Voltaire’s renown and monetary rewards, as the master-writer of the eighteenth century, offer the only case in modern times that approaches Scott’s success; yet Voltaire’s vast wealth was largely the result of successful speculation. As a purely popular author, whose wholesome fancy, great heart, and tireless industry, has delighted millions of his fellow-men, Scott stands alone; while, as a man, he holds the affection and respect of the world. Even though it be that the fashion of his workmanship passeth away, wonder not, lament not. With Mithridates he could say, “I have lived.” What great man can say more?
It is extremely difficult to depict Lord Byron, and even presumptuous to attempt it. This is not only because he is a familiar subject, the triumphs and sorrows of whose career have been often portrayed, but also because he presents so many contradictions in his life and character,—lofty yet degraded, earnest yet frivolous, an impersonation of noble deeds and sentiments, and also of almost every frailty which Christianity and humanity alike condemn. No great man has been more extravagantly admired, and none more bitterly assailed; but generally he is regarded as a fallen star,—a man with splendid gifts which he wasted, for whom pity is the predominant sentiment in broad and generous minds. With all his faults, the English-speaking people are proud of him as one of the greatest lights in our literature; and in view of the brilliancy of his literary career his own nation in particular does not like to have his defects and vices dwelt upon. It blushes and condones. It would fain blot out his life and much of his poetry if, without them, it could preserve the best and grandest of his writings,—that ill-disguised autobiography which goes by the name of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” in which he soars to loftier flights than any English poet from Milton to his own time. Like Shakespeare, like Dryden, like Pope, like Burns, he was a born poet; while most of the other poets, however eminent and excellent, were simply made,—made by study and labor on a basis of talent, rather than exalted by native genius as he was, speaking out what he could not help, and revelling in the richness of unconscious gifts, whether for good or evil.
Byron was a man with qualities so generous, yet so wild, that Lamartine was in doubt whether to call him angel or devil. But, whether angel or devil, his life is the saddest and most interesting among all the men of letters in the nineteenth century.
Of course, most of our material comes from his Life and Letters, as edited by his friend and brother-poet, Thomas Moore. This biographer, I think, has been unwisely candid in the delineation of Byron’s character, making revelations that would better have remained in doubt, and on which friendship at least should have prompted him to a discreet silence.