LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Countess of Blessington
Journal of Conversations with Lord Byron. No. VII.
New Monthly Magazine  Vol. NS 37  (March 1833)  308-318.
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MARCH 1, 1833.



“I never spent an hour with Moore (said Byron) without being ready to apply to him the expression attributed to Aristophanes, ‘You have spokon roses;’ his thoughts and expressions have all the beauty and freshness of those flowers, but the piquancy of his wit, and the readiness of his repartees, prevent one’s ear being cloyed by too much sweets, and one cannot ‘die of a rose in aromatic pain’ with Moore, though he does speak roses, there is such an endless variety in his conversation. Moore is the only poet I know (continued Byron) whose conversation equals his writings; he comes into society with a mind as fresh and buoyant as if he had not expended such a multiplicity of thoughts on paper; and leaves behind him an impression that he possesses an inexhaustible mine equally brilliant as the specimens he has given us. Will you, after this frank confession of my opinion of your countryman, ever accuse me of injustice again? You see I can render justice when I am not forced into its opposite extreme by hearing people overpraised, which always awakes the sleeping Devil in my nature, as witness the desperate attack I gave your friend Lord —— the other day, merely because you all wanted to make me believe he was a model, which he is not; though I admit he is not all or half that which I accused him of being. Had you dispraised, probably I should have defended him.”

“I will give you some stanzas I wrote yesterday (said Byron); they are as simple is even Wordsworth himself could write, and would do for music.”

The following are the lines,—
TO ——.
“But once I dared to lift my eyes—
To lift my eyes to thee;
And since that day, beneath the skies,
No other sight they see.
In vain sleep shuts them in the night—
The night grows day to me;
Presenting idly to my sight
What still a dream must be.
A fatal dream—for many a bar
Divides thy fate from mine;
And still my passions wake and war,
But peace be still with thine.”

“No one writes songs like Moore (said Byron). Sentiment and imagination are joined to the most harmonious versification, and I know

* Continued from p. 222, No. cxlvi.
no greater treat than to hear him sing his own compositions; the powerful expression he gives to them, and the pathos of the tones of his voice, tend to produce an effect on my feelings that no other songs, or singer, ever could.
—— —— used to write pretty songs, and certainly has talent, but I maintain there is more poesy in her prose, at least more fiction, than is to be met with in a folio of poetry. You look shocked at what you think my ingratitude towards her, but if you knew half the cause I have to dislike her, you would not condemn me. You shall however know some parts of that serio-comic drama, in which I was forced to play a part; and, if you listen with candour, you must allow I was more sinned against than sinning.”

The curious history that followed this preface is not intended for the public eye, as it contains anecdotes and statements that are calculated to give pain to several individuals, the same feeling that dictates the suppression of this most curious episode in Byron’s London life, has led to the suppression of many other piquant and amusing disclosures made by him, as well as some of the most severe poetical portraits that ever were drawn of some of his supposed friends, and many of his acquaintances. The vigour with which they are sketched proves that he entered into every fold of the characters of the originals, and that he painted them con amore, but he could not be accused of being a flattering portrait painter.

The disclosures made by Byron could never be considered confidential, because they were always at the service of the first listener who fell in his way, and who happened to know anything of the parties he talked of. They were not confided with any injunction to secrecy, but were indiscriminately made to his chance companions,—nay, he often declared his decided intention of writing copious notes to the Life he had given to his friend Moore, in which the whole truth should be declared of, for, and against, himself and others.

Talking of this gift to Mr. Moore, he asked me if it had made a great sensation in London, and whether people were not greatly alarmed at the thoughts of being shown up in it? He seemed much pleased in anticipating the panic it would occasion, naming all the persons who would be most alarmed.

