« ElőzőTovább »
A pension of £300 a year from the king had comforted his declining days. He was able before death to revise his “Homer," and to leave in the little poem of The Castaway_descriptive of a sailor's death, who had been washed overboard in the mid Atlantic —the last sad wail of his noble lyre. Already the darkness of the Valley of the Shadow of Death was on his soul, when he sang the concluding words :
“We perished, each alone; But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.” To forget Cowper's Letters, in a sketch of his literary life, would be unpardonable. Southey, his best biographer, calls him “the best of English letter-writers;" and there is no exaggeration in the praise. Loathing from his soul, as he tells us, all affectation, he writes to his friends in fine simple English words, which have caught their lustre, as style must always do, from the beauty of the thoughts expressed. A sweet, delicate humour, plays throughout these charming compositions, like golden sunlight on a clear and pebbled stream.
APOSTROPHE TO WINTER.
(FROM "THE TASK," BOOK Iv.)
SPECIMEN OF COWPER'S VERSE.
Till the street rings; no stationary steeds
In the year 1790 a profligate and dissipated captain in the Guards abandoned his wife and a little child of two years in the stony wilderness of London. The officer's name was John Byron; his wife was Catherine Gordon of Gight in Aberdeenshire. He went abroad to die: she went north to Aberdeen with her little lame boy to live as well as she could on £130 a year.
There, in Scottish schools, the boy received his early education, until an announcement reached the small household in the city of granite, that, by the death of his grand-uncle, "Geordie” was a lord,
and owner of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. At 1798 once his weak, capricious mother, was seized with a desperate
horror of her sou’s lameness, which had existed from his
birth. In vain she tried quacks and doctors. The foot remained unchangeably distorted, and to the last a look at the deformity stabbed Byron like a dagger. Less than two years at a Dulwich boarding-school, and some time at Harrow, prepared the young lord for entering Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1805. Already the youth of seventeen, thoroughly spoiled by his foolish mother, who flung things at him one moment, and strained him to her breast the next, had been neglecting his regular studies, but eagerly devouring other books of every class and kind. Oriental history seems early to have fascinated his taste; and this early love gave its own colouring to his chief poetical works. Already, too, another love than that for books had been tinging his spirit with its
ENGLISH BARDS AND SCOTCH REVIEWERS."
hues. The lame but handsome boy was only fifteen, when he met that Mary Chaworth, whose coldness towards him was the first rill of lasting bitterness that mingled with the current of his life. The beautiful Dream, which we find among his minor poems, tells the sad story of this boyish love and its results.
The young lord's life at Cambridge lasted about two years, during which he made some firm friends among the students, but annoyed and estranged the college Dons by his irregularities. Among other freaks, he kept bull-dogs and a bear in his rooms, the latter of which he introduced to visitors as in training for a fellowship. His lameness did not prevent him from taking a full share in athletic sports. At school he had loved hockey and cricket better than the Latin poets. At college, and during his residence at Newstead, before he came of age, he was passionately fond of boating A large Newfoundland dog was his invariable companion during the lonely cruisings he enjoyed.*
During his leisure hours at school and college he had been penning occasional verses, which appeared at Newark in 1807, in a little volume entitled Hours of Idleness. Very boyish and very weak these verses were, but they hardly merited 1807 the weighty scorn with which an Edinburgh reviewer noticed then within the year. Stung to the quick by this article, with the authorship of which Lord Brougham is charged, the “noble minor” retorted in a poem, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, which showed the world that the abused versicles were but the languid recreations of a man in whose hand, when roused to earnest work, the pen became a tremendous and destruc
Two years of foreign travel (1809–1811), led the poet through scenes whose beauty and historic interest inspired the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Though Byron was only one-and-twenty when he set out upon this tour of Spain and Turkey, the shadow of disappointed love had long been brooding upon his heart.
In spite of his own repeated denials, we cannot
* The Epitaph on this dog, especially the last line, affords a strange glimpse of the poet's misanthropic pride.
FIRST CANTOS OF
help identifying the writer with this gloomy Childe Harold, who had exhausted in revelry and vice the power of enjoying life. Not that Byron at this early stage felt within his breast only the cold and lifeless embers of wild passions, which had burned themselves to death ; but the poor young fellow, smarting sorely under his early sorrow, and feeling that his talents were of no common kind, grew into that diseased state of mind which leads a man to believe that it is a fine thing to hate all the world and care for nothingto be utterly blasé and done-up, and alone and uncared-for. So he pictures Childe Harold to have been; and the same unpleasant character is reproduced in nearly all his portraitures of men. When the first two cantos of this noble poem were published in
1812, the author, who only five years earlier had been 1812 sneered at as a weakling, rose by unanimous consent to A.D. the head of the London literary world. In his own
words, he awoke one morning to find himself famous. As the Ayrshire peasant had been caressed by the fashionables of Edinburgh, the aristocratic and handsome Byron was idolized in the saloons of London.
His life, as a man of fashion and a literary lion, lasted for about three years. During this time he took his seat in the House of Lords, and made three speeches without producing any marked effect.
The material gathered during his travels being yet far from exhausted, he wrote those fine Turkish tales, which kindled in the public mind of England an enthusiastic feeling towards modern Greece. The Giaour and The Bride of Abydos appeared in 1813; The Corsair and Lara, in the following year. The two former are written in that eight-syllabled line which suits so well the narration of stirring and romantic adventures. In the latter he adopted the rhyming pentameters of Dryden and Pope, but gave them a music and a colour all his own. In all four the inevitable and unwholesome Byronic hero,-sallow, wasted, dark-haired, mysterious, ill-humoured, -casts his chill upon us. Childe Harold has wound a crimson shawl round his high, pale brow, has donned the snowy capote, has stuck ataghan and silver-mounted pistols in his belt, and in full Greek dress glooms at us with his melancholy eyes.