ePub 版

the sister of the late Lord Byron. It was immediately resolved upon, that he should receive the usual education which England bestows upon her titled sons: he was first sent to one of the great public schools, and from that to one of the universities. Harrow was the school which was chosen. He remained there during six years and then proceeded to Trinity-College, Cambridge. By this time his observation of the errors and absurdities of many of the usual systems pursued by men, and the inefficiency of the common means adopted for their removal, induced him to turn satirist; the bolt of his first effort fell upon the deans and doctors of Cambridge with a severity and a truth, which there is too much reason to believe has obtained for him their implacable enmity, and still continues to make them groan in anguish and growl for revenge.

When about nineteen years of age, Lord Byron bade adieu to the university and took up his residence at the family-seat, where he arranged, and had printed at Newark, a small collection of his poems, under the title of "Hours of Idleness." The apology urged for the appearance of this little volume, was the usual one of the "advice of friends;" and though it has never been stated who those friends were, it is probable that his noble, and, as himself says, volunteer, guardian was one of them, as the publication is dedicated to him; a circumstance which the noble bard seems afterwards to have regretted. This volume is not very remarkable for its power; but still, although he had published nothing more, it would have ranked him in the catalogue, and high in the catalogue, of those lost literati, who would have been men of genius had it not been for the weight of the coronet. Unpretending, however, as was this little volume, and obscure as was the press from which it issued, it appears to have been in a great measure the means of letting its author know the vast extent of his powers, and prompting him to the profitable and vigorous use of them, at so early a period of his life. This was effected too, in a way which would have for ever silenced one of a less daring and undaunted mind. The Edinburgh-Review, then in all the life and greenness of youth, had, by one of the most bold and daring evolutions which ever was played off on the literary world, taken the top-seat upon the bench of criticism by storm, and was condemning by wholesale; while authors of all classes and all descriptions, except the chosen few who composed or were known to its coterie, carried their wares to market with fear and trembling. This Review, which had generally been more anxious to find a victim which it could immolate, than an idol whom it could worship, pounced upon the "Hours of Idleness" with a fury almost unknown, or at any rate seldom evinced even by itself. Genius, learning, spirit, every thing good, was denied him, and the fact of his having ventured to set forth a book, in however humble and unpretending a manner, was held up as the very acme of impudence and effrontery. The critic had his day; and the worshippers at the counter of Archibald Constable and Company were chuckling and saying to each other, "Well, we have done for this same George Gordon, Lord Byron, a minor. He won't tell us any thing more about his "Hours of Idleness." We have given him work for twelve months at the least, in repenting of what he has already done." Such were the exultations, as stated by one who heard them at the time; but they were not without an admixture of fear. They had succeeded in convincing at least themselves that Lord Byron had no talent and no taste for poetry; but if they had heard of him at all, they must have heard that he was a youth of great spirit; and hence, though they might reckon themselves quite safe from the racing of Pegasus, there might still be

some danger of that which drives forward his wingless namesake upon earth: they were not over fond of the whip; and though one of their number had recently come scratch-free out of a duel in consequence of a stipulated charging with paper-bullets, it was by no means clear that Byron, gratuitously and wantonly as he had been attacked, would be so tender of the critical flesh. But the bard took his own way of avenging himself, and in his vindication inflicted more heavy and humiliating chastisement upon the critics than if he had horsewhipped them all, or shot half their number. That pen, with which he had been dallying in his "Hours of Idleness," he sharpened for business to its keenest point; and in brief space appeared "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers," in which, by the power and polish of his verses, he not only established his own claim to all those excellences of which the critics had noted him destitute; but covered them with ridicule and confusion which they have never been able to shake off. Nor was this all; for amid the chastisement of his unprovoked personal enemies, there was formed a general attack upon the faults, and a general scorn of the meannesses of human nature, which would have done credit to a writer of matured experience and confirmed reputation. It is true, that in this satire he attacked some, whom he afterwards found did not deserve it; but it is equally true that he attacked more upon whom it was well bestowed, both at the time and since; and there is not, in the whole annals of satirical writing, any instance of a satire written by so young a man, which is so perfect in its form and so correct in its application. Lord Byron, so far from making any boast of this great and happy effort, afterwards suppressed it. Up to the time of majority he continued to prosecute his fancies alternately at Newstead and in the metropolis. At the former place he spent much of his time alone, or at least in the society, or rather under the care of a great Newfoundland dog, to which he paid great attention while alive, and raised a monument when dead. During the whole of this period of his life, a period which, under his circumstances, was exposed to peculiar dangers and temptations,-there is nothing which appears to bring him out from the usual character of young noblemen, unless it be higher mental endowments, and a more dignified use of them; and much as he has been blamed by wholesale and in the abstract, none of his calumniators have been able to adduce the requisite tale of well authenticated particulars. When the term of his minority had expired, he resolved to improve his knowledge of the earth and of mankind, by travelling abroad; and as the state of the middle and western parts of Europe was such that he could not conscientiously examine them, and as the information which these countries were calculated to afford, was not exactly that which suited the high and poetic turn of his mind, his thoughts were directed to the classic land of the east. Selecting as his companion, John Hobhouse, whose love of liberty and literature seemed congenial with his own, although their powers were of a very different order, he sailed from Falmouth for Lisbon, and having landed there, he first examined all that was worthy of remark in that neighbourhood, and then proceeded, by the southern provinces of Spain, for the Mediterranean, where he landed first on the wild mountains of Albania, whose bold scenery and bolder inhabitants appear to have made a deep and permanent impression upon his mind. Having traversed the classic land of Greece, in almost every direction, and studied its scenery, with the eye of a poet and a painter, and its people with the head of a sage and the heart of a patriot, he returned to England, better furnished in all the substantial fruits of travel

