LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
Letters and Journals of Lord Byron.
Monthly Repository and Review  Vol. NS 4  (February 1830)  124-28.
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Art. VII.—Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, with Notices of his Life. By Thomas Moore. 2 vols. Vol. I. 4to. pp. 670.

Our present notice of this volume must be confined to telling those of our readers whom it may not yet have reached what they may expect to find in it. And truly it is a noble hill of fare, though, after all, nothing can thoroughly reconcile us to the destruction of that
Critical Notices—Miscellaneous.125
MS. which
Mr. Moore, in an evil hour for his own reputation for mental courage and fidelity, committed to the flames. It would have been something to know that such an unsparing self-analysis as it was said to be, such an exposé of the arcana of aristocratical life, such a contribution to the philosophy of the human mind and character, had been still in existence, though its publication had been reserved for the third or fourth generation. But it is gone; we must be thankful for what we can get; and we have got here a book of deep interest—an interest which, from the variety of its sources, cannot fail of being as universal as it is intense.

The bulk of the volume consists of the correspondence and memoranda of Lord Byron,—a treasure of philosophy, wit, and grace. The prose of poets is usually admirable,—witness Southey's histories and Wordsworth's prefaces and essays,—to go no further back than our own time. The notes to Byron's poems are, by some, relished almost as much as the poems themselves; but, graceful as they are, they had little prepared us for the splendid display which this volume affords. A collection of 240 letters furnishes, of course, a great variety of subjects and of style; but whatever their tone, whether they breathe despondency or reckless gaiety, whether addressed to a schoolboy, a literary acquaintance, or one that “sticketh closer than a brother,”the same vigour, originality, and beauty, are evident in all. We can give but a random specimen.

To Mr. Dallas.
Newstead Abbey, Aug. 12, 1811.

“Peace be with the dead! Regret cannot awake them. With a sigh to the departed, let us resume the dull business of life, in the certainty that we also shall have our repose. Besides her who gave me being, I have lost more than one who made that being tolerable. The best friend of my friend Hobhouse, Matthews, a man of the first talents, and also not the worst of my narrow circle, has perished miserably in the muddy waves of the Cam, always fatal to genius:—my poor school-fellow Wingfield, at Coimbra,—within a month: and whilst I had heard from all three, but not seen one. Matthews wrote to me the very day before his death; and though I feel for his fate, I am still more anxious for Hobhouse, who, I very much fear, will hardly retain his senses; his letters to me since the event have been most incoherent. But let this pass—we shall all one day pass along with the rest—the world is too full of such things, and our very sorrow is selfish.

“I received a letter from you which my late occupations prevented me from duly noticing,—I hope your friends and family will long hold together. I shall be glad to hear from you on business, on common place, on any thing, or nothing—but death. I am already too familiar with the dead. It is strange that I look on the skulls which stand beside me (I have always had four in my study) without emotion; but I cannot strip the features of those I have known of their fleshy covering, even in idea, without a hideous sensation; but the worms are less ceremonious. Surely the Romans did well when they burned the dead.—I shall be happy to hear from you, and am yours,”&c.

His “Detached Thoughts,”from which we are favoured with large extracts, are yet more valuable than his letters. They are thrown off with the utmost ease and carelessness; and we are thus furnished with the pleasant employment of picking out his opinions and ascertaining his feelings on subjects of the deepest interest in the midst of graceful nonsense, and the most trivial details of every-day life. Take, for instance, the following sentences, mixed up with memoranda about biscuits and soda-water, and declarations of affection for Junius, because “he was a good hater.”

“I awoke from a dream—well! and have not others dreamed?—Such a dream!—but she did not overtake me. I wish the dead would rest, however. Ugh! how my blood chilled!—and I could not wake—and—and—heigho!
“‘Shadows to-night
Have struck more ten or to the soul of Richard
Than could the substance of ten thousand—
Armed all in proof, and led by shallow—.’

“I do not like this dream,—I hate its ‘foregone conclusion.’ And am I to be shaken by shadows? Aye, when they remind us of—no matter—but, if I dream thus again, I will try whether all sleep has the like visions. Since I rose, I've been in considerable bodily pain also; but it is gone, and now, like Lord Ogleby, I am wound up for the day.”—P. 447.


“All are inclined to believe what they covet, from a lottery-ticket up to a passport to Paradise,—in which, from description, I see nothing very tempting.
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My restlessness tells me I have something within that ‘passeth show!’ it is for Him who made it, to prolong that spark of celestial fire which illuminates, yet burns, this frail tenement; but I see no such horror in a ‘dreamless sleep,’ and I hare no conception of any existence which duration would not render tiresome. How else ‘fell the angels,’ even according to your creed? They were immortal, heavenly, and happy as their apostate Abdiel is now by his treachery. Time must decide; and eternity won't be the less agreeable or more horrible because one did not expect it. In the mean time, I am grateful for some good, and tolerably patient under certain evils—grace à Dieu et mon bon tempérament.”—P. 455.

Though there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the foregoing passage, it is but fair to give, as a set-off, some lines which we elsewhere find:

“Forget this world, my restless sprite;
Turn, turn thy thoughts to Heav'n:
There must thou soon direct thy flight,
If errors are forgiven.
To bigots and to sects unknown,
Bow down beneath th’ Almighty's throne;—
To him address thy trembling prayer;
He, who is merciful and just,
Will not reject a child of dust,
Although his meanest care.
Father of Light! to thee I call,
My soul is dark within;
Thou, who canst mark the sparrow fall,
Avert the death of sin.
Thou, who canst guide the wandering star,
Who calm'st the elemental war,
Whose mantle is yon boundless sky,
My thoughts, my words, my crimes forgive;
And, since I soon must cease to live,
Instruct me how to die.”

The delicate and difficult subject of Lord Byron's scepticism is beautifully handled by his biographer. Mr. Moore has, in this instance, as in most others, admirably combined the fidelity of the historian with the tenderness of the friend. His task has been one of peculiar difficulty. To exhibit, with a friendly hand, the singularities of the most singular of minds; to reveal its deformities while bespeaking due honour to its beauties; to abstain from extenuation or eulogy, where the temptation to both is peculiarly powerful, evinces no little principle, judgment, and taste. The minor excellences of biography also abound. The style is simple, the narrative conducted with grace, and animated throughout with an interest, the credit of which ought, perhaps, to attach, in some degree, to the narrator, as well as to his subject. The plenitude of the details has surprised and gratified us; but their interest, alas! only aggravates our repinings for what we have lost. The following passages will show how well Mr. Moore understood, and can made others understand, the niceties of the subject of which he treats.

“The general character which he bore among the masters at Harrow was that of an idle boy, who would never learn any thing; and, as far as regarded his tasks in school, this reputation was, by his own avowal, not ill founded. It is impossible, indeed, to look through the books which he had then in use, and which are scribbled over with clumsily interlined translations, without being struck with the narrow extent of his classical attainments. The most ordinary Greek words have their English signification scrawled under them,—shewing too plainly that he was not sufficiently familiarized with their meaning to trust himself without this aid. Thus, in his Xenophon we find νεοι, young—σομασιν, bodies—ανϑζωποις τοις αγαϑοις good men, &c. &c.—and even in the volumes of Greek plays which he presented to the library on his departure, we observe, among other instances, the common word χρυσος provided with its English representative in the margin. But, notwithstanding his backwardness in the mere verbal scholarship, on which so large and precious a portion of life is wasted, in all that general and miscellaneous knowledge which is alone useful in the world, he was making rapid and even wonderful progress. With a mind too inquisitive and excursive to be imprisoned within statutable limits, he flew to subjects that interested his already manly tastes, with a zest which it is in vain to expect that the mere pedantries of school could inspire; and the irregular, but ardent, snatches of study which he caught in this way gave to a mind like his an impulse forwards, which left more disciplined and plodding competitors far behind. The list, indeed, which he has left on record of the works, in all departments of literature, which he thus hastily and greedily devoured before he was fifteen years of age, is such as almost to startle belief,—comprising, as it does, a range and variety of study, which might make much older ‘helluones librorum’ hide their heads. * * *

