28 AUGUST 1880, Page 9


THE study of Byron which Mr. Nichol has just completed for Mr. Morley's series of" English Men of Letters" closes with this remark,—" We may learn much from him still, when we have ceased to disparage, as our fathers ceased to idolise, a name in which there is so much warning and so much example." Example, of course, is something which it is possible for ordin- ary men to follow. There is no example in great gifts, in high genius, in rich imagination, nor even in exalted and tender feelings, unless those exalted and tender feelings are turned into rather specially good channels. Till the last year of his life, what was there of example in Byron ? We should have said that, so far

as the world can know, in . Byron's career the proportion of warning to example was as near as possible thirty- five to one, or deducting his boyhood, when one could not fairly expect an example, as twenty to one! What is there for ordinary men to imitate, before lie went to endure disappointment and disgust in defence of that cause • of Greek independence, whose weakness as well as merits he

well understood ? Of course, no one knows the secrets of the • heart, and the chances are that a man who could struggle so bravely in adversity during the last year of his life, must have occasionally practised some sort of self-sacrifice in his earlier career. But to the reader of his melancholy story where is the trace of it ? He can see nothing better on the outside than now and then a little princely:giving, which looks almost as much like pride as self-denial, a great deal of cordial and affectionate feeling where it was perfectly natural to Byron to be affec- tionate and would have been a pain to him to be otherwise, and a large measure of the passionate tenderness which is not only

usually consistent with the profoundest selfishness, but, in Byron's case, was certainly conjoined with it. We have no desire at all to underrate Byron's genius. But what there is in that glaring meteoric career to imitate, except the tardy upward step with which it closed, it seems to us impossible to conceive. Mr. Nichol, at all events, has pointed out nothing, except the Greek expedition, which can warrant the very questionable climax in which his study of Byron ends.

Oddly enough, Mr. Nichol remarks very carelessly on the one point in Byron's career at which, as it seems to us, he had a chance of taking a turn that might have ended in a good "example." Speaking of his speeches in the House of Lords, Mr.

Nichol says," They are clever, but evidently set performances, and leave us no ground to suppose that the poet's abandonment of a Parliamentary career was a serious loss to the nation." That

they were set performances is nothing to the purpose. All Byron's greatest works were set performances. " Childe Harold" was a set performance. "Don Juan" was a set

performance, if ever there was one. So even was the "Vision of Judgment." Of course his speeches were set performances.

One of the greatest features of Byron's genius is his power of giving a picturesque force to his own personality. No doubt, his expedition to Greece itself, though involving real self- sacrifice and really high motives, was a "sot performance."

As Mr. Arnold finely puts it, his whole career was taken up in exhibiting to the world the "pageant of his bleeding heart." He never for an instant forgot, and never would have forgot, that there was something exalted and dramatic about the Greek enter- prise,—and so indeed there was; but if we are to cavil at the best of Byron's actions as set performances, we shall have nothing left to approve. There is nothing inconsistent with a high purpose in a "set performance," though, of course, where virtue comes unconsciously out of a man, instead of self-consciously, we all admire the tone of character more. Still, "there is one glory of the sun, and another of the moon, and another of the stars, and one star differeth from another star in glory." There is a glory of self-consciousness as well as a glory of unconscious- ness, and Byron can claim only the former. In the finest of his poetical efforts,—in the noblest lyric which he ever

wrote, and certainly as powerful a lyric as any Englishman ever wrote, "The Isles of Greece,"—nothing is grander than the personal pose of the poet, who, though he professes to disguise himself as a Greek, is evidently himself the leading figure in his

own song :—

"The mountains look on Marathon,

And Marathon looks on the sea; And musing there an hour alone, I dreamed that Greece might still be free ; For standing on the Persian& grave, I could not deem myself a slave.

A king sate on the rocky brow, Which looks o'er sea-born Salamis; And ships by thousands lay below, And men in nations,—all were his !

He counted them at break of day, And when the sun set,—where were they ?

And where are they ? And where art thou, My country ? On thy voiceless shore The heroic lay is tuneless now, The heroic bosom beats no more ! And must thy lyre, so long divine, Degenerate into hands like mine ?

'Tis something, in the dearth of fame, Though link'd among a fettered race, 'To feel at least a patriot's shame, Even as I sing, suffuse my face ; For what is left the poet here ?

For Greeks a blush,—for Greece a tear."

And if in these fine verses, as in all that was great that Byron

-evOr wrote, the grandeur of his imaginative self-conscious- ness is of the very essence of the situation, why should the same sort of attitude of mind have been any hindrance—or, rather, why should it not have been the greatest possible assist-

