Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

to the present generation. We do not know how to render justice to the sonorous rhetoric and the often magnificent poetry of a masterpiece that has been subjected to processes so vulgarising. Some deductions, on sounder critical grounds, must also be made from the first enthusiasm that welcomed Childe Harold. The poem is written in a declamatory style, which savours of an age when Campbell's Pleasures of Hope was thought to soar above the level of prize poetry. The Pilgrim is a rococo creation, to whom Byron failed to communicate the breath of life. When this fictitious hero disappears from the scene, the stanzas invariably improve. Therefore the third and fourth Cantos, written in the plenitude of Byron's power, where Childe Harold has been all but forgotten, might pass for a separate composition. With the person of the Pilgrim, the affectation of Spenserian language, sparely but awkwardly employed in the first Canto, is dropped. The vein of meditation is richer, deeper, more dignified in utterance. The personal emotion of the poet, saddened and elevated by his cruel experience of life, finds vent' in larger harmonies and more impassioned bursts of eloquence. His sympathy with the oppressed, and his sense of the world's past greatness, attain the altitude of lyrical inspiration in the apostrophe to Rome; while his enjoyment of nature in her grander aspects, and the consolation he received from her amid the solitudes of sea and lake and mountain, are expressed with sublimity in the passages upon the Ocean and the Jura thunderstorm.

After the publication of the first two Cantos, Byron woke in London and 'found himself famous. What was far worse for him than fame, fashion claimed the new poet for her own. Though still isolated from true friends and family connections, he became the darling of society, poured forth for its amusement those Oriental tales, of which The Giaour alone retains sufficient vitality or perfume of true poetry to make its perusal at the present day desirable. Byron did not excel in the art of telling a simple story, unvaried by digressions, unassisted by contrasts of pathos and humour. One of his latest compositions in the narrative style, The Island, is a total failure. The best of his earlier tales, The Prisoner of Chillon and Mazeppa, were produced after the period of his fashionable fame, when, in the quietude of exile, he wrote with sobered feelings for himself. They owe, moreover, their greater purity of outline and sincerity of feeling to the form of monologue adopted. For the moment Byron becomes Bonnivard

[ocr errors]

and Mazeppa, speaking through their lips of sufferings with which he felt the liveliest sympathy.

The life he led in London between 1812 and 1816, confirmed Byron's affectations and increased his tendency to cynicism. But while warping his character and enslaving his genius to trumpery standards of taste, it supplied him with much of the material which was to be wrought up into Don Juan. We have therefore no reason to deplore the fact that he lived through it. On the other hand we may perhaps be thankful that his uncongenial union with Lady Byron came to an abrupt conclusion at the beginning of 1816. His temper needed to be deepened by pain ; nor was it till the blow of Lady Byron’s separation struck him, that the gravest chords of his genius uttered a note. From that time forward, in the ennobled Cantos of Childe Harold, no less than in occasional lyrics, the sorrow which drove him into exile and flung him for repose and consolation upon Nature, formed one of the principal topics of his purest poetry. The public who raved about Lara and The Corsair, must have felt that there was yet a greater Byron to arise, when they read the Domestic Pieces, so indiscreetly committed by friends to the pages of the London newspapers. Even though we may condemn, on principles of taste, the self-revelation which from this time forward became one of Byron's habits, though we may fail to appreciate the professed scorn of the world which he mingled with a free recourse to its confidence and sympathy upon delicate matters of his private life, there is no disputing the energy communicated to his genius by these trials.

The formation of Shelley's friendship at this epoch must be reckoned one of the most fortunate and decisive events of Byron's life. The immediate result of their intercourse at Geneva was evident in the poems composed during 1816 and 1817 ; in the loftier inspiration of Childe Harold, in the lyrical gravity of Prometheus, and in the maturer reflections of Manfred. The reading of Goethe's Faust was not without its share of influence, manifest in the general conception of both Manfred and The Deformed Transformed. Yet neither of these plays can be said to have been modelled upon Faust. Byron's genius could not work upon the same lines as Goethe's ; nor can dramas, hurriedly conceived and rapidly executed, without a distinct philosophical intention, be compared with the slowly elaborated masterpiece of a lifetime, which condenses and anticipates the profoundest thoughts of the nineteenth century. In Manfred the type of character which had previously been sketched by Byron in his romantic poems, receives more concentrated expression. Manfred is the incarnation of a defiant, guilty, self-reliant personality, preserved from despair by its disdainful pride, linked to the common joys and sorrows of humanity by the slender but still vital thread of a passion which is also an unforgotten and unforgivable crime. The egotism which is the source and secret of his vaunted strength, foredooms Manfred to destruction ; yet at the close of his course, he does not flinch. Such self-sustained stubbornness was Byron's ideal. But he infected the type with something melodramatic, which lowered it below the defiance of the Greek Prometheus, and he prepared no reconciliation of opposing motives in his dramatic scheme. Tested by common experience, the character he created in Manfred was soon found wanting in the essential elements of reality.

