LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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[Leigh Hunt]
Sketches of the Living Poets. Lord Byron.
The Examiner  No. 708  (29 July 1821)  472-74.
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No. 708. SUNDAY, July 29, 1821.


No. 2.—Lord Byron

There have not been many noblemen who have written poetry, or indeed any thing else much to the purpose. They have been brought up in too artificial a state, with too many ready-made notions of superiority; and their lives have passed in a condition too easy, conventional, and to say the truth, vulgar. France has produced the greatest number, because the literature prevailing in that country has been more attainable by common means: but the very best of them, with the exception of Montesquieu who was a country gentleman, write somehow like lords. Buffon handles men and brutes equally with his gloves on; and Rochefoucault’s philosophy is the quintessence of contempt. Even Montaigne, while he laughs at all classes in the gross, shews himself not a little to be Montaigne of that ilk. In England, the spirit of chivalry helped to fetch out the genius of Surrey, Sir Philip Sidney, and Lord Herbert; but even they were of more or less hurt by their ambition, and expected the Muses to visit them like gentlemen. There was something grand, however, and peculiar in the solitary courage of Herbert’s deism. Dorset and Rochester were men of wit, who might both have come nearer to Dryden, especially the latter. Bolingbroke defended liberty itself like an aristocrat, and for no purpose but to get it into the power of its enemies. He wrote against religion too upon the principle of a feudal baron, who laughed equally at his liege lord and his serfs. As to Horace Walpole, however, Lord Byron may find his esprit du corps roused in his behalf, he was an undoubted fop, who had the good luck to stumble upon the Castle of Otranto over his own escutcheon.

George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron, whom the peerage ought to value much more than he does or can value it, let him try as he may, is the grandson of the celebrated Commodore Byron, whose outset in a disastrous life has interested us all so much in our reading of voyages and shipwrecks. He was born in Scotland in 1791. His father, the brother of the late Lord, was an officer in the Guards; his mother a Gordon of Park, related to the Earls of Fife. The poetry, that finally took its due aspect in his person, had given various intimations of itself in his family, in the shape of verse-writing ladies and romantic adventures. The race, who were great country proprie-
tors in Yorkshire, were ennobled in the person of
Sir John Byron for his loyal efforts in the cause of Charles the First; but the greatest Byron of old was one recorded in Sir John Beaumont’s poem of Bosworth-Field for his friendship with his companion Clifton.

As it is part of the spirit of our Sketches to be as characteristic every way as possible without violating any real delicacy, we shall touch upon some matters which must always interest, and some which shall agreeably surprise the public. This is said to be “an age of personalities:” and it is so; but if we can give the interest of personality without any thing of the scandal of it, we shall perhaps help even to counteract the latter, better than if we said nothing. Lord Byron is of good stature, with a very handsome face and person. His hair is brown, with a tendency to run in ringlets; his head and forehead finely cut; his eyes of a lamping blue, and might give his face too haughty an expression, if it were not for his mouth and chin, which are eminently bland and beautiful. The portrait after Philips in Mr. Murray’s editions, from which our wood outline is taken, is the best and indeed only likeness of him; the others being inefficient attempts to catch his expression under various moods, real or imaginary. It is not new to the public, that all this beauty of aspect, has one contradiction to it, in a lame foot, but the lameness is hardly perceptible in a modern dress, as he seems little more than sweeping hither and thither with a certain lordliness of indolence. It is a shrunken foot, not one raised upon irons, or otherwise prominently defective. We are the less scrupulous in alluding to this lameness, because it has been mentioned in the grossest manner by some poor creatures, who thought to worry his Lordship’s feelings. Did these sorry beings contemplate, for an instant, how pernicious their success might be? Too wretched for his revenge, they might yet awake in him thoughts about human nature, for which a defect of this sort does not help to sweeten the kindest. It is remarkable, that the two eminent living writers, whose portraits of humanity are upon the whole mixed up with a greater degree of scorn than those of any of their contemporaries, are both of them lame. The other we allude to is Sir Walter Scott. Sir Walter with a feeling which we shall certainly not call vanity, has been willing to let the public understand, that Shakspeare also was “but a halting fellow.” To our minds, that indifferent sentence, coupled as it is in our recollections with another about lameness, is the most touching in all his works. Nor need he, or his Lordship, disdain us such an emotion. They can afford to let us have it. As to Shakspeare, we know not upon what authority this lameness of his is ascertained; but we can imagine it probable, were it for nothing but Iago’s judgement of Desdemona, “Tush, man, the wine she drinks is made of grapes.” The circumstance, if proved, and not owing to accident, might lessen a little our astonishment at Shakspeare’s insight into things equivocal; but it would add what it took away to our love of his good nature.

