LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Countess of Blessington
Journal of Conversations with Lord Byron. No. XI.
New Monthly Magazine  Vol. NS 39  (December 1833)  414-422.
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DECEMBER 1, 1833.



There are two blessings of which people never know the value until they have lost them, (said Byron,) health and reputation. And not only is their loss destructive to our own happiness, but injurious to the peace and comfort of our friends. Health seldom goes without temper accompanying it; and, that fled, we become a burden on the patience of those around us, until dislike replaces pity and forbearance. Loss of reputation entails still greater evils. In losing caste, deservedly or otherwise, (continued Byron,) we become reckless and misanthropic: we cannot sympathize with those, from whom we are separated by the barrier of public opinion, and pride becomes the scorpion, girt by fire, that turns on our own breasts the sting prepared for our enemies. Shakspeare says, that it is a bitter thing to look into happiness through another man’s eyes; and this must he do, (said Byron) who has lost his reputation. Nay, rendered nervously sensitive by the falseness of his position, he sees, or fancies he sees, scorn or avoidance in the eyes of all he encounters; and, as it is well known that we are never so jealous of the respect of others as when we have forfeited our own, every mark of coldness or disrespect he meets with arouses a host of angry feelings that prey upon his peace. Such a man is to be feared (continued Byron); and yet how many such have the world made! how many errors have not slander and calumny magnified into crimes of the darkest die! and, malevolence and injustice having set the condemned seal on the reputation of him who has been judged without a trial, he is driven without the pale of society, a sense of injustice rankling in his heart; and if his hand be not against each man, the hand, or at least the tongue, of each man is against him. The genius and powers of such a man (continued Byron) act but as fresh incitements to the unsated malice of his calumniators; and the fame they win is but as the flame that consumes the funeral pile, whose blaze attracts attention to the substance that feeds it. Mediocrity is to be desired for those who lose caste, because if it gains not pardon for errors, it sinks them into oblivion. But genius (continued Byron) reminds the enemies of its possessor of his existence, and of their injustice. They are enraged that he, on whom they heaped obloquy can surmount it, and elevate himself on new ground, where their malice cannot obstruct his path.”

It was impossible not to see that his own position had led Byron to these reflections; and on observing the changes in his expressive countenance while uttering them, who could resist pitying the morbid feelings which had given them birth? The milk and honey that flowed in his breast has been turned into gall by the bitterness with which his errors have been assailed; but even now, so much of human kindness remains in his nature, that I am persuaded the effusions of wounded pride which embody themselves in the biting satires that escape from him are more productive of pain to him who writes, than to those on whom they are written. Knowing Byron as I do, I could forgive the most cutting satire his pen ever traced, because I know the bitter feelings and violent reaction which led to it; and that, in thus avenging some

* Concluded from No. CLI. p. 315
real or imagined injury on individuals, he looks on them as a part of that great whole, of which that world which he has waged war with, and that he fancies has waged war with him, is composed. He looks on himself like a soldier in action, who, without any individual resentment, strikes at all within his reach, as component parts of the force to which he is opposed. If this be indefensible, and all must admit that it is so, let us be merciful even while we are condemning; and let us remember what must have been the heart-aches and corroding thoughts of a mind so sensitive as Byron’s, ere the last weapons of despair were resorted to, and the fearful sally, the forlorn, hope attack, on the world’s opinions, made while many of those opinions had partisans within his own breast, even while he stood in the last breach of defeated hope, to oppose them. The poison in which he has dipped the arrows aimed at the world has long been preying on his own life, and has been produced by the deleterious draughts administered by that world, and which he has quaffed to the dregs, until it has turned the once healthful current of his existence into deadly venom, poisoning all the fine and generous qualities that adorned his nature. He feels what he might have been, and what he is, and detests the world that has marred his destiny. But, as the passions lose their empire, he will think differently: the veil which now obscures his reason will pass away, like clouds dispelled by the sun; he will learn to distinguish much of good, where he has hitherto seen only evil; and no longer braving the world, and, to enrage it, assuming faults he has not, he will let the good qualities he has, make themselves known, and gain that good will and regard they were formed to conciliate.

“I often, in imagination, pass over a long lapse of years, (said Byron,) and console myself for present privations, in anticipating the time when my daughter will know me by reading my works; for, though the hand of prejudice may conceal my portrait from her eyes, it cannot hereafter conceal my thoughts and feelings, which will talk to her when he to whom they belonged has ceased to exist. The triumph will then be mine; and the tears that my child will drop over expressions wrung from me by mental agony,—the certainty that she will enter into the sentiments which dictated the various allusions to her and myself in my works,—consoles me in many a gloomy hour. Ada’s mother has feasted on the smiles of her infancy and growth, but the tears of her maturity shall be mine.”

I thought it a good opportunity to represent to Byron, that this thought alone should operate to prevent his ever writing a page that could bring the blush of offended modesty to the cheek of his daughter; and that, if he hoped to live in her heart, unsullied by aught that could abate her admiration, he ought never more to write a line of Don Juan. He remained silent for some minutes, and then said, “You are right; I never recollected this. I am jealously tenacious of the undivided sympathy of my daughter; and that work, (Don Juan,) written to beguile hours of tristesse and wretchedness, is well calculated to loosen my hold on her affection. I will write no more of it;—would that I had never written a line!“

There is something tender and beautiful in the deep love with which poor Byron turns to his daughter. This is his last resting-place, and on her heart has he cast his last anchor of hope. When one reflects that he looks not to consolation from her during his life, as he believes her mother implacable, and only hopes that, when the grave has closed
over him, his child will cherish his memory, and weep over his misfortunes, it is impossible not to sympathize with his feelings. Poor Byron! why is he not always true to himself? Who can, like him, excite sympathy, even when one knows him to be erring? But he shames one out of one’s natural and better feelings by his mockery of self. Alas!
“His is a lofty spirit, turn’d aside
From its bright path by woes, and wrongs, and pride;
And onward in its new, tumultuous course,
Borne with too rapid and intense a force
To pause one moment in the dread career,
And ask—if such could be its native sphere?”

How unsatisfactory is it to find one’s feelings with regard to Byron varying every day! This is because he is never two days the same. The day after he has awakened the deepest interest, his manner of scoffing at himself and others destroys it, and one feels as if one had been duped into a sympathy, only to be laughed at.

“I have been accused (said Byron) of thinking ill of women. This has proceeded from my sarcastic observations on them in conversation, much more than from what I have written. The fact is, I always say whatever comes into my head, and very often say things to provoke people to whom I am talking. If I meet a romantic person, with what I call a too exalted opinion of women, I have a peculiar satisfaction in speaking lightly of them; not out of pique to your sex, but to mortify their champion; as I always conclude, that when a man overpraises women, he does it to convey the impression of how much they must have favored him, to have won such gratitude towards them; whereas there is such an abnegation of vanity in a poor devil’s decrying women—it is such a proof positive that they never distinguished him that I can overlook it. People take for gospel all I say, and go away continually with false impressions. Mais n’importe! it will render the statements of my future biographers more amusing; as I flatter myself I shall have more than one. Indeed, the more the merrier, say I. One will represent me as a sort of sublime misanthrope, with moments of kind feeling. This, par example, is my favorite rôle. Another will portray me as a modern Don Juan; and a third (as it would be hard if a votary of the Muses had less than the number of the Graces for his biographers) will, it is to be hoped, if only for opposition sake, represent me as an amiable, ill-used gentleman, ‘more sinned against than sinning.’ Now, if I know myself, I should say, that I have no character at all. By the by, this is what has long been said, as I lost mine, as an Irishman would say, before I had it. That is to say, my reputation was gone according to the good-natured English, before I had arrived at years of discretion, which is the period one is supposed to have found one. But, joking apart, what I think of myself is, that I am so changeable, being every thing by turns and nothing long,—I am such a strange mélange of good and evil, that it would be difficult to describe me. There are but two sentiments to which I am constant,—a strong love of liberty, and a detestation of cant, and neither is calculated to gain me friends. I am of a wayward, uncertain disposition, more disposed to display the defects than the redeeming points in my nature: this, at least proves that I understand mankind, for they are always ready to believe the evil, but not the good; and there is no crime of
which I could accuse myself, for which they would not give me implicit credit. What do you think of me?” (asked he, looking seriously in my face.)

I replied, “I look on you as a spoilt child of genius, an epicycle in your own circle.” At which he laughed, though half disposed to be angry.

“I have made as many sacrifices to liberty (continued Byron) as most people of my age; and the one I am about to undertake is not the least, though, probably, it will be the last; for, with my broken health, and the chances of war, Greece will most likely terminate my mortal career. I like Italy, its climate, its customs, and above all its freedom from cant of every kind, which is the primum mobile of England; therefore it is no slight sacrifice of comfort to give up the tranquil life I lead here, and break through the ties I have formed, to engage in a cause, for the successful result of which I have no very sanguine hopes. You will think me more superstitious than ever (said Byron) when I tell you, that I have a presentiment that I shall die in Greece; I hope it may be in action, for that would be a good finish to a very triste existence, and I have a horror to death-bed scenes; but as I have not been famous for my luck in life, most probably I shall not have more in the manner of my death, and that I may draw my last sigh, not on the field of glory, but on the bed of disease. I very nearly died when I was in Greece in my youth; perhaps as things have turned out, it would have been well if I had; I should have lost nothing, and the world very little, and I would have escaped many cares, for God knows I have had enough of one kind or another; but I am getting gloomy, and looking either back or forward is not calculated to enliven me. One of the reasons why I quiz my friends in conversation is, that it keeps me from thinking of myself. You laugh, but it is true.”

Byron had so unquenchable a thirst for celebrity, that no means were left untried that might attain it: this frequently led to his expressing opinions totally at variance with his actions and real sentiments, and vice versâ, and made him appear quite inconsistent and puerile. There was no sort of celebrity that he did not, at some period or other, condescend to seek, and he was not over nice in the means, provided he obtained the end. This weakness it was that led him to accord his society to many persons whom he thought unworthy the distinction, fancying that he might find a greater facility in astonishing them, which he had a childish propensity to do, than with those who were more on an equality with him. When I say persons that he thought unworthy of his society, I refer only to their stations in life, and not to their merits, as the first was the criterion by which Byron was most prone to judge them, never being able to conquer the overweening prejudices in favour of aristocracy that subjugated him. He expected a deferential submission to his opinions from those whom he thought he honoured by admitting to his society; and if they did not seem duly impressed with a sense of his condescension, as well as astonished at the versatility of his powers and accomplishments, he showed his dissatisfaction by assuming an air of superiority, and by opposing their opinions in a dictatorial tone, as if from his fiat there was no appeal. If, on the contrary, they appeared willing to admit his superiority in all respects, he was kind, playful, and good-humoured, and only showed his own sense of it by familiar jokes, and attempts at hoaxing, to which he was greatly addicted.


An extraordinary peculiarity in Byron was his constant habit of disclaiming friendships, a habit that must have been rather humiliating to those who prided themselves on being considered his friends. He invariably, in conversing about the persons supposed to stand in that relation to him, drew a line of demarcation, and Lord Clare, with Mr. Hobhouse and Moore, were the only persons he allowed to be within its pale. Long acquaintance, habitual correspondence, and reciprocity of kind actions, which are the general bonds of friendship, were not admitted by Byron to be sufficient claims to the title of friend; and he seized with avidity every opportunity of denying this relation with persons for whom, I am persuaded, he felt the sentiment, and to whom he would not have hesitated to have given all proof but the name, yet who, wanting this, could not consistently with delicacy receive aught else.

This habit of disclaiming friendships was very injudicious in Byron, as it must have wounded the amour propre of those who liked him, and humiliated the pride and delicacy of all whom he had ever laid under obligations, as well as freed from a sense of what was due to friendship, those who restrained by the acknowledgment of that tie, might have proved themselves his zealous defenders and advocates. It was his aristocratic pride that prompted this ungracious conduct, and I remember telling him, apropos to his denying friendships, that all the persons with whom he disclaimed them, must have less vanity, and more kindness of nature, than fall to the lot of most people, if they did not renounce the sentiment, which he disdained to acknowledge, and give him proofs that it no longer operated on them. His own morbid sensitiveness did not incline him to be more merciful to that of others; it seemed, on the contrary, to render him less so, as if every feeling was concentrated in self alone, and yet this egoist was capable of acts of generosity, kindness, and pity for the unfortunate; but he appeared to think, that the physical ills of others were those alone which he was called on to sympathize with; their moral ailments he entered not into, as he considered his own to be too elevated to admit of any reciprocity with those of others. The immeasurable difference between his genius and that of all others he encountered had given him a false estimate of their feelings and characters; they could not, like him, embody their feelings in language that found an echo in every breast, and hence he concluded they have neither the depth nor refinement of his. He forgot that this very power of sending forth his thoughts disburthened him of much of their bitterness, while others wanting it felt but the more poignantly what is unshared and unexpressed. I have told Byron that he added ingratitude to his other faults, by scoffing at, and despising his countrymen, who have shared all his griefs, and enjoyed all his biting pleasantries. He has sounded the diapason of his own feelings, and found the concord in theirs, which proves a sympathy he cannot deny, and ought not to mock. He says, that he values not their applauses or sympathy; that he who describes passions and crimes touches chords, which vibrate in every breast: not that either pity or interest is felt for him who submits to this moral anatomy; but that each discovers the symptoms of his own malady and feels and thinks only of self, while analyzing the griefs or pleasures of another.

When Byron had been one day repeating to me some epigrams and lampoons, in which many of his friends were treated with great severity, I observed that, in case he died, and that these proofs of friendship
came before the public, what would be the feelings of those so severely dealt by, and who previously had indulged the agreeable illusion of being high in his good graces!

“That (said Byron) is precisely one of the ideas which most amuses me. I often fancy the rage and humiliation of my quondam friends at hearing the truth (at least from me) for the first time, and when I am beyond the reach of their malice. Each individual will enjoy the sarcasms against his friends, but that will not console him for those against himself. Knowing the affectionate dispositions of my soi-disant friends, and the mortal chagrin my death would occasion them, I have written my thoughts of each, purely as a consolation for them in case they survive me. Surely this is philanthropic, for a more effectual means of destroying all regret for the dead could hardly be found than discovering, after their decease, memorials in which the surviving friends were treated with more sincerity than flattery. What grief (continued Byron, laughing while he spoke) could resist the charges of ugliness, dulness, or any of the thousand nameless defects, personal or mental, to which flesh is heir, coming from one ostentatiously loved, lamented, and departed, and when reprisals or recantations are impossible! Tears would soon be dried, lamentations and eulogiums changed to reproaches, and many faults would be discovered in the dear departed that had previously escaped detection. If half the observations (said Byron) which friends make on each other were written down instead of being said, how few would remain on terms of friendship! People are in such daily habits of commenting on the defects of friends, that they are unconscious of the unkindness of it, which only comes home to their business and bosoms when they discover that they have been so treated, which proves that self is the only medium for feeling or judging of, or for, others. Now I write down, as well as speak, my sentiments of those who believe that they have gulled me; and I only wish (in case I die before them) that I could return to witness the effect my posthumous opinions of them are likely to produce on their minds. What good fun this would be! Is it not disinterested in me to lay up this source of consolation for my friends, whose grief for my loss might otherwise be too acute? You don’t seem to value it as you ought (continued Byron, with one of his sardonic smiles, seeing that I looked, as I really felt, surprized to his avowed insincerity). I feel the same pleasure in anticipating the rage and mortification of my soi-disant friends, at the discovery of my real sentiments of them, that a miser may be supposed to feel while making a will which is to disappoint all the expectants who have been toading him for years. Then only think how amusing it will be, to compare my posthumous with my previously given opinions, one throwing ridicule on the other. This will be delicious (said he, rubbing his hands,) and the very anticipation of it charms me. Now this, by your grave face, you are disposed to call very wicked, nay, more, very mean; but wicked or mean, or both united, it is human nature, or at least my nature.”

Should various poems of Byron that I have seen ever meet the public eye, and this is by no means unlikely, they will furnish a better criterion for judging his real sentiments than all the notices of him that have yet appeared.

Each day that brought Byron nearer to the period fixed on for his departure for Greece seemed to render him still more reluctant to undertake it. He frequently expressed a wish to return to England, if
only for a few weeks, before he embarked, and yet had not firmness of purpose sufficient to carry his wishes into effect. There was a helplessness about Byron, a sort of abandonment of himself to his destiny, as he called it, that commonplace people can as little pity as understand. His purposes in visiting England, previous to Greece, were vague and undefined, even to himself; but from various observations that he let fall, I imagined that he hoped to establish something like an amicable understanding, or correspondence, with
Lady Byron, and to see his child, which last desire had become a fixed one in his mind. He so often turned with a yearning heart to his wish of going to England before Greece, that we asked him why, being a free agent, he did not go. The question seemed to embarrass him. He stammered, blushed, and said,—

“Why, true, there is no reason why I should not go; but yet I want resolution to encounter all the disagreeable circumstances which might, and most probably would, greet my arrival in England. The host of foes that now slumber, because they believe me out of their reach, and that their stings cannot touch me, would soon awake with renewed energies to assail and blacken me. The press, that powerful engine of a licentious age, (an engine known only in civilized England as an invader of the privacy of domestic life,) would pour forth all its venom against me, ridiculing my person, misinterpreting my motives, and misrepresenting my actions. I can mock at all these attacks when the sea divides me from them, but on the spot, and reading the effect of each libel in the alarmed faces of my selfishly-sensitive friends, whose common attentions, under such circumstances, seem to demand gratitude for the personal risk of abuse incurred by a contact with the attacked delinquent,—no, this I could not stand, because I once endured it, and never have forgotten what I felt" under the infliction. I wish to see Lady Byron and my child, because I firmly believe I shall never return from Greece, and that I anxiously desire to forgive, and be forgiven, by the former, and to embrace Ada. It is more than probable (continued Byron) that the same amiable consistency,—to call it by no harsher name,—which has hitherto influenced Lady B.’s adherence to the line she has adopted, of refusing all explanation, or attempt at reconciliation, would still operate on her conduct. My letters would be returned unopened, my daughter would be prevented from seeing me, and any step I might, from affection, be forced to take to assert my right of seeing her once more before I left England, would be misrepresented as an act of the most barbarous tyranny and persecution towards the mother and child; and I should be driven again from the British shore, more vilified, and with even greater ignominy, than on the separation. Such is my idea of the justice of public opinion in England (continued Byron) and, with such woeful experience as I have had, can you wonder that I dare not encounter the annoyances I have detailed? But if I live, and return from Greece with something better and higher than the reputation or glory of a poet, opinions may change, as the successful are always judged favourably of in our country; my laurels may cover my faults better than the bays have done, and give a totally different reading to my thoughts, words, and deeds.”

With such various forms of pleasing as rarely fall to the lot of man, Byron possessed the counter-balance to an extraordinary degree, as he could disenchant his admirers almost as quickly as he had won their
admiration. He was too observant not to discover, at a glance, the falling off in the admiration of those around him, and resented as an injury the decrease in their esteem, which a little consideration for their feelings, and some restraint in the expression of his own, would have prevented. Sensitive, jealous, and exigent himself, he had no sympathy or forbearance for those weaknesses in others. He claimed admiration not only for his genius, but for his defects, as a sort of right that appertained solely to him. He was conscious of his foiblesse, but wanted either the power or inclination to correct it, and was deeply offended if others appeared to have made the discovery.

There was a sort of mental reservation in Byron’s intercourse with those with whom he was on habits of intimacy that he had not tact enough to conceal, and which was more offensive when the natural flippancy of his manner was taken into consideration. His incontinence of speech on subjects of a personal nature, and with regard to the defects of friends, rendered this display of reserve on other points still more offensive; as, after having disclosed secrets which left him, and some of those whom he professed to like, at the mercy of the discretion of the person confided in, he would absolve him from the best motive for secresy—that of implied confidence—by disclaiming any sentiment of friendship for those so trusted. It was as though he said, I think aloud, and you hear my thoughts; but I have no feeling of friendship towards you, though you might imagine I have from the confidence I repose. Do not deceive yourself: few, if any, are worthy of my friendship; and only one or two possess even a portion of it. I think not of you but as the first recipient for the disclosures that I have le besoin to make, and as an admirer whom I can make administer to my vanity, by exciting in turn surprise, wonder, and admiration, but I can have no sympathy with you.

