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The sword, the sceptre, and that sway
Wherewith renown was rife-
The Victor overthrown;
A suppliant for his own !
Or dread of death alone ?
Thy choice is most ignobly brave.' In the first of these two stanzas the seventh line is weak and breaks the rapid rush of the verse; but the high pressure and impetus of the poem are sustained throughout twenty stanzas, producing the effect of an improvisatore who stops rather from want of breath than from any other lack of inspiration. In this respect the ode is a rare poetical exploit; for all poems composed under the spur
of the moment, upon some memorable incident that has just startled the world, must be more or less improvised, and must hit the right pitch of extraordinary popular emotion. It is the difficulty of turning out good work under such arduous conditions that has too often shipwrecked or stranded some unlucky laureate.
There is one province of verse, if not exactly of poetry, in which Byron reigns undisputedly, though it is far distant from the land of lyrics. In his latest and longest production, ' Don Juan,' he tells us that his 'sere fancy has fallen ' into the yellow leaf :'
• And the sad truth which hovers o'er my desk
Turns what was once romantic to burlesque.' It was in ‘Beppo : a Venetian Story 'that he dropped, for the first time, the weapon of trenchant sarcasm and invective, with no very fine edge upon it, which he flourished in his youth, and took up the tone of light humorous satire upon society. He soon acquired mastery over the metre (which was suggested, as is well known, by Hookham Frere's Whistlecraft'); and in Don Juan'he produced a long, rambling poem of a kind never before attempted, and still far beyond any subsequent imitations, in the English language. Of a certainty there is much that it is by no means desirable to imitate, for the English literature does not assimilate the
element of cynical libertinism, which indeed becomes coarse on an English tongue. Yet it is remarkable that the Whistlecraft metre, although Byron could manage it with point and spirit, has never produced more than insipid pastiche in later hands. But while 'Beppo' may be classed as pure burlesque, 'Don Juan' strikes various keys, ironical and voluptuous, grave and gay, rising sometimes to the level of strenuous realistic narrative in the episodes of the shipwreck and the siege, falling often into something like grotesque buffoonery, with much picturesque description, many animated lines, and occasional touches of effective pathos. As a story it has the picaresque flavour of 'Gil * Blas, presenting a variety of scenes and adventures strung together without any definite plot; as a poem its reputation rests upon some passages of indisputable beauty; while Byron's own experiences, grievances, and animosities, personal or political, run through the whole performanee like an accompaniment, and break out occasionally into humorous sarcasm or violent denunciations. That the overheated fervour of a stormy youth should cool down into disdainful irony, under the chill of disappointment and exhaustion, was natural enough; and this unfinished poem may be regarded as typical of Byron's erratic life, full of loose intrigue and adventure, with its sudden and premature ending.
It is in 'Don Juan 'that Byron stands forth as the founder and precursor of modern realism in poetry. He has now finally exorcised the hyperbolic fiend that vexed his youth, he has cast off the illusions of romance, he knows the ground he treads upon, and his pictures are drawn from life; he is the foremost of those who have ventured boldly upon the sombre actualities of war and bloodshed :
• But let me put an end unto my theme,
There was an end of Ismail, hapless town,
And redly ran his blushing waters down.
Rose still; but fainter were the thunders grown;
Some hundreds breathed, the rest were silent all.' “A versified paraphrase,' it may be said, 'of sober history,' yet withal very different from the most animated prose, which must be kept at a lower temperature of intense expression. If we turn to quieter scenes-which are called picturesque because the artist, like a painter, has selected the right subject and point of view, and has grouped his details with exquisite skill--we may take the stanzas describing the return of the pirate Lambro to his Greek island
• He saw his white walls shining in the sun,
His garden trees all shadowy and green 'as a fine example of pure objective writing, which lays out the whole scene truthfully, with the direct vision of one who has seen it. One does not find here the suggestive intimations, the wide imaginative horizon of higher poetry; there are no musical blendings of sound and sense, as in such lines as Tennyson's
'By the long wash of Australasian seas.' Yet in these passages Byron has after his own fashion served Nature faithfully, and he has preserved to us some masterly sketches of life and manners that have long since disappeared. The Greek islands have since fallen under the dominion of European uniformity; the costume of the people, the form of their government, are shabby imitations of Western models. But the cloudless sky, the sun slowly sinking behind Morea's hills, the sea on whose azure brow Time writes no wrinkle, and the marbled steep of Sunium, are still unchanged ; and the peaceful tourist in these waters will see at once that Byron was a true workman in line and colour, and will feel the intellectual pleasure that comes from accurate yet artistic interpretation of natural beauties.
The poem of Don Juan' is, therefore, a miscellany, connected on the picturesque side with 'Childe Harold,' and by its mocking spirit with 'Beppo' and the · Vision of
Judgement,' the two pieces that may be classed as pure burlesque. The irreverent persiflage of the · Vision' belongs to the now obsolete school of Voltaire, and in biting wit and daring ridicule the performance is not unworthy of that supreme master in diablerie. Nor can it be asserted that this lashing sarcasm was unde served, or that all the pro. fanity was in Byron's parody, for Southey's conception of the Almighty as a High Tory judge, with an obsequious jury of angels, holding a trial of George III., browbeating the witnesses against him and acquitting him with acclamation, so that he leaves the court without a stain on his character, was false and abject enough to stir the bile of a less irritable Liberal than Byron. There exists, moreover, in the mind of every good English Whig a lurking sympathy with the Miltonic Satan, insomuch that all
subsequent attempts by minor poets to humiliate and misrepresent him have invariably failed. Southey's Vision, and Robert Montgomery's libel upon Satan, have each undergone the same, fate of being utterly extinguished, knocked clean out of English literature by one single crushing onslaught, of Byron and Macaulay respectively.
Our conclusion must be brief, for in fact it is not easy to propound to the readers of this Review any general observations, which shall be new as well as true, upon a man’s life and works that have been subjected to incessant scrutiny and criticism throughout the nineteenth century. At the beginning of this period Byron found himself matched, in the poetic arena, against contemporary rivals of first-class genius and striking originality. And from his death almost up to the century's close there has been no time when some considerable poet has not occupied the forefront of English letters, and stamped his impression on the public mind. Variety in style and ideas has produced many vicissitudes of taste in poetry; it has been discovered that narrative can be better done in prose, and so the novel has largely superseded story-telling in verse. There have also been great political and social changes, and all these things have severely tested the staying powers of a writer who is too closely associated with his own period to be reckoned among those wide-ranging spirits whom Shelley has called 'the kings of thought. Nevertheless the new edition of Byron is appearing at a moment which is, we think, not inopportune. There is just now, as by a coincidence there was in the year 1800, a dearth of poetic production; we have fallen among lean years; we have come to a break in the succession of notable poets; the Victorian celebrities have one by one passed away; and we can only hope that the first quarter of the twentieth century may bring again some such bountiful harvest as was vouchsafed to our grandfathers at the beginning of the nineteenth. In the meantime the reading of Byron may operate as a wholesome tonic upon the literary nerves of the rising generation ; for, as Mr. Swinburne has generously acknowledged, with the emphatic concurrence of Matthew Arnold, his poems have the excellence of sincerity and strength. Now one tendency of latter-day verse has been toward that overdelicacy of fibre which has been termed decadence, toward the preference of correct metrical harmonies over distinct and incisive expression, toward vague indications of meaning. In this form the melody prevails over the matter; the
style inclines to become precious and garnished with verbal artifice. Some recent French poets, indeed, in their anxiety to correct the troublesome lucidity of their mother-tongue, have set up the school of symbolism, which deals in halfveiled metaphor and sufficiently obscure allusion, relying upon subtly suggestive phrases for evoking associations. For ephemeral infirmities of this kind the straightforward virility of Byron's best work may serve as an antidote. On the other hand, we have the well-knit strenuous verse of extreme realism, wrought out by a poet in his shirt-sleeves, with rhymes clear-sounding like the tap of hammer on anvil, who sings of rough folk by sea and land, and can touch national emotion in regard to the incidents or politics of the moment. He paints without varnish, in hard outline, avoiding metaphor and ornamental diction generally; taking his language so freely out of the mouths of men in actual life that he makes occasional slips into vulgarity. He is at the opposite pole from the symbolist; but true poetry demands much more distinction of style and nobility of thought. And here again Byron's high lyrical notes may help to maintain elevation of tone and to preserve the romantic tradition. His poetry, like his character, is full of glaring imperfections; yet he wrote as one of the great world in which he made for a time such a noise; and after all that has been said about his moral delinquencies, it is certain that we could have better spared a better man.
In one of Tennyson's earlier letters is the following passage, with reference to something written at the time in Philip van Artevelde :'
• He does not sufficiently take into consideration the peculiar strength evolved by such writers as Byron and Shelley, who, however mistaken they may be, did yet give the world another heart, and a new pulse, and so we are kept going. Blessed be those who grease the wheels of the old world.' This is the large-hearted, far-seeing judgement of one who could survey the whole line and evolutionary succession of English verse, being himself destined to close the long list of nineteenth-century poets, which was opened by Byron and his contemporaries. The time has surely now come when we may leave discussing Byron as a social outlaw, and cease groping after more evidence of his misdeeds. The office of true criticism is to show that he made so powerful an impression on our literature as to win for himself permanent rank in its annals, and that his work, with all its shortcomings, does yet mark and illustrate an important stage in the connected developement of our English poetry.