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Thoughts On Shelley And Byron
by [?]

As moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine.

At all events, Byron never set to work to consecrate his own sin into a religion and proclaim the worship of uncleanness as the last and highest ethical development of “pure” humanity. No–Byron may be brutal; but he never cants. If at moments he finds himself in hell, he never turns round to the world and melodiously informs them that it is heaven, if they could but see it in its true light.

The truth is, that what has put Byron out of favour with the public of late has been not his faults but his excellences. His artistic good taste, his classical polish, his sound shrewd sense, his hatred of cant, his insight into humbug above all, his shallow, pitiable habit of being always intelligible–these are the sins which condemn him in the eyes of a mesmerising, table-turning, spirit-rapping, spiritualising, Romanising generation, who read Shelley in secret, and delight in his bad taste, mysticism, extravagance, and vague and pompous sentimentalism. The age is an effeminate one, and it can well afford to pardon the lewdness of the gentle and sensitive vegetarian, while it has no mercy for that of the sturdy peer proud of his bull neck and his boxing, who kept bears and bull-dogs, drilled Greek ruffians at Missoloughi, and “had no objection to a pot of beer;” and who might, if he had reformed, have made a gallant English gentleman; while Shelley, if once his intense self-opinion had deserted him, would have probably ended in Rome as an Oratorian or a Passionist.

We would that it were only for this count that Byron has had to make way for Shelley. There is, as we said before, a deeper moral difference between the men, which makes the weaker, rather than the stronger, find favour in young men’s eyes. For Byron has the most intense and awful sense of moral law–of law external to himself. Shelley has little or none; less, perhaps, than any known writer who has ever meddled with moral questions. Byron’s cry is, I am miserable because law exists; and I have broken it, broken it so habitually, that now I cannot help breaking it. I have tried to eradicate the sense of it by speculation, by action; but I cannot–

The tree of knowledge is not the tree of life.

There is a moral law independent of us, and yet the very marrow of our life, which punishes and rewards us by no arbitrary external penalties, but by our own consciousness of being what we are:

The mind which is immortal, makes itself
Requital for its good or evil thoughts;
Is its own origin of ill, and end–
And its own place and time–its innate sense
When stript of this mortality derives
No colour from the fleeting things about,
But is absorbed in sufferance or in joy,
Born from the knowledge of its own desert.

This idea, confused, intermitted, obscured by all forms of evil–for it was not discovered, but only in the process of discovery–is the one which comes out with greater and greater strength, through all Corsairs, Laras, and Parasinas, till it reaches its completion in “Cain” and in “Manfred,” of both of which we do boldly say, that if any sceptical poetry at all be right, which we often question, they are right and not wrong; that in “Cain,” as in “Manfred,” the awful problem which, perhaps, had better not have been put at all, is nevertheless fairly put, and the solution, as far as it is seen, fairly confessed; namely, that there is an absolute and eternal law in the heart of man which sophistries of his own or of other beings may make him forget, deny, blaspheme; but which exists eternally, and will assert itself. If this be not the meaning of “Manfred,” especially of that great scene in the chamois hunter’s cottage, what is?–If this be not the meaning of “Cain,” and his awful awakening after the murder, not to any mere dread of external punishment, but to an overwhelming, instinctive, inarticulate sense of having done wrong, what is?