LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Countess of Blessington
Journal of Conversations with Lord Byron. No. VI.
New Monthly Magazine  Vol. NS 37  (February 1833)  214-222.
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FEBRUARY 1, 1833.



Byron continually reverts to Sir Walter Scott, and always in terms of admiration for his genius, and affection for his good qualities; he says that he never gets up from the perusal of one of his works, without finding himself in a better disposition, and that he generally reads his novels three times. “I find such a just mode of thinking, (said Byron,) that I could fill volumes with detached thoughts from Scott, all, and each, full of truth and beauty. Then how good are his definitions. Do you remember, in ‘Peveril of the Peak,’ where he says, ‘Presence of mind is courage. Real valour consists, not in being insensible to danger, but in being prompt to confront and disarm it.’ How true is this, and what an admirable distinction between moral and physical courage!”

I complimented him on his memory, and he added:—“My memory is very retentive, but the passage I repeated I read this morning for the third time. How applicable to Scott’s works is the observation made by Madame du Deffand on Richardson’s Novels, in one of her letters to Voltaire, ‘La morale y est en action, et n'a jamais été traitée d'une manière plus intéressante. On meur d'envie d'être parfait après cette lecture, et l'on croit que rien n'est si aisé.’ I think,” continued Byron, after a pause, “that Scott is the only very successful genius that could be cited as being as generally beloved as a man as he is admired as an author; and, I must add, he deserves it, for he is so thoroughly good-natured, sincere, and honest, that he disarms the envy and jealousy his extraordinary genius must excite. I hope to meet Scott once more before I die; for, worn out as are my affections, he still retains a strong hold on them.”

There was something highly gratifying to the feelings in witnesssing the warmth and cordiality that Byron’s countenance and manner displayed when talking of Sir W. Scott; it proved how capable he was of entertaining friendship,—a sentiment of which he so frequently professed to doubt the existence: but in this, as on many other points, lie never did himself justice; and the turn for ridicule and satire implanted in his nature led him to indulge in observations in which his real feelings had no share. Circumstances had rendered Byron suspicious; he was apt to attribute every mark of interest or good-will shown to him as emanating from vanity, that sought gratification by a contact with his poetical celebrity; this encouraged his predilection for hoaxing, ridiculing, and doubting friends and friendship. But as Sir W. Scott’s own well-earned celebrity put the possibility of such a motive out of the question,

* Continued from page 344, vol. xxxv.
Byron yielded to the sentiment of friendship in all its force for him, and never named him but with praise and affection. Byron’s was a proud mind, that resisted correction, but that might easily be led by kindness; his errors had been so severely punished, that he became reckless and misanthropic, to avenge the injustice he had experienced; and, as misanthropy was foreign to his nature, its partial indulgence produced the painful state of being continually at war with his better feelings, and of rendering him dissatisfied with himself and others.

Talking of the effects that ingratitude and disappointments produced on the character of the individual who experienced them, Byron said, that they invariably soured the nature of the person, who, when reduced to this state of acidity, was decried as a cynical, ill-natured brute. “People wonder (continued he) that a man is sour who has been feeding on acids all his life. The extremes of adversity and prosperity produce the same effects; they harden the heart, and enervate the mind; they render a person so selfish, that, occupied solely with his own pains or pleasures, he ceases to feel for others; hence, as sweets turn to acids as well as sours, excessive prosperity may produce the same consequences as adversity.”

His was a nature to be bettered by prosperity, and to be rendered obstinate by adversity. He invoked Stoicism to resist injustice, but its shield repelled not a single blow aimed at his peace, while its appearance deprived him of the sympathy for which his heart yearned. Let those, who would judge with severity the errors of this wayward child of genius, look back at his days of infancy and youth, and ask themselves whether, under such unfavourable auspices, they could have escaped the defects that tarnish the lustre of his fame,—defects rendered more obvious by the brightness they partially obscured, and which, without that brightness, had perhaps never been observed.

An eagle confined in a cage could not have been more displaced than was Byron in the artificial and conventional society that disgusted him with the world; like that daring bird, he could fearlessly soar high, and contemplate the sun, but he was unfit for the busy haunts of men; and he, whose genius could people a desert, pined in the solitude of crowds. The people he saw resembled not the creatures his fancy had formed, and, with a heart yearning towards his fellow men, pride and a false estimate of mankind repelled him from seeking their sympathy, though it deprived them not of his, as not all his assumed Stoicism could conceal the kind feelings that spontaneously showed themselves when the misfortunes of others were named. Byron warred only with the vices and follies of his species; and if he had a bitter jest and biting sarcasm for these, he had pity and forbearance for affliction, even though deserved, and forgot the cause in the effect. Misfortune was sacred in his eyes, and seemed to be the last link of the chain that connected him with his fellow-men. I remember hearing a person in his presence revert
to the unhappiness of an individual known to all the party present, and, having instanced some proofs of the unhappiness, observe that the person was not to be pitied, for he had brought it on himself by misconduct. I shall never forget the expression of Byron’s face; it glowed with indignation, and, turning to the person who had excited it, he said, “If, as you say, this heavy misfortune has been caused by ——’s misconduct, then is he doubly to be pitied, for he has the reproaches of conscience to embitter his draught. Those who have lost what is considered the right to pity in losing reputation and self-respect, are the persons who stand most in need of commiseration; and yet the charitable feelings of the over-moral would deny them this boon: reserving it for those on whom undeserved misfortunes fall, and who have that within which renders pity superfluous, have also respect to supply its place. Nothing so completely serves to demoralize a man as the certainty that he has lost the sympathy of his fellow creatures; it breaks the last tie that binds him to humanity, and renders him reckless and irreclaimable. This (continued Byron) is my moral; and this it is that makes me pity the guilty and respect the unfortunate.”

While he spoke, the earnestness of his manner, and the increased colour and animation of his countenance, bore evident marks of the sincerity of the sentiments he uttered: it was at such moments that his native goodness burst forth, and pages of misanthropic sarcasms could not efface the impression they left behind, though he often endeavoured to destroy such impressions by pleasantries against himself.

“When you go to Naples you must make acquaintance with Sir William Drummond, (said Byron), for he is certainly one of the most erudite men, and admirable philosophers now living. He has all the wit of Voltaire, with a profundity that seldoms appertains to wit, and writes so forcibly, and with such elegance and purity of style, that his works possess a peculiar charm. Have you read his ‘Academical Questions?’ if not, get them directly, and I think you will agree with me, that the Preface to that work alone would prove Sir William Drummond an admirable writer. He concludes it by the following sentence, which I think one of the best in our language:—‘Prejudice may be trusted to guard the outworks for a short space of time, while Reason slumbers in the citadel; but if the latter sink into a lethargy, the former will quickly erect a standard for herself. Philosophy, wisdom, and liberty, support each other; he, who will not reason, is a bigot; he, who cannot, is a fool; and he, who dares not, is a slave.’ Is not the passage admirable? (continued Byron); how few could have written it, and yet how few read Drummond’s works! they are too good to be popular. His ‘Odin’ is really a fine poem, and has some passages that are beautiful, but it is so little read that it may be said to have dropped still-born from the press, a mortifying proof of the bad taste of the age. His translation of Persius is not only very literal, but preserves much of the spirit of the
original, a merit that, let me tell you, is very rare at present, when translations have about as much of the spirit of the original as champaigne diluted with three parts of water, may be supposed to retain of the pure and sparkling wine. Translations, for the most part, resemble imitations, where the marked defects are exaggerated, and the beauties passed over, always excepting the imitations of
Mathews, (continued Byron,) who seems to have continuous chords in his mind, that vibrate to those in the minds of others, as he gives not only the look, tones, and manners of the persons he personifies, but the very train of thinking, and the expressions they indulge in; and, strange to say, this modern Proteus succeeds best when the imitated is a person of genius, or great talent, as he seems to identify himself with him. His imitation of Curran can hardly be so called—it is a continuation, and is inimitable. I remember Sir Walter Scott’s observing that Mathews’ imitations were of the mind, to those who had the key; but as the majority had it not, they were contented with admiring those of the person, and pronounced him a mimic who ought to be considered an accurate and philosophic observer of human nature, blessed with the rare talent of intuitively identifying himself with the minds of others. But, to return to Sir Wm. Drummond, (continued Byron,) he has escaped all the defects of translators, and his Persius resembles the original as nearly in feeling and sentiment as two languages so dissimilar in idiom will admit. Translations almost always disappoint me; I must, however, except Pope’s ‘Homer,’ which has more of the spirit of Homer than all the other translations put together,* and the Teian bard himself might have been proud of the beautiful odes which the Irish Anacreon has given us.

“Of the wits about town, I think (said Byron) that George Colman was one of the most agreeable; he was toujours pret, and after two or three glasses of champaigne, the quicksilver of his wit mounted to beau fare. Colman has a good deal of tact; he feels that convivial hours were meant for enjoyment, and understands society so well, that he never obtrudes any private feeling, except hilarity, into it. His jokes are all good, and readable, and flow without effort, like the champaigne that often gives birth to them, sparkle after sparkle, and brilliant to the last. Then one is sure of Colman, (continued Byron,) which is a great comfort; for to be made to cry when one had made up one’s mind to laugh, is a triste affair. I remember that this was the great drawback with Sheridan; a little wine made him melancholy, and his melancholy was contagious; for who could bear to see the wizard, who could at will command smiles or tears, yield to the latter without sharing them, though one wished

* This was indeed carrying his admiration of Pope to an extreme. It is impossible to conceive anything more foreign not only from Homer, but from the spirit of all Greek poetry, than Pope’s translation—in fact, it has the air of an imitation from a French paraphrase!
that the exhibition had been less public? My feelings were never more excited than while writing the
Monody on Sheridan,—every word that I wrote came direct from the heart. Poor Sherry! what a noble mