LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
Thomas Medwin, William Hazlitt
Hazlitt in Switzerland: a Conversation.
Fraser’s Magazine  Vol. 19  (March 1839)  278-283.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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Vol. XIX. JANUARY, 1839. No. CIX


The cottage I found Hazlitt inhabiting is about half a mile from Vivai, and stands on the banks of a small and rapid stream that falls into the lake at the entrance of the town. The house lies very low, so that it possesses no other view from the windows than a green paddock, overshadowed by some enormous walnut-trees. Behind, and across the rivulet, rises a hill of vines, sufficiently elevated to screen out the western sun. The spot is lovely and secluded.

As is not uncommon with men of talent, his appearance, though not unprepossessing, was by no means striking. He was below the common height; his dress neglected; and his chin garnished with a stubble of some days’ standing. The lines of his countenance are regular, but bear evident marks of late and intense application; and there was an habitual melancholy in the expression, as though he had been chewing the cud of past miseries, or brooding on bitter anticipations of the future. His figure was emaciated; and it is evident his mind has preyed upon and consumed much of the vital energies of his frame; and this last, as was said of Shelley, seemed only a tenement for spirit.

I opened the conversation by speaking to him of the beauty of his cottage and the environs.

He said, “I am just returned from Italy; that is, I have only been here a few weeks, and have scarcely stirred beyond the precincts of my campagne.”

I asked him how he liked Switzerland?

H. I prefer Italy, and France to either; not but that Florence (did not the climate disagree with me) is a pleasant place enough. Leigh Hunt, who was posted by the side of a dusty road, between two burning walls that excluded the air and refracted all the rays of the western sun, used to complain of its crystal heat—and well he might. But, at Florence, one is never at a loss how to pass time. I luxuriated in the divine treasures of its churches and galleries; I lived in them. I thought nothing of the old masters till I saw the frescos there. I am partial to cities and works of art, especially paintings; but, more than all, I like to study man. One might as well live in some terra incognita as here.

I asked by what route he had travelled?

H. I crossed the Simplon; a monument which, had Napoleon left nothing else, would have been enough to have immortalised him. We passed some weeks at Bueg, at the foot of the mountain; but I soon got sick of alps and glaciers, and mean to make no excursions this summer. One range of alps is like another range of alps, one valley is like another valley; the eye can scarce distinguish the difference, so nearly alike are their features. Give me the rich plains of Lombardy, or the cultivated tracts of France.

M. As for me, I agree with M. de Stendhal in thinking “la belle France” one of the ugliest countries in the world.

H. Not so; I never tire of corn plains. We have too much pasturage at home, and do not understand the economy of labour so well as in France. The cattle destroy more than they eat in England. We see, too, in every patch of cultivation, that the peasantry are something in France. This division of lands was one of the happy fruits of the revolution. I was never so much disappointed as when I first beheld a vineyard, and am sick of the sight of them here. These vines, crawling along the ground, are no better than sticked beans: one of our hop grounds is far more picturesque. The vines in Tuscany, indeed, form arcades for miles; and it is pleasant enough to walk between the rows of the mulberry trees that support the red clustering grapes; besides, the wheat grows under them. There is nothing like cultivation. I thought England a garden, till I saw the Val d’Arno: it is one orchard—not a tree but a fruit-tree for miles.

M. How did you like the society there?—speaking of Florence.

H. I only knew Leigh Hunt, the author of the Imaginary Conversations, and Lord Dillon. The latter, but for some twist in his brain, would have been a clever man. He has the cacoëthes parlandi, like Coleridge; though he does not pump out his words. [Alluding to Coleridge’s manner of working his arms up and down
Hazlitt in Switzerland: a Conversation.279
in talking.] His lordship’s manner is to pin you in a corner; and, when once there, you might as well attempt to get out of chancery. I went to dine with him—the only time I ever dined at a lord’s table. He had all the talk to himself: he never waits for an answer. He writes books, too, that are as unintelligible as Coleridge’s metaphysics and transcendental philosophy. Lord Dillon is a great
Kantist, too. But there the comparison ends.

He now spoke of Mr. Leigh Hunt, and seemed imbued with all his notions about Lord Byron. He particularly insisted on his lordship’s avarice.

M. He gave many proofs of his generosity. A fact comes to my knowledge of his sending a draft for 50l. to a compatriot in distress at Genoa. Byron, when he received the gentleman’s letter, put it into my hand, and asked me if I knew him. It so happened that I had met that officer at Geneva, and knew his story. I told Byron that he had been shamefully treated in India. On very incompetent evidence, he had been drummed through the country down to Bombay before his trial, and afterwards dismissed the service.

H. It was your story opened his purse-strings. Had he not thought the man persecuted, he would not have sent the money—or, perhaps, had he thought him innocent. The greatest misers have had generous fits—Elwes and Farquhar, to wit, who prized gold as their hearts’ blood. The latter had a house in Gloucester Place, where, for many years, his windows, that had no curtains, had not been washed, nor the furniture dusted. A collectaneum of fifty purchases at auctions—books, china, curiosities of all kinds, were piled in his rooms, pell-mell; and his only fellow-inmate was an old man on crutches. Thus Byron, when he sold his yacht to Lord Blessington, refused to give the sailors their jackets; and doled out to Leigh Hunt a weekly allowance, when he drew himself on his banker, Barry, at Genoa. This was mean—it was insulting. It is the manner of a gift, not the making it, or its marketable price, that stamps its value.

M. There I agree with you. The Marquess Wellesley left a bon nom—a great name—in India. He used to say, Give that man a handfull of rupees. Had he said fifty, the present would have been much less cared for.

H. Men like Byron, who have felt the want of money, generally become stingy in the end. Shelley says, “Gold is the old man’s sword.” Gold had been Byron’s; and would have ended in being his god. Do you remember the panegyric on the diamond, in Werner? He there writes con amore. What he did for the Greeks was from ostentation, not disinterestedness, or love of liberty. He took care to have good security before he embarked, and was repaid to the last dollar. He married from mercenary motives. His subscription to the maid of Athens was mean. When in England, his aristocratic pride prevented him from selling his writings; and his gift of his early poems to Dallas and Moore, even when he wanted money badly, arose from that feeling. He told Murray that he never would take a sixpence from him; but he had not left England a month when he changed his mind.

The conversation turned on his poetry.

H. He would never have been the poet he was, but for Wordsworth and Southey. He knew that, and therefore abused them. Of Coleridge he was not so jealous: he had changed his beat—prose for poetry. After Byron had begun to write tragedies and failed, he was even jealous of Shakspeare. Had he been a painter, he would have abused Raffaelle; a general, decried Napoleon.

M. What he said about Shakspeare was any thing but sincere. His finest things are paraphrases of Shakspeare. Witness the stanzas in the third canto, taken from
“A solitude is populous enough.”
Voltaire, who, in his Jule César, has stolen from Shakspeare one of his sublimest ideas, the comparison of wounds to the dumb mouths, calls him a barbarian; as, more lately, does Manzoni, in that very clever novel, the Promesse Spose.

H. The Italians are like the Greeks of old; they consider the rest of the world barbarians, look upon Dante as a god, and contend that the world has produced nothing aut simile, aut secundum, to the Divine Comedies. But I imagine that Manzoni only knows Shakspeare, like Voltaire, from some vile translation.

280 Hazlitt in Switzerland: a Conversation.

M. As a punishment, he has been as vilely translated himself. I look upon the Promesse Spose as an admirable novel. The plague scene in the street with the “Magatte” is as finely drawn as any thing I know in tragedy.* Apropos of translation. There was an Irishman resident at Pisa, who had employed ten years in traducing and commenting Dante—a translation and comment, after the heart of Theobald and Co. Strange to say, this “Dantista” has a brother living in Vienna—in fact, become more than half a German—who has been bitten with the same mania, and is doing the unfortunate victim into that tongue. Byron knew one of these “Arcades ambo,” and had heard of the other; and said it was hard upon poor Dante, at this time of day, for a whole race to spring up in order to persecute and disturb his manes.

H. What strange notions the commentators and others had of Shakspeare. You remember what Hume says of him?—“that if he be considered as born in a rude age, and educated in the lowest manner, and without instruction from the world or books, he may be looked upon as a prodigy;” and adds, “that bodies often appear gigantic for being disproportioned and misshapen.” Is it surprising, then, that Manzoni should take up the opinions of one of our most esteemed historians?

M. But do you really think Shakspeare was an unlearned man?

H. Sir, he was, if not the most learned, the best read man of his age; by which I mean, that he made the best use of his reading. His Brutus, and Antony, and Coriolanus, are real conceptions of those Romans. His Romeo and Juliet have all the beautiful conceits of the time: he has steeped them in all the enthusiastic tenderness of Petrarch.

