« ZurückWeiter »
The present Lord Advocate of Scotland thus gratefully admonished the yet living author of Don Juan, in the 72d Number of the Edinburgh Review.
“ Lord Byron complains bitterly of the detraction by which he has been assailed - and intimates that his works have been received by the public with far less cordiality and favour than he was entitled to expect. We are constrained to say that this appears to us a very extraordinary mistake. In the whole course of our experience, we cannot recollect a single author who has had so little reason to complain of his reception - - to whose genius the public has been so early and so constantly just — to whose faults they have been so long and so signally indulgent. From the very first, he must have been aware that he offended the principles and shocked the prejudices of the majority, by his sentiments, as much as he delighted them by his talents. Yet there never was an author so universally and warmly applauded, so gently admonished - so kindly entreated to look more heedfully to his opinions. He took the praise, as usual, and rejected the advice. As he grew in fame and authority, he aggravated all his offences -clung more fondly to all he had been reproached with - and only took leave of Childe Harold to ally himself to Don Juan! That he has since been talked of, in public and in private, with less unmingled admiration – that his name is now mentioned as often for censure as for praise — and that the exultation with which his countrymen once hailed the greatest of our living poets, is now alloyed by the recollection of the tendency of his writings — is matter of notoriety to all the world ; but matter of surprise, we should imagine, to nobody but Lord Byron himself.
“ That the base and the bigoted — those whom he has darkened by his glory, spited by his talent, or mortified by his neglect - have taken advantage of the prevailing disaffection, to vent their puny malice in silly nicknames and vulgar scurrility, is natural and true. But Lord Byron may depend upon it, that the dissatisfaction is not confined to them, - and, indeed, that they would never have had the courage to assail one so immeasurably their superior, if he had not at once made himself vulnerable by his errors, and alienated his natural defenders by his obstinate adherence to them. We are not bigots, nor rival poets. We have not been detractors from Lord Byron's fame, nor the friends of his detractors; and we tell him – far more in sorrow than in anger -- that we verily believe the great body of the English nation - the religious, the moral, and the candid part of it - consider the tendency of his writings to be immoral and pernicious and look upon his perseverance in that strain of composition with regret and reprehension. We ourselves are not easily startled, either by levity of temper, or boldness, or even rashness of remark; we are, moreover, most sincere admirers of Lord Byron's genius, and have always felt a pride and an interest in his fame : but we cannot dissent from the censure to which we have alluded; and shall endeavour to explain, in as few and as tem. perate words as possible, the grounds upon which we rest our concurrence. “ He has no priestlike cant or priestlike reviling to apprehend from us We do not charge him with being either a disciple or an apostle of Satan; nor do we describe his poetry as a mere compound of blasphemy and obscenity. On the contrary, we are inclined to believe that he wishes well to the happiness of mankind - and are glad to testify, that his poems abound with sentiments of great dignity and tenderness, as well as passages of infinite sublimity and beauty. But their general tendency we believe to be in the highest degree pernicious; and we even think that it is chiefly by means of the fine and lofty sentiments they contain, that they acquire their most fatal power of corruption. This may sound at first, perhaps, like a paradox; but we are mistaken if we shall not make it intelligible enough in the end.
“ We think there are indecencies and indelicacies, seductive descriptions and profligate representations, which are extremely reprehensible; and also audacious speculations, and erroneous and uncharitable assertions, equally indefensible. But if these had stood alone, and if the whole body of his works had been made up of gaudy ribaldry and flashy scepticism, the mischief, we think, would have been much less than it is. He is not more obscene, perhaps, than Dryden or Prior, and other classical and pardoned writers; nor is there any passage in the history even of Don Juan so degrading as Tom Jones's affair with Lady Bellaston. It is no doubt a wretched apology for the indecencies of a man of genius, that equal indecencies have been forgiven to his predecessors : but the precedent of lenity might have been followed; and we might have passed both the levity and the voluptuousness - the dangerous warmth of his romantic situations, and the scandal of his cold blooded dissipation. It might not have been so easy to get over his dogmatic scepticism — his hard-hearted maxims of misanthropy - his cold blooded and eager expositions of the non-existence of virtue and honour. Even this, however, might have been comparatively harmless, if it had not been accompanied by that which may louk, at first sight, as a palliation - the frequent presentment of the most touching pictures of tenderness, generosity, and faith.
