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the second class, and not even of the best kind of second. ... His verse is to the greatest poetry what melodrama is to tragedy, what plaster is to marble, what pinchbeck is to gold” (A History of Nineteenth Century Literature, p. 80). But Mr. Matthew Arnold, perhaps the most famous of all
English literary critics, himself a great poet, says, on Diversity of opinion;
the contrary : “Wordsworth and Byron stand, it Saintsbury and
seems to me, first and preëminent in actual per
formance, a glorious pair, among the English poets of this century. When the year 1900 is turned, and our nation comes to recount her poetic glories in the century which has then just ended, the first names with her will be these" (Essay on Byron).
Which shall we follow? or shall we rather find a safer point of view between these two extremes?
Byron was born in the midst of an era of revolution. Five years before his birth the American colonies had gained their independence. One year after his birth the French Revolution began. For the fifty years following that terrible social cataclysm the progress of liberal ideas was widespread and rapid. All Europe felt the new impulse toward national independence and personal liberty, toward free thought, free speech, and democracy. Byron saw Napoleon's rise to supreme An age of power, his victories at Austerlitz, Marengo, Jena, revolution
and Wagram; his retreat from Moscow, and his final overthrow at Waterloo. He saw old institutions, beliefs, and customs summoned before the bar of reason and overthrown almost in a day. He felt the powerful impulse toward new thought in politics, literature, and religion. He saw a common revolutionary sentiment make Liberty, Democracy, Reason, Revolution, the watchwords in almost every country of Europe.
Byron and Shelley, far beyond all other English poets, were the children of this new thought. They were indeed “poets
of revolt,” not only abreast of the new movements in every sphere of activity, but even ahead of them. While Wordsworth was quietly communing with Nature in his Westmoreland hills; while Coleridge was dreaming about the supernatural, and Keats was worshiping Beauty, apart from the crowd, Byron and Shelley, the apostles of revolution, were living and The “poets
working in a world of men. Byron's poems, from
first to last, ring with vigorous protests against “ tyranny,” eloquent praise of “liberty,” national and personal, and bitter denunciation of oppression, superstition, and worn-out customs. In the main, the protest and the praise are real and sincere ; almost always they are eloquent; often they are splendid. If Cain is a voice crying out for rationalism in religion, Childe Harold is one long, fervent tribute to liberty and democracy, and Don Juan is one superb protest against superstition and sham.
The reforms that Byron advocated, the ideas that he set forth through the entire range of his poems, were not fully to reach their fruition until almost a generation after his death, in the revolutions of 1848; but even during his lifetime he was to such an extent the voice of his revolutionary age that his name became to Europe at large the synonym of progress and revolt. The energy and power with which he set forth his opinions, and the pomp and circumstance with which he gathered up and interpreted the thought and emotion of a
continent, dazzled the public and made it captive Byron's contemporary to the splendid sweep and eloquence of his verse.
This was his unique triumph while he lived, and it has since proved almost his undoing. That Byron was a great historic figure cannot be gainsaid ; but what remains, now that the reforms he so ardently advocated have long since become established facts, and the daring ideas he advanced have long been platitudes?
Byron's fascinating personality also had its effect on his immense contemporary fame ; but the time has passed
When thousands counted every groan,
The spell that enchanted Europe has dissolved ; yet something more substantial still remains to be considered.
Byron, as we have seen, even now figures to the continent as the greatest English poet next to Shakespeare. His works have been translated into every important foreign language. No less a poet and critic than Goethe has pronounced him “the greatest genius of the century.” Castelar, the Spaniard ; Sainte-Beuve and Taine, the Frenchmen; Elze, the German; His influence Mazzini, the Italian, who said, “ Byron led the upon European genius of Britain on a pilgrimage throughout all literature
Europe,” all bear witness to his tremendous influence and universal popularity. So unanimous a verdict should make us pause, and lead us to examine the evidence on which it is founded.
