LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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[Moore’s Life of Lord Byron. Concluded].
The Edinburgh Literary Journal  No. 117  (5 February 1831)  89-91.
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No. 117. SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 5, 1831. PRICE 6d.


Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, with Notices of his Life. By Thomas Moore. Vol. II. London. John Murray. 1831. 4to.

(Concluding Notice)

We have on two former occasions laid before our readers copious extracts from this interesting volume; being well aware that portions of the work itself must possess a far higher interest than any remarks we could offer. But we have now, in the discharge of nor duty as journalists, to undertake a far more difficult task—to express our opinion of the great Poet who forms the subject of these memoirs. We assume our pen with reluctance, although proposing nothing higher than to sketch, in a conversational style, a slight outline of the conclusions we have arrived at respecting him, while perusing Mr Moore’s book.

In attempting rightly to appreciate Lord Byron’s character, it will be found materially to facilitate the formation of a correct judgment, if we take a review of his character as displayed at different periods of his life, thus making ourselves masters of the details, before we look at the whole. The periods to which we allude are,—that which elapsed from the day of his birth till the time that he first went abroad—that which intervened between the last mentioned date and his separation from Lady Byron—his residence in Switzerland—his residence at Venice—his life from the time of his connexion with the Guiccioli till his death.

It is necessary, on reverting to the first period of his life, that we pay particular attention to the circumstances under which it was spent; both because they had material influence in forming his character, and because the manner in which he bore them is the only indication we can have of his natural tendencies. He was elevated at too early an age into the peerage, to admit any feelings of the commoner to gain strength within him, but late enough to let him feel more decidedly than those who have been born into it, the difference between the two ranks. His own and his mother’s straitened circumstances, joined to the cold neglect of their connexions, left him to spend the whole of this portion of life, during which he was not at school or the university, among the middle classes. This had a twofold influence upon his character. In the first place, it showed how much deference his title obtained for him, which at the same time it made him feel that he was scarcely recognised by his own class: at once exaggerating his notions of the distinction, and rendering him more jealous of any encroachment upon his privileges. In the next place, the stricter observance of morality among the middle classes, and their less unintermitted festivities, preserved the tone of his mind more firm and pure, than if he bad been early initiated into the gay world. Nor must the wayward temper of his lady mother be omitted among the circumstances which contributed ultimately to make him what he was. Childhood is too elastic, too forgetful, to retain such deep impressions, from the strange scenes which passed between son and mother, as Mr Moore seems to believe; but doubtless, her alternating leniency and tyranny, now giving all scope to his untameable disposition,—now irritating it by senseless oppression, must have strengthened the natural violence of his temper. Lastly, his education at Harrow and Cambridge produced the same effects as upon all. The dissipation in which young men of his rank generally indulge at the latter place, is in almost every instance but the “mere outbreak of a generous mind.” It brushes off the first ingenuous bloom of youth, which, sooner or later, must go, in our rubbing through the world; but it rarely overthrows a mind which has originally been well disciplined. Then, again, the mode of tuition pursued at English schools and universities, although lamentably deficient in regard to every thing that fits man for the real business of life, cherishes, nevertheless, by its almost exclusive devotion to the two literatures most redolent of “generosity and self-devotion,” the noblest sentiments. The young man, too, by having his attention fixed upon the glory of the statesman, the orator, and the patriot, longs to display himself in similar characters in his own country. There may be something exclusive,—narrow In his sympathies, but they are honourable as far they go: the world must make or mar him.

We now turn to the character upon which thaw circumstances had to work, and to which they gave occasion of display. The most striking features of Lord Byron’s character were excessive irritability and stubborn endurance. Equal in strength, although, of course, lees perceptible to common observers, was his susceptibility of attachment. His passion for the sex early displayed itself, and by the desire it necessarily awakened of standing well in their eyes, tormented him between the consciousness of general beauty and of one blemish. His intellect was vigorous—his desire of information strong; but then it must be such knowledge as his own inclinations prompted him to seek: he made an indifferent figure in the matter of set tasks. His mind, too, was rather powerful than acute. Joined to a vigorous mind, was its never-failing concomitant in youth, an indeterminate longing after distinction—it might be as a poet, a statesman, or merely as a gymnast—or one or all.

The character which such circumstances formed out of such predispositions, at the close of the first period, may easily be traced. It was that of a young man possessed of much but ill-digested information. The sentiment of poetry had awakened within him, and his ear for versification was pretty well formed; but imagination could as yet only be descried by the friendly observer, like summer lightning on the verge of the far horizon. His disposition, headlong and unbending, and although not insensible to generosity, difficult to convict of error, had involved him in disputes, to which the energy of his character had lent an appearance of ferocity, which the cause scarcely warranted. His heart was warm; but the neglect of those connexions who stood aloof, the sycophancy and coming readiness of most of those who sought his acquaintance, had made him feel alone in the world, and thrown an unnatural degree of coldness into
his language and manners. His moral conduct—using the phrase in its English sense—was not worse than that of most young men of his rank and time of life. There was a purity in the inmost recesses of his mind—more, however, the prompting of his natural disposition, confirmed by habitual deference to the feelings of that society in which he had most moved, than the child of principle and conviction.

Seeking to lay a firm foundation, we have been obliged to expand this portion of our sketch to what the reader may think an undue length. The succeeding periods shall be treated with more brevity.

On going abroad, Lord Byron found himself exposed to temptations from a certain class of the other sex, more dangerous to a mind like his than those which he had to encounter in this country,—with more appearance of sentiment, and more skilfully-concealed selfishness. Wandering in the regions of the East gave a peculiar stamp to the power of imagination, which was now fairly awakened; but which in him, as in all young poets, was long of ripening to that maturity which finds pleasure in the contemplation of the poetical for itself. In its first stage, it rather awakens the desire to enact what it admires in person, than to comprehend and reproduce it as a work of art. In Lord Byron, at this period, we find a restless desire to encounter danger merely as an excitement, an affectation of something outré in his dress and modes of life, a morbid brooding over his own feelings, and a perverse delight in picturing himself and his circumstances, as worse, and more desolate, than they really were. On returning to this country, his mind was depressed on one hand by his failure as a public speaker, and elevated on the other by the rapid growth of his poetical fame. The latter event, together with the round of adulation and dissipation Into which it led him, fairly carried him (to use a homely phrase) “off his feet.” This was no difficult task with one upon whom had been bestowed
“So much of earth, so much of heaven,
And such impetuous blood;”
whose goodness, too, was the child of impulse, not of reflection. The intervals of his intoxication were filled up with annoyances paltry in themselves, but gigantic from their number and continual recurrence. To save him from the withering effects of a perpetual revel, and from the pain of embarrassed circumstances,
Mr Moore kindly, but injudiciously, pressed his marriage with Miss Milnwood. Esteeming, but not loving the lady, his lordship unfortunately yielded. He did not foresee that two spirits, the one cold and reflective, the other fierce and rapid, must quarrel if brought into constant proximity; and that the quarrel, as both were alike stubborn and relentless, must be deadly. Both were to blame, but her ladyship most, for she added hypocrisy to forgetfulness of the oath she had sworn to bear with her mate’s infirmities, and in good or in ill to swerve not from his side.

Our remarks on this portion of his lordship’s life need not be long. During its lapse, the determination of his character certainly received a false bias. His aberrations, however, were little more than the unavoidable mistakes made by every man when let loose, to grope his way into the busy world. He had forgotten himself, but his bad habitudes were not confirmed. The disagreeables with which he had to contend were those which we must all make up our mind to at the first outset of our struggle for fortune. They might easily have been conquered; and their shadows would have passed away from his brow. The burst of popular indignation, elicited by his quarrel with Lady Byron, would have died away. His misconduct would have been forgotten, if not forgiven, and his future life might have amply atoned. But one step had been taken, which, although it could not yet show its workings upon his character, had stamped his future fate. With dispositions which rendered a female companion indispensable to his happiness, he was thrown loose upon the world, debarred from approaching that individual with whom alone, of ail the sex, he could live without dishonour to her, and moral destruction to himself,—
“The clankless chain had bound him.”

The brief period of his residence in Switzerland is only remarkable as it favoured the developement of his poetical powers. His intimacy with Shelley awoke a faculty within him which had hitherto been all but dormant—pure intellectual imagination. His earlier works evince all the poetry of sentiment and passion, but the glimpses of real imagination are comparatively rare. It is in the third and fourth canto of Childe Harold that we first recognise his imaginative powers in their full force and mastery. Not one atom of reliance is there upon foreign costume, or sentimental free-booters, or whining lovers. He grapples with the first elements of nature, with the achievements of human genius in empire, art, and learning; and he moulds his incongruous materials, with a giant’s strength, into one glowing whole. The mood of mind in which he was at the time was favourable to the developement of a new power. Every passion of his nature was in a state of excitement. The colossal character of the scenery around him, its constant interchange of fairy beauty and tempest, were well calculated to work upon such a temperament. But it was the interchange of thought with the most ethereal of imaginative poets,—the most subtle of self-torturing sophists, that finally struck the rock, worn almost to yielding, and bade the waters gush out. Manfred is the fairest specimen of his powers at this period. It indicates an immense stride into the realm of poesy. He has raised himself above romance, and attained to the higher order of mysticism. He has soared above mere sense; and although yet surrounded by mists and fogs, he is rising to the clear region of mind.

The period of his life which Byron spent at Venice, is, we know, one upon which his best friends are averse to dwell. We do not entirely coincide with them. We feel as much disgust as they do at the gross libertinism into which he there plunged. We feel perhaps more distaste than they do at the vulgar slang in which he frequently chose at this time to express himself. Most of all are we pained at the perversity with which he thought proper to run a tilt against all the finer affections which link society together. But we are less distressed at all these evils, because the too brief after-period of his life shows that they were transient stains; and in the case of Byron, who hod scarcely one friendly and at the same time judicious enough to understand him—from whom the world chose to stand aloof in childish terror—and who was thus left without “a guide, philosopher, or friend,”—we regard them but as the outbreak of a disease which lurks in all such minds, and if not gradually extracted by skilful hands, will work itself out under some loathsome form.

