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

II. Byron

§ 6. Death at Mesolonghi

Correspondence took place between Byron and prince Alexander Mavrocordatos, one of the chief leaders in the war of liberation; and, on the arrival of the prince at Mesolonghi, with a fleet of ships, Byron joined him there, after an adventurous voyage, in January, 1824. In the conduct of affairs at this time, Byron showed himself to be a great statesman and a born leader of men. The work of advocating unity among the various Greek tribes was no easy task for him, and he laboured tirelessly in the malarial climate of the gulf of Patras in the furtherance of this aim. His military project was to lead an expedition against the Turkish stronghold Lepanto, and, with this in view, he enlisted the services of five hundred Suliotes. But mutiny broke out among the soldiers, and, at a critical moment, an epileptic fit threatened Byron’s life. For a time, he recovered; but, early in April, he caught a severe chill when sailing, wet to the skin, in an open boat; rheumatic fever set in, and, on the nineteenth day of the month, he died. His death was a severe blow to Greece, and plunged the nation into profound grief; when the news reached England, Tennyson, then a boy of fourteen, carved the words “Byron is dead” upon a rock at Somersby, and felt that “the whole world seemed darkened to me.” But the impartial verdict of posterity, looking back upon his career and endeavouring to see it in its true perspective, has been that nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it. The ardent wish of Greece was that his body should be buried in the temple of Theseus at Athens, and thus remain in the land for which he had laid down his life; but other counsels prevailed, and Byron found his last resting place in the village church of Hucknall Torkard, outside the gates of Newstead priory.

In passing from the generation of Wordsworth and Coleridge to that of Byron and Shelley, we recognise that a certain change had come over the spirit of English poetry, and that this change, in no small measure, was determined by the change which had come over the mind of England and of Europe. Wordsworth and Coleridge had found inspiration in the large faiths and regenerating principles which called into being the French revolution; Byron and Shelley, on the other hand, produced their most characteristic works in the days of the reactionary Holy Alliance. And in the space between the era of faith and the era of reaction loomed the colossal form of Napoleon astride a blood-stained Europe. Shelley, though he underwent times of deep depression and suffered much at the hands of a hostile government, was of too ethereal a temper to be cowed by the spirit of the time, or to abandon his faith in man’s perfectibility imparted to him by Godwin; but, Byron, with his feet of clay, and with a mind which, for good and evil, was profoundly responsive to the prevailing currents of contemporary thought, remained, from first to last, the child of his age. And that age was one of profound disillusionment. The implicit trust in the watchwords of the revolution had long faded from men’s minds, while the principles by which men hoped to consecrate the settlement of the congress of Vienna were proving still more illusory. The Holy Alliance was to bring back the golden age, and the emperor of Russia had proudly declared that, henceforth, princes were to regard each other as brothers, and their peoples as their children, and that all their acts were to be founded upon the gospel of Christ. Yet, within a very few years, the Holy Alliance had become a byword among men, standing as it did for all that was tyrannical and reactionary; the attitude of the progressive party in England towards the principles which really actuated it is clearly indicated by Moore’s Fables for the Holy Alliance, Shelley’s Lines written during the Castlereagh Administration and many a scathing passage of Don Juan.

The younger generation of poets, romantics though they were, also differed from their elders in some of the main principles of literary criticism. The early masters of the romantic school, in their war against the neo-classic canons of the Augustan, confounded classicism with the Greek and Roman classics; and, in their joyous discovery of medieval romance and ballad, paid no regard to the poetry and mythology of Greece. Reaction inevitably followed, and to the younger generation of poets fell the duty of touching with the magic wand of romance the time-honoured myths and fables of early Greece. Thus, from out of the cold ashes of classicism there arose the Hellenism of the early nineteenth century, with Shelley and Keats as its inspired prophets. To Byron, the political movements of modern Greece were of more account than its ancient poetry and mythology, yet, in him too, there is a strong reaction against the romanticism of the preface to Lyrical Ballads. When the romantic principles of the new school seemed everywhere triumphant, he came forward as the dauntless champion of Pope, and, when he essayed drama, he turned his back upon Shakespeare and sat at the feet of Alfieri. Byron was ever of the opposition, and, to many, his championship of classicism has seemed little better than the pose of perversity; but a close study of his works serves to show that, while much of his poetry is essentially romantic in spirit, and even enlarges the horizon of romanticism, he never wholly broke away from the Augustan poetic diction.