Monday, April 19, 2010

Lord Byron's Death

The rock star of his generation, George Gordon Byron died on April 19, 1824.  Byron's meeting and friendship with Walter Scott was covered in an earlier post.  One of Lord Byron's main contributions to literature was the idea of the Byronic hero; the flawed hero.  Scott employed this notion in his characterization of Captain Cleveland in his novel "The Pirate".

On Byron's death, Scott wrote a piece titled "A Character of Lord Byron", which was published in "The Life and Genius of Lord Byron" by Cosmo Gordon:

Amidst the general calmness of the political atmosphere, we have been stunned from another quarter by one of those death-notes which are pealed at intervals, as from an archangel's trumpet, to awaken the soul of a whole people at once. Lord Byron, who has so long and so amply filled the highest place in the public eye, has shared the lot of humanity His Lordship died at Missolonghi on the 19th of April. That mighty genius which walked amongst men as something superior to ordinary mortality , and whose powers were beheld with wonder, and something approaching to terror, as if we knew not whether they were of good or of evil, is laid as soundly to rest as the poor peasant whose ideas never went beyond his daily task. The voice of just blame and of malignant censure are at once silenced; and we feel almost as if the great luminary of heaven had suddenly disappeared from the sky, at the moment when every telescope was levelled for the examination of the spots which dimmed its brightness. It is not now the question what were Byron's faults, what his mistakes? but how is the blank which he has left in British literature to be filled up? Not, we fear, in one generation, which, among many highly gifted persons, has produced none who approach Byron in originality, the first attribute of genius. Only thirty seven years old: — so much already done for immortality,—so much time remaining, as it seems to us short-sighted mortals, to maintain and to extend his fame, and to atone for errors in conduct and levities in composition; who will not grieve that such a race has been shortened, though not always keeping the straight-path — such a light extinguished, though sometimes flaming to dazzle and to bewilder ? One word on this ungrateful subject ere we quit it for ever.

The errors of Lord Byron arose neither from depravity of heart,— for nature had not commited the anomaly of uniting to such extraordinary talents an imperfect moral sense, — nor from feelings dead to the admiration of virtue. No man had ever a kinder heart for sympathy, or a more open hand for the relief of distress; and no mind was ever more formed for the enthousiastic admiration of noble actions, providing he was convinced that the actors had proceeded upon disinterested principles. Lord Byron was totally free from the curse and degradation of literature, — its jealousies, we mean, and its envy. But his wonderful genius was of a nature which disdained restraint even when restraint was most wholesome. When at school, the tasks in which he excelled were those only which he undertook voluntarily ; and his situation as a young man of rank , with strong passions, and in the uncontrolled enjoyment of a considerable fortune, added tho that impatience of strictures or coercion which was natural to him. As an author, he refused to plead at the bar of criticism; as a man, he would not submit to be morally amenable to the tribunal of public opinion. Remonstrances from a friend, of whose intentions and kindness he was secure, had often great weight with him; but there were few who could venture on a task so difficult. Reproof he endured with impatience, and reproach hardened him in his error, — so that he often resembled the gallant war-steed, who rushes forward on the steel that wounds him. In the most painful crisis of his private life, he evinced this irritability and impatience of censure in such a degree, as almost to resemble the noble victim of the bull-fight, which is more maddened by the squibs, darts, and petty annoyances of the unworthy crowds beyond the lists, than by the lance of his nobler, and, so to speak, his more legitimate antagonist. In a word , much of that in which he erred was in bravado and scorn of his censors, and was done with the motive of Dryden's despot,

« To show his arbitrary power. »

It is needless to say that his was a false and prejudiced view of such a contest; and if the Noble Bard gained a sort of triumph, by compelling the world to read his poetry, though mixed with baser matter, because it was his, he grave in return an unworthy triumph lo the unworthy, besides deep sorrow to those whose applause, in his cooler moments , he most valued.

