LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
[Sir John Stoddart]
Conversations of Lord Byron [Continued].
New Times  No. 8188  (26 October 1824)
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No. 8188. LONDON, TUESDAY, OCTOBER 26, 1824. Price Sevenpence.


We have shewn the “depraving dissipation,” to use his own words, in which Lord Byron had indulged up to the time of his writing the two first cantos of Childe Harold. They were published in 1812. Many circumstances conspired to give them a rapid and extraordinary celebrity. The plan of the poem was perfectly novel; the objects described were singular and highly interesting; the author had chosen a stanza-metre well adapted to his subject; he wrote with a careless freedom of language which gave originality to his style; he had an eye for the picturesque, which rendered his descriptions lively and striking: the sentiments naturally suggested by the sigh of Spain struggling for freedom, and Greece sunk in slavery, could not but come home to every English bosom. There was but one great deduction to he made from the value of the work—the immorality of some of the incidental reflections. But this objection was very artfully evaded by throwing all the odium on the character of Childe Harold, a fictitious personage, who, as we have already seen, was represented in the preface to have been introduced with the view of shewing the baneful effects of an “early perversion of mind and morals.”! On the other hand, the author was at once a Poet and a Lord: the picture of Childe Harold was believed to be his own; its singularity attracted many; its professed moral aim conciliated others; and there was a third which readily pardoned Harold all his licentiousness, for the sake of his sneers at British policy, and his covert sarcasms on the Christian Religion. Had it so happened that the critics in the two great leading Reviews had both seen through the flimsy and, we must say, hypocritical pretext of His Lordship’s preface; had they fully appreciated his character, and known that he was the very Childe Harold that he painted; the same sensualist, sated but not reformed; the same infidel, hopeless but not convinced; they would perhaps have united in exposing the true character of the Poem: it would have been banished from every decent library; and the Noble Author might have been shamed into virtue.

But this was not to be. Many partial attacks have at times been made on his Lordship’s works; but a full, detailed, and impartial criticism on them, as a whole, never appeared until the beginning of the present year, when a Pamphlet intitled Cato to Lord Byron, on the immorality of his Writings, was published, a composition of high and sterling merit, the work of a man of pure classical taste, a scholar, a moralist, a Christian. If any parent has incautiously suffered his children to imbibe the poison of Lord Byron’s works, the least atonement he can make is to put into their hands this precious antidote.

The publication of the two first volumes of Childe Harold was the crisis of Lord Byron’s fate as a man and a poet. Little is said of it in Captain Medwin’s Conversations; but its favorable reception opened to his Lordship a mine of wealth as well as of popularity. Henceforward he had the means of retrieving the losses occasioned by his former extravagance. “For the Third Canto of Childe Harold, Manfred, and the Prisoner of Chillon,” says he, “I got 2400l. I see no reason why a man should not profit by the sweat of his brow.” (p. 169.) Accordingly, with the exception of one poem which he gave to Mr. Murray (p. 168), he appears to have been regularly paid for all his subsequent works. Of these, the Giaour, the Bride of Abydos, and the Corsair, appeared in quick succession. They very much resemble each other in character. The Giaour is a bombastic personification of revenge. A Christian in creed, but a villain in conduct, seduces a young Turkish girl, knowing that her intrigue would be fatal to her if discovered. It is discovered: she undergoes the cruel punishment usual in those countries. Her paramour and her Turkish master afterwards meet in battle, and the former, who is the victor, utters the following diabolical sentiment:

Oh, what had vengeance given to trace
Despair upon his dying face!
Thy late repentance of that hour,
When penitence hath lost her pow’r
To tear one terror from the grave,
And will not soothe, and cannot save.

It is quite awful to reflect that the author of these lines is now himself a corse!

