« PoprzedniaDalej »
What was the meaning of the fitful irregularity of Byron's poetry, which we have been passing over with praise and blame mingled, and, perhaps, perplexed? Why is it that, with passages of true poetry scattered through all his volumes, he produced no important poem for which his most impassioned admirer can claim the fame of sustained imagination ? And why, at last, unable either to quench or to feed the flame of poetry, did he ignominiously retreat into that base production in which, the very instant his better powers failed him, he could exchange them for a vulgar ribaldry and all the vile elements of his nature,—the leprosy rising up in his forehead while standing beside the incense-altar? Was there any mystery in his inequalities ? We are told that it was owing to his genius. Let me say that weakness is no attribute of genius. Here lies the grand fallacy respecting Byron's mind, that which was its weakness mistaken for its strength, confounding the violence of his passions with power. Strength is shown by the victory over them, and not by the defeat. Byron deluded himself in these respects, when he should have known that really it is moral and intellectual weakness to be a misanthrope and a sceptic. It is an easy thing to fall into the way of hating the world, and into that confused, blind, stupid state of mind which is called unbelief. The greatest of all weaknesses—the cancer which eat into the very heart of Byron's genius-was his unmitigated selfishness. It weakened and wasted him, and perverted and defiled his great endowments, and brought him down to the grave, superannuated, at the age of thirty-six. It was the foul fiend which haunted his existence, tearing him like the wretched demoniacs who dwelt among the tombs and cried out words of blasphemy and defiance.
I am not going now to qualify my language with exceptions and reservations. That has been done, to the best of my ability, scrupulously throughout the lecture; and I am therefore justified in now saying that, taking the whole spirit of Byron's poetry,—its scepticism, its profanity, its blasphemy, its lewdness, its warfare upon religion and social and domestic morals,-it stands the blackest monument of intellectual depravity in the annals of our language. Never had our poetry been so profaned. The same corrupt spirit had been known before ; it had disguised itself in one generation in the stately robe of philosophy,--in another it had snatched the myrtle wreath of political freedom; but never before had it worn the garland of poetic inspiration. There had been one phase of infidelity with Bolingbroke and his disciples, and another with Paine and his crew; but the most insidious was that which came from the bright, dark fancy of Byron.
With all the wrong he did, there was mingled, too, a bitter contempt for poor, suffering humanity. Yes; it is true, as, he reproached his fellow-mortals, that mankind is prostrate in his fallen nature. Look forth
upon the human race, and, behold! they are lying—the wounded, the dying, and the dead- on the vast battle-plain, stricken by their spiritual enemies. But it ill became a poet to steal forth in the night, like one of those wretches that dog the footsteps of an army and prowl over the field fresh with the fight, plundering the expiring soldier, and stripping the bloody raiment from the dead and the dying.
Above all, let me entreat that no one will yield to that poor fallacy which teaches that Byron's infirmities and vice were attributes of genius :
“ If thou be one whose heart the holy forms
Of young imagination have kept pure,
DIFFICULTIES IN THE WAY OF A PROPER APPRECIATION OF CONTEMPORARY
GENIUS-CANDOUR RARE IN CRITICISM-CONTROVERSY IN REGARD TO WORDSWORTH'S SCHOOL OF POETRY-COMPARATIVE CRITICISM BETWEEN THE POETRY OF WORDSWORTH AND BYRON-CORRESPONDENCE OF WORDSWORTH'S LIFE WITH THE SPIRIT OF TRUE POETRY-CONTINUITY OF HIS MORAL LIFE-RECOLLECTIONS OF HIS CHILDHOOD-HIS LOVE OF NATURE AND OF MAN-HIS SYMPATHY WITH THE FRENCH REVOLUTION -HIS SECLUSION-COMMUNION WITH HIS BROTHER-POETS-AIM OF HIS CAREER OF AUTHORSHIP - LINES COMPOSED IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD OF TINTERN ABBEY_" THE EXCURSION” – “SONNET ON WESTMINSTER BRIDGE"_“ LINES ON THE DEATH OF MR. FOX"-“ TRIBUTE TO A FAVOURITE DOG"_“ SIMON LEE”_"STORY OF THE DESERTED COTTAGE"-HIS POLITICAL POEMS-CONCLUSION.
W I ,
E are now nearing the close of that glorious registry we have
imaginative point of vision, by the side of Chaucer, the father of English poetry, and looked forward, over the tract of nearly five hundred years, to the noble company of his successors, it was a joy to know that modern times would not be found to bring with them modern degeneracy.
