« PreviousContinue »
And thus she stood, in dizzy trance,
O’erinastered by the magic spell.” It is that description of the serpent-look of the witch's eyes that, being read in a company at Lord Byron's, so affected Shelley's sensitive fancy that he fainted.
Along with the influence of this poem on the imagination of Walter Scott, there was blended the influence of his long-cherished and studious culture of the early minstrelsy, for which he laboured with patriotic as well as poetic zeal. The genius of Scott, thus wrought on, produced that series of poems which fills a large space in the poetic literature of the early part of this century. With much of Homeric animation, and with the pathos of Greek and British minstrel combined, he sung of the chivalry and the rude heroism of the olden time; and to those heroic lays there was given a popularity which was dimmed only by the sudden splendour of the speedy and more fervid popularity which was won by the genius of Byron.
There is nothing in literary biography finer than the composure, the magnanimity (rather let me call it) with which Scott, making up his mind that he was about to be supplanted in popular favour by it greater poet, tranquilly turned his genius to a new department of invention, in which, as it proved, no rival was to reach him. There is truth, too, in what Scott's biographer has said of this part of his career, that, “ Appreciating, as a man of his talents could hardly fail to do, the splendidly original glow and depth of Childe Harold. Scott always appeared to me quite blind to the fact, that in the Giaour, in the Bride of Abydos, in Parisina, and, indeed, in all his early serious narratives, Byron owed at least half his success to clever, though perhaps unconscious, imitation of Scott, and no trivial share of the rest to the lavish use of materials which Scott never employed, only because his genius was, from the beginning to the end of his career, under the guidance of high and chivalrous feelings of moral rectitude."
This last remark recalls the account given of a conversation of Scott, toward the close of his life, which may he mentioned before I pass to the name of Byron. Not long before Sir Walter's death, a friend remarked to him that he must derive consolation from the reflection that his popularity was rc'. wing to works which, in his latter moments, he might wish recalled. Scott remained silent for a moment, with his eyes fixed on the ground. 66 When he raised then," says the narrator,
he shook me by the hand, I perceived the lightblue eye sparkling with unusual moisture; he added, “I am drawing near the close of my career. I have been, perhaps, the most voluminous author of the day, and it is a comfort to me to think that I have tried to unsettle no man's faith, to corrupt no man's principle, and that I have written nothing which, on my death-bed, I should wish blotted.” In this utterance of dignified self-complacency, he stands justified by the story of his wondrous authorship. With regard to Scott's poetry, there are indications that, in the calmer judgment of posterity, the world is willing to restore a part, at least, of the fame it too quickly took away. It is only the other day that Landor, ranking Scott's poems with the classics, has said,
“The trumpet-blast of Marmion never shook
The walls of God-built Ilion; yet what shout
Of the Achaians swells the heart so high!" In the concluding lecture I propose to proceed with the general considerations of the literature of this century—its chief productions and influences; among which I desire to speak of the character and influence of Lord Byron's poetry, the prose and poetry of Southey, the poetry of Wordsworth, the influence of Mr. Carlyle's writings, and also of some of the women who, both in prose and poetry, have adorned the literature of our tirnes.
LORD BYRON-His POPULARITY AND ITS DECLINE-His POWER OF SIMPLE, VIGOROUS
LANGUAGE-CHILDE HAROLD-THE DYING GLADIATOR-THE ISLES OF GREECE-CoxTRAST OF Byrox'S AND SHAKSPEARE'S CREATIONS-Miss BARRETT-Miss KEMBLE'S 'SONNET-BYRON AS A POET OF NATURE--HIS ANTAGONISM TO DIVINE TRUTETRE DREAM, THE MOST FAULTLESS OF HIS POEMS-Dox JCAN-SHELLEY-LEIGH Hurt's REMARKS ON CARLYLE-Hrs EARNESTNESS-SOUTHEY--His HISTORICAL WORKS THALABA-WORDSWORTI-HIS CHARACTERISTICS-FEMALE AUTHORS--JOANNA BAILLIE -Miss EDGEWORTH-MRS. KEMBLE--MRS. NORTON-Miss BARRETT-CRT OP THE CHILDREX, &c.
In bringing this course of lectures toward a conclusion, I shall resume the cursory view of the contemporary English literature which I began in the last lecture. When the literary history of this period shall hereafter come to be written, a voluminous chapter will be needed for what the English language has given expression to within it. During the first quarter of this century, the writings of Lord Byron had the most high-wrought and wide-spread celebrity. His was the commanding name of the day for some ten or twelve years in the first quarter of this century. Scott, as a poet, calmly withdrew at the approach of the new influence. He had probably exhausted that fine, but not very deep, vein of poetry, which gained him a quick popularity and a permanent place among English poets ; he withdrew from the region of verse to pass into those unexplored spaces of the imagination in which he was to establish his chief fame as the great writer of historical romance.
The popularity of Byron, take it for all in all, was probably the most splendid that ever poet was applauded and flattered with. His song had larger audience over the earth, and on that audience it exerted an unwonted fascination, swaying the feelings of multitudes, and making its words and its music familiar on their lips. It was popularity too quick grown to last without a large diminution ; the love of his poetry was too passionate to stand the test of time. It is not worth while now to measure the extraneous causes which helped that popularity. his rank, his beauty, his audacity, the exposure of his domestic discord, his foreign adventures, half wanderer, half exile—all wery elements in that fascination, wherewith all the world watched him and
welcomed his words. Without meaning, in a lecture in which I have so much to dispose of, to dwell on the personal history of Lord Byron, let me only remark, in passing, how striking is the contrast between the husband's sentimental soliciting of the world's sympathies, along with a sensual defiance of all that is most sacred by the laws of God and of man; and, on the other hand, the heroic silence and self-control of the wife, and, along with it, a life of devoted and toilsome charity, in which she has sought the reparation of her hopes and happiness. Who can question which was the injured one?
The extraneous causes of Byron's popularity would be altogether inadequate to account for it. Much as they may have helped it, they alone never could have given it. Looking at it now as a matter of literary history, the 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 fellow-men: 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 doubtthe 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 sinple 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
With the wild world I dwelt in, is a thing
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 description 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 Coloseum, 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 horid 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 host coming down in vengeance on the doomed and guilty city: