LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Responses to Thomas Moore’s Life of Byron, 1830-1831
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The publication of Moore’s long-anticipated Life of Byron was the major literary event of 1830. Readers eagerly anticipated details about Byron’s separation from his wife and other subjects of rumor and speculation. Byron’s acquaintances must have dreaded the publication of his letters knowing the writer’s habit of saying disparaging or embarrassing things about even his closest friends. Having made the courageous decision to tell Byron’s story in the frank and open manner in which Byron would wish it to be told, Moore himself would have been anxious enough about how the biography would be received. The Byron memoirs previously published by Dallas, Medwin, and Hunt had provoked hostile, sometimes scathing responses, and while Moore had prepared the ground more carefully he could still expect attacks from disaffected parties.

Moore’s Byron was very extensively reviewed beginning with the publication of the first volume in January 1830 and continuing for months following the publication of the second volume in January 1831 (John Galt’s biography had appeared during the interval, stealing some of Moore’s thunder). In accordance with the usual practice, the dailies and weeklies responded immediately by reprinting extensive quotations, to be followed by critical commentary in the monthlies and the “last word” given by the quarterlies—Macaulay’s commentary in the Edinburgh Review did not appear until the number for June of 1831. Responses to Moore were as diverse as the reading public itself, ranging from scandal-mongering squibs to ponderous, Greek-laden disquisitions.

The approval-scale ranged from the declaration in Blackwood’s that “Moore’s Life of Byron is the best book of Biography in the English language” to the Monthly Review’s characterization of the book as pornography: “Does not the impure matter, which he has allowed to go forth in this second volume, strip the publisher of all legal copy-right in the work?” Some reviews praise Moore at the expense of Byron, others praise Byron at the expense of Moore. Several reviewers seized the opportunity to write their own Byron biographies based on the information provided by Moore. A few praise Byron as a letter-writer and Moore as a biographer, but most of the commentary concerns the new information provided about the life of the poet—what it implied about Byron’s character, and whether it should have been made public at all.

Moore’s psychological explanations for Byron’s behavior were rejected out of hand. No reviewer was prepared to tolerate adultery, to accept Moore’s explanation that “things were different” in Italy, or to believe that poetical geniuses make unsuitable husbands. Byron had charged John Bull with hypocrisy and John Bull returned the charge against Byron. Moore’s account of Byron’s sexual adventures in Venice provoked furious outrage and condemnation. While some of this was obviously hypocrisy and cant, it was not always so: the British Critic knocked the props from under Moore’s apologies for libertinism by appealing to reason rather than emotion. At the other end of the ideological spectrum Thomas Love Peacock in the Westminster Review attacked Moore’s affectations of piety. While the biographer’s prose was often admired, the artfulness with which he selected and integrated his materials into a narrative went unremarked.

John Cam Hobhouse, who had opposed the project and had lacerated previous biographers, was on this occasion uncharacteristically silent. Lady Byron, however, printed a statement defending her parents (and implicitly herself) against Byron’s account of the separation—explaining the apparent inconsistencies in her behavior without revealing anything about her husband’s behavior. After this had been distributed to the London newspapers in March 1830 her friends hypocritically issued a statement that the pamphlet had been intended “for private circulation only.” In April Thomas Campbell amplified Lady Byron’s defense in the New Monthly Magazine by accusing Byron of libelling Mary Anne Clermont. He had previously printed a letter objecting to Byron’s characterization of his behavior at Lord Holland’s—all the while professing continued admiration for Byron and Moore.

There was nothing so equivocal about the response from Leigh Hunt, who waited for Moore’s second volume to appear before springing his trap. For five successive days Hunt railed at his former friend and ally in The Tatler, printing private correspondence that exposed him as a consummate hypocrite. While Hunt’s essays make Moore look bad indeed, such malignant criticism could only reflect poorly on Hunt himself, then at the nadir of his fortunes. William Maginn for some undisclosed reason took Hunt’s part in Fraser’s, belittling Byron in the review of the first volume and ridiculing Moore in the review of the second. Internal evidence suggests that Maginn was also responsible for the condemnatory review of Moore’s second volume in the New Monthly Magazine, then being conduced by Samuel Carter Hall in succession to the hapless Thomas Campbell.

Moore received some of his warmest praise from Tory commentators and most strident condemnation from the Whigs. The mixed response reflects the fact that Byron, for all his loyalty to the liberal cause, was never a party man—like his mentor Pope and his bête noire Southey, he cultivated friendships across the political divide. The dispute with Lady Byron was more polarizing and must have reinforced some reviewers’ violent animus against Byron. But in the last analysis, the diversity of the responses seems simply to reflect the complexity of Byron’s character. It does not appear that Moore’s biography had a transformative effect upon Byron’s reputation, at least among reviewers.

Yet readers who rejected the biographer’s explicit explanations and apologies could still be swayed by the narrative shape Moore imparted to Byron’s history, not to mention the charm of the letters themselves. A good example of this are the two long essays in the Southern Review by Hugh Swinton Legaré of Charleston, S.C. In the first the reviewer, a future attorney general of the United States, delivers a stinging, detailed indictment of Byron’ moral character; the second, written after Legaré had read Byron's letters from Italy, takes an altogether more sympathetic view of the poet.

Moore elicited positive criticism where it mattered most. Writing in the Edinburgh Macaulay skilfully reduces to the biography to essentials while placing Byron squarely in a Hazlitt-derived account of the history of English literature (“His lot was cast in the time of a great literary revolution”). John Gibson Lockhart in the Quarterly wrote a good conservative counterpart, elaborating details and complexities (“The scandalous insults which Lord Byron offered to the late king were, of course, mainly designed, and excellently well calculated, to please certain liberal circles in those days, condemned as such circles then were to the blackest rancour of hopelessness”). Over at Blackwood’s, John Wilson rhapsodized through two massive articles on Byron’s childhood and youth (“And what a mother! Prodigal of the poker, and untenacious of the tongs!”). As modes of criticism these essays could hardly be more different, yet all make a compelling case for what would come to be regarded as a classic literary biography.

David Hill Radcliffe

“[Moore’s Letters and Journals of Lord Byron]” in The Literary Gazette (16 January 1830) 33-38
“[Moore’s Letters and Journals of Lord Byron]” in The Literary Gazette (23 January 1830) 53-55
“Mr. Moore’s Life of Lord Byron” in The Times (30 January 1830)
“Lord Byron” in Monthly Review NS 13 (February 1830) 217-37
“Lord Byron” in Asiatic Journal NS 1 (February 1830) 145-55
“Moore’s Life of Byron” in Gentleman’s Magazine 100 (February 1830) 146-50
“Moore’s Notices of Lord Byron” in Monthly Magazine NS 9 (February 1830) 183-97
“Letters and Journals of Lord Byron” in Monthly Repository NS 4 (February 1830) 125-28
“[Moore’s Life of Lord Byron]” in The Ladies’ Museum NS 1 (February 1830) 107-10
“[Moore’s Letters and Journals of Lord Byron]” in The Literary Gazette (13 February 1830) 100-01
[John Wilson], “Moore’s Byron” in Blackwood’s Magazine (February 1830) 389-420
[John Wilson], “Moore’s Byron” in Blackwood’s Magazine (March 1830) 421-54
[William Maginn], “Moore’s Life of Byron” in Fraser’s Magazine (March 1830) 129-43
[Thomas Campbell], “Critical Notices: Moore’s Life of Byron” in New Monthly Magazine (March 1830) 94-95
Lady Byron, “Remarks occasioned by Mr. Moore’s Notices of Lord Byron’s Life” in Literary Gazette (20 March 1830) 185-86
[William Jerdan], “Lady Byron’s Letter” in The Times (25 March 1830)
[Peter George Patmore], “Lady Byron’s Letter” in The Times (27 March 1830)
[Thomas Campbell], “Notices of the Life of Lord Byron by Mr. Moore” in New Monthly Magazine 28 (1 April 1830) 377-382
“[Thomas Love Peacock], “Moore’s Letters and Journals of Byron” in Westminster Review 12 (April 1830) 269-304
[Hugh Swinton Legaré], “Lord Byron’s Character and Writings” in Southern Review 5 (May 1830) 463-522
“Moore’s Life of Lord Byron” in La Belle Assemblée NS 11 (June 1830) 289-91
[William Bourne Oliver Peabody], “Moore’s Life of Byron” in North American Review 31 (July 1830) 167-99
[John Gibson Lockhart], “Moore’s Life of Lord Byron” in Quarterly Review (January 1831) 168-226
“Moore’s Life of Byron” in Gentleman’s Magazine 101 (January 1831) 64-67
“Moore’s Life of Lord Byron” in La Belle Assemblée NS 13 (January 1831) 72-79
“[Moore’s Letters and Journals of Lord Byron]” in The Literary Gazette (1 January 1831) 3-5
“[Moore’s Letters and Journals of Lord Byron]” in The Literary Gazette (8 January 1831) 23-25
“[Moore’s Life of Lord Byron]” in The Edinburgh Literary Journal (8 January 1831) 19-23
[Leigh Hunt], “Lord Byron—Mr. Moore—and Mr. Leigh Hunt” in The Tatler (11 January 1831) 441-43
[Leigh Hunt], “Lord Byron—Mr. Moore—and Mr. Leigh Hunt [Continued]” in The Tatler (12 January 1831) 445-46
[Leigh Hunt], “Lord Byron—Mr. Moore—and Mr. Leigh Hunt [Continued]” in The Tatler (13 January 1831) 449-51
[Leigh Hunt], “Lord Byron—Mr. Moore—and Mr. Leigh Hunt [Continued]” in The Tatler (14 January 1831) 453-55
“[Moore’s Life of Lord Byron. Continued]” in The Edinburgh Literary Journal (15 January 1831) 38-40
[Leigh Hunt], “Lord Byron—Mr. Moore—and Mr. Leigh Hunt [Concluded]” in The Tatler (15 January 1831) 457-58
“Lord Byron” in Monthly Review NS 1 (February 1831) 217-37
“Byron’s Memoirs” in Monthly Magazine NS 11 (February 1831) 145-59
“[Moore’s Life of Lord Byron. Concluded]” in The Edinburgh Literary Journal (5 February 1831) 89-91
[William Maginn], “Moore’s Life of Byron” in Fraser’s Magazine (March 1831) 238-252
[William Maginn], “Moore’s Life of Byron” in Fraser’s Magazine (March 1831) 238-252
[Charles Webb Le Bas], “Life of Lord Byron” in British Critic (April 1831) 257-324
[Hugh Swinton Legaré], “Byron’s Letters and Journals” in Southern Review 7 (May 1831) 1-42
[Thomas Babington Macaulay], “Moore’s Life of Lord Byron” in Edinburgh Review (June 1831) 544-572