LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Moore’s Life of Byron.
The Gentleman’s Magazine  Vol. 101  (January 1831)  64-67.
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JANUARY, 1831.


Letters and Journals of Lord Byron; with Notices of his Life. By Thomas Moore. In 2 vols. Vol. II. pp. 826. Murray.

A SECOND Volume of this ponderous work is before us, carrying on the notice of Lord Byron’s life to its melancholy close, including many pages of his journal, and a large mass of his foreign correspondence; and surely we may ask ourselves, for what useful purpose all this is done, and marvel at the lamentable want of taste and judgment on the part of his friend and biographer. There is a mawkish and sentimental demand for charity in speaking of Lord Byron, as though he were a chartered libertine, whose profligate conduct and demoralizing writings were to be covered by the splendour of his talents; and that he who, both by the evil example of his life, and the sinful tendency of his publications, recklessly pursued his wicked course, careless of the mischief he effected, the wrongs he did, and the wounds he inflicted; that he, who never spared an enemy in his resentment, nor a friend in his pleasant jocularities, safe in the immunities of genius, and “hedged in” by the divinity of his poetical reputation, shall be secured from the voice of indignant reprobation. It seems to be expected, that we should smile and simper over his enormities, as a drawing-room miss corrects the profuse allusions of a lover with a fan. In short, we are expected to go on in sin and laughter, like the Indian philosopher singing on the funeral pile; or like Nero, fiddling amidst the flames of the capitol. The restraint which morals and religion have imposed on the licentious excesses of the passions, are, in the particular case of the Noble Poet, to be removed; the barriers erected against selfish indulgences, at the expense of public decency and private feelings, are to be broken down; the flood-gates which have been established, to prevent the outbreaks of the waters of strife, are to be removed; and we are called upon, in charity to the memory of the Desolator, to look on, shake our heads, and say nothing. The question, we contend, in opposition to Mr. Moore, is not, whether we, under the same circumstances of excitement, might not have been worse than Lord Byron? it is, simply, whether the high advantages of birth, and rank, and talents, arc not great and important privileges, given by God as the means of greater usefulness to his creatures, and as the incentives of thankfulness to Himself. To employ these advantages against Him who bestowed them, is to imitate the Titans, and hurl defiance against heaven, through the instrumentality of its loftiest gifts.

The private life of Lord Byron has been thrust upon the world with an elaborate protrusion of its most immoral features; and we should ill perform the duty we owe to our readers,
Review.—Moore’s Life of Byron.65
or to the cause of good morals which our situation as independent Journalists calls upon us to defend, if we did not enter an indignant protest against such a publication. If the work had borne the title of a “History of the Intrigues of a Man of Fashion,” the antidote would have been conveyed with the poison, and we should have been forewarned of the character of the volume. If we blush to see a nobleman want manners, if we lament that absence of all moral taste and gentlemanly feeling, which could make his adulteries the perpetual theme of his private correspondence, what shall we say of him, to whom the office of biographer was entrusted, obtruding the degrading register into print, and giving a permanent record to letters which should have been committed to the flames. Where was charily and delicacy, when this offence to his memory was perpetrated? And where was the least respect for the feelings of the living, when the envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, directed against his contemporaries, have been given to the world. In a letter to
Mr. Murray, Lord Byron, speaking of the publication of his letters, to be collected from a lady whose name is not given, says, “sinking, of course, the names, and all such circumstances at might hurt living feelings, or those of survivors!” It is only justice to Lord Byron to give this extract; a caution which, if it have been in any degree observed by Mr. Moore, would lead to an inference, respecting the matter which has been suppressed, most horrible to think of.

On those who have exposed their “noble friend” to the scorn of the high-minded, and the ridicule of the profane, be the shame; on those who have made a public spectacle of his irregularities be the dishonour; on those who emblazon vice, and cry out “charity,” be the blame that now falls upon his memory, and on those who have raked among the ashes of the dead, and minted the moral atmosphere with the exhalation, be the sin of the desecration.

The volume, as we have before observed, takes up the life of Lord Byron soon after his last departure from England to his death; and there is much in his correspondence during this period (about eight years), of a very interesting character, sufficient indeed to have made a selection, that would hare placed him in a very high rank of our epistolary literature. As it is, his letters are disfigured by the sins of bad taste and worse morality; of enmities that never sleep; and a selfishness that cannot emerge from its own eternal waitings. If we lose ourselves fur a moment in the admiration of his fine talents, or of some generous impulse that flits across his habitual mal-temperament, he speedily recalls us to the conviction, that if the distinctions of right and wrong were not confounded in his mind, they were in his practice; and that the homage he occasionally paid to virtue, was not the result of any principle on which it could be said to depend. He would have erected a false standard of judgment in morals, and have the action rated by the man, and not the man by the action; and he has missed the most glorious opportunity which was ever placed by God within the human grasp—of uniting the nobility of birth, and the splendour of talents, with a love of virtue and the practice of holiness; of combining, in one and the same person, the highest natural advantages, and the molt splendid of intellectual gifts; of realizing the angel’s beauty and the seraph’s song. But it is passed, and we must deal with the melancholy record before us as we can; and if we appear to be insensible to the many fine thoughts and feelings with which this volume abounds, it is, that however beautiful in themselves, they are too often in direct opposition to man’s true happiness, and his immortal hopes; at variance with that wisdom, without which the poet, in his highest flights, is but in the regions of clouds and darkness, denser than the world from which he has escaped.

It was during Byron’s residence at Geneva that his third canto of Childe Harold was written, and it bears the deep impressions which that wild and romantic country had traced on his mind and memory. It was in Italy, however, that Lord Byron gave a looser rein to his passions; and we leave Mr. Moore to be his own apologist, for the publication of letters in which his friend’s gallantries are recorded by his own hand.

“It must have been observed, in my account of Lord Byron’s life previous to his marriage, that, without leaving altogether
66Review.—Moore’s Life of Byron.
unnoticed (what, indeed, was too notorious to be so evaded) certain affairs of gallantry in which he had the reputation of being engaged, I have thought it right, besides refraining from such details in my narrative, to suppress also whatever passages in his journals and letters might be supposed to bear too personally or particularly on the same delicate topics. Incomplete as the strange history of his mind and heart must, in one of its most interesting chapters, be left by these omissions, still a deference to that peculiar sense of decorum in this country, which marks the mention of such frailties as hardly a less crime than the commission of them, and, still more, the regard due to the feelings of the living, who ought not rashly to he made to suffer for the errors of the dead, have combined to render the sacrifice, however much it may he regretted, necessary.

“We have now, however, shifted the scene to a region where less caution is requisite; where, from the different standard applied to female morals in these respects, if the wrong itself be not lessened by this diminution of the consciousness of it, less scruple may be, at least, felt towards persons to circumstanced; and whatever delicacy we may think right to exercise in speaking of their frailties, must be with reference rather to our views and usages than theirs.”

We will give one specimen of Mr. Moore’s regard to the feelings of the living. In a letter to Mr. Murray, dated Jan. 2, 1817, Lord Byron says, “On this day two years I married:—‘Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.’” And again, speaking of his excitement during the writing of Childe Harold, “I should many a good day have blown my brains out, but for the recollection that it would have given pleasure to my mother-in-law; and even then, if I could have been certain to haunt her.”

The following passage of a letter to Mr. Murray was said, by Mr. Gifford, to contain more good sense, feeling, and judgment, than any other he ever read, or Lord Byron wrote:

“With regard to poetry in general, I am convinced, the more I think of it, that he and all of us—Scott, Southey, Wordsworth, Moore, Campbell, I,—are all in the wrong, one as much as another; that we are upon a wrong revolutionary poetical system, or systems, not worth a damn in itself, and from which none but Rogers and Crabbe are free; and that the present and next generations will finally be of this opinion. I am the more confirmed in this, by having lately gone over some of our classics, particularly Pope, whom I tried in this way:—I took Moore’s poems, and my own and some others, and went over them side by side with Pope’s, and I was really astonished (I ought not to have been so) and mortified at the ineffable distance, in point of sense, learning, effect, and even imagination, passion, and invention, between the little Queen Anne’s man and us of the Lower Empire. Depend upon it, it is all Horace then, and Claudian now, among us; and if I had to begin again, I would mould myself accordingly. Crabbe’s the man, but he has got a coarse and impracticable subject; and * * * is retired upon half pay, and has done enough, unless he were to do as he did formerly.”

In speaking of Don Juan, Mr. Moore uses the following language, and it is, upon the whole, a faithful description of that monument of misapplied talent. The phrase “in many respects” occurs twice, and serves to soften down the darker shadowing which truth would have laid on the picture.

“It was at this time, as we shall see by the letters I am about to produce, and as the features indeed of the progeny itself would hut too plainly indicate, that he conceived, and wrote some part of his poem of “Don Juan,” and never did pages more faithfully, and, in many respects, lamentably reflect every variety of feeling, and whim, and passion, that, like the rack of autumn, swept across the author’s mind in writing them. Nothing less, indeed, than that singular combination of attributes, which existed and were in full activity in his mind at this moment, could have suggested, or been capable of the execution of such a work. The cool shrewdness of age, with the vivacity and glowing temperament of youth—the wit of a Voltaire, with the sensibility of a Rousseau—the minute, practical knowledge, of the man of society, with the abstract and self-contemplative spirit of the poet—a susceptibility of all that is grandest and most affecting in human virtue, with a deep withering experience of all that is most fatal to it—the two extremes, in short, of man’s mixed and inconsistent nature—now rankly smelling of earth, now breathing of heaven,—such was the strange assemblage of contrary elements, all meeting together in the same mind, and all brought to bear, in turn, upon the same task, from which alone could have sprung this extraordinary poem—the must powerful, and, in many respects, painful display of the versatility of genius, that has ever been left for succeeding ages to wonder at and deplore.”

The account of the visit paid to Lord Byron by Mr. Moore, is not the least entertaining portion of the volume.
Review.—Moore’s Life of Byron.67
Would that there were more of such matter.

Lord Byron’s intercourse with Mr. Shelley, Mr. Hunt, &c. has been amply detailed in the volume which the latter gentleman gave to the world soon after Lord Byron’s death; an injury which has been amply revenged by the publication of Lord Byron’s letters. “Amicitia nisi inter bonos esse non potest,” says Cicero, and we see no reason to doubt the truth of this assertion in any of the friendships of this nobleman—there was connection, but no union.

It is consolatory to reflect, that the brightest epoch of Lord Byron’s life was the last. It is impossible to peruse the memoir of his disinterested services in the cause of Greece without the liveliest sympathy. Something perhaps of that love of excitement by which his life was governed, may have had a share in his efforts in that quarter; but there was a consistency in his conduct, which leaves no doubt of his sincerity, and to this cause he devoted the best energies of his heart, his fortune, and his life. It is in reading this record of his services, that we feel the deepest regret for the narrative that precedes it. It is now, we find, what great and good things he might hare effected for himself, his country, and the world, had he been restrained by the early guidance of moral discipline, and been persuaded of the high purposes for which his stupendous talents were bestowed. But we must not be betrayed, by our admiration of the heroic qualities displayed by him on this new theatre of action, into an amnesty with unrepented sin. We admire his undaunted courage, his generous devotion, his disinterested ambition. We cannot read of his personal sacrifices for the cause of liberty, without the respect that is due to all he did and all he suffered; but there is a hand-writing against him, which the moralist cannot blot out—it is, unhappily, stamped on the pages of his immortal works; and it would be revived, if even it could have been forgotten in the pages through which we have toiled, with the mingled feelings of admiration, and pity, and disgust.

But we must conclude. The more we read of this extraordinary man, whether in the history of his habits, his recorded conversations, his opinions and connexions, or in the ponderous collection of his letters now before us, the stronger is our conviction, that he was wholly destitute of any settled principle of virtuous feeling, or of love for his fellow-creatures. Like Sterne, he had sentiment at his fingers’ ends, but he had nothing of the reality in his heart. He was the Timon of his country, and his day; but he outdid the Grecian misanthrope, by adding a legacy of posthumous venom to the poison he had circulated in his life. Though dead, he is made by his Biographer the agent of deeper mischief, and an unholy gain is attempted to be made of a correspondence which ought never to have seen the light. It is to the honour of Mr. Hobhouse that he has withheld the letters addressed to him. He has shewn himself worthy of the eulogy bestowed on his friendship by Lord Byron, in the dedication of his finest poem; and he has increased his title to the respect of the good, by the suppression of every thing that could add to the obloquy which this and similar publications have heaped upon the tomb of his friend. In this delinquency he has had no share.

We will not apply to the editor of this volume the strong language of Johnson on the conduct of Mallet, in, the publication of the works of Bolingbroke. We are quite sure that it is a production on which Mr. Moore will never look with pleasure, and which we suspect its publisher does not now view with much complacency.

An useful volume might be written on literary ethics, for the guidance and direction of authors, editors, and publishers. There is a cold and calculating spirit, tainting the literature of the present day, and debasing all that is noble in the exertions of intellect. A vile huckstering feeling is abroad, overlaying much that is generous and high-minded; the puniest appetite is more consulted than the cultivation of the understanding; and the Temple of Learning, like the Temple of the Jews, is profaned by the seat of the mean and the mercenary, who, dead to glory, only burn for gold.