LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Leigh Hunt
Lord Byron and Mr. Leigh Hunt.
Morning Chronicle  No. 18,210  (25 January 1828)
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The Morning Chronicle.

Number 18,210.] LONDON, FRIDAY,  JANUARY  25,  1828. [Price Sevenpence.


Sir, I must trouble you once more on the subject of the partial extracts from my book, which have given rise to so much misconception.A person for whom I have great respect (and whose name I enclose for your private knowledge), has sent me a message by a kinsman, informing me, that from one of the passages of those extracts, a conclusion has been drawn by some, that I meant to charge Lord Byron with “cowardice.” My informant does not see the passage in the same light himself. He does not suppose that I meant it to be so construed. But such, he tells me, is the impression with some; and he accordingly recommends me to cancel it in the next edition.

I cannot do that—desirous as I should be of falling in with the least intimations of the person in question. But I can add a note, referring to the letter which I am now writing, and which shall appear at the end of the book, and I can explain myself on the subject in the mean time. I will quote the passage, that it may not be taken by any that have not seen it, for more than it is. Furthermore, a previous paragraph or two shall be added, that the quotation may not tell more against his Lordship in any respect, than was intended. The passage alluded to is in the second part of what follows:—

Mr. Shelley said of him (Lord B.) that he never made you laugh to your own content. This, however, was said latterly, after my friend had been disappointed by a close intimacy. Mr. Shelley’s opinion of his natural powers, in every respect, was great; and there is reason to believe, that Lord Byron never talked with any man to so much purpose as he did with him. He looked upon him as his most admiring listener, and probably was never less under the influence of affectation. If he could have got rid of this and his title, he would have talked like a man; not like a mere man of the town, or a great spoilt schoolboy. It is not to be concluded, that his jokes were not now and then very happy; or that admirers of his Lordship, who paid him visits, did not often go away more admiring. I am speaking of his conversation in general, and of the impression it made upon you, compared with what was to be expected from a man of wit and experience.

“He had a delicate white hand, of which he was proud; and he attracted attention to it by rings. He thought a hand of this description almost the only mark remaining now-a-days of a gentleman; of which it certainly is not, nor of a lady either; though a coarse one implies handiwork. He often appeared holding a handkerchief, upon which his jewelled fingers lay imbedded, as in a picture. He was as fond of fine linen, as a quaker; and had the remnant of his hair oiled and trimmed with all the anxiety of a Sardanapalus.

“The visible character to which this effeminacy gave rise appears to have indicated itself as early as his travels in the Levant, where the Grand Signior is said to have taken him for a woman in disguise. But he had tastes of a more masculine description. He was fond of swimming to the last, and used to push out to a good distance in the Gulf of Genoa. He was also, as I have before mentioned, a good horseman; & he liked to have a great dog or two about him, which is not a habit observable in timid men. Yet I doubt greatly whether he was a man of courage. I suspect that personal anxiety, coming upon a constitution unwisely treated, had no small hand in hastening his death in Greece. The story of his bold behaviour at sea in a voyage to Sicily, and of Mr. Shelley’s timidity, is just reversing what I conceive would have been the real state of the matter, had the voyage taken place. The account is an impudent fiction. Nevertheless, he volunteered voyages by sea, when he might have eschewed them; and yet the same man never got into a coach without being afraid. In short, he was the contradiction his father and mother had made him.”

John Wilson, in Review of Hunt

I feel bound, Sir, to make some observations on this passage, though as far as itself is concerned, I would rather leave it to the reflection of your readers. I would only repeat, that [in] this, as in any other instance, be the opinion of a passage [what] it may, no final judgment ought to be formed of what is extracted, and of the spirit in which it was written, without [an] acquaintance with the book itself. It will then be seen, if I am not mistaken, that whatever may have been my doubts on this matter, they applied only to the latter part of Lord Byron’s life, and to what he had made himself by an unwise treatment of his constitution; for effeminacy is, in itself, no disproof of the existence of courage. Cæsar himself began with being a dandy, and with scratching the top of his head with the tip of one of his fingers, that he might not displace the curls.* But if Cæsar had been a poet as well as a man of pleasure, and circumstances had led him into a sedentary mode of life, it would not have been easy to say what the crucifier of the pirates would have become, under the united influence of pleasure and pain, of illness and imagination. Indeed, Sir, now that I call to mind one thing about Lord Byron, as I write this very passage, and think what even his lame foot might have done to injure the “energetic” person I have described in a former part of my book, I am forced to use a very strong word (truth must help me out with it); but I feel as if I ought to blush for not having secreted my doubts on this point. There was, at all events, no necessity to mention them. I might fairly have let them remain among other things, which I did not think it warrantable to speak of. Others may even know him to be a man of courage; and I have nothing to oppose to their knowledge. But Lord Byron has been so treated in all quarters, as a man of whom every thing was to be said—gifting him, as it were, with the privileges of an ancient, and making the least thing in his character, bad or good, a matter of dispassionate or rather passionate curiosity, that a biographer is involuntarily led to speculate more upon him than he would upon another person; and I trust, whatever my spleen may have been sometimes, it is not very visible in the passages here quoted, and that the reader will do me the justice of supposing that the ardour of my portrait-painting was upon me, more than any other feeling.

After all, Sir, my doubt was only a doubt, however strongly expressed. I express doubts on the other side; I sum up all by saying that he was a “contradiction;” and the instances I put, on either side, apply only to physical courage. If I doubt whether circumstances had left him enough of this to hinder him from becoming a victim to a state of protracted anxiety, exasperated by illness, and if have too good reason to know that he wanted moral courage enough to face a part of society upon certain points, I doubt not, that at any time of life, he had quite sufficient to obey the calls of his favourite impulses, and to dare any thing for their sake, as long as he could have been kept in action; and this perhaps, in sedentary and sophisticated times like the present, is as much many men would require to be conceded them. Above all, Sir, I pretend to little more myself; and only to that more, as far as endurance is concerned, and inasmuch as the circumstances of my life have led me to have greater views of what ought to be endured for mankind. With regard to physical courage, I lay claim, in some respects, to less than I have attributed to Lord Byron. If the readers who have formed that judgment of me solely by the partial extracts, had seen my book, they would have there found how little I make pretensions to the reverse. In a family of men remarkable for their bravery, I am in that respect the only timid person. Delicacy of organization, anxious rearing by a mother whose health had been shattered by adversity, a life studious, yet full of emotion, and cares and illnesses of no common sort, have forced me to confess to myself, on more than one occasion, that if I had no courage but what resulted from health and complexion, I should be at the mercy of every fear that came across me. I have great animal spirits, subject, during ill health, to as great incursions of melancholy; but as the former mount up at the least aspect of happiness, so a dread or a tender thought would bring in the latter to unman me on graver occasions, if I had not learnt the art of strengthening myself by my very sympathies, and enlarging them till the crowd supported me. The first incursions of danger alarm and perplex me. After a morning’s writing I shall occasionally be so sensitive (you will excuse these personal details, considering the origin of them), that my fingers’ ends will tremble as if I had been a sot; and my head has been so tried altogether, that I sometimes cannot bear the pressure of a hand upon it. When I was at sea, not living very wisely, and having my imagination softened and detained in embrace by some peculiar circumstances, I felt as if I grew with fragile uneasiness. After this, Sir, it may be permitted me to say, nevertheless, that owing to some opinions I entertain, I have great moral courage. I trust I have given more than one proof of it in the course of my life; and I cannot conceive the case in which my sense of what was due to a generous notion of right and justice could be put to the test, and anything induce me to desert it. Enable me only to identify myself with the common good, and allow me a pale face and a little reflection, and I have thoughts that would support me under any hazard, moral or personal.

Nevertheless, Sir, I felt so strongly the delicacy of the [way] I had written, in these and many other respects, and [was] anxious not be looked upon as claiming merit to myself, [in] contrast with any thing I had said of others, that if my [book]seller had not put a delay upon it in the first instance, [the] readers of the first edition of my work would have seen a [con]vincing proof of my earnestness on that point, in what I [had] called “An Attempt of the Author to estimate his own [Charac]ter.” In this, I had spoken to the very point before us, [in a] way more startling than that in which I have mentioned [Lord] Byron, and such as upon second thoughts I thought fit [not] to publish at the moment, nor retain altogether. It might [have] done me an injustice. But the substance of it you have [been] reading; and the remainder of the Estimate will appear, [to]gether with this Letter, at the end of the Second Edition [forth]coming; both of them, I trust, containing sufficient proof, [that] in being led by circumstances to draw the mixed character [of] other men, I was not inclined to spare my own. It was a [thought] that had more pain in it, than any reputation of candour [could] pay me for, short of the considerations I have mentioned, [that] of the good, I think, which sincerity would do the world; [and] though I concede always, that some reserve of the [self-love] with which nature has kindly endowed us, is to be found [at the] bottom of the nicest self-inspections, and that others [may] know me better than myself even from my admissions, it [would] be a very difficult thing to persuade me, that my love of [truth] has not a great deal of humanity in it, and that I am [as] ready to think the best of what is good in an enemy, as to [resist] confounding it with what is ill and unhandsome.—I am, [Sir] with many apologies for this long and personal letter, [your] obliged and sincere servant,

* You recollect the picture Cicero gives of him, as he called him to mind at that time of life; adding his astonishment, that such a person should have subverted the Roman Empire.