LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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[Moore’s Life of Lord Byron].
Literary Gazette  No. 728  (1 January 1831)  3-5.
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No. 728. SATURDAY, JANUARY 1, 1831. PRICE 8d.


Letters and Journals of Lord Byron; with Notices of his Life. By Thomas Moore. Volume II. 4to. London, 1830. Murray.

We feel inclined to divide our review into three heads, and consider, first, the biographer; secondly, the impression produced by the whole; thirdly, Lord Byron himself. Mr. Moore says, “May we not say, that, as knowledge is ever the parent of tolerance, the more insight we gain into the springs and motives of a man’s actions, the peculiar circumstances in which he was placed, and the influences and temptations under which he acted, the more allowance we may be inclined to make for his errors, and the lore approbation his virtues may extort from it? * * * Should it have been the effect of my humble labours to clear away some of those mists that hung round my friend, and shew him in most respects as worthy of love, as he was in all of admiration, then will the chief and sole aim of this work have been accomplished.” First, let us set forth with doing full justice to the kindly and generous feeling which thus enlarges on the excellence, and defends all debatable points of a departed friend. It is easy to cavil and to correct; but we admire and respect the spirit which has made his task “a labour of love,” however we may and do differ from many of his conclusions. Secondly, the work itself. It is equally interesting and entertaining; interesting, as an extraordinary mental picture; and entertaining, as replete with keen lively observations and amusing anecdotes. But has a quarto any privilege which it can plead, like a peer? or any peculiar literary immunity? if not, a considerable portion of these pages might have been omitted. Whole lines of stars, some of which are liable to very awkward inferences; and divers passages, merely commemorative of the most common-place incidents, seem to us utterly unworthy of preservation. This fashion of asterisks is here carried to its excess, often very needlessly; so many of the names, such as Mad. de Stael, Lady Oxford, Sir Samuel Romily, Lord and Lady Blessington, &c. &c. being easily filled up. Yet this is good for trade, for in a very few years the work will require a commentator. These remarks, however, are the exception, not the rule; for the great mass is full of attraction; though, we must say, we consider some of its details to be unfit for a large class of readers. We admit the kindness, but doubt the judgment, of that morality which deals in palliations. Thirdly, we must confess that our opinion of Lord Byron is rather lowered than raised. In the divers memoirs which have appeared, we have always leant towards the favourable side, on the ground that the self-love he had wounded was in array against him. But what can extenuate the gross, ungenerous, and bitter spirit in which almost all his letters are written? Is there a single friend who has escaped some malicious sneer? while his literary envy is petty to a degree. A strange mixture of good and ill seem to have been united in his nature: it would almost tempt us to believe in the old classic fable of two souls in one body. We recollect a remark in Pelham, (we are not quite sure that, or Devereux), which says, “The wounds of our vanity make the secret of our pathos:” it was especially so in Byron’s case. His vanity was that one marked feature which Moore says (untruly, we think,) his character wanted. His vanity, like the sea, was boundless. Vain of his rank, his person, his talents; vanity is the “open sesame” to his mind. So glorious a gift as his genius, would have been too much for mortal, without some alloy.

Where this evil is not called into play, he is frank, kind, liberal, and affectionate. But vanity was the nightshade of his mind; it obscured, nay, eradicated, all his higher qualities. It equally stimulated his confidence and his reserve; for it is curious to remark how completely Lord Byron lived for the public: his letters are written more for the press than the post; and his every action has a reference to what will be said of it. To take one example among many, does it not explain his exclusive admiration of Pope? It enabled him to depreciate all his most popular rivals; and Pope, being dead, was out of the immediate line of competitorship. He was a Janus of the mind—one face of “earth, earthy;” the other, indeed, like that of an angel. We now turn to the work itself: much there is, we think, as already stated, that might most judiciously have been omitted. Take, for example, the following passages; and they are but two of many: speaking of an intrigue at Venice—

“I am very well off with Marianna, who is not at all a person to tire me; firstly, because I do not tire of a woman personally, but because they are generally bores in their disposition; and, secondly, because she is amiable, and has a tact which is not always the portion of the fair creation; and, thirdly, she is very pretty; and, fourthly,—but there is no occasion for farther specification. * * * * So far we have gone on very well; as to the future, I never anticipate,—carpe diem—the past at least is one’s own, which is one reason for making sure of the present. So much for my proper liaison.

“It is the height of the Carnival, and I am in the extreme and agonies of a new intrigue with I don’t exactly know whom or what, except that she is insatiate of love, and won’t take money, and has light hair and blue eyes, which are not common here, and that I met her at the Masque, and that when her mask is off, I am as wise as ever. I shall make what I can of the remainder of my youth.”

Having thus alluded to what we think objectionable, we proceed to what we think worthless: what is there in the following quotation to deserve publishing?—and yet this one extract is also the sample of many.

“Why have you not sent me an answer, and lists of subscribers to the translation of the Armenian Eusebius? of which I sent you printed copies of the prospectus (in French) two moons ago. Have you had the letter?—I shall send you another:—you must not neglect my Armenians. Tooth-powder, magnesia, tincture of myrrh, tooth-brushes, diachylon plaster, Peruvian bark, are my personal demands.”

It is useless to prolong extracts of this kind, and we gladly advance to the great mass of interesting material which the book really contains. No new light is thrown on the subject of his matrimonial separation, except the following letter, which is, at least, very beautiful: it is addressed to Lady Byron.

“I have to acknowledge the receipt of ‘Ada’s hair,’ which is very soft and pretty, and nearly as dark already as mine was at twelve years old, if I may judge from what I recollect of some in Augusta’s possession, taken at that age. But it don’t curl,—perhaps from its being let grow. I also thank you for the inscription of the date and name, and I will tell you why;—I believe that they are the only two or three words of your handwriting in my possession. For your letters I returned, and except the two words, or rather the one word, ‘Household,’ written twice in an old account-book, I have no other. I burnt your last note, for two reasons:—1stly, it was written in a style not very agreeable; and, 2dly, I wished to take your word without documents which are the worldly resources of suspicious people. I suppose that this note will reach you somewhere about Ada’s birthday—the 10th of December, I believe. She will then be six, so that in about twelve more I shall have some chance of meeting her;—perhaps sooner, if I am obliged to go to England by business or otherwise. Recollect, however, one thing, either in distance or nearness; every day which keeps us asunder should, after so long a period, rather soften our mutual feelings, which must always have one rallying-point as long as our child exists, which I presume we both hope will be long after either of her parents. The time which has elapsed since the separation has been considerably more than the whole brief period of our union, and the not much longer one of our prior acquaintance. We both made a bitter mistake; but now it is over and irrevocably so. For, at thirty-three on my part, and a few years less on yours, though it is no very extended period of life, still it is one when the habits and thought are generally so formed as to admit of no modification; and as we could not agree when younger, we should with difficulty do so now. I say all this, because I own to you, that, notwithstanding every thing, I considered our reunion as not impossible for more than a year after the separation;—but then I gave up the hope entirely and for ever. But this very impossibility of reunion seems to me at least a reason why, on all the few points of discussion which can arise between us, we
should preserve the courtesies of life, and as much of its kindness as people who are never to meet may preserve perhaps more easily than nearer connexions. For my own part, I am violent, but not malignant; for only fresh provocations can awaken my resentments. To you, who are colder and more concentrated, I would just hint, that you may sometimes mistake the depth of a cold anger for dignity, and a worse feeling for duty. I assure you that I bear you now (whatever I may have done) no resentment whatever. Remember, that if you have injured me in aught, this forgiveness is something; and that, if I have injured you, it is something more still, if it be true, as the moralists say, that the most offending are the least forgiving. Whether the offence has been solely on my side, or reciprocal, or on yours chiefly, I have ceased to reflect upon any but two things,—viz. that you are the mother of my child, and that we shall never meet again. I think if you also consider the two corresponding points with reference to myself, it will be better for all three.”

We will also subjoin Mr. Moore’s own statement:

“The chief subject of our conversation, when alone, was his marriage, and the load of obloquy which it had brought upon him. He was most anxious to know the worst that had been alleged of his conduct, and as this was our first opportunity of speaking together on the subject, I did not hesitate to put his candour most searchingly to the proof, not only by enumerating the various charges I had heard brought against him by others, but by specifying such portions of these charges as I had been inclined to think not incredible myself. To all this he listened with patience, and answered with the most unhesitating frankness, laughing to scorn the tales of unmanly outrage related of him, but, at the same time, acknowledging that there had been in his conduct but too much to blame and regret, and stating one or two occasions, during his domestic life, when he had been irritated into letting ‘the breath of bitter words’ escape him,—words, rather those of the unquiet spirit that possessed him than his own, and which he now evidently remembered with a degree of remorse and pain which might well have entitled them to be forgotten by others. It was, at the same time, manifest, that, whatever admissions he might be inclined to make respecting his own delinquencies, the inordinate measure of the punishment dealt out to him had sunk deeply into his mind and, with the usual effect of such injustice, drove him also to be unjust himself;—so much so, indeed, as to impute to the quarter, to which he now traced all his ill fate, a feeling of fixed hostility to himself, which would not rest, he thought, even at his grave, but continue to persecute his memory as it was now embittering his life. So strong was this impression upon him, that during one of our few intervals of seriousness, he conjured me, by our friendship, if, as he both felt and hoped, I should survive him, not to let unmerited censure settle upon his name, but, while I surrendered him up to condemnation, where he deserved it, to vindicate him where aspersed. How groundless and wrongful were these apprehensions, the early death which he so often predicted and sighed for has enabled us, unfortunately but too soon, to testify. So far from having to defend him against any such assailants, an unworthy voice or two, from persons more injurious as friends than as enemies, is all that I find raised in hostility to his name; while by none, I am inclined to think, would a generous amnesty over his grave be more readily and cordially concurred in than by her, among whose numerous virtues a forgiving charity towards himself was the only one to which she had not yet taught him to render justice.”

