LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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[William Jerden?]
Conversations on Religion with Lord Byron.
Literary Gazette  No. 701  (26 June 1830)  409-10.
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Conversations on Religion with Lord Byron. By the late James Kennedy, M.D. 8vo. pp. 461. London, 1830. Murray.

Every work that tends to throw light on Lord Byron's character is of great value; first, for the extreme interest of such a moral study; and secondly, (if it be possible to force on people the conviction drawn from the writer's experience), for placing in the strongest point of view, the folly, not to say cruelty, of harsh judgment, founded half on your own imaginary premises, and half on the mere gossip of the day, which is generally false, and always spiteful—false from its love of the marvellous, and spiteful from that consolation our own faults seem to derive from those of others. Literary fame has always been purchased at a dear price; genius has either had to complain of poverty and neglect, or of envy and misrepresentation—the leaves of the laurel may be; given, “but the trail of the serpent is over them all.” And in the present day especially, the successful writer has to suffer under the false verdict of incompetent judges, or the still falser of interested ones; the feelings he avows are denied or misconstrued, those he conceals brought forward for reproach or ridicule; and while we grudge, hesitate, and refute, aught that is mentioned as praiseworthy, there is nothing too improbable for belief when it requires blame. Lord Byron's life is perhaps as discouraging a specimen of literary fame as ever gave a warning, and in vain; it began, and it ended, in bitterness. It is curious to observe how little the Edinburgh Review has led public opinion in respect to works of imagination: our principal poets have made their way in opposition to the critical judgment which pronounced sentence of death on their efforts; Wordsworth, Montgomery, Coleridge, &c., were alike jeered and run down; but no one now denies their poetical pre-eminence. Keen, lively, logical, French in his philosophy and its brilliancy of expression, Jeffrey had neither feeling nor imagination strongly developed in himself, and was therefore, by nature, incapable of doing justice to these qualities in others; and when his praise was given, it was in a spirit of nationality or private friendship. The effects of sarcasm, bitter, personal, and crushing, beyond what could ever be called for by a slight volume of youthful poems,—for we hold, that the critic will not err too much on the side of mercy, who takes a general tone of kindliness and encouragement towards the efforts of the young,—censure so contemptuous, must have cut deep, and left its scar in a mind conscious of its own high powers, such as Byron's certainly was. To his first successful defiance of public opinion, for such it was to him, in the English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, may, we think, be traced much of his recklessness of it in after life; that to defy was to subdue, became with him a principle. Our limits forbid us from entering into the details of his career; he was the spoilt child of society, to be afterwards punished for the very faults its indulgence had first sanctioned. Of all sins, vanity is the one which we owe most to others, and which they least forgive: an author is soon flattered into the personification of his own heroes; and it was a mere common love of exciting wonder, that made Lord Byron rather like that the mystery which hung round his creations should identify them with himself. But follies are always more severely visited than faults; and every crime he depicted, every expression of remorse, were soon considered to be his own: he had excited the imagination, and set it in array against himself. Among his many and dark offences, infidelity was most especially set forth for reprobation; and a species of warfare commenced between him and public opinion; and its various methods of expression were all directed to his mortification and annoyance. Much was, doubtless, said and written in the aggravation of the moment, which cooler judgment and less excited feeling would have avoided; and we cannot but think that Don Juan (the least defensible of his works) would, if written under less irritating circumstances, have rather avoided than sought occasions of unnecessary offence: if, as he himself asserts, he had a moral end in view, it was at least injudicious to begin by sneers at what was respectable to all, and, still more, sacred to so many of his readers. But let us first observe what the spirit of opposition effects in only the daily relations of quiet and domestic life, and thence allow for its effects in the exciting field of literature. And we do not think it taking too favourable a side, when we say that Lord Byron was originally a fine and noble nature: loving excellence more from impulse than judgment, variable in his opinions, from their being founded on impressions too keen and too impetuous to be lasting, he seems to have been generous, though hasty, and kind in feeling, though bad in temper. His temper was certainly bad—a key, we think, to much of his character, though too simple for general use; for who is not provoked to find that the meaning of a riddle is a very obvious one?

These Conversations shew Lord Byron in a very favourable point of view, giving his time, his thoughts, his fortune, in the hope of benefiting a cause he held to be both honourable and useful—beloved by his dependants, and facilitating, as much as lay in his power, the moral and religious instruction of those within his influence. Dr. Kennedy seems to have been a most well-meaning man—zealous, we must say, with little encouragement; for out of the five he begins with attempting to convert, not one of his efforts proved successful. We shall endeavour to extract those passages which throw the most light on Lord Byron's own opinions: they were elicited in the following manner:—

Dr. Kennedy says: “Before Byron came to Cephalonia, four officers had agreed to enter on the investigation of the doctrines of Christi-anity; Byron heard of it, and wished to be present. I had seven or eight meetings at which he was not present; and I had seven or eight meetings with Byron alone.”

Indecision, rather than unbelief, is represented as the pervading feature of his mind: witness a passage in one of Count Gamba's letters.

“In my opinion, the sentiments of his lordship on religion were not fixed, that is, he was not held more to one religious and Christian sect than another; but his profound sentiments were religious, and he professed a deep respect for the doctrines of Jesus Christ, as the source of virtue and felicity. With respect to the recondite mysteries of faith, his mind was involved in doubts, which, however, he had a desire to dissipate as troublesome, and on this account he never shunned conversations on this subject, as you well know. I have had occasion to observe him often in those situations in which the most involuntary and most sincere sentiments of the mind are unfolded,—in serious danger of the stormy sea, or otherwise in the contemplation of a tine and tranquil night of summer—and in the midst of a solitude—and I have observed his emotions and his thoughts to be deeply tinctured with religion. The first time that I had a conversation with him on this subject was at Ravenna, my native country, about four years ago, while we were riding on horseback in an extensive, solitary wood of pines. The scene invited to religious meditation. It was a fine day in spring. ‘How,’ he said, ‘raising our eyes to heaven, or directing them to the earth, can we doubt of the existence of God?—or how, turning them to what is within us, can we doubt that there is something within us more noble and more durable than the clay of which we are formed? Those who do not hear, or are unwilling to listen to those feelings, must necessarily be of a vile nature.’”

Again, he observes: “‘Prayer does not consist in the act of kneeling, nor in repeating certain words in a solemn manner. Devotion is the affection of the heart, and this I feel; for when I view the wonders of creation, I bow to the Majesty of heaven; and when I feel the enjoyments of life, health, and happiness, I feel grateful to God for having bestowed these upon me.’”

The following dialogue is interesting, though it has only reference to his private feelings:—

“‘I have had letters from England,’ said Lord B., ‘which mention that Ada has been unwell,—she is now better. Her complaint was a determination of blood to the head: what is the cause of it at her age?’ ‘This depends on various causes, and I could not pretend to judge what the cause is in her case, unless I saw her.’ ‘Do you,’ asked he, ‘think that such a complaint is habitual?’ ‘No, it is not necessarily so,’ I replied. ‘It is curious,’ he answered, ‘that it is a complaint to which I myself am subject.’ ‘I could easily suppose so,’ I said, ‘from your mode of life, and habits of study,—irregular, but intense; and I think I could have inferred so from the state of your
eyes. Your right eye appears inflamed.’ ‘That is from having read a good deal of late; but it will easily be removed, when I remove the cause. Ada,’ he continued, ‘is, I understand, very fond of reading. She lies on the sofa great part of the day reading, and displays, perhaps, a premature strength of mind, and quickness of understanding.’ ‘I hope,’ I rejoined, ‘that her inclination for acquiring knowledge will not be pushed too far, to the injury of her health, or even to the exhaustion of her intellectual powers, as is too often done by foolish and fond parents.’ ‘I hope not,’ said Lord B.; ‘and I am sure that I can rely on
Lady B.'s judgment and discretion.’ ‘Do you know, my lord,’ I said, ‘that I hope ere long to see the day when your lordship will again be united to Lady B., and enjoy all the happiness of domestic life, instead of following your present wandering and unsettled state, so unsuitable to one of your rank and station.’ ‘What makes you think so? Have you had any private information?’ asked Lord B. ‘No,’ I replied; ‘I judge from circumstances, which I will mention, if they are not likely to offend your lordship.’ ‘By all means, tell ma what they are.’ ‘I judge from the style in which you spoke of Lady B., when we were talking of whom we would save, at a former conversation, that your affection for her is not extinguished by absence, nor by all that has happened; that, in fact, she is not indifferent to you.’ ‘If I said any thing disrespectful of Lady B., I am very much to blame. Lady B. deserves every respect from me, and certainly nothing could give me greater pleasure than a reconciliation.’ ‘With such sentiments, how is it possible that a separation has taken place, or how is it that a reunion cannot be effected? Under such circumstances, neither you nor she can be happy; and the cause must be singular which two persons of such rank and under standing cannot find out and remove.’ ‘I do not, indeed, know the cause of separation,’ said Lord B. ‘I know that many falsehoods have been spread abroad—such as my bringing actresses to my house—but they were all false. Lady B. left me without explaining the cause. I sent Hobhouse to her, who almost went on his knees, but in vain: and at length I wished to institute an action against her, that it might be seen what were her motives.’”

An anecdote here shews how painful were his feelings on the subject of his daughter. “One day Colonel D. rode out with Lord Byron, when an infant, from fright, fell: Lord B. got off his horse with great anxiety, and, raising it, took it to his arms: it was a soldier's child. He said, in a hurried manner, ‘I cannot hear to look at an English child; I am so reminded of my own, whom I have not seen for a long time.’”

Our next quotation depicts strongly the change front twenty to forty; but it is a change for the worse, when we learn to ridicule our own enthusiasm.

“‘You must have been highly gratified by the classical remains, and the classical recollections of Ithaca during your visit there,’ said Colonel D. ‘You quite mistake me,’ said Lord B.: ‘I have no poetical humbug about me; I am too old for that. Ideas of that sort are confined to rhyme. The people at home have very absurd notions of the Greeks, as if they were the Greeks of Homer's time. I have travelled through the country, and know the contrary. I have tried to remove these notions.’ He said he would do every thing for them, but would take no command. He added, ‘a Turk's word could always be depended on, but not a Greek's, if his interest were in ques-tion.’ Speaking of his intention to go to Constantinople to redeem some Greek captives which he promised to their families when he came from Genoa, Colonel D. dissuaded him from it on account of the danger. ‘Oh, the worst would be,’ he said, ‘they will put me in the Seven Towers, from which I do not think Strangford would release me: besides he is a poet, and two of a trade, you know—’ Speaking of Moore, he said: ‘He is, like all the fraternity, at present employed in writing heroic and patriotic songs in favour of the Spaniards or Greeks; the last work he has dedicated to himself.’ He said he would give his travels in the Morea to the world; but laughing, added, it would depend on the reception he met with, whether they should be written in the Childe Harold or the Don Juan style. When any one spoke finely, he used to say, ‘That will do very well for rhyme.’ Whether Homer lived or not, he said he did not know; ‘but we poets must swear by him.’ One night he was out at a gentleman's house; the weather was very hot, and he said when he went on board, that he would bathe. Some one expressed surprise that he should bathe at so late an hour. ‘Oh,’ said T. (a gentleman who from too great vivacity of imagination and thoughtlessness, exaggerated a little), ‘we were two hours in the water late last night.’ ‘Yes,’ said Lord B. emphatically, ‘by Shrewsbury clock.’ Dr —— when on board one evening, was narrating to his lordship some wonderful act of legerdemain which he witnessed at Paris: Lord B. smiled. ‘You look incredulous, my lord,’ said the doctor. ‘No, not all,’ replied Lord B.; ‘where is T.? I dare say he saw the same thing.’”

“When they were disputing about the motto for the Greek telegraph (the first having given offence to many), Lord B. insisted that the old one should not he retained. Count G. entered one day, and said, ‘Pray, my lord, what motto shail we have?’ Lord B. pettishly replied, ‘Foolishness to the Greeks.’”

“Colonel D. took up a book, which was the English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. ‘You need not look at this,’ said D.; ‘it is your own.’ ‘This book did me a great deal of harm,’ replied his lordship; ‘I lost a great number of friends who have never forgiven me.’ ‘It is the best you ever wrote.’ ‘Why,’ said Lord B., ‘I published a few silly songs, written when I was young; and when the reviewers treated me so severely, I wished to shew them that I would not put up with their insolence so tamely as they expected. But one thing I regret very much in this book, is what I wrote of Lord Carlisle. I am sorry for it.’ Colonel D. mentioned the Quarterly Review on his Coin. ‘Oh, you should read the Edinburgh Quarterly—this gives it much sharper; for though on my own side, it is always hardest against me.’ One day, when talking of one of his aunts whom the colonel knew, he said, ‘We have been an unfortunate family; none of us have come to any good.’ The colonel said, ‘He hoped to see him a Methodist yet, though he regretted that in the interval much time was lost, as his lordship should now be writing some beautiful hymns.’ ‘When I do become one,’ he replied, ‘I shall not be a lukewarm Christian.’

Speaking of Shelley, he mentioned that “he was cool in his manner; yet impassioned, animated, and eloquent, in his conversation, I was much amused with him and another gentleman’ (he mentioned the name, but I forget it); ‘one was a Platonist, the other was not; and, after long arguments, they converted each other.”

We have not entered into the detail of the purely religious conversations: Lord Byron's objections seem to have been much founded on matters of feeling; as, for example, where he says—“one of the greatest difficulties which he had met with, and which he could not overcome, was the existence of so much pure and unmixed evil in the world as he had witnessed; and which he could not reconcile to the idea of a benevolent Creator. He added, that wherever he had been, he had found vice and misery predominant; and that real happiness and virtue were rarely, if ever, to be seen. He had made it, he said, his business to converse with, and inquire into, the history of many wretched and deformed creatures with whom he had met; and he generally found their history a record of unvarying misery from their very birth. ‘How had these offended their Creator, to be thus subjected to misery? and why do they live and die in this wretched state, most of them without the Gospel being preached to them, and apart from the happiness which it is said to produce? And of what use are they in this world? Many are constantly suffering under bodily evils and pains; many are suffering from the constant pressure of poverty; many are doomed to incessant toil and labour, immersed in ignorance and superstition, and neither having time nor capacity to read the Bible, even if it were presented to them.’”

We leave these pages, observing that there is matter for the most serious meditation in their contents; and only pronounce judgment on the opinions they controvert, and the extraordinary individual they bring forward, in the beautiful lines of Southey:

“Oh, what are we,
That we should sit in judgment man on man?
And what were we, frail creatures an we are,
If the All-merciful should mete to us
With the same rigorous measure wherewithal
Sinner to sinner metes?”