The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 8. Byron
The great differences which exist as to the merits of Byron as a poet fortunately need not affect estimate of his prosody in the very least. His expressed—and, probably, to, at least, some extent, his real—tastes were for eighteenth-century norms; and he wrote heroic couplet of the orthodox type with acknowledged expertness, while his blank verse, which, on occasion, could be very fine, was an interesting variety, not, perhaps, too fancifully to be called an unrimed heroic with a certain, but not large, admixture of the newer style. For his Spenserians he went, as he has practically confessed, rather to Beattie than to Spenser or even Thomson, and the result was not altogether fortunate; the metre, in his hands, losing that flow as of mighty waters meandering, eddying, sweeping, “without noise or foam,” which is its proper character, and attaining in exchange, at best, a somewhat declamatory construction and intonation. He could manage the continuous anapaest well, but not consummately, as may be seen by comparing The Assyrian came down with Bonnie Dundee or Young Lochinvar. His continuous octosyllabics, whether pure or mixed, have, at their best, a greater intensity than Scott’s but lack variety. Still, if reservations have to be made on some of these heads, it must be admitted that this is a remarkable tale of metres to be achieved without what can be fairly called a failure in a single case; while it has to be added that some of the lyrics actually attain the peculiar “fingering” which is necessary to complete success.
But Byron’s greatest metrical triumph is, assuredly, to be found in the octaves of Beppo and Don Juan. He had, of course, Frere before him as a pattern; and, also, he had the Italians who had been patterns to Frere. But, patterns are of curiously little use in prosody; and each consummate practitioner is, in fact, a new inventor. For light narrative and satiric running commentary, as well as for description of the kind required, this octave of Byron simply cannot be excelled. At any rate, it never has been; and, despite his vast popularity and the consequent fact that the pattern was long in everyone’s hands, it has scarcely every been equalled and very rarely even approached.