LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
[William Maginn?]
Byron's Last Biographer.
New Monthly Magazine  Vol. 31  (February 1831)  159-64.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH


New Monthly Magazine.

FEBRUARY 1, 1831.



There was once an Archbishop of Dublin, whose palace and paths were beset by friends and relatives, till patience and purse were equally exhausted. One day, as he was riding out, a mendicant accosted him, with that preface to a begging petition, so common, which enlists your sense of religion and your feelings in their favour:—“For the love of God, a trifle—I have not a friend in the world!”—“Not a friend in the world?” exclaimed the Prelate—“would the man be an archangel;”—What the Archbishop said in his life, Lord Byron might say after his death. Had the gifts of poet and prophet been united, as in days of yore, his Lordship would have died with the old proverb on his lips—“Save me from my friends!”

Great men are generally made responsible for the sins of their biographers, whose flippancy, or whose dullness, whose too narrow or too theoretic views, alike reflect on their unfortunate subject. At the first glance, Lord Byron would seem to have been peculiarly favoured in his. Mr. Moore was an old and an intimate friend, one with whom Byron constantly corresponded, and to whom he entrusted his most important proof of confidence. Mr. Moore was also a man whose literary reputation stood sufficiently high to save him from all suspicion of that envy, almost inseparable from the unsuccessful. Himself a poet, he was well calculated to pronounce that best judgment on poetry, which is the result of feeling. He also came forward as the affectionate and professed apologist of a life, the details of which required many allowances, and much delicacy. Whether said in a friendly or unfriendly spirit, the remark was universal, “Lord Byron is very fortunate in having Moore for his biographer,”—all were prepared to expect a life, which, with laudable partiality, would soften and redeem all darker shades, and, by taking the best, take perhaps the truest view; for there is more truth in charitable conclusions, than we are always willing to admit.

“Wait for the end,” said the Grecian sage. Certainly in this case, the congratulatory predictions have brought any thing but their own fulfilment. Has Lord Byron’s character come elevated or purified from the hands of his biographer? Most assuredly not. Has his friend, Mr. Moore, been
“To his virtues very kind,
And to his faults a little blind?”
Assuredly he has not. Every petulant expression is recorded, every degrading act registered; his sneers and his intrigues, all that must awaken and exasperate the angry feeling of those concerned, and disgust even those who are not, are assiduously dragged into light. If we wish to array every moral principle of the reader against a hero, what better method of doing it, than by dwelling upon his most vicious actions? and assuming that pseudo-tone of apology, which only revolts the sense of right it affects to blind? Is this fair? or rather shall we ask, is it not false?
* “Πισιον γαρ ουδεν γλωσσα δια σιομαοσ
Διχομινθον εχουσα καρδιη νοημα.”

If we seek to make the same hero ridiculous, what easier method than to enumerate his most trifling actions as things of importance, forcing the small incident to enact the tumid frog of the fable? Lord Byron is held up, in a spirit of magnanimous defiance to public opinion in England, as connecting himself with every black-eyed harlot in Venice, who is eager to fight for his favour, while an air of grandiloquent absurdity is thrown over the whole, by a long inventory of trifles, alike ludicrous, uninteresting, and unimportant. What can it

* The old Mitylenæn means to hint, “that where double-tongued guile is cherished at heart, truth never passes the lips.”
matter to the public, when Lord Byron took salts? Such passages as the following mark a man scrupulously careful of the character of the friend he champions:—

“I have got some extremely good apartments in the house of a merchant of Venice, who is a good deal occupied with business, and has a wife in her twenty-second year.” Again, “I am very well off with Marianna, who is not at all a person to tire me; firstly, because I do not tire of a woman personally, but because they are generally bores in their disposition; and secondly, because she is amiable, and has a tact, which is not always the portion of the fair creation; and thirdly, she is very pretty; and fourthly, but there is no occasion for farther specification.”

Are such and similar passages consistent with the reason assigned for the suppression of others, because they are of a like nature! By the suppression of a passage, we are naturally led to conclude that its coarseness called for its omission, or that its contents, if known, might injure Lord Byron’s fame; but when we find many such passages admitted, we are driven to seek other motives and deeper reasons, and are led to suspect that this foster-father of his Lordship’s fame either has some more remote cause for withholding the omitted parts, or is at times marvellously forgetful of his previous determination to cancel all that is objectionable. It seems to have escaped Mr. Moore, that by undertaking somewhat arbitrarily to decide for the public what it ought, and what it ought not, to read of Lord Byron’s correspondence, he becomes voluntarily responsible for the propriety of whatever he is pleased to lay open for perusal. To his kindness, therefore, is the public, and to his friendly judgment is the memory of his Lordship alike indebted for such frivolities as the following:—

“I had a civet-cat the other day, too; but it ran away, after scratching my monkey’s cheek, and I am in search of it still. It was the fiercest beast I ever saw, and like —— in the face and manner.”—“Our weather is very fine, which is more than the summer has been. At Milan I shall expect to hear from you. Address either to Milan post restante, or by way of Geneva, to the care of Monsr. Hentsch, Banquier. I write these few lines in case my other letter should not reach you; I trust one of them will.”—“Pray send the red tooth-powder by a safe hand, and speedily.”—“I am not coming to England, but going to Rome in a few days. I return to Venice in June; so pray address all letters, &c. to me here as usual—that is, to Venice. Dr. Polidori this day left this city, with Lord G——, for England. He is charged with some books to your care (from me), and two miniatures also to the same address, both for my sister.”—“There are few English here, but several of my acquaintance, amongst others the Marquess of Lansdowne, with whom I dine to-morrow. I met the Jerseys on the road at Foligno—all well.”—“All your missives came, except the tooth-powder, of which I request farther supplies at all convenient opportunities: as also of magnesia and soda-powders.”—“Mr. Kinnaird is not yet arrived, but expected. He has lost, by the way, all the tooth-powder, as a letter from Spa informs me. By Mr. Rose, I received safely, though tardily, magnesia and tooth-powder, and ——. Why do you send me such trash, worse than trash, the sublime of mediocrity. Thanks for ‘Lalla.’”—“I petition for toothbrushes, powder, and magnesia; Macassar oil (or Russia); the sashes.”—“The crow is lame of a leg—wonder how it happened—some fool trod upon his toe, I suppose; the falcon pretty brisk; the cats large and noisy; the monkeys I have not looked to since the cold weather, as they suffer by being brought up. Horses must be gay—get a ride as soon as weather serves. Deuced muggy still.”—“Dined; tried on a new coat; mended the fire with some syobole (a Romagnuole word), and gave the falcon some water. Drank some Seltzer-water; read, rode, fired pistols—returned—dined.”—“Bought a blanket.”—“The Count P. G——, this evening (by commission from the Ci.), transmitted to me the new words for the next six months—*** and ***. The new sacred word is ***—the reply, ***—the rejoinder, ***. The former word (now changed) was ***; there is also ***—***. Things seem fast coming to a crisis—Ca ira!

True, there was a book to be made, and that book a quarto, and that quarto to be filled. A quarto—the state-coach and six—the last remains of the heavy aristocracy of literature. But still, even when we consider the broad domain of margin, the ease with which a few flimsy, flowery paragraphs are thrown off—
not even that horseleech, a quarto, crying “Give, give!” can satisfactorily account for more than half of that which
Mr. Moore has judged adviseable to insert. Such is the dross gathered from submitting the character and correspondence of Lord Byron to the crucible of his acknowledged friend and professed advocate!

Now there are two ways of cutting this Gordian knot between profession and practice. First, that it takes its origin from a mistake in judgment—a conclusion which none can admit; Mr. Moore is too clever a man, and too much a man of the world, to lack the penetration which discerns, and the tact which avoids the ridiculous. The second is, that the feeling feigned and affected by Mr. Moore towards “his noble and valued friend” was but the mask to a very different one, and that, in fact and reality, he envied, feared, and disliked this “wonderful and gifted individual.”

Through his whole life, Moore has acted very much on the plan of the old woman who lighted two wax tapers, one to St. Michael and one to the Devil—and the Devil’s was rather the longest. Circumstances may have rendered conciliation expedient, but his nature ever leads him to nibble, if he dare not wound. To recur, for a moment, to his Life of Sheridan; can any one be found who will assert that the unhappy orator’s reputation was brightened by being filtered through Mr. Moore’s pages? Byron has shared but the same fate as Sheridan—a fate, by the way, very generally participated in by all who are doomed to figure in these quartos. We marvel much if Mr. Murray feels very greatly gratified, from being himself put forth with “all the leaven of Fleet-street clinging about him.” That Mr. Moore should cherish a hidden dislike to his “noble friend” can create but little surprise. Byron’s first attack, in “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,” was as easy, as the old comedy hath it, “to forgive as a Christian; that is to say, not at all;” but very difficult to forget. We can pardon being made the object of abuse, but never being made the object of ridicule. Nay, when they nominally stood forth as the Pylades and Orestes of poetry, Byron never checked or repressed the occasional sneer at one “of the better brothers;” as when he says, “Public opinion never led, nor ever shall lead me; I will not sit on a degraded throne; so pray put Messrs.——, or——, or Tom Moore upon it, they will all be transported with their coronation.” This seems to us one of those pleasantries, pleasant to all but the individual most concerned. Lord Byron was not of those who “scented vanity by a kindred instinct, and pampered it by way of exchange.” He might like “golden opinions from all ranks of men,” but he infinitely preferred taking their gold after he had knocked them down. Mr. Moore was, additionally, courted and petted, as the presumed friend and positive correspondent of Lord Byron, and was wont, from this vicarious favour and reflected fame, to pride himself as though all this homage and distinction was devoted and but due to himself. Setting, however, this instance aside, wherein he suffered his vanity to blind his discernment, Mr. Moore seems to have laboured under the grievous mistake of supposing correspondence necessarily implied friendship; his gall could not but rise, and his chagrin burn, upon reading these words of Lord Byron: “As to friendship, it is a propensity in which my genius is very limited. I do not know the male human being, except Lard Clare, the friend of my infancy, for whom I feel any thing that deserves the name. All my others are men-of-the-world friendships.” After this positive disclaimer, and distinction between personal and accidental friends, his Lordship proceeds: “But as for friends and friendship, I have (as I already said) named the only remaining male for whom I feel any thing of the kind.” Lest, however, Mr. Moore should be quite choked with choler, Lord Byron does at length go so far as to admit him, in rather an equivocal manner, to a small share of favour, by making this gratifying exception—“perhaps Thomas Moore.” That a nature such as Lord Byron’s should provoke many enemies is no matter of marvel, still less that Mr. Moore should be at the back of the roll. But what we reprobate is the semblance of friendship and the reality of hate. To a fair field and no favour, we would only have said—
“Upon him bravely, do thy worst,
And foul fall him who blenches first.”
but we loathe this wily censure and secret satire, under the guise of an epitaph. We disdain the assailant who fights under a flag of truce. When the libraries of the “nobility and gentry,” at least of such on whose shelves size stands for dignity, are supplied; also the country book-clubs, which judge by weight, this quarto will be cut down and republished as an octavo. It will bear this well, for full three hundred pages might be beneficially omitted, and the remainder still have the rare merit of being best for all parties. As a biographical work, Moore’s “
Byron” will never take a standard place in our literature. The form under which these pages should have appeared, and in which they would have been far more valuable, was the simple title of “Lord Byron’s Correspondence;” and, if any absolute necessity existed for these letters being dovetailed into awkward divisions, and interlined with constellations of asterisks, which any one may fill up, or fancy the suppressed matter far worse than its reality, which certain consequence Mr. Moore has chosen to disregard, we could wish they had fallen into kindlier or more judicious hands. The biographer has done nothing—no new light is thrown on Lord Byron’s matrimonial dissensions. While, with regard to the destruction of his Lordship’s journal, Mr. Moore only says, “if it were to be done* over again, I should act in the same manner.” This conclusion is more satisfactory to himself than to his readers. It would require something far more intelligible than this self-gratulatory paragraph to change the general opinion, or remove the odium attached to this transaction. Mr. Moore accepted the trust in the full maturity of his judgment, he read the MS. and had ample time to ponder and reflect upon its contents, and, if he found them such as he could not sanction or approve, it was still in his power, and it was his bounden duty to remonstrate with Lord Byron, and, if his remonstrance failed, as an honourable, nay, as an honest man, he should have refused the trust. But no, Mr. Moore, in premeditated treachery, unhesitatingly undertook this trust, which, when his friend is in the grave, he as unhesitatingly violates. We would ask Mr. Moore what is the perfidy, what the effrontery of that man, who, even while he is bartering for gold the confidential letters of his deceased friend—which letters were never intended to meet the public eye—yet dares to withhold the MS. entrusted to his charge for the sole and positive purpose of being laid open to the world? We would ask, hath not such a one deceived his friend and defrauded the public? and we would say to Mr. Moore, “thou art the man!” The following passages speak for themselves. His Lordship writes: “Your entering into my project for the Memoir is pleasant to me.” “So Longman don’t bite: it was my wish to have made that work of use. Murray, however, does bite to the tune of two thousand guineas.” It is curious to observe how clearly his Lordship foresees the advantages of his own death, in a business point of view: “You need not be alarmed; the fourteen years will hardly elapse without some mortality among us: so your calculation will not be in so much peril, as the ‘argosie’ will sink before that time, and the pound of flesh be withered, previously to your being so long out of a return.” Again, he writes to Moore himself—“I really think you should have more, if I evaporate in a reasonable time.” Again, in allusion to Murray’s offering pounds, instead of guineas, Lord Byron says—“I thought our Magnifico would pound you, if possible: he’s trying to pound me too, but I’ll specie the rogue.”

Thus, while endeavouring to raise money upon the MS., Mr. Moore found nothing objectionable in the publication; but, like a regular jockey, was ready to warrant it “sound, and free from blemish.” But the whole business

* We would call the attention of our readers to the following passage, p. 294. “My, this present writing, is to direct you that, if she chooses, she may see the MS. memoir in your possession. I wish her to have fair play in all cases, even though it will not be published till after my decease. For this purpose it were but just that Lady Byron should know what is there said of her and hers, that she may have full power to remark on or respond to any part or parts, as may seem fitting to herself. This is fair dealing, I presume, in all events.” Surely this is one proof, at least, that the contents of the “Journal” were not the real cause of its suppression.
is worthy of Rosemary-lane, or the Stock Exchange.
Byron died, and Moore had quite worldly experience enough to see, that the tide of opinion would turn, and that the admiration and sympathy denied the living would be lavished on the dead. Two thousand pounds was infinitely less than the present value of the MS.; but Murray was ever a man, whose timidity is wont to get in the way of his calculations. The “pitiless storm” of abuse was still ringing in his ears. The violence of “the small fry” about him was as yet unmastered and unstifled by the reaction of public feeling. The speculation seemed a hazardous one. So Murray was glad to get back his money, and Moore his MS. For once, the poet fairly outwitted the bookseller. Some three or four years after, Mr. Moore receives from Mr. Murray double the sum for a “Life of Lord Byron.”

There is such a similarity of case and conduct between Hunt and Moore, that we cannot refrain from drawing the parallel. Both accepted Lord Byron’s friendship; both expressed themselves flattered by it. Both accepted pecuniary obligations; the one received money, the other goods. Both publish quartos after his death, of which his faults and follies furnish the materiel. Of the two, Leigh Hunt’s conduct is by far the least disreputable. He avows his angry feelings, and says candidly, if not kindly, “I was aggrieved, I resent and revenge to the uttermost of my power.” But Mr. Moore comes forward as the eulogist and the defender—of such eulogy we can only say—
“Some sly reproach, with praise to blend.
No enemy can match a friend.”
Such defence we deprecate, for any memory which has our good wishes.

We particularly pointed attention to one or two literary slights, as the key to Mr. Moore’s invidious and masked battery. We now proceed to expose the meanness, and yet the exaggeration of vanity, which forbade this small portion of evil to be counterbalanced and obliterated by a series of kind offices and warm praises. Lord Byron made the amende honorable for the attack in “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,” and he ever spoke with regret of the hasty intemperance and sweeping conclusions of a young and angry man. The sneer, in one of his letters, was, after all, but retaliation for Moore’s own quiz upon the “Corsair.” Place in the opposite balance, praise the most repeated and most cordial—sympathy in domestic afflictions—letters full of confidence—anxiety about, and rejoicing in his friend’s success—a gift offered in the most delicate manner, and benefited by to the amount of two thousand pounds—a reception in his house the most hospitable; but let us use the biographer’s own words—“Here,” said Lord Byron, in a voice whose every tone spoke kindness and hospitality, “these are the rooms I use myself, and here I mean to establish you.” Yet one touch of offended vanity could cancel this long arrear of kindness. “What, but one halfpenny-worth of bread to all this sack? Monstrous!!!”—We close this revolting part of our subject in the too pertinent words of the Psalmist—

“It is not an open enemy that hath done me this dishonour; for then I could have borne it. Neither was it mine adversary that did magnify himself against me; for then, peradventure, I would have hid myself from him. But it was even thou, my companion—mine own familiar friend.”

Lord Byron’s own letters are full of interest. Their most marked, because most unexpected, characteristic, is their common sense. Nothing can be more true than his analysis of character, and his insight into motives.
“He is a keen observer, and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men.”
Nothing more accurate, and, we must add, more just than his observations, when referring to the business of life. The next distinguishing mark, is the feverish, insatiate, and unbounded vanity they display. What will be said? is the great first cause. But is not this weakness, the inevitable attendant on a literary career? We all know we cannot take to dram-drinking with impunity, and flattery is just a mental glass of brandy,—the love of excitement engenders the
habit, and the habit, soon confirmed, becomes a craving want. Lord Byron, in common with all popular authors, had three ordeals to pass: first to fight his way into notice; and with him, as with others, this was not done without a wearying and humbling apprenticeship to mortification and neglect. He was next to essay the excess of adulation, to be courted by those who hope to make another’s praise “interpret to their own”—in short, he was to live through a carnival of compliment. Thirdly, he was to abide the reaction of his own success, when praise was no longer a novelty, and its sweets cloyed; but the sting of abuse still retained its smart, and of a person on whom the gaze of the public has long been concentrated, nothing is too absurd to be invented—too atrocious to be repeated—too false to be believed—for “Folly loves the martyrdom of fame.” All these stages leave their sediment behind; the first, its anxiety and bitterness; the second, its satiety and disgust; the third, its disdain and defiance. Lord Byron lived through all.

We leave it to those—who deem that to depreciate is to assimilate to their own low level—those Tartars of the moral world, who seem to think that the qualities of those they destroy must become their own possession and inheritance,—We leave to such as these to point attention to Lord Byron’s vices, as though these were his peculiar property, instead of being heired by the many, and indulged by the most. We leave it to such to enlarge upon his vanity, as if he were the sole and single possessor of that most universal weakness. We leave it to the friends he trusted and obliged, to enact
“The secret enemy, whose sleepless eye
Stands sentinel, accuser, judge, and spy.”
But it is the common cause of all—
“Whose mind
Stars the dark wanderings of mankind,—”
the common cause, too, of all who have been either enlightened or delighted, to rise up against the base spirit which, for grain or for grudge, violates the confidence and degrades the memory of the dead. Who among us has been so careful and so cautious in speech, or so upright in conduct, as to challenge such scrutiny, and abide the test to which Lord Byron has been subjected? What possible benefit can be derived from petty details? There is more real discouragement to genius in a few pages of a work like
Mr. Moore’s, than in all the records of all the Otways, Chattertons, and Keateses, that ever died of neglect or starvation. No writer ever sat down under the shade of his own palm-tree more triumphantly than Lord Byron, and no one had ever more reason to know that its shadow brought not repose; that its crown was of thorns; its shelter but that of the Upas. When we talk of his faults, we may remember, if we will, that we might have been benefited by them, as beacons of warning. If we have been touched by his pathos, let us forgive that it had a real cause; and if we have been enlivened by his wit, we may regret, without reproach, that he ever practised the folly, he afterwards, in scorn of it, painted to the life. Like other men, Lord Byron had his frailties and his vices; but, unlike others, he has left an atoning record of the one in keen satire, and of the other in sad and true philosophy. Why should we dwell upon himself,—taking “a base delight” from those traits which he shared in common with his fellow men? Why should we not rather dwell upon his works, with a high and generous pride in the noble monument thus erected in the literature of our own age? Lord Byron has himself said—
“I twine
My hopes of being remember’d in my line
With my land’s language;”—
those hopes may rest in security, for that language enrolls his memory.