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by a text, nor circulated by a religious tract society, was
systematic, and where consequently the understanding is least
protected against sensual sophisms, received no more than a
just chastisement in 'the literature of Satan.' Here again, in
the licence of this literature, we see the finger of the Revo-
lution, and of that egoism which makes the passions of the
individual his own law. Let us condemn and pass on, homily
undelivered. If Byron injured the domestic idea on this side,
let us not fail to observe how vastly he elevated it on others,
and how, above all, he pointed to the idea above and beyond it,
in whose light only can that be worthy, the idea of a country
and a public cause. A man may be sure that the comfort of
the hearth has usurped too high a place, when he can read
without response the lines declaring that domestic ties must
yield in ' those who are called to the highest destinies, which
purify corrupted commonwealths.'

We must forget all feelings save the one, —
We must resign all passions save our purpose, —

BYRON. 28o

We must boliold no object save our country, —

And only look on death as beautiful,

So that the sacrifice ascend to heaven

And draw down freedom on her evermore.

Calendaro. But if we fail

/. Bertuccio They never fail who die

In a great cause : the block may soak their goro ;

Their heads may sodden in the sun ; their limbs

Be strung to city gates and castle walls —

But still their spirit walks abroad. Though years

Elapse, and others share as dark a doom.

They but augment the deep and sweeping thoughts

Which overpower all others, and conduct

The world at last to freedom. What«were we

If Brutus had not lived ? He died in giving

Eome liberty, but left a deathless lesson —

A name which is a virtue, and a soul

Which multiplies itself throughout all time,

When wicked men wax mighty, and a state

Turns servile.

And tlie man wlio wrote this was worthy to play an even
nobler part than the one he had thus nobly described ; for it
was not many years after, that Byron left all, and laid down his
life, for the emancipation of a strange land, and ' Greece and Italy
wept for his death, as it had been that of the noblest of their
own sons.' Detractors have done their best to pare away the
merit of this act of self-renunciation by attributing it to de-
spair. That contemporaries of their own humour had done
their best to make his life a load to him is true, yet to this
talk of despair we may reply in the poet's own words,

When we know
All that can come, and how to meet it, our
Resolves, if firm, may merit a more noble
Word than this, to give it utterance.

There was an estimate of the value and purpose of a human
life, which our Age of Comfort may fruitfully ponder.

286 BYllON.

To fix upon violent will and incessant craving for move-
ment as the mark of a poet, whose contemporaries adored him
for what they took to be the musing sweetness of his melan-
choly, may seem a critical perversity. There is, however, a
momentous difference between that melancholy, which is as the
mere shadow projected by a man's spiritual form, and that
other melancholy, which itself is the reality and substance of a
character ; between the soul to whom dejection brings graceful
relief after labour and effort, and the soul which by irresistible
habit and constitution dwells ever in Golgotha. This deep and
penetrating subjective melancholy had no possession of Byron.
His character was essentially objective, stimulated by outward
circumstance, moving to outward harmonies, seeking colour
and image and purpose from without. Hence there is
inevitably a certain liveliness and animation, even when he is
in the depths. "We feel that we are watching clouds sweep
majestically across the sky, and, even when they are darkest,
blue interspaces are not far off. Contrast the moodiest parts of
Childe Harold or of Cain, with Novalis's Night Hymns. Byron's
gloom is a mere elegance in comparison. The one pipes to us
with a graceful despondency on the edge of the gulf, while the
other carries us actually down into the black profound, with
no rebellious cry nor shriek of woe, but sombrely awaiting the
deliverance of death, with soid absorbed and consumed by
weariness. Let the reader mark the note of mourning struck
in the opening stanzas, for instance, of Novalis's Longing after
Death} their simplicity, homeliness, transparent sincerity, and

(1) The Sehnsucht nach dem Tode opens thus: —

Hinunler in der Erde Schooss,

Weg aus des Lichtes Reichen !

Der Schmerzen Muth und wilder Stoss

1st froher Abfahrt Zeichen !

