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The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 15630

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Criticism of the "Edinburgh Review"

"The poesy of this young lord belongs to the class which neither God nor man are said to permit. Indeed we do not recollect to have seen a quantity of verse with so few deviations in either direction from that exact standard. His effusions are spread over a dead flat, and can no more get above or below the level than if they were so much stagnant water. As an extenuation of this offence, the noble author is peculiarly forward in pleading minority. We have it in the title-page, and on the very back of the volume; it follows his name like a favourite part of his style. Much stress is laid upon it in the preface; and the poems are connected with this general statement of his case by particular dates, substantiating the age at which each was written. Now, the law upon the point of minority we hold to be perfectly clear. It is a plea available only to the defendant; no plaintiff can offer it as a supplementary ground of action. Thus, if any suit could be brought against Lord Byron, for the purpose of compelling him to put into court a certain quantity of poetry, and if judgment were given against him, it is highly probable that an exception would be taken, were he to deliver for poetry the contents of this volume. To this he might plead minority; but as he now makes voluntary tender of the article, he hath no right to sue on that ground for the price in good current praise, should the goods be unmarketable. This is our view of the law on the point; and we dare to say, so will it be ruled. Perhaps, however, in reality, all that he tells us about his youth is rather with a view to increase our wonder, than to soften our censures. He possibly means to say, 'See how a minor can write! This poem was actually composed by a young man of eighteen! and this by one of only sixteen!' But, alas, we all remember the poetry of Cowley at ten, and Pope at twelve; and, so far from hearing with any degree of surprise that very poor verses were written by a youth from his leaving school to his leaving college inclusive, we really believe this to be the most common of all occurrences;-that it happens in the life of nine men in ten who are educated in England, and that the tenth man writes better verse than Lord Byron.

"His other plea of privilege our author brings forward to waive it. He certainly, however, does allude frequently to his family and ancestors, sometimes in poetry, sometimes in notes; and while giving up his claim on the score of rank, he takes care to remind us of Dr Johnson's saying, that when a nobleman appears as an author, his merit should be handsomely acknowledged. In truth, it is this consideration only that induces us to give Lord Byron's poems a place in our Review, besides our desire to counsel him, that he do forthwith abandon poetry, and turn his talents, which are considerable, and his opportunities, which are great, to better account.

"With this view we must beg leave seriously to assure him, that the mere rhyming of the final syllable, even when accompanied by the presence of a certain number of feet; nay, although (which does not always happen) these feet should scan regularly, and have been all counted upon the fingers, is not the whole art of poetry. We would entreat him to believe that a certain portion of liveliness, somewhat of fancy, is necessary to constitute a poem; and that a poem in the present day, to be read, must contain at least one thought, even in a little degree different from the ideas of former writers, or differently expressed. We put it to his candour, whether there is anything so deserving the name of poetry, in verses like the following, written in 1806, and whether, if a youth of eighteen could say anything so uninteresting to his ancestors, a youth of nineteen should publish it:

Shades of heroes, farewell! your descendant, departing

From the seat of his ancestors, bids you adieu;

Abroad or at home, your remembrance imparting

New courage, he'll think upon glory and you.

Though a tear dim his eye at this sad separation,

'Tis nature, not fear, that excites his regret;

Far distant he goes with the same emulation,

The fame of his fathers he ne'er can forget.

That fame and that memory still will he cherish,

He vows that he ne'er will disgrace your renown;

Like you will he live, or like you will he perish,

When decay'd, may he mingle his dust with your own.

"Now, we positively do assert, that there is nothing better than these stanzas in the whole compass of the noble minor's volume.

"Lord Byron should also have a care of attempting what the greatest poets have done before him, for comparisons (as he must have had occasion to see at his writing-master's) are odious. Gray's Ode to Eton College should really have kept out the ten hobbling stanzas on a distant view of the village and school at Harrow.

Where fancy yet joys to trace the resemblance

Of comrades in friendship or mischief allied,

How welcome to me your ne'er-fading remembrance,

Which rests in the bosom, though hope is denied.

"In like manner, the exquisite lines of Mr Rogers, On a Tear, might have warned the noble author of these premises, and spared us a whole dozen such stanzas as the following:

Mild charity's glow,

To us mortals below,

Shows the soul from barbarity clear;

Compassion will melt

Where the virtue is felt.

