Lord Byron (1788-1824)
George Gordon Byron, sixth Lord Byron, was as proud of his ancestry as he was of his poetry, and his ancestors were as extraordinary as was his poetry. They stretched back to the Norman Conquest, and included among them a notorious admiral, Byron’s grandfather. The poet’s father was a rake and a scoundrel. He married a Scottish heiress, Miss Gordon of Gight, whose money he was not long in squandering. Though the poet was born in London, his early years were passed in Aberdeen, his mother’s native place. At the age of ten he succeeded his grand-uncle in the title and in the possession of the ruinous Abbey of Newstead, and Scotland was left behind for ever. He was educated at Harrow and Cambridge, where he showed himself to be an heir to the ancestral nature, dark and passionate, but relieved by humour and affection. All through his life Byron cultivated the somber and theatrical side of his disposition, which latterly became a byword; but there can be little doubt that his ‘Byronic’ temperament was not entirely affected. His mother, a foolish, unbalanced woman, warped the boy’s temper still more by her frequent follies and frenzies. The recollection of the tortures he underwent in the fruitless effort to cure him of a malformity of his foot remained with him till his death.
Leaving the university (1808), he remained for a while at Newstead, where with a few congenial youths he plunged into orgies of puerile dissipation. In the fashion of the time, he gloried in the reputation he was acquiring for being a dare-devil, but he lived to pay for it. Wearying of loose delights, he travelled for a couple of years upon the Continent (189-11). He had previously taken his seat in the House of Lords, but made no mark in political affairs.
Then with a sudden bound he leaped into the limelight. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), his poem on his travels, became a rage. He found himself the darling of society, in which his youth, his title, his physical beauty, his wit, and his picturesque and romantic melancholy made him a marvel and a delight. He married an heiress (1815), but after a year his wife left him. Regarding his conduct, dark rumours grew apace; his popularity waned, and in the face of a storm of abuse he left England for good (1816). For the last eight years of his life he wandered about the Continent, visiting Switzerland, where he met Shelley, and, later, Italy. Finally, the cause of Greek independence caught his fancy. He devoted his money, which was inconsiderable, and the weight of his name, which was gigantic, to the Greeks, who proved to be very ungrateful allies. He died of fever at Missolonghi, and his body was given a grand funeral in the England that had cast him out.
Byron’s first volume was a juvenile effort, House of Idleness (1807), which was little more than the elegant trifling of a lord who condescends to be a minor poet. This frail production was roughly handled by The Edinburgh Review, and Byron, who never lacked spirit, retorted with some effect. He composed a satire in the style of Pope, calling it English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). The poem is immature, being often crudely expressed, and it throws abuse recklessly upon good writers and bad; but in the handling of the couplet it already shows some of the Byronic force and pungency. The poem is also of interest in that it lets us see how much he is influenced by the preceding age.
Next view in state, proud prancing on his roan,
The golden-crested haughty Marmion,
Now forging scrolls, now foremost in the fight,
Then followed the two years of travel, which had their fruit in the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812). The hero of the poem is a romantic youth, and is very clearly Byron himself. He is very grand and terrible, and sinister with the stain of a dark and awful past. He visits some of the popular beauty-spots of the Continent, which he describes in Spencerian stanzas of moderate skill and attractiveness. The poem is diffuse, but sometimes it can be terse and energetic; the style is half-heartedly old-fashioned, in deference to the stanza. Byron is to do much better things, but already he shows a real appreciation of nature, and considerable dexterity in the handling of his metre.
On, on the vessel flies, the land is gone,
And winds are rude in Biscay’s sleepless bay.
Four days are sped, but with the fifth, anon,
Childe Harold brought its author a dower of fame, which in the next few years he was to squander to the uttermost. In the intervals of society functions he produced poetic tales in astonishing profusion: The Giaour and The Bride of Abydos in 1813, The Corsair and Lara in 1814, The Siege of Corinth and Parisina in 1815 (published 1816). These tales deal with the romantic scenes of the East; they almost uniformly reproduce the young Byronic hero of Childe Harold; and to a great extent they are mannered and stagy. Written in the couplet form, the verse is founded on that of the metrical tales of Scott, whom Byron was not long in supplanting in popular favour, although the masculine action of Scot’s poems is lacking in his work. Instead there are vehement passions, which give his stories an impetuosity and speed quite different from the easy Lucidity of Scott’s narrative poems. A vividness of description, based on Byron’s own experience of Mediterranean countries, fills them with patches of striking colour, but, though The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, and Parisina are written in a more natural style than The Corsair and Lara, all reveal the lack of melody, the unevenness, and, in varying degrees, the artificiality which are typical of Byron’s work at this period.
In 1816 Byron was hounded out of England, and his wanderings are chronicled in the third (1816) and fourth (1818) cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. In metre and general scheme, the poem is unaltered, but in spirit and style the new parts are very different from the first two cantos. The descriptions are firmer and terser, and are often graced with a fine simplicity; the old-fashioned mannerisms are entirely discarded; and the tone all through is deeper and more sincere. There is apparently an undercurrent of bitter pessimism that is only natural under the circumstances, though he dwells too lengthily upon his misfortunes. The following stanza is a fair specimen of this later and simpler style:
They keep his dust in Arqua, where he died;
The mountain village where his latter days
Went down the vale of years, and ’tis their pride –
During these years on the Continent he was not idle. Some of his longer poems are The Prisoner of Chillon (1816) and Mazeppa (1819), the last of his metrical tales. He also composed a large number of lyrics, most of them only mediocre in quality; and he added several great satirical poems, the most notable of which are Beppo (1818, published 1819), the vision of Judgment (1822), directed mainly against Southey, and, the longest of all, Don Juan.
The Vision of Judgment is one of the finest of English political satires. Underlying the attack on Southey there is a bitter indignation, hidden beneath a mask of humorous burlesque and a sparking, vivacious wit. The poem, which is written in Ottava rima, shows a mastery of satirical portraiture rivaled only by that of Dryden and Pope.
In range, in vigour, and in effectiveness Don Juan ranks as one of the greatest of satirical poems. It was issued in portions during the years 1819-24, just as Byron composed it. It is a kind of picaresque novel cast into verse. The hero, as in the picaresque novel, has many wanderings and adventures, the narration of which might go on interminably. At the time of its publication it was denounced by a shocked world as vile and immoral, and to a great extent it deserves the censure. In it Byron expresses the wrath that consumes him, and all the human race comes under the lash. The strength and flexibility of the satire are beyond question, and are freely revealed in bitter mockery, in caustic comment, and in burning rage. However, the mood of anger is but one of the many widely differing moods in this work, which is the fullest revelation of Byron’s complex personality. The stanzas, written in Ottava rima, are as keen and supple as a tempered steel blade. The style is a kind of sublimated, half-colloquial prose, showing a disdainful abrogation of the finer poetical trappings; but in places it rises into passages of rare and lovely tenderness.