« PreviousContinue »
with the careless and negligent ease of a man of quality,” Byron wrote in his Cain :
Souls that dare look the Omnipotent tyrant in
His evil is not good;" or he wrote :
And thou would'st go on aspiring To the great double Mysteries ! the two Principles !”1 One has only to repeat to oneself a line from Paradise Lost in order to feel the difference.
Sainte-Beuve, speaking of that exquisite master of language, the Italian poet Leopardi, remarks how often we see the alliance, singular though it may at first sight appear, of the poetical genius with the genius for scholarship and philology. Dante and Milton are instances which will occur to every one's mind. Byron is so negligent in his poetical style, he is often, to say the truth, so slovenly, slipshod, and infelicitous, he is so little haunted by the true artist's fine passion for the correct use and consummate management of words, that he may be described as having for this artistic gift the insensibility of the barbarian ;-which is perhaps only another and a less flattering way of saying, with Scott, that he
manages his pen with the careless and negligent ease of a man of quality.” Just of a piece with the rhythm of
“ Dare you await the event of a few minutes'
“All shall be void
Destroy'd!” is the diction of
" Which now is painful to these eyes,
Which have not seen the sun to rise ;"
1 The italics are in the original.
there let him lay!' or of the famous passage beginning
“He who hath bent him o'er the dead;" with those trailing relatives, that crying grammatical solecism, that inextricable anacolouthon ! To class the work of the author of such things with the work of the authors of such verse as
“In the dark backward and abysm of time”
Presenting Thebes, or Pelops' line,
is ridiculous. Shakespeare and Milton, with their secret of consummate felicity in diction and movement, are of another and an altogether higher order from Byron, nay, for that matter, from Wordsworth also ; from the author of such verse as
“Sol hath dropt into his harbour”. or (if Mr. Ruskin pleases) as
“Parching summer hath no warrant as from the author of
“All shall be void
Destroy'd !” With a poetical gift and a poetical performance of the very highest order, the slovenliness and tunelessness of much of Byron's production, the pompousness and ponderousness of much of Wordsworth's, are incompatible. Let us admit this to the full.
Moreover, while we are hearkening to M. Scherer, and going along with him in his fault-finding, let us admit, too, that the man in Byron is in many respects as unsatisfactory as the poet. And, putting aside all
direct moral criticism of him,- with which we need not concern ourselves here,
-we shall find that he is unsatisfactory in the same way. Some of Byron's most crying faults as a man,-his vulgarity, his affectation,-are really akin to the faults of commonness, of want of art, in his workmanship as a poet. The ideal nature for the poet and artist is that of the finely touched and finely gifted man, the evduńs of the Greeks ; now, Byron's nature was in substance not that of the cúpuńs at all, but rather, as I have said, of the barbarian. The want of fine perception which made it possible for him to formulate either the comparison between himself and Rousseau, or his reason for getting Lord Delawarr excused from a
• licking” at Harrow, is exactly what made possible for him, also, his terrible dealings in, An ye wool ; I have redde thee ; Sunburn me ; Oons, and it is excellent well. It is exactly, again, what made possible for him his precious dictum that Pope is a Greek temple, and a string of other criticisms of the like force ; it is exactly, in fine, what deteriorated the quality of his poetic production. If we think of a good representative of that finely touched and exquisitely gifted nature which is the ideal nature for the poet and artist, —if we think of Raphael, for instance, who truly is eúduńs just as Byron
-we shall bring into clearer light the connexion in Byron between the faults of the man and the faults of
With Raphael's character Byron's sins of vulgarity and false criticism would have been impossible, just as with Raphael's art Byron's sins of common and bad workmanship.
Yes, all this is true, but it is not the whole truth about Byron nevertheless; very far from it. The severe criticism of M. Scherer by no means gives us the whole truth
about Byron, and we have not yet got it in what has been added to that criticism here. The negative part of the true criticism of him we perhaps have ; the positive part, by far the more important, we have not. Byron's admirers appeal eagerly to foreign testimonies in his favour. Some of these testimonies do not much move me; but one testimony there is among them which will always carry, with me at any rate, very great weight, — the testimony of Goethe. Goethe's sayings about Byron were uttered, it must however be remembered, at the height of Byron's vogue, when that puissant and splendid personality was exercising its full power of attraction. In Goethe's own household there was an atmosphere of glowing Byron-worship; his daughter-in-law was a pas. sionate admirer of Byron, nay, she enjoyed and prized his poetry, as did Tieck and so many others in Germany at that time, much above the poetry of Goethe himself. Instead of being irritated and rendered jealous by this, a nature like Goethe's was inevitably led by it to heighten, not lower, the note of his praise. The Time-Spirit, or Zeit-Geist, he would himself have said, was working just then for Byron. This working of the Zeit-Geist in his favour was an advantage added to Byron's other advantages, an advantage of which he had a right to get the benefit. This is what Goethe would have thought and said to himself; and so he would have been led even to heighten somewhat his estimate of Byron, and to accentuate the emphasis of praise. Goethe speaking of Byron at that moment was not and could not be quite the same cool critic as Goethe speaking of Dante, or Molière, or Milton. This, I say, we ought to remember in reading Goethe's judgments on Byron and his poetry. Still, if we are careful to bear this in mind, and if we quote Goethe's praise correctly,—which is not always done by those who in this country quote it,—and if we add to it that great and due qualification added to it by Goethe himself,—which so far as I have seen has never yet been done by his quoters in this country at all,—then we shall have a judgment on Byron, which comes, I think, very near to the truth, and which may well command our adherence.
In his judicious and interesting Life of Byron, Professor Nichol quotes Goethe as saying that Byron “is undoubtedly to be regarded as the greatest genius of our century.” What Goethe did really say was “the greatest talent," not “the greatest genius." The difference is important, because, while talent gives the notion of power in a man's performance, genius gives rather the notion of felicity and perfection in it; and this divine gift of consummate felicity by no means, as we have seen, belongs to Byron and to his poetry. Goethe said that Byron “must unquestionably be regarded as the greatest talent of the century.' He said of him moreover : “ The English may think of Byron what they please, but it is certain that they can point to no poet who is his like. He is different from all the rest, and, in the main, greater.” Here, again, Professor Nichol translates : “ They can show no (living) poet who is to be compared to him ;"—inserting the word living, I suppose, to prevent its being thought that Goethe would have ranked Byron, as a poet, above Shakespeare and Milton. But Goethe did not use, or, I think, mean to imply, any limitation such as is added by Professor Nichol. Goethe said simply, and he meant to say, “no
1 “Der ohne Frage als das grösste Talent des Jahrhunderts anzusehen ist.”