the shadow of the belief that
we can only know ourselves as part of a stupendous and inexor-
able succession of phenomenal conditions, moving according to
laws, that may be formulated positively, but not interpreted
morally, to new destinies that are eternally unfathomable ?
Why should this conception of a coherent order, free from the
arbitrary and presumptuous stamp of certain final causes, be
less favourable, either to the ethical or the aesthetic side of
human nature, than the older conception of the regulation of


tbe course of the great scries by a multitiule of intrinsically
meaningless and purposeless volitions ? The alertness of our
sensations for all sources of outer beauty remains unimpaired.
The old and lovely attitude of devout service does not pass
away to leave vacancy, but is transformed into a yet more
devout obligation and service towards creatures that have only
their own fellowship and mutual ministry to lean upon ; and if
we miss something of the ancient solace of special and personal
protection, the loss is not unworthily made good by the growth
of an imperial sense of participation in the common movement
and equal destination of eternal forces.

To have a mind penetrated with this spiritual persuasion, is
to be in full possession of the highest strength that man can
attain. It springs from a scientific and rounded interpretation
of the facts of life, and is in a harmony, which freshly found
truths only make more ample and elaborate, with all the con-
clusions of the intellect in every order. The active energies
are not paralysed by the possibilities of enfeebling doubt, nor
the reason drawn down and stultified by apprehension lest its
methods should discredit a document, or its inferences clash
with a dogma, or its light flash unseasonably on a mystery.
There is none of the baleful distortion of hate, because evil and
wrong-doing and darkness are acknowledged to be effects of
causes, sums of conditions, terms in a series ; they are to be
brought to their end, or weakened and narrowed, by right action
and endeavour, and this endeavour does not stagnate in anti-
pathy, but concentrates itself in transfixing a cause. In no
other condition of the spirit than this, in which firm acquiescence
mingles with valorous efibrt, can a man be so sure of raising a
calm gaze and an enduring brow to the cruelty of circumstance.
The last appalling stroke of annihilation itself is measured with
purest fortitude by one, whose religious contemplation dwells

280 BYKON.

most habitually upon tlie sovereignty of obdurate laws in the
vast revolving circle of physical forces, on the one hand, and,
on the other, upon that moral order which the vision and pity of
good men for their fellows, guiding the spontaneous energy of
all men in strife with circumstance, have raised into a structure
sublimer and more amazing than all the majesty of outer nature.

In Byron's time the pretensions of the two possible answers
to the great and eternally open questions of God, Immortality,
and the like, were independent of that powerful host of inferences
and analogies, which the advance of physical discovery, and the
establishment of a historical order, have since then brought into
men's minds. The direct aggressions of old are for the most
part abandoned, because it is felt that no fiercest polemical
cannonading can drive away the impalpable darkness of error,
but only the slow and silent presence of the dawning truth.
Cain remains, a stern and lofty statement of the case against
that theological tradition, which so outrages, where it has not
already too deeply depraved, the conscience of civilised man.
Yet every one who is competent to judge, must feel how
infinitely more free the mind of the poet would have been, if
besides this just and holy rage, most laudable in its kind, his
intellectual equipment had been ample enough and precise
enough to have taught him, that all the conceptions that races
of men have ever held, either about themselves or their deities,
have had a source in the permanently useful instincts of human
nature, are capable of explanation, and of a historical justifica-
tion ; that is to say, of the kind of justification which is, in itself
and of its o^vn force, the most instant destruction to what has
grown to be an anachronism.

Byron's curiously marked predilection for dramatic com-
position, not merely for dramatic poems, as Manfred or Cain,


but for genuine plays, as 3Tarino FaUero, Werner, the Two
Foscari, was the only sign of his approach to the historic or
positive spirit. Dramatic art, in its purest modern conception,
is genuinely positive ; that is, it is the presentation of action,
character, and motive, in a self-sufficing, and self-evolving
order. There are no final causes, and the first moving elements
are taken for granted to begin with. The dramatist creates,
but it is the climax of his work to appear to stand absolutely
apart and unseen, while the play unfolds itself to the spectator,
just as the greater drama of physical phenomena unfolds itself
to the scientific observer, or as the order of recorded history
extends in natiu-al process imder the eye of the political philo-
sopher. Partly, no doubt, the attraction which dramatic form
had for Byron is to be explained by that revolutionary thirst
for action, of which we have already sj)oken ; but partly also it
may well have been due to Byron's rudimentary and un-
suspected affinity with the more constructive and scientific side
of the modern spirit.

