Essays and Reviews

by Archibald Lampman

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley


The Poetry of Byron


Let me begin by saying what I cannot help thinking to be true, that not all that is artistic is beautiful—that to put it another way art is no more the instrument of God than of the Devil. A great deal of the art that has been done in time past and is being done now is a disturbing influence in the world: but that which is beautiful cannot disturb. Beauty is calm and lovely. It may be fervent; it may be passionate or sublime. It [may] uplift excite and carry away the soul but it does not disturb it. The human soul which is in perfect sympathy with the few simple guiding laws which human nature has gradually developed for its purity and safety will not be shaken from its firm and healthy foundation by any art that is truly beautiful; for these laws are the principles of beauty as far as human conduct is concerned. As I have said however a great deal of the world’s art does disturb, because it is not in accordance with the laws which work for the beauty and safety of human nature; because it is rather built upon the instincts of an original, prurient nature whose promptings may be turned to artistic account but cannot be truly beautiful.

We find some of the world’s greatest artists dealing entirely in this bad and disturbing art. In others the two are inextricably blended. In work that is wholly artistic much is beautiful and much is not. In endeavouring therefore to determine the value of any poet’s work, however genuine an artist he may be, it is necessary to consider whether his art is truly beautiful or not; for only that which is beautiful is of any value to us. The art which disturbs is utterly worthless. We must consider whether in its sublimity, its worth or passion or pathos it is in accord with what we feel to be pure and lovely in human life; whether it draws and attunes readily to itself the soul that is beautiful, or whether on the contrary it disturbs and rudely shakes the beautiful soul on its foundation of purity and peace, making it doubtful and unhappy by the baneful contact.

To a certain extent it seems to be true that the life of a poet is a dual one—the life of the worldly man and the life of the poetic soul —and the two do not seem to be always reconcileable with one another. We find traces of pure beauty in the poetic soul which seem to be almost wanting in the life of the bodily man; we find traits of darkness or hideousness in the physical life which appear at first sight to have left no trace upon the work; and the reason of this undoubtedly is that the physical side is often weak, when the intellectual is correspondingly strong. In the artistic work we find the true man in his strength and beauty; in the worldly life we have the struggle of the true man, whom the very intensity of mental concentration has left weak and unguarded there, with the besetting inroads of passion. Yet this distinction between the man and his work is not always clearly defined; and as we see that the deeds of his life are an inexplicable tangle of the dark and the beautiful, so we find that his work is made up of those two kinds of art which I have described, the ugly and the beautiful: and in order that his art may be of much value to us, the influence of the truly beautiful must be greater than the influence of the artistically ugly. In the cases in which the artist[’]s life appears to have been almost wholly bad and his work wholly beautiful, it will often be found upon careful reflection that the latter only seems to be beautiful; though in reality, with all the outward attributes of beauty and being quite artistic, it has its root in the promptings of a bad and unbeautiful nature. When we compare the works and lives of those greatest poets, who have had the strongest and purest influence on mankind, it will generally be seen that each has been prompted both in his life and art by some single ruling instinct in accord with the spirit of beauty[,] perhaps often forgotten or wilfully neglected, but to which in the end all that he has done or written of the purely lovely must be traceable.To take instances from Byron’s own time; when we read the two last lines of Keats’ "Grecian Urn"—

Beauty is truth, truth beauty: that is all
Ye know, and all ye need to know[.]

there is something not only in the words but in the tone, by which we feel rather than know the one ruling instinct of the poet’s mental and worldly life, the sensitive and absorbing feeling for pure abstract beauty.

Thus we find Wordsworth’s life and art, at once so lowly and so lofty, guided by one never failing instinct—the calm and joyous devotion to wild nature in her freshness and strength and eternal youth, seeking refuge in her from a jaded and artificial world of men, to which all these attributes were wanting. There are many places in which the poet uttered passionately and directly what we feel to be more dimly present in all his life and art—none more lofty and touching than the following from one of his sonnets—

                         Great God, I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn:
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn,
Have sight of Proteus coming from the sea,
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

In like manner through all the mental and physical existense [sic] of Shelley we are perpetually in the presence of that wild and devoted love of freedom that nerved his tongue with such strange and mystic eloquence, and made his life in the main so visionary, and at the same time so constant, so pure and sensitively generous.

