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CHAPTER XVII

BYRON

SUMMARY OF LIFE-POPULAR IDENTIFICATION OF THE POET WITI

HIS CREATIONS “ENGLISH BARDS AND SCOTCH REVIEWERS

THE year of the publication of “Childe Harold,”—the work that brought Byron's extraordinary personality before the world,—was 1812. The day even is worth remembering, because it had probably been chosen with a superstitious preference and a fancy for singularity in the smallest things characteristic of the man. It was the 29th of February, a date in the calendar that comes only once in four years.

Like Scott, Byron leaped at once into fame. While Wordsworth and Coleridge and Southey and Campbell and Moore were known only to small circles and isolated admirers, the fame of Scott and Byron was European. “The Lay of the Last Minstrel was sold and read more widely than any poem ever had been before. It was followed by “Marmion” and “The Lady of the Lake," and the applause grew louder and more general with each publication. “The Vision of Don Roderick," a slighter poem and in a different stanza, was received somewhat more coldly; but when“ Childe Harold published, Scott was engaged on another metrical romance, "Rokeby,” for which he received a larger price than had ever before been paid for a poem-a sign that, in the opinion of publishers at least, his popularity was still on the increase. Then Byron's turn

“ Childe Harold” was received with an intense excitement beside which the rage for Scott's poetry appeared insignificant. Scott to this extent bad prepared the way for Byron, that he had given an interest

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in poetry to thousands of readers to whom verse in any shape had been a thing to be avoided as dull and unin. telligible. But no poet before Byron had commanded 80 wide an audience; the world had never seen so general a curiosity about a poet's next work.

Writers about Byron, from Moore to Mrs. Oliphant, have puzzled themselves to account for the instantaneousness with which “Childe Harold” took hold of the public mind, and have generally found the solution in the fascinating strangeness and romantic interest of the writer's character, This was part of the secret, no doubt a large part; but it was not all. ation were not so busy with the moods of the moment as to be incapable without an effort of realizing how people felt in the peculiar situations of past history, the fitness of Byron's first great work to the time in which it

was produced could hardly have escaped observation. | When we turn to “Childe Harold” now, our interest is

all in the poet, and we skip with comparative indifference the stanza after stanza of description and reflection to fasten on the autobiographical portions. But in the stanzas that we now skip the readers of the writer of 1812 found powerful expression given to thoughts that were agitating their own minds, concerning scenes and events that had for them an intensity of interest such as men rarely feel except about their own personal concerns. Bear in mind the position of England and the state of Europe at the time, read the first two cantos of “Childe Harold” in that connection, and you will find in stanza after stanza abundant evidence of one cause for the excitement with which the poem was received. Napoleon was then at the zenith of his career, master of Germany and Austria and Italy, and half master of Spain. It seemed as if he was on the point of achieving his ambition of making the conquest of Europe. He was engaged in preparing for that huge expedition into Russia which proved his ruin, but there was no symptom

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EXCITEMENT THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY

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of ruin then. His arms had hardly received a check, except from English troops in the Peninsula. Great Britain seemed the only power capable of checking his course, and there

an intensity of excitement throughout our country such as had never been experienced before and has never been since. We were fighting for our national existence, fighting as the champions and leaders of all the kingdoms of Christendom, pouring subsidies into the hands of our Continental allies, raising armies by conscription. All eyes were turned at the moment upon Spain, where our troops under Wellington, after some doubtful victories, stood at bay within the lines of Torres Vedras, facing four French armies that were quartered in the Peninsula.

In the midst of this excitement what were our poets doing to put themselves in sympathy with the national mood ? Every one of them was quietly pursuing his own predetermined line of literary activity, inspired by no message to the troubled spirit of the age of force and distinction enough to command attention. Wordsworth had, indeed, issued from his Westmoreland retreat a commonplace prose tract on the Convention of Cintra, and some noble sonnets dedicated to Liberty and Independence. Some of these sonnets are among his masterpieces in point of literary form and loftiness of sentiment; but they have not the fire and directness of popular verse. Coleridge, his brief fit of poetic activity over, was lecturing on Shakespeare, and expounding political philosophy in a periodical called the Friend. Southey was writing review articles for the Quarterly, and meditating a poem on the last of the Goths, in execution of his scheme of poems based on national mythologies. Moore was busy with a new number of his Irish Melodies, and speculating on the chances of a change of Government. Campbell, who had electrified the country twelve years earlier with his national songs, had revived the Spenserian stanza in “Gertrude of

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Wyoming," and was working hard at task-work for the publishers. Scott had shown more inclination to follow the direction of popular interest. He had appealed to the spirits of the Mountains and the Torrents, who had inspired his minstrelsy before, to vouchsafe him inspiration for a loftier theme, the liberation of the Spaniards by Wellington ; and in "The Vision of Don Roderick" had celebrated the triumphs of our soldiers in the Peninsula with stirring martial ardor. There was much spirit in the strain, and three of the stanzas describing the soldiers of England, Scotland, and Ireland have become classical, and are still dear to every school-boy. As a prophet of the warlike spirit of the time Scott was unmatched and unmatchable, but he harped only on one string, and high and stubborn as was the resolution of the country at the moment, fixed as it was in its determination to fight, the national mind was crossed by other moods in the pauses of the conflict, moods to which the equally tempered Scott was incapable of giving expression. And these moods, natural in a time of great excitement and sustained suspense, found an exponent of titanic force in the young poet who made his voice heard in the pilgrimage of “ Childe Harold.” Can it be matter for astonishment that all ears were inclined to hear ?

The strain in which the new poet addressed the public was not the most obviously opportune one of drum and trumpet exhortation. It was full of irregular, almost capricious changes, varying through many moods, from fierce delight in battle and fiery enthusiam for freedom to cynical mockery of ambition and despondent meditation on the fleeting character of human happiness and national greatness. It was the work of a distempered mind, and it spoke out with passionate sincerity what was in that mind ; and so doing, as the age itself was moody and distempered with prolonged and feverish excitement, it was a revelation to thousands of readers

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of their own inmost thoughts. Macaulay in a well-known passage describes Byron as having interpreted Wordsworth to the multitude. Looking at this—his first production-purely from the literary point of view, there is much truth in this, for the pilgrimage of “Childe Harold” was undoubtedly the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling ; the poem was evolved by the poet's imagination out of genuine personal emotion; the satisfaction of this emotion was the motive that set the imagination at work. Byron's poetry came from the heart. In this respect, and also in the matter of poetic diction, he may truly be said to have interpreted Wordsworth's theories to the multitude. But he did more than this : he interpreted the multitude to themselves ; he showed them as in a glass what they had been on the point of thinking.

The first stage of Childe Harold's pilgrimage lay through Spain, on which at that moment the trembling hopes of Europe were fixed as the theatre where Napoleon's fate was to be determined--where the last stake was being played for or against him. The poet described the scenery where this thrilling drama was in progress, and commented on the actors and the incidents. We must remember this to understand the full force for his contemporaries of such lines as :

“By Heaven! it is a splendid sight to see
(For one who hath no friend, no brother there)
Their rival scarfs of mix'd embroidery,
Their various arms that glitter in the air.”

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“And must they fall—the young, the proud, the brave

To swell one bloated chief's unwholesome reign ?
No step between submission and a grave?

The rise of rapine and the fall of Spain ?”
Or:
“No more beneath soft Eve's consenting star

Fandango twirls his jocund castanet :

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