CHAPTER XXXV. THE NEW ROMANTIC POETRY: BYRON AND MOORE.
Early Life of Byron. Childe Harold and Eastern Tales. Unhappy Marriage.
Philhellenism and Death. Estimate of his Poetry. Thomas Moore.
Anacreon. Later Fortunes. Lalla Rookh. His Diary. His Rank as Poet.
In immediate succession after Scott comes the name of Byron. They were both great lights of their age; but the former may be compared to a planet revolving in regulated and beneficent beauty through an unclouded sky; while the latter is more like a comet whose lurid light came flashing upon the sight in wild and threatening career.
Like Scott, Byron was a prolific poet; and he owes to Scott the general suggestion and much of the success of his tales in verse. His powers of description were original and great: he adopted the new romantic tone, while in his more studied works he was an imitator and a champion of a former age, and a contemner of his own.
EARLY LIFE OF BYRON.—The Honorable George Gordon Byron, afterwards Lord Byron, was born in London on the 22d of January, 1788. While he was yet an infant, his father—Captain Byron—a dissipated man, deserted his mother; and she went with her child to live upon a slender pittance at Aberdeen. She was a woman of peculiar disposition, and was unfortunate in the training of her son. She alternately petted and quarrelled with him, and taught him to emulate her irregularities of temper. On account of an accident at his birth, he had a malformation in one of his feet, which, producing a slight limp in his gait through life, rendered his sensitive nature quite unhappy, the signs of which are to be discerned in his drama, The Deformed Transformed. From the age of five years he went to school at Aberdeen, and very early began to exhibit traits of generosity, manliness, and an imperious nature: he also displayed great quickness in those studies which pleased his fancy.
In 1798, when he was eleven years old, his grand-uncle, William, the fifth Lord Byron, died, and was succeeded in the title and estates by the young Gordon Byron, who was at once removed with his mother to Newstead Abbey. In 1801 he was sent to Harrow, where he was well esteemed by his comrades, but was not considered forward in his studies.
He seems to have been of a susceptible nature, for, while still a boy, he fell in love several times. His third experience in this way was undoubtedly the strongest of his whole life. The lady was Miss Mary Chaworth, who did not return his affection. His last interview with her he has powerfully described in his poem called The Dream. From Harrow he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he lived an idle and self-indulgent life, reading discursively, but not studying the prescribed course. As early as November, 1806, before he was nineteen, he published his first volume, Poems on Various Occasions, for private distribution, which was soon after enlarged and altered, and presented to the public as Hours of Idleness, a Series of Poems Original and Translated, by George Gordon, Lord Byron, A Minor. These productions, although by no means equal to his later poems, are not without merit, and did not deserve the exceedingly severe criticism they met with from the Edinburgh Review. The critics soon found that they had bearded a young lion: in his rage, he sprang out upon the whole literary craft in a satire, imitated from Juvenal, called The English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, in which he ridicules and denounces the very best poets of the day furiously but most uncritically. That his conduct was absurd and unjust, he himself allowed afterwards; and he attempted to call in and destroy all the copies of this work.
CHILDE HAROLD AND EASTERN TALES.—In March, 1809, he took his seat in the House of Lords, where he did not accomplish much. He took up his residence at Newstead Abbey, his ancestral seat, most of which was in a ruinous condition; and after a somewhat disorderly life there, he set out on his continental tour, spending some time at Lisbon, Cadiz, Gibraltar, Malta, and in Greece. On his return, after two years' absence, he brought a summary of his travels in poetical form,—the first part of Childe Harold; and also a more elaborated poem entitled Hints from Horace. Upon the former he set little value; but he thought the latter a noble work. The world at once reversed his decision. The satire in the Latin vein is scarcely read; while to the first cantos of Childe Harold it was due that, in his own words, “he woke up one morning and found himself famous.” As fruits of the eastern portion of his travels, we have the romantic tale, The Giaour, published in 1811, and The Bride of Abydos, which appeared in 1813. The popularity of these oriental stories was mainly due to their having been conceived on the spots they describe. In 1814 he issued The Corsair, perhaps the best of these sensational stories; and with singular versatility, in the same year, inspired by the beauty of the Jewish history, he produced The Hebrew Melodies, some of which are fervent, touching, and melodious. Late in the same year Lara was published, in the same volume with Mr. Rogers's Jacqueline, which it threw completely into the shade. Thus closed one distinct period of his life and of his authorship. A change came over the spirit of his dream.
