« PreviousContinue »
Some gazing on the drowsy sea,
Crabbe, born in 1754, lived till 1832; Campbell, born in 1777, died in 1844; Moore, born in 1780, died in 1851.
Byron was the writer whose blaze of popularity it mainly was that threw Scott's name into the shade, and induced him to abandon verse.
Yet the productions which had this effect the Giaour, the Bride of Abydos, the Corsair, &c., published in 1813 and 1814 (for the new idolatry was scarcely kindled by the two respectable, but somewhat tame, cantos of Childe Harold, in quite another style, which appeared shortly before these effusions), were, in ality, only poems written in what may be called a variation of Scott's own manner Oriental lays and romances, Turkish Marmions and Ladies of the Lake. The novelty of scene and subject, the exaggerated tone of passion in the outlandish tales, and a certain trickery in the writing (for it will hardly now be called anything else), materially aided by the mysterious interest attaching to the personal history of the noble bard, who, whether he sung of Giaours, or Corsairs, or Laras, was always popularly believed to be “ himself the great sublime he drew,” wonderfully excited and intoxicated the public mind at first, and for a time made all other poetry seem spiritless and wearisome ; but, if Byron had adhered to the style by which his fame was thus originally made, it probably would have proved transient enough. Few will now be found to assert that there is anything in these earlier poems of his comparable to the great passages in those of Scott — to the battle in Marmion, for instance, or the raising of the clansmen by the fiery cross in the Lady of the Lake, or many others that might be mentioned. But Byron's vigorous and elastic genius, although it had already tried various styles of poetry, was, in truth, as yet
only preluding to its proper display. First, there had been the very small note of the Hours of Idleness; then, the sharper, but not more original or much more promising, strain of the English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (a satirical attempt in all respects inferior to Gifford's Baviad and Mæviad, of which it was a slavish imitation); next, the certainly far higher and more matured, but still quiet and commonplace, manner of the first two cantos of Childe Harold; after that, suddenly the false glare and pretérnatural vehemence of these Oriental rhapsodies, which yet, however, with all their hollowness and extravagance, evinced infinitely more power than anything he had previously done, or rather were the only poetry he had yet produced that gave proof of any remarkable poetic genius. The Prisoner of Chillon and Parisina, The Siege of Corinth and Mazeppa, followed, all in a spirit of far more truth, and depth, and beauty than the other tales that had preceded them ; but the highest forms of Byron's poetry must be sought for in the two last cantos of Childe Harold, in his Cain and his Manfred, and, above all, in his Don Juan. The last-mentioned extraordinary work is, of course, excluded by its levities and audacities from any comparison in which the moral element is taken into account with such poems as Young's Night Thoughts and Cowper's Task, or even with Thomson's Seasons or Wordsworth's Excursion ; but looked at simply from an artistic point of view, and without reference to anything except the genius and power of writing which it manifests, it will be difficult to resist its claim to be regarded as on the whole the greatest English poem that had appeared either in the present or in the preceding century. It is unfinished, indeed; but so are both the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer and the Fairy Queen of Spenser. Even what of it is objectionable on moral grounds may still be of great literary brilliancy; and, at any rate, the merit of the rest would not be affected by what might be so excepted to. It contains abundance of poetry as exquisite as is to be found in any one of the other poetical works which were added to our literature within the period in question, and no other displays a poetic genius nearly so rich and various so great in the most opposite kinds of writing, from the lightest play of wit and satire up to the noblest strains of impassioned song. We will quote only the letter of Julia to Juan in the First Canto, which may be compared with the letter of Constance in Campbell's Theodric, given a few pages back:
“ They tell me 'tis decided ; you depart;
'Tis wise — 'tis well, but not the less a pain ; I have no further claim on your young heart ;
Mine is the victim, and would be again ;
I used; — I write in haste, and, if a stain
“I loved, I love you, for this love have lost
State, station, heaven, mankind's, my own esteem, And yet cannot regret what it hath cost,
So dear is still the memory of that dream;
None can deem harshlier of me than I deem;
“ Man's love is of man's life a thing apart;
"Tis woman's whole existence; - man may range The court, camp, church, the vessel, and the mart;
Sword, gown, gain, glory offer in exchange Pride, fame, ambition, to fill up his heart,
And few there are whom these cannot estrange. Men have all these resources, we but one, — To love again, and be again undone.
