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Byron and the World.

Two obvious reasons why Byron has long been a prophet more honoured abroad than at home are his life and his work. He is the most romantic figure in the literature of the century, and his romance is of that splendid and daring cast which the people of Britain ’an aristocracy materialised and null, a middle class purblind and hideous, a lower class crude and brutal’ prefers to regard with suspicion and disfavour. He is the type of them that prove in defiance of precept that the safest path is not always midway, and that the golden rule is sometimes unspeakably worthless: who set what seems a horrible example, create an apparently shameful precedent, and yet contrive to approve themselves an honour to their country and the race. To be a good Briton a man must trade profitably, marry respectably, live cleanly, avoid excess, revere the established order, and wear his heart in his breeches pocket or anywhere but on his sleeve. Byron did none of these things, though he was a public character, and ought for the example’s sake to have done them all, and done them ostentatiously. He lived hard, and drank hard, and played hard. He was flippant in speech and eccentric in attire. He thought little of the sanctity of the conjugal tie, and said so; and he married but to divide from his wife who was an incarnation of the national virtue of respectability under circumstances too mysterious not to be discreditable. He was hooted into exile, and so far from reforming he did even worse than he had done before. After bewildering Venice with his wickedness and consorting with atheists like Shelley and conspirators like young Gamba, he went away on a sort of wild-goose chase to Greece, and died there with every circumstance of publicity. Also his work was every whit as abominable in the eyes of his countrymen as his life. It is said that the theory and practice of British art are subject to the influence of the British school-girl, and that he is unworthy the name of artist whose achievement is of a kind to call a blush to the cheek of youth. Byron was contemptuous of youth, and did not hesitate to write in Beppo and in Cain, in Manfred and Don Juan and the Vision exactly as he pleased. In three words, he made himself offensively conspicuous, and from being infinitely popular became utterly contemptible. Too long had people listened to the scream of this eagle in wonder and in perturbation, and the moment he disappeared they grew ashamed of their emotion and angry with its cause, and began to hearken to other and more melodious voices to Shelley and Keats, to Wordsworth and Coleridge and the ‘faultless and fervent melodies of Tennyson.’ In course of time Byron was forgotten, or only remembered with disdain; and when Thackeray, the representative Briton, the artist Philistine, the foe of all that is excessive or abnormal or rebellious, took it upon himself to flout the author of Don Juan openly and to lift up his heavy hand against the fops and fanatics who had affected the master’s humours, he did so amid general applause. Meanwhile, however, the genius and the personality of Byron had come to be vital influences all the world over, and his voice had been recognised as the most human and the least insular raised on English ground since Shakespeare’s. In Russia he had created Pushkin and Lermontoff; in Germany he had awakened Heine, inspired Schumann, and been saluted as an equal by the poet of Faust himself; in Spain he had had a share in moulding the noisy and unequal talent of Espronceda; in Italy he had helped to develop and to shape the melancholy and daring genius of Leopardi; and in France he had been one of the presiding forces of a great aesthetic revolution. To the men of 1830 he was a special and peculiar hero. Hugo turned in his wake to Spain and Italy and the East for inspiration. Musset, as Mr. Swinburne has said too bitterly and strongly said became in a fashion a Kaled to his Lara, ‘his female page or attendant dwarf.’ He was in some sort the grandsire of the Buridan and the Antony of Dumas. Berlioz went to him for the material for his Harold en Italie, his Corsaire overture, and his Episode. Delacroix painted the Barque de Don Juan from him, with the Massacre de Scio, the Marino Faliero, the Combat du Giaour et du Pacha, and many a notable picture more. Is it at all surprising that M. Taine should have found heart to say that alone among modern poets Byron ‘atteint a la cime’? or that Mazzini should have reproached us with our unaccountable neglect of him and with our scandalous forgetfulness of the immense work done by him in giving a ’European rôle . . . to English literature’ and in awakening all over the Continent so much ’appreciation and sympathy for England’?

