LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Countess of Blessington
Journal of Conversations with Lord Byron. No. VIII.
New Monthly Magazine  Vol. NS 38  (June 1833)  143-153.
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JUNE 1, 1833.



How much has Byron to unlearn ere he can hope for peace! Then he is proud of his false knowledge. I call it false, because it neither makes him better nor happier, and true knowledge ought to do the former, though I admit it cannot the latter. We are not relieved by the certainty that we have an incurable disease; on the contrary, we cease to apply remedies, and so let the evil increase. So it is with human nature: by believing ourselves devoted to selfishness, we supinely sink into its withering and inglorious thraldom; when, by encouraging kindly affections, without analyzing their source, we strengthen and fix them in the heart, and find their genial influence extending around, contributing to the happiness and well-being of others, and reflecting back some portion to ourselves. Byron’s heart is running to waste for want of being allowed to expend itself on his fellow-creatures; it is naturally capacious, and teeming with affection; but the worldly wisdom he has acquired has checked its course, and it preys on his own happiness by reminding him continually of the aching void in his breast. With a contemptible opinion of human nature, he requires a perfectibility in the persons to whom he attaches himself, that those who think most highly of it never expect: he gets easily disgusted, and when once the persons fall short of his expectations, his feelings are thrown back on himself, and, in their re-action, create new bitterness. I have remarked to Byron that it strikes me as a curious anomaly, that he, who thinks ill of mankind, should require more from it than do those who think well of it en masse; and that each new disappointment at a discovery of baseness sends him back to solitude with some of the feelings with which a savage creature would seek its lair; while those who judge it more favourably, instead of feeling bitterness at the disappointments we must all experience, more or less, when we have the weakness to depend wholly on others for happiness, smile at their own delusion, and blot out, as with a sponge, from memory that such things were, and were most sweet while we believed them, and open a fresh account, a new leaf in the ledger of life, always indulging in the hope that it may not be balanced like the last. We should judge others not by self, for that is deceptive, but by their general conduct and character. We rarely do this, because that with le besoin d'aimer, which all ardent minds have, we bestow our affections on the first person that chance throws in our path, and endow them with every good and noble quality, which qualities were unknown to them, and only existed in our own imaginations. We

* Continued from No. cxlvii. p. 518
discover, when too late, our own want of discrimination; but, instead of blaming ourselves, we throw the whole censure on those whom we had overrated, and declare war against the whole species because we had chosen ill, and “loved not wisely, but too well.” When such disappointments occur,—and, alas! they are so frequent as to enure us to them,—if we were to reflect on all the antecedent conduct and modes of thinking of those in whom we had “garnered up our hearts,” we should find that they were in general consistent, and that we had indulged erroneous expectations, from having formed too high an estimate of them, and consequently were disappointed. A modern writer has happily observed that “the sourest disappointments are made out of our sweetest hopes, as the most excellent vinegar is made from damaged wine.” We have all proved that hope ends but in frustration, but this should only give us a more humble opinion of our own powers of discrimination, instead of making us think ill of human nature: we may believe that there exists goodness, disinterestedness, and affection in the world, although we have not had the good fortune to encounter them in the persons on whom we had lavished our regard. This is the best, because it is the safest and most consolatory philosophy; it prevents our thinking ill of our species, and precludes that corroding of our feelings which is the inevitable result; for as we all belong to the family of human nature, we cannot think ill of it without deteriorating our own. If we have had the misfortune to meet with some persons whose ingratitude and baseness might serve to lower our opinion of our fellow-creatures, have we not encountered others whose nobleness, generosity, and truth might redeem them? A few such examples,—nay, one alone,— such as I have had the happiness to know, has taught me to judge favourably of mankind; and Byron, with all his scepticism as to the perfectibility of human nature, allowed that the person to whom I allude was an exception to the rule of the belief he had formed as to selfishness or worldly-mindedness being the spring of action in man.

