페이지 이미지
PDF
ePub

and not without cause; whilst Lord Carlisle, his only relative who might, from his own position, have interfered with any chance of success, did not seem to think him worth notice. He was a peer, though not rich; when he came of age he would be possessed of estates; and such a young man can generally find usurers bold and calculating enough to furnish him for a time with the means of indulgence. From the time he went to Cambridge, he plunged recklessly into dissipations, which gave a tone and colour to all he afterwards wrote. He had, unfortunately, no home; I say so, although convinced he would never have been a domesticated man ; but if he had had any one he loved to direct his energies in a right course, his genius might have been a far greater public blessing than it has proved. But this person must have been some one he held in awe, whom he respected more than he loved; the equal passion of husband and wife would never have effected good. His passions always took their birth from impulses, consequently they were sensual and evanescent. We frequently indulge in historical calculations of what would have happened if such and such things had not taken place-what might Byron have proved if his father had been a Chatham to give an impetus to his genius?

The nature of his early readings, he says, however, made him a poet, and his position gave a colouring to his writings. Before he left Cambridge, he had composed many pieces of various merits, some little more than school-boy rhymes, others denoting the "fire that burned within him," and he became ambitious to see himself in print; but, at the solicitations of a friend, submitted to the cruel sacrifice of burning his darling offspring, after they were in type. In his twentieth year, he, however, published the collection entitled "Hours of Idleness," began an epic poem, called "Bosworth Field," and wrote part of a novel and this amidst dissipation of the wildest and least refined nature. With scanty means, and uncountenanced by any leaders of rank and fashion, he did not now enjoy the entrée into families of distinction, which his fame afterwards procured him; so that his pleasures were of a gross, unsocial nature. But this was part of his poetical education; his wildest excesses furnished materials for his great poems, both as to facts and reflections: "Almost all Don Juan," he said, "is real life, either my own or other people's."

Had Byron not been a lord, his juvenile poetical effusions would, most likely, have been allowed to glide unnoticed down the stream of oblivion; but the intrusion of a peer into the republic of letters, was as bold as that of a parvenu savant into the society of peers, and a great Northern critic undertook to whip the rhyming fancy out of the noble young poet. This is not the only mistake of the kind critics have made-Keats they are said to have killed in

b

the whipping; but they only roused the patrician blood of Byron ; instead of finding an humble victim, they caught a Tartar. When anything offended him, he was a prey to rage of the most appalling nature, but, contrary to the generality of passionate people, his anger was deep-rooted, and sought vent in action. Soon after the appearance of the critique in the Edinburgh Review, he took up his residence at Newstead, and set about the composition of "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers." One of the most surprising peculiarities of his poetical writings, is that they were produced whilst he was in a state of excitement of the strongest kind, and of a nature apparently opposed to composition. His mode of life at Newstead has, no doubt, been exaggerated, as was almost all he ever did. He entertained an idea that a Byron must be eccentric, and his orgies were marked by peculiarity as much as by excess. The crew of which he was the Comus, were clothed as monks; they quaffed their wine from a cup made of a skull, and in their conversation, morals, and habits, they took an unboundedly free and unusual latitude. This society, notwithstanding the talents of several of its members, always appeared to me to be a poor copy of the same sort of party over which Jack Wilkes had presided half a century before. The worst result of this was, that it hardened his nature prematurely; he made the most of his obliquities, and boasted of his profligacy.

On the 22nd of January, 1809, he came of age; on the 13th of March he took his seat in the House of Lords, and on the 16th of the same month published his celebrated reply to the Edinburgh Review, in "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers." This reply Touchstone would, no doubt, have characterized as "a countercheck quarrelsome:" it angered great part of the literary world; but it, at the same, proved the ability of the young poet, and that he was too good a master of the fence of satire to be again attacked with impunity. His coming of age was celebrated at Newstead Abbey in the old English baronial fashion; a roasted ox, floods of ale, &c., being bestowed upon the tenantry, and offered to all comers. His appearance in the House of Lords, though an affair of consequence to him, excited but little attention in that august assembly; they did not dream of the genius that was come among them, and his connection was so limited that his unfriended position affected him deeply. Even his relation, Lord Carlisle, offered him no countenance, and the Chancellor was so dilatory and indifferent in preparing the necessary papers, that when he apologized for the delay, Byron could not restrain the cynical reply that rose spontaneously to his lips :-" Your Lordship," said he, "is like Tom Thumb-you have done your duty, but you have done no more."

With strong and never regulated passions, great pride of birth, a full sense of his abilities, and little but debts and destitution before him, he was so depressed in spirits that a profound cynicism took possession of his mind, and from that hour was the prevailing feature of his character. Mr. Moore, in his Memoirs, talks a great deal of what I think nonsense about a disappointed heart and waste affections; Lord Byron was not the man to be crushed by such poetical feelings. He was, perhaps, as vain a man as ever lived, he was extravagantly sensitive, deeply alive to neglect, and looking for too much admiration before he had earned it. With the pride of a poet, Moore says, "Luckily he became a poet and not a legislator." Had his poetry proved such as to have been a blessing to his fellow-men, instead of only dazzling and astonishing them, I should have agreed with him; as it is, I cannot but think one good law would weigh very heavily in the balance against it. A man who is a born British peer is born to honourable duties, and the chance possessor of that elevated rank, has no right to boast of it when he neglects them. He could not say with his favourite Pope :

"I left no calling for this idle trade,
No duty broke."

