LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

Literary Life of the Rev. William Harness
Chapter II.

Chapter I.
‣ Chapter II.
Chapter III.
Chapter IV.
Chapter V.
Chapter VI.
Chapter VII.
Chapter VIII.
Chapter IX.
Chapter X.
Chapter XI.
Chapter XII.
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Mr. Harness did not enter the ministry with any view to worldly advantage. He was not ignorant of the fact that the labourer in the vineyard is but seldom a partaker of its fruit. So thoroughly did he understand the prospects of a clergyman in the Church of England, that he said he should have hesitated to follow his inclinations had he not had some expectations of independent means.* But no prudential obstacle interposing, and having the full sanction of his parents, he was ordained to the curacy of Kilmeston near Alresford, shortly after his graduating at Cambridge. Such a change, from a brilliant intellectual society to a retired curacy,

* His grandmother, however, took a different view, and told him that a curate required a very small income. “He should keep a horse,” she said, “and his horse should keep him.”

where his books were his only companions and his country walks his only relaxation, would have been to some insufferably depressing; but to him, on the contrary, those tranquil days seemed some of the happiest of his life; and he was more than content to remain,
“The world forgetting, by the world forgot.”
He afterwards removed to Dorking; but it was only upon the urgent remonstrances of his father, who was unwilling to see his talents thus obscured, that he consented to leave his sphere of quiet usefulness, and enter upon the arduous labours of a London cure.

Meanwhile, Mr. Harness’s friendly intercourse with Lord Byron was not interrupted, though carried on under some disadvantages. The Poet was prevented from dedicating “Childe Harold” to him, “for fear it should injure him in his profession.” And it is evident that in some of his letters Mr. Harness reproved him for his thoughtlessness and dissipation.

“You censure my life, Harness,” Byron writes in reply. “When I compare myself with these men, my elders and my betters, I really begin to conceive myself a monument of prudence—a walking statue—without feeling or failing; and yet the world in general hath given me a proud pre-eminence over them in profligacy!”


“From this time,” writes Mr. Harness, “our paths lay much asunder. Byron returned to London. His poem was published. The success was instantaneous; and he ‘awoke one morning and found himself famous.’ I was in orders, and living an almost solitary life in a country curacy; but we kept up a rather rapid interchange of letters. He sent me his poems as they now appeared in rather quick succession; and during my few weeks’ holidays in London we saw one another very often of a morning at each other’s rooms, and not unfrequently again in society of an evening. So far, and for these few years, all that I saw or heard of his career was bright and prosperous: kindness and poetry at home, smiles and adulation abroad. But then came his marriage; and then the rupture with his wife; and then his final departure from England. He became a victim of that revolution of popular feeling which is ever incident to the spoilt children of society, when envy and malice obtain a temporary ascendancy, and succeed in knocking down and trampling any idol of the day beneath their feet, who may be wanting in the moral courage required to face and out-brave them.

Such was not the spirit that animated Byron. He could not bear to look on the altered countenances of his acquaintances. To his susceptible temperament and generous feelings, the reproach
of having ill-used a woman must have been poignant in the extreme. It was repulsive to his chivalrous character as a gentleman; it belied all he had written of the devoted fervour of his attachments; and rather than meet the frowns and sneers which awaited him in the world, as many a less sensitive man might have done, he turned his back on them and fled. He would have drawn himself up, and crossed his arms and curled his lip, and looked disdainfully on any amount of clamorous hostility; but he stole away from the ignominy of being silently cut. His whole course of conduct, at this crisis of his life, was an inconsiderate mistake. He should have remained to learn what the accusations against him really were; to expose the exaggerations, if not the falsehoods, of the grounds they rested on; or, at all events, to have quietly abided the time when the London world should have become wearied of repeating its vapid scandals, and returned to its senses respecting him. That change of feeling did come—and not long after his departure from England—but he was at a distance, and could not be persuaded to return to take advantage of it.

Of the matrimonial quarrel I personally know nothing; nor, with the exception of Dr. Lushington, do I believe that there is anybody living who has any certain knowledge about the matter. The
marriage was never one of reasonable promise. The bridegroom and the bride were ill-assorted. They were two only children, and two spoilt children. I was acquainted with
Lady Byron as Miss Milbanke. The parties of Lady Milbanke, her mother, were frequent and agreeable, and composed of that mixture of fashion, literature, science, and art, than which there is no better society. The daughter was not without a certain amount of prettiness or cleverness; but her manner was stiff and formal, and gave one the idea of her being self-willed and self-opinionated. She was almost the only young, pretty, well-dressed girl we ever saw who carried no cheerfulness along with her. I seem to see her now, moving slowly along her mother’s drawing-rooms, talking to scientific men and literary women, without a tone of emotion in her voice or the faintest glimpse of a smile upon her countenance. A lady who had been on intimate terms with her from their mutual childhood once said to me, “If Lady Byron has a heart, it is deeper seated and harder to get at than anybody else’s heart whom I have ever known.” And though several of my friends whose regard it was no slight honour to have gained—as Mrs. Siddons, Joanna Baillie, Maria Edgeworth, and others of less account,—were never heard to speak of Lady Byron except in terms of admiration and attach-
ment, it is certain that the impression which she produced on the majority of her acquaintance was unfavourable: they looked upon her as a reserved and frigid sort of being whom one would rather cross the room to avoid than be brought into conversation with unnecessarily. Such a person, whatever quality might have at first attracted him—(could it have been her coldness?)—was not likely to acquire or retain any very powerful hold upon Byron. At the beginning of their married life, when first they returned to London society together, one seldom saw two young persons who appeared to be more devoted to one another than they were. At parties, he would be seen hanging over the back of her chair, scarcely talking to anybody else, eagerly introducing his friends to her, and, if they did not go away together, himself handing her to her carriage. This outward show of tenderness, so far as my memory serves me, was observed and admired as exemplary, till after the birth of their daughter. From that time the world began to drop its voice into a tone of compassion when speaking of Lady Byron, and to whisper tales of the misery she was suffering—poor thing—on account of the unkindness of her husband.

The first instances of his ill-usage which were heard, were so insignificant as to be beneath recording. “The poor lady had never had a com-
fortable meal since their marriage.” “Her husband had no fixed hour for breakfast, and was always too late for dinner.” “At his express desire, she had invited two elderly ladies* to meet them in her opera-box. Nothing could be more courteous than his manner to them, while they remained; but no sooner had they gone than he began to annoy his wife by venting his ill-humour, in a strain of bitterest satire, against the dress and manners of her friends.” There were some relations of
Lady Byron whom, after repeated refusals, he had reluctantly consented to dine with. When the day arrived he insisted on her going alone, alleging his being unwell as an excuse for his absence. It was summer time. Forty years ago people not only dined earlier than they do now, but by daylight; and after the assembled party were seated at table, he amused himself by driving backwards and forwards opposite the dining-room windows.†

There was a multitude of such nonsensical stories as these, which one began to hear soon after Ada’s birth; and I believe I have told the worst of them. No doubt, as the things occurred, they must have been vexatious enough, but they do not

* Mrs. Joanna Baillie and her sister.

† The above gossip all came to me from different friends of Lady Byron.

amount to grievous wrongs. They were faults of temper, not moral delinquencies; a thousand of them would not constitute an injury. Nor does one know to what extent they may have been provoked. They would, in all probability, have ceased, had they been gently borne with—and perhaps were only repeated because the culprit was amused by witnessing their effects. At all events they were no more than a sensible woman, who had either a proper feeling for her husband’s reputation, or a due consideration of her own position, would have readily endured; and a really good wife would never have allowed herself to talk about them. And yet it was by
Lady Byron’s friends, and as coming immediately from her, that I used to hear them. The complaints, at first so trifling, gradually acquired a more serious character. “Poor Lady Byron was afraid of her life.” “Her husband slept with loaded pistols by his bedside, and a dagger under his pillow.” Then there came rumours of cruelty—no one knew of what kind, or how severe. Nothing was definitely stated. But it was on all hands allowed to be “very bad—very bad indeed.” And as there was nothing to be known, everybody imagined what they pleased.

But whatever Lord Byron’s treatment of his wife may have been, it could not have been all evil. Any injuries she suffered must have occurred
during moody and angry fits of temper. They could not have been habitual or frequent. His conduct was not of such a description as to have utterly extinguished whatever love she might have felt at her marriage, or to have left any sense of terror or aversion behind it. This is evident from facts. Years after they had met for the last time,
Lady Byron went with Mrs. Jameson, from whom I repeat the circumstance, to see Thorwaldsen’s statue of her husband, which was at Sir Richard Westmacott’s studio. After looking at it in silence for a few moments, the tears came into her eyes, and she said to her companion, “It is very beautiful, but not so beautiful as my dearByron.” However interrupted by changes of caprice or irritability, the general course of her husband’s conduct must have been gentle and tender, or it never would, after so long a cessation of intercourse, have left such kindly impressions behind it. I have, indeed, reason to believe that these feelings of affectionate remembrance lingered in the heart of Lady Byron to the last. Not a fortnight before her death, I dined in company with an old lady who was at the time on a visit to her. On this lady’s returning home, and mentioning whom she had met, Lady Byron evinced great curiosity to learn what subjects we had talked about, and what I had heard of them, “because I had been
such a friend of her husband’s.” This instance of fond remembrance, after an interval of more than forty years, in a woman of no very sensitive nature—a woman of more intellect than feeling—conveys to my mind no slight argument in defence of Byron’s conduct as a husband. His wife, though unrelenting, manifestly regretted his loss. May not some touch of remorse for the exile to which she had dismissed him—for the fame over which she had cast a cloud—for the energies which she had diverted from their course of useful action in the Senate,* to be wasted in no honourable idleness abroad—and for the so early death to which her unwife-like conduct doomed him, have mingled its bitterness with the pain of that regret?

But what do I know of Byron? The ill I will speak of presently. Personally, I know nothing but good of him. Of what he became in his foreign banishment, when removed from all his natural ties and hereditary duties, I, personally, am ignorant. In all probability he deteriorated; he would have been more than human if he had not. But when I was in the habit of familiarly seeing him, he was kindness itself. At a time when Coleridge was in great embarrassment, Rogers, when calling on Byron, chanced to mention it. He immediately

* He had made some good speeches in the House.

went to his writing-desk, and brought back a cheque for a hundred pounds, and insisted on its being forwarded to Coleridge. “I did not like taking it,” said Rogers, who told me the story, “for I knew that he was in want of it himself.” His servants he treated with a gentle consideration for their feelings which I have seldom witnessed in any other, and they were devoted to him. At Newstead there was an old man who had been
butler to his mother, and I have seen Byron, as the old man waited behind his chair at dinner, pour out a glass of wine and pass it to him when he thought we were too much engaged in conversation to observe what he was doing. The transaction was a thing of custom; and both parties seemed to flatter themselves that it was clandestinely effected. A hideous old woman, who had been brought in to nurse him when he was unwell at one of his lodgings, and whom few would have cared to retain about them longer than her services were required, was carried with him, in improved attire, to his chambers in the Albany, and was seen, after his marriage, gorgeous in black silk at his house in Piccadilly. She had done him a service, and he could not forget it. Of his attachment to his friends, no one can read Moore’s life and entertain a doubt. He required a great deal from them—not more, perhaps, than he, from the abundance of
his love, freely and fully gave—but more than they had to return. The ardour of his nature must have been in a normal state of disappointment. He imagined higher qualities in them than they possessed, and must very often have found his expectations sadly balked by the dulness of talk, the perversity of taste, or the want of enthusiasm, which he encountered on a better or rather longer acquaintance. But, notwithstanding, I have never yet heard anybody complain that Byron had once appeared to entertain a regard for him, and had afterwards capriciously cast him off.

Now, after these good and great qualities, I revert to the evil of Byron’s character and conduct. And here, if he were bad, were there no extenuations, derived from the peculiarities of his position and education, to be pleaded for him? Was he not better, instead of worse, than most young men have proved who were similarly circumstanced? He had virtually never known a father’s love, or a mother’s tenderness. He was from early childhood wholly cut off from those motives to virtue, and those restraints from vice, which, amid a band of brothers and sisters, grow up around us with the family affections. Home is the only school in which right principles and generous feelings find a genial soil and attain a natural growth. Without a home the boy sees nothing, knows nothing, considers
nothing, and feels for nothing but himself; and a home Byron never had. The domestic charities and their ameliorating influences were only known to him by name. He was from boyhood his own master; and would it have been strange, if, with strong passions, an untutored will, fervent imagination, and no one with authority to control him, he was sometimes led astray? But during the time he was in London society, what young men were there, with the same liberty to range at will as he, who were less absorbed by its dissipations? Who among them abstracted so much time from the fascinations of the world as he, to study as he studied, and to write as he wrote? I have little doubt, though I don’t know it, that in the season of his unparalleled success he was not likely to have been more rigid in his conduct than his companions were in their principles. But it is at least extraordinary that, while thus courted and admired, if his life was as licentious as some have represented, the only scandal which disturbed the decorum of society, and with which Byron’s name is connected, did not originate in any action of his, but in the insane and unrequited passion of
a woman.

Byron had one pre-eminent fault—a fault which must be considered as deeply criminal by every one who does not, as I do, believe it to have resulted from monomania. He had a morbid
love of a bad reputation. There was hardly an offence of which he would not, with perfect indifference, accuse himself. An old schoolfellow, who met him on the Continent, told me that he would continually write paragraphs against himself in the foreign journals, and delight in their republication by the English newspapers as in the success of a practical joke. When anybody has related anything discreditable of Byron, assuring me that it must be true, for he had heard it from himself, I have always felt that he could not have spoken with authority, and that, in all probability, the tale was a pure invention. If I could remember, and were willing to repeat, the various misdoings which I have from time to time heard him attribute to himself, I could fill a volume. But I never believed them. I very soon became aware of this strange idiosyncrasy. It puzzled me to account for it; but there it was—a sort of diseased and distorted vanity. The same eccentric spirit would induce him to report things which were false with regard to his family, which anybody else would have concealed though true. He told mo more than once that his father was insane and killed himself. I shall never forget the manner in which he first told me this. While washing his hands, and singing a gay Neapolitan air, he stopped, looked round at me, and said, “There always was
a madness in the family.” Then after continuing his wasting and his song, as if speaking of a matter of the slightest indifference, “My father cut his throat.” The contrast between the tenor of the subject and the levity of the expression was fearfully painful: it was like a stanza of “
Don Juan.” In this instance, I had no doubt that the fact was as he related it, but in speaking of it only a few years since to an old lady* in whom I had perfect confidence, she assured me that it was not so; that Mr. Byron, who was her cousin, had been extremely wild, but was quite sane and had died quietly in his bed. What Byron’s reasons could have been for thus calumniating, not only himself, but the blood that was flowing in his veins, who can divine? But, for some reason or other, it seemed to be his determined purpose to keep himself unknown to the great body of his fellow-creatures—to present himself to their view in moral masquerade, and to identity himself in their imaginations with Childe Harold and the Corsair, between which characters and his own—as God and education had made it—the most microscopic inspection would fail to discern a single point of resemblance.

Except this love of an ill-name—this tendency to malign himself—this hypocrisy reversed, I have no personal knowledge whatever of any evil act or

* Mrs. Villiers, Lord Clarendon’s mother.

evil disposition of
Lord Byron’s. I once said this to a gentleman* who was well acquainted with Lord Byron’s London life. He expressed himself astonished at what I said. “Well,” I replied, “do you know any harm of him but what he told you himself?” “Oh, yes, a hundred things!” “I don’t want you to tell me a hundred things, I shall be content with one.” Here the conversation was interrupted. We were at dinner—there was a large party, and the subject was again renewed at table. But afterwards in the drawing-room, Mr. Drury came up to me and said, “I have been thinking of what you were saying at dinner. I do not know any harm of Byron but what he has told me of himself.”

Mr. Harness’s testimony to the good points in Byron’s character is especially valuable as it comes from one who was not in the least blinded by the brilliancy of his genius. So delicately sensitive, indeed, was Mr. Harness’s nature, that he always, as he confessed, felt Byron’s poetry to be a little too “strong” for him. He attributed a large part of Byron’s reckless conduct in after-life to the misfortune of his ill-assorted marriage. “It was brought about,” he observed, “by well-meaning friends, who knew that Byron wanted money and thought they were consulting his best interests.” He formed the alliance, as is often the case, be-

* The Rev. Henry Drury.

cause other people liked it; but they did not take into consideration how many elements are required to constitute the happiness of sensient human beings.
Lady Byron was a person entirely deficient in tact and reflection, and made no allowances for the usual eccentricities of genius. In some periods of our history she might have aspired to a real crown of martyrdom, for she was a Puritan in creed, and an unflinching advocate of her own views. Miss Mitford justly asks, “Why did she marry Byron? His character was well known, and he was not a deceiver!” Possibly she hoped to make an illustrious convert of him, or thought that she might at once share his celebrity and restrain his follies. If so, she greatly overrated her influence, and ignored the perversity of human nature. Byron had a childish weakness for dramatic effect and excitement, and it was his habit to amuse himself at times by indulging in fantastical rhapsodies, full of tragic extravagance. Harness knew these occasions, and merely lapsed into silence, and when the poet found that no one was horrified or delighted, he very soon came to the end of his performance, But Lady Byron was too conscientious, or too severe, to allow the fire thus to die out. She took seriously every word he uttered, weighed it in her precise balance, and could not avoid expressing her condemnation of his principles and her abhorrence
of his language. This fanned the flame, increased his irritation, or added zest to his amusement. Whatever crime she accused him of he was not only ready to admit, but even to trump by the confession of some greater enormity. Few of us have sufficient taste and delicacy for the office of a censor, or sufficient humility to profit by rebuke; but in the present case the difficulties were unusually great. “There can be no doubt,” observed Mr. Harness, “that Byron was a little ‘maddish.’” He was afflicted with a more than usual share of that eccentricity which so often turns aside the keen edge of genius; but he was amiable and might have been led, though he would not be driven.