The Bride of Abydos is less offensive than the Giaour, but equally extravagant. The Corsair’s “one virtue and a thousand crimes” is a moral absurdity. These poems, however, coming from a popular writer, and recommended by an easy flow of verse and lively powers of description, were eagerly read. The literary vanity of his Lordship was gratified; but no proof was afforded of his improvement either in taste or morals. Speaking of his conduct at this period, he says, “The impersonation of myself, which in spite of all I could say the world would discover in that poem (Childe Harold), made every one curious to know me, and to discover the identity. I received every where a marked attention, was courted in all societies) made much of by Lady Jersey, had the entré at Devonshire House, was in favour with Brummel—and that was alone enough to make a man of fashion at that time—in tact, I was a lion, a ball-room bard, a hot-pressed darling! The Corsair put my reputation au comble.” (p. 210.) He adds, “About this period I became what the French call un homme à bonnes fortunes, and was engaged in a liaison; and I might add, a serious one.” (p. 211.) We shall not enter into the detail of wickedness which follows, and which his Lordship relates with an utter disregard of consequences to the wretched female who had sacrificed to him her own and her husband’s honour. He does not indeed mention her name; but it is doubtless well known, and must be henceforth marked with indelible disgrace. The most instructive part of the narrative is, that these two vicious persons, who were united by lust, became separated by hatred; the utmost virulence is shewn in their mutual reproaches; and they remind us of nothing but a description we have somewhere read of infernal spirits wreaking the Divine vengeance on each other by mutual tortures.

We now come to his marriage. The headstrong boy and profligate youth had now become a patriot! an Opposition Peer—a member of the literary Whig coteries, winch possess so notable a faculty of feeding each other’s vanity with exuberant praise. In this situation he attracted the notice of Miss Milbanke. His opinion of her motives for marrying him is coarsely and ungraciously expressed. “You ask me if Lady Byron were ever in love with me? No. I was the fashion when she first came out. I had the character of being a great rake, and was a great dandy—both of which young ladies like. She married me from vanity, and the hope of reforming and fixing me.” (pp. 45, 46.) The first time he saw her he was accompanied by Mr. Moore, on a visit to a Lady——. “On entering the room says he, I observed a young lady more simply dressed than the rest of the assembly, sitting alone upon a sofa. I took her for a humble companion, and asked if I was right in my conjecture? She is a great heiress, said he (Moore) in a whisper, that became lower as he proceeded. You had better marry her, and repair the old place, Newstead.” (p. 36) Lord Byron, however, strenuously denies that he did marry Miss Milbanke for her money, and we are disposed to give him credit for sincerity. “All I have ever received, or am likely to receive,” says he, “and that has been twice paid back too, was 10,0001. My own income at this period was small, and somewhat bespoke. Newstead was a very unprofitable estate, and brought me in a bare 1500l. a year; the Lancashire property was hampered with a lawsuit, which has cost me 14,0001. and is not finished.” (pp. 39, 40) We shall not dwell upon the occurrences of this unfortunate union, further than as they throw light on his Lordship’s character as a Poet. “Our honeymoon,” says he, “was not all sunshine (p. 39.) “We had a house in to gave dinner parties, had separate carriages, and launched into every sort of extravagance. This could not last long. My wife’s 10,000l. soon melted away. I was beset by duns, and at length execution was levied, and the bailiffs put in possession of the very beds we had to sleep on.” (p. 40.) The separation soon took place. Lord Byron accuses his Lady of conduct which implies no great affection on her part; but he never pretends to throw out the slightest insinuation against her purity; and even in the matters of which he complains, he says “she was the tool of others.” Into matrimonial disputes of this kind the reasonable part of the world will never inquire. It is sufficient for our present purpose to observe, that Lord Byron indulged most vindictive feelings against the persons who supported her Ladyship in her determination to separate from him,—“All my former friends,” says he, “even my cousin George Byron, who had been brought up with me, and whom I loved as a brother, took my wife’s part. He followed the stream when it was strongest against me. He shall never touch a sixpence of mine.” (p. 47.) The black malignity of the detestable lines, “Born in the garret, in the kitchen bred,” is but too well known. They were directed against Lady Byron’s Governess; and they are only surpassed in bitter, unmanly feeling, by the epigram in page 215, which accuses a woman with being a prostitute at once to him and to her husband.