It was the same with his politics, which on several occasions assumed a tone menacing and contemptuous to the constitution of his country; while, in fact, Lord Byron was in his own heart sufficiently sensible, not only of his privileges as a Briton, but of the distinction attending his high birth and rank , and was peculiarly sensitive of those shades which constitute what is termed the manners of gentleman. Indeed, notwithstanding his having employed epigrams and all the petty war of wit, when such would have been much better abstained from, he would have been found, had a collision taken place between the aristocratic parties in the State, exerting all his energies in defence of that to which he naturally belonged. His own feeling on these subjects he has explained in the very last canto of Don Juan; and they are in entire harmony with the opinions which we have seen expressed in his correspondence, at a moment when matters appeared to approach a serious struggle in his native country : —

« He was as independent—aye much more,
Than those who were not paid for independence

As common soldiers, or a common—Shore,

Have in their several acts or parts ascendance

O'er the irregulars in lust or gore,

Who do not give professional attendance.

Thus on the mob all statesmen are as eager
To prove tbeir pride as footmen to a beggar 1

We are not, however, Byron's apologists, for now, alas! he needs none. His excellencies will now be universally acknowledged, and his faults (let us hope and believe) not remembered in his epitaph. It will be recollected what a part he has sustained in British literature since the first appearance of Childe-Harold, — a space of nearly sixteen years.  There has been no reposing under the shade of his laurels, no living upon the resource of past reputation; none of that coddling and petty precaution, which little authors call « taking care of their fame. » Byron let his fame take care of itself. His foot was always in the arena, his shield hung always in the lists; and although his own gigantic renown increased the difficulty of the struggle, since he could produce nothing , however great, which exceeded the public estimates of his genius, yet he advanced to the honourable contest again and again and again, and came always off with distinction, almost always with complete triumph. As various in composition as Shakspeare himself (this will be admitted by all who are acquainted with his Don Juan) he has embraced every topic of human life, and sounded every string on the divine harp, from its slightest to its most powerful and heart-astounding tones. There is scarce a passion or a situation which has escaped his pen ; and he might be drawn, like Garrick , between the weeping and the laughing Muse, although his most powerful efforts have certainly been dedicated to Melpomene. His genius seemed as prolific as various. The most prodigal use did not exhaust his powers, nay, seemed rather to increase their vigour. Neither Childe-Harold, nor any of the most beautiful of Byron's earlier tales, contain more exquisite morsels of poetry than are to be found scattered through the cantos of Don Juan amidst verses which the author appears to have thrown off with an effort as spontaneous as that of a tree resigning its leaves to the wind. But that noble tree will never more bear fruit or blossom! It has been cut down in its strengh, and the past is all that remains to us of Byron. We can scarce reconcile ourselves to the idea —scarce think that the voice is silent for ever, which, bursting so often on our ear, was often heard with rapturous admiration, sometimes, with regret, but always with the deepest interest:

« All that's bright most fade ,
« The brightest still the fleetest »

With a strong feeling of awfull sorrow, we take leave of the subject. Death creeps upon our most serious as well as upon our most idle employments; and it is a reflection solemn and gratifying, that he found our Byron in no moment of levity, but contributing his fortune, and hazarding his life, in behalf of a people only endeared to him by their past glories, and as fellow-creatures suffering under the yoke of a heathen oppressor. To have fallen in a crusade for freedom and humanity, as in olden times it would have been an atonement for the blackest crimes, may in the present be allowed to expiate greater follies than even exaggerated calumny has propagated against Byron.»

We were going to allude again this week to the question between Mr. Thomas Moore and the public, respecting the destruction of Lord Byron's Memoirs. We have received several letters expressing the extreme mortification of the writers on learning the fact, and venting their indignation in no very measured terms against the perpetrators. And we should not have concealed our own opinion , that, however nobly Thomas Moore may have acted as regards his own interest, his published letter makes out no justification either in regard to his late illustrious friend, whose reputation whas thus abandoned without that defence which probably his own pen could alone furnish of many misrepresented passages in his conduct; or in regard to the world, which is thus robbed of a treasure that can never be replaced. But we have learnt one fact which puts a different face on the whole matter. It is., that Lord Byron himself did not wish the Memoirs published. How they came into the hands of Mr. Moore and the bookseller — for what purpose, and under what reservations —we shall probably be at liberty to explain at a future time; for the present we can only say that such is the fact, as the Noble Poet's intimate friends can testify.

1 The hit about aristocracy smacks of the Baronet and Courtier; and the quotation upon which he founds it, is exceedingly unfair, since for this one stanza we could quote twenty out of the same poem full of the most contemptuous satire upon the upper orders , if indeed the whole spirit of the poem were not a better authority.

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