I told him that he had rendered the most essential service to the cause of morality by his confessions, as a dread of similar disclosures would operate more in putting people on their guard in reposing dangerous confidence in men, than all the homilies that ever were written; and that people would in future be warned by the phrase of “beware of being Byroned,” instead of the old cautions used in past times. “This (continued I) is a sad antithesis to your motto of Crede Byron.” He appeared vexed at my observations, and it struck me that he seemed uneasy and out of humour for the next half-hour of our ride. I told him that his gift to Moore had suggested to me the following lines:—
“The ancients were famed for their friendship, we’re told,
Witness Damon and Pythias, and others of old;
But, Byron, ’twas thine friendship’s power to extend,
Who surrender’d thy life for the sake of thy friend.”

He laughed heartily at the lines, and, in laughing at them, recovered his good-humour.

“I have never,” said Byron, “succeeded to my satisfaction in an epigram; my attempts have not been happy, and knowing Greek as I do, and admiring the Greek epigrams, which excel all others, it is mortifying that I have not succeeded better: but I begin to think that epigrams demand a peculiar talent, and that talent I decidedly have not. One of the best in the English language is that of Rogers on ——; it has the true Greek talent of expressing by implication what is wished to be conveyed.
—— has no heart they say, but I deny it;
He has a heart—he gets his speeches by it.’
This is the ne plus ultra of English epigrams.” I told Byron that I had copied Rogers’s thought, in two lines on an acquaintance of mine, as follows:—
“The charming Mary has no mind they say;
I prove she has—it changes every day.”
This amused him, and he repeated several epigrams, very clever, but which are too severe to be given in these pages. The epigrams of Byron are certainly not equal to his other poetry, they are merely clever, and such as any person of talent might have written, but who except him, in our day, could have written
Childe Harold? No one—for admitting that the same talent exists, (which I am by no means prepared to admit) the possessor must have experienced the same destiny, to have brought it to the same perfection. The reverses that nature and circumstances entailed on Byron, served but to give a higher polish and a finer temper to his genius. Circumstances, in marring the perfectibility of the man, had perfected the poet, and this must have been evident to all who approached him, though it had escaped his own observation. Had the choice been left him, I am quite sure, he would not have hesitated a moment in choosing between the renown of the poet, and the happiness of the man, even at the price of happiness, as he lived much more in the future, than in the present, as do all persons of genius. As it was, be felt dissatisfied with his position, without feeling that it was the whetstone thet sharpened his powers; for with all his affected philosophy, he was a philosopher but in theory, and never reduced it to practice. One of the strangest anomalies in Byron, was the exquisite taste displayed in his descriptive poetry, and the total want of it that was so visible in his modes of life. Fine scenery seemed to produce little effect on his feelings, though his descriptions are so glowing, and the elegancies and comforts of refined life he appeared to as little understand as value. This last did
not arise from a contempt of them, as might be imagined, but from an ignorance of what constituted them; I have seen him apparently delighted with the luxurious inventions in furniture, equipages, plate, &c. common to all persons of a certain station or fortune, and yet after an inquiry as to their prices, an inquiry so seldom made by persons of his rank, shrink back alarmed at the thought of the expense, though there was nothing alarming in it, and congratulate himself that he had no such luxuries, or did not require them. I should say that a bad and vulgar taste predominated in all Byron’s equipments, whether in dress or in furniture. I saw his bed at Genoa, when I passed through in 1826 and it certainly was the most gaudily vulgar thing I ever saw; the curtains in the worst taste, and the cornice having his family motto of “Crede Byron” surmounted by baronial coronets. His carriages and his liveries were in the same bad taste, having an affectation of finery, but mesquin in the details, and tawdry in the ensemble; and it was evident that he piqued himself on them, by the complacency with which they were referred to. These trifles are touched upon, as being characteristic of the man, and would have been passed by, as unworthy of notice, had he not shown that they occupied a considerable portion of hie attention. He has even asked us if they were not rich and handsome, and then remarked that no wonder they were so, as they cost him a great deal of money. At such moments it was difficult to remember that one was speaking to the author of Childe Harold. If the poet was often forgotten in the levities of the man, the next moment some original observation, cutting repartee, or fanciful simile, reminded one that he who could be ordinary in trifles, (the only points of assimilation between him and the common herd of men,) was only ordinary when he descended to their level; but when once on subjects worthy his attention, the great poet shone forth, and they who had felt self-complacency at noting the futilities that had lessened the distance between him and them, were forced to see the immeasurable space which separated them, when he allowed his genius to be seen. It is only Byron’s pre-eminence as a poet, that can give interest to such details as the writer has entered into; if they are written without partiality, they are also given in no unfriendly spirit, but his defects are noted with the same feeling with which an astronomer would remark the specks that are visible even in the brightest stars, and which having examined more minutely than common observers, he wishes to give the advantages of his discoveries, though the specks he describes have not made him overlook the brightness of the luminaries they sullied, but could not obscure.

