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Bor do we describe his poetry as a mere compound of blasphemy and obscenity. On the contrary, we are inclined to believe that he wishes well to the happiness of mankind-and are glad to testify that his poems abound with sentiments of great dignity and tenderness, as well as passages of infinite sublimity and beauty. But their general tendency we believe to be in the highest degree pernicious; and we even think that it is chiefly by means of the fine and lofty sentiments they contain, that they acquire their most fatal power of corruption. This may sound at first, perhaps, like a paradox; but we are mistaken if we shall not make it intelligible enough in the end.
We think there are indecencies and indelicacies, seductive descriptions and profligate representations, which are extremely reprehensible; and also audacious speculations, and erroneous and uncharitable assertions, equally indefensible. But if these had stood alone, and if the whole body of his works had been made up of gaudy ribaldry and flashy scepticism, the mischief, we think, would have been much less than it is. He is not more obscene, perhaps, than Dryden or Prior, and other classical and pardoned writers; nor is there any passage in the history even of Don Juan, so degrading as Tom Jones's affair with Lady Bellaston. It is, no doubt, a wretched apology for the indecencies of a man of genius, that equal indecencies have been forgiven to his predecessors : but the precedent of lenity might have been followed; and we might have passed both the levity and the voluptuousness—the dangerous warmth of his romantic situations, and the scandal of his cold-blooded dissipation. It might not have been so easy to get over his dogmatic scepticism-his hard-hearted maxims of misanthropy-his cold blooded and eager expositions of the non-existence of virtue and honour. Even this, however, might have been comparatively harmless, if it had not been accompanied by that which may look, at first sight, as a palliation—the frequent presentment of the most touching pictures of tenderness, generosity, and faith.
The charge we bring against Lord Byron, in short, is, that his writings have a tendency to destroy all belief in the reality of virtue—and to make all enthusiasm and constancy of affection ridiculous; and that this is effected not merely by direct maxims and examples of an imposing or seducing kind, but by the constant exhibition of the most profligate heartlessness in the persons of those who had been transiently represented as acluated by the purest and most exalted emotions--and in the lessons of that very teacher who had been, but a moment before, so beautifully pathetic in the expression of the loftiest conceptions. When a rash and gay voluptuary descants, somewhat too freely, on the intoxications of love and wine, we ascribe his excesses, to the effervescence of youthful spirits, and do not consider him as seriously impeaching either the value or the reality of the severer virtues : and in the same way, when the satirist deals out his sarcasms against the sincerity of human professions, and unmasks the secret infirmities of our bosoms, we consider this as aimed at hypocrisy, and not at mankind : or, at all events, and in either case, we consider the sensualist and the misanthrope as wandering, each in his own delusion and pily those who have never known the charms of a tender or generous affection. The true antidote to such seductive or revolting views of human nature is to turn to the scenes of its nobleness and attraction; and to reconcile ourselves again to our kind, by listening to the accents of pure affection and incorruptible honour. But if those accents have flowed, in all their
sweetness, from the very lips that instantly open again to mock and blaspheme them, the antidote is mingled with the poison, and the draught is the more deadly for the mixture.
The reveller may pursue his orgies, and the wanton display her enchantments, with comparative safety to those around them, while they know or believe that there are purer and higher enjoyments, and teachers and followers of a happier way. But if the priest pass from the altar, with persuasive exhortations to peace and purity still trembling on his tongue, to join familiarly in the grossest and most profane debauchery-if the matron, who has charmed all hearts by the lovely sanctimonies of her conjugal and maternal endearments, glides out from the circle of her children and gives bold and shameless way to the most abandoned and degrading vices our notions of right and wrong are at once confounded our confidence in, virtue shaken to the foundations and our reliance on truth and fidelity at an end for ever.
