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

II. Byron

§ 8. English Bards and Scotch Reviewers

In English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, we witness the full triumph of Byronic classicism. Inspired by Pope, and by Gifford’s Maeviad and Baviad, this high-spirited satire is, indeed, the Dunciad of romanticism. Its undiscriminating attack upon almost every member of the romantic school is accompanied by an equally undiscriminating laudation of Dryden and Pope, together with those poets of Byron’s own generation, Rogers and Campbell, whose Pleasures of Memory and Pleasures of Hope remained faithful, in an age of faithlessness, to the classical tradition. Byron is himself the severest critic of his own satire, and, in a letter written from Switzerland in July, 1816, he censures its tone and temper, and acknowledges “the injustice of much of the critical and some of the personal part of it.” In concision and finish of style, Byron falls far below the level of consummate mastery of satiric portraiture reached by Pope in the Epistles to Arbuthnot and To Augustus, while he makes no attempt to imitate the brilliant mock-heroic framework of the Dunciad: but the disciple has caught much of his master’s art of directing the shafts of his raillery against the vulnerable places in his adversaries’ armour, and even the most enthusiastic admirer of Scott, Coleridge or Wordsworth can afford to laugh at the travesty of Marmion and Lyrical Ballads. In spite of occasional telling phrases, like that in which he characterises Crabbe as “nature’s sternest painter yet the best,” the satire is of little value as literary criticism; while the fact that he directs his attack upon the romantic poets and, at the same time, upon their arch-adversary, Jeffrey, is sufficient indication that it was individual prejudice rather than any fixed conviction which inspired the poem.

It is difficult to overestimate the influence upon Byron’s poetic career of his travels through southern Europe in the years 1809–10; though different in character, it was as far-reaching as that experienced by Goethe during his tour in Italy twenty-three years before. For the time being, his sojourn in the Spanish and Balkan peninsulas put an end to his classical sympathies and made him a votary of romance. His pictures of Spain, it is true, are mainly those of a realist and a rhetorician, but, when he has once set foot upon Turkish soil, a change appears; here, his life was, in itself, a romantic adventure, and, among the Albanian fastnesses, he was brought face to face with a world which was at once oriental in its colouring, and medieval in its feudalism. The raw material of romance which Scott, in the shaping of his verse-tales, had had to gather laboriously from the pages of medieval chroniclers, was here deployed before Byron’s very eyes, and the lightning speed with which he wrote his oriental tales on his return to England was due to the fact that he had only to recall the memories of what he had himself seen while a sojourner in the empire of the Turk. Hence, too, the superiority of Byron’s eastern pictures to those of Southey and Moore: while they had been content to draw upon the record of books, he painted from life.