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The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 15000

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Reflections on his domestic Verses-Consideration of his Works-"The Corsair"-Probabilities of the Character and Incidents of the Story-On the Difference between poetical Invention and moral Experience: illustrated by the Difference between the Genius of Shakespeare and that of Byron

The task just concluded may disappoint the expectations of some of my readers, but I would rather have said less than so much, could so little have been allowed; for I have never been able to reconcile to my notions of propriety, the exposure of domestic concerns which the world has no right claim to know, and can only urge the plea of curiosity for desiring to see explained. The scope of my undertaking comprehends only the public and intellectual character of Lord Byron; every word that I have found it necessary to say respecting his private affairs has been set down with reluctance; nor should I have touched so freely on his failings, but that the consequences have deeply influenced his poetical conceptions.

There is, however, one point connected with his conjugal differences which cannot be overlooked, nor noticed without animadversion. He was too active himself in bespeaking the public sympathy against his lady. It is true that but for that error the world might never have seen the verses written by him on the occasion; and perhaps it was the friends who were about him at the time who ought chiefly to be blamed for having given them circulation: but in saying this, I am departing from the rule I had prescribed to myself, while I ought only to have remarked that the compositions alluded to, both the Fare-thee-well and the Anathema on Mrs Charlemont, are splendid corroborations of the metaphysical fact which it is the main object of this work to illustrate, namely, that Byron was only original and truly great when he wrote from the dictates of his own breast, and described from the suggestions of things he had seen. When his imagination found not in his subject uses for the materials of his experience, and opportunities to embody them, it seemed to be no longer the same high and mysterious faculty that so ruled the tides of the feelings of others. He then appeared a more ordinary poet--a skilful verse-maker. The necromancy which held the reader spellbound became ineffectual; and the charm and the glory which interested so intensely, and shone so radiantly on his configurations from realities, all failed and faded; for his genius dealt not with airy fancies, but had its power and dominion amid the living and the local of the actual world.

I shall now return to the consideration of his works, and the first in order is The Corsair, published in 1814. He seems to have been perfectly sensible that this beautiful composition was in his best peculiar manner. It is indeed a pirate's isle, peopled with his own creatures.

It has been alleged that Lord Byron was indebted to Sir Walter Scott's poem of Rokeby for the leading incidents of The Corsair, but the resemblance is not to me very obvious: besides, the whole style of the poem is so strikingly in his own manner, that even had he borrowed the plan, it was only as a thread to string his own original conceptions upon; the beauty and brilliancy of them could not be borrowed, and are not imitations.

There were two islands in the Archipelago, when Lord Byron was in Greece, considered as the chief haunts of the pirates, Stampalia, and a long narrow island between Cape Colonna and Zea. Jura also was a little tainted in its reputation. I think, however, from the description, that the pirate's isle of The Corsair is the island off Cape Colonna. It is a rude, rocky mass. I know not to what particular Coron, if there be more than one, the poet alludes; for the Coron of the Morea is neighbour to, if not in, the Mainote territory, a tract of country which never submitted to the Turks, and was exempted from the jurisdiction of Mussulman officers by the payment of an annual tribute. The Mainotes themselves are all pirates and robbers. If it be in that Coron that Byron has placed Seyd the pasha, it must be attributed to inadvertency. His Lordship was never there, nor in any part of Maina; nor does he describe the place, a circumstance which of itself goes far to prove the inadvertency. It is, however, only in making it the seat of a Turkish pasha that any error has been committed. In working out the incidents of the poem where descriptions of scenery are given, they relate chiefly to Athens and its neighbourhood. In themselves these descriptions are executed with an exquisite felicity; but they are brought in without any obvious reason wherefore. In fact, they appear to have been written independently of the poem, and are patched on "shreds of purple" which could have been spared.

The character of Conrad the Corsair may be described as a combination of the warrior of Albania and a naval officer-Childe Harold mingled with the hero of The Giaour.

