« PreviousContinue »
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL NOTICE
The triumphs of genius redound more to the honour of a nation, than the most extensive conquests obtained by physical force, than successful combats on land, or victories on the ocean, Cities sacked or burnt, navies destroyed, and armies annihilated, throw round the history of empires a glare of glory, which offends while it dazzles the eye of contemplation; but the bloodless trophies of intellectual superiority, the monuments which genius erects, where temples once rose to ignorance and superstition, are surveyed with a delight which ennobles our frail nature, and increases the ar
dour of our longings after perfection. Nations, therefore, should nurture the blossoms of genius if they hope to gather its fruits. If the sun never shone, there would be few flowers in our gardens. If the reward of merit is refused, we shall seldom be benefited by its exertions. Few, comparatively speaking, possess great mental endowments, and of these few, perhaps, the major part live and die unknown. When, by chance or choice, we are led into some extensive cemetery, where the oniy memorial of the nameless dead is a grass or osierbound hillock, we may suppose, without much play of fancy, that many of nature's nobility, men « of whom the world was not worthy,» mingle their sacred ashes with the common clay:
« For knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne'er unroll;
And froze the genial current of the soul.»
Long and melancholy is the catalogue of those, who, although possessed of the most shining abilities, have been exposed to suffer all the calamities of want. The nations of Europe have been made infamous by their ingratitude to those extraordinary characters, who alone could render them conspicuous in future ages. England had partaken largely of this general guilt, but a brighter dawn and better feeling has arisen, the redeeming spirit has gone forth, and the exertions of intellectual merit are now not only universally appreciated but also liberally rewarded.
The lamented nobleman, who has shed such undying lustre on the pame of Byron, required not the equivocal aid of ancestry to distinguish him from the common tribe, either of patricians or of plebeians. Above that little lordly pride which belongs to meaner minds, he disdained to borrow an ephemeral splendour from hereditary pretension, and in the strength of his own giant energy gained the chief place in the very first rank of those great spirits whose extraordinary talents have rendered the present age so illustrious.
The noblest monument of Byron's genius is that which he has himself erected. The praises of his encomiasts play around a pyramid of glory, which they fail to irradiate; and the censures of those few who deny his merit are like the clouds that vainly attempt to obscure the sun of summer. Although his ashes are consigned to the silent grave, his all-grasping spirit remains active in the creations of his imagination. The lightning of time, which leaves no traces of the productions of mediocrity, will consecrate the evergreens of Byron. . As in an extended and beautiful prospect, it is difficult for the eye to repose on individual beauties, so, when we open the works of our master-poet, the fancy is perplexed with the variety and felicity of his conceptions.
If called upon,
however, to give a deliberate and critical opinion of the respective merits of Byron's productions, and more particularly of his dramatic attempts, it cannot be denied that they contain much to disapprove of, many sins against good taste, and that, in his best poems, the secret workings of a «discontented and repining spirit » too often impart a sombre hue to his imaginings, while even the loveliest and liveliest creations of his brain are painfully alloyed, and suddenly checked, by the gloomy visions of a morbid imagination ; but we forget to criticise, while paying a just homage to the extraordinary genius which, in the compass of a few pages, is equally successful in exciting the most opposite emotions of mirth and sorrow. Other poets may
be more correct, more uniform in the tone of their performances, less liable to critical animadversion ; the dullest proser of the present day may excel in some particulars; but Byron commands every avenue to the human heart, and awakens every emotion of the spirit, from the palpable to the obscure, from such as may be expressed by the lip, or indicated by the features, to the dark and undefinable, of whose very existence we were before scarcely assured. His page is read with an alternately beating and overflowing heart, with « eyes that o'er it shed tears feelingly and fast.» Some of his contemporaries achieved great triumphs, but he stood alone and unapproachable; severe enemies he might have had, and carping critics, but no rival.
Before entering into a detailed notice of our author's works, it may not be amiss to take a survey of the family succession since the conquest. At that time there were two powerful barons of the name—Ernest, who had extensive domains in the counties of York and Lincoln, and Ralph, whose possessions lay in those of Nottingham and Derby, and who was the direct ancestor of the subject of this sketch. The two successors of Ralph were both named Hugh; they were great benefactors to the church, and the last of them retired from the world, and led a monastic life. Roger succeeded to the second Hugh, and was in his turn succeeded by Robert, who enriched the family by marrying Cecilia only daughter of Sir Richard Clayton, of Clayton in the county of Lancaster. This happened in the reign of Henry the Second. Sir Robert was succeeded by a son of the same name, whose two sons were eminently distinguished for bravery in the wars carried on by Edward the First. Sir John, the elder of these warriors, became governor of York castle, and his son, also Sir John, distinguished bimself in the wars in France under Edward the Third, by whom he was knighted at the celebrated siege of