LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
Moore’s Life of Byron.
The Gentleman’s Magazine  Vol. 100  (February 1830)  146-50.
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Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, with notices of his Life. By Thomas Moore. 2 vols. 4to. Murray.

SUCH is the modest title given to these volumes, accompanied by a preface in the same spirit; and indeed, throughout the work, there is a careful and an almost over-studious design of keeping down the biographer, and elevating the subject. The book is an entertaining one, abounding in anecdote, and for the first time the noble bard is fairly arraigned at the bar of public opinion. When we say fairly, we would not be understood as speaking of the impartiality of the advocate, for there is neither vice nor failing which Mr. Moore does not refer to some extenuating circumstance, but out of his own mouth, as it were, the character of Lord Byron may now be estimated, and we can now speak of him from “his own showing.”

It is not our intention to add another to the many dissertations that have been written on the moral and poetical character of this celebrated man. Well has it been said,
“that all the pious duties which we owe
Our parents, friends, our country, and our God,
The seeds of every virtue here below
From discipline alone, and early culture grow.”

This moral discipline, this early culture, Lord Byron never knew. His first years were without that firm yet gentle guidance which might but have restrained his sullen and passionate temper, a temper indulged until it became his master—and, borrowing a phrase from his classical recollections, he is perpetually complaining of “eating his own heart.” His warfare was against established customs and opinions; there was nothing too sacred for the exercise of his sarcasm; morals and religion, man’s honour, and woman’s delicacy, were perpetually the butt of his wit or his humour. His splendid talents were prostituted to the worst purposes, and the most demoralizing opinions were supported by the worst example. If tried by the standard of reason or religion, his career must be pronounced to have been one reckless profligacy; and the greater his sins against decency and decorum, the more pointed were his attempts to make decorum and decency ridiculous.

The “root of the matter was within”—he hated Religion because she denounced his vices—he was an infidel, but it was the “unbelief of an evil heart,” not of an inquiring mind. His poetry, with all its beauty, might well be spared, if we could so remove the mischief it has effected, and we are now unhappily to lament another offence to morals, by this elaborate exposure of his most irreligious life. We will not shrink from this avowal of our honest and deliberate opinion. With all the kindheartedness which Mr. Moore has brought to his labour, and with all that cunning web of sophistry by which he has sought to hide Lord Byron’s vices, still the author of Childe Harold’s own handwriting is against him. Many of his letters are the records of opinions and pursuits derogatory alike to his birth, his station, and his talents. It is worse than idle—it is wicked to cry “peace where there is no peace.” The charity for which Mr. Moore contends, ought never to be employed in making the “worse appear the better.” Our hope is, that the God whom he denied, and the religion he despised, may have reached his heart before he exchanged time for eternity. This is our charity, and if our hope were realized, then would this volume he an offence to his memory, and nothing but a mercenary feeling could have induced its publication, at least in this shape. Yet out of the jarring elements of which it is composed, there is much to excite our interest and our admiration. As the poet said of his own Corsair, “all is not evil”—and after delivering our general opinion, in which we feel ourselves borne out by the contents of the volume, we will not return to this part of our subject, but content ourselves with passages which may be extracted without offence, and commented on without pain.

Respecting the childhood of Lord Byron, Mr. Moore has been more than sufficiently minute in his researches. The anecdotes recorded of him during his probation in Scotland, are no otherwise interesting than as partaking in a degree of that mixture of wilfulness and generosity which characterised his after-life. The title descended to him
Review.—Moore’s Life of Byron.147
in his tenth year; and we agree with his biographer in thinking that, had he been left to struggle on for ten years longer as plain George Byron, he would have been the better for it. Soon after his arrival from Scotland, he was placed under the care of
Dr. Glennie, a schoolmaster of Dulwich; and from thence he was removed to Harrow, in his 14th year. Of his studies and employments at a public school, he has himself afforded some very lively sketches, lie does not represent himself as having been popular, nor were the friendships he formed there of a very permanent character.

Of that romantic attachment which in his own opinion sank so deep as to give a colour to his future life, Mr. Moore has given a very pleasing account. The age of the lady was eighteen, Lord Byron was two years younger; that he drank deeply of the fascination, there can be no doubt; but an “idolatrous fancy” had great share in the homage paid to the divinity—she was the subject of many a poetical dream, and what imagination has thus sanctified, he believed to have been influential beyond its real power.

At seventeen he entered at Trinity College, Cambridge. His feelings towards his Alma Mater do not appear to have been very affectionate. There are some of his letters published about this time also, in which his natural parent is treated with much coarseness. She was, to be sure, a woman of violent temper, and their disputes attained a height which could only find an appropriate similitude in the “tempest” and the “hurricane.”

“It is told as a curious proof of each other’s violence,” says Mr. Moore, “that after parting one evening in a tempest of this kind, they were known each to go that night privately to the apothecary’s, inquiring anxiously whether the other had been to purchase poison, and cautioning the vender of drugs not to attend to such an application, if made.”

The idea of printing his poems, is stated to have first occurred to him thus:

Miss Pigot, who was not before aware of his turn for versifying, had been reading aloud the poems of Burns, when young Byron said, that he too was a Poet sometimes, and would write down for her some verses of his own which he remembered. He then with a pencil wrote three lines, beginning, ‘In thee I fondly hoped to clasp,’ which were printed in his first unpublished volume, but are not contained in the editions that followed. He also repeated to her the verses ‘When in the hall my father’s voice,’ so remarkable for the anticipations of his future fame, that glimmer through them. From this moment the desire of appealing in print took entire possession of him, though for the present his ambition did not extend its views beyond a small volume for private circulation.”

The notices of Lord Byron at this period are animated and interesting, but are more so perhaps when read with reference to what he afterwards became, than as varying (with the exception of his poetry) from the life of any other man of fashion. He affected an indifference to his volume, which he did not feel—and he evidently and naturally relished the encomiums which private friendship and professional criticism bestowed upon his poetry.

We have expressed our intention of abstaining from any further allusion to that gloomy scepticism which took such early root in the mind of Lord Byron; but we mention it now, to state that the subject is noticed by Mr. Moore in a very affecting way, honourable alike to his own principles, and to that friendship for Lord Byron which refers with a true feeling of sorrow this melancholy temperament to the absence of that controul which his passions and his pride most required at this period of his life. The passage is somewhat long, but we will give it, in justice to all parties, entire:

“It is but rarely that infidelity or scepticism finds an entrance into youthful minds. That readiness to take the future upon trust, which is the charm of this period of life, would naturally, indeed, make it the season of belief as well as of hope. There are also then, still fresh in the mind, the impressions of early religious culture, which, even in those who begin soonest to question their faith, give way but slowly to the encroachments of doubt, and, in the mean time, extend the benefit of their moral restraint over a portion of life when it is acknowledged such restraints are most necessary. If exemption from the checks of religion be, as infidels themselves allow, a state of freedom from responsibility dangerous at all times, it must be peculiarly so in that season of temptation, youth, when the passions are sufficiently disposed to usurp a latitude for themselves, without taking a licence also from infidelity to enlarge their range. It is, therefore, fortunate that, for the causes just stated, the inroads of scepticism and disbe-
148Review.—Moore’s Life of Byron.
lief should be seldom felt in the mind till s period of life, when the character, already formed, is out of the reach of their disturbing influence,—when, being the result, however erroneous, of thought and reasoning, they are likely to partake of the sobriety of the process by which they were acquired, and, being considered but as matters of pure speculation, to have as little share in determining the mind towards evil as, too often, the most orthodox creed has, at the same age, in influencing towards good.

“While, in this manner, the moral qualities of the unbeliever himself are guarded from some of the mischiefs that might, at an earlier age, attend such doctrines, the danger also of his communicating the infection to others is, for reasons of a similar nature, considerably diminished. The same vanity or daring which may have prompted the youthful sceptic’s opinions, will lead him likewise, it is probable, rashly and irreverently to avow them, without regard either to the effect of his example on those around him, or the odium which, by such an avowal, he entails irreparably on himself. But, at a riper age, these consequences are, in general, more cautiously weighed. The infidel, if at all considerate of the happiness of others, will naturally pause before he chases from their hearts a hope of which his own feels the want so desolately. If reguardful only of himself, he will no less naturally shrink from the promulgation of opinions which, in no age, have men uttered with impunity. In either case there is a tolerably good security for his silence,—for, should benevolence not restrain him from making converts of others, prudence may, at least, prevent him from making a martyr of himself.

“Unfortunately, Lord Byron was an exception to the usual course of such lapses. With him, the canker showed itself ‘in the morn and dew of youth,’ when the effect of such ‘blastments’ is, for every reason, most fatal,—and, in addition to the real misfortune of being an unbeliever at any age, he exhibited the rare and melancholy spectacle of an unbelieving schoolboy. The same prematurity of developement which brought his passions and genius so early into action, enabled him also to anticipate this worst, dreariest result of reason; and at the very time of life when a spirit and temperament like his most required controul, those checks, which religious prepossessions best supply, were almost wholly wanting.

“We have seen, in those two addresses to the Deity which I have selected from among his unpublished Poems, and still more strongly in a passage of the Catalogue of his studies, at what a boyish age the authority of all systems and sects was avowedly shaken off by his inquiring spirit. Yet, even in these, there is a fervour of adoration mingled with his defiance of creeds, through which the piety implanted in his nature (as it is deeply in all poetic natures) unequivocally shows itself; and had he then fallen within the reach of such guidance and example as would have seconded and fostered these natural dispositions, the licence of opinion, into which he afterwards broke loose, might have been averted. His scepticism, if not wholly removed, might have been softened down into that humble doubt which, so far from being inconsistent with a religious spirit, is perhaps its best guard against presumption and uncharitableness; and, at all events, even if his own views of religion had not been brightened or elevated, he would have learned not wantonly to cloud or disturb those of others. But there was no such monitor near him. After his departure from Southwell, he had not a single friend or relative to whom he could look up with respect; but was thrown alone on the world, with his passion and his pride, to revel in the fatal discovery which he imagined himself to have made of the nothingness of the future, and the all-paramount claims of the present. By singular ill-fortune, too, the individual who, among all his college friends, had taken the strongest hold on his admiration and affection, and whose loss he afterwards lamented with brotherly tenderness, was to the same extent as himself, if not more strongly, a sceptic.”

In spite of all this, beautiful as it is in language, we doubt whether Lord Byron had at this time settled principles of any kind; his passions were his masters, he had generous impulses and benevolent feelings; but of any thing that could regulate or restrain, whether it be called philosophy or religion, he was destitute. He was the creature “of the minute;” and any statement of his creed, by himself at least, is no more to be depended on than are those exaggerated pictures of his vices with which his letters and poems abound. The well-meaning but injudicious friends who attempted his reformation, he loved to “mystify” and to confound, and so tenaciously did this spirit cling to him, that when, in Greece, he had those conversations with Dr. Kennedy on the subject of religion which are announced for publication, there was hardly a person acquainted with him there who did not insinuate that he was amusing himself at the doctor’s expence.

So much has been already said on the article in the Edinburgh Review, which it has been contended awakened the poetical energies of the subject of it, that we will dismiss it with this observation, that we agree with Mr.
Review.—Moore’s Life of Byron.149
Moore that it was rather the contemptuous tone in which it was written, than any mistake in the critic’s estimate of Lord B.’s poems, that deserves our reprehension; for, as Mr. Moore elegantly says,

“The early verses of Lord Byron, however distinguished by tenderness and grace, give but little promise of those dazzling miracles of poesy with which he afterwards enchanted the world; and, if his youthful verses have now a peculiar charm in our eyes, it is because we read them as it were by the light of his subsequent glory.”

The article was speedily followed by the satire, a proof at once of his genius and of the ferocious spirit by which it was influenced; it is evident indeed that the foundation of this poem was laid long before the appearance of the offensive review. There is scarcely a philippic in that satire which either his after-position in society, or his own generous nature, did not induce him to retract; he used his best efforts to suppress what his ill-humour had urged him Jo publish, and there is no severity that can be pronounced on the recklessness of this attack that can equal the sentence pronounced on it by himself.

In a state of mind over which Mr. Moore throws the protecting shield of his generous compassion, and which in his usual elegant exculpatory style, he refers to the accidental circumstances of a disappointed life, Lord Byron now proceeded on his pilgrimage. His letters during his absence from England are excellent specimens of epistolary descriptions; they give a very interesting account of his travels, and are written in an agreeable, lively style, with scarcely any traces of that moody temper in which he had left his country. His return is announced in the following characteristic letter:

“To Mr. Henry Drury.
Volage frigate, off Ushant, July 17, 1811.

“My dear Drury,—After two years’ absence (on the 2d) and some odd days, I am approaching your country. The day of our arrival you will see by the outside date of my letter. At present, we are becalmed comfortably, close to Brest harbour;—I have never been so near it since I left Duck Puddle.

“We left Malta thirty-four days ago, and have had a tedious passage of it. You will either see or hear from or of me, soon after the receipt of this, as I pass through town to repair my irreparable affairs; and thence I want to go to Notts, and raise rents, and to Lancs, and sell collieries, and back to London, and pay debts,—for it seems I shall neither have coals or comfort till I go down to Rochdale in person. I have brought home some marbles for Hobhouse;—for myself, four ancient Athenian skulls, dug out of Sarcophagi,—a phial of attic hemlock,—four live tortoises,—a greyhound (died on the passage),—two live Greek servants, one an Athenian, t’other a Yaniote, who can speak nothing but Romaic and Italian,—and myself, as Moses in the Vicar of Wakefield says, silly, and I may say it too, for I have as little cause to boast of my expedition as he had of his to the fair.

“I wrote to you from the Cyanean Rocks, to tell you I had swam from Sestos to Abydos—have you received my letter?

Hodgson, I suppose, is four deep by this time. What would he have given to have seen, like me, the real Parnassus, where I robbed the Bishop of Chrissae of a book of geography;—but this I only call plagiarism, as it was done within an hour’s ride of Delphi.”

His avowed intention of leaving the “whole Castalian State” was as speedily abandoned as most of his resolutions. He returned to England with two long poems, the one a satire, in imitation of Horace; the other, the two first cantos of Childe Harold; the former appears to have been his favourite.

“In tracing the fortunes of men,” says Mr. Moore, “it is not a little curious to observe how often the course of a whole life has depended on a single step. Had Lord Byron now persisted in his original purpose of giving this poem to the press, it is more than probable that he would have been lost as a great poet to the world.”

But we cannot thus track the footsteps of Lord Byron; the most prominent features of his life are well known to our readers, for there are few men whose minutest acts have been so blazoned.

His letter to Lord Holland (whom he had abused in his satire), on presenting him with his new poem of Childe Harold, exhibits much good feeling and candour.

St. James’s-street, March 5, 1812
“My Lord,

“May I request your Lordship to accept a copy of the thing which accompanies this note? You have already so fully proved the truth of the first line of Pope’s couplet,
‘Forgiveness to the injured doth belong,’
150Review.—Moore’s Life of Byron.
that I long for an opportunity to give the lie to the verse that follows. If I were not perfectly convinced that any thing I may have formerly uttered in the boyish rashness of my misplaced resentment had made as little impression as it deserved to make, I should hardly have the confidence—perhaps your Lordship may give it a stronger and more appropriate appellation—to send you a quarto of the same scribbler. But your Lordship, I am sorry to observe today, is troubled with the gout: if my book can produce a laugh against itself or the author, it will be of some service. If it can set you to sleep, the benefit will be yet greater; and as some facetious personage observed half a century ago, that ‘poetry is a mere drug,’ I offer you mine as an humble assistant to the ‘eau médecinale.’ I trust you will forgive this and all my other buffooneries, and believe me to be, with great respect, your Lordship’s obliged and sincere servant,

The public adulation which followed this poem did not tend to improve his character; he was proud and reserved; he had drawn his poetical portrait as that of one of melancholy and sadness, and he appears to have worn such an appearance in vindication of his consistency. To those behind the scenes, his manners, on the contrary, are represented as frank, social, and engaging. There was too much of this masquerading for a strong or honourable mind to have practised; it was a species of hypocrisy too that flattered his pride, and amused his vanity. During the three following years, his poetry was poured out in rich profusion of talent;—but we have no space to particularize.

His marriage and the unfortunate circumstances that succeeded, are treated by Mr. Moore with great delicacy, and in a way which scarcely any other pen could have managed so well.

In a letter to Mr. Moore, Lord Byron thus expresses himself on the subject of his separation, an avowal honourable to his candour and to the character of Lady Byron:

“I must set you right in one point, however; the fault was not, no, nor even the misfortune in my choice, unless in choosing at all; for I do not believe, and I must say it in the very dregs of all this bitter business, that there ever was a better or even a brighter, a kinder, or a more amiable and agreeable being than Lady B. I never had nor can have any reproach to make her while with me. Where there is blame it belongs to myself, and if I cannot redeem, I must bear it.”

A parting word, and we have done. We should deem it little less than blasphemy to be told, that if Lord Byron had been a better man, he would have been a worse poet. What he might have been, had he drank of that living fountain which would have healed his sorrows and purified his intellect, it were now in vain to inquire. The following thought of a writer less known than he deserves to be, tells us in language as elegant as the sentiment is just, how a taste for the beauties of the natural world with which the poetry of Lord Byron is rife, is quickened, improved, and elevated by religious feeling:

“The sun may beautify the face of nature, the planets may roll in majestic order through the immensity of space, spring may spread her blossoms, summer may ripen her fruits, autumn may call to the banquet, the senses are regaled; but in the heart that is not purified by religious sentiments, there is no perception of spiritual beauty, no movement of spiritual delight, no reference to that Hand which is scattering around the means of enjoyment, and the incentives to praise. But let the heart be touched with that etherial spark which is elicited by the Word of God and the promises of his Son; let the sinful affections be removed, and the influence of a devout spirit be cherished; let intellect and reflection became the handmaids of Piety; then we shall see God in all that is great and beautiful in creation, and feel him in all that is cheerful and happy in our own minds.”

The volume before us brings the life of Lord Byron down to the period of his final departure from England. We cannot help thinking that something too much has been afforded; and we cannot conceal our apprehensions that, as the poetry of Lord Byron produced a generation of sceptical misanthropes, so the details of his fashionable excesses may provoke a spirit of imitation in the thoughtless, the giddy, and the young.