網頁圖片
PDF
ePub 版

patrimonial mansion of Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, and the near relative of a gentleman who had been killed in a duel by the preceding Lord Byron. He has immortalized her marriage and melancholy fate in “ The Dream" and other poems.

a

Entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the autumn of 1805, he resided for two years. His career at the university was eccentric, profuse, and on the whole idle; but he read zealously when the humour seized him, acquiring a very considerable amount of stray knowledge; and a few persons of talent, with whom he had become intimate, were quite aware that he was a young man of no ordinary promise. While he was still at the university, he circulated privately copies of a thin volume of verses, which was prudently reserved for friendly readers, and soon suppressed. But before the end of 1807, and when in his twentieth year, he was rash enough to face the public with the Hours of Idleness, a collection of poems, from the very best of which no one would have ventured to presage the strength he was soon to exhibit. This strength was brought to a point by the anger which the young poet felt at the famous criticism on his book in the Edinburgh Review. Studying the satirical poets as models, and collecting every available piece of gossip that could point an ill-natured jest, he at length, in 1809, poured forth his wrath, all the warmer for the nursing he had given it, in his poetical satire “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.” Scurrilously personal, and indiscriminatingly contemptuous of all the literary celebrities of the day, this

poem
showed powers

which evidently wanted only maturity and fit guidance to achieve very great things.

In the same year he embarked with Mr. Hobhouse on a two years' journey on the Continent, in the course

[ocr errors]

of which he visited the Peninsula, extended his travels to Greece and Turkey, and, with his poetical enthusiasm now fairly awakened, composed in great part the first and second cantos of “ Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.” The publication of these, in the spring of 1812, when he had just completed his twenty-fourth year, made him at once the most popular poet of the time. The few who had already learned to appreciate Wordsworth and Coleridge, found, in the new poet, a freedom both from the affectations of the one and from the obscurities and eccentricity of the other; while there were united with these a poetic elevation and richness not exceeded by either. The popularity, again, which Scott had won, by the “ Lay,” “Marmion,” and the “ Lady of the Lake,” was already beginning to suffer from the satiety produced by bad imitations; and the Scottish minstrel's favour with the public waned rapidly, when Byron, deserting the meditative poetry of the “Pilgrimage," adopted, like Scott, the seductive form of the metrical romance, and gave it the charm of novelty by choosing Turkish and Grecian stories. In 1813 appeared his wildly striking fragment “The Giaour,” and the more regular “Bride of Abydos.” “The Corsair” and its sequel “Lara,” followed in 1814, and were accompanied by the “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte.” In the beginning of 1816, the first and most characteristic series of Lord Byron's works was closed by the appearance of “The Siege of Corinth” and “ Parisina.”

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

While he was thus building up his poetical fame, his domestic history underwent several changes, to which he was no way slow in inviting attention.

“ Childe Harold,” the sated voluptuary, seeking to refresh his sick heart amidst the magnificence of nature, but contemplating all things through the medium of a cynical and despondent philosophy, had been avowedly presented as an idealized portrait of the young poct himself, bitterly convinced, by a premature experience, of the hollowness of worldly pleasures, yet unable to discover any higher truths, in the contemplation and realization of which happiness might be attained. Till the publication of the earlier cantos of “Childe Harold,” Byron's proud and sensitive spirit had been tempted to misanthropical discontent by the equivocal position he held in society, partly through accidental circumstances, partly through the reputation of his youthful ir. egularities. But the stamp thus imprinted on his earlier poetry was too much in accordance with his natural temperament to be easily effaced. The exaggerated and theatrical exhibition of his own character, in the persons of his heroes, was repeated even in those of his tales which were written while he was the idol of fashionable society, and enjoyed the prospect of domestic happiness; and when misfortune and opprobrium darkened round him, the petulant rashness of ill-trained youth passed into a permanent mood of morbid and haughty defiance, to which his later poems gave utterance with increasing eagerness and constancy.

With as little power as any great poet ever possessed of observing or delineating the character and passions of other men, Byron was not true to nature, unless when he drew his materials from within; but his poetry, thus unreal and fantastic in all its representations of human life, has the singular charm which belongs to the self-drawn image of a nature nobly endowed with the poetic elements of greatness, and vacillating in its moral aspect between the extremes of goodness and of evil.

In the autumn of 1814, after having passed some years in that round of extravagant and unsatisfying dissipation into which he had been initiated even in boyhood, Lord Byron married the daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanke. The marriage proved unhappy for

both parties, through causes which have never been clearly explained; pecuniary embarrassments aggravated dissension; and in the beginning of 1816, soon after the birth of a daughter, Lady Byron quitted her husband's house never to return.

[ocr errors]

Very soon afterwards Lord Byron left England, in which he never again set foot. His first place of residence was in the neighbourhood of Geneva, where the sublime scenery of Switzerland, and the society of the poet Shelley, co-operated in awakening his mind to an elevation and purity of poetic inspiration such as he never reached before or after. Here were written “The Prisoner of Chillon," and the third canto of Childe Harold.” The influence of Swiss landscapes lingered fondly in his imagination during the next stage of his travels. It gave birth to “Manfred,” which, with all its faults, ethical and dramatic, is perhaps richer in poetical imagery and sentiment than any of his other works. In the end of 1816 he took up his abode at Venice, where he remained for three years, visiting Rome, and there gathering materials for the fourth canto of “Childe Harold." His residence at Venice was disgraced by low and gross debauchery; and if there was greater refinement, there was no real improvement of morality, in a more lasting attachment which he next formed for the Countess Guiccioli, and which is not recommended to our English feelings or notions even by the countenance vouchsafed to it by the lady's father and brother. In the beginning of 1820 Byron followed the countess and her family to Ravenna; where, with them, he became engaged in political plots, which soon caused his Italian friends to be banished from the papal states. Pisa then became the abode of the party. Here Byron received Mr. and Mrs. Shelley, and afterwards Mr. Leigh Hunt, and with these coadjutors attempted unsuccessfully the periodical called The Liberal. His poetical vein, however, flowed freely during his residence in Italy. Besides “Manfred” and the last canto of “Childe Harold," and several works which are universally admitted to be poor, he then produced “Mazeppa," “The Lament of Tasso," and his Dramatic Poems, of which, while “Cain" abounded in the old leaven, the tragedies indicated, morally, though not poetically, an inclination to rise into a higher and purer region. Other inclinations, however, were betrayed by a new class of poems, in which the strength and versatility of the poet's genius were strikingly displayed. They were modelled on the burlesque poetry of the Italians, which had hardly been emulated in the English language except by Frere. Byron's first attempt in this path was Beppo;" and the ethical looseness of this lively piece became exaggerated into open depravity, while it was accompanied at first by much noble poetry, and always by much stinging wit, in the notorious cantos of “ Don Juan.”

That Byron was secretly weary of aimless profligacy, and eager for opportunities of honourable action, may be inferred from his willingness to take part in the abortive Italian conspiracies. A more promising field was now opened to him, soon after the unfortunate death of his friend Shelley. The London Committee of Philhellenes requested him to take part in the emancipation of Greece; and he enthusiastically accepted the invitation. He sailed from Genoa in July, 1823, and began his philanthropic exertions in the island of Cephalonia. In January, 1824, he landed at Missolonghi, already labouring under illness, which he had aggravated by bathing in the sea in the course of his last voyage. Disappointments in the great object of his expedition gathered round him, and were bravely borne; but his health was further injured by anxiety,

« 上一頁繼續 »