“To a youth like Byron, abounding
Critical Notices—Miscellaneous.127
with the most passionate feelings, and finding sympathy with only the ruder parts of his nature at home, the little world of school afforded a vent for his affections, which was sure to call them forth in their most ardent form. Accordingly, the friendships which he contracted both at school and college were little less than what he himself describes them, ‘passions.’ The want he felt at home of those kindred dispositions which greeted him among ‘Ida's social band,’ is thus strongly described in one of his early poems:
“‘Is there no cause beyond the common claim,
Endear'd to all in childhood's very name?
Ah! sure some stronger impulse vibrates here,
Which whispers, friendship will be doubly dear
To one who thus for kindred hearts must roam,
And seek abroad the love denied at home:
Those hearts, dear Ida, have I found in thee,
A home, a world, a paradise to me.’

“This early volume, indeed, abounds with the most affectionate tributes to his school-fellows. Even his expostulations to one of them, who had given him some cause for complaint, are thus tenderly conveyed:
“‘You knew that my soul, that my heart, my existence,
If danger demanded were wholly your own;
You knew me unalter'd by years or by
Devoted to love and to friendship alone.
You knew—but away with the vain retrospection,
The bond of affection no longer endures;
Too late you may droop o'er the fond recollection,
And sigh for the friend who was formerly yours.’

“The following description of what he felt after leaving Harrow, when he encountered in the world any of his old school-fellows, falls far short of the scene which actually occurred, but a few years before his death, in Italy,—when, on meeting with his friend Lord Clare, after a long separation, he was affected almost to tears by the recollections which rushed on him.”

“It is but rarely that infidelity or scepticism finds an entrance into youthful minds. That readiness to take the future upon trust, which is the charm of this period of life, would naturally, indeed, make it the season of belief as well as of hope.”—“Unfortunately, Lord Byron was an exception to the usual course of such lapses. With him, the canker shewed itself ‘in the morn and dew of youth,’ when the effect of such ‘blastments’ is, for every reason, most fatal,—and, in addition to the real misfortune of being an unbeliever at any age, he exhibited the rare and melancholy spectacle of an unbelieving school-boy. The same prematurity of development which brought his passions and genius so early into action, enabled him also to anticipate this worst, dreariest result of reason; and at the very time of life when a spirit and temperament like his most required controul, those checks which religious prepossessions best supply were almost wholly wanting.

“We have seen, in those two Addresses to the Deity which I have selected from among his unpublished poems, and still more strongly in a passage of the Catalogue of his studies, at what a boyish age the authority of all systems and sects was avowedly shaken off by his inquiring spirit. Yet, even in these, there is a fervour of adoration mingled with his defiance of creeds, through which the piety implanted in his nature (as it is deeply in all poetic natures) unequivocally shews itself; and had he then fallen within the reach of such guidance and example as would have seconded and fostered these natural dispositions, the license of opinion into which he afterwards broke loose, might have been averted.” He associated, however, much with sceptics. “It is not wonderful, therefore, that in such society, the opinions of the noble poet should have been, at least, accelerated in that direction to which their bias already leaned; and though he cannot be said to have become thus confirmed in these doctrines—as neither now, nor at any time of his life, was he a confirmed unbeliever,—he had undoubtedly learned to feel less uneasy under his scepticism, and even to mingle somewhat of boast and of levity with his expression of it. At the very first onset of his correspondence with Mr. Dallas, we find him proclaiming his sentiments on all such subjects with a flippancy and confidence, far different from the tone in which he had first ventured on his doubts,—from that fervid sadness, as of a heart loth to part with its illusions,
128Critical Notices—Miscellaneous.
which breathes through every line of those prayers that, but a year before, his pen had traced.”—Pp. 125, 131.

On a life and character full of anomalies, ministering food for interminable speculation, opening sources of feeling which can never be exhausted,—we must, at least on the present occasion, forbear to touch.