UNHAPPY MARRIAGE.—In 1815, urged by his friends, and thinking it due to his position, he married Miss Milbanke; but the union was without affection on either side, and both were unhappy. One child, a daughter, was born to them; and a year had hardly passed when they were separated, by mutual consent and for reasons never truly divulged; and which, in spite of modern investigations, must remain mysterious. He was licentious, extravagant, of a violent temper: his wife was of severe morals, cold, and unsympathetic. We need not advance farther into the horrors recently suggested to the world. The blame has rested on Byron; and, at the time, the popular feeling was so strong, that it may be said to have driven him from England. It awoke in him a dark misanthropy which returned English scorn with an unnatural hatred. He sojourned at various places on the continent. At Geneva he wrote a third canto of Childe Harold, and the touching story of Bonnivard, entitled The Prisoner of Chillon, and other short poems.
In 1817 he was at Venice, where he formed a connection with the Countess Guiccioli, to the disgrace of both. In Venice he wrote a fourth canto of Childe Harold, the story of Mazeppa, the first two cantos of Don Juan, and two dramas, Marino Faliero and The Two Foscari.
For two years he lived at Ravenna, where he wrote some of his other dramas, and several cantos of Don Juan. In 1821 he removed to Pisa; thence, after a short stay, to Genoa, still writing dramas and working at Don Juan.
PHILHELLENISM: HIS DEATH.—The end of his misanthropy and his debaucheries was near; but his story was to have a ray of sunset glory—his death was to be connected with a noble effort and an exhibition of philanthropic spirit which seem in some degree to palliate his faults. Unlike some writers who find in his conduct only a selfish whim, we think that it casts a beautiful radiance upon the early evening of a stormy life. The Greeks were struggling for independence from Turkish tyranny: Byron threw himself heart and soul into the movement, received a commission from the Greek government, recruited a band of Suliotes, and set forth gallantly to do or die in the cause of Grecian freedom: he died, but not in battle. He caught a fever of a virulent type, from his exposure, and after very few days expired, on the 19th of April, 1824, amid the mourning of the nation. Of this event, Macaulay—no mean or uncertain critic—could say, in his epigrammatical style: “Two men have died within our recollection, who, at a time of life at which few people have completed their education, had raised themselves, each in his own department, to the height of glory. One of them died at Longwood; the other at Missolonghi.”
ESTIMATE OF HIS POETRY.—In giving a brief estimate of his character and of his works, we may begin by saying that he represents, in clear lineaments, the nobleman, the traveller, the poet, and the debauchee, of the beginning of the nineteenth century. In all his works he unconsciously depicts himself. He is in turn Childe Harold, Lara, the Corsair, and Don Juan. He affected to despise the world's opinion so completely that he has made himself appear worse than he really was—more profane, more intemperate, more licentious. It is equally true that this tendency, added to the fact that he was a handsome peer, had much to do with the immediate popularity of his poems. There was also a paradoxical vanity, which does not seem easily reconcilable with his misanthropy, that thus led him to reproduce himself in a new dress in his dramas and tales. He paraded himself as if, after all, he did value the world's opinion.
