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full development of his cosmopolitan ideas, and largely in consequence of his fanatical admiration for Pope, the prose and critical Byron entertained a low opinion.
“With regard to poetry in general,” he writes to · Murray in 1817, “I am convinced, the more I think of it, that he [Moore] and all of us—Scott, Southey, Wordsworth, Moore, Campbell, I, are all in the wrong, one as much as another ; that we are upon a wrong revolutionary poetical system, or systems, not worth a damn in itself, and from which none but Rogers and Crabbe are free ; and that the present and next generations will finally be of this opinion. I am more confirmed in this by having lately gone over some of our classics, particularly Pope, whom I tried in this way,—I took Moore's poems and my own and some others, and went over them side by side with Pope's, and I was really astonished (I ought not to have been so) and mortified at the ineffable distance in point of sense, learning, effect, and even imagination, passion, and invention, between the little Queen Anne's man and us of the Lower Empire. Depend upon it, it is all Horace then and Claudian now among us; and if I had to begin again, I would mould myself accordingly.” 1
Dis aliter visum: the influence of the time-spirit was · too strong for him, and Byron became what he was in spite of himself.
i Compare Shelley's penetrating comment upon his opinions in 1821 after Byron had come under the additional influence of Italian classicism: “We talked a great deal of poetry and such matters last night ; and, as usual, differed—and I think more than
He affects to patronise a system of criticism fit only for the production of mediocrity; and, although all his finer poems and passages have been produced in defiance of this system, yet I recognise the pernicious effects of it in the Doge of Venice [ Marino Faliero ']; and it will cramp and limit his future efforts, however great they may be, unless he gets rid of it."
Byron's motives and methods, and his conception and ideal of poetry, are not easily defined.
There are here as every where the two sides of Byron, often in apparent contradiction. The love of fame doubtless was a constant motive with him.
6 Oh Fame ! thou goddess of my heart;
On him who gains thy praise,
Consumed in Glory's blaze,”
he cries in a copy of youthful verses written at Harrow. And throughout his letters his eagerness for fame is evident, however masked by the affectation of indiffer
But his love of fame did not draw him out of his orbit. His independence and his energy of will were greater motives. In 1814 after the early success of the first part of Childe Harold,” when for the moment he feared that his vein was exhausted, he writes to Moore:
“I have had my day, and there's an end. The utmost I expect, or even wish, is to have it said in the Biographia Britannica that I might perhaps have been a poet had I gone on and amended. My great comfort is that the temporary celebrity I have wrung from the world has been in the very teeth of all opinions and prejudices. I have flattered no ruling powers; I have never concealed a single thought that tempted me. They can't say I have truckled to the times, nor to popular topics.
It was not the contemplative life, in which Wordsworth's ideal was placed, which could attract Byron; nor the æsthetic life for which Keats yearned; nor Shelley's life of ideals and visions. His was a motor temperament, and activity, movement, sensation, passion, were the breath of his nostrils.
“ You don't like my restless' doctrines," he writes to Miss Milbanke in 1813; “ I should be very sorry if you did; but I can't stagnate nevertheless. If I must sail let it be on the ocean no matter how stormy-anything but a dull cruise on a land lake without ever losing sight of the same insipid shores by which it is surrounded.” And again : “ The great object of life is sensationto feel that we exist, even though in pain. It is this 'craving void' which drives us to gaming, to battle, to travel, to intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of any description, whose principal attraction is the agitation inseparable from their accomplishment.”
So, in the “ Deformed Transformed,” he writes:
“ From the star
Animation, he says somewhere, is the chief secret of woman's beauty. And in 1818, after describing a Venetian girl whom he admired, -" with large black eyes, a face like Faustina's, and the figure of a Juno; tall and energetic as a Pythoness, with eyes flashing, and her dark hair streaming in the moonlight,”-he goes on to add: “I like this kind of animal, and am sure that I should have preferred Medea to any woman that ever breathed.” His temperament was active and pugnacious. “In the words of the tragedian Liston, “I love a row,
The grandson of a famous admiral and the descendant of Norman warriors and of cavalier knights, it was in his blood to delight in struggle and passion and the active life. His poetry
he chiefly valued for himself as an outlet to the seething springs of emotion within his breast.
“I by no means rank poetry or poets high in the scale of intellect,” he writes to Miss Milbanke in a very significant passage only recently published. “ This may look like affectation, but it is my real opinion. It is the lava of the imagination whose eruption prevents an earthquake. They say poets never or rarely
Cowper and Collins are instances to the contrary (but Cowper was no poet). It is, however, to be remarked that they rarely do, but are generally so near it that I cannot help thinking rhyme is so far useful in anticipating and preventing the disorder. I prefer the talents of action-of war, or the senate, or even of science,--to all the speculations of these mere dreamers of another existence (I don't mean religiously, but fancifully) and spectators of this apathy. Disgust and perhaps incapacity have rendered me now a mere spectator; but I have occasionally mixed in the active and tumultuous departments of existence, and in these alone my recollection rests with any satisfaction, though not the best parts of it.”
In a certain sense Byron's poetry was the overflow of his feelings and a transcript of his life. In this sense at least Byron was a great lyrical poet; for, although the singing quality and the musical element in his verse are often defective, seldom has the subjective and personal element in lyric poetry received more complete and powerful expression than in Byron's poetry. Byron's own generation made the mistake of supposing the invention and the detail of his poetry to be quite as much a transcript of his life as the
1 Similarly he writes to Moore in 1821 concerning the writing of poetry.
6... It comes over me in a kind of rage every now and then, and then, if I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad.... I feel it as torture, which I must get rid but never as a pleasure. On the contrary, I think composition a great pain."
motives and the moods and the ideals. Everything in Byron's verse, it is true, is centered in the portraiture of an ideal hero, and there is something of Byron in all of these heroes; but rather the ideal of Byron than the facts of Byron. And the likeness usually flatters his worser traits. No lyrical poetry of any great sort can be a literal transcript of the poet's lite. Experience must be transmuted and idealized before it is fit material for verse. This Byron understood well enough, although in some of his verse the idealizing imagination is less in evidence than in other. Thus, “ almost all · Don Juan, Byron tells us, life, either my own, or from people I knew.” And elsewhere: “I could not write upon anything, without some personal experience and foundation.” But in another place he writes of the charge that he is responsible for the opinions which he puts into the mouths of his characters:
“My ideas of a character may run away with me: like all imaginative men I of course embody myself with the character while I draw it, but not a moment after the pen is from off the paper.”ı
The peculiar thing about Byron, however, is what has been called “his strange incontinence of language.'' He has no reticence, and the cacoëthes scribendi too often appears to be in him a disease. Byron is frank, but at times we would prefer not to be admitted so freely into his confidence. This doubtless Moore and his committee felt when they destroyed Byron's posthumous prose autobiography. On the other hand, although he may cquivocate, we know
1 Cf. his letter to Murray of Aug. 9, 1819,