When therefore we turn to the poetry of Byron, a man whose intellectual brilliancy and strength was the wonder of all the greatest of his time, whose works have had a keener interest for all sorts of people than those of any poet since Milton, and whose life is even now perhaps as much as ever a matter of deep and general curiosity, we expect to find in it, not only much that is beautiful, but also some high and peculiar purpose, the working of some special instinct, in accord with the spirit of beauty, to which all that is finest in it may be indebted as its potent inspiration[.]

But in all the poetry of Byron nothing is more notably wanting than any constant serious influence such as I describe. Even in many of his finest efforts, those passages, upon which the poet expended the utmost of his brilliancy, there is something rhetorical and grandiloquent that impresses us with an unwelcome doubt of their sincerity[.] We find in him no worshipful devotion to universal nature such as that of Wordsworth. There are many pieces of splendid scene painting in his poems. They are magnificent but with a few exceptions neither true nor beautiful. They are the work of a man who has been impressed with the gorgeousness of the things he describes, but has never taken them to his heart with that fresh and riotous delight, or returned to them with that passionate longing, which are only known to such simple children of nature as Wordsworth or Shelley. I do not believe that there is a more coldly sententious piece of rhythmical commonplace in the language than that loud-tongued apostrophe to the sea, which ends the last canto of Childe Harold. The first line of it "Roll on, thou dark and deep blue ocean, roll!" is worthy to class with the famous first [sic] line of James Thompson’s [sic] Sophonisba. Neither shall we find in Byron’s poems any of that passionate single-hearted devotion to freedom and justice, which was the keynote of all that Shelley wrote, and which is more or less present in all the poets of his time and since. It is true that there are some fine passages, splendid in thought and diction, in which the cause of liberty and the imperishable glory of those who have fought and died for her are loftily asserted. But they are only the outcome of momentary moods or the imagined utterances of characters woven into the plots of high dramatic undertakings, like those of Israel Bertuccio and Philip Calendaro in Marino Faliero. Some of these are poetic and stirring, others sound very like pure affectation. Byron like any other high-spirited and imaginative man of his age could not fail to have imbibed some taste for the wild and visionary dreams of an age of freedom and universal justice which filled the entire atmosphere of thought and art during the early years of the present century. He himself had dreams of struggles and self-sacrifices for freedom, in which however he always beheld himself the central and glorified figure. They were more the air-castles of romantic vanity than the carefully brooded plans of a humble and passionate lover of mankind. These dreams in fact were only things that were incidental to his poetry: they were not its bread of life. We cannot look to them as forming any constant and serious influence on his life or art.

Again comparing Byron with a certain other class of poets we shall not discover any evidence in his work that he wrote like Keats for instance from the shere love of everything that is pure and lovely. There are some poems and passages in poems of his that are unmitigatedly hideous. The address to his wife for example on hearing of her illness was such a thing as could never have been penned by any man in whose mind the sense of the beautiful was an overpowering presense [sic]. The opening stanzas of Childe Harold describing with a sort of jaunty gusto the degraded dissipations of his heroes [sic] youth seems to me to be dismally unbeautiful. There are many passages in Don Juan, Beppo and elsewhere which, however brilliant and witty they may be, are sufficient to prove that the love of the beautiful was not the ever fruitful source of the poet’s inspiration—in fact that he was capable of writing a great deal which, so far from being beautiful, was not even artistic.

After having looked through these poems in vain for constant traces of some intense and noble impulse, we shall have at last to seek the governing instinct of Byron’s life on a lower and more worldly level. He himself confessed in one of his letters that he did not consider poetry his true vocation; that he wrote only for fame, and for the sake of the influence it gave him over the minds of men. But this was probably not altogether true. He wrote in the first place because he had strong passions, combined with a bold and active imagination, a penetrating intellect and the gift of song: in the second place because the exercise of all these faculties gained for him an agreeable notoriety. Whenever he had a love affair, he wrote about it feelingly and cleverly, not so much because the thing itself was worthy to be given a place in the temple of art, but because he had an irresistible inclination to make the whole world his confidant. When he was angry, as in the case of the English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, it was a sharp weapon for inflicting the stings of his wrath, and at the same time afforded an opportunity of astonishing the world with his extraordinary wit and talent.

