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Sweet verses, dangerously sweet, with a melancholy pride, but cowardly and mean in spirit. Non sic itur ad astra! In wasting this life we lose heaven : at thirtysix the true man is only reaching his prime. Youth lingers; wisdom and calm reflection, the guardian angels of a good man's life, shed down upon his path a light which guides him onwards. Not only is he not in his "sear and yellow leaf," but, to quote "Macbeth,” as Byron quoted it, “honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,” begin then to surround him. The battle may rage at its hottest, but the man's courage is at white heat still. He disdains to throw down his shield and run; he does not talk of seeking out a grave, and taking his rest; rather, he would look for a place of victory, and a garland of honour. It is nauseous chatter for a boy of nineteen to speak like an old and a wearied man; but, after all, is it not far worse for a man, in his full and mature powers, clothed in the panoply of genius, the glittering armour of high birth and literary fame, to sigh and sob like a love-sick school-girl !
With all his faults, Lord Byron is the centre of great attraction, and will be so for the young for evermore. He has taken his niche in the Temple of Fame, and has had a potent influence on his own age and on ours. He has, with Keats and Shelley, in some sort brought back that worship of beauty, youth, strength, passion, and capacity, which was embodied in the mythic pantheism of Greece. He himself loved the old faith of fruition better than the new one of denial. He has published in one line his feeling that Jove, Mahomet, and Jehovah are on a level; he continually exalts the ancient fate, or destiny; he loves the image—the idol, let us remember-of the living Apollo, better than the
crucifix bearing the dead Christ; but he trembled and believed in the efficacy of the God-Man. He sees the first,
All radiant from his triumph in the fight;
Developing at one glance the Deity ; and his “school”—not the herd of imitators, but his worthiest pupils—at last speak out plainly, and ask Venus "to come down and redeem us from Virtue," or sneeringly cry, “Thou hast conquered, oh, pale Galilean.” It is possible that Byron never dreamt of these results; they are not the less due to him. Το him, too, it is to be feared, is due the smaller respect to woman, and the impulse to treat her either as a very beautiful and poetic toy, or as a horrid bore, much to be avoided, which now obtains, and is prominent in his lordship’s finest and latest work.
As the most popular and most powerful—at any rate, for immediate effect—of the poets of this century, and as a study which for many years will have a very large share of attention, it has been deemed necessary to devote so large a space to Byron. I have not judged it necessary to give any specimens of his poetry, as his works are to be found in nearly every bookcase. Passages of the highest poetry can be found in abundance in his pages, which, like the crown of a volcanic mountain, glisten with brilliant sunshine, alternated with yawning rents and almost inconceivable blackness.
JAVING devoted so many pages to Lord
Byron, it may be felt that in strict justice more than as much space should be given to two at least of the very impor
tant poets whose names head this chapter. But the purpose of these essays is essentially educational, and, by the intense egotism of his style and his splendid bravery and glitter of verse and subject, Byron has projected himself much more forcibly upon the world than the two quieter, more valuable, and purer poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Thus in the physical world a day of sunshine mingled with refreshing rain, blown with fresh airs and gentle, cooling gusts, called in the farmer's homely tongue a “growing day,” is less remarkable than a day of storm and desolation, lurid with electricity, which desolates while it lights, and vocal with reverberating thunder. Words
worth and Coleridge, perhaps equally, but each in a different way, have had more wide and placid effect upon the minds of their successors than any men of the last century. They were not so much the teachers of the people as the teachers of those men that taught the people. Their great thoughts have filtered down, gladdening, purifying, and rendering fertile the minds of many men. Without Wordsworth we should never have had Dr. Arnold as a teacher nor Tennyson as a poet, at least their language and modes of thought must have been different. Without Coleridge we should not have known that school of reverential philosophy which, while it has kept pace with science and discovery, has yet preserved the noblest and sweetest faith in the world, to which the world owes all its good, pure and intact. These are great gains, and the men who gave them to us are great men.
Sir Walter Scott may be classed with these, not as a poet—for he was a poet only at rare intervals—but on account of the effect he had upon the world. Of him we shall speak in another chapter; his most popular poem, “Marmion," is redolent with the love of mediævalism, which in Sir Walter Scott has wrought such evil upon England, checking progress, bringing back an insane and ignorant admiration of the Stuarts, a hatred of Cromwell, difficult to root out, an admiration of old castles, armour, knights, tournaments, old furniture, painted windows, crosses, priests' garments and decorated religion, which is now bearing evil results, and might, if not checked by the national common sense, lead to an imposition of priestly tyranny, which in his heart Scott hated. Thus we have two great progressive geniuses antagonized with one pictorial and retrograde. And if these great authors are thus regarded, a great deal more will be seen both in them and of them than if they are taken as mere writers of poetry and fiction. For men are to be regarded especially as to the weight and power with which they operate on the minds of their fellows.
Nothing is more difficult than to give a “rough” specimen of such a poet as Wordsworth ; and it is equally difficult to give a sudden, short, sharp, and decisive idea of the man. The sketch given some pages back may here be supplemented by a few additional particulars. He was born at Cockermouth in April, 1770, and lived through the period of foreign revolutionary excitement which extended to England, until 1850, and ever in increasing honour. During the cry for liberty, and the wild turmoil of radicalism, Wordsworth felt with the advanced party; but his pure and sensitive mind was soon shocked by the awful crimes of the revolutionists, and he grew up to be a thorough, ardent, and consistent admirer, of the constitutional liberties of England. During the whole of a long life this poet devoted himself most sedulously to three things—the worship of God, through Nature, the cultivation of that genius that God had given him, and the proper cultivation of self. Hence he is an author very healthy and wholesome to contemplate. He sets himself to one steady purpose, never looks away from it, bends not to courts, nor to popularity, nor to power, nor to riches. He lives among the Cumberland lakes a poor man, thinking the mountain, the sky, or a common field-flower, a grander subject of contemplation than a bag of gold.