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The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 12585

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Character of Lord Byron

My endeavour, in the foregoing pages, has been to give a general view of the intellectual character of Lord Byron. It did not accord with the plan to enter minutely into the details of his private life, which I suspect was not greatly different from that of any other person of his rank, not distinguished for particular severity of manners. In some respects his Lordship was, no doubt, peculiar. He possessed a vivacity of sensibility not common, and talents of a very extraordinary kind. He was also distinguished for superior personal elegance, particularly in his bust. The style and character of his head were universally admired; but perhaps the beauty of his physiognomy has been more highly spoken of than it really merited. Its chief grace consisted, when he was in a gay humour, of a liveliness which gave a joyous meaning to every articulation of the muscles and features: when he was less agreeably disposed, the expression was morose to a very repulsive degree. It is, however, unnecessary to describe his personal character here. I have already said enough incidentally, to explain my full opinion of it. In the mass, I do not think it was calculated to attract much permanent affection or esteem. In the detail it was the reverse: few men possessed more companionable qualities than Lord Byron did occasionally; and seen at intervals in those felicitous moments, I imagine it would have been difficult to have said, that a more interesting companion had been previously met with. But he was not always in that fascinating state of pleasantry: he was as often otherwise; and no two individuals could be more distinct from each other than Byron in his gaiety and in his misanthropy. This antithesis was the great cause of that diversity of opinion concerning him, which has so much divided his friends and adversaries. Of his character as a poet there can be no difference of opinion, but only a difference in the degree of admiration.

Excellence in talent, as in every other thing, is comparative; but the universal republic of letters will acknowledge, that in energy of expression and liveliness of imagery Byron had no equal in his own time. Doubts, indeed, may be entertained, if in these high qualities even Shakspeare himself was his superior.

I am not disposed to think with many of those who rank the genius of Byron almost as supreme, that he has shown less skill in the construction of his plots, and the development of his tales, than might have been expected from one so splendidly endowed; for it has ever appeared to me that he has accomplished in them everything he proposed to attain, and that in this consists one of his great merits. His mind, fervid and impassioned, was in all his compositions, except Don Juan, eagerly fixed on the catastrophe. He ever held the goal full in view, and drove to it in the most immediate manner. By this straightforward simplicity all the interest which intricacy excites was of necessity disregarded. He is therefore not treated justly when it is supposed that he might have done better had he shown more art: the wonder is, that he should have produced such magnificent effects with so little. He could not have made the satiated and meditative Harold so darkling and excursive, so lone, "aweary," and misanthropical, had he treated him as the hero of a scholastic epic. The might of the poet in such creations lay in the riches of his diction and in the felicity with which he described feelings in relation to the aspect of scenes amid the reminiscences with which the scenes themselves were associated.

If in language and plan he be so excellent, it may be asked why should he not be honoured with that pre-eminent niche in the temple which so many in the world have by suffrage assigned to him? Simply because, with all the life and beauty of his style, the vigour and truth of his descriptions, the boldness of his conceptions, and the reach of his vision in the dark abysses of passion, Lord Byron was but imperfectly acquainted with human nature. He looked but on the outside of man. No characteristic action distinguishes one of his heroes from another, nor is there much dissimilarity in their sentiments; they have no individuality; they stalk and pass in mist and gloom, grim, ghastly, and portentous, mysterious shadows, entities of the twilight, weird things like the sceptred effigies of the unborn issue of Banquo.

Combined with vast power, Lord Byron possessed, beyond all question, the greatest degree of originality of any poet of this age. In this rare quality he has no parallel in any age. All other poets and inventive authors are measured in their excellence by the accuracy with which they fit sentiments appropriate not only to the characters they create, but to the situations in which they place them: the works of Lord Byron display the opposite to this, and with the most extraordinary splendour. He endows his creations with his own qualities; he finds in the situations in which he places them only opportunities to express what he has himself felt or suffered; and yet he mixes so much probability in the circumstances, that they are always eloquently proper. He does everything, as it were, the reverse of other poets; in the air and sea, which have been in all times the emblems of change and the similitudes of inconstancy, he has discovered the very principles of permanency. The ocean in his view, not by its vastness, its unfathomable depths, and its limitless extent, becomes an image of deity, by its unchangeable character!

The variety of his productions present a prodigious display of power. In his short career he has entitled himself to be ranked in the first class of the British poets for quantity alone. By Childe Harold, and his other poems of the same mood, he has extended the scope of feeling, made us acquainted with new trains of association, awakened sympathies which few suspected themselves of possessing; and he has laid open darker recesses in the bosom than were previously supposed to exist. The deep and dreadful caverns of remorse had long been explored but he was the first to visit the bottomless pit of satiety.

