Byron, like Rousseau, was one who wished us to know a good deal about him, and took care that we should : he put himself forward. Emotion, imagination, the roving Berserker nature, Bohemianism, give color. And he was possessed of a fascinating, arresting personality, of what Goethe called a “demonic personality. ” Here was more than an author; here was a man; whereas “mere artists are often man kins.
” One must look generously, and with human sympathy, at the errors, not denying that they were such, or covering them up, but admitting fully the virtues also, and discerning that the specific quality, or idiosyncrasy, of such a man’s creation is vitally related to his errors and weaknesses, even as also to whatsoever of strength and goodness belong to him.
To deal thus with a great man’s faults and vices is not to ” disturb his ashes ” in the spirit of “clown or knave,” nor to cater (except accidentally) for the “many-headed beast’s” unhealthy appetite for gossip and scandal ; it is rather to try and understand a man who has done great things for his country and for Europe. Whether the influence of this poet has been for good or evil will always be a debated point. But on Eckermann’s doubting whether there is ” a gain for pure culture” in Byron’s work, Goethe replies : “There I must contradict you. The audacity and grandeur of Byron must certainly tend towards culture.
We should take care not to be always looking for it in the decidedly pure and moral. Everything that is great promotes cultivation, as soon as you are aware of it. ” And again he says profoundly : ” Greatness is always formative”; or, to adapt a happy phrase of John Nichol : Byron “keeps the soul alive, if he does not save it. ” But death is the dreadful thing, not life; while there is life there is hope. He is, like Burns, the poet of youth and passion, of enjoyment, of intense, vivid, physical life ; that is one main element in his immense popularity.
He tells simple tales in verse, before the epoch of novels. He also clearly, and with unequalled vigor, expresses the average thought and feeling of his time, setting them to facile music ; he does not soar over people’s heads into some astral ether, like Shelley, nor dive into calm profundities beyond their cognizance, like Wordsworth. And then nothing succeeds like success. The bookseller, the editor, the Brummagem critic, and the general public are in love, not with the popular man, but with his popularity, that is, with the echoes of their own ” sweet voices.
” It then becomes a question of fashion only, and birthday presents to lie on drawing-room tables. But such a degraded view of Byron as Leigh Hunt took is manifestly absurd, because it fails to account for the poetry, i. e. , for the main product and staple of the man’s own inmost self. No true poet is a mere mechanical medium for inspiration from without. He co-operates with it, and is at his highest in producing. Lady Byron never showed her essential incompatibility with her husband more than when she said he ” feigned enthusiasm.
” Nor could Trelawny penetrate behind his persiflage, which his own tone drew from Byron, little as he suspected it. When the Guiccioli (after becoming Madame de Boissy) wrote to prove him a sheer seraph and saint, we need to put the hostile representations of his wife and others together with this, and those of his friends, to get an adequate portrait. “Angel or demon? ” Lamartine asked. I answer, a little of both. For seven years he must have turned the angel side of him toward Theresa Guiccioli ; and we ought to give weight to what she tells us of his many virtues, while allowing for the partiality of love.
(Austin, 1990) It was in one of these Harrow vacations also that he first learned to know, and love his half-sister Augusta, with a love never after to be dimmed by time or distance a purifying and ennobling love that inspired some of his tenderest poetry. It was the best and most abiding influence of his life, let Calumny lay harpy hands on it as she may. The children had been separated till 1802, for Augusta had lived with old Lady Holdernesse, her grandmother, but on the latter’s death they came together.
Augusta was four years older than her brother, and called him ” Baby Byron,” even after he had become a famous man, perceiving, with a kindly sense of humor, certain childish traits in him, which, methinks, were not the least amiable features of a complex character. This meeting took place at Brighton. His sister was rather plain than beautiful, but amiable, pious, and excellent in all the relations of life. (Austin, 1990) From Nottingham Mrs. Byron moved with her son to Southwell, a small country town with a fine old church, not far from Newstead.
There occurred here many furious hurricanes of wrath on the part of the mother, which provoked her son’s “sullen rages”; and such was the estimate formed by each of the other’s violence, that mother and son went one evening separately to the apothecary, and cautioned him against selling poison to the other, should it be asked for. The poker or tongs having just missed him on one occasion, he sought refuge in the house of a friend, and decided on escaping to London, where he remained for some time in Piccadilly . Mrs.
