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430 ] Byron1* The facts of a large part of Byron’s life have been well set forth, in the last few years, by Sir Harold Nicolson2† and Mr. Quennell, who have also provided interpretations which accord with each other and which make the character of Byron more intelligible to the present generation.3 No such interpretation has yet been offered in our time for Byron’s verse. In and out of universities, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats have been discussed from various points of view: Byron and Scott have been left in peace. Yet Byron, at least, would seem the most nearly remote4† from the sympathies of every living critic: it would be interesting, therefore, if we could have half a dozen essays about him, to see what agreement could be reached. The present article is an attempt to start that ball rolling. There are several initial difficulties. It is difficult to return critically to a poet whose poetry was – I suppose it was for many of our contemporaries, except those who are too young to have read any of the poetry of that period – the first boyhood enthusiasm. To be told anecdotes of one’s own childhood5† by an elderly relative is usually tedious; and a return, after many years, to the poetry of Byron is accompanied by a similar gloom: images come before the mind, and the recollection of some verses in the manner of Don Juan, tinged with that disillusion and cynicism only possible at the age of sixteen, which appeared in a school periodical.6 There are more impersonal obstacles to overcome. The bulk of Byron’s poetry is distressing , in proportion to its quality; one would suppose that he never destroyed anything. Yet bulk is inevitable in a poet of Byron’s type; and the absence of the destructive element in his composition indicates the kind of interest, and the kind of lack of interest, that he took in poetry. We have come to expect poetry to be something very concentrated, something distilled ; but if Byron had distilled his verse, there would have been nothing whatever left. When we see exactly what he was doing, we can see that he did it as well as it can be done. With most of his shorter poems, one feels that he was doing something that Tom Moore could do as well or better;7 in his longer poems, he did something that no one else has ever equalled. It is sometimes desirable to approach the work of a poet completely out of favour, by an unfamiliar avenue. If my avenue to Byron is a road that [ 431 Byron exists only for my own mind, I shall be corrected by other critics: it may at all events upset prejudice and encourage opinion to form itself anew. I therefore suggest considering Byron as a Scottish poet – I say “Scottish,” not “Scots,” since he wrote in English. The one poet of his time with whom he could be considered to be in competition, a poet of whom he spoke invariably with the highest respect, was Sir Walter Scott.8† I have always seen, or imagined that I saw, in busts of the two poets, a certain resemblance in the shape of the head. The comparison does honour to Byron, and when you examine the two faces, there is no further resemblance. Were one a person who liked to have busts about, a bust of Scott would be something one could live with. There is an air of nobility about that head, an air of magnanimity, and of that inner and perhaps unconscious serenity that belongs to great writers who are also great men. But Byron – that pudgy face suggesting a tendency to corpulence, that weakly sensual mouth, that restless triviality of expression, and worst of all that blind look of the selfconscious beauty; the bust of Byron is that of a man who was every inch the touring tragedian. Yet it was by being so thorough-going an actor that Byron arrived at a kind of knowledge: of the world outside, which he had to learn something about in order to play his role in it, and of that part of himself which was his role. Superficial knowledge, of course: but accurate so far as it went. Of a Scottish quality in Byron’s poetry, I shall speak when I come to Don Juan. But there is a very important part of the Byronic make-up which may appropriately be...


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