English Literature for Boys and Girls - H. E. Marshall
When Sir Walter Scott ceased to write Metrical Romances, he said it was because Byron had beaten him. But the metrical romances of these two poets are widely different. With Sir Walter we are up among the hills, out on the wide moorland. With him we tramp the heather, and ford the rushing streams; his poems are full of healthy, generous life. With Byron we seem rather to be in the close air of a theater. His poems do not tell of a rough and vigorous life, but of luxury and softness; of tyrants and slaves, of beautiful houris and dreadful villains. And in the villains we always seem to see Byron himself, who tries to impress us with the fact that he is indeed a very "bold, bad man." In his poetry there is something artificial, which takes us backward to the time of Pope, rather than forward with the nature poets.
The boyhood of George Gordon Byron was a sad one. He came of an ancient and noble family, but one which in its later generations had become feeble almost to madness. His father, who was called Mad Jack, was wild and worthless, his mother was a wealthy woman, but weak and passionate, and in a short time after her marriage her husband spent nearly all her money. Mrs. Byron then took her little baby and went to live quietly in Aberdeen on what was left of her fortune.
She was a weak and passionate woman, and sometimes she petted and spoiled her little boy, sometimes she treated him cruelly, calling him "a lame brat," than which nothing could hurt him more, for poor little George was born lame, and all his life long he felt sore and angry about it. To him too had been given the passionate temper of both father and mother, and when he was angry he would fall into "silent rages," bite pieces out of saucers, or tear his pinafores to bits.
Meanwhile, while in Aberdeen Mrs. Byron struggled to live on 130 pounds a year, in Newstead Abbey, near Nottingham, there lived a queer, half-mad, old grand-uncle, who had earned for himself the name of "the wicked lord." He knew well enough that when he died the little boy in Aberdeen, with the pretty face and lame foot, would become Lord Byron. He might have taken some interest in his nephew, and seen at least that he was sent to school, and given an education to fit him for his future place in the world. But that was not "the wicked lord's" way. He paid no attention to the little boy in Aberdeen. Indeed, it is said that he hated him, and that he cut down his trees and despoiled Newstead as much as he could, in order to leave his heir as poor a heritage as possible.
But when George was ten this old uncle died. Then mother and son said good-by to Aberdeen, and at length traveled southwards to take possession of their great house and broad lands. But the heritage was not so great as at first sight would appear, for the house was so ruinous that it was scarcely fit to live in, and the wicked lord had sold some of the land. However, as the sale was unlawful, after much trouble the land was recovered.
Byron had now to take his place among boys of his own class, and when he was thirteen he was sent to school at Harrow. But he hated school. He was shy as "a wild mountain colt" and somewhat snobbish, and at first was most unpopular.
As he says himself, however, he "fought his way very fairly" and he formed some friendships, passionately, as he did everything. In spite of his lameness, he was good at sports, especially at swimming. He was brave, and even if his snobbishness earned for him the nickname of the "Old English Baron," his comrades admired his spirit, and in the end, instead of being unpopular, he led— often to mischief. "I was," he says, "always cricketing— rebelling—fighting, rowing (from row, not boat-rowing, a different practice), and in all manner of mischiefs." Yet, wild though he was, of his headmaster he ever kept a kindly remembrance. "Dr. Drury," he says, "whom I plagued sufficiently too, was the best, the kindest friend I ever had."
Byron hated Harrow until his last year and a half there; then he liked it. And when he knew he must leave and go to Cambridge, he was so unhappy that he counted the days that remained, not with joy at the thought of leaving, but with sorrow.
At Cambridge he felt himself lonely and miserable at first, as he had at school. But there too he soon made friends. He found plenty of time for games, he rode and shot, rejoiced in feats of swimming and diving. He wrote poetry also, which he afterwards published under the name of Hours of Idleness. It was a good name for the book, for indeed he was so idle in his proper studies, that the wonder is that he was able to take his degree.
It was in 1807, at the age of nineteen, that Lord Byron published his Hours of Idleness, with a rather pompous preface. The poems were not great, some of them indeed were nothing less than mawkish, but perhaps they did not deserve the slashing review which appeared in the Edinburgh Review. The Edinburgh Review was a magazine given at this time to criticising authors very severely, and Byron had to suffer no more than other and greater poets. But he trembled with indignation, and his anger called forth his first really good poem, called English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. It is a satire after the style of Pope, and in it Byron lashes not only his reviewers, but also other writers of his day. His criticisms are, many of them, quite wrong, and in after years when he came to know the men he now decried, he regretted this poem, and declared it should never be printed again. But it is still included in his works. Perhaps having just read about Sir Walter Scott, it may amuse you to read what Byron has to say of him.
