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Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII by John Lord

Part 2 out of 6

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Fashion in these times delights in what is obscure and difficult to be
understood, as if depth and profundity must necessarily be
unintelligible to ordinary readers. In Scott's time, however, the
fashion was different, and the popularity of his poems became almost
universal. However, there are the same fire, vivacity, and brilliant
coloring in all three of these masterpieces, as they were regarded two
generations ago, reminding one of the witchery of Ariosto; yet there is
no great variety in these poems such as we find in Byron, no great force
of passion or depth of sentiment, but a sort of harmonious rhythm,--more
highly prized in the earlier part of the century than in the latter,
since Wordsworth and Tennyson have made us familiar with what is deeper
and richer, as well as more artistic, in language and versification. But
no one has denied Scott's originality and high merits, in contrast with
the pompous tameness and conventionality of the poetry which arose when
Johnson was the oracle of literary circles, and which still held the
stage in Scott's day.

Even Scott's admirers, however, like Canning and Ellis, did not hesitate
to say that they would like something different from anything he had
already written. But this was not to be; and perhaps the reason why he
soon after gave up writing poetry was the conviction that his genius as
a poet did not lie in variety and richness, either of style or matter.
His great fame was earned by his novels.

One thing greatly surprises me: Scott regarded Joanna Baillie as the
greatest poetical genius of that day, and be derived more pleasure from
reading Johnson's "London" and "The Vanity of Human Wishes" than from
any other poetical composition. Indeed, there is nothing more
remarkable in literary history than Scott's admiration of poetry
inferior to his own, and his extraordinary modesty in the estimate of
his own productions. Most poets are known for their morbid vanity, their
self-consciousness, their feeling of superiority, and their depreciation
of superior excellence; but Scott had eminently a healthy mind, as he
had a healthy body, and shrank from exaggeration as he did from
vulgarity in all its forms. It is probable that his own estimate of his
poetry was nearer the truth than that of his admirers, who were
naturally inclined to be partial.

There has been so much poetry written since "The Lady of the Lake" was
published,--not only by celebrated poets like Wordsworth, Southey,
Moore, Byron, Campbell, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Browning, Longfellow,
Lowell, Whittier, Bryant, but also by many minor authors,--that the
standard is now much higher than it was in the early part of the
century. Much of that which then was regarded as very fine is now smiled
at by the critics, and neglected by cultivated readers generally; and
Scott has not escaped unfavorable criticism.

It has been my object to present the subject of this Lecture
historically rather than critically,--to show the extraordinary
popularity of Scott as a poet among his contemporaries, rather than to
estimate his merit at the present time. I confess that most of
"Marmion," as also of the "Lady of the Lake," is tame to me, and
deficient in high poetic genius. Doubtless we are all influenced by the
standards of our own time, and the advances making in literature as well
as in science and art. Yet this change in the opinions of critics does
not apply to Byron's "Childe Harold," which is as much, if not as
widely, admired now as when it was first published. We think as highly
too of "The Deserted Village," the "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," and
the "Cotter's Saturday Night," as our fathers did. And men now think
much more highly of the merits of Shakspeare than they have at any
period since he lived; so that after all there is an element in true
poetry which does not lose by time. In another hundred years, the
verdicts of critics as to the greater part of the poems of Tennyson,
Wordsworth, Browning, and Longfellow, may be very different from what
they now are, while some of their lyrics may be, as they are now,
pronounced immortal.

Poetry is both an inspiration and an art. The greater part of that which
is now produced is made, not born. Those daintily musical and elaborate
measures which are now the fashion, because they claim novelty, or
reproduce the quaintness of an art so old as to be practically new,
perhaps will soon again be forgotten or derided. What is simple,
natural, appealing to the heart rather than to the head, may last when
more pretentious poetry shall have passed away. Neither criticism nor
contemporary popularity can decide such questions.

Scott himself seemed to take a true view. In a letter to Miss Seward, he

"The immortality of poetry is not so firm a point in my creed as the
immortality of the soul."

'I've lived too long,
And seen the death of much immortal song.'

"Nay, those that have really attained their literary immortality have
gained it under very hard conditions. To some it has not attached till
after death. To others it has been the means of lauding personal vices
and follies which had otherwise been unremembered in their epitaphs; and
all enjoy the same immortality under a condition similar to that of
Noureddin in an Eastern tale. Noureddin, you remember, was to enjoy the
gift of immortality, but with this qualification,--that he was subjected
to long naps of forty, fifty, or a hundred years at a time. Even so
Homer and Virgil slumbered through whole centuries. Shakspeare himself
enjoyed undisturbed sleep from the age of Charles I., until Garrick
waked him. Dryden's fame has nodded; that of Pope begins to be drowsy;
Chaucer is as sound as a top, and Spenser is snoring in the midst of his
commentators. Milton, indeed, is quite awake; but, observe, he was at
his very outset refreshed with a nap of half-a-century; and in the midst
of all this we sons of degeneracy talk of immortality! Let me please my
own generation, and let those who come after us judge of their facts and
my performances as they please; the anticipation of their neglect or
censure will affect me very little."

In 1812 the poet-lawyer was rewarded with the salary of a place whose
duties he had for some years performed without pay,--that of Clerk of
Sessions, worth L800 per annum. Thus having now about L1500 as an
income, independently of his earnings by the pen, Scott gave up his
practice as an advocate, and devoted himself entirely to literature. At
the same time he bought a farm of somewhat more than a hundred acres on
the banks of the beautiful Tweed, about five miles from Ashestiel, and
leaving to its owners the pretty place in which he had for six years
enjoyed life and work, he removed to the cottage at Abbotsford,--for
thus he named his new purchase, in memory of the abbots of Melrose, who
formerly owned all the region, and the ruins of whose lovely abbey stood
not far away. Of the L4000 for this purchase half was borrowed from his
brother, and the other half on the pledge of the profits of a poem that
was projected but not written,--"Rokeby."

Scott ought to have been content with Ashestiel; or, since every man
wishes to own his home, he should have been satisfied with the
comfortable cottage which he built at Abbotsford, and the modest
improvements that his love for trees and shrubs enabled him to make.
But his aspirations led him into serious difficulties. With all his
sagacity and good sense, Scott never seemed to know when he was well
off. It was a fatal mistake both for his fame and happiness to attempt
to compete with those who are called great in England and
Scotland,--that is, peers and vast landed proprietors. He was not alone
in this error, for it has generally been the ambition of fortunate
authors to acquire social as well as literary distinction,--thus paying
tribute to riches, and virtually abdicating their own true position,
which is higher than any that rank or wealth can give. It has too
frequently been the misfortune of literary genius to bow down to vulgar
idols; and the worldly sentiments which this idolatry involves are seen
in almost every fashionable novel which has appeared for a hundred
years. In no country is this melancholy social slavery more usual than
in England, with all its political freedom, although there are noble
exceptions. The only great flaw in Scott's character was this homage to
rank and wealth.

On the other hand, rank and wealth also paid homage to him as a man of
genius; both Scotland and England received him into the most select
circles, not only of their literary and political, but of their
fashionable, life.

In 1811 Scott published "The Lord of the Isles," and in 1813, "Rokeby,"
neither of which was remarkable for either literary or commercial
success, although both were well received. In 1814 he edited a
nineteen-volume edition of Dean Swift's works, with a Life, and in the
same year began--almost by accident--the real work of his own career, in

If public opinion is far different to-day from what it was in Scott's
time in reference to his poetry, we observe the same change in regard to
the source of his widest fame, his novels,--but not to so marked a
degree, for it was in fiction that Scott's great gifts had their full
fruition. Many a fine intellect still delights in his novels, though
cultivated readers and critics differ as to their comparative merits. No
two persons will unite in their opinions as to the three of those
productions which they like most or least. It is so with all famous
novels. Then, too, what man of seventy will agree with a man of thirty
as to the comparative merits of Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope,
George Eliot, Eugene Sue, Victor Hugo, Balzac, George Sand? How few read
"Uncle Tom's Cabin," compared with the multitudes who read that most
powerful and popular book forty years ago? How changing, if not
transient, is the fame of the novelist as well as of the poet! With
reference to him even the same generation changes its tastes. What
filled us with delight as young men or women of twenty, is at fifty
spurned with contempt or thrown aside with indifference. No books ever
filled my mind and soul with the delight I had when, at twelve years of
age, I read "The Children of the Abbey" and "Thaddeus of Warsaw," What
man of eighty can forget the enthusiasm with which he read "Old
Mortality" or "Ivanhoe" when he was in college?

Perhaps one test of a great book is the pleasure derived from reading it
over and over again,--as we read "Don Quixote," or the dramas of
Shakspeare, of whose infinite variety we never tire. Measured by this
test, the novels of Sir Walter Scott are among the foremost works of
fiction which have appeared in our world. They will not all retain their
popularity from generation to generation, like "Don Quixote" or "The
Pilgrim's Progress" or "The Vicar of Wakefield;" but these are single
productions of their authors, while not a few of Scott's many novels are
certainly still read by cultivated people,--if not with the same
interest they excited when first published, yet with profit and
admiration. They have some excellencies which are immortal,--elevation
of sentiment, chivalrous regard for women, fascination of narrative
(after one has waded through the learned historical introductory
chapters), the absence of exaggeration, the vast variety of characters
introduced and vividly maintained, and above all the freshness and
originality of description, both of Nature and of man. Among the
severest and most bigoted of New England Puritans, none could find
anything corrupting or demoralizing in his romances; whereas Byron and
Bulwer were never mentioned without a shudder, and even Shakspeare was
locked up in book-cases as unfit for young people to read, and not
particularly creditable for anybody to own. The unfavorable comments
which the most orthodox ever made upon Scott were as to the
repulsiveness of the old Covenanters, as he described them, and his
sneers at Puritan perfections. Scott, however, had contempt, not for the
Puritans, but for many of their peculiarities,--especially for their
cant when it degenerated into hypocrisy.

One thing is certain, that no works of fiction have had such universal
popularity both in England and America for so long a period as the
Waverley Novels. Scott reigned as the undisputed monarch of the realm of
fiction and romance for twenty-five years. He gave undiminished
entertainment to an entire generation--and not that merely, but
instruction--in his historical novels, although his views were not
always correct,--as whose ever are? He who could charm millions of
readers, learned and unlearned, for a quarter of a century must have
possessed remarkable genius. Indeed, he was not only the central figure
in English literature for a generation, but he was regarded as
peculiarly original. Another style of novels may obtain more passing
favor with modern readers, but Scott was justly famous; his works are
to-day in every library, and form a delightful part of the education of
every youth and maiden who cares to read at all; and he will as a
novelist probably live after some who are now prime favorites will be
utterly forgotten or ignored.

About 1830 Bulwer was in his early successes; about 1840 Dickens was the
rage of his day; about 1850 Thackeray had taken his high grade; and it
was about 1860 that George Eliot's power appeared. These still retain
their own peculiar lines of popularity,--Bulwer with the romantic few,
Thackeray with the appreciative intelligent, George Eliot with a still
wider clientage, and Dickens with everybody, on account of his appeal to
the universal sentiments of comedy and pathos. Scott's influence,
somewhat checked during the growth of these reputations and the
succession of fertile and accomplished writers on both sides of the
Atlantic,--including the introspective analysts of the past fifteen
years,--has within a decade been rising again, and has lately burst
forth in a new group of historical romancers who seem to have "harked
back" from the subjective fad of our day to Scott's healthy, adventurous
objectivity. Not only so, but new editions of the Waverley Novels are
coming one by one from the shrewd publishers who keep track of the
popular taste, one of the most attractive being issued in Edinburgh at
half-a-crown a volume.

The first of Scott's remarkable series of novels, "Waverley," published
in 1814 when the author was forty-three years of age and at the height
of his fame as a poet, took the fashionable and literary world by storm.
The novel had been partly written for several years, but was laid aside,
as his edition of Swift and his essays for the supplement of the
"Encyclopaedia Britannica," and other prose writings, employed all the
time he had to spare.

This hack-work was done by Scott without enthusiasm, to earn money for
his investment in real estate, and is not of transcendent merit.
Obscurer men than he had performed such literary drudgery with more
ability, but no writer was ever more industrious. The amount of work
which he accomplished at this period was prodigious, especially when we
remember that his duties as sheriff and clerk of Sessions occupied eight
months of the year. He was more familiar with the literary history of
Queen Anne's reign than any subsequent historian, if we except Macaulay,
whose brilliant career had not yet begun. He took, of course, a
different view of Swift from the writers of the Edinburgh Review, and
was probably too favorable in his description of the personal character
of the Dean of St. Patrick's, who is now generally regarded as
"inordinately ambitious, arrogant, and selfish; of a morose, vindictive,
and haughty temper, utterly destitute of generosity and magnanimity, as
well as of tenderness, fidelity, and compassion." Lord Jeffrey, in his
Review, attacked Swift's moral character with such consummate ability as
to check materially the popularity of his writings, which are
universally admitted to be full of genius. His superb intellect and his
morality present a sad contrast,--as in the cases of Bacon, Burns, and
Byron,--which Scott, on account of the force of his Tory prejudices, did
not sufficiently point out.

But as to the novel, when it suddenly appeared, it is not surprising
that "Waverley" should at once have attained an unexampled popularity
when we consider the mediocrity of all works of fiction at that time, if
we except the Irish tales of Maria Edgeworth. Scott received from
Constable L1000 for this romance, then deemed a very liberal
remuneration for what cost him but a few months' work. The second and
third volumes were written in one month. He wrote with remarkable
rapidity when his mind was full of the subject; and his previous studies
as an antiquary and as a collector of Scottish poetry and legends fitted
him for his work, which was in no sense a task, but a most
lively pleasure.

It is not known why Scott published this strikingly original work
anonymously; perhaps it was because of his unusual modesty, and the fear
that he might lose the popularity he had already enjoyed as a poet. But
it immediately placed him on a higher literary elevation, since it was
generally suspected that he was the author. He could not altogether
disguise himself from the keen eyes of Jeffrey and other critics.

The book was received as a revelation. The first volume is not
particularly interesting, but the story continually increases in
interest to its close. It is not a dissection of the human heart; it is
not even much of a love-story, but a most vivid narrative, without
startling situations or adventures. Its great charm is its quiet
humor,--not strained into witty expressions which provoke laughter, but
a sort of amiable delineation of the character of a born gentleman, with
his weaknesses and prejudices, all leaning to virtue's side. It is a
description of manners peculiar to the Scottish gentry in the middle of
the eighteenth century, especially among the Jacobite families then
passing away.

Of course the popularity of this novel, at that time, was chiefly
confined to the upper classes. In the first place the people could not
afford to pay the price of the book; and, secondly, it was outside their
sympathies and knowledge. Indeed, I doubt if any commonplace person,
without culture or extended knowledge, can enjoy so refined a work, with
so many learned allusions, and such exquisite humor, which appeals to a
knowledge of the world in its higher aspects. It is one of the last
books that an ignorant young lady brought up on the trash of ordinary
fiction would relish or comprehend. Whoever turns uninterested from
"Waverley" is probably unable to see its excellencies or enjoy its
peculiar charms. It is not a book for a modern school-boy or
school-girl, but for a man or woman in the highest maturity of mind,
with a poetic or imaginative nature, and with a leaning perhaps to
aristocratic sentiments. It is a rebuke to vulgarity and ignorance,
which the minute and exaggerated descriptions of low life in the pages
of Dickens certainly are not.

In February, 1815, "Guy Mannering" was published, the second in the
series of the Waverley Novels, and was received by the intelligent
reading classes with even more _eclat_ than "Waverley," to which it is
superior in many respects. It plunges at once _in medias res_, without
the long and labored introductory chapters of its predecessor. It is
interesting from first to last, and is an elaborate and well-told tale,
written _con amore_, when Scott was in the maturity of his powers. It is
full of incident and is delightful in humor. Its chief excellence is in
the loftiness of its sentiments,--being one of the healthiest and
wholesomest novels ever written, appealing to the heart as well as to
the intellect, to be read over and over again, like "The Vicar of
Wakefield," without weariness. It may be too aristocratic in its tone to
please everybody, but it portrays the sentiments of its age in reference
to squires and Scottish lairds, who were more distinguished for
uprightness and manly duties than for brains and culture.

The fascination with which Scott always depicts the virtues of
hospitality and trust in humanity makes a strong impression on the
imagination. His heroes and heroines are not remarkable for genius, but
shine in the higher glories of domestic affection and fidelity to
trusts. Two characters in particular are original creations,--"Dominie
Sampson" and "Meg Merrilies," whom no reader can forget,--the one,
ludicrous for his simplicity; and the other a gypsy woman, weird and
strange, more like a witch than a sibyl, but intensely human, and
capable of the strongest attachment for those she loved.

"The easy and transparent flow of the style of this novel; its beautiful
simplicity; the wild magnificence of its sketches of scenery; the rapid
and ever brightening interest of the narrative; the unaffected kindness
of feeling; the manly purity of thought, everywhere mingled with a
gentle humor and homely sagacity,--but, above all, the rich variety and
skilful contrast of character and manners, at once fresh in fiction, and
stamped with the unforgeable seal of truth and nature, spoke to every
heart and mind; and the few murmurs of pedantic criticism were lost in
the voice of general delight which never fails to welcome the invention
that introduces to the sympathy of the imagination a new group of
immortal realities."

Scott received about L2000 for this favorite romance,--one entirely new
in the realm of fiction,--which enabled him to pay off his most pressing
debts, and indulge his taste for travel. He visited the Field of
Waterloo, and became a social lion in both Paris and London. The Prince
of Wales sent him a magnificent snuff-box set with diamonds, and
entertained him with admiring cordiality at Carlton House,--for his
authorship of "Waverley" was more than surmised, while his fame as a
poet was second only to that of Byron. Then (in the spring of 1815) took
place the first meeting of these two great bards, and their successive
interviews were graced with mutual compliments. Scott did not think that
Byron's reading was extensive either in poetry or history, in which
opinion the industrious Scottish bard was mistaken; but he did justice
ta Byron's transcendent genius, and with more charity than severity
mourned over his departure from virtue. After a series of brilliant
banquets at the houses of the great, both of rank and of fame, Scott
returned to his native land to renew his varied and exhausting labors,
having furnished his publishers with a volume of letters on the subjects
which most interested him during his short tour. Everything he touched
now brought him gold.

"Paul's Letters to his Kinsfolk," as he called this volume concerning
his tour, was well received, but not with the enthusiasm which marked
the publication of "Guy Mannering;" indeed, it had no special claim to
distinction. "The Antiquary" followed in May of the next year, and
though it lacked the romance of "Waverley" and the adventure of "Guy
Mannering," it had even a larger sale. Scott himself regarded it as
superior to both; but an author is not always the best judge of his own
productions, and we do not accept his criticism. It probably cost him
more labor; but it is an exhibition of his erudition rather than a
revelation of himself or of Nature. It is certainly very learned; but
learning does not make a book popular, nor is a work of fiction the
place for a display of learning. If "The Antiquary" were published in
these times, it would be pronounced pedantic. Readers are apt to skip
names and learned allusions and scraps of Latin. As a story I think it
inferior to "Guy Mannering," although it has great merits,--"a kind of
simple, unsought charm,"--and is a transcript of actual Scottish life.
It had a great success; Scott says in a letter to his friend Terry: "It
is at press again, six thousand having been sold in six days." Before
the novel was finished, the author had already projected his "Tales of
My Landlord."

Scott was now at the flood-tide of his creative power, and his industry
was as remarkable as his genius. There was but little doubt in the
public mind as to the paternity of the Waverley Novels, and whatever
Scott wrote was sure to have a large sale; so that every publisher of
note was eager to have a hand in bringing his productions before the
public. In 1816 appeared the "Edinburgh Annual Register," containing
Scott's sketch of the year 1814, which, though very good, showed that
the author was less happy in history than in fiction.

The first series of "Tales of My Landlord" was published by Murray, and
not by Constable, who had brought out Scott's other works, and the book
was received with unbounded enthusiasm. Many critics place "Old
Mortality" in the highest niche of merit and fame. Frere of the
Quarterly Review, Hallam, Boswell, Lamb, Lord Holland, all agreed that
it surpassed his other novels. Bishop Heber said, "There are only two
men in the world,--Walter Scott and Lord Byron." Lockhart regarded "Old
Mortality" as the "Marmion" of Scott's novels; but the painting of the
Covenanters gave offence to the more rigid of the Presbyterians. For
myself, I have doubt as to the correctness of their criticisms. "Old
Mortality," in contrast with the previous novels of Scott, has a place
similar to the later productions of George Eliot as compared with her
earlier ones. It is not so vivid a sketch of Scotch life as is given in
"Guy Mannering." Like "The Antiquary," it is bookish rather than
natural. From a literary point of view, it is more artistic than "Guy
Mannering," and more learned. "The canvas is a broader one." Its
characters are portrayed with great skill and power, but they lack the
freshness which comes from actual contact with the people described, and
with whom Scott was familiar as a youth in the course of his wanderings.
It is more historical than realistic. In short, "Old Mortality" is
another creation of its author's brain rather than a painting of real
life. But it is justly famous, for it was the precursor of those
brilliant historical romances from which so much is learned of great men
already known to students. It was a new departure in literature.

Before Scott arose, historical novels were comparatively unknown. He
made romance instructive, rather than merely amusing, and added the
charm of life to the dry annals of the past. Cervantes does not portray
a single great character known in Spanish history in his "Don Quixote,"
but he paints life as he has seen it. So does Goldsmith. So does George
Eliot in "Silas Marner." She presents life, indeed, in "Romola,"--not,
however, as she had personally observed it, but as drawn from books,
recreating the atmosphere of a long gone time by the power of

The earlier works of Scott are drawn from memory and personal feeling,
rather than from the knowledge he had gained by study. Of "Old
Mortality" he writes to Lady Louisa Stuart: "I am complete master of the
whole history of these strange times, both of persecutors and
persecuted; so I trust I have come decently off."

The divisional grouping of these earlier novels by Scott himself is
interesting. In the "Advertisement" to "The Antiquary" he says: "The
present work completes a series of fictitious narratives, intended to
illustrate the manners of Scotland at three different periods. WAVERLEY
embraced the age of our fathers [''Tis Sixty Years Since'], GUY
MANNERING that of our own youth, and THE ANTIQUARY refers to the last
ten years of the eighteenth century." The dedication of "Tales of My
Landlord" describes them as "tales illustrative of ancient Scottish
manners, and of the traditions of their [his countrymen's] respective
districts." They were--_First Series_: "The Black Dwarf" and "Old
Mortality;" _Second Series:_ "The Heart of Mid-Lothian;" _Third Series:_
"The Bride of Lammermoor" and "A Legend of Montrose;" _Fourth Series:_
"Count Robert of Paris" and "Castle Dangerous." These all (except the
fourth series, in 1832) appeared in the six years from 1814 to 1820, and
besides these, "Rob Roy," "Ivanhoe," and "The Monastery."

With the publication of "Old Mortality" in 1816, then, Scott introduced
the first of his historical novels, which had great fascination for
students. Who ever painted the old Cameronian with more felicity? Who
ever described the peculiarities of the Scottish Calvinists during the
reign of the last of the Stuarts with more truthfulness,--their
severity, their strict and Judaical observance of the Sabbath, their
hostility to popular amusements, their rigid and legal morality, their
love of theological dogmas, their inflexible prejudices, their lofty
aspirations? Where shall we find in literature a sterner fanatical
Puritan than John Balfour of Burley, or a fiercer royalist than Graham
of Claverhouse? As a love-story this novel is not remarkable. It is not
in the description of passionate love that Scott anywhere excels. His
heroines, with two or three exceptions, would be called rather tame by
the modern reader, although they win respect for their domestic virtues
and sterling elements of character. His favorite heroes are either
Englishmen of good family, or Scotchmen educated in England,--gallant,
cultivated, and reproachless, but without any striking originality or
intellectual force.

"Rob Roy" was published in the latter part of 1817, and was received by
the public with the same unabated enthusiasm which marked the appearance
of "Guy Mannering" and the other romances. An edition of ten thousand
was disposed of in two weeks, and the subsequent sale amounted to forty
thousand more. The scene of this story is laid in the Highlands of
Scotland, with an English hero and a Scottish heroine; and in this
fascinating work the political history of the times (forty years earlier
than the period of "Waverley") is portrayed with great impartiality. It
is a description of the first Jacobite rising against George I. in the
year 1715. In this novel one of the greatest of Scott's creations
appears in the heroine, Diana Vernon,--rather wild and masculine, but
interesting from her courage and virtue. The character of Baillie Jarvie
is equally original and more amusing.

