MR. SWINBURNE'S SELECTIONS FROM BYRON.*
A SELECTION from Lord Byron "edited and prefaced" by the youngest poet as to the reality of whose genius this generation has satisfied itself, is certain to attract sufficient attention, but it will disappoint those who expect in it anything beyond a selection from Byron chosen with a fair share of discrimination. Mr. Swinburne seems to have made a great effort to write fine things about Byron, and he has succeeded in saying one or two things that are really fine, and a good many that are very stilted and foolish. From the first page to the last of the brief introductory essay there is an effort to stand on tiptoe and see over the heads of ordinary people, which gives a permanent effect of inflation, and constantly leads Mr. Swinburne into manifest nonsense. When we get to the end of his introductory essay, a moderate and reasonable admirer of Byron's genius is much less disposed to appreciate what is fine and make allowance for what is feeble, than he was before he had read Mr. Swinburne's strained and affected criticism. It contains • .Selections from the Works of Lord Byron. Edited and prefaced by Algernon Charles 8winburne. London: Mown.
some true and even obvious things, but they are said with an em- phasis that renders them assuming, and an air of taking Byron's part against the world that makes them silly. Mr. Swinburne is not Lord Byron, and there is something absurd in the shrill and vindictive treble in which he affects to resent the bitter personal criticism which Byron ostentatiously courted, and to a considerable extent was vain enough to enjoy. Mr. Swinburne writes as if by identifying himself with Lord Byron, and abusing over again the Philistines whom Byron himself could never let alone,—indeed, half his vices seem to have been committed and published from a morbid vanity eager to challenge the attention of his countrymen at home,—he could draw down upon himself some of the anger of the generation now dead and buried by which Byron was so heartily inveighed against, and against which he so heartily inveighed. At least if that be not Mr. Swinburne's purpose, we cannot tell for what end such passages as the following, of much sound and no meaning, are embodied in a preface in which the reader expects a calm and rational criticism of a great poet
This much, however, we may safely assert : that no man's work was ever more influenced by his character, and that no man's character was ever more influenced by his circumstances. Rather from things with- out than from things within him did the spirit of Byron assume colour and shape. His noblest verse leapt on a sudden into life after the heaviest evils had fallen upon him which even he ever underwent. From the beginning indeed he had much to fight against : and three impediments hung about him at starting, the least of which would have weighed down a less strong man : youth, and genius, and an ancient name. In spite of all three he made his way ; and suffered for it. At the first chance given or taken, every obscure and obscene thing that lurks for pay or prey among the fouler shallows and thickets of litera- ture flew against him; every hound and every hireling lavished upon him the loathsome tribute of their abuse; all nameless creatures that nibble and prowl, upon whom the serpent's curse has fallen, to go upon his belly and eat dust all the days of his life, assailed him with their foulest venom and their keenest fangs. And the promise given of old to their kind was now at least fulfilled ; they did bruise his heel. But the heads of such creatures are so small that it is hard to bruise them in return ; it would first be necessary to discern them. That Byron was able to disregard and to outlive the bark and the bite of such curs as these is small praise enough ; the man who cannot do as much is destruc- tible, and therefore contemptible. He did far more than this; he with- stood the weight of circumstances to the end ; not always without com- plaint, but alway without misgiving. His glorious courage, his excellent contempt for things contemptible, and hatred of hateful men, are enough of themselves to embalm and endear his memory in the eyes of all who are worthy to pass judgment upon him."
A sillier paragraph was surely never written by a man of genius. The " three impediments which hung about Lord Byron at starting, the least of which would have weighed down a less strong man,—youth, and genius, and an ancient name," are in- tended, we suppose, as a paradox to prepare us for the strong meat of the powerful declamation which follows. Of course Mr.
Swinburne does not really hold that age, and common-placeneas, and plebeian descent would have been greater advantages to Byron than the three " impediments " which he has named ; and
when we are told that " in spite of all these he made his way, and suffered for it," we are ready for silly paradox to any extent,
and are only surprised to come during the remainder of the essay on several things which are really better sense than their contradictories would be. The grandiloquent description of Byron's enemies, as " every obscure and obscene thing that lurks for pay or prey among the fouler shallows and thickets of literature," seems even moderate to ordinary apprehension after the high flight of paradox which introduces it. Mr.
Swinburne means Lord Byron's unscrupulous critics in the periodical press, whose only marked difference from Lord Byron appears to have been that — the. bad temper and venom on either side being nearly the same—they were unburdened by at leant two out of the " three impediments" of youth, genius, and ancient name. There was nothing to choose between Lord Byron and his opponents in any other respect. They had no genius, and he had much, and all the wider prospect which genius gives. Otherwise few of these nameless and loathsome creatures had bitterer and pettier personal feelings than their great foe. Every one has noted how Shelley, from the height of his loftier and simpler character, looked down upon Byron's small vanity and furious grudges. Shelley, in the midst of his admira- tion for Byron's genius, is often quite unable to disguise his con- tempt for his character and his grave disapprobation of Byron's meanness and looseness. Nothing to a calm critical eye is more untrue of Byron than that he had an " excellent contempt for things contemptible and hatred of hateful men." Most of his contempt was for things which are not contemptible, and most of his hatred was for those who had injured himself, a spirit essen- tially poor and the very opposite of courageous. A less noble character than Byron's, as it appears in the letters and journals which he took such care to make public, it is not very easy to con- ceive. That he had a wonderful force and passion in him, that he
was capable of great generosity, though also of great littleness and spite if that generosity did not gain its full mead of praise
and gratitude, we all know. What is meant by his "glorious courage," unless it applies to purely physical courage,—which he had,—it is not easy to say. No man, as Mr. Swinburne elsewhere asserts in his brief but inconsistent essay, was ever less endowed with that fearlessness which does what is intrinsically highest and best in its own eyes, without regard to human praise or censure. Almost all that Byron did had some oblique reference to the opinion of the world. The journals he sent to Murray's were a long series of clever and very artistically prepared defiances of the opinion of the world he professed to despise. There is something exceedingly silly in this attempt of Mr. Swinburne's to set Byron so infinitely above precisely that • sort of paltriness by which his life was most deeply marked from.
first to last.
Again, no criticism on Byron could well be more mistaken than to speak of " sincerity " as lying at the root of all his good.
works, even though in the course of the same essay Mr. Swin- burne admits that much of Byron's poetry is written in " a falsetto tone " and with a savour of something " histrionic." The latter
element was deep in Byron's character, and no wonder therefore that he did not often or completely get rid of it. Even of the
grand mockery of " Don Juan" or the " Vision of Judgment,"— which every one will agree with Mr. Swinburne in regarding as his freest and frankest poems,—it would be, we believe, an absurdly false criticism to talk, with him, of sincerity as the distinguishing
characteristic. Take any of the finest mockery in either poem, yet the least susceptible mind will see at once that, like all mockery, powerful and effective as it is, it does not come from the
bottom of Byron's nature. Indeed it is of the essence of mockery not to do so. The very force of mockery consists in the. intellectual strength which catches the waves of deeper feeling at their highest point, and dashes them back again as the rock dashes back the breaker. When Byron observes in the shipwreck scene "of Don Juan,"—
" There's nought, no doubt, so much the spirit calms As ram and true religion,"
the force of the epigram does not lie in its sincerity, for it is not sincere at all, but the sharp bitterness of its mockery,—the passion with which the half-faith in his mind is dashed back, as he puts it jeeringly on a level with drunken complacency. Or take the magnificent mockery of the passage in the " Vision of Judgment" when George III. appears,-
- "and midst them an old man With an old soul, and both extremely blind."
The force of that is not its sincerity at all, but the scorn which enables the poet to fasten the oldness of the old King even on that part of him which is usually not supposed to grow old,—his
soul. It seems to us that the reason why Byron's poems of mockery rise so infinitely above his so-called poems of sentiment, is that such poems do not demand sincerity,—which indeed he had not got to give,—but have a characteristic force of their own in the success with which a strong nature catches a thought or
feeling before it gets to the bottom of the mind, and becomes what we call sincere, and dashes it back again on the world, with an open declaration that it shall not be allowed to get at the poet's sincere thought at all.
