Графични страници
PDF файл
ePub

A NOXIOUS ANTINOMY

xi

Tom Robertson or James Albery in a letter to Edward Fitzgerald, or Mr Swinburne and Mr WattsDunton “swopping jokes” culled from Mr Carton and Mr Jones. The parallel is, of course, quite inconceivable, and I only draw it to set in high relief that contempt of purely literary canons of taste that Byron so often delighted to express. He quotes Andrews and Kenney precisely as he quotes Cowper or Campbell, Coleridge, Southey, or Moore. He finds in their farces the particular tag he wants, and, for his own purposes of letter-writing, "Better Late Than Never" and “Raising the Wind” stand exactly on the same level with “The Ancient Mariner and “The Pleasures of Hope.” The fact is that, throughout his life, despite its pre-occupation with literature, Byron was never weary of protesting against the notion that books are as important a matter as the world with which they deal. He liked living romances better than writing them, and though he never succeeded in finding a career in the world of action, he always confessed to quote Mr Chesterton's amusing dichotomy—that he preferred the society of gentlemen to that of literary men. His cry seems ever to have been what was Verlaine's cry later in the century—“Don't let's talk literature. He knew and loathed “the envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness” that are inseparably annexed to a literary life led by a member of a literary circle, and he was urgent in promulgating-and with a more downright sincerity than Stevenson's—the pestilent heresy that the world is alive and that books are dead-a heresy, by the way, which Mr Swinburne ingeniously exposes in the preface to the new and collected edition of his Poems.

But I have by no means counted the tale of allusions that makes the Letters so piquant. Himself the great champion of the Augustan school of English Poetry, Byron was bound by his theories of his art, by his love for the finished epigram, as distinct from the imaginative suggestion, of the poetic phrase to pay the due meed of reference to "the little nightingale of Twickenham.” Yet, while he performs this duty most loyally, exalting Pope to the heights of Parnassus in his controversial pamphlets, and quoting from his works in the Letters no less than thirty-six times, it is to Johnson, the great critic in this school of verse-making wits, that he makes the most frequent appeal. Byron is for ever celebrating Johnson as literary dictator on the one hand, and as master of epigram and of retort on the other. His “Rasselas," his Drury Lane Prologue, his Lives of the Poets, and his “Vanity of Human Wishes,” are all cited; indeed the great satire is quoted on several occasions, and is once the subject of an elaborate eulogy. Byron's most interesting allusions to Johnson, however, are such as take the form of quotations made from Boswell's “Life," and to an examination of these quotations I therefore propose to devote the remaining portion of my space. Now, inasmuch as most of these phrases are borrowed to accentuate some particularly truculent expression of Byron's own opinions, it is only natural that four of the most important should be taken from places in which Johnson gives his uncompromising judgment of the Fingal controversy. The scathing answer made by the Doctor to Blair's question "whether any man of a modern age could have written such poems

TWO WELL-KNOWN LETTERS OF JOHNSON'S xiii

as those attributed to Ossian (The Life, 1763, May 24th)—“Yes, sir, many men, many women, and many children,” is introduced on two occasions, once in an attack on the playwright Sotheby, again in a suggested criticism of Byron's own verse; and the no less famous dictum (The Life, 1783), “Sir, a man might write such stuff for ever, if he would abandon his mind to it," is twice applied to Wordsworth's poetry. In like fashion, Johnson's well-known letter to Macpherson is twice drawn upon. The latter half of the sentence “ Any violence offered me I shall do my best to repel; and what I cannot do for myself, the law shall do for me is quoted in an inverted form, in reference to a literary attack, and again in allusion to one of Leigh Hunt's poems; and the concluding passage of the letter, "what I hear of your morals inclines me to pay regard not to what you shall say, but to what you shall prove,” is cited in a very plain-spoken letter which Byron wrote to his solicitor, Hanson, at a time when Lady Byron was suspected of an intention to take with her Ada, the sole offspring of the marriage, on a visit to the Continent. În this place I may suitably note that Johnson's letter to Lord Chesterfield is also laid under contribution; the memorable sentence, “Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help ?” being alluded to in a letter sent by Byron to the honorary secretary to the Greek Committee. Another of Johnson's most crushing replies, his retort on Hannah More's flattery, “Dearest lady, consider with yourself what your fattery is worth, before you

bestow it so freely” (The Life, 1784), is twice adopted, once in reference to some utterances of Byron's own, related with too great prolixity to Leigh Hunt, and secondly in a letter to Murray, deprecating the “insolent condescension ” of English public opinion.

Sometimes Byron contrives to pack two Johnsonian quotations into a single letter. Thus, writing to Ĝifford, he says, “It is not for me to bandy compliments with my elders and my betters. I am no Bigot to Infidelity ”—the first of these confessions alluding to Johnson's account of his first interview with George III. (The Life, 1767), where the Doctor, repudiating the idea of replying to a compliment paid him by the king, remarks, “When the king had said it, it was to be so. It was not for me to bandy civilities with my sovereign”; the second making reference to a rebuke administered by Johnson to a Presbyterian minister, Mr Kenneth M'Aulay, who, persisting in “a rhapsody against creeds and confessions” (The Tour, 1773, August 27th), received the following answer, “Sir, you are a bigot to laxness." Similarly, in one of the few letters he addressed to the Earl of Blessington, talking of the ill effects wrought by applying caustic to a wart on his face, Byron writes, “The peccant part and its immediate environ are as black as if the printer's devil had marked me for an author. *Out, damn'd spot,' I saw that during my visit it had increased, was increasing, and ought to be diminished”; obviously alluding in the first place to the humorous reply which Johnson made to Boswell in a discussion of the virtues of medicated baths (The Life, 1769, October 26th), “Well, sir, go to Dominicetti

, and get thyself fumigated; but be sure that the steam be

UNACKNOWLEDGED DEBTS

XV

directed to thy head, for that is the peccant part; and in the second place, to a conversation (The Life, 1783, May 15th), in which Johnson and Boswell quote and condemn the famous vote of the House of Commons, “ That the influence of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished”—an opinion which Byron also mentions in his “Detached Thoughts” as highly applicable to his own melancholy.

Occasionally-as in the letter just spoken of — Byron quotes Johnson without making any acknowledgment of the obligation. Thus the remark he enters in his Journal for December 5th, 1813, on hearing that his rhymes are very popular in the United States, “These are the first tidings that have ever sounded like Fame to my ears—to be redde on the banks of the Ohio,” is plainly inspired by Johnson's speech at the Essex Head Club (The Life, 1784, May 15th), “Oh, gentlemen, I must tell you a very great thing; The Empress of Russia has ordered “The Rambler to be translated into the Russian language : so I shall be read on the banks of the Wolga. Horace boasts that his fame would extend as far as the banks of the Rhone; now the Wolga is farther from me than the Rhone was from Horace.” And when, writing on the same date in his Journal, he criticises Madame de Staël in the words, “She always talks of myself or herself, and I am not (except in soliloquy, as now) much enamoured of either subject,” he is merely paraphrasing Johnson's

angry reply to one of Boswell's impertinent questions (The Life, 1766, May), “Sir, you have but two topics, yourself and me. I am sick of both.” Similarly Byron's praise of Junius, “I like him ; - he was a good hater," is a bold appropriation of

[ocr errors]
« ПредишнаНапред »