LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
Thomas Medwin
Lord Byron, his Biography, &c.
Literary Gazette  No. 785  (4 February 1832)  73-74.
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No. 785. SATURDAY,  FEBRUARY  4,  1832. PRICE 8d.



[In giving place to the following correspondence from Capt. Medwin, we beg to be understood as by no means agreeing with many of the sentiments expressed by the writer; but as we know no subject of greater public and literary interest, and as a number of curious facts and anecdotes are for the first time brought forward, we have thought we could not lay before our readers any thing of the kind which would be more generally acceptable. Of several individuals mentioned, and their works, we have already expressed our own opinions, and for others we have the greatest personal regard; we therefore wish these letters to be received as Capt. Medwin’s entirely.—Ed. L. G.]

To the Editor, &c.

Sir,—Having been constantly abroad during the last few years, I have but just met with Mr. Moore’s Life of Lord Byron, in which he makes no very honourable mention of myself—but of that hereafter. So, Mr. Editor, after a seven years’ gestation, and no little of midwifery, we have another big book upon Lord Byron. Mr. Moore, has made, after all, a fausse couche—brought into the world a heavy, unwieldy incubus, a rickety offspring, ill-connected and clumsily put together—that, as far as novelty goes, possesses a feeble interest, and serves to throw little additional light on the character or pursuits of that very singular person. A perfect Atticus, a nice weigher of words and syllables, sensitively fearful of compromising himself or others, desirous of conciliating all parties, of soothing the animosity of the Cerberuses of the press, of deprecating the wrath of irritable contemporaries (of whose names he only tantalises the uninitiated with the initials)—Mr. Moore is little fitted for a biographer; much less the biographer of that fearless satirist and rashly communicative companion, who could not conceal one act of his own, or disguise one opinion he entertained of others. One art Mr. Moore possesses in a marvellous degree—the art of neutralising talent. His Life of Sheridan was wittily termed the Death of Sheridan; and even Lord Byron’s genius can hardly withstand the fiery ordeal of his slow chemistry—his power of transmuting diamonds into dust. So much has been said and written about Lord Byron, that the very name is as sickening as the cholera; and these Memoirs have completed the nausea. Byron, like the poet in the Symposium, was only great in his moments of inspiration; he was else an ordinary mortal. His conversation was frivolous and obscene; his letters slovenly in the extreme, and teeming with vanity, persiflage, and calembourg. His life, according to Mr. Moore, and if we except his devotion to Greece, was marked by few noble or generous actions; and yet we have 1600 quarto pages about one who had renounced his country, who was a libertine in love, and an ingrate in friendship. He was, as he confessed himself, a true disciple of La Rochefoucauld—self-interest, the primum mobile, the main-spring of his actions; his common maxim and constant observation was, that ‘Every body hates every body.’

In the Conversations of Lord Byron I was merely a reporter or editor; not so Mr. Moore—it was his duty, as an historian, and biographer, and moralist, to have portrayed him as he was; not to have chosen the sunny side alone of his character: he should have made his faults and vices land-marks, that others might not be wrecked on the same shoals and quick-sands.

Among the most blamable of his actions, of which Mr. Moore could not have been ignorant, was his conduct to the mother of Allegra. That person, whom I had the pleasure of knowing, a young, beautiful, interesting, and highly educated girl, was abandoned by him, and supported by Shelley, who paid her pension at Florence. He tore from the mother the unfortunate fruit of this amour, and would have willingly made her over to a stranger: he left this lovely child, on quitting Romagna, to the care or carelessness of strangers; and, a thing never heard of before even among Italians, immured an infant in a convent. Her fate might have been foreseen. He desired she should be brought up a Catholic—a strange mode of proving his own religion, or of shewing his affection for her. He complained at Pisa of the child’s temper—she repaid him with her mother’s just hate, and could never suffer his caresses. Poor Clara! And yet, when I met her at Pisa, after the child’s and Shelley’s death, he talked of its being dangerous for them to meet, and——but she abhorred him too much. In his will he made no provision for her. Francisca, who has been called his Fernarina, who had thrown herself into the Lagune in the fervour of her passion for him, he mercilessly thrust out of the house. The Countess Guiccioli could not fix his inconstant mind; he made her miserable by his low intrigues and infidelities at Pisa, if not at Genoa; and went to Greece principally to shake off a connexion that was become irksome to him. Of Lady Byron I shall not speak. The real cause of their separation is only positively known to two persons, and probably will ever remain a secret, though the abominable calumniating reports that have gone abroad concerning it are all foreign from the truth. According to Lord Byron’s own account, it was not Dr. Lushington, but another lawyer (whom he suspected to be the author of the critique in the Edinburgh Review), who, when his separation cause was before the chancellor, made some unwarrantable allusions respecting him. I have seen Byron, more than once, in a whiteness of fury when on this topic, and heard him vow, that if ever he came to England, he would call to account that personage, whose name I shall not mention. His daughter Ada he disinherited.

Byron’s words had almost always a double meaning; the smile that played about his mouth was generally out of harmony with the rest of his features—in his most serious moments there was a laughing devil in his eye. He drew his own portrait to the life in Lara. The great object of his panegyric, whom he flattered for twenty years, was made the subject of one of his most virulent and sanglante satires—I speak of Mr. Rogers, and refer to Mr. Barry and Lady B. for the verses. How much he was Mr. Hobhouse’s friend, that gentleman and the public know. It was natural, however, that he could not easily forgive that sage critic for advising him not to publish Childe Harold, and endeavouring to persuade him that it had no merit, and afterwards comparing Cain to the worst bombast of Dryden. Quære, whether these opinions proceeded from dulness or envy? Shelley became unpopular. Though, in private, Byron could not refuse his admiration to his talents and virtues (of the first of which he made no small use), he had the meanness, in his preface to Marino Faliero, formally to disown any acquaintance with him; and during the burning of his body on the seashore (my description of which was taken verbatim from Mr. Trelawney, an eye-witness), swam off to his yacht, such was his sensibility! A few more words for Mr. Moore. The conflagration of the autograph Memoirs was a fine piece of charlatanism. The reason of their transfer from Mr. Murray to Mr. Longman, and from Mr. Longman back to Mr. Murray, needs no comment. Mr. Moore cannot deny that the substance of them is incorporated in his work, itself confessedly full of extracts from these very memoirs. In fact they were any thing but captivating, worth absolutely nothing (I am not speaking of what they fetched or might fetch); and would have scarcely filled 200 pages, such as we have a specimen of in the flaming and feverish journal kept at Ravenna. Well might they be committed to the flames, as it was their fate, instead of being quietly inurned, to rise again from their ashes in the shape of five octavos, or two prodigious quartos, phoenix-plumed like one of Mr. Moore’s angels—a rara avis, destined, instead of 2000l., to produce 6000l. Poor Mr. Murray! But John Bull is the most gullable of all animals, and takes for gospel-truth every puff in every newspaper, though glaringly and barefacedly the production of some self-complacent bibliopolist. Mr. Moore’s ingenuity in authorship is admirable; and when I consider the difficulty of the task, it is not the seven years’ labour, but the accomplishment, that is miraculous. After all, it should have been called Mr. Murray’s Life of Lord Byron: his lordship styled it Messrs. Moore’s and Murray’s Byron. Is it from such materials—from a bookseller, that we are to judge of a great poet—from the Lintott of this age? Where is Lord Byron’s journal in Switzerland? where his letters to Mrs. Leigh? His correspondence with Lady Melbourne on the subject of his marriage? With Messrs. Hobhouse, Shelley, D. Kinnaird, Scrope Davis, &c. &c.? but more than all, with his early, his only friend, as he once confessed, Lord Clare? Some of his letters to Walter Scott would also have been acceptable. Where are his papers left with Mr. Barry, that Mr. Hobhouse recommended that banker not to give up—(perhaps Mr. Hobhouse has some new illustrations, some dissertations on Lord Byron in embryo of his own)? Why have we not the relation of his voyage to Greece, and correspondence with Mr. Trelawney, who accompanied him, and was at Missolonghi a few hours after his decease? And yet Mr. Moore tells us that only one person to whom he applied refused him information!!! These were the genuine sources from which a life of Lord Byron should have been drawn; not from his communication with his publisher. Nothing can be well more dull than this correspondence, unless it be the paradoxical controversy respecting the classical and romantic schools with Mr. Bowles, or the pages borrowed from Messrs. Dallas and Kennedy.

Lord Byron, though no great dramatist, was an accomplished comedian, and as little dependence is to be placed on them as on some other of his conversations, in the latter of which Mr. Moore does not seem to be aware that Byron was quizzing the good easy doctor. Fletcher’s letter, in which he thinks his master a saint for not eating biccaficas on a Friday, shews what Lord Byron’s inward sense of devotion was, and how little the valet had profited by the medico-ecclesiastic tracts. One might as well draw an argument in favour of Byron’s matrimonial fidelity from a circumstance that occurred at Pisa, his insisting on Fletcher and Tita’s (to their infinite horror,) sending for their wives. It is not in these conversations or letters, particularly letters that he knew were to be published, that Byron is to be read, but in his works.

He owned that he had not the faculty of describing any thing that he had not seen; he might, with a certain latitude (with some ex-
ceptions), have almost said, any thing that he had not done. When he rushed into the cabin with the question, “How does a man feel who has just come from the commission of a murder?” he had probably been brooding over tome scene like that of the dungeon-visit in the
Corsair, and was endeavouring in vain to screw up his imagination to the sticking-place! It may be said, indeed, that all his characters were impersonifications of himself; occasionally overdrawn and overcoloured, it is true, or with the oscuro predominating over the chiaro; yet still bearing in their general outlines some distinguishing likeness to the original. It is from them that the mind of Byron should have been analysed: he might have been thus dissected, nerve from nerve; and such anatomy we looked for from his biographer. If we open Childe Harold, the Corsair, Lara, the Giaour, but, more than all, that Casti production,* Don Juan, we are reminded of the author in every page. The subjects, too, that he chose always bore some relation to the type of that which was within him. The Lament of Tasso, written when he was yet ulcerated by a forced separation from Lady Byron, by the fancied or real injustice of his countrymen, is full of his imaginary wrongs as a poet, and of a metaphysical generalisation of that passion that perhaps in early life haunted and possessed him.

The Prophecy of Dante bears a still more striking allusion to his own story; and Beatrice was one of the same creations that he conjures up in the closing stanzas of Childe Harold. His love for Mary Duff at seven years old, and from of Mary Chaworth at twelve, is a ridiculous affectation: in the second case his vanity was alone hurt, and her loss could have had no durable effect, have produced no determinate impression on his future life.

That one so sensual should have written so platonically, is another of the strange contradictions and anomalies in this unaccountable being. Dr. Gall,* the ϕυσιγνωμον, would have drawn strong arguments from Byron’s head in favour of his system. Never was philoprogenitiveness more prominently developed in any cranium; nor would it have been easy to decide which predominated there, his mental or his animal faculties. Byron, when on the subject of women (his favourite one), always dilated on their faithlessness and their indelicacy, and professed his admiration of Turkish gynæcea; and yet it is observable, that in all his serious poems he dwells on the purity, the angelic qualities, the celestiality of the sex: I say in his serious poems, because in Don Juan he shewed what he really felt and thought.

[Here we must break off for this week.]

* It is to the Novelle of Casti, not to Pulci, as Lord Byron would have us believe in his translation, expressly enfeebled, that he is indebted for the idea of Beppo, the Vision of Judgment, and Don Juan. The incident of the shoe was suggested by the Calgoni Ricamati, the shipwreck from the Diavelessa, the description of Michael the archangel in the Vision of Judgment from the Caso di Cosciensa—as may be seen from the free and hasty translations below. Perhaps in a second paper I may point out some other plagiarisms from Casti, this lucus a non lucendo. It is to be lamented that, poet, wit, humorist, philosopher, satirist, and moralist, as he was, he should have stained his compositions with such licentiousness, that Mr. Wellesley Pole said he would not trust his children to the care of any one who had read the Novelle. In the Vision of Judgment, stanza xxviii.
There were those spirits lost in realms of space,
Trembling, and dubious of their way were treading,
Because they yet had no appointed place;
Michael presents himself in his exceeding
Glory, surpassed not save when he did chase
From heaven the rebel Satan, or from Eden,
And all its joys, the first man and first woman,
By reason of that apple now too common.”
In the Diavelessa we have—
At eventide, nor once the ship they wore
They made the mouth of Giberaltar’s straits.
The bounds of either continent, where the hoar
And swoln sea, fetter’d ever, foams and beats—
That ocean seems indignant of a shore,
And oft makes ravage there of all it meets;
And thus to menace their frail craft with wreck,
A sudden squall and heavy drove them back.
In haste the mariners, with terror pale,
Enclose with the dead-lights each port-hole door
To man’s destruction—close-reef every sail:
Boils the swoln surge—winds rave and billows roar—
Fear reigns supreme—there’s nothing like a gale
For taming tiger man. On either shore
They wildly gaze, and scarce can draw their breath
For thinking now they shall escape from death.
Comes mounting on the deck, like a wild horse,
With shock that skill and seamanship defies,
A giant breaker, with the united force
Of lesser breakers howling; the spray flies,
And refluent sweeps the helmsman and, still worse,
The helm. Ermenigilda! in thine eyes
For bridal raptures terrors there we see—
Poor thing! the sight of death’s but left for thee.
The main-mast gone, and with it the bowsprit,
She wounded lies in a most crazy state,
With water in her hold at least six feet—
To give them hopes, she should at any rate
Have had a helm and binnacle—I repeat,
That none who saw that craft could doubt her fate:
Four days she drove towards Africa, and hit
At last upon a sunken rock, and—split.†
Then all was wreck—and as she thump’d the ground
Some were washed overboard; and then a few,
Struck by the spars, went down;‡ with gurgling sound
Others gave up the ghost—till all the crew
Were in those eddying whirlpools sucked and drown’d:
Ermenigilda, must thee swallow too
The merciless wave? to save thee was there none?—
Sole author of those ills escaped—our Don!
Like Juan, Don Equatio—
With force of arms, for a stout swimmer, he
Touched land, and climbed the beach, and wildly stared
Upon a desert heaped with hills of sand—
A parched, inhospitable, barren strand.
* * * *
Covered with foam—naked almost—to stand
Scarce able, or to move without a groan—
He stretched his listless length along the sand,
And on a fragment, with rank grass o’ergrown,
Torn from a mass that towered above the strand.
Leans his o’erlaboured arm, itself like stone—
And fixes on the ground his gloomy eyes,
Whilst agonising thoughts on thoughts arise.
After a soliloquy, and some moral reflections—
Amid the scattered things that on the breast
Of the swoln surf come lifted by the tide,
Lay high and dry upon the beach a chest,
With key atop; he opened it and spied
Nails, hammers, saw, an adze—among the rest
A pair of scissors, and a knife, beside
Divers other tools and instruments, that were
The property once of the ship’s carpenter.
Then more attentively he looks around,
And undulating on the billow sees
A bundle, runs, draws it to shore, and found
Two shirts, a jacket, shoes, and, more than these,
A cloak, hard by, a barrel, iron-bound,
And in it biscuit, and dried fruits, and cheese—
“O! holy Providence, I thank you! never,”
Exclaimed the knight, “shall I forget this favour.”
From the Calzoni Ricamati I shall only give three or four stanzas. It is to be recollected that the heroine is a Dutch brewer’s wife, and that the tale is written in a strain of low humour throughout. The husband and his pot-companions have been discovered in a drinking scene not unworthy of Teniers—and at length—
Night was far spent, when skin-full every smoker
Goes yawning, muttering, stuttering, as best able,
And reeling home, scarce one can find the knocker;
But not so Peter, who (it is no wonder
That he was in the wind) knocked loud as thunder.
Judith, poor little love! (It needs no fiction
Of mine to call the accident most distressing),
Prays Boxton, in her eloquent affliction,
To start at once—the case indeed was pressing—
And stows him in a press of a description
By no means pleasant;—not think first of dressing!—
It was pitch dark!—however great the terror.
My readers haply deem it a strange error.
All slip-shod as she was, and though the season
Was cold, in her chemise Judith descended
The steps, and oped the door, and asked the occasion
Of his return, and how so soon had ended
That journey? Peter deigned to give no reason,
Staggered up stairs, undressed himself, extended
His porpoise body on the bed,—scarce in it,
He snored like any porker in a minute.
But Judith’s heart did neither sleep nor slumber
Inquietude, instead, and fear and trouble
Roused straying thoughts, nor least so of the number.
The thought that her dear lord is there—but double,
In chest, with things I need not mention—lumber;
If that rough bear should wake, as might the cub well!—
It was a case to puzzle a tactician—
Some bold and prompt manœuvre, or perdition!
But one who knows the world must know what ample
Expedients throng in woman’s brains, and no man
But may adduce example on example.
To prove the ingenuity of woman;
Trust me (for I have had full many a sample),
Although, indeed, their peril was not common.
Some stratagem or other she’ll discover,
To save herself and extricate her lover.
† “Spezzo.”
* Δεοες ατ οφθαλμαυ χαι τε νοημα μαθειν.
A passage that proves this science was not unknown to the Greeks.