Scott, Eulogy on Byron

Author(s): Scott, Sir Walter




Eulogy on Byron
Sir Walter Scott.

Th. Moore's Reflections
when about to read Byron's

The following is a letter written by Sir Walter Scott, a few days
after the news of Lord Byron's death reached England :

‘Amidst the general calmness of the political atmosphere, we have
been stunned from another quarter by one of those death-notes which
are pealed at intervals, as from an archangel's trumpet, to awaken
the soul of a whole people at once. Lord Byron, who has so long
and so amply filled the highest place in the public eye, has shared the
lot of humanity. His lordship died at Missolonghi on the 19th of
April. That mighty genius which walked amongst men as something
superior to ordinary mortality, and whose powers were beheld with
wonder, and something approaching to terror, as if we knew not
whether they were of good or of evil, is laid as soundly to rest as the
poor peasant whose ideas never went beyond his daily task. The
voice of just blame and of malignant censure are at once silenced ; and
we feel almost as if the great luminary of heaven had suddenly disappeared
from the sky, at the moment when every telescope was
levelled for the examination of the spots which dimmed its brightness.
It is not now the question what were Byron's faults, what his mistakes ;
but how is the blank which he has left in British literature to be filled
up? Not, we fear, in one generation, which, among many highlygifted
persons, has produced none who approach Byron in originality,
the first attribute of genius. Only thirty-seven years old ;— so much
already done for immortality — so much time remaining, as it seems to
us short-sighted mortals, to maintain and to extend his fame, and to
atone for errors in conduct and levities in composition ;— who will not
grieve that such a race has been shortened, though not always keeping
the straight path — such a light extinguished, though sometimes
flaming to dazzle and to bewilder? One word on this ungrateful subject
ere we quit it for ever.

‘The errors of Lord Byron arose neither from depravity of heart —
for Nature had not committed the anomaly of uniting to such extraordinary
talents an imperfect moral sense — nor from feelings dead to
the admiration of virtue. No man had ever a kinder heart for sympathy,
or a more open hand for the relief of distress ; and no mind
was ever more formed for the enthusiastic admiration of noble actions,
providing he was convinced that the actors had proceeded upon disin-

terested principles. Lord Byron was totally free from the curse and
degradation of literature — its jealousies, we mean, and its envy. But
his wonderful genius was of a nature which disdained restraint, even
when restraint was most wholesome. When at school, the tasks in
which he excelled were those only which he undertook voluntarily ;
and his situation as a young man of rank, with strong passions, and
in the uncontrolled enjoyment of a considerable fortune, added to that
impatience of strictures or coercion which was natural to him. As an
author, he refused to plead at the bar of criticism ; as a man, he would
not submit to be morally amenable to the tribunal of public opinion.
Remonstrances from a friend, of whose intentions and kindness he was
secure, had often great weight with him ; but there were few who could
venture on a task so difficult. Reproof he endured with impatience,
and reproach hardened him in his error—so that he often resembled
the gallant war-steed, who rushes forward on the steel that wounds
him. In the most painful crisis of his private life he evinced this
irritability and impatience of censure in such a degree as almost to resemble
the noble victim of the bull-fight, which is more maddened by the
squibs, darts, and petty annoyances of the unworthy crowds beyond
the lists, than by the lance of his nobler, and, so to speak, his more
legitimate antagonist. In a word, much of that in which he erred
was in bravado and scorn of his censors, and was done with the
motive of Dryden's despot, “to show his arbitrary power.” It is
needless to say that his was a false and prejudiced view of such a
contest ; and, if the noble bard gained a sort of triumph by compelling
the world to read poetry, though mixed with baser matter,
because it was his, he gave, in return, an unworthy triumph to the
unworthy, besides deep sorrow to those whose applause, in his cooler
moments, he most valued.

‘It was the same with his politics, which on several occasions assumed
a tone menacing and contemptuous to the constitution of his
country ; while, in fact, Lord Byron was in his own heart sufficiently
sensible, not only of his privileges as a Briton, but of the distinction
attending his high birth and rank, and was peculiarly sensitive of
those shades which constitute what is termed the manners of a gentleman.
Indeed, notwithstanding his having employed epigrams, and
all the petty war of wit, when such would have been much better
abstained from, he would have been found, had a collision taken place
between the aristocratic parties in the state, exerting all his energies
in defence of that to which he naturally belonged. His own feelings

on these subjects be has explained in the very last canto of ‘Don Juan;’
and they are in entire harmony with the opinions which we have seen
expressed in his correspondence, at a moment when matters appeared
to approach a serious struggle in his native country:

“He was as independent—ay, much more,
Than those who were not paid for independence;
As common soldiers, or a common—Shore,
Have in their several acts or parts ascendance
O'er the irregulars in lust or gore,
Who do not give professional attendance.
Thus on the mob all statesmen are as eager
To prove their pride as footmen to a beggar.”

‘We are not, however, Byron's apologists, for now, alas! he needs
none. His excellencies will now be universally acknowledged, and
his faults (let us hope and believe) not be remembered in his epitaph.
It will be recollected what a part he has sustained in British literature
since the first appearance of “Childe Harold,” — a space of nearly sixteen
years. There has been no reposing under the shade of his
laurels; no living upon the resource of past reputation; none of that
codling and petty precaution which little authors call “taking care
of their fame.” Byron let his fame take care of itself. His foot was
always in the arena, his shield hung always in the lists; and, although
his own gigantic renown increased the difficulty of the struggle, since
he could produce nothing, however great, which exceeded the public
estimates of his genius, yet he advanced to the honorable contest
again and again and again and came always off with distinction,
almost always with complete triumph. As various in composition as
Shakespeare himself (this will be admitted by all who are acquainted
with his “Don Juan”), he has embraced every topic of human life, and
sounded every string on the divine harp, from its slightest to its most
powerful and heart-astounding tones. There is scarce a passion or a
situation which has escaped his pen; and he might be drawn, like
Garrick, between the weeping and the laughing Muse, although his
most powerful efforts have certainly been dedicated to Melpomene.
His genius seemed as prolific as various. The most prodigal use did
not exhaust his powers, nay, seemed rather to increase their vigour.
Neither “Childe Harold,” nor any of the most beautiful of Byron's
earlier tales, contain more exquisite morsels of poetry than are to be
found scattered through the cantos of “Don Juan,” amidst verses which

the author appears to have thrown off with an effort as spontaneous as
that of a tree resigning its leaves to the wind. But that noble tree
will never more bear fruit or blossom! It has been cut down in its
strength, and the past is all that remains to us of Byron. We can
scarce reconcile ourselves to the idea—scarce think that the voice is
silent for ever, which, bursting so often on our ear, was often heard
with rapturous admiration, sometimes with regret, but always with the
deepest interest :

“All that's bright must fade,
The brightest still the fleetest.”

With a strong feeling of awful sorrow we take leave of the subject.
Death creeps upon our most serious as well as upon our most
idle employments ; and it is a reflection solemn and gratifying that
he found our Byron in no moment of levity, but contributing his
fortune, and hazarding his life, in behalf of a people only endeared to
him by their past glories, and as fellow-creatures suffering under the
yoke of a heathen oppressor. To have fallen in a crusade for freedom
and humanity, as in olden times it would have been an atonement
for the blackest crimes, may in the present be allowed to expiate
greater follies than even exaggerated calumny has propagated against

It is a matter of great surprise that, among the many English
bards now living, no attempt has been made to commemorate in verse
(which the occasion would have made almost as immortal as his own,)
that event, which, more than any other of a like nature, plunged the
whole nation into grief.

‘Lycidas is dead! dead ere his prime.
Young Lycidas! and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.’

And yet, rife as monodies are upon less important and imperious occasions,
none have been produced on the death of Lord Byron.

There is, however, one poem extant, in which a poet, second only
to the mighty dead, has done honour to his character. It is not,
perhaps, less creditable to the heart and to the judgment of that poet,
that this testimony to his friend's talents, and to the goodness of his
disposition, was made public during Lord Byron's life. Even envy
itself can afford to praise a dead rival ; but to assign to a living one
his true eminence, and to express aloud an opinion like that which
Mr. Moore avowed respecting Lord Byron, while he was the object
of attack for critics of all degrees, from the blood-hounds of the great
Reviews down to the yelping curs of the smaller packs, was really
honorable and becoming.

The following verses were published by Mr. Moore in ‘Fables for
the Holy Alliance,’ and are called ‘Reflections when about to read
the Memoirs of Lord Byron, written by himself,’ which it will be
recollected were given by Lord Byron to Mr. Moore, and which that
gentleman consented to have destroyed since his death :

‘Let me, a moment,—ere with fear and hope
Of gloomy, glorious things, these leaves I ope—
As one, in fairy tale, to whom the key
Of some enchanter's secret halls is given,
Doubts, while he enters, slowly, tremblingly,
If he shall meet with shapes from hell or heaven—
Let me, a moment, think what thousands live
O'er the wide earth this instant, who would give,