That he was one of the new romantic poets, with, however, a considerable tincture of the transition school, may be readily discerned in his works: his earlier poems are full of the conceits of the artificial age. His English Bards and Scotch Reviewers reminds one of the MacFlecknoe of Dryden and The Dunciad of Pope, without being as good as either. When he began that original and splendid portrait of himself, and transcript of his travels, Childe Harold, he imitated Spenser in form and in archaism. But he was possessed by the muse: the man wrote as the spirit within dictated, as the Pythian priestess is fabled to have uttered her oracles. Childe Harold is a stream of intuitive, irrepressible poetry; not art, but overflowing nature: the sentiments good and bad came welling forth from his heart. His descriptive powers are great but peculiar. Travellers find in Childe Harold lightning glimpses of European scenery, art, and nature, needing no illustrations, almost defying them. National conditions, manners, customs, and costumes, are photographed in his verses:—the rapid rush to Waterloo; a bull-fight in Spain; the women of Cadiz or Saragossa; the Lion of St. Mark; the eloquent statue of the Dying Gladiator; “Fair Greece, sad relic of departed worth;” the address to the ocean; touches of love and hate; pictures of sorrow, of torture, of death. Everywhere thought and glance are powerfully concentrated, and we find the poem to be journal, history, epic, and autobiography. His felicity of expression is so great, that, as we come upon the happy conceptions exquisitely rendered, we are inclined to say of each, as he has said of the Egeria of Muna:
... whatsoe'er thy birth,
Thou wert a beautiful thought and softly bodied forth.
Of his dramas which are founded upon history, we cannot say so much; they are dramatic only in form: some of them are spectacular, like Sardanapalus, which is still presented upon the stage on account of its scenic effects. In Manfred we have a rare insight into his nature, and Cain is the vehicle for his peculiar, dark sentiments on the subject of religion.
Don Juan is illustrative not only of the poet, but of the age; there was a generation of such men and women. But quite apart from its moral, or rather immoral, character, the poem is one of the finest in our literature: it is full of wonderful descriptions, and exhibits a splendid mastery of language, rhythm, and rhyme: a glorious epic with an inglorious hero, and that hero Byron himself.
As a man he was an enigma to the world, and doubtless to himself: he was bad, but he was bold. If he was vindictive, he was generous; if he was misanthropic and sceptical, it was partly because he despised shams: in all his actions, we see that implicit working out of his own nature, which not only conceals nothing, but even exaggerates his own faults. His antecedents were bad;—his father was a villain; his grand-uncle a murderer; his mother a woman of violent temper; and himself, with all this legacy, a man of powerful passions. If evil is in any degree to be palliated because it is hereditary, those who most condemn it in the abstract, may still look with compassionate leniency upon the career of Lord Byron.
THOMAS MOORE.—Emphatically the creature of his age, Moore wrote sentimental songs in melodious language to the old airs of Ireland, and used them as an instrument to excite the Irish people in the struggle they were engaged in against English misgovernment. But his songs were true neither to tradition nor to nature; they placed before the ardent Celtic fancy an Irish glory and grandeur entirely different from the reality. Nor had he in any degree caught the bardic spirit. His lyre was attuned to reach the ear rather than the heart; his scenes are in enchanted lands; his dramatis personae tread theatrical boards; his thunder is a melo-dramatic roll; his lightning is pyrotechny; his tears are either hypocritical or maudlin; and his laughter is the perfection of genteel comedy.
Thomas Moore was born in Dublin, on the 28th of May, 1779: he was a diminutive but precocious child, and was paraded by his father and mother, who were people in humble life, as a reciter of verse; and as an early rhymer also. His first poem was printed in a Dublin magazine, when he was fourteen years old. In 1794 he entered Trinity College, Dublin; and, although never considered a good scholar, he was graduated in 1798, when he was nineteen years old.