“You know —— of course, (said Byron,) every one does. I hope you don’t like him; water and oil are not more antipathetic than he and I are to each other; I admit that his abilities are great, they are of the very first order, but he has that which almost always accompanies great talents, and generally proves a counterbalance to them. An overween-
ing ambition, which renders him not over nice about the means, as long as he attains the end; and this facility will prevent his ever being a truly great man, though it may abridge his road to what is considered greatness—official dignity. You shall see some verses in which I have not spared him, and yet I have only said what I believe to be strictly correct. Poets are said to succeed best in fiction, but this I deny; at least I always write best when truth inspires me, and my satires, which are founded on truth, have more spirit than all my other productions, for they were written con amore. My intimacy with the —— family (continued Byron) let me into many of ——’s secrets, and they did not raise him in my estimation.

“One of the few persons in London, whose society served to correct my predisposition to misanthropy, was Lord Holland. There is more benignity, and a greater share of the milk of human kindness in his nature than in that of any man I know, always excepting Lord B——. Then there is such a charm in his manners, his mind is so highly cultivated, his conversation so agreeable, and his temper so equal and bland, that he never fails to send away his guests content with themselves and delighted with him. I never (continued Byron) heard a difference of opinion about Lord Holland; and I am sure no one could know him without liking him. Lord Erskine, in talking to me of Lord Holland, observed, that it was his extreme good-nature alone that prevented his taking as high a political position as his talents entitled him to fill. This quality (continued Byron) will never prevent ——’s rising in the world; so that his talents will have a fair chance.

“It is difficult (said Byron) when one detests an author not to detest his works. There are some that I dislike so cordially, that I am aware of my incompetency to give an impartial opinion of their writings. Southey, par exemple, is one of these. When travelling in Italy, he was reported to me as having circulated some reports much to my disadvantage, and still more to that of two ladies of my acquaintance; all of which, through the kind medium of some good-natured friends, were brought to my ears; and I have vowed eternal vengeance against him, and all who uphold him; which vengeance has been poured forth, in phials of wrath, in the shape of epigrams and lampoons, some of which you shall see. When any one attacks me, on the spur of the moment I sit down and write all the mechanceté that comes into my head; and, as some of these sallies have merit, they amuse me, and are too good to be torn or burned, and so are kept, and see the light long after the feeling that dictated them has subsided. All my malice evaporates in the effusions of my pen; but I dare say those that excite it would prefer any other mode of vengeance. At Pisa, a friend told me that Walter Savage Landor had declared he either would not, or could not, read my works. I asked my officious friend if he was sure which it was that Landor said, as the would not was not offensive, and the could not
was highly so. After some reflection, he, of course en ami, chose the most disagreeable signification; and I marked down Landor in the tablet of memory as a person to whom a coup-de-pat must be given in my forthcoming work, though he really is a man whose brilliant talents and profound erudition I cannot help admiring as much as I respect his character, various proofs of the generosity, manliness, and independence of which has reached me; so you see I can render justice (en petit comité) even to a man who says he could not read my works; this, at least, shows some good feeling, if the petit vengeance of attacking him in my work cannot be defended; but my attacking proves the truth of the observation made by a French writer,—that we don’t like people for the merit we discover in them, but for that which they find in us.”

When Byron was one day abusing —— most vehemently, we accused him of undue severity; and he replied, he was only deterred from treating him much more severely by the fear of being indicted under the Act of Cruelty to Animals!

“I am quite sure (said Byron) that many of our worst actions and our worst thoughts are caused by friends. An enemy can never do as much injury, or cause as much pain: if he speaks ill of one, it is set down as an exaggeration of malice, and therefore does little harm, and he has no opportunity of telling one any of the disagreeable things that are said in one’s absence; but a friend has such an amiable candour in admitting the faults least known, and often unsuspected, and of denying or defending with acharnement those that can neither be denied nor defended, that he is sure to do one mischief. Then he thinks himself bound to retail and detail every disagreeable remark or story he hears, and generally under the injunction of secrecy; so that one is tormented without the power of bringing the slanderer to account, unless by a breach of confidence. I am always tempted to exclaim, with Socrates, ‘My friends! there are no friends!’ when I hear and see the advantages of friendship. It is odd (continued Byron) that people do not seem aware that the person who repeats to a friend an offensive observation, uttered when he was absent, without any idea that he was likely to hear it, is much more blameable than the person who originally said it; of course I except a friend who hears a charge brought against one’s honour, and who comes and openly states what he has heard, that it may be refuted: but this friend seldom do; for, as that Queen of Egotists, La Marquise du Deffand, truly observed—‘Ceux qu'on nomme amis sont ceux par qui on n'a pas à craindre d'être assassiné, mais qui laisseroient faire les assassins.’ Friends are like diamonds: all wish to possess them; but few can or will pay their price; and there never was more wisdom embodied in a phrase than in that which says—‘Defend me from my friends, and I will defend myself from my enemies.’”

Talking of poetry, (Byron said) that “next to the affected simplicity of the Lake School, he disliked prettinesses, or what are called
flowers of poetry; they are only admissible in the poetry of ladies, (said he,) which should always have a sprinkling of dew-gemmed leaves and flowers of rainbow hues, with tuneful birds and gorgeous butterflies.” Here he laughed like a child, and added, “I suppose you would never forgive me if I finished the sentence, sweet emblems of fair woman’s looks and mind.” Having joined in the laugh, which was irresistible from the mock heroic air he assumed, I asked him how he could prove any resemblance between tuneful birds, gorgeous butterflies, and woman’s face or mind. He immediately replied, “have I not printed a certain line, in which I say, the music breathing from her face, and do not all, even philosophers, assert, that there is harmony in beauty, nay that there is no beauty without it? Now tuneful birds are musical; ergo, that simile holds good as far as the face, and the butterfly must stand for the mind, brilliant, light and wandering. I say nothing of its being the emblem of the soul, because I have not quite made up my mind, that women have souls; but, in short, flowers and all that is fragile and beautiful must remind one of women. So do not be offended with my comparison.”

“But to return to the subject, (continued Byron) you do not, cannot like what are called flowers in poetry. I try to avoid them as much as possible in mine, and I hope you think that I have succeeded.” I answered that he had given oaks to Parnassus instead of flowers, and while disclaiming the compliment it seemed to gratify him.

“A successful work (said Byron) makes a man a wretch for life: it engenders in him a thirst for notoriety and praise, that precludes the possibility of repose; this spurs him on to attempt others, which are always expected to be superior to the first; hence arise disappointment, as expectation being too much excited is rarely gratified, and in the present day, one failure is placed as a counterbalance to fifty successful efforts. Voltaire was right (continued Byron) when he said that the fate of a literary man resembled that of the flying fish; if he dives in the water the fish devour him, and if he rises in the air he is attacked by the birds. Voltaire (continued Byron) had personal experience of the persecution a successful author must undergo; but malgré all this, he continued to keep alive the sensation he had excited in the literary world, and while at Ferney, thought only of astonishing Paris. Montesquieu has said that ‘moins on pense plus on parle’. Voltaire was a proof, indeed I have known many (said Byron), of the falsenesss of this observation, for whoever wrote or talked as much as Voltaire? But Montesquieu, when he wrote his remark, thought not of literary men; he was thinking of the bavards of society, who certainly think less and talk more than all others. I was once very much amused (said Byron) by overhearing the conversation of two country ladies, in company with a celebrated author, who happened to be that evening very taciturn: one remarked to the other, how strange it was that a person
reckoned so clever, should be so silent; and the other answered, Oh! he has nothing left to say, he has sold all his thoughts to his publishers. This you will allow was a philosophical way of explaining the silence of an author.

