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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900)

By Lord Byron (1788–1824)

GOETHE, in one of his conversations with Henry Crabb Robinson about Byron, said “There is no padding in his poetry” (“Es sind keine Flickwörter im Gedichte”). This was in 1829, five years after Byron died. “This, and indeed every evening, I believe, Lord Byron was the subject of his praise. He compared the brilliancy and clearness of his style to a metal wire drawn through a steel plate.” He expressed regret that Byron should not have lived to execute his vocation, which he said was “to dramatize the Old Testament. What a subject under his hands would the Tower of Babel have been!” Byron’s views of nature he declared were “equally profound and poetical.” Power in all its forms Goethe had respect for, and he was captivated by the indomitable spirit of Manfred. He enjoyed the ‘Vision of Judgment’ when it was read to him, exclaiming “Heavenly!” “Unsurpassable!” “Byron has surpassed himself.” He equally enjoyed the satire on George IV. He did not praise Milton with the warmth with which he eulogized Byron, of whom he said that “the like would never come again; he was inimitable.”

Goethe’s was the Continental opinion, but it was heightened by his conception of “realism”; he held that the poet must be matter-of-fact, and that it was the truth and reality that made writing popular: “It is by the laborious collection of facts that even a poetical view of nature is to be corrected and authenticated.” Tennyson was equally careful for scientific accuracy in regard to all the phenomena of nature. Byron had not scientific accuracy, but with his objectivity Goethe sympathized more than with the reflection and introspection of Wordsworth.

Byron was hailed on the Continent as a poet of power, and the judgment of him was not influenced by his disregard of the society conventions of England, nor by his personal eccentricities, nor because he was not approved by the Tory party and the Tory writers. Perhaps unconsciously—certainly not with the conviction of Shelley—Byron was on the side of the new movement in Europe; the spirit of Rousseau, the unrest of ‘Wilhelm Meister,’ the revolutionary seething, with its tinge of morbidness and misanthropy, its brilliant dreams of a new humanity, and its reckless destructive theories. In France especially his influence was profound and lasting. His wit and his lyric fire excused his morbidness and his sentimental posing as a waif, unfriended in a cold and treacherous world of women and men; and his genius made misanthropy and personal recklessness a fashion. The world took his posing seriously and his grievances to heart, sighed with him, copied his dress, tried to imitate his adventures, many of them imaginary, and accepted him as a perturbed, storm-tost spirit, representative of an age of agitation.

So he was, but not by consistent hypocritical premeditation; for his pose was not so much of set purpose as in obedience to a false education, an undisciplined temper, and a changing mind. He was guided by the impulse of the moment. I think it a supportable thesis that every age, every wide and popular movement, finds its supreme expression in a Poet. Byron was the mouthpiece of a certain phase of his time. He expressed it, and the expression remains and is important as a record, like the French Revolution and the battle of Waterloo. Whatever the judgment in history may be of the value to civilization of this eighteenth-century movement extending into the nineteenth, in politics, sociology, literature, with all its recklessness, morbidness, hopefulness, Byron represented it. He was the poet of Revolt. He sounded the note of intemperate, unconsidered defiance in the ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.’ This satire was audacious; many of its judgments were unjust; but its wit and poetic vigor announced a new force in English literature, and the appearance of a man who was abundantly able to take care of himself and secure respectful treatment. In moments afterward he expressed regret for it, or for portions of it, and would have liked to soften its personalities. He was always susceptible to kindness, and easily won by the good opinion of even a declared enemy. He and Moore became lifelong friends, and between him and Walter Scott there sprang up a warm friendship, with sincere reciprocal admiration of each other’s works. Only on politics and religion did they disagree, but Scott thought Byron’s Liberalism not very deep: “It appeared to me,” he said, “that the pleasure it afforded him as a vehicle of displaying his wit and satire against individuals in office was at the bottom of this habit of thinking. At heart I would have termed Byron a patrician on principle.” Scott shared Goethe’s opinion of Byron’s genius:—“He wrote from impulse, never for effect, and therefore I have always reckoned Burns and Byron the most genuine poetic geniuses of my time, and of half a century before me. We have many men of high poetic talents, but none of that ever-gushing and perennial fountain of natural waters.” It has been a fashion of late years to say that both Byron and Scott have gone by; I fancy it is a case of “not lost, but gone before.” Among the men satirized in the ‘Bards’ was Wordsworth. Years after, Byron met him at a dinner, and on his return told his wife that the “one feeling he had for him from the beginning to the end of the visit was reverence.” Yet he never ceased to gird at him in his satires. The truth is, that consistency was never to be expected in Byron. Besides, he inherited none of the qualities needed for an orderly and noble life. He came of a wild and turbulent race.

George Gordon, Lord Byron, the sixth of the name, was born in London, January 22d, 1788, and died at Missolonghi, Greece, April 19th, 1824. His father, John Byron, a captain in the Guards, was a heartless profligate with no redeeming traits of character. He eloped with Amelia D’Arcy, wife of the Marquis of Carmarthen, and after her divorce from her husband married her and treated her like a brute. One daughter of this union was Augusta, Byron’s half-sister, who married Colonel Leigh, and who was the good angel of the poet, and the friend of Lady Byron until there was a rupture of their relations in 1830 on a matter of business. A year after the death of his first wife, John Byron entrapped and married Catherine Gordon of Gicht,—a Scotch heiress, very proud of her descent from James I. of Scotland,—whose estate he speedily squandered. In less than two years after the birth of George, John Byron ran away from his wife and his creditors, and died in France.

Mrs. Byron was a wholly undisciplined and weak woman, proud of her descent, wayward and hysterical. She ruined the child, whom she alternately petted and abused. She interfered with his education and fixed him in all his bad tendencies. He never learned anything until he was sent away from her to Harrow. He was passionate, sullen, defiant of authority, but very amenable to kindness; and with a different mother his nobler qualities, generosity, sense of justice, hatred of hypocrisy, and craving for friendship would have been developed, and the story of his life would be very different from what it is. There is no doubt that the regrettable parts of the careers of both Byron and Shelley are due to lack of discipline and loving-kindness in their early years. Byron’s irritability and bad temper were aggravated by a physical defect, which hindered him from excelling in athletic sports of which he was fond, and embittered all his life. Either at birth or by an accident one of his feet was malformed or twisted so as to affect his gait, and the evil was aggravated by surgical attempts to straighten the limb. His sensitiveness was increased by unfeeling references to it. His mother used to call him “a lame brat,” and his pride received an incurable wound in the heartless remark of Mary Chaworth, “Do you think I could care for that lame boy?” Byron was two years her junior, but his love for her was the purest passion of his life, and it has the sincerest expression in the famous ‘Dream.’ Byron’s lameness, and his morbid fear of growing obese, which led him all his life into reckless experiments in diet, were permanent causes of his discontent and eccentricity. In 1798, by the death of its incumbent, Byron became the heir of Newstead Abbey and the sixth Lord Byron. He had great pride in the possession of this crumbling and ruinous old pile. After its partial repair he occupied it with his mother, and from time to time in his stormy life; but in 1818 it was sold for £90,000, which mostly went to pay debts and mortgages. Almost all the influences about Byron’s early youth were such as to foster his worst traits, and lead to those eccentricities of conduct and temper which came at times close to insanity. But there was one exception, his nurse Mary Gray, to whom he owed his intimate knowledge of the Bible, and for whom he always retained a sincere affection. It is worth noting also, as an indication of his nature, that he always had the love of his servants.

A satisfactory outline of Byron’s life and work is found in Mr. John Nichol’s ‘Byron’ in the ‘English Men of Letters’ series. Owing to his undisciplined home life, he was a backward boy in scholarship. In 1805 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he resided irregularly for three years, reading much in a desultory manner, but paying slight attention to the classics and mathematics; so that it was a surprise that he was able to take his degree. But he had keen powers of observation and a phenomenal memory. Notwithstanding his infirmity he was distinguished in many athletic sports, he was fond of animals and such uncomfortable pets as bears and monkeys, and led generally an irregular life. The only fruit of this period in literature was the ‘Hours of Idleness,’ which did not promise much, and would be of little importance notwithstanding many verses of great lyric skill, had it not been for the slashing criticism on it, imputed to Lord Brougham, in the Edinburgh Review, which provoked the ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.’ This witty outburst had instant success with the public.

In 1809 Byron came of age, and went abroad on a two-years’ pilgrimage to Spain, Malta, Greece, and Constantinople, giving free rein to his humor for intrigue and adventure in the “lands of the sun,” and gathering the material for many of his romances and poems. He became at once the picturesque figure of his day,—a handsome, willful poet, sated with life, with no regret for leaving his native land; the conqueror of hearts and the sport of destiny. The world was speedily full of romances of his recklessness, his intrigues, his diablerie, and his munificence. These grew, upon his return in 1811 and the publication in 1812 of the first two cantos of ‘Childe Harold.’ All London was at his feet. He had already made his first speech in the House of Lords espousing the Liberal side. The second speech was in favor of Catholic emancipation. The fresh and novel poem, which Byron himself had not at first thought worth offering a publisher, fell in with the humor and moral state of the town. It was then that he made the oft-quoted remark, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” The poem gave new impetus to the stories of his romantic life, and London seemed to idolize him as much for his follies and his liaisons as for his genius. He plunged into all the dissipation of the city. But this period from 1811 to 1815 was also one of extraordinary intellectual fertility. In rapid succession he gave to the press poems and romances,—‘The Giaour,’ ‘The Bride of Abydos,’ ‘The Corsair,’ ‘Lara,’ the ‘Hebrew Melodies,’ ‘The Siege of Corinth,’ and ‘Parisina.’ Some of the ‘Hebrew Melodies’ are unequaled in lyric fire. The romances are all taking narratives, full of Oriental passion, vivid descriptions of scenery, and portraitures of female loveliness and dark-browed heroes, often full of melody, but melodramatic; and in substance do not bear analysis. But they still impress with their flow of vitality, their directness and power of versification, and their frequent beauty.

Sated with varied dissipation, worn out with the flighty adoration of Lady Caroline Lamb, and urged by his friends to marry and settle down, Byron married (January 2d, 1815) Anne Isabella, daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanke. He liked but did not love her; and she was no doubt fascinated by the reputation of the most famous man in Europe, and perhaps indulged the philanthropic hope that she could reform the literary Corsair. On the 10th of December was born Augusta Ada, the daughter whom Byron celebrates in his verse and to whom he was always tenderly attached. On the 15th of January, five weeks after her daughter’s birth, Lady Byron left home with the child to pay a visit to her family, dispatching to her husband a playfully tender letter. Shortly after, he was informed by her father and by herself that she did not intend ever to return to him. It is useless to enter into the controversy as to the cause of this separation. In the light of the latest revelations, the better opinion seems to be that it was a hopeless incongruity that might have been predicted from the characters of the two. It seems that Lady Byron was not quite so amiable as she was supposed to be, and in her later years she was subject to hallucinations. Byron, it must be admitted, was an impossible husband for any woman, most of all for any woman who cared for the social conventions. This affair brought down upon Byron a storm of public indignation which drove him from England. The society which had petted him and excused his vagaries and violations of all decency, now turned upon him with rage and made the idol responsible for the foolishness of his worshipers. To the end of his life, neither society nor the critics ever forgave him, and did not even do justice to his genius. His espousal of the popular cause in Europe embittered the conservative element, and the freedom of speculation in such masterly works as ‘Cain’ brought upon him the anathemas of orthodox England. Henceforth in England his poetry was judged by his liberal and unorthodox opinions. This vituperation rose to its height when Byron dared to satirize George III., and to expose mercilessly in ‘Don Juan’ the hypocrisy of English life.

On the 25th of April, 1816, Byron left England, never to return. And then opened the most brilliant period of his literary career. Instead of being crushed by the situation, Byron’s warlike spirit responded to it with defiance, and his suffering and his anger invoked the highest qualities of his extraordinary genius. His career in Italy was as wild and dissipated as ever. Strange to say, the best influence in his irregular life was the Countess Guiccioli, who persuaded him at one time to lay aside the composition of ‘Don Juan,’ and in whose society he was drawn into ardent sympathy with the Italian liberals. For the cause of Italian unity he did much when it was in its darkest period, and his name is properly linked in this great achievement with those of Mazzini and Cavour. It was in Switzerland, before Byron settled in Venice, that he met Shelley, with whom he was thereafter to be on terms of closest intimacy. Each had a mutual regard for the genius of the other, but Shelley placed Byron far above himself. It was while sojourning near the Shelleys on the Lake of Geneva that Byron formed a union with Claire Clairmont, the daughter of Mrs. Clairmont, who became William Godwin’s second wife. The result of this intimacy was a natural daughter, Allegra, for whose maintenance and education Byron provided, and whose early death was severely felt by him.

Byron’s life in Italy from 1816 to 1823 continued to be a romance of exciting and dubious adventure. Many details of it are given in Byron’s letters,—his prose is always as vigorous as his poetry, and as self-revealing,—and it was no doubt recorded in his famous Diary, which was intrusted to his friend Tom Moore, and was burned after Byron’s death. Byron’s own frankness about himself, his love of mystification, his impulsiveness in writing anything that entered his brain at the moment, and his habit of boasting about his wickedness, which always went to the extent of making himself out worse than he was, stands in the way of getting a clear narration of his life and conduct. But he was always an interesting and commanding and perplexing personality, and the writings about him by his intimates are as various as the moods he indulged in. The bright light of inquiry always shone upon him, for Byron was the most brilliant, the most famous, the most detested, the most worshiped, and the most criticized and condemned man in Europe.