ANACREON.—The first work which brought him into notice, and which manifests at once the precocity of his powers and the peculiarity of his taste, was his translation of the Odes of Anacreon. He had begun this work while at college, but it was finished and published in London, whither he had gone after leaving college, to enter the Middle Temple, in order to study law. With equal acuteness and adaptation to character, he dedicated the poems to the Prince of Wales, an anacreontic hero. As might be expected, with such a patron, the volume was a success. In 1801 he published another series of erotic poems, under the title The Poetical Works of the late Thomas Little. This gained for him, in Byron's line, the name of “the young Catullus of his day”; and, at the instance of Lord Moira, he was appointed poet-laureate, a post he filled only long enough to write one birthday ode. What seemed a better fortune came in the shape of an appointment as Registrar of the Admiralty Court of Bermuda. He went to the island; remained but a short time; and turned over the uncongenial duties of the post to a deputy, who subsequently became a defaulter, and involved Moore to a large amount. Returning from Bermuda, he travelled in the United States and Canada; not without some poetical record of his movements. In 1806 he published his Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems, which called down the righteous wrath of the Edinburgh Review: Jeffrey denounced the book as “a public nuisance,” and “a corrupter of public morals.” For this harsh judgment, Moore challenged him; but the duel was stopped by the police. This hostile meeting was turned to ridicule by Byron in the lines:
When Little's leadless pistols met his eye,
And Bow-street myrmidons stood laughing by.
LATER FORTUNES.—Moore was now the favorite—the poet and the dependent of the nobility; and his versatile pen was principally employed to amuse and to please. He soon began that series of Irish Melodies which he continued to augment with new pieces for nearly thirty years.
Always of a theatrical turn, he acted well in private drama, in which the gentlemen were amateurs, and the female parts were personated by professional actresses. Thus playing in a cast with Miss Dyke, the daughter of an Irish actor, Moore fell in love with her, and married her on the 25th of March, 1811.
With a foolish lack of judgment, he lost his hopes of preferment, by writing satires against the regent; but as a means of livelihood, he engaged to write songs for Powers, at a salary of L500 per annum, for seven years.
LALLA ROOKH.—The most acceptable offering to fame, and the most successful pecuniary venture, was his Lalla Rookh. The East was becoming known to the English; and the fancy of the poet could convert the glimpses of oriental things into charming pictures. Long possessed with the purpose to write an Eastern story in verse, Moore set to work with laudable industry to read books of travels and history, in order to form a strong and sensible basis for his poetical superstructure. The work is a collection of beautiful poems, in a delicate setting of beautiful prose. The princess Lalla Rookh journeys, with great pomp, to become the bride of the youthful king of Bokkara, and finds among her attendants a handsome young poet, who beguiles the journey by singing to her these tales in verse. The dangers of the process became manifest—the king of Bokkara is forgotten, and the heart of the unfortunate princess is won by the beauty and the minstrelsy of the youthful poet. What is her relief and her joy to find on her arrival the unknown poet seated upon the throne as the king, who had won her heart as an humble bard!
This beautiful and popular work was published in 1817; and for it Moore received from his publishers, the Longmans, L3000.
In the same year Moore took a small cottage at Sloperton on the estate of the Marquis of Lansdowne, which, with some interruptions of travel, and a short residence in Paris, continued to be his residence during his life. Improvident in money matters, he was greatly troubled by his affairs in Bermuda;—the amount for which he became responsible by the defalcation of his deputy was L6000; which, however, by legal cleverness, was compromised for a thousand guineas.
HIS DIARY.—It is very fortunate, for a proper understanding of Moore's life, that we have from this time a diary which is invaluable to the biographer. In 1820 he went to Paris, where he wasted his time and money in fashionable dissipation, and produced nothing of enduring value. Here he sketched an Egyptian story, versified in Alciphron, but enlarged in the prose romance called The Epicurean.
On a short tour he visited Venice, where he received, as a gift from Lord Byron, his autobiographical memoirs, which contained so much that was compromising to others, that they were never published—at least in that form. They were withdrawn from the Murrays, in whose hands he had placed them, upon the death of Byron in 1824, and destroyed. A short visit to Ireland led to his writing the Memoirs of Captain Rock, a work which attained an unprecedented popularity in Ireland.
In 1825 he published his Life of Sheridan, which is rather a friendly panegyric than a truthful biography.
