LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
[Henry Southern]
Personal Character of Lord Byron.
London Magazine  Vol. 10  (October 1824)  337-47.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH


OCTOBER, 1824.


To the Editor of the London Magazine.
Dear Sir,

The following article on the personal character of Lord Byron, will be read, I think, with peculiar interest, as your readers will immediately perceive that it is written by one who has had unusual opportunities of observing the extraordinary habits, feelings, and opinions of the inspired and noble Poet. I am quite sure that, after a perusal of the following paper, the reader will be able to see Lord Byron, mind and all, “in his habit as he lived:”—Much that has hitherto been accounted inexplicable in his Lordship’s life and writings is now interpreted, and the poet and the man are here depicted in their true colours. I can pledge myself to the strict correctness of its details.

I am, dear Sir, &c.
John Galt, Lord Byron’s Conversations
William Parry, Last Days of Lord Byron
J. G. Lockhart, “Lord Byron”

Lord Byron’s address was the most affable and courteous perhaps ever seen; his manners, when in a good humour, and desirous of being well with his guest, were winning—fascinating in the extreme, and though bland, still spirited, and with an air of frankness and generosity—qualities in which he was certainly not deficient. He was open to a fault—a characteristic probably the result of his fearlessness and independence of the world; but so open was he that his friends were obliged to live upon their guard with him. He was the worst person in the world to confide a secret to; and if any charge against any body was mentioned to him, it was probably the first communication he made to the person in question. He hated scandal and tittle-tattle—loved the manly straightforward course: he would harbour no doubts, and never live with another with suspicions in his bosom—out came the accusation, and he called upon the individual to stand clear, or be ashamed of himself. He detested a lie—nothing enraged him so much as a lie: he was by temperament and education excessively irritable, and a lie completely unchained him—his indignation knew no bounds. He had considerable tact in detecting untruth, he would smell it out almost instinctively; he avoided the timid driveler, and generally chose his companions among the lovers and practisers of sincerity and candour. A man tells the false and conceals the true, because he is afraid that the declaration of the thing, as it is, will hurt him. Lord Byron was above all fear of this sort; he flinched from telling no one what he thought to his face; from his infancy he had been afraid of no one: falsehood is not the vice of the
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powerful; the Greek slave lies, the Turkish tyrant is remarkable for his adherence to truth.

Lord Byron was irritable (as I have said), irritable in the extreme; and this is another fault of those who have been accustomed to the unmurmuring obedience of obsequious attendants. If he had lived at home, and held undisputed sway over hired servants, led captains, servile apothecaries, and willing county magistrates, probably he might have passed through life with an unruffled temper, or at least his escapades of temper would never have been heard of; but he spent his time in adventure and travel, amongst friends, rivals, and foreigners; and, doubtless, he had often reason to find that his early life had unfitted him for dealing with men on an equal footing, or for submitting to untoward accidents with patience.

His vanity was excessive—unless it may with greater propriety be called by a softer name—a milder term, and perhaps a juster, would be his love of fame. He was exorbitantly desirous of being the sole object of interest: whether in the circle in which he was living, or in the wider sphere of the world, he could bear no rival; he could not tolerate the person who attracted attention from himself; he instantly became animated with a bitter jealousy, and hated, for the time, every greater or more celebrated man than himself: he carried his jealousy up even to Buonaparte; and it was the secret of his contempt of Wellington. It was dangerous for his friends to rise in the world, if they valued his friendship more than their own fame—he hated them.

It cannot be said that he was vain of any talent, accomplishment, or other quality in particular; it was neither more nor less than a morbid and voracious appetite for fame, admiration, public applause: proportionably he dreaded the public censure; and though from irritation and spite, and sometimes through design, he acted in some respects as if he despised the opinion of the world, no man was ever more alive to it.

The English newspapers talked freely of him; and he thought the English public did the same; and for this reason he feared, or hated, or fancied that he hated England: in fact, as far as this one cause went, he did hate England, but the balance of love in its favour was immense; all his views were directed to England; he never rode a mile, wrote a line, or held a conversation, in which England and the English public were not the goal to which he was looking, whatever scorn he might have on his tongue.

Before he went to Greece, he imagined that he had grown very unpopular, and even infamous, in England; when he left Murray, engaged in the Liberal, which was unsuccessful, published with the Hunts, he fancied, and doubtless was told so, by some of his aristocratic friends, that he had become low, that the better English thought him out of fashion and voted him vulgar; and that for the licentiousness of Don Juan, or for vices either practised or suspected, the public had morally outlawed him. This was one of the determining causes which led him to Greece, that he might retrieve himself. He thought that his name coupled with the Greek cause would sound well at home. When he arrived at Cephalonia, and found that he was in good odour with the authorities,—that the regiment stationed there, and other English residents in the island, received him with the highest consideration, he was gratified to a most extravagant pitch; he talked of it to the last with a perseverance and in a manner which showed how anxious his fears had been that he was lost with the English people.

They who have not resided abroad are very little aware how difficult it is to keep up with the state of public opinion at home. Letters and newspapers, which are rarely seen even by the richer traveller on account of the immense expense of their transmission, scarcely do any thing more than tantalize the spirit, or administer food to the imagination. We gather the state of public opinion by ten thousand little circumstances which cannot, or only a few of which can, be communicated through any other channel of information. While on the spot, absence of calumny, or the fact of not hearing any thing disagreeable, is a proof of its non-ex-
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istence: abroad, on the contrary, silence if ominous; the fancy is at work, and torments a sensitive man, whose reputation is public property, in a manner of which it is difficult to form an adequate conception: an approach is made to it by wilful sectarian even within the four seas; hence the irritability of
Wordsworth; hence also, in a less degree, that of Southey, who mixes a little more with the world.

Lord Byron cannot be said to have been personally vain in any extraordinary degree, that is, not much more than men usually are. He knew the power of his countenance, and he took care that it should always he displayed to the greatest advantage. He never failed to appear remarkable; and no person, whether from the beauty of the expression of his features, the magnificent height of his forehead, or the singularity of his dress, could ever pass him in the street without feeling that he was passing no common person. Lord Byron has been frequently recollected when his portraits hare been shown—Ah! (the spectator has exclaimed, on either picture or engraving being seen,) I met that person in such or such a place, at such or such a time.

Pietro Gamba, Last Journey to Greece

His lameness, a slight mal-formation of the foot, did not in the least impede his activity; it may perhaps account in some measure for his passion for riding, sailing, and swimming. He nearly divided his time between these three exercises: he rode from four to eight hours every day when he was not engaged in boating or swimming. And in these exercises, so careful was he of his hands (one of those little vanities which sometimes beset men) that he wore gloves even in swimming.

He indulged in another practice which is not considered in England genteel, that is to say, it is not just now a fashion with the upper classes in this country—he chewed tobacco to some extent.

Pietro Gamba, Last Journey to Greece

At times, too, he was excessively given to drinking; but this is not so uncommon. In his passage from Genoa to Cephalonia, he spent the principal part of the time in drinking with the Captain of the vessel. He could bear an immense quantity of liquor without intoxication, and was by no means particular either in the nature or in the order of the fluids he imbibed. He was by no means a drinker constantly, or, in other words, a drunkard, and could indeed be as abstemious as any body; but when his passion blew that way he drank, as he did every thing else, to excess.

This was indeed the spirit of his life—a round of passion, indulgence, and satiety. He had tried, as most men do who have the power, every species of gratification, however sensual. Let no rich young man here who is not living under the surveillance of his relations or in fear of the public, let no such person turn up his nose. No men are more given to ring the changes upon gratification of all the sensual kinds than the English, especially the English on the continent,—the English, who in speech are the most modest people of the universe, and who, if you might trust their shy and reserved manner, think of nothing but decorum. Lord Byron did no more in this respect than almost every other Lord or Esquire of degree has done, and is doing, if he dare, at this moment, whether in London, Paris, Naples, Vienna, or elsewhere, with this difference—Lord Byron was a man of strong powers of intellect and active imagination; he drew conclusions and took lessons from what he saw. Lord Byron too was a man capable of intense passion, which every one who pursues the gratification of his appetite is not; consequently he went to work with a headlong reckless spirit, probably derived exquisite enjoyment, quickly exhausted himself, and was then left stranded in satiety.

There was scarcely a passion which he had not tried, even that of avarice. Before he left Italy he alarmed all his friends by becoming penurious—absolutely miserly, after the fashion of the Elwes and other great misers on record. The pleasures of avarice are dwelt on with evident satisfaction in one of the late cantos of Don Juan—pleasures which were no fictions of the poet’s brain, but which he had enjoyed and was revelling in at that moment; of course he indulged to excess, grew tired, and turned to something else.

340 Personal Character of Lord Byron

The passion which last animated him was that which is said to be the last infirmity of noble minds—ambition. There can be little doubt that he had grown weary of being known only as a writer; he determined to distinguish himself by action. Many other motives, however, went to make up the bundle which took him to the succour of the Greeks. Italy was waning in favour, he was beginning to grow weary of the society of the lady, to whom, after the manners of Italy, he had been attached, and unfortunately her passion outlived his: even in Greece she would gladly have joined him; but his Lordship had changed. Then, again, Greece was a land of adventure, bustle, struggle, sensation, and excitement, where the inhabitants have beautiful forms, and dress in romantic habits, and dwell in the most picturesque country of the world; and Lord Byron, as he said himself, had “an oriental twist in his imagination.” He knew that the Greeks looked up to him as, what he really was, one of their greatest regenerators; he was aware that his money and rank would give him unlimited power, influence, and respect; all of which he dearly loved. Then again, if any man ever sympathized deeply with bravery suffering in a generous cause, it was Lord Byron; and when he was roused, in moments of excitement, this sympathy was a violently propelling and a very virtuous motive. These and other secondary considerations led him to Greece, to sacrifice much of his personal comforts, much of his property, his health, and his life.

No two men were ever more unlike than Lord Byron excited and Lord Byron in the ordinary state of calm. His friends about him used to call it inspiration; and when men of their stamp talk about inspiration, there must no common change take place. When excited, his sentiments were noble, his ideas grand or beautiful, his language rich and enthusiastic, his views elevated, and all his feelings of that disinterested and martyr-like cast which marks the great mind. When in the usual dull mood in which almost every body wearies their friends nine hours out of the ten, his ideas were gross, his language coarse, his sentiments not mean certainly, but of a low and sensual kind; his mood sneering and satirical, unless in a very good humour, which indeed, he often, I may say generally, was. This is, however, the wrong side of the picture in Lord Byron—he may be said here to be taken at the worst. Without being what I have called excited, his conversation was often very delightful, though almost always polluted by grossness—grossness of the very broadest and lowest description, like, I cannot help saying again, like almost all his class—all of them that do not live either in the fear of God, or of the public. His grossness too had the advantage of a fertile fancy, and such subjects were the ready source of a petty kind of excitement; the forbidden words, the forbidden topics, the concealed actions of our nature, and the secret vices of society, stimulated his imagination, and stimulants he loved, and may be said at times to have wanted. He certainly did permit his fancy to feed on this dunghill garbage; now and then, indeed, even here he scratched up a pearl, but so dirty a pearl, few would be at the pains of washing it for all its price.

His letters are charming; he never wrote them with the idea of “The Letters of the Right Hon. Lord Byron, in 6 vols. 12mo.” before his eyes, as unfortunately our great men must now almost necessarily do. The public are so fond of this kind of reading, and so justly too, that there is great reason to fear that it will consume what it feeds on. Few things are so charming as to see a great man without all the paraphernalia of his greatness, without his being armed cap-a-pie for public contest, when every point is guarded, and every motion studied: when a man of reputation presents himself to the notice of the world, he must pretend to know every thing, or he will have credit for nothing—he must assume the air of infallibility, or the meanest creature that can read will discover that he is full of error; he must be supposed to have examined the subject in all its bearings, he must have consulted every authority, he must know what every body has said or thought previously on the
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matter, and he must anticipate what they can possibly say or think in future, or he will be voted a shallow writer, without information, who has produced a work of no value. Then as to style, it must be the abstract of language—it must be impersonal—unindividual—and just such as a literary machine which had the power of grinding thoughts might be supposed to utter. In short, the writer is every moment afraid of either committing himself or his friends; he is on his good behaviour; and natural freedom, grace, and truth, are out of the question. The writer for the public is as much unlike the real man as the traveller in a stage coach or as the guest at a public ball or dinner is like the lively, careless, rattling, witty, good-natured, fanciful pleasant creature, at his or her fireside, among old friends, who know too much of the whole life and character to be alarmed at any little sally, and who are satisfied with such knowledge as their friend possesses, without requiring that he should know every thing.
Lord Byron’s letters are the models of a species of composition which should be written without an eye to any models. His fancy kindled on paper; he touches no subject in a common every-day way; the reader smiles all through, and loves the writer at the end; longs for his society, and admires his happy genius and his amiable disposition. Lord Byron’s letters are like what his conversation was—but better—he had more undisturbed leisure to let his fancies ripen in; he could point his wit with more security, and his irritable temper met with no opposition on paper.

Pietro Gamba, Last Journey to Greece

Lord Byron was not ill-tempered nor quarrelsome, but still he was very difficult to live with; he was capricious, full of humours, apt to be offended, and wilful. When Mr. Hobhouse and he travelled in Greece together, they were generally a mile asunder, and though some of his friends lived with him off and on a long time, (Trelawney, for instance,) it was not without serious trials of temper, patience, and affection. He could make a great point often about the least and most trifling thing imaginable, and adhere to his purpose with a pertinacity truly re-markable, and almost unaccountable. A love of victory might sometimes account for little disputes and petty triumphs, otherwise inexplicable, and always unworthy of his great genius; but, as I have said, he was only a great genius now and then, when excited; when not so, he was sometimes little in his conduct, and in his writings dull, or totally destitute of all powers of production. He was very good-natured; and when asked to write a song, or a copy of verses in an album, or an inscription, for so poets are plagued, he would generally attempt to comply, but he seldom succeeded in doing any thing; and when he did, he generally gave birth to such Grub-street doggerel as his friends were ashamed of, and, it is to be hoped, charitably put into the fire. When, on the contrary, in a state of enthusiasm, he wrote with great facility, and corrected very little. He used to boast of an indifference about his writings which he did not feel, and would remark with pleasure that he never saw them in print, and never met with any body that did not know more about them than himself.

He left very little behind him. Of late he had been too much occupied with the Greeks to write, and, indeed, had turned his attention very much to action, as has been observed. Don Juan he certainly intended to continue; and, I believe, that the real reason for his holding so many conferences with Dr. Kennedy in Cephalonia was, that he might master the slang of a religious sect, in order to hit off the character with more veri-similitude.

His religious principles were by no means fixed; habitually, like most of his class, he was an unbeliever; at times, however, he relapsed into Christianity, and, in his interviews with Dr. Kennedy, maintained the part of a Unitarian. Like all men whose imaginations are much stronger than the reasoning power—the guiding and determining faculty—he was in danger of falling into fanaticism, and some of his friends who knew him well used to predict that he would die a Methodist; a consummation by no means impossible.

From the same cause, the preponderance of the imagination, there might have been some ground for the
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fear which beset his later moments that he should go mad. The immediate cause of this fear was, the deep impression which the fate of
Swift had made upon him. He read the life of Swift during the whole of his voyage to Greece, and the melancholy termination of the Dean’s life haunted his imagination.

Strong, overruling, and irregular as was Lord Byron’s imagination—a rich vice which inspired him with his poetry, and which is too surely but the disease of a great mind—strong as was this imagination—sensitive and susceptible as it was to all external influence, yet Lord Byron’s reasoning faculties were by no means of a low order; but they had never been cultivated, and, without cultivation, whether by spontaneous exertion, or under the guidance of discipline, to expect a man to be a good reasoner, even on the common affairs of life, is to expect a crop where the seed has not been sown, or where the weeds have been suffered to choke the corn. Lord Byron was shrewd, formed frequently judicious conclusions, and, though he did not reason with any accuracy or certainty, very often hit upon the right. He had occasional glimpses, and deep ones too, into the nature of the institutions of society and the foundations of morals, and, by his experience of the passions of men, speculated ably upon human life; yet withal he was any-thing but logical or scientific.

Uncertain and wavering, he never knew himself whether he was right or wrong, and was always obliged to write and feel for the moment on the supposition that his opinion was the true one. He used to declare that he had no fixed principles; which means that he knew nothing scientifically: in politics, for instance, he was a lover of liberty, from prejudice, habit, or from some vague notion that it was generous to be so; but in what liberty really consists—how it operates for the advantage of mankind—how it is to be obtained, secured, regulated, he was as ignorant as a child.

While he was in Greece, almost every elementary question of government was necessarily to be discussed; such was the crisis of Greek affairs—about all of which he showed himself perfectly ignorant. In the case of the press, for instance, and in all questions relating to publicity, he was completely wrong. He saw nothing but a few immediate effects, which appeared to him pernicious or the contrary, and he set himself against or in behalf of the press accordingly. Lord Byron complaining of the licentiousness of the press may sound rather singular, and yet such are necessarily the inconsistencies of men who suffer themselves to be guided by high-sounding words and vague generalities, and who expect to understand the art of government and the important interests, of society by instinct. In spite, however, of Lord Byron, the press was established in Greece, and maintained free and unshackled, by one of the greatest benefactors that country has as yet known from England, the Hon. Colonel Leicester Stanhope, who, by his activity, his energy, courage, but, above all, by his enlightened knowledge of the principles of legislation and civilization, succeeded in carrying into effect all his measures, as agent of the Greek committee, and who, by spreading useful information, and, above all, by the establishment of the press in all the principal points of reunion in Greece, has advanced that country in civilization many years, how many we dare not say. Before the establishment of the press, the Greeks were working out their regeneration in various parts of Greece, but not as a whole—without unity of design, or unity of interest,—each centre was ignorant of the operations of all the other centres, except by accidental communication; and communication, from the nature of the country and from the circumstances in which it was placed, was rare and hazardous. The press has greatly assisted to establish one feeling throughout the country; not merely is information passed from one quarter to another by its means, but an interchange of sentiments takes place, and a sympathy is created, advice and encouragement reciprocated, enthusiasm kept alive, and useful principles disseminated through the whole commonwealth. Not only will the press thus accelerate the liberation of Greece, but will also, when that liberation is effected, prevent the separation and dissolution
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of the country into petty kingdoms and governments, which was the bane of ancient Greece. It is becoming to the body politic what the nerves are to the body physical, and will bind a set of disjected members into one corresponding and sensitive frame. As a proof of Lord Byron’s uncertainty and unfixedness, he at one moment gave a very handsome donation (50l.) to one paper, the
Greek Chronicle, the most independent of them all, and promised to assist in its compilation. His friend and secretary, too, with his approbation, established a polyglot newspaper, the Greek Telegraph, with his countenance and support. The want of any fixed principles and opinions on these important subjects galled him excessively, and he could never discuss them without passion. About this same press, schools, societies for mutual instruction, and all other institutions for the purpose of educating and advancing the Greeks in civilization, he would express himself with scorn and disgust. He would put it on the ground that the present was not the time for these things; that the Greeks must conquer first, and then set about learning—an opinion which no one could seriously entertain who knew as he well did the real situation of the Greeks, who are only now and then visited by the Turks, descending at particular seasons in shoals, like herrings, and like them too to be netted, knocked on the head, and left to die in heaps till the whole countryside is glutted with their carcases.—The aptitude of the Greeks is as great as their leisure; and if even the men were actively engaged for the most part of their time, which they are not, surely no exertion of benevolence could be attended with more advantage than instructing the children at home. This, to be sure, is a quaker kind of warfare, and little likely to please a poet; though it must be confessed, that in respect to the pomp and circumstance of war, and all the sad delusions of military glory, no man could have more sane notions than Lord Byron. Mercenary warfare and the life-and-death struggle of oppressed men for freedom are very different things; and Lord Byron felt a military ardour in Greece which he was too wise a man ever to have felt under other circumstances. He was at one time, in Greece, absolutely soldier-mad; he had a helmet made, and other armour in which to lead the Suliotes to the storming of Lepanto, and thought of nothing but of guns and blunderbusses. It is very natural to suppose that a man of an enthusiastic turn, tired of every-day enjoyments, in succouring the Greeks would look to the bustle, the adventure, the moving accidents by flood and field, as sources of great enjoyment; but allowing for the romantic character of guerilla warfare in Greece, for the excessively unromantic nature of projects for establishing schools and printing-presses in safe places, where the Turks never or very seldom reach; allowing for these, yet they were not the causes of his Lordship’s hostility to these peaceful but important instruments in propagating happiness: he was ignorant of the science of civilization, and he was jealous of those who both knew it and practised it, and consequently were doing more good than himself, and began to be more thought about too, in spite of his Lordship’s money, which in Greece is certainly very little short of being all-powerful. The Greeks, it is true, had a kind of veneration for Lord Byron, on account of his having sung the praises of Greece; but the thing which caused his arrival to make so great a sensation there was the report that he was immensely rich, and had brought a ship full of sallars (as they call dollars) to pay off all their arrears. So that as soon as it was understood he had arrived, the Greek fleet was presently set in motion to the port where he was stationed; was very soon in a state of the most pressing distress, and nothing could relieve it but a loan of four thousand pounds from his Lordship, which loan was eventually obtained (though with a small difficulty), and then the Greek fleet sailed away, and left his Lordship’s person to be nearly taken by the Turks in crossing to Missolonghi, as another vessel which contained his suite and his stores actually was captured, though afterwards released. It was this money too which charmed the Prince Mavrocordato, who
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did not sail away with his fleet, but stayed behind, thinking more was to be obtained, as more indeed was, and the whole consumed nobody knows how. However, the sums procured from his Lordship were by no means so large as has been supposed; five thousand pounds would probably cover the whole, and that chiefly by way of loan, which has, I hear, been repaid since his death. The truth is, that the only good Lord Byron did, or probably ever could have done to Greece was, that his presence conferred an eclat on the cause all over Europe, and disposed the people of England to join in the loan. The lenders were dazzled, by his co-operation with the Greeks, into an idea of the security of their money, which they ought to have been assured of on much better grounds; but it requires some time and labour to learn the real state of a country, while it was pleasant gossip to talk of Lord Byron in Greece. The fact is, that if any of the foreign loans are worth a farthing it is that to the Greeks, who are decidedly more under the controul of European public opinion than any other nation in the world; about their capability to pay no one can doubt, and their honesty is secured by their interest.

Lord Byron was noted for a kind of poetical misanthropy, but it existed much more in the imagination of the public than in reality. He was fond of society, very good-natured when not irritated, and, so far from being gloomy, was, on the contrary, of a cheerful jesting temperament, and fond of witnessing even low buffoonery; such as setting a couple of vulgar fellows to quarrel, making them drunk, or disposing them in any other way to show their folly. In his writings he certainly dwelt with pleasure on a character which had somehow or other laid hold of his fancy, and consequently under this character he has appeared to the public: viz. that of a proud and scornful being, who pretended to be disgusted with his species, because he himself had been guilty of all sorts of crimes against society, and who made a point of dividing his time between cursing and blessing, murdering and saving, robbing and giving, hating and loving, just as the wind of his humour blew. This penchant for outlaws and pirates might naturally enough flow from his own character, and the circumstances of his life, without there being the slightest resemblance between the poet and the Corsair. He had a kind and generous heart, and gloried in a splendid piece of benevolence; that is to say, the dearest exercise of power to him was in unexpectedly changing the state of another from misery to happiness: he sympathized deeply with the joy he was the creator of. But he was in a great error with respect to the merit of such actions, and in a greater still respecting the reward which he thought awaited him. He imagined that he was laying up a great capital at compound interest. He reckoned upon a large return of gratitude and devotion, and was not content with the instant recompense which charity receives. They who understand the principles of human action know that it is foolish in a benefactor to look further than the pleasure of consciousness and sympathy, and that if he does, he is a creditor, and not a donor, and must be content to be viewed as creditors are always viewed by their debtors, with distrust and uneasiness. On this mistake were founded most of his charges against human nature; but his feelings, true to nature, and not obeying the false direction of his prejudices and erroneous opinions, still made him love his kind with an ardour which removed him as far as possible from misanthropy. It is very remarkable that all your misanthropists as painted by the poets are the very best men in the world—to be sure, they do not go much into company, but they are always on the watch to do benevolent actions in secret, and no distress is ever suffered to remain long unrelieved in the neighbourhood of a hater of his fellow men. Another cause of Lord Byron’s misanthropical turn of writing was his high respect for himself. He had a vast reverence for his own person, and all he did and thought of doing, inculcated into him, as into other lords, by mothers, governors, grooms, and nurse-maids. When he observed another man neg-
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lecting his wants for the sake of some petty gratification of his own, it appeared to him very base in the individual, and a general charge against all mankind—he was positively filled with indignation. He mentions somewhere in his works with becoming scorn, that one of his
relatives accompanied a female friend to a milliner’s, in preference to coming to take leave of him when he was going abroad. The fact is, no one ever loved his fellow man more than Lord Byron; he stood in continual need of his sympathy, his respect, his affection, his attentions, and he was proportionably disgusted and depressed when they were found wanting; this was foolish enough, but he was not much of a reasoner on these points,—he was a poet. In his latter quality, it was his business to foster all these discontented feelings, for the public like in poetry nothing better than scorn, contempt, derision, indignation; and especially a kind of fierce mockery which distinguishes the transition from a disturbed state of the imagination to lunacy. Consequently, finding this mood take with the public, when he sat down to write he began by lashing himself up into this state, his first business being, like Jove, to compel all the black clouds together he could lay his hands on. Besides, there is much that is romantic and interesting in a moody and mysterious Beltenebros; it is not every body that can be sated with the most exquisite joys of society; a man to have had his appetite so palled must have had huge success, he must have been a man of consideration in the eyes of the beautiful and the rich. To scorn implies that you are very much better than those you scorn; that you are very good, or very great, or very wise, and that others are the direct contrary. To despise is another mark of superiority. To be sad and silent are proofs that much sensation, perhaps of the most impassioned kind, has been experienced, is departed, and is mourned: this is touching; and a man who wishes to attract attention cannot do better, if he be handsome and genteel, than look woeful and affect taciturnity. Lord Byron was well aware of all this, and chose, for the purpose of exciting sympathy in his readers, to represent himself in the masquerade dress of Childe Harold. One day when Fletcher, his valet, was cheapening some monkeys, which he thought exorbitantly dear, and refused to purchase without abatement, his master said to him, “Buy them, buy them, Fletcher, I like them better than men; they amuse and never plague me.” In the same spirit is his epitaph on his Newfoundland dog, a spirit partly affected and partly genuine. The genuine part he would certainly never have retained, if he had reflected a little more upon the nature of his own feelings, and the motives which actuate men in every the least action of their lives. Boys enter upon the world stuffed with school-boy notions which their tutors think it necessary to fill them with, about generosity, disinterestedness, liberty, honour, and patriotism; and when in life they find nobody acting upon these, and that they never did and never can, they are disgusted, and consider themselves entitled to despise mankind, because they are under a delusion with respect to themselves and every body else. Some of them, if men of genius, turn poets and misanthropists; some sink into mere sensualists; and some, convinced of the hollowness of the things they have been taught to declaim about, unwisely conclude that no better system of morality is to be had, that there is nothing real but place, power, and profit, and become the willing instruments of the oppressors of mankind. The fault lies in education, and if there is any good to be done in the world that is the end to begin at.

Much of Lord Byron’s poetry took its peculiar hue from the circumstances of his life,—such as his travels in Greece, which formed a most important epoch in the history of his mind. The “oriental twist in his imagination,” was thence derived; his scenery, his imagery, his costume, and many of the materials of his stories, and a great deal of the character of his personages.—That country was the stimulant which excited his great powers; and much of the form in which they showed themselves is to be attributed to it. His great susceptibility to external impressions, his
346Personal Character of Lord Byron
intense sympathy with the appearances of nature, which distinguished him, were the fruits either of original conformation, or a much earlier stage of his experience; but it was in Greece, the most beautiful and picturesque of countries, that he came to the full enjoyment of himself. Certainly no poet either before or since so completely identified himself with nature, and gave to it all the animation and the intellection of a human being.
Benjamin Constant, in his work on Religion, lately published in Paris, quotes this passage from the Island, and appends to it the observation which I shall copy at the end.

How often we forget all time, when lone
Admiring nature’s universal throne,
Her woods, her wilds, her waters, the intense
Reply of hers to our intelligence!
Live not the stars and mountains? Are the waves
Without a spirit? Are the drooping caves
Without a feeling in their silent tears?
No—no—they woo and clasp us to their spheres,
Dissolve this clog and clod of day before
Its hour, and merge our soul in the great shore.
Strip off this fond and false identity!
Who thinks of self when gazing on the sea?

On this fine passage Benjamin Constant observes: “On nous assure que certains hommes accusent Lord Byron d’athéisme, et d’impiété. Il y a plus de religion dans ces douze vers que dans les ecrits passés, presents, et futurs, de tous ces denonciateurs mis ensemble.” Such is the Frenchman’s notion of religion; if it be correct, our poets must be as of old our priests again, and clergymen be dismissed for want of imagination. Lord Byron had not the dramatic talent, that is, he could not discriminate human characters and assume them; but he seems to have had this dramatic talent as applied, not to human beings, but to natural objects, in the greatest perfection. He could nicely discern their distinctive differences, adapt words and sentiments to them, and hold intercourse with them of a very refined and beautiful description. When he travelled, he communed with the hills, and the valleys, and the ocean. Certainly he did not travel for fashion’s sake, nor would he follow in the wake of the herd of voyagers. As much as he had been about the Mediterranean, he had never visited Vesuvius or Ætna, because all the world had; and when any of the well-known European volcanic mountains were mentioned he would talk of the Andes, which he used to express himself as most anxious to visit. In going to Greece the last time, he went out of his way to see Stromboli; and when it happened that there was no eruption during the night his vessel lay off there, he cursed and swore bitterly for no short time.

