Lord Byron

Portret van Lord Byron

Hieronder het artikel uit Chambers’s cyclopædia of English Literature uit 1886 over Lord Byron.


Letter S

cott retreated from poetry into the wide and open field of prose fiction as the genius of Byron began to display its strenght and fertility. A new, or at least a more finished, newvous, and lofty style of poetry was introduced by the noble author, who was as much a mannerist as Scott, but of different school. He excelled in painting the strong and gloomy passions of our nature, contrasted with feminine softness and delicacy. Scott, intent upon the development of his plot, and the chivalrous machinery of his Gothic tales, is seldom personally present to the reader.

Byron delighted in selfportaiture. His philosophy of life was false and pernicious; but the splendour of the artist concealed the deformity of his design. Parts were so nobly finished, that there was enough for admiration to rest upon, without analysing the whole. He conducted his readers through scenes of surpassing beauty and splendour – by haunted streams and mountains, enriched with the glories of ancient poetry and valour; but the same dark shadow was ever by his side – the same scorn and mockery of human hopes and ambition. The sententious force and elevation of his thoughts and language, his eloquent expression of sentiment, and the mournful and solemn melody of his tender and pathetic passages, seemed, however, to do more than atone for his want of moral truth and reality.

The man and the poet were so intimately blended, and the spectacle presented by both was so touching, mysterious, and lofty, that Byron concentrated a degree of interest and anxiety on his successive public appearances, which no author ever before was able to boast.

Scott had created the public taste for animated poetry, and Byron, taking advantage of it, soon engrossed the whole field. For a few years it seemed as if the world held only one great poet. The chivalry of Scott, the philosophy of Wordsworth, the abstract theory and imagination of Southey, and even the lyrical beauties of Moore and Campbell, were for a time eclipsed by this new and greater light. The rank, youth, and misfortunes of Byron, his exile from England, the mystery which he loved to throw around the history and feelings, the apparent depth of his sufferings and attachments, and his very misanthropy and scepticism – relieved by bursts of tenderness and pity, and by the incidental expression of high and holy feelings – formes a combination of personal circumstances in aid of the legitimate effects of his passionate and graceful poetry, which is unparalleled in the history of modern literature.

Such a result is even more wonderful than the laurelled honours awarded to irgil and Petrarch, if we consider the difference between ancient and modern manners, and the temperament of the nortern nations compared with that of the „sunny south.” Has the spell yet broke? Has the glory faded into „the common light of the day?” Undoubttedly the later writings of the noble bard helped to dispel the illusion. To competent observers, these works added to the impression of Byron’s powers as an original poet, but they tended to exorcise the spirit of romance from his name and history; and what Don Juan failed to effect, was accomplished by the biography of Moore.

His poetry, however, must always have a powerful effect on minds of poetical and warm sensibilities. If it is a „rank unweeded garden,” it also contains glorious fruits and plants os celestial seed. The art of the poet will be a study for the ambitious few; his genius will be a source of wonder and delight to all who love to contemplate the workings of human passion, in solitude and society, and the rich effects of taste and imagination.

The incidents of Byron’s life may be briefly related. He was born on the 22d of January 1788, the only son of Captain John Byron of the Guards, and Catherine Gordon of Gight, an Aberdeenshire heiress. The lady’s fortune was soon squandered by her profligate husband, and she retired to the city of Aberdeen, to bring up her son on a reduced income of about £130 per annum. The little lame boy, endeared to all in spite of his mischief, succeeded his grand-uncle, William, Lord Byron, in his eleventh year; and the happy mother sold off het effects – which realised just £74, 17s. 4d – and left Aberdeen for Newstead Abbey.

The seat of the Byrons was a large and ancient, but dilapidated structure, founded as a priory in the twelfth century by Henry II., and situated in the midst of the fertile and interesting district once known as Sherwood Forest. On the dissolution of the monasteries, it was conferred by Henry VIII. on Sir John Byron, steward of Manchester and Rochdale, who converted the venerable convent into a castellated mansion. The family was ennobled by Charles I., in consequence of high and honourable services rendered to the royal cause during the Civil War. On succeeding to the title, Byron was put to a private school at Dulwich, and from thence he was sent to Harrow. During his minority, the estate was let to another party, but its youthful lord occasionally visited the seat of his ancestors; and whilst there in 1803, he conceived a passion for a young lady in the neighbourhood, who, under her name of MaryChaworth, has obtained a poetical immortality.