The general effect of "Rob Roy," as well as of "Waverley" and "Old
Mortality," was to make the Scottish Highlanders and Jacobites
interesting to English readers of opposite views and feelings, without
arousing hostility to the reigning royal family. The Highlanders a
hundred years ago were viewed by the English with sentiments nearly
similar to those with which the Puritan settlers of New England looked
upon the Indians,--at any rate, as freebooters, robbers, and murderers,
who were dangerous to civilization; and the severities of the English
government toward these lawless clans, both as outlaws and as foes of
the Hanoverian succession, were generally condoned by public opinion.
Scott succeeded in producing a better feeling among both the conquerors
and the conquered. He modified general sentiment by his impartial and
liberal views, and allayed prejudices. The Highlanders thenceforth were
regarded as a body of men with many interesting traits, and capable of
becoming good subjects of the Crown; while their own hatred and contempt
of the Lowland Saxon were softened by the many generous and romantic
incidents of these tales. Two hitherto hostile races were drawn into
neighborly sympathy. Travellers visited the beautiful Highland retreats,
and returned with enthusiastic impressions of the country. To no other
man does Scotland owe so great a debt of gratitude as to Walter Scott,
not only for his poetry and novels, but for showing the admirable traits
of a barren country and a fierce population, and contributing to bring
them within the realm of civilization. A century or two ago the
Highlands of Scotland were peopled by a race in a state of perpetual
conflict with civilization, averse to labor, gaining (except such of
them as were enrolled in the English Army) a precarious support by
plunder, black-mailing, smuggling, and other illegal pursuits. Now they
compose a body of hard-working, intelligent, and law-abiding laborers,
cultivating farms, raising cattle and sheep, and pursuing the various
branches of industry which lead to independence, if not to wealth. The
traveller among the Highlanders feels as secure and is made as
comfortable as in any part of the island; while revelations of their
shrewd intelligence and unsuspected wit, in the stories of Barrie and
Crockett, show what a century of Calvinistic theology--as the chief
mental stimulant--has done in developing blossoms from that
thistle-like stock.

Scott had now all the fame and worldly prosperity which any literary man
could attain to,--for his authorship of the novels, although
unacknowledged, was more and more generally believed, and after 1821 not
denied. He lived above the atmosphere of envy, honored by all classes of
people, surrounded with admiring friends and visitors. He had an income
of at least L10,000 a year. Wherever he journeyed he was treated with
the greatest distinction. In London he was cordially received as a
distinguished guest in any circle he chose. The highest nobles paid
homage to him. The King made him a baronet,--the first purely literary
man in England to receive that honor. He now became ambitious to
increase his lands; and the hundred acres of farm at Abbotsford were
enlarged by new purchases, picturesquely planted with trees and
shrubberies, while "the cottage grew to a mansion, and the mansion to a
castle," with its twelve hundred surrounding acres, cultivated and made

Scott's correspondence with famous people was immense, besides his other
labors as farmer, lawyer, and author. Few persons of rank or fame
visited Edinburgh without paying their respects to its most eminent
citizen. His country house was invaded by tourists. He was on terms of
intimacy with some of the proudest nobles of Scotland. His various works
were the daily food not only of his countrymen, but of all educated
Europe. "Station, power, wealth, beauty, and genius strove with each
other in every demonstration of respect and worship."

And yet in the midst of this homage and increasing prosperity, one of
the most fortunate of human beings, Scott's head was not turned. His
habitual modesty preserved his moral health amid all sorts of
temptation. He never lost his intellectual balance. He assumed no airs
of superiority. His manners were simple and unpretending to the last. He
praised all literary productions except his own. His life in Edinburgh
was plain, though hospitable and free; and he seemed to care for few
luxuries aside from books, of which life made a large collection. The
furniture of his houses in Edinburgh and at Abbotsford was neither showy
nor luxurious. He was extraordinarily fond of dogs and all domestic
animals, who--sympathetic creatures as they are--unerringly sought him
out and lavished affection upon him.

When Scott lived in Castle Street he was not regarded by Edinburgh
society as particularly brilliant in conversation, since he never
aspired to lead by learned disquisitions. He told stories well, with
great humor and pleasantry, to amuse rather than to instruct. His talk
was almost homely. The most noticeable thing about it was common-sense.
Lord Cockburn said of him that "his sense was more wonderful than his
genius." He did not blaze like Macaulay or Mackintosh at the
dinner-table, nor absorb conversation like Coleridge and Sydney Smith.
"He disliked," says Lockhart, "mere disquisitions in Edinburgh and
prepared impromptus in London." A _doctrinaire_ in society was to him an
abomination. Hence, until his fame was established by the admiration of
the world, Edinburgh professors did not see his greatness. To them he
seemed commonplace, but not to such men as Hallam or Moore or Rogers or
Croker or Canning.

Notwithstanding Scott gave great dinners occasionally, they appear to
have been a bore to him, and he very rarely went out to evening
entertainments, although at public dinners his wit and sense made him a
favorite chairman. He retired early at night and rose early in the
morning, and his severest labors were before breakfast,--his principal
meal. He always dined at home on Sunday, with a few intimate friends,
and his dinner was substantial and plain. He drank very little wine, and
preferred a glass of whiskey-toddy to champagne or port. He could not
distinguish between madeira and sherry. He was neither an epicure nor
a gourmand.

After Scott had become world-famous, his happiest hours were spent in
enlarging and adorning his land at Abbotsford, and in erecting and
embellishing his baronial castle. In this his gains were more than
absorbed. He loved that castle more than any of his intellectual
creations, and it was not completed until nearly all his novels were
written. Without personal extravagance, he was lavish in the sums he
spent on Abbotsford. Here he delighted to entertain his distinguished
visitors, of whom no one was more welcome than Washington Irving, whom
he liked for his modesty and quiet humor and unpretending manners.
Lockhart writes: "It would hardly, I believe, be too much to affirm that
Sir Walter Scott entertained under his roof, in the course of the seven
or eight brilliant seasons when his prosperity was at its height, as
many persons of distinction in rank, in politics, in art, in literature,
and in science, as the most princely nobleman of his age ever did in the
like space of time."

One more unconscious, apparently, of his great powers has been rarely
seen among literary men, especially in England and France,--affording a
striking contrast in this respect to Dryden, Pope, Voltaire, Byron,
Bulwer, Macaulay, Carlyle, Hugo, Dumas, and even Tennyson. Great lawyers
and great statesmen are rarely so egotistical and conceited as poets,
novelists, artists, and preachers. Scott made no pretensions which were
offensive, or which could be controverted. His greatest aspiration seems
to have been to be a respectable landed proprietor, and to found a
family. An English country gentleman was his beau-ideal of happiness and
contentment. Perhaps this was a weakness; but it was certainly a
harmless and amiable one, and not so offensive as intellectual pride.
Scott indeed, while without vanity, had pride; but it was of a lofty
kind, disdaining meanness and cowardice as worse even than
transgressions which have their origin in unregulated passions.

From the numerous expletives which abound in Scott's letters, such as
are not now considered in good taste among gentlemen, I infer that like
most gentlemen of his social standing in those times he was in the habit
of using, when highly excited or irritated, what is called profane
language. After he had once given vent to his feelings, however, he was
amiable and forgiving enough for a Christian sage, who never harbored
malice or revenge. He had great respect for the military
profession,--probably because it was the great prop and defence of
government and established institutions, for he was the most
conservative of aristocrats. And yet his aristocratic turn of mind never
conflicted with his humane disposition,--never made him a snob. He
abhorred all vulgarity. He admired genius and virtue in whatever garb
they appeared. He was as kind to his servants, and to poor and
unfortunate people, as he was to his equals in society, being eminently
big-hearted. It was only fools, who made great pretensions, that he
despised and treated with contempt.

No doubt Scott was bored by the numerous visitors, whether invited or
uninvited, who came from all parts of Great Britain, from America, and
even from continental Europe, to do homage to his genius, or to gratify
their curiosity. Sometimes as many as thirty guests sat down to his
banqueting-table at once. He entertained in baronial style, but without
ostentation or prodigality, and on old-fashioned dishes. He did not
like French cooking, and his simple taste in the matters of beverage we
have already noted. The people to whom he was most attentive were the
representatives of ancient families, whether rich or poor.

Scott was very kind to literary men in misfortune, and his chosen
friends were authors of eminence,--like Miss Edgeworth, Joanna Baillie,
Thomas Moore, Crabbe, Southey, Wordsworth, Sir Humphry Davy, Dr.
Wollaston the chemist, Henry Mackenzie, etc. He was very intimate with
the Duke of Buccleuch, Lord Montagu, and other noblemen. He was visited
by dukes and princes, as well as by ladies of rank and fame. George IV.
sent him valuable presents, and showed him every mark of high
consideration. Cambridge and Oxford tendered to him honorary degrees.
Wherever he travelled, he was received with honor and distinction and
flatteries. But he did not like flatteries; and this was one reason why
he did not openly acknowledge his authorship of his novels, until all
doubt was removed by the masterly papers of John Leycester Adolphus
in 1821.

Scott's correspondence must have been enormous, for his postage bills
amounted to L150 per annum, besides the aid he received from franks,
which with his natural economy he made no scruple in liberally using.
Perhaps his most confidential letters were, like Byron's, written to his
publishers and printers, though many such were addressed to his
son-in-law Lockhart, and to his dearest friend William Erskine. But he
had also some admirable women friends, with whom he corresponded freely.
Some of the choicest of his recently-published Letters are to Lady
Abercorn, who was an intimate and helpful friend; to Miss Anna Seward, a
literary confidant of many years; to Lady Louisa Stuart, daughter of the
Earl of Bute, and granddaughter of Mary Wortley Montagu, one of the few
who knew from the first of his "Waverley" authorship; and to Mrs. John
Hughes, an early and most affectionate friend, whose grandson, Thomas
Hughes, has made famous the commonplace name of "Tom Brown" in our
own day.

Scott's letters show the man,--frank, cordial, manly, tender, generous,
finding humor in difficulties, pleasure in toil, satisfaction in
success, a proud courage in adversity, and the purest happiness in the
affection of his friends.

How Scott found time for so much work is a mystery,--writing nearly
three novels a year, besides other literary labors, attending to his
duties in the Courts, overlooking the building of Abbotsford and the
cultivation of his twelve hundred acres, and entertaining more guests
than Voltaire did at Ferney. He was too much absorbed by his legal
duties and his literary labors to be much of a traveller; yet he was a
frequent visitor to London, saw something of Paris, journeyed through
Ireland, was familiar with the Lake region in England, and penetrated to
every interesting place in Scotland. He did not like London, and took
little pleasure in the ovations he received from people of rank and
fashion. As a literary lion at the tables of "the great," he
disappointed many of his admirers, since he made no effort to shine. It
was only in his modest den in Castle Street, or in rambles in the
country or at Abbotsford, that he felt himself at home, and appeared to
the most advantage.

It would be pleasant to leave this genuinely great man in the full flush
of health, creative power, inward delight and outward prosperity; but
that were to leave unwritten the finest and noblest part of his life. It
is to the misfortunes which came upon him that we owe both a large part
of his splendid achievements in literature and our knowledge of the most
admirable characteristics of the man.

My running record of his novels last mentioned "The Monastery," issued
in 1820, in the same year with perhaps the prime favorite of all his
works, "Ivanhoe," the romantic tale of England in the crusading age of
Richard the Lion-Hearted. In 1821 he put forth the fascinating
Elizabethan tale of "Kenilworth." In 1822 came "The Pirate" (the tale of
sea and shore that inspired James Fenimore Cooper to write "The Pilot"
and his other sea-stories) and "The Fortunes of Nigel;" in 1823,
"Peveril of the Peak" and "Quentin Durward," both among his best; in
1824, "St. Ronan's Well" and "Redgauntlet;" and in 1825, two more Tales
of the Crusaders,--"The Betrothed" and "The Talisman," the latter
probably sharing with "Ivanhoe" the greatest popularity.

In the winter of 1825-1826, a widespread area of commercial distress
resulted in the downfall of many firms; and among others to succumb were
Hurst & Robinson, publishers, whose failure precipitated that of
Constable & Co., Scott's publishers, and of the Ballantynes his
printers, with whom he was a secret partner, who were largely indebted
to the Constables and so to the creditors of that house. The crash came
January 16, 1826, and Scott found himself in debt to the amount of about
L147,000,--or nearly $735,000.

Such a vast misfortune, overwhelming a man at the age of fifty-five,
might well crush out all life and hope and send him into helpless
bankruptcy, with the poor consolation that, though legally responsible,
he was not morally bound to pay other people's debts. But Scott's own
sanguine carelessness had been partly to blame for the Ballantyne
failure; and he faced the billow as it suddenly appeared, bowed to it in
grief but not in shame, and, while not pretending to any stoicism,
instantly resolved to devote the remainder of his life to the repayment
of the creditors.

The solid substance of manliness, honor, and cheerful courage in his
character; the genuine piety with which he accepted the "dispensation,"
and wrote "Blessed be the name of the Lord;" the unexampled steadiness
with which he comforted his wife and daughters while girding himself to
the daily work of intellectual production amidst his many distresses;
the sweetness of heart with which he acknowledged the sympathy and
declined the offers of help that poured in upon him from every side (one
poor music teacher offering his little savings of L600, and an anonymous
admirer urging upon him a loan of L30,000),--all this is the beauty that
lighted up the black cloud of Scott's adversity. His efforts were
finally successful, although at the cost of his bodily existence.
Lockhart says: "He paid the penalty of health and life, but he saved his
honor and his self-respect.

"'The glory dies not, and the grief is past.'"

"Woodstock," then about half-done, was completed in sixty-nine days, and
issued in March, 1826, bringing in about $41,000 to his creditors. His
"Life of Napoleon," published in June, 1827, produced $90,000. In 1827,
also, Scott issued "Chronicles of the Canongate," First Series (several
minor stories), and the First Series of "Tales of a Grandfather;" in
1828, "The Fair Maid of Perth" (Second Series of the "Chronicles"), and
more "Tales of a Grandfather;" in 1829, "Anne of Geierstein," more
"Tales of a Grandfather," the first volume of a "History of Scotland,"
and a collective edition of the Waverley Novels in forty-eight volumes,
with new Introductions, Notes, and careful corrections and improvements
of the text throughout,--in itself an immense labor; in 1830, more
"Tales of a Grandfather," a three volume "History of France," and Volume
II. of the "History of Scotland;" in 1831, and finally, a Fourth Series
of "Tales of My Landlord," including "Count Robert of Paris" and "Castle

This completes the list of Scott's greater productions; but it should be
remembered that during all the years of his creative work he was
incessantly doing critical and historical writing,--producing numerous
reviews, essays, ballads; introductions to divers works; biographical
sketches for Ballantyne's "Novelist's Library,"--the works of fifteen
celebrated English writers of fiction, Fielding, Smollett, etc.; letters
and pamphlets; dramas; even a few religious discourses; and his very
extensive and interesting private correspondence. He was such a marvel
of productive brain-power as has seldom, if ever, been known
to humanity.

The illness and death of Scott's beloved wife, but four short months
after his commercial disaster, was a profound grief to him; and under
the exhausting pressure of incessant work during the five years
following, his bodily power began to fail,--so that in October, 1831,
after a paralytic shock, he stopped all literary labor and went to Italy
for recuperation. The following June he returned to London, weaker in
both mind and body; was taken to Abbotsford in July; and on the 21st
September, 1832, with his children about him, the kindly, manly, brave,
and tender spirit passed away.

At the time of his death Sir Walter had reduced his great indebtedness
to $270,000. A life insurance of $110,000, $10,000 in the hands of his
trustees, and $150,000 advanced by Robert Cadell, an Edinburgh
bookseller, on the copyrights of Scott's works, cleared away the last
remnant of the debt; and within twenty years Cadell had reimbursed
himself, and made a handsome profit for his own account and that of the
family of Sir Walter.

The moneyed details of Scott's literary life have been made a part of
this brief sketch, both because his phenomenal fecundity and popularity
offer a convenient measure of his power, and because the fiscal
misfortune of his later life revealed a simple grandeur of character
even more admirable than his mental force. "Scott ruined!" exclaimed the
Earl of Dudley when he heard of the trouble. "The author of Waverley
ruined! Good God! let every man to whom he has given months of delight
give him a sixpence, and he will rise to-morrow morning richer than
Rothschild!" But the sturdy Scotchman accepted no dole; he set himself
to work out his own salvation. William Howitt, in his "Homes and Haunts
of Eminent British Poets," estimated that Scott's works had produced as
profits to the author or his trustees at least L500,000,--nearly
$2,500,000: this in 1847, over fifty years ago, and only forty-five
years from Scott's first original publication. Add the results of the
past fifty years, and, remembering that this gives but the profits,
conceive the immense sums that have been freely paid by the intelligent
British public for their enjoyment of this great author's writings.
Then, besides all this, recall the myriad volumes of Scott sold in
America, which paid no profit to the author or his heirs. There is
no parallel.

Voltaire's renown and monetary rewards, as the master-writer of the
eighteenth century, offer the only case in modern times that approaches
Scott's success; yet Voltaire's vast wealth was largely the result of
successful speculation. As a purely popular author, whose wholesome
fancy, great heart, and tireless industry, has delighted millions of his
fellow-men, Scott stands alone; while, as a man, he holds the affection
and respect of the world. Even though it be that the fashion of his
workmanship passeth away, wonder not, lament not. With Mithridates he
could say, "I have lived." What great man can say more?




It is extremely difficult to depict Lord Byron, and even presumptuous to
attempt it. This is not only because he is a familiar subject, the
triumphs and sorrows of whose career have been often portrayed, but also
because he presents so many contradictions in his life and
character,--lofty yet degraded, earnest yet frivolous, an impersonation
of noble deeds and sentiments, and also of almost every frailty which
Christianity and humanity alike condemn. No great man has been more
extravagantly admired, and none more bitterly assailed; but generally he
is regarded as a fallen star,--a man with splendid gifts which he
wasted, for whom pity is the predominant sentiment in broad and generous
minds. With all his faults, the English-speaking people are proud of him
as one of the greatest lights in our literature; and in view of the
brilliancy of his literary career his own nation in particular does not
like to have his defects and vices dwelt upon. It blushes and condones.
It would fain blot out his life and much of his poetry if, without them,
it could preserve the best and grandest of his writings,--that
ill-disguised autobiography which goes by the name of "Childe Harold's
Pilgrimage," in which he soars to loftier flights than any English poet
from Milton to his own time. Like Shakespeare, like Dryden, like Pope,
like Burns, he was a born poet; while most of the other poets, however
eminent and excellent, were simply made,--made by study and labor on a
basis of talent, rather than exalted by native genius as he was,
speaking out what he could not help, and revelling in the richness of
unconscious gifts, whether for good or evil.

Byron was a man with qualities so generous, yet so wild, that Lamartine
was in doubt whether to call him angel or devil. But, whether angel or
devil, his life is the saddest and most interesting among all the men of
letters in the nineteenth century.

Of course, most of our material comes from his Life and Letters, as
edited by his friend and brother-poet, Thomas Moore. This biographer, I
think, has been unwisely candid in the delineation of Byron's character,
making revelations that would better have remained in doubt, and on
which friendship at least should have prompted him to a
discreet silence.

Lord Byron was descended from the Byrons of Normandy who accompanied
William the Conqueror in his invasion of England, of which illustrious
lineage the poet was prouder than of his poetry. In the reign of Henry
VIII., on the dissolution of the monasteries, a Byron came into
possession of the old mediaeval abbey of Newstead. In the reign of James
I., Sir John Byron was made a knight of the Order of the Bath. In 1784
the father of the poet, a dissipated captain of the Guards, being in
embarrassed circumstances, married a rich Scotch heiress of the name of
Gordon. Handsome and reckless, "Mad Jack Byron" speedily spent his
wife's fortune; and when he died, his widow, being reduced to a pittance
of L150 a year, retired to Scotland to live, with her infant son who had
been born in London. She was plain Mrs. Byron, widow of a "younger son,"
with but little expectation of future rank. She was a woman of caprices
and eccentricities, and not at all fitted to superintend the education
of her wayward boy.

Hence the childhood and youth of Byron were sad and unfortunate. His
temper was violent and passionate. A malformation of his foot made him
peculiarly sensitive, and the unwise treatment of his mother, fond and
harsh by turns, destroyed maternal authority. At five years of age, he
was sent to a day-school in Aberdeen, where he made but slim
attainments. Though excitable and ill-disciplined, he is said to have
been affectionate and generous, and perfectly fearless. A fit of
sickness rendered his removal from this school necessary, and he was
sent to a summer resort among the Highlands. His early impressions were
therefore favorable to the development of the imagination, coming as
they did from mountains and valleys, rivulets and lakes, near the
sources of the Dee. At the age of eight, he wrote verses and fell in
love, like Dante at the age of nine.

On the death of the grandson of the old Lord Byron in 1794, this
unpromising youth became the heir-apparent to the barony. Nor did he
have to wait long; for soon after, his grand-uncle died, and the young
Byron, whose mother was struggling with poverty, became a ward of
Chancery; and the Earl of Carlisle--one of the richest and most powerful
noblemen of the realm, a nephew by marriage of the deceased peer--was
appointed his guardian. This cold, formal, and politic nobleman took but
little interest in his ward, leaving him to the mismanagement of his
mother, who, with her boy, at the age of ten, now removed to Newstead,
the seat of his ancestors,--the government, meanwhile, for some reason
which is not explained, having conferred on her a pension of L300
a year.

One of the first things that Mrs. Byron did on her removal to Newstead
was to intrust her son to the care of a quack in Nottingham, in order to
cure him of his lameness. As the doctor was not successful, the boy was
removed to London with the double purpose of effecting a cure under an
eminent surgeon, and of educating him according to his rank; for his
education thus far had been sadly neglected, although it would appear
that he was an omnivorous reader in a desultory kind of way. The
lameness was never cured, and through life was a subject of bitter
sensitiveness on his part. Dr. Glennie of Dulwich, to whose instruction
he was now confided, found him hard to manage, because of his own
undisciplined nature and the perpetual interference of his mother. His
progress was so slow in Latin and Greek that at the end of two years, in
1801, he was removed to Harrow,--one of the great public schools of
England, of which Dr. Drury was head-master. For a year or two, owing to
that constitutional shyness which is so often mistaken for pride, young
Byron made but few friendships, although he had for school-fellows many
who were afterwards distinguished, including Sir Robert Peel. Before he
left this school for Cambridge, however, he had made many friends whom
he never forgot, being of a very generous and loving disposition. I
think that those years at Harrow were the happiest he ever knew, for he
was under a strict discipline, and was too young to indulge in those
dissipations which were the bane of his subsequent life. But he was not
distinguished as a scholar, in the ordinary sense, although in his
school-boy days he wrote some poetry remarkable for his years, and read
a great many books. He read in bed, read when no one else read, read
while eating, read all sorts of books, and was capable of great sudden
exertions, but not of continuous drudgeries, which he always abhorred.
In the year 1803, when a youth of fifteen, he formed a strong attachment
for a Miss Chaworth, two years his senior, who, looking upon him as a
mere schoolboy, treated him cavalierly, and made some slighting allusion
to "that lame boy." This treatment both saddened and embittered him.
When he left school for college he had the reputation of being an idle
and a wilful boy, with a very imperfect knowledge of Latin and Greek.

Young Byron entered Trinity College in 1805, poorly prepared, and was
never distinguished there for those attainments which win the respect of
tutors and professors. He wasted his time, and gave himself up to
pleasures,--riding, boating, bathing, and social hilarities,--yet
reading more than anybody imagined, and writing poetry, for which he had
an extraordinary facility, yet not contending for college prizes. His
intimate friends were few, but to his chosen circle he was faithful and
affectionate. No one at this time would have predicted his future
eminence. A more unpromising youth did not exist within the walls of his
college. He had a most unfortunate temper, which would have made him
unhappy under any circumstances in which he could be placed. This
temper, which he inherited from his mother--passionate, fitful, defiant,
restless, wayward, melancholy--inclined him naturally to solitude, and
often isolated him even from his friends and companions. He brooded upon
supposed wrongs, and created in his soul strong likes and dislikes. What
is worse, he took no pains to control this temperament; and at last it
mastered him, drove him into every kind of folly and rashness, and made
him appear worse than he really was.

This inborn tendency to moodiness, pride, and recklessness should be
considered in our estimate of Byron, and should modify any harshness of
judgment in regard to his character, which, in some other respects, was
interesting and noble. He was not at all envious, but frank,
warm-hearted, and true to those he loved, who were, however, very few.
If he had learned self-control, and had not been spoiled by his mother,
his career might have been far different from what it was, and would
have sustained the admiration which his brilliant genius called out
from both high and low.

As it was, Byron left college with dangerous habits, with no reputation
for scholarship, with but few friends, and an uncertain future. His
bright and witty bursts of poetry, wonderful as the youthful effusions
of Dryden and Pope, had made him known to a small circle, but had not
brought fame, for which his soul passionately thirsted from first to
last. For a nobleman he was poor and embarrassed, and his youthful
extravagances had tied up his inherited estate. He was cast upon the
world like a ship without a rudder and without ballast. He was aspiring
indeed, but without a plan, tired out and disgusted before he was
twenty-one, having prematurely exhausted the ordinary pleasures of life,
and being already inclined to that downward path which leadeth to
destruction. This was especially marked in his relations with women,
whom generally he flattered, despised, and deserted, as the amusements
of an idle hour, and yet whose society he could not do without in the
ardor of his impulsive and ungoverned affections. In that early career
of unbridled desire for excitement and pleasure, nowhere do we see a
sense of duty, a respect for the opinions of the good, a reverence for
religious institutions, or self-restraint of any kind; but these defects
were partly covered over by his many virtues and his exalted rank.

Thus far Byron was comparatively unknown. Not yet was he even a
favorite in society, beautiful and brilliant as he was; for he had few
friends, not much money, and many enemies, whom he made by his scorn and
defiance,--a born aristocrat, without having penetrated those exclusive
circles to which his birth entitled him. He was always quarrelling with
his mother, and was treated with indifference by his guardian. He was
shunned by those who adhered to the conventionalities of life, and was
pursued by bailiffs and creditors,--since his ancestral estates, small
for his rank, were encumbered and mortgaged, and Newstead Abbey itself
was in a state of dilapidation.

Within a year from leaving Cambridge, in 1807, Byron published a volume
of his juvenile poems; and although they were remarkable for a young man
of twenty, they were not of sufficient merit to attract the attention of
the public. At this time he was abstemious in eating, wishing to reduce
a tendency to corpulence. He could practise self-denial if it were to
make his person attractive, especially to ladies. Nor was he idle. His
reading, if desultory, was vast; and from the list of books which his
biographer has noted it would seem that Macaulay never read more than
Byron in a given time,--all the noted historians of England, Germany,
Rome, and Greece, with innumerable biographies, miscellanies, and even
divinity, the raw material which he afterwards worked into his poems.
How he found time to devour so many solid books is to me a mystery.
These were not merely European works, but Asiatic also. He was not a
critical scholar, but he certainly had a passing familiarity with almost
everything in literature worth knowing, which he subsequently utilized,
as seen in his "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage." A college reputation was
nothing to him, any more than it was to Swift, Goldsmith, Churchill,
Gibbon, and many other famous men of letters, who left on record their
dislike of the English system of education. Among these were even such
men as Addison, Cowper, Milton, and Dryden, who were scholars, but who
alike felt that college honors and native genius did not go hand in
hand,--which might almost be regarded as the rule, but for a few
remarkable exceptions, like Sir Robert Peel and Gladstone. And yet it
would be unwise to decry college honors, since not one in a hundred of
those who obtain them by their industry, aptness, and force of will can
lay claim to what is called genius,--the rarest of all gifts. Moreover,
how impossible it is for college professors to detect in students, with
whom they are imperfectly acquainted, extraordinary faculties, more
especially if the young men are apparently idle and negligent, and
contemptuous of the college curriculum.

It was a bitter pill for Lord Byron when his juvenile poems, called
"Hours of Idleness," were so severely attacked by the Edinburgh Review.
They might have escaped the searching eyes of the critics had the author
not been a lord. At that time the great Reviews had just been started;
and it was the especial object of the Edinburgh Review to handle authors
roughly,--to condemn and not to praise. Criticism was not then a
science, as it became fifty years later, in the hands of Sainte-Beuve,
who endeavored to review every production fairly and justly. There was
nothing like justice entering into the head of Jeffrey or Sydney Smith
or Brougham, or later on of Macaulay, whose articles were often written
for political party effect. Critics, from the time of Swift down to the
middle of the century, aimed to demolish enemies, and to make party
capital; hence, as a general thing, their articles were not criticisms
at all, but attacks. And as even an Achilles was vulnerable in his heel,
so most intellectual giants have some weak point for the shafts of
malice to penetrate. Yet it is the weaknesses of great men that people
like to quote.

If Byron was humiliated, enraged, and embittered by the severity of the
Edinburgh Review, he was not crushed. He rallied, collected his
unsuspected strength, and shattered his opponents by one of the
wittiest, most brilliant, and most unscrupulous satires in our
literature, which he called "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers." At the
height of his fame he regretted and suppressed this youthful production
of malice and bitterness. Yet it was the beginning of his great career,
both as to a consciousness of his own powers and in attracting the
public attention. It was doubtless unwise, since he attacked many who
were afterwards his friends, and since he sowed the seeds of hatred
among those who might otherwise have been his admirers or apologists. He
had to learn the truth that "with what measure ye mete it shall be
measured to you again." The creators of public opinion in reference to
Byron have not been women of fashion, or men of the world, but literary
lions themselves,--like Thackeray, who detested him, and the whole
school of pharisaic ecclesiastical dignitaries, who abhorred in him
sentiments which they condoned in Fielding, in Burns, in Rousseau, and
in Voltaire.

Before his bitter satire was published, however, Byron took his seat in
the House of Lords, not knowing any peer sufficiently to be introduced
by him. His guardian, Lord Carlisle, treated him very shabbily, refusing
to furnish to the Lord Chancellor some important information, of a
technical kind, which refusal delayed the ceremony for several weeks,
until the necessary papers could be procured from Cornwall relating to
the marriage of one of his ancestors. Unfriended and alone, Byron sat on
the scarlet benches of the House of Lords until he was formally admitted
as a peer. But when the Lord Chancellor left the woolsack to
congratulate him, and with a smiling face extended his hand, the
embittered young peer bowed coldly and stiffly, and simply held out two
or three of his fingers,--an act of impudence for which there was
no excuse.

It is difficult to understand why Lord Byron should have had so few
friends or even acquaintances at that time among people of his rank. At
twenty-one, he was a lonely and solitary man, mortified by the attack of
the Edinburgh Review, exasperated by injustice, morose even to
misanthropy, and decidedly sceptical in his religious opinions. Newstead
Abbey was a burden to him, since he could not keep it up. He owed
L10,000. He had no domestic ties, except to a mother with whom he could
not live. His poetry had not brought him fame, for which of all things
he most ardently thirsted. His love affairs were unfortunate, and tinged
his soul with sadness and melancholy. Nor had fashion as yet marked him
for her own. He craved excitement, and society to him was dull and

It is not surprising that under these circumstances Byron made up his
mind to travel: he did not much care whither, provided he had new
experiences. "The grand tour" which educated young men of leisure and
fortune took in that day had no charm for him, since he wished to avoid
rather than to seek society in those cities which the English
frequented. He did not care to see the literary lions of France or
Germany or Italy, for though a nobleman, he was too young and
unimportant to be much noticed, and he was too shy and too proud to make
advances which might be rebuffed, wounding his _amour propre._

He set out on his pilgrimage the latter part of June, 1809, in a ship
bound for Lisbon, with a small suite of servants. Going to a land where
Nature was most enchanting, he was sufficiently enthusiastic over the
hills and vales and villages of Portugal. As for comfort, he expected
little, and found less; but to this he was indifferent so long as he
could swim in the Tagus, and ride on a mule, and procure eggs and wine.
He was delighted with Cadiz, to him a Cythera, with its beautiful but
uneducated women, where the wives of peasants were on a par with the
wives of dukes in cultivation, and where the minds of both had but one
idea,--that of intrigue. He hastily travelled through Spain on
horseback, in August, reaching Gibraltar, from which he embarked for
Malta and the East.

It was Greece and Turkey that Byron most wished to see and know; and,
favored by introductions, he was cordially received by governors and
pashas. At Athens, and other classical spots, he lingered enchanted, yet
suppressing his enthusiasm in the contempt he had for the affected
raptures of ordinary travellers. It was not the country alone, with its
classical associations, which interested him, but also its maidens, with
their dark hair and eyes, whom he idealized almost into goddesses.
Everything he saw was picturesque, unique, and fascinating. The days and
weeks flew rapidly away in dreamy enchantment.

After nearly three months at Athens, Byron embarked for Smyrna, and
explored the ruins of the old Ionian cities, thence proceeding to
Constantinople, with a view of visiting Persia and the farther East. In
a letter to Mr. Henry Drury, he says:--

"I have left my home, and seen part of Africa and Asia, and a tolerable
portion of Europe. I have been with generals and admirals, princes and
pashas, governors and ungovernables. Albania, indeed, I have seen more
than any Englishman, except Mr. Leake,--a country rarely visited, from
the savage character of the natives, but abounding more in natural
beauties than the classical regions of Greece."

A glimpse of Byron's inner life at this time is caught in the following
extract from a letter to another friend:

"I have now been nearly a year abroad, and hope you will find me an
altered personage,--I do not mean in body, but in manners; for I begin
to find out that nothing but virtue will do in this d--d world. I am
tolerably sick of vice, which I have tried in its agreeable varieties,
and mean on my return to cut all my dissolute acquaintance, leave off
wine and carnal company, and betake myself to politics and decorum."

One thing we notice in most of the familiar letters of Byron,--that he
makes frequent use of a vulgar expletive. But when I remember that the
Prince of Wales, the Lord Chancellor, the judges, the lawyers, the
ministers of the Crown, and many other distinguished people were
accustomed to use the same expression, I would fain hope that it was not
meant for profanity, but was a sort of fashionable slang intended only
to be emphatic. Fifty years have seen a great improvement in the use of
language, and the vulgarism which then appeared to be of slight
importance is now regarded, almost universally with gentlemen, to be at
least in very bad taste. How far Byron transgressed beyond the frequent
use of this expletive, does not appear either in his letters or in his
biography; yet from his irreverent nature, and the society with which he
was associated, it is more than probable that in him profanity was
added to the other vices of his times.

Especially did he indulge in drinking to excess in all convivial
gatherings. It was seldom that gentlemen sat down to a banquet without
each despatching two or three bottles of wine in the course of an
evening. No wonder that gout was the pervading disease among county
squires, and even among authors and statesman. Morality was not one of
the features of English society one hundred years ago, except as it
consisted in a scrupulous regard for domesticity, truth, and honor, and
abhorrence of meanness and hypocrisy.

It would be difficult to point out any defects and excesses of which
Byron was guilty at this period beyond what were common to other
fashionable young men of rank and leisure, except a spirit of religious
scepticism and impiety, and a wanton and inexcusable recklessness in
regard to women, which made him a slave to his passions. The first
alienated him, so far as he was known, from the higher respectable
classes, who generally were punctilious in the outward observances of
religion; and the second made him abhorred by the virtuous middle class,
who never condoned his transgressions in this respect. But at this time
his character was not generally known. It was not until he was seated on
the pinnacle of fame that public curiosity penetrated the scandals of
his private life. He was known only as a young nobleman in quest of the
excitements of foreign travel, and his letters of introduction procured
him all the society he craved. Not yet had he expressed bitterness and
wrath against the country which gave him birth; he simply found England
dull, and craved adventures in foreign lands as unlike England as he
could find. The East stimulated his imagination, and revived his
classical associations. He saw the Orient only as an enthusiastic poet
would see it, and as Lamartine saw Jerusalem. But Byron was more curious
about the pagan cities of antiquity than concerning the places
consecrated by the sufferings of our Lord. He cared more to swim across
the Hellespont with Leander than to wander over the sacred hills of
Judaea; to idealize a beautiful peasant girl among the ruins of Greece,
than converse with the monks of Palestine in their gloomy retreats.

The result of Byron's travels was seen in the first two cantos of
"Childe Harold," showing alike the fertility of his mind and the
aspirations of a lofty genius. These were published in 1812, soon after
his return to England, at the age of twenty-four. They took England by
storm, creating both surprise and admiration. Public curiosity and
enthusiasm for the young poet, who had mounted to the front ranks of
literature at a single leap, was unbounded and universal. As he himself
wrote: "I awoke one morning and found myself famous."

Young Byron was now sought, courted, and adored, especially by ladies of
the highest rank. Everybody was desirous to catch even a glimpse of the
greatest poet that had appeared since Pope and Dryden; any palace or
drawing-room he desired to enter was open to him. He was surfeited with
roses and praises and incense. He alone took precedence over Scott and
Coleridge and Moore and Campbell. For a time his pre-eminence in
literature was generally conceded. He was the foremost man of letters of
his day, and the greatest popular idol. His rank added to his _eclat_,
since not many noblemen were distinguished for genius or literary
excellence. His singular beauty of face and person, despite his slight
lameness, attracted the admiring gaze of women. What Abelard was in the
schools of philosophy, Byron was in the drawing-rooms of London. People
forgot his antecedents, so far as they were known, in the intoxication
of universal admiration and unbounded worship of genius. No poet in
English history was ever seated on a prouder throne, and no heathen
deity was ever more indifferent than he to the incense of idolaters.

Far be it from me to attempt an analysis of the merits of the poem with
which the fame of Byron will be forever identified. Its great merits
are universally conceded; and while it has defects,--great inequalities
in both style and matter; some stanzas supernal in beauty, and others
only mediocre,--on the whole, the poem is extraordinary. Byron adopted
the Spenserian measure,--perhaps the most difficult of all measures,
hard even to read aloud,--in which blank verse seems to blend with
rhyme. It might be either to the ear, though to the eye it is elaborate
rhyme,--such as would severely task a made poet, but which this born
poet seems to have thrown off without labor. The leading peculiarity of
the poem is description,--of men and places; of the sea, the mountain,
and the river; of Nature in her loveliness and mysteries; of cities and
battle-fields consecrated by the heroism of brave and gifted men, in
Greece, in Rome, in mediaeval Europe,--with swift passing glances at
salient points in history, showing extensive reading and deep

As to the spirit of "Childe Harold," it is not satirical; it is more
pensive than bitter, and reveals the loneliness and sorrows of an
unsatisfied soul,--the unrest of a pilgrim in search for something new.
It seeks to penetrate the secrets of struggling humanity, at war often
with those certitudes which are the consolation of our inner life. It
everywhere recognizes the soul as that which gives greatest dignity to
man. It invokes love as the noblest joy of life. The poem is one of the
most ideal of human productions, soaring beyond what is material and
transient. It is not religious, not reverential, not Christian, like the
"Divine Comedy" and the "Paradise Lost;" and yet it is lofty, aspiring,
exulting in what is greatest in deed or song, destined to immortality of
fame and admiration. It is a confession, indirectly, of the follies and
shortcomings of the author, and of their retribution, but complains
not of the Nemesis that avenges everything. It is sensitive of
wrongs and injustices and misrepresentations, but does not hurl
anathemas,--speaking in sorrow rather than in anger, except in regard to
hypocrisies and shams and lies, when its scorn is intense and terrible.

The whole poem is brilliant and original, but does not flash like fire
in a dark night. It was written with the heart's blood, and is as
earnest as it is penetrating. It does not ascend to the higher mysteries
forever veiled from mortal eye, nor descend to the deepest depths of
hatred and despair, but confines itself to those passions which have
marked gifted mortals, and those questionings in which all thoughtful
minds have ever delighted. It does not make revelations like "Hamlet" or
"Macbeth;" it does not explore secrets hidden forever from ordinary
minds, like "Faust;" but it muses and meditates on what Fate and Time
have brought to pass,--such events as have been revealed in history. It
invokes the neglected but impressive monuments of antiquity to tell the
tales of glory and of shame. In moral wisdom it is vastly inferior to
Shakspeare, and it is not rich in those wise and striking lines which
pass into the proverbs of the world; but it has the glow of a poetic
soul, longing for fame, craving love, and not unmindful of immortality.
Its most beautiful stanzas are full of tenderness and sadness for lost
or unrequited affections; of reproachless sorrow for broken friendships,
in which the soul would fain have lived but for inconsistencies and
contradictions which made true and permanent love impossible. The poem
paints a paradise lost, rather than a paradise regained. I wonder at its
popularity, for it seems to me too deep and learned for popular
appreciation, except in those stanzas where pathos or enthusiasm,
expressed in matchless language, appeal to the heart and soul.

Of all modern poets, Byron is the most human and outspoken, daring to
say what many would fear or blush to meditate upon. He fearlessly
reveals the infirmities and audacities of a double and mysterious
nature, made up of dust and deity, now grovelling in the mire, then
borne aloft to the skies,--the football of the eternal powers of good
and evil, enslaved and yet to be emancipated, as we may hope, in the
last and final struggle, when the soul is rescued by Omnipotence.

I have alluded to the triumphs of Byron on the publication of "Childe
Harold,"--but his joys were more than balanced by his sorrows. His
mother died suddenly without seeing him. His dearest friend Mathews was
drowned. He was hampered by creditors. He made no mark in the House of
Lords, and was sick of what he called "parliamentary mummeries." His
habits became more and more dissipated among the boon companions who
courted his society. His reputation after a while began to wane, for
people became ashamed of their enthusiasm. Some critics disparaged his
poetry, and conventional circles were shocked by his morals. Three years
of London life told on his constitution, and he was completely
disenchanted. He sought retirement and solitude, for not even the most
brilliant society satisfied him. He wearied of such a woman and admirer
as Madame de Stael. He went to Holland House--that resort of all the
eminent ones of the time--as seldom as he could. He buried himself with
a few intimate friends, chiefly poets, among whom were Moore and Rogers.
He saw and liked Sir Walter Scott, but did not push his acquaintance to
intimacy. The larger part of his letters were written to Murray, the
publisher, who treated him generously; but Byron gave away his literary
gains to personal friends in need. He seemed to scorn copyrights for
support. He would write only for fame.

At the age of twenty-seven, in January, 1815, Byron married Miss
Milbanke,--a lady whom he did not love, but to whom he was attracted by
her supposed wealth, which would patch up his own fortunes. He had great
respect for this lady and some friendship; but with all her virtues and
attainments she was cold, conventional, and exacting. A mystery shrouds
this unfortunate affair, which has never been fully revealed. The upshot
was that, to Byron's inexpressible humiliation, in less than a year she
left him, never to return. No reasons were given. It was enough that
both parties were unhappy, and had cause to be; and both kept silence.

But the voice of rumor and scandal was not silent. All the failings of
Byron were now exaggerated and dwelt upon by those who envied him, and
by those who hated him,--for his enemies were more numerous than his
friends. Those whom he had snubbed or ridiculed or insulted now openly
turned against him. The conventional public had a rare subject for their
abuse or indignation. Proper people, religious people, and commonplace
people, joined in the cry against a man with whom a virtuous woman could
not live. Indeed, no woman could have lived happily with Byron; and
very few were the women with whom he could have lived happily, by reason
of that irritability and unrest which is so common with genius. The
habits of abstraction and contemplation which absorbed much of his time
at home were not easily understood by an ordinary woman, to whom social
life is necessary.

Byron lived much in his library, which was his solitary luxury. In the
revelry of the imagination his heart became cold. "To follow poetry,"
says Pope, "one must leave father and mother, and cleave to it
alone,"--as Dante and Petrarch and Milton did. Not even Byron's intense
craving for affection could be satisfied when he was dwelling on the
ideals which his imagination created, and which scarcely friendship
could satisfy. Even so good a man as Carlyle lived among his books
rather than in the society of his wife, whom he really loved, and whose
virtues and attainments he appreciated and admired. An affectionate
woman runs a great risk in marrying an absorbed and preoccupied man of
genius, even if his character be reproachless. Unfortunately, the
character of Byron was anything but reproachless, and no one knew this
better than his wife, which knowledge doubtless alienated what little
affection she had for him. He seems to have sought low company even
after his marriage, and Lady Byron has intimated that she did not think
him altogether sane. Living with him as his wife was insupportable; but
though she separated from him, she did not seek a divorce.

Byron would not have married at all if he had consulted his happiness,
and still more his fame. "In reviewing the great names of philosophy and
science, we shall find that those who have most distinguished themselves
have virtually admitted their own unfitness for the marriage tie by
remaining in celibacy,--Newton, Gassendi, Galileo, Descartes, Bayle,
Locke, Leibnitz, Boyle, Hume, Gibbon, Macaulay, and a host of others."

The scandal which Byron's separation from his wife created, and his
known and open profligacy, at last shut him out from the society of
which he had been so bright an ornament. It is a peculiarity of the
English people, which redounds to their honor, to exclude from public
approbation any man, however gifted or famous, who has outraged the
moral sense by open and ill-disguised violation of the laws of morality.
The cases of Dilke and Parnell in our own day are illustrations known to
all. What in France or Italy is condoned, is never pardoned or forgotten
in England. Not even a Voltaire, a Rousseau, or a Mirabeau, had they
lived in England, could have been accepted by English society,--much
less a man who scorned and ridiculed it. Even Byron--for a few years
the pet, the idol, and the glory of the country--was not too high to
fall. To quote one of his own stanzas,--

"He who ascends to mountain-tops shall find
The loftiest peaks most wrapt in clouds and snow;
He who surpasses or subdues mankind
Must look down on the hate of those below.
Though high above the sun of glory glow,
And far beneath the earth and ocean spread,
Round him are icy rocks, and loudly blow
Contending tempests on his naked head."

Embarrassed in his circumstances; filled with disgust, mortification,
and shame; excluded from the proudest circles,--Byron now resolved to
leave England forever, and bury himself in such foreign lands as were
most congenial to his tastes and habits. But for his immorality he might
still have shined at an exalted height; for he had not yet written
anything which shocked the practical English mind. The worst he had
written was bitter satire, yet not more bitter than that of Swift or
Pope. No defiance, no blasphemous sentiments, or what seemed to many to
be such, had yet escaped him. His "Corsair" and his "Bride of Abydos"
appeared soon after the "Childe Harold," and added to his fame by their
exquisite melody of rhyme and sentimental admiration for Oriental
life,--though even these were tinged with that _abandon_ which
afterwards made his latter poems a scandal and reproach. "The
disappointment of youthful passion, the lassitude and remorse of
premature excess, the lone friendlessness of his life," and, I may add,
the reproaches of society, induced him to fly from the scene of his
brilliant successes, filled with blended sentiments of scorn, hatred,
defiance, and despair.

In the Spring of 1816, at the age of twenty-eight, Byron left England
forever,--a voluntary exile on the face of the earth, saddened,
embittered, and disappointed. It was to Italy that he turned his steps,
passing through Brussels and Flanders, lingering on the Rhine, enamored
with its ruined castles, still more with Nature, and making a long stay
in Switzerland. Here he visited the Castle of Chillon, all the spots
made memorable by the abodes of Rousseau, Gibbon, and Madame de Stael,
and all the most interesting scenery of the Bernese Alps,--Lake Leman,
Interlaken, Thun, the Jungfrau, the glaciers, Brientz, Chamouni, Berne,
and on to Geneva, where he made the acquaintance of Shelley and his
wife. The Shelleys he found most congenial, and stayed with them some
time. While in the neighborhood of Geneva he produced the third canto of
"Childe Harold," "The Prisoner of Chillon," "A Dream," and other things.
In October, he passed on to Milan, Verona, and Venice; and in this
latter city he took up his residence.

Oh that we could blot out Byron's life in Venice, made up of love
adventures and dissipation and utter abandonment to those pleasures that
appealed to his lower nature, as if he were possessed by a demon,
utterly reckless of his health, his character, and his fame! Venice was
then the most immoral city in Italy, given over to idleness and
pleasure. It was here that Byron's contempt for woman became fixed,
seeing only her weaknesses and follies; and it was this contempt of
woman which intensified the abhorrence in which his character was
generally held, in the most respectable circles in England. Even in
distant Venice his baleful light was not under a bushel, and the
scandals of his life extended far and wide,--especially that in
reference to Margherita Cogni, an illiterate virago who could neither
read nor write, and whom he was finally compelled to discard on account
of the violence of her temper, after living with her in the most
open manner.

And yet, in all this degradation, he was not idle. How could so prolific
a writer be idle! Byron did not ordinarily rise till two o'clock in the
afternoon, and spent the interval between his breakfast and dinner in
riding on the Lido,--one of those long narrow islands which lie between
the Adriatic and the Lagoon, in the midst of which Venice is built, on
the islets arising from its shallow waters. Yet he found time to begin
his "Don Juan," besides writing the "Lament of Tasso," the tragedy of
"Manfred," and an Armenian grammar, all which appeared in 1817; in 1818,
"Beppo," and in 1819, "Mazeppa." He also made a flying trip to Florence
and Rome, and some of the finest stanzas of "Childe Harold" are
descriptions of the classic ruins and the masterpieces of Grecian and
mediaeval art,--the beauties and the associations of Italy's
great cities.

"I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter's wand!
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying glory smiles
O'er the far times, when many a subject land
Looked to the winged Lion's marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!"

Byron's correspondence was small, being chiefly confined to his
publisher, to Moore, and to a few intimate friends. These letters are
interesting because of their frankness and wit, although they are not
models of fine writing. Indeed, I do not know where to find any
specimens of masterly prose in all his compositions. He was simply a
poet, facile in every form of measure from Spenser to Campbell. No
remarkable prose writings appeared in England at all, at that time,
until Sir Walter Scott's novels were written, and until Macaulay,
Carlyle, and Lamb wrote their inimitable essays. Nothing is more heavy
and unartistic than Moore's "Life of Byron;" there is hardly a brilliant
paragraph in it,--and yet Moore is one of the most musical and melodious
of all the English poets. Milton, indeed, was equally great in prose and
verse, but very few men have been distinguished as prose writers and
poets at the same time. Sir Walter Scott and Southey are the most
remarkable exceptions. I think that Macaulay could have been
distinguished as a poet, if he had so pleased; but he would have been a
literary poet like Wordsworth or Tennyson or Coleridge,--not a man who
sings out of his soul because he cannot help it, like Byron or Burns, or
like Whittier among our American poets.

It was not until 1819, when Byron had been three years in Venice, that
he fell in love with the Countess Guiccioli, the wife of one of the
richest nobles of Italy,--young, beautiful, and interesting. This love
seems to have been disinterested and lasting; and while it was a
violation of all the rules of morality, and would not have been allowed
in any other country than Italy, it did not further degrade him. It was
pretty much such a love as Voltaire had for Madame de Chatelet; and with
it he was at last content. There is no evidence that Byron ever afterward
loved any other woman; and what is very singular about the affair
is that it was condoned by the husband, until it became a scandal
even in Italy.

The countess was taken ill on her way to Ravenna, and thither Byron
followed her, and lived in the same palace with her,--the palace of her
husband, who courted the poet's society, and who afterward left his
young countess to free intercourse with Byron at Bologna,--not without a
compensation in revenue, which was more disgraceful than the amour
itself. About this time Byron would probably have returned to England
but for the enchantment which enslaved him. He could not part from the
countess, nor she from him.

The Pope pronounced the separation of the count from his wife, and she
returned to her father's house on a pittance of L200 a year. She
sacrificed everything for the young English poet,--her splendid home,
her relatives, her honor, and her pride. Never was there a sadder
episode in the life of a man of letters. If Byron had married such a
woman in his early life, how different might have been his history! With
such a love as she inspired, had he been faithful to it, he might have
lived in radiant happiness, the idol and the pride of all admirers of
genius wherever the English language is spoken, seated on a throne
which kings might envy. So much have circumstances to do with human
destinies! Since Abelard, never was there a man more capable of a
genuine fervid love than Byron; and yet he threw himself away. He was
his own worst enemy, and all from an ill-regulated nature which he
inherited both from his father and his mother, with no Mentor to whom he
would listen. And thus his star sunk down in the eternal shades,--a
fallen Lucifer expelled from bliss.

I would not condone the waywardness and vices of Byron, or weaken the
eternal distinctions between right and wrong. The impression I wish to
convey is that there were two very distinctly marked sides to his
character; that his conduct was not without palliations, in view of his
surroundings, the force of his temptations, and his wayward nature,
uncurbed by parental care or early training, indeed rather goaded on by
the unfortunate conditions of his youth to find consolation in doing as
he liked, without regard to duty or the opinions of society. Born with
the keenest sensibilities, with emotive powers of tremendous sweep and
force; neglected, crossed, mortified, with no wise guidance,--he was
driven in upon himself, and developed an intense self-will, which would
endure no control. Unhappy will be the future of that man, however
amiable, affectionate, and generous, who, whether from neglect in
youth, like Byron, or from sheer wilfulness in manhood, determines to
act as the mood takes him, because he has freedom of will, without
regard to the social restraints imposed upon conscience by the unwritten
law, which pursues him wherever he goes, even should he fly to the
uttermost parts of the earth. No one can escape from moral
accountability, whether in a seductive paradise, or in a dungeon, or in
a desert. The only stability, for society must be in the character of
its individual members. Before pleasure comes duty,--to family, to
friends, to country, to self, and to the Maker.

This sense of moral accountability Byron seems never to have had, in
regard to anybody or anything, his self-indulgence culminating in an
egotism melancholy to behold. He would go where he pleased, say what he
pleased, write as he pleased, do what he pleased, without any
constraint, whether in opposition or not to the customs and rules of
society, his own welfare, or the laws of God. It was moral madness
pursuing him to destruction,--the logical and necessary sequence of
unrestrained self-will, sometimes assuming the form of angelic
loveliness and inspiration in the eyes of his idolaters. No counsellor
guided him wiser than Moore or Shelley. Even the worldly advice of
Rogers and Madame de Stael was thrown away, whenever they presumed to
counsel him. Nobody could influence him. His abandonment to fitful
labors or pleasures was alike his glory and his shame. After a day of
frivolity he would consume the midnight hours in the intensest studies,
stimulated by gin, to awake in the morning in lassitude or pain,--for
work he must, as well as play. The consequence of this burning the
candle at both ends was failing health and diminished energies, until
his short race was run. He had produced more poetry at thirty-four years
of age than any other English poet at the age of fifty,--some of almost
transcendent merit, but more of questionable worth, though not of
questionable power. Aside from the "Childe Harold," the "Hebrew
Melodies," the "Prisoner of Chillon," and perhaps the "Corsair," the
"Bride of Abydos," "Lara," and the "Siege of Corinth," the rest,
excepting minor poems, however beautiful in measure and grand in
thought, give a shock to the religious or to the moral sentiments.
"Cain" and "Manfred" are regarded as almost blasphemous, though probably
not so meant to be by the poet, in view of the stirring questions of
Grecian tragedy; while the longest of his poems, "Don Juan," is an
insult to womanhood and a disgrace to genius; for although containing
some of the most exquisite touches of description and finest flights of
poetic feeling, its theme is along the lowest level of human passion.

Whatever Byron wrote was unhesitatingly published and read, whether
good or evil, whatever were those follies and defiances which excluded
him from the best society; and it is a matter of surprise to me that any
noted and wealthy publisher could be found, in respectable and
conventional England, venal enough to publish perhaps the most
corrupting poem in our language,--worse than anything which Boccaccio
wrote for his Italian readers, or anything which plain-spoken Fielding
and the dramatists of the reign of Charles II. ever allowed to go into
print; for though they were coarser in their language, they were not so
seductive in their spirit, and did not poison the soul like "Don Juan,"
the very name of which has become a synonym for extreme depravity. That
abominable poem was read because Lord Byron wrote it, and because its
immorality was slightly veiled by the beauty of the language, even when
a copy could not be found on the table of any respectable drawing-room,
and the name of the author was seldom mentioned except with stern and
honest censure. It is perhaps fair to quote Murray's own words, throwing
the responsibility on the public: "They talked of his immoral writings;
but there is a whole row of sermons glued to my shelf. I hate the sight
of them. Why don't they buy those?" A fair enough retort; and yet, like
the newspaper purveyors of the records of vice in our own day, the
publisher was responsible for making the vile stuff accessible, and thus
debasing the public taste.

How different was Byron's painting of Spanish life from that of the
immortal Cervantes, whom Lowell places among the five master geniuses of
the world! In "Don Quixote" there is not a sentence which does not exalt
woman, or which degrades man. A lofty ideal of purity and chivalrous
honor permeates every page, even in the most ludicrous scenes. The whole
work blazes with wit, and with the wisdom of a proverbial philosophy,
uttered by the ignorant squire of a fanatical and bewildered knight; but
amidst the practical jokes and follies of all the characters in that
marvellous work of fiction, we see also a moral beauty, idealized of
course, such as was rivalled only in Spanish art in the Madonnas of
Murillo. I believe that in the imaginary sketches of Spanish life as
portrayed by Byron, slanders and lies deface the poem from beginning to
end. Who is the best authority for truthfulness in the description of
Spanish people, Cervantes or Byron? The spiritual loftiness portrayed in
the lives of Spanish heroes and heroines, mixed up as it was with the
most ludicrous pictures of common life, has made the Spaniard's work of
fiction one of the most treasured and enduring monuments of human fame;
whereas the insulting innuendoes of the English poet have gone far to
rob him of the glory which he had justly won in his earlier productions,
and to make his name a doubt. If, in the course of generations yet to
come, the evil which Byron did by that one poem alone shall be forgotten
in the services he rendered to our literature by other works, which
cannot die, then he may some day be received into the Pantheon of the
benefactors of mind.

I would speak with less vehemence in reference to those poems which are
generally supposed to be permeated with defiance, scorn, and
misanthropy. In "Manfred" and "Cain," it was with Byron a work of art to
describe the utterances of impious spirits against the sovereign rule of
God. Had he not fallen from high estate as an interpreter of the soul,
the critics might have seen here nothing more to condemn than in some of
the Grecian tragedies, many passages in the "Paradise Lost," and in the
general spirit of "Faust." It is no proof that he was a blasphemer in
his heart because he painted blasphemy. To describe a wanderer on the
face of the earth, driven hither and thither by pursuing vengeance as
the first recorded murderer, the poet was obliged by all the rules of
art to put such sentiments into his mouth as accorded with his
unrepented crime and his dreadful agonies of mind and soul. Where is the
proof that they were _his own_ agonies, remorse, despair? Surely, we may
pardon in Byron what we excuse in Goethe in the delineation of unique
characters,--the great creations which belong to the realm of the
imagination alone. The imputation that the sayings of his fallen fiends
were the cherished sentiments of the poet himself, may have been one
cause of his contempt for the average intelligence of his countrymen,
and for their inveterate and incurable prejudices. Nothing in Dante is
more intense and concentrated in language than the malediction of Eve
upon her fratricidal son:--

"May the grass wither from thy feet! the woods
Deny thee shelter! earth a home! the dust
A gravel the Sun his light! and Heaven her God!"

Yet the reader feels the naturalness of this bitter cursing of her own
son by the frenzied mother. How could a great artist like Byron put
sentiments into the mouth of Cain such as would be harmless in the
essays of a country parson? If he painted Lucifer, he must make him
speak like Lucifer, not like a theological professor. Nothing could be
more ungenerous and narrow than to abuse Byron for a dramatic poem in
which some of his characters were fiends rather than men. We have no
more right to say that he was an infidel because Cain or Lucifer
blasphemed, than to say that Goethe was an atheist because
Mephistopheles denied God.

If Byron had avowed atheistical opinions in letters or conversations,
that would be another thing; but there is no evidence that he did, and
much to the contrary. A few months before he died he was visited by a
pious crank, who out of curiosity or Christian zeal sought to know his
theological views. Byron treated him with the greatest courtesy, and
freely communicated his opinions on religious subjects,--from which it
would appear that he differed from church people generally only on the
matter of eternal punishment, which he did not believe was consistent
with infinite love or infinite justice. Perhaps it would have been wiser
if he had not written "Cain" at all, considering how many readers there
are without brains, and how large was the class predisposed to judge him
harshly in everything. No doubt he was irreligious and sceptical, but it
does not follow from this that he was atheistical or blasphemous.

There is doubtless a misanthropic vein in all Byron's later poetry which
is not wholesome for many people to read,--especially in "Manfred," one
of the bitterest of his productions by reason of sorrows and
disappointments and misrepresentations. It was Byron's misfortune to
appear worse than he really was, owing to his unconcealed contempt for
the opinions of mankind. Yet he could not complain that he reaped what
he had not sown. Some of his biographers thought him to be at this time
even morbidly desirous of a bad reputation,--going so far as to write
paragraphs against himself in foreign journals, and being filled with
glee at the joke, when they were republished in English newspapers. He
despised and defied all conventionalities, and conventional England
dropped him from her list of favorites.

The life of Byron, strange to say, was less exposed to scandal after he
made the acquaintance of the countess who enslaved him, and who was also
enslaved in turn. His heart now opened to many noble sentiments. He
returned, in a degree, to society, and gave dinners and suppers. He
associated with many distinguished patriots and men of genius. He had a
strong sympathy with the Italians in their struggle for freedom. One
quarter of his income he devoted to charities. He was regular in his
athletic exercises, and could swim four hours at a time; he was always
proud of swimming across the Hellespont. He was devoted to his natural
daughter, and educated her in a Catholic school. He studied more
severely all works of art, though his admiration for art was never so
great as it was for Nature. The glories and wonders of Nature inspired
him with perpetual joys. There is nothing finer in all his poetry than
the following stanza:--

"Ye stars! which are the poetry of Heaven,
If in your bright leaves we would read the fate
Of men and empires,--'t is to be forgiven
That in our aspirations to be great
Our destinies o'erleap their mortal state,
And claim a kindred with you; for ye are
A beauty and a mystery, and create
In us such love and reverence from afar,
That fortune, fame, power, life, have named themselves a star."

There never was a time when Byron did not seek out beautiful retreats in
Nature as the source of his highest happiness. Hence, solitude was
nothing to him when he could commune with the works of God. His
biographer declares that in 1821 "he was greatly improved in every
respect,--in genius, in temper, in moral views, in health and happiness.
He has had mischievous passions, but these he seems to have subdued." He
was always temperate in his diet, living chiefly on fish and vegetables;
and if he drank more wine and spirits than was good for him, it was to
rally his exhausted energies. His powers of production were never
greater than at this period, but his literary labors were slowly wearing
him out. He could not live without work, while pleasure palled upon him.
In a letter to a stranger who sought to convert him, he showed anything
but anger or contempt. "Do me," says he, "the justice to suppose, that
_Video meliora proboque_, however the _deteriora sequor_ may have been
applied to my conduct." Writing to Murray in 1822, he says: "It is not
impossible that I may have three or four cantos of 'Don Juan' ready by
autumn, as I obtained a permission from my dictatress [the Countess
Guiccioli] to continue it,--provided always it was to be more guarded
and decorous in the continuation than in the commencement." Alas, he
could not undo the mischief he had done!

About this time Byron received a visit from Lord Clare, his earliest
friend at Cambridge, to whom through life he was devotedly attached,--a
friendship which afforded exceeding delight. He never forgot his few
friends, although he railed at his enemies. He was ungenerously treated
by Leigh Hunt, to whom he rendered every kindness. He says,--

"I have done all I could for him since he came here [Genoa], but it is
all most useless. His wife is ill, his six children far from tractable,
and in worldly affairs he himself is a child. The death of Shelley left
them totally aground; and I could not see them in such a state without
using the common feelings of humanity, and what means were in my power,
to set them afloat again.... As to any community of feeling, thought, or
opinion between him and me there is little or none; but I think him a
good-principled man, and must do as I would be done by."

Toward Shelley, Byron entertained the greatest respect and affection for
his suavity, gentleness, and good breeding; and Shelley's accidental
death was a great shock to him. Among his other intimate acquaintances
in Italy were Lord and Lady Blessington, with whom he kept up a pleasant
correspondence. The most plaintive, sad, and generous of all his letters
was the one he wrote to Lady Byron from Pisa, in 1821, in acknowledgment
of the receipt of a tress of his daughter Ada's hair:--

"The time which has elapsed since our separation has been considerably
more than the whole brief period of our union and of our prior
acquaintance. We both made a bitter mistake; but now it is over, and
irrecoverably so.... But this very impossibility of reunion seems to me
at least a reason why on all the few points of discussion which can
arise between us, we should preserve the courtesies of life, and as much
of its kindness as people who are never to meet may preserve more easily
than nearer connections.... I assure you I bear you now no resentment
whatever. Whether the offence has been solely on my side, or reciprocal,
or on yours chiefly, I have ceased to reflect upon any but two
things,--that you are the mother of my child, and that we shall never
meet again."

At this period, about a year before Byron's death, Moore thus writes:--

"To the world, and more especially England, he presented himself in no
other aspect than that of a stern, haughty misanthrope, self-banished
from the society of men, and most of all from that of Englishmen. The
more beautiful and genial inspirations of his muse were looked upon but
as lucid intervals between the paroxysms of an inherent malignancy of
nature. But how totally all this differed from the Byron of the social
hour, they who lived in familiar intercourse with him may be safely left
to tell. As it was, no English gentleman ever approached him with the
common forms of introduction, that did not come away at once surprised
and charmed by the kind courtesy of his manners, the unpretending play
of his conversation, and on nearer intercourse the frank, youthful
spirits, to the flow of which he gave way with such zest as to produce
the impression that gaiety was after all the true bent of his

Scott, writing of him after his death, says,--

"In talents he was unequalled; and his faults were those rather of a
bizarre temper, arising from an eager and irritable nervous habit, than
any depravity of disposition. He was devoid of selfishness, which I take
to be the basest ingredient in the human composition. He was generous,
humane, and noble-minded, when passion did not blind him."

About this time, 1823, the great struggle of the Greeks to shake off the
Ottoman yoke was in progress. I have already in another volume[1]
attempted to give the facts in relation to that memorable movement.
Christendom sympathized with the gallant but apparently hopeless
struggle of a weak nation to secure its independence, both from a
sentiment of admiration for the freedom of ancient Greece in the period
of its highest glories, and from the love of liberty which animated the
liberal classes amid the political convulsions of the day. But the
governments of Europe were loath to complicate the difficulties which
existed between nations in that stormy period, and dared not extend any
open aid to struggling Greece, beyond giving their moral aid to the
Greek cause, lest it should embroil Europe in war, of which she was
weary. Less than ten years had elapsed since Europe had combined to
dethrone Napoleon, and some of her leading powers, like Austria and
Russia, had a detestation of popular insurrections.

In this complicated state of political affairs, when any indiscretion on
the part of friendly governments might kindle anew the flames of war,
Lord Byron was living in Genoa, taking such an interest in the Greek
struggle that he abandoned poetry for politics. He had always
sympathized with enslaved nations struggling for independence, and was
driven from Ravenna on account of his alliance with the revolutionary
Society of the Carbonari. A new passion now seized him. He entered heart
and soul into the struggles of the Greeks. Their cause absorbed him. He
would aid them to the full extent of his means, with money and arms, as
a private individual. He would be a political or military hero,--a man
of action, not of literary leisure.

Every lover of liberty must respect Byron's noble aspirations to assist
the Greeks. It was a new field for him, but one in which he might
retrieve his reputation,--for it must be borne in mind that his ruling
passion was fame, and that he had gained all he could expect by his
literary productions. Whether loved or hated, admired or censured, his
poetry had placed him in the front rank of literary geniuses throughout
the world. As a poet his immortality was secured. In literary efforts he
had also probably exhausted himself; he could write nothing more which
would add to his fame, unless he took a long rest and recreation. He was
wearied of making poetry; but by plunging into a sea of fresh
adventures, and by giving a new direction to his powers, he might be
sufficiently renovated, in the course of time, to write something
grander and nobler than even "Childe Harold" or "Cain."

Lord Byron at this time was only thirty-five years old, a period when
most men begin their best work. His constitution, it is true, was
impaired, but he was still full of life and enterprise. He could ride or
swim as well as he ever could. The call of a gallant people summoned him
to arms, and of all nations he most loved the Greeks. He was an
enthusiast in their cause; he believed that the day of their deliverance
was at hand. So he made up his mind to consecrate his remaining energies
to effect their independence. He opened a correspondence with the Greek
committee in London. He selected a party, including a physician, to sail
with him from Geneva. He raised a sum of about L10,000, and on the 13th
of July, 1823, embarked with his small party and eight servants, on
board the "Hercules" for Greece.

After a short delay at Leghorn the poet reached Cephalonia on the 24th
of July. He was enthusiastically received by the Greeks of Argostoli,
the principal port, but deemed it prudent to remain there until he could
get further intelligence from Corfu and Missolonghi,--visiting, in the
interval, some of the neighboring islands consecrated by the muse
of Homer.

The dissensions among the Greek leaders greatly embarrassed Byron, but
did not destroy his ardor. He saw that the people were degenerate,
faithless, and stained with atrocities as disgraceful as those of the
Turks themselves. He dared not commit himself to any one of the
struggling, envious parties which rallied round their respective
chieftains. He lingered for six weeks in Cephalonia without the ordinary
comforts of life, yet, against all his habits, rising at an early hour
and attending to business, negotiating bills, and corresponding with the
government, so far as there was a recognized central power.

At last, after the fall of Corinth, taken from the Turks, and the
arrival at Missolonghi of Prince Mavrocordato, the only leader of the
Greeks worthy of the name of statesman, Byron sailed for that city, then
invested by a Turkish fleet, and narrowly escaped capture. Here he did
all he could to produce union among the chieftains, and took into his
pay five hundred Suliotes, acting as their leader. He meditated an
attack on Lepanto, which commanded the navigation of the Gulf of
Corinth, and received from the government a commission for that
enterprise; but dissensions among his men, and intrigues between rival
generals, prevented the execution of his project.

It was in Missolonghi, Jan. 22, 1824, that, with the memorandum, "On
this day I completed my thirty-sixth year," Byron wrote his latest
verses, most pathetically regretting his youth and his unfortunate life,
but arousing himself to find in a noble cause a glorious death:--

"The fire that in my bosom preys
Is like to some volcanic isle;
No torch is kindled at its blaze,--
A funeral pile."

* * * * *

"Awake!--not Greece: she is awake!--
Awake, my spirit! think through whom
Thy life-blood tastes its parent lake,
And then strike home!"

* * * * *

"Seek out--less often sought than found--
A soldier's grave, for thee the best;
Then look around, and choose thy ground,
And take thy rest!"

Vexations, disappointments, and exposure to the rains of February so
wrought upon Byron's eager spirit and weakened body that he was attacked
by convulsive fits. The physicians, in accordance with the custom of
that time, bled their patient several times, against the protest of
Byron himself, which reduced him to extreme weakness. He rallied from
the attack for a time, and devoted himself to the affairs of Greece,
hoping for the restoration of his health when spring should come. He
spent in three months thirty thousand dollars for the cause into which
he had so cordially entered. In April he took another cold from severe
exposure, and fever set in,--to relieve which bleeding was again
resorted to, and often repeated. He was now confined to his room, which
he never afterwards left. He at last realized that he was dying, and
sent incoherent messages to his sister, to his daughter, and to a few
intimate friends. The end came on the 19th of April. The Greek
government rendered all the honor possible to the illustrious dead. His
remains were transferred to England. He was not buried in Westminster
Abbey, however, but in the church of Hucknal, near Newstead, where a
tablet was erected to his memory by his sister, the Hon. Augusta
Maria Leigh.

"So Harold ends in Greece, his pilgrimage
There fitly ending,--in that land renowned,
Whose mighty genius lives in Glory's page,
He on the Muses' consecrated ground
Sinking to rest, while his young brows are bound
With their unfading wreath! To bands of mirth
No more in Tempe let the pipe resound!
Harold, I follow to thy place of birth
The slow hearse,--and thy last sad pilgrimage on earth."

I can add but little to what I have already said in reference to Byron,
either as to his character or his poetry. The Edinburgh Review, which in
Brougham's article on his early poems had stung him into satire and
aroused him to a sense of his own powers, in later years by Jeffrey's
hand gave a most appreciative account of his poems, while mourning over
his morbid gloom: "'Words that breathe and thoughts that burn' are not
merely the ornaments but the common staple of his poetry; and he is not
inspired or impressive only in some happy passages, but through the
whole body and tissue of his composition." The keen insight and
exceptional intellect of the philosopher-poet Goethe recognized in him
"the greatest talent of our century." His marvellous poetic genius was
universally acknowledged in his own day; and more than that, so human
was it that it attracted the sympathies of all civilized nations, and,
as Lamartine said, "made English literature known throughout Europe."
Byron's poetry was politically influential also, by reason of its
liberty-loving spirit,--arousing Italy, inspiring the young
revolutionists of Germany, and awaking a generous sympathy for Greece.
Without the consciousness of any "mission" beyond the expression of his
own ebullient nature, this poet contributed no mean impulse to the
general emancipation of spirit which has signalized the
nineteenth century.

Two generations have passed away since Byron's mortal remains were
committed to the dust, and the verdict of his country has not since
materially changed,--admiration for his genius _alone_. The light of
lesser stars than he shines with brighter radiance. What the enlightened
verdict of mankind may be two generations hence, no living mortal can
tell. The worshippers of intellect may attempt to reverse or modify the
judgment already passed, but the impressive truth remains that no man,
however great his genius, will be permanently judged aside from
character. When Lord Bacon left his name and memory to men's charitable
judgments and the next age, he probably had in view his invaluable
legacy to mankind of earnest searchings after truth, which made him one
of the greatest of human benefactors. How far the poetry of Byron has
proved a blessing to the world must be left to an abler critic than I
lay claim to be. In him the good and evil went hand in hand in the
eternal warfare which ancient Persian sages saw between the powers of
light and darkness in every human soul,--a consciousness of which
warfare made Byron himself in his saddest hours wish he had never
lived at all.

If we could, in his life and in his works, separate the evil from the
good, and let only the good remain,--then his services to literature
could hardly be exaggerated, and he would be honored as the greatest
English poet, so far as native genius goes, after Shakespeare
and Milton.




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