LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
[Charles Wentworth Dilke?]
The Life of Lord Byron. By John Galt [concluded].
The Athenaeum  No. 150  (11 September 1830)  568-69.
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Journal of English and Foreign Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts.
No. 150 LONDON, SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 1830. Price 8d.

National Library, No. 1.—The Life of Lord Byron. By John Galt. London, 1830. Colburn & Bentley.

[Second Notice.]

Return we to our labours on this work—labours which we do not delight in, and which therefore leave our pain unphysicked. We very sincerely lament that we are, by our honesty, prevented from doing that which we earnestly wished to do, when we opened Mr. Galt’s volume: we wished to be pleased with the work, and to be able unreservedly to recommend it to our readers; but the bad spirit in which it has been written, and the utter contempt of wholesome English language which is shown in nearly every page of the book, command us to speak plain truths to Mr. Galt and to our readers—truths, which, we regret to know, will be much more beneficial to the latter than palatable to the former.

We rather think, that, harshly as we delivered our opinion of the first volume of the “National Library,” in the last number of this Journal, none of our readers will accuse us of having failed to justify the judgment we passed upon Mr. Galt, by the evidence we produced out of his own book. We gave daring proofs of unworthy prejudice—of vitiated taste—of limited knowledge, in Lord Byron’s biographer;—and that our readers may be thoroughly satisfied that we have not misrepresented Mr. Galt, we will have some further “talk with this same learned Theban.” Lord Byron, according to his new biographer’s account, is seldom, if ever, right. If he quarrels with a friend or acquaintance, his lordship is to blame—Southey may be rancorous, but Lord Byron was the aggressor—(Pref. iv.) if Mr. Leigh Hunt reviles the noble poet, Mr. Galt rather sanctions than rebuts the abuse. The foibles, the irritations, the deeper faults of his lordship’s character are industriously exposed and magnified—whilst the generosity, spirit, and beauty of mind and heart, are allowed to “sleep in the shade.”

We have already observed upon the splenetic feeling which characterizes the work: and we now, without further comment, illustrate our observations with the following passages.

Paterson attended him until he went to the grammar-school, where his character first began to be developed; and his schoolfellows, many of whom are alive, still recollect him as a lively, warm-hearted, and high-spirited boy, passionate and resentful, but withal affectionate and companionable; this, however, is an opinion given of him after he had become celebrated; for a very different impression has unquestionably remained among some who carry their recollections back to his childhood. By them he has been described as a malignant imp: was often spoken of for his pranks by the worthy housewives of the neighbourhood, as “Mrs. Byron’s crockit deevil,” and generally disliked for the deep vindictive anger he retained against those with whom he happened to quarrel.” p. 13.

“In the few reminiscences preserved of his childhood, it is remarkable that he appears in this period, commonly of innocence and playfulness, rarely to have evinced any symptom of generous feeling. Silent rages, moody sullenness, and revenge are the general characteristics of his conduct as a boy.” p. 14.

“Although the rhymes upon the lunar lady of Notts are supposed to have been the first twitter of his muse, he has said himself, ‘My first dash into poetry was as early as 1800. It was the ebullition of a passion for my first cousin, Margaret Parker. I was then about twelve, she rather older, perhaps a year.’ And it is curious to remark, that in his description of this beautiful girl there is the same lack of animal admiration which we have noticed in all his loves.” p. 27.

“It was impossible that his imagination could avoid the impulses of the spirit which haunts the walls and ramparts of Malta; and the silence of his muse on a topic so rich in romance, and so well calculated to awaken associations concerning the knights, in unison with the ruminations of Childe Harold, persuades me that there must have been some specific cause for the omission. If it were nothing in the duel, I should be inclined to say, notwithstanding the seeming improbability of the notion, that it was owing to some curious modification of vindictive spite. It might not be that Malta should receive no celebrity from his pen; but assuredly he had met with something there which made him resolute to forget the place. The question as to what it was, he never answered: the result would throw light into the labyrinths of his character.” p. 69.

“During a violent storm the boat was swamped, and the party on board were all drowned. Their bodies were, however, afterwards cast on shore; Mr. Shelley’s was found near Via Reggio, and, being greatly decomposed, and unfit to be removed, it was determined to reduce the remains to ashes, that they might be carried to a place of sepulture. Accordingly preparations were made for the burning.

“Wood in abundance was found on the shore, consisting of old trees and the wreck of vessels: the spot itself was well suited for the ceremony. The magnificent bay of Spezzia was on the right, and Leghorn on the left, at equal distances of about two-and-twenty miles. The headlands project boldly far into the sea; in front lie several islands, and behind dark forests and the cliffy Apennines. Nothing was omitted that could exalt and dignify the mournful rites with the associations of classic antiquity; frankincense and wine were not forgotten. The weather was serene and beautiful, and the pacified ocean was silent, as the flame rose with extraordinary brightness. Lord Byron was present; but he should himself have described the scene and what he felt.

“These antique obsequies were undoubtedly affecting; but the return of the mourners from the burning is the most appalling orgia, without the horror of crime, of which I have ever heard. When the duty was done, and the ashes collected, they dined and drank much together, and bursting from the calm mastery with which they had repressed their feelings during the solemnity, gave way to frantic exultation. They were all drunk; they sang, they shouted, and their barouche was driven like a whirlwind through the forest. I can conceive nothing descriptive of the demoniac revelry of that flight, but scraps of the dead man’s own song of Faust, Mephistophiles, and Ignis Fatuus, in alternate chorus.” p. 258.

