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LORD BYRON'S OPINION OF POPE.
Lord Byron had always a nervous horror of floating with the stream, and was never inclined to express any other opinions than those which he knew to be in direct opposition to the general judgment of mankind, more especially of his own contemporaries. It was this feeling that led him to undervalue Shakespeare and make Pope his idol. In the Pope and Bowles controversy Lord Byron was any thing but triumphant, notwithstanding the flippant dogmatism of his style, which presented a strong contrast to the moderate, candid, and argumentative productions of his opponent, who though a writer vastly inferior to Lord Byron in the general powers of his mind, had certainly the advantage over him in a sober critical disquisition*. This was less owing to a deficiency of taste and judgment on the part of Byron than to a downright want of sincerity. With all his swaggering he must have been perfectly conscious that he was taking up the wrong side of the question, when he spoke of Pope as the greatest poet in the world. Mr. Bowles was strangely misrepresented and misunderstood, in this discussion, though he simply maintained the theory of Warton, that images drawn from nature, human and external, are more poetical per se than those drawn from works of art and artificial
I have not a copy of Bowles's pamphlet in my possession, and have not read it since the time of its first publication ; but I well recollect the general tenor of its reasoning, and my surprise at the mistakes or wilful misapprehensions of Byron. It may seem
* Some of Bowles's later pamphlets on the same subject were written in a less amiable spirit.
presumptuous to speak in this strain of so great a man. But very dull eyes may discover spots in the sun, and very ordinary persons may be alive to the faults of their superiors. I shall give a specimen or two of his arguments.
“I opposed,” says he,“ and will ever oppose the robbery of ruins from Athens, to instruct the English in sculpture ; but why did I do so ? The ruins are as poetical in Piccadilly as they were in the Parthenon, but the Parthenon and its rocks are less so without them. Such is the poetry of art."
To suppose these detached fragments of buildings, as poetical in a confined and crowded court in London, as in the place from which they were taken, surrounded by picturesque and classical scenes and associations, is manifestly erroneous. The same line of argument would prove that a boat high and dry in a dock-yard or in a carpenter's warehouse is as poetical an object as the same boat when filled with human beings, tossing on the stormy sea or sleeping by sunset on a glassy lake. Works art are not poetical per se, but as connected with external nature and human passions.
“ Mr. Bowles contends, again, that the pyramids of Egypt are poetical, because of the association with boundless deserts,' and that a 'pyramid of the same dimensions would not be sublime in Lincoln's Inn Fields;' not so poetical certainly; but take away the pyramids, and what is the desert ?”
The desert would still be poetical without the pyramids, but not so the pyramids without the desert. Mr. Bowles would readily admit that the taking away the pyramids would lessen the poetry of the desert, because the human associations suggested by works of art would add greatly to the interest of any scenery, however beautiful and poetical in itself. In the same way the ocean in a storm is a strikingly poetical object, but its poetry is heightened by the associations of danger and suffering connected with the sight of a ship. It is not the appearance of the mere planks or the mechanical construction of the ship, but the probable emotions and anxieties of those on board, and the uncertainty of their fate, that touches the heart and awakens the imagination.
“To the question whether the description of a game of cards be as poetical, supposing the execution equal, as a description of a walk in a forest? it
may be answered, that the materials are certainly not equal; but that the artist who has rendered a game of cards poetical, is by far the greater of the two. But all this ordering of poets is purely arbitrary on the part of Mr. Bowles. There may or may not be, in fact, different orders of poetry ; but the poet is always ranked according to his execution, and not according to his branch of the art."
Who does not see the fallacy of this ? Will any body main. tain that the best satire that was ever written is as poetical as the best epic poem, or entitles the author to the same rank in literature. He whose work is the most poetical is the best poet, and not he who exhibits the most skill in treating unpoetical subjects. Dryden's Absolem and Achitophel is as well handled, perhaps, as Milton's Paradise Lost; but which production is the most poetical, and which author is the greatest poet? Is the author of the most excellent sonnet equal in rank to the author of the most excellent tragedy ? Certainly not. Dryden has said,
an Heroic Poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform." Could he have said this of an epigram without exciting a universal laugh* ? A poet who executes an inferior subject with uncommon skill is entitled to a place above him who executes a sublime
* Dr. South, however, foolishly asserted that a perfect epigram is as difficult as an Epic poem, and Pope very justly ridiculed him for it in the Dunciad.
