Изображения страниц

As we trace his creed through his writings certain points seem fairly well fixed in Byron's mind. In his earlier and middle years he strongly doubts individual immortality. Thus he writes to his friend Hodgson 1

in 1811:

"I will have nothing to do with your immortality; we are miserable enough in this life, without the absurdity of speculating upon another. If men are to live, why die at all? and if they die, why disturb the sweet and sound sleep that 'knows no waking'? I hope I am sincere; I was so at least on a bed of sickness in a far-distant country, when I had neither friend, nor comforter, nor hope, to sustain me. I looked to death as a relief from pain, without a wish for an after-life, but a confidence that the God who punishes in this existence had left that last asylum for the weary."

Of a similar tenor is the following:

"Of the two, I should think the long sleep better than the agonised vigil. But men, miserable as they are, cling so to any. thing like life, that they probably would prefer damnation to quiet. Besides, they think themselves so important in the creation, that nothing less can satisfy their pride-the insects!"

Later his opinions on this subject were somewhat altered. In 1821 he writes in his journal:

"It has been said that the immortality of the soul is a 'grand peut-être '-but still it is a grand one. Everybody clings to it,-the stupidest and dullest and wickedest of human bipeds is still persuaded that he is immortal."

And again, in his "Detached Thoughts":

"Of the immortality of the soul it appears to me that there can be little doubt, if we attend for a moment to the action of the mind:

Apropos of the opening stanzas of Canto II of "Childe


it is in perpetual activity. I used to doubt of it, but reflection

has taught me better. How far our future life will be individual, or rather, how far it will at all resemble our present existence, is another question; but that the mind is eternal seems as probable as that the body is not so."

[ocr errors]

In revealed religion Byron apparently did not believe. In 1807 he asserts that he is a deist; and in 1811 he writes to Hodgson:

"I do not believe in any revealed religion, because no religion is revealed and if it pleases the Church to damn me for not allowing a nonentity, I throw myself on the mercy of the Great First Cause, least understood' who must do what is most proper; though I conceive He never made anything to be tortured in another life, whatever it may in this."

And to Miss Milbanke in 1813:

"I believe doubtless in God, and should be happy to be convinced of much more. If I do not at present place implicit faith in tradition and revelation of any human creed, I hope it is not from want of reverence for the Creator but the created.


[ocr errors]

Against the doctrine of eternal punishment, as already appears, Byron stood firm. As he writes in his scoffing and satirical vein in his "Vision of Judgment":

"I hardly know too if not quite alone am I
In this small hope of bettering future ill
By circumscribing, with some slight restriction,
The eternity of hell's hot jurisdiction.
I know this is unpopular; I know

'Tis blasphemous; I know one may be damn'd
For hoping no one else may e'er be so."

And in his "Detached Thoughts":

"A material resurrection seems strange and even absurd, except for purposes of punishment; and all punishment which is to revenge rather than correct must be morally wrong; and when

the world is at an end, what moral or warning purpose can eternal tortures answer?"

The doctrine of the final reconciliation of good and evil is proclaimed in "Heaven and Earth":

"The eternal will
Shall deign to expound this dream
Of good and evil; and redeem

Unto himself all times, all things;
And, gather'd under his almighty wings,
Abolish hell!

And to the expiated Earth

Restore the beauty of her birth,

Her Eden in an endless paradise,
Where man no more can fall as once he fell,
And even the very demons shall do well!"


BYRON'S literary affiliations and his relation to contemporary literature in England are as curious and apparently as paradoxical as most other things in his life and opinions. His sources are largely in the eighteenth century both in its revolutionary and its pre-revolutionary periods; and he professed a profound admiration for the poetry of Pope, whose genius and fame he vigorously defended in his generation. This profession was doubtless genuine enough so far as his critical and conscious judgment was concerned. But the real Byron, the inspired Byron, in his own poetry was in almost everything the very opposite of Pope. Where Pope was epigrammatic and balanced and restrained and polished and shining with a merely dry light, Byron was abounding, unequal, negligent, and lurid with the red flames of elemental passion. In

satire like "The English Bards'' and the Hints from Horace" Byron imitated Pope as well as his intractable temperament would allow; and doubtless his early study of Pope was not without strong influence (though inconsiderable in comparison with that of his Italian models) in the development of his later and highly original vein of mordant and cynical and audacious satire in "Don Juan. But Byron, if he belonged to any school at all, was one of the Romantics. Romanticism as opposed to classicism characterizes the great bulk of his work. A certain strain of sardonic or purposely prosaic realism which now and then crops out in his verse is decidedly non-romantic, it is true, and his romanticism was of a very different type from that of Shelley and Keats. To Scott and in some measure to Coleridge he owes more. The idea and the movement of his romantic verse-tales, as literary forms, are partly modelled upon Scott, and to Scott and to Coleridge he was indebted for the free four-stress verse employed in several of them. With "Christabel" he had early become acquainted, -indeed long before its publication; and it strongly caught his fancy. There are touches of Coleridgean romanticism in the verse of his middle period, as in the following lines from "The Siege of Corinth,”— although Byron protested that they were written before he had heard Christabel' recited:



[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

"There he sate all heavily,

As he heard the night-wind sigh.

Was it the wind, through some hollow stone,
Sent that soft and tender moan?

He lifted his head, and he look'd on the sea,
But it was unrippled as glass may be ;

He look'd on the long grass-it waved not a blade ;
How was that gentle sound convey'd ?

He look'd to the banners-each flag lay still,
So did the leaves on Citharon's hill,

And he felt not a breath come over his cheek;
What did that sudden sound bespeak?

He turn'd to the left-is he sure of sight?
There sate a lady, youthful and bright!

[ocr errors]

To the Elizabethan romanticists he owes little directly. Indebtedness to Marlowe he disavowed. Shakespere he knew as all the great modern poets know him; but he quotes Falstaff and "Henry IV" perhaps quite as often as the great tragedies. Of the spirit and system of the Elizabethan drama he disapproved. And from Spenser he takes only the stanza and some of the sporadic archaisms of "Childe Harold." Byron affected originality and independence, but he was essentially original and independent. "Childe Harold" and " Don Juan" are new types of poetry,-new at least in English. The former is in some measure romantic. It appeals in the romantic manner to the sense of novelty and wonder, to the spirit of adventure, and to the historical and topographical imagination; the verse-tales that followed are even more romantic and remote from realism; "Don Juan," however, can scarcely be called romantic in. manner more than classical or realistic; it is sui generis, and the doubtful and luxuriant flower of that literary cosmopolitanism towards which the circumstances of his life turned Byron's genius in his later years.

Of contemporary poets and poetry, even before the

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »