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Title: Critical Miscellanies, Vol. I - Essay 3: Byron
Author: Morley, John, 1838-1923
Language: English
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  Byron's influence in Europe                                       203

  In England                                                        204

  Criticism not concerned with Byron's private life                 208

  Function of synthetic criticism                                   210

  Byron has the political quality of Milton and Shakespeare         212

  Contrasted with Shelley in this respect                           213

  Peculiarity of the revolutionary view of nature                   218

  Revolutionary sentimentalism                                      220

  And revolutionary commonplace in Byron                            222

  Byron's reasonableness                                            223

  Size and difficulties of his subject                              224

  His mastery of it                                                 224

  The reflection of Danton in Byron                                 230

  The reactionary influence upon him                                232

  Origin of his apparent cynicism                                   234

  His want of positive knowledge                                    235

  Æsthetic and emotional relations to intellectual positivity       236

  Significance of his dramatic predilections                        240

  His idea of nature less hurtful in art than in politics           241

  Its influence upon his views of duty and domestic sentiment       242

  His public career better than one side of his creed               245

  Absence of true subjective melancholy from his nature             246

  His ethical poverty                                               249

  Conclusion                                                        250


It is one of the singular facts in the history of literature, that the
most rootedly conservative country in Europe should have produced the
poet of the Revolution. Nowhere is the antipathy to principles and ideas
so profound, nor the addiction to moderate compromise so inveterate, nor
the reluctance to advance away from the past so unconquerable, as in
England; and nowhere in England is there so settled an indisposition to
regard any thought or sentiment except in the light of an existing
social order, nor so firmly passive a hostility to generous aspirations,
as in the aristocracy. Yet it was precisely an English aristocrat who
became the favourite poet of all the most high-minded conspirators and
socialists of continental Europe for half a century; of the best of
those, that is to say, who have borne the most unsparing testimony
against the present ordering of society, and against the theological and
moral conceptions which have guided and maintained it. The rank and file
of the army has been equally inspired by the same fiery and rebellious
strains against the order of God and the order of man. 'The day will
come,' wrote Mazzini, thirty years ago, 'when Democracy will remember
all that it owes to Byron. England, too, will, I hope, one day remember
the mission--so entirely English yet hitherto overlooked by her--which
Byron fulfilled on the Continent; the European rôle given by him to
English literature, and the appreciation and sympathy for England which
he awakened amongst us. Before he came, all that was known of English
literature was the French translation of Shakespeare, and the anathema
hurled by Voltaire against the "drunken savage." It is since Byron that
we Continentalists have learned to study Shakespeare and other English
writers. From him dates the sympathy of all the true-hearted amongst us
for this land of liberty, whose true vocation he so worthily represented
among the oppressed. He led the genius of Britain on a pilgrimage
throughout all Europe.'[1]

[Footnote 1: See also George Sand's Preface to _Obermann_, p. 10. _'En
même temps que les institutions et les coutumes, la littérature anglaise
passa le détroit, et vint regner chez nous. La poésie britannique nous
révéla le doute incarné sous la figure de Byron; puis la littérature
allemande, quoique plus mystique, nous conduisit au même résultat par un
sentiment de rêverie plus profond.'_

The number of translations that have appeared in Germany since 1830
proves the coincidence of Byronic influence with revolutionary movement
in that country.]

The day of recollection has not yet come. It is only in his own country
that Byron's influence has been a comparatively superficial one, and its
scope and gist dimly and imperfectly caught, because it is only in
England that the partisans of order hope to mitigate or avoid the facts
of the Revolution by pretending not to see them, while the friends of
progress suppose that all the fruits of change shall inevitably fall, if
only they keep the forces and processes and extent of the change
rigorously private and undeclared. That intense practicalness which
seems to have done so many great things for us, and yet at the same
moment mysteriously to have robbed us of all, forbids us even to cast a
glance at what is no more than an aspiration. Englishmen like to be able
to answer about the Revolution as those ancients answered about the
symbol of another Revolution, when they said that they knew not so much
as whether there were a Holy Ghost or not. The same want of kindling
power in the national intelligence which made of the English Reformation
one of the most sluggish and tedious chapters in our history, has made
the still mightier advance of the moderns from the social system and
spiritual bases of the old state, in spite of our two national
achievements of punishing a king with death and emancipating our slaves,
just as unimpressive and semi-efficacious a performance in this country,
as the more affrontingly hollow and halt-footed transactions of the
sixteenth century.