The grave has closed over him who shook Byron’s scepticism in perfect goodness, and established for ever my implicit faith in it; but, in the debts of gratitude engraved in deep characters on memory, the impression his virtues have given me of human nature is indelibly registered,—an impression of which his conduct was the happiest illustration, as the recollection of it must ever be the antidote to misanthropy. We have need of such examples to reconcile us to the heartless ingratitude that all have, in a greater or less degree, been exposed to, and which is so calculated to disgust us with our species. How, then, must the heart reverence the memory of those who, in life, spread the shield of their goodness between us and sorrow and evil, and, even in death, have left us the hallowed recollection of their virtues, to enable us to think well of our fellow-creatures!
“Of the rich legacies the dying leave,
Remembrance of their virtues is the beet.”

We are as posterity to those who have gone before us—the avant-coureurs on that journey that wo must all undertake. It is permitted us to speak of absent friends with the honest warmth of commendatory truth; then surely we may claim that privilege for the dead,—a privilege that every grateful heart must pant to establish, when the just tribute we pay to departed worth is but as the outpourings of a spirit that is overpowered by its own intensity, and whose praise or blame falls equally unregarded on “the dull cold ear of death.” They who are in the grave cannot be flattered; and if their qualities were such as escaped the observance of the public eye, are not those who, in the shade of domestic privacy, had opportunities of appreciating them, entitled to one of the few consolations left to survivors—that of offering the homage of admiration and praise to virtues that were beyond all praise, and goodness that, while in existence, proved a source of happiness, and, in death, a consolation, by the assurance they have given of meeting their reward?

Byron said to-day that he had met, in a French writer, an idea that had amused him very much, and that he thought had as much truth as originality in it: he quoted the passage, “La curiosité est suicide de sa nature, et l'amour n'est que la curiosité.” He laughed, and rubbed his hands, and repeated, “Yes, the Frenchman is right. Curiosity kills itself; and love is only curiosity, as is proved by its end.”

I told Byron that it was in vain that he affected to believe what he repeated, as I thought too well of him to imagine him to be serious.

“At all events,” said Byron, “you must admit that, of all passions, love is the most selfish. It begins, continues, and ends in selfishness. Who ever thinks of the happiness of the object apart from his own, or who attends to it? While the passion continues, the lover wishes the object of his attachment happy, because, were she visibly otherwise, it would detract from his own pleasures. The French writer understood mankind well, who said that they resembled the grand Turk in an opera, who, quitting his sultana for another, replied to her tears, ‘Dissimulez votre peine, et respectez mes plaisirs.’ This,” continued Byron, “is but too true a satire on men; for when love is over,
‘A few years older,
Ah! how much colder
He could behold her
For whom he sighed!’

“Depend on it my doggrel rhymes have more truth than most that I have written. I have been told that love never exists without jealousy; if this be true, it proves that love must be founded on selfishness, for jealousy surely never proceeds from any other feeling than selfishness. We see that the person we like is pleased and happy in the society of some one else, and we prefer to see her unhappy with us than to allow
her to enjoy it: is not this selfish? Why is it,” continued
Byron, “that lovers are at first only happy in each other’s society? It is that their mutual flattery and egotism gratify their vanity; and not finding this stimulus elsewhere, they become dependent on each other for it. When they get better acquainted, and have exhausted all their compliments, without the power of creating or feeling any new illusions, or even continuing the old, they no longer seek each other’s presence from preference; habit alone draws them together, and they drag on a chain that is tiresome to both, but which often neither has the courage to break. We have all a certain portion of love in our natures, which portion we invariably bestow on the object that most charms us, which as invariably is—self; and though some degree of love may be extended to another, it is only because that other administers to our vanity; and the sentiment is but a reaction,—a sort of electricity that emits the sparks with which we are charged to another body;—and when the retorts lose their power—which means, in plain sense, when the flattery of the recipient no longer gratifies us—and yawning, that fearful abyss in love, is visible, the passion is over. Depend on it (continued Byron) the only love that never changes its object is self-love; and the disappointments it meets with make a more lasting impression than all others.”

I told Byron that I expected him to-morrow to disprove every word he had uttered to-day. He laughed, and declared that his profession of faith was contained in the verses “Could love for ever;” that he wished he could think otherwise, but so it was.

Byron affects scepticism in love and friendship, and yet is, I am persuaded, capable of making great sacrifices for both. He has an unaccountable passion for misrepresenting his own feelings and motives, and exaggerates his defects more than any enemy could do: he is often angry because we do not believe all he says against himself, and would be, I am sure, delighted to meet some one credulous enough to give credence to all he asserts or insinuates with regard to his own misdoings.

If Byron were not a great poet, the charlatanism of affecting to be a Satanic character, in this our matter-of-fact nineteenth century, would be very amusing: but when the genius of the man is taken into account, it appears too ridiculous, and one feels mortified at finding that he, who could elevate the thoughts of his readers to the empyrean, should fall below the ordinary standard of every-day life, by a vain and futile attempt to pass for something that all who know him rejoice that he is not; while, by his sublime genius and real goodness of heart, which are made visible every day, he establishes claims on the admiration and sympathy of mankind that few can resist. If he knew his own power, he would disdain such unworthy means of attracting attention, and trust to his merit for commanding it.


“I know not when I have been so much interested and amused, (said Byron,) as in the perusal of journal: it is one of the choicest productions I ever read, and is astonishing as being written by a minor, as I find he was under age when he penned it. The most piquant vein of pleasantry runs through it; the ridicules—and they are many—of our dear compatriots are touched with the pencil of a master; but what pleases me most is, that neither the reputation of man nor woman is compromised, nor any disclosures made that could give pain. He has admirably penetrated the secret of English ennui, (continued Byron,)—a secret that is one to the English only, as I defy any foreigner, blessed with a common share of intelligence, to come in contact with them without discovering it. The English know that they are ennuyés, but vanity prevents their discovering that they are ennuyeux, and they will be little disposed to pardon the person who enlightens them on this point. ― ― ought to publish this work (continued Byron), for two reasons: the first, that it will be sure to get known that he has written a piquant journal, and people will imagine it to be a malicious libel, instead of being a playful satire, as the English are prone to fancy the worst, from a consciousness of not meriting much forbearance; the second reason is, that the impartial view of their foibles, taken by a stranger who cannot be actuated by any of the little jealousies that influence the members of their own coteries, might serve to correct them, though I fear reflexion faite there is not much hope of this. It is an extraordinary anomaly, (said Byron,) that people who are really naturally inclined to good, as I believe the English are, and who have the advantages of a better education than foreigners receive, should practise more ill-nature and display more heartlessness than the inhabitants of any other country. This is all the effect of the artificial state of society in England, and the exclusive system has increased the evils of it ten-fold. We accuse the French of frivolity, (continued Byron,) because they are governed by fashion; but this extends only to their dress, whereas the English allow it to govern their pursuits, habits, and modes of thinking and acting: in short, it is the Alpha and Omega of all they think, do, or will: their society, residences, nay, their very friends, are chosen by this criterion, and old and tried friends, wanting its stamp, are voted de trop. Fashion admits women of more than dubious reputations, and well-born men with none, into circles where virtue and honour, not a-la-mode, might find it difficult to get placed; and if (on hearing the reputation of Lady this, or Mrs. that, or rather want of reputation, canvassed over by their associates) you ask why they are received, you will be told it is because they are seen everywhere—they are the fashion.—I have known (continued Byron) men and women in London received in the first circles, who, by their birth, talents, or manners, had no one claim to such a distinction, merely because they had been seen in one or two houses, to which, by some manoeuvring, they got the entrée; but
I must add, they were not remarkable for good looks, or superiority in any way, for if they had been, it would have elicited attention to their want of other claims, and closed the doors of fashion against them. I recollect, (said Byron,) on my first entering fashionable life, being surprised at the (to me) unaccountable distincions I saw made between ladies placed in peculiar and precisely similar situations. I have asked some of the fair leaders of fashon, ‘Why do you exclude Lady ―, and admit Lady ―, as they are both in the same scrape?’ With that amiable indifference to cause and effect that distinguishes the generality of your sex, the answer has invariably been, ‘Oh! we admit Lady ― because all our set receive her; and exclude Lady ― because they will not.’ I have pertinaciously demanded, ‘Well, but you allow their claims are equal?’ and the reply has been, ‘Certainly; and we believe the excluded lady to be the better of the two.’ Mais que voulez-vous? she is not received, and the other is; it is all chance or luck; and this (continued Byron) is the state of society in London, and such the line of demarcation drawn between the pure and the pure, when chance or luck, as Lady ― honestly owned to me, decided whether a woman lost her caste or not. I am not much of a prude, (said Byron,) but I declare that, for the general good, I think that all women who had forfeited their reputations ought to lose their places in society; but this rule ought never to admit of an exception: it becomes an injustice and hardship when it does, and loses all effect as a warning or preventive. I have known young married women, when cautioned by friends on the probability of losing caste by such or such a step, quote the examples of Lady this, or Mrs. that, who had been more imprudent, (for imprudence is the new name for guilt in England,) and yet that one saw these ladies received everywhere, and vain were precepts with such examples. People may suppose (continued Byron) that I respect not morals, because unfortunately I have sometimes violated them: perhaps from this very circumstance I respect them the more, as we never value riches until our prodigality has made us feel their loss; and a lesson of prudence coming from him who had squandered thousands, would have more weight than whole pages written by one who had not personal experience: so I maintain that persons who have erred are most competent to point out errors. It is my respect for morals that makes me so indignant against its vile substitute cant, with which I wage war, and this the good-natured world chooses to consider as a sign of my wickedness. We are all the creatures of circumstance, (continued Byron;) the greater part of our errors are caused, if not excused, by events and situations over which we have had little control: the world see the faults, but they see not what led to them: therefore I am always lenient to crimes that have brought their own punishment while I am little disposed to pity those who think they atone for their own sins by exposing those of others, and add cant and hypocrisy to the catalogue of their vices. Let not a woman who has gone astray,
without detection, affect to disdain a less fortunate though not less culpable female. She who is unblemished should pity her who has fallen, and she whose conscience tells her she is not spotless should show forbearance but it enrages me to see women whose conduct is, or has been, infinitely more blameable than that of the persons they denounce affecting a prudery towards others that they had not in the hour of need for themselves. It was this forbearance towards her own sex that charmed me in
Lady Melbourne: she had always some kind interpretation for every action that would admit of one, and pity or silence when aught else was impracticable.”

“Lady ―, beautiful and spotless herself, always struck me as wanting that pity she could so well afford. Not that I ever thought her ill-natured or spiteful; but I thought there was a certain severity in her demarcations, that her acknowledged purity rendered less necessary. Do you remember my lines in the Giaour, ending with—
No: gayer insects fluttering by
Ne’er droop the wing o’er those that die;
And lovelier things have mercy shown
To every failing but their own;
And every woe a tear can claim
Except an erring sister’s shame.

“These lines were suggested by the conduct I witnessed in London from women to their erring acquaintances—a conduct that led me to draw the conclusion, that their hearts are formed of less penetrable stuff than those of men.”

Byron has not lived sufficiently long in England, and has left it at too young an age, to be able to form an impartial and just estimate of his compatriots. He was a busy actor, more than a spectator, in the circles which have given him an unfavourable impression; and his own passions were, at that period, too much excited to permit his reason to be unbiassed in the opinions he formed. In his hatred of what he calls cant and hypocrisy, he is apt to denounce as such all that has the air of severity; and which, though often painful in individual cases, is, on the whole, salutary for the general good of society. This error of Byron’s proceeds from a want of actual personal observation, for which opportunity has not been afforded him, as the brief period of his residence in England, after he had arrived at an age to judge, and the active part he took in the scenes around him, allowed him not to acquire that perfect knowledge of society, manners, and customs which is necessary to correct the prejudices that a superficial acquaintance with it is so apt to engender, even in the most acute observer, but to which a powerful imagination, prompt to jump at conclusions without pausing to trace cause and effect, is still more likely to fall into. Byron sees not that much of what he calls the usages of cant and hypocrisy are the fences that
protect propriety, and that they cannot be invaded without exposing what it is the interest of all to preserve. Had he been a calm looker on, instead of an impassioned actor in the drama of English fashionable life, he would probably have taken a less harsh view of all that has so much excited his ire, and felt the necessity of many of the restraints which fettered him.

