A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Twenty-seven
BYRON

WHEN we pass from the first generation of Romantics to the second we are in a new world. Wordsworth and Coleridge were young in the dawn of the French Revolution, when to be young was very Heaven; when Byron and Shelley began to write the Napoleonic War was ending, and when it ended the tide of reaction set in. By that time Wordsworth was middle-aged, soothed and tamed into acceptance of the status quo in politics if not in economics, and returning step by step to the Anglican fold; Byron and Shelley were young, high-spirited aristocrats, rebels against convention, the one a sceptic, the other a professed atheist.

The force that overthrew Napoleon was nationality. Unfortunately it marched to victory under the banners of three absolute monarchs, the rulers of Russia, Austria, and Prussia. These now formed a Holy Alliance, to maintain law and order in Europe on true Christian principles. The Holy Three, as Byron called them, were well-meaning men, who believed firmly in the Divine Right of Kings; the right of subjects, whether of individual subjects to personal liberty or of subject peoples to national independence, they rigorously suppressed. Castlereagh kept Britain out of the Holy Alliance; but he could not help subject peoples in landlocked countries like Hungary and Poland. Later, it is true, Canning brought British sea-power to bear, prevented Spain from crushing Portugal, and when her South American colonies revolted, held out a hand to the United States in support of the Monroe Doctrine and "called in a new world to redress the balance of the old." But on the continent of Europe the Holy Three were all-powerful. Their first rebuff came in 1830, when the second French Revolution sent the Bourbons packing and helped Belgium to independence.

In Britain the cause of Parliamentary Reform had made no progress during the war, and when it was won the oligarchy that

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