Byron's literary activity was phenomenal. Within eighteen years he wrote, as Mr. Coleridge reminds us, two epics or quasi-epics, twelve tales, eight dramas, seven or eight satires,
and a multitude of occasional poems, lyrics, and Byron's versatility; lack epigrams. This is the sum of his achievement,
a versatile one. Though his play Werner for a architectonic time held the stage, as a dramatic poet he is virfaculty
tually a failure. A dramatist must possess the gift of objective characterization. In this Byron was singularly lacking. So self-centered a poet could create no real figures apart from himself. “He made the men after his own image ; the women, after his own heart.” Another fatal defect is Byron's lack of what is called “ the architectonic faculty,”. the ability to plan and construct a harmonious and complete
of dramatic talent and of
whole. Childe Harold is but a series of short poems; even Don Juan is little more. Rendered a unit by the poet's personality only, Byron's masterpiece fascinates the mature reader not through the adventures of its hero, but through the poet's own comments and reflections, and through interspersed lyric passages of singular beauty and power.
This same failure in dramatic characterization follows us through all of Byron's earlier narrative poems. His elaborate Eastern tales, while they show narrative verve, and contain Byron's nar
admirable passages, have long since lost their rative poems pristine savor. The two narrative poems which still live as wholes, and must live indefinitely it would now seem, are The Prisoner of Chillon and Mazeppa, which are thoroughly true and sincere.
Byron's place as a lyric poet is still in dispute. Certainly his really fine lyrics are few in number, but the author of She Walks in Beauty, Stanzas to Augusta, On this Day I complete my Thirty-sixth Year, cannot be refused recognition as a lyrist. Byron as a
That Byron is not a supreme lyric poet is due rather lyrist to lack of effort than to lack of power. The autobiographic character of his best lyrics, laying bare to the whole earth, utterly and some would say shamelessly, the poet's inmost emotions, is redeemed by the powerful and complex personality inspiring them and giving them interest and value.
Childe Harold is beyond doubt a great contribution to descriptive and reflective poetry; and here Byron approaches that climax of his power to be fully attained only in Don Juan.
As a satirist Byron is quite supreme among EngAs descriptive poet; as
lish poets. Here we need not qualify our praise. satirist; “Don Satire in the hands of this master is no longer sorJuan"
did and realistic; it is transfigured into something highly imaginative and ideal. Acute criticism of life, extensive knowledge of human nature, the most abounding and
inexhaustible energy, — all this abides in Byron's masterpiece, his chief claim to immortality.
What is Byron's place among the world poets, the supreme few? Homer, Æschylus, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, perhaps one or two others, were poets of the highest architectonic power, and of unfailing art. Above all
this, their great works show a “high seriousByron's place
and a noble and consistent outlook on life. world poets
Among these poets of the first order it is doubtful if Byron can with any justice be ranked. Though Don Juan is an elaborate work of highly sustained art, it is deficient in characterization, in organism, and in a serious and consistent point of view. Thus, superb as it is, it yet can scarcely be placed among the world's supreme masterpieces of poetry.
We must, then, compare Byron with the poets of the second order, and, naturally, with those of England. Even here, as we have seen, reigns a variety of opinion. As a close and accurate student of nature and a portrayer of her more intimate and peculiar beauties, Byron cannot compare with Wordsworth. Neither has he the power to take a seemByron as com- ingly commonplace or prosaic subject and lift it pared with his into poetry by the magic of his treatment, as do English contemporaries
Wordsworth and Arnold. He has nothing of the and successors haunting magic and rich melodies of Coleridge ; the delicacy, the sensuous beauty, as well as the perfect expression, of Keats, are utterly beyond him. With Shelley, as a lyric poet and a master of music, he cannot for an instant be compared. Tennyson is an infinitely finer and more careful artist. Byron is lacking in the sound knowledge of life, the wide scholarship, the profound insight into the human soul, that render Browning so potent a force in poetry. What, then, remains ?