5 D

Gladly, whole sleepless nights to bend the brow
Over these precious leaves, as I do now.
How all who know—and where is he unknown?
To what far region have his songs not flown,
Like Psaphon's birds, speaking their master's name,
In every language, syllabled by Fame?
How all, whov'e felt the various spell combined
Within the circle of that splendid mind,
Like powers, derived from many a star, and met
Together in some wond'rous amulet,
Would burn to know when first the light awoke
In his young soul,—and, if the gleams that broke
From that Aurora of his genius, raised
More bliss or pain in those on whom they blazed—
Would love to trace th' unfolding of that power,
Which hath grown ampler, grander, every hour;
And feel, in watching o'er its first advance,
As did th' Egyptian traveller, when he stood
By the young Nile, and fathomed with his lance
The first small fountains of that mighty flood.
They, too, who, 'mid the scornful thoughts that dwell
In his rich fancy, tinging all its streams,
As if the star of bitterness, which fell
On earth of old, had touched them with its beams,
Can track a spirit, which, though driven to hate,
From Nature's hands came kind, affectionate;
And which, even now, struck as it is with blight—
Comes out, at times, in love's own native light—
How gladly all who've watched these struggling rays
Of a bright ruined spirit through his lays,
Would here inquire, as from his own frank lips,
What desolating grief, what wrongs, had driven
That noble nature into cold eclipse—
Like some fair orb that, once a sun in heaven,
And born, not only to surprise, but cheer
With warmth and lustre all within its sphere,
Is now so quenched, that of its grandeur lasts
Nought but the wide cold shadow which it casts!
Eventful volume! whatsoe'er the change
Of scene and clime—th' adventures, bold and strange—

The griefs—the frailties, but too frankly told—
The loves, the feuds, thy pages may unfold,
If Truth with half so prompt a hand unlocks
His virtues as his failings—we shall find
The record there of friendships, held like rocks,
And enmities, like sun-touched snow, resigned—
Of fealty, cherished without change or chill,
In those who served him young, and serve him still—
Of generous aid, given with that noiseless art
Which wakes not pride, to many a wounded heart—
Of acts—but, no—not from himself must aught
Of the bright features of his life be sought.
While they who court the world, like Milton's cloud,
‘Turn forth their silver lining’ on the crowd,
This gifted being wraps himself in night,
And, keeping all that softens and adorns
And gilds his social nature hid from sight,
Turns but its darkness on a world he scorns.’

The friendship which subsisted between Mr. Moore and Lord
Byron was equally honorable to each. No two things could well be
more dissimilar than the courses which each of them had selected to
run in their poetical careers, and yet, as far as they were both candidates
(and successful ones) for public approbation, they may be fairly
said to have been rivals. They even, as we have before noticed,
selected the same subject for the exercise of their talents ; but not
only was there no similarity in the manner of the execution, but the
testimony which, in the publication of that poem, Mr. Moore bore to
the genius of his brother-bard was highly commendable. It happens
but too frequently in the annals of literature that the very circumstances
which ought to attach men of letters to each other—for example,
a similarity of pursuits, and feelings kindled from the same
etherial fire—have the effect of raising barriers between them, and
they never speak of each other but to carp at that fame to which they
consider themselves to be solely entitled, and which to share with a
rival is worse than not to possess at all. They can in common ‘bear
no rival near their thrones.’ Mr. Moore is an honorable exception to
this almost universal rule, and by his conduct to Lord Byron during
his life, still more by the almost fastidious respect which he has paid
to his memory, has shown that he deserved the friendship of such a
man, and that the exaltation of his mind is not wholly confined to his
literary efforts.

The death of Lord Byron has, however, reconciled all opinions.
Envy is dead, and that spirit of criticism which induced some persons
to cavil at what they had neither hearts to feel nor heads to understand
is at rest for ever. The bitterness of the grief which Lord
Byron's decease occasioned has also lost much of its force, and it is
now regarded only as a loss deep and irreparable, but one which must
be endured. In the mean time his fame has soared to the highest
point, and, in all the range of English poetry, there are few who claim
a more brilliant place. In the memory of all who knew him he will
live while they exist ; and, when all who breathed the same air with
him shall have gone to join him in the world which he now inhabits,
his works will hold the same station as they now occupy in the minds
of all men while the literature of England shall continue. This shall
be really to live, and in this fame is the real triumph over the grave.

He is not dead, he doth not sleep—
He hath awakened from the dream of life:
'Tis we, who, lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance strike with our spirit's knife
Invulnerable nothings. We decay
Like corpses in a charnel ; fear and grief
Convulse us, and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.



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Scott, Eulogy on Byron

Document Information

Document ID 201
Title Scott, Eulogy on Byron
Year group 1800-1850
Genre Personal writing
Year of publication 1824
Wordcount 2916

Author information: Scott, Sir Walter

Author ID 47
Title Sir
Forenames Walter
Surname Scott
Gender Male
Year of birth 1771
Place of birth Edinburgh, Scotland
Occupation Author, solicitor
Father's occupation Solicitor
Education University
Locations where resident Edinburgh
Other languages spoken Latin