Page images
PDF
EPUB

ing fiend. It needed brilliant poetry to atone for all this crooked and angular perversity of judgment; and in Shelley we have the purest, sweetest, and best. There are pieces of his which no one else can ever hope to rival; there are passages in “ Queen Mab” unsurpassed for the tenderness of human love, which begot the scorn of scorn and hate of hate that vexed him. He who is firm in faith may read Shelley, although booksellers have been prosecuted for publishing his books; and the Government, urged by his relations, forbade him to educate his own children. He mistook the side he fought on, but in his heart he fought for Christian principles. It is of him, surely, that Tennyson has written these noble lines which we quote, because it is in that spirit we are convinced that Shelley is to be judged and read; in that alone is he without danger to the young. "Doubt, you tell me," says Tennyson, "is devil-born."

I know not : one indeed I knew

In many a subtle question versed,

Who touch'd a jarring lyre at first,
Yet ever strove to make it true :

Perplex'd in faith, but pure in deeds,

At last he heat his music out.

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

[graphic][merged small][merged small][merged small]
[graphic]

R. DISRAELI, in a speech made some time since from the chair at a dinner of the Literary Fund, tried to show, not only that men of letters have more excuses for

their foibles than others (in which he was wrong), but that, by a mysterious and special manner, they arise at certain times in groups and galaxies, as it were, and then die out again ; and, what is more curious, that at the beginning of this century, just when the poetic faculty was richest and noblest, so also the critical faculty, which is a very different thing, indeed, was brought out in its most prosperous and fecund state. Up came a set of poets, and up came a set of trenchant reviewers. Literature, which had for some time been in a semi-dormant state, seemed to spring up again ; and, indeed, if one were to blot out of English literature all that has been written from the beginning of this century, almost the larger half of it would be gone.

Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge, have been spoken of in a mere cursory way; but I would urge the reader not to pass them over too hastily, and further on he will find some additional remarks on these distinguished men of their age. Almost every line of these poets is worth study; but there is another great poet of whom we have yet to speak, their contemporary, friend, and sometimes their enemy—a brilliant

young man, who blazed into notoriety like a comet; whose life, manner, temperament, loves, marriage, whose whole surroundings, in fact, even to his death, were romantic, and whose short career has furnished more themes for critics than the life of Nestor or Methuselah: this extraordinary man was Lord Byron. He arose at a time when literature was out of favour with lords. Time had been, and was past, when it was actually fashionable for a nobleman to write a book, to join “the mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease.” To be in the fashion or the vogue (and much more foolish fashions have prevailed) a nobleman rushed into print with his ode, or his disquisition, or his satire, after the manner of Pope—and a long way after, too :

He writes with ease, to show his breeding,
But easy writing's d- hard reading,

said a critic, who satirized one of these authors, and most deservedly; so the fashion, as it could not be kept up, died out, and authorship was left to those mean creatures—people of genius. But it happened that in 1788 a thorough genius was born a lord-a poor one, and a deformed one, it is true ; and from poverty and deformity arose much of Byron's strength and weakness. Proud, and already in some sort revengeful, the spirit of Byron was not touched with a

[blocks in formation]
[ocr errors]

noble thankfulness that he was as he was—a noble, educated, and with a good prospect—but with extreme bitterness that he was not more, better, and greater. It is the old story. Life, as has often been said, resembles the passage up a ladder : every climber looks with envy on the altitude that others have attained, not with pity on the lowly climbers beneath him. Certain juvenile poems which Byron published were deservedly lashed in the “Edinburgh Review ;” a review that was apparently started with the false notion that the reviewer's duty lay in being as ill-natured as he could be, and showing his own cleverness, while he damaged the author. Byron replied in a satire—the “ English Bards and Scotch Reviewers "--which brought him at once into notice, and henceforward he was a marked

“I woke up one morning," he said, and—but this, it is stated, was after the publication of “Childe Harold”) “and found myself famous.” The rest of his life exhibited the ill effects of that fame. There was at that day a clever publisher, young John Murray, of Fleet Street, who soon removed to the West End, and became the friend and publisher of Lord Byron. In due time Byron, who had reigned the comet of a season, was forgotten by the fashionable people, of which he complains bitterly; but he was not forgotten by the public. Poem after poem he poured forth“Childe Harold's Pilgrimage,” the “ Bride of Abydos," the “Giaour,” “Siege of Corinth," " Lara," &c.—until Murray had paid him the then enormous £15,000 for poetry alone, and had made perhaps three times the sum by his works. The public eagerly bought and read sensational Eastern stories, tales of pirates, of love, misery, of rebellious pride, of very unhealthy feelings, of hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, of men who were “linked with one virtue and a thousand crimes.” The public was converted to Byronism ; young men turned down their collars, and drank gin and water to look poetical, to be pale and miserable, to laugh at the bitterness of all the world; and to marvel, like Manfred, at their own greatness, to be haunted by a sin which they never tried to expiate. This, indeed, was the rôle played by the heroes of the noble poet; and such heroes grew the fashion : in novel, in poem, and in play, they were reproduced by imitators ad nauseam; bravoes, bandits, assassins, pirates, and corsairs alternated with Cains and Manfreds, who were ready to argue with God upon self-imposed misery, to reject his benefits with scorn, and to plunge themselves in a self-made hell, where they could for ever hug their own unhappiness. Everywhere Lord Byron had proclaimed similar ideas, and it was not unnatural that, at last, the heroes of the poet were presumed to be copies of his noble self. In the midst of the crowd of criticisms and the hubbub of fame that he had raised, Byron quitted his country to reside abroad, and to write his last and his most powerful poem,“ Don Juan," which was brought out by Murray anonymously. One who knew him well at this time described him thus :

man.

»

sum of

Sated with home, of wife, of children tired,
The restless soul is driven abroad to roam ;
Sated abroad, all seen yet nought admired,

The restless soul is driven to wander home; and in the same verses he speaks of his scorn and hate for everything human : to him, he says

« PreviousContinue »