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> Fair as the crowning rose of the whole wreath,
Soft as the callow cygnet in its nest;
As in most of his similes drawn from nature there is present some element of human association or emotion, as in
"A shrivtltd scroll, a scatter'd leaf."
so in his descriptions of nature Byron habitually and on principle2 compares natural things with human. Thus, in his description of the Lake of Nemi,3 he writes:
"Calm as cherish'd hate, its surface wears
A deep cold settled aspect nought can shake,
In conclusion we are led to ask, What are the_ger-manent elements in Byron's work? That his was a mind of surpassing genius few will deny. Whether he was a poet, or in what sense and degree he was a poet, is a question which has been mooted, and which in time may come to be debated as the question whether Pope was a poet has been debated. There is this difference in the two questions, however, that those who doubt Pope's position are those who insist on the test of inspiration over form, while with Byron the case
1 Similarly, cf. "Don Juan," XIII, 37; XVI, 9, 10.
is precisely the contrary. Mr. Swinburne, for example, is for judging Byron to be a great prose writer in his letters, but in poetry infinitely inferior to Shelley and Coleridge. "Byron," he says, "was supreme in his turn—a king by truly divine right; but in a province outside the proper domain of absolute poetry.'' The proper domain of absolute poetry of course is very much a matter of definition and opinion, and there is little use disputing about definitions. In some debatable borderland of creative literature just outside the proper domain of absolute poetry, then, we may safely say that Byron reigns as one of the dii majores of the world's literature.
"It is on the quality of the matter it informs or controls,'' Walter Pater writes, '' its compass, its variety, its alliance to great ends, or the depth of the note of revolt, or the largeness of hope in it, that the greatness of literary art depends." To the superficial eye Byron's verse seems narrow in compass and variety; it seems narrow by reason of its personal note and constant egotism. The depth of the note of revolt in it is unmistakable, as well as the greatness of the ends with which it is concerned. Its egotism, moreover, is something more than a personal egotism. Byron is a protagonist of humamty_.__J^ The feeling for human suffering," to use the phrase applied to him by Brandes, dominates his mind. It appears even in the early poems, but more intensely in "Chillon," "Mazeppa," " Manfred," the later " Childe Harold," and " Don Juan." A holy indignation is upon him. He represents his age, and is in revolt against all that is hollow and false and_narrowing in life ancTthoughtJ'
then and forever. He is for liberating our spirits and enfranchising us from the bonds of custom and cant and conventionality. When he is inspired, —and
/preferably he wrote, as he phrased it, only when the eslro was upon him,—a current of elemental power sweeps through him. We forget all that is merely personal and temporal in him, his scepticism and cynicism and sense of satiety, and all that was unamiable in his character and temper, and feel only the lyrical resonance and sweep of his verse, the humani\jtarian aim and scope of his poetic passion, the vastness and indomitable energy of his imagination, and the sincerity of his outcry__against fate and those blind forces of the world which repress and limit and baffle the aspirations of the soul towards a more perfect and absolute ideal. Byron and Goethe, as Mazzini says, are the two great representatives of their age. They J tire the two last great exponents of that spirit of individuality which dominates and inspires the long period of the Renaissance, and which slowly expires in the throes of modern Revolution. Byron is not a great artist. He has not the artistic temperament and the sense for beauty of Keats or Tennyson or Rossetti. Nor has he the gift for poetical form and phrasing of Shelley and Coleridge, In the mere art of poetry he stands below these men; and this defect will prevent his being placed as a poet after Shakspere and Milton. But it is easy to exaggerate Byron's defects of form and of art. The positive merits of his poetical method have never been sufficiently recognized, partly perhaps because his method is so different from that of other poets of our age. The compensating qualities of his style are simple and generally obvious, and they are not subtle. But his style admirably suits his genius, and at its best meets, "with candid^and impartial readeTs^ His own test of effectiveness. There is, moreover, an unaerlying^sm*c*erfty in'Ins art. "If," writes Professor Courthope, ". . .we search for the special quality that gives his work its enduring interest and its strange power over the imagination, I think it will be found to be reality; reality in description, reality in feeling, reality in style." 1 It requires in our day a determined effort of detachment and readjustment to appreciate the profound genius and the essential sincerity of Byron. He did not know himself; it is only with difficulty that we to-dayjcan arrive at even a partial knowledge of him. Mediocrity has misinterpreted him, and has done its worst to obscure his genius. It has beehln vain, for his works live after him; and through them, however obscured, that genius shines. Apart from all questions of the technicalities of ethics and of art two potent personalities, two pre-eminent poets, loom forth in the English literature of the first half of the nineteenth century, Byron and Wordsworth, different in type, different in method, but both leaders in the
1 Compare Ruskin's interesting account (in his " Praeterita," N. Y., 1886, I, 258 f.) of his early indebtedness to Byron: "Two things I consciously recognized, that his truth of observation was the most exact, and his chosen expression the most concentrated, that I had yet found in literature. . . . But here at last I had found a man who spoke only what he had seen and known ; and spoke without exaggeration, without mystery, without enmity, and without mercy. 'That is so ;—make what you will of it !'" march of humanity. The one is the great modern English poet of the will, the proclaimer of emancipation to man. His method stands in the exaltation of freedom and of personal force. The other is the poet of character, and the advocate of law. The wisdom of passivity, and reconciliation through ultimate sub- Imission are his words of order. Taken together they fully represent their age, and they have both left abiding monuments of immortal verse behind them.