LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Lord Byron and His Contemporaries [Part I].
The Athenaeum  Vol. 1  No. 4  (23 January 1828)  55.
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Literary and Critical Journal.



Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries, with Recollections of the Author's Life, and of his Visit to Italy. By Leigh Hunt. 1 vol. 4to., pp. 513. London, 1828. Coulburn.

‘It is for slaves to lie, and for freemen to speak truth.’

Mr. Hunt has done a bold deed by publishing this work. We are not ourselves quite clear that he was right; but, as he is doubtless well aware, he has at all events laid himself open to unmeasured misrepresentation by the literary ruffians from whom he has already suffered so much. The portion of the book which stands at the beginning, and which is alone particularly mentioned in the title-page, refers exclusively to Lord Byron. Mr. Hunt says, and we firmly believe him, that he has withheld much which might have been told; but he has also told much which many will think, or say, that he ought to have withheld. He has presented us with a totally different view of Lord Byron's character from any that has previously appeared in print, and this not only in general propositions, but by innumerable detailed anecdotes, which it seems to its quite impossible not to believe, and from which it is equally impossible not to draw very similar inferences to those which have occurred to Mr. Hunt.

Mr. Hunt is a politician who has been fighting all his life against established and influential abuses, and is therefore noted by all whom interest or fashion has bound to the chariot-wheels of power. He is notorious as an opponent of a vast number of institutions and dogmas which, though in truth, by no means Christianity, or even a part of Christianity, are very commonly identified with it; he has consequently been long laden with the curses of those who are determined to believe that religion is exactly coincident with their own sects and monopolies. He is also celebrated, and very deservedly so, as a poet, who despises the modern and merely conventional rules of polite literature, which are all that many writers have to depend upon for their fame, and many readers for their faith in the excellence of long-loved idols. There are hosts of persons who, moved by these reasons, and some who, for no reason at all, will be eager to pounce upon Mr. Hunt's account of Lord Byron, and to pour upon him, in every imaginable variety of outrage, the accusations of treachery and ingratitude.

That this will be done we are tolerably certain; but we are also pretty sure that it can only be done by a large stretch of injustice. Mr. Hunt does not appear before the world to give them an account of events and connections of which they had previously no idea. We have all heard quite enough of Lord Byron's munificence in receiving into his house this distinguished gentleman and his family, to make it a prominent portion of our general idea of his Lordship's character; and after the many statements and insinuations, loud, long, and bitterly injurious to Mr. Hunt, which have been founded upon the universal knowledge of this transaction, it seems to its neither very wonderful nor very blameable, that he should at last come forward himself, and make public his own defence. It is evident, from the whole tone of the book, that Mr. Hunt has not stated in it a word which he does not believe. We give the most implicit credit to all his assertions, even on the particular subject which it must be so painful to him to think about, and which it is certainly by no means pleasant to read of. But we confess that we have a good deal of doubt whether Mr. Hunt has judged rightly as to the wisdom of speaking about Lord Byron in the tone which he has assumed, considering the importance attached by the world to the kind of favours received by our author from the aristocratic poet. We do not question for a moment, that Lord Byron's kindnesses or ostentations were done after a fashion, which very much tended to merge the sense of obligation in a feeling of insulted self-respect. We are sure, from all we have ever read or heard of Mr. Hunt, that he is really accustomed to consider his own money as of much less consequence than money is commonly held to deserve; and that no man would think less of the inconvenience of giving away any portion of his worldly goods by which he could benefit a friend. But he would do well to remember that men will judge him by their rules, and not by his; and that it is mere folly to afford new weapons against an honourable reputation to those who have uniformly made so malignant a use of previous opportunities.

Having dismissed what was to us by far the most unpleasant part of the task before us, we will proceed to give our readers, in a few words, as clear a notion as we can convey of the contents of Mr. Hunt's volume. The first division of it, which relates to Lord Byron, presents, as we before said, a very different picture from an that we have previously seen in print. It also gives, we think, an idea of the poet very dissimilar from any commonly current in society. The greater number of the readers of Byron seem to consider him as indeed a little capricious and misanthropic, yet, on the whole, a very agreeable, romantic, and magnanimous personage. The greater number of instructed persons who do not read his works, either abstain because they do not care for poetry, and have no notion at all about the author, or abhor at once his character and writings, and hold him to have been one of the most deluding incarnations of Satan that have been seen between St. James's-street and the Alps in this our day. We will venture to say, however, that those who, knowing nothing of his Lordship but his writings, yet have studied these with attention and good sense, have come to conclusions very similar to those which are expounded and enforced by Mr. Hunt, and which hold a middle place between the two contrasted opinions just alluded to. His poems, with all their power, exhibit indubitable signs of selfishness, waywardness, and affectation. Among the states of feeling which he describes with so much intensity, we doubt whether any great proportion were really painted from his own feelings. He seems to us to have generally considered what kind of effect he wished to produce upon his readers, and then to have calculated what kind of sentiment would be most likely to produce the desired result. He has seldom, if ever, poured out a strain of mingled thought and feeling, gushing free and fresh from the depths of his spirit; and when he has done something like this, it is merely a flood of selfish bitterness, coloured with a pretence of sympathy and enthusiasm.

