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Conversations on Religion, with Lord Byron.
Edinburgh Literary Journal  Vol. 4  No. 87  (10 July 1830)  21-23.
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No. 87 SATURDAY, JULY 10, 1830. Price. 6d.

Conversations on Religion, with Lord Byron and others; held in Cephalonia, a short time previous to his Lordship's Death. By the late James Kennedy, M. D. One volume, 8vo. London. John Murray. 1830. Pp. 461.

We entertain all possible respect for the precept, “de mortuis nil nisi bonum;” only we do not think that any man is entitled to its protection, when, like the late James Kennedy, he carefully prepares a large work for publication, and then, just in order to muzzle the critics, and out of sheer malice to them, dies before it is printed. We think, moreover, that, independent of this circumstance, we have a good plea in law for treating the Doctor's work as if it were the product of a living author—and we will be judged by the Dean of Faculty, or by Lord Gillies himself, that model of a painstaking judge. Husband and wife are one—such a unity in the moral, as the Siamese youths in the physical, world. Now, putting the case that these interesting foreigners had perpetrated a burglary, and that one of them died before they could be ap-
22The Edinburgh Literary Journal, or,
prehended,—would it be any sufficient reason why the survivor should not be arraigned at the Old Bailey, that his umbilically-attached brother had to be trundled thither in a wheelbarrow alongside of him, like a lump of carrion? Assuredly no.
Mr Justice Best would in all probability tell him—and tell him truly—that he might esteem himself happy that he had a natural make-weight to break his neck the sooner. Now this case is entirely in point. A husband and wife—who have been established to be exactly pari passu with the Siamese twins—meditate and carry into execution a dirty and catchpenny publication. The husband dies when the job is just all but completed, and his better half finishes it off. Shall she not be arraigned at the bar of public opinion? And shall not the corpus delicti, and the merits of the dear deceased, who had a finger in the pie, be thoroughly sifted? The point is clear as the sun at noonday. We move for judgment.

We have called the “Conversations on Religion” a dirty publication; and we do so on the ground that the same designation has already been most justly awarded to all its noble compeers—the books of Gamba, Parry, Blaquiere, Dallas, Beloe, Medwyn, Hunt, and their innumerable anonymous fellow-criminals. They are one and all of them guilty of prostituting their pens to the gratification of an idle and impertinent curiosity. They retail, for the gratification of the great and small vulgar, anecdotes, which the said vulgar have no right to know, and which every person, with the feelings of a gentleman, would have felt himself bound to conceal. Stray jokes, (bad as they generally are,) the free ebullitions of the social board, exclamations prompted by sickness, bodily or mental—all these are foisted in without any connexion among themselves, or any reference to the general habits andstate of health of the individual, that could make them useful, as illustrative of Lord Byron's character. If we were to single out the late Dr Kennedy, or his disconsolate helpmate, and tell all the little details of their domestic menage, the curtain lectures the gentleman had to undergo, the lady's despair when a candle-end was wasted, or the Doctor (before his conversion) chanced to visit a pretty patient after her health was restored—God help us, what a hubbaboo would be raised! “Calumnies”—“Fiendlike intrusion upon domestic privacy”—these are sugar-sops to the delicate rebukes we should have to encounter. And yet we would just be doing to them what they have done to one worth ten times themselves, and all their generations; and doing it too with much less chance of annoying them, for who the devil would care to read about them? We hold that every man, high or low, has a right to pass his private hours free from the espionage of panders to a vulgar curiosity, and a man is not to be put under the ban of society, and denied this right, because he is one of those gifted beings whose works can instruct or delight the nations.

We have called the “Conversations on Religion” a catchpenny publication. Had Dr Kennedy lived to complete it, and had he published it under its present designation, the work would have most eminently deserved this title; for in that case Lord Byron's conversations would have constituted but a small portion of his intended book, and his lordship's name would have been hung out on the title-page, to lead the unwary to purchase. As it is, it stands upon a grade of the catchpenny scale not much lower. Mrs Kennedy found among her husband's papers the sketch of a work, with an outline of which we here present our readers. The work was to consist of four parts: In the first, he was to give a series of conversations, held with some friends in the island of Cephalonia, on the subject of religion; in the second, a condensed view of the external and internal evidences of Christianity; in the third, an account of his conversations with Lord Byron on religious topics; and in the fourth, an examination of the extent to which real Christian principles appear to pervade and influence the different ranks of society; of the causes which have hitherto retarded, and the means which may in future promote, its progress. Now the first question that occurs is, what has Lord Byron done to be pilloried in this manner between the second and the fourth head of discourse? Or, supposing that the Doctor was entitled to dissect him in terrorem, and to take his back-bone, as some wag proposed of old Morton of Milnwood, to make a bridge from the one section to the other, would any man of correct feelings take advantage for this purpose of openings and weaknesses which he had spied out, in the confident intercourse of private life? Indeed, Kennedy seems himself to had had some misgivings on the subject; and he admits, in a letter to a friend, printed at the end of the volume now before us, that he was mainly determined to publish, from the circumstance of reports having gone abroad respecting his conferences with Lord Byron, in which he did not cut exactly the figure he wished. Well, at the Doctor's death, his relict found only that part of the work which related to Lord Byron ready for the press; and this was exactly the portion best fitted for the market; so published it must be. It contained, indeed, besides her husband's four conversations with Lord Byron, a great many small anecdotes, collected from all quarters, which had no reference to the subject of religion. But even this was not enough; for the lady, in her zeal to complete the charm, has thrown into her cauldron letters from Lord Byron about shoeing horses—from Colonel Stanhope about Lancasterian schools—from Dr Meyer about communications to a Greek newspaper; and, though last not least, not an account of her own school, for the education of Greek females, or of its success, but of the compliments paid to her on account of it. The lady's friends got alarmed. One of them wrote her a letter, (printed the last in her volume,) praying her in the most soothing terms to desist from her nefarious purpose. She received it (the late Doctor admired Shakspeare) “ere yet these shoes were old,” in which, “with most wicked speed,” she carried the “sheets” to her publisher; but the cry was still of Mr Moore's second volume—“It comes!” There was no time to be lost, so out starts her book; and thus we bid it welcome.

Since the book, however, is here, and what is done cannot be undone, we may as well enquire into its merits. It is no true wisdom that would reject a pearl because of its being found in an unsavoury local. But, on the present occasion, a short preliminary disquisition will materially alleviate the difficulties of our task of criticism.

We forget the name of the reverend divine, who, on being petulantly told by some fanatic of his day, that “God had no need of human learning,” calmly replied, that “he had still less need of human ignorance.” The class is not yet by any means extinct to which this monition was applicable; on the contrary, its numbers have, of late years, materially increased. These persons seem to be of opinion that religion is of no avail, so long as it is not purified from the smallest admixture of talent. Speak to them of Taylor, Barrow, Tillotson, they turn up their noses, and refer you to the edifying lucubrations of “Boston's Fourfold State,” and the savoury pages of the Tract Society's publications. They have the text, “out of the mouths of babes and sucklings,” continually in their months; forgetful that our divine Saviour only meant to direct our attention to the lessons which a well regulated mind might draw from the naïve remarks of the least instructed—from the stammerings of an unperverted, though half-awakened consciousness. We do not deny that true religion can diffuse its benign influence through the breasts of the most illiterate. We merely say that all things else—good faith, conviction, and earnest zeal—being equal, a man of native genius and learning is a preferable guide to a naturally coarse and uneducated mind—that a Hoadley is likely to prove a more trustworthy instructor than a Whitfield. The time has not long passed when the fear of misconstruction might have made us hesitate to avow these opinions. In the revival of religious ardour which
Weekly Register of Criticism and Belles Lettres.23
characterised the commencement of the present century, a most undue weight was laid upon the importance of the services rendered by some weak, ignorant, and enthusiastic men and women. We have seen, with a feeling closely bordering upon contempt, the sycophantish bearing of some of our worthiest clergymen towards these people. That day has gone by; the absurdities of the adherents of
Campbell and Erskine have broken the spell—the depositaries and guardians of our faith have been awakened to resist their false and insidious allies, and honest men may again speak their mind freely.