Our meaning in this may be briefly explained. Youth has an undefined anticipation of, and sympathy with, whatever is great and good in human nature. It feels a yearning to assimilate itself to what it admires. But our vague instincts, our passions, are awake long before the clear dawn of reason; and not only do they impel us to action under delusive appearances, but they bear us up, floating in an atmosphere of delightful but confused anticipations—a world of gay dreams. This is the state of mind to which the term romantic is generally applied. The person susceptible of it is worthy of love, but he cannot be relied upon. No man is virtuous—that is, no man is trustworthy—who is gentle, and kind, and good, merely from impulse. Such dispositions deservedly conciliate affection, but admiration and confidence are only for those who control and direct them by reason and principle. We have seen
already that the mind of
Byron was richly gifted by nature. But hitherto he had been living in a world of his own, prizing his own imaginations, without enquiring what relation his high thoughts bore to the world around him. It was time that he should awake to the realities of life. The way in which he was destined to be roused was a trying one. He was to be taught to feel how easily the loftiest aspirations, if undirected by a firmer and more enduring principle, subside into the most degrading indulgences. He was to be abandoned to a course of life which, while it lowered him in his own eyes, whetted the tongues of his enemies against him.

It must be a noble soul which stands a trial like this—the heat of a sevenfold furnace, which only the pure gold can endure. A man in whom sentiment and imagination were weak, and intellect narrow, must have sunk beneath the proof. His heart would have been seared and dried up. If his constitution survived the shock, he would have remained an idle, selfish jester for life. Not So with Byron. When he awoke from his fever-fit, he had learned to see in its true shape the reality which was before him. He had learned to laugh frequently, and occasionally bitterly. But the appreciation of kindliness and of the beautiful, the soaring imagination, and the searching intellect, were indestructible within him. The first thrill of young emotion, it is true, had died away for ever; he could no longer feel as once he had felt. But we do not look in the full-grown oak for the rich juiciness of the sapling: it is the tough, majestic, ragged form, speaking of victories over the winter storms of a century, that we admire. It is grandeur we look for, not beauty.

We have arrived at the last period of our retrospect. Byron was recovering from his Venetian intoxication, when he met with the Countess Guiccioli, who threw herself headlong into his arms. It must be evident to every one who has read Mr Moore’s notices with attention, that in this liaison there was no very strong attachment on his lordship’s side. It seems to have been more an unwillingness to pain, by rejecting so lovely, so gentle, and so devoted a creature. He could appreciate this attachment, and return it too; but he could not overlook that something higher than love was necessary to satisfy his capacious mind; and was cool enough to keep in view the danger which the romantic girl was rushing upon, and to remind her of it. The wish, too, which had always been more or less present to his mind—the wish to take an active and commanding part in the business of men, was now gaining the ascendency over him, and the aspect of the times promised him full employment. During the whole time of his residence with the Countess Guiccioli, however agreeable her company might be as a resource during his idle hours, his mind was almost incessantly engaged in planning how to mingle effectively in the contest between “kings and peoples.” Italy, South America, Greece—all of them were in turn contemplated as the theatres of his future deeds. We have met with nothing more striking, than the calm, just view which his diaries show him to have taken of the characters of those around him, conjoined as it is with his unshrinking attachment to the cause ho had adopted. This cause he forwarded by every means in his power, wherever it seemed to be making exertions. And, finally, when Greece arose, he did not write books on the heroism of its sons—or dabble in its stocks—or contribute ten guineas to its aid; be transported himself, body and fortune, to the spot, and offered up his life for freedom.

Nor did this strong practical hold which he had taken of the world and its concerns interfere with his poetical powers. On the contrary, most of the poems which he composed daring this period, evince, along with a more severe taste, equal delicacy in their beautiful, equal daring in their loftier passages. We need only instance Heaven and Earth, and Cain. His wit too, to which he now allowed free scope, so far from Interfering with his poetry; we regard rather as a proof that his mind was now mature and firmly knit. The manner in which he could afford to dally with himself and his subject, shows that his mind had lost every tinge of that morbid sentimentalism which it had at one period contracted.

We have now gone over the leading features of Lord Byron’s life seriatim, and it appears to us that we have succeeded in establishing, not his freedom from crime, but the general and indestructible goodness of his character. His genius has never been questioned by any person worthy of an answer. He was irrascible and haughty; but he was also ingenuous, benevolent, and just. His power of discriminating character has seldom been equalled. The business talents which he displayed during the latest period of his life were of a commanding order. The few friends to whom he was attached he loved with ardour, and to the last. His wit, if not so fine as Moore’s, was powerful and manly; his perception of the beautiful was intense and delicate. In passionate sublimity, no poet of the day has come near him. His works can never die; and it is time that his vexed spirit were no longer troubled with controversies about himself. Let us keep in remembrance the inscription he wished to have on his own tomb:

Implora pace.