Byron, in all his intercourse with acquaintances, proved that he wanted the simplicity and good faith of uncivilized life, without having acquired the tact and fine perception that throws a veil over the artificial coldness and selfishness of refined civilization, which must be concealed to be rendered endurable. To keep alive sympathy, there must be a reciprocity of feelings; and this Byron did not, or would not, understand. It was the want of this, or rather the studied display of the want, that deprived him of the affection that would otherwise have been unreservedly accorded to him, and which he had so many qualities calculated to call forth. Those who have known Byron only in the turmoil and feverish excitation of a London life, may not have had time or opportunity to be struck with this defalcation in his nature; or, if they observed it, might naturally attribute it to the artificial state of society in London, which more or less affects all its members; but when he was seen in the isolation of a foreign land, with few acquaintances, and fewer friends, to make demands either on his time or his sympathy, this extreme egotism became strikingly visible, and repelled the affection that must otherwise have replaced the admiration to which he never failed to give birth.

Byron had thought long and profoundly on man and his vices,—natural and acquired;—he generalized and condemned en masse, in theory; while, in practice, he was ready to allow the exceptions to his general rule. He had commenced his travels ere yet age or experience had rendered him capable of forming a just estimate of the civilized world he had left, or the uncivilized one he was exploring: hence
he saw both through a false medium, and observed not that their advantages and disadvantages were counterbalanced. Byron wished for that Utopian state of perfection which experience teaches us it is impossible to attain,—the simplicity and good faith of savage life, with the refinement and intelligence of civilization. Naturally of a melancholy temperament, his travels in Greece were eminently calculated to give a still more sombre tint to his mind, and tracing at each step the marks of degradation which had followed a state of civilization still more luxurious than that he had left; and surrounded with the fragments of arts that we can but imperfectly copy, and ruins whose original beauty we can never hope to emulate, he grew into a contempt of the actual state of things, and lived but in dreams of the past, or aspirations of the future. This state of mind, as unnatural as it is uncommon in a young man, destroyed the bonds of sympathy between him and those of his own age, without creating any with those of a more advanced. With the young he could not sympathize, because they felt not like him; and with the old, because that, though their reasonings and reflections arrived at the same conclusions, they had not journeyed by the same road. They had travelled by the beaten one of experience, but he had abridged the road, having been hurried over it by the passions which were still unexhausted and ready to go in search of new discoveries. The wisdom thus prematurely acquired by Byron being the forced fruit of circumstances and travail acting on an excitable mind, instead of being the natural production ripened by time, was, like all precocious advantages, of comparatively little utility; it influenced his words more than his deeds, and wanted that patience and forbearance towards the transgressions of others that is best acquired by having suffered from and repented our own.

It would be a curious speculation to reflect how far the mind of Byron might have been differently operated on had he, instead of going to Greece in his early youth, spent the same period beneath the genial climate, and surrounded by the luxuries of Italy. We should then, most probably, have had a “Don Juan” of a less reprehensible character, and more excusable from the youth of its author, followed in natural succession, by atoning works produced by the autumnal sun of maturity, and the mellowing touches of experience,—instead of his turning from the more elevated tone of “Childe Harold” to “Don Juan.” Each year, had life been spared him, would have corrected the false wisdom that had been the bane of Byron, and which, like the fruit so eloquently described by himself as growing on the banks of the Dead Sea, that was lovely to the eye, but turned to ashes when tasted, was productive only of disappointment to him, because he mistook it for the real fruit its appearance resembled, and found only bitterness in its taste.

There was that in Byron which would have yet nobly redeemed the errors of his youth, and the misuse of his genius, had length of years been granted him; and, while lamenting his premature death, our regret is rendered the more poignant by the reflection, that we are deprived of works which, tempered by an understanding arrived at its meridian, would have had all the genius, without the immorality of his more youthful productions, which, notwithstanding their defects, have formed an epoch in the literature of his country.