And its dew is diffused in a tear.

The man doom'd to sail

With the blast of the gale,

Through billows Atlantic to steer,

As he bends o'er the wave,

Which may soon be his grave,

The green sparkles bright with a tear.

"And so of instances in which former poets had failed. Thus, we do not think Lord Byron was made for translating, during his nonage, Adrian's Address to his Soul, when Pope succeeded indifferently in the attempt. If our readers, however, are of another opinion, they may look at it.

Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav'ring sprite,

Friend and associate of this clay,

To what unknown region borne

Wilt thou now wing thy distant flight?

No more with wonted humour gay,

But pallid, cheerless, and forlorn.

"However, be this as it may, we fear his translations and imitations are great favourities with Lord Byron. We have them of all kinds, from Anacreon to Ossian; and, viewing them as school-exercises, they may pass. Only, why print them after they have had their day and served their turn? And why call the thing in p. 79 a translation, where two words (θελο λεyειν) of the original are expanded into four lines, and the other thing in p. 81, where μεσονυκτικι? ποθ' οραι? is rendered by means of six hobbling verses. As to his Ossian poesy, we are not very good judges; being, in truth, so moderately skilled in that species of composition, that we should, in all probability, be criticising some bit of genuine Macpherson itself, were we to express our opinion of Lord Byron's rhapsodies. If, then, the following beginning of a Song of Bards is by his Lordship, we venture to object to it, as far as we can comprehend it; 'What form rises on the roar of clouds, whose dark ghost gleams on the red stream of tempests? His voice rolls on the thunder; 'tis Oila, the brown chief of Otchona. He was,' etc. After detaining this 'brown chief' some time, the bards conclude by giving him their advice to 'raise his fair locks'; then to 'spread them on the arch of the rainbow'; and to 'smile through the tears of the storm.' Of this kind of thing there are no less than nine pages: and we can so far venture an opinion in their favour, that they look very like Macpherson; and we are positive they are pretty nearly as stupid and tiresome.

"It is some sort of privilege of poets to be egotists; but they should 'use it as not abusing it'; and pa

rticularly one who piques himself (though, indeed, at the ripe age of nineteen) on being an infant bard-

The artless Helicon I boast is youth-

should either not know, or should seem not to know, so much about his own ancestry. Besides a poem, above cited, on the family-seat of the Byrons, we have another of eleven pages on the selfsame subject, introduced with an apology, 'he certainly had no intention of inserting it,' but really 'the particular request of some friends,' etc. etc. It concludes with five stanzas on himself, 'the last and youngest of the noble line.' There is also a good deal about his maternal ancestors, in a poem on Lachion-y-Gair, a mountain, where he spent part of his youth, and might have learned that pibroach is not a bagpipe, any more than a duet means a fiddle.

"As the author has dedicated so large a part of his volume to immortalize his employments at school and college, we cannot possibly dismiss it without presenting the reader with a specimen of these ingenious effusions.

"In an ode, with a Greek motto, called Granta, we have the following magnificent stanzas:-

There, in apartments small and damp,

The candidate for college prizes

Sits poring by the midnight lamp,

Goes late to bed, yet early rises:

Who reads false quantities in Seale,

Or puzzles o'er the deep triangle,

Depriv'd of many a wholesome meal,

In barbarous Latin doomed to wrangle.

Renouncing every pleasing page

From authors of historic use;

Preferring to the letter'd sage

The square of the hypotenuse.

Still harmless are these occupations,

That hurt none but the hapless student,

Compared with other recreations

Which bring together the imprudent.

"We are sorry to hear so bad an account of the college-psalmody, as is contained in the following attic stanzas

Our choir could scarcely be excused,

Even as a band of raw beginners;

All mercy now must be refused

To such a set of croaking sinners.

If David, when his toils were ended,

Had heard these blockheads sing before him,

To us his psalms had ne'er descended-

In furious mood he would have tore 'em.

