LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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The Life of Lord Byron
Chapter V

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Character at Harrow.—Political predilections.—Byron at Cambridge.—His “Hours of Idleness.”

In reconsidering the four years which Byron spent at Harrow, while we can clearly trace the development of the sensibilities of his character, and an increased tension of his susceptibility, by which impressions became more acute and delicate, it seems impossible not to perceive by the records which he has himself left of his feelings, that something morbid was induced upon them. Had he not afterwards so magnificently distinguished himself as a poet, it is not probable that he would have been recollected by his schoolfellows as having been in any respect different from the common herd. His activity and spirit, in their controversies and quarrels, were but the outbreakings of that temperament which the discipline of riper years, and the natural awe of the world, afterward reduced into his hereditary cast of character, in which so much of sullenness and misanthropy was exhibited. I cannot, however, think that there was anything either in the nature of his pastimes, or his studies, unfavourable to the formation of the poetical character. His amusements were active; his reading, though without method, was yet congenial to his impassioned imagination; and the phantom of an enthusiastic attachment, of which Miss Chaworth was not the only object (for it was altogether intellectual, and shared with others), were circum-
stances calculated to open various sources of reflection, and to concentrate the elements of an energetic and original mind.

But it is no easy matter to sketch what may have been the outline of a young poet’s education. The supposition that poets must be dreamers, because there is often much dreaminess in poesy, is a mere hypothesis. Of all the professors of metaphysical discernment, poets require the finest tact; and contemplation is with them a sign of inward abstract reflection, more than of any process of mind by which resemblance is traced, and associations awakened. There is no account of any great poet, whose genius was of that dreamy cartilaginous kind, which hath its being in haze, and draws its nourishment from lights and shadows; which ponders over the mysteries of trees, and interprets the oracles of babbling waters. They have all been men—worldly men, different only from others in reasoning more by feeling than induction. Directed by impulse, in a greater degree than other men, poets are apt to be betrayed into actions which make them singular, as compared by those who are less imaginative; but the effects of earnestness should never be confounded with the qualities of talent.

No greater misconception has ever been obtruded upon the world as philosophic criticism, than the theory of poets being the offspring of “capering lambkins and cooing doves”; for they differ in no respect from other men of high endowment, but in the single circumstance of the objects to which their taste is attracted.* The most vigorous poets, those who have

* “The greatest poets that ever lived,” says the tasteful author of an Introduction to the Greek Classic Poets, “have, without exception, been the wisest men of their time;” and he adds, “the knowledge of the mind and its powers—of the passions and their springs—the love and study of the beautiful forms of the visible creation, this it is which can alone teach a man to think in sympathy with the great body of his fellow-creatures,
influenced longest and are most quoted, have indeed been all men of great shrewdness of remark, and anything but your chin-on-hand contemplators. To adduce many instances is unnecessary. Are there any symptoms of the gelatinous character of the effusions of the Lakers in the compositions of
Homer? The London Gazette does not tell us things more like facts than the narratives of Homer, and it often states facts that are much more like fictions than his most poetical inventions. So much is this the case with the works of all the higher poets, that as they recede from that worldly standard which is found in the Epics of Homer, they sink in the scale of poets. In what does the inferiority of Virgil, for example, consist, but in his having hatched fancies in his contemplations which the calm mind rejects as absurdities. Then Tasso, with his enchanted forests and his other improbabilities; are they more than childish tales? tales, too, not in fancy to be compared with those of that venerable dry-nurse, Mother Bunch. Compare the poets that babble of green fields with those who deal in the actions and passions of men, such as Shakspeare, and it must be confessed that it is not those who have looked at external nature who are the true poets, but those who have seen and considered most about the business and bosom of man. It may be an advantage that a poet should have the benefit of landscapes and storms, as children are the better for country air
and enable him to draw back the veil which different manners and various costume have spread over the unchangeable face of humanity. In this sense, it is not true that Homer and Dante and Milton were learned in an extraordinary degree; but more than all Shakspeare:
“On the tip of his subduing tongue,
All kinds of arguments and questions deep,
All replication prompt and reason strong,
For his advantage still did wake and sleep,
To make the weeper laugh—the laugher weep!”
and cow’s milk; but the true scene of their manly work and business is in the populous city. Inasmuch as Byron was a lover of solitude, he was deficient as an observer of men.

The barrenest portion as to materials for biography in the life of this interesting man, is the period he spent at the University of Cambridge. Like that of most young men, it is probable the major part of his time was passed between the metropolis and the university. Still it was in that period he composed the different poems which make up the little volume of The Hours of Idleness; a work which will ever be regarded, more by its consequences than its importance, as of great influence on the character and career of the poet.

It has been supposed, I see not how justly, that there was affectation in the title. It is probable that Byron intended no more by it than to imply that its contents were sketches of leisure. This is the less doubtful, as he was at that period particularly sensitive concerning the opinion that might be entertained of his works. Before he made the collection, many of the pieces had been circulated, and he had gathered opinions as to their merits with a degree of solicitude that can only be conceived by those who were acquainted with the constantly excited sensibility of his mind. When he did publish the collection, nothing appeared in the style and form of the publication that indicated any arrogance of merit. On the contrary, it was brought forward with a degree of diffidence, which, if it did not deserve the epithet of modesty, could incur nothing harsher than that of bashfulness. It was printed at the obscure market-town press of Newark, was altogether a very homely, rustic work, and no attempt was made to bespeak for it a good name from the critics. It was truly an innocent affair and an unpretending performance. But notwithstanding these, at least seeming, qualities of young doubtfulness and timidity, they did not soften the austere nature
of the bleak and blighting criticism which was then characteristic of Edinburgh.

A copy was somehow communicated to one of the critics in that city, and was reviewed by him in the Edinburgh Review in an article replete with satire and insinuations calculated to prey upon the author’s feelings, while the injustice of the estimate which was made of his talent and originality, could not but be as iron in his heart. Owing to the deep and severe impression which it left, it ought to be preserved in every memoir which treats of the development of his genius and character; and for this reason I insert it entire, as one of the most influential documents perhaps in the whole extent of biography.