We shall endeavour now to make our selection as miscellaneous as possible. His own confessions were given to Moore when he visited him in Italy.

“I found my noble host waiting to receive me, and, in passing with him through the hall, saw his little Allegra, who, with her nursery-maid, was standing there as if just returned from a walk. To the perverse fancy he had for falsifying his own character, and even imputing to himself faults the most alien to his nature, I have already frequently adverted, and had, on this occasion, a striking instance of it. After I had spoken a little, in passing, to the child, and made some remark on its beauty, he said to me—‘Have you any notion—but I suppose you have—of what they call the parental feeling? For myself, I have not the least.’ And yet, when that child died, in a year or two afterwards, he who now uttered this artificial speech was so overwhelmed by the event, that those who were about him at the time actually trembled for his reason! A short time before dinner he left the room, and in a minute or two returned, carrying in his hand a white leather bag. ‘Look here,’ he said, holding it up,—‘this would be worth something to Murray, though you, I dare say, would not give sixpence for it.’ ‘What is it?’ I asked.—‘My Life and Adventures,’ he answered. On hearing this, I raised my hands in a gesture of wonder. ‘It is not a thing,’ he continued, ‘that can be published during my lifetime, but you may have it, if you like—there, do whatever you please with it.’ In taking the bag, and thanking him most warmly, I added, ‘This will make a nice legacy for my little Tom, who shall astonish the latter days of the nineteenth century with it.’ He then added, ‘You may show it to any of our friends you think worthy of it:’—and this is, nearly word for word, the whole of what passed between us on the subject.”

“The Life is Memoranda, and not Confessions. I have left out all my loves (except in a general way), and many other of the most important things (because I must not compromise other people), so that it is like the play of Hamlet—‘the part of Hamlet omitted by particular desire.’ But you will find many opinions, and some fun, with a detailed account of my marriage and its consequences as true as a party concerned can make such account, for I suppose we are all prejudiced. I have never read over this Life since it was written, so that I know not exactly what it may repeat or contain. Moore and I passed some merry days together.” * * *

A fellow-feeling does not seem to have made him wondrous kind in the following instance:

“Of Madame de Staël, in that Memoir, he spoke thus: ‘Madame de Staël was a good woman at heart and the cleverest at bottom, but spoilt by a with to be—she knew not what. In her own house she was amiable; in any other person’s, you wished her gone, and in her own again.’”

“As to Madame de S * *, I am by no means bound to be her beadsman—she was always more civil to me in person than during my absence. Our dear defunct friend, M * * L * * who was too great a bore ever to lie, assured me, upon his tiresome word of honour, that, at Florence, the said Madame de S * * was open-mouthed against me; and, when asked, in Switzerland, why she had changed her opinion, replied, with laudable sincerity, that I had named her in a sonnet with Voltaire, Rousseau, &c. &c. and that she could not help it, through decency. Now, I have not forgotten this, but I have been generous,—as mine acquaintance, the late Captain Whitby, of the navy, used to say to his seamen (when ‘married to the gunner’s daughter’)—‘two dozen, and let you off easy.’ The ‘two dozen’ were with the cat-o’-nine-tails;—the ‘let you off easy’ was rather his own opinion than that of the patient.”

The above asterisks of Madame de Staël and Monk Lewis seem to us very needless. We do not intend entering into the details of his connexion with the Countess Giuccioli; and in giving place to what seems so touching and beautiful in the following little incident, we cannot but wonder to see it so immediately contrasted as it is by cold and sneering expressions. The letter was written in the countess’s copy of Corinne.

“‘My dearest Teresa,—I have read this book in your garden;—my love, you were absent, or else I could not have read it. It is a favourite book of yours, and the writer was a friend of mine. You will not understand these English words, and others will not understand them,—which is the reason I have not scrawled them in Italian. But you will recognize the handwriting of him who passionately loved you, and you will divine that, over a book which was yours, he could only think of love. In that word, beautiful in all languages, but most so in yours—Amor mio—is comprised my existence here and hereafter. I feel I exist here, and I fear that I shall exist hereafter,—to what purpose you will decide; my destiny rests with you, and you are a woman, eighteen years of age, and two out of a convent. I wish that you had staid there, with all my heart,—or, at least, that I had never met you in your married state. But all this is too late. I love you, and you love me,—at least, you say so, and act as if you did so, which last is a great consolation in all events. But I more than love you, and cannot cease to love you. Think of me, sometimes, when the Alps and the ocean divide us,—but they never will, unless you wish it. Byron.

Bologna, Aug. 25, 1819.’”

Speaking of the separation he had caused between the countess and her husband, he says:

“Your apprehensions (arising from Scott’s) were unfounded. There are no damages in this country, but there will probably be a separation between them, as her family, which is a principal one, by its connexions, are very much against him, for the whole of his conduct,—and he is old and obstinate, and she is young and a woman, determined to sacrifice every thing to her affections. I have given her the best advice, viz., to stay with him,—pointing out the state of a separated woman (for the priests won’t let lovers live openly together, unless the husband sanctions it), and making the most exquisite moral reflections,—but to no purpose. She says, ‘I will stay with him, if he will let you remain with me. It is hard that I should be the only woman in Romagna who is not to have her Amico; but, if not, I will not live with him; and as for the consequences, love, &c. &c. &c.’—you know how females reason on such occasions. He says he has let it go on, till he can do so no longer. But he wants her to stay, and dismiss me; for he doesn’t like to pay back her dowry and to make an alimony. Her relations are rather for the separation, as they detest him,—indeed, so does
every body. The populace and the women are, as usual, all for those who are in the wrong, viz., the lady and her lover. I should have retreated, but honour, and an erysipelas which has attacked her, prevent me,—to say nothing of love, for I love her most entirely, though not enough to persuade her to sacrifice every thing to a frenzy. ‘I see how it will end; she will be the sixteenth Mrs. Shuffleton.’”

Again, alluding to a party, whither he accompanies her.

“The G.’s object appeared to be to parade her foreign lover as much as possible, and, faith, if she seemed to glory in the scandal, it was not for me to be ashamed of it. Nobody seemed surprised;—all the women, on the contrary, were, as it were, delighted with the excellent example. The vice-legate, and all the other vices, were as polite as could be;—and I, who had acted on the reserve, was fairly obliged to take the lady under my arm, and look as much like a cicisbeo as I could on so short a notice.”

We subjoin one or two chance bits, as we must give a few more extracts next week.

“In the mean time, Polidori had become jealous of the growing intimacy of his noble patron with Shelley; and the plan which he now understood them to have formed of making a tour of the Lake without him completed his mortification. In the soreness of his feelings on this subject he indulged in some intemperate remonstrances, which Lord Byron indignantly resented; and the usual bounds of courtesy being passed on both sides, the dismissal of Polidori appeared, even to himself, inevitable. With this prospect, which he considered nothing less than ruin, before his eyes, the poor young man was, it seems, on the point of committing that fatal act which, two or three years afterwards, he actually did perpetrate. Retiring to his own room, he had already drawn forth the poison from his medicine chest, and was pausing to consider whether he should write a letter before he took it, when Lord Byron (without, however, the least suspicion of his intention) tapped at the door and entered, with his hand held forth in sign of reconciliation. The sudden revulsion was too much for poor Polidori, who burst into tears; and, in relating all the circumstances of the occurrence afterwards, he declared that nothing could exceed the gentle kindness of Lord Byron in soothing his mind and restoring him to composure.”

“A dialogue which Lord Byron himself used to mention as having taken place between them during their journey on the Rhine, is amusingly characteristic of both the persons concerned. ‘After all,’ said the physician, ‘what is there you can do that I cannot?’—‘Why, since you force me to say,’ answered the other, ‘I think there are three things I can do which you cannot.’ Polidori defied him to name them. ‘I can,’ said Lord Byron, ‘swim across that river—I can snuff out that candle with a pistol-shot at the distance of twenty paces—and I have written a poem of which 14,000 copies were sold in one day.’”

“You seem to think that I could not have written the ‘Vision,’ &c. under the influence of low spirits;—but I think there you err. A man’s poetry is a distinct faculty, or Soul, and has no more to do with the every-day individual than the inspiration with the Pythoness when removed from her tripod.”