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Capital term-layers! Wonderful man! . . . Why, when I saw the review of his poems in Blackwood, I set off within an hour, and walked seven miles to Misselton (for the horses were not in the way) and ordered them. Now, what colour are ash-buds in March ? " 'Is the man going mad? thought I. He is very like Don Quixote. "What colour are they, I say?" repeated he vehemently.
"I am sure I don't know, sir," said I, with the meekness of ignorance.
“I knew you did n't. No more did I - an old fool that I am!- till this young man comes and tells me. Black as ash-buds in March. And I've lived all my life in the country; more shame for me not to know. Black: they are jet-black, madam.”
Excellent botany, no doubt, and very dainty verse; but I cannot think the fame of the great masters of song depends on such trivialities as this. Black as ash-buds in March, one might read all the famous epics of history without acquiring this curious bit of information. There is a good deal of this petty, prying nature-cult in Keats and Shelley, along with inspiration of a more solid or mystical quality. And it is Wordsworth who chants over the small celandine:
'Since the day I found thee out,
Some kinship of spirit, some haunting echo of the revolutionary cry, binds us very close to the singers of that age, and we are perforce influenced by their attitude toward the outer world. It would be a matter of curious inquiry to search out the advent of this nature-worship into poetry, and to trace it down through succeeding writers. Its growth and culmination are in a way coincident with the revolutionary period to which Byron belongs, and, like most innovations of the kind, it denotes both an enlargement and a loss of spiritual life. The peculiar form of religious enthusiasm developed in the Middle Ages had wrought out its own idealism. The soul of the individual man seemed to the Christian of that day, as it were, the centre of the world, about which the divine drama of salvation revolved; and on the stand taken by the individual in this drama depended his eternal life. A man's personality became of vast importance in the universal scheme of things, and a new and justifiable egotism of intense activity was born. There was necessarily an element of anguish in this thought of personal importance and insecurity, but on the whole, while faith lasted, it was overbalanced by feelings of joy and peace; for, after all, salvation was within reach. The idealism of such a period found its aim in the perfecting of a man's soul, and humanity in the life of its individual members was the one theme of surpassing interest. The new humanism which came in with the Renaissance modified, but did not entirely displant, this ideal; the faith of the earlier ages remained for a long time intact. But by the closing years of the eighteenth century the ancient illusion of man's personal value in the universe had been rudely shattered; his anchor of faith had been rent away. Then began the readjustment, which is still in progress and is still the cause of so much unrest and tribulation. In place of the individual there arose a new ideal of humanity as a whole, a very pretty theory for philosophers, but in no wise comforting for the homeless soul of man trained by centuries of introspection to deem himself the chosen vessel of grace. There was a season of revolt. The individual, still bearing his burden of self-importance, and seeing now no restrictive laws to bind him, gave himself to all the wild vagaries of the revolutionary period. Nor is it a matter of chance that Voltaire, the father of modern scepticism, and Rousseau, the first of romantic natureworshipers, had worked together to this end. It was under this stimulus that those who
were unable to silence the inner need amidst the turmoil of action turned to the visible world, seeking there the comfort of an idealism not attainable in the vague abstraction of humanity. The individual found a new solace in reverie, which seemed to make him one with the wide and beneficent realm of nature. The flattering trust in his own eternal personality was undermined, the unsubdued egotism born of the old faith left him solitary amid mankind; he turned for companionship to the new world whose kinship to himself was so newly discovered:
'Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt
A truth, which through our being then doth melt
And purifies from self: it is a tone,
The soul and source of music, which makes known
Like to the fabled Cytherea's zone,
Binding all things with beauty; —'t would disarm
An eternal harmony did indeed spring from this new source of music; it was a calculable gain, a new created idealism in poetry. But we should not shut our eyes to the concomitant danger and loss. In this soothing absorption into nature the poet was too apt to forget that, after all, the highest and noblest theme must forever be the struggle of the human soul; he was too ready to substitute vague reverie for honest thought, or to lose his deeper sympathy with man in the eager pursuit of minute phenomena. We are all familiar with the travestied nature-cult that is sapping the vitals of literature to-day. Wordsworth has made a stir over the small celandine, and Tennyson has discovered that ash-buds are black in March; the present generation must, for originality, examine the fields with a botanist's lens, while the poor reader, who retains any use of his intellect, is too often reminded of the poet Gray's shrewd witticism, that he learned botany to save himself the labor of thinking. If for no other reason, it is wholesome to point out how Byron in his treatment of nature shows the same breadth and mental scope, the same human sympathy, as characterize his classical use of metaphor.
