LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
[Leigh Hunt]
The Reader. Life of Lord Byron. By John Galt.
The Tatler  Vol. 1  No. 1  (4 September 1830)  3-4.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH

No. 1 Price






Life of Lord Byron. By John Galt. Being the first volume of the National Library. 12mo. Colburn and Bentley.

We are loth to begin our reviews with a hostile article: if Mr Galt were only dull, we should let him alone; but to dullness he adds impertinence; and it is time to let these fifth-rate pretenders to literature see, that they are not to insult with impunity the fortunes of men, whom they are no more competent to judge of, than the ostrich is of the man that shows him.

There is no fool so great, says Boileau, but he finds a greater fool to admire him.
“Un sot trouve toujours un plus sot qui l’admire.”
Here is a book upon the eternal and now tiresome subject of
Lord Byron, remarkable for its floundering attempts at thought and fantastic absurdities of style, which Mr Jerdan, the editor of the Literary Gazette, pronounces to be one of the most original and profound works he ever read. This is just like the heroes of the Dunciad. They were sure to have a helping hand for one another: somebody was always ready to testify to the prodigious wit and learning of Mr John Dennis, or Mr Ozell, who “obliged the world” with plays, and “writ as fine as any man.” Pope prophecied that these gentlemen were to be of great importance in the republic of letters, and the present age has verified his prophecy. The rapid increase of books and periodical literature has produced a general desire for information, which is not yet discerning enough to know good from bad, and demands only that the market be fully stocked. The booksellers drive a rapid trade accordingly, with the avowed understanding, that the whole affair is a matter of gain and supply: cooks and compounders are never wanting; they know how to flatter the appetite of the day, to avoid what is unfashionable, nay, even to pilfer from the dishes of their masters, and make it pass for their own; and having succeeded in stuffing the jaws of the poor public, they partake of the general delusion, and fancy themselves originals and men of genius. Hence the pompous pretensions of an author like the one before us; and hence his panegyrist Mr Jerdan, who delights in his superior dullness, as the deputy does in the beadle,
“And wonders with a foolish face of praise.”

Our opinion of the amount of Mr Galt’s faculties is very impartial; though it might not have been so, had this been the only foolish book of his that we have seen. We happened the other day to meet with a novel of his, called ‘Southennan.’ We knew nothing of the writer but by name, and as the author of some other works of fiction, known, we believe, under the title of the Secondary Scotch novels, which we have never seen. If they are no better than Southennan, they only shew how little it takes to make a Secondary Scotchman. In common compassion to the taste of the public, we hope otherwise. All that we know of Southennan is, that we took up the first volume three times, in the wish to go on with it (being great and gormandizing readers of novels) and that with all our ignorance of Mr Galt’s other nonsense, and an unsuspecting wish to be pleased, we could not contrive it. The characters without character, the nerveless dialogue, and the “gentle dulness loving a joke,” were too much for us. When Mr Galt writes in Scotch, we suppose it is better, because it is less intelligible.

The work on Lord Byron is below any criticism but Mr Jerdan’s. It does not supply what the public might look for: it states only what will be thought admissible in certain quarters; it avowedly suppresses; it measures its approbation by rank, and the reverse by what it thinks unpopular; its criticism is ridiculously shallow, with desperate airs of profundity; and if we are to judge of its mistakes on the most ordinary points, by the willingness it exhibits to mistake others, and the little substitution of five hundred pounds for three, it is not to be relied upon in the commonest matters of fact.

But we shall not say all this without a favourable specimen or two as the reviewers call it, and which, to save us the trouble of cutting up our copy (which is a daring action, and to be paid for) we shall quote from the laudatory pages of Mr Galt’s friend. “The following admirable delineation of genius,” (says Mr Jerdan) “shews the true feeling with which the author enters on his task.” This is a very new and true style of criticism, and the reader will doubtless congratulate himself on the new light Mr Galt has thrown on the subject.

“Genius of every kind belongs to some innate temperament; it does not necessarily imply a particular bent, because that may possibly be the effect of circumstances; but without question, the peculiar quality is inborn, and particular to the individual. All hear and see much alike; but there is an undefinable though wide difference between the ear of the musician, or the eye of the painter, compared with the hearing and seeing organs of ordinary men; and it is in something like that difference in which genius consists. Genius is, however, an ingredient of mind more easily described by its effects than by its qualities. It is as the fragrance, independent of the freshness and complexion of the rose; as the light on the cloud; as the bloom on the cheek of the beauty, of which the possessor is unconscious until the charm has been seen by its influence on others; it is the internal golden flame of the opal; a something which may be abstracted from the thing in which it appears, without changing the quality of its substance, its form, or its affinities.”

It is thus Mr Galt “blunders round about a meaning,” and leaves his poor reader either gasping for information, or taking himself for as wise a man in his non-perceptions as the author.

