My mother’s ill, but recovering, so I read to her. In the bookshelf is a WW2 selection from fifteen English poets which one of my parents must have had at Oxford. The range is from Chaucer to Matthew Arnold, and each poet has a prefatory essay. What leaps out at once is the difference between those essays written by professional critics and teachers and those written by other poets. The poets are so much less mannered and more direct. In this collection, there is Auden on Byron, Louis MacNeice on Keats, and C.S. Lewis, a don who thought of himself as a poet, on Spencer. That’s a little unfair to Lewis. I don’t like his poetry but he really subjected himself to its rigours, and came thereby to understand a great deal which leaked into his prose insights.
Auden on Byron is spectacularly good:
Byron was an egoist and, like all egoists, capable of falling in love with a succession of dream-figures, but incapable of genuine love or fidelity which accepts a personality completely. This did not prevent his writing good love poetry like Hebrew Melodies. In fact, nearly all love poetry is dream-figure poetry. Love may stimulate an artist indirectly and intensify his general vision of life; it does not often make him write love poems: their source is more commonly egoism or frustrated lust.
But Byron was not only an egoist; he was also acutely conscious of guilt and sin. Sometimes these two traits ran in harness, and their conjunction brought out the worst in him, both in his personal life and in his art; the self-conscious Satanism of his affairs, and the worst parts of The Corsair, At other times they were in opposition, and the conflict brought out the best; Don Juan and the Greek expedition.
No egoist can become a mature writer until he has learnt to recognize and to accept, a little ruefully perhaps, his egoism. When Byron had ceased to identify his moral sense with himself and had discovered how to extract the Byronic Satanism from his lonely hero and to turn it into the Byronic Irony which illuminated the whole setting, when he realized that he was a little ridiculous, but also not as odd as he had imagined, he became a great poet.
I discovered while writing this that the whole text of the anthology is available, eccentrically scanned, on the Internet Archive. I doubt this is in strict conformance with copyright law: it can’t be seventy years since Auden, Lewis and MacNeice all died, to name only the contributors I recognised. But that makes it much easier to copy the delicious passage in which Pope (whom Auden thought was one of Byron’s models) explains the dynamics of modern day Twitter. Take it away, Alex:
’Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dangerous is the offence
To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.
Some few in that, but numbers err in this,
Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
A fool might once himself alone expose.
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.
Some are bewilder’d in the maze of schools.
And some made coxcombs Nature meant but fools.
In search of wit these lose their common sense,
And then turn critics in their own defence:
Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write.
Or with a rival’s, or an eunuch’s spite.
All fools have still an itching to deride,
And fain would be upon the laughing side.