How many Martials were in Pulteney lost!
one in a mediocre manner; but when the execution is equal, the subject decides the superiority. A lofty subject requires a greater grasp of intellect and a more vigorous imagination than a humble one, and therefore the author of the Paradise Lost or of the Tragedy of Macbeth would always rank above the author of the most poetical description of a game of cards that was ever written, because no human power could render it so eminently poetical as those two immortal productions. The card-game describer might be a cleverer man than Milton without a hundredth part of his genius. Lord Byron, however, very strenuously maintains that “the poet who executes best is the highest, whatever his department*.” And what is still more strange and inconsistent, after asserting that there are no “orders” in poetry, or that if there be, the poet is ranked by his execution not his subject, he elevates Pope above all other writers of verse on the ground of his being the best ethical poet, and ethical poetry being of the highest rankt. If Bentham's prose Ethics were put into good verse, they
* A pig by Morland might be as well done as an angel by Raphael, but this would not make the former artist entitled to the same rank amongst painters as the latter.
of When Lord Byron on his death-bed sent for "an old and ugly witch," or after presenting a gold pin to a lady, intreated its return, because it was unlucky to give any thing with a point, a man of an intellect inferior to the poet's might very reasonably smile at his superstition. His poetical creed, if sincere, is indeed unaccountable; but it is more easy to reconcile ourselves to the belief, that he often expressed on poetical, as on many other subjects, not so much his own opi. nions as those that he thought would most puzzle and surprize. His whole life seemed to be devoted to creating a sensation. He even made himself out a monster of iniquity, that he might become an object of wonder and speculation. His hatred of England and the English people, his scorn of mankind in general, hís disbelief in virtue, and his contempt for fame, were all the grossest affectation, and had no real existence in his heart, as his conduct showed. He betrayed on several occasions and in many ways an intense desire to attract and retain the attention of the English public-he was singularly affectionate and kind to all who came in contact with him—was always ready and had frequent reason to acknowledge the virtues of his friends or enemies-had many noble traits in his own character-and devoted the greater part of his life to the acquisition of a name! The failure of his tragedies was the cause of excessive chagrin and
would, according to this decision, be finer poetry than the works of Homer, Shakespeare or Milton.
Byron talks continually about Pope's faultlessness, forgetting what that elegant writer himself observes
“ Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be;"
mortification, and though he always talked with apparent indifference of such of his poems as were certain of success, he could not help defending, with an uneasy and eager fondness, the less fortunate offspring of his brain. His transla. tion of Pulci and his “Hints from Horace," because every body else considered them unworthy of his genius, and treated them with neglect, were always spoken of by him as his best productions. It is curious to observe, that notwithstanding his pretended indifference to criticism, he was evidently very anxious to stand well with the leading critics. There is something not very creditable to his independence, and certainly very inconsistent with the open and vigorous straight-forwardness of his general character, in the almost servile attention which he paid to Gifford, a man who had very little in common with the Noble Bard. To the tail of almost every letter to Murray he appended his respectful compliments to the Editor of the Quarterly, and always submitted his poems with extraordinary deference to that critic's judgment. In opposition to this I might be referred to his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, as a proof of his literary fearlessness : but that was a youthful indiscretion, which he lived to repent. I make these remarks with no intention to depreciate the general manliness of his character, but to show that his anxiety to secure a favorable notice of his productions' made him condescend to a humility very foreign to his nature. Not only was Byron anxious to secure the praises of his critics, but he was thrown into an agony, by such errors of the press, as were likely to lay him open to their censure.
That he would have bribed, with money, “his Grandmother's Review, The British," to praise him, is not very likely; but it is amusing to learn from one of his letters, that so anxious was he, that his muse should not appear in a disadvantageous dress, that when he heard of some one having made an indifferent translation of his Manfred into Italian, he immediately offered him any sum of money that he expected to obtain by his project, if he would throw the translation into the fire, and promise not to meddle with his Lordship’s poems for the future. Having ascertained, that the utmost the man could expect for his version, was 200 francs, Lord Byron offered him that sum, if he would desist from publishing. The Italian however held out for more, and could not be brought to terms, until Byron threatened to horsewhip him. He at last took the 200 francs and gave up his manuscript, entering at the same time into a written engagement never to translate any more of the noble Poet's works. I believe this is the first instance on record of a man having been paid not to translate a poem. The Italian seems to have been a ludicrous specimen of a mercenary author, and pocketed both the compliment and the cash with equal coolness,