With some other matters respecting Lord Byron, that have come before the public, we shall not meddle so much, for various reasons; but none of them discreditable to any party. They are not necessary to a consideration of his genius, and are almost as little known in reality as they ought to remain. His Lordship is quite candid enough about his own faults, sometimes perhaps a little ostentatious and even inventive; but if this, and feelings very different in their origin from hostility, lead him sometimes into strange vagaries about the faults of others, the public could not be more mistaken than when they fancied him the fierce and gloomy person which some described him to be. At least, neither his oldest nor his newest friends thought him so. The Don Juan undeceived people a good deal in that respect. The fact is, that he is much fonder of cracking jokes and walnuts, than heads. No man in private sooner hastens to shew himself superior to his reply which he wishes his ancestor had not obtained at the expense of his riches, and with all that he says about his temper (of which we have heard him talk nobly) he is really so good-natured a man that if we were asked why he insinuates so much about being otherwise, and puts on those strange distant airs, which he does about his countrymen, in his last work, we should answer that although it may partly be because his countrymen are really not so pleasant as they suppose themselves, yet the ground of it all is a suspicion that he shall be found too easy and accommodating,—a man too facile to influence, and so become jealous of it.

Lord Byron was bred at Harrow, where he cultivated his young friendships and verses with equal ardour. He has told us, that his regard for another living writer was first awakened by a youthful publication in which similar inclinations abounded. He recollects his school-days with regard; and yet at Harrow the first seeds were probably sown of that mistrust and disappointment at human nature which is so apparent in his writings. School-boys in general understand little but one another’s defects; and when he left Cambridge, he was destined to find that friends of whom he expected otherwise, could soon forget him in the bustle of the world. He grew careless and riotous. The first productions of his pen, (commonplace enough it is true, like those of all young writers who are brought up in the midst of artificial models), were contemptuously treated by the critics; his hey-day life met with equally injudicious rebuke; and being, as he says, angry with every body since every body seemed angry with him, he “ran a muck” at them all in his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,—a work which he has lived to regret. As it was written however with feelings of his own, it gave a sample of what he was likely to attain to; and on his return from his travels in Greece, a succession of meditative and narrative poems made an unexpected delight of what his rank helped to make a fashion.

But it will be all over with our Sketches if we go on after this manner. Having said a good deal of what every body does not know, we must make short work of what every body does. The great learning of Lord Byron’s poetry, if not on the poetical side, is on that which is more generally interesting, it is the poetry, not of imagination, but of passion and humour. We like nevertheless the last canto of Childe Harold, and think it might have hindered him from getting into that controversy the other day, in which the weaker vessel had the stronger side. For the most part, we do not admire his narratives, written in that over-easy eight-syllable measure, of which Dryden thought so poorly. They are like their heroes, too melodramatic, hasty, and vague. But the passion is sometimes excellent. It is more so in his Lara; and most of all in his songs and other minor pieces. For the drama, whatever good passages such a writer will always put forth, we hold that he has no more qualifications than we have; his tendency being to spin every thing out of his own perceptions, and colour it with his own eye. His Don Juan is perhaps his best work, and the one by which he will stand or fall with readers, who see beyond times and toilets. It far surpasses, in our opinion, all the Italian models on which it is founded, not excepting the Secchia Rapita. Nor can we see in it the injury to morals and goodness, which makes so many people shake their heads, both solid and shallow. Poems of this kind may not be the best things to put abruptly into the hands of young ladies, but people are apt to beg many more questions than they settle, about morality; and numbers of such Don Juans as Lord Byron’s (not the unfeeling vagabond in the Italian opera), would be very good and proper, if we would let them. A poet’s morals have a natural tendency to recur to first principles, which is a proceeding that others are perpetually making a maxim of, and never observing. If Don Juan is pernicious in any thing, it is in  that extreme mixture now and then of the piteous and the ludicrous, which tends to put some of our best feelings out of countenance. But if we may judge of its effect on others by
ourselves, this kind of despair is accompanied with too much bitterness, in spite of its drollery, and is written in too obvious a spirit of extravagance, not to furnish its own counteraction.

But we call to mind the object of these Sketches; and to keep at all to their title, must lay down our pen. That these poets are seductive fellows, is certain.

[Next week, Mr. Campbell.]