“One of the things that most annoyed me in London (said Byron) was the being continually asked to give my opinion on the works of contemporaries. I got out of the difficulty as well as I could, by some equivocal answer that might be taken in two ways: but even this prudence did not save me, and I have been accused of envy and jealousy of authors, of whose works, God knows, I was far from being envious. I have also been suspected of jealousy towards ancient as well as modern writers; but Pope, whose poems I really envy, and whose works I admire, perhaps more than any living or dead English writer, they have never found out that I was jealous of, nay, probably, as I always praise him, they suppose I do not seriously admire him, as insincerity on all points is universally attributed to me.

“I have often thought of writing a book to be filled with all the charges brought against me in England (said Byron); it would make an interesting folio, with my notes, and might serve posterity as a proof of the charity, good-nature, and candour of Christian England in the nineteenth century. Our laws are bound to think a man innocent until he is proved to be guilty; but our English society condemn him before trial, which is a summary proceeding that saves trouble.”

“However, I must say, (continued Byron,) that it is only those to whom any superiority is accorded that are prejudged or treated with undue severity in London, for mediocrity meets with the utmost indulgence, on the principle of sympathy, ‘a fellow-feeling makes them wondrous kind.’ The moment my wife left me, I was assailed by all the falsehoods that malice could invent or slander publish; how many wives have since left their husbands, and husbands their wives, without either of the parties being blackened by defamation, the public having the sense to perceive that a husband and wife’s living together or separate can only concern the parties, or their immediate families; but in my case, no sooner did Lady Byron take herself off than my character went off, or rather was carried off, not by force of arms, but by force of tongues and pens too; and there was no crime too dark to be attributed to me by the moral English, to account for so very common an occurrence as a separation in high life. I was thought a devil, because Lady Byron was allowed to be an angel; and that it formed a pretty antithesis, mais hélas! there are neither angels nor devils on earth, though some of one’s acquaintance might tempt one into the belief of the existence of the latter. After twenty, it is difficult to believe in that of the former, though the first and last object of one’s affection have some of its attributes. Imagination (said Byron) resembles hope—when unclouded, it gilds all that it touches with its own bright hue; mine
makes me see beauty wherever youth and health have impressed their stamp; and after all I am not very far from the goddess, when I am with her handmaids, for such they certainly are. Sentimentalists may despise ‘buxom health, with rosy hue,’ which has something dairy-maid like, I confess, in the sound, (continued he)—for buxom, however one may like the reality, is not euphonious, but I have the association of plumpness, rosy hue, good spirits and good humour, all brought before me in the homely phrase; and all these united give me a better idea of beauty than lanky languor, sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and bad health, and bad humour, which are synonymous, making tomorrow cheerless as to-day. Then see some of our fine ladies, whose nerves are more active than their brains, who talk sentiment, and ask you to ‘administer to a mind diseased, and pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,’ when it is the body that is diseased, and the rooted sorrow is some chronic malady; these, I own (continued Byron), alarm me, and a delicate woman, however prettily it may sound, harrows up my feelings with a host of shadowy ills to come, of vapours, hysterics, nerves, megrims, intermitting fevers, and all the ills that wait upon poor weak women, who, when sickly, are generally weak in more senses than one. The best dower a woman can bring is health and good humour; the latter, whatever we may say of the triumphs of mind, depends on the former, as, according to the old poem—
‘Temper ever waits on health,
As luxury depends on wealth.’
But mind (said Byron) when I object to delicate women, that is to say, to women of delicate health, alias sickly, I don’t mean to say that I like coarse, fat ladies, à la
Rubens, whose minds must be impenetrable, from the mass of matter in which they are incased. No! I like an active and healthy mind, in an active and healthy person, each extending its beneficial influence over the other, and maintaining their equilibrium, the body illumined by the light within, but that light not let out by any ‘chinks made by time;’ in short, I like, as who does not, (continued Byron,) a handsome healthy woman, with an intelligent and intelligible mind, who can do something more than what is said a French woman can only do, habille, babille, and dishabille, who is not obliged to have recourse to dress, shopping and visits, to get through a day, and soirées, operas, and flirting to pass an evening. You see, I am moderate in my desires; I only wish for perfection.”

