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Art. II.-Lord Byron. Von Karl Elze. Berlin, 1870. THE book before us, of which an English translation is in hand,
1 is a biographical and critical essay on the noble poet and his works, containing a conscientiously accurate summary of his life and an impartial estimate of his genius. It will help to correct many erroneous notions, and it offers the opportunity which we have long coveted of analysing and (if possible) fixing the existing state of opinion regarding him, in especial relation to the living poet whose name is most frequently pronounced in rivalry.
• Byron, indisputably the greatest poetical genius that England has produced since Shakespeare and Milton. Such is the commencement of the notice of Byron in the last edition of the •Conversations-Lexicon,' and we have ascertained by careful inquiry that it may be accepted as the exact representative of enlightened Germany upon this as upon most other subjects of thought, speculation, or philosophy. Herr Elze says, “In the four head-divisions of poetry, English literature has produced four unapproached men of genius: Shakespeare in the dramatic: Milton in the reflecting, so far as this can be regarded as a peculiar species : Scott in the epic; and Byron in the lyricalthe lyrical understood in the widest sense as subjective poetry.” The intended supremacy is clear, although the lines of demarcation are not so well defined as could be wished. Turning to the rest of the continent, whether north or south-to Russia and Poland, to France, Italy, and Spain-and consulting the highest authorities dead and living, printed and oral, we arrive at a similar conclusion. The result of our persevering researches and persistent interrogatories is everywhere throughout Europe, that Byron is deemed the greatest poet that England has produced for two centuries; and although the same unanimity may not be found across the Atlantic as to the amount of his pre-eminence, although he does not there rise so high above his competing predecessors or contemporaries as to dwarf or overshadow them, he takes precedence by common consent of all.
“Tennyson, one of the most distinguished modern English lyrical poets. Such is the commencement of the notice of Mr. Tennyson in the Lexicon; and that it will startle his English admirers, we infer from its first effect upon ourselves. But tame and depreciatory as this description may sound to ears ringing with the music of his verse, it is one which would be deemed just and adequate by the bulk of the reading public of Germany, or the reading public of any country that knew him chiefly by translation. It would not satisfy the reading
Mr. Te poets. One of the ent of a
public of the United States, where his popularity is little inferior to that which he enjoys in England, but with this material difference. It is not an exclusive popularity. It coexists with the popularity of other poets whose influence is deemed antagonistic to him amongst us, especially with that of Byron; and the main object of this article is to bring the English mind into better agreement with the Anglo-American mind on this subject, or, in other words, to reclaim a befitting and appropriate pedestal for Byron without disturbing Mr. Tennyson or his school. It is the comparative, not the positive, reputation of the author of the Idylls' that we dispute. Let him be read and applauded as much as ever, by all means ; let due meed of praise be ungrudgingly continued to those of his immediate contemporaries who cluster round him as their chief, or have adopted him as their model, or, essentially unlike as they are, have repaired to the same altar for their fire; but let the fitting honour be also vindicated and reserved for those whom they have temporarily superseded in popular estimation, far more by an accidental concurrence of opinions and events than by merits which will stand the test of time and command the judgment of posterity.
Foreign nations, in their independence of local influences, resemble and represent posterity : foreign nations have already given their verdict in the cause which we propose to bring before the home tribunal; and before appealing from that verdict on the ground that foreign nations mostly know the productions of the contrasted poets by translation, it would be well to meditate on this passage of Goethe:
'I honour both rhythm and rhyme, by which poetry first becomes poetry, but the properly deep and radically operative—the truly developing and quickening, is that which remains of the poet, when he is translated into prose. The inward substance then remains in its purity and fullness; which, when it is absent, a dazzling exterior often deludes with the semblance of, and, when it is present, conceals.' *
Whether a poet is translated into verse or prose, he will be appreciated in his new form in proportion to the amount of thought, reflection, palpable imagery, or, what Goethe calls ' inward substance,' embodied in the original. Grace or felicity
*'Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit,' Th. 3, B. 11. "It would be a most easy task to prove that not only the language of a large portion of every good poem, even of the most elevated character, must necessarily, except with reference to the metre, in no respect differ from that of good prose, but likewise that some of the most interesting parts of the best poems will be found to be strictly the language of prose when prose is well written.' (Wordsworth, Preface to the ‘ Lyrical Ballads.') The obvious inference is that the best poems are those which-cæteris paribus-will best bear literal or prose translation.
of expression, idiomatic ease, and rhythm, must almost necessarily be lost; or, if replaced, should be set down to the credit of the translator, whose language is his own. Dryden said of Shakespeare, that if his embroideries were burnt down, there would be silver at the bottom of the melting-pot. If Mr. Tennyson were submitted to such a process, the residuum would be comparatively small. His greatest beauties are confessedly untranslateable; they are too delicate, too evanescent, too bloomlike, and too slight. Speaking of the female characters in the ‘Poems, M. Taine says: I have translated many ideas and many styles. I will never try to translate a single one of these portraits. Every word is like a tint, curiously heightened or softened by the neighbouring tint, with all the hardihood and the success of the happiest refinement. The least alteration would spoil all.' * .
Is, then, Mr. Tennyson's English fame enough? Is his title to rank as the first English poet of his epoch conclusively established by the fact that a majority of the rising generation of both sexes within this realm insist on so regarding him? We make bold to think not. It rests on divine authority that no man is a prophet in his own country. Many a man has been a poet in his own country whose poetry had no exchangeable value, and could only live in a particular atmosphere; but that these were first-class poets, we deny. We will endeavour to illustrate this proposition before proceeding further, for all sound criticism depends upon the principles involved in it.
Our estimate of books and men are far more frequently subjective than objective. We judge them rather by our own feelings, prejudices, and passions, than by their inherent or individual qualities; and no man is a fair judge of either who does not habitually analyse his impressions as they are caught up or inbibed. Approval and disapproval are too frequently confounded with liking and disliking, with being pleased or displeased. The most cultivated intellects are not exempt from this liability to error, and should be equally on their guard against it. We once heard an eminent scholar and statesman maintain that Gray was the first of modern English poets; and in the course of the ensuing discussion it was made clear that his admiration was mainly owing to the rush of youthsul associations which a recent perusal of the Ode to Eton College' had brought back. We strongly suspect that an analogous solution might be given of what we have heard cited as a proof of Mr. Tennyson's pathos, namely, that an ex-ambassador, of resolute will and masculine understanding, by no means given
* * Histoire de la Litterature Anglaise,' vol. iv. 434.
to the melting mood, burst into tears during the reading of • Elaine' aloud to a party at a country house. A word, a phrase, may have loosened the floodgate of association:
• And as a fort to which beleaguers win
Unhop'd for entrance through some friend within,
By memory's magic lets in all the rest.' It is one of Chamfort's aphorisms that what makes the success of numerous works, is the affinity between the mediocrity of the ideas of the author and the mediocrity of the ideas of the public. Literary history so abounds with instances of adventitious and ill-deserved popularity, that Wordsworth, discontented with the limited circulation of his own poems and deriving cold comfort from (what he called) the parallel case of Milton, was wont to contend that popularity, far from being a proof of merit, implied that unworthy sacrifices must have been made and solid fame bartered for it. He forgot that most of the great writers who have now taken rank amongst the classics of their respective countries, attained their proud pre-eminence at starting or early enough to enjoy it to the full, and that genius, tremulous with the glowing and agitated atmosphere around and about it, may shine with as bright and sustained a light as if it had shrunk away from the haunts of crowded life to draw inspiration from the grotto or the lake. All we maintain is that local or temporary popularity is unsatisfactory and inconclusive as a test : that it may prove the forerunner of permanent and world-wide reputation, or it may not.
Fancy has been amused by conjecturing with what temper Milton surveyed the silent progress of his work, and marked its reputation stealing its way in a kind of subterranean current through fear and silence. Its reputation did not burst forth in full brilliancy till he had been forty years in his gravo, and shows what invaluable services may occasionally be rendered by retrospective criticism in compelling the complete recognition of genius. Addison devoted eighteen papers of the “Spectator,' interspersed with numerous extracts, to · Paradise Lost,' and thereby (in Johnson's words) has made Milton an universal favourite, with whom readers of every class think it necessary to be pleased.'* With Byron the progress of fame has been reversed. He rose in splendour, and his meridian is obscured by clouds. He states that the morning after the publication of the first and second cantos of Childe Harold,' he awoke and found himself famous. These cantos would have made a name at any time, but their effect was undeniably enhanced by the choice of topics and the state of the public mind. "The Comedy of the Visionnaires,' wrote Madame de Sevigné, delighted us much: we found it the representation of everybody; each of us has his or her visions shadowed out.' Childe Harold,' on his first appearance had thus much in common with this forgotten Comedy. He had a word for everything and everybody that was uppermost in men's thoughts: theories of government for the political speculator, of social progress for the moralist, classical reminiscences for the scholar, and never ending sentiment for the fair. He dealt swashing blows right and left at Whigs and Tories, aristocracy and democracy. He described the scenes on which all English eyes and interests were fixed. He lingered on the battle-fields where English laurels had been won. He sang of the Tagus and the Guadalquivir, of Talavera and Albuera. He denounced the devastating ambition of Napoleon, and mingled the denunciation with a sneer at the fools who were pouring out their blood like water to maintain their own domestic despots on their thrones. War is thus grandly personified :
• Life of Addison,' Johnson's Works, vol. vii. p. 142. In the · Life of Milton,' vol. vi. p. 173, he had said: “ Paradise Lost” is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather thau a pleasure.'
*Lo! where the Giant on the mountain stands,
For on this morn three potent nations meet,
• There shall they rot-Ambition's honour'd fools!
Yes, Honour decks the turf that wraps their clay!
Or call with truth one span of earth their own,
• Ye who shall marvel when you hear her tale,