A man of loneliness and mystery,

Scarce seen to smile, and seldom heard to sigh;

Robust, but not Herculean, to the sight,

No giant frame sets forth his common height;

Yet in the whole, who paused to look again

Saw more than marks the crowd of vulgar men:

They gaze and marvel how, and still confess

That thus it is, but why they cannot guess.

Sun-burnt his cheek, his forehead high and pale,

The sable curls in wild profusion veil.

And oft perforce his rising lip reveals

The haughtier thought it curbs, but scarce conceals:

Though smooth his voice, and calm his general mien,

Still seems there something he would not have seen.

His features' deepening lines and varying hue

At times attracted, yet perplex'd the view,

As if within that murkiness of mind

Work'd feelings fearful, and yet undefined:

Such might he be that none could truly tell,

Too close inquiry his stern glance could quell.

There breathed but few whose aspect could defy

The full encounter of his searching eye;

He had the skill, when cunning gaze to seek

To probe his heart and watch his changing cheek,

At once the observer's purpose to espy,

And on himself roll back his scrutiny,

Lest he to Conrad rather should betray

Some secret thought, than drag that chief's to day.

There was a laughing devil in his sneer

That raised emotions both of rage and fear;

And where his frown of hatred darkly fell

Hope withering fled, and mercy sigh'd, farewell.

It will be allowed that, in this portrait, some of the darker features and harsher lineaments of Byron himself are very evident, but with a more fixed sternness than belonged to him; for it was only by fits that he could put on such severity. Conrad is, however, a higher creation than any which he had previously described. Instead of the listlessness of Childe Harold, he is active and enterprising; such as the noble pilgrim would have been, but for the satiety which had relaxed his energies. There is also about him a solemnity different from the animation of the Giaour-a penitential despair arising from a cause undisclosed. The Giaour, though wounded and fettered, and laid in a dungeon, would not have felt as Conrad is supposed to feel in that situation. The following bold and terrific verses, descriptive of the maelstrom agitations of remorse, could not have been appropriately applied to the despair of grief, the predominant source of emotion in The Giaour.

There is a war, a chaos of the mind

When al

l its elements convulsed combined,

Lie dark and jarring with perturbed force,

And gnashing with impenitent remorse.

That juggling fiend who never spake before,

But cries, "I warn'd thee," when the deed is o'er;

Vain voice, the spirit burning, but unbent,

May writhe, rebel-the weak alone repent.

The character of Conrad is undoubtedly finely imagined; as the painters would say, it is in the highest style of art, and brought out with sublime effect; but still it is only another phase of the same portentous meteor, that was nebulous in Childe Harold, and fiery in The Giaour. To the safe and shop-resorting inhabitants of Christendom, The Corsair seems to present many improbabilities; nevertheless, it is true to nature, and in every part of the Levant the traveller meets with individuals whose air and physiognomy remind him of Conrad. The incidents of the story, also, so wild and extravagant to the snug and legal notions of England, are not more in keeping with the character, than they are in accordance with fact and reality. The poet suffers immeasurable injustice, when it is attempted to determine the probability of the wild scenes and wilder adventurers of his tales, by the circumstances and characters of the law-regulated system of our diurnal affairs. Probability is a standard formed by experience, and it is not surprising that the anchorets of libraries should object to the improbability of The Corsair, and yet acknowledge the poetical power displayed in the composition; for it is a work which could only have been written by one who had himself seen or heard on the spot of transactions similar to those he has described. No course of reading could have supplied materials for a narration so faithfully descriptive of the accidents to which an ?gean pirate is exposed as The Corsair. Had Lord Byron never been out of England, the production of a work so appropriate in reflection, so wild in spirit, and so bold in invention, as in that case it would have been, would have entitled him to the highest honours of original conception, or been rejected as extravagant; considered as the result of things seen, and of probabilities suggested, by transactions not uncommon in the region where his genius gathered the ingredients of its sorceries, more than the half of its merits disappear, while the other half brighten with the lustre of truth.