It was in this period that he produced the works that by their innate vigor and power placed him in the front rank of English poets. A complete list of them cannot be given in this brief notice. The third and fourth cantos of ‘Childe Harold’ attained a height that the first two cantos had not prepared the world to expect. ‘Cain’ was perhaps the culmination of his power. The lyrics and occasional poems of this time add to his fame because they exhibit his infinite variety. Critics point out the carelessness of his verse,—and there is an air of haste in much of it; they deny his originality and give the sources of his inspiration,—but he had Shakespeare’s faculty of transforming all things to his own will; and they deny him the contribution of thought to the ideas of the world. This criticism must stand against the fact of his almost unequaled power to move the world and make it feel and think. The Continental critics did not accuse him of want of substance. What did he not do for Spain, for Italy, for Greece! No interpretation of their splendid past, of their hope for the future, no musings over the names of other civilizations, no sympathy with national pride, has ever so satisfied the traveling and reading world in these lands, as Byron’s. The public is not so good a judge of what poetry should be, as the trained critics; but it is a judge of power, of what is stirring and entertaining: and so it comes to pass that Byron’s work is read when much poetry, more finished but wanting certain vital qualities, is neglected. I believe it is a fact that Byron is more quoted than any English poet except Pope since Shakespeare, and that he is better known to the world at large than any except the Master. But whether this is so or not, he is more read now at the close of this century than he was in its third quarter.

‘The Dream’ and ‘Darkness’ are poems that will never lose their value so long as men love and are capable of feeling terror. ‘Manfred,’ ‘Mazeppa,’ ‘Heaven and Earth,’ ‘The Prisoner of Chillon,’ and the satire of the ‘Vision of Judgment’ maintain their prominence; and it seems certain that many of the lyrics, like ‘The Isles of Greece’ and the ‘Maid of Athens,’ will never pall upon any generation of readers, and the lyrics will probably outlast the others in general favor. Byron wrote many dramas, but they are not acting plays. He lacked the dramatic instinct, and it is safe to say that his plays, except in certain passages, add little to his great reputation.

In the opinion of many critics, Byron’s genius was more fully displayed in ‘Don Juan’ than in ‘Childe Harold.’ Byron was Don Juan, mocking, satirical, witty, pathetic, dissolute, defiant of all conventional opinion. The ease, the grace, the diablerie of the poem are indescribable; its wantonness is not to be excused. But it is a microcosm of life as the poet saw it, a record of the experience of thirty years, full of gems, full of flaws, in many ways the most wonderful performance of his time. The critics who were offended by its satire of English hypocrisy had no difficulty in deciding that it was not fit for English readers. I wonder what would be the judgment of it if it were a recovered classic disassociated from the personality of any writer.

Byron was an aristocrat, and sometimes exhibited a silly regard for his rank; but he was a democrat in all the impulses of his nature. His early feeling was that as a peer he condescended to authorship, and for a time he would take no pay for what he wrote. But later, when he needed money, he was keen at a bargain for his poetry. He was extravagant in his living, generous to his friends and to the popular causes he espoused, and cared nothing for money except the pleasure of spending it. It was while he was living at Ravenna that he became involved in the intrigues for Italian independence. He threw himself, his fortune and his time, into it. The time has come, he said, when a man must do something—writing was only a pastime. He joined the secret society of the Carbonari; he showed a statesmanlike comprehension of the situation; his political papers bear the stamp of the qualities of vision and leadership. When that dream faded under the reality of the armies of despotism, his thoughts turned to Greece. Partly his restless nature, partly love of adventure carried him there; but once in the enterprise, he gave his soul to it with a boldness, a perseverance, a good sense, a patriotic fervor that earn for him the title of a hero in a good cause. His European name was a tower of strength to the Greek patriots. He mastered the situation with a statesman’s skill and with the perception of a soldier; he endured all the hardships of campaigning, and waited in patience to bring some order to the wrangling factions. If his life had been spared, it is possible that the Greeks then might have thrown off the Turkish yoke; but he succumbed to a malarial fever, brought on by the exposure of a frame weakened by a vegetable diet, and expired at Missolonghi in his thirty-seventh year. He was adored by the Greeks, and his death was a national calamity. This last appearance of Lord Byron shows that he was capable of as great things in action as in the realm of literature. It was the tragic end of the stormy career of a genius whose life was as full of contradictions as his character.

It was not only in Greece that Byron’s death was profoundly felt, but in all Europe, which was under the spell of his genius. Mrs. Anne Thackeray Ritchie, in her charming recollections of Tennyson, says:—“One day the news came to the village—the dire news which spread across the land, filling men’s hearts with consternation—that Byron was dead. Alfred was then a boy about fifteen. ‘Byron was dead! I thought the whole world was at an end,’ he once said, speaking of those bygone days. ‘I thought everything was over and finished for every one—that nothing else mattered. I remember I walked out alone and carved “Byron is dead” into the sandstone.’”