LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

The Life of Lord Byron
Stendhal's account of Byron at Milan

  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26  27  28  29  30  31  32  33  34  35  36  37  38  39  40  41  42  43  44  45  46  47  48  49 
Creative Commons License

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH








“In 1817, a few young people met every evening at the Theatre de la Scala, at Milan, in the box of Monsignor Ludovic de Brême, formerly chief almoner of the ex-king of Italy. This Italian custom, not generally followed in France, banished all ceremony. The affectation that chills the atmosphere of a French saloon is unknown in the society of Milan. How is it possible that such a sentiment can find a place amongst individuals in the habit of seeing each other above three hundred times in the course of a twelve-month? One evening, a stranger made his appearance in Monsignor de Brême’s box. He was young, of middling stature, and with remarkably fine eyes. As he advanced, we observed that he limped a little. ‘Gentlemen,’ said Monsignor de Brême, ‘this is Lord Byron.’ We were afterwards presented to his Lordship, the whole scene passing with as much ceremonious gravity, as if our introducer had been De Brême’s grandfather, in days of yore ambassador from the Duke of Savoy to the court of Louis XIV. Aware of the character of the English, who generally avoid such as appear to court their society, we cautiously abstained from conversing with, or even looking at, Lord Byron. The latter had been informed, that
in the course of the evening he would probably be introduced to a stranger who had performed the celebrated campaign of Moscow, which still possessed the charm of novelty, as at that time we had not been spoiled by any romances on the subject. A fine-looking man, with a military appearance, happening to be of our party, his Lordship naturally concluded that he was the hero; and accordingly, in addressing him, relaxed considerably from the natural coldness of his manner. The next day, however, Byron was undeceived. Changing his battery, he did me the honour to address me on the subject of Russia. I idolized
Napoleon, and replied to his Lordship as I should have done to a member of the legislative assembly who had exiled the ex-emperor to St. Helena. I subsequently discovered, that Lord Byron was at once enthusiastic in favour of Napoleon, and jealous of his fame. He used to say, ‘Napoleon and myself are the only individuals who sign our names with the initials N. B.’ (Noel Byron.) My determination to be cold offers some explanation for the marked kindness with which, at the end of a few days, Lord Byron did me the favour to regard me. Our friends in the box imagined, that the discussion which had taken place, and which, though polite and respectful on my part, had been rather warm, would prevent all further intimacy between us. They were mistaken. The next evening, his Lordship took me by the arm, and walked with me for an hour in the saloon of the Theatre de la Scala. I was gratified with his politeness, for which, at the bottom, I was indebted to his desire of conversing with an eyewitness on the subject of the Russian campaign. He even closely cross-questioned me on this point. However, a second reading of Childe Harold made amends for all. His progress in the good graces of my Italian friends, who met every evening in Monsignor de Brême’s box, was not very rapid.
I must confess, that his Lordship, one evening, broached rather a whimsical idea—that, in a discussion which had just been started, his title added weight to his opinion. On that occasion, De Brême retorted with the well-known anecdote of
Marshal de Castries, who, shocked at the deference once paid to D’Alembert’s judgment, exclaimed, ‘A pretty reasoner truly! a fellow not worth three thousand francs a-year!’ On another evening, Lord Byron afforded an opening to ridicule, by the warmth with which he denied all resemblance between his own character and that of Jean Jacques Rousseau, to whom he had been compared. His principal objection to the comparison, though he would not acknowledge the fact, was, that Rousseau had been a servant, and the son of a watchmaker. We could not avoid a hearty laugh, when, at the conclusion of the argument, Byron requested from De Brême, who was allied to the oldest nobility of Turin, some information relative to the family of Govon, in whose service Jean Jacques had actually lived. (See Les Confessions.) Lord Byron always entertained a great horror of corpulency. His antipathy to a full habit of body might be called a fixed idea. M. Pollidori, a young physician who travelled with him, assured us, that his Lordship’s mother was of low stature and extremely fat. During at least a third part of the day, Byron was a dandy, expressed a constant dread of augmenting the bulk of his outward man, concealed his right foot as much as possible, and endeavoured to render himself agreeable in female society. His vanity, however, frequently induced him to lose sight of the end, in his attention to the means. Love was sacrificed;—an affair of the heart would have interfered with his daily exercise on horseback. At Milan and Venice, his fine eyes, his handsome horses, and his fame, gained him the smiles of several young, noble, and lovely females, one of whom, in particular, performed
a journey of more than a hundred miles for the pleasure of being present at a masked ball to which his Lordship was invited. Byron was apprized of the circumstance, but, either from hauteur or shyness, declined an introduction. ‘Your poets are perfect clowns,’ cried the fair one, as she indignantly quitted the ball-room. Had Byron succeeded in his pretensions to be thought the finest man in England, and had his claims to the fashionable supremacy been at the same time disputed, he would still have been unsatisfied. In his moments of dandyism, he always pronounced the name of
Brummel with a mingled emotion of respect and jealousy. When his personal attractions were not the subject of his consideration, his noble birth was uppermost in his thoughts. At Milan we often purposely discussed in his presence the question, ‘if Henry IV. could justly pretend to the attribute of clemency, after having ordered his old companion, the Duke de Biron, to be beheaded?’ ‘Napoleon would have acted differently,’ was his Lordship’s constant reply. It was ludicrous to observe his respect wavering undecided between acquired distinction and his own nobility, which he considered far above that of the Duke de Biron. When the pride of birth and personal vanity no longer usurped undue sway over his mind, he again became the sublime poet and the man of sense. Never, after the example of Madame de Staël, did he indulge in childish vanity of ‘turning a phrase.’ When literary subjects were introduced, Byron was exactly the reverse of an academician; his thoughts flowed with greater rapidity than his words, and his expressions were free from all affectation or studied grace. Towards midnight, particularly when the music of the opera had produced an impression on his feelings, instead of describing them with a view to effect, he yielded naturally to his emotions, as though he had all his life been an inhabitant of the south.”


After quoting a passage from Moore’s recently-published Life of Byron, in which the poet obscurely alludes to his remorse for some unexplained crime, real or imaginary, Mr. Stendhal thus proceeds:

“It is possible that Byron might have had some guilty stain upon his conscience, similar to that which wrecked Othello’s fame? Such a question can no longer be injurious but to him who has given it birth. It must be admitted, that during nearly a third of the time we passed in the poet’s society, he appeared to us like one labouring under an access of folly, often approaching to madness. ‘Can it be,’ have we sometimes exclaimed, ‘that in a frenzy of pride or jealousy he has shortened the days of some fair Grecian slave, faithless to her vows of love?’ Be this as it may, a great man once known may be said to have opened an account with posterity. If Byron played the part of Othello, hundreds of witnesses will be found to bear testimony to the damning deed; and sooner or later posterity will learn whether his remorse was founded in guilt, or in the affectation of which he has so frequently been accused. After all, is it not possible that his conscience might have exaggerated some youthful error? - - - - - One evening, amongst others, the conversation turned upon a handsome Milanese female, who had eagerly desired to venture her person in single combat with a lover by whom she had been abandoned: the discussion afterwards changed to the story of a prince who in cold blood had murdered his mistress for an act of infidelity. Byron was instantly silent, endeavoured to restrain his feelings, but, unequal to the effort, soon afterwards indignantly quitted the box. His indignation on this occasion was evidently directed against the subject of the anecdote, and in our eyes absolved himself from the suspicion of a similar offence. Whatever might be the crime of which Byron apparently stood self-accused, I may compare it to the robbery of a piece of riband, committed by Jean
Rousseau during his stay at Turin. After the lapse of a few weeks, Byron seemed to have acquired a taste for the society of Milan. When the performances for the evening were over, we frequently stopped at the door of the theatre to enjoy the sight of the beauties who passed us in review. Perhaps few cities could boast such an assemblage of lovely women as that which chance had collected at Milan in 1817. Many of them had flattered themselves with the idea that Byron would seek an introduction; but whether from pride, timidity, or a remnant of dandyism, which induced him to do exactly the contrary of what was expected, he invariably declined that honour. He seemed to prefer a conversation on poetical or philosophical subjects. At the theatre, our discussions were frequently so energetical as to rouse the indignation of the pit. One evening, in the middle of a philosophical argument on the principle of utility, Silvio Pellico, a delightful poet, who has since died in an Austrian prison, came in breathless haste to apprize Lord Byron that his friend and physician, Polidori, had been arrested. We instantly ran to the guard-house. It turned out, that Polidori had fancied himself incommoded in the pit by the fur cap of the officer on guard, and had requested him to take it off, alleging that it impeded his view of the stage. The poet Monti had accompanied us, and, to the number of fifteen or twenty, we surrounded the prisoner. Every one spoke at once; Polidori was beside himself with passion, and his face red as a burning coal. Byron, though he too was in a violent rage, was, on the contrary, pale as ashes. His patrician blood boiled as he reflected on the slight consideration in which he was held. I have little doubt but at that moment he regretted the wall of separation which he had reared between himself and the ultra party. At all events, the Austrian officer spied the leaven of sedition in our countenances, and, if he was versed in history, probably thought of the
insurrection of Genoa, in 1740. He ran from the guard-house to call his men, who seized their arms that had been piled on the outside. Monti’s idea was excellent; ‘Fortiamo tutti; restino solamente i titolati.*
De Brême remained, with the Marquis de Sartirana, his brother, Count Confalonieri, and Lord Byron. These gentlemen having written their names and titles, the list was handed to the officer on guard, who instantly forgot the insult offered to his fur cap, and allowed Polidori to leave the guard-house. In the evening, however, the doctor received an order to quit Milan within twenty–four hours. Foaming with rage, he swore that he would one day return and bestow manual castigation on the governor who had treated him with so little respect. He did not return; and two years afterwards a bottle of prussic acid terminated his career;—at least, sic dicitur. The morning after Polidori’s departure, Byron, in a téte-à-téte with me, complained bitterly of persecution. So little was I acquainted with i titolati, to use Monti’s expression, that in the simplicity of my heart I gave his Lordship the following counsel: ‘Realize,’ said I, ‘four or five hundred thousand francs; two or three confidential friends will circulate the report of your death, and bestow on a log of wood the honours of Christian burial in some snug retired spot—the island of Elba, suppose. An authentic account of your decease shall be forwarded to England; meanwhile, under the name of Smith or Wood, you may live comfortably and quietly at Lima. When, in process of time, Mr. Smith or Mr. Wood becomes a venerable gray-headed old gentleman, he may even return to Europe, and purchase from a Roman or Parisian bookseller, a set of Childe Harold, or Lara, thirtieth edition, with notes and annotations.

* Let us all go out: let those only remain who are titled personages.
Moreover, when Mr. Smith or Mr. Wood is really about to make his exit from his life, he may, if he pleases, enjoy one bright original moment: thus may he say;—‘Lord Byron, who for thirty years, has been numbered with the dead, even now lingers on this side of eternity:—I am the man: the society of my countrymen appeared to me so insipid, that I quitted them in disgust.’ ‘My
cousin, who is heir to my title, owes you an infinity of thanks,’ coldly replied Lord Byron. I repressed the repartee which hovered on my lips. Byron had a defect in common with all the spoiled children of fortune. He cherished in his bosom two contradictory inclinations. He wished to be received as a man of rank, and admired as a brilliant poet. The Elena of Mayer was at that time the performance most in vogue at Milan. The public patiently endured two miserable acts, for the pleasure of hearing a sublime sesteto in the third. One day, when it was sung with more than ordinary power, I was struck with the expression of Byron’s eyes. Never had I seen any thing so enthusiastic. Internally, I made a vow that I never would of my own free accord sadden a spirit so noble. In the evening, I recollect that some one alluded to the following singular sonnet of Tasso, in which the poet makes a boast of incredulity.

‘Odi, Filli, che tuona.....
Ma che curar dobbiam che faccio Giove?’
Godiam noi qui, s’egli è turbato in cielo,
Tema in volgo i suoi tuoini....
Pera il mondo, e rovini! a me none cale
Se non di quell che più place e diletta;
Che, se tera sarò, terra ancor fui.’
Hear’st thou, Phyllis, it thunders?
But what are Jove’s acts to us?
Let us enjoy ourselves here; if he be troubled in his heaven,
Vulgar spirits may dread his thunder.
Let the world perish and fall in ruins: I care not,
Except for her who pleases me best;
For if dust I shall be, dust I was.

“‘Those verses,’ said Byron, ‘were written under the influence of spleen—nothing more. A belief in the Supreme Being was an absolute necessity for the tender and warm imagination of Tasso. He was, besides, too much of a Platonist to connect together the links of a difficult argument. When he composed that sonnet, he felt the inspiration of his genius, and probably wanted a morsel of bread and a mistress.’ The house in which Lord Byron resided was situated at the further extremity of a solitary quarter, at the distance of half a league from the Theatre de la Scala. The streets of Milan were at that time much infested with robbers during the night. Some of us, forgetting time and space in the charm of the poet’s conversation, generally accompanied him to his own door, and on our return, at two o’clock in the morning, were obliged to pass through a multitude of intricate, suspicious-looking streets. This circumstance gave an additional air of romance to the noble bard’s retreat. For my part, I often wondered that he escaped being laid under contribution. Had it been otherwise, with his feelings and ideas, he would undoubtedly have felt peculiarly mortified. The fact is, that the practical jokes played off by the knights of the road were frequently of the most ludicrous description—at least to all but the sufferers. The weather was cold, and the pedestrian, snugly enveloped in his cloak, was often attacked by some dexterous thief, who, gliding gently behind him, passed a hoop over his head down to his elbows, and thus fettered the victim, whom he afterwards pillaged at his leisure. Polidori informed us that Byron often composed a hundred verses in the course of the morning. On his return from the theatre in the evening, still under the charm of the music to which he had listened, he would take up his papers, and reduce his hundred verses to five-and-twenty or thirty. When he had in this manner put together four or five hundred, he sent the whole to
Murray, his publisher, in London. He often sat up all night, in the ardour of composition, and drank a sort of grog made of hollands and water—a beverage in which he indulged rather copiously when his Muse was coy. But, generally speaking, he was not addicted to the excessive drinking, though he has accused himself of that vice. To restrain the circumference of his person within proper limits, he frequently went without a dinner, or, at most, dined on a little bread and a solitary dish of vegetables. This frugal meal cost but a franc or two; and on such occasions Byron used, with much apparent complacency, to accuse himself of avarice. His extreme sensibility to the charms of music may partly be attributed to the chagrin occasioned by his domestic misfortunes. Music caused his tears to flow in abundance, and thus softened the asperity of his suffering. His feelings, however, on this subject, were those of a débutante. When he had heard a new opera for upwards of a twelvemonth, he was often enraptured with a composition which had previously afforded him little pleasure, or which he had even severely criticized. I never observed Byron in a more delightful or unaffected vein of gaiety than on the day when we made an excursion about two miles from Milan, to visit the celebrated echo of la Simonetta, which repeats the report of a pistol-shot thirty or forty times. By way of contrast, the next day, at a grand dinner given by Monsignor de Brême, his appearance was lowering as that of Talma in the part of Nero. Byron arrived late, and was obliged to cross a spacious saloon, in which every eye was fixed on him and his club foot. Far from being the indifferent or phlegmatic personage, who alone can play the dandy to perfection, Byron was unceasingly tyrannized by some ruling passion. When not under the influence of nobler failings, he was tormented by an absurd vanity, which urged him to pretend to every thing. But his genius once awakened, his faults were
shaken off as a garment that would have incommoded the flight of his imagination: the poet soared beyond the confines of earth, and wafted his hearers along with him. Never shall I forget the sublime poem which he composed one evening on the subject of
Castruccio-Castracani, the Napoleon of the idle age. Byron had one failing in common with all poets—an extreme sensibility to praise or censure, especially when coming from a brother bard. He seemed not to be aware, that judgments of this nature are generally dictated by a spirit of affectation, and that the most favourable can only be termed certificates of resemblance. I must not omit to notice the astonishing effect produced on Lord Byron by the view of a fine painting of Daniel Crespi. The subject was taken from a well-known story of a monk supposed to have died in the odour of sanctity; and who, whilst his brethren were chanting the service of the dead around his bier in the church at midnight, was said to have suddenly lifted the funeral pall, and quitted his coffin, exclaiming, ‘Justo judicio Dei damnatus sum!’ We were unable to wrest Byron from the contemplation of this picture, which produced on his mind a sensation amounting to horror. To indulge his humour on this point, we mounted our horses in silence, and rode slowly towards a monastery at a little distance, where he shortly afterwards overtook us. Byron turned up his lips with an incredulous sneer when he heard, for the first time, that there are ten Italian dialects instead of one; and that amongst the whole population of Italy, only the inhabitants of Rome, Sienna, and Florence, speak the language as it is written. Silvio Pellico once said to him: ‘The most delightful of the ten or twelve Italian dialects, unknown beyond the Alps, is the Venetian. The Venetians are the French of Italy.’ ‘They have, then, some comic poet living?’—‘Yes, replied Pellico; ‘a charming poet; but as his comedies are not allowed to be performed, he composes them under the form
of satires. The name of this delightful poet is
Buratti; and every six months, by the governor’s orders, he pays a visit to one of the prisons of Venice.’ In my opinion, this conversation with Silvio Pellico gave the tone to Byron’s subsequent poetical career. He eagerly demanded the name of the bookseller who sold M. Buratti’s works; and as he was accustomed to the expression of Milanese bluntness, the question excited a hearty laugh at his expense. He was soon informed, that if Buratti wished to pass his whole life in prison, the appearance of his works in print would infallibly lead to the gratification of his desires; and besides, where could a printer be found hardy enough to run his share of the risk? an incomplete manuscript of Buratti cost from three to four sequins. The next day, the charming Comtessina N. was kind enough to lend her collection to one of our party. Byron, who imagined himself an adept in the language of Dante and Ariosto, was at first rather puzzled by Buratti’s manuscripts. We read over with him some of Goldoni’s comedies, which enabled him at last to comprehend Buratti’s satires. One of our Italian friends was even immoral enough to lend him a copy of Baffo’s sonnets. What a crime this had been in the eyes of Southey! What a pity he was not, at an earlier period, made acquainted with the atrocious deed! I persist in thinking, that for the composition of Beppo, and subsequently of Don Juan, Byron was indebted to the reading of Buratti’s poetry. Venice is a distinct world, of which the gloomy society of the rest of Europe can form no conception—care is there a subject of mockery. The poetry of Buratti always excites a sensation of enthusiastic delight in the breasts of the Venetian populace. Never, in my presence, did black and white, as the Venetians themselves say, produce a similar effect. Here, however, I ceased to act the part of an eyewitness, and here, consequently, I close my narrative.”