The Gi[a]our, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair and Lara were written no doubt because they were just the sort of thing which, in conjunction with the poet’s beauty of person and romantic bearing, would render him irresistibly attractive among the fairer portion of the sentimental, semi-cultured and decidedly frivolous society in which he was then moving. They were sufficiently musical, tender, gorgeous and romantic. Happily Byron’s intellect was far too vigorous, his judgment too severe, his passions too strong to permit him to fall into the monotony of soft and musical verbiage, which would be expected in work, inspired by no higher impulse than the desire for sentimental notoriety. Consequently there are many qualities in these poems which have the effect of raising them far above the level of mediocrity[.] Although at bottom there is little of any permanent value in them, they have so much invention dash and strength that no one can say that he has read them without being in some indescribable manner impressed. They have the mark upon them of that intellectual vigor which was then only in its youth, and which afterward developed in a rapid and wonderful way. In a later year when Byron left England never to return his genius came to obey another and perhaps even more potent impulse to throw itself into the world of poetry with all its restless strength. He had been driven from England by the united voices of all grades of society as one who was covered with shame and infamy, and he determined by the vastness and splendour of his poetic undertakings to prove to his enemies that they had driven from his country nothing short of the greatest genius of his time. Henceforth an important factor in his poetic inspiration was defiance. Added to this was the passionate grief and despair that often hung for long intervals over the brooding spirit of a wayward and sensitive exile.

On the whole perhaps nothing could have fallen out better for the developement of the merely brilliant side of Byron’s genius than the tempest of abuse which drove him into an exile as real as if it had been the effect of a royal decree. Byron’s was a temperament that rose to its utmost energy under the influence of grief, scorn and defiance. He was almost incapable of creating for abstract beauty’s sake. Even the love of fame in a condition of prosperity would not have lifted him far above the level of Lara and the second canto of Childe Harold: but the lonely passionate brooding over the miserable ruin of his own strange life could raise him at last to the almost sublime height of the Lament of Tasso and the Prophesy of Dante.

The love of fame however and the spirit of defiance are not impulses which are always likely to work in accord with the pure dictates of beauty in any man. There is no speedier way in which the poet may attract the attention of the imaginative among mankind than by the sympathetic portrayal of reckless and turbulent passion. But in such things there is very little that is beautiful. As I have said before they are not in accordance with that wide and lovely sense of purity and justice which must be the groundwork of all that is to be named beauty. Poetry of this kind which ranges itself on the side of passion against eternal law is a disturbing influence to human progress and is therefore of no real value to us. It may be of deep and painful interest as illustrating the complexity and mystery of human character but it is of no intrinsic value. Actuated as he seems to have been by the imperfect impulses which I have described a great deal of Byron[’]s work was of this sort. It is a pity that some of it was ever published as it is also a pity that much that was done in his life was ever recorded. Yet it would be quite untrue to say that there was nothing beautiful in Byron’s genius. In those romantic passions which are described in a few of his early narrative poems there is often something quite touchingly beautiful, for instance that of the Corsair and Medora, which is a noble picture of constancy and truth. But it was in the after days of his exile that the finer part of his nature seems to have grown and gathered strength in a strange way side by side with the darker; and this was owing to several circumstances besides the mere ordinary progress of a mind toward maturity. In the first place he came frequently in contact with Shelley whose spirit next to that of Keats was the most purely poetic of his age.

In many of Byron’s works there are marked and abundant traces even of the peculiar forms of beautiful feeling which were always uppermost in Shelley’s mind[.] They are to be found essentially in Manfred[,] Heaven and Earth and Cain—and in a lesser degree through the whole range of his dramas. In the next place during his residence in Italy the poet gained much from the study of Dante[,] Ariosto and Tasso. He must have been especially touched and attracted by the life and work of Dante, who like himself, though for far other reasons, had been driven from his native country and had eaten the bread of strangers in solitude and bitterness. In addition to these things he was living in a land of glorious landscape and beautiful cities, studded all over with the monuments of a strange and romantic history. Moreover he was at liberty to wander whither he would and to brood as he would over the memories of a past life or the romantic plans that were ever gathering into his future.

