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NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW.
NEW SERIES, NO. XXI.
Art. I.—Lord Byron's Poems. 3 vols. New York. 1815.
The death of Lord Byron, without depressing the price of stocks or affecting the election of President, has produced a. deep and general feeling of regret throughout the country. The loss of a truly great poet is in fact an event that affects immediately, in their occupations and their pleasures, a much larger number of persons, than that of a distinguished statesman or of a military conqueror. Politicians and warriors move the mighty springs, that regulate the destinies of nations, and determine the happiness or misery of the individuals that compose them, but their personal influence upon these individuals is extremely limited. Few see or converse with them. Still fewer enjoy their intimacy. Their reputation with the multitude is matter of history while they live, and when they die it is still the same. The public know as much or more of them than they did before. But the powerful writer, and especially the gifted poet, addresses himself directly to the heart, and makes a warm, personal friend of every man of education and feeling within the circle of his readers. While the others produce their effects upon the condition of individuals, by acting directly upon large masses, he brings out his general effects by operating immediately upon the minds of individuals. He enters in person the sanctuary of every private bosom, and establishes himself as VOL. XX,NO. 46,
a dear and familiar guest in the minds of men, that never saw his face or heard the sound of his voice. In fact, we often really know more of his character and sentiments, than we do of those of our most intimate associates. Montaigue affects to smile at his own simplicity in revealing more of his secret history to the public, than he did to his nearest connexions; but this is the natural and necessary result of all good writing. No man can write with effect and eloquence in prose, and still less in poetry, unless he instinctively, and as it were involuntarily, makes his works a picture of his own intellectual and moral constitution ; and hence, when we meet with good writing, we possess of course the means of forming a sort of indirect personal acquaintance with the author. Every one of his successive publications is felt as a visit from a valued friend. Our occupations and our pleasures become in some degree identified with his existence ; and when he dies, one of our principal sources of happiness is dried up forever.
These, we think, are the true reasons why we feel so sensibly the death of a great poet; why that of Lord Byron in particular has been lamented as a public calamity, by a hundred nations in Europe and America, nay, in Asia, Africa, Australasia and Polynesia. We have no doubt that tears were shed at the first news of this sad event at Calcutta, at Botany Bay, and at the Sandwich Islands, as well as at Berlin, Paris, Rome, Philadelphia, and London. Sir Walter Scott has degraded his subject, though in very pretty verses, when he tells us in the introduction to the fifth canto of the Lay of the Last Minstrel, that it is mute nature which mourns the death of the poet, and celebrates his obsequies ; and also, when in the next stanza he corrects himself by adding, that in reality it is not mute nature, but the spirits of departed knights and maidens, who perform this funeral ceremony by moaning through the woods, and swelling the rivers with tears of regret for the loss of the reputation, which they expected to receive from the labors of the poet. Nor does Sir Walter much mend the matter when he tells us in still better verse, in his Dying Bard's Lament, that the death of the poet should be regretted, because it disenchants the face of nature of half its beauty, and robs the fair and young of their best chance for glory.
'In spring and in autumn thy glories of shade
When half of their charms with Cadwallon shall die ?' Most of this, with submission to Sir Walter, is merely fanciful. That neither inute nature, nor the ghosts of departed knights and maidens, have much to do with the lamentations that follow the decease of a poet is a matter of course ; and we apprehend that it is not from a selfish calculation of what they shall lose in renown and glory, that at such times the brightest eyes are suffused with tears, and the noblest hearts swelled with sorrow. The fair daughters of Dinas Emlyn had no reason to fear, that they should ever be in want of an enthusiast to worship their eyes, while their bosoms were as white, and while their dark hair waved as profusely as before, whatever might become of the Dying Bard; nor would the young men of this village, when called on to perform their military duty in repelling the Saxons, have inquired very anxiously beforehand, whether their future exploits were likely to be as well described as their former ones. All this, we repeat, is in a great measure fanciful, and the real state of the case is much more honorable to human nature, than the one here supposed. As far as there is anything selfish in our feelings of regret at the death of a great poet, it is not the loss of reputation, that we are troubled about, but the loss of the pleasure we derive from reading good verses. But selfishness is not the sole, nor yet the chief cause of our sorrow. We grieve because the principle of sympathy, with which we are all endowed, naturally comes into action when the fine chords that connect our souls with the souls of those we love are violently rent asunder by the hand of death ; and we know and love our favorite authors, as was just observed, often much better than we do our nearest friends. We also grieve. because a great man has fallen in Israel. We mourn at once for an object of private regard, and for a public benefactor. The sympathy of others gives a new intensity to all individual emotions; and we are doubtless struck with double sorrow for the death of Lord Byron, when we recollect that half the civilised world is bearing us company.
The interest we all felt in this extraordinary being was increased by the singular circumstances, that attended his progress through the world. He not only wrote poetry but acted it. His short life was a strange fantastic drama, as wild as the Midsummer Night's Dream. He exhibited himself by turns as a man and a poet, and in either character hé was always assuming some eccentric shape; disappointing expectation, defying calculation, spurning at all laws critical, moral, and political,—but still redeeming his follies and vices by continual displays of good feeling, and uninterrupted flashes of the true fire of poetry. We saw him in the first instance wooing the Muses with the awkward and unsuccessful airs of a stripling ; but even then there was some promise of the better things, that were to follow.
There are those among us, who read with pleasure the high souled ballap of Lachin y Gair, although the minstrel's harp was then far from being fitly tuned to the lofty pitch of his sentiments. We next saw him dragged before a critical tribunal, accused of writing indifferent poetry while he was at school, and of being a Lord; and for these high crimes and misdemeanors condemned to be pilloried in the Edinburgh, and pelted with the keenest and coarsest jokes, which the Reviewers could muster. Lord Byron was probably regarded by these ingenious gentlemen, as some dainty sprig of nobility, that was giving itself the airs of a poet; a fashionable butterfly, whom it was a sort of condescension to break upon the critical wheel, but with whom they could do their worst without the fear of resistance. They soon found, however, that they had caught a Tartar; and at his Lordship’s next public appearance, we saw him carrying the war into the camp of these borderers with a furious resolution, and a manly vigor, that brought them directly to a sense of their error. They shrunk at once from the conflict, did not venture to notice the English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, although it was one of the best poems that had appeared since the time of Cowper ; and