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Know ye the land (from the "Bride of Aby-
On this day I complete my thirty-sixth year.
THERE are two aspects of Byron, almost equally attractive to the modern reader, although attractive in different ways. There is the personal Byron, vehemently masculine in most of his habits and doings, yet, as Moore and others who knew him report, strangely feminine in some of his traits, and perhaps again, as Goethe felt, as strangely immature and like a child as soon as he turned to reflection: the whole compound a brilliant meteoric genius that dazzled the eyes of Europe for a short generation. To us this Byron becomes a fascinating psychological study, a document in humanity, baffling our analysis, as he himself baffled his own analysis. For this study it is plain that we need all the evidence obtainable, letters, journals, the testimony alike of friends, of enemies, and of indifferent contemporaries, as well as all the verses, the bad with the good, which flowed so readily from his incontinent pen. On the other hand there is Byron the poet, whom, it is true, we cannot altogether separate from the personal Byron, but whom we should judge, as we judge other poets, by the best half of his work, in which, as Matthew Arnold, a poet writing of a poet, so finely says:
"Nature herself seemed to take the pen from him as she took it from Wordsworth, and to write for him as she wrote for Wordsworth, though in a different fashion, with her own penetrating simplicity."
OUR enjoyment of Byron as a poet then is greater if we confine ourselves to Byron at his best. But Byron's poetry at its best is constantly personal, subjective, and overflowing with Byron the man. So that fully to understand Byron at his best in poetry we are driven to study the personal, the inferior, the prose Byron. And here we are perpetually beset with the paradox of Byron's nature, with the difficulty of disentangling the real Byron from the false Byron. For, contradictory and complex as are most modern characters, few have been more so than Byron. A histrionic strain was prominent in him from the beginning, and it was and is an offence to sincere and candid souls that not only at times his sentiments were evidently put on and worn for effect, but also not infrequently he himself did not know his own real sentiments, but was the dupe of his own imaginings. Nevertheless it is important to recognize that, although seldom apparent in his life from day to day, or in much of his verse from line to line, a fiery and desperate sincerity was at bottom and essentially the motive force of Byron's character as of Byron's poetry. After we have read all that he wrote, no less than after reading only the inspired portions, and after following his career step by step, the general impression of this returns to us and abides with us.
The war of the members, the contradictory elements in Byron, are evident. Byron himself, given to self
In a letter to relates that his
analysis, did not fail to notice them. Miss Milbanke (Sept. 16, 1814?) he head had just been examined by Spurzheim the craniologist,
“a discoverer of faculties and dispositions from the heads. He says all mine are strongly marked, but very antithetical, for everything developed in or on this same skull of mine has its opposite in great force, so that, to believe him, my good and evil are at perpetual war."
The war of good and evil in the human breast is no new or peculiar thing; but Byron's poetry is, as was his life, a field where the conflict appears pre-eminently desperate and magnificent.
"He taught us little; but our soul
All the passions, at one time or another, were at strife within his soul. And yet, early as was the maturity of his passionate nature, we can trace the development of it through several stages. His ancestry and his parentage explain much. His genius remains underivable, but his energy, his courage, his love of adventure, and the seeds of much that developed later into evil and vice with him seem to hold from the paternal line; his irritability, waywardness, generosity, and occasional self-devotion, the strain of fitful morbidity in him, and perhaps his latent enthusiasm, from the maternal.
His physical malformation-his congenital lameness -reacted upon his sensitive and suspicious nerves
and resulted in a vice of temperament.
and unexpected change of fortune, making him heir to a peerage when still a child, was in its effects a misfortune. Worst of all, however, was the influence upon his life of his mother's violent, capricious, and hysterical temper. To this Byron, notwithstanding his paradoxical affection for her, often alludes with bitterness. Thus in a letter to his half-sister Augusta, written in 1811, before his cynicism was anything more than youthful and nascent, he writes:
"You must excuse my being a little cynical, knowing how my temper was tried in my nonage; the manner in which I was brought up must necessarily have broken a meek spirit, or rendered a fiery one ungovernable; the effect it has had on mine I need not state."
Afterwards it was the world at large and especially the times in which he lived which had the greatest influence in the formation of the character of the great English protagonist of a revolutionary age.
Other traits, essential in Byron, seem latent or patent from his youth. There is his pride,—of which he was not a little proud.
"To the charge of pride I suspect I must plead guilty," he writes to Miss Milbanke in 1813 (with some complacency and in the rôle of the interesting lover), "because when a boy and a very young one it was the constant reproach of schoolfellows and tutors. It was, however, originally defensive-for at that time my hand like Ishmael's was against every one's and every one's against mine."
Practically all of Byron's heroes are types of that proud disdain which Dante and medieval writers on ethics denominated superbia. Such are Childe Harold,