LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron
Byron at home; recollections of Swiss society; on duelling

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IN THE YEARS 1821 AND 1822.






Morning Chronicle, Medwin and Shelley
John Galt, in Blackwood's Magazine
William Harness, in Blackwood's Magazine
Leigh Hunt, Byron and his Contemporaries
John Galt, in Fraser's Magazine

Iwent to Italy late in the autumn of 1821, for the benefit of my health. Lord Byron, accompanied by Mr. Rogers as far as Florence, had passed on a few days before me, and was already at Pisa when I arrived.

His travelling equipage was rather a singular one, and afforded a strange catalogue for the Dogana: seven servants, five carriages, nine horses, a monkey, a bull-dog and a mastiff, two cats, three pea-fowls and some hens, (I do not know whether I have classed them in order of rank,) formed part of his live stock; these, and all his books, consisting of a very large library of modern
works, (for he bought all the best that came out,) together with a vast quantity of furniture, might well be termed, with Cæsar, “impediments.”

I had long formed a wish to see and be acquainted with Lord Byron; but his known refusal at that time to receive the visits of strangers, even of some who had brought him letters of introduction from the most intimate friend he had, and a prejudice excited against his own countrymen by a late insult, would have deterred me from seeking an interview with him, had not the proposal come from himself, in consequence of his hearing Shelley speak of me.

20th November.—“This is the Lung’ Arno: he has hired the Lanfranchi palace for a year. It is one of those marble piles that seem built for eternity, whilst the family whose name it bears no longer exists,” said Shelley, as we entered a hall that seemed built for giants. “I remember the lines in the Inferno,” said I: “a Lanfranchi was one of the persecutors of Ugolino.” “The same,” answered Shelley; “you will see a picture of Ugolino and his sons in his room. Fletcher, his valet, is as superstitious as his master, and says the house is haunted,
so that he cannot sleep for rumbling noises overhead, which he compares to the rolling of bowls. No wonder; old Lanfranchi’s ghost is unquiet, and walks at night.”

The palace was of such size, that Lord Byron only occupied the first floor; and at the top of the staircase leading to it was the English bull-dog, whose chain was long enough to guard the door, and prevent the entrance of strangers; he, however, knew Shelley, growled, and let us pass. In the anti-room we found several servants in livery, and Fletcher, (whom Shelley mentioned, and of whom I shall have occasion to speak,) who had been in his service from the time he left Harrow. “Like many old servants, he is a privileged person,” whispered Shelley. “Don Juan had not a better Leporello, for imitating his master. He says that he is a Laurel struck by a Metre, and when in Greece remarked upon one of the bas-reliefs of the Parthenon, ‘La! what mantel-pieces these would make, my Lord!’” When we were announced, we found his Lordship writing. His reception was frank and kind; he took me cordially by the hand, and said:

“You are a relation and schoolfellow of Shelley’s—we do not meet as strangers—you must allow me to con-
tinue my letter on account of the post. Here’s something for you to read, Shelley, (giving him part of his MS. of ‘
Heaven and Earth;’) tell me what you think of it.”

During the few minutes that Lord Byron was finishing his letter, I took an opportunity of narrowly observing him, and drawing his portrait in my mind.* Thorwaldsen’s bust is too thin-necked and young for Lord Byron. None of the engravings gave me the least idea of him.

* Being with him, day after day, some time afterwards, whilst he was sitting to Bertolini, the Florentine sculptor, for his bust, I had an opportunity of analyzing his features more critically, but found nothing to alter in my portrait. Bertolini’s is an admirable likeness, at least was so in the clay model. I have not seen it since it was copied in marble, nor have I got a cast; he promised Bertolini should send me one. Lord Byron prided himself on his neck; and it must be confessed that his head was worthy of being placed on it. Bertolini destroyed his ébauches more than once before he could please himself. When he had finished, Lord Byron said,

“It is the last time I sit to sculptor or painter.”

This was on the 4th of January, 1822.

I saw a man of about five feet seven or eight, apparently forty years of age: as was said of
Milton, he barely escaped being short and thick. His face was fine, and the lower part symmetrically moulded; for the lips and chin had that curved and definite outline that distinguishes Grecian beauty. His forehead was high, and his temples broad; and he had a paleness in his complexion, almost to wanness. His hair, thin and fine, had almost become grey, and waved in natural and graceful curls over his head, that was assimilating itself fast to the “bald first Cæsar’s.” He allowed it to grow longer behind than it is accustomed to be worn, and at that time had mustachios, which were not sufficiently dark to be becoming. In criticising his features it might, perhaps, be said that his eyes were placed too near his nose, and that one was rather smaller than the other; they were of a greyish brown, but of a peculiar clearness, and when animated possessed a fire which seemed to look through and penetrate the thoughts of others, while they marked the inspirations of his own. His teeth were small, regular, and white; these, I afterwards found, he took great pains to preserve.*

* For this purpose he used tobacco when he first went into the open air; and he told me he was in the habit of grinding his teeth in


I expected to discover that he had a club, perhaps a cloven foot; but it would have been difficult to have distinguished one from the other, either in size or in form.

On the whole, his figure was manly, and his countenance handsome and prepossessing, and very expressive; and the familiar ease of his conversation soon made me perfectly at home in his society. Our first interview was marked with a cordiality and confidence that flattered while it delighted me; and I felt anxious for the next day, in order that I might repeat my visit.

When I called on his Lordship at two o’clock, he had just left his bed-room, and was at breakfast, if it can be called one. It consisted of a cup of strong green tea, without milk or sugar, and an egg, of which he ate the yolk raw. I observed the abstemiousness of his meal.

“My digestion is weak; I am too bilious,” said he, “to eat more than once a-day, and generally live on vegeta-

his sleep, to prevent which he was forced to put a napkin between them.

bles. To be sure, I drink two bottles of wine at dinner, but they form only a vegetable diet. Just now I live on claret and soda-water. You are just come from Geneva,
Shelley tells me. I passed the best part of the summer of 1816 at the Campagna Diodati, and was very nearly passing this last there. I went so far as to write to Hentsh the banker; but Shelley, when he came to visit me at Ravenna, gave me such a flattering account of Pisa that I changed my mind. Then it is troublesome to travel so far with so much live and dead stock as I do; and I don’t like to leave behind me any of my pets that have been accumulating since I came on the Continent.* One cannot trust to strangers to take care of them. You will see at the farmer’s some of my pea-fowls en pension. Fletcher tells me that they are almost as bad fellow-travellers as the monkey†, which I will shew you.”


Here he led the way to a room, where, after playing with and caressing the creature for some time, he proposed a game of billiards.

I brought the conversation back on Switzerland and his travels, and asked him if he had been in Germany?

“No,” said he, “not even at Trieste. I hate despotism and the Goths too much. I have travelled little on the Continent, at least never gone out of my way. This is partly owing to the indolence of my disposition, partly owing to my incumbrances. I had some idea, when at Rome, of visiting Naples, but was at that time anxious to get back to Venice. But Pæstum cannot surpass the ruins of Agrigentum, which I saw by moonlight; nor Naples, Constantinople. You have no conception of the beauty of the twelve islands where the Turks have their country-houses, or of the blue Symplegades against which the Bosphorus beats with such resistless violence.

“Switzerland is a country I have been satisfied with seeing once; Turkey I could live in for ever. I never forget my predilections. I was in a wretched state of
health, and worse spirits, when I was at Geneva; but quiet and the lake, physicians better than
Polidori, soon set me up. I never led so moral a life as during my residence in that country; but I gained no credit by it. Where there is a mortification, there ought to be reward. On the contrary, there is no story so absurd that they did not invent at my cost. I was watched by glasses on the opposite side of the Lake, and by glasses too that must have had very distorted optics. I was waylaid in my evening drives—I was accused of corrupting all the grisettes in the Rue Basse. I believe that they looked upon me as a man-monster, worse than the piqueur.

“Somebody possessed Madame de Staël with an opinion of my immorality. I used occasionally to visit her at Coppet; and once she invited me to a family-dinner, and I found the room full of strangers, who had come to stare at me as at some outlandish beast in a raree-show. One of the ladies fainted, and the rest looked as if his Satanic Majesty had been among them. Madame de Staël took the liberty to read me a lecture before this crowd; to which I only made her a low bow.


“I knew very few of the Genevese. Hentsh was very civil to me; and I have a great respect for Sismondi. I was forced to return the civilities of one of their Professors by asking him, and an old gentleman, a friend of Gray’s, to dine with me. I had gone out to sail early in the morning, and the wind prevented me from returning in time for dinner. I understand that I offended them mortally. Polidori did the honours.

“Among our countrymen I made no new acquaintances; Shelley, Monk Lewis, and Hobhouse were almost the only English people I saw. No wonder; I shewed a distaste for society at that time, and went little among the Genevese; besides, I could not speak French. What is become of my boatman and boat? I suppose she is rotten; she was never worth much. When I went the tour of the Lake in her with Shelley and Hobhouse, she was nearly wrecked near the very spot where St. Preux and Julia were in danger of being drowned. It would have been classical to have been lost there, but not so agreeable. Shelley was on the Lake much oftener than I, at all hours of the night and day: he almost lived on it; his great rage is a boat. We are both building now at Genoa, I a yacht, and he an open boat.”


We played at billiards till the carriage was announced, and I accompanied him in his drive. Soon after we got off the stones, we mounted our horses, which were waiting for us. Lord Byron is an admirable horseman, combining grace with the security of his seat. He prides himself much on this exercise. He conducted us for some miles till we came to a farm-house, where he practises pistol-firing every evening. This is his favourite amusement, and may indeed be called almost a pursuit. He always has pistols in his holster, and eight or ten pair by the first makers in London carried by his courier. We had each twelve rounds of ammunition, and in a diameter of four inches he put eleven out of twelve shots. I observed his hand shook exceedingly. He said that when he first began at Manton’s he was the worst shot in the world, and Manton was perhaps the ‘best. The subject turned upon duelling, and he contended for its necessity, and quoted some strong arguments in favour of it.

“I have been concerned,” said he, “in many duels as second, but only in two as principal; one was with Hobhouse before I became intimate with him. The best marksmen at a target are not the surest in the field. Cecil’s and Stackpoole’s affair proved this. They
fought after a quarrel of three years, during which they were practising daily. Stackpoole was so good a shot that he used to cut off the heads of the fowls for dinner as they drank out of the coops about. He had every wish to kill his antagonist, but he received his death-blow from Cecil, who fired rather fine, or rather was the quickest shot of the two. All he said when falling was, ‘D—n it, have I missed him?’
Shelley is a much better shot than I am, but he is thinking of metaphysics rather than of firing.”