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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
If these had made one poem's period,
"Of its own beauty is the mind diseased,
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__rjagsipm 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.1 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.)
At times, as in parts of " Don Juan," he becomes out and out a realist.
The self-conscious reader, who refuses to submit himself to the fascination of Byron's movement and the sway of his verse, easily discovers in this poetry a sort of unconcealed artifice which a more cunning workman would have kept hidden,—mannerisms and devices which, being thus revealed, are forthwith classed as rhetorical or melodramatic. The broken and exclamatory style of the following passage from '' Lara,'' for example, is highly characteristic of Byron:
"'Twas midnight—all was slumber; the lone light
Rhetorical, if you will, but in its kind how effective! And Byron usually maintains the style of the particular kind in which he has chosen to write, with remarkable dexterity. We must indeed be careful to note the effect he is seeking and not expect something different. "Childe Harold " is not an epic and does not aim at epic effects. Superficially regarded it might be classed as descriptive poetry. But how different the effect from that of most descriptive poetry that we know! And the reason is this, that its description is animated at all points with human emotion, until the center of interest is in the poet and only secondarily in the object described. In this sense the poem is more lyrical than descriptive. Similar cautions, mutatis mutandis, may be suggested for the other poems.
Byron's style is effective because it renders so completely to us Byron himself. Vital feeling, the impulse, in spite of attendant despairs, to rejoice, as Wordsworth says the poet does, '' more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him," this is the underlying impulse of Byron's poetry. It throbs with life; strong, defiant, desperate, mocking, resistant life; but still with life. Now mark how Byron, inspired by this feeling, takes the heroic couplet of the classicists, the instrument of impersonal and subdued poetic propriety, and makes it express, in the "Corsair" for example, all the impetuous rush, the turbulence, and the personal force of his nature:
"There is a war, a chaos of the mind, When all its elements convulsed, combined,