Just because it was wonderful that England should have produced Byron,
it would have been wonderful if she had received any permanently deep
impression from him, or preserved a lasting appreciation of his work,
or cheerfully and intelligently recognised his immense force. And
accordingly we cannot help perceiving that generations are arising who
know not Byron. This is not to say that he goes unread; but there is a
vast gulf fixed between the author whom we read with pleasure and even
delight, and that other to whom we turn at all moments for inspiration
and encouragement, and whose words and ideas spring up incessantly and
animatingly within us, unbidden, whether we turn to him or no.

For no Englishman now does Byron hold this highest place; and this is
not unnatural in any way, if we remember in what a different shape the
Revolution has now by change of circumstance and occasion come to
present itself to those who are most ardent in the search after new
paths. An estimate of Byron would be in some sort a measure of the
distance that we have travelled within the last half century in our
appreciation of the conditions of social change. The modern rebel is at
least half-acquiescence. He has developed a historic sense. The most
hearty aversion to the prolonged reign of some of the old gods does not
hinder him from seeing, that what are now frigid and unlovely blocks
were full of vitality and light in days before the era of their
petrifaction. There is much less eagerness of praise or blame, and much
less faith in knife and cautery, less confidence that new and right
growth will naturally and necessarily follow upon demolition.

The Revolution has never had that long hold on the national imagination
in England, either as an idol or a bugbear, which is essential to keep
the poet who sings it in effective harmony with new generations of
readers. More than this, the Byronic conception was as transitional and
inadequate as the methods and ideas of the practical movers, who were to
a man left stranded in every country in Europe, during the period of his
poetic activity. A transitional and unstable movement of society
inevitably fails to supply a propulsion powerful enough to make its
poetic expression eternal. There is no better proof of the enormous
force of Byron's genius than that it was able to produce so fine an
expression of elements so intrinsically unfavourable to high poetry as
doubt, denial, antagonism, and weariness. But this force was no
guarantee for perpetuity of influence. Bare rebellion cannot endure, and
no succession of generations can continue nourishing themselves on the
poetry of complaint, and the idealisation of revolt. If, however, it is
impossible that Byron should be all to us that he was to a former
generation, and if we find no direct guidance in his muse, this is no
reason why criticism should pass him over, nor why there may not be
something peculiarly valuable in the noble freedom and genuine modernism
of his poetic spirit, to an age that is apparently only forsaking the
clerical idyll of one school, for the reactionary mediævalism or
paganism, intrinsically meaningless and issueless, of another.

More attention is now paid to the mysteries of Byron's life than to the
merits of his work, and criticism and morality are equally injured by
the confusion between the worth of the verse he wrote, and the virtue or
wickedness of the life he lived. The admirers of his poetry appear
sensible of some obligation to be the champions of his conduct, while
those who have diligently gathered together the details of an accurate
knowledge of the unseemliness of his conduct, cannot bear to think that
from this bramble men have been able to gather figs. The result of the
confusion has been that grave men and women have applied themselves to
investigate and judge Byron's private life, as if the exact manner of
it, the more or less of his outrages upon decorum, the degree of the
deadness of his sense of moral responsibility, were matter of minute and
profound interest to all ages. As if all this had anything to do with
criticism proper. It is right that we should know the life and manners
of one whom we choose for a friend, or of one who asks us to entrust him
with the control of public interests. In either of these two cases, we
need a guarantee for present and future. Art knows nothing of
guarantees. The work is before us, its own warranty. What is it to us
whether Turner had coarse orgies with the trulls of Wapping? We can
judge his art without knowing or thinking of the artist. And in the same
way, what are the stories of Byron's libertinism to us? They may have
biographical interest, but of critical interest hardly the least. If the
name of the author of _Manfred_, _Cain_, _Childe Harold_, were already
lost, as it may be in remote times, the work abides, and its mark on
European opinion. '_Je ne considère les gens après leur mort_,' said
Voltaire, '_que par leurs ouvrages; tout la reste est anéanti pour

There is a sense in which biographical detail gives light to criticism,
but not the sense in which the prurient moralist uses or seeks it. The
life of the poet may help to explain the growth and prominence of a
characteristic sentiment or peculiar idea. Knowledge of this or that
fact in his life may uncover the roots of something that strikes, or
unravel something that perplexes us. Considering the relations between a
man's character and circumstance, and what he produces, we can from this
point of view hardly know too much as to the personality of a great
writer. Only let us recollect that this personality manifests itself
outwardly in two separate forms, in conduct, and in literary production,
and that each of these manifestations is to be judged independently of
the other. If one of them is wholly censurable, the other may still be
the outcome of the better mind; and even from the purely biographical
aspect, it is a plain injustice to insist on identifying a character
with its worse expression only.

