LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
[Sir John Stoddart]
Conversations of Lord Byron [Concluded].
New Times  No. 8189  (27 October 1824)
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No. 8189. LONDON, WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 27, 1824. Price Sevenpence.


(Concluded from our Paper of yesterday.)

We have traced the progress of Lord Byron’s poetical career through three important stages—of which the English Bards and Scotch Reviewers may be considered the first; Childe Harold with the Corsair, &c. the second and Beppo and Don Juan the third: we now come to a fourth and still more exceptionable class.

Don Juan had alarmed the English public, slow as the public always is to take a moral alarm. The grossness was too obvious, the contempt of natural decency and of natural feeling was too plain and undisguised, not to revolt minds of common sensibility. The popularity of Lord Byron began to ebb rapidly. Yet, instead of retracing his erring footsteps, instead of “approaching the shrine of Delphi with the supplicating bough,” he rushed into a bolder defiance of public scorn he made more undisguised attacks on all that we hold venerable and sacred.

The first of these was Cain, which the Noble Author called “a Mystery;” and truly if he did not intend it as an attempt to shake the first principles, we will not say of Revealed but of Natural Religion, it is quite a mystery what he did intend. The work is miserably dull, and therefore can do little mischief. Cain is introduced hating his father before he meets with Lucifer; and Lucifer labours to persuade him to hate God. To understand what aim Lord Byron had in writing this heavy work, we should understand what he himself seriously thought on religious subjects; but Capt. Medwin candidly confesses, that “it is difficult to judge, from the contradictory nature of his writings, what the religious opinions of Lord Byron really were;” (p. 74.) and the Captain seems to have been just as much at a loss to solve this enigma by the laid of his Lordship’s personal communications. Thus much however is certain, that his Lordship professed to think it “a pleasant voyage, to float like Pyrrho on a sea of speculation.” (p. 74.) He thought “religions take their turn: ’twas Jove’s, ’tis Mahomet’s; and other creeds will rise with other years.” He spoke with contemptuous indifference of the uses of a building which had been the “shrine of all Saints and Temple of all Gods, from Jove to Jesus.” (Childe Harold.) “Yet,” says Captain Medwin, “his wavering never amounted to a disbelief in the Divine Founder of Christianity.” (p. 75.) In proof of this we are told (after five quarto pages of his Lordship’s disjoined talk, concluding with “I am called a Manichean; I may rather be called in Anychean, or an Anythingarian”)—“calling on him the next day we found him, as was sometimes the case, silent, dull, and sombre. At length he said, ‘Here is a little book somebody has sent me about Christianity, that has made me very uncomfortable; the reasoning seems to me very strong; the proofs are very staggering. I don’t think you can answer it, Shelley. At least I’m sure I can’t; and what is more I don’t wish it.’” (p. 80.) But though the Noble Peer was thus destitute of any fixed principles of religion, he was not destitute of superstition. We learn that this luminary of the age had a dread of omens, a belief in presentiments, and a faith in fortunetellers!—“The first time of my seeing Miss Millbank was at Lady ——’s. It was a fatal day: and I remember that in going up stairs I stumbled, and remarked to Moore, who accompanied me, that it was a bad omen. I ought to have taken the warning.” (p. 36.) Again, “The very day the match was concluded, a ring of my mother’s, that had been lost, was dug up, by the gardener at Newstead. I thought it was sent on purpose for the wedding; but my mother’s marriage had not been a fortunate one; and this ring was doomed to be seal of an unhappier union still.” (p. 38.)—“I had very early a horror of matrimony. This feeling came over me very strongly at my wedding. Something whispered me that I was sealing my own death-warrant. I am a great believer in presentiments. Socrates’s demon was no fiction. Monk Lewis had his monitor, and Napoleon many warnings.”!—(p. 54.) Passing by a cottage in Italy on his daughter’s birth-day he heard the wailings of some women over a corpse: “Lord Byron was much affected; and his superstition, acted upon by a sadness that seemed to be a presentiment, led him to augur some disaster. I shall not be happy, said he, till I hear that my daughter is well. I have a great horror of anniversaries: people only laugh who have never kept a register of them. I always write to toy sister on Ada’s birth-day. I did so last year; and what was very remarkable, my letter reached her on my wedding day, and her answer reached me on my birth-day!” (p. 100.) Could any old nurse in Christendom gabble greater nonsense than this? However he goes on—“Several extraordinary things have happened to me on my birth-day: so they did to Napoleon.”!! The conclusion of this adventure is really curious. The day after this most salutary and serviceable presentiment, a letter arrives from England, mentioning among other things that a certain Mr. Polidori had poisoned himself. Now, then, the dream is out! “I was convinced,” said Lord Byron, “something very unpleasant hung over me last night. I expected to hear that some body I knew was dead.” (p. 101.) The order of events is this:—Sometime (perhaps) about the middle of October Mr. Polidori, a person known to Lord Byron, kills himself in London. This circumstance shortly afterwards comes to the knowledge of Mr. Murray. Mr. Murray in a few days more has occasion to write to Lord Byron, and incidentally mention Polidori’s death. A few weeks subsequently Miss Ada Byron’s birth-day occurs. On that day the child of an Italian peasant dies. On that day also, Lord Byron takes his usual ride, which happens to lead him along by this peasant’s cottage. The next day, Mr. Murray’s letter to Lord Byron is delivered in due course or post. And his Lordship, who cannot believe one word of the Scriptures, believes that in these ordinary occurrences there is something miraculous!—“There are lucky and unlucky days as well as years and numbers too,” says Lord Byron on another occasion. “You would not visit on a Friday, would you? You know, you are to introduce me to Mrs. ——. It must not be tomorrow, because it is Friday!” (p. 104.) “Who can help being superstitious?” “The Italians think the dropping of oil very unlucky. Pietrop (Count Gamba) dropped some the night before his exile!” (p. 103.) “It had been predicted by Mrs. Williams that twenty-seven was to be a dangerous age for me. The fortune-telling witch was right.” (p. 37.) And again, “Have you ever had your fortune told? Mrs. Williams told mine.—She predicted that 27 and 37 were to be dangerous ages in my life. One has come true. Yes, added I, and did she not prophesy that you were to die a Monk and a miser? I don’t think (says his Lordship) these two last very likely; but it was part of her prediction.” (p. 104.) This last touch is exquisite. The superstitious man takes just as much of the prophecy as renders it plausible; but for the credit of the fortuneteller he sinks the rest; and it is only by cross examination that you can extract from him proof’ that his oracle is false. And this is the great Lord Byron! O caecas hominum mentes!

But enough of Cain—a blacker stain remains behind. Lord Byron found in the lowest deep a lower still. In conjunction with Hunt, the author of some poems, which his Lordship sneeringly calls Nimini-pimini and Folly-age (p. 261), he made an attempt to establish a literary Journal called The Liberal, which struggled through about three numbers, and then expired. In The Liberal appeared the production which has consigned Lord Byron’s name to lasting infamy—the Vision of Judgment.

When Cain was published, Lord Byron said of the publisher: “He is threatened with a prosecution by the Anti-constitutional Society. I don’t believe they will venture to attack him: if they do, I shall go home, and make my own defence.” His Lordship was misinformed. The Constitutional Society, which Lord Byron (who knew no more of the Constitution than an infant) thought fit to call Anti-constitutional, was not instituted to prosecute irreligious but seditious publications, and never threaten to prosecute the publisher of Cain. That Society, however, did prosecute to conviction the publisher of the Vision of Judgment, and would assuredly have prosecuted the Author, had he come home; but that he did not think proper to do. The Vision of Judgment is certainly, without a single exception, the most infamous production that ever issued from the British Press—infamous for its blasphemy, for its antinational sentiments, and infamous for its private and personal malignity.

We all remember the old story of the three schoolboys who got into the water. The one who could swim a little was punished the most severely. Lord Byron was not a downright unbeliever: he believed a little. To his mind therefore every scoff at the Almighty, at Christ, at the Apostles, at the Resurrection, and the Final Judgment, was at least a possible blasphemy. He was certain to shock and harrow up the minds of the pious: he was not certain not to sacrifice his own and his reader’s eternal salvation. One would think that no earthly temptation could induce a man wilfully to encounter the peril of so tremendous an evil. And what was his temptation? To indulge political pique and private rancour.

If ever there was a Sovereign whose memory was sanctified in the gratitude and affection of a people, it was George the Third. Him Lord Byron chose as an object of ridicule, scoffing at his age, his blindness, his mental affliction! Nothing could shew a mind more alien to English feeling. The military glory of his country he had elsewhere laboured to render contemptible. Waterloo was gall and bitterness to him. Buonaparte, the cowardly Fugitive from that memorable field, “a glorious Chief.” the “idol of the soldier’s soul;” thought he had but a twelvemonth before execrated him as “mean,” “abject,” an “an evil spirit,” a “Throneless homicide.” But we must hear his political profession of faith—“I take little interest in the politics at home.”—“My views extend to the good of mankind in general—of the world at large.” (pp. 228, 229.)—Accordingly he went to Italy, and there he became a Carbonaro.—“I had a magazine of one hundred stand of arms in my house,”—“I had received a very high degree, without passing through the intermediate ranks.” (p. 32.) Thus was an English Peer acting the secret traitor, in a foreign State: and all for the good of mankind in general! It did not enter into Lord Byron’s thoughts that to be a true philanthropist a man ought to discharge well the domestic and the patriotic duties. As to the former, he confesses himself a spendthrift, a debauchee, and an adulterer; as to the latter, he voluntary forswears his native soil; he impeaches his country’s honest fame; he even forbids his daughter Allegra to marry an Englishman; (p. 98.); and he seems to think that to prove his patriotism it is only necessary to insult the Monarch, vilify the leading Members of Government, foment disaffection, and treat loyalty as a crime. In this very volume is a despicable hotch-potch called the Irish Avatara (p. 216.); intended to ridicule the enthusiastic reception which the King received from his Irish subjects when he visited Dublin. It is indeed as dull as Cain; but had it been a hundred times more animated, the single expression “the welcome of tyrants” would have sufficed to render every Irish heart indignant at the libel. In the same copy of verses is also a frantic tirade against the Marquis of Londonderry, who was then living: it is wholly false and slanderous, though certainly not half so repulsive as the Epigrams in the Liberal on that lamented Statesman’s death.

We have, however, somewhat digressed from the Vision of Judgment, to which we must revert to notice its principal aim and object. This was undoubtedly to gratify a vindictive hatred on the part of Lord Byron against Mr. Southey. The present volume shews how keenly sensible Lord Byron was of critical severity. We have seen what he suffered from the Edinburgh Reviewers. Captain Medwin states that he “smarted under the ill reception Marino Faliero met with, and was indignant at the critics who denied him the dramatic faculty;” but these are all nothing to his sensations on perusing an article of Mr. Southey’s—“He looked perfectly awful: his color changed almost prismatically: his lips were as pale as death.” (p. 148.) The truth was, that Mr. Southey had exposed the wickedness and folly of the “Satanic School” of Poets in a manner that carried conviction to every mind. The public was with him, and the Satanic poets writhed under the justice of his severe castigations. On him, therefore, Lord Byron lavished the most violent abuse, nor did he pause a moment to consider whether it was either true or probable. Every person who has the honor of knowing Mr. Southey knows him to be a man of the purest integrity, and of a spirit most honorably independent. But because the experience of maturer life has taught him to correct, not the vices (for these he never had) but the delusive hopes and fond imaginations of ardent youth, therefore did Lord Byron call him a Renegado. Because his Sovereign conferred on him a well-earned literary honour, to which is attached a trifling salary, not a twentieth part of what he might gain (like Lord Byron) by “the sweat of his brain,” therefore did his Lordship call him a “hireling.” Cowardice, ferocity, and many other vices equally alien to Mr. Southey’s nature, did this Noble Libeller charge on the object of his fear and his revenge. And yet Lord Byron cries aloud against what he falsely calls Mr. Southey’s “malicious calumnies!” (p. 149.) We ought not to omit noticing the more gratuitous abuse of Mr. Wordsworth, which is equally and utterly false. “It is satisfactory to reflect,” says Lord Byron of this Gentleman, “that where a man becomes a hireling and loses his independence, he loses also the faculty of writing well.” (p. 192.) But Mr. Wordsworth is not a hireling, and has not lost his independence. His Lordship continues—“The republican trio (meaning Messrs. Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge), when they began to publish in common were to have had a community of all things.” (p. 194.) But they never did publish in common, and they never were to have had a community of any thing. This shews that Lord Byron satirised without knowing, and probably without caring, whether he was right or wrong.

We have observed that the principal aim of the Vision of Judgment was to he revenged on Mr. Southey; but in pursuing this object two others presented themselves to the Noble Satirist—to insult the loyal and the religious feelings of his countrymen. The criminality of the two latter was not excused by the malignity of the first; but the union of the whole is well accounted for by the view which these Conversations afford us of Lord Byron’s unhappy mental conformation, We have seen him violent, selfish, gross, vain, irritable, malignant, a despiser of women, a hater of his country, an alien from his God, impious, sceptical, superstitious. To sum up all—With great advantages of birth, rank, person, and fortune, he became a miserable because a vicious man and with vast native powers of imagination, and great acquired command of felicitous language, he was a bad, because an impure and irreligious Poet.