There was encouragement in the assurance that, in quitting the companionship of the mighty men of old, we should not pass into the society of a dwarfish and dwindling race. It is a proud feeling, too, that there is shining upon us not only those rays which travel down from former generations, but the light of the living genius of our own. I have been zealous to display the vast spaces of our English poetry; and especially to show how that domain has been, in successive eras, acquired, whenever a poet of original powers has arisen to discover and reclaim the unknown and neglected region. Remember how we have seen one territory after another thus appropriated and added to our imaginative lit ature. There was a time when the language was almost without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of its literature. The rude inventions of a barbarian minstrelsy appeared; but soon came Chaucer, the great poet of the fourteenth century. Like the Ancient Mariner," he was the first that ever burst into that silent sea.” It is only necessary to recur to the progress of the English Muse to learn how wrong is the notion which leads to the belief that the dominion of poetry has reached its utmost confines. The poorest pedantry is that which, not unfrequently, has taught implicit, passive obedience to the authority of a few models, and bound down genius to the servile toil of reiterated imitation. This cannot be: the universe is infinitely wide : and the highest proof is when it holds on high a light which reveals to the world realms which had been unknown as belonging to the sovereignty of imagination. It is the highest attribute of original powers to enlarge the sphere of human sensibility. Think, for instance, how the light of Spenser's imagination at once disclosed to view the untravelled latitudes of his marvellous allegory,—how there soon came the discovery of what may be called the world of Shakspeare,—and how all to whom the spirit and the sounds of our sublimest poetry are dear have been borne, by the imagination of Milton, through regions radiant with angelic light, through the happy home on the infant and sinless earth, and through the dark and dismal dwellings of the lost spirits. It is grand to find our language made subservient to such uses, and ennobling to contemplate the powers with which the most gifted of our race are endowed, employed to enlarge the compass of human thought. In the history of any department of knowledge, it is easier to recognise how this has been accomplished by those whose approved fame time has sanctioned, than to understand and appreciate similar services rendered by contemporary genius. Nor is this strange. Fame is a slow, and often a reluctant, gift. There is a constitutional frailty in us which explains why it is so. The actual presence is an obstacle to that honour which should be rendered to prophet and poet in his own country or his own generation. This must needs be so in poetry above all. When a poet of truly original powers arises, his very originality can be shown only by extending the light of his genius to regions of thought and feeling unillumined before. Now, too often this is regarded not so much as an enlargement of our ancient and best possessions, but an encroachment upon them, and therefore to be resisted. Old landmarks are changed, and time is not taken to inquire whether the change has increased or contracted the territory. Settled literary opinions and tastes, carelessly acquired at first, are disturbed ; and this, it seems to me, is one solution of the antagonist reception which every original poet of the higher order of genius is doomed to encounter from the world. It is a warfare that he must wage,-a conquest to be effected, --happily if controlled by the meek spirit of magnanimity. In criticism, candour, with its comprehensive sympathies, is as rare as bigotry is frequent; and therefore the world has never yet been quick to welcome the greatest poets that have blessed it. The seclusion of Stratford, and
WORDSWORTH'S AND BYRON'S POETRY.
the deeper seclusion of the grave, had long closed over Shakspeare before à thousandth part of his genius was known. The pure and gentle heart of Edmund Spenser wasted beneath neglect and the frustrated hope of his unfinished poem. The indomitable spirit of Milton calmly knew how little he had to expect from his contemporaries. So it has ever been. What else is the reason of that tradition which, when all else that is personal respecting the father of poetry has perished, has come down to us upon the cloudy wings of three thousand years,—the tradition that Homer was a beggar ? It has been finely said, “What a glorious gift God bestows upon a nation when he gives them a poet !” It might be added, with a sadder truth, that, when the poet enters upon his mission of gladdening and purifying and spiritualizing the hearts of men, the world is ready with the insult, the scoff, the ridicule, and all the weapons of a stupid and ignorant enmity. There is a blindness blinder than the mole’s; there is a deafness deafer than the adder's: it is the blindness, the deafness, of literary bigotry!
The character of the poetry which forms the subject of the present lecture has been peculiarly the subject of controversy,—advocated by an earnest, affectionate, and grateful sense of admiration, and assailed by misapprehension, contempt, and a rancorous and reckless hatred. It is not my intention to deal with my subject in a spirit of controversy, for two reasons. I have not done so in any part of the course. I have neither attacked nor defended any one of the poets in a controversial spirit; and surely it could not be worth while to assume the tone of polemics now, when just about to part with you. In the second place, it would be a form of discussion wholly unworthy the poet. The time has gone by for it. The poetry has wrought out its own vindication one of the noblest victories, in the annals of literature; of truth and the magnanimous self-possession which is its best attendant, over error, with all its alliance of vulgarity and violence and bitterness. Criticism did its worst; but the citadel on which it beat had its foundation deep set in the rock of nature; and we have lived, and—what is more precious to think of—the poet himself has lived, to see the waters of that insolent tide gradually trickling down; and now all that is leftthe froth, the foam, the dirt, heaved up from the bottom, and the driftwood on the surface-are fast floating out of sight.
There has been expended a great deal of comparative criticism between the poetry of Wordsworth and Byron. During this whole course I have refrained from entering upon comparisons between the poets, because it is a mode of criticism as unsatisfactory as it is easy.
There would not be the least difficulty in placing them in comparison and in