“ The charge we bring against Lord Byron in short is, that his writings have a tendency to destroy all belief in the reality of virtue—and to make all enthusiasm and constancy of affection ridiculous; and that this is effected, not merely by direct maxims and examples, of an imposing or seducing kind, but by the constant exhibition of the most profligate heartlessness in the persons of those who had been transiently represented as actuated by the purest and most exalted emotions — and in the lessons of that very teacher who had been, but a moment before, so beautifully pathetic in the expression of the loftiest conceptions.
“ This is the charge which we bring against Lord Byron. We say that, under some strange misapprehension as to the truth, and the duty of proclaiming it, he has exerted all the powers of his powerful mind to convince his readers, both directly and indirectly, that all ennobling pursuits, and disinterested virtues, are mere deceits or illusions - hollow and despicable mockeries for the most part, and, at best, but laborious follies. Love, patriotism, valour, devotion, constancy, ambition - all are to be laughed at, disbelieved in, and despised !- and nothing is really good, so far as we can gather, but a succession of dangers to stir the blood, and of banquets and intrigues to soothe it again! If this doctrine stood alone, with its examples, it would revolt, we believe, more than it would seduce: - but the author of it has the unlucky gift of personating all those sweet and lofty illusions, and that with such grace and force and truth to nature, that it is impossible not to suppose, for the time, that he is among the most devoted of their votaries - till he casts off the character with a jerk -- and, the moment after he has moved and exalted us to the very height of our conception, resumes his mockery at all things serious or sublime - and lets us down at once on some coarse joke, hard-hearted sarcasm, or fierce and relentless personality - as if on purpose to show
Whoe'er was edified, himself was not' or to demonstrate practically as it were, and by example, how possible it is to have all fine and noble feelings, or their appearance, for a moment, and yet retain no particle of respect for them - or of belief in their intrinsic worth or permanent reality.”
The next Author we must cite, is the late industrious Dr. John Watkins, well known for his “ Biographical Dictionary,” his “ Life of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan,” &c. styled ignominiously by Lord Byron “ Old Grobius.”
XXI. WATKINS. “ Of this Odyssey of immorality, there cannot be two opinions; for, let the religious sentiments of the reader be as lax as possible, he must be shocked at the barefaced licentiousness of the poem. Marriage is of course reprobated, and all the laws of social life are set at open defiance as violations of natural liberty. Lord Byron is the very Comus of poetry, who, by the bewitching airiness of his numbers, aims to turn the whole moral world into a herd of monsters. It must, however, be allowed that in this tale, he has not acted the wily part, of concealing the poison under the appearance of virtue; on the contrary, he makes a frank confession of his principles, and glories in vice with the unblushing temerity of a ram. pant satyr who acknowledges no rule but appetite. The mischief of the work is rendered doubly so by the attractive gaiety of the language, the luxuriance of the imagery, and the humorous digressions with which the story is embellished and chequered."
Another great moralist practically, we believe, a most eminent one — is the next on our catalogue ; namely, the late Rev. Caleb Colton, the author of " Lacon; or, Many Things in few Words” (or, as Lord Byron, somewhere, was wicked enough to misquote it - -“ Few Things in Many Words”) in his “ Remarks on the Tendencies of Don Juan,” published in 1822.
Aut minus exundans felle, minusve sale ;
Materiem, Dæmon struxit; - - Apollo, modos.
