LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
[Frederick Denison Maurice]
Sketches of Contemporary Authors. Lord Byron.
The Athenaeum  Vol. 1  No. 23  (8 April 1828)  351-52.
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Literary and Critical Journal.

No. 23. LONDON, FRIDAY, APRIL 8, 1828. Price 7d.


No. XII.—Lord Byron.

The mind of a poet of the highest order is the most perfect mind that can belong to man. There is no intellectual power, and no state of feeling, which may not be the instrument of poetry, and in proportion as reason, reflection, or sympathy is wanting, in the same degree is the poet restricted in his mastery over the resources of his art. The poet is the great interpreter of nature’s mysteries, not by narrowing them into the grasp of the understanding, but by connecting each of them with the feeling which changes doubt to faith. His most gorgeous and varied painting is not displayed as an idle phantasmagoria, but there flows through all its scenes the clear and shining water, which, as we wander for delight, or rest for contemplation, perpetually reflects to us an image of our own being. He sympathises with all phenomena by his intuition of all principle; and his mind is a mirror which catches and images the whole scheme and working of the world. He comprehends all feelings, though he only cherishes the best; and, even while he exhibits to us the frenzies or degradations of humanity, we are conscious of an ever-present divinity, elevating and hallowing the evil that surrounds it.

A great poet may be of any time, or rank, or country; a beggar, an outcast, a slave, or even a courtier. The external limits of his social relations may be narrow and wretched as they will, but they will always have an inward universality. In his rags, he is nature’s treasurer: though he may be blind, he sees the past and the future, and though the servant of servants, he is ever at large and predominant. But there are things which he cannot be. He cannot be a scorner, or selfish, or luxurious and sensual. He cannot be a self-worshipper, for he only breathes by sympathy, and is its organ; he cannot be untrue, for it is his high calling to interpret those universal truths which exist on earth only in the forms of his creation. He cannot be given up to libertine debauchery; for it is impossible to dwell at once before the starry threshold of Jove’s court, and in the den of lewd and drunken revel. It was to Hades, not to Olympus, that the comrades of Ulysses voyaged, from the island of Circe; nor can we pass, without long and hard purgation, from the sty to the sanctuary, or from the wine-cup to the fountain of immortality. The poet must be of a fearless honesty; for he has to do battle with men for that which men most dread, the regeneration, namely, of man: and yet he must be also of a loving-kindness; for his arms are the gentleness of his accents, and the music of all sweet thoughts. Such is the real and perfect poet; and it is only in far as verse-artisans approach to this, that they are entitled to that lofty and holy name. But he who is such as has been now described, is indeed of as high and sacred a function as can belong to man. It is not the black garment, nor the precise and empty phrase, which makes men ministers of God; but the communion with that Spirit of God, which was, in all its fulness, upon those mighty poets, Isaiah and Ezekiel; which unrolled its visions over the rocks of Patmos, and is, in larger or smaller measure, the teacher of every bard.

Many of the warmest admirers of poetry will, of course, be shocked at the idea of it being any thing more than an innocent amusement. It is in their eyes a pretty pastime, to be classed with the making of handscreens, or the shooting of partridges, an art not at all more important, and only a little more agreeable, than rope-dancing or back-gammon, to be resorted to when we are weary of the graver and more difficult operations of summing up figures, or filling sheepskins with legal formulas. These are the persons who are perfectly contented with a poet, if he supplies them with excitement at the least possible expense of thought; who profess that the Fairy Queen, is tedious and ‘uninteresting,’ who only not despise Milton, because he is commonly reported to have been a man of genius, who treat Wordsworth as a driveller, and Coleridge as a ‘dreamer of dreams.’ And herein they are, perhaps, right; for, being deaf, they have not heard the piping, and how then could they dance? We trust, however, that we have many readers who will agree with us in taking a different view of these matters, and to them we would say a few words about Lord Byron.

No one, probably, will be inclined to maintain, that Lord Byron’s poetry produces a good moral effect, except those who are anxious to spread the disbelief of the goodness of God, and to bring about the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes. With such persons, we have at present no quarrel. They are welcome to their opinions, so far as we are concerned; and we can only lament, for their own sakes, that they should think and feel as they do. To those who, without going so far as these, yet deny that his writings have a bad moral influence, we will give up the advantage to be derived from pressing the two above-mentioned points, and put the question on other grounds: and we wish to state distinctly, that we think, in the first place, Lord Byron (as seen in his writings) had no sympathy with human nature, and no belief in its goodness; and, secondly, that he had no love of truth. These are grave charges; and, at least, as grave in our eyes as in those of any of our readers. But we are convinced of the justice of them; and no fear of being classed with the bigots, of being called churchmen rather than Christians, and believers in articles, more than believers in God, shall prevent us from expressing and enforcing our conviction.

The attempt to prove any thing as to the habitual state of mind of a writer, by picking out detached sentences from his works, we look upon as vain and sophistical; vain, because no sentence of any author expresses the same meaning when detached from the context as when taken along with it; sophistical, because the very selection and abruption of these parts indicates a wish to persuade us that we ought to judge of a house from a single brick. The only satisfactory and honest method of estimating an author is, by considering the general impression which his works leave upon the mind. Now, if any candid and reflecting man, (or woman,) were to inform us of the influence exerted upon him by the perusal of one of Lord Byron’s poems, would not his account be something of this sort—that he had felt inclined to look with scorn and bitterness upon his fellow-creatures, to wrap himself up in his own selfishness, and to see, in the outward world, not embodyings of that one idea of beauty which prevails in our own minds, not frame-works for human conceptions and affections, but mere images of his own personality, and vantage-grounds on which to raise himself afar from and above mankind? Would he not say that he had been imbibing discontent, disgust, satiety, and learning to look upon life as a dreary dulness, relieved only by betaking ourselves to the wildest excesses and fiercest intensity of evil impulse. If, as we firmly believe, a sincere observer of himself would give us this account of his own feelings, after communing with the poetry of Byron, the question as to its beneficial or even innocent tendency is at an end. It is true that there are in man higher powers than those which tend directly to action; and there may be a character of a very exalted kind, though not the most perfect, which would withdraw itself from the business of society, and from the task of forwarding the culture of its generation, to contemplate with serene and grateful awe the perfect glory of the creation. But this is not the species of superiority to those around us and independence of them, which is fostered by the works of Lord Byron. The feeling which runs through them is that of a self-consuming scorn, and a self-exhausting weariness, as remote as can be from the healthful and majestic repose of philosophic meditation, as different from it as is the noisome glare of a theatre from that midnight firmament which folds the world in a starry atmosphere of religion; while the practical portion of our nature is displayed in his writings, as only active and vigorous amid the atrocities or the vileness of the foulest passions. He saw in mankind not a being to be loved, but to be despised; and despised, not for vice, ignorance, insensibility, or selfishness, but because he is obliged, by a law of his being, to look up to some power above himself, because he is not self-created and self-existing nor ‘himself, his world, and his own God.’

As the Lord Byron of ‘Childe Harold’ and ‘Don Juan’ had no sympathy with mankind, neither does he seem to us to have had any love of truth. He appears to have felt that we have a natural tendency towards admiring and feeling, in accordance with the show of bold and bad predominances. The corrupt vanity of men, the propensity which teaches them to revere Cromwell and worship Napoleon, has made the world derive a diseased gratification from the pictures of Harold and Conrad. But these latter personages are essentially untrue. All that gives them more of the heroic and romantic character than the former worthies, is superadded to the original basis of evil and worthlessness, and is utterly inconsistent with it. And this Lord Byron must have known. He who put together these monsters, must have been aware that they are as false, and, to a philosopher, as ridiculous as sphynxes, or chimeras to a naturalist. But he had so little love of truth, that he could not resist the temptation of encircling himself with these bombastic absurdities, to raise the astonishment of sentimental mantua-makers.