The delineation of that Promethean fortitude which defied conscience, as he has shown it in Manfr

ed, is his greatest achievement. The terrific fables of Marlowe and of Goethe, in their respective versions of the legend of Faustus, had disclosed the utmost writhings which remorse in the fiercest of its torments can express; but what are those Laocoon agonies to the sublime serenity of Manfred. In the power, the originality, and the genius combined, of that unexampled performance, Lord Byron has placed himself on an equality with Milton. The Satan of the Paradise Lost is animated by motives, and dignified by an eternal enterprise. He hath purposes of infinite prospect to perform, and an immeasurable ambition to satisfy. Manfred hath neither purpose nor ambition, nor any desire that seeks gratification. He hath done a deed which severs him from hope, as everlastingly as the apostacy with the angels has done Satan. He acknowledges no contrition to bespeak commiseration, he complains of no wrong to justify revenge, for he feels none; he despises sympathy, and almost glories in his perdition.

The creation of such a character is in the sublimest degree of originality; to give it appropriate thoughts and feelings required powers worthy of the conception; and to make it susceptible of being contemplated as within the scope and range of human sympathy, places Byron above all his contemporaries and antecedents. Milton has described in Satan the greatest of human passions, supernatural attributes, directed to immortal intents, and stung with inextinguishable revenge; but Satan is only a dilatation of man. Manfred is loftier, and worse than Satan; he has conquered punishment, having within himself a greater than hell can inflict. There is a fearful mystery in this conception; it is only by solemnly questioning the spirits that lurk within the dark metaphors in which Manfred expresses himself, that the hideous secrets of the character can be conjectured.

But although in intellectual power, and in creative originality, Byron is entitled to stand on the highest peak of the mountain, his verse is often so harsh, and his language so obscure, that in the power of delighting he is only a poet of the second class. He had all the talent and the means requisite to embody his conceptions in a manner worthy of their might and majesty; his treasury was rich in everything rare and beautiful for illustration, but he possessed not the instinct requisite to guide him in the selection of the things necessary to the inspiration of delight:-he could give his statue life and beauty, and warmth, and motion, and eloquence, but not a tuneful voice.

Some curious metaphysicians, in their subtle criticism, have said that Don Juan was but the bright side of Childe Harold, and that all its most brilliant imagery was similar to that of which the dark and the shadows were delineated in his other works. It may be so. And, without question, a great similarity runs through everything that has come from the poet's pen; but it is a family resemblance, the progeny are all like one another; but where are those who are like them? I know of no author in prose or rhyme, in the English language, with whom Byron can be compared. Imitators of his manner there will be often and many, but he will ever remain one of the few whom the world acknowledges are alike supreme, and yet unlike each other-epochal characters, who mark extraordinary periods in history.

Raphael is the only man of pre-eminence whose career can be compared with that of Byron; at an age when the genius of most men is but in the dawning, they had both attained their meridian of glory, and they both died so early, that it may be said they were lent to the world only to show the height to which the mind may ascend when time shall be allowed to accomplish the full cultivations of such extraordinary endowments.

Footnotes:

{156} I.e., against.

{241} The sacrifice of Antinous by the emperor Adrian is supposed to have been a sacrifice of that kind. Dion Cassius says, that Adrian, who had applied himself to the study of magic, being deceived by the principles of that black Egyptian art into a belief that he would be rendered immortal by a voluntary human sacrifice to the infernal gods, accepted the offer which Antinous made of himself.

I have somewhere met with a commentary on this to the following effect:

The Christian religion, in the time of Adrian, was rapidly spreading throughout the empire, and the doctrine of gaining eternal life by the expiatory offering was openly preached. The Egyptian priests, who pretended to be in possession of all knowledge, affected to be acquainted with this mystery also. The emperor was, by his taste and his vices, attached to the old religion; but he trembled at the truths disclosed by the revelation; and in this state of apprehension, his thirst of knowledge and his fears led him to consult the priests of Osiris and Isis; and they impressed him with a notion that the infernal deities would be appeased by the sacrifice of a human being dear to him, and who loved him so entirely as to lay down his life for him. Antinous, moved by the anxiety of his imperial master, when all others had refused, consented to sacrifice himself; and it was for this devotion that Adrian caused his memory to be hallowed with religious rites.

{255} Mr Hobhouse has assured me that this information is not correct. "I happen," says he, "to know that Lord Byron offered to give the Guiccioli a sum of money outright, or to leave it to her by his will. I also happen to know that the lady would not hear of any such present or provision; for I have a letter in which Lord Byron extols her disinterestedness, and mentions that he has met with a similar refusal from another female. As to the being in destitute circumstances, I cannot believe it; for Count Gamba, her brother, whom I knew very well after Lord Byron's death, never made any complaint or mention of such a fact: add to which, I know a maintenance was provided for her by her husband, in consequence of a law process, before the death of Lord Byron."

{291a} The calenture.

{291b} The Swiss air.

{319} The doctor evidently makes a mistake in confounding Sir William Hamilton with Sir William Drummond.

{354} Fletcher's narrative implies at six that evening, the 19th April, 1824.

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