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Passing from Byron's claims as the poet of nature, he has been styled the poet of freedom. Spirited lines have burst from him on this theme :
“Yet, Freedom! yet thy banner, torn but fying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind;
The loudest still, the tempest leaves behind.”
He harped upon the lost liberties of Italy and Greece, and the living liberties of America. Let us look, before rashly welcoming the alliance. The love of freedom with Byron was a sentiment, but it had no depth beyond that; and, when you come to analyze it carefully, its elements are misanthropy and lawlessness. I never hear his tributes to our institutions quoted, without an instinctive regret that any countryman of mine should, in his avidity for foreign flattery, be thus deluded. The name of Washington is met with more than once in Byron's poems in terms of praise: that name is beyond the reach of contamination; but still I recoil, as if it were profaned, when I contrast the manly, dutiful, genuine spirit of freedom in which he was nursed, with the spurious, fitful, sentimental licentiousness of the poet. When the tribute of a foreigner is rendered to our country or its men, I wish first to know whether that foreigner's heart is true to his own country, and not poisoned with a counterfeit liberality and a morbid hostility to that which nature and wisdom and truth all bid him hold dear. When a man like Southey points to this country as the land
the tribute is worth something. But the spirit of freedom which gave that light could not be truly reverenced by one whose heart had grown hard in aristocratic licentiousness; who, running the wild career of profligacy, sought the last stimulant of his morbid tastes in the sentimental luxury of a romantic crusade.
“ The sensual and the dark rebel in vain ;"
and I deny the sincerity of Byron's professions and his power of knowing a genuine freedom, from the whole story of his life and mind. The true and the manly part was not a share in petty Italian tumults or in Greek revolutions, but to hold the responsible post at which his birth had placed him; for if, as he proclaimed, the liberties of England were in danger, the plainer and the stronger was it the duty of one gifted like him to battle for them to the last. That would have been indeed true energy, instead of its gaudy counterfeit in his sentimental recreancy.
If Lord Byron's descriptions of nature and his sense of freedom were imperfect and unequal, his portraiture of human characters is marked with the same imperfections. His imagination could not rise above the range of his own individual and morbid impulses. All his creations were of the same family, and all imaginatively kindred to himself,-impersonations of the same moral disease in some or other of its forms, and all betraying a woful, wilful ignorance of the better elements of human nature. Coloured by the poet's vivid fancy, they passed for beroes; but strip them of their disguise,—their playhouse finery,—and there is not one among them who rises—I will not say to the heroio standard, but—even to the level of real manliness. How opposite, it has been well said,* was Shakspeare's conception of a hero !
“Give me that man
I need scarcely remark that a true idea of the strength and beauty of womanly humanity had no place in Byron's mind. It was almost an unknown world to him, abounding, at the same time, as his poems do, with bright romantic creations of fancy and sentiment. Of these, when placed in situations calling for masculine energy, he gives some striking images, as the description in “Sardanapalus :"
“She urged on with her voice and gesture, and
Her floating hair and flashing eyes, the soldiers
* See preface to Henry Taylor's “Philip Van Artaveldte.”
What was the meaning of the fitful irregularity of Byron's poetry, which we have been passing over with praise and blame mingled, and, perhaps, perplexed ? Why is it that, with passages of true poetry scattered through all his volumes, he produced no important poem for which his most impassioned admirer can claim the fame of sustained imagination ? And why, at last, unable either to quench or to feed the flame of poetry,
did he ignominiously retreat into that base production in which, the very instant his better powers failed him he could exchange them for a vulgar ribaldry and all the vile elements of his nature,—the leprosy rising up in his forehead while standing beside the incense-altar? Was there any mystery in his inequalities? We are told that it was owing to his genius. Let me say that weakness is no attribute of genius. Here lies the grand fallacy respecting Byron's mind,--that which was its weakness mistaken for its strength, confounding the violence of his passions with power. Strength is shown by the victory over them, and not by the defeat. Byron deluded himself in these respects, when he should have known that really it is moral and intellectual weakness to be a misanthrope and a skeptic. It is an easy thing to fall into the way of hating the world, and into that confused, blind, stupid state of mind which is called unbelief. The greatest of all weaknesses—the cancer which eat into the very heart of Byron’s genius—was his unmitigated selfishness. It weakened and wasted him, and perverted and defiled his great endowments, and brought him down to the grave, superannuated, at the age of thirty-six. It was the foul fiend which haunted his existence, tearing him like the wretched demoniacs
who dwelt among the tombs and cried out words of blasphemy and defiance.
I am not going now to qualify my language with exceptions and reservations. That has been done, to the best of my ability, scrupulously throughout the lecture; and I am therefore justified in now saying that, taking the whole spirit of Byron's poetry,—its skepticism, its profanity, its blasphemy, its lewdness, its warfare upon religion and social and domestic morals,-it stands the blackest monument of intellectual depravity in the annals of our language. Never had our poetry been so profaned. The same corrupt spirit had been known before; it had disguised itself in one generation in the stately robe of philosophy, in another it had snatched the myrtle-wreath of political freedom; but never before had it worn the garland of poetic inspiration. There had been one phase of infidelity with Bolingbroke and his disciples, and another with Paine and his crew; but the most insidious was that which came from the bright, dark fancy of Byron.
With all the wrong he did, there was mingled, too, a bitter contempt for poor, suffering humanity. Yes ; it is true, as he reproached his fellow-mortals, that mankind is prostrate in his fallen nature. Look forth upon the human race, and, behold! they are lying-the wounded, the dying, and the dead-on the vast battleplain, stricken by their spiritual enemies. But it ill became a poet to steal forth in the night, like one of those wretches that dog the footsteps of an army and prowl over the field fresh with the fight, plundering the expiring soldier, and stripping the bloody raiment from the dead and the dying.