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"Nature herself seemed to take the pen from him as she took it from Wordsworth, and to write for him as she wrote for Wordsworth, though in a different fashion, with her own penetrating simplicity."
Our enjoyment of Byron as a poet then is greater if we confine ourselves to Byron at his best. But Byron's poetry at its best is constantly personal, subjective, and overflowing with Byron the man. So that fully to understand Byron at his best in poetry we are driven to study the personal, the inferior, the prose Byron. And here we are perpetually beset with the paradox of Byron's nature, with the difficulty of disentangling the real Byron from the false Byron. For, contradictory and complex as are most modern characters, few have been more so than Byron. A histrionic strain was prominent in him from the beginning, and it was and is an offence to sincere and candid souls that not only at times his sentiments were evidently put on and worn for effect, but also not infrequently he himself did not know his own real sentiments, but was the dupe of his own imaginings. Nevertheless it is important to recognize that, although seldom apparent in his life from day to day, or in much of his verse from line to line, a fiery and desperate sincerity was at bottom and essentially the motive force of Byron's character as of Byron's poetry. After we have read all that he wrote, no less than after reading only the inspired portions, and after following his career step by step, the general impression of this returns to us and abides with us.
The war of the members, the contradictory elements in Byron, are evident. Byron himself, given to selfanalysis, did not fail to notice them. In a letter to Miss Milbanke (Sept. 16, 1814?) he relates that his head had just been examined by Spurzheim the craniologist,
"a discoverer of faculties and dispositions from the heads. . . . He says all mine are strongly marked, but very antithetical, for everything developed in or on this same skull of mine has its opposite in great force, so that, to believe him, my good and evil are at perpetual war."
The war of good and evil in the human breast is no new or peculiar thing; but Byron's poetry is, as was his life, a field where the conflict appears pre-eminently desperate and magnificent.
'' He taught us little; but our soul
All the passions, at one time or another, were at strife within his soul. And yet, early as was the maturity of his passionate nature, we can trace the development of it through several stages. His ancestry and his parentage explain much. His genius remains underivable, but his energy, his courage, his love of adventure, and the seeds of much that developed later into evil and vice with him seem to hold from the paternal line; his irritability, waywardness, generosity, and occasional self-devotion, the strain of fitful morbidity in him, and perhaps his latent enthusiasm, from the maternal.
His physical malformation—his congenital lameness —reacted upon his sensitive and suspicious nerves and resulted in a vice of temperament. His sudden and unexpected change of fortune, making him heir to a peerage when still a child, was in its effects a misfortune. Worst of all, however, was the influence upon his life of his mother's violent, capricious, and hysterical temper. To this Byron, notwithstanding his paradoxical affection for her, often alludes with bitterness. Thus in a letter to his half-sister Augusta, written in 1811, before his cynicism was anything more than youthful and nascent, he writes:
"You must excuse my being a little cynical, knowing how my temper was tried in my nonage; the manner in which I was brought up must necessarily have broken a meek spirit, or rendered a fiery one ungovernable; the effect it has had on mine I need not state."
Afterwards it was the world at large and especially the times in which he lived which had the greatest influence in the formation of the character of the great English protagonist of a revolutionary age.
Other traits, essential in Byron, seem latent or patent from his youth. There is his pride,—of which he was not a little proud.
"To the charge of pride I suspect I must plead guilty," he writes to Miss Milbanke in 1813 (with some complacency and in the role of the interesting lover), "because when a boy and a very young one it was the constant reproach of schoolfellows and tutors. ... It was, however, originally defensive—for at that time my hand like Ishmael's was against every one's and every one's against mine."
Practically all of Byron's heroes are types of that proud disdain which Dante and mediaeval writers on ethics denominated superbia. Such are Childe Harold, Manfred, Lucifer in '' Cain,'' the mysterious Giaour, and many others. But pride is an inclusive quality, and the common attribute of the soul in revolt. Then there is Byron's suspiciousness and distrust,—therecurrent feeling that every one's hand was against him. There is his melancholy and his moodiness and his love of solitude. There is his improvident extravagance, balanced in later years by freaks of avarice; his ."silent rages" and "high impatient temper" ("as to temper," he writes in 1813, "unluckily I have the reputation of a very bad one"); his little superstitions; his mobility of mood and his wayward inconsistency; his combativeness (" I like a row, and always did from a boy," he writes); his detestation of cant and hypocrisy, as fervent as that of Swift or of Carlyle, but degenerating into bravado and a "habit of inverse hypocrisy" which too often led him to assume a vice when he had it not. There are, too, his other poses and chosen mannerisms,—his pose of blighted affections, of mystery and gloom, of man-ofthe-world-liness; his sentiment, rarely degenerating into sentimentality; his eccentricity, his misanthropy, and his cynicism. His misanthropy was partly assumed and a mere mood, but also partly real, -and the reaction of his revolutionary nature against the cant and conventionality of much of the life around him. In 1808 he writes to his sister from Newstead:
'' I live here much in my own manner, that is, alone, for I could not bear the company of my best friend above a month; there is such a sameness in mankind upon the whole, and they grow so much more disgusting every day, that, were it not for a portion of ambition, and a conviction that in times like the present we ought to perform our respective duties, I should live here all my life in unvaried solitude. ... I flatter myself I have made some improvements in Newstead, and, as I am independent, I am happy, as far as any person unfortunate enough to be born into this world can be said to be so." 1
And in 1811 to his friend Harness he writes:
"The circumstances you mention at the close of your letter is another proof in favour of my opinion of mankind. Such you will always find them—selfish and distrustful. I except none. The cause of this is the state of society."
His cynicism was perhaps as real as cynicism ever can be—that is to say, essentially assumed and sentimental; although in '' Don Juan '' and through his later years it is often truculent and lurid and audaciously expressed. Yet Byron's cynicism, like his other passions, was never cold.
In later years Byron's character hardened while it matured. There was a time in Italy when the baser qualities overruled the rest, and he became something of the " Inglese italianato" of the proverb. But this time was short. At no time had he manifested or cared to possess many of the neutral virtues, and his early years had been marked and marred by dissipation and vices, probably however not greatly beyond the not infrequent custom of his times and class. Moreover, much that is in his letters on this subject is, more mo, mainly pose and display. Yet Byron was always frank, if sometimes more than frank, and as ingenuous As his imaginative temperament would permit him to be. A passage in one of his letters to Moore, written after the break with Lady Byron in 1816, although
1 Compare with this the passage in "Childe Harold," C. Ill, stanzas 113, 114.