M. Shakspeare was certainly well acquainted with Greek literature, particularly with the tragic writers, Hamlet and Macbeth are full of passages evidently taken from the Agamemnonian story. In the Tempest, in all probability borrowed from the Italian, the lines ending
“And Neptune shakes his spear”
are literally translated from the
Prometheus. And the description of the witches in Macbeth,
“But who are they so withered,” &c.,
is from the
Eumenides. To return to Byron. You say he profited by Southey and Wordsworth. I am surprised that you class them together. If remember right, in some work of yours, you compare Southey to Sir William Blackmore?

H. I spoke of his epics, of the quantity rather than the quality of his verse. His minor poems are delightful. Read Thalaba. Do you know whether it is in rhyme or no? so harmonious are the cadences, so choice and musical the words. Metastasio himself had not a finer tuned ear. The Lakeists have the merit of introducing a taste for a more natural style; they have been great reformists in poetry.

M. I, too, am a disciple of the true romantic, not the pseudo-classical, school. Byron’s controversy about Pope has always struck me as most extraordinary, particularly as I never heard him mention Pope but once; and I verily believe, till he took up the cudgels against Bowles, that he had not looked into any work of his since he left school.

H. A mere love of paradox, sir. If Byron had thought of convincing the world by his sophisms to return to Pope again, he would never have used them. He knew that his controversy would lead to a comparison between Pope and himself, and, whether right or wrong, his judgment, a point into which I shall not enter, was confident that the comparison would be all in his favour—bring his poetry still more into vogue. Another thing is, that he would have sacrificed all his fame rather than be classed with any of his contemporaries; he wished to stand out of the canvass, or as much above them as Henry the Seventh’s or King’s College Chapel is above one of our bastard churches; though he does prate about a Grecian temple. Thus Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his lectures, condemns

Hazlitt in Switzerland: a Conversation.281
precisely his own style, and hints that what it was the end and aim of his life to attain—colour—is worth nothing in comparison with form, which his deficiency in anatomical knowledge makes him incapable of arriving at. Portrait painting he especially runs down.
Fuseli was l’antipode of Reynolds; he was sincere in despising every thing but form; he thought himself a Michael Angelo, and spoke disparagingly of Vandyke and Rubens, calling them colourists. Byron was equally vain; but with all his vanity he had sometimes a suspicion that his works would not live.

M. And is that your real opinion?

H. Byron thought he had a better chance of living by his libertinism and profligacy than his poetry; he was ambitious of being handed down to posterity as a wit—a Rochester. He was also an aristocrat in toto, and poetry is not an aristocratic métier. At times he was ashamed of his occupation, and wished it gone, and all he had written suppressed. He was by no means angry with Goëthe for telling the strange and credulous story about the adultery and assassination at Florence,—never took the trouble of contradicting it. Perhaps, as I say, he thought his poetry would not live, and was determined his name should. I am told that his memoirs are quite as libre as Rochester’s or De Grammont’s. For a name, he would have made himself an Erostratus.*

M. Which of his poems do you prefer?

H. I like Don Juan the best: it has always seemed to me unaccountable that he had not carried his hero into Italy—a country about which he knew most. Beppo would have made an admirable episode in his hero’s adventures.

M. The reason why he did not carry the scene into Italy is clear. He was afraid of a comparison being drawn between himself and Caste.

H. In reading his more serious poems, I fancy myself in the prison at Chillon. The light comes in upon it through only one loophole; the black beam at the entrance, and placed there that the groans of the dying might strike terror at their coming fate in the hearts of the sufferers within their cell; that rock-hewn cavern below the bed of the lake,—its dim and Rembrandt look,—the black and mouldy columns, at the foot of which the rings are still planted,—all is in good keeping with the scenes of cold-blooded tyranny that passed there. I fancy I see Bolivard chained and riveted to the pillar, and gazing on his dead brother; but I am affected with a suffocating sense of horror, and long to get into the open air, and bask in the sun, and vow never to set my foot in such a place again.

M. But his poems are not all so gloomy.

H. They are most of them the reflections of his own mind, and that not an enviable one.

M. I will send you a critique on his works that has just reached me. The pamphlet is called Cato to Lord Byron. ’Tis said to be the production of a person who, after reviewing him poem by poem, and finding them what an orthodox gentleman should, deals out most complacent twaddle on the address at the opening of Drury Lane.