Byron pursued him, but they separated eventually, and he went to Worthing for awhile, rejoining her in August of the same year. (Austin, 1990) In the novel ” Venetia,” Lord Beaconsfield has imitated these rows in the encounters he describes between young Lord Cadurcis and his mother. But in one of his own graphic letters to Mr. Pigot, a Southwell acquaintance, Byron himself gives what, to some of us who know all a mother may be, and has been more than once, to an only son, must appear a very grievous, though amusing account of these scenes; with comments upon them.
Byron was a delightful letter-writer, lively, graphic, nervous, vigorous, and homely in style, never writing as if “for publication”;— but letter-writing is a lost art. A lord than as a poet, which may have made him too careless, or less conscientious than it behoves every true artist to be in the technical finish of his art, which ought to be sacred with him, the ideal wife, the queen of all mistresses. Still it was, I think, pure gain for Byron to be no mere bookman, hide-bound in calf, instead of human skin, and treating the universe as so much docile material for such as he to make pretty little things out of.
He was a Berserker, whose wild spirit found vent in song, and his was a bleeding human heart, even though he made of it “a pageant. ” What he does has the salt breath of impetuously moving sea, the thrill of warm-blooded life ; his fervid voice has the living accent. It was not in order to write poems that he conversed much with sea and mountain, or humanity ; though these inspired him with the irresistible impulse to write. He mixed with men and women, helped them or marred, eat, drank, and caroused with them.
But nature and men were as much to him as the creations they inspired, which, having taken their own resplendent shapes in the high and solitary places of reflection and imagination, issued there from, transformed and immortal. It is mainly this rare and memorable combination of interest alike in action and contemplation which gives Byron the eminent personality attributed to him by Goethe. But, at the same time, it must be added that he lived under a “plague of microscopes.
” Every lesser person who could gain a little reflected lustre by describing him, noted down every least significant word, mood, look, whim, gesture ; passing it, moreover, through the sometimes distorting medium of his own understanding, and In conversation Byron set himself against the dogma of everlasting punishment (see Kennedy’s ” Conversations,” &c. )— though he may never have been able completely to throw off the idea, not having speculative grasp sufficient to conceive in his own way, and mould anew the eternal truths revealed through Christianity.
And while believing in Destiny (thus Maddalo—i. e. , Byron—takes the Necessarian side in arguing with Julian— Shelley—in Shelley’s fine poem), yet one who asserted individuality so strongly could not but admit likewise the modifying and directing energy of a man’s own initiative, which is Free-will. (Jerome, 1993) He is indeed very much akin to Burns, whose supreme song “survives,” “deep in the general heart. ” Burns has the same wild irregular passion, the same humor, and intermingling of grave and gay, the same character full of contradictions.
But, as in Burns there is an element of coarse commonplace, in Byron there is a certain gaudy charlatanry, blare of brass, and big bowwowishness of the life, as of the poetry—that imposes on the vulgar, for ever insensible to the delicate, subtle warble of bird or brook, to the soullike tones of a master’s violin. So Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge waited, while Moore and Byron had their loud day. But Byron wrote up to them at last, giving the world his own distinctive song—though purely as a lyrical poet he is hardly equal to Burns. (Jerome, 1993)
To no one did the poet more freely unbosom himself than to Hodgson, more freely abuse himself, betray his little weaknesses; to him were addressed those humorous and rollicking verses, ” On board the Lisbon Packet,” commencing ” Huzzah ! Hodgson. ” To him Byron, with his accustomed generosity, gave ? I,000 to pay off some debts with. In a letter to his uncle Hodgson says, “Oh, if you knew the exaltation of heart, ay, and of head, too, I feel at being free from those depressing embarrassments, you would, as I do, bless my dearest friend and brother, Byron ;” and he speaks of the exquisite delicacy with which the kindness was done.
Then there was Henry Drury, Hodgson’s brother-in-law, and Robert Charles Dallas, a connection by marriage of the poet. In the letter Byron wrote to him before they met, flippancy, bounce, brag, and the habit of posing as wicked to make people stare, are very pronounced ; nor are they, one must unfortunately admit, uncharacteristic of the author—though now of course boyish in their crudity. He makes Dallas stare by telling him he is like the wicked Lord Lyttleton, Dallas having complimented him by comparing him to the good one !
There was the taint of worldliness, of too much “Empeiria” about Byron, as Goethe affirmed ; and Shelley spoke of the “canker of aristocracy,” of “perverse ideas,” that needed cutting out. It was partly a defect of nature, partly what the artificial and corrupt society of the Regency had made him. His conversations with Trelawny not seldom show him in his least amiable mood. (Jerome, 1993)