Byron and Wordsworth.

He had his share in the work of making Matthew Arnold possible, but he is the antipodes of those men of culture and contemplation those artists pensive and curious and sedately self-contained whom Arnold best loved and of whom the nearest to hand is Wordsworth. Byron and Wordsworth are like the Lucifer and the Michael of the Vision of Judgment. Byron’s was the genius of revolt, as Wordsworth’s was the genius of dignified and useful submission; Byron preached the dogma of private revolution, Wordsworth the dogma of private apotheosis; Byron’s theory of life was one of liberty and self-sacrifice, Wordsworth’s one of self-restraint and self-improvement; Byron’s practice was dictated by a vigorous and voluptuous egoism, Wordsworth’s by a benign and lofty selfishness; Byron was the ‘passionate and dauntless soldier of a forlorn hope,’ Wordsworth a kind of inspired clergyman. Both were influences for good, and both are likely to be influences for good for some time to come. Which is the better and stronger is a question that can hardly be determined now. It is certain that Byron’s star has waned, and that Wordsworth’s has waxed; but it is also certain that there are moments in life when the Ode to Venice is almost as refreshing and as precious as the ode on the Intimations, and when the epic mockery of Don Juan is to the full as beneficial as the chaste philosophy of The Excursion and the Ode to Duty. Arnold was of course with Michael heart and soul, and was only interested in our Lucifer. He approached his subject in a spirit of undue deprecation. He thought it necessary to cite Scherer’s opinion that Byron is but a coxcomb and a rhetorician: partly, it would appear, for the pleasure of seeming to agree with it in a kind of way and partly to have the satisfaction of distinguishing and of showing it to be a mistake. Then, he could not quote Goethe without apologising for the warmth of that consummate artist’s expressions and explaining some of them away. Again, he was pitiful or disdainful, or both, of Scott’s estimate; and he did not care to discuss the sentiment which made that great and good man think Cain and the Giaour fit stuff for family reading on a Sunday after prayers, though as Mr. Ruskin has pointed out, in one of the wisest and subtlest bits of criticism I know, the sentiment is both natural and beautiful, and should assist us not a little in the task of judging Byron and of knowing him for what he was. That Arnold should institute a comparison between Leopardi and Byron was probably inevitable: Leopardi had culture and the philosophic mind, which Byron had not; he is incapable of influencing the general heart, as Byron can; he is a critics’ poet, which Byron can never be; he was always an artist, which Byron was not; and it were Arnoldian to take the comparison seriously. Byron was not interested in words and phrases but in the greater truths of destiny and emotion. His empire is over the imagination and the passions. His personality was many-sided enough to make his egoism representative. And as mankind is wont to feel first and to think afterwards, a single one of his heart-cries may prove to the world of greater value as a moral agency than all the intellectual reflections that Leopardi contrived to utter. After examining this and that opinion and doubting over and deprecating them all, Arnold touched firm ground at last in a dictum of Mr. Swinburne’s, the most pertinent and profound since those of Goethe, to the effect that in Byron there is a ’splendid and imperishable excellence which covers all his offences and outweighs all his defects: the excellence of sincerity and strength.’ With this ‘noble praise’ our critic agreed so vigorously that it became the key-note of the latter part of his summing up, and in the end you found him declaring Byron the equal of Wordsworth, and asserting of this ‘glorious pair’ that ’when the year 1900 is turned, and the nation comes to recount her poetic glories in the century which has just then ended, the first names with her will be these.’ The prophecy is as little like to commend itself to the pious votary of Keats as to the ardent Shelleyite: there are familiars of the Tennysonian Muse, the Sibyl of Rizpah and Vastness and Lucretius and The Voyage, to whom it must seem impertinent beyond the prophet’s wont; there are (but they scarce count) who grub (as for truffles) for meanings in Browning. But it was not uttered to please, and in truth it has enough of plausibility to infuriate whatever poet-sects there be. Especially the Wordsworthians.