       *       *       *       *       *

Poetry, and not only poetry, but every other channel of emotional
expression and æsthetic culture, confessedly moves with the general
march of the human mind, and art is only the transformation into ideal
and imaginative shapes of a predominant system and philosophy of life.
Minor verse-writers may fairly be consigned, without disrespect, to the
region of the literature of taste; and criticism of their work takes the
shape of a discussion of stray graces, of new turns, of little
variations of shade and colour, of their conformity to the accepted
rules that constitute the technique of poetry. The loftier masters,
though their technical power and originality, their beauty of form,
strength of flight, music and variousness of rhythm, are all full of
interest and instruction, yet, besides these precious gifts, come to us
with the size and quality of great historic forces, for they represent
the hope and energies, the dreams and the consummation, of the human
intelligence in its most enormous movements. To appreciate one of these,
we need to survey it on every side. For these we need synthetic
criticism, which, after analysis has done its work, and disclosed to us
the peculiar qualities of form, conception, and treatment, shall collect
the products of this first process, construct for us the poet's mental
figure in its integrity and just coherence, and then finally, as the sum
of its work, shall trace the relations of the poet's ideas, either
direct or indirect, through the central currents of thought, to the
visible tendencies of an existing age.

The greatest poets reflect beside all else the broad-bosomed haven of a
perfect and positive faith, in which mankind has for some space found
shelter, unsuspicious of the new and distant wayfarings that are ever in
store. To this band of sacred bards few are called, while perhaps not
more than four high names would fill the list of the chosen: Dante, the
poet of Catholicism; Shakespeare, of Feudalism; Milton, of
Protestantism; Goethe, of that new faith which is as yet without any
universally recognised label, but whose heaven is an ever-closer harmony
between the consciousness of man and all the natural forces of the
universe; whose liturgy is culture, and whose deity is a certain high
composure of the human heart.

The far-shining pre-eminence of Shakespeare, apart from the incomparable
fertility and depth of his natural gifts, arises secondarily from the
larger extent to which he transcended the special forming influences,
and refreshed his fancy and widened his range of sympathy, by recourse
to what was then the nearest possible approach to a historic or
political method. To the poet, vision reveals a certain form of the
truth, which the rest of men laboriously discover and prove by the
tardier methods of meditation and science. Shakespeare did not walk in
imagination with the great warriors, monarchs, churchmen, and rulers of
history, nor conceive their conduct, ideas, schemes, and throw himself
into their words and actions, without strengthening that original taste
which must have first drawn him to historical subjects, and without
deepening both his feeling for the great progression of human affairs,
and his sympathy for those relative moods of surveying and dealing with
them, which are not more positive, scientific, and political, than they
may be made truly poetic.

Again, while in Dante the inspiring force was spiritual, and in Goethe
it was intellectual, we may say that both in Shakespeare and Milton it
was political and social. In other words, with these two, the drama of
the one and the epic of the other were each of them connected with ideas
of government and the other external movements of men in society, and
with the play of the sentiments which spring from them. We assuredly do
not mean that in either of them, least of all in Shakespeare, there is
an absence of the spiritual element. This would be at once to thrust
them down into a lower place; for the spiritual is of the very essence
of poetry. But with the spiritual there mixes in our Englishmen a most
abundant leaven of recognition of the impressions and impulses of the
outer forms of life, as well as of active sympathy with the every-day
debate of the world. They are neither of them inferior to the highest in
sense of the wide and unutterable things of the spirit; yet with both of
them, more than with other poets of the same rank, the man with whose
soul and circumstance they have to deal is the [Greek: politikon zôon],
no high abstraction of the race, but the creature with concrete
relations and a full objective life. In Shakespeare the dramatic form
helps partly to make this more prominent, though the poet's spirit
shines forth thus, independently of the mould which it imposes on
itself. Of Milton we may say, too, that, in spite of the supernatural
machinery of his greatest poem, it bears strongly impressed on it the
political mark, and that in those minor pieces, where he is avowedly in
the political sphere, he still rises to the full height of his majestic
harmony and noblest dignity.