Nor does Mr. Swinburne's intellectual criticism of Lord Byron seem to us much wiser than his moral criticism. He has indeed one fine, though also grandiloquent passage comparing the poetry of " Don Juan" to the sea :—
" The merit of Don Juan' does not lie in any part, but in the whole. There is in that great poem an especial and exquisite balance and sus- tenance of alternate tones which cannot be expressed or explained by the utmost ingenuity of selection. Haidee is supplanted by Duda, the ship- wreck by the siege, the Russian Court by the English household ; and. this perpetual change, this tidal variety of experience and emotion, gives to the poem something of the breadth and freshness of the sea. Much of the post's earlier work is or seems unconsciously dishonest ; this, if not always or wholly unaffected, is as honest as the sunlight, as frank as the sea wind. Here, and here alone, the student of his work may recog- nize and enjoy the ebb and flow of actual life. Here the pulse of vital blood may be felt in tangible flesh. Here for the first time the style of Byron is beyond all praise or blame ; a style at once swift and supple, light and strong, various and radiant. Between Childe Harold' and 'Don Juan' the same difference exists which a swimmer feels between lake water and sea water ; the one is fluent, yielding, invariable; the other has in it a life and pulse, a sting and a swell, which touch and excite the nerves like fire or like music. Across the stanzas of Don Juan' we swim forward as over 'the broad backs of the sea they break and glitter, hiss and laugh, murmur and move, like waves that sound or
that subside. There is in them & delicious resistance, an elaatio motion, which salt water has and fresh water has not. There is about them a wide wholesome air, full of vivid light and constant wind, which is only felt at sea. Life undulates and death palpitates in the splendid verse which resumes the evidence of a brave and clear-sighted man concern- ing life and death. Here, as at sea, there is enough and too much of fluctuation and intermission; the ripple flags and falls in loose and lazy lines : the foam flies wide of any mark, and the breakers collapse here and there in sudden ruin and violent failure. But the violence and weakness of the sea are preferable to the smooth sound and equable security of a lake: its buoyant and progressive impulse sustains and pro- pels those who would sink through weariness in the flat and placid shallows. There are others whom it sickens. and others whom it chills; these will do well to steer inshore."
That seems to us on the whole true, though there is in it some of the fine writing with which this preface is so sadly disfigured.
But then it is true only of those powers of which mockery is the essence, and not of the sentimental parts even of these. It is the rage, the foam, the tumult of the sea, -which remind us of Byron, not its depth, not its glancing lights and far horizons. When we leave tumult and mockery behind, the analogy ceases. Even in "Don Juan" many of the passages (about Heide°, for instance) are as effeminate and unlike the sea in movement as the following poor stuff which Mr. Swinburne has included in his selection, and which is worthier of Moore than of Byron :— "Fat THE GOBLET .loan.—A Song.
4" Fill the goblet again ! for I never before
Felt the glow which now gladdens my heart to its core ; Let us drink !—who would not?—since, through life's varied round, In the goblet alone no deception is found.
411 have tried in its turn all that life can supply ; I have bask'd in the beam of a dark railing eye ; I hero lovodl—who has not?—but what heart can declare That pleasure existed while passion was there ?
a' In the daysof my youth, when the heart's in its spring, And dreams that affection can never take wing, I had friends I—who has not?—but what tongue will avow, That friends, rosy wino! aro so faithful as thou?
." The heart of a mistress some boy may estrange,
Friendship shifts with the sunbeam—thou never canst change ; Thou grow'st old—who dew not?—but on earth what appears, Whose virtues, like thine, still increase with its years ?
4' Yet if blest to the utmost that love can bestow, Should a rival bow down to our idol below, We are jealous!—whoa not ?—thon hest no such alloy; For the more that enjoy thee, the more we enjoy.
." Then the season of youth and its vanities past, For refuge we fly to the goblet at last ; There we find—do we not ?—in the flow of the soul, That truth, as of yore, is confined to the bowl.