Dr Kennedy belongs most decidedly to the objectionable class. He had received a good education, at first with a view to the bar, and afterwards with a view to the medical profession, which he finally embraced. There are, however, some natures so obtuse that no education can free them from the original taint of narrow-minded and childish opinions, and want of taste. What are we to think of the intellect of a man who deliberately asserts that the period passed by Lord Byron at Argastoli was “the happiest and brightest of his life,” because—“during the whole of that time he was not engaged in writing any poem, nor was he in the practice of any open vice!” Yet this is the tone of moral reflection which is affected through the whole book. Dr Kennedy's principles of action were such as might be expected from the calibre of his intellect. He prefers Scott, Erskine, Gregory, and Bogue, to those theologians whose eloquence and argumentative power command the reverence of the loftiest, as they are intelligible to the lowest, grades of mind. He is offended at the levity of three or four young men, and offers to demonstrate the truth of the Scriptures to them logically in the course of a few sittings. We approve of that warm conviction which seeks to propagate itself; but we have no sympathy for the pedant who undertakes to overwhelm giddy boys by his logic, (at once miscalculating his own power and their vulnerable side,) and dares to put Christianity to the hazard. Kennedy bargains for twelve hours' hearing, and loses patience when he is asked to explain the meaning of an expression he has used. He answers their doubts by telling them that they are not yet advanced enough to understand his positions. They read their Bibles as he desires, and when they inform him that they cannot find his peculiar doctrines there, he tells them to pray that they may be enabled to see them. The natural consequence is, that he disgusts all of them but one; and he follows up this defeated attempt to act the part of a home missionary—commenced in an overweening conceit of his own unaided powers—carried on with petulance, dogmatism, and testiness—and ending very naturally with making some of his auditors worse than before—by railing at their perverseness in good set terms.

Lord Byron's part in the book is very short. Indeed a much more appropriate title would have been—“Sermons delivered on four different occasions to the Right Honourable George Lord Byron, by James Kennedy, Esq. M.D.” His Lordship takes by far the smallest share of the conversation, but what he does say is stamped with the impress of that clear and manly sense which characterises all his authentic writings and conversation. The anecdotes concerning him have also marks of authenticity, though none of them are strictly new. On his religious opinions the book throws no additional light. It merely tells us, what we knew before, that he had not any fixed opinions on the subject. The volume, though edited professedly for a pious end, exhibits to us the picture of a most zealous Christian failing to convert one who met him half-way. Those who can look deep enough into men's characters will easily see that the cause of this lay entirely in the structure of the two characters opposed to each other—and that the dignity and power of religion is nowise compromised by the result. But how many are able to see so far? And what must they be who, laying claim to the character of peculiar and exclusive piety, have, from avarice, vanity, or similar motives, thrown such a stumbling-block in the way of the timorous believer?

It is, however, but an act of justice to the memory of Dr Kennedy to say, that we believe him to have been animated in his attempt to convert Byron by honest zeal; and that highly though we must disapprove of dragging these matters before the public, he has, unlike the most of the feeders upon the dead man's sayings and doings, done ample justice to the fair side of his character. One thing is of importance. We have it here from a person who was no dependent, and scarcely a friend, of Byron—from a man of puritanical principles, that he was to the last anxious for a reconciliation with his wife, and convinced of its possibility. How much did he miscalculate that cold and shallow heart, which can insult his memory by the same malignant innuendoes which tarnished his living fame! which knows so well how to strengthen an accusation, by hinting at what it dare not speak out, for fear of dissipating the illusion, but, like the cunning artist, contrives to heighten the effect of the picture by a judicious admixture of the chiaro 'scuro!

We have spoken our mind freely of no less than two ladies in this article, and we are prepared for the exclamation—“It is so unmanly!” But artists, authors, and actors, have no sex.