Wir kommen in dem engen Kahn

Geschwind am Himmelsufer an.

BYRON. 287

then turn to any of the familiar passages, where Byron medi-
tates on the good things which the end brings to men. IIow
artificial he seems, and unseasonably ornate, and how conscious
of his public. In the first, we sit sadly on the ground in some
veritable Place of a Skull ; in the second, we assist at tragical
distress after the manner of the Italian opera. We should be
disposed to call the first a peculiarly German quality, until we
remember Pascal. With Novalis, or with Pascal, as with all
those whom character, or the outer fates, or the two together,
have drawn to dwell in the valley of the shadow, gloom and
despondency are the very stufi" of their thoughts. Material
energy could have done nothing for them. Their nerves and
sinews were too nearly cut asunder. To know the quality of
Byron's melancholy, and to recognise how little it was of the
essence of his character, we have only to consider how far
removed he was from this condition. In other words, in spite
of morbid manifestations of one sort and another, he always
preserved a salutary and vivid sympathy for action, and a
marked capacity for it.

It was the same impetuous and indomitable spirit of eflPort
which moved Byron to his last heroic exploit, that made the

Gelobt sey uns die ew'ge Nacht,

Gelobt der ew'ge Schlummer !

Wohl hat der Tag uns warm gemacht,

Und welk der lange Kummer.

Die Lust der Fremde ging uns aus.

Zum Vater woUen wir nach Haus.

Was sollen wir auf dieser Welt,

Mit uns'rer Lieb' und Treue ?

Das Alte wird hintangestellt ;

Was soil uns dann das Neue ?

O ! einsam steht und lief betriibt

Wer heiss und fromni die Vorzeit liebt.

i;s8 BYRON.

poetry inspired by it so powerful in Europe, from tlie deadly
days of tlie Holy Alliance onwards. Cynical and misanthro-
pical as lie has been called, as though that were his sum and
substance, he yet never ceased to glorify human freedom, in
tones that stirred the hearts of men and quickened their hope
and upheld their daring, as with the voice of some heavenly
trumpet. You may, if you choose, find the splendour of the
stanzas in the Fourth Canto on the Bourbon restoration, on
Cromwell, and Washington, a theatrical splendour. But for
all that, they touched the noblest parts of men. They are
alive with an exalted and magnanimous generosity, the one
high virtue which can never fail to touch a multitude. Subtlety
may miss them, graces may miss them, and reason may fly
over their heads, but the words of a generous humanity on the
lips of poet or chief have never failed to kindle divine music
in their breasts. The critic may censure, and culture may
wave a disdainful hand. As has been said, all such words
* are open to criticism, and they are all above it.' The magic
still works. It is as though some mysterious and potent word
from the gods had gone abroad over the face of the earth.

This larger influence was not impaired by Byron's ethical
poverty. The latter was an inevitable consequence of his
defective discipline. The triteness of his moral climax is
occasionally startling. When Sardanapalus, for instance, sees
Zarina torn from him, and is stricken with profound anguish at
the pain with which he has filled her life, he winds up with
such a platitude as this : —

To what gulfs
A single deviation from the track
Of human duties leaves even those who claim
The homage of mankind as their born due !

The baldest writer of hymns might work up passion enough for a

BYRON. 289

consummation like this. Once more, Byron was insufficiently
furnislied with positive intellectual ideas, and for want of these
his most exalted words were constantly left sterile of definite
and pointed outcome.