ance—to the effectiveness of his Parliamentary efforts, had he but prolonged them ? To our mind, there is the ring of true power in Lord Byron's first speech,—a speech delivered in 1812 against the bloodthirsty Bill brought in against the Nottingham stocking- frame-breakers. As Lord Byron's manner was, he introduced it with fixing attention upon himself, with a good deal of dignity, and a certain picturesque melancholy :—" As a person in some degree connected with the suffering county, though a stranger not only to this House in general, but to almost every individual whose attention I presume to solicit, I must claim some portion of your Lordships' indulgence." And the substance of his speech was as strong as his peroration was eloquent, and even now the House of Lords might ponder, not exactly the letter, but the spirit of Lord Byron's concluding taunt, when we find them so eager to pass Irish Bills suspending personal liberty, and so eager to reject Irish Bills suspending for a few months any one of the rights of property :—" When a proposal is made to emanci- pate or relieve, you hesitate, you deliberate for years, you tempo- rise, and tamper with the minds of men ; but a death Bill must be passed off-hand, without a thought of the consequences." We dwell on the political vigour of Lord Byron's mind, because, unlike Mr. Nichol, we believe, that here was the point at which he might have escaped from that deteriorating and ruinous self-absorption in his own passions, to which after his separation from his wife he voluntarily gave himself up. As it seems to us, Lord Byron, alike by his vivid and proud imagination, and by his strong intellect, was fitted to have become a considerable power in the Liberal party of that day ; and if he had been so, would have at least cut himself off from some of the worst of his temptations, would have opened for himself a door of partial escape from the tumult of his idle passions. There have been many men in England whose lives, in private concerns of little worth, have been redeemed from frivolity, or worse than frivolity, by the large grasp which their minds have taken of political ends. As it acorns to us, Lord Byron might have been one of these. Even as it was, the last portion of his life was redeemed by this ennobling influence. And before he left Italy, his sympathy with the Italian patriots had begun to rouse in him a higher chord of feeling than any which had ever before gained a practical influence over his life. Even in his poetry, he hardly ever touches so high a point as where he claims for a nation the liberty and the dignity which, by his own abuse of them, he had almost learnt to des- pise for the individual. Except in his poetry of mere descrip- tion, except in that strange power which he showed of so mingling himself with the scenes he painted that you hardly know whether it is the gloomy fire within or the flashing cloud without, the dismantled wreck of himself or the founder- ing wreck on the ocean, that he describes, excepting on such themes as these, the highest poetry he wrote has in it the true political spirit, the power of feeling with great nations and great histories, and feeling with them, in the manner which gives to politicians the breath of life. So it is in "Chide Harold ;" so in the only noble fragments of his greatest, though most cynical work, "Don Juan ;" and so even in pure satires like "The Vision of Judgment." The very core of that bitter poem is in the sympathy it shows with the political fate of men committed to such care as that of poor old George III., —the "old man with an old soul, and both extremely blind."

Satan's charge against him is the charge of a true politician :—

"Look to the earth, I said, and say again :—

When this old, blind, mad, helpless, weak, poor worm E:gan in youth's lirst bloom and flush to reign, • The world and he both wore a different form, And much of earth, and all the watery plain • Of ocean, called him king; through many a storm His isles had floated on the abyss of time, For the rough virtues chose them for their clime.

'Tis true, he was a tool from first to last

(I have the workmen safe) ; but as a tool, So let him be consnmed. From out the past Of ages, since mankind have known the rule Of monarchs,—from the bloody rolls amassed Of sin and slaughter,—from the Ca3sars' school Take the worst pupil; and produce a reign

More drenched with gore, more cumbered with the slain."

The whole of the accusation brought against this poor old man with a poor old soul, and the ample concessions made as to his private virtues, are, though clad in a satirical form, the pro- ductions of a sagacious political insight. Nor will you find any- thing in Byron's poems that touches on the welfare of nations that does not indicate the same kind of power. Fully as we admit the vast difficulty that it would have been to Byron, with temptations such as those by which he was surrounded, and passions such as those which he had inherited, to give himself with heart and soul to the one useful pursuit open to him,—a pursuit which he evidently respected,—politics, we do think that in abandoning politics, when he had made so success- ful a start, he closed the chief safety-valve by which the superheated steam of his excitable nature might have discharged itself with benefit to his country as well as something like salvation to himself. Mr. Nichol seems to us not to do , justice at all to Byron's power of throwing himself into the collective life of nations, and to have overlooked the tonic• which this gave to a nature all but destroyed by preying upon' itself. And yet here was a region in which Byron's magnificent egotism, so far from being wholly suppressed, would have aided , his influence. Aristocratic Liberals, especially in those days,' had need of such an egotism to make their influence duly felt.

He who burst into tears when first greeted at school with the - title of "lord," and who in later years could not sit for his por- trait without "assuming a countenance that did not belong ' to him," could never have suppressed himself altogether. But ' in Parliamentary politics a little touch of the theatrical, espe- cially if governed by Byron's strong good-sense, is apt to be a very useful ingredient indeed. Politics were just the field in which to have turned that theatri- cal self - consciousness of his to good account. Byron's "example," up to the last year of his life, seems to us as near to

one of pure evil, as the example even of a being full as he was of power and fascination could by any possibility have been.

But if there were a turning-point at which it might have been made a power for good, it was when he neglected Sheridan's

advice to cultivate his Parliamentary powers, and yielded, - as he himself said, to the disturbing influence of "dissi- pation, shyness, haughty and reserved opinions," so shutting - himself out from the one field of real work which might possibly' have gained a hold both on his imagination, and whatever there was in him of conscience or disinterested devotion. There are men in whom virtue, if it springs up at all, starts from the political side, and we suspect Byron to have been one of them.