With his vast talents, and the position he was placed in, he should have shaken off his annoyances and difficulties "like dewdrops from the lion's mane," and have become a great, good man, as well as a splendid genius. It cannot be denied that many circumstances conspired to give the bias to his genius, and the tone to his character; the poetical mind is too apt to let the idiosnycrasy of the man associate itself with the flights of imagination, which is sure to engender vanity, egotism, disappointment, and cynicism. The poet fancies his mission so exalted, that all the world should pay it homage, whereas nine hundred and ninety-nine out of every thousand of his fellow-men care not a straw for him or his verse. While struggling with the difficulties created by high rank, pride of birth, ungovernable passions, and a slender income, the severe criticism of the Edinburgh Review seems to have decided his fate he answered that review, his answer proved his ability and was very much admired; he had found he possessed a weapon which could wound the world which he falsely thought his enemy, and from that hour to the day of his death, he became a cynic and a satirist; the joyous spirit which had given zest to his debaucheries was changed to gibing mockery, and everybody and everything was viewed through the distorted medium of selfishness, embittered by poverty and cynicism, rendered almost superhumanly keen by extraordinary genius.

Such was the tone of mind in which Lord Byron left England in the summer of the year he came of age, to travel, more with the hope of getting ride of home, that is of his country, than with the view of acquiring knowledge. But such a penetrating, observant mind could not avoid accumulating additions to his stores at every step, and few great writers have enjoyed such extraordinary opportunities. No poetry of a high rank was ever so completely founded upon facts as Byron's; it is true his brilliant fancy threw those facts out in new and striking lights, or covered them with beautiful ornaments, but all were drawn from himself, his friends, the scenes he had actually beheld, or the books he had read. This gives a solidity, if I may be allowed the word, to all he wrote, because it makes it all intelligible. Nothing could be more different than his genius and that of Shelley, in this respect. Shelley was possessed of an inventive, unbounded fancy; if there is a reality in his poetry, it lies too deep for common observers, and whilst idolized by a few, he will never be generally understood or appreciated as he perhaps deserves.

Consistently with this self-painting, the poem with which his mind must have been busy during his first travels, is entirely selfreflective, that is to say, his own actual adventures, wanderings and thoughts. And what an astonishing grasp of faculties does "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" display! "To a Poet," says Johnson, in Rasselas, "nothing can be useless. Whatever is beautiful and whatever is dreadful must be familiar to his imagination he must be conversant with all that is awfully vast or elegantly little." After this direction is "Childe Harold" written, but with a much wider scope; the vices, the follies, the fallacies, the eccentricities of mankind are rendered subject to the muse as well as the poetical elements, and all tinged by the cynical spirit of the writer, like the soupçon of vinegar which gave piquancy to many of Soyer's favourite dishes.

If confined to the Old World, Byron's travels were as judiciously directed as possible. In his first wanderings he seems to have been in search of the beautiful and the classic, which was natural for a young man educated, as it is the fashion at our high schools and colleges, upon the writings left us by Greece and Rome. His first place of halt was Lisbon, whose beautiful bay must have been strongly provocative of a love of travel, whilst the degradation of the inhabitants of the country furnished ample matter for the indulgence of his cynical mood. From Lisbon he went to Seville and Cadiz, still observing all, and never forgetting to throw woman, the principal object of his thoughts through life, into the foreground of every picture he took. He then visited Malta, Prevessa, Salaro, Arta, Joannini, Zeltza, and Tepaleen, where he was introduced to

Ali Pasha. Gratified with his interview, he returned to Joannini, and there began to transfer to paper the impressions of his pilgrimage, in the poem which will prove his principal claim to a niche in the Temple of Fame.

I have not space to follow him through his delightful wanderings amidst classic regions, though perfectly entering into his enjoyment of them. No place illustrated by great men or important events was neglected, and, in addition to the great poem, which must have been always prominent in his mind, the muse was frequently called upon to commemorate striking scenes and incidents, or interesting persons. From his self-acknowledged libertine character, every female he writes verses upon is supposed to have been a mistress; but, although by no means disposed to be the champion of his continence, I am convinced there are many exceptions to this, and that to the above-mentioned foolish boasting may be added a considerable quantity of the fiction of poetical license. He remained six weeks at Athens, for the sake of viewing all the classic scenes of that interesting country; and though he addressed "Maid of Athens, &c." to the daughter of the house in which he was located, before he quitted that city, there is not even a suspicion that he did not leave her untainted by the scant morality of London and Cambridge.

He seemed determined to leave no spot he had ever read of unvisited; from Athens he went to Smyrna, where he wrote the second canto of "Childe Harold." He next explored the ruins of Ephesus, and from thence proceeded to Constantinople. As a poet, he could not be so near the great scene of Homer's action, without making a pilgrimage to the Troad, which, in spite of Mr. Bryant, confirmed him in his Homeric faith. But he was not satisfied with believing in Homer, he wished to prove one of the poetically-registered wonders of antiquity practicable, and, without the hope of having a Hero to welcome him on his landing, he rivalled Leander by swimming from Sestos to Abydos. Of this feat he was always very proud, as indeed he was of everything that proved his courage, agility, or strength: when, in his later travels, he was compelled, as he says, "to give an impertinent fellow a good English punch in the guts," he did not fail to mention it in more than one letter. He made another short sojourn at Constantinople, during which he enjoyed an excursion through the Bosphorus to the Black Sea and Cyanean Symplegades; he then returned to Athens, where, after a trip to Corinth, and a tour of the Morea to visit Velay Pasha, he seemed to linger as loath to depart, and took up his residence at the Franciscan convent. While here he wrote many of the beautiful smaller pieces rendered interesting by local circumstances and personal associations, by which they are to be

« 이전계속 »