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At times, as in parts of "Don Juan," he becomes out and out a realist.
The self-conscious reader, who refuses to submit himself to the fascination of Byron's movement and the sway of his verse, easily discovers in this poetry a sort of unconcealed artifice which a more cunning workman would have kept hidden,―mannerisms and devices which, being thus revealed, are forthwith classed as rhetorical or melodramatic. The broken and exclamatory style of the following passage from "Lara," for example, is highly characteristic of Byron:
"'Twas midnight-all was slumber; the ione light
And snatch'd in startled haste unbelted brands.
Rhetorical, if you will, but in its kind how effective! And Byron usually maintains the style of the particular kind in which he has chosen to write, with remarkable dexterity. We must indeed be careful to note the effect he is seeking and not expect something different. "Childe Harold" is not an epic and does not aim at epic effects. Superficially regarded it might be classed as descriptive poetry. But how different the effect from that of most descriptive poetry that we know! And the reason is this, that its description is animated at all points with human emotion, until the center of
interest is in the poet and only secondarily in the object described. In this sense the poem is more lyrical than descriptive. Similar cautions, mutatis mutandis, may be suggested for the other poems.
Byron's style is effective because it renders so completely to us Byron himself. Vital feeling, the impulse, in spite of attendant despairs, to rejoice, as Wordsworth says the poet does, more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him," this is the underlying impulse of Byron's poetry. It throbs with life; strong, defiant, desperate, mocking, resistant life; but still with life. Now mark how Byron, inspired by this feeling, takes the heroic couplet of the classicists, the instrument of impersonal and subdued poetic propriety, and makes it express, in the "Corsair" for example, all the impetuous rush, the turbulence, and the personal force of his nature:
"There is a war, a chaos of the mind,
When all its elements convulsed, combined,
The joy untasted, the contempt or hate
'Gainst those who fain would triumph in our fate;
The hopeless past, the hasting future driven
Deeds, thoughts, and words, perhaps remember'd not
Not cankering less because the more conceal'd—
To snatch the mirror from the soul--and break."
Certain mannerisms and tricks of style in Byron everybody will notice. There is his excessive use of the dash indicating ellipsis and the appositional phrase. There is the omission of connectives. There is the frequent use of such words as "away, away!" or "on, on." Verbs and other words indicating motion swarm in certain poems, the "Giaour" and "Mazeppa" for example. The painting of emotion and of moods, the narration of action, the setting in of a background by description,-these are almost the only elements in Byron's verse-romances. There is no redundancy. With admirable effect he plunges in medias res. In transitions he is usually skilful, though abrupt. An excellent example are the opening stanzas of Canto III of "Childe Harold." And although sometimes cacophonous and logically incoherent, there is generally sufficient consistency in the larger units of composition, and the poet seldom misses the emotional effect at which he aims.
His style, however, is manifold. There is the style of his early satires, couplets in imitation of Pope. There is the style of "Childe Harold," stately, im
petuous, resonant, and often nobly rhetorical. There is the style of the verse-romances, mostly written in free octosyllabic verse or pentameter couplets, more mannered than his other compositions, but maturing to admirable finish in parts of "Mazeppa," ''The Prisoner of Chillon," and The Island.” There is the style of his lyrics, often singularly impressive, but imperfect and unfinished. There is his dramatic and blank-verse style, an instrument forced to effective utterance in Manfred" and "Cain," but imperfectly commanded and in itself unpleasing. And finally there is the style of Beppo" and "Don Juan," a style of astonishing ease, audacity, variety, and power, something supreme in its kind in the whole range of literature, of which Byron remains the undisputed master.
Byron excels in the broadly picturesque, and his imagery is concrete and vivid, although elemental and dynamic rather than clear-cut, cameo-like, or elaborated. Not the picture so much as the emotional connotation of the picture is what he aims for. There is little of the idyllic. His imagery is the imagery of pathos and passion and power rather than of vision. All his characteristic similes are energetic and suggestive of movement and force. Nature in her extremest manifestations, nature in her elements, supplies most of his comparisons. So he cries in "Childe Harold": "Could I embody and unbosom now
That which is most within me ;-could I wreak
This may stand for us as the emblem of Byron's poetic ideal. The "lightning of the mind" is his. Here and there, it is true, images of pure beauty are exhibited.
"She walks in beauty, like the night
"As the sweet moon on the horizon's verge,
Or similarly, in "Mazeppa":
"She had the Asiatic eye,
Dark as above us is the sky;
But through it stole a tender light,
Like the first moonrise of midnight."
Or Haidée's beauty, in "Don Juan," is compared to the break of day over the mountain-tops. But even in these examples it is always the beauty of elemental nature that is brought into the comparison. The more characteristic images are as where the poet proclaims that his hero's mind is as a seaweed torn from the rock and swept by the surge1; or rushing onward as the wind which bears the cloud before it 2; or drooping as the wild-born falcon with clipt wing 3; or impatient of calm and pining like a flame unfed, or a sword rusting ingloriously; or dreading the leafless desert of the mind, or to drop by dull decay on life
1 "Childe Harold," III, 2.
3 Id. III, 15.