So early as his eighth year, Byron fell in love with a simple Scottish maiden, Mary Duff; and hearing of her marriage, several years afterwards, was, he says, like a thunder-stroke to him. He had also been captivated with a boyish love for his cousin, Margaret Parker, „one of the most beautiful of evanescent beings,” who died about a year or two afterwards. He was fifteen when he met Mary Chaworth, and „conceived an attachment which, young as he was even then for such felling, sunk so deep into his mind as to give a colour to all his future life.” The father of the lady had been killed in a duel by Lord Byron, the eccentric grand-uncle of the poet, and the union of the young peer with the heiress of Annesley Hall „would,” said Byron, „have healed feuds in which blood had been shed by our fathers; it would have joined lands broad and rich; it would have joint at least one heart, and two persons not ill-matched in years – she was two years my elder – and – and – and – what has been the result?”

Mary Chaworth saw little min the lame boy, and became the betrothed of another. They had one parting interview in the following year, which, in his poem of the Dream, Byron has described in the most exquisite colours of descriptive poetry.

I saw two beings in the hues of youth
Standing upon a hill; a gentle hill,
Green and of mild declivity, the last
As ’twere the cape of a long ridge of such,
Save that there was no sea to lave its base
But a most living landscape, and the wave
Of woods and corn-fields, and the abodes of men
Scattered at intervals, and wreathing smoke
Arising from such rustic roofs; the hill
Was crowned with a peculiar diadem
Of trees, in circular array, so fixed,
Not by the sport of nature, but of man:
These two, a maiden and a youth, were there
Gazing – the one on all that was beneath,
Fair as herself – but the boy gazed on her;
And both were young, and one was beautiful:
And both were young – yet not alike in youth.
As the sweet moon on the horizon’s verge,
The maid was on the eve of womanhood;
The boy had fewer summers, but his heart
Had far outgrown his years, and to his eye
There was but one beloved face on earth,
And that was shining on him.

This boyish idolatry nursed the spirit of poetry in Byron’s mind. He was recalled, however, from his day-dreams and disappointment, by his removal to Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1805. At Harrow he had been an idle irregular scholar, though he eagerly devoured all sorts of learning excepting that which was prescribed for him; and at Cambridge he pursued the same desultory course of study.

In 1807 appeared his first volume of poetry, printed at Newark, under the title of Hours of Idleness. There were indications of genius in the collection, but many errors of taste and judgement. The vulnarable points were fiercely assailed, the merits overlooked, in a short critique in the Edinburgh Review – understood to be written by Lord Brougham – and the young poet replied by his vigorous satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, which disarmed, if it did not discomfit his opponent.

While his name was thus rising in renown, Byron left England for a course of foreign travel, and in two years visited the classic shores of the Mediterranean, and resided some time in Greece and Turkey. In the spring of 1812 appeared the first two cantos of Childe Harold, the fruit of his foreign wanderings, and his splendidly eneriched and matured poetical taste. „I awoke one morning,” he said, „and found myself famous.”

A rapid succesion of eastern tales followed – the Giaour and the Bride of Abydos in 1813; the Corsair and Lara in 1814. In the Childe, he had shewn his mastery over the complicated Spenserian stanza: in these he adopted the heroic couplet, and the lighter version of Scott, with equal freedom and success. No poet had ever more command of the stores of the English language. At this auspicious and exultant period, Byron was the idol of the gay circles of London. He indulged in all their pleasures and excesses – studying by fits and starts at midnight, to maintain the splendour of his reputation.

Satiety and disgust, succeeded to this round of heartless pleasures, and in a better mood, rhough without any fixed attachment, he proposed and was accepted in marriage by a northern heiress, Miss Milbanks, daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanks, a baronet in the county of Durham. The union cast a shade on his hitherto bright career, A twelvemonth’s extravagance, embarrassments, and misunderstandings, dissolved the union, and the lady retired to the country seat of her parents from the discord and perplexity of her own home. She refused, like the wife of Milton, to return, and the world of England seemed to applaud her resolution.

One child – afterwards Countess of Lovelace – was the fruit of this unhappy marriage. Before the seperation took place, Byron’s muse, which had been lulled or deadened by the comparative calm of domestic life, was stimulated to activity by his deepening misfortunes, and he produced the Siege of Corinth and Parisina.

Miserable, reckless, yet conscious of his own newly-awakened strength, Byron left England –

Once more upon the waters, yet once more!

– and visiting France and Brussels, pursued his course along the Rhine to Geneva. Here, in six months, he had composed the third canto of Childe Harold, and the Prisoner of Chillion. His mental energy gathered force from the loneliness of his situation, and his disgust with his native country. The scenery of Switzerland and Italy next breathed its inspiration: Manfred and the lament of Tasso were produced in 1817. In the following year, whilst residing chiefly at Venice, and making one meorable visit to Rome, he completed Childe Harold, and threw off his light humorous poem of Beppo, the first-fruits of the more easy and genial manners of the continent on his excitable temperament. At Venice, and afterwards at Ravenna, Byron resided till 1821, writing various works – Mazeppa, the first five cantos of Don Juan, and his dramas of Marino Faliero, Sardanapalus, the Two Foscari, Werner, Cain, the Deformed Transformed, &c. The year 1822 he passed chiefly at Pisa, continuing Don Juan, which ultimately extended to sixteen cantos.

We have not touched on his private history or indulgences. At Venice he plunged into the grossest excesses, and associated (says Shelley) with „wretches who seemed almost to have lost the gait and physiognomy of man.” From this state of debasement he was partly rescued by an attachment to a young Romagnese lady of twenty, recently married to an old an wealthy nobleman, Count Guiccioli. The license of Italian manners permitted the intercourse until the lady took the bold step of deserting her husband. She was then thrown upon Byron, and they continued to live together until the poet departed for Greece.

His genius had begun to „pale its fire:” his dramas were stiff, declamatory, and undramatic; and the successive cantos of Don Juan betrayed the downward course of the poet’s habits. The wit and knowledge of that wonderful poem – its passion, variety, and originality – were now debased with inferior matter; and the world saw with rejoicing the poet break away from his Circean enchantments, and enter upon a new and nobler field of exertion. He had sympathised deeply with the Italian Corbonari in their efforts for freedom, but a still more interesting country and people claimed his support.

His youthful travels and poetical enthusiasm still endeared the „blue Olympus” to his recollection, and in the summer of 1823 he set sail for Greece, to aid in the struggle for its independence. His arrangements were made with judgmet, as well as generosity. Byron knew mankind well, and his plans for the recovery and regeneration of Greece evinced a spirit of patriotic freedom and warm sympathy with the oppressed, happily tempered with practical wisdom and discretion. He arrived, after some danger and delay, at Missolonghi, in Western Greece, on the 4th of January 1824. All was discord and confusion – a military mob and contending chiefs – turbulence, rapacity, and fraud. In three months he had done much, by his influence and money, to compose differences, repress cruelty, and introduce order.

His fluctuating and uncertain health, however, gave way under so severe a discipline. On the 9th of April he was overtaken by a heavy shower whilst taking his daily ride, and an attack of fever and rheumatism followed. Prompt and copious bleeding might have subdued the inflammation, but to this remedy Byron was strongly opposed. It was at length resorted to after seven days of increasing fever, but the disease was then too powerful for remedy. The patient sank into a state of lethargy, and though conscious of approaching death, could only mutter some indistinct expressions about his wife, his sister, and child. He lay insensible for twenty-four hours, and, opening his eyes for a moment, shut them for ever, and expired on the evening of the 19th of April 1824.

The people of Greece publicly mourned for the irreparable loss they had sustained, and the sentiment of grief was soon conveyed to the poet’s native country, where his name was still a talisman, and his early death was felt by all as a personal calamity. The body of Byron was brought to England, and after lying in state in London, was interred in the family vault in the village church of Hucknall, near Newstead.

Byron has been sometimes compared with Burns. Death and genius have levelled mere external distinctions, and the peer and peasant stand on the same elevation, to meet the gaze and scrutiny of posterity. Both wrote directly from strong personal feelings and impulses; both were the slaves of irregular, uncontrolled passion, and the prey of disappointed hopes and constitutional melancholy; both, by a strange perversity, loved to exaggerate their failings and dwell on their errors; and both died after a life of extraordinary intellectual activity and excitement, at nearly the same age. We allow for the errors of Burn’s position, and Byron’s demands a not less tender and candid construction. Neglected in his youth – thwarted in his first love – left without control or domestic influence when his passions were strongest –

Lord of himself, that heritage of woe –

intoxicated with early succes and the incense of almost universal admiration, his irregularities must be regarded more with pity than reprehension.

After his unhappy marriage, the picture is clouded with darker shadows. The wild license of his continental life it would be impossible to justify. His excesses, espacially intemperance became habitual, and impaired both his genius and his strenth. he struggled on with untamed pride and trembling susceptibility, but he had almost exhausted the springs of his poetry and his life; and it is too obvious that the pestilential climate of Missolonghi only accelerated an event which a few years must have consummated in Italy.