In conditions such as these though they produced no purifying effect upon his physical life, but apparently the reverse, we cannot wonder that whatever there was of the beautiful in his mind and spirit was rapidly developed. Unfortunate, as I have noted before, the foul was developed as well as the beautiful and almost the same period of his life, that of the depravity of the Palazzo Mocenigo, produced the most repulsive passages in Don Juan, and the Marino Faliero, in many respects the loftiest and manliest of his dramas.

On the whole Byron’s nature was too passionately selfish ever [to] permit him to become permanently beautiful either in his life or work. The true sense of beauty only came to him in moods[.] He would never suffer himself to be governed by the shere feeling of what is noble and lovely when something unbeautifully powerful would produce a more striking effect. A mind can only be beautiful so far as it is genial. Geniality is the very flesh and blood of beauty: and Byron had very little of that watchful loving sympathy with all sorts and conditions of human character which is essential to the fullest development of the lovely and poetic. He did not love men and therefore could not truthfully create them. Such characters of men as he described were only so many shadows of himself or rather for the most part gloomy and sentimental architypes of himself. The Gi[a]our, Selim, The Corsair, Lara and most of the others are from an artistic and dramatic point of view quite uninteresting[.]

The only writings upon human character and affairs in which he became beautiful, sometimes even supremely beautiful, were those that gave him an opportunity for generalization, for the pouring forth of that lofty and sorrowful thought which was so abundantly supplied by the torturing memory of his own almost broken life. We find heavy traces of him in these purer and nobler moods in the "Dream"[,] in Manfred, in Marino Faliero and the Prophesy of Dante. In the last especially the theme seems to have been very congenial to him; and in many beautiful and majestic utterances we trace the working of wild and painful introspection.

But just in the same degree as Byron was monotonous and uninteresting in painting the characters of men, he was successful in creating those of women. He seems to have been able to appreciate all sorts and grades of the feminine nature. Some of his women are quite as real and lifelike in their repulsiveness as others are charmingly natural in their purity and beauty. He has created for us types of great variety all the way from the Empress Catherine up to Aurora Raby.

Though Don Juan is in the main an unpleasant and repulsive poem in its very groundwork, and all those who desire in the tone of the verse some expression of that lovely seriousness which is the only source of the true humour and pathos of poetry will find little real satisfaction in its heights or its depths; yet even the air of worldly flippancy which Byron scarcely ever dropped for long in any part of it cannot quite hide the pure charm which he seems to have thrown in a sort of covert way over several of the most natural female characters. It may be that toward the end of this brilliant poem, the author’s dreams of a nobler activity in connection with the liberation of Greece had a sobering effect upon his mind and induced him to drop or somewhat soften his reckless disposition to shock at the same time that he amused the world[.] At any rate it is in the last canto[s] that we are introduced to Adeline and Aurora Raby, two of the most delicately and naturally delineated characters of women outside of Shakespeare. Perhaps the poet created them as a sort of shy parting offer of reconciliation with purer humanity. In any case he drew for us two figures which are really valuable: for in spite of the flippant current of the verse they are quite true and beautiful.

It may be said of Don Juan as of his own life that it is a good deal better than it looks. For just as the poet, during his Italian years, found a diabolical delight in inventing and circulating monstrous stories about himself, so it pleased him in writing to throw a sort of cynical flavour of easy wickedness over most of a poem which has, hidden away here and there, many passages of thought and feeling, sometimes wise and serious, sometimes even sweet and beautiful. But unfortunately there are not enough of them, and a mine in which the gold has to be so laboriously sought for cannot be of great value to anyone. But though Don Juan is most of it worthless and has probably done a great many people harm, like some other worthless labours of supremely clever men, it is endowed with wonderful if not with helpful qualities. Its wit is unapproachable. This was the one faculty in which Byron excelled every other Englishman after Shakespeare. Even in the English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, with all its crudity and general air of boyish impertinence, there are lines here and there of startling point and brilliancy. But the wit of Don Juan, matured in ease and invention, flows in wild and riotous abundance, sometimes bitter and mocking, sometimes softening and deepening almost into humour. It seems to me however that Byron never quite mellowed into the spirit of true humour. Humour is only found in genial and broadly sympathetic natures and is one of the sweetest expressions of the poetic and beautiful. That which is so inexpressibly charming in the fun of Shakespeare[,] Cervantes, Sterne or Dickens is I think never really present in Byron. His wit even when it is softest and most playful has never an altogether pleasant flavour. There is always some faint ring in it of the laughter of the mocking devil who regards the many little ways of mankind with a sense of amusement in which contempt and dislike are more or less freely mingled.

