In language which was intelligible and persuasive, under shapes and forms which were suggestive and inspiring, Byron delivered a message of liberation. There was a double motive at work in his energies as a poet. He wrote, as he said, because "his mind was full" of his own loves, his own griefs, but also to register a protest against some external tyranny of law or faith or custom. His own countrymen owe Byron another debt. His poems were a liberal education in the manners and customs of "the gorgeous East," in the scenery, the art, the history and politics of Italy and Greece. He widened the horizon of his contemporaries, bringing within their ken wonders and beauties hitherto unknown or unfamiliar, and in so doing he heightened and cultivated, he "touched with emotion," the unlettered and unimaginative many, that "reading public" which despised or eluded the refinements and subtleties of less popular writers.
To the student of literature the first half of the 19th century is the age of Byron. He has failed to retain his influence over English readers. The knowledge, the culture of which he was the immediate channel, were speedily available through other sources. The politics of the Revolution neither interested nor affected the Liberalism or Radicalism of the middle classes. It was not only the loftier and wholesomer poetry of Wordsworth and of Tennyson which averted enthusiasm from Byron, not only moral earnestness and religious revival but the optimism and the materialism of commercial prosperity. As time went on, a severer and more intelligent criticism was brought to bear on his handiwork as a poet. It was pointed out that his constructions were loose and ambiguous, that his grammar was faulty, that his rhythm was inharmonious, and it was argued that these defects and blemishes were outward and visible signs of a lack of fineness in the man's spiritual texture; that below the sentiment and behind the rhetoric the thoughts and ideas were mean and commonplace. There was a suspicion of artifice, a questioning of the passion as genuine. Poetry came to be regarded more and more as a source of spiritual comfort, if not a religious exercise, yet, in some sort, a substitute for religion.
There was little or nothing in Byron's poetry which fulfilled this want. He had no message for seekers after truth. Matthew Arnold, in his preface to The Poetry of Byron, prophesied that "when the year 1900 is turned, and our nation comes to recount the poetic glories in the century which has then just ended, her first names with her will be those of Byron and Wordsworth."
That prophecy still waits fulfilment, but without doubt there has been a reconsideration of Byron's place in literature, and he stands higher than he did, say, in 1875. His quarrel with orthodoxy neither alarms nor provokes the modern reader. Cynical or flippant turns of speech, which distressed and outraged his contemporaries, are taken as they were meant, for witty or humorous by-play. He is regarded as the herald and champion revolt. He is praised for his "sincerity and strength," for his single-mindedness, his directness, his audacity. A dispassionate criticism recognizes the force and splendour of his rhetoric. The "purple patches" have stood the wear and tear of time. Byron may have mismanaged the Spenserian stanza, may have written up to or anticipated the guide-book, but the spectacle of the bull-fight at Cadiz is "for ever warm," the "sound of revelry" on the eve of Waterloo still echoes in our ears, and Marathon and Venice, Greece and Italy, still rise up before us, "as from the stroke of an enchanter's wand." It was, however, in another vein that Byron achieved his final triumph. In Don Juan he set himself to depict life as a whole.
The style is often misnamed the mock-heroic. It might be more accurately described as humorous-realistic. His "plan was to have no plan" in the sense of synopsis or argument, but in the person of his hero to "unpack his heart," to avenge himself on his enemies, personal or political, to suggest an apology for himself and to disclose a criticism and philosophy of life. As a satirist in the widest sense of the word, as an analyser of human nature, he comes, at whatever distance, after and yet next to Shakespeare. It is a test of the greatness of Don Juan that its reputation has slowly increased and that, in spite of its supposed immoral tendency, in spite of occasional grossness and voluptuousness, it has come to be recognized as Byron's masterpiece. Don Juan will be read for its own sake, for its beauty, its humour, its faithfulness. It is a "hymn to the earth," but it is a human sequence to "its own music chaunted."
In his own lifetime Byron stood higher on the continent of Europe than in England or even in America. His works as they came out were translated into French, into German, into Italian, into Russian, and the stream of translation has never ceased to flow. The Bride of Abydos has been translated into ten, Cain into nine languages. Of Manfred there is one Bohemian translation, two Danish, two Dutch, two French, nine German, three Hungarian, three Italian, two Polish, one Romaic, one Rumanian, four Russian and three Spanish translations. The dictum or verdict of Goethe that "the English may think of Byron as they please, but this is certain that they show no poet who is to be compared with him" was and is the keynote of continental European criticism. A survey of European literature is a testimony to the universality of his influence. Victor Hugo, Lamartine, Delavigne, Alfred de Musset, in France; Börne, Müller and Heine in Germany; the Italian poets Leopardi and Giusti; Pushkin and Lermontov among the Russians; Michiewicz and Slowacki among the Poles - more or less, as eulogists or imitators or disciples - were of the following of Byron. This fact is beyond dispute, that after the first outburst of popularity he has touched and swayed other nations rather than his own.