« PreviousContinue »
Manfred, Lucifer in '' Cain,'' the mysterious Giaour, and many others. But pride is an inclusive quality, and the common attribute of the soul in revolt. Then there is Byron's suspiciousness and distrust,—therecurrent feeling that every one's hand was against him. There is_his melancholy and his moodiness and his love of solitude. There is his improvident extravagance, balanced in later years by freaks of avarice; his '' silent rages '' and ''high impatient temper" ("as to temper," he writes in 1813, "unluckily I have the reputation of a very bad one"); his little superstitions; his mobility of mood and his wayward inconsistency; his combativeness (" I like a row, and always did from a boy," he writes); his detestation of cant and hypocrisy, as fervent as that of Swift or of Carlyle, but degenerating into bravado and a " habit of inverse hypocrisy" which too often led him to assume a vice when he had it not. There are, too, his other poses and chosen mannerisms,—his pose of blighted affections, of mystery and gloom, of man-ofthe-world-liness; his sentiment, rarely degenerating into sentimentality; his eccentricity, his misanthropy, and his cynicism. His misanthropy was partly assumed and a mere mood, but also partly real, and the reaction of his revolutionary nature against the cant and conventionality of much of the life around him. In 1808 he writes to his sister from Newstead:
'' I live here much in my own manner, that is, alone, for I could not bear the company of my best friend above a month; there is such a sameness in mankind upon the whole, and they grow so much more disgusting every day, that, were it not for a portion of ambition, and a conviction that in times like the present we ought to perform our respective duties, I should live
here all my life in unvaried solitude. ... I flatter myself I have made some improvements in Newstead, and, as I am independent, I am happy, as far as any person unfortunate enough to be born into this world can be said to be so." 1
And in 1811 to his friend Harness he writes:
"The circumstances you mention at the close of your letter is another proof in favour of my opinion of mankind. Such you will always find them—selfish and distrustful. I except none. The cause of this is the state of society."
His cynicism was perhaps as real as cynicism ever can be—that is to say, essentially assumed and sentimental; although in '' Don Juan '' and through his later years it is often truculent and lurid and audaciously expressed. Yet Byron's cynicism, like his other passions, was never cold.
In later years Byron's character hardened while it matured. There was a time in Italy when the baser qualities overruled the rest, and he became something of the " Inglese italianato" of the proverb. But this time was short. At no time had he manifested or cared to possess many of the neutral virtues, and his early years had been marked and marred by dissipation and vices, probably however not greatly beyond the not infrequent custom of his times and class. Moreover, much that is in his letters on this subject is, more mo, mainly pose and display. Yet Byron was always frank, if sometimes more than frank, and as ingenuous as his imaginative temperament would permit him to be. A passage in one of his letters to Moore, written after the break with Lady Byron in 1816, although
1 Compare with this the passage in "Childe Harold," C. Ill, stanzas 113, 114.
referring particularly to that affair, hints fairly enough at the causes of Byron's condition generally.
"My circumstances," he writes, "have been and are in a state of great confusion; my health has been a good deal disordered, and my mind ill at ease for a considerable period. Such are the causes (I do not name them as excuses) which have frequently driven me into excess, and disqualified my temper for comfort. Something also may be attributed to the strange and desultory habits which becoming my own master at an early age, and scrambling about, over and through the world, may have induced. I still, however, think that, it I had had a fair chance, by being placed in even a tolerable situation, I might have gone on fairly. But that seems hopeless,—and there is nothing more to be said."
After this the last step is to the wilful cynicism of "Don Juan " or the melancholy note of such passages as these from letters and journals of his later years:
"What is the reason that I have been, all my lifetime, more or less ennuyd? and that, if anything, I am rather less so now than I was at twenty, as far as my recollection serves? I do not know how to answer this, but presume that it is constitutional,—as well as the waking in low spirits, which I have invariably done for many years. Temperance and exercise, which I have practised at times, and for a long time together vigorously and violently, made little or no difference. Violent passions did; when under their immediate influence—it is odd, but—I was in agitated, but not in depressed spirits. ... I feel a something which makes me think that, if I ever reach near to old age, like Swift, 'I shall die at top' first. Only I do not dread idiotism or madness so much as he did. On the contrary, I think some quieter stages of both must be preferable to much of what men think the possession of their senses." (Journal, Jan. 6, 1821.)
"As I grow older, the indifference—not to life, for we love it by instinct—but to the stimuli of life, increases." (Letter to Shelley, Apr. 26, 1821.)
"I am not sure that long life is desirable for one of my temper and constitutional depression of spirits,—which of course I sup
press in society; but which breaks out when alone, and in my writings, in spite of myself." (Letter to Murray, Sept. 20, 1821.)
Byron, in truth, like the young Elizabethans, and especially like Marlowe, whom he so strangely resembles in some points of temperament and history, crowded much living into few years,—having anticipated life, as he phrased it, in his youth.
"My passions," he writes in his "Detached Thoughts," "were developed very early. . . . Perhaps this was one of the reasons which caused the anticipated melancholy of my thoughts,—having anticipated life."
He bought his knowledge of life dearly, for his own ultimate content. For his poetry, that is perhaps a different matter. If the great lyrical poet is he who coins his passionate experience into the minted gold of song, such a poet was Byron. Byron's experience and his knowledge of life were necessarily but those of one man and essentially in one vein, and, so, limited and imperfect. He did not live a life of many phases like Goethe's, nor was he capable of what was peculiar to men like Wordsworth on the one hand or Shelley on the other. His intuitions were not so subtle and fine as those of Keats or of Coleridge. But at any rate his inner life had been intense and passionate, and his outer life had led him to a broader outlook upon men and nations than that of any of the others except Goethe's. This is one thing at least which recommends Byron to men of the world and to men of other tongues. '' The pity of these men,'' he writes to Murray in 1821 with a curious mixture of aristocratic vanity and of penetration, speaking of some of the chief poets his contemporaries, "is that they never lived in high life nor in solitude: there is no medium for the knowledge of the busy or the still world." One side of the busy world at least Byron knew; only he was self-deceived into thinking that this side of the world was the world, the great world of men. Thus we find him writing to Murray in 1820:
"You talk of refinement:—are you all more moral? are you so moral? No such thing. / know what the world is in England, by my own proper experience of the best of it—at least of the loftiest; and I have described it every where as it is to be found in all places."
If Shakspere's dramatic genius was happy in coming in the great dramatic age of our literature, Byron's genius, all high restive impatience, fuming revolt, and Titanic fire and force, was no less happy in coming in the great revolutionary age. And yet Byron came too late to find himself in sympathy with his own times. He caught the inspiration of the movement of enthusiastic liberalism, progress, and re-birth, which preceded him. He was deeply influenced by Rousseau, by the example of Plutarch's heroes, of Washington, and of Napoleon, so long as Napoleon seemed to stand for reconstruction and the new order. But he saw the early hopes of reform crumble and he lived the greater part of his years in an age of temporary reaction, when England turned panic-stricken from the excesses of the French Revolution, when the Habeascorpus act was suspended for long periods of time and every democratic manifestation was rigidly suppressed, and when the iniquitous Holy Alliance dominated the