More than this, Bj-ron's passionate feeling for mankind was
narrowed by his failure to include in his conception the long
succession of generations, that stretch back into the past and
lie far on in the misty distances of the future. This was a
defect that his conception shares in common with that religion,
which, while sublimely bidding man to love his neighbour as
himself, yet leaves him in the profundity of a concentrated
regard for his own soul, to forget both sacred reverence for the
unseen benefactors of old time, and direct endeavour to be more
to the future, than even the benefactions of the past -have been
to him. No good man is without both these sentiments in
germ. But to be fully effective, they need to be fused together
into a single thought, completing that idea of humanity, which,
when imperfectly held, so constantly misleads men into short-
sighted action, effective only for the hour, and at the hour's
end turning to something worse than inefiective. Only he
stands aright, who from his little point of present possession
ever meditates on the far-reaching lines, which pass through
his point from one interminable starlight distance to another.
Neither the stoic pagan, nor the disciple of the creed which
has some of the peculiar weakness of stoicism and not all its
peculiar strength, could find Manfred's latest word untrue to
himself : —

The mind which is immortal makes itself
Requital for its good or evil thoughts —
Is its own origin of ill and end,
And its own place and time : its innate sense,
When stripped of this mortality, derives

290 BYRON. •

No colour from the fleeting things without :

But is absorbed in sufferance or joy,

Born from the knowledge of its own desert.

It is only wlien a man subordinates this absorption in indi-
vidual sufferance and joy to the thought that his life is a trust
for humanity, that he is sure of making it anything other than
* rain fallen on the sand.' In his own career Byron was loftier
than the individualism of his creed, and for this reason, though
he may have no place in our own Minster, he belongs to the
band of far-shining men, of whom Pericles declared the whole
world to be the tomb.


u 2


n^HE name of pliilosophy has been so habitually usurped for
speculation respecting the nature of knowledge, the limits
of the human understanding, the underlying substance of matter,
and all those other questions which lie within the domain of the
metaphysician, that men need to be reminded that, while all
these inquiries have been prosecuted with an amount of assi-
duity more than proportionate to their fruits, at the same time
thinkers have in all periods of intellectual activity been busy
upon inquiries of another kind, which belong equally to the
history of philosophy. No impulse which stirs mankind to
curiosity and speculation ever fails to communicate a general
movement, nor unless there be some violent interruption from
without, will this impulse suffer arrest, until it has made
itself felt at every point in the circle of the things which the
foremost men of every generation are in a state to think upon.
Thought moves along many grooves and with unequal rapidity,
but the stream never rises very high in one of these channels,
without something like a corresponding elevation in every
other. The curiosity of a generation once fully kindled, it
penetrates with more or less force throughout the whole sphere
of speculation.

In other words, every leading division of our knowledge
has its tradition ; and it would be the work of a historian of


human thought to trace the several threads that mark the
sometimes labyrinthine paths, along which the intelligence of
man has travelled, in exploring the material universe, in
unsealing the mysteries of his own being, and in investigating
the organisation and growth of societies. It would be found
that the last of these great divisions has a continuity in its
development, not less marked than that which philosophic
writers have abundantly traced in the other two. Here also,
in social philosophy, as in physical science, and as in philo-
sophy purely speculative, we mark progressive rectification of
method, and increasing breadth of conception, taking place in
obedience to the same force which stimulated and guided, and,
let us add, which limited, inquiry in metaj^hysics and natural
sciences ; the sum, namely, and totality of the intellectual con-
ditions of a period, in the society where at the time they
happened to be most favourable. Examination of the rela-
tions of matter, which are the object of the splendid and
dazzling group of physical sciences ; examination of the rela-
tions among the various intellectual faculties, and of their
relations to external things, which are the concern of mental
science ; examination of the relations of men in society, which
are the matter of social philosophy : in all three there has been
equally decisive if not equally systematic striving and endea-
vour of human thought, and if the last lags behind one, at any
rate, of the two others, the reason is to be found in its greater
complexity, its greater difficulty, consequently, and in the fact
that some of its fundamental truths depend for their verifica-
tion upon the advance of certain of the physical sciences.

