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"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:
"France hath twice too well been taught
Or the sympathy with the cause of Poland expressed in "The Age of-Jircmze"; or his execration in the same poem upon Napoleon's betrayal of the cause of liberty:
"A single step into the right had made
Or again there is his constant sympathy with America as the land of freedom, as when he writes in 1821:
"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:
"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?"
As we trace his creed through his writings certain points seem fairly well fixed in Byron's mind. In his earlier and middle years he strongly doubts individual immortality. Thus he writes to his friend Hodgson1 in 1811:
"I will have nothing to do with your immortality; we are miserable enough in this life, without the absurdity of speculating upon another. If men are to live, why die at all? and if they die, why disturb the sweet and sound sleep that 'knows no waking'? ... I hope I am sincere; I was so at least on a bed of sickness in a far-distant country, when I had neither friend, nor comforter, nor hope, to sustain me. I looked to death as a relief from pain, without a wish for an after-life, but a confidence that the God who punishes in this existence had left that last asylum for the weary."
OLa similar tenor is the following:
"Of the two, I should think the long sleep better than the agonised vigil. But men, miserable as they are, cling so to anything like life, that they probably would prefer damnation to quiet. Besides, they think themselves so important in the creation, that nothing less can satisfy their pride—the insects!"
Later his opinions on this subject were somewhat altered. In 1821 he writes in his journal:
"It has been said that the immortality of the soul is a 'grand peut-etre'—but still it is a grand one. Everybody clings to it,— the stupidest and dullest and wickedest of human bipeds is still persuaded that he is immortal."
And again, in his " Detached Thoughts":
"Of the immortality of the soul it appears to me that there can be little doubt, if we attend for a moment to the action of the mind:
1 Apropos of the opening stanzas of Canto II of "Childe Parold.'.'
it is in perpetual activity. I used to doubt of it, but reflection has taught me better. . . . How far our future life will be individual, or rather, how far it will at all resemble our present existence, is another question ; but that the mind is eternal seems as probable as that the body is not so."
In revealed religion Byron apparently did not believe. In 1807 he asserts that he is a deist; and in 1811 he writes to Hodgson:
"I do not believe in any revealed religion, because no religion is revealed: and if it pleases the Church to damn me for not allowing a nonentity, I throw myself on the mercy of the 'Great First Cause, least understood ' who must do what is most proper; though I conceive He never made anything to be tortured in another life, whatever it may in this."
And to Miss Milbanke in 1813:
"I believe doubtless in God, and should be happy to be convinced of much more. If I do not at present place implicit faith in tradition and revelation of any human creed, I hope it is not from want of reverence for the Creator but the created. . . ."
Against the doctrine of eternal punishment, as already appears,'Byron stood firm. As he writes in his scoffing and^tirical vein irfliis " Vision of Judgment ":
r "I hardly know too if not quite alone am I
In this small hope of bettering future ill
'Tis blasphemous; I know one may be damn'd For hoping no one else may e'er be so." /
And in his '' Detached Thoughts '':
"A material resurrection seems strange and even absurd, except for purposes of punishment; and all punishment which is to revenge rather than correct must be morally wrong; and when