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A catholic taste in literature-Difficulties of a course of critical lec
tures — Southey and Byron — The spirit of criticism, the spirit of charity-Roger's plea for Byron's memory-Popularity of his poetry -"English Bards and Scotch Reviowers”—“Childe Harold”-His love of external nature — Formation of his literary characterAdmiration for Pope--Success of “Childe Harold”—His Oriental tales—Literature of the last century-Story of Byron's marriageNoctes Ambrosianæ-Contrast between the “Corsair" and the “Prisoner of Chillon"-" The Dream”—Materialism in his poetryManfred – Venice — The Dying Gladiator — Strains for libertyBeauty of womanly humanity—“Sardanapalus”—Byron's selfishess-His Infidelity.
In one of the introductory lectures of this course I took occasion to advert to the importance of cultivating a catholic taste in literature, and, in so doing, gave at least an implied pledge that it should be one of my chief efforts to carry the same spirit into what I might wish to say to you on the many and multiform productions of English poetry. A rash or a mock originality lies not within
my ambition; and I have striven so to govern my voice that it should not convey to your ears old errors or old truisms disguised as startling paradoxes, that you should not turn from my opinions as prejudices or feel a
wound given to your own prepossessions. Indeed, I have desired to introduce into these lectures no more of my own opinions than the very nature of my position made necessary, and, avoiding the spirit of the judge or the advocate, simply to set before your minds the poets as they have risen in succession on the glorious registry we have been examining, to open and illustrate the hidden nature of their genius, and then to leave you to know and to feel the character and spirit of their poetry. Believing that every profession has its peculiar temptation and peril, and that the professional teacher has most need to be on his guard against the insidious habit of dogmatizing, I have arrogated no authority for my opinions. But when I have felt assured that they had a root of truth, and branching aspirations after truth, I have given them utterance, trusting that the sounds awakened by the breath of poetic inspiration would prove sounds of truth.
I have refrained from adverting at any time to the difficulties which may attend the prosecution of a course of lectures such as we have been engaged in, for the simple reason that it belongs to the lecturer alone to measure and meet them, and it is a matter of small moment whether they are appreciated or not by his hearers. One difficulty may be made in some measure an exception to the rule of silence, for partially it is shared by both parties. I mean the difficulty, consequent on a rapid succession of criticisms, of making the requisite transfer of the mind from one subject to another. No one, whether for the purpose of forming a critical opinion or of reading without any thought of criticism, can gain a real knowledge of an author, and, most of all authors, of a poet, without entering into the spirit of his writings, be
IFFICULTIES 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
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 po 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, cheer. ful 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, whether there is one volume of them in which