“How just again,” quoth the admiring Jerdan, happy in a mystified brother and in being misled by him, “are the remarks as to influence of scenery!” (He here quotes a ridiculous assertion of Mr Galt, that the inspiration arising from scenery is entirely dependant on “tradition” and “local associations,” and then proceeds with his extract:)—

“There is not more poesy in the sight of mountains than of plains; it is the local associations that throw enchantment over all scenes, and resemblance that awakens them, binding them to new connections: nor does this admit of much controversy; for mountainous regions, however favourable to musical feeling, are but little too poetical. The Welsh have no eminent bard, the Swiss have no renown as poets; nor are the mountainous regions of Greece or of the Appennines celebrated for poetry. The Highlands in Scotland, save the equivocal bastardy of Ossian, have produced no poet of any fame, and yet mountainous countries abound in local legends, which would seem to be at variance with this opinion, were it not certain, though I cannot explain the cause, that local poetry, like local language, or local melody, is, in proportion to tho interest it awakens among the local inhabitants, weak and ineffectual on the sentiments of the general world. The ‘Rans de Vaches’, the most celebrated of all local airs, is tame and commonplace,—unmelodious to all ears, but those of the Swiss, ‘forlorn in a foreign land.’”

“Local associations,” therefore, according to Mr Galt, are and are not the cause of poetry; mountains are inspirers, and yet not inspirers, even when they do inspire; the Welsh have no poets (hear this, ye countrymen of Hoel and Taliessin!) Greece had no poets!! (for the whole country may be described as mountainous); and Petrarch, Dante, and Ariosto, the inhabitants of the
bel poese
Ch’ Apennin parte, e l’mar circonda, e l’Alpe
(the lovely ground
Apennine parts, and Alps and seas run round)
were no poets; or if they were, it was because they did not live on the mountains but only among them, or saw a great deal of them. Why who supposes that a man is bound to pace about on a mountain, and write verses, before he can prove its inspiration? or that to see mountains, and feel their grandeur, is not the one thing needful to associate them with poetical ideas?

It was with this understanding that Thomson laughed at the notion of Glover’s writing an epic poem—“What!” said he, “he who has never seen a mountain!” He did not require him to have lived on a mountain. A man may live on a mountain, and see no more of it than a fly does of a wall. The question is, whether he has seen it, and been conscious of the might and dignity of its presence. Mr Galt shews as little knowledge about music as poetry, when he calls the “Ranz de Vaches” tame and common-place. On the contrary, it is wild, and as unlike a common air as can be. Indeed this is the ordinary ground of objection to it with common ears. Mr Galt is dull in the matter beyond dullness.

In a succeeding quotation we find our author saying that Lord Byron’s love poetry is remarkable for its “bodiless admiration of beauty,” and that in all the thousands of lines which he has written upon the subject of love, there is “not one” which shews “a sexual feeling of female attraction.” Oh dull rogue! How our fair readers will smile at seeing this passage! Oh, how the noble author of Don Juan would have laughed and refined over the compliment!

This piece of absurdity reminds us that we are wasting our paper; but there is one bit more, so exquisite in its kind, and so calculated to restore our readers from their weariness, that we cannot omit it. Mr Jerdan introduces it with the following satisfactory exordium.

We much like the ensuing:—

“The supposition that poets must be dreamers, because there is often much dreaminess in poesy, is a mere hypothesis. Of all the professors of metaphysical discernment, poets require the finest tact, and contemplation is with them a sign of inward abstract reflection, more than of any process of mind by which resemblance is traced, and associations waked. There is no account of any great poet whose genius was of that cartilaginous kind which hath its being in haze and draws its nourishment from lights and shadows; which ponders over the mysteries of trees, and interprets the
oracles of babbling waters. They have all been men—worldly men, different from others in reasoning more by feeling than induction.”

Surely we have seen this writing somewhere in a Sunday paper, which it threatened once to bear down. A genius of a “cartilaginous kind!” and “which hath its being in haze!” We have heard of an old gentleman, who was always using the word “mucilaginous;” and of another, a doctor, equally addicted to the epithet “farinaceous.” These worthies, however, had some reason in the application of their terms; but a cartilaginous author! a man with a turn for reflection something neither bone nor ligament, “which hath its being in haze;” and derives its nourishment, to wit, for the cartilage, from lights and shadows! This it is to explain one mist by another; a thing not understood, by the “no-meaning” for which these wits are famous. But this also is writing like men of business, and supplying the market. O Thou, says Pope’s hero, addressing the divine Goddess of Dullness,—
“Oh Thou, of business the directing soul,
To this our head like bias to the bowl;
Which, as more ponderous, makes its aim more true,
Obliquely waddling to the mark in view:
O! ever gracious to perplex’d mankind,
Still spread a healing mist before the mind;
And, lest we err by wit’s wild dancing light,
Secure us kindly in our native night.”
Perhaps we shall have something to say on the painful subject of
Lord Byron, but this will depend on what appears in another work.