LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
[Southey, Byron, and Shelley].
Globe and Traveller  No. 6876  (14 December 1824)
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The Globe & Traveller.

No. 6876. TUESDAY EVENING, DECEMBER 14, 1824. Price 7d.

We give in another part of our Paper two specimens of epistolary eloquence, which have other claims to be classed together besides the simultaneousness of their appearances. The one is from a correspondence published by the Rev. A. Fletcher, in elucidation of his conduct in relation to his promise of marriage to Miss Dick. The writer is the Rev. Gentleman’s sister. The other is from the pen of Mr. Robert Southey, the Poet Laureat, on Lord Byron’s Conversations.

Both these specimens are striking instances of the rage which sometimes is engendered in gentle breasts, and so nearly equal in acerbity, that it is difficult to say whether the palm should be awarded to Miss Jean or Master Robert. We must indeed say, as it was said of Philo and Plato of old, either the spinster writeth as a Laureate, or the Laureate writeth as a spinster. Both parties lay claim—making allowance for the difference of their communications—to an equal degree of christian charity, and both present equal illustrations of their practical notions of this virtue.

Robert Southey, Mr. Southey and Lord Byron

The following passage (we deem it but justice to say it is not from the lady) is, though too fierce, very amusing:—

“It might have been thought that Lord Byron had attained the last degree of disgrace, when his head was set up for a sign at one of those preparatory schools for the brothel and the gallows, where obscenity, sedition, and blasphemy, are retailed in drams for the vulgar. There remained one further shame—there remained this exposure of his Private Conversations, &c. &c.”

J. and R. Hunt, Dr. Southey and Lord Byron

What preparatory school this is we have not knowledge enough of such places to say; but we must remonstrate against a political injustice of a tendency so injurious to the character of all illustrious personages. Somebody, it seems, has set up Lord Byron’s head over a gin-shop, with which the Laureate is acquainted, and the Bard makes his defunct satirist answerable for every enormity which is committed under the sign! Would Mr. Southey think it just to be made answerable for the vice of gambling, if any one had set his likeness upon the knave of spades? or would he deem it loyal to say of that gracious Sovereign from whom he receives his annual sack-butt, “I should have thought it a sufficient disgrace to the Monarch of the first empire of the world, to have his head set up as a sign over houses adapted for the consumption of gin, and the furtherance of profane swearing, and even for worse purposes?”

Lord Byron seems to have delighted, while living, to dash the Laureate with those scurvy expressions that bards are wont to pelt one another withal for the public amusement; and though few people would think better or worse of Mr. Southey because Lord Byron called him the “mouthiest of the mouthy,” or addressed him—
“Bob, take the butt and be a butt thyself.”
It was undoubtedly lawful for him to be very angry. There are some assertions, too, in
Medwin’s Conversations, injurious to Mr. Southey’s moral character, which he was perhaps called on to contradict (and he does contradict them in a manner which carries evidence of his veracity), but why, oh! why now Lord Byron has been nine months dead, should the gentle Bard rave so furiously? Surely he has not the vanity to suppose that posthumous fame, at least, is to be affected by his nick-names.

Robert Southey, Mr. Southey and Lord Byron

There is one passage—a note, which shows that though the Laureate has had time enough to compose it, his letter is rather a violent eruption of spleen, than a digested composition. The passage is this: “In the Preface to his Monody on Keats, Shelley, as I have been informed, asserts, that I was the author of the criticism in the Quarterly Review, upon that young man’s poems, and that his death was occasioned by it. There was a degree of meanness in this, (especially considering the temper and tenour of our correspondence), which I was not then prepared to expect from Shelley, for that he believed me to be the author of that paper, I certainly do not believe. He was once, for a short time, my neighbour. I met him upon terms, not of friendship indeed, but, certainly, of mutual good will. I admired his talents; thought that he would outgrow his errors (perilous as they were), and trusted that, meantime, a kind and generous heart would resist the effect of fatal opinions which he had taken up in ignorance and boyhood. Herein I was mistaken,” &c. &c.

Why did not Southey, if he thought it worth while to found upon his information against Shelley, take some little pains to ascertain that it was correct? Shelley asserts no such thing; the passage in his Preface to the Elegy is this:—

“The genius of the lamented person to whose memory I have dedicated these unworthy verses, was not less delicate and fragile than it was beautiful; and where canker-worms abound, what wonder if its young flower was blighted in the bud? The savage criticism on his Endymion, which appeared in the Quarterly Review, produced the most violent effect on his susceptible mind; the agitation thus originated ended in the rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs; a rapid consumption ensued, and the succeeding acknowledgments from more candid critics, of the true greatness of his powers, were ineffectual to heal the wound thus violently inflicted.

“It may be well said that these wretched men know not what they do. They scatter their insults and their slanders without heed as to whether the poisoned shaft lights on a heart made callous by many blows, or one like Keats’s, composed of more penetrable stuff. One of their associates is, to my knowledge, a base and unprincipled calumniator. As to Endymion, was it a poem, whatever its defects, to be treated contemptuously by those who had celebrated with various degrees of complacency and panegyric, ‘Paris,’ and ‘Woman,’ and a ‘Syrian Tale,’ and Mrs. Lefanu, and Mr. Barret, and Mr. Howard Payne, and a long list of the illustrious obscure? Are these the men who, in their venal good-nature, presume to draw a parallel between the Rev. Mr. Millman and Lord Byron? What gnat did they strain at here, after swallowing all those camels? Against what woman taken in adultery dares the foremost of these literary prostitutes to cast his opprobrious stone? Miserable man! you, one of the meanest, have wantonly defaced one of the noblest specimens of the workmanship of God. Nor shall it be your excuse, that, murderer as you are, you have spoken daggers, but used none."—(Adonais, an Elegy, &c., by P. B. Shelley, Pisa, 1821.)

Southey’s informant may have thought he recognized the Laureate under the title of “the foremost of literary prostitutes;” though Shelley, we have no doubt, never applied, or meant that others should apply the name to him. If his anger had not got the better of his judgment, Southey would have waited till he saw the “Elegy,” and thus avoided this unhappy exposure of the light in which some of his friends used to regard him.