Great men are seldom misjudged. The world passes sentence on them, and there is no appeal. Byron's contemporaries judged him by the tone and temper of his works, by his own confessions or self-revelations in prose and verse, by the facts of his life as reported in the newspapers, by the talk of the town. His letters, his journals, the testimony of a dozen memorialists are at the disposal of the modern biographer. Moore thinks that Byron's character was obliterated by his versatility, his mobility, that he was carried away by his imagination, and became the thing he wished to be, or conceived himself as becoming. But his nature was not chameleon-like. Self-will was the very pulse of the machine. Pride ruled his years. All through his life, as child and youth and man, his one aim and endeavour was the subjection of other people's wishes to, his own. He would subject even fate if he could. He has two main objects in view, glory, in the French rather than the English use of the word, and passion. It is hard to say which was the strongest or the dearest, but, on the whole, within his "little life" passion prevailed. Other inclinations he could master. Poetry was often but not always an exaltation and a relief.
He could fulfil his tasks in "hours of gloom." If he had not been a great poet he would have gained credit as a painstaking and laborious man of letters. His habitual temperance was the outcome of a stern resolve. He had no scruples, but he kept his body in subjection as a means to an end. In his youth Byron was a cautious spendthrift. Even when he was "cursedly dipped" he knew what he was about; and afterwards, when his income was sufficient for his requirements, he kept a hold on his purse. He loved display, and as he admitted, spent money on women, but he checked his accounts and made both ends meet. On the other hand, the "gift of continency" he did not possess, or trouble himself to acquire. He was, to use his own phrase, "passionate of body," and his desires were stronger than his will. There are points of Byron's character with regard to which opinion is divided. Candid he certainly was to the verge of brutality, but was he sincere? Was he as melancholy as his poetry implies? Did he pose as pessimist or misanthropist, or did he speak out of the bitterness of his soul? It stands to reason that Byron knew that his sorrow and his despair would excite public interest, and that he was not ashamed to exhibit "the pageant of a bleeding heart." But it does not follow that he was a hypocrite.
His quarrel with mankind, his anger against fate, were perfectly genuine. His outcry is, in fact, the anguish of a baffled will. Byron was too self-conscious, too much interested in himself, to take any pleasures in imaginary woes, or to credit himself with imaginary vices.
Whether he told the whole truth is another matter. He was naturally a truthful man and his friends lived in dread of unguarded disclosures, but his communications were not so free as they seemed. There was a string to the end of the kite. Byron was kindly and generous by nature. He took pleasure in helping necessitous authors, men and women, not at all en grand seigneur, or without counting the cost, but because he knew what poverty meant, and a fellow-feeling made him kind. Even in Venice he set aside a fixed sum for charitable purposes. It was to his credit that neither libertinism nor disgrace nor remorse withered at its root this herb of grace. Cynical speeches with regard to friends and friendship, often quoted to his disadvantage, need not be taken too literally. Byron talked for effect, and in accordance with the whim of the moment. His acts do not correspond with his words. Byron rejected and repudiated bath Protestant and Catholic orthodoxy, but like the Athenians he was "exceedingly religious." He could not, he did not wish to, detach himself from a belief in an Invisible Power. "A fearful looking for of judgment" haunted him to the last.
There is an increasing tendency on the part of modern critics to cast a doubt on Byron's sanity. It is true that he inherited bad blood on both sides of his family, that he was of a neurotic temperament, that at one time he maddened himself with drink, but there is no evidence that his brain was actually diseased. Speaking figuratively, he may have been "half mad," but, if so, it was a derangement of the will, not of the mind. He was responsible for his actions, and they rise up in judgment against him. He put indulgence before duty. He made a byword of his marriage and brought lifelong sorrow on his wife. If, as Goethe said, he was "the greatest talent" of the 19th century, he associated that talent with scandal and reproach. But he was born with certain noble qualities which did not fail him at his worst. He was courageous, he was kind, and he loved truth rather than lies. He was a worker and a fighter. He hated tyranny, and was prepared to sacrifice money and ease and life in the cause of popular freedom.
If the issue of his call to arms was greater and other than he designed or foresaw, it was a generous instinct which impelled him to begin the struggle.
With regard to the criticism of his works, Byron's personality has always confused the issue. Politics, religion, morality, have confused, and still confuse, the issue. The question for the modern critic is, of what permanent value is Byron's poetry? What did he achieve for art, for the intellect, for the spirit, and in what degree does he still give pleasure to readers of average intelligence? It cannot be denied that he stands out from other poets of his century as a great creative artist, that his canvas is crowded with new and original images, additions to already existing types of poetic workmanship. It has been said that Byron could only represent himself under various disguises, that Childe Harold and The Corsair, Lara and Manfred and Don Juan, are variants of a single personality, the egotist who is at war with his fellows, the generous but nefarious sentimentalist who sins and suffers and yet is to be pitied for his suffering. None the less, with whatever limitations as artist or moralist, he invented characters and types of characters real enough and distinct enough to leave their mark on society as well as on literature. These masks or replicas of his own personality were formative of thought, and were powerful agents in the evolution of sentiment and opinion.