“ Or less impure, or less attractive sing,
And less of wit, or less of rancour bring;
The theme a Demon lent, - a God the lays. “ Lord Byron might have been not only the best, but the greatest poet of past or present times, with the exception of Shakspeare alone: he has chosen to be the most mischievous and dangerous without any exception. His muse possesses the precise quantum of evil to effect the greatest possible quantum of harm : had she more or had she less, in either case she would not be so destructive; were her poison more diluted, it would not kill; were it more concentrated, it would nauseate and be rejected. The impurity of Rochester is too disgusting to do harm; the morality of Pope is too neutralised to do good: but the muse of Byron has mixed her poison with the hand of an adept; it is proffered in a goblet of crystal and of gold; it will please the palate, remain on the stomach, and circulate through the veins. There are persons who think that some of the objectionable parts of Don Juan are reclaimed by others that are both beautiful and faultless. But, alas! the poison is general, the antidote particular; the ribaldry and obscenity will be understood by the many; the profundity and the sublimity only by the few. We live in an age when orators are trying how much treason they may talk without being hanged, poets how much nonsense they may write without being neglected, and libertines how much licentiousness they may venture upon without being execrated and despised. We consider Don Juan to be a bold experiment, made by a daring and determined hand, on the moral patience of the public. It is most melancholy to reflect that a man of Lord Byron's stupendous powers should lend himself to such unworthy purposes as these ; led thereto by the grovelling gratification of dazzling the fool, or encouraging the knave; of supporting the weakest sophistry by the strongest genius; and the darkest wickedness by the brightest wit. He applies, alas, the beams of his mighty mind, not to comfort, but to 'censure us, and, like Nero, gives us nothing but a little harmony to console us for the conflagration he has caused. I shall sum up my opinion of Don Juan in the words of Scaliger on a poem of Cardinal Bembus :' Hoc poema vocare possis aut obsconissimam elegantiam, aut elegantis. simam obscoenitatem.'"
We now introduce the Poet's ever kind and grateful friend, Mr. Leigh Hunt, in his work entitled “ Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries,” concerning which consult Thomas Moore Esq., apud The Times — or antè, Vol. XII. p. 299.
“ Speaking of Don Juan, I will here observe, that Lord Byron had no plan with regard to that poem. His hero in this work was a picture of the better part of his own nature. When the author speaks in his own person, he is endeavouring to bully himself into a satisfaction with the worse, and courting the eulogies of the knowing.' His jealousy of Wordsworth and others who were not town poets was not more creditable to him. He pretended to think worse of them than he did. He had the modesty one day to bring me a stanza, intended for Don Juan, in which he had sneered at them all, adding, that nobody but myself thought highly of them. He fancied I should put up with this, for the sake of being mentioned in the poem; an absurdity which nothing but his own vanity had suggested. I told him I should consider the introduction of such a stanza an affront, and that he had better not put it in. I am sorry I did not let it go; for it would have done me honour with posterity. He was so jealous of being indebted to any one for a hint, that he was disconcerted at the mention I made, in the ' Liberal,' of Whistlecraft's 'Specimen,' the precursor of Beppo and Don Juan,"
Another historical evidence is that of Mr.
or Captain —
“ People are always advising me,” said Byron (at Pisa, in October, 1821), “to write an epic. If you must have an epic, there's ' Don Juan' for you. I call that an epic: it is an epic as much in the spirit of our day as the Iliad was in that of Homer. Love, religion, and politics form the argument, and are as much the cause of quarrels now as they were then. There is no want of Parises and Menelauses, nor of crim. cons. into the bargain. In the very first canto you have a Helen. Then, I shall make my hero a perfect Achilles for fighting, -- a man who can snuff a candle three successive times with a pistol-ball : and, depend upon it, my moral will be a good one; not even Dr. Johnson should be able to find a flaw in it. I will make him neither a dandy in town, nor a fox-hunter in the country. He shall get into all sorts of scrapes, and at length end his career in France. Poor Juan shall be guillotined in the French Revolution! What do you think of my plot ? It shall have twenty-four books too, the legitimate number. Episodes it has, and will have, out of number; and my spirits, good or bad, must serve for the machinery. If that be not an epic – - if it be not strictly according to Aristotle, - I don't know what an epic poem means."