“ You will proceed in pleasure and in pride,
Beloved and loving many; all is o'er
My shame and sorrow deep in my heart's core ; These I could bear, but cannot cast aside
The passion which still rages as before ; And so farewell — forgive me, love me — No, That word is idle now, but let it go.
“My breast has been all weakness, is so yet;
But still I think I can collect my mind; My blood still rushes where my spirits set,
As roll the waves before the settled wind;
To all, except one image, madly blind;
“I have no more to say, but linyer still,
My misery can scarce be more complete ;
Death shuns the wretch who fain the blow would meet,
Yet the highest poetical genius of this time, if it was not that of Coleridge, was, probably, that of Shelley. Byron died in 1824, at the age of thirty-six ; Shelley in 1822, at that of twenty-nine. What Shelley produced during the brief term allotted to him on earth, much of it passed in sickness and sorrow, is remarkable for its quantity, but much more wonderful for the quality of the greater part of it. His Queen Mab, written when he was eighteen, crude and defective as it is, and unworthy to be classed with what he wrote in his maturer years, was probably the richest promise that was ever given at so early an age of poetic power, the fullest assurance that the writer was born a poet. From the date of his Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude, the earliest written of the poems published by himself, to his death, was not quite seven years. The Revolt of Islam, in twelve cantos, or books, the dramas of Prometheus Unbound, The Cenci, and Hellas, the tale of Rosalind and Helen, The. Masqué of Anarchy, The Sensitive Plant, Julian and Maddalo, The Witch of Atlas, Epipsychidion, Adonais, The Triumph of Life, the translations of Homer's Hymn to Mercury, of the Cyclops of Euripides, and of the scenes from Calderon and from Goethe's Faust, besides many short poems, were the additional produce of this springtime of a life destined to know no summer. So much poetry, so rich in various beauty, was probably never poured forth with so rapid a flow from any other mind. Nor can much of it be charged with either immaturity or carelessness : Shelley, with all his abundance and facility, was a fastidious writer, scrupulously attentive to the effect of words and syllables, and accustomed to elaborate whatever he wrote to
the utmost; and, although it is not to be doubted that if he had lived longer he would have developed new powers and a still more masterly command over the several resources of his art, anything that can properly be called unripeness in his composition had, if not before, ceased with his Revolt of Islam, the first of his poems which he gave to the world, as if the exposure to the public eye had burned it out. Some haziness of thought and uncertainty of expression may be found in some of his later, or even latest, works; but that is not to be confounded with rawness ; it is the dreamy ecstasy, too high for speech, in which his poetical nature, most subtle, sensitive, and voluptuous, delighted to dissolve and lose itself. Yet it is marvellous how far he had succeeded in reconciling even this mood of thought with the necessities of distinct expression : witness his Epipsychidion (written in the last year of his life), which may be regarded as his crowning triumph in that kind of writing, and as, indeed, for its wealth and fusion of all the highest things, — of imagination, of expression, of music, one of the greatest miracles ever wrought in poetry. In other styles, again, all widely diverse, are the Cenci, the Masque of Anarchy, the Hymn to Mercury (formerly a translation, but essentially almost as much an original composition as any of the others). It is hard to conjecture what would have been impossible to him by whom all this had been done.
It will suffice to give one of the most brilliant and characteristic of Shelley's shorter poems — - his Ode, or Hymn, as it may be called, To a Skylark, written in 1820:
Hail to thee, blithe spirit,
Bird thou never wert,
Pourest thy full heart
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest;
The blue deep thou wingest,
In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,