Byron was touched by the same fire. The contemporary 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
_worldliness_, 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 difference of opinion upon it can only
spring from a more fundamental difference 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 intelligence,
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
_Prometheus_ or the _Cenci_, any more than Rubens may take his place
with Raphael? 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. Contrasting, 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 quite
distinct from the 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 _Prometheus_.

To perceive and admit this is not to disparage Byron's achievements. To
be most deeply penetrated with the differentiating 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 great course of human
events. All nature stirred him, except the consummating crown of natural

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. We 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,
unconsciously 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.'[2] 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, of which man may be but the fortuitous
manifestation of an hour.

[Footnote 2: Thoreau.]

Byron, on the other hand, is never moved by the strength of his passion
or the depth of his contemplation quite away from the round earth and
the civil animal who dwells upon it. Even his misanthropy is only an
inverted form of social solicitude. His practical zeal for good and
noble causes might teach us this. He never grudged either money or time
or personal 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 humoristic 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 our 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 inferior in keenness and in hold upon him to
his sense of human interest, and the superiority 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 æsthetic 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 reproduction 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, apart 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 stupendous parts, is but the background and theatre of the
tragedy of man.

We may find a secondary proof of this in the 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 sometimes takes us, without affixing 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 common troop. Byron 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 Rousseau 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 mistress and the consoler of
many men in these times. In the 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?'[3] It was not mere difference of temperament that made the
preacher of one age pass by in this marvellous unconsciousness, and the
singer of another burst forth into that tender 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 centuries 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.

[Footnote 3: Morison's _Life of St. Bernard_, p. 68 (2d edit.)]

The feeling was abnormal, and the method was fundamentally artificial. A
sentimentalism arose, which is in art what the metaphysical method is in
philosophy. Yet a literature 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 high-minded 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 impotence 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 possessed, how much fine colour and freshness of
feeling there is in _Réné_, what a sense of air and space in _Paul and
Virginia_, 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 pre-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 of giant
effort? '_C'est peu de chose_,' says Obermann, '_de n'être point comme
le vulgaire des hommes; mais c'est avoir fait un pas vers la sagesse,
que de n'être plus comme le vulgaire des sages_.' This penetrating
remark hits the difference between De Senancourt 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, Manfreds, Harolds, who present the fatal
trilogy, in which crime is middle term between debauch and satiety, that
forms the natural development 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 writers whose
words but half express the indefinable thoughts that inspired them, and
to whom we 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 speech and recover some portion of its imprisoned
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 reasonableness seems to watch over him,
even when he comes most dangerously 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 peculiarly 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 importance 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
plays 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 revolutionary welter, of vehement
activity without a purpose, boundless 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
abundantly 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 moorings.

It is idle to vituperate this anarchy, either from the point 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 ill 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 Revolution, 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 speech. He 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 articulate 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 presided
over by a false conception of nature as a benign and purifying 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, placed 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 about
government, about laws, about morals. They effected 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 exigences of an imperious will, while it had not the irksomeness
of the self-control which 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 enthusiastic 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, stagnating 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 to 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 fourscore 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 Revolution, 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 thing, for it is an indispensable condition of
the 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 proportion 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 poetic melancholy,
equally far from a speechless despair and from gay and reckless licence,
by contemplation of the loveliness 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 demonstration. As
if freedom of soul could exist without orderly relations of intelligence
and partial acceptance between a man 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. Everlasting protest, impetuous
energy of will, melancholy and despondent reaction;--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
Vendémiaire, Fructidor, Floréal, Brumaire, in which the explosion came
convulsively to its end, we seem to see a microcosm of the Byronic
epos. The succession 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, l'audace, et toujours l'audace._' If Danton could have read
Byron, he would 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 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 under 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, and too much of the ashes.
He came at the end of the experiment. 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 gray 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 obstruction, 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
illimitable 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 conclusion, 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 Laræs after
their manner, 'lords of themselves, that heritage of woe,' but the
heritage would have been still more unbearable, if it had involved
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
hearts to recognise how great they are. Many a man whose affectations
and assumptions are a proverb, has lost the magnificent 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 that they seem to have