ling than perhaps any other man who ever returned to the shores of the same or of any other country.

Soon after his return from the Continent, the first and second cantos of Childe Harold made their appearance; and never did poetic work excite greater astonishment, or receive more universal attention or more general praise. The Edinburgh Reviewers, finding that their own consciences were in unison with the common feeling, forgot the mud in which they had been rolled, and hastened to pay their tribute to the giant intellect which this poem evinced, considering that it was the work of one whom the doctors had set down as being idle and dissipated, and who, when composing it, had not completed his twenty-third year. From the time of Harold's making its appearance, Lord Byron was, by universal consent, and without so much as an effort or even a wish upon his own part, considered as the first poet of the age, not only in his own country, but in the world. Fastidious persons, indeed, showed some alarm at the boldness of some of his doctrines, and many who believed in secret, cried shame at the publication of that which, though they felt it to be true in itself, they did not like to see proclaimed to the world.

The keen and scrutinizing glance which Lord Byron had, during his travels, cast upon the scenery and manners of the East, and the deep impression which these had made upon him, were not confined to those touches of exquisite painting, of indignant anger, of unutterable despair, and of shadowy and almost viewless hope, which burst forth in the novel and terrible strains of Childe Harold; for they soon took a more complete body and a form more perfectly oriental in the tales and fragments of tales which now followed each other, varied in their style, but rapid in their succession, and having a sort of family likeness in the daring of their sentiments and the dreadful fire of their colouring. Of those four poems, the Giaour, the Bride of Abydos, the Corsair, and Lara-the most remarkable quality is the vast creative power which they display: not one of them, if done into prose, would make a couple of readable pages, and yet there is not one of them but contains genuine poetry, and images which lodge upon the memory in spite of it, and will not quit for any warning. The daring positions, as rapid and as vast as the darting of lightning from cloud to cloud, or the starting of a meteor from sky to sky, which hurry one from the sweetness of affection to the harshness of cruelty, and from the height of tenderness to the depth of crime; the barbarous and cold-blooded deeds of the oppressor; the dark and secret workings of revenge in the oppressed, with the fearful form which that takes when desperation and opportunity give it utterance; and, above all, the exquisitely affecting sketches of the clay-cold form of that Greece which was animated by the soul and warmed by the life-blood of freedom, while man and while liberty were yet fresh and young, have a volume and a power of poetry in them nowhere else to be found in ten times the same compass. In each of those four poems the noble bard chose a different structure and modulation of verse, each differing from that in Childe Harold; but he proved himself equally a master and at home in them all.

On the second day of January 1815, Lord Byron was married to the only daughter of Sir Ralph Milbank Noel, Bart., in the county of Durham; but this marriage, though it will bring a very considerable addition of fortune to the orphan daughter of the bard, brought no substantial or permanent happiness to the bard himself. To be united to such a man as Lord Byron was no doubt a proud distinction for any lady; but it was