Another remarkable faculty of Byron[’]s grew to its richest developement in Don Juan and ran hand in hand with his wit, indeed often formed a large part of his wit[,] and that was his metrical gift. Byron’s general style was easy[,] rapid and astonishingly clever. The diction of Don Juan is unapproachable in facile vigor and charming ingenuity; but it is not often anything beyond this. Only the man who creates from the pure love of beauty can speak the language of beauty. Byron wrote as I have said to[o] much with the desire of amazing and dazzling the world to have often attained to that divine fullness of utterances which is the natural accompanyment of noble thought and beautiful emotion. Nevertheless he had rare moods in which both thought and utterance rose to the highest levels. Passages of fine musical breadth and strength are scattered about through the "Dream," Lara, The Prophesy of Dante, The Lament of Tasso and the Dramas. In most of his narrative and satiric poems however the character of the versification is that of point and brilliancy. It astonishes and delights, but seldom moves.

There are many people who are inclined to set an exaggerated value on everything that Byron wrote, and equally as many who will accord him no merit at all. After reviewing all that has been said we may certainly conclude that both are in the wrong. There can be no doubt of the intense interest attaching to the great bulk of his work for those who are men of letters themselves and who are attracted to all that is able and spirited by the mere force of the intellectual power bestowed upon it. Byron’s mind as we have observed was enormously active and brilliant and his emotional nature correspondingly sensitive and vivid. He had some of the gifts of expression in a high degree. His work is therefore in the main intensely able and striking. There cannot be any surer practical proof of this than its unusual adaptability to quotation. No English poet after Shakespeare has written so many quotable lines[.] But mankind at large will not keep any man’s work in memory merely for its intellectual power. Human nature is working forward slowly surely and ever infinitely nearer to what is pure and noble and beautiful; and it will not permit itself to be shaken or thrown back in its divine progress. Only that which nerves and inspires it will it hold in mind; for that only is of value to it[.] All that unbeautiful art which disturbs, however genuine, it will cast out and sooner or later forget. Byron as we have said did not always write from the love of the pure[,] the noble and the beautiful. He wrote mostly for fame or out [of] the very strength of his passions. In the former case his work is generally more or less affected: in the latter it is frequently disturbing and therefore to human nature valueless. Sometimes it is not even artistic; sometimes it is sordidly low. Nevertheless we cannot say that Byron did nothing at all for human nature. As there were occasional noble and beautiful traits in the earthly man, who was for the most part wayward and ignoble, so in the artistic life there were moods of high and serious reflection that have left us something[,] perhaps even much, which human nature will carry with it into the brightening ages for the sake of its wisdom if not for any encouragement in it. Probably however the value set upon Byron’s verse will not be so great in the future as it is now, as it is not so great now as it was a generation ago. Byron will pass into the quieter future as a sad and wonderful study: for his was one of the strangest and most miserable battles ever waged before the eyes of all mankind, by a fitful and irresolute will against the strength of tumultuous passions, seconded at all points by circumstances and the weight of an adverse destiny. Both his life and his work were moulded and twisted by a fate peculiarly sad and tragic.

I cannot do better than conclude with some of Mr. Matthew Arnold’s memorable lines, written at the time of Wordsworth’s death, in which he says speaking of Byron[.]

He taught us little; but our soul
Had felt him like the thunder’s roll.
With shivering heart the strife we saw
Of passion with eternal law;
And yet with reverential awe
We watched the fount of fiery life,
Which served for that Titanic strife.