This diffidence was an inseparable consequence of the vast predominance
of exalted passion over reflection, which is one of the revolutionary
marks. Byron was fundamentally and substantially, 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 constituted, and his
susceptibility to the necessity of this reconciliation combined with
his inability to achieve it, to produce that cynicism which the simple
charity of vulgar opinion 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 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; they hung like miasma over his spirit. He
could not rise to that sublimest 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 would 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
he had none. The same unrest which drove men of that epoch 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 many-sidedness 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 order. Its varied but always superlative power in the region of
æsthetics 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 æsthetic
manifestation, there will be differences 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 characteristically
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 human 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 æsthetic 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 Destroyers, and yet grow cold, apathetic, and unproductive,
in the shadow of the belief that we can only know ourselves as part of
the stupendous and inexorable 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 æsthetic side of human nature, than the
older conception of the regulation of the course of the great series by
a multitude 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 conclusions 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 antipathy, but concentrates itself in transfixing a cause.
In no other condition of the spirit than this, in which firm
acquiescence mingles with valorous effort, 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 most habitually
upon the 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 justification; that is to
say, of the kind of justification which is, in itself and of its own
force, the most instant destruction to what has grown to be an

Byron's curiously marked predilection for dramatic composition, not
merely for dramatic poems, as _Manfred_ or _Cain_, but for genuine
plays, as _Marino Faliero_, _Werner_, the _Two Foscari_, was the only
sign of his approach to the really 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 natural process
under the eye of the political philosopher. 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 spoken; but
partly also it may well have been due to Byron's rudimentary and
unsuspected 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 different; because here in the region of the imagination it had the
effect, 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 accessible to Byron, as it is to a
later generation, but his 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 wholeness 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 conceived 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 spirit,
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 dissolution 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 popularity when 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 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
down the unlovely temple of comfort. This was good, to force whoever was
not already too far sunk into the mire, high up 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 homewards from the horrid solitudes
and abysses of _Manfred_, and the moral terrors of _Cain_, and even the
despair of _Harold_, and, burying themselves in warm domestic places,
were comforted by the familiar restoratives and appliances. Firmer souls
were not only exhilarated, but intoxicated by the potent and
unaccustomed air. They went too far. They made war on the family, and
the idea of it. Everything human was mischievously 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 constancy of the feeling of man
for man in transforming human life were not far more transcendently
exalting than the contemplation of those glories of brute nature, which
are barbaric in comparison.

It would be unjust not to admit that there are abundant passages in his
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
appreciated 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 _Don Juan_. A nation,
whose disrespect for all ideas and aspirations that cannot be supported
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 Revolution, 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--
  We must behold 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----
    _I. Bertuccio._         They never fail who die
  In a great cause: the block may soak their gore;
  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
  Rome 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 the man who 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 despair. 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.

To fix upon violent will and incessant craving for movement as the mark
of a poet, whose contemporaries adored him for what they took to be the
musing sweetness of his melancholy, 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 soul 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 then
turn to any of the familiar passages where Byron meditates on the good
things which the end brings to men. How 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 stuff 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 effort which moved
Byron to his last heroic exploit, that made the poetry inspired by it so
powerful in Europe, from the deadly days of the Holy Alliance onwards.
Cynical and misanthropical as he 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. A mysterious and potent word from the gods has 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
consummation like this. Once more, Byron was insufficiently furnished
with positive intellectual ideas, and for want of these his most
exalted words were constantly left sterile of definite and pointed

Byron's passionate feeling for mankind included the long succession of
generations, that stretch back into the past and lie far on in the misty
distances of the future. No poet has had a more sublime sense of the
infinite melancholy of history; indeed, we hardly feel how great a poet
Byron was, until we have read him at Venice, at Florence, and above all
in that overpowering scene where the 'lone mother of dead empires'
broods like a mysterious haunting spirit among the columns and arches
and wrecked fabrics of Rome. No one has expressed with such amplitude
the sentiment that in a hundred sacred spots of the earth has

                        Fill'd up
  As 'twere, anew, the gaps of centuries;
  Leaving that beautiful which still was so,
  And making that which was not; till the place
  Became religious, and the heart ran o'er
  With silent worship of the great of old--
  The dead, but sceptred sovereigns, who still rule
  Our spirits from their urns.

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 star-light 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
  No colour from the fleeting things without:
  But is absorbed in sufferance of joy,
  Born from the knowledge of its own desert.

It is only when a man subordinates this absorption in individual
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 the last great episode of his own career Byron was as lofty as
the noblest side of his creed. The historic feeling for the unseen
benefactors of old time was matched by vehemence of sympathy with the
struggles for liberation of his own day. And for this, history will not
forget him. Though he may have no place in our own Minster, he assuredly
belongs to the band of far-shining men, of whom Pericles declared the
whole world to be the tomb.

*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Critical Miscellanies, Vol. I - Essay 3: Byron" ***

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