This is the charge which we bring against Lord Byron. We say that, under some strange misapprehension as to the truth, and the duty of proclaiming it, he has exerted all the powers of his powerful mind to convince his readers, both directly and indirectly, that all ennobling pursuits, and disinterested virtues, are mere deceits or illusions-hollow and despicable mockeries for the most part, and, at best, but laborious follies. Love, patriotism, valour, devotion, constancy, ambition-wall are to be laughed al, disbelieved in, and despised !--and nothing is really good, so far as we can gather, but a succession of dangers to stir the blood, and of banquets and intrigues to soothe it again! If this doctrine stood alone, with its examples, it would revolt, we believe, more than it would seduce :--but the author of it has the unlucky gift of personating all those sweet and lofty illusions, and that with such grace and force and truth to nature, that it is impossible not to suppose, for the time, that he is among the most devoted of their votaries—till he casts off the character with a jerk-and, the moment after he has moved and exalted us to the very height of our conception, resumes his mockery at all things serious or sublime--and lets us down at once on some coarse joke, hard-hearted sarcasm, or fierce and relentless personality -as is on purpose to show
* Whoe'er was edified, himself was not." – or to demonstrate practically, as it were, and by example, how possible it is to have all fine and noble feelings, or their appearance, for a moment, and yet retain no particle of respect for them-or of belief in their intrinsic worth or permanent reality. Thus, we have an indelicate but very clever scene of the young Juan's concealment in the bed of an amorous matron, and of the torrent of “rattling and audacious eloquence” with which she repels the too just suspicions of her jealous lord. All this is merely comic, and a little coarse :--but then the poe! chooses to make this shameless and abandoned woman address to her young gallant an epistle breathing the very spirit of warm, devoted, pure, and unalterable love-thus profaning the holiest language of the heart, and indirectly associating it with the most hateful and degrading sensuality. In like manner, the sublime and terrific description of the shipwreck is strangely and disgustingly broken by traits of low humour and buffoonery :--and we pass immediately from the moans of an agonising father fainting over his famished son, to facetious stories of Juan's begging a paw of his father's dog--and refusing a slice of his tutor!
-as if it were a fine thing to be hard-hearted—and pity and compassion were fit only to be laughed at. In the same spirit, the glorious ode on the aspirations of Greece after liberty, is instantly followed up by a strain of dull and cold blooded ribaldry;-and we are hurried on from the distraction and death of Haidee to merry scenes of intrigue and masquerading in the seraglio. Thus all good feelings are excited only to accustom us to their speedy and complete extinction; and we are brought back from their transient and theatrical exhibition, to the staple and substantial doctrine of the work—the non-existence of constancy in women or honour in men, and the folly of expecting to meet with any such virtues, or of cultivating them for an undeserving world ;-and all this mixed up with so much wit and eleverness, and knowledge of human nature, as to make it irresistibly pleasant and plausible-while there is not only no antidote supplied, but every thing that might have operated in that way has been anticipated, and presented already in as strong and engaging a form as possible-but under such associations as to rob it of all efficacy, or even turn it i.lio an auxiliary of the poison.
This is our sincere opinion of much of Lord Byron's most splendid poetry a little exaggerated, perhaps, in the expression, from a desire to make our exposition clear and impressive-but, in substance, we think, merited and correct. We have already said, and we deliberately repeat, that we have Do notion that Lord Byron had any mischievous intention in these publications-and readily acquit him of any wish to corrupt the morals or impair the happiness of his readers. Such a wish, indeed, is in itself altogether inconceivable : but it is our duty, nevertheless, to say, that much of what he has published appears to us to have this tendency-and that we are acquainted with no writings so well calculated to extinguish in young minds all generous enthusiasm and gentle affection-all respect for themselves, and all love for their kind- to make them practise and profess hardily what it teaches them to suspect in others—and actually to persuade them that it is wise and manly and knowing, lo laugh, not only al self-denial and restraint, but at all aspiring ambition, and all warm and constant affection.
How opposite to this is the system, or the temper, of the great author of Waverley—the only living individual to whom Lord Byron must submit to be ranked as inferior in genius—and still more deplorably inferior in all that makes genius either amiable in itself or useful to society! With all his unrivalled power of invention and judgment, of pathos and pleasantry, the tenor of his sentiments is uniformly generous, indulgent, and good-humoured; and so remote from the bitterness of misanthropy, that he never indulges in sarcasm, and scarcely, in any case, carries his merriment so far as derision. But the peculiarity by which he stands most broadly and proudly distinguished from Lord Byron is, that, beginning, as he frequently does, with some ludicrous of satirical theme, he never fails to raise out of it some feelings of a generous or gentle kind, and to end by exciting our tender pity or deep respect for those very individuals or classes of persons who seemed at first to be brought on the stage for our mere spori and amusement—thus making the lud ous itself subservient to the cause of benevolence and inculcaling, at every turn, and as the true end and result of all his trials and experiments, the love of our kind, and the duty and delight of a cordial and genuine sympathy, with the joys and sorrows of every condition of men. It seems lo be Lord Byron's way, on the contrary, never to excite a kind or a noble sentiment, without making haste to obliterate it by a torrent of
unfeeling mockery or relentless abuse, and taking pains to show how welt those passing fantasies may be reconciled to a system of resolute misanthropy, or so managed as even to enhance its merits, or confirm its truth. With what different sensations, accordingly, do we read the works of these two great writers!—With the one, we seem to share a gay and gorgeous banquet-with the other, a wild and dangerous intoxication. Let Lord Byron bethink him of this contrast—and its causes and effects. Though he scorns the precepts, and defies the censure of ordinary men, he may yet be moved by the example of his only superior !-In the mean time, we have endeavoured to point out the canker that stains the splendid flowers of his poetry—or, rather, the serpent that lurks beneath them. If it will not listen to the voice of the charmer, that brilliant garden, gay and glorious as it is, must be deserled, and its existence deplored, as a snare to the unwary.