The manners, the actions, and the incidents were new to the English mind; but to the inhabitant of the Levant they have long been familiar, and the traveller who visits that region will hesitate to admit that Lord Byron possessed those creative powers, and that discernment of dark bosoms for which he is so much celebrated; because he will see there how little of invention was necessary to form such heroes as Conrad, and how much the actual traffic of life and trade is constantly stimulating enterprise and bravery. But let it not, therefore, be supposed, that I would undervalue either the genius of the poet, or the merits of the poem, in saying so, for I do think a higher faculty has been exerted in The Corsair than in Childe Harold. In the latter, only actual things are described, freshly and vigorously as they were seen, and feelings expressed eloquently as they were felt; but in the former, the talent of combination has been splendidly employed. The one is a view from nature, the other is a composition both from nature and from history.

Lara, which appeared soon after The Corsair, is an evident supplement to it; the description of the hero corresponds in person and character with Conrad; so that the remarks made on The Corsair apply, in all respects, to Lara. The poem itself is perhaps, in elegance, superior; but the descriptions are not so vivid, simply because they are more indebted to imagination. There is one of them, however, in which the lake and abbey of Newstead are dimly shadowed, equal in sweetness and solemnity to anything the poet has ever written.

It was the night, and Lara's glassy stream

The stars are studding each with imaged beam:

So calm, the waters scarcely seem to stray,

And yet they glide, like happiness, away;

Reflecting far and fairy-like from high

The immortal lights that live along the sky;

Its banks are fringed with many a goodly tree,

And flowers the fairest that may feast the bee:

Such in her chaplet infant Dian wove,

And innocence would offer to her love;

These deck the shore, the waves their channel make

In windings bright and mazy, like the snake.

All was so still, so soft in earth and air,

You scarce would start to meet a spirit there,

Secure that naught of evil could delight

To walk in such a scene, in such a night!

It was a moment only for the good:

So Lara deemed: nor longer there he stood;

But turn'd in silence to his castle-gate:

Such scene his soul no more could contemplate:

Such scene reminded him of other days,

Of skies more cloudless, moons of purer blaze;

Of nights more soft and frequent, hearts that now-

No, no! the storm may beat upon his brow

Unfelt, unsparing; but a night like this,

A night of beauty, mock'd such breast as his.

He turn'd within his solitary hall,

And his high shadow shot along the wall:

There were the painted forms of other times-

'Twas all they left of virtues or of crimes,

Save vague tradition; and the gloomy vaults

That hid their dust, their foibles, and their faults,

And half a column of the pompous page,

That speeds the spacious tale from age to age;

Where history's pen its praise or blame supplies

And lies like truth, and still most truly lies;

He wand'ring mused, and as the moonbeam shone

Through the dim lattice o'er the floor of stone,

And the high-fretted roof and saints that there

O'er Gothic windows knelt in pictured prayer;

Reflected in fantastic figures grew

Like life, but not like mortal life to view;

His bristling locks of sable, brow of gloom,

And the wide waving of his shaken plume

Glanced like a spectre's attributes, and gave

His aspect all that terror gives the grave.

That Byron wrote best when he wrote of himself and of his own, has probably been already made sufficiently apparent. In this respect he stands alone and apart from all other poets, and there will be occasion to show, that this peculiarity extended much farther over all his works, than merely to those which may be said to have required him to be thus personal. The great distinction, indeed, of his merit consists in that singularity. Shakspeare, in drawing the materials of his dramas from tales and history has, with wonderful art, given from his own invention and imagination the fittest and most appropriate sentiments and language; and admiration at the perfection with which he has accomplished this, can never be exhausted. The difference between Byron and Shakspeare consists in the curious accident, if it may be so called, by which the former was placed in circumstances which taught him to feel in himself the very sentiments that he has ascribed to his characters. Shakspeare created the feelings of his, and with such excellence, that they are not only probable to the situations, but give to the personifications the individuality of living persons. Byron's are scarcely less so; but with him there was no invention, only experience, and when he attempts to express more than he has himself known, he is always comparatively feeble.

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