A two years' residence in Greece, with all the freedom and personal independence that a desultory rambling life admits of and gives a taste for,—in a country where civilization has so far retrogarded that its wholesome laws, as well as its refinements, have disappeared, leaving license to usurp the place of liberty,—was little calculated to prepare a young man of three-and-twenty for the conventional habits and restraints of that artificial state of society which extreme civilization and refinement beget. No wonder then that it soon became irksome to him, and that, like the unbroken courser of Arabia, when taken from the deserts where he had sported in freedom, he spurned the puny meshes which ensnared him, and pined beneath the trammels that intercepted his liberty.

Byron returned to England in his twenty-third year, and left it before he had completed his twenty-eighth, soured by disappointments and rendered reckless by a sense of injuries. “He who fears not, is to be feared,” says the proverb; and Byron, wincing under all the obloquy which malice and envy could inflict, fell that its utmost malignity could go no farther, and became fixed in a fearless braving of public opinion, which a false spirit of vengeance led him to indulge in, turning the genius, that could lave achieved the noblest ends, into the means of accomplishing those which were unworthy of if. His attacks on the world are like the war of the Titans against the Gods,—the weapons he aims fall back on limself. He feels that he has allowed sentiments of pique to influence and deteriorate his works; and that the sublime rassages in them, that now appear like gleams of sunshine flitting across the clouds hat sometimes obscure the bright luminary, might have been one unbroken blaze of light, had not worldly resentment and feelings dimmed their lustre.

This consciousness of misapplied genius has made itself felt in Byron, and will yet lead him to redeem the injustice he has done it; and when he has won the guerdon of the world’s applause, and satisfied that craving for celebrity which consumes him, reconciled to that world, and at peace with himself, he may yet win as much esteem for the man as he has hitherto elicited admiration for the poet. To satisfy Byron, the admiration must be unqualified; and, as I have told him, this depends on himself: he has only to choose a subject for his muse, in which not only received opinions are not wounded, but morality is inculcated; and his glowing genius, no longer tarnished by the stains that have previously blemished it, will shine forth with a splendour, and ensure
that universal applause, which will content even his ambitious and aspiring nature. He wants some one to tell him what he might do, what he ought to do, and what so doing he would become, I have told him; but I have not sufficient weight or influence with him to make my representations effective; and the task would be delicate and difficult for a male friend to undertake, as Byron is pertinacious in refusing: to admit that his works have failed in morality, though in his heart I am sure he feels it.

Talking of some one who was said to have fallen in love, “I suspect (said Byron) that he must be indebted to your country for this phrase, ‘falling in love;’ it is expressive and droll: they also say falling ill; and, as both are involuntary, and, in general, equally calamitous, the expressions please me. Of the two evils, the falling ill seems to me to be the least; at all events I would prefer it; for as, according to philosophers, pleasure consists in the absence of pain, the sensations of returning health (if one does recover) must be agreeable; but the recovery from love is another affair, and resembles the awaking from an agreeable dream. Hearts are often only lent, when they are supposed to be given away (continued Byron); and are the loans for which people exact the most usurious interest. When the debt is called in, the borrower, like all other debtors, feels little obligation to the lender, and, having refunded the principal, regrets the interest he has paid. You see (said Byron) that, à l'Anglaise, I have taken a mercantile view of the tender passion; but I must add that, in closing the accounts, they are seldom fairly balanced, ‘e ciò sa ’l tuo dottore.’ There is this difference between the Italians and others, (said Byron,) that the end of love is not with them the beginning of hatred, which certainly is, in general, the case with the English, and, I believe, the French: this may be accounted for from their having less vanity; which is also the reason why they have less ill-nature in their compositions, for vanity, being always on the qui vive, up in arms, ready to resent the least offence offered to it, precludes good temper.”

I asked Byron if his partiality for the Italians did not induce him to overlook other and obvious reasons for their not beginning to hate when they ceased to love: first, the attachments were of such long duration that age arrived to quell angry feelings, and the gradations were so slow, from the first sigh of love to the yawn of expiring affection, as to be almost imperceptible to the parties; and the system of domesticating in Italy established a habit that rendered them necessary to each other. Then the slavery of serventism, the jealousies, carried to an extent that is unknown in England, and which exists longer than the passion that is supposed to excite, if not excuse, them, may tend to reconcile lovers to the exchange of friendship for love; and, rejoicing in their recovered liberty, they are more disposed to indulge feelings of complacency than hatred.


Byron said, “Whatever may be the cause, they have reason to rejoice in the effect; and one is never afraid in Italy of inviting people together who have been known to have once had warmer feelings than friendship towards each other, as is the case in England, where, if persons under such circumstances were to meet, angry glances and a careful avoidance of civility would mark their kind sentiments towards each other.”

I asked Byron if what he attributed to the effects of wounded vanity might not proceed from other and better feelings, at least on the part of women? Might not shame and remorse be the cause? The presence of the man who had caused their dereliction from duty and virtue calling up both, could not be otherwise than painful and humiliating to women who were not totally destitute of delicacy and feeling; and that this most probably was the cause of the coldness he observed between persons of opposite sexes in society.

“You are always thinking of and reasoning on the English, (answered Byron:) mind I refer to Italians, and with them there can be neither shame nor remorse, because, in yielding to love, they do not believe they are violating either their duty or religion; consequently a man has none of the reproach to dread that awaits him in England when a lady’s conscience is awakened,—which, by the by, I have observed it seldom is, until affection is laid asleep, which (continued Byron) is very convenient to herself, but very much the reverse to the unhappy man.”

I am sure that much of what Byron said in this conversation was urged to vex me. Knowing my partiality to England and all that is English, he has a childish delight in exciting me into an argument; and as I as yet know nothing of Italy, except through books, he takes advantage of his long residence in, and knowledge of the country, to vaunt the superiority of its customs and usages, which I never can believe he prefers to his own. A wish of vexing or astonishing the English is, I am persuaded, the motive that induces him to attack Shakspeare; and lie is highly gratified when he succeeds in doing either, and enjoys it like a child. He says that the reason why he judges the English women so severely is, that, being brought up with certain principles, they are doubly to blame in not making their conduct accord with them; and that, while punishing with severity the transgressions of persons of their own sex in humble positions, they look over the more glaring misconduct and vices of the rich and great—that not the crime, but its detection, is punished in England, and, to avoid this, hypocrisy is added to want of virtue.

“You have heard, of course, (said Byron,) that I was considered mad in England; my most intimate friends in general, and Lady Byron in particular, were of this opinion; but it did not operate in my favour in their minds, as they were not, like the natives of eastern nations, disposed to
pay honour to my supposed insanity or folly. They considered me a mejnoun, but would not treat me as one. And yet, had such been the case, what ought to excite such pity and forbearance as a mortal malady that reduces us to more than childishness‚—a prostration of intellect that places us in the dependence of even menial hands? Reason (continued Byron) is so unreasonable, that few can say that they are in possession of it. I have often doubted my own sanity; and, what is more, wished for insanity—anything—to quell memory, the never-dying worm that feeds on the heart, and only calls up the past to make the present more insupportable. Memory has for me
‘the vulture’s ravenous tooth,
The raven’s funereal song.’
There is one thing (continued Byron) that increases my discontent, and adds to the rage that I often feel against self. It is the conviction that the events in life that have most pained me—that have turned the milk of my nature into gall—have not depended on the persons who tortured me,—as I admit the causes were inadequate to the effects:—it was my own nature, prompt to receive painful impressions, and to retain them with a painful tenacity, that supplied the arms against my peace. Nay, more, I believe the wounds inflicted were not, for the most part, premeditated; or, if so, that the extent and profundity of them were not anticipated by the persons who aimed them. There are some natures that have a predisposition to grief, as others have to disease; and such was my case. The causes that have made me wretched would probably not lave discomposed, or, at least, more than discomposed, another. We are all differently organized; and that I feel acutely is no more my fault (though it is my misfortune) than that another feels not, is his. We did not make ourselves; and if the elements of unhappiness abound more in the nature of one man than another, he is but the more entitled to our pity and forbearance. Mine is a nature (continued Byron) that might have been softened and ameliorated by prosperity, but that has been hardened and soured by adversity. Prosperity and adversity are the fires by which moral chemists try and judge human nature; and how few can pass, the ordeal! Prosperity corrupts, and adversity renders ordinary nature callous; but when any portion of excellence exists, neither can injure. The first will expand the heart, and show forth every virtue, as the genial rays of the sun bring forth the fruit and flowers of the earth; and the second will teach sympathy for others, which is best learned in the school of affliction.”