The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

II. Byron

§ 12. Lyrics

In no province of poetry is Byron’s command of success so uncertain as in that of the lyric. He has left us a few songs which rank high even in an age which was transcendently great in lyric power and melody. But, only too often, the beauty with which one of his lyrics opens is not sustained, the passion grows turbid and the thought passes from pure vision to turgid commonplace. Among the most impassioned of his love lyrics is that entitled When we two parted; it was written in 1808 and may have been inspired by the poet’s hopeless passion for Mary Chaworth. To the same tragic episode in his career, though written later than the song, we owe The Dream (1816), in which passion and imagination combine to produce one of the most moving poems that Byron ever wrote. Intensely lyrical in spirit, the poem is, nevertheless, written in blank verse, which Byron here manipulates with a dexterity that he seems to have utterly lost in the loosely knit structure of his dramatic blank verse. The same volume which contained The Dream contained, also, another visionary poem in blank verse, Darkness. To those who assert that Byron, in his serious poetry, is little more than a poseur and a rhetorician, this poem should be a sufficient answer. It is the work of an unbridled imagination, a day-dream of clinging horrors; but, amid all its tumultuous visions of a world in which cosmos is reduced to chaos, we are made to feel the naked sincerity of the poet’s soul.

The most important group of Byron’s poems, those in which his genius and personality find their fullest expression, still remains for consideration. His discovery of the Italian medley-poem, written in the ottava rima, was, for him, the discovery of a new world; and, just as Scott found free play for the riches of his mind only when he exchanged the verse-romance for the novel, so, also, Byron attained the full emancipation of his genius only when he turned from drama and romance to realistic and satiric narrative poetry and took as his models the works of the Italian burlesque poets from Pulci to Casti. This discovery also served to put an end to the conflict which had gone on in Byron’s mind between the classic and romantic principles of art. What we see is the triumph of yet a third combatant, namely realism, which, entering late into the fray, carries all before it. His latest dramas, and his verse-tale, The Island, not to mention certain romantic episodes which find a place in Don Juan, show that Byron never wholly abandoned romance, but, from the time when he wrote Beppo (1818), realism was the master-bias of his mind, while the break with classicism was complete. With this triumph of realis, satire once more comes into full play: it is no longer the formal satire of the Augustan scoll, such as he had essayed in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, but burlesque satire, unconstrained and whimsical, and delighting in the sudden anticlimaxes and grotesque incongruities which find a spacious hiding-place in the Ottava rima. Byron’s study of Italian literature had begun long before he set foot on Italian soil, and it is curious that, first of all, he should have employed the octave stanza in his Epistle to Augusta (1816), in a mood of entire seriousness, apparently without suspecting its capacity for burlesque. It was Frere’s The Monks, and the Giants (1817) which first disclosed to him, as he gratefully acknowledges, its fitness for effects of this sort. But his true masters are the Italians themselves—Pulci in the fifteenth century, Berni in the sixteenth and Casti in the eighteenth. Except in his account of the court of Catherine II in Don Juan, Byron rarely had recourse to the Italian medley-poets for incidents of narrative; it was manner and not matter which they furnished. The temper of his mind was similar to theirs, and the mobility of his genius enabled him to reproduce with consummate ease their note of light-hearted, cynical banter, their swift transitions from grave to gay, their humorous digressions and their love of grotesque images and still more grotesque rimes.