LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
[Sir John Stoddart]
Conversations of Lord Byron.
New Times  No. 8187  (25 October 1825)
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No. 8187. LONDON, MONDAY, OCTOBER 25, 1824. Price Sevenpence.


Captain Medwin’s Conversations of Lord Byron have at length appeared: and our Readers will naturally expect that we should take some notice of the book. We shall therefore do so, not by making very long extracts, (which perhaps would hardly be fair where the volume itself is not extremely bulky,) but by analysing its contents, and delivering a candid judgment on the picture which they present.

We approach this subject with feelings of undissembled regret. Few persons have a more sincere love then we have for poetry, and none can be more ready to allow that with some of the qualities of a great poet Lord Byron was supereminently endowed. He had talents and faculties of no vulgar order, such as might have enabled him to take rank with the great benefactors of mankind; and he has actually produced thoughts of exquisite beauty and sublimity, and verse which well deserves to be immortal—But, alas! the evil is so closely entwined to his productions with the good, and in so many instances far outweighs it, and that evil is of so deadly a hue and so fatal a pollution, that we are forced reluctantly to tear ourselves from the charms with which it is invested—there is poison on the sweet scented blossom—there is death in the fascinating smile.

The solution of this enigma is to be found in the work before us. Man is the creature of circumstances. We mean not to exclude the guidance and inspiration of a higher power—far from it!—But the peculiar situations in which the individual is placed, the peculiar advantages held out to him on the one hand, nd the peculiar temptations to which he is exposed on the other, serve, when once known, to explain the course which he pursues towards imperishable greatness, or a melancholy fail. Now, in regard to Lord Byron, enough is shewn in these Conversations to account for all the most prominent features of his character; and, what is of infinitely greater consequence, a test is afforded of the real good or evil to be derived from a perusal of his works.

The sources of his happiness or misery are to be traced higher than his birth. A noble ancestry of many generations gave a tone of elevation to his feelings, a pride, either of insolence or of dignity, as after-circumstances might direct. His father was a most abandoned profligate. Lord Byron himself thus speaks of him: “he ran out three fortunes, and married, or ran away with, three women. He seemed horn for his own ruin, and that of the other sex. He began by seducing Lady Carmarthen, and spent for her 4000l. a year; and not content with one adventure of this kind, afterwards eloped with Miss Gordon. His marriage was not destined to be a very fortunate one either.” (p. 55.)—“I lost my father when I was only six years of age.—My mother, when she was in a rage with me (and I gave her cause enough) used to say, ‘Ah, you little dog, you are a Byron all over; you are as bad as your father.’ I was not so young when my father died, but that I perfectly remember him; and had very early a horror of matrimony from the sight of domestic broils.” These broils must have been extremely violent, to have made so deep an impression on a child of so tender an age: and nothing could be more injudicious than his mother’s impressing him with the idea that profligacy ran in his blood, an opinion which served to reconcile him to his vices throughout life. “Before I married,” says he, “I shewed some of the blood of my ancestors. It is ridiculous to say we do not inherit our passions, as well as the gout or any other disorder.” (p. 53.) So flattering is the unction which men willingly lay to their souls!

Speaking of the time prior to twelve years old, he says, “I was a wayward youth, and gave my mother a world of trouble.” (p. 56.) “I passed my boyhood at Mar Lodge, near Aberdeen, occasionally visiting the Highlands.”—“Probably the wild scenery of Morven, Loch na Garr, and the banks of the Dee were the parents of my poetical vein.” (p. 57.) At ten, it may be remembered, he succeeded to Peerage. “I was sent to Harrow,” says he, “at twelve.” (p. 58.) “I had a spirit that ill brooked the restraints of school discipline; for I had been encouraged by servants in all my violence of temper, and was used to command. Every thing like a task was repugnant to my nature, and I came away a very indifferent classic, and read in nothing that was useful.” (p. 61.) Here, by the bye, we would call attention to the close and remarkable coincidence between this passage, which we never before perused or heard of, and the following in our Memoir of Lord Byron, in The New Times of May 17th last, “He was removed to Harrow school, and probably came thither with high ideas of his own importance as a Lord, and with habits of dislike to restraint, fostered by his customary wanderings among the Highland vales and mountains.”

It would be unjust not to add, that he acquired at Harrow, and ever after retained, a strong sense of his preceptor’s kindness (p. 61.), and a great regard for some of his schoolfellows. His pride of ancestry too once took effect in a curious and not unamiable way. “I prevented the schoolroom from being burnt during a rebellion, by pointing out to the boys the names of their fathers and grandfathers on the walls.” (p. 62.)

From Harrow he went, during the vacations, to Newstead Abbey, the seat of his ancestors, and to which, as such, he always felt a strong attachment (see p. 48). Here, about the age of 15 or 16, he formed a romantic attachment to, a young lady some years older than himself. “She was the beau ideal!,” says he “of all that my youthful fancy could paint of beautiful!”—“I passed the summer vacation of this year among the Malvern Hills: those were the days of romance!” (p. 59.)—“She jilted me, however;” (p. 62.)—and “for some years after the event, that had so much influence on my fate, I tried to drown the remembrance of it and of her in the most depraving dissipation.”—(p. 63.)

About this time it was that he first devoted him self to Poetry. “For a man to become a Poet,” says his Lordship, “he must be in love or miserable. I was both when I wrote the Hours of Idleness: some of those poems, in spite of what the Reviewers say, are as good as any I ever produced.” (p. 63)—in this opinion we have also agreed. We have said that the verses on Loch na Garr “had much poetical force, and were by no means devoid of harmony,” and that the whole collection “was certainly, no disgrace to the talents of a youth of nineteen.” “But,” we added, “the Edinburgh Reviewers, who knew nothing of the author except that he was a young Nobleman, fell upon him most unmercifully, and treated his verses with unmerited contempt.”—(New Times, May 17.)

Here let us pause, to reflect under what auspices and in what state of mind it was, that Lord Byron first addressed himself to the noble task of animating his countrymen for ages with the divine inspirations of the most divine of arts:—a wayward boy, corrupted by the example of parental profligacy, and spoiled by servile acquiescence in the violence of his passions—a youth prematurely devoted to romantic love, and mortified by a contemptuous rejection—a writer early courting the celebrity of the press, and stung by bitter and unmerited satire—a Nobleman just launched into a life of dissipation, accompanied, as he himself confesses, by depravity and wretchedness!

And is this a fit approach to the Temple of the Muses? Are these the precursors of a fame to equal that of Milton? Let us hear Milton’s own words:—“He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem, that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honourablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men or famous cities, unless he have in himself the practice of all that which is praiseworthy.” And therefore, speaking of the poets whose works he had diligently studied, he says, “if I found those authors any where speaking unworthy things of themselves, or unchaste of those names which they had before extolled, this effect it wrought with me, from that time forward their art I still applauded, but the men deplored: and above them all preferred the two famous renowners of Beatrice and Laura (Dante and Petrarch) who never write but honour of them to whom they devote their verse, displaying sublime and pure thoughts without transgression.” Again speaking of himself, he says, that a certain niceness of nature, an honest self-esteem, and a certain modesty kept him above “those low descents of mind, beneath which he must deject and plunge himself that can agree to saleable and unlawful prostitutions.” And further, treating of his studies, he says, “from the laureat fraternity of poets, riper years, and the ceaseless round of study and learning, led me to the shady spaces of philosophy, but chiefly to the divine volumes of Plato and his equal Xenophon.”—“Last of all, not in time, but as perfection is last, that care was ever had of me, with my earliest capacity, not to be negligently trained in the precepts of Christian Religion.”

We shall perhaps be told that Milton “was a pretty fellow in his day,” but that the modern method of forming a Poet is much more expeditious and effective. We can now “gather grapes from thorns, and figs from thistles.” We have a steam engine power for extracting pure and lofty sentiments from the brothel and the stews: the “divine volumes of Plato” have long since been ground up anew to furnish paper for Childe Harold: and as for the precepts of Christian Religion, “no poet (they are Lord Byron’s words) should be tied down to a direct profession of faith.” (p. 75.) At least, it will be admitted by the friends of the New School to be very important to trace the distinction accurately between their method of cultivating a poetical taste, and that of the old fashioned practitioners. Let us therefore continue to follow the progress of Lord Byron.

He remained at Cambridge till nineteen. “I believe,” says he, “they were as glad to get rid of me at Cambridge as they were at Harrow. (p. 36.) I was at this time a mere Bond-street lounger—a great man at lobbies, coffee and gambling houses; my afternoons were passed in visits, luncheons, luncheons, lounging, and boxing, not to mention drinking.” (p. 68.) He adds somewhat of gambling, but this does not seem to have been very prominent in his list of vices. His intrigues with women formed at this period the great business of his life, and he recounts them with a nauseating particularity; for they appear to have been merely gross and sensual, with as little pretension to delicacy as can well be conceived. From the nature of these confessions we must advert to them but briefly. One woman he says he dressed up in male attire, and passed her off as his brother.—(p. 66.) Another, whom he designates by the initials L. G., offered him her daughter for 100l. (p. 66.) With a third, a married woman of forty and the mother of several children, he kept up a criminal conversation for eight months, till she deserted him for another paramour (p. 68); and he mentions, apparently with some degree of pride, that three married women, with whom he had intrigued, came on a wedding visit to his wife, and were in the same room, at the same time, shortly after the honey moon!—(p. 67.)—To palliate the abandoned depravity of his own individual conduct, he asserts that it is almost universal in his rank of life. I have seen, says he, “a great deal of Italian society, and have swum in a gondola, but nothing could equal the profligacy of high life in England.”—(p. 67.)—We do not pretend to question the existence of vice in that portion or the community; but we will venture to say, it by no means approaches the hideous immorality here pictured. And if it did—what then? Would it prove that this was the way to form a Poet? Is it from the boson of libidinous sensuality that the pure inspirations of Poetry can arise?

One thing is certain. Lord Byron’s dissipation afforded him no glimpse of happiness, “Don’t suppose,” says he, “that I took any pleasure in these excesses”—(p. 69.)—“the poison was in the cup.”—p. 63.—“The miserable consequences of such a life are detailed at length in my Memoirs. My own master at an age when I most required a guide, and left to the dominion of my passions when they were the strongest, with a fortune anticipated before I came into possession of it, and a constitution impaired by early excesses, I commenced my travels in 1809 with a joyless indifference to a world that was all before me.”—(p. 69.)—Elsewhere he exclaims—“almost all the friends of my youth are dead, shot in duels, ruined, or in the galleys!”—(p. 59.)

Singular enough it is, that he should persuade himself his writings tended to exalt the female sex! (p. 71.) Alas, alas! if females are to be exalted by prostitution, let them read the works of Lord Byron —let them dwell upon and admire Gulnare, “as cruel (to use the words of an eloquent critic) as Lady Macbeth, and as wanton as the wife of Potiphar”—let them copy the incestuous guilt of ParisinaLaura is seduced into sin and misery—Theresa gives to virtue a few farewell tears and becomes an adulteress—Such are the examples held out to British Mothers, and Wives, and Daughter! These are the “celestial qualities” with which the imagination of Lord Byron delighted to invest a sex created for spotless purity and inviolable faith!

It was not to he expected that he should do common justice to the female character. He had associated almost exclusively with the refuse of the sex; and he charitably extended to those whom he knew not the despicable opinion which those whom he knew but too well deserved. “Like Napoleon,” says he, “I have always had a great contempt for women.” (p. 71.) Did he learn this from Milton? Or had he never read those magnificent lines which give such true dignity to the love that is felt toward a virtuous woman—

Greatness of mind and nobleness their seat
Build in her love, rest, and create an awe
About her, as a guard angelic placed?

But we are somewhat anticipating the course of our remarks on the growth of his poetical character. A strong and early proof of his irritable vanity was afforded him by the pain he felt at the sarcasms of the Edinburgh Review. “When I first saw the review of my Hours of Idleness,” says he, “I was furious; in such a rage as I never have been in since. I dined that day with Scroope Davies, and drank three bottles of claret to drown it; but it only boiled the more.” (p. 142.) Elsewhere he says it even made him hate Scotland, the country of his boyhood. (p. 57.) Yet to this very circumstance he owed his first literary reputation. Stung to the quick, he resolved to sting in return; and produced in a year the English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.> This satire was virulence itself, unseasoned with a grain of justice; but the world loves satire; and the trait which gave the greatest point and popularity to this work was one for which his Lordship now admits there was no ground at all—an imputation on the courage of Mr. Jeffrey and Mr. Moore. The latter Gentleman addressed a letter to Lord Byron in the nature of a challenge, but the letter was mislaid; and subsequent occurrences produced a great friendship between the writer and the addressee.—(p. 146.)

Lord Byron had now left England on his first tour to the Levant. He departed, as we have seen, with feelings little to be envied, and he devoted himself while abroad to pursuits little to be praised. Among other cities he visited Venice, of which he thus speaks:—“Venice! I detest every recollection of the place, the people, and my pursuits. Every thing in a Venetian life, its gondolas, its effeminating indolence, its Siroccos tend to enervate, the mind and body.” (p. 70.) “Women were there, as they have ever been fated to be, my bane.” (p. 71.) He goes on to tell a story of a prostitute who threw herself into the Canal from his balcony: he adds, “I got into nearly as great a scrape by making my court to a spinster. As many Dowagers as you please at Venice; but beware of flirting with Ragazzas.” (p. 78.) And in another place he recounts an intrigue with a Turkish girl, who was near being put to death for her frailty. (p. 84.)

This tour, however, led him amongst scenes, which could not but revive whatever of imagination had been fostered amid the wild mountains of Braemar. He saw the Spaniards carrying on their wild guerilla warfare against the invader: he visited Ali, the singular but sanguinary Pasha of Yanina; he trod the classic field of Marathon, and “the green beauties of the Attic plain;” and he conceived the happy inspiration of writing a tour in verse, and making of his own character a poetical personage. His object, he states in the preface, was “to shew that early perversion of mind and morals leads to satiety of past pleasures, and disappointment in new ones; and that even the beauties of nature and the stimulus of travel are lost on a soul so constituted, or rather misdirected.” Happy had it been for Lord Byron had he been deeply impressed himself with these truths, and, feeling the evil, had applied himself manfully to remove its causes, seated as they were in vices which it was not yet too late for him to contend with and to subdue!

(To be continued.)