Our readers will be surprised to find that Lord Byron had no “sexual feeling of female attraction,” as Mr. Galt words it. What would his lordship have thought of “Dear Galt,” if he could have foreseen what was to be said of his passionless love! We think there is a passage or two in “Don Juan” which Mr. Galt could not have read, or must have forgotten, when he wrote the following sentences:—

“It is singular, and I am not aware it has been before noticed, that with all his tender and impassioned apostrophes to beauty and love, Byron has in no instance, not even in the freest passages of Don Juan, associated either the one or the other with sensual images.” p. 15.

“There is upon the subject of love, no doubt, much beautiful composition throughout his works; but not one line in all the thousands which shows a sexual feeling of female attraction—all is vague and passionless, save in the delicious rhythm of the verse.” p. 16.

The passage last extracted has reference to a boyish attachment which Byron had formed for his cousin, Mary Duff, when he and she were children. Nineteen years had elapsed,—and his mother told him that Mary was married. “Hearing of her marriage,” says his Lordship, “several years after, was a thunderstroke. It nearly choked me, to the horror of my mother, and the astonishment and almost incredulity of everybody!” Is there nothing of passion in all this? Was not this jealousy of any other creature possessing Mary Duff?


“During the time he was under the care of Dr. Glennie, he was more amiable than at any other period of his life, a circumstance which justifies the supposition, that had he been left more to the discipline of that respectable person, he would have proved a better man; for however much his heart afterwards became incrusted with the leprosy of selfishness, at this period his feelings were warm and kind.” p. 27.

We promised in our last number, to cull a few of Mr. Galt’s own especial words, for the amusement and instruction of our readers. We will be as good as our word. But first, it may not be amiss to give a specimen or two of what may be termed the Juvenile Library style—a style in which nonsense flourishes with an almost inconceivable rapidity and vigour. The following passages ought really to be done into English by some competent usher for the use of schools:—

“There is no account of any great poet, whose genius was of that dreamy cartilaginous kind, which hath its being in haze, and draws its nourishment from lights and shadows; which ponders over the mysteries of trees, and interprets the oracles of babbling waters. They have all been men—worldly men, different only from others in reasoning more by feeling than induction. Directed by impulse, in a greater degree than other men, poets are apt to be betrayed into actions which make them singular, as compared by those who are less imaginative; but the effects of earnestness should never be confounded with the qualities of talent.” p. 40

“They came like moths to the candle, and sarcasms in the satire which had long been unheeded, in the belief that they would soon be forgotten, were felt to have been barbed with irremediable venom, when they beheld the avenger
Towering in his pride of place.—p. 73

“The account given by Captain Medwin of the manner in which Lord Byron spent his time in Switzerland, has the raciness of his Lordship’s own quaintness, somewhat dilated.” p. 211.

“The change of life came over him, and when the vegetable period of boyhood was past, the animal passions mastered all the softer affections of his character.” p. 28.

“Still it could not have been to any inveterate degree; for undoubtedly, in his younger years, he was susceptible of warm impressions from gentle treatment, and his obstinacy and arbitrary humour were perhaps more the effects of unrepressed habit than of natural bias; they were the prickles which surrounded his genius in the bud.” p. 31.

“These little infirmities are, however, at most only calculated to excite a smile; there is no turpitude in them, and they merit notice but as indications of the humour of character. It was his Lordship’s foible to overrate his rank, to grudge his deformity beyond reason, and to exaggerate the condition of his family and circumstances. But the alloy of such small vanities,—his caprice and feline temper, were as vapour compared with the mass of rich and rare ore which
constituted the orb and nucleus of his brilliancy.” p. 155.

We are out of breath at reading the last passage. It is indeed a wonderful composition.

The following words are rather new. Gray has said old words are as good as old gold, when properly used. We should be glad if Gray were alive now, to appraise the value of this new furniture. Our readers will be pleased to observe the little creations marked in italics. “And become epochal in the history of the developement of his intellectual powers,” p. 73.—Wine is “expressed by the hand,” p. 77.—“I never in the whole course of my acquaintance saw him kithe,” &c. p. 130.—“At last it grew into a diseased crave,” p. 171.—“For, in addition to all his own clanjawphry, he had Mr. Hunt’s miscellaneous assemblage of chattels and chattery and little ones,” p. 267.—“Whatever was the degree of Lord Byron’s dubiety,” p. 263.—“His mind had suffered by the decadency of his circumstances,” p. 311.—“Churming an inarticulate melody,” p. 63.

But enough of this affectation. We trust we have made Mr. Galt prove his own incompetency for the task he felt himself destined to undertake. We have made him speak for himself, which is in fact speaking against himself. What petty anger has inspired the attack!

It is very desirable that books should be well printed, and cheaply sold; but it is of infinitely greater importance that they should be well written. The new Libraries are not like the libraries of old, full of standard works; but no doubt the buttermen and cheesemongers will have prayers offered up in the churches, for their continuance and increase!