That he was a poet of great talent, we have of course no notion of denying. But we think that the peculiar characteristics of his writings were calculated to procure him a profound and extensive popularity, independent of the essential attributes of genius. He was obviously much injured by early applause, by the precocious debauchery of the fashionable world, and by the coronet which was perpetually peeping through the laurels wherewith he attempted to conceal it.

All that we read of him in the work before us, tends to confirm a view of his character formed long previous to its publication. The intensity of selfishness displays itself through almost every thing he does, and even through much of what he says; with here and there an occasional gleam of wiser thought and loftier feeling, the faint relics of that splendid appanage of greatness which originally belongs to the spirit of the poet. On the whole, however, we believe, that there is not one living English poet, of whatever school of literature, or party in politics, who would be guilty of the meannesses—there is no other word—which Mr. Hunt in public, and with his name to the assertion, lays to the charge of Lord Byron. What will our readers think, when we tell them, that this high-minded nobleman, and distinguished poet, speaking of a loan to the Greeks of 60001., which was at first represented as a gift of 10,0001., said that he did not think he should ‘get off under 40001.’ Again, he brought Mr. Hunt, a man in narrow circumstances, and with a large family, from England to Italy, in order that he might superintend a magazine from which his Lordship expected to derive large profits; and when his friend was in this situation, and in want of the money which Lord Byron had freely and repeatedly offered him, he would send him to his steward to receive the paltry sums, which amounted altogether, if we remember, to but 701. When we think of these things, and of ‘Don Juan,’ we can scarcely, alas! refrain from believing that the irritation at his personal defect of lameness, the wretched education of a capricious mother, and a large public school, the bad habits of his youth, and throughout his life, the cankering self-importance of aristocracy, succeeded in almost utterly depraving a nature originally magnificent, and stored with the germs of every thing beautiful and good.

The greater part of the long chapter (150 pages) on Lord Byron, is filled with criticisms, reflections, and anecdotes, which are very often really instructive, and always amusing. We can give no idea of these by a single extract, and we have not now room for more; and we fear but a very imperfect one by any thing we can say of them They show, we think, a certain springiness and freshness of nature, which, in this age of machines and mechanical spirits, is exceedingly delightful. There is, in spite of the evident irritation of Mr. Hunt's feelings, which he himself also is quite conscious of, a cheerful kindliness of nature, and an admirable, we had almost said, a sublime, confidence in the native powers and excellence of man, which is likely, we think, the of eminent service to his readers. But the great value of this portion of the work undoubtedly is, that it gives us a far clearer and more consistent view of the character of the singular man and celebrated writer of whom it treats, than any other book that has hitherto appeared. We see him in these pages living and moving before us, not merely with his wings and scars, with the power and desperation, of his poetry, but with the circumstances and attributes of ordinary humanity. And it is now, indeed, time that we should begin to judge him calmly and fairly; for the renown, and the all but disgrace which alike filled the air as with an immeasurable cloud, have shrunk, as did the gigantic genius of the Arabian Tale, into a narrow urn. It is not more than his errors deserve to say, that they were the rank produce of a noble soil, the weeds which grow among Asphodel and Amaranth, on the summit of Olympus, and around the footsteps of the glorified immortals. It is good for us that books exist which display the union of poetic ability with a scorn and a selfishness of which literature scarce afforded us any previous example; for the works of Byron may be a warning to every mind, the mightiest or the meanest, that there are failings and vices which will even break the sceptre and scatter to the winds the omnipotence of genius; and there has been at least one great writer whose union of the intensest passion with a triumphant contempt for virtue, reminds us of that strange tempest which poured forth over Egypt a flood of mingled ice and fire.

We shall return to this subject next week.