His idea of Nature, of which something has been already
said, pointed in the same direction ; for, although he made an
abstraction and a goddess of her, and was in so far out of the
right modern way of thinking about these outer forces, it is to
be remembered, that, while this dominant conception of Nature
as introduced by Rousseau and others into politics was most
mischievous and destructive, its place and worth in poetry are
very difierent ; because here in the region of the imagination it
had the efiect, without any pernicious practical consequences,
of giving shape and proportion to that great idea of Ensemble
throughout the visible universe, which may be called the
beginning and fountain of right knowledge. The conception
of the relationship of the different parts and members of the
vast cosmos was not aoccssiblc to Byron, as it is to a later



generation, but liis constant appeal, in season and out of season,
to all the life and movement that surrounds man, implied and
promoted the widest extension of consciousness of the whole-
ness and community of natural processes.

There was one very manifest evil consequence of the hold,
which this idea in its cruder shape gained over Byron and his
admirers. The vastness of the material universe, as they con-
ceived and half adored it, entirely overshadowed the principle
of moral duty and social obligation. The domestic sentiment,
for example, almost disappears in those works which made
Byron most popular, or else it only appears, to be banished with
reproach. This is quite in accordance with the revolutionary
sjjirit, which was in one of its most fundamental aspects a
revolt on behalf of unconditioned individual rights, and against
the family. If we accept what seems to be the fatal law of
progress, that excess on one side is only moderated by a nearly
corresponding excess of an opposite kind, the Byronic disso-
lution of domestic feeling was not entirely without justification.
There is probably no uglier growth of time than that mean and
poor form of domesticity, which has always been too apt to
fascinate the English imagination, ever since the last great
effort of the Rebellion, and which rose to the climax of its
j)opularity when the mad and malignant George iii. won all
hearts by living like a farmer. Instead of the fierce light
beating about a throne, it played lambently upon a sty. And
the nation who admired, imitated. When the Regent came,
and with him that coarse profligacy which has alternated with
cloudy insipidity in the annals of the line, the honest part of the
world, out of antipathy to the son, was driven even further
into domestic sentimentality of a greasy kind, than it had gone
from affection for the sire.

BYRON. 'i83

Byron helped to clear the air of this. His fire, his lofty
spaciousness of outlook, his spirited interest in great national
causes, his romance, and the passion both of his animosity and
his sympathy, acted for a while like an electric current, and
every one within his influence became ashamed to barter the
large heritage of manhood, with its many realms and illimitable
interests, for the sordid ease of the hearth and the good word
of the unworthy. He fills men with thoughts that shake dovm.
the unlovely temple of comfort. This was good, to force who-
ever was not already too far sunk into the mire, high uj) to the
larger atmosphere, whence they could see how minute an atom
is man, how infinite and blind and pitiless the might that
encompasses his little life. Many feeble spirits ran back home-
wards from the horrid solitudes and abysses of Manfred, and the
moral terrors of Cain, and even the despair of Ilaro/d, and,
burying themselves in warm domestic places, were comforted
by the familiar restoratives and appliances. Firmer souls were
not onlj^ exhilarated, but intoxicated by the potent and un-
accustomed air. They went too far. They made war on the
family, and the idea of it. Everything human was mis-
chievously dwarfed, and the difference between right and
wrong, between gratification of appetite and its control for
virtue's sake, between the acceptance and the evasion of clear
obligation, all became invisible or of no account in the new
light. That constancy and permanence, of which the family is
the type, and which is the first condition alike of the stability
and progress of society, was obliterated from thought. As if
the wonders that have been wrought by this regulated con-
stancy of the feeling of man for man in transforming human
life, were not far more transcendently exalting, than the con-
templation of those glories of brute nature, which arc barbaric
in comparison.

284 BYRON.

It would be mijust not to admit, tliat there are abundant
passages in bis poems of too manifest depth and sincerity of
feeling, for us to suppose that Byron himself was dead to the
beauty of domestic sentiment. The united tenderness and
dignity of Faliero's words to Angiolina, before he goes to the
meeting of the conspirators, would, if there were nothing else,
be enough to show how rightly, in his better moods, the poet
apj)reciated the conditions of the family. Unfortunately the
better moods were not fixed, and we had Don Juan, where the
wit and colour and power served to make an anti- social and
licentious sentiment attractive to puny creatures, who were
thankful to have their lasciviousness so gaily adorned. As for
Great Britain, she deserved Bon Juan. A nation, whose dis-
respect for all ideas and aspirations that cannot be supported

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 22 of 29)