There is a curious passage in one of Franklin's letters, where the philosopher attempts to prove by experiment that the perception of form is remembered more distinctly than the perception of color. It may very well be that his explanation of this phenomenon is not strictly scientific, but the fact is indisputable. Form and motion of form are clearly defined, intelligible, so to speak; color is illusive and impressionistic. So, it will be remembered, the Greeks were preeminent in their imitation of form; the Renaissance artists excelled in color. Distinctions of this kind are, to be sure, a matter of degree only, but none the less significant for that. Now there are descriptions in Byron of gorgeous coloring, notably in certain stanzas of the Haidée episode; but even here the colors are sharply defined, and there is little of the blending, iridescent light of romance. In general he dwells on form and action in his representation of nature, whereas his contemporaries, and notably Shelley, revel in various colors and shifting tints.
It is curious, in fact, that many who are prone to dignify emotional reverie as thought would ascribe such predominance of intellect to shallowness, just as they would deem the breadth of Byron's natural description to be due to narrowness of observation. You will indeed find in Byron no poems on the small celandine, or the daisy, or the cuckoo, or the nightingale, or the west wind; but you may find pictures of mountains reared like the palaces of nature, of the free bounding ocean, of tempest on sea and storm among
the Alps, of the solitary pine woods, of placid Lake Leman, of all the greater, sublimer aspects of nature, such as can hardly be paralleled elsewhere in English literature. Byron was too much a child of his age to escape the longing for mystic fellowship with nature which came in with the century and still in milder form troubles mankind. But even here there are in him a firmness and a directness of utterance which distinguish his work from the rhapsodies of the purely romantic writers. Let us by all means retain as a precious and late-won possession this sense of communion with the fair outlying world, but let us at the same time beware of loosening our grip on realities. There is no better palliative for the insidious relaxing sentimentality that lurks in this brooding contemplation than certain well-known passages of Childe Harold, such as —
'I live not in myself, but I become
'There is a pleasure in the pathless woods;'
'Clear, placid Leman! thy contrasted lake.'
Here again it is the classic element in Byron's art that saves him from shadowy, meaningless words; and he is assisted also by his intense human passions and personality. It has been said that the preponderance of human interest is an essential feature of the classical spirit; and it would have been easy to show that, along with predominance of intellect and breadth, this human interest is everywhere present in Byron's work. But the human element- the egotism, if you choose is so universally recognized in his character that any detailed exposition of its presence in his poetry may seem superfluous. Only in his treatment of nature, perhaps, ought special attention to be called to this trait, for here most of all he differs from certain of the romantic writers. It is well to remember that now and always 'the proper study of mankind is man.' We need still to reflect on the wise admonition of St. Augustine: And men go abroad to gaze at the lofty mountains, and the great waves of the sea, and the wide flowing rivers, and the circle of ocean, and the revolutions of the stars, and pass themselves, the crowning wonder, by.' This genuine human interest distinguished Byron from the pseudo-classical writers as well, who would etherealize predominance of intellect into inanimate abstractions, from those thin-blooded poets of the eighteenth century whose art depended on a liberal distribution of capital letters.
At bottom Byron's sympathy is not with nature, but with man, and in the expression of this sympathy he displays the sturdy strength of classical art. Théophile Gautier, in his study of Villon, has a clever appeal for the minor bards. 'The most highly vaunted passages of the poets,' he says, 'are ordinarily commonplaces. Ten verses of Byron on love, on the brevity of life, or on some other subject equally new, will find more admirers than the strangest vision of Jean Paul or of Hoffmann. This is because very many have been or are in love, and a still greater number are fearful of death; but very few, even in dreams, have beheld the fantastic images of the German story-tellers pass before them.' Gautier himself, as one of the 'fantastics,' may be prejudiced in their favor, but his characterization of Byron is eminently right. It is a fact that the great poets, the classic poets, deal very much with commonplaces, but Gautier should know his Horace well enough to remember that nothing is more difficult than the art of giving to these commonplaces an individual stamp.
Here again it may be wise to turn for a while from the romantic poets who search out
the wayward, obscure emotions of the heart to one who treated almost exclusively those simple, fundamental passions which are most compatible with predominance of intellect and breadth of expression. It is said that Byron could never get outside of himself; and this, to a certain extent, is true. He lacked the dramatic art; but, on the other hand, his own human passions were so strong, his life was so vigorous, that from personal experience he was able to accomplish more than most others whose sympathies might be wider. His range is by no means universal, and yet what masterly pictures he has drawn of love and hate, of patriotism, honor, disdain, sarcasm, revenge, remorse, despair, awe, and mockery! If he had touched the passion of love alone, he would still be worthy of study. It is wholesome now and then to descend from the breathless heights where Cythna dwells, and linger by the sea with Haidée, the pure and innocent child of nature. Love in Byron is commonly the beast that enslaves and degrades, or it is the instinctive attraction of youth uncorrupted by the world, that simple self-surrender, unquestioning and unpolluted, which to the aged sight of the wise Goethe and the subtle Renan seemed, after all was said, the best and truest thing in life. Other poets in search of love's mystic shadow have philosophized with Plato or scaled the empyrean with Dante; but rarely in these excursions have they avoided the perils of unreality or self-deception, of inanity or morbidness. There is at least a certain safety in seeing in love the simple animal passion, pure or perverted as the case may be.
