English Literature Of The 19th Century:
First Or Pre-victorian Period--1800-1837
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Read More Articles About: English Literature Of The 19th Century
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The genius and force of Lord Byron had powerful effect not only on the youth of his own time in England, but in France, Germany, Italy, and throughout Europe. He was a stimulating propagator of Romanticism. In all his verse-stories he was his own passionate hero, and that hero was recognized as the ideal of the youth of the age. Though regarded even in England as more original and forcible than Sir Walter Scott, yet careful examination proves that Byron owed the general suggestion and much of the success of his poetry to Scott. Critics are astonished at his voluminous output, for he was cut off at the early age of thirty-six.
George Gordon Byron was born in London, January 22, 1788, but his early training was received at Aberdeen, where his mother, who had been deserted by her dissipated husband, went to live on a slender income. By an accident at birth one of his feet was deformed and caused a slight limp through life. When Byron was eleven years old, he succeeded to the title and estates of his grand-uncle, and removed to Newstead Abbey. He was sent later to Harrow School and Trinity College, Cam-bridge, but found delight in rude sports rather than study. Yet he scribbled verses and his first publication, "Hours of Idleness" (1807), was severely criticized in the "Edinburgh Review." The young poet retorted with furious vehemence on the whole literary craft in his "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers." But the attack was so absurd and unjust, that he afterwards endeavored to suppress it. When of age, he took his seat in the House of Lords, but had few acquaintances, and soon set out on a tour through Southern Europe. After two years' absence he brought back "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" (1811), a poetical version of his travels, in Spenserian metre. The French wars had in great measure shut out the English people from the Continent; now a graphic poet presented them with brilliant pictures of scenery and countries almost unknown. But more than that, the traveler possessed a mysterious interest of his own; he was an outcast from his native land; he was consumed with melancholy, he sought distraction from himself. The immediate impression of the work is shown in Byron's exclamation: "I awoke one morning and found myself famous." At once the doors of the rich and noble were opened to the author. His pale melancholy features captivated women; his sweet voice and graceful form attracted every eye. He was flattered and idolized, but he did not yield to utter idleness. He added to his fame by poetical tales of the East, which had been drafted amid its scenery. These tales, whose metre was borrowed from Scott, were "The Giaour" (1811), "The Bride of Abydos" (1813) , "The Corsair" (1814) , "Lara" (1814), and "The Siege of Corinth" (1816). However different the story, there was but one hero in them all:
" The man of loneliness and mystery,
In these tales there are also constant references to a woman purely beloved, and there is reason to believe that an actual person is meant, who died in 1811. Her death is lamented at the end of Canto II of "Childe Harold," but her name is not given.
In January, 1815, Lord Byron married Miss Anne Isabella Milbanke, a lady of wealth and position, but a year later, after the birth of a daughter, she separated from him. The true reasons have never been published, but their tempers seem to have been incompatible; she was of severe morals and unsympathetic; he was licentious and of violent temper; she thought him actually in-sane. Public opinion in England condemned the husband, and he went abroad full of bitterness. At Geneva he wrote another canto of "Childe Harold," and "The Prisoner of Chillon." In 1817 he formed a liaison with the Countess Guiccioli, which was maintained through the rest of his life at Venice and other cities of Italy. His literary work was continued without intermission and included "Don Juan," "Mazeppa," the dramas "Marino Faliero" and "The Two Foscari," and the fierce satire, "The Vision of Judgment," in reply to Southey's absurd laudation of George III. In 1823 Byron was induced to take an active part in the Greek struggle for independence. He sailed from Genoa with arms, but the insurgents were insubordinate and not prepared for action.
He was seized with a fever at Missolonghi, and died April 19, 1824.
Immense as was the effect of Byron's personality and works on literature throughout Europe, the critical estimate of his ability has fallen greatly during the century. Shelley and Keats are ranked above him in artistic qualities and metrical effect. He was an admirer of Pope, and accepted Pope's rules of diction, but he practiced in various metres offered by contemporary poets, who are now forgotten. His mind was full of the stormy thoughts of his time, and thus he became the poet of revolution, able to stir mankind. His misanthropy and professed scorn for the world's opinion gave him power over that opinion. His descriptions are great and varied, and he was able to concentrate scenes in a line. The later cantos of "Childe Harold" are of greater value than those which gave him his first fame. "Don Juan" is perhaps the fullest exhibit of his character and poetical power; a splendid epic with an inglorious hero. It is full of sublime and exquisite descriptions, but does not hesitate to link these with vile and ignoble associations.
The meter and method of treatment are borrowed from the Italian burlesque poets, but in matter the poem is highly original; it is a succession of pictures of human life and society as he viewed them, with occasional satire or jesting comment. In spite of its lack of well defined plan, there is an artistic balance in its mixture of comedy and pathos.