Byron's removal to Venice in 1817 marks a no less important epoch in his career than the meeting with Shelley at Geneva. He now came into close contact with the Italian genius in its raciest expression. He studied the writers of burlesque, and fastened with partiality on Pulci, two books of whose Morgante Maggiore he afterwards translated. It must not be imagined that the new form he was about to invent for English literature was borrowed from the Italian. Hookham Frere, in the octave stanzas of Whistlecraft, had already naturalised the Tuscan humoristic style. But neither the example of Frere nor the far more powerful influence of the Italian poets will suffice to account for Beppo and Don Juan. The blending of satire with description, of realism with imagination, of drollery with ideal beauty, were Italian possessions before Byron seized on them. But he added something characteristically his own. In Beppo he treated the incidents of a Venetian novella. At the same time he stood so completely outside his subject, and informed it with humour at once so far more pungent and so far more universal than pervades the best work of his supposed models, that Europe received at his hands a species hitherto unguessed and undiscovered. Beppo seems to have revealed to Byron the power that had been latent in him from the earliest days of boyhood ; but which, partly from modesty and partly from the misdirection of his faculties, due to critical incapacity, had lain dormant. He found that he possessed an unrivalled command of comedy. Beppo was but a prelude to the two great works, Don Juan and The Vision of Judgment, on which his fame will ultimately rest, and last as long as there are minds to comprehend their many-sided excellence.

In the year 1818 Byron began Don Juan. Until his death in 1824 he used it as the channel of expression for the varied reminiscences of past experience, and for the miscellaneous pictures of society and human life with which his mind was stored. It was a poem without a plan, and for this very reason well adapted to his purpose. Juan is a name : the fact that his parentage and earliest adventures are Spanish does not bring him into competition with the Don Juan of Spanish legend. He has but little in common with the hero of Molière's play or Mozart's operą. Juan's biography is the thread on which Byron hangs descriptions, episodes, satirical digressions, and reflective passages of brilliant audacity. That Don Juan, as Byron began it in the extant sixteen cantos, should have arrived at a conclusion, seems inconceivable. It was therefore scarcely a misfortune that death cut the poet short, when he had closed the fourth chapter of his hero's adventures. Byron, it may be observed, was essentially an occasional poet. He needed some substratum of fact or personal emotion for his imaginative edifices, and wrote best when he was least hampered by self-imposed theories of art. Childe Harold and Don Juan may therefore be regarded as continuous poetic journals. He used them as receptacles for the ideas that every passing day suggested. "If things are farcical,' he once said to Trelawny, during their voyage to Greece, “they will do for Don Juan ; if heroical, you shall have another canto of Childe Haroid.' This accounts for the defect of structure in both poems. But while the change of style and tone in Childe Harold has been already pointed out, no such failure can be indicated in Don Juan. Within itself, and judged by the laws of its own nature, it is vigorously organised. The flux and reflux of contrasted incidents, -the balance of emotions between pathos and comedy, humour and satire,-the correspondence of voluptuous and piquant, sensual and tender, touches,- the passage from Donna Julia to Haidee and Dudu,--the siege succeeding to the shipwreck,—the picture of St. Petersburgh under Catherine followed by that of England ruled by Whig and Tory peers ;- this counterpoise of interests, this rapid modulation from key to key, gives to Don Juan, fragment as it is, a fine artistic coherence.

The Drama lies outside the scope of this book. It is not therefore necessary to speak in detail about the tragedies, which occupied

much of Byron's time at Venice and Ravenna, but which, neither as acting plays nor as poems, can be reckoned among his masterpieces. Cain and Heaven and Earth, called “Mysteries' by their author, detach themselves from the rest, because Byron's insufficiency as a dramatist was in both these cases covered by the peculiar piquancy of the subject-matter. Cain, on its first appearance, had a veritable success of scandal ; but, since its day, our advance in religious toleration and freedom of speech has shorn its daring scenes of half their lustre. The case is very different with the Vision of Judgment. In this poem, composed upon an event of so ephemeral importance as George III's funeral, and inspired by so trivial a passion as spite against Southey, Byron ciisplayed in short compass the range and scope of his peculiar powers. His humour, common sense, inventive faculty, and luminous imagination, are here, as nowhere else, combined in perfect fusion. We only miss the pathos and the sympathy with nature displayed in previous compositions of a different purpose. The octave stanza, which he had essayed in Beppo, and perfected in Don Juan, is used with unrivalled command of its resources, Like some elemental substance taking shape beneath a spirittouch, the metre obeys his will, and from the slightest bias of his fancy assumes imperishable form. Satire, which at the outset of Byron's career crawled like a serpent, has here acquired the wings and mailed panoply of a dragon. The poetry of the Vision of Judgment, sustained by the companion pictures of Lucifer and Michael, is no less brilliant than its burlesque, expressed in St. Peter and the King.

Byron's best poetry admits of no selections being made from it. He was deficient in those qualities of ear and taste which are necessary for the production of studied perfection on a small scale. We must admire him for the sweep and strength of his genius, or not at all.

With the exception of a few personal lyrics, characterised by simplicity of feeling and limpidity of style, his shorter pieces do not adequately represent him. He succeeded best in all the mixed specimens he attempted. But precisely because those poems blend so many qualities, contrasted and assimilated by the poet's power, they cannot be perused in fragments. We may reckon this impossibility of doing justice to Byron by selections among the reasons for his present comparative neglect. Yet the change of opinion which has taken place among cultivated people during the last half century in this respect, is so striking, that no critic of

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »