LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
[William Jerdan?]
Medwin’s Byron’s Conversations.
Literary Gazette  No. 408  (13 November 1824)  725-26.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH

Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences &c.

No. 408. SATURDAY,  NOVEMBER  13,  1824. PRICE 1s.


Though in the case of fancying himself a witness to a deed which did not exist [see our last Gazette] Captain Medwin has shown that his memory was somewhat treacherous, or, that his mind was ready to assent to whatever Lord Byron chose to assert, will still consider his report of these conversations to be a tolerably accurate picture of his Lordship’s manner and style in Italy. The question of the propriety or impropriety of publishing, we shall no farther discuss: there seems to be a very prevalent opinion in the public, that such practices strike deeply at the root of social life and private confidence. Indeed, personality in writing has become the vice of the day. It pervades all our periodical literature in an unwarrantable degree; and disgraces some of the cleverest productions of that class which issue from the press.

But while the world condemns, the world buys; and every one, in turn, thus encourages the injury done to his neighbour, till at last
the case becomes his own, and then, great is the outcry. In the meantime, persons known to be guilty of these offences are speedily kicked out of decent company; and if
On eagle wings immortal slander flies,
the despised slanderer is condemned to creep, reptile-like, among the darkest and dirtiest recesses on the earth. Captain Medwin, whose military rank entitles him to mix with gentlemen, and who is, we are told, the son of a respectable attorney at Horsham, would probably find it very unpleasant to encounter English society at home, in consequence of having printed this volume; so strong is the general feeling against such exhibitions of privacy, of character in deshabille, and of random talk which could never be meant to go beyond the walls within which it was uttered. In short, the gossip is justly reckoned as dangerous as the spy; and certain it is, that more mischief is done by the silly chatterer, than by the evil-disposed designer; that the happiness of individuals, the peace of families, and the comforts of society, are quite as much interrupted by tale-bearing folly as by lying invention.

Our concluding remarks on this volume must be brief and miscellaneous, for we shall merely run over a few passages which we had marked as particularly deserving of notice when we perused it.

Medwin, Conversations of Lord Byron

At page 32, there is a statement which wonderfully depreciates Lord Byron’s heroic devotedness to the Greek cause; for it shows that Greece came but second to Italy, and that his Lordship was equally ready to espouse revolt anywhere. He is made to say that, while at Ravenna, he was popular with the Constitutionalists, and that he was ready to assist them: “They knew (he proceeds) my character, for I had been living two years at Venice, where many of the Ravennese have houses. I did not, however, take part in their intrigues, nor join in their political coteries; but I had a magazine of one hundred stand of arms in the home, when every thing was ripe for revolt. A curse on Carignan’s imbecility!”

Medwin, Conversations of Lord Byron
Medwin, Conversations of Lord Byron

At page 43, his Lordship equally denies taking part in any intrigues with Mrs. Mardyn; and we observe it stated in the newspapers, that the scandal having thus been blown away, that lady has returned to London whence it had driven her. We were not aware that pretty actresses, especially those who survived the Drury Lane Managing Committees, were so sensitive: we could name half-a-dozen who would not be frightened from town for any period beyond a few months, by any such idle rumours. On the subject of Drury Lane management, Lord B. declaims against the drudgery of writing for the Stage at all, and disparages not only the old dramatists, but even Shakespeare. There is no accounting taste or tastelessness, it is true; and if we may judge from the dramas his Lordship actually wrote, we would say that he neither condescended to the former nor felt the latter, for his plays were not made for acting, and have no smack in them of the age of Shakespeare.

The chief allegations of plagiarism brought against Lord Byron, were produced in the Literary Gazette; and at the time we were vehemently assailed by the Noble Poet’s friends and admirers, who, we will confess, seemed tor a while to have a majority of the public on their side. It was, however, a literary inquiry of considerable interest; and as our proofs were multiplied, and strong instances (which admitted of no explaining away) were adduced, other writers began to adopt the same opinion, and without denying the extraordinary genius of Lord B. (which no person of common sense could every question, and which was carrying our arguments to a ridiculously extravagant length) there hardly appeared one review of his Lordship’s new publications, without a reference more or less distinct to this charge, and without an admission, in degree, that he was addicted to this practice. It is now evident that he himself allows the fact: after Werner! how could he do otherwise?

Medwin, Conversations of Lord Byron

“‘I am taxed (says he) with being a plagiarist, when I am least conscious of being one; but I am not very scrupulous, I own, when I have a good idea, how I came into possession of it.

“‘ - - - If it be a fault, I do not pretend to be immaculate. I will lend you some volumes of Shipwrecks, from which my storm in ‘Don Juan’ came.

“‘Lend me also ‘Casti’s Novelle,’ said I. ‘Did you never see in Italian,—
Round her she makes an atmosphere of light;
The very air seemed lighter from her eyes?

“‘The Germans,’ said he, ‘and I believe Goethe himself, consider that I have taken great liberties with ‘Faust.’ All I know of that drama is from a sorry French translation, from an occasional reading or two into English of parts of it by Monk Lewis when at Diodati, and from the Hartz mountain-scene, that Shelley versified from the other day. - - -

“‘I told him that Japhet’s soliloquy in ‘Heaven and Earth,’ and address to the mountains of Caucasus, strongly resembled Faust’s.

“‘I shall have commentators enough by and by,’ said he, ‘to dissect my thoughts, and find owners for them.’

His Lordship recurs to the same theme in many parts; but these few lines will suffice to show that he would not go so far on this point as his satellites were disposed to go for him.

That Lord B. was sufficiently aristocratic has been seen from every trait of his character by whomsoever related; and that he was not a blind admirer of Buonaparte, Captain M. declares:

Medwin, Conversations of Lord Byron

“‘Napoleon was his own antithesis (if I may say so.) He was a glorious tyrant, after all. Look at his public works; compare his face, even on his coins, with those of the other sovereigns of Europe. I blame the manner of his death: he shewed that he possessed much of the Italian character in consenting to live. There he lost himself in his dramatic character, in my estimation. He was master of his own destiny; of that, at least, his enemies could not deprive him. He should have gone off the stage like a hero: it was expected of him.’”

Hatred of the late Lord Londonderry, and a good deal of eulogy, or what might be called puffing of Shelley, are conspicuous towards the conclusion of the volume: we fancy that the estimation and fame of either will be but little affected by these sallies. Keats is treated most contemptuously in one page, while in another the Quarterly Review is abused for speaking of his poems with contempt. The details of the burning of Shelley’s corpse is eminently Indicro-pathetic.* It is mentioned that Lord B. caught cold at that scene; and we have seen an epigram ascribed to him on the subject, in which the point turns on the difficulty of drying bones which had been so long wet by the sea! Captain M. was not acquainted with this amusing peculiarity of his Lordship’s moods: but there is hardly one friend of his on earth whom he has not lampooned and satirised. Whoe’er offended, at some unlucky time, had their names hitched into rhyme, and were made sacred to ridicule; witness his lines on “My Boy Hobby,” the sincerest among all his friends—his jests at Moore—his verses on Rogers, which would infinitely distress the amour propre of that gentleman, if published—the rubs in his Correspondence at Mr. D. Kinnaird—his reflections on Mr. Murray—his attacks on Lord Carlisle, and a hundred other cases well known to all who were intimate with or ever saw his letters.

But we have done with Medwin’s volume, and with the reflections which it suggested to us. Other works and other revelations will still farther develop the character of the individual who gave it its entire interest, and to these as they appear we shall direct our earliest attention. In conclusion, we will just observe, that however objectionable in principle, we consider this work as throwing a not dubious light on its subject.

* “Lord Byron and Trelawney were seen standing over the burning pile, with some of the soldiers of the guard: and Leigh Hunt, whose feelings and nerves could not carry him through the scene of horror, lying back in the carriage,—the four post-horses ready to drop with the intensity of the noonday sun. The stillness of all around was yet more felt by the shrill scream of a solitary curlew, which, perhaps attracted by the body, wheeled in such narrow circles round the pile that it might have been struck with the hand, and was so fearless that it could not be driven away. Looking at th« corpse, Lord Byron said,
“‘Why, that old black silk handkerchief retains its form better than that human body!
“Scarcely was the ceremony concluded, when Lord Byron, agitated by the spectacle he had witnessed, tried to dissipate, in some degree, the impression of it by his favourite recreation. He took off his clothes therefore, and swam off to his yacht, which was riding a few miles distant. The heat of the sun and checked perspiration threw him into a fever, which he felt coming on before he left the water, and which became more violent before he reached Pisa. On his return he immediately ordered a warm bath.
“‘I have been very subject to fevers,’ said he, ‘and am not in the least alarmed at this. It will yield to my usual remedy, the bath.’