Madame de Stael said to Byron, at Ouchy, “It does not do to war with the world: the world is too strong for the individual.” Goethe only gives a more philosophic form to this counsel when he remarks of the poet, “He put himself into a false position by his assaults on Church and State. His discontent ends in negation.... If I call bad bad, what do I gain? But if I call good bad, I do mischief.” The answer is obvious: as long as men call bad good, there is a call for iconoclasts: half the reforms of the world have begun in negation. Such comments also point to the common error of trying to make men other than they are by lecturing them. This scion of a long line of lawless bloods—a Scandinavian Berserker, if there ever was one—the literary heir of the Eddas—was specially created to wage that war—to smite the conventionality which is the tyrant of England with the hammer of Thor, and to sear with the sarcasm of Mephistopheles the hollow hypocrisy—sham taste, sham morals, sham religion—of the society by which he was surrounded and infected, and which all but succeeded in seducing him. But for the ethereal essence,—
The fount of fiery life
Which served for that Titanic strife,
Byron would have been merely a more melodious Moore and a more accomplished Brummell. But the caged lion was only half tamed, and his continual growls were his redemption. His restlessness was the sign of a yet unbroken will. He fell and rose, and fell again; but never gave up the struggle that keeps alive, if it does not save, the soul. His greatness as well as his weakness lay, in the fact that from boyhood battle was the breath of his being. To tell him not to fight, was like telling Wordsworth not to reflect, or Shelley not to sing. His instrument is a trumpet of challenge; and he lived, as he appropriately died, in the progress of an unaccomplished campaign. His work is neither perfect architecture nor fine mosaic; but, like that of his intellectual ancestors, the elder Elizabethans whom he perversely maligned, it is all animated by the spirit of action and of enterprise.
In good portraits his head has a lurid look, as if it had been at a higher temperature than that of other men. That high temperature was the source of his inspiration, and the secret of a spell which, during his life, commanded homage and drew forth love. Mere artists are often mannikins. Byron’s brilliant though unequal genius was subordinate to the power of his personality; he
Had the elements
So mix’d in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world—“This was a man.”
We may learn much from him still, when we have ceased to disparage, as our fathers ceased to idolize, a name in which there is so much warning and so much example.
Abydos, Bride of
Adeline (Lady), analysis of female character
Albrizzi (Countess), salon of
Ali Pasha, his reception of Byron
Allegra, Byron’s daughter
Athenians, character of
Aurora Raby, La Guiccioli idealised