The genius of Byron was as versatile as it was energetic. Childe Harold and Don Juan are perhaps the greatest poetical works of this century, and in the noble poet’s tales and minro poems there is a grace, an interest, and romantic picturesqueness, that render them peculiarly fascinating to youthful readers. The Giaour has passages of still higher descriptions and feeling – particularly that fine burst on modern greece contrasted with the ancient glory, and the exquisitely pathetic and beautiful comparison of the same country to the human frame bereft of life:

Picture of Modern Greece

He who hath bent him o’er the dead,
Ere the first day of dead is fled –
The first dark day of nothingness,
The last of danger and distress –
Before decay’s effacing fingers
Have swept the lines where beauty lingers,
And marked the mild angelic air,
The rapture of repose that’s there –
The fixed yet tender traits that streak
The languor of the placid cheek –
And – but for that sad shrouded eye,
That fires not – wins not – weeps not – now,
And but for that chill changeless brow,
Where cold Obstruction’s apathy
Appals the gazing mourner’s heart,
As if to him it could impart
The doom he dreads, yet dwells upon;
Yes – but for these – and these alone –
Some moments – ay, one treacherous hour,
He still might doubt the tyrant’s power,
So fair – so calm – so softly dealed
The first – last look – by death revealed!
Such is the aspect of this shore;
‘Tis Greece – but living Greece no more!
So coldly sweet, so deadly fair,
We start – for soul is wanting there.
Hers is the loveliness in death,
That parts not quite with parting breath;
But beauty with that fearful bloom,
That hue which haunts it to the tomb –
Expression’s last receding ray,
A gilded halo hovering round decay,
The farewell beam of Feeling past away!
Spark of that flame – perchance of heavenly birth –
Which gleams – but warms no more its cherished earth!

The Prisoner of Chillion is also naturel and affecting; the story is painful and hopeless, but it is told with inimitable tenderness and simplicity. The reality of the scenes in Don Juan must strike every reader. Byron, it is well known, took pains to collect his materials. his account of the shipwreck is drawn from narratives of actual occurrences, and his Grecian pictures, feasts, dresses, and holiday pastines, are literal transcripts from life. Coleridge thought the character of Lambro, and especially the description of his return, the finest of all Byron’s efforts; it is more dramatic and lifelike than any other of his numerous paintings. Haidee is also the most captivating of all his heroines. His Gulnares and Medoras, his Corsairs and dark mysterious oersonages –

Linked with one virtue and a thousand crimes –

are monstrosities in nature, and do not possess one tithe of the interest or permanent poetical beauty that centres in the lonely residence in the Cyclades.

The English descriptions in Juan are greatly inferior. There is a palpable falling off in poetical power, and the peculiar prejudices and forced ill-natured satire of the poet are brought prominently forward. Yet even here we have occasionally a flash of the early light that „led astray.” The sketch of Aurora Raby is graceful and interesting – compared with Haider, it is something like Fielding’s Amelia coming after Sophia Western; and Newstead Abbey is described with a clearness and beauty not unworthy the author of Childe Harold. The Epicurean philosophy of the Childe is visible in every page of Don Juan, but it is no longer grave, dignified, and misanthropical: it is mixed up with wit, humour, the keenest penetration, and the most astonishing variety of expression, from colloquial carelessness and ease, to the highest and deepest tones of the lyre.

The poet has the power of Mephistophiles over the scenes and passions of human life and society – disclosing their secret workings, and stripping them of all conventional allurements and disguises. Unfortunately, his knowledge is more of evil than of good. The distinctions between virtue and vice had been broken down or obscured in his own mind, and they are undistinguishable in Don Juan.

Early sensuality had tainted his whole nature. He portrays generous emotions and moral feelings – distress, suffering, and pathos – and then dashes them with burlesque humour, wild profanity, and unseasonable mockary. In Childe Harold we have none of this moral anatomy, or its accompanying licentiousness; but there is abundance of scorn and defiance of the ordinary pursuits and ambition of mankind. The fairest portions of the earth are traversed in a spirit of bitterness and desolation by one satiated with pleasure, contemning society, the victim of a dreary and hopeless scepticism. Such a character would have been repulsive if the poem had not been adorned with the graces of animated description, and original and striking sentiment. The poet’s sketches of Spanish and Grecian scenery, and his glimpses of the life and manners of the classic mountaineers, are as true as were ever transferred to canvas; and not less striking are the meditations of the Pilgrim on the particular events which adored or cursed the soil he trod.