a distinction which involved its perils. His heart was one which was well worth the winning, and one which might have been won and kept too; but the event showed that the heiress and only daughter of Sir Ralph, either had not powers equal for the task, or did not apply them in the proper manner. The cause of the dispute and separation has never been fully explained and the less that it is inquired into the better, now that Death has interposed his bar to reconciliation; but if anguish of feeling, and depth of power in the expression of it, be any proofs of the strength or the sincerity of affection, it must be admitted that, whatever may have been his faults or his indiscretions, the affection, even after the rupture, appears to have been strongest on the part of Byron. The verses which he wrote upon this occasion are well known and generally remembered, his "Farewell" to her, whom he still loved, being one of the most tender, and his strictures upon her, whom he considered at least a principal cause of the separation, were amongst the most severe that ever have been given to the world. The noble bard, ejected, as it were, from scenes which once had promised him the sweets of domestic peace, appeared again upon the wide world an accomplished candidate for more extended and imperishable renown. He left England; traversed the battle-scene of Waterloo ere the bones of all the warriors who had fallen in that dreadful field were hidden in the earth, or deprived of their freshness and their sap. He ascended by the banks of the Rhine, contemplated the majesty of the Alps, and the beauty of the lake of Geneva; and soon after, the third canto of the pilgrimage of Harold made its appearance. This was one of the most splendid of his works, and one in which the superiority of his genius over that of every other writer of the time triumphed in great and unapproachable splendour. About this time, he had, besides some minor pieces, favoured the world with the "Prisoner of Chillon," "Manfred," and the "Lament of Tasso." During his residence in Italy Byron completed the pilgrimage of the Childe in a poem of the most tender feeling, and the most exquisite taste. Under the genial sky of Italy his mind became a little playful, and he published, in a new and lighter stanza, the tale of Beppo, and the more wild and romantic one of Mazeppa. Here too, he planned that, which, had he lived to complete it, must have been considered as the most daring and the most wonderful of all his works, -Don Juan. General in its satire, and warm and glowing in its colouring, it excited a great deal of clamour, especially among those upon whom, in the execution of it, the hand of the poet had been heavy. Don Juan was the most singular and the most original poem that had ever appeared in England. It was made up of the most cutting and searching satires, mixed with dissections of the human heart, and delineations of human passion and frailty which were drawn both to and with the life, and therefore threw all those who dreaded exposure into the most serious alarm. There was much more both of politics and of personality in this poem than in any of his former ones, and upon this account the outcry against it was more loud and general. The stuff of immortality was, however, in the poem, and not a few of those who were offended at its appearance will probably find (if indeed they shall live as long) their only memorials in it, after all which, good or bad, they have done for themselves, shall be forgotten.


Alternately with Don Juan a new species of writing, or at least one which was new to Lord Byron, made its appearance, in the shape of dramatic poems, and "mysteries," that is, sacred dramas. These, with a continuation of Don Juan, as far as sixteen cantos, were the last poetical


works of the illustrious bard. His attention was soon directed into a new, and perhaps more glorious channel than ever,-a desire to lend the whole influence of his powers to the freeing of the struggling Greeks from the ignominy and thraldom of bondage. Greece had been dear to him from the first moment that he had landed upon her shores, seen her beauty and felt her degradation; from his own energy and the esteem in which he was held by the leading patriots among the Greeks, there is little doubt that, had his life been preserved, his fame, as a hero of the most pure and independent kind, would have stood as high in the estimation of the present and of future ages, as his fame as a poet; but it seemed that in the mighty name, which he had acquired in the latter capacity, his destiny was complete; and lest any one man should overtop all the world in two of the most admirable and admired attributes of human intellect and exertion, he was cut off in the prime of life, and at the very commencement of his heroic career. The circumstances which induced him to embark in the Greek cause it would be idle to investigate; the advantages which they would have derived from his aid, it would be in vain to guess; those who knew his heart can easily estimate the former; and the sorrow of those to whom he is thus prematurely lost is the best commentary upon the latter. Lord Byron, while entering with much ardour, and with well organized assistance, into the service of his favourite people, then engaged in a struggle for liberty, to which every well constituted mind wished success, was seized with a rheumatic fever at Missolonghi (a place where he had once before been seriously indisposed) on the ninth day of April 1824, and after ten days of severe indisposition, he yielded to the universal lot of man, upon the 19th day of the same month, to the unspeakable grief of his friends, both old and new, and the irreparable loss of the literary world. No man could have been more lamented than he was by the leading men among the Greek patriots; and the death of no individual could have caused such a sensation in his own country. When the sad tidings arrived, it was circulated from man to man in whispers barely audible; and upon the following day, so great was the avidity to take a fresh glance at the writings of that transcendent genius, who was never more to astonish them by his boldness and sublimity, melt them with his tenderness, please them by his wit, or delight them with his beauty, that, by mid-day, scarcely a volume of his works could be borrowed in any of the libraries. Although Byron has been cut off in the midst of his days, and at the commencement of a new branch of his career-a branch of it, which, had it been allowed to grow to its full extent, would have caused monuments to be raised and pæans sung to his memory, wherever the light of genius dawned or the foot of freedom came; yet no man of the age has put in so strong and so successful claims to immortality; and had he lived to see Liberty enthroned anew in his beloved Greece, and Science and Song dwelling again in his adored Athena, the pleasure and the triumph would have been too exquisite and too great for mortal man. It was enough that the voice of his inspiration breathed upon the dry bones of that land of many wonders and of long slavery,-that he traversed the whole of Greece, preaching his crusade of freedom, not in the cold words of the lip, but in the warm breathings of the heart, against her barbarian rulers, and that, when his own eye closed, it closed in sight of a people among whom was his heart living and dead. The world will envy Greece in this; every one will wish that his own air had fanned the burning cheek of the bard, when his heart gave its last throb for the deliverance of man from the trammels of civil and intellectual slavery. But Greece was the land ap

« 上一頁繼續 »