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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 bis 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
1 live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me;' or,
*There is a pleasure in the pathless woods ;'
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,
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,
My whole life was a contest, since the day
The gift, - 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 mediæval 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 if he often failed, he sometimes hit the mark. There are passages
more than that, there are whole poems wherein 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:
“They who know the most Must mourn the deepest o'er the fatal truth,
The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life;' such profundities as the gulf of my unfathomed thought,' do not now seem quite the utterances of apocalyptic wisdom. A more critical taste, too, while feeling the superb rush and abandon of the lyrical stanzas, cannot pass lightly over a tame conclusion like * now wither!' But, however cold Manfred's rhetoric may leave us, we are compelled to admit another and perhaps more enduring value in the poem. Its psychological interest is not easily exaggerated and becomes clear only as we pass out of immediate sympathy with the writer.
Much has been said concerning the relation between Manfred and Faust, and Byron has more than once been accused of plagiarizing the idea of his poem from the great German. As a matter of fact certain ideas of a philosophical cast were probably inspired directly by a recollection of Faust. This talk of the “tree of Knowledge and the tree of Life,' this pretension to profundities of ineffable science, have about them all the insincerity of borrowed inspiration. But the true theme of Manfred is not a philosophical question; the real poem, as Byron himself asserted, came not from reading, but was the immediate outcome of his own life, and Byron's life was the very impersonation of the revolutionary idea, the idea of reckless individual revolt which we have hardly yet outgrown. It is because Manfred more than almost any other English poem expresses the longings and ambitions, the revolt and the tragic failure of this idea, that its interest is still so great and must always remain great in any historical survey of literature. Where better can we read the desire of detachment, the longing of the individual to throw off the bonds of social law and make for himself a life apart from the world's life, than in Manfred's boastful words:
My pang shall find a voice. From my youth upwards
My spirit walk'd not with the souls of men'? Equally strong is the expression of self-centred pride. When Manfred rebukes the Spirit who claims dominion over his soul, he cries out scornfully:
• Back to thy hell !
What I have done is done.' It is in such words as these that we recognize the vast difference between Manfred and Faust, not to mention Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Of similar nature and growing directly from the revolutionary ideal of personal unrestraint is the longing for union with one kindred soul, - a longing which seems at once impossible and impious, yet inevitable. This is Manfred's love for Astarte, the love of a soul that has violated common human attachments in its loneliness and throws itself with guilty passionateness into one sacrilegious desire of union. And the same loneliness, self-created and still intolerable, speaks in the yearning cry after a more intimate absorption into nature:
I said, with men, and with the thonghts of men,
The difficult air of the iced mountain's top,' etc. And at the last comes the inevitable despair, the necessary failure, expressed in Manfred by the vain prayer of oblivion from self. In the end this solitary pride and isolation, this morbid exaltation of our personal existence, become a creation of Frankenstein, from whose oppression we long for deliverance. To the Spirits who offer him dominion and all the joys of the senses the smitten and defiant soul can only cry out for forgetfulness: —
• Oblivion, self-oblivion -
Ye offer so profusely what I ask?' It is the perfect and ever memorable tragedy of the spirit of revolution, of individual isolation, of unrestraint, of limitless desires, which found in Byron side by side with his classic intelligence its most authentic utterance.
But to do anything like justice to the psychology of Byron would require a separate study in itself; and if the subject is here passed lightly over, this is because it seems, on the whole, less important to-day than the analysis of his art. Every one recognizes at a glance the tormented personality and the revolutionary leaven in Byron's spirit; not every one, perhaps, would comprehend immediately the extraordinary result produced by the union of these with his classical method, -a result so peculiar as alone to lend permanent interest to his work. And this interest is heightened by the rapid change and development in his character.
There are, in fact, four pretty clearly defined periods in his life, although as always these overlap one another to a certain extent. First we see the youthful satirist lashing friend and foe with savage bitterness, as if bis egregious egotism could find relief only in baying at the world. Then follows a second phase of revolt, taking pleasure in melodramatic isolation from society, exulting in moody revenge and unutterable mysteries, stalking before the world in gorgeous Oriental disguise. Out of this extravagance grows the Byron of the later Childe Harold, who would unburden his soul of its self-engendered torture in solitary communion with nature, and would find relief from the vulgar cant of the present in pensive reflection on the grandeurs of the older days. And last of all, when even these fail him, the self-mocking Don Juan, with his strange mingling of sweet and bitter, infinitely heavy-hearted at bottom, who cries out in the end:
Now . . . Imagination droops her pinion,
* And if I laugh at any mortal thing,
'Tis that I may not weep; and if I weep, 'Tis that our nature cannot always bring
Itself to apathy.'
He was saved, indeed, from the final silence of apathy by an early death. Yet it may at least be said that for one brief moment, — when, after escaping the vexations of his mined domestic life, he wrote his Epistle to Augusta from the solitudes of Switzerland, – Byron caught, dim and distorted it may be, a glimpse of divine wisdom, which, if pursued, might have rendered him great among the wisest. But some Nemesis of fate, some error of will, swept him back into the bondage from which he never entirely escaped. As it was he wrung from the tragedy of his own life the irony and pathos of Don Juan, a poem which in its own sphere is so easily supreme that this achievement alone would rank him great among the strongest, if not among the wisest.
P. E. M.