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Men must endure
Ripeness is all." But as compared with Leopardi, Wordsworth, though at many points less lucid, though far less a master of style, far less of an artist, gains so much by his criticism of life being, in certain matters of profound importance, healthful and true, whereas Leopardi's pessimism is not, that the value of Wordsworth's poetry, on the whole, stands higher for us than that of Leopardi's, as it stands higher for us, I think, than that of any modern poetry except Goethe's.
Byron's poetic value is also greater, on the whole, than Leopardi's ; and his superiority turns, in the same way, upon the surpassing worth of something which he had and was, after all deduction has been made for his short. comings. We talk of Byron's personality, “a personal. ity in eminence such as has never been yet, and is not likely to come again ;” and we say that by this personality Byron is “ different from all the rest of English poets, and in the main greater.” But can we not be a little more circumstantial, and name that in which the wonder. ful power of this personality consisted? We can ; with the instinct of a poet Mr. Swinburne has seized upon it and named it for us. The power of Byron's personality lies in “the splendid and imperishable excellence which covers all his offences and outweighs all his defects : the excellence of sincerity and strength.”
Byron found our nation, after its long and victorious struggle with revolutionary France, fixed in a system of established facts and dominant ideas which revolted him. The mental bondage of the most powerful part of our nation, of its strong middle class, to a narrow and false system of this kind, is what we call British Philistinism. That bondage is unbroken to this hour, but in Byron's time it was even far more deep and dark than it is now. Byron was an aristocrat, and it is not difficult for an aristocrat to look on the prejudices and habits of the British Philistine with scepticism and disdain. Plenty of young men of his own class Byron met at Almack's or at Lady Jersey's, who regarded the established facts and reigning beliefs of the England of that day with as little reverence as he did. But these men, disbelievers in British Philistinism in private, entered English public life, the most conventional in the world, and at once they saluted with respect the habits and ideas of British Philistinism as if they were a part of the order of creation, and as if in public no sane man would think of warring against them. With Byron it was different. What he called the cant of the great middle part of the English nation, what we call its Philistinism, revolted him ; but the cant of his own class, deferring to this Philistinism and profiting by it, while they disbelieved in it, revolted him even more. “Come what may,” are his own words, “I will never flatter the million's canting in any shape.”. His class in general, on the other hand, shrugged their shoulders at this cant, laughed at it, pandered to it, and ruled by it. The falsehood, cynicism, insolence, misgovernment, oppression, with their consequent unfailing crop of human misery, which were produced by this state of things, roused Byron to irreconcilable revolt and battle. They made him indignant, they infuriated him ; they were so strong, so defiant, so maleficent,-and yet he felt that they were doomed. “ You have seen every trampler down in turn,” he comforts himself with saying, “ from Buonaparte to the simplest individuals.” The old order, as after 1815 it stood victorious, with its ignor. ance and misery below, its cant, selfishness, and cynicism above, was at home and abroad equally hateful to him. “I have simplified my politics,” he writes, “ into an utter detestation of all existing governments.” And again : “Give me a republic. The king-times are fast finishing ; there will be blood shed like water and tears like mist, but the peoples will conquer in the end. I shall not live to see it, but I foresee it.”
Byron himself gave the preference, he tells us, to politicians and doers, far above writers and singers. But the politics of his own day and of his own class,—even of the Liberals of his own class,—were impossible for him. Nature had not formed him for a Liberal peer, proper to move the Address in the House of Lords, to pay compliments to the energy and self-reliance of British middle-class Liberalism, and to adapt his politics to suit it. Unfitted for such politics, he threw himself upon poetry as his organ; and in poetry his topics were not Queen Mab, and the Witch of Atlas, and the Sensitive Plant, they were the upholders of the old order, George the Third and Lord Castlereagh and the Duke of Wellington and Southey, and they were the canters and tramplers of the great world, and they were his enemies and himself.
Such was Byron's personality, by which “he is different from all the rest of English poets, and, in the main, greater.” But he posed all his life, says M. Scherer. Let us distinguish. There is the Byron who posed, there is the Byron with his affectations and silliness, the Byron whose weakness Lady Blessington, with a woman's acuteness, so admirably seized : “his great defect is flippancy and a total want of self-possession.” But when this theatrical and easily criticised personage betook himself to poetry, and when he had fairly warmed to his work, then he became another man; then the theatrical personage passed away; then a higher power took possession of him and filled him ; then at last came forth into light that true and puissant personality, with its direct strokes, its ever - welling force, its satire, its energy, and its agony. This is the real Byron ; whoever stops at the theatrical preludings, does not know him. And this real Byron may well be superior to the stricken Leopardi, he may well be declared “different from all the rest of English poets, and, in the main, greater,” in so far as it is true of him, as M. Taine well says, that “all other souls, in comparison with his, seem inert;" in so far as it is true of him that with superb, exhaustless energy he maintained, as Professor Nichol well says, “the struggle that keeps alive, if it does not save, the soul :" in so far, finally, as he deserves (and he does deserve) the noble praise of him which I have already quoted from Mr. Swinburne; the praise for “the splendid and imperishable excellence which covers all his offences and outweighs all his defects : the excellence of sincerity and strength.”
True, as a man, Byron could not manage himself, could not guide his ways aright, but was all astray. True, he has no light, cannot lead us from the past to the future; “the moment he reflects, he is a child.” The way out of the false state of things which enraged him he did not see,—the slow and laborious way upward; he had not the patience, knowledge, self-discipline, virtue, requisite for seeing it. True, also, as a poet, he has no fine and exact sense for word and structure and rhythm ; he has not the artist's nature and gifts. Yet a personality of Byron's force counts for so much in life, and a rhetorician of Byron's force counts for so much in literature ! But it would be most unjust to label Byron, as M. Scherer is disposed to label him, as a rhetorician only. Along with his astounding power and passion, he had a strong and deep sense for what is beautiful in nature, and for what is beautiful in human action and suffering. When he warms to his work, when he is inspired, Nature herself seems to take the pen from him as she took it from Wordsworth, and to write for him as she wrote for Wordsworth, though in a different fashion, with her own penetrating simplicity. Goethe has well observed of Byron, that when he is at his happiest his representation of things is as easy and real as if he were improvising. It is so ; and his verse then exhibits quite another and a higher quality from the rhetorical quality,-admirable as this also in its own kind of merit is,--of such verse as
“Minions of splendour shrinking from distress," and of so much more verse of Byron's of that stamp. Nature, I say, takes the pen for him ; and then, assured master of a true poetic style though he is not, any more than Wordsworth, yet as from Wordsworth at his best there will come such verse as
“Will no one tell me what she sings ?" so from Byron, too, at his best, there will come such
“ He heard it, but he heeded not; his eyes
Were with his heart, and that was far away.” Of verse of this high quality, Byron has much ; of