Text: Anonymous (Viator), “Byron and Poe,” Virginia University Magazine, June 1857, vol. I, no. 6, pp. 241-248


­[page 241, unnumbered:]


Unfortunate and erring genius has a strange charm for us. While we bow down before the lofty names of literature, while we even cherish personal affection for such men as Goldsmith and Montaigne, it is on the lives of Byron and Shelley that we dwell with the most absorbing interest. We experience towards them something like the emotion the traveler feels before the ruins of Babylon — but vastly deeper. It is a natural law which impels us to this sympathy. We cannot but adjudge them guilty, yet we would fain find some loop-hole of escape. Nor can we believe that there is a higher law by which genius is to be tried. Every man must be judged by the simple rule of right. But we are loth to join noble talents with moral depravity. We are glad, at the least, to find circumstances which may extenuate the fault. This desire to excuse, however, need not prevent us from estimating aright characters of this description.

There is no American author to whom this remark is so applicable as one in whom we all here feel a local interest, EDGAR A. POE; and to no English writer does it apply with more force than to BYRON. We cannot read the memoirs and letters of these men without perceiving the similarity in their genius, temper, and circumstances. The same early indulgence, the same dissatisfaction, the same painful fate, was theirs. They have both met with boundless censure; and it is the hope of gaining some insight into their characters that prompts this comparison. If there appears to be a real resemblance between them, we shall then be able to apply to one what has been determined or asserted with respect to the other. Byron has been studied greatly more than Poe. Reviewers. ­[page 242:] and lecturers have analyzed his character, and every young champion in literature has laid lance in rest for or against him. Our countryman deserves no less study. We think he has not yet received it.

It is not proposed to decide on their intellectual standing, or their literary merits. We take the verdict which has been given with unanimous voice. We believe that both were men of genius. We do not design any more to estimate the benefit which literature and art have derived from their writings, to determine whether they have opened any new line of thought, or enriched the language with new images. Certain things in regard to this must be taken for granted. It is sufficient that their works exhibit remarkable power, and must produce some moral effect. It is with this, and with their characters, that we have to do.

There are some external points of difference between them. Byron moved in a higher sphere than his brother-poet. He lived in the modern golden age of English literature; Sheridan, Moore, Shelley, Scott, Rogers, were his friends and companions, and he lived in constant intercourse with Southey, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, though they were not his friends. His name is and was enshrined in this galaxy. It has been often mentioned, too, that his rank, his wealth, invested him with an interest of their own, and this was strengthened by his original views and enthusiastic disposition. Poe’s name was associated with no such host of stars. He was for most of his life, after arriving at the age of manhood, in indigent circumstances. His career was run within narrow limits of ground. And so there is no such halo around his name as encircles Byron’s. No such brilliant popularity awaited him. We do not feel half so well acquainted with him, and he rarely appeals to our sympathy for himself.

But, underlying all diversities, there is a striking resemblance between the men in temperament, character, and influence.

The same gloom tinges their writings. It assumes different hues, however, in the two. Both have tried life, and are deeply dissatisfied with it; but the dissatisfaction in the one case calls out all the bad passions, and produces a spirit of opposition to society; in the other, it leads to a shrinking into self, retiring from society, and wrapping around a cloak of mystery and terror. In their letters especially a vein of sarcasm is apparent. It is to be regretted that we have so few of Poe’s. James Boswell says, that he cannot “conceive a more perfect mode of writing any man’s life, than, not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought.” We could wish, too, that Poe had left on record some expression of his own feelings and motives. Byron’s letters and diary introduce us to his daily thoughts — whether he is chuckling ­[page 243:] over the fulsome flattery of Reviews at home, or tasting the hollowness of London society, or plunging headlong into carnivals and intrigues in Italy. His general tone is one of antagonism and bitterness — but he laughs at his enemies. He ridicules, while he despises and hates. His diary heaps together anecdotes, chit-chat, recollections, and hopes; and very few of them are creditable to the parties concerned. Such distrust of men and women, such irreverence and passion, as he shows, is chilling.

As has been said, we know much less of Poe’s secret feelings. Such of his letters as are published also exhibit opposition, but he does not laugh. His gloom, altogether different from Byron’s sneer, is serious. The reason of this we must seek for partly in his temperament, but more in his social condition, his pecuniary circumstances. He could sometimes employ a jocular tone of satire — witness his letter concerning the poem delivered before the Boston Lyceum. But Poe never achieved so brilliant a reputation as the “noble poet.” We do not know that this can be ascribed to the fact that his productions were too exalted to be appreciated by the public. He was for years connected, as one who knew him well has stated, with magazines whose proprietors found it to their interest to employ him, so long as his unfortunate habits did not incapacitate him for regular work. Perhaps it is due partly to external circumstances, but this alone would be insufficient to account for the difference. It is doubtless owing to a real difference in their writings. Whatever the cause, he never awoke to find himself overwhelmed with universal praise. He was weighed down by poverty. He could never look with unconcern on criticism. He was never in a mood to laugh at it. He came to be morbidly alive to censure — even to look on the whole literary race as his enemies. This hatred of criticism was doubtless fostered by his great confidence in his own powers — a confidence inspired by his extraordinary gifts, his personal beauty, his genius, and his daring spirit. So the spirit of his bitterness, if it may thus be called, came to be different from Byron’s. Neither of them believed in human truth and virtue. One of them has openly asserted, that the more he knew of men, the less he loved them; and of the other it has been said, “he became, and was, an Ishmaelite.” This was partly the fruit of bitter experience, partly the result of strong minds ill-directed, and strong passions unchecked by education.

But let us pass on to compare the personal characters of the men. It is sad to think of their lives. We feel that they have wasted noble powers, not only failing to act for good, but often acting for evil. We are prone to indulge in useless imaginings of what they would have done, had their influence been all cast on the side of right. And we have sympathy for them; their genius and their virtues throw a splendid ­[page 244:] veil over their faults, and we cannot in thought clothe them with their vices. It is yet true that these men threw away the restraints of common morality, and became the slaves of appetite and passion. This is true in an especial manner of Poe, whose whole nature, it is said, was transformed by the intoxicating cup. While a student of the University, he abandoned himself to dissipation — the habit grew with him, alienated his friends, destroyed his prospects again and again, and finally brought him to an untimely and ignominious grave. He was not alone in sorrow. There were two delicate women to share his suffering and disgrace. So publisher after publisher, with the kindest feelings towards him, was obliged to dismiss him; and he gave occasion to his enemies to heap opprobrium on him; and he reduced his family to the extremest want. He must have worn out his mind too.

Byron was no less infatuated in dissipation. Whether Childe Harold’s opinions and character be those of his painter or not (Byron strenuously denied it,) the description of his habits may be applied with perfect accuracy to the latter: He

“Ne’er in virtue’s ways did take delight,

But spent his days in riot most uncouth,

And vexed with mirth the drowsy ear of night.

Ah me! in sooth he was a shameless wight,

Sae given to revel and ungodly glee;

Few earthly things found favor in his sight,

Save concubines and carnal companie,

And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.”

The fine old Spenserian stanza almost makes the habits of the Childe amiable. Byron’s dissipation affected externally none but himself. There was a sister to mourn over his excesses; but she, mistress of a family, was not often with him. We have no desire to slur over or excuse vice. It is the privilege of biographers to look at their heroes through colored spectacles. Yet, in determining the degree of guilt, it would be unjust to ignore the existence of great temptation, and the absence of restraining influences. It must be remembered that these men were reared both as heirs, and were accustomed from their youth to the gratification of all their desires. Byron succeeded to the estate and title of his uncle when he way ten years old. He inherited from his father a violent and reckless disposition, and there was no counteracting influence at home. His nurse, indeed, early taught him passages from the Scriptures, and he retained through life a knowledge of the Bible; but, unsustained by parental teachings and example, it fell powerless on him,. His evil habits were even encouraged by the example of his mother, a woman of violent temper. And he grew up a lord, petted and humored. ­[page 245:]

Poe, the supposed heir of his adopted father until that gentleman’s second marriage, was indulged to an unusual extent. Liberally supplied with money, and passing many years of his life at academies, removed from the good influences of home, in no very pure school of morals, it its hardly to be expected that he should have grown up in robust virtue. Such plans of education are incompatible with the inculcation of just moral sentiments. As well, almost, suppose a Spartan boy to refrain from stealing when an opportunity occurred for showing his ingenuity. Byron, too, resided for some time in a country where the code of morals was by no means so strict as on Anglo Saxon ground. We who have been restrained from our youth up by parental authority and public opinion, have no right to judge harshly of those who differ from us only in having been deprived of those restraints. They were guilty of these things, but let it not be concluded that they were utterly wicked and abandoned. If they left names,

Linked to one virtue, and a thousand crimes,

let us acknowledge the one virtue. There are portions of these men’s lives on which we love to dwell. No one can think of Lord Byron’s exertions in the cause of Greek liberty, the sacrifices of money and comfort which he made, the affectionate and thoughtful care he took of his sister and his daughter Ada, without feeling that every spark of generous emotion did not desert his breast — that, if he was cold and cynical to the world, he had still a depth of real tenderness in his heart. It may be permitted too, to instance his affectionate concern for the countess Guiccioli expressed in such language as cannot but be believed to be sincere. And there is no more touching scene in our literature than that in ‘Cain’ where Cain and his wife Asa are gazing on their little Enoch sleeping. No quotation can convey its meaning, and its author could not have been bereft of feeling.

Mrs. Osgood has borne touching testimony to the remnant of good which existed in Poe. “I can sincerely say,” she writes, “that although I have frequently heard of aberrations on his part from ‘the straight and narrow path,’ I have never seen him otherwise than gentle, generous, well-bred, and fastidiously refined.” A most gratifying evidence of real good in him is the fact that he was tenderly and constantly loved by pure and noble-hearted women. Women sometimes misplace their love; they may be deceived by false appearances; but we cannot believe that man destitute of high claims to love and respect on whom the affection of a virtuous and unbiassed woman is centered.

Poe’s wife and mother-in-law, who surely knew him best, shared his misfortunes, toiled for him when they could, and never ceased to love ­[page 246:] him devotedly. The latter expressed her feelings towards him. He “was (says she) more than a son to myself in his long-continued and affectionate observance of every, duty to me.” And his devotion to his wife was not less. “Of the charming love and confidence that existed between his wife and himself, always delightfully apparent to me, in spite of the many little poetical episodes, in which the impassioned romance of his temperament impelled him to indulge; of this I cannot speak too earnestly, too warmly.”

It is a thing to be regretted that Byron met with no pure and high-minded woman, whom he could love as his wife, and who would love him. We do not intend to decide on the blame of his separation. Public opinion was strongly against him, and drove him to Italy. Let us bear in mind the kindness and respect with which he uniformly speaks of his wife, both before and after the separation. Their subsequent conduct was very different, but his was such as one of his character, irritated by injustice, would have adopted. “I could have forgiven the dagger or the bowl,” says he, “anything but the deliberate desolation piled upon me, when I stood alone upon my hearth, with my household gods shivered around me.” Undoubtedly the occurrence embittered his feelings greatly. He had no friend then, but his sister. His early experience, too, must have hardened his heart. Mary Chaworth did not lose her influence over him when she chose another husband, and we cannot tell how much his early disappointments were connected with his subsequent cynicism. He could, and did love, fervently.

Let us return now to some more pleasing resemblances between them. They were both men of high animal spirits. There are many accounts of their youthful activity. While at school Byron was famous for his gymnastic feats. He was one of the eleven from Harrow when that school played a game of cricket against Eton. Throughout life he was fond of the exercise of boxing. At Harrow he had a friend who wrote Latin surprisingly, and did the exercises of most of the school; he was anxious to perform this service for Byron, and in return for his kind intention; the young lord thrashed all who interfered with him, (the friend being of a peaceable disposition,) and occasionally thrashed him to make him fight. Several adventures, which he himself relates as occurring in Italy, show that this mettle did not desert him. And his spirit, for the short time he was with them, quickened the Greeks into life.

His swim across the Hellespont is well-known. He accomplished it, a distance of four miles, in an hour and ten minutes, thus demonstrating the feasibility of Leander’s feat.

Poe performed a similar one, swimming seven miles and a half against a strong current. We have few particulars of his youth. It is not to ­[page 247:] be concealed that transactions of a lower and darker character than those yet mentioned have been alleged against him. Some of these are not vouched for — others are stated explicitly. It is difficult to reconcile this with the gentleness, courtesy, and humility, which intimate acquaintances have asserted belonged to him. It was the demon of drink that clouded all his life.

It remains to mention their remarkable personal beauty. Poe’s conversation was eloquent in a high decree, more thrilling, it is said, than his best published works. “His large and variably-expressive eyes looked repose or shot fiery tumult into theirs who listened, while his own face glowed, or was changeless in pallor, as his imagination quicked his blood, or drew it back frozen to his heart.” The same remarkable change of expression in Byron is thus described by a “fair critic:” “his extreme facility of expression was sometimes painful, for I have seen him look absolutely ugly — I have seen him look so hard and cold that you must hate him, and then, in a moment, brighter than the sun, with such playful softness in his look, such affectionate eagerness kindling in his eyes, and dimpling in his lips into something more sweet than a smile, that you forget the man, the Lord Byron, in the picture of beauty presented to you.” Such men were not wholly bad.

With such similarity of habit, character, and temperament, we would expect the influences of these two men’s productions to be not materially different. We would look for distorted pictures of life — for wrong feeling and motive. We find it so. This grand objection is applicable to both: they accomplish nothing whatever of real good. Have we ever risen from the reading of Byron or Poe with one good resolution strengthened, with one cheerful hope for man and life, with one reverent thought of God?

They have written much that is beautiful, that will enrich the lanrguage — much that indicates deep thought and vigorous genius; but it is impotent for moral elevation. It were well if this were all — but it is never so. Perhaps the least blame-worthy of the effects of their writings is the gloom that they cast over life. A sentimental sadness, sometimes without foundation, sometimes based on the worst developments of character, is engendered. Misanthropy or morbid feeling of dissatisfaction is tinged with romance and heroism. The two take different methods of accomplishing this result. Byron appeals to the passions and sympathies, Poe rather to our sense of the horrible. The latter heaps up the most harrowing incidents, conceives and depicts with fearful distinctness the most dreadful and mysterious combinations and scenes; and they affect us powerfully, notwithstanding their improbable character. The former paints characters over whom hangs a perpetual cloud of gloom, but it is a moral gloom, merited by a disregard ­[page 248:] of the laws of God and men. Their crimes too are always linked with some virtue; and thus Byron incurs the deeper censure of clothing vice in an engaging dress; really, of breaking down the barrier between virtue and vice, destroying the life of society. Happily the pages of the American are unpolluted by the licentiousness that distinguishes the Englishman. It is not too much to attribute this difference to the companionship of the wife and mother, whose purity nurtured in the wayward husband and son a true reverence for woman.

There is one other feature which their writings possess in common — the tendency to infidelity. If they sometimes pay a seeming respect to religion, the utter disregard they show to devotional spirit, the hardy spirit of licentiousness and mockery in the one, and of cold speculation in the other, create an atmosphere which chills to death religions feeling. One is boldly skeptical, the other is pantheistic. Reverence is not now made to private opinion, but to the influence of their published writings — an influence against which we should guard the more carefully because their genius has invested it with splendid attraction. We do not say that their works should not be read. This would be to deprive ourselves of much pleasure. Moreover, it is simply impossible. But let us reflect carefully on their real meaning and weight. The comparison of these two lives has shown, we think, that though bad, they were not all bad — that they had much to contend against from which we are saved, and that we know not of. On which side is the advantage we do not assume to decide. It is enough if attention is called to the subject.




Due to the early date of this article, the author may, perhaps, be forgiven for relying too heavily on Griswold’s unreliable depiction of Poe.


[S:1 - VUM, 1857] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Byron and Poe (Anonymous, 1857)