4' When the box of Pandora was opened on earth, And Misery's triumph commenced over Mirth, Hope was left—was she not ?—but the goblet we kiss, And care not for Hope, who are certain of bliss.
-"Long life to the grape! for when summer is flown, The age of our nectar shall gladden our own : We must die—who shall not 7—May our sins be forgive; And Hebo shall never be idle in heaven."
If Mr. Swinburne thinks that this false, insincere, and conven- tional dogrel has the freshness of the sea, then we can admit that the languishing sensuousness of much of the sentimentalism in -" Don Juan" has it also. When Mr. Swinburne attributes to Byron the power of dealing with nature generally, he seems to us to enistake his sympathy with tempest and lightning and stormy eaters, which is always genuine, with the infinitely larger insight into nature in all its thousandfold aspects. Byron is always self-conscious, which nature never is. Byron knows no more what lEschylus meant by the "innumerable laughter " of the ocean, though Mr. Swinburne expressly attributes it to him as one of his powers, than he knew what Wordsworth meant when he said of the Daffodils,— " The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee; A poet could not but be gay In such a jocund company."
And how can a poet understand nature who cannot understand bright simple gaiety ? Mr. Swinburne may be right in attributing to Byron a sort of lust for nature in the following passage, but his real insight and sympathy with nature were exceedingly limited, and even the lust scarcely applies to anything but her stormy aspects. His effort to delight in the minor beauties and simplicities of nature is always histrionic and artificial :— "Coleridge and Keats used nature mainly as a stimulant er a sedative; Wordsworth as a vegetable fit to shred into his pot and pare down like the outer leaves of a lettuce for didactic and culinary purposes. All these doubtless in their own fashion loved her, for her beauties, for her uses, for her effects; hardly one for herself. Tara now to Byron or to Shelley. These two at least were not content to play with her skirts and pada) in her shallows. Their passion is perfect, a fleroe and blind desire, which exalts and impels their verse into the high places of emo-
tion and expression. They feed upon nature with a holy hunger, follow her with a divine lust as of gods chasing the daughters of men. Wind and fire, the cadences of thunder and the clamours of the sea, gave to them no loss of sensual pleasure than of spiritual sustenance. Those things they desired as others desire music or wine or the beauty of women. This outward and indifferent nature of things, cruel in the eyes of all but her lovers, and even in theirs not loving, became as pliant to their grasp and embrace as any Clymeno or Leueothea to Apollo's. To them the large motions and the remote beauties of space were tangible and familiar as flowers. Of this poetry, where descrip- tion melts into passion and contemplation take& fire from delight, the highest sample is Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind.' An imperfect mastery of his materials keeps the best things of Byron some few degrees below an equal rank."
We have seldom read falser criticism. What is meant by Wordsworth's " culinary " use of nature we do not know, except that it is meant to be contemptuous. The little poem on " The Daffodils" to which we have referred shows a pure and intense love of some aspects of nature to which Byron was simply insensible. But the criticism on Byron and Shelley is falser still. Shelley loved the metaphysical essences of natural beauties, but scarcely ever described a real and concrete scene in his life so as to summon it up before the eye. Byron often did this, but his hunger, his passion, his lust, to use Mr. Swinburne's powerful and not inapt expression, was almost solely for the violence of nature. He threw his own hunger into his descriptions of sea and Alpine torrents, and made of these things a kind of alphabet for his own passions. But lea is far too mannered, far too artificial, far too Byronic, to enter into the subtleties, the infinite varieties of shadow and sunshine, flower and hill, which are comprehended under the great title of a poet of nature.
Of Mr. Swinburne's selection itself we think better than of his affected and conceited criticism. He is quite right in saying that no poet is harder to give fair samples of, by means of selection, than Lord Byron, and we think in all the extracts from the longer poems that he has done his best. Of the shorter he has produced, as it seems to us, generally but indiffereht specimens. This, however, is a matter of taste, and we are quite ready to admit that a man of so much original genius as Mr. Swinburne is likely to judge better than most other people. But if this volume reaches a new edition, we strongly recommend the omission of the piece of inflated pseudo-criticism with which Mr. Swinburne has " prefaced " his choice.