In travelling, he was an odd mixture of indolence and capricious activity; it was scarcely possible to get him away from a place under six months, and very difficult to keep him longer. In the Westminster Review, there is an interesting paper formed out of his letters, and out of Fletcher’s account of his last illness, which though written with fairness, has unhappily the usual fault of going upon stilts. All Lord Byron’s movements are attributed to some high motive or other, or some deep deliberation, when his friends well know that he went just as the wind did or did not blow. Among a deal more of bamboozlement about Lord Byron going to Greece or staying here or there, very sage reasons are given for his remaining in Cephalonia so long. The fact is, he had got set down there, and he was too idle to be removed; first, he was not to be got out of the vessel in which he had sailed, in which he dawdled for six weeks after his arrival, when the charter of the vessel expired and he was compelled to change his quarters;—he then took up his residence in the little village of Metaxata, where again he was not to be moved to Missolonghi, whither he had declared his resolution of proceeding: ship after ship was sent for him by Mavrocordato, and messenger upon messenger; he promised and promised, until at length, either worn out by importunity, or weary of his abode, he hired a couple of vessels (refusing the Greek ships) and crossed.

William Parry, Last Days of Lord Byron

It is said that his intention was
Personal Character of Lord Byron347
not to remain in Greece,—that he determined to return after his attack of epilepsy. Probably it was only his removal into some better climate that was intended. Certainly a more miserable and unhealthy bog than Missolonghi is not to be found out of the fens of Holland, or the Isle of Ely. He either felt or affected to feel a presentiment that he should die in Greece, and when his return was spoken of, considered it as out of the question, predicting that the Turks, the Greeks, or the Malaria, would effectually put an end to any designs he might have of returning. At the moment of his seizure with the epileptic fits prior to his last illness, he was jesting with
Parry, an engineer sent out by the Greek committee, who, by dint of being his butt, had got great power over him, and indeed, became every thing to him. Besides this man there was Fletcher, who had lived with him twenty years, and who was originally a shoemaker, whom his Lordship had picked up in the village where he lived, at Newstead, and who, after attending him in some of his rural adventures, became attached to his service: he had also a faithful Italian servant, Battista; a Greek secretary; and Count Gamba seems to have acted the part of his Italian secretary. Lord Byron spoke French very imperfectly, and Italian not correctly, and it was with the greatest difficulty he could be prevailed upon to make attempts m a foreign language. He would get any body about him to interpret for him, though he might know the language better than his interpreter.

When dying, he did not know his situation till a very short time before he fell into the profound lethargy; from which he never awoke; and after he knew his danger, he could never speak intelligibly, but muttered his indistinct directions in three languages. He seems to have spoken of his wife and his daughter—chiefly of the latter; to this child he was very strongly attached, with indeed an intense parental feeling; his wife I do not believe he ever cared much for, and probably he married her from mercenary motives.

I shall not attempt any summing up of the desultory observations which I have thrown together, in the hope of superseding the cant and trash that has and will be said and sung about the character of this great man. All that it is necessary to add by way of conclusion, may be condensed into a very few words. Lord Byron was a Lord of very powerful intellect and strong passions; these are almost sufficient data for a moral geometer to construct the whole figure; at least, add the following sentence, and sufficient is given: whether by early romantic experience, or by a natural extreme sensitiveness to external impressions, it was of all his intellectual faculties the imagination which was chiefly developed. Putting them together, we may conclude, as was the fact, that he was irritable, capricious, at times even childish, wilful, dissipated, infidel, sensual; with little of that knowledge which is got at school, and much of that acquired afterwards: he was capable of enthusiasm; and though intensely selfish, that is, enjoying his own sensations, he was able to make great sacrifices, or, in other words, he had a taste for the higher kinds of selfishness, i. e. the most useful and valuable kinds; he was generous, fearless, open, veracious, and a cordial lover of society and of conviviality; he was ardent in his friendships, but inconstant; and, however generally fond of his friends, more apt to be heartily weary of them than people usually are.

No more epithets need be heaped together; all that men have in general, he had in more than ordinary force; some of the qualities which men rarely have he possessed to a splendid degree of perfection.

Pietro Gamba, Last Journey to Greece

Such is the personal character of Lord Byron, as I have been able to draw it from having had access to peculiar sources of information, and from being placed in a situation best calculated, as I think, to form an impartial opinion.

R. N.