Mr. Harness had no communication with Byron during the latter years of his life. He nevertheless always continued to take a kindly view of the character of his old school-fellow and college friend, and endeavoured to make every allowance for his conduct; but at the same time we must not suppose that he permitted any personal feeling to interfere with his sense of right, or to prevent his denouncing the principles advocated in his friend’s later writings. We have already noticed his disapproval of Byron’s conduct, and as it became more marked, he spoke in stronger language. Their intimacy then ceased, and Byron recklessly abandoned himself to those dissipations which ended in his early death. In
1822, Mr. Harness was appointed Boyle Lecturer by the University of Cambridge; and his duty was “to be ready to satisfy such real scruples as any may have concerning matters of religion, and to answer such new objections and difficulties as may be started.” Lord Byron’s works were then at the height of their popularity; and as some of them seemed to be exercising a very pernicious influence, Mr. Harness selected for special consideration the poem* in which an attempt was made to represent God as responsible for the origin of Sin.

“By a fiction of no ordinary power,” he observes, “the rebellious son of a rebellious father is disclosed to the imagination as upon the borders of Paradise, and within the shadowy regions of the dead, holding personal communion with the spiritual enemy of man. Each is represented as advocating the cause of his impiety to the partial judgment of his companion in iniquity. Miserable they are; but still they are arrogant and stern, remorseless and unsubdued by misery. For them adversity has no sweet or hallowed uses. While they make mutual confession of the wretchedness their sin has caused them, they appear to glory in it, as if ennobled by its magnitude and exalted by its presumption. To their licentious apprehensions all excellence appears corrupted and reversed. They

* “Cain.”

call good evil, and evil they call good. Pride is virtue, and rebellion duty. Lucifer is the friend, and Jehovah is the enemy of man; and while they reciprocate the arguments of a bewildering sophistry, the benevolence of the Deity is arraigned, as if He rejoiced in the affliction of His creatures, first conferred an efficacy on the temptation and then delighted to exact the penalties of transgression.”

Byron had attempted to justify himself by asserting that he had expressed no sentiments worse than those which were to be found in Milton; but even were this the case (Mr. Harness observed), there would be a peculiar danger in reproducing them in a specious form, and in times when faith was already obscured: “The danger is heightened by the peculiar character of the times. Had the allegations of these malignant spirits been preferred in an age of more general and fervent piety, there had been little peril in their publication. They had only awakened in the breast of the reader a more entire abhorrence of the beings by whom they were entertained and uttered. It was thus in the days of Milton. Every taunt of Satan was then opposed by the popular spirit of devotion, and armed against his cause the deepest and the holiest affections of the heart. But the spirit of those times has past. Zeal has yielded to indifference, and faith to scepticism. We have become so impatient of the re-
straint of Christianity, and so indulgent to every argument that endows our inclinations with an apology for sin, that few and transient are the feelings of religious gratitude which are offended by the impieties of Cain or Lucifer, and their appeal against the dispensations of Almighty Providence is calmly heard and favourably deliberated; for, in the skilful extenuation of their guilt, we appear to listen to the arguments that soothe us with the justification of our own. There is also a danger in the manner with which these antiquated cavils are revived and recommended. United with the dramatic interest and the seductions of poetry, they obtain a wider circulation. They gain an introduction to the studies of the young; they pass into the hands of that wide class of readers, who only find in literature another variety of dissipation, and who, after having eagerly received the contagion of demoralizing doubts, would indolently cast aside the cold metaphysical essay that conveyed their refutation.”

Byron’s friendship for Mr. Harness, who even during their intimacy did not scruple to reprove and oppose his principles, was perhaps the most pleasing episode in his private career; and his accusers should know that, during the whole of their correspondence, he never penned a single line to his friend which might not have been addressed to the most delicate woman.