“There was a time (said Byron) when fame appeared the most desirable of all acquisitions to me; it was my ‘being’s end and aim,’ but now—how worthless does it appear. Alas! how true arc the lines—
‘La Nominanza è color d'erba,
Che viene e va; e quei la discolora
Per cui vien fuori della terra acerba.’
And dearly is fame bought, as all have found who have acquired even a small portion of it,—
‘Che seggendo in piuma
In Fama non si vien, ne sotto coltre.’
No! with sleepless nights, excited nerves, and morbid feelings, is fame purchased, and envy, hatred, and jealousy follow the luckless possessor.
‘O ciechi, il tanto affaticar che giova?
Tutti tornate alla gran madre antica,
E il vostro nome appena si ritrova.’
Nay, how often has a tomb been denied to those whose names have immortalized their country, or else granted when shame compelled the tardy justice. Yet, after all, fame is but like all other pursuits, ending in disappointment—its worthlessness only discovered when attained, and
‘Senza la qual chi sua vita consuma
Cotal vestigio in terra di se lascia
Qual fummo in sere, ed in acqua la schiuma.’

“People complain of the brevity of life, (said Byron), should they not rather complain of its length, as its enjoyments cease long before the halfway-house of life is passed, unless one has the luck to die young, ere the illusions that render existence supportable have faded away, and are replaced by experience, that dull monitress, that ever comes too late? While youth steers the bark of life, and passion impels her on, experience keeps aloof; but when youth and passion are fled, and that we no longer require her aid, she comes to reproach us with the past, to disgust us with the present, and to alarm us with the future.”

“We buy wisdom with happiness, and who would purchase it at such a price? to be happy, we must forget the past, and think not of the future, and who that has a soul, or mind, can do this ? No one (continued Byron), and this proves, that those who have either, know no happiness on this earth. Memory precludes happiness, whatever Rogers may say or write to the contrary, for it borrows from the past, to imbitter the present, bringing back to us all the grief that has most wounded, or the happiness that has most charmed us; the first leaving its sting, and of the second,—
‘Nessun maggior dolore,
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice,
Nulla miseria.’
Let us look back (continued Byron) to those days of grief, the recollection of which now pains us, and we shall find that time has only cicatrized, but not effaced the scars; and if we reflect on the happiness, that seen through the vista of the past seems now so bright, memory will tell us that, at the actual time referred to, we were far from thinking so highly of it, nay, that at that very period, we were obliged to draw drafts on the future, to support the then present, though now, that epoch, tinged by the rays of memory, seems so brilliant, and renders
the present more sombre by contrast. We are so constituted (said Byron) that we know not the value of our possessions until we have lost them. Let us think of the friends that death has snatched from us, whose loss has left aching voids in the heart never again to be filled up; and memory will tell us that we prized not their presence, while we were blessed with it, though, could the grave give them back now that we had learnt to estimate their value, all else could be borne, and we believe (because it is impossible) that happiness might once more be ours. We should live with our friends, (said Byron,) not as the worldly-minded philosopher says, as though they may one day become our enemies, but as though we may one day lose them; and this maxim, strictly followed, will not only render our lives happier while together, but will save the survivors from those bitter pangs that memory conjures up, of slights and unkindnesses offered to those we have lost; when too late for atonement, and arms remorse with double force because it is too late.” It was in such conversations that Byron was seen in his natural character; the feeling, the tenderness of his nature shone forth at such moments, and his natural character, like the diamond when breathed upon, though dimmed for a time, soon recovered its purity, and showed its original lustre, perhaps the more for having been for a moment obscured.