"Thus Lays of Minstrels—may they be the last!—
On half-strung harps whine mournful to the blast.
While mountain spirits prate to river sprites,
That dames may listen to the sound at nights;
Next view in state, proud prancing on his roan,
The golden-crested haughty Marmion,
Now forging scrolls, now foremost in the fight,
Not quite a felon, yet but half a knight,
The gibbet or the field prepared to grace;
A mighty mixture of the great and base.
And think'st thou, Scott! by vain conceit perchance,
On public taste to foist thy stale romance."
Then after a sneer at Scott for making money by his poems, Byron concludes with this passage:—
"These are the themes that claim our plaudits now;
These are the bards to whom the muse must bow;
While Milton, Dryden, Pope, alike forgot,
Resign their hallowed bays to Walter Scott."
When people read this satire, they realized that a new poet had appeared. But it was not until Byron published his first long poem, called Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, that he became famous. Then his success was sudden and amazing. "I woke up one morning and found myself famous," he says. "His fame," says another poet and friend who wrote his life, "seemed to spring up like the palace of a fairy tale, in a night." He was praised and lauded by high and low. Every one was eager to known him, and for a time he became the spoiled darling of society.
Childe Harold is a long poem of four cantos, but now only two cantos were published. The third was added in 1816, the fourth in 1818. It is written in the Spenserian stanza, with here and there songs and ballads in other meters, and in the first few verses there is even an affectation of Spenserian wording. But the poet soon grew tired of that, and returned to his own English. Childe is used in the ancient sense of knight, and the poem tells of the wanderings of a gloomy, vicious, world-worn man.
There is very little story in Childe Harold. The poem is more a series of descriptions and a record of the thoughts that are called forth by the places through which the traveler passes. It is indeed a poetic diary. The pilgrim visits many famous spots, among them the field of Waterloo, where but a few months before the fate of Europe had been decided. To us the battle of Waterloo is a long way off. To Byron it was still a deed of yesterday. As he approaches the field he feels that he is on sacred ground.
"Stop!—for thy tread is on an Empire's dust!
An Earthquake's spoil is sepulchred below!
Is the spot marked with no colossal bust?
Nor column trophied for triumphal show?
None; but the moral's truth tells simpler so,
As the ground was before, thus let is be;—
How that red rain hath made the harvest grow!
And is this all the world has gain'd by thee,
Thou first and last of field! kingmaking victory?"
Then in thought Byron goes over all that took place that fateful day.
"There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gather'd then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men;
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes look'd love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell;
But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes a rising knell!
Did ye not hear it?—No; 'twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o'er the stony street;
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet.
But hark!—that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before!
Arm! arm! it is—it is—the cannon's opening roar!
"Ah! then and there was hurrying to and fro,
And gathering tears and tremblings of distress,
And cheeks all pale, which but an hour ago
Blush'd at the praise of their own loveliness;
And there were sudden parting, such as press
The life from out young hearts, and choking sighs
Which ne'er might be repeated; who could guess
If ever more should meet those mutual eyes,
Since upon night so sweet such awful morn could rise!
"And there was mounting in hot haste; the steed,
The mustering squadron, and the clattering car,
Went pouring forward with impetuous speed,
And swiftly forming in the ranks of war;
And the deep thunder peal on peal afar;
And near, the beat of the alarming drum
Roused up the soldier ere the morning star;
While throng'd the citizens with terror dumb,
Or whispering, with white lips—'The foe! they come! they come!' "
And then thinking of the battle lost by the great conqueror of Europe, the poet mourns for him—
"Conqueror and captive of the earth art thou!
She trembles at thee still, and thy wild name
Was ne'er more bruited in men's minds than now
That thou are nothing, save the jest of Fame,
Who woo'd thee once, thy vassal, and became
The flatterer of thy fierceness, till thou wert
A god unto thyself; nor less the same
To thee astounded kingdoms all inert,
Who deem'd thee for a time whate'er thou didst assert.
"Oh, more or less than man—in high or low,
Battling with nations, flying from the field;
Now making monarchs' necks thy footstool, now
More than thy meanest soldier taught to yield;
An empire thou couldst crush, command, rebuild,
But govern not thy pettiest passion, nor,
However deeply in men's spirits skill'd,
Look through thine own, nor curb the lust of war,
Nor learn that tempted Fate will eave the loftiest Star."
These are a few verses from one of the best known parts of Childe Harold. There are many other verses equally well known. They have become the possession of almost every schoolboy. Some of them you will read in school books, and when you are grown up and able to distinguish between what is vulgar and what is good and beautiful in it, I hope you will read the whole poem.