The problems of metaphysics, and the more fruitful inves-
tigation of the relations of matter, have beyond doubt engaged
a far larger share of the attention of the foremost specula-
tive and philosophic intellects among Western nations since


Aristotle. We search the chronicle of political philosophy in
vain for such giants as Descartes or as Newton. In vain we seek
for specific, cardinal, and undying contributions to the pliilo-
sojihy of society, such as the great discoverers made to our
knowledge of the large working of the physical universe. For
this, as for every other fact in the history of thought, there
is an explanation ; and this, like every other characteristic of
the mental advance of the race, is to he accounted for. In the
first place, the great events of the physical world outside of our
own life are much more likely to strike the imagination and
fix the attention of early thinkers, than the complex and
scattered facts connected with society. The heavenly bodies
and the ocean, plants and animals, instantly impress their
awful order, their extreme regularity of change, rising and
setting, waxing and waning, ebbing and flowing, growing and
decaying, upon the first minds endowed with the fruitful bless-
ing of curiosity. Men first scrutinize the order and ponder the
laws of objects plainly and directly accessible to sense. 13 ut
society is invisible and impalpable to the untrained understand-
ing at all times ; to recognise it as an independent and adequate
object of philosophic contemplation is only possible, when a
certain progress has been made. Many steps must have been
taken in the path of accurate observation and curious interro-
gation, before we are likely to become aware of the existence of
the great social mechanism in which we are contained, to whose
operations we contribute momentimi and guidance, but which
controls the individual, and identifies itself with his life and
thoughts, to a point which makes him as insensible of its move-
ment apart from him, as he is unconscious of the motions of
the planet on which he is whirled through space.

The second consideration is, that those who were most
strongly drawn by the tendencies of their character towards


the subject of the organisation of society, whose intellectual
impulses were in the political direction at all, who were
interested enough in the relations of men in communities to
think deeply about them, were impelled by such tendencies
and such an interest into practical courses. In them they found
the most inviting, and, as it might seem to conscientious men,
the most fruitful, field for the development of their social feelings.
It is perfectly natural in itself, that anybody with a mind
strongly addicted to social subjects as themes for speculation
should be comparatively easily diverted from labour in the
speculative order, by claims on his practical capacity. When a
large political amelioration presents itself as within reach, one
must be more deeply committed to the passion for pure specula-
tion, than is at all desirable in the interests of mankind, to be
able to resist the opportunity of ajjplying theoretical principles,
and exemplifying social maxims. Burke is one familiar
instance, and his illustrious contemporary, Turgot, is another,
of this constantly exhibited conversion of political thinkers
into statesmen. The number of such withdrawals must un-
doubtedly be reckoned one of the causes, which have helped to
keep back the philosophy of society.

Thirdly, as has been frequently remarked within the last
half century, it was impossible that any adequate philosophy of
society should form itself, until the idea of succession or growth
in the history of societies had acquired some consistency, and
found a foot-hold in similar ideas, relative to other subjects,
which had come earlier into men's possession. Christianity
stamped into cuiTent belief the vital doctrine of the brother-
hood of men, but this elevating relationship seemed to be
virtually confined to a sense of the brotherhood of contempo-
raries. The Church, it is true, by instituting the practice of
canonising the supposed benefactors of the race, and in a less


degree, perhaps, by the habit of praying for the souls of the
departed, did something to propagate a sense of that wider
kinship which binds us not only to our brothers of to-day, but
also quite as closely to all our precursors. Still this was wholly
ineffectual as a contribution to a right doctrine of the succes-
sion of states of society, because religious teaching always
implied, as it mostly does now, a violent cataclysm between
j)agan and Christian times. Practically the brotherhood of
men came to mean the brotherhood of believing contemporaries,
where it was not even further narrowed within the brother-
hood of this or that believing sect ; and the theory at its best
only looked to the past of the Christian society, and took no
heed of the movements of the race outside of this, still less of
the possibility of this not being a final state of spiritual con-
viction. It is a remarkable example of the slowness with which
the truths of historical sequence make their way to men's
minds, that while habitually hearing about the fulfilment of
Hebrew prophecy in the person of Christ, and even deriving
an argument for the truth of their faith from this prophecy,
religious instructors have usually manifested the warmest dislike
for any attempt to trace Christianity historically to Judaical
development. It has been justly remarked that the success of
the historical sj)irit in the last century was ruined by- the con-
tempt, entertained by those most imbued with this spirit, for the
only record that coidd have really instructed them. It is just as
true that the great lesson of development and human progress,
which men might have learnt from Christianity as the nobler
product of Hebrew religious feeling, was hidden from the eyes
of all but one or two churchmen of rare capacity, like Bossuet,
for instance, by the universally entertained antipathy to look
upon Christianity as anything but a spontaneous and autoch-
thonic kind of product, unconnected with the past, and perma-


