1902 Encyclopedia > Lord Byron

Lord Byron
British Romantic poet
(1788-1824)




LORD BYRON, GEORGE GORDON NOEL BYRON, (1788--1824). The portrait of the most remarkable figure in the literature of this century is still too often made up on the principle of putting in all the shadows and leaving out all the lights. Not only the facts of his own life, but even the records and traditions of his ancestry, are partially selected in this way, It is true, no doubt, that a man’s immediate ancestors must be supposed to have most influence on his character, and that Byron’s immediate ancestors were far from being quiet, respectable people. His father, Captain Byron, was a profligate officer, whose first wife was a divorced lady with whom he had eloped to France, who married a second time only to find the means for paying his debts, and who left his wife as soon as her fortune was exhausted. His mother, Catherine Gordon, heiress of Gight in Aber-deenshire, was a fitful and passionate woman, who knew no stable halting-place between the extremes of indulgent fondness and vindictive disfavour. His grand-uncle, whom he succeeded in the title, had killed his neighbour and relative, Mr Chaworth, in a drunken brawl, bad been tried before the House of Lords on the charge of murder and acquitted, but had been so wrought upon by remorse and the sense of public opprobrium, that he shut himself up at Newstead, let the place go to ruin, and acquired such a bad repute by his solitary excesses that lie was known as the "wicked Lord Byron." Even in this wild ancestry it is easy to detect the corruption of good things. In other parts of the family line the nobler elements are seen running clear and pure. The poet's grandfather, Admiral Byron, "Foul-weather Jack," who had as little rest on sea as the poet on land, had the virtues without the vices of the race. Farther down the family tree we find the Byrons distinguishing themselves in the field. Seven brothers fought in the battle of Edgehill. None of the family would seem to have been stirred by the poetic impulse in the brightest period of English song, but later on, under Charles II., there was a Lord Byron who patronized literature, and himself wrote some verses in which he professed—

"My whole ambition only doth extend

To gain the name of Stedman’s faithful friend."

Sir Egerton Brydges, however, has found a poetic ances-try for Byron by connecting the Byron of the 17th century with the family of Sydney.

The poverty into which Byron was born, and from which his accession to high rank did not free him, had much to do in determining his future career. That he would have written verses in whatever circumstances he had been born we may safely believe; but if he had been born in affluence we maybe certain that, with his impressionable disposition, he would never have been the poet of the Revolution—the most powerful exponent of the modern spirit. By the time of his birth (at Holles Street, London, January 22, 1788), his father had "squandered the lands o’ Gight awa," and his mother was on her way back from the Continent with a small remnant of her wrecked fortune. Mrs Byron took up her residence in Aberdeen; and her "lame brat," as she called him in her fits, was sent for a year to a private school at 5s. a quarter, and afterwards to the grammar school of the town. Many little stories are told of the boy’s affectionate gratitude and venturesome chivalry, as well as of his exacting and passionate temper. The sisters Gray, who were his successive nurses, found him tractable enough under kind treatment. His mother, whose notions of discipline consisted in hurling things at him when he was disobedient, had no authority over him; he met her violence sometimes with sullen resistance, sometimes with defiant mockery; and once, he tells us, they had to wrench from him a knife which he was raising to his breast. At school he passed from the first to the fourth class, but with all his ambition to excel he was too self-willed to take kindly to prescribed tasks, too emotional for dry intellectual work; and he probably learned more from Mary Gray, who taught him the Psalms and the Bible, than he did from his schoolmaster. Before he left Aberdeen, which he did on the death of his grand-uncle and his accession to the peerage in May 1798, he gave a remarkable proof of the precocious intensity of his affections by falling in love with his cousin Mary Duff. So strong a hold did this passion take of him, that six years afterwards he nearly went into convulsions on hearing of her marriage.

When Byron’s name was first called in school with the prefix "Dominus," the tradition is that he burst into tears,—from pride, M. Taine conjectures—from pain at the gulf thus placed between him and his school-fellows, the Countess Guiccioli. Soon after, his mother, who had frequently taken advice for the cure of his lame foot, went with him to Nottingham, and placed him under the cure of an empiric, who tortured him to no purpose. The torture was renewed under the advice of a London physician at Dr Glennie's school at Dulwich, at which he was entered in the summer of 1799; and at last the foot, as he wrote to his old Scotch nurse, was so far restored that he was able to put on a common boot. He was two years with Dr Glennie, and though he made little progress in his classical studies, he had the run of his master's library, and added greatly to his general information. Before he left for Harrow he had contracted another passion for his cousin Margaret Parker, so intense that he could not sleep nor eat when he was looking forward to meeting her. He went to Harrow in 1801, "a wild northern colt," as the head-master said of him, very much behind his age in Latin and Greek. This deficiency he never quite overcame, though he worked enough to get into the same form with boys of his own age. Antiquarian studies never had any charm for him. But though, according to his own account, he was always. cricketing, rebelling, and getting into mischief, his brain was not idle. Partly to keep up his school repute for "general information," he read every history he could lay hands on, and not without system either, for he set himself deliberately to know something about every country. He also went through all the British classics, both in Johnson and in Anderson, and most of the living poets. Few boys left Harrow with such a store of useful learning. Many anecdotes are told of the warmth of his friendships at Harrow, and his chivalry in defending his juniors. In the vacation of 1803 he again fell in love-this time more seriously-with Miss Chaworth, whose grandfather "the wicked Lord Byron" had killed. In the melancholy moods of his after life her rejection of him was often a subject of passionate regret.

Byron’s residence at Cambridge (Trinity College, 1805 to 1808, with interval of a year) added little to his know-ledge of academical learning. The arts in which he qualified himself to graduate were swimming, riding, fencing, boxing, drinking, gaming, and the other occupa-tions of idle undergraduates. When he went up to Cambridge he was wretched, he tells us, partly from leaving Harrow, partly "from some private domestic circumstances of different kinds," chiefly, it may be presumed, the want of money; but his friend Scrope Davies lent him large sums, and he lived with a certain reckless happiness which had a great deal more to do with his moodiness and melancholy than the libertine excesses with which he is popularly credited. Much more important than his residence in Cambridge, as bearing on his mental development, was his year’s residence at South-well. From that happy period, which saw the serious dawn of his genius, M. Taine has picked out only the unhappy violent quarrel with his mother, which was the cause of its termination. His intimacy with the Pigotts, and the expansion of his poetic impulses under their genial encouragement, are much more worthy of notice than this culmination of miserable bickerings which he was now strong enough to laugh at, when the domestic storm was, over. He had scribbled many verses at Harrow, but had been too shy to show them to his roystering friends; and now finding for the first time an admiring audience, he put forth his powers in earnest, as he could do only under the influence of love or defiance. The result came before the public in the Hours of Idleness, published by Ridge of Newark in March 1807.1 The poems in that collection have something of the insipidity of the circumstances that gave them birth, but the fact of publication bound him to his vocation to a degree of which he was not at all aware. Hitherto his ambition had pointed towards politics as his natural field, and he said as much in the somewhat dis-dainful preface to his poems. Putting his ambition into verse, he characteristically compared himself to a slumbering volcano, and longed to burst on the world as a Fox or a Chatham. But the Hours of Idleness decided his career for him. When he went back to Trinity College he could not help eagerly watching their effect. Again and again he wrote to the friendly Miss Pigott to hear how they were succeeding. He was prepared for defeat, he said, and he promised to take vengeance on adverse critics. He was made a new man by the publication; he had tasted public applause and hungered for more of it. It was then that he carefully examined himself, and took stock of his acquirements in the very remarkable document dated



FOOTNOTE (page 605)

1 He had previously printed a volume for private circulation, and it is characteristic of his docility, under gentle influences, that he burnt the first impression when Mr Becher rebuked him for the too warm colouring of one of the poems.



November 30, 1807, to which we are indebted for our knowledge of the extent of his studies. In the midst of his rollicking set at Cambridge he was secretly girding up his loins, and collecting his powers to make a grand struggle for fame. Perhaps no poet was ever drawn out so directly by the thirst for public honour; no poet ever appealed so directly to the public eye and heart. He launched himself bodily before the world, almost ravenous f or sympathy and homage.

It is generally said that but for the savage attack of the Edinburgh Review in the spring of 1808 Byron might never have returned to poetry. But the fact is that the review did not appear till a year after the publication of Hours of Idleness, and in the interval Byron, for all his farewell to poetry, was "scribbling," as he called it, more furiously than ever. "I have written," he wrote to Miss Pigott, six months before the Edinburgh attack," 214 pages of a novel; one poem of 380 lines, to be published (without my name) in a few weeks with notes; 560 lines of Bosworth Field, and 250 lines of another poem in rhyme, besides half a dozen smaller pieces. The poem to be published is a satire. "This satire was the poem which he afterwards converted into a reply to the Edinburgh Review. He anticipated censure, and fore-armed himself—always as eager to defy reproof as he was to win applause. Apparently he put off publishing his satire till all his critics should have had their say, and he should know clearly where to hit. When the attack came it wounded him bitterly; but a friend who called on him at the time thought from the fierce light in his eye that he had received a challenge. He was in no hurry to publish; he worked at leisure, with a confident consciousness of his -powers, and English Bards and Scotch Reviewers did not make its appearance till the spring of 1809. When it did appear the authorship was soon discovered, and it was the talk of the town. To us who look back upon it dispassionately, and compare its somewhat heavy and mechanical couplets with the exquisite lightness and fitting-point of its antitype the Dunciad, the satire appears to possess no great force; but the personalities told at the time, when there was a vague unrest in the literary world at the out-spoken severity and sometimes truculent malice of the Scotch review, and the injured poet had his revenge in a general acknowledgment that the objects of his wrath deserved castigation, and that the lash was well laid on.

Soon after the publication of his satire, Byron, in June 1809, left for his travels on the Continent; and one would have expected that the young lord, with the wreath of triumph still fresh on his head after his first literary battle, would have gone on his journey with satisfaction and hopeful curiosity. He sailed in deep dejection, with all the bitterness of a man who feels himself friendless and solitary, and he returned after two years’ wandering in Spain, Albania, Greece, Turkey, and Asia Minor, sadder than before. Why was this? Those who identify him with his own Childe Harold, are ready with the answer that he had lived a life of dissolute pleasure, and was already, at the age of twenty-one, experiencing the pains of satiety and exhaustion. But this is not borne out by such scanty light as he and his friends have thrown on his life at this period. He himself always protested, both in public and private, against being identified with Childe Harold. Childe Harold’s manor was an old monastic residence; he left his country in bitter sadness; in the original MS. his name was Childe Burun; he left behind him a mother and a sister; and he passed through the scenes of Byron’s travels. But there the resemblance ends. The resemblance is really confined, as the author alleged, to local details. There is no reason to disbelieve what the author affirmed, that Childe Harold was a purely fictitious character, "introduced for the sake of giving some connec-tion to the piece." To make him what he intended—"a modern Timon, perhaps a poetical Zeluco,"—the poet drew no doubt, upon his own gloomier moods; he felt occasionally as he makes Harold feel habitually, but the process was much more dramatic than the world, in spite of his pro-tests, took for granted. Byron, with all his bitter moods of forlorn despondency, was too susceptible a spirit to "stalk in joyless reverie" through the south of Europe, as his letters home testify. And we know that his picture of the Bacchanalian feasts in the monastery, with "Paphian girls," and "latterers and parasites,"is not at all like what actually occurred at Newstead Abbey. There were no "laughing dames" there, except the domestics, and the flatterers and parasites were his bosom friends whom he loved with a romantic ardour. They held "high jinks" there as any young men might have done, masqueraded about in monkish habits to be in whimsical conformity with the place, practised pistol-shooting in the old hall, had a wolf and a bear chained at the entrance, had the garden dug up in search of concealed treasure, found a skull there, had it made into a cup, and passed this cup round after dinner, with the conceit that their mouths did it less harm than the worms, and that when its wit had ceased to sparkle, it had better be filled with Burgundy to make other wits sparkle than lie rotting in the earth. Byron himself was too poor, as Moore has remarked, to keep a harem, had such been his wish. He is known to have had a romantic passion for a girl who used to travel with him in England in boy’s clothes; but whoever thinks he was satiated with this poor creature's devotion to him, should read the concluding stanzas of the second canto of Childe Harold, where the poet speaks in his own person, and laments her death in language utterly out of keeping with the dark unfeeling mood of his "modern Timon." One can then understand why he should have said that "he would not for worlds be a man like his hero." There is really very little of the personage Childe Harold in the poem; the poet simply has him by his side as a connecting link, while he describes the scenes through which he passed. In the two last cantos, indeed, Byron, angry that the public had identified him with Childe Harold, and then more defiant of public opinion, hardly cared to keep up the separation between his own character and the pilgrim’s and in the last canto he avowedly makes them coalesce.

To look for the causes of moodiness and melancholy in material circumstances is a very foolish quest; but we may be certain that insufficiency of this world's money, and the daily vexations and insults to which his rank was thereby exposed, had much more to do with Byron’s youthful gloom than satiety of this world’s pleasures. His embarrassed finances, and the impossibility of securing the respect due to his title, formed a constant source of annoyance, put his whole system into a morbid condition, in which every little slight and repulse festered and rankled with exaggerated virulence. From the daily humiliations and impertinences to which his false position exposed him, aggravated by his jealous and suspicious irritability, he may have turned sometimes to Childe Harold’s consolations—"the harlot and the bowl," but his nature prompted him rather to forget his vexations in purer and worthier objects. Unfor-tunately for him, such impetuous and passionate affections as his could rarely find the response for which he craved. In those few cases where devotion was repaid with devotion, the warmth of his gratitude was unbounded; he loaded poor Thyrza’s memory with caresses, careless of what the world might say, remembering only that the poor girl clung to him with unselfish love; and he returned his sister’s tender regard with an ardour and constancy that showed how highly he prized and how eagerly he reciprocated sincere affection. Circumstances that would have fallen lightly on a less sensitive man preyed upon his self--torturing spirit. In his dejection he had taken pleasure in the romantic notion of collecting the portraits of his friends, and one of them refused to sit on the ground that he could not afford it. Another friend, invited to say good-bye, excused himself on the ground that he had to go shopping with his mother. Another prop on which he leaned also precipitated him into the Slough of Despond. His ambition pointed to political distinction, and having, given fair youthful proof of the power he felt to be in him, his pride taught him to look for a warm welcome from his party chiefs when he came of age, but on the contrary, there was a haggle over his admission. Lord Carlisle held coldly aloof, and he had to wait with savage indignation till the marriage certificate of his grandfather was fished up in Cornwall before he could take his seat. This cold but perfectly correct and formal indifference added another pang to the bitterness with which he took leave of his country. When after two years’ absence he returned, still dogged by impecuniosity and the incivilities, real and imagined, that follow in its train, he "found fresh cause to roam." Nursed as he had been in superstitions, he could hardly keep from crying out that the stars had combined against him, when in the months following his return friend after friend went to the grave. Matthews was drowned in the Cam; Wingfield died of fever at Coimbra; and he heard of both deaths on the same day. His mother died in the same month, and in spite of all their quarrels, he felt the bereavement bitterly.

But the death which most deeply wounded him came later. Nothing ever racked him with sharper anguish than the death of her whom he mourned under the name of Thyrza. To know the bitterness of his struggle with this sorrow, we have only to look at what he wrote on the day that the news reached him (October 11, 1811); some of his wildest and most fiercely misanthropical verse, as well as some of his sweetest and saddest, belongs to that blackest of dates in his calendar. It is time that something were done to trace this attachment, which has been strangely overlooked by the essayists and biographers, because it furnishes an important clue to Byron’s character, and is, indeed, of hardly less importance than his later attachment to the Countess Guiccioli Mr John Morley, in an essay which ought to be read by everybody who wishes to form a clear idea of Byron’s poetry as a revolutionary force in itself and an index to the movement of the time, remarks upon the respect which Byron, with all his raillery of the married state in modem society, still shows for the domestic idea. It is against the artificial union, the marriage of convenience, that Byron’s raillery is directed; he always upholds singleness of attachment as an ideal, however cynically or mournfully he laments its infrequence, and points with laughter or with tears at the way in which it is crossed and cut short by circumstances when it does exist. Byron is not a railer against matrimony, except as a counterfeit of the natural union of hearts. His attach-ment to Thyrza shows that in this, as in other matters, he was transparently sincere. It is commonly taken for granted that his youth. before, and, indeed, after his marriage with Miss Milbanke, was a featureless level of promiscuous debauchery; but those who look more narrowly into the facts cannot fail to see that, whatever may have been the number of his "light of loves,"— his fugitive passions were innumerable,—and however often he may have lapsed into vulgar rakery in bitter despair or reckless wantonness, he was always pining for some constant love, and cursing the fate that had denied it to him. This purer sentiment was always enshrined in his heart of heart, from his boyhood to the end of his days. Who Thyrza was can probably never be known, but in trying to convey the impression that she was merely imaginary, probably with the intention of shielding his friend's memory, by declaring him innocent of a relationship unsanctioned by society, Moore really did Byron an injustice. The poor girl, whoever she was, and however much she was deified after her death by his imagination, would really seem to have been his grand passion. Her "dear sacred name" his hand, he says years afterwards, would have trembled to write; he wished it to "rest ever unrevealed;" and when he was questioned by the Countess Guiccioli, he was deeply agitated, and begged her not to recur to the subject. We find him in his Journal, with her in his memory, writing with contempt of the amours of some of his acquaintances, and scoffing at the idea of their applying the name of love to favours that could be purchased. She is the presiding genius of his series of Eastern Tales ; he has recorded the fact that when he drew the portrait of Zuleika his whole soul was full of her memory, and her image was again before him when he described the relationship between Zara and the disguised Gulnare. Conrad, with all his conscious villany, had one redeeming passion—"love unchangeable, un-changed." The Giaour, too, loved but one; he learnt that lesson, he said, from the birds; he despised "the fool still prone to range," and "envied not his varied joys." All these portraitures of single-hearted devotion are tributes to the memory of Thyrza, the "more than friend," com-memorated in the second canto of Childe Harold. Medora’s song in the Corsair, "Deep in my soul that tender secret dwells," though not flawless as a lyric, is one of his most beautiful expressions of this mournful sentiment in a subdued key. When we realize bow bitterly he- lamented her death, and how he could not even bear to write her name, there seems some reason for believing that the mysterious object of Manfred’s love and remorse is another of the forms that she took in his imagination. Whoever cares to look into the matter will find many little corrobora-tive particulars. It is quite in keeping with the morbid self-accusing tendency, the exaggerated moral sensibility, which Byron showed all his life through, that he should have been consumed with remorse at a recollection which colder-hearted men of the world bear about with them every day without a pang.

For some months after his return to England, Byron lived at Newstead very unhappily. He wrote that he was growing nervous, "really, wretchedly, ridiculously, fine-ladically nervous." He could not arrange his thoughts; he feared his brain was giving way, and it would end in madness. He felt at times a strange tendency to mirth. Sometimes he thought of seeking relief in a warfare against society, and he besought one of his friends, when he heard of his deepening crimes, to remember the cause. The inconsistency between this hunger for sympathy and the reckless ferocity of the resolution, shows how distempered his mind was by care and sorrow, "like sweet bells jangled, harsh, and out of tune." At other times he thought more soberly of parliament as a diversion. All his life through, however, "most of his convulsions ended in verse." He found occupation in correcting the proof-sheets of Childe Harold. He went up to London, not to plunge into a lawless and pitiless course of crime, but to enter upon a political career. He spoke two or three times in the House of Lords on the House-Breaker’s Bill, and a petition for Roman Catholic Emancipation, but the publication of Childe Harold put. an end at once to his parliamentary ambitions. "When Childe Harold was published," he says, "nobody thought of my prose after-wards, nor indeed did I."

It has often been asked what was the cause of the instantaneous and wide-spread popularity of Childe Harold, which Byron himself so well expressed in the saying, "I

awoke one morning and found myself famous." Chief among the secondary causes was the warm sympathy between the poet and his readers, the direct interest of his theme for the time. In the spring of 1812 England was in the very crisis of a struggle for existence. It was just before Napoleon set out for Moscow. An English army was standing on the defensive in Portugal, with difficulty holding its own; the nation was trembling for its safety. The dreaded Bonaparte's next movement was uncertain: it was feared that it might be against our own shores. Rumour was busy with alarms. All through the country men were arming and drilling for self-defence. The heart of England was beating high with patriotic resolution.

What were our poets doing in the midst of all this? Scott, then at the head of the tuneful brotherhood in popular favour, was celebrating the exploits of William of Deloraine and Marmion. Coleridge’s Christabel was lying in manuscript. His poetic power was, as he said himself, "in a state of suspended animation." Southey was floundering in the dim sea of Hindu mythology. Rogers was content with his Pleasures of Memory. Wordsworth took a certain meditative interest in public affairs, but his poems, "dedicated to liberty," though fine as compositions, have not the fire and sinew, the ardent directness of popular verse. In the earlier stages of the war Campbell had electrified the country with his heart-stirring songs ; but by 1812 he had retired from the post of Tyrtaeus to be-come the poet of Gertrude of Wyoming. Moore confined himself to political squibs and wanton little lays for the boudoir. It was no wonder that, when at last a poet did appear whose impulses were not merely literary, who felt in what century he was living, whose artistic creations were throbbing with the life of his own age, a crowd at once gathered to hear the new singer. There was not a parish of Great Britain in which there was not some household that had a direct personal interest in the scene of the pilgrim’s travels,—"some friend, some brother there." The effect was not confined to England; Byron at once had all Europe as his audience, because he spoke to them on a theme in which they were all deeply concerned. He spoke to them, too, in language which was not merely a naked expression of their most intense feelings; the spell by which he held them was all the stronger that he lifted them with the irresistible power of his song above the passing anxieties of the moment. Loose and rambling as Childe Harold is, it yet had for the time an unconscious art; it entered the absorbing tumult of a hot and feverish struggle, and opened a way in the dark clouds gathering over the combatants through which they could see the blue vault and the shining stars. If the young poet had only thrown himself forward to ridicule the vanity of their struggles, he would most certainly have been spurned aside in the heat of the fight with anger and contempt; but he was far from being a heartless cynic ; his sympathy with the Spanish peasant, his worship of the scenic won-ders of the country, his admiration of the heroism of the women, his ardent battle-cry of freedom, burst through his thin pretence of cynicism. The pulse of heroism-—heroism conscious of the worst that could happen, and undismayed by the prospect-beat beneath the garb of the cynic. It may have been by unconscious art, but it was not without dramatic propriety, that Byron turned in his second canto from the battlefields of Spain and the tremendous figure of war—

"With blood-red tresses deepening in the sun,

And death-shot glowing in his fiery hands—"

to "August Athena," "ancient of days," and the it vanished hero's lofty mound." In that terrible time of change, when every state in Europe, was shaken to its foundation, there was a profound meaning in placing before men's eyes the departed greatness of Greece; it rounded off the troubled scene with dramatic propriety. Even the mournful scepticism of Childe Harold was not resented at a time when it lay at the root of every heart to ask, Is there a God in heaven to see such desolation, and withhold His hand?

The attention of the public once caught by his sympathy with them, it was rivetted by the theatrical fascination of the character of the pilgrim, whom they persisted in identifying with himself. Young, a man of genius, a lord, and unhappy—unhappy with a sorrow that could not be repressed,—here was a mystery over which speculation could never tire. On Byron himself the first effect of his fame was almost to endanger his poetic gift. He became acquainted with Moore, and went into the fashionable world as a "lion." He had never been in "society" before, and he took to gay life with all the impressionable facility of his character. He was even caught one evening by Mr Dallas in full court dress, and though he repented and did not go, this contemplated breach of his democratic principles, in gratitude for some kind words from the regent, shows how ductile his character was, and how easily he might have been lost to serious poetry if circumstances had not in his youth excluded him from the society of his rank. His docility under new influences was shown in the frank way in which he retracted hard saying after hard saying of his English Bards, and in the fact that though he was sufficiently scornful of the gay world to write the Waltz (1813), he strenously denied the authorship. Yet he soon began to tire of fashionable gaieties and to long for solitude.

Byron’s poetic power did not advance in strength during the four years of his connection with high life. As be had been led to employ the Spenserian stanza by Campbell's Gertrude of Wyoming, which reached his hands just as he was setting out on his travels, be began now to try the metres in which Scott had made his fame. He produce& in rapid succession the Giaour (May 1813), the Bride of Abydos (December 1813), Corsair (January 1814), Lara (August 1814), Siege of Corinth (January 1816), Parisina (February 1816). The best of these is the first; but they were received with an enthusiasm which rose higher and higher with each successive publication. It is quite clear that it was against his intention that he had been identified with Childe Harold, but it is equally clear that though the self-restrained, stern, dark-browed heroes are personifica-tions of only one side of his character, one series of moods, and are as unlike as possible to the complete Byron, he was not unwilling that they should be accepted as types of himself. There was another reason for this than a morbid desire to represent himself as worse than he really was. All Byron’s friends from his boyhood upwards declare him to have been of a very shy disposition. Never having been in the fashionable world before the spring of 1812, he was far from being at his ease in it; and he masked his shyness under a haughty and reserved manner. How severe a restraint this was on his natural manner may be inferred from the delight with which he escaped from it in the society of his boon companions. It galled his vanity to be thus constrained by people for whom he had no great respect, and it is impossible to help conjecturing that he courted identification with his silent heroes, with their "vital scorn of all," and "chilling mystery of mien," in order to supply a romantic explanation of a reserve which was really due to unconquerable shyness. The influence of personal vanity on Lord Byron's actions, counterbalanced as it was and concealed by an equal warmth of generous feeling, is all but incredible. It was part of that amazing sensitiveness to the impressions of the present which was the secret of much of the weakness of his character and much of the power of his poetry.

In November 1813 Byron proposed for the hand of Miss Milbanke, only daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanke, a wealthy baronet, and granddaughter and heiress of Lord Wentworth, "an eligible party," he owned in a letter to Moore, though he "did not address her with these views" His suit was rejected, but she expressed a desire to correspond with him. In September 1814 he made another proposal, which was accepted, and the marriage took place on January 2, 1815. On 10th December a daughter, named Augusta Ida, was born. On 15th January 1816 Lady Byron left her husband's house in London on a visit to her father at Kirkby Mallory. On the way she wrote an affectionate letter to Byron, beginning "Dear Duck," and signed "Your Pippin." A few days after he heard from her father that she had resolved never to return to him, and this intelli-gence was soon confirmed by a letter from herself. In the course of next month a formal deed of separation was drawn up and signed. This is Moore’s account of the affair. Lady Byron’s account, published on the appearance of Moore’s Life, differs chiefly as regards the part taken by her parents in bringing about the separation. Byron suspected her mother’s influence. Lady Byron took the, whole responsibility on herself. Before she left town she thought Byron mad, and consulted Dr Baillie. Dr Baillie persuaded her that this was an illusion. She then told her parents that she desired a separation. The grounds on which she desired. this were submitted by her mother to Dr Lushington, who wrote that- they justified a separation, but advised a reconciliation. Then Lady Byron had an interview with Dr Lushington, and communicated certain facts, after which he declared a reconciliation impossible. A celebrated living authoress, who was slightly acquainted with Lady Byron, has, it is well known, made a definite statement on this subject, implicating a member of Lord Byron’s own family. It is enough, however, to say that there is no evidence in support of the statement, and that it is virtually contradicted by Lady Byron’s own behaviour, as she remained on intimate terms with the relative referred to after the separation from her husband.

The real causes of the separation between Byron and his wife must always remain more or less matter of debate, no absolute proof being possible, and disputants reasoning on the presumptions according to temperament and preposses-sion. Byron’s own statement that "the causes were too simple ever to be found out," probably comes nearest the truth. That their tempers were incompatible, that without treating her with deliberate cruelty he tried her forbearance in many ways, and behaved as no husband ought to do, that for her own happiness she had every reason to demand a separation, will readily be believed. After his marriage a huge accumulation of debtors began to press their claims; no less than nine executions were put in force in his house during the year; and Byron, under the indignities .to which he had daily to submit, acted with an insane violence which might have justified any woman in believ-ing that she was not safe under the same roof with him. It would have required a very peculiar temper to be com-patible with his under the circumstances. A placid, good- tempered woman, with strong good sense, and a boundless affection, which could forget and forgive his most unreason-able outbreaks, might have lived with him happily enough, finding in his sunny moods of playfulness and endearment ample compensation for his fits of gloominess and violence. But Lady Byron was very far from being a woman of that mould. A wife who could coldly ask Byron "when he meant to give up his bad habit of making verses," possessed a terrible power of annoying such a man; her perfect self-command and imperturbable outward serenity, her power of never forgetting an injury and taking revenge with angelic sweetness and apparent innocence of vindictive intention, must have been maddening. The serene way in which she clung to and promoted the maid, Mrs Clermont, in the face of Byron's intolerable dislike to the woman was gall and wormwood to him. An even-tempered man might have lived with such a person comfortably on terms of mutual politeness; but for a haughty-tempered, violent, fitful, moody man it would have been impossible to find a more incompatible partner.

Why, at the time of the separation, did not the public look upon Byron and his wife as simply an ill-assorted pair who could not agree, and were better to, separate I From the first it was rumoured that Lady Byron refused to tell the cause of their separation, whence the public naturally inferred that it must be too terrible to be revealed, and busied themselves inventing and circulating crimes of suitable magnitude. Retribution fell upon Byron for his identifying himself with crime-stained buccaneers. The publication, by an indiscreet friend, of his Farewell to Lady Byron, and the verses entitled A Sketch, let loose the flood-gates of popular indignation in the press. On the Farewell indeed, there was some difference of opinion. A lady correspondent of the Courier declared that "if her husband had bidden her such a farewell she could not have helped running into his arms and being reconciled immediately." If Lady Byron had been such a woman -we have no right to blame her because she was not— the separation, in all probability, would never have taken place. The vast majority in English society resented the publica-tion of the Farewell as an unworthy attempt to put his wife in the wrong, by holding up her unforgiving temper for public reprobation. We now know that the Farewell was written in all sincerity and bitterness of heart, with the tears falling on the paper as he wrote, and that it was published by the indiscreet zeal of a friend to whom he had sent the verses. The fierce attack upon Mrs Clermont in the Sketch was universally condemned as unmanly. The two poems are chiefly interesting now as showing the poet's ungovernable incontinence, his passionate craving for sympathy, and the utter distemper of his mind in the bewilderment of misfortune.

Byron took final leave of England in April 1816. From that date the external events of his life, down to his memorable interference in the cause of Greek independence present comparatively little variety, and excite comparatively little interest. Nothing occurred after this to give a new turn or a new colour to his poetic career; the powerful influences which had conspired to torture music out of him were modified by the lapse of time, but very little, if at all, by the incidents of his life. The bitter feelings with which he left England, the angry sense of injustice and spirit of proud and revengeful defiance, alternating hysterically with humble self-reproach and generous forgive-ness, passed into lighter forms, but they never ceased to rankle. Like Manfred, he asked in vain for oblivion.

In the thick of his troubles, before leaving England, Byron conceived that he had never been "in a situation so completely uprooting of present pleasure, or rational life for the future." But his going abroad was really a most fortunate step both for his happiness and for the exercise of his genius. Abroad he consented to the sale of Newstead, and his income enabled him to live without being subject to the constant indignities which were such a torture to him at home. There also he found the solitude which he had always desired. "Society," he wrote in a letter to Moore, "as now constituted, is fatal to all great original undertakings of every kind," and in his case certainly this was true. His first place of residence abroad was Diodati, a villa in the neighbourhood of Geneva. He spent the summer there, making two excursions to Switzerland,—one with Hobhouse, a shorter one with Shelley, who also was living at Geneva at the time. His travels through Flanders past the field of Waterloo appear in the third canto of Childe Harold (May to July 1816); the idea of writing Manfred on his way to Geneva (begun September 1816, finished February 1817) occurred to him on the Jungfrau, where the scene is laid. In November 1816 he removed to Venice, and lived there, with the exception of short visits to Ferrara and Rome, till December 1819, writing fourth canto of Childe Harold (June 1817), Beppo (October 1817), Ode to Venice (July 1818), first canto of Don Juan (September 1818), Mazeppa (October 1818), second canto of Don Juan (December 1818), third and fourth cantos (finished November 1819). The bare catalogue of his literary work shows that the reports of the debauchery in which Le lived at Venice, and from which he is said to have been rescued by the Countess Guiccioli, must be taken with a qualification. His acquaintance with this lady began in April 1819, and a mutual attachment sprang up at once. In December 1819 he removed to Ravenna. In the following month the Countess Guiccioli, having separated from her husband, occupied, under her father Count Gamba’s presence and sanction, a suite of rooms in the same house with Byron at Ravenna; and though the families were formally separate, the union was not broken till. Byron’s departure for Greece. When, two years later, in 1821, the Gambas, in consequence of their connection with revolutionary movements, were ordered to quit Ravenna, Byron removed to Pisa and lived with them under the same roof as before. Leigh Hunt, who also was received into Byron's house with his wife and children, has given us a somewhat ill-natured but sufficiently faithful picture of his life here, which was simply that of a busy domesticated literary man, with a taste for riding, swimming, and marksmanship. During Byron’s residence here Shelley was drowned in the Gulf of Spezzia. In September 1822, the Gambas were ordered by the Tuscan Government to quit Pisa, and Byron removed with them to Genoa. His life at Genoa has been described with traces of airy malice, but with much vivacity and abundance of detail, by Lady Blessington.

While he lived with the Countess Guiccioli Byron’s literary industry was prodigious. The following is the list:—Translation of the first canto of Morgante Maggiore, February 1820; the Prophecy of Dante, March 1820; translation of Francesca de Rimini, March 1820; Marino Faliero, April to July, 1820; fifth canto of Don Juan, October to November 1820 ; The Blues, November 1820 ; Sardanapalus, January to May 1821 ; Letters on Bowles, February and March 1821 ; The Two Foscari, June to July 1821 ; Cain, July to September 1821 ; Vision of Judgment, September 1821 ; Heaven and Earth, October 1821 ; Werner, November 1821 to January 1822; De-formed Transformed, begun November 1821, finished August 1822; Don Juan, sixth, seventh, and eighth cantos, February 1822; ninth, tenth, and eleventh cantos, August 1822; The Age of Bronze, January 1823; The 181and, February 1823; Don Juan, twelfth and thirteenth cantos, February 1823.

This quiet industrious life, however, did not cure him of his constitutional melancholy and restlessness. The curse of his nature was that he exhausted his pleasures too quickly. He too soon became dissatisfied with past triumphs. Much as he enjoyed the success of the works which poured with such rapidity from his pen, he began to harp on what he might have done; began to think that the tide was turning against him in England, and to hunger for new distinction. In this spirit, towards the end of 1821 he commenced those negotiations for the publication of a journal in England in conjunction with Shelley and Leigh Hunt, which ended in the abortive Liberal. The Vision of Judgment, the greatest of modern satires, appeared in the first number of the Liberal, in the summer of 1822; only three more numbers were published. Accord-ing to Moore, the sign of an intention to take an active part in alliance with English Radicalism did more to make Byron unpopular in England than the most shocking of his poems. It was fortunate for his popularity that a more glorious enterprise offered itself to him in the Greek struggle for independence. He was brought into connection with this through the London Greek committee, of which he was appointed a member in May 1823. He at once decided to take action, raised 50,000 crowns, bought an English brig of 120 tons, and sailed from Genoa with arms and ammuni-tion in July. The high hopes with which he set out were soon broken down; the Greeks had no plans, and he was compelled to spend five months of inglorious delay at Cephalonia. Reaching Missolonghi in December, after a chase by Turkish cruisers, he found dissension among the Greek chiefs and insubordination among their followers. He was appointed commander-in-chief of an expedition against Lepanto; but before anything could be done be was seized with fever, and died on the 19th April 1824.

It is yet, perhaps, too soon to hazard a speculation as to the permanence of Byron’s fame. That he holds a lower place in the opinion of the present generation than of his own, sofar at least as concerns his own country is undeniable, and is probably due to the fact that poets now are tried by more strictly artistic standards; verses are judged, propor-tions measured, rare and precious excellences appreciated with the jealous scrutiny and skilled recognition of professional workmen. Tried by such standards, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley must be pronounced Byron’s superiors. The greatest modern authority on verse, Mr Swinburne, comments justly on Byron’s imperfect mastery of his materials:—"One native and incurable defect grew up and strengthened side by side with his noblest qualities—a feeble and faulty sense of metre. No poet of equal or inferior rank ever had so bad an ear. His smoother cadences are often vulgar and facile; his fresher notes are often incomplete and inharmonious. His verse stumbles and jingles, stammers and halts, where is most need for a swift and even pace of musical sound. The rough sonorous changes of the songs in The Deformed Transformed rise far higher in harmony, and strike far deeper into the memory than the lax, easy lines in which he at first indulged; but they slip too readily into notes as rude and weak as the rhymeless, tuneless verse in which they are so loosely set, as in a cheap and casual frame. The magnificent lyric measures of Heaven and Earth are defaced by the coarse obtrusion of short lines with jagged edges-no small offence in a writer of verse." In point of metre, too, Byron showed none of the originality which we should expect in a poet who delighted in his materials for their own sake. The god of his idolatry was Pope, towards whom his sympathies were drawn chiefly by the elder poet’s modern and practical point of view, and quick interest in passing affairs, and he began by imitating with very indifferent success Pope’s satiric couplet. But his successes were achieved in more popular measures. He was the least possible of an antiquarian poet, whether in matter or in form. His way was to take up any measure that struck him as effective, and try his hand on it. Campbell's example suggested the Spenserian stanza; Scott and Coleridge the rapid octosyllables of his E astern Tales; and he would never have thought of the ottava rima of Beppo and Don Juan but for Frere’s Whistlecraft. Whistlecraft appeared in 1817, and the moment it fell into his hands Byron recognized the value of the instrument, and lost no time in making it his own.

It was not on the artistic side that Byron’s strength lay. Words were far from niggardly in their supplies to him; they flowed in upon him with sufficient readiness for free and direct expression; his thoughts were not blunted, his conceptions were not turned awry by hopeless struggling with stubborn material, but language was not pliant in his hands for the finer achievements of art. The truth is, he felt too deeply to be a poet of the very highest rank; the feeling of the moment took too large and embarrassing a hold of him to leave his hand free for triumphs of execu-tion. This interfered both with the perfecting of details, and with the severe ordering of parts into an artistic whole. In Byron we are always struck more with the matter than with the form. It is his theme that absorbs attention, and the impetuous vehemence and stormy play of passion with which he hurries it on. This is, doubtless, an insecure foundation for lasting fame. The work of a man so keenly alive to the impressions of the hour, so closely bound up with his generation as Byron, runs a risk of perishing when the things that most deeply stir that generation have ceased to stir mankind. The secret of his tremendous power was his passionate sympathy with his own time. By the accidents of birth and circumstances, he was placed in opposition to the existing order of things, and his daring temper made him the exponent of the spirit of revolution. He is the greatest modern preacher of "liberty, equality, and fraternity." His little aristocratic assumptions were as superficial as his professions of anti-quarian poetic loyalty. Nothing irritated him more than to deny him any of the privileges of his rank, but he never used the advantage of his social superiority in any of the contests in which he was involved, and in his loves and his friendships he showed regard only for the individual. He was a warm champion of the established fame of Pope against innovators, but he practised the innovations himself with such effect that he has been called-a foolish enough phrase, certainly, but intelligible—"the interpreter of Wordsworth to the multitude." Abroad, Byron’s influence was, from the appearance of Childe Harold, no less con-spicuous than at home. It has even been said that he was the first Englishman who made English literature known throughout Europe. Even such men as Lamartine, who deplored Byron as an incarnation of Satan, acknowledged his power; Lamartine says that Byron was "a second Ossian to him," and tells us that he was afraid to read him in his youth lest he should be perverted to his beliefs. Heine invited the compliment of being called "the German Byron." He is believed to have largely influenced the revolutionary movement in Germany, and he gave a direct stimulus to the liberators of Italy. Byron is the favourite poet of our English speaking fellow-subjects in India; the educated Bengalee knows him by heart. On the Continent his influence has rather increased than diminished. Only the other year a glowing eulogy of his genius was written by Castelar, the literary leader of republicanism in Spain. At home of late we have been accused of neglecting Byron, and the fact, is significant. Such stormful and melancholy poetry as his must always be at the height of its popularity in times of conflict. The disturbed state of the Continent is more favourable to its spirit than the piping times of peace which have prevailed for a generation in England. Men who are content with the old things, and men who renounce old things with a light heart, can have little affinity with his deep-rooted sadness, his pride of defiant struggle, his flashes of defiant merriment; all this seems hysterical, affected, and unreal,—and unreal it no doubt is, in the sense that the feelings of men under the tension of conflict must appear full of false notes to men who look on out of a normal condition of settled tran-quillity.

The most hopeful circumstance for the permanence of Byron’s name is that he stands at the opening of a new era as its largest literary figure. Sooner or later, as new phases of thought and sentiment supervene upon the old, his writings must pass out of the catalogue of popular literature, but his personality will always fascinate. He is like Hamlet in this respect. It may safely be predicted that Byron will not cease to be read till Hamlet has ceased to be studied. There is not a little in common between the characters, in spite of superficial difference. In the desolation of his youth, in his moodiness, in his distempered mobility between the extremes of laughter and tears, in his yearning for sympathy, his intensity of friendship, his dark fits of misanthropy, his habit of brooding over the mysteries of life, Byron unconsciously played the character of Hamlet with the world for his stage, and left a kindred problem for the wonder of mankind,-a problem which no analysis can make clear, and which every one may pray that it be not given them to understand.

It has often been said that Byron could draw but one character, and that his own, This is not more than a half truth. It is true that Byron's genius was more lyrical than dramatic. "Many people," he said himself, "think my talent essentially undramatic, and I am not clear that they are not in the right." But he also said that while he, "like all imaginative men, embodied himself with the character while be drew it," he did so "not a moment after the pen was from off the paper." The difference between saying that Byron loved to picture himself in various circumstances, and that he could not set himself to the artistic portraiture of any character in which he was not interested, may not be great, but it is the difference between a true view and a false view of his artistic method. He was undramatic in this sense, that his imagination did not enter freely and self--delightedly into various forms of life. When Moore thought he had found a beautiful subject for Byron’s genius, and wrote the details to him, Byron could not enter into the situation. His Monody on Sheridan is weak, because it was not spontaneous. But when he found a situation or a character which naturally attracted him, and which he was able to understand,, his method was not, as is implied by the language in which his want of dramatic faculty is often expressed, to bring the situation or the character nearer to his own experience, but he tried to identify himself with the life of his subject, and laboured at details with almost pre-Raphaelitic minuteness. We do right to call him undramatic still, because a dramatic genius is doing constantly and by the law of his nature what Byron could only do rarely and with a limited range. But it is wrong to say that he was always drawing himself. There are considerable intervals between Sardanapalus, Marino Faliero, Alp, Lara, and Manfred, although in those and in all his leading characters we are more struck with what they have in common with their author, the affinity that led him to deal with their fortunes, than we are with their separate individualities. The Countess Guiccioli has given in the case of Marino Faliero a good example of the way in which he prepared himself for his work. He was struck with the tradition of Faliero’s conspiracy in his old age against the state which he had served so well in youth and middle age, immediately after his arrival in Venice, but at first he was unable to satisfy himself as to the motive. The ordinary histories, which he searched through with care, ascribed it to an old man's jealousy of a young wife, but this Byron’s instinct rejected. He passed hours in the ball of the great council, stared at the record of Faliero’s decapitation, lingered about the tomb, and. called up and realized every recorded circumstance of his life, keenly studied the characters of living Venice. It was not till four years afterwards that he satisfied himself as to the motive, and the discovery of an old document afterwards proved that his reading of history was correct. In other cases he showed the same studious care for accuracy, the very opposite of rash and dashing identification of characters with himself. In most of his tales and dramas there is an historical basis, and the basis is scrupulously ascertained. He particularly prided himself upon the truth of his local colouring.

The most interesting and complete portrait of Byron is perhaps that drawn by Lady Blessington, who saw him at Genoa a few months before his departure for Greece. It is not so favourable as some, but it is peculiarly valuable because taken from a definite point of view, that of a clever woman of the world and practised critic of appearance and manner. "I had fancied him," she says, "taller, with a more dignified and commanding air, and I looked in vain for the hero-looking sort of person with whom I had so long identified him in imagination. His appearance is, however, highly prepossessing, his head is finely shaped, and the forehead open, high, and noble, his eyes are grey and full of expression, but one is visibly larger than the other, his mouth is the most remarkable feature in his face, the upper lip of Grecian shortness, and the corners descending, the lips full and finely-cut. In speaking he shows his teeth very much, and they are white and even, but I observed that even in his smile—and he smiles frequently—there is something of a scornful expression in his mouth that is evidently natural, and not, as many suppose, affected. . . . His countenance is full of expression, and changes with the subject of conversation; it gains on the beholder the more it is seen, and leaves an agreeable impression. . . . He is very slightly lame, and the deformity of his foot is so little remarkable that I am not now aware which foot it is. His voice and accent are peculiarly agreeable, but effemi-nate clear, harmonious, and so distinct that, though his general tone in speaking is rather low than high, not a word is lost . . . . . I had expected to find him a dignified, cold, reserved, and haughty person, resembling those mysterious personages he so loves to paint in his works, and with whom he has been so often identified by the good- natured world, but nothing can be more different; for were I to point out the prominent defect of Lord Byron, I should say it was flippancy, and a total want of that natural self--possession and dignity which ought to characterize a man of birth and education." Such, judged by the social stand-ard of his own country, was the look and personal manner of the greatest literary power of this century.

The best edition of Byron’s works is that published by Murray, with illustrative extracts from his letters and diaries, and from the criticisms of his contemporaries. A selection from his works, edited and prefaced by Mr A. C. Swinburne, is published by Moxon. The facts of his life may be studied in Moore’s Life, Letters, and Journal of Lord Byron, supplemented by Leigh Hunt’s Lord Byron and his Contemporaries, Lady Blessington’s Conversations with Lord Byron, Trelawney's Recollections of Shelley and Byron, and the Countess Guiccioli’s Lord Byron jugé par les témoins de sa vie (translated under the title of Recollections of Lord Byron). Numerous allusions to Byron occur in the published memoirs of his contemporaries, such as the Shelley Memorials and Crabb Robinson’s Diary. Karl Elze’s biography (translated), although often mistaken in its concepti n of his character, is valuable as a collection of facts. (W. M)







The above article was written by William Minto, M.A.; edited the Examiner, 1874; formerly on the staff of the Daily News and the Pall Mall Gazette; Professor of Logic and English in the University of Aberdeen, 1880; author of Manual of English Prose Literature, Defoe in English Man of Letters Series, and Literature in the Georgian Era.




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