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that he conceals nothing of his mind from us, but is sure to blab in the end. At the same time also, in his effort to express everything, he expresses more than himself, more than his real mind. The exaggerations and audacities of his poetry are often not the real Byron, but a factitious and portentous Byron whose image the poet is trying to impose upon us. The real Byron is more human, and is not so terrible and so wicked after all.
Byron's effective conception of the nature and function of poetry, in spite of his paradoxical worship of Pope, was essentially that of his period. His practice exemplified Wordsworth's theory that “ poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, and that “it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity; 1 the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.” Or again as Wordsworth wrote, “ The poet is chiefly distinguished from other men by a greater promptness to think and feel without immediate external excitement, and a greater power in expressing such thoughts and feelings as are produced in him in that manner.” Byron's range of emotions was very different from Wordsworth's, but the poetic process seems to have been the same. “As for poesy,” he says, “ mine is the dream of the sleeping passions; when they are awake I cannot speak their
Cf. Byron's remark: "... My first impressions are always strong and confused, and my memory selects and reduces them to order, like distance in the landscape. ..."
language.” The abstracting and visionary power was very strong in Byron's temperament.
For Byron poetry was a matter of inspiration, as for most of the Romantics, and not mainly an art or a trade of life. “A man's poetry,” he writes, “is a distinct faculty, or Soul, and has no more to do with the every-day individual than the inspiration with the Pythoness when removed from her tripod.”'i Poetry, he holds, should be creative and Promethean.
6. For what is poesy but to create
From overfeeling good or ill; and aim
And be the new Prometheus of new men,
Bestowing fire from heaven, and then, too late,
And vultures to the heart of the bestower,
Who, having lavish'd his high gift in vain,
So be it: we can bear.-But thus all they
Whose intellect is an o'ermastering power
Or lightens it to spirit, whatsoe'er
The form which their creations may essay,
The operation of poetry he has exactly described in a famous stanza in “Childe Harold”:
"''Tis to create, and in creating live
A being more intense, that we endow
Cf. similarly Byron in Trelawny's “ Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author,” 22.
3 "The Prophecy of Dante,” Canto IV.
What am I? Nothing : but not so art thou,
That the poet is essentially seeking an ideality, Byron too, at his best, felt, as well as Shelley. Yet Byron rather feels with Marlowe the unattainability of ideal beauty. As Marlowe cries:
“ If all the pens that ever poets held
“ Of its own beauty is the mind diseased,
And fevers into false creation :—where,
Nor worth nor beauty dwell's from out the mind's
What most distinguishes Byron's conception of poetry, however, is his insistence that the end of poetry is passion, emotion, movement. “I can never,” he writes, “ get people to understand that poetry is the expression of excited passion, and that there is no such
1 I.e. honor, praise, worship.
thing as a life of passion any more than a continuous earthquake, or an eternal fever.” The expression of passion, this surely was Byron's great gift, in which he surpassed all others of his generation, however much he fell behind them in certain other gifts.
The style of Byron's poetry reveals his genius freely, and requires little further analysis. It is marked by passion, verve, fire, concentration, a careless energy, rapidity of movement, unevenness, sharp contrasts of emotion and manner; at its worst by laxness, incoherency, and a certain vulgarity; at its best by incredible ease and effectiveness. His diction and vocabulary are adequate and rich, without being curious. As Professor Courthope says, “ alone among his contemporaries he understood how to swell the stream of English poetical diction as it had come down to him from the eighteenth century, so as to make it an adequate vehicle of expression for romantic thought and feeling. Wordsworth speaks the language of philosophers, Shelley of spirits, but Byron of men.”
Byron is not great as a stylist; he was too careless and disdainful of form for that. His manner is essentially that of impromptu,—at its best the impromptu of genius and inspiration, it is true; but still impromptu. His high impatient temper refused the labor of the file. He would amplify, or substitute an entirely new act or passage for one which was judged inferior, but he would not polish and revise.
"I can't furbish,” he writes to Murray in 1820. “I am like the tiger (in poesy); if I miss the first spring, I go growling back to my jungle. There is no second; I can't correct; I can't, and I won't.”
It is difficult, as Mr. J. A. Symonds has pointed out in his admirable essay on Byron, for our generation, trained to an exacting taste for all the subtleties of poetical art, to appreciate a style void of subtlety, full of technical defects in matters of detail, and great only in the mass and in a few pre-eminent qualities. Byron's poetry must be read not for the lingering sweetness or the curious felicity of the line or the phrase, but for the sweeping magnificence of long passages, the effectiveness of large masses, and its power in wholes. In these at his best he always attains his ends and never fails of his effect. He cared little for fine phrases—which Keats used to dote upon like a lover. Phrasing for its own sake was an offence to him. He writes in one of his Diaries in 1821:
“I have been reading Frederic Schlegel till now, and I can make out nothing. He evidently shows a great power of words, but there is nothing to be taken hold of. ... I like him the worse ... because he always seems upon the verge of meaning; and, lo! he goes down like sunset, or melts like a rainbow, leaving a rather rich confusion.”
There is much of the positivist in Byron,-a grasp upon substance and sense, and a this-worldliness, which separate him widely from the other Romanticists.
1 “Like paintings, poems may be too highly finished. The great art is effect, no matter how produced.” (Byron, in Medwin's “ Conversations," 133.)