During three years—from 1827 to 1830—he was engaged upon the Life of Byron, which concealed more truth than it divulged. But in all these years, his chief dependence for daily bread was upon his songs and glees, squibs for newspapers and magazines, and review articles.
In 1831 he made another successful hit in his Life of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a rebel of '98, which was followed in 1833 by The Travels of an Irish Gentleman in Search of a Religion.
In 1835, through the agency of Lord John Russel, the improvident poet received a pension of L300. It came in a time of need; for he was getting old, and his mind moved more sluggishly. His infirmities made him more domestic; but his greater trials were still before him. His sons were frivolous spendthrifts; one for whom he had secured a commission in the army behaved ill, and drew upon his impoverished father again and again for money: both died young. This cumulation of troubles broke him down; he had a cerebral attack in December, 1849, and lived helpless and broken until the 26th of February, 1852, when he expired without suffering.
HIS POETRY.—In most cases, the concurrence of what an author has written will present to us the mental and moral features of the man. It is particularly true in the case of Moore. He appears to us in Protean shapes, indeed, but not without an affinity between them. Small in stature, of jovial appearance; devoted to the gayest society; not very earnest in politics; a Roman Catholic in name, with but little practical religion, he pandered at first to a frivolous public taste, and was even more corrupt than the public morals.
Not so apparently as Pope an artificial poet, he had few touches of nature. Of lyric sentiment he has but little; but we must differ from those who deny to him rare lyrical expression, and happy musical adaptations. His songs one can hardly read; we feel that they must be sung. He has been accused, too violently, by Maginn of plagiarism: this, of course, means of phrases and ideas. In our estimate of Moore, it counts but little; his rare rhythm and exquisite cadences are not plagiarized; they are his own, and his chief merit.
He abounds in imagery of oriental gorgeousness; and if, in personality, he may be compared to his own Peri, or one of “the beautiful blue damsel flies” of that poem, he has given to his unfriendly critics a judgment of his own style, in a criticism made by Fadladeen of the young poet's story to Lalla Rookh;—“it resembles one of those Maldivian boats—a slight, gilded thing, sent adrift without rudder or ballast, and with nothing but vapid sweets and faded flowers on board.” “The effect of the whole,” says one of his biographers, speaking of Lalla Rookh, “is much the same as that of a magnificent ballet, on which all the resources of the theatre have been lavished, and no expense spared in golden clouds, ethereal light, gauze-clad sylphs, and splendid tableaux.”
Moore has been felicitously called “the poet of all circles,” a phrase which shows that he reflected the general features of his age. At no time could the license of Anacreon, or the poems of Little, have been so well received as when “the first gentleman in Europe” set the example of systematic impurity. At no time could Irish Melodies have had such a furore of adoption and applause, as when Repeal was the cry, and the Irish were firing their minds by remembering “the glories of Brian the Brave;” that Brian Boroimhe who died in the eleventh century, after defeating the Danes in twenty-five battles.
Moore's Biographies, with all their faults, are important social histories. Lalla Rookh has a double historical significance: it is a reflection—like Anastasius and Vathek, like Thalaba and The Curse of Kehama, like The Giaour and The Bride of Abydos—of English conquest, travel, and adventure in the East. It is so true to nature in oriental descriptions and allusions, that one traveller declared that to read it was like riding on a camel; but it is far more important to observe that the relative conditions of England and the Irish Roman Catholics are symbolized in the Moslem rule over the Ghebers, as delineated inThe Fire Worshippers. In his preface to that poem, Moore himself says: “The cause of tolerance was again my inspiring theme; and the spirit that had spoken in the melodies of Ireland soon found itself at home in the East.”
In an historic view of English Literature, the works of Moore, touching almost every subject, must always be of great value to the student of his period: there he will always have his prominent place. But he is already losing his niche in public favor as a poet proper; better taste, purer morals, truer heart-songs, and more practical views will steadily supplant him, until, with no power to influence the present, he shall stand only as a charming relic of the past.