For two years Byron was as popular as man might be. Then came a change. From the time that he was a child he had always been in love, first with one and then with another. His heart was tinder, ever ready to take fire. Now he married. At first all went well. One little baby girl was born. Then troubles came, troubles which have never been explained, and for which we need not seek an explanation now, and one day Lady Byron left her husband never to return.
The world which had petted and spoiled the poet now turned from the man. He was abused and decried; instead of being courted he was shunned. So in anger and disgust, Byron left the country where he found no sympathy. He never returned to it, the rest of his life being spent as a wanderer upon the Continent.
It was to a great extent a misspent life, and yet, while Byron wasted himself in unworthy ways, he wrote constantly and rapidly, pouring out volumes of poetry at a speed equaled only by Scott. He wrote tragedies, metrical romances, lyrics, and everything that he wrote was read—not only at home, but on the Continent. And one thing that we must remember Byron for is that he made English literature Continental. "Before he came," says an Italian patriot and writer, "all that was known of English literature was the French translation of Shakespeare. It is since Byron that we Continentalists have learned to study Shakespeare and other English writers. From him dates the sympathy of all the true-hearted amongst us for this land of liberty. He led the genius of Britain on a pilgrimage throughout all Europe."
Much that Byron wrote was almost worthless. He has none of the haunting sense of the beauty of words in perfect order that marks the greatest poets. He has no passion for the correct use of words, and often his song seems tuneless and sometimes vulgar. For in Byron's undisciplined, turgid soul there is a strain of coarseness and vulgarity which not seldom shows itself in his poetry, spoiling some of his most beautiful lines. His poetry is egotistical too, that is, it is full of himself. And again and again it has been said that Byron was always his own hero. "He never had more than a singe subject—himself. No man has ever pushed egotism further than he." In all his dark and gloomy heroes we see Lord Byron, and it is not only himself which he gives to the world's gaze, but his wrongs and his sorrows. Yet in spite of all its faults, there is enough that is purely beautiful in his work to give Byron rank as a poet. He has been placed on a level with Wordsworth. One cultured writer whose judgment on literature we listen to with respect has said: "Wordsworth and Byron stand out by themselves. When the year 1900 is turned, and our nation comes to recount her poetic glories of the century which has then just ended, the first names with her will be these." But there are many who will deny him this high rank. "He can only claim to be acknowledged as a poet of the third class," says another great poet, "who now and then rises into the second, but speedily relapses into the lower element where he was born." And yet another has said that his poetry fills the great space through which our literature has moved from the time of Johnson to the time of Wordsworth. "It touches the Essay of Man at the one extremity, and The Excursion at the other." So you see Byron's place in our literature is hardly settled yet.
When Byron left England he fled from the contempt of his fellows. His life on the Continent did little to lessen that contempt. But before he died he redeemed his name from the scorner.
Long ago, you remember, at the time of the Renaissance, Greece had been conquered by the Turks. Hundreds of years passed, and Greece remained in a state of slavery. But by degrees new life began to stir among the people, and in 1821 a war of independence broke out. At first the other countries of Europe stood aloof, but gradually their sympathies were drawn to the little nation making so gallant a fight for freedom.
And this struggle woke all that was generous in the heart of Byron, the worn man of the world. Like his own Childe Harold, "With pleasure drugg'd he almost long'd for woe." So to Greece he went, and the last nine months of his life were spent to such good purpose that when he died the whole Greek nation mourned. He had hoped to die sword in hand, but that was not to be. His body was worn with reckless living, and could ill bear any strain. One day, when out for a long ride, he became heated, and then soaked by a shower of rain. Rheumatic fever followed, and ten days later he lay dead. He was only thirty-six.
All Greece mourned for the loss of such a generous friend. Cities vied with each other for the honor of his tomb. And when his friends decided that his body should be carried home to England, homage as to a prince was paid to it as it passed through the streets on its last journey.
"The sword, the banner, and the field,
Glory and Greece, around me see!
The Spartan, borne upon his shield,
Was not more free.
"Awake! (not Greece—she is awake!)
Awake! my spirit! Think through whom
Thy life-blood tracks its parent lake,
And then strike home!
"Tread those reviving passions down,
Unworthy manhood! unto thee
Indifferent should the smile or frown
Of Beauty be.
"If thou regrett'st thy youth, why live?
The land of honourable death
Is here:—up to the field, and give
Away thy breath!
"Seek out—less often sought than found—
A soldier's grave, for thee the best;
Then look around, and choose thy ground
And take thy rest."
These lines are from Byron's last poem, written on his thirty- sixth birthday.