« FöregåendeFortsätt »
true causes are to be discovered, I believe, both in the strength and in the weakness of his genius. If that strength had been less than it was, he could not have gained the influence he did over the minds of his fellowmen : if there had been less of weakness blended with his might, he would not have gained that influence so widely and so soon. Such is the paradox of poetic popularity. The same causes will explain the decline of Byron's influence. I mean the extent of that decline, furnishing a discrimination between what is permanent and what is perishable in his poetry. All that I propose to do is to notice some of the chief characteristics of his poetry, so as to judge thereby of its past popularity and the estimation it is now held in.
Lord Byron gained the public ear, in part, by his command of the simple Saxon part of the language. In his choice of words, he is one of the most idiomatic of the English poets : his genuine English is shown forth in his poetry and the vigorous prose style of his letters—the English-Latinized words being present in small proportion. This admirable command of the “best treasures” of our tongue was not, I think, accompanied with an equal power of structure and combination, in the absence of which there is betrayed the want of that studious and dutiful culture of the language and versification which the greatest of the poets recognise as part of their discipline, and to which, no doubt—the art and the inspiration combined—we owe both the exquisite graces of Shakspeare's verse and the magnificent harmonies of Spenser's and Milton's.
With such power over his language, as an organ of expression, Byron had other powers which are the poet's
endowment; and the one and simple solution of his fame is his gift of imagination, accompanied with, or perhaps more truly including, fine poetic sensibilities. Now when these sensibilities were in a natural and healthy mood; when his heart was open to genuine influences, so that there was the true poetic sympathy between the inner world of spirit and the outer world of sense; when, in short, Nature had her will with this wayward child, the utterance was a true and beautiful flow of poetic inspiration, as in that tranquil passage in Childe Harold :
“Clear, placid Leman! thy contrasted lake
Sounds sweet as if a sister's voice reproved,
It is the hush of night, and all between
Drops the light drip of the suspended oar, Or chirps the grasshopper one good-night carol more.” This is true poetic description, in which, while the poet appears only to express a docile recipiency of what Nature bestows, he gives back to be blended with it both his own emotion and the light which a poet's imagination creates.
A passage proving higher power is the well-known de
scription of the Gladiator, in the same poem. It is a higher strain, for it is a description purely visionary, telling of no spectacle of the bodily sight—but a reality of spiritual vision. The poet stood within the vacant and silent circuit of the Coliseum, no sound touching his ear, no sight save the ruins reaching his eye, but inspired by the local association, and by the image which sculpture had made familiar, he sees and hears through centuries ; and the thronged amphitheatre rises up before him with all the horrid sights and sounds of Rome's brutal sports, in his rapt vision of the dying athlete : nay more, (and this is the grandest part of the vision, full of a moral beauty,) looking to the wild region of the Danube, he beholds the distant cottage of the Gladiator, with his children in happy ignorance of the murdered father's misery; and further—such can be a poet's seeing-he beholds Alaric and his hosts coming down in vengeance on the doomed and guilty city :
“I see before me the Gladiator lie;
* This—"the first of a thunder shower," as applied to the heavy blood-drops from the Gladiator's wound-always seemed to me a defective figure; but where, in any poem, will any thing be found more perfect in its simple illustrative beauty than the lines of Childe Harold on the march to Waterloo ?
“ And Ardennes waves above them her green leaves
Dewy with Nature's tear-drops, as they pass,
The arena swims around him-he is
gone Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hailed the wretch who won.
He heard it, but he heeded not-his eyes
All this rush'd with his blood.-Shall he expire And unavenged? Arise, ye Goths, and glut your ire !" In this, there is genuine poetic vision, genuine feeling; in a word, true imaginative power, and wondrous words of simple English to give voice to it.
I would refer to another passage, less striking, but also characteristic of Byron's best power, and which I wish to cite, because it admirably exemplifies how simple, both in .conception and in expression, is true poetic sublimity. It is the passage in which the poet, assuming the character of a Greek, utters his emotion on the plain of Marathon; and the imaginative truth and sublimity of the lines admit of a very simple analysis. There are presented two of the grandest of earth's natural objects—a range of mountains on the one side, and the sea on the other; between them a tract of ground hallowed by one of the world's greatest battles, the victory that saved Europe from Asia's conquest; and that combining power, which is one of the chief functions of the imagination-not only groups, nay, more than groups—unites these three great objects, mountain, plain, and ocean, with all their memories, but also vivifies them with the deep emotion of the solitary human being standing in the midst of them :
“ The mountains look on Marathon,
And Marathon looks on the sea ;
I thought that Greece might still be free;
A king sat on the rocky brow,
Which looks o'er seaborn Salamis;
And men in nations; all were his !
Such passages illustrate the best moods of Byron's genius, and it would be agreeable to unweave more of the same description from all that is false and morbid in his poetry, but such a process would be altogether inadequate for the understanding of that poetry and the influence it exerted.
When we member how largely a weak sentimentalism entered into that popularity, there can be little doubt that it was won by the poet's weakness as well as by his power; by what was morbid as well as by what was healthful. We may form a judgment now of the character of his poetry, by looking at his dealing with what were his two chief themes, human character, and the material world—the universe of sight and sound. Now with regard to his treatment of human character, whether it be in the expression of his own thoughts and feelings, or in the invention of poetic persons, and whether these inventions be meant to be independent of himself, or to shadow forth his own nature, there is, in all, disease, deep-seated, clinging disease. You search in vain for a single healthful impersonation of humanity; all the creations are hol