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DIFFICULTIES OF CRITICAL LECTURING.
that spirit a right spirit or a wrong spirit. It is almost essential to stand upon his place of vision, and then, when, it becomes necessary, to change that for the position of another poet,—to pass quickly from sympathy with one to sympathy with another, the elements of sympathy being often in all respects different. Let me say, without, I hope, subjecting myself to the imputation of seeking indirectly to magnify the labours of my course, the task is no easy one. It brings perplexity of mind with it. The transitions must often be sudden and violent: one set of feelings must be laid down and another taken up with a promptness and dexterity which, to employ a familiar illustration, may be likened to the attempt to accommodate our raiment to the changes of a fickle climate with its hasty revolutions of heat and cold. Each poet of original genius dwells in an atmosphere of his own, and he who seeks to know him must learn to breathe it, whether it be pure or noxious : he must needs live in it for a brief space.
But I can fancy that some of you are beginning to ask, Why this unwonted preface ? Unwonted, because, whatever sins of tediousness may rest upon me, there has been no introductory loitering; for the first sentence of my lecture has, I believe, for the most part, taken you straightway into the very subject of it. If a different style of introduction is given to the present lecture, it is because in no instance has the transition been so toilsome to my mind. Between the requisite sympathy with the genius of the poet I last parted with, and that with him I am approaching, lies a wide and dreary gulf What is it that I am passing from ? and what is it I am coming to ? It was but a few days ago that I was
dealing with the faithful, pure, single-hearted, cheerful Southey, whose imagination seemed to have been strengthened and steadied by the resolution in that admirable line, which has been sounding to my heart since I first found it :
“Onward in faith, and leave the rest to Heaven !”–
so that, as I followed his footsteps and his flights, I felt that there was a path in which as firm a pace might be taken. From this I have to turn away and enter on the faithless, hopeless, wayward, and wondrous career of the darkened and distempered genius of Byron. I have been guided in the study of the various powers of the poets who have gone before, by principles of the nature of poetry, its constituent properties, and its purposes, in which I have yet found no reason to believe my confidence misplaced. Should they bring me to conclusions, respecting the true measure of Byron's endowments, different from the general estimate that has been formed of them, I cannot believe that his genius transcends the reach of principles that serve for the measurement of the poetry of Shakspeare and Spenser and Milton. The aberrations of Byron's talents may perplex and baffle the application of those principles; but surely it is better to hold fast to them than, casting them aside, to indulge in indiscriminate panegyrics or indiscriminate censure. If, therefore, the tone of criticism in this lecture should sound differently from what has preceded it, the source of that change may be sought in the nature of the subject.
There may be among those who are listening to me not a few ardent admirers of Lord Byron's poetry; there may be some-a far smaller number—who find in it ground only for reprobation. To both these this lecture can scarce fail to prove unsatisfactory, but not more than to a third party,--the lecturer himself. If I brought to the task powers of criticism greater than any I can lay claim to, still, the discussion must be singularly imperfect, because there are qualities in Byron's poetical character-essential characteristics in the very heart of itwhich I have not the audacity, even if I had the inclination, to speak of. If, casting off all the restraints instinctively recognised by every- I will not say only gentleman, but every decent man,- I were to take the full scope of his powers and attempt a complete discussion of the subject, men would cry out “Shame !" and the cheek of every woman would burn with crimson blushes; and yet the offensive topics would be unexceptionably appropriate to them. I have encountered no such difficulty as this before, from the age of old Chaucer down; for while, indeed, the pages of the elder poets were sometimes defaced by impurities, the grossness of a gross age, they were extrinsic, and, as it were, accidental, and, therefore, might properly and justly be cast aside as unimportant in the estimate of those poets. In the present case, however, you cannot escape from the impurities; for I put it to the candour of those who are most thoroughly acquainted with Lord Byron's writings, wbether there is one volume of them in which you will not encounter either infidelity, or profanity, or obscenity, or vulgarity, and not unfrequently all of them? I make this remark, not because I am going on thus to characterize Byron's character, but merely to suggest how much the interest is impaired in the discussion of an
author's character when there is imperative necessity of passing in silence over some of its prominent features. I have no desire to say harsh things of the poet and to repeat the often-repeated charges against his works. Far more pleasing would be the task of vindicating their errors, and of showing that, like the frailties of Burns, they might be detached so as to leave unimpaired and uncontaminated the other and better aspirations connected with them. I would gladly seek to save the glory of a true poet; for each one added to the list, already so rich in names, is so much added to the glory and the value of the literature of our language. I know, too, that the true spirit of criticism is the spirit of charity and of candour; and, where there are faults which do not enter into the very constitution of an author's mind, it is far better to throw over them the veil of silence and forgetfulness. I am not conscious that the evil spirit of censoriousness has insinuated itself into my course, and trust I shall not be regarded as suffering it now to get the advantage of me. tering upon some revision of Byron's poems for the preparation of this lecture, I chanced to encounter the touching plea for his memory from the pen of a brotherpoet who knew and loved him, that kind-hearted veteran, the poet Rogers
" He is now at rest;
“If in thy life
“ Thou art gone:
The feeling which prompted this appeal, and its source, entitle it to a respectful consideration. It would indeed be unmanly and irrational to assail the poet in his grave, especially when we remember his life full of wretchedness and his death-bed clouded with spiritual darkness. But his poems are living things: the sanctity of the grave does not belong to them. They will live, though not in the full vitality of their first fame. And equally unmanly and equally irrational appears to me the habit of silencing the voice of even-tempered opinion by the sickly, sentimental commiseration for poor Byron.
I shall make no attempt, in illustration of my subject, to follow, regularly, the irregular course of the poet's life. It is a well-known story, from his boyish rambles in the Scottish Highlands, his London life, with all its metropolitan pleasures, his adventurous wanderings on the Continent, his years of Italian profligacy, dowr to
* * Italy."