"But whatever judgment may be passed on the poems of this noble minor, it seems we must take them as we find them, and be content for they are the last we shall ever have from him. He is at best, he says, but an intruder into the groves of Parnassus; he never lived in a garret, like thoroughbred poets, and though he once roved a careless mountaineer in the Highlands of Scotland, he has not of late enjoyed this advantage. Moreover, he expects no profit from his publication; and whether it succeeds or not, it is highly improbable, from his situation and pursuits, that he should again condescend to become an author. Therefore, let us take what we get and be thankful. What right have we poor devils to be nice? We are well off to have got so much from a man of this lord's station, who does not live in a garret, but has got the sway of Newstead Abbey. Again we say, let us be thankful; and, with honest Sancho, bid God bless the giver, nor look the gift-horse in the mouth."

The criticism is ascribed to Mr Francis Jeffrey, an eloquent member of the Scottish bar, and who was at that time supposed to be the editor of the Edinburgh Review. That it was neither just nor fair is sufficiently evident, by the degree of care and artificial point with which it has been drawn up. Had the poetry been as insignificant as the critic affected to consider it, it would have argued little for the judgment of Mr Jeffrey, to take so much pains on a work which he considered worthless. But the world has no cause to repine at the severity of his strictures, for they unquestionably had the effect of kindling the indignation of Byron, and of instigating him to that retaliation which he so spiritedly inflicted in his satire of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.

It is amusing to compare the respective literary reputation of the poet and the critic, as they are estimated by the public, now that the one is dead, and the other dormant. The voice of all the age acknowledges Byron to have been the greatest poetical genius of his time. Mr Jeffrey, though still enjoying the renown of being a shrewd and intelligent critic of the productions of others, has established no right to the honour of being an original or eminent author.

At the time when Byron published the satire alluded to, he had obtained no other distinction than the college reputation of being a clever, careless, dissipated student. But his dissipation was not intense, nor did it ever become habitual. He affected to be much more so than he was: his pretensions were moderated by constitutional incapacity. His health was not vigorous; and his delicacy defeated his endeavours to show that he inherited the recklessness of his father. He affected extravagance and eccentricity of conduct, without yielding much to the one, or practising a great deal of the other. He was seeking notoriety; and his attempts to obtain it gave more method to his pranks and follies than belonged to the results of natural impulse and passion. He evinced occasional instances of the generous spirit of youth; but there was in them more of ostentation than of that discrimination which dignifies kindness, and makes prodigality munificence. Nor were his attachments towards those with whom he preferred to associate, characterised by any nobler sentiment than self-indulgence; he was attached, more from the pleasure he himself received in their society, than from any reciprocal enjoyment they had with him. As he became a man of the world, his early friends dropped from him; although it is evident, by all the contemporary records of his feelings, that he cherished for them a kind, and even brotherly, affection. This secession, the common effect of the new cares, hopes, interests, and wishes, which young men feel on entering the world, Byron regarded as something analogous to desertion; and the notion tainted his mind, and irritated that hereditary sullenness of humour, which constituted an ingredient so remarkable in the composition of his more mature character.

An anecdote of this period, characteristic of his eccentricity, and the means which he scrupled not to employ in indulging it, deserves to be mentioned.

In repairing Newstead Abbey, a skull was found in a secret niche of the walls. It might have been that of the monk who haunted the house, or of one of his own ancestors, or of some victim of the morose race. It was converted into a goblet, and used at Odin-like orgies. Though the affair was but a whim of youth, more odious than poetical, it caused some talk, and raised around the extravagant host the haze of a mystery, suggesting fantasies of irreligion and horror. The inscription on the cup is not remarkable either for point or poetry.

Start not, nor deem my spot fled;

In me behold the only skull

From which, unlike a living head,

Whatever flows is never dull.

I liv'd, I lov'd, I quaff'd like thee;

I died, but earth my bones resign:

Fill up-thou canst not injure me,

The worm hath fouler lips than thine.

Better to hold the sparkling grape

Than nurse the earth-worm's slimy brood,

And circle in the goblet's shape

The drink of gods than reptile's food.

Where once my wit perchance hath shone,

In aid of others let me shine;

And when, alas, our brains are gone,

What nobler substitute than wine?

Quaff while thou canst-another race,

When thou and thine like me are sped,

May rescue thee from earth's embrace,

And rhyme and revel with the dead.

Why not? since through life's little day,

Our heads such sad effects produce;

Redeem'd from worms and wasting clay,

This chance is theirs, to be use.

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