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PECULIARITY OF THEIR CORRUPTING INFLUENCE. 121
shown up in the pages of the Quarterly, with the same candour and liberality that has there been exercised towards his friend Lady Morgan. That the base and the bigotted — 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 hisobstinate adherence to them. We are not bigots or 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.
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. 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
122 LORD BYRON-WOULD DESTROY BELIEF IN VIRTUE
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 offensively 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 hardhearted 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 look, 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 this, not so much by direct maxims and examples, of an imposing or seducing kind, as by the constant exhibition of the most profligate heartlessness in the persons 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. When a gay voluptuary descants, somewhat too freely, on the intoxications of love and wine, we ascribe his excesses to the effervescence of youthful spirits, and do not consider him as seriously impeaching either the
BY THE EXCELLENCE OF HIS COUNTERFEITS.
value or the reality of the severer virtues; and in the same way, when the satirist deals out his sarcasms against the sincerity of human professions, and unmasks the secret infirmities of our bosoms, we consider this as aimed at hypocrisy, and not at mankind: or, at all events, and in either case, we consider the Sensualist and the Misanthrope as wandering, each in his own delusion — and are contented to pity those who have never known the charms of a tender or generous affection. The true antidote to such seductive or revolting views of human nature, is to turn to the scenes of its nobleness and attraction; and to reconcile ourselves again to our kind, by listening to the accents of pure affection and incorruptible honour. But if those accents have flowed in all their sweetness, from the very lips that instantly open again to mock and blaspheme them, the antidote is mingled with the poison, and the draught is the more deadly for the mixture !
The reveller may pursue his orgies, and the wanton display her enchantments, with comparative safety to those around them, as long as they know or believe that there are purer and higher enjoyments, and teachers and followers of a happier way.
But if the Priest pass from the altar, with persuasive exhortations to peace and purity still trembling on his tongue, to join familiarly in the grossest and most profane debauchery — if the Matron, who has charmed all hearts by the lovely sanctimonies of her conjugal and maternal endearments, glides out from the circle of her children, and gives bold and shameless way to the most abandoned and degrading vices --- our notions of right and wrong are at once confounded our confidence in virtue shaken to the foundation - and our reliance on truth and fidelity at an end for ever.
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
HIS PHILOSOPHY OF MORALS,
illusions — hollow and despicable mockeries for the most part, and, at best, but laborious follies. Religion, 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 sooth 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. Thus, we have an indelicate but very clever scene of young Juan's concealment in the bed of an amorous matron, and of the torrent of
rattling and audacious eloquence” with which she repels the too just suspicions of her jealous lord. All this is merely comic and a little coarse: – But then the poet chooses to make this shameless and abandoned woman address to her young gallant an epistle breathing the very spirit of warm, devoted, pure, and unalterable love - thus profaning the holiest language of the heart, and indirectly associating it with the most hateful and degrading sensuality. In like manner, the sublime and terrific description of the Shipwreck is strangely and disgustingly broken by traits of low humour and buffoonery ; — and we pass immediately from the moans of
AND ITS EXEMPLIFICATION.
an agonizing father fainting over his famished son, to facetious stories of Juan's begging a paw of his father's dog — and refusing a slice of his tutor! - as if it were a fine thing to be hard-hearted -- and pity and compassion were fit only to be laughed at. In the same spirit, the glorious Ode on the aspirations of Greece after Liberty, is instantly followed up by a strain of dull and cold- . blooded ribaldry ; — and we are hurried on from the distraction and death of Haidee to merry scenes of intrigue and masquerading in the seraglio. Thus all good feelings are excited only to accustom us to their speedy and complete extinction; and we are brought back, from their transient and theatrical exhibition, to the staple and substantial doctrine of the work the non-existence of constancy in women or honour in men, and the folly of expecting to meet with any such virtues, or of cultivating them, for an undeserving world; — and all this mixed up with so much wit and cleverness, and knowledge of human nature, as to make it irresistibly pleasant and plausible while there is not only no antidote supplied, but every thing that might have operated in that way has been anticipated, and presented already in as strong and engaging a form as possible — but under such associations as to rob it of all efficacy, or even turn it into an auxiliary of the poison.
This is our sincere opinion of much of Lord Byron's most splendid poetry -a little exaggerated perhaps in the expression, from a desire to make our exposition elear and impressive — but, in substance, we think merited and correct. We have already said, and we deliberately repeat, that we have no notion that Lord Byron had any mischievous intention in these publications — and readily acquit him of any wish to corrupt the morals, or impair the happiness of his readers. Such a wish, indeed, is in itself altogether inconceivable ; but it is our duty, nevertheless, to say, that much of what he has published appears to us to have this tendency and that we are acquainted with no writings so well calculated to extinguish in young minds all generous enthusiasm and gentle affection - all respect for them