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contemporary treatment of Byron alone is sufficient to furnish the measure of the age.
The substance of Byron's criticism of life, translated into prose, is mainly interesting from the historical point of view and in its relation to his times. The high revolutionary spirit, the passionate outcry against all that imposes upon and enslaves the human will, the yearning after an ideal quite other than and different from that towards which most human life is aiming, the apotheosis of struggle and energy and boundless force, which mark Byron at his greatest, are rather matters of spirit than of substance, and can be felt and recognized as interpenetrating his poetry, but cannot be subtracted and isolated from it.
Among the positive ideas of Byron's mind, among the few fixed principles 1 to which he was constant, a love of liberty in all the senses of the word and a sympathy with freedom and free institutions were perhaps the most constant. And this in spite of certain deductions that must be allowed on the score of the more superficial prejudices engendered by Byron's aristocratic training and associations. In this matter Byron thoroughly attested his sincerity by his acts, in his short parliamentary career, in his participation in the Carbonari movement in Italy, as well as by his self-devotion and fatal self-sacrifice in the cause of Greek emancipation. The superficial Byron, Byron the lord, the Byron of the letters and the controversial tracts, may at times appear as a lukewarm republican. As, for example, when in the course of his controversy with Southey he writes as follows:
1 "Lord Byron's was a versatile and still a stubborn mind ; it wavered, but always returned to certain fixed principles." (Colonel Stanhope-associated with Byron in Greece—as quoted in Moore's Life of Byron.)
“ It is the fashion to attribute everything to the French Revolution and the French Revolution to everything but its real cause. That cause is obvious—the government exacted too much, and the people could neither give nor bear more. . . . Acts,-acts on the part of government, and not writings against them, have caused the past convulsions, and are tending to the future. I look upon such as inevitable, though no revolutionist : I wish to see the English constitution restored, and not destroyed. Born an aristocrat, and naturally one by temper, with the greater part of my present property in the funds, what have I to gain by a revolution ? "
But with this utterance should be compared what Byron wrote to Leigh Hunt in 1816 explaining why he was not more active in Parliament. The corruption and conservatism of the House, he hints, make it useless for him to address it, "feeling, as I trust I do, independently. However, when a proper spirit is manifested · without doors,' I will endeavour not to be idle within. Do you think such a time is coming ? Methinks there are gleams of it. My forefathers were on the other side of the question in Charles' days, and the fruit of it was a title and the loss of an enormous property. If the old struggle comes on, I may lose the one, and shall never regain the other ; but no matter : there are things, even in this world, better than either.” Or again, when in 1821 he writes:
“There must be an universal republic,—and there ought to be.” Or his enthusiasm for the liberation of Italy:
"It is no great matter, supposing that Italy could be liberated, who or what is sacrificed. It is a grand object—the very poetry of politics. Only think-a free Italy! Why, there has been nothing like it since the days of Augustus.” Or similarly the verses declaring for a French republic:
6. France hath twice too well been taught
The moral lesson' dearly bought-
Unto all beneath his heaven. ..." Or the sympathy with the cause of Poland expressed in “ The Age of Bronze”; or his execration in the same poem upon Napoleon's betrayal of the cause of liberty:
“A single step into the right had made
This man the Washington of worlds betrayed :
His name a doubt to all the winds of heaven.” Or again there is his constant sympathy with America as the land of freedom, as when he writes in 1821:
6. Whenever an American requests to see me (which is not unfrequently) I comply, firstly, because I respect a people who acquired their freedom by their firmness without excess; and, secondly, because these trans-Atlantic visits ... make me feel as if talking with posterity from the other side of the Styx. In a century or two the new English and Spanish Atlantides will be masters of the old countries, in all probability, as Greece and Europe overcame their mother Asia in the older or earlier ages, as they are called.”
But the classical passage in Byron declaring his faith in the ultimate freedom of man are the stanzas in
“Childe Harold" in defence of the French Revolution (Canto III, stanzas 82–84).
It is worth while to multiply examples on this head, for the sincerity of Byron's loyalty to the cause of political freedom has sometimes in recent years been questioned.1 A poet has the right to be judged by his best, and Byron surely has the right to be ranked with Milton and Shelley as the third great English poet of republican liberty.
A SECOND great subject on which the substance of Byron's belief apart from the form perhaps admits of statement and illustration is the question of his pessimism and scepticism, of his creed in matters philosophical and religious,-in brief of his attitude to the great problems of human destiny, faith, and duty. Not that Byron's mind was essentially philosophical like Wordsworth's, or that his philosophy of life (if indeed he ever attained any fully articulate philosophy of life) is of permanent interest or importance apart from his poetry. But that his views on these subjects, essentially the expression of fundamental mood and temperament as they are, are extremely powerful expressions of mood and are only to be fully understood if studied in connection with his career and in their connection with one another.
Here too, as everywhere in Byron, we meet a certain formal and superficial contradiction and inconsistency in his utterances. At times he disclaims disbelief and
1 As, for example, by Elze, “ Life of Byron,” 358.
wishes to be thought a conservative. More often he gives free and full utterance to the doubt that is in his nature and to the black despair that governs his mood. The strain of conservatism in Byron's nature was doubtless genuine and he was, as he asserted, no atheist.
He, however, was alive to modern doubts, and, earlier than Leopardi and Amiel and Schopenhauer, was infected with that disease of modern thought which was the malady of those distinguished and unhappy spirits. Moreover he had the penetration to recognize it as a disease.
"I am no bigot to infidelity," he writes to Gifford in 1813, " and did not expect that, because I doubted the immortality of man, I should be charged with denying the existence of God. It was the comparative insignificance of ourselves and our world, when placed in competition with the mighty whole of which it is an atom, that first led me to imagine that our pretensions to eternity might be overrated. This, and being early disgusted with a Calvinistic Scotch school, where I was cudgelled to church for the first ten years of my life, afflicted me with this malady; for, after all, it is, I believe, a disease of the mind as much as other kinds of hypochondria.”
In a certain sense“ Manfred” and “ Cain" may be called studies in doubt; they are certainly Byron's greatest poetical expression of his speculative moods and ideas. Many passages from his letters and journals read like commentaries upon these, poems. As thus, when he writes to Miss Milbanke in 1814 :
o Why I came here, I know not. Where I shall go to, it is useless to inquire. In the midst of myriads of the living and the dead worlds-stars-systems-infinity-why should I be anxious about an atom ?".