It is mournful to see that so much of energy and real feeling should have been perverted to the formation of these exaggerated beings, alternately so virtuous and so vicious, now so overflowing with tenderness, and so bright with purity, and again so hard, and vile, and atrocious. These qualities, to be sure, are all found in man; but the combination, where, in earth or moon, shall we look to find it? The principles of human nature are not mere toys, like phosphorus and paint, wherewith to eke out goblins: and he who pretends to exalt the mind by representing it as
superior, not only to its meaner necessities, but to its best affections, in truth, degrades it to the basest of uses, by exhibiting it, not as a thing to be reverenced, and loved, and studied with conscientious and scrutinising reflection, but as a dead and worthless material, which he may pound and compound-evaporate into a cloud, or analyse into a caput mortuum, and subject to all the metamorphoses which are worked by the lath wand of a conjuror. It is only by attributing the favourite thoughts and deeds of his writings to personages whom we feel throughout, though we may not realise the consciousness, to be essentially different from ourselves, that he could, for a moment, beguile us into conceiving libertinism sublime, and malignity amiable; and, if mankind were so educated as to know the constitution of their own souls, if they had learned to reflect more and to remember less, they would never be deluded into sympathy with phantoms as unsubstantial and inconsistent as the Minotaur, the Scylla, the Harpies, and the Cyclops of fable,—the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
‘Do grow beneath their shoulders.’

We entirely omit the question of the direct irreligion and indecency of his writings. As to these matters, those who feel religiously will blame him, without our assistance, and those who approve of infidelity, or gloat over obscurity, will applaud, in spite of us. At present, we neither seek to heighten the reprobation, nor to diminish aught from the approval. For ourselves, we lament the Anti-Christian and impure tendencies of his mind, not so much for any positive evil they can do,—this, we suspect, being much over-rated,—as because they are evidences of the degradation of a powerful mind, and of the pollution of much and strong good feeling. We certainly differ considerably from the greater number of those who have attacked him, as to the particular parts of his writings, which merit the severest condemnation. The story of Haidee seems to us munch less mischievous than that of Donna Julia, and this far more endurable than the amour with Catherine. ‘Childe Harold’ will do more harm than ‘Cain,’ and either of them more than the parody of ‘The Vision of Judgment.’ Of this, also, we are sure, that, had he never openly outraged public opinion by direct blasphemies and grossness, the world would have been well enough content to receive his falsifications of human nature for genuine; and all his forced contortions, and elaborate agonies, would have passed current as natural manifestations of a reasonable and pretty despair. But, when he once did violence to those names which are the idols of the age, while the spirit of religion is wanting, he became a mark for the condemnation of those who live by the service of Bal and Dagon. He might exhibit man as a wretched and contemptible, an utterly hopeless and irrecoverably erring creature,—he might represent selfishness and vanity as the true glories of our nature,—he might leave us no home but solitude, and no stay but sensuality, and deny not only God, but good;—and yet be the favourite of pious Reviewers, the drawing-room autocrat, the boudoir deity. But when he once dared to doubt, in so many words, of the wisdom of Providence, and, instead of hinting adultery, to name fornication, the morality of a righteous generation rose up in arms against him; and those who ought long before to have wept over the prostitution of such a mind, affected a new-born horror at the event, though they had been delighting for years in the reality of the pollution.

We wish not to deny that Lord Byron was a poet, and a great one. There are moods of the mind which he has delineated with remarkable fidelity. But, as Shakspeare would not have been what he is, had he exhibited only the fantastic waywardness of Hamlet, or the passionate love of Romeo, so Byron is less than a first-rate poet for the uniformity with which be has displayed that intense self-consciousness, and desperate indifference, which he has undoubtedly embodied more completely than any other English writer. The sceptre of his power is, indeed, girt with the wings of an angel, but it is also wreathed with earth-born serpents; and, while we admire we must sigh, and shudder while we bow.