And this brings us to the vexed question of Byron's morality. It is not necessary to extenuate his shortcomings in this matter, and yet the evil of his work has been much exaggerated. His aggressive free-thinking, which so shocked his contemporaries, can scarcely do more than elicit a smile to-day; the grossly sensual passages in his poems are few, and these are more outspoken than seductive; his sneers are mostly for cant and hypocrisy, which, God knows, deserved such lashing then even as they do now. And withal his mind was right; he never deceived himself. Many times he alludes to the ruin of his own life, and always he puts his finger upon the real source of the evil, his lack of self-restraint and his revolt from conventions. There is something manly and pathetic at once, not without strange foreboding of what was to come, in these lines from Childe Harold:
'If my fame should be, as my fortunes are,
'My name from out the temple where the dead
'Sparta hath many a worthier son than he." Meantime I seek no sympathies, nor need;
The thorns which I have reap'd are of the tree
I planted, they have torn me —
and I bleed :
I should have known what fruit would spring from such a seed.'
In his Epistle to Augusta, perhaps the noblest of all his shorter poems, he more explicitly mentions the evil that brought about his ruin :
'I have been cunning in mine overthrow,
'Mine were my faults, and mine be their reward.
That gave me being, gave me that which marr'd
a fate, or will, that walk'd astray.'.
One cannot but recall, by way of contrast, the words of Mrs. Shelley in regard to her exalted companion. In all Shelley did,' she says, 'he, at the time of doing it, believed himself justified to his own conscience.' This, surely, is the inner falsehood, more deadly, as Plato affirmed, than the spoken lie; and one needs but a little of the Platonic doctrine to believe that in this glozing of evil lies the veritable danger to morals. There is no such insidious disease in Byron's mind.
The errors of Byron, both in conduct and in art, were in fact largely due to the revolutionary spirit which so easily passes into licentiousness. Classical art should result in self-restraint and harmony of form, but to this Byron never attained except spasmodically, almost by accident it should seem. So far he is classical that he almost universally displays predominance of intellect, breadth of treatment, and human interest; but side by side with this principle of limitation runs the other spirit of revolt, producing at times that extraordinary incongruity of effect which has so baffled his later audience. The world, after manifold struggles, had begun to throw off the medieval ideals. Faith in the infinite and eternal value of the human person, with all its earthly desires and ambitions, with its responsibility to a jealous God, had been rudely shaken; nor had that deeper faith taken hold of the mind wherein this laboring, grasping earthly self is seen to be but a shadow, an obscuration, of something vastly greater hidden in the secret places of the heart. Belief in the divine right of rulers had been burst as an insubstantial bubble, but in the late-born ideal of a humanity bound in brotherhood and striving upward together the individual was very slow to feel the drawing of the new ties; he had revolted from the past, and still felt himself homeless and unattached in the shadowy ideals of the future. In such an age Byron was born, a man of superabundant physical vigor which at any time would have ill brooked restraint, and of mental impetuosity which had by nature something of the tiger in it. He was led at first by the very spirit of the age to glory in physical and mental license and to exaggerate his impatience of restraint; and only by the hard experience of life did he learn, or partly learn, the lesson of moderation. Inevitably his poetry too often reflected his temperament in its lack of discipline.
No one can be more conscious of these deficiencies than the present writer, whose task it has been to read through Byron's works with an editor's questioning eye. His language is often-very often - slipshod, made obscure by interminable anacoluthons, disfigured by frequent lapses into bad grammar. The thought and style of certain poems The Prophecy of Dante, for instance are so cheap as to render the reading of them a labor of necessity. Yet all this hardly affects his importance for us. We are not likely to learn bad grammar from him, and his dull poems are easily passed over. He wrote, to use his own words, as the tiger leaps; and if he missed his aim, there was no retrieving the failure. We call this lack of artistic conscience, and so it is; but in this at least he followed only too well the guidance of his age. And then, if he often failed, he sometimes hit the mark. There are passages· wherein more than that, there are whole poems his classical method has dominated the license of revolt sufficiently to achieve almost perfect harmony of form, while retaining the full vigor of his imperious inspiration.
But the inner character of his work was affected even more than his art by the new leaven, and this free expression of the revolutionary spirit lends to some of his poems a psychological interest even beyond their intrinsic value. It is curious, for instance, to compare the effect on the mature mind of Manfred's eloquence and sombre misanthropy with the impression left from a first reading of that drama many years ago. What carried away the young enthusiast with passionate sympathy now leaves the reader cold or even provokes a smile. Such platitudes as this: