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ANCESTRY AND FAMILY
EARLY YEARS AND SCHOOL-LIFE. 1788-1808.
CAMBRIDGE, AND FIRST PERIOD OF AUTHORSHIP–HOURS OF IDLENESS–BARDS AND REVIEWERS. 1808-1809.
TWO YEARS OF TRAVEL. 1809-1811.
LIFE IN LONDON–CORRESPONDENCE WITH SCOTT AND MOORE–SECOND PERIOD OF AUTHORSHIP–HAROLD (I., II.). AND THE ROMANCES. 1811-1815.
MARRIAGE AND SEPARATION–FAREWELL TO ENGLAND. 1815-1816.
SWITZERLAND–VENICE–THIRD PERIOD OF AUTHORSHIP–HAROLD (III., IV.) –MANFRED. 1816-1820.
RAVENNA–COUNTESS GUICCIOLI–THE DRAMAS–CAIN–VISION OF JUDGMENT. 1820-1821.
PISA–GENOA–THE LIBERAL–DON JUAN. 1821-1823.
POLITICS–THE CARBONARI–EXPEDITION TO GREECE–DEATH. 1821-1824.
CHARACTERISTICS, AND PLACE IN LITERATURE
1. The Narrative of the Honourable John Byron, Commodore, in a late Expedition Round the World, &c. (Baker and Leigh) 1768
2. Voyage of H.M.S. _Blonde_ to the Sandwich Islands in the years 1824-1825, the Right Hon. Lord Byron, Commander (John Murray) 1826
3. Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Right Hon. Lord Byron (H. Colburn) 1822
4. The Life, Writings, Opinions, and Times of G.G. Noel Byron, with courtiers of tho present polished and enlightened age, &c., &c., 3 vols. (M. Hey) 1825
5. Narrative of Lord Byron’s last Journey to Greece, from Journal of Count Peter Gamba 1825
6. Medwin’s Conversations with Lord Byron at Pisa, 2 vols. (H. Colburn) 1825
7. Leigh Hunt’s Byron and His Contemporaries (H. Colburn) 1828
8. The Works of Lord Byron, with Life by Thomas Moore, 17 vols. (Murray) 1832
9. Galt’s Life of Lord Byron (Colburn and Buntley) 1830
10. Kennedy’s Conversations on Religion (Murray) 1830
11. Countess of Blessington’s Conversations (Colburn) 1834
12. Lady Morgan’s Memoirs, 2 vols. (W.H. Allen) 1842
13. Recollections of the Countess Guiccioli (Bentley) 1869
14. Castelar’s Genius and Character of Byron (Tinsley) 1870
15. Elze’s Life of Lord Byron (Murray) 1872
16. Trelawny’s Reminiscences of Byron and Shelley 1858
17. Torrens’ Memoirs of Viscount Melbourne (Macmillan) 1878
18. Rev. F. Hodgson’s Memoirs, 2 vols. (Macimillan) 1879
19. Essays and Articles, or Recorded Criticisms, by Macaulay, Scott, Shelley, Goethe, G. Brandes, Mazzini, Sainte Beuve, Chasles, H. Taine, &c.
20. Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage 1879
GENEALOGY OF THE BYRON FAMILY.
THE BYRON FAMILY, FROM THE CONQUEST
Ralph de Burun (estates in Nottingham and Derby). |
Hugh de Burun (Lord of Horestan).
Hugh de Buron (became a monk).
Sir Roger de Buron (gave lands to monks of Swinstead). |
| Sir Richard Clayton.
Robert de Byron. = Cecelia
Robert de Byron
Sir John Byron (Governor of York under Edward I.). |
Sir Richard Byron. Sir John (knighted at siege of Calais) |
Sir John (knighted in 3rd year of Henry V.). |
| Sir John Butler.
Sir Nicholas. = Alice.
———————————– | |
Sir Nicholas (made K.B. at Sir John (knighted by Richmond marriage of Prince Arthur, at Milford; fought at Bosworth; died 1503). died 1488).
Sir John Byron = 2nd wife, widow of George Halgh. (received grant of Newstead from Henry VIII., May 26,1540). |
Bar // Sinister
| Sir Nicholas Strelleye | |
John Byron, of Clayton = Alice
(inherited by gift, knighted by Elizabeth, 1579). |
————————————- | |
| Sir Nicholas
| Sir Richard Molyneux
Sir John = Anne
(K.B. at coronation of James I; Governor of Tower). |
————————————– | |
RICHARD, 2nd Lord (1605-1679) Sir JOHN 1st Lord (created (Buried at Hucknal Torkard) Baron Byron of Rochdale, | Oct. 24, 1643; at Newbury, | Edgehill, Chester, &c. | Viscount Chaworth Governor of Duke of York; died | | at Paris, 1652).
WILLIAM, 3rd Lord = Elizabeth.
| Lord Berkeley.
WILLIAM, 4th Lord = Frances (3rd wife) (1669-1736)
Admiral John (1723-1786) |- WILLIAM, 5th Lord (1722-1798) (killed Mr. | “Foul-weather Jack”). | Chaworth; survived his sons | | and a grandson, who died 1794; | | called “The wicked Lord”). | |
| | – Isabella = Lord Carlisle | |
| Lord Carlisle (the poet’s | guardian).
| |- A daughter
| | |
| | Colonel Leigh
| |- George Anson (1758-1793). | |
| Admiral GEORGE ANSON, 7th Lord | (1789-1868)
| |- Frederick
| | |
| | GEORGE F. WILLIAM, 9th and present | | Lord Byron.
| |- GEORGE, 8th Lord (1818-1870) |
1. Marchioness = John Byron (1751-1791) = 2. Miss Gordon of Gight of Carmarthen | |
Colonel Leigh = Augusta GEORGE GORDON, 6th Lord | | (1788-1824). Married Several daughters | Anna Isabella (1792-1860), | daughter of Sir Ralph | Milbanke and Judith, | daughter of Sir Edward | Noel (Viscount Wentworth), | and by her had
Earl Lovelace = Augusta-Ada (1815-1852). |
————————————– | | |
Mr. Blunt = Lady Anne. Byron Noel Ralph Gordon, (died 1862) now Lord Wentworth
ANCESTRY AND FAMILY.
Byron’s life was passed under the fierce light that beats upon an intellectual throne. He succeeded in making himself–what he wished to be–the most notorious personality in the world of letters of our century. Almost every one who came in contact with him has left on record various impressions of intimacy or interview. Those whom he excluded or patronized, maligned; those to whom he was genial, loved him. Mr. Southey, in all sincerity, regarded him as the principle of Evil incarnate; an American writer of tracts in the form of stories is of the same opinion: to the Countess Guiccioli he is an archangel. Mr. Carlyle considers him to have been a mere “sulky dandy.” Goethe ranks him as the first English poet after Shakespeare, and is followed by the leading critics of France, Italy, and Spain. All concur in the admission that Byron was as proud of his race as of his verse, and that in unexampled measure the good and evil of his nature were inherited and inborn. His genealogy is, therefore, a matter of no idle antiquarianism.
There are legends of old Norse Buruns migrating from their home in Scandinavia, and settling, one branch in Normandy, another in Livonia. To the latter belonged a distant Marshal de Burun, famous for the almost absolute power he wielded in the then infant realm of Russia. Two members of the family came over with the Conqueror, and settled in England. Of Erneis de Burun, who had lands in York and Lincoln, we hear little more. Ralph, the poet’s ancestor, is mentioned in Doomsday Book–our first authentic record–as having estates in Nottinghamshire and Derby. His son Hugh was lord of Horestan Castle in the latter county, and with his son of the same name, under King Stephen, presented the church of Ossington to the monks of Lenton. Tim latter Hugh joined their order; but the race was continued by his son Sir Roger, who gave lands to the monastery of Swinstead. This brings us to the reign of Henry II. (1155-1189), when Robert de Byron adopted the spelling of his name afterwards retained, and by his marriage with Cecilia, heir of Sir Richard Clayton, added to the family possessions an estate; in Lancashire, where, till the time of Henry VIII., they fixed their seat. The poet, relying on old wood-carvings at Newstead, claims for some of his ancestors a part in the crusades, and mentions a name not apparently belonging to that age–
Near Ascalon’s towers, John of Horestan slumbers–
a romance, like many of his, possibly founded on fact, but incapable of verification.
Two grandsons of Sir Robert have a more substantial fame, having served with distinction in the wars of Edward I. The elder of these was governor of the city of York. Some members of his family fought at Cressy, and one of his sons, Sir John, was knighted by Edward III. at the siege of Calais. Descending through the other, Sir Richard, we come to another Sir John, knighted by Richmond, afterwards Henry VII., on his landing at Milford. He fought, with his kin, on the field of Bosworth, and dying without issue, left the estates to his brother, Sir Nicholas, knighted in 1502, at the marriage of Prince Arthur. The son of Sir Nicholas, known as “little Sir John of the great beard,” appears to have been a favourite of Henry VIII., who made him Steward of Manchester and Lieutenant of Sherwood, and on the dissolution of the monasteries presented him with the Priory of Newstead, the rents of which were equivalent to about 4000l. of our money. Sir John, who stepped into the Abbey in 1540, married twice, and the premature appearance of a son by the second wife–widow of Sir George Halgh–brought the bar sinister of which so much has been made. No indication of this fact, however, appears in the family arms, and it is doubtful if the poet was aware of a reproach which in any case does not touch his descent. The “filius naturalis,” John Byron of Clayton, inherited by deed of gift, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1579. His descendants were prominent as staunch Royalists during the whole period of the Civil Wars. At Edgehill there were seven Byrons on the field.
On Marston, with Rupert ‘gainst traitors contending, Four brothers enrich’d with their blood the bleak field.
Sir Nicholas, one of the seven, is extolled as “a person of great affability and dexterity, as well as martial knowledge, which gave great life to the designs of the well affected.” He was taken prisoner by the Parliament while acting as governor of Chester. Under his nephew, Sir John, Newstead is said to have been besieged and taken; but the knight escaped, in the words of the poet–never a Radical at heart–a “protecting genius,
For nobler combats here reserved his life, To lead the band where godlike Falkland foil.”
Clarendon, indeed, informs us, that on the morning before the battle, Falkland, “very cheerful, as always upon action, put himself into the first rank of the Lord Byron’s regiment.” This slightly antedates his title. The first battle of Newbury was fought on September, 1643. For his services there, and at a previous royal victory, over Waller in July, Sir John was, on October 24th of the same year, created Baron of Rochdale, and so became the first Peer of the family.
This first lord was succeeded by his brother Richard (1605-1079), famous in the war for his government and gallant defence of Newark. He rests in the vault that now contains the dust of the greatest of his race, Hucknall Torkard Church, where his epitaph records the fact that the family lost all their present fortunes by their loyalty, adding, “yet it pleased God so to bless the humble endeavours of the said Richard, Lord Byron, that he repurchased part of their ancient inheritance, which he left to his posterity, with a laudable memory for his great piety and charity.” His eldest son, William, the third Lord (died 1695), is worth remembering on two accounts. He married Elizabeth, the daughter of Viscount Chaworth, and so wove the first link in a strange association of tragedy and romance: he was a patron of one of those poets who, approved by neither gods nor columns, are remembered by the accident of an accident, and was himself a poetaster, capable of the couplet,–
My whole ambition only does extend
To gain the name of Shipman’s faithful friend,–
an ambition which, considering its moderate scope, may be granted to have attained its desire.
His successor, the fourth lord (1669-1736), gentleman of the bedchamber to Prince George of Denmark, himself living a quiet life, became, by his third wife, Frances, daughter of Lord Berkeley, the progenitor of a strange group of eccentric, adventurous, and passionate spirits. The eldest son, the fifth lord, and immediate predecessor in the peerage of the poet, was born in 1722, entered the naval service, left his ship, the “Victory,” just before she was lost on the rocks of Alderney, and subsequently became master of the stag-hounds. In 1765, the year of the passing of the American Stamp Act, an event occurred which coloured the whole of his after-life, and is curiously illustrative of the manners of the time. On January 26th or 29th (accounts vary) ten members of an aristocratic social club sat down to dinner in Pall-mall. Lord Byron and Mr. Chaworth, his neighbour and kinsman, were of the party. In the course of the evening, when the wine was going round, a dispute arose between them about the management of game, so frivolous that one conjectures the quarrel to have been picked to cloak some other cause of offence. Bets were offered, and high words passed, but the company thought the matter had blown over. On going out, however, the disputants met on the stairs, and one of the two, it is uncertain which, cried out to the waiter to show them an empty room. This was done, and a single tallow candle being placed on the table, the door was shut. A few minutes later a bell was rung, and the hotel master rushing in, Mr. Chaworth was found mortally wounded. There had been a struggle in the dim light, and Byron, having received the first lunge harmlessly in his waistcoat, had shortened his sword and run his adversary through the body, with the boast, not uncharacteristic of his grand nephew, “By G-d, I have as much courage as any man in England.” A coroner’s inquest was held, and he was committed to the Tower on a charge of murder. The interest in the trial which subsequently took place in Westminster Hall, was so great that tickets of admission were sold for six guineas. The peers, after two days’ discussion, unanimously returned a verdict of manslaughter. Byron, pleading his privileges, and paying his fees, was set at liberty; but he appears henceforth as a spectre-haunted man, roaming about under false names, or shut up in the Abbey like a baited savage, shunned by his fellows high and low, and the centre of the wildest stories. That he shot a coachman, and flung the body into the carriage beside his wife, who very sensibly left him; that he tried to drown her; that he had devils to attend him–were among the many weird legends of “the wicked lord.” The poet himself says that his ancestor’s only companions were the crickets that used to crawl over him, receive stripes with straws when they misbehaved, and on his death made an exodus in procession from the house. When at home he spent his time in pistol-shooting, making sham fights with wooden ships about the rockeries of the lake, and building ugly turrets on the battlements. He hated his heir presumptive, sold the estate of Rochdale,–a proceeding afterwards challenged–and cut down the trees of Newstead, to spite him; but he survived his three sons, his brother, and his only grandson, who was killed in Corsica in 1794.
On his own death in 1798, the estates and title passed to George Gordon, then a child of ten, whom he used to talk of, without a shadow of interest, as “the little boy who lives at Aberdeen.” His sister Isabella married Lord Carlisle, and became the mother of the fifth Earl, the poet’s nominal guardian. She was a lady distinguished for eccentricity of manners, and (like her son satirized in the _Bards and Reviewers_) for the perpetration of indifferent verses. The career of the fourth lord’s second son, John, the poet’s grandfather, recalls that of the sea-kings from whom the family claim to have sprung. Born in 1723, he at an early age entered the naval service, and till his death in 1786 was tossed from storm to storm. “He had no rest on sea, nor I on shore,” writes his illustrious descendant. In 1740 a fleet of five ships was sent out under Commodore Anson to annoy the Spaniards, with whom we were then at war, in the South Seas. Byron took service as a midshipman in one of those ships–all more or less unfortunate–called “The Wager.” Being a bad sailor, and heavily laden, she was blown from her company, and wrecked in the Straits of Magellan. The majority of the crew were cast on a bleak rock, which they christened Mount Misery. After encountering all the horrors of mutiny and famine, and being in various ways deserted, five of the survivors, among them Captain Cheap and Mr. Byron, were taken by some Patagonians to the Island of Chiloe, and thence, after some months, to Valparaiso. They were kept for nearly two years as prisoners at St. Iago, the capital of Chili, and in December, 1744, put on board a French frigate, which reached Brest in October, 1745. Early in 1746 they arrived at Dover in a Dutch vessel.
This voyage is the subject of a well-known apostrophe in _The Pleasures of Hope_, beginning–
And such thy strength-inspiring aid that bore The hardy Byron from his native shore. In torrid climes, where Chiloe’s tempests sweep Tumultuous murmurs o’er the troubled deep, ‘Twas his to mourn misfortune’s rudest shock, Scourged by the winds and cradled by the rock.
Byron’s own account of his adventures, published in 1768, is remarkable for freshness of scenery like that of our first literary traveller, Sir John Mandeville, and a force of description which recalls Defoe. It interests us more especially from the use that has been made of it in that marvellous mosaic of voyages, the shipwreck, in _Don Juan_, the hardships of his hero being, according to the poet–
To those related in my grand-dad’s narrative.
In June, 1764, Byron sailed with two ships, the “Dolphin” and the “Tamar,” on a voyage of discovery arranged by Lord Egmont, to seek a southern continent, in the course of which he took possession of the largest of the Falkland Islands, again passed through the Magellanic Straits, and sailing home by the Pacific, circumnavigated the globe. The planets so conspired that, though his affable manners and considerate treatment made him always popular with his men, sailors became afraid to serve under “foul-weather Jack.” In 1748 he married the daughter of a Cornish squire, John Trevanion. They had two sons and three daughters. One of the latter married her cousin (the fifth lord’s eldest son), who died in 1776, leaving as his sole heir the youth who fell in the Mediterranean in 1794.
The eldest son of the veteran, John Byron, father of the poet, was born in 1751, educated at Westminster, and, having received a commission, became a captain in the guards; but his character, fundamentally unprincipled, soon developed itself in such a manner as to alienate him from his family. In 1778, under circumstances of peculiar effrontery, he seduced Amelia D’Arcy, the daughter of the Earl of Holdernesse, in her own right Countess Conyers, then wife of the Marquis of Carmarthen, afterwards Duke of Leeds. “Mad Jack,” as he was called, seems to have boasted of his conquest; but the marquis, to whom his wife had hitherto been devoted, refused to believe the rumours that were afloat, till an intercepted letter, containing a remittance of money, for which Byron, in reverse of the usual relations, was always clamouring, brought matters to a crisis. The pair decamped to the continent; and in 1779, after the marquis had obtained a divorce, they were regularly married. Byron seems to have been not only profligate but heartless, and he made life wretched to the woman he was even more than most husbands bound to cherish. She died in 1784, having given birth to two daughters. One died in infancy; the other was Augusta, the half sister and good genius of the poet, whose memory remains like a star on the fringe of a thunder-cloud, only brighter by the passing of the smoke of calumny. In 1807 she married Colonel Leigh, and had a numerous family, most of whom died young. Her eldest daughter, Georgiana, married Mr. Henry Trevanion. The fourth, Medora, had an unfortunate history, the nucleus of an impertinent and happily ephemeral romance.
The year after the death of his first wife, John Byron, who seems to have had the fascinations of a Barry Lyndon, succeeded in entrapping a second. This was Miss Catherine Gordon of Gight, a lady with considerable estates in Aberdeenshire–which attracted the adventurer–and an overweening Highland pride in her descent from James I., the greatest of the Stuarts, through his daughter Annabella, and the second Earl of Huntly. This union suggested the ballad of an old rhymer, beginning–
O whare are ye gaen, bonny Miss Gordon, O whare are ye gaen, sae bonny and braw? Ye’ve married, ye’ve married wi’ Johnny Byron, To squander the lands o’ Gight awa’.
The prophecy was soon fulfilled. The property of the Scotch heiress was squandered with impetuous rapidity by the English rake. In 1780 she left Scotland for France, and returned to England toward the close of the following year. On the 22nd of January, 1788, in Holles Street, London, Mrs. Byron gave birth to her only child, George Gordon, sixth Lord. Shortly after, being pressed by his creditors, the father abandoned both, and leaving them with a pittance of 150 _l_ a year, fled to Valenciennes, where he died, in August, 1791.
EARLY YEARS AND SCHOOL LIFE.
Soon after the birth of her son, Mrs. Byron took him to Scotland. After spending some time with a relation, she, early in 1790, settled in a small house at Aberdeen. Ere long her husband, who had in the interval dissipated away his remaining means, rejoined her; and they lived together in humble lodgings, until their tempers, alike fiery and irritable, compelled a definite separation. They occupied apartments, for some time, at the opposite ends of the same street, and interchanged visits. Being accustomed to meet the boy and his nurse, the father expressed a wish that the former should be sent to live with him, at least for some days. “To this request,” Moore informs us, “Mrs. Byron was at first not very willing to accede; but, on the representation of the nurse that if he kept him over one night he would not do so another, she consented. On inquiring next morning after the child, she was told by Captain Byron that he had had quite enough of his young visitor.” After a short stay in the north, the Captain, extorting enough money from his wife to enable him to fly from his creditors, escaped to France. His absence must have been a relief; but his death is said to have so affected the unhappy lady, that her shrieks disturbed the neighbourhood. The circumstance recalls an anecdote of a similar outburst–attested by Sir W. Scott, who was present on the occasion–before her marriage. Being present at a representation, in Edinburgh, of the _Fatal Marriage_, when Mrs. Siddons was personating Isabella, Miss Gordon was seized with a fit, and carried out of the theatre, screaming out “O my Biron, my Biron.” All we know of her character shows it to have been not only proud, impulsive, and wayward, but hysterical. She constantly boasted of her descent, and clung to the courtesy title of “honourable,” to which she had no claim. Her affection and anger were alike demonstrative, her temper never for an hour secure. She half worshipped, half hated, the blackguard to whom she was married, and took no steps to protect her property; her son she alternately petted and abused. “Your mother’s a fool!” said a school companion to him years after. “I know it,” was his unique and tragic reply. Never was poet born to so much illustrious, and to so much bad blood. The records of his infancy betray the temper which he preserved through life–passionate, sullen, defiant of authority, but singularly amenable to kindness. On being scolded by his first nurse for having soiled a dress, without uttering a word he tore it from top to seam, as he had seen his mother tear her caps and gowns; but her sister and successor in office, May Gray, acquired and retained a hold over his affections, to which he has borne grateful testimony. To her training is attributed the early and remarkable knowledge of the Scriptures, especially of the Psalms, which he possessed: he was, according to her later testimony, peculiarly inquisitive and puzzling about religion. Of the sense of solitude, induced by his earliest impressions, he characteristically makes a boast. “My daughter, my wife, my half-sister, my mother, my sister’s mother, my natural daughter, and myself, are or were all only children. But the fiercest animals have the fewest numbers in their litters, as lions, tigers, &c.”
To this practical orphanhood, and inheritance of feverish passion, there was added another, and to him a heavy and life-long burden. A physical defect in a healthy nature may either pass without notice or be turned to a high purpose. No line of his work reveals the fact that Sir Walter Scott was lame. The infirmity failed to cast even a passing shade over that serene power. Milton’s blindness is the occasion of the noblest prose and verse of resignation in the language. But to understand Pope, we must remember that he was a cripple: and Byron never allows us to forget, because he himself never forgot it. Accounts differ as to the extent and origin of his deformity; and the doubts on the matter are not removed by the inconsistent accounts of the indelicate post-mortem examination made by Mr. Trelawny at Mesolonghi. It is certain that one of the poet’s feet was, either at birth or at a very early period, so seriously clubbed or twisted as to affect his gait, and to a considerable extent his habits. It also appears that the surgical means–boots, bandages, &c.–adopted to straighten the limb, only aggravated the evil. His sensitiveness on the subject was early awakened by careless or unfeeling references. “What a pretty boy Byron is,” said a friend of his nurse. “What a pity he has such a leg.” On which the child, with flashing eyes, cutting at her with a baby’s whip, cried out, “Dinna speak of it.” His mother herself, in her violent fits, when the boy ran round the room laughing at her attempts to catch him, used to say he was a little dog, as bad as his father, and to call him “a lame brat”–an incident, which, notoriously suggested the opening scene of the _Deformed Transformed_. In the height of his popularity he fancied that the beggars and street-sweepers in London were mocking him. He satirized and discouraged dancing; he preferred riding and swimming to other exercises, because they concealed his weakness; and on his death-bed asked to be blistered in such a way that he might not be called on to expose it. The Countess Guiccioli, Lady Blessington, and others, assure us that in society few would have observed the defect if he had not referred to it; but it was never far from the mind, and therefore never far from the mouth, of the least reticent of men.
In 1792 he was sent to a rudimentary day school of girls and boys, taught by a Mr. Bowers, where he seems to have learnt nothing save to repeat monosyllables by rote. He next passed through the hands of a devout and clever clergyman, named Ross, under whom according to his own account he made astonishing progress, being initiated into the study of Roman history, and taking special delight in the battle of Regillus. Long afterwards, when standing on the heights of Tusculum and looking down on the little round lake, he remembered his young enthusiasm and his old instructor. He next came under the charge of a tutor called Paterson, whom he describes as “a very serious, saturnine, but kind young man. He was the son of my shoemaker, but a good scholar. With him I began Latin, and continued till I went to the grammar school, where I threaded all the classes to the fourth, when I was recalled to England by the demise of my uncle.”
Of Byron’s early school days there is little further record. We learn from scattered hints that he was backward in technical scholarship, and low in his class, in which he seems to have had no ambition to stand high; but that he eagerly took to history and romance, especially luxuriating in the _Arabian Nights_. He was an indifferent penman, and always disliked mathematics; but was noted by masters and mates as of quick temper, eager for adventures, prone to sports, always more ready to give a blow than to take one, affectionate, though resentful.
When his cousin was killed at Corsica, in 1794, he became the next heir to the title. In 1797, a friend, meaning to compliment the boy, said, “We shall have the pleasure some day of reading your speeches in the House of Commons,” he, with precocious consciousness, replied, “I hope not. If you read any speeches of mine, it will be in the House of Lords.” Similarly, when, in the course of the following year, the fierce old man at Newstead died, and the young lord’s name was called at school with “Dominus” prefixed to it, his emotion was so great that he was unable to answer, and burst into tears.
Belonging to this period is the somewhat shadowy record of a childish passion for a distant cousin slightly his senior, Mary Duff, with whom he claims to have fallen in love in his ninth year. We have a quaint picture of the pair sitting on the grass together, the girl’s younger sister beside them playing with a doll. A German critic gravely remarks, “This strange phenomenon places him beside Dante.” Byron himself, dilating on the strength of his attachment, tells us that he used to coax a maid to write letters for him, and that when he was sixteen, on being informed, by his mother, of Mary’s marriage, he nearly fell into convulsions. But in the history of the calf-loves of poets it is difficult to distinguish between the imaginative afterthought and the reality. This equally applies to other recollections of later years. Moore remarks–“that the charm of scenery, which derives its chief power from fancy and association, should be felt at an age when fancy is yet hardly awake and associations are but few, can with difficulty he conceived.” But between the ages of eight and ten, an appreciation of external beauty is sufficiently common. No one doubts the accuracy of Wordsworth’s account, in the _Prelude_ of his early half-sensuous delight in mountain glory. It is impossible to define the influence of Nature, either on nations or individuals, or to say beforehand what selection from his varied surroundings a poet will for artistic purposes elect to make. Shakespeare rests in meadows and glades, and leaves to Milton “Teneriffe and Atlas.” Burns, who lived for a considerable part of his life in daily view of the hills of Arran, never alludes to them. But, in this respect like Shelley, Byron was inspired by a passion for the high-places of the earth. Their shadow is on half his verse. “The loftiest peaks most wrapt in clouds and snow” perpetually remind him of one of his constantly recurring refrains,–
He who surpasses or subdues mankind, Must look down on the hate of those below.
In the course of 1790, after an attack of scarlet fever at Aberdeen he was taken by his mother to Ballater, and on his recovery spent much of his time in rambling about the country. “From this period,” he says, “I date my love of mountainous countries. I can never forget the effect, years afterwards, in England, of the only thing I had long seen, even in miniature, of a mountain, in the Malvern Hills. After I returned to Cheltenham I used to watch them every afternoon, at sunset, with a sensation which I cannot describe.” Elsewhere, in _The Island_ he returns, amid allusions to the Alps and Apennines, to the friends of his youth:–
The infant rapture still survived the boy, And Lach-na-gair with Ida look’d o’er Troy, Mixed Celtic memories with the Phrygian mount, And Highland linns with Castalie’s clear fount.
The poet, owing to his physical defect, was not a great climber, and we are informed, on the authority of his nurse, that he never even scaled the easily attainable summit of the “steep frowning” hill of which he has made such effective use. But the impression of it from a distance was none the less genuine. In the midst of a generous address, in _Don Juan_, to Jeffrey, he again refers to the same associations with the country of his early training:–
But I am half a Scot by birth, and bred A whole one; and my heart flies to my head As “Auld Lang Syne” brings Scotland, one and all– Scotch plaids, Scotch snoods, the blue hills and clear streams, The Dee, the Don, Balgounie’s brig’s black wall– All my boy feelings, all my gentler dreams Of what I then dreamt, clothed in their own pall, Like Banquo’s offspring…
Byron’s allusions to Scotland are variable and inconsistent. His satire on her reviewers was sharpened by the show of national as well as personal antipathy; and when, about the time of its production, a young lady remarked that he had a little of the northern manner of speech, he burst out “Good God! I hope not. I would rather the whole d—-d country was sunk in the sea. I the Scotch accent!” But, in the passage from which we have quoted, the swirl of feeling on the other side continues,–
I rail’d at Scots to show my wrath and wit, Which must be own’d was sensitive and surly. Yet ’tis in vain such sallies to permit; They cannot quench young feelings, fresh and early. I scotch’d, not kill’d, the Scotchman in my blood, And love the land of mountain and of flood.
This suggests a few words on a question of more than local interest. Byron’s most careful biographer has said of him: “Although on his first expedition to Greece he was dressed in the tartan of the Gordon clan, yet the whole bent of his mind, and the character of his poetry, are anything but Scottish. Scottish nationality is tainted with narrow and provincial elements. Byron’s poetic character, on the other hand, is universal and cosmopolitan. He had no attachment to localities, and never devoted himself to the study of the history of Scotland and its romantic legends.” Somewhat similarly Thomas Campbell remarks of Burns, “he was the most un-Scotsmanlike of Scotchmen, having no caution.” Rough national verdicts are apt to be superficial. Mr. Leslie Stephen, in a review of Hawthorne, has commented on the extent to which the nobler qualities and conquering energy of the English character are hidden, not only from foreigners, but from ourselves, by the “detestable lay figure” of John Bull. In like manner, the obtrusive type of the “canny Scot” is apt to make critics forget the hot heart that has marked the early annals of the country, from the Hebrides to the Borders, with so much violence, and at the same time has been the source of so much strong feeling and persistent purpose. Of late years, the struggle for existence, the temptations of a too ambitious and over active people in the race for wealth, and the benumbing effect of the constant profession of beliefs that have ceased to be sincere, have for the most part stifled the fervid fire in calculating prudence. These qualities have been adequately combined in Scott alone, the one massive and complete literary type of his race. Burns, to his ruin, had only the fire: the same is true of Byron, whose genius, in some respects less genuine, was indefinitely and inevitably wider. His intensely susceptible nature took a dye from every scene, city, and society through which he passed; but to the last he bore with him the marks of a descendant of the Sea-Kings, and of the mad Gordons in whose domains he had first learned to listen to the sound of the “two mighty voices” that haunted and inspired him through life.
In the autumn of 1798 the family, i.e. his mother–who had sold the whole of her household furniture for 75 _l_–with himself, and a maid, set south. The poet’s only recorded impression of the journey is a gleam of Loch Leven, to which he refers in one of his latest letters. He never revisited the land of his childhood. Our next glimpse of him is on his passing the toll-bar of Newstead. Mrs. Byron asked the old woman who kept it, “Who is the next heir?” and on her answer “They say it is a little boy who lives at Aberdeen,” “This is he, bless him!” exclaimed the nurse.
Returned to the ancestral Abbey, and finding it half ruined and desolate, they migrated for a time to the neighbouring Nottingham. Here the child’s first experience was another course of surgical torture. He was placed under the charge of a quack named Lavender, who rubbed his foot in oil, and screwed it about in wooden machines. This useless treatment is associated with two characteristic anecdotes. One relates to the endurance which Byron, on every occasion of mere physical trial, was capable of displaying. Mr. Rogers, a private tutor, with whom he was reading passages of Virgil and Cicero, remarked, “It makes me uncomfortable, my lord, to see you sitting them in such pain as I know you must be suffering.” “Never mind, Mr. Rogers.” said the child, “you shall not see any signs of it in me.” The other illustrates his precocious delight in detecting imposture. Having scribbled on a piece of paper several lines of mere gibberish, he brought them to Lavender, and gravely asked what language it was; and on receiving the answer “It is Italian,” he broke into an exultant laugh at the expense of his tormentor. Another story survives, of his vindictive spirit giving birth to his first rhymes. A meddling old lady, who used to visit his mother and was possessed of a curious belief in a future transmigration to our satellite–the bleakness of whose scenery she had not realized–having given him some cause of offence, he stormed out to his nurse that he “could not bear the sight of the witch,” and vented his wrath in the quatrain.–
In Nottingham county there lives, at Swan Green, As curst an old lady as ever was seen;
And when she does die, which I hope will be soon, She firmly believes she will go to the moon.
The poet himself dates his “first dash into poetry” a year later (1800), from his juvenile passion for his cousin Margaret Parker, whose subsequent death from an injury caused by a fall he afterwards deplored in a forgotten elegy. “I do not recollect,” he writes through the transfiguring mists of memory, “anything equal to the _transparent_ beauty of my cousin, or to the sweetness of her temper, during the short period of our intimacy. She looked as if she had been made out of a rainbow–all beauty and peace. My passion had the usual effects upon me–I could not sleep; I could not eat; I could not rest. It was the texture of my life to think of the time that must elapse before we could meet again. But I was a fool then, and not much wiser now.” _Sic transit secunda_.
The departure at a somewhat earlier date of May Gray for her native country, gave rise to evidence of another kind of affection. On her leaving he presented her with his first watch, and a miniature by Kay of Edinburgh, representing him with a bow and arrow in his hand and a profusion of hair over his shoulders. He continued to correspond with her at intervals. Byron was always beloved by his servants. This nurse afterwards married well, and during her last illness, in 1827, communicated to her attendant, Dr. Ewing of Aberdeen, recollections of the poet, from which his biographers have drawn.
In the summer of 1799 he was sent to London, entrusted to the medical care of Dr. Baillie (brother of Joanna, the dramatist), and placed in a boarding school at Dulwich, under the charge of Dr. Glennie. The physician advised a moderation in athletic sports, which the patient in his hours of liberty was constantly apt to exceed. The teacher–who continued to cherish an affectionate remembrance of his pupil, even when he was told, on a visit to Geneva in 1817, that, he ought to have “made a better boy of him”–testifies to the alacrity with which he entered on his tasks, his playful good-humour with his comrades, his reading in history beyond his age, and his intimate acquaintance with the Scriptures. “In my study,” he states, “he found many books open to him; among others, a set of our poets from Chaucer to Churchill, which I am almost tempted to say he had more than once perused from beginning to end.” One of the books referred to was the _Narrative of the Shipwreck of the “Juno,”_ which contains, almost word for word, the account of the “two fathers,” in _Don Juan_. Meanwhile Mrs. Byron,–whose reduced income had been opportunely augmented by a grant of a 300_l_. annuity from the Civil List,–after revisiting Newstead followed her son to London, and took up her residence in a house in Sloane-terrace. She was in the habit of having him with her there from Saturday to Monday, kept him from school for weeks, introduced him to idle company, and in other ways was continually hampering his progress.
Byron on his accession to the peerage having become a ward in Chancery, was handed over by the Court to the guardianship of Lord Carlisle, nephew of the admiral, and son of the grand aunt of the poet. Like his mother this Earl aspired to be a poet, and his tragedy, _The Father’s Revenge_, received some commendation from Dr. Johnson; but his relations with his illustrious kinsman were from the first unsatisfactory. In answer to Dr. Glennie’s appeal, he exerted his authority against the interruptions to his ward’s education; but the attempt to mend matters led to such outrageous exhibitions of temper that he said to the master, “I can have nothing more to do with Mrs. Byron; you must now manage her as you can.” Finally, after two years of work, which she had done her best to mar, she herself requested his guardian to have her son removed to a public school, and accordingly he went to Harrow, where he remained till the autumn of 1805. The first vacation, in the summer of 1801, is marked by his visit to Cheltenham, where his mother, from whom he inherited a fair amount of Scotch superstition, consulted a fortune-teller, who said he would be twice married, the second time to a foreigner.
Harrow was then under the management of Dr. Joseph Drury, one of the most estimable of its distinguished head-masters. His account of the first impressions produced by his pupil, and his judicious manner of handling a sensitive nature, cannot with advantage be condensed. “Mr. Hanson,” he writes, “Lord Byron’s solicitor, consigned him to my care at the age of thirteen and a half, with remarks that his education had been neglected; that he was ill prepared for a public school; but that he thought there was a cleverness about him. After his departure I took my young disciple into my study, and endeavoured to bring him forward by inquiries as to his former amusements, employments, and associates, but with little or no effect, and I soon found that a wild mountain colt had been submitted to my management. But there was mind in his eye. In the first place, it was necessary to attach him to an elder boy; but the information he received gave him no pleasure when he heard of the advances of some much younger than himself. This I discovered, and assured him that he should not be placed till by diligence he might rank with those of his own age. His manner and temper soon convinced me that he might be led by a silken string to a point, rather than a cable: on that principle I acted.”
After a time, Dr. Drury tells us that he waited on Lord Carlisle, who wished to give some information about his ward’s property and to inquire respecting his abilities, and continues: “On the former circumstance I made no remark; as to the latter I replied, ‘He has talents, my lord, which will add lustre to his rank.’ ‘Indeed!’ said his lordship, with a degree of surprise that, according to my feeling, did not express in it all the satisfaction I expected.” With, perhaps, unconscious humour on the part of the writer, we are left in doubt as to whether the indifference proceeded from the jealousy that clings to poetasters, from incredulity, or a feeling that no talent could add lustre to rank.
In 1804 Byron refers to the antipathy his mother had to his guardian. Later he expresses gratitude for some unknown service, in recognition of which the second edition of the _Hours of Idleness_ was dedicated “by his obliged ward and affectionate kinsman,” to Lord Carlisle. The tribute being coldly received, led to fresh estrangement, and when Byron, on his coming of age, wrote to remind the Earl of the fact, in expectation of being introduced to the House of Peers, he had for answer a mere formal statement of its rules. This rebuff affected him as Addison’s praise of Tickell affected Pope, and the following lines, were published in the March of the same year:–
Lords too are bards! such things at times befall, And ’tis some praise in peers to write at all. Yet did or taste or reason sway the times, Ah! who would take their titles with their rhymes. Roscommon! Sheffield! with your spirits fled, No future laurels deck a noble head;
No muse will cheer, with renovating smile The paralytic puling of Carlisle.
In prose he adds, “If, before I escaped from my teens, I said anything in favour of his lordship’s paper-books, it was in the way of dutiful dedication, and more from the advice of others than my own judgment; and I seize the first opportunity of pronouncing my sincere recantation.” As was frequently the case with him, he recanted again. In a letter of 1814 he expressed to Rogers his regret for his sarcasms; and in his reference to the death of the Hon. Frederick Howard, in the third canto of _Childe Harold_, he tried to make amends in the lines–
Yet one I would select from that proud throng, Partly because they blend me with his line, And partly that I did his sire some wrong.
This is all of any interest we know regarding the fitful connection of the guardian and ward.
Towards Dr. Drury the poet continued through life to cherish sentiments of gratitude, and always spoke of him with veneration. “He was,” he says, “the best, the kindest (and yet strict too) friend I ever had; and I look on him still as a father, whose warnings I have remembered but too well, though too late, when I have erred, and whose counsel I have but followed when I have done well or wisely.”
Great educational institutions must consult the greatest good of the greatest number of common-place minds, by regulations against which genius is apt to kick; and Byron, who was by nature and lack of discipline peculiarly ill fitted to conform to routine, confesses that till the last year and a half he hated Harrow. He never took kindly to the studies of the place, and was at no time an accurate scholar. In the _Bards and Reviewers_, and elsewhere, he evinces considerable familiarity with the leading authors of antiquity, but it is doubtful whether he was able to read any of the more difficult of them in the original. His translations are generally commonplace, and from the marks on his books he must have often failed to trust his memory for the meanings of the most ordinary Greek words. To the well-known passage in _Childe Harold_ on Soracte and the “Latian echoes” he appends a prose comment, which preserves its interest as hearing on recent educational controversies:–“I wish to express that we become tired of the task before we can comprehend the beauty; that we learn by rote, before we get by heart; that the freshness is worn away, and the future pleasure and advantage deadened and destroyed, at an age when we can neither feel nor understand the power of composition, which it requires an acquaintance with life, as well as Latin and Greek, to relish or to reason upon…. In some parts of the continent young persons are taught from common authors, and do not read the best classics till their maturity.”
Comparatively slight stress was then laid on modern languages. Byron learnt to read French with fluency, as he certainly made himself familiar with the great works of the eighteenth century; but he spoke it with so little ease or accuracy that the fact was always a stumbling-block to his meeting Frenchmen abroad. Of German he had a mere smattering. Italian was the only language, besides his own, of which he was ever a master. But the extent and variety of his general reading was remarkable. His list of books, drawn up in 1807, includes more history and biography than most men of education read during a long life; a fair load of philosophy; the poets en masse; among orators, Demosthenes, Cicero, and Parliamentary debates from the Revolution to the year 1742; pretty copious divinity, including Blair, Tillotson, Hooker, with the characteristic addition–“all very tiresome. I abhor books of religion, though I reverence and love my God without the blasphemous notions of sectaries.” Lastly, under the head of “Miscellanies” we have _Spectator, Rambler, World, &c., &c_; among novels, the works of Cervantes, Fielding, Smollett, Richardson, Mackenzie, Sterne, Rabelais, and Rousseau. He recommends Burton’s _Anatomy of Melancholy_ as the best storehouse for second-hand quotations, as Sterne and others have found it, and tells us that the great part of the books named were perused before the age of fifteen. Making allowance for the fact that most of the poet’s autobiographic sketches are emphatically _”Dichtang und Wahrheit,”_ we can believe that he was an omnivorous reader–“I read eating, read in bed, read when no one else reads”–and, having a memory only less retentive than Macaulay’s, acquired so much general information as to be suspected of picking it up from Reviews. He himself declares that he never read a Review till he was eighteen years old–when, he himself wrote one, utterly worthless, on Wordsworth.
At Harrow, Byron proved himself capable of violent fits of work, but of “few continuous drudgeries.” He would turn out an unusual number of hexameters, and again lapse into as much idleness as the teachers would tolerate. His forte was in declamation: his attitude and delivery, and power of extemporizing, surprised even critical listeners into unguarded praise. “My qualities,” he says, “were much more oratorical and martial than poetical; no one had the least notion that I should subside into poesy.” Unpopular at first, he began to like school when he had fought his way to be a champion, and from his energy in sports more than from the impression produced by his talents had come to be recognized as a leader among his fellows. Unfortunately, towards the close of his course, in 1805, the headship of Harrow changed hands. Dr. Drury retired, and was succeeded by Dr. Butler. This event suggested the lines beginning,–
Where are those honours, Ida, once your own, When Probus fill’d your magisterial throne?
The appointment was generally unpopular among the boys, whose sympathies were enlisted in favour of Mark Drury, brother of their former master, and Dr. Butler seems for a time to have had considerable difficulty in maintaining discipline. Byron, always “famous for rowing,” was a ringleader of the rebellious party, and compared himself to Tyrlaeus. On one occasion he tore down the window gratings in a room of the school-house, with the remark that they darkened the hall; on another he is reported to have refused a dinner invitation from the master, with the impertinent remark that he would never think of asking him in return to dine at Newstead. On the other hand, he seems to have set limits to the mutiny, and prevented some of the boys from setting their desks on fire by pointing to their fathers’ names carved on them. Byron afterwards expressed regret for his rudeness; but Butler remains in his verse as Pomposus “of narrow brain, yet of a narrower soul.”
Of the poet’s free hours, during the last years of his residence which he refers to as among the happiest of his life, many were spent in solitary musing by an elm-tree, near a tomb to which his name has been given–a spot commanding a far view of London, of Windsor “bosomed high in tufted trees,” and of the green fields that stretch between, covered in spring with the white and red snow of apple blossom. The others were devoted to the society of his chosen comrades. Byron, if not one of the safest, was one of the warmest of friends; and he plucked the more eagerly at the choicest fruit of English public school and college life, from the feeling he so pathetically expresses,–
Is there no cause beyond the common claim, Endear’d to all in childhood’s very name? Ah, sure some stronger impulse vibrates here, Which whispers Friendship will be doubly dear To one who thus for kindred hearts must roam, And seek abroad the love denied at home. Those hearts, dear Ida, have I found in thee– A home, a world, a paradise to me.
Of his Harrow intimates, the most prominent were the Duke of Dorset, the poet’s favoured fag; Lord Clare (the Lycus of the _Childish Recollections_); Lord Delawarr (the Euryalus); John Wingfield (Alonzo), who died at Coimbra, 1811; Cecil Tattersall (Davus); Edward Noel Long (Cleon); Wildman, afterwards proprietor of Newstead; and Sir Robert Peel. Of the last, his form-fellow and most famous of his mates, the story is told of his being unmercifully beaten for offering resistance to his fag master, and Byron rushing up to intercede with an offer to take half the blows. Peel was an exact contemporary, having been born in the same year, 1788. It has been remarked that most of the poet’s associates were his juniors, and, less fairly, that he liked to regard them as his satellites. But even at Dulwich his ostentation of rank had provoked for him the nickname of “the old English baron.” To Wildman, who, as a senior, had a right of inflicting chastisement for offences, he said, “I find you have got Delawarr on your list; pray don’t lick him.” “Why not?” was the reply. “Why, I don’t know, except that he is a brother peer.” Again, he interfered with the more effectual arm of physical force to rescue a junior protege–lame like himself, and otherwise much weaker–from the ill-treatment of some hulking tyrant. “Harness,” he said, “if any one bullies you, tell me, and I’ll thrash him if I can;” and he kept his word. Harness became an accomplished clergyman and minor poet, and has left some pleasing reminiscences of his former patron. The prodigy of the school, George Sinclair, was in the habit of writing the poet’s exercises, and getting his battles fought for him in return. His bosom friend was Lord Clare. To him his confidences were most freely given, and his most affectionate verses addressed. In the characteristic stanzas entitled “L’amitie est l’amour sans ailes,” we feel as if between them the qualifying phrase might have been omitted: for their letters, carefully preserved on either side, are a record of the jealous complaints and the reconciliations of lovers. In 1821 Byron writes, “I never hear the name Clare without a beating of the heart even now; and I write it with the feelings of 1803-4-5, ad infinitum.” At the same date he says of an accidental meeting: “It annihilated for a moment all the years between the present time and the days of Harrow. It was a new and inexplicable feeling, like a rising from the grave to me. Clare too was much agitated–more in appearance than I was myself–for I could feel his heart beat to his fingers’ ends, unless, indeed, it was the pulse of my own which made me think so. We were but five minutes together on the public road, but I hardly recollect an hour of my existence that could be weighed against them.” They were “all that brothers should be but the name;” and it is interesting to trace this relationship between the greatest genius of the new time and the son of the statesman who, in the preceding age, stands out serene and strong amid the swarm of turbulent rioters and ranting orators by whom he was surrounded and reviled.
Before leaving Harrow the poet had passed through the experience of a passion of another kind, with a result that unhappily coloured his life. Accounts differ as to his first meeting with Mary Ann Chaworth, the heiress of the family whose estates adjoined his own, and daughter of the race that had held with his such varied relations. In one of his letters ho dates the introduction previous to his trip to Cheltenham, but it seems not to have ripened into intimacy till a later period. Byron, who had, in the autumn of 1802, visited his mother at Bath, joined in a masquerade there and attracted attention by the liveliness of his manners. In the following year Mrs. Byron again settled at Nottingham, and in the course of a second and longer visit to her he frequently passed the night at the Abbey, of which Lord Grey de Ruthyn was then a temporary tenant. This was the occasion of his renewing his acquaintance with the Chaworths, who invited him to their seat at Annesley. He used at first to return every evening to Newstead, giving the excuse that the family pictures would come down and take revenge on him for his grand-uncle’s deed, a fancy repeated in the _Siege of Corinth_. Latterly he consented to stay at Annesley, which thus became his headquarters during the remainder of the holidays of 1803. The rest of the six weeks were mainly consumed in an excursion to Matlock and Castleton, in the same companionship. This short period, with the exception of prologue and epilogue, embraced the whole story of his first real love. Byron was on this occasion in earnest; he wished to marry Miss Chaworth, an event which, he says, would have “joined broad lands, healed an old feud, and satisfied at least one heart.”
The intensity of his passion is suggestively brought before us in an account of his crossing the Styx of the Peak cavern, alone with the lady and the Charon of the boat. In the same passage he informs us that he had never told his love; but that she had discovered–it is obvious that she never returned–it. We have another vivid picture of his irritation when she was waltzing in his presence at Matlock; then an account of their riding together in the country on their return to the family residence; again, of his bending over the piano as she was playing the Welsh air of “Mary Anne;” and lastly, of his overhearing her heartless speech to her maid, which first opened his eyes to the real state of affairs–“Do you think I could care for that lame boy?”–upon which he rushed out of the house, and ran, like a hunted creature, to Newstead. Thence he shortly returned from the rougher school of life to his haunts and tasks at Harrow. A year later the pair again met to take farewell, on the hill of Annesley–an incident he has commemorated in two short stanzas, that have the sound of a wind moaning over a moor. “I suppose,” he said, “the next time I see you, you will be Mrs. Chaworth?” “I hope so,” she replied (her betrothed, Mr. Musters, had agreed to assume her family name). The announcement of her marriage, which took place in August, 1805, was made to him by his mother, with the remark, “I have some news for you. Take out your handkerchief; you will require it.” On hearing what she had to say, with forced calm he turned the conversation to other subjects; but he was long haunted by a loss which he has made the theme of many of his verses. In 1807 he sent to the lady herself the lines beginning,–
O had my fate been join’d with thine.
In the following year he accepted an invitation to dine at Annesley, and was visibly affected by the sight of the infant daughter of Mrs. Chaworth, to whom he addressed a touching congratulation. Shortly afterwards, when about to leave England for the first time, he finally addressed her in the stanzas,–
‘Tis done, and shivering in the gale, The bark unfurls her snowy sail.
Some years later, having an opportunity of revisiting the family of his successful rival, Mrs. Leigh dissuaded him. “Don’t go,” she said, “for if you do you will certainly fall in love again, and there will be a scene.” The romance of the story culminates in the famous _Dream_, a poem of unequal merit, but containing passages of real pathos, written in the year 1816 at Diodati, as we are told, amid a flood of tears.
Miss Chaworth’s attractions, beyond those of personal beauty, seem to have been mainly due–a common occurrence–to the poet’s imagination. A young lady, two years his senior, of a lively and volatile temper, she enjoyed the stolen interviews at the gate between the grounds, and laughed at the ardent letters, passed through a confidant, of the still awkward youth whom she regarded as a boy. She had no intuition to divine the presence, or appreciate the worship, of one of the future master-minds of England, nor any ambition to ally herself with the wild race of Newstead, and preferred her hale, commonplace, fox-hunting squire. “She was the beau ideal,” says Byron, in his first accurate prose account of the affair, written 1823, a few days before his departure for Greece, “of all that my youthful fancy could paint of beautiful. And I have taken all my fables about the celestial nature of women from the perfection my imagination created in her. I say created; for I found her, like the rest of the sex, anything but angelic.”
Mrs. Musters (her husband re-asserted his right to his own name) had in the long-run reason to regret her choice. The ill-assorted pair after some unhappy years resolved on separation; and falling into bad health and worse spirits, the “bright morning star of Annesley” passed under a cloud of mental darkness. She died, in 1832, of fright caused by a Nottingham riot. On the decease of Musters, in 1850, every relic of her ancient family was sold by auction and scattered to the winds.
CAMBRIDGE, AND FIRST PERIOD OF AUTHORSHIP.
In October, 1805, on the advice of Dr. Drury, Byron was removed to Trinity College, Cambridge, and kept up a connexion with the University for less than three years of very irregular attendance, during which we hear nothing of his studies, except the contempt for them expressed in some of the least effective passages of his early satires. He came into residence in bad temper and low spirits. His attachment to Harrow characteristically redoubled as the time drew near to leave it, and his rest was broken “for the last quarter, with counting the hours that remained.” He was about to start by himself, with the heavy feeling that he was no longer a boy, and yet, against his choice, for he wished to go to Oxford. The _Hours of Idleness_, the product of this period, are fairly named. He was so idle as regards “problems mathematic,” and “barbarous Latin,” that it is matter of surprise to learn that he was able to take his degree, as he did in March, 1808.
A good German critic, dwelling on the comparatively narrow range of studies to which the energies of Cambridge were then mainly directed, adds somewhat rashly, that English national literature stands for the most part beyond the range of the academic circle, This statement is often reiterated with persistent inaccuracy; but the most casual reference to biography informs us that at least four-fifths of the leading statesmen, reformers, and philosophers of England, have been nurtured within the walls of her universities, and cherished a portion of their spirit. From them have sprung the intellectual fires that have, at every crisis of our history, kindled the nation into a new life; from the age of Wycliffe, through those of Latimer, Locke, Gibbon, Macaulay, to the present reign of the Physicists, comparatively few of the motors of their age have been wholly “without the academic circle.” Analysing with the same view the lives of the British poets of real note from Barbour to Tennyson, we find the proportion of University men increases. “Poeta nascitur et fit;” and if the demands of technical routine have sometimes tended to stifle, the comparative repose of a seclusion “unravaged” by the fierce activities around it, the habit of dwelling on the old wisdom and harping on the ancient strings, is calculated to foster the poetic temper and enrich its resources. The discouraging effect of a sometimes supercilious and conservative criticism is not an unmixed evil. The verse-writer who can be snuffed out by the cavils of a tutorial drone, is a poetaster silenced for his country’s good. It is true, however, that to original minds, bubbling with spontaneity, or arrogant with the consciousness of power, the discipline is hard, and the restraint excessive; and that the men whom their colleges are most proud to remember, have handled them severely. Bacon inveighs against the scholastic trifling of his day; Milton talks of the waste of time on litigious brawling; Locke mocks at the logic of the schools; Cowley complains of being taught words, not things; Gibbon rejoices over his escape from the port and prejudice of Magdalen; Wordsworth contemns the “trade in classic niceties,” and roves “in magisterial liberty” by the Cam, as afterwards among the hills.
But all those hostile critics owe much to the object of their animadversion. Any schoolboy can refer the preference of Light to Fruit in the _Novum Organum_, half of _Comus_ and _Lycidas_, the stately periods of the _Decline and Fall_, and the severe beauties of _Laodamia_, to the better influences of academic training on the minds of their authors. Similarly, the richest pages of Byron’s work–from the date of _The Curse of Minerva_ to that of the “Isles of Greece”–are brightened by lights and adorned by allusions due to his training, imperfect as it was, on the slopes of Harrow, and the associations fostered during his truant years by the sluggish stream of his “Injusta noverca.” At her, however, he continued to rail as late as the publication of _Beppo_, in the 75th and 76th stanzas of which we find another cause of complaint,–
One hates an author that’s all author, fellows In foolscap uniforms turn’d up with ink– So very anxious, clever, fine, and jealous, One don’t know what to say to them, or think.
Then, after commending Scott, Bogers, and Moore for being men of the world, he proceeds:–
But for the children of the “mighty mother’s,” The would-be wits and can’t-be gentlemen, I leave them to the daily “Tea is ready,” Snug coterie, and literary lady.
This attack, which called forth a counter invective of unusual ferocity from some unknown scribbler, is the expression of a sentiment which, sound enough within limits, Byron pushed to an extreme. He had a rooted dislike, of professional _litterateurs_, and was always haunted by a dread that they would claim equality with him on the common ground of authorship. He aspired through life to the superiority of a double distinction, that of a “lord among wits, and among wits a lord.” In this same spirit lie resented the comparison frequently made between him and Rousseau, and insisted on points of contrast. “He had a bad memory, I a good one. He was of the people; I of the aristocracy.” Byron was capable, of unbending, where the difference of rank was so great that it could not be ignored. On this principle we may explain his enthusiastic regard for the chorister Eddlestone, from whom he received the cornelian that is the theme of some of his verses, and whose untimely death in 1811 he sincerely mourned.
Of his Harrow friends, Harness and Long in due course followed him to Cambridge, where their common pursuits were renewed. With the latter, who was drowned in 1809, on a passage to Lisbon with his regiment, he spent a considerable portion of his time on the Cam, swimming and diving, in which art they were so expert as to pick up eggs, plates, thimbles, and coins from a depth of fourteen feet–incidents recalled to the poet’s mind by reading Milton’s invocation to Sabrina. During the, same period he distinguished himself at cricket, as in boxing, riding, and shooting. Of his skill as a rider there are various accounts. He was an undoubted marksman, and his habit of carrying about pistols, and use of them wherever he went, was often a source of annoyance and alarm. He professed a theoretical objection to duelling, but was as ready to take a challenge as Scott, and more ready to send one.
Regarding the masters and professors of Cambridge, Byron has little to say. His own tutor, Tavell, appears pleasantly enough in his verse, and he commends the head of his college, Dr. Lort Mansel, for dignified demeanour in his office, and a past reputation for convivial wit. His attentions to Professor Hailstones at Harrowgate were graciously offered and received; but in a letter to Murray he gives a graphically abusive account of Porson, “hiccuping Greek like a Helot” in his cups. The poet was first introduced at Cambridge to a brilliant circle of contemporaries, whose talents or attainments soon made them more or less conspicuous, and most of whom are interesting on their own account as well as from their connection with the subsequent phases of his career. By common consent Charles Skinner Matthews, son of the member for Herefordshire, 1802-6, was the most remarkable of the group. Distinguished alike for scholarship, physical and mental courage, subtlety of thought, humour of fancy, and fascinations of character, this young man seems to have made an impression on the undergraduates of his own, similar to that left by Charles Austin on those of a later generation. The loss of this friend Byron always regarded as an incalculable calamity. In a note to _Childe Harold_ he writes, “I should have ventured on a verse to the memory of Matthews, were he not too much above all praise of mine. His powers of mind shown in the attainment of greater honours against the ablest candidates, than those of any graduate on record at Cambridge, have sufficiently established his fame on the spot where it was acquired; while his softer qualities live in the recollection of friends, who loved him too well to envy his superiority.” He was drowned when bathing alone among the reeds of the Cam, in the summer of 1811.
In a letter written from Ravenna in 1820, Byron, in answer to a request for contributions to a proposed memoir, introduces into his notes much autobiographical matter. In reference to a joint visit to Newstead, he writes: “Matthews and myself had travelled down from London together, talking all the way incessantly upon one single topic. When we got to Loughborough, I know not what chasm had made us diverge for a moment to some other subject, at which he was indignant. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘don’t let us break through; let us go on as we began, to our journey’s end;’ and so he continued, and was as entertaining as ever to the very end. He had previously occupied, during my year’s absence from Cambridge, my rooms in Trinity, with the furniture; and Jones (his tutor), in his odd way had said, in putting him in, ‘Mr. Matthews, I recommend to your attention not to damage any of the movables, for Lord Byron, sir, is a young man of _tumultuous passions_.’ Matthews was delighted with this, and whenever anybody came, to visit him, begged them to handle the very door with caution, and used to repeat Jones’s admonition in his tone and manner…. He had the same droll sardonic way about everything. A wild Irishman, named F., one evening beginning to say something at a large supper, Matthews roared ‘Silence!’ and then pointing to F., cried out, in the words of the oracle, ‘Orson is endowed with reason.’ When Sir Henry Smith was expelled from Cambridge for a row with a tradesman named ‘Hiron,’ Matthews solaced himself with shouting under Hiron’s windows every evening–
Ah me! what perils do environ
The man who meddles with hot Hiron!
He was also of that band of scoffers who used to rouse Lort Mansel from his slumbers in the lodge of Trinity; and when he appeared at the window, foaming with wrath, and crying out, “I know you, gentlemen; I know you!” were wont to reply, “We beseech thee to hear us, good Lort. Good Lort, deliver us!”
The whole letter, written in the poet’s mature and natural style, gives a vivid picture of the social life and surroundings of his Cambridge days: how much of the set and sententious moralizing of some of his formal biographers might we not have spared, for a report of the conversation on the road from London to Newstead. Of the others gathered round the same centre, Scrope Davies enlisted the largest share of Byron’s affections. To him he wrote after the catastrophe:–“Come to me, Scrope; I am almost desolate–left alone in the world. I had but you, and H., and M., and let me enjoy the survivors while I can.” Later he says, “Matthews, Davies, Hobhouse, and myself formed a coterie of our own. Davies has always beaten us all in the war of words, and by colloquial powers at once delighted and kept us in order; even M. yielded to the dashing vivacity of S.D.” The last is everywhere commended for the brilliancy of his wit and repartee: he was never afraid to speak the truth. Once when the poet in one of his fits of petulance exclaimed, intending to produce a terrible impression, “I shall go mad!” Davies calmly and cuttingly observed, “It is much more like silliness than madness!” He was the only man who ever laid Byron under any serious pecuniary obligation, having lent him 4800_l_. in some time of strait. This was repaid on March 27, 1814, when the pair sat up over champagne and claret from six till midnight, after which “Scrope could not be got into the carriage on the way home, but remained tipsy and pious on his knees.” Davies was much disconcerted at the influence which the sceptical opinions of Matthews threatened to exercise over Byron’s mind. The fourth of this quadrangle of amity was John Cam Hobhouse, afterwards Lord Broughton, the steadfast friend of the poet’s whole life, the companion of his travels, the witness of his marriage, the executor of his will, the zealous guardian and vindicator of his fame. His ability is abundantly attested by the impression he left on his contemporaries, his published description of the Pilgrimage, and subsequent literary and political career. Byron bears witness to the warmth of his affections, and the charms of his conversation, and to the candour which, as he confessed to Lady Blessington, sometimes tried his patience. There is little doubt that they had some misunderstanding when travelling together, but it was a passing cloud. Eighteen months after his return the poet admits that Hobhouse was his best friend; and when he unexpectedly walked up the stairs of the Palazzo Lanfranchi, at Pisa, Madame Guiccioli informs us that Byron was seized with such violent emotion, and so extreme an excess of joy, that it seemed to take away his strength, and he was forced to sit down in tears.
On the edge of this inner circle, and in many respects associated with it, was the Rev. Francis Hodgson, a ripe scholar, good translator, a sound critic, a fluent writer of graceful verse, and a large-hearted divine, whoso correspondence, recently edited with a connecting narrative by his son, has thrown light on disputed passages of Lord Byron’s life. The views entertained by the friends on literary matters were almost identical; they both fought under the standards of the classic school; they resented the same criticisms, they applauded the same successes, and were bound together by the strong tie of mutual admiration. Byron commends Hodgson’s verses, and encourages him to write; Hodgson recognizes in the _Bards and Reviewers_ and the early cantos of _Childe Harold_ the promise of _Manfred_ and _Cain_. Among the associates who strove to bring the poet back to the anchorage of fixed belief, and to wean him from the error of his thoughts, Francis Hodgson was the most charitable, and therefore the most judicious. That his cautions and exhortations were never stultified by pedantry or excessive dogmatism, is apparent from the frank and unguarded answers which they called forth. In several, which are preserved, and some for the first time reproduced in the recently-published Memoir, we are struck by the mixture of audacity and superficial dogmatism, sometimes amounting to effrontery, that is apt to characterize the negations of a youthful sceptic. In September, 1811, Byron writes from Newstead:–“I will have nothing to do with your immortality; we are miserable enough in this life, without the absurdity of speculating upon another. Christ came to save men, but a good Pagan will go to heaven, and a bad Nazarene to hell. I am no Platonist, I am nothing at all; but I would sooner be a Paulician, Manichean, Spinozist, Gentile, Pyrrhonian, Zoroastrian, than one of the seventy-two villainous sects who are tearing each other to pieces for the love of the Lord and hatred of each other. I will bring ten Mussulman, shall shame you all in good will towards men and prayer to God.” On a similar outburst in verse, the Rev. F. Hodgson comments with a sweet humanity, “The poor dear soul meant nothing of this.” Elsewhere the poet writes, “I have read Watson to Gibbon. He proves nothing; so I am where I was, verging towards Spinoza; and yet it is a gloomy creed; and I want a better; but there is something pagan in me that I cannot shake off. _In short, I deny nothing, but I doubt everything_.” But his early attitude on matters of religion is best set forth in a letter to Gilford, of 1813, in which he says, “I am no bigot to infidelity, and did not expect that because I doubted the immortality of man I should be charged with denying the existence of a God. It was the comparative insignificance of ourselves and our world, when placed in comparison of the mighty whole of which man is an atom, that first led me to imagine that our pretensions to eternity might be overrated. This, and being early disgusted with a Calvinistic Scotch school, where I was cudgelled to church for the first ten years of my life, afflicted me with this malady; for, after all, it is, I believe, a disease of the mind, as much as other kinds of hypochondria.”
Hodgson was a type of friendly forbearance and loyal attachment, which had for their return a perfect open-heartedness in his correspondent. To no one did the poet more freely abuse himself; to no one did he indulge in more reckless sallies of humour; to no one did he more readily betray his little conceits. From him Byron sought and received advice, and he owed to him the prevention of what might have been a most foolish and disastrous encounter. On the other hand, the clergyman was the recipient of one of the poet’s many single-hearted acts of munificence–a gift of 1000_l_., to pay off debts to which he had been left heir. In a letter to his uncle, the former gratefully alludes to this generosity: “Oh, if you knew the exultation of heart, aye, and of head to, I feel at being free from those depressing embarrassments, you would, as I do, bless my dearest friend and brother, Byron.” The whole transaction is a pleasing record of a benefit that was neither sooner nor later resented by the receiver.
Among other associates of the same group should be mentioned Henry Drury–long Hodgson’s intimate friend, and ultimately his brother-in-law, to whom many of Byron’s first series of letters from abroad are addressed–and Robert Charles Dallas, a name surrounded with various associations, who played a not insignificant part in Byron’s history, and, after his death, helped to swell the throng of his annotators. This gentleman, a connexion by marriage, and author of some now forgotten novels, first made acquaintance with the poet in London early in 1808, when we have two letters from Byron, in answer to some compliment on his early volume, in which, though addressing his correspondent merely as ‘Sir,’ his flippancy and habit of boasting of excessive badness reach an absurd climax.
Meanwhile, during the intervals of his attendance at college, Byron had made other friends. His vacations were divided between London and Southwell, a small town on the road from Mansfield and Newark, once a refuge of Charles I., and still adorned by an old Norman Minster. Here Mrs. Byron for several summer seasons took up her abode, and was frequently joined by her son. He was introduced to John Pigot, a medical student of Edinburgh, and his sister Elizabeth, both endowed with talents above the average, and keenly interested in literary pursuits, to whom a number of his letters are addressed; also to the Rev. J.T. Becher, author of a treatise on the state of the poor, to whom he was indebted for encouragement and counsel. The poet often rails at the place, which he found dull in comparison with Cambridge and London; writing from the latter, in 1807: “O Southwell, how I rejoice to have left thee! and how I curse the heavy hours I dragged along for so many months among the Mohawks who inhabit your kraals!” and adding, that his sole satisfaction during his residence there was having pared off some pounds of flush. Notwithstanding, in the small but select society of this inland watering-place he passed on the whole a pleasant time–listening to the music of the simple ballads in which he delighted, taking part in the performances of the local theatre, making excursions, and writing verses. This otherwise quiet time was disturbed by exhibitions of violence on the part of Mrs. Byron, which suggest the idea of insanity. After one more outrageous than usual, both mother and son are said to have gone to the neighbouring apothecary, each to request him not to supply the other with poison. On a later occasion, when he had been meeting her bursts of rage with stubborn mockery, she flung a poker at his head, and narrowly missed her aim. Upon this he took flight to London, and his Hydra or Alecto, as ho calls her, followed: on their meeting a truce was patched, and they withdrew in opposite directions, she back to Southwell, he to refresh himself on the Sussex coast, till in the August of the same year (1806) he again rejoined her. Shortly afterwards we have from Pigot a description of a trip to Harrogate, when his lordship’s favourite Newfoundland, Boatswain, whose relation to his master recalls that of Bounce to Pope, or Maida to Scott, sat on the box.
In November Byron printed for private circulation the first issue of his juvenile poems. Mr. Becher having called his attention to one which he thought objectionable, the impression was destroyed; and the author set to work upon another, which, at once weeded and amplified, saw the light in January, 1807. He sent copies, under the title of _Juvenilia_, to several of his friends, and among others to Henry Mackenzie (the Man of Feeling), and to Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee. Encouraged by their favourable notices, he determined in appeal to a wider audience, and in March, 1807, the _Hours of Idleness_, still proceeding from the local press at Newark, were given to the world. In June we find the poet again writing from his college rooms, dwelling with boyish detail on his growth in height and reduction in girth, his late hours and heavy potations, his comrades, and the prospects of his book. From July to September he dates from London, excited by the praises of some now obscure magazine, and planning a journey to the Hebrides. In October he is again settled at Cambridge, and in a letter to Miss Pigot, makes a humorous reference to one of his fantastic freaks: “I have got a new friend, the finest in the world–a _tame bear_. When I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was, ‘He should sit for a fellowship.’ This answer delighted them not.” The greater part of the spring and summer of 1808 was spent at Dorant’s Hotel, Albemarle Street. Left to himself, he seems during this period for the first time to have freely indulged in dissipations, which are in most lives more or less carefully concealed. But Byron, with almost unparalleled folly, was perpetually taking the public into his confidence, and all his “sins of blood,” with the strange additions of an imaginative effrontery, have been thrust before us in a manner in which Rochester or Rousseau might have thought indelicate. Nature and circumstances conspired the result. With passions which he is fond of comparing to the fires of Vesuvius and Hecla, he was, on his entrance into a social life which his rank helped to surround with temptations, unconscious of any sufficient motive for resisting them; he had no one to restrain him from the whim of the moment, or with sufficient authority to give him effective advice. A temperament of general despondency, relieved by reckless outbursts of animal spirits, is the least favourable to habitual self-control. The melancholy of Byron was not of the pensive and innocent kind attributed to Cowley, rather that of the, [Greek: melancholikoi] of whom Aristotle asserts, with profound psychological or physiological intuition, that they are [Greek: aei en sphodra orexei]. The absurdity of Moore’s frequent declaration, that all great poets are inly wrapt in perpetual gloom, is only to be excused by the modesty which, in the saying so obviously excludes himself from the list. But it is true that anomalous energies are sources of incessant irritation to their possessor, until they have found their proper vent in the free exercise of his highest faculties. Byron had not yet done, this, when he was rushing about between London, Brighton, Cambridge, and Newstead–shooting, gambling, swimming, alternately drinking deep and trying to starve himself into elegance, green-room hunting, travelling with disguised companions, patronizing D’Egville the dancing-master, Grimaldi the clown, and taking lessons from Mr. Jackson, the distinguished professor of pugilism, to whom he afterwards affectionately refers as his “old friend and corporeal pastor and master.” There is no inducement to dwell on amours devoid of romance, further than to remember that they never trenched on what the common code of the fashionable world terms dishonour. We may believe the poet’s later assertion, backed by want of evidence to the contrary, that he had never been the first means of leading any one astray–a fact perhaps worthy the attention of those moral worshippers of Goethe and Burns who hiss at Lord Byron’s name.
[Footnote 1: In reference to one of these, see an interesting letter from Mr. Minto to the _Athenaeum_ (Sept. 2nd, 1876), in which with considerable though not conclusive ingenuity, he endeavours to identify the girl with “Thyrza,” and with “Astarte,” whom he regards as the same person.]
Though much of this year of his life was passed unprofitably, from it dates the impulse that provoked him to put forth his powers. The _Edinburgh_, with the attack on the _Hours of Idleness_, appeared in March, 1808. This production, by Lord Brougham, is a specimen of the tomahawk style of criticism prevalent in the early years of the century, in which the main motive of the critic was, not to deal fairly with his author, but to acquire for himself an easy reputation for cleverness, by a series of smart contemptuous sentences. Taken apart, most of the strictures of the _Edinburgh_ are sufficiently just, and the passages quoted for censure are all bad. Byron’s genius as a poet was not remarkably precocious. The _Hours of Idleness_ seldom rise, either in thought or expression, very far above the average level of juvenile verse; many of the pieces in the collection are weak imitations, or commonplace descriptions; others suggested by circumstances of local or temporary interest, had served their turn before coming into print. Their prevailing sentiment is an affectation of misanthropy, conveyed in such lines as these:–
Weary of love, of life, devour’d with spleen, I rest, a perfect Timon, not nineteen.
This mawkish element unfortunately survives in much of the author’s later verse. But even in this volume there are indications of force, and command. The _Prayer of Nature_, indeed, though previously written, was not included in the edition before the notice of the critic; but the sound of _Loch-na-Gair_ and some of the stanzas on _Newstead_ ought to have saved him from the mistake of his impudent advice. The poet, who through life waited with feverish anxiety for every verdict on his work, is reported after reading the review to have looked like a man about to send a challenge. In the midst of a transparent show of indifference, he confesses to have drunk three bottles of claret on the evening of its appearance. But the wound did not mortify into torpor; the Sea-Kings’ blood stood him in good stead, and he was not long in collecting his strength for the panther-like spring, which, gaining strength by its delay, twelve months later made it impossible for him to be contemned.
The last months of the year he spent at Newstead, vacated by the tenant, who had left the building in the tumble-down condition in which he found it. Byron was, by his own acknowledgment, at this time, “heavily dipped,” generosities having combined with selfish extravagances to the result; he had no funds to subject the place to anything like a thorough repair, but he busied himself in arranging a few of the rooms for his own present and his mother’s after use. About this date he writes to her, beginning in his usual style, “Dear Madam,” saying he has as yet no rooms ready for her reception, but that on his departure she shall be tenant till his return. During this interval he was studying Pope, and carefully maturing his own Satire. In November the dog Boatswain died in a fit of madness. The event called forth the famous burst of misanthropic verse, ending with the couplet,–
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise; I never knew but _one_, and _here_ he lies;–
and the inscription on the monument that still remains in the gardens of Newstead,–
Near this spot,
Are deposited the remains of one Who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
And all the virtues of Man without his Vices. This Praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery If inscribed over human ashes,
Is but a just tribute to the Memory of Boatswain, a Dog,
Who was born at Newfoundland, May, 1803, And died at Newstead Abbey, November 18, 1808.
On January 22, 1809, his lordship’s coming of age was celebrated with festivities, curtailed of their proportions by his limited means. Early in spring he paid a visit to London, bringing the proof of his satire to the publisher, Cawthorne. From St. James’s Street he writes to Mrs. Byron, on the death of Lord Falkland, who had been killed in a duel, and expresses a sympathy for his family, left in destitute circumstances, whom he proceeded to relieve with a generosity only equalled by the delicacy of the manner in which it was shown. Referring to his own embarrassment, he proceeds in the expression of a resolve, often repeated, “Come what may, Newstead and I stand or fall together. I have now lived on the spot–I have fixed my heart on it; and no pressure, present or future, shall induce me to barter the last vestige of our inheritance.” He was building false hopes on the result of the suit for the Rochdale property, which, being dragged from court to court, involved him in heavy expenses, with no satisfactory result. He took his seat in the House of Lords on the 13th of March, and Mr. Dallas, who accompanied him to the bar of the House, has left an account of his somewhat unfortunate demeanour.
“His countenance, paler than usual, showed that his mind was agitated, and that he was thinking of the nobleman to whom he had once looked for a hand and countenance in his introduction. There were very few persons in the House. Lord Eldon was going through some ordinary business. When Lord Byron had taken the oaths, the Chancellor quitted his seat, and went towards him with a smile, putting out his hand warmly to welcome him; and, though I did not catch the words, I saw that he paid him some compliment. This was all thrown away upon Lord Byron, who made a stiff bow, and put the tips of his fingers into the Chancellor’s hand. The Chancellor did not press a welcome so received, but resumed his seat; while Lord Byron carelessly seated himself for a few minutes on one of the empty benches to the left of the throne, usually occupied by the lords in Opposition. When, on his joining me, I expressed what I had felt, he said ‘If I had shaken hands heartily, he would have set me down for one of his party; but I will have nothing to do with them on either side. I have taken my seat, and now I will go abroad.'”
A few days later the _English Bards and Scotch Reviewers_ appeared before the public. The first anonymous edition was exhausted in a month; a second, to which the author gave his name, quickly followed. He was wont at a later date to disparage this production, and frequently recanted many of his verdicts in marginal notes. Several, indeed, seem to have been dictated by feelings so transitory, that in the course of the correction of proof blame was turned into praise, and praise into blame; i.e. he wrote in MS. before he met the agreeable author,–
I leave topography to coxcomb Gell;
we have his second thought in the first edition, before he saw the Troad,–
I leave topography to classic Gell;
and his third, half way in censure, in the fifth,–
I leave topography to rapid Gell.
Of such materials are literary judgments made!
The success of Byron’s satire was due to the fact of its being the only good thing of its kind since Churchill,–for in the _Baviad_ and _Maeviad_ only butterflies were broken upon the wheel–and to its being the first promise of a now power. The _Bards and Reviewers_ also enlisted sympathy, from its vigorous attack upon the critics who had hitherto assumed the prerogative of attack. Jeffrey and Brougham were seethed in their own milk; and outsiders, whose credentials were still being examined, as Moore and Campbell, came in for their share of vigorous vituperation. The Lakers fared worst of all. It was the beginning of the author’s life-long war, only once relaxed, with Southey. Wordsworth–though against this passage is written “unjust,” a concession not much sooner made than withdrawn,–is dubbed an idiot, who–
Both by precept and example shows,
That prose is verse and verse is only prose;
and Coleridge, a baby,–
To turgid ode and tumid stanza dear.
The lines ridiculing the encounter between Jeffrey and Moore, are a fair specimen of the accuracy with which the author had caught the ring of Pope’s antithesis:–
The surly Tolbooth scarcely kept her place. The Tolbooth felt–for marble sometimes can, On such occasions, feel as much as man– The Tolbooth felt defrauded of her charms, If Jeffrey died, except within her arms.
Meanwhile Byron had again retired to Newstead, where he invited some choice spirits to hold a few weeks of farewell revel. Matthews, one of these, gives an account of the place, and the time they spent there–entering the mansion between a bear and a wolf, amid a salvo of pistol-shots; sitting up to all hours, talking politics, philosophy, poetry; hearing stories of the dead lords, and the ghost of the Black Brother; drinking their wine out of the skull cup which the owner had made out of the cranium of some old monk dug up in the garden; breakfasting at two, then reading, fencing, riding, cricketing, sailing on the lake, and playing with the bear or teasing the wolf. The party broke up without having made themselves responsible for any of the orgies of which Childe Harold raves, and which Dallas in good earnest accepts as veracious, when the poet and his friend Hobhouse started for Falmouth, on their way “_outre mer_.”
TWO YEARS OF TRAVEL.
There is no romance of Munchausen or Dumas more marvellous than the adventures attributed to Lord Byron abroad. Attached to his first expedition are a series of narratives, by professing eye-witnesses, of his intrigues, encounters, acts of diablerie and of munificence, in particular of his roaming about the isles of Greece and taking possession of one of them, which have all the same relation to reality as the _Arabian Nights_ to the actual reign of Haroun Al Raschid.
[Footnote 1: Those who wish to read them are referred to the three large volumes–published in 1825, by Mr. Iley, Portman Street–of anonymous authorship.]
Byron had far more than an average share of the _emigre_ spirit, the counterpoise in the English race of their otherwise arrogant isolation. He held with Wilhelm Meister–
To give space for wandering is it,
That the earth was made so wide.
and wrote to his mother from Athens: “I am so convinced of the advantages of looking at mankind, instead of reading about them, and the bitter effects of staying at home with all the narrow prejudices of an islander, that I think there should be a law amongst us to send our young men abroad for a term, among the few allies our wars have left us.”
On June 11th, having borrowed money at heavy interest, and stored his mind with information about Persia and India, the contemplated but unattained goal of his travels, he left London, accompanied by his friend Hobhouse, Fletcher his valet, Joe Murray his old butler, and Robert Rushton the son of one of his tenants, supposed to be represented by the Page in _Childe Harold_. The two latter, the one on account of his age, the other from his health breaking down, he sent back to England from Gibraltar.
Becalmed for some days at Falmouth, a town which he describes as “full of Quakers and salt fish,” he despatched letters to his mother, Drury, and Hodgson, exhibiting the changing moods of his mind. Smarting under a slight he had received at parting from a school-companion, who had excused himself from a farewell meeting on the plea that he had to go shopping, he at one moment talks of his desolation, and says that, “leaving England without regret,” he has thought of entering the Turkish service; in the next, especially in the stanzas to Hodgson, he runs off into a strain of boisterous buffoonery. On the 2nd of July, the packet, by which he was bound, sailed for Lisbon and arrived there about the middle of the month, when the English fleet was anchored in the Tagus. The poet in some of his stanzas has described the fine view of the port and the disconsolate dirtiness of the city itself, the streets of which were at that time rendered dangerous by the frequency of religious and political assassinations. Nothing else remains of his sojourn to interest us, save the statement of Mr. Hobhouse, that his friend made a more perilous, though less celebrated, achievement by water than his crossing the Hellespont, in swimming from old Lisbon to Belem Castle, Byron praises the neighbouring Cintra, as “the most beautiful village in the world,” though he joins with Wordsworth in heaping anathemas on the Convention, and extols the grandeur of Mafra, the Escurial of Portugal, in the convent of which a monk, showing the traveller a large library, asked if the English had any books in their country. Despatching his baggage and servants by sea to Gibraltar, he and his friend started on horseback through the south-west of Spain. Their first resting-place, after a ride of 400 miles, performed at an average rate of seventy in the twenty-four hours, was Seville, where they lodged for three days in the house of two ladies, to whose attractions, as well as the fascination he seems to have exerted over them, the poet somewhat garrulously refers. Here, too, he saw, parading on the Prado, the famous _Maid of Saragossa_, whom he celebrates in his equally famous stanzas (_Childe Harold_, I., 54-58). Of Cadiz, the next stage, he writes with enthusiasm as a modern Cythera, describing the bull fights in his verse, and the beauties in glowing prose. The belles of this city, he says, are the Lancashire witches of Spain; and by reason of them, rather than the sea-shore or the Sierra Morena, “sweet Cadiz is the first spot in the creation.” Hence, by an English frigate, they sailed to Gibraltar, for which place he has nothing but curses. Byron had no sympathy with the ordinary forms of British patriotism, and in our great struggle with the tyranny of the First Empire, he may almost be said to have sympathized with Napoleon.