H. Perhaps the writer was a rejected-address man himself. People do not seem to be aware that that address of Byron’s was a burlesque, meant to shew how the world is governed by names—that any nonsense of his would go down; and most bombastic stuff it is.

M. The reverend might well be shocked; the idea of comparing the theatre on fire to Israel’s pillar,—Was there ever such a simile?

H. It beats Whitbread’s phoenix hollow.

Something being said of Byron’s tragedies, of which Hazlitt was no admirer, he remarked that they were written against the grain,—that Byron’s talent was essentially undramatic.

We then got into a long discussion on the present state of dramatic literature.

H. What have we now on the stage but rifacimentos from the French? You know Kenny. Coming upon him unexpectedly one day, I found him on the flat of his back, kicking at a prodigious rate, and apparently in strong convulsions. I ran up to him, in order to assist and raise him; but his malady was an obstetrical one: he was in all the agonies of a fausse couche. “What

* Strangely enough, Goëthe is said to have wished to have written some work, or done something, to have entailed on him the execration of his country for the next fifty years.
282Hazlitt in Switzerland: a Conversation.
is the matter, Kenny?” said I. “Oh, my dear fellow,
Hazlitt,” he said, with tears in his eyes, “I have been for three hours labouring hard to get out an idea, to finish a scene; but it won’t—it won’t come.”

When I called on Hazlitt a few days after, he had on the table the last novel of Sir Walter Scott’s. From the objections he made to it, it would seem that he had been running over its pages rather with a view of detecting its grammatical errors and Scotticisms than of enjoying the story. He had noted down, and referred with no small satisfaction to several instances of bad writing.

H. Sir Walter Scott is a Tory; he is the only author George IV. ever patronised. It was because Scott liked the Stuarts, and praised the good old times of the jus divimun of kings, and star chambers, that his majesty made him a baronet. He is the highpriest of legitimacy; loves and laments the times of border wars, highland ferocity, and black mail; and, what is more, makes us in love with them too. He has done more to put back the age than any writer of the day, the political economists and Malthus only excepted. He has an equal horror of change. We are amused in his novels at the expense of our better feelings, and are angry with ourselves and the magician whilst we acknowledge the spell. The French and Italians, who look at every thing through a political lens, are not blind to this. He has been attacked, and justly, by them on this account. In England it would be thought little less than sacrilege to doubt his infallibility, or to say what they do of him. Being almost an idolater of Sir Walter Scott, I turned the conversation, by saying, I understood he was writing a life of Napoleon.

H. Yes, that is to be completed like one of his romances, in I know not how many or how few months.* I, too, will write a life of Napoleon, though it is yet too early: some have a film before their eyes, some wear magnifying glasses,—none see him as he is, in his true proportions. Sir Walter’s will he a romance: his object is to make it entertaining, not true; as was Voltaire’s, in his History of Charles the Twelfth. Scott’s is meant for the English, not the world, as it should be. L—— has strange ideas about Napoleon: he says that his talent is commonplace; that he owes all to fortune. A general may do so once (witness Waterloo), but so many pitched battles! He thinks him wanting in personal courage; he forgets the bridge of Lodi. This will not be Scott’s view of him. He must make him a knight of chivalry. I shall be curious to see how he handles the St. Helena affair, though there is little doubt which side he will lean to. His style is not made for history. Poetry is as much out of place in it, as it generally is in tragedy. Poets, sir, are vile prose writers—that abstraction and self-concentration required by the latter—that exercise of the judgment, rather than the fancy—that chaining together of ideas, which, though rising naturally out of the subject, must have been preconcerted in the mind—that rejection of all that does not bear upon the subject matter,—they do not possess. They are in the habit of trusting to the god for inspiration, and he forsakes or misleads them. There was Byron, for instance; never was there a more execrable prose writer.