There is a minor blemish, of which we meant to say something also, but it is scarcely worth while—we mean the outrageous, and, till he set the example, the unprecedented personalities in which this noble author indulges. We have already noticed the serocity of his attacks on Mr. Southey. The Laureate had railed at him, indeed, before; but he had railed “in good set terms; "— and, if we reollect right, had not even mentioned his lordship's name. It was all, in his exquisite way, by innuendo. In spite of this, we do not mean to deny that Lord Byron had a right to name Mr. Southey—but he had no right to say any thing of Mr. Southey's wise ; and the mention of her, and of many other people, is cruel, coarse, and unhand
If his lordship’s sense of propriety does not cure him of this propensity, we hope his pride may: for the practice has gone down to such imitators, as can do him no honour in pointing to him as their original. We rather think it would be better, afler, all, to be called the founder of the Satanic School, than the master of the John Bulls, Beacons, and Sentinels.
There is a kind of right of primogeniture among books, as well as among men; and it is difficult for an author who has obtained great fame by a first publication, not to appear to fall off in a second-especially if his original success could be imputed, in any degree, to the noveliy of his plan of composition. The public is always indulgent to untried talents; and is even api
; to exaggerate a little the value of what it receives without any previous expectation. But, for this advance of kindness, it usually exacis a most usurious return in the end. When the poor author comes back, he is no longer received as a benefactor, but a debtor. In return for ihe credit it formerly gave him, the world now conceives that it has a just claim on him for excellence, and becomes impertinently scrupulous as to the quality of the coin in which it is to be paid.
The just amount of this claim plainly cannot be for more than the rale of excellence which he had reached in his former production ; but, in estimating this rate, various errors are perpetually committed, which increase
Marmion; a Tale of Flodden Field. By Walter Scott, E39.-Vol. xii. p. 1. April, 1808.
the difficulties of the task which is thus imposed on him. In the first place, the comparative amount of his past and present merits can only be ascertained by the uncertain standard of his reader's feelings; and these must always be less lively with regard to a second performance; which, with every other excellence of the first, must necessarily want the powerful recommendations of novelty and surprise, and, consequently, fall very far short of the effect produced by their strong co-operation. In the second place, it may be observed, in general, that wherever our impression of any work is favourable on the whole, its excellence is constantly exaggerated, in those vague and habitual recollections which form the basis of subsequent comparisons. We readily drop from our memory the dull and bad passages, and carry along with us the remembrance of those only which had afforded us delight. Thus, when we take the merit of any favourite poem as a standard of comparison for some later production of the same author, we never take its true average merit, which is the only fair standard, but the merit of its most striking and memorable passages, which naturally stand forward in our recollection, and pass upon our hasty retrospect asjust and characteristic specimens of the whole work; and this high and exaggerated standard, we rigorously apply to the first and perhaps the least interesting parts of the second performance. nally, it deserves to be noticed that where a first work, containing considerable blemishes, has been favourably received, the public always expects this indulgence to be repaid by an improvement that ought not to be always erpected. Ifa second performance appear, therefore, with the same faults, they will no longer meet with the same toleration. Murmurs will be heard about indolence, presumption, and abuse of good nature; while the critics, and those who had gently hinted at the necessity of correction, will be more out of humour than the rest at this apparent neglect of their admonitions.
For these, and for other reasons, we are inclined to suspect, that the success of the work now before us will be less brilliant than that of the author's former publication, though we are ourselves of opinion, that its intrinsic merils are nearly, if not altogether, equal; and that, if it had had the fortune to be the elder born, it would have inherited as fair a portion of renown as has fallen to the lot of its predecessor. It is a good deal longer, indeed, and somewhat more ambitious; and it is rather clearer that it has greater faults, than that it has greater beauties; though, for our own parts, we are inclined to believe in both propositions. It has more tedious and sat passages, and more ostentation of historical and antiquarian lore; but it has also greater richness and variely, both of character and incident; and if it has less sweetness and pathos in the soster passages, it has cerlainly more vehemence and force of colouring in the Jostier and busier representations of action and emotion. The place of the prologuising minstrel is but ill supplied, indeed, by the espistolary dissertations which are prefixed to each book of the present poem; and the ballad pieces and mere episodes which it contains, have less finish and poetical beauty ; but there is more airiness and spirit in the lighter delineations; and the story, if not more skilfully conducted, is at least better complicated, and extended through a wider field of adventure. The characteristics of both, however, are evidently the same;-a broken narrative—a redundancy of minute description--bursts of unequal and energetic poetry-and a general tone of spirit and animation, unchecked by timidity or affectation, and unchastised by any great delicacy of taste, or elegance of fancy.