The ship stopped at Cagliari in Sardinia, and again at Girgenti on the Sicilian coast. Arriving at Malta, they halted there for three weeks–time enough to establish a sentimental, though Platonic, flirtation with Mrs. Spencer Smith, wife of our minister at Constantinople, sister-in-law of the famous admiral, and the heroine of some exciting adventures. She is the “Florence” of _Childe Harold_, and is afterwards addressed in some of the most graceful verses of his cavalier minstrelsy–
Do thou, amidst the fair white walls, If Cadiz yet be free,
At times from out her latticed halls Look o’er the dark blue sea–
Then think upon Calypso’s isles,
Endear’d by days gone by,–
To others give a thousand smiles,
To me a single sigh.
The only other adventure of the visit is Byron’s quarrel with an officer, on some unrecorded ground, which Hobhouse tells us nearly resulted in a duel. The friends left Malta on September 29th, in the war-ship “Spider,” and after anchoring off Patras, and spending a few hours on shore, they skirted the coast of Acarnania, in view of localities–as Ithaca, the Leucadian rock, and Actium–whose classic memories filtered through the poet’s mind and found a place in his masterpieces. Landing at Previsa, they started on a tour through Albania,–
O’er many a mount sublime,
Through lands scarce noticed in historic tales.
Byron was deeply impressed by the beauty of the scenery, and the half-savage independence of the people, described as “always strutting about with slow dignity, though in rags.” In October we find him with his companions at Janina, hospitably entertained by order of Ali Pasha, the famous Albanian Turk, bandit, and despot, then besieging Ibrahim at Berat in Illyria. They proceeded on their way by “bleak Pindus,” Acherusia’s lake, and Zitza, with its monastery door battered by robbers. Before reaching the latter place, they encountered a terrific thunderstorm, in the midst of which they separated, and Byron’s detachment lost its way for nine hours, during which he composed the verses to Florence, quoted above.
Some days later they together arrived at Tepaleni, and were there received by Ali Pasha in person. The scene on entering the town is described as recalling Scott’s Branksome Castle and the feudal system; and the introduction to Ali, who sat for some of the traits of the poet’s corsairs,–is graphically reproduced in a letter to Mrs. Byron. “His first question was, why at so early an age I left my country, and without a ‘lala,’ or nurse? He then said the English minister had told him I was of a great family, and desired his respects to my mother, which I now present to you (date, November 12th). He said he was certain I was a man of birth, because I had small ears, curling hair, and little white hands. He told me to consider him as a father whilst I was in Turkey, and said he looked on me as his son. Indeed he treated me like a child, sending me almonds, fruit, and sweetmeats, twenty times a day.” Byron shortly afterwards discovered his host to be, a poisoner and an assassin. “Two days ago,” he proceeds in a passage which illustrates his character and a common experience, “I was nearly lost in a Turkish ship-of-war, owing to the ignorance of the captain and crew. Fletcher yelled after his wife; the Greeks called on all the saints, the Mussulmen on Alla; the captain burst into tears and ran below deck, telling us to call on God. The sails were split, the mainyard shivered, the wind blowing fresh, the night setting in; and all our chance was to make for Corfu–or, as F. pathetically called it, ‘a watery grave.’ I did what I could to console him, but finding him incorrigible, wrapped myself in my Albanian capote, and lay down on the deck to wait the worst.” Unable from his lameness, says Hobhouse, to be of any assistance, he in a short time was found amid the trembling sailors, fast asleep. They got back to the coast of Suli, and shortly afterwards started through Acarnania and AEtolia for the Morea, again rejoicing in the wild scenery and the apparently kindred spirits of the wild men among whom they passed. Byron was especially fascinated by the firelight dance and song of the robber band, which he describes and reproduces in _Childe Harold_. On the 21st of November he reached Mesolonghi, whore, fifteen years later, he died. Here he dismissed most of his escort, proceeded to Patras, and on to Vostizza, caught sight of Parnassus, and accepted a flight of eagles near Delphi as a favouring sign of Apollo. “The last bird,” he writes, “I ever fired at was an eaglet on the shore of the Gulf of Lepanto. It was only wounded and I tried to save it–the eye was so bright. But it pined and died in a few days: and I never did since, and never will, attempt the life of another bird.” From Livadia the travellers proceeded to Thebes, visited the cave of Trophonius, Diana’s fountain, the so-called ruins of Pindar’s house, and the field of Cheronea, crossed Cithaeron, and on Christmas, 1809, arrived before the defile, near the ruins of Phyle, where, he had his first glimpse of Athens, which evoked the famous lines:–
Ancient of days, august Athena! where, Where are thy men of might? thy grand in soul? Gone, glimmering through the dream of things that were. First in the race that led to glory’s goal, They won, and pass’d away: is this the whole– A schoolboy’s tale, the wonder of an hour?
After which he reverts to his perpetually recurring moral, “Men come and go; but the hills, and waves, and skies, and stars, endure”–
Apollo still thy long, long summer gilds; Still in his beam Mendeli’s marbles glare; Art, glory, freedom fail–but nature still is fair.
The duration of Lord Byron’s first visit to Athens was about three months, and it was varied by excursions to different parts of Attica; Eleusis, Hymettus, Cape Colonna, (Sunium, the scene of Falconer’s shipwreck), the Colonus of OEdipus, and Marathon, the plain of which is said to have been placed at his disposal for about the same sum that, thirty years later, an American offered to give for the bark with the poet’s name on the tree at Newstead. Byron had a poor opinion of the modern Athenians, who seem to have at this period done their best to justify the Roman satirist. He found them superficial, cunning, and false; but, with generous historic insight, he says that no nation in like circumstances would have been much better; that they had the vices of ages of slavery, from which it would require ages of freedom to emancipate them.
In the Greek capital he lodged at the house of a respectable lady, widow of an English vice-consul, who had three daughters, the eldest of whom, Theresa, acquired an innocent and enviable fame as the Maid of Athens, without the dangerous glory of having taken any very firm hold of the heart that she was asked to return. A more solid passion was the poet’s genuine indignation on the “lifting,” in Border phrase, of the marbles from the Parthenon, and their being taken to England by order of Lord Elgin. Byron never wrote anything more sincere than the _Curse of Minerva_; and he has recorded few incidents more pathetic than that of the old Greek who, when the last stone was removed for exportation, shed tears, and said “[Greek: telos]!” The question is still an open one of ethics. There are few Englishmen of the higher rank who do not hold London in the right hand as barely balanced by the rest of the world in the left; a judgment in which we can hardly expect Romans, Parisians, and Athenians to concur. On the other hand, the marbles were mouldering at Athens, and they are preserved, like ginger, in the British Museum.
Among the adventures of this period are an expedition across the Ilissus to some caves near Kharyati, in which the travellers were by accident nearly entombed; another to Pentelicus, where they tried to carve their names on the marble rock; and a third to the environs of the Piraeus in the evening light. Early in March the convenient departure of an English sloop-of-war induced them to make an excursion to Smyrna. There, on the 28th of March, the second canto of _Childe Harold_, begun in the previous autumn at Janina, was completed. They remained in the neighbourhood, visiting Ephesus, without poetical result further than a reference to the jackals, in the _Siege of Corinth_; and on April 11th left by the “Salsette,” a frigate on its way to Constantinople. The vessel touched at the Troad, and Byron spent some time on land, snipe-shooting, and rambling among the reputed ruins of Ilium. The poet characteristically, in _Don Juan_ and elsewhere, attacks the sceptics, and then half ridicules the belief.
I’ve stood upon Achilles’ tomb,
And heard Troy doubted! Time will doubt of Rome! * * * * *
There, on the green and village-cotted hill, is, Flank’d by the Hellespont, and by the sea, Entomb’d the bravest of the brave Achilles.– They say so: Bryant says the contrary.
Being again detained in the Dardanelles, waiting for a fair wind, Byron landed on the European side, and swam, in company with Lieutenant Ekenhead, from Sestos to Abydos–a performance of which he boasts some twenty times. The strength of the current is the main difficulty of a feat, since so surpassed as to have passed from notice; but it was a tempting theme for classical allusions. At length, on May 14, he reached Constantinople, exalted the Golden Horn above all the sights he had seen, and now first abandoned his design of travelling to Persia. Galt, and other more or less gossiping travellers, have accumulated a number of incidents of the poet’s life at this period, of his fanciful dress, blazing in scarlet and gold, and of his sometimes absurd contentions for the privileges of rank–as when he demanded precedence of the English ambassador in an interview with the Sultan, and, on its refusal, could only be pacified by the assurances of the Austrian internuncio. In converse with indifferent persons he displayed a curious alternation of frankness and hauteur, and indulged a habit of letting people up and down, by which he frequently gave offence. More interesting are narratives of the suggestion of some of his verses, as the slave-market in _Don Juan_, and the spectacle of the dead criminal tossed on the waves, revived in the _Bride of Abydos_. One example is, if we except Dante’s _Ugolino_, the most remarkable instance in literature of the expansion, without the weakening, of the horrible. Take first Mr. Hobhouse’s plain prose: “The sensations produced by the state of the weather”–it was wretched and stormy when they left the “Salsette” for the city–“and leaving a comfortable cabin, were in unison with the impressions which we felt when, passing under the palace of the Sultans, and gazing at the gloomy cypress which rises above the walls, we saw two dogs gnawing a dead body.” After this we may measure the almost fiendish force of a morbid imagination brooding over the incident,–
And he saw the lean dogs beneath the wall Hold o’er the dead their carnival:
Gorging and growling o’er carcass and limb, They were too busy to bark at him.
From a Tartar’s skull they had stripp’d the flesh, As ye peel the fig when its fruit is fresh; And their white tusks crunch’d on the whiter skull, As it slipp’d through their jaws when their edge grow dull.
No one ever more persistently converted the incidents of travel into poetic material; but sometimes in doing so he borrowed more largely from his imagination than his memory, as in the description of the seraglio, of which there is reason to doubt his having seen more than the entrance.
Byron and Hobhouse set sail from Constantinople on the 14th July, 1810–the latter to return direct to England, a determination which, from no apparent fault on either side, the former did not regret. One incident of the passage derives interest from its possible consequence. Taking up, and unsheathing, a yataghan which he found on the quarter deck, ho remarked, “I should like to know how a person feels after committing a murder.” This harmless piece of melodrama–the idea of which is expanded in Mr. Dobell’s _Balder_, and parodied in _Firmilian_–may have been the basis of a report afterwards circulated, and accepted among others by Goethe, that his lordship had committed a murder; hence, obviously, the character of _Lara_, and the mystery of _Manfred!_ The poet parted from his friend at Zea, (Ceos): after spending some time in solitude on the little island, he returned to Athens, and there renewed acquaintance with his school friend, the Marquis of Sligo, who after a few days accompanied