M. Byron could write well if he chose, but he preferred being en dishabille in prose; besides, he disliked to reason on paper as much as he hated to argue in conversation. He looked upon both as a recreation, not an exercise of mind; he ever studied, if I may say so, to be slatterly, and was even ungrammatical at times—a strange affectation: I have some letters of his which would have disgraced a school miss. Loose as his hand-writing† was, at times, however, he was very eloquent. Witness his storm in the Archipelago, the small vessels being forced to cut and run before the wind, some for one port, some another, and some, perhaps, for eternity. It is a remarkable in-

* It has been said, in the preface to Hazlitt’s Life of Napoleon, that it was undertaken from a feeling that injustice had been done to the character of that extraordinary man. It should have said, would be done; for his design was formed before the appearance of Sir Walter’s work, which, I am inclined to think, a spirit of rivalry chiefly led him to undertake.
Hazlitt’s MSS. were the most beautiful I ever saw. He told me there was a rivalry between himself and Leigh Hunt on this score; that he would not allow of an erasure or interlineation; nor in running my eye over the MS. of the Plain Speaker, did I perceive a single one.
Hazlitt in Switzerland: a Conversation.283
stance of his vivid imagination, and more vivid memory; of the application of poetical images to the illustration of a subject.

H. It is a fine piece of poetry, I will admit; but it is nothing to the purpose. It is a sort of ignis fatuus to mislead. Scott spoiled his prose by his jingling octosyllabics; besides, the repetition of words, that gives force to poetry, or, as some miscall it, the balancing of sentences, is a weakness.

M. Plato and Thucydides are both against you.

H. May be so; but the spirit of our language is widely different from the Greek.

M. Shelley used to say that all who sought to write good prose, should study Plato. Not that his own style is perfect: he is too fond of introducing hexameters. He told me it cost him more trouble to write prose than poetry; and I have heard Italians make the same observation. By habit, and the very mechanism of verse, the periods flow of themselves.

H. I remember a time when to write was the greatest labour to me, but facility came with practice; I now sometimes run off whole pages without changing a word.

M. I have seen Washington Irving, when in the vein, do the same.

H. Do you talk of him as a prose writer? Why, is he not a mere “reflector,” a new setter of old jewels, like Moore in poetry? They both suit people who do not like the trouble of thinking, or cannot think.

M. Books that require thought to understand, are grown quite out of fashion. Nothing is now read, and nothing now sells, but novels and gossiping biography. People read to be amused, not instructed; and facts are so completely falsified in their new-fangled works, that history has become romance, and romance, history. But I do not agree with you about the author of the Sketch-Book. I look upon it as a delightful work. Irving never wrote a word he need alter or obliterate; he is one of the best men I know, and is reflected in all he has written.

Hazlitt made no reply to this remark, and here entered into a long history of his own literary wrongs, his neglect by the public, his bitter persecution by the reviewers, especially by Sir Walter Scott, whom he accused of attacking him in Blackwood. The chord thus touched, vibrated in every nerve, and he spoke for half an hour with much rapidity, and with an attempt, at times, to suppress his feelings, that was no less distressing to me than himself. He dwelt upon the personality of these attacks of the reviewers, and their calling him, I think he said, a barber’s son, which he denied. His works, he allowed, were fair game, and that reviews of them would have affected his pocket, not his peace of mind. Working himself up, at last, into a fury, he poured forth the venom of a tongue, that was never equalled but by the gall of his pen. Yet, as he talked, I could sympathise with him. It was probably about the time of this interview that he wrote in his Plain Speaker—a work about which he was then engaged—“I was taught to think, and willing to believe, that Genius is not a bawd; that Virtue was not a mask; that Liberty was not a name; that Love had its seat in the human heart.” No one, said he, nowadays, can get his bread by his talents, however great they may be, who does not prostitute them—who is not a hypocrite and a bigot. It is because I am neither, that they hate and decry me; and the surest way to succeed was to attack my birth. It is miraculous how nobility sells a book: without the name of a lord, or an honourable, or, at least, a baronet, an M.P., or a man of fashion, to grace a title-page, a book soon finds its way, as Juvenal says, to the grocers. Your mere author—as Byron calls him, “your author, all author, turned up with ink”—is like a younger son in society, and is not allowed even to make himself agreeable.

The conversation had become painful and distressing to me; I knew not what to say to calm him, and shortly took my leave. I start to-morrow for a tour in the small cantons, to compare the glaciers of Grindelwald with those of Chamouny; and I shall, probably, never see again a man who so much interested me, and whose conversation I committed, on my return home, to my commonplace-book. It was fortunate for Socrates that he had a Xenophon! I could have wished to have infused into my memorabilia more of the spirit of Hazlitt; but find, as I fear you will do, that it is all evaporated in the process. Adieu.

T. Medwin.