It is very remarkable, and not a little instructive, that the only modest woman with whom Lord Byron was ever connected is the only woman for whom he seems ever to have felt respect or real attachment. Captain Medwin observes, “notwithstanding the tone of raillery with which he sometimes speaks in Don Juan of his separation from Lady Byron, it is evident that the thorn is in his side—the poison in his cup of life,” (p. 108.) To his legitimate daughter Ada too he appears to have been strongly attached. Unfortunately for him, the domestic affections were not strong enough to overcome the inveterate habits of licentiousness which were the stain and canker of his life. A second time he left his native country, and under even worse auspices than before. He had become more its enemy. He had out of spite and vexation undervalued its glories, depreciated the immortal honour of triumphs never equalled in history, libelled its Sovereign, insulted its religion. violated its morals. He felt himself condemned by the wise and good alike for his private and public conduct: and against all this he had to set—what? the consciousness of talents abused, and of a poetical reputation exaggerated and ephemeral. Had he been possessed with the genuine love of honest fame—a secondary motive to virtue at the best—yet had he felt this desire he would have nobly attempted the conquest of his passions: he would have tried to raise his moral to a level with his intellectual being. He did no such thing. He returned “like a dog to the vomit,” to his old degradations and obscenities. The Conversations afford but little clue to the order in which his subsequent works appeared; but if we recollect right, one of the first of them was Beppo. This poem too was one that had novelty to recommend it. The loose slipshod verse, the almost Hudibrastic licence in tagging, odd and ridiculous rhyme, and the easy facetious air which the writer assumed in relating his story, formed altogether an new species of composition well enough devised for popularity, and indeed well deserving it if the tale and the sentiments conveyed in it had merited any thing but reprobation. The moral of the story, however, is neither more nor less than to recommend the genteel vice of adultery. The soul of the Debauchee guides the pen of the Poet. Beppo, however, was but a skin-deep piece of immorality: the climax of lasciviousness and barefaced insult to common decency was Don Juan—odious, nauseous, flagitious! One wonders how a human creature could sit down to tell a merry story about the despair and horrors or a shipwreck—the father watching his exhausted and dying son till he expires—the starving wretches devouring each other in their horrid hunger—the baked lips and black swoln tongues sucking in the moisture from a rain-drenched sail—facts carefully and accurately compiled from the sad records of actual misery. These heart-rending pictures are mixed up, like the laughter and curses of a maniac, with gross jibes and heartless mockery, and the whole serves as seasoning to the constant burthen of Lord Byron’s song—Lust.

Lord Byron talks of his own Memoirs as “a good lesson to young men,” in shewing them “the fatal consequences of dissipation”—he says, “there are very few licentious adventures of my own, or scandalous anecdotes that will affect others in the book.”—“There are few parts that may not and none that will not be read by women:” (p. 35.) and he says, moreover, that they have been read—and transcribed too by Lady Burghersh! (p. 34.) But this by the bye—However, according to his view of the utility of these Memoirs, licentiousness and dissipation are evil things, and lead to fatal consequences. Why then make them the constant theme of Poetry? Why recommend them to the young and innocent by the charms of verse?— Virginibus puerisque canto, says the Poet. How is this inconsistency, this sinning against the light of knowledge, to be accounted for? We know not, unless it be from the overpowering force of habit. If we rightly understand Captain Medwin, Lord Byron down to the moment of his sailing for Greece, was living in double adultery with a married Italian woman; and to make the picture still more revolting, her father and her brother were the panders to her lust!—If this be not the plain meaning of Captain Medwin’s history of the Countess Guiccioli, her father Count Gamba and his son, in pages 22, 23, 24, 28, 29, and 234, it is extremely necessary that the Captain should forthwith publish an explanation of those pages; for in no other sense can we understand them.

We must own, that part of a note in page 234 puzzles us extremely—“I have heard Lord Byron reproached,” says Captain Medwin, “for leaving the Guiccioli. Her brother’s accompanying him to Greece, and his remains to England, prove at least that the family acquitted him of any blame.” Is it here meant that reproach is due to at married man for ceasing to live in adultery? Is it meant that Count Count Gamba could, under any circumstances, have been entitled to blame the husband of another woman for not living with his (the Count’s) sister?—In short, is the honour of Italian families concerned to provide paramours for their females? We do not know what odd complexities the code of modern liberal morality may admit into its casuistry; and therefore we say again, Captain Medwin should explain these matters.

(To be continued.)