neiitly drawing a deep trencli between those who accepted it,
and all the rest of men, past, present, and to come. In this
way the idea of succession and growth was not only not
promoted, but was actually checked by Christian feeling.
It was not till astronomy and some of the other physical
sciences had marched far enough for men to have their atten-
tion drawn to the distance traversed since the earliest known
speculations, that the notion could come to be entertained of a
corresponding march, sequence, or continuity, in all those
other conceptions, sjDCCulative and scientific, by which the
order of the successive states of society is fixed.

But if these and other reasons help us to understand why
the systematic surveys of the various orders of physical facts,
and of the customs and nature of men, which are the object of
moral philosophy, should have been so much more numerous,
and aj)parently more thriving, it would be a great mistake to
suppose that in the field of social philosophy there is no
orderly progress to mark in the development of opinion, no
steps in speculation to measure, no succession of conceptions
and methods capable of appreciation and historic estimate.
The distance from Aristotle to Condorcet, from Plato to Mon-
tesquieu and Comte, in their general ideas as to the constitution
of political bodies, and in their method of approaching their
investigation, may be traced out, and described, and measured,
in the same way in which a historian of inductive science would
lead us from Ptolemy to Copernicus, Kepler and Newton, or a
historian of speculative philosophy from Thales or Xenophanes
to Hume and Kant.

Men have stumbled at the same place in consequence of
the same kind of infirmity in mental constitution ; the same
provisional explanations of the phenomena of society have been


accepted for final and absolute, and have eventually been super-
seded by other explanations, as the intellectual possessions of
mankind increased, and as the intellectual capital of the race
■went on accumulating, giving to each successive generation so
many more advantages in dealing with unexplored lauds, so
many improved implements, so many economising maxims of
an enlarged experience to start from. The erroneous kinds of
opinions which men have held with respect to the phenomena
classified as astronomical, chemical, physiological, and the rest,
have had their day also in the region of social phenomena, and
they have fallen here before the same processes of thought, which
slowly deprived them of credit elsewhere. People are ceasing
to accept a special act of divine creation, for example, as the
explanation of the origin of the diiierent species of animals ;
and they are ceasing to believe that a supernatural intervention
was needed to found human society, and to give men patterns
for their laws. Storms and earthquakes, again, are no longer
regarded as indicating the wrath of a supreme power against
the sufferers, but as the results of atmospheric and terrestrial
conditions ; and the decline and ruin of a conmiunity, instead
of being traced to the mysterious ill-will of the gods, are
sj'stematically traced to a violation, whether voluntarj^ or
inevitable, of those material, economical, and political conditions,
on which the prosperity of the community happened to depend.
The notions of Lightness, Heaviness, Vitality, as independent
and absolute qualities, have disappeared from one region ; and
the notion of an independent and absolute Law of Nature may
be said to have disappeared in another. Chemists no longer seek
the golden elixir, and social inquirers are content with some-
thing much below an ideal community, constituted after a single

Yet the errors are no more in one case than another to be


simply thrown aside with indolent disdain. They mark the
processes by which the sum of human knowledge has been
enlarged, and the power of our intellectual faculties strengthened.
Every set of opinions passes through the same stages ; and
the exemplification of this passage is in its own way as instruc-
tive and interesting, as the bare knowledge of the conclusions
at which in the various orders it has finally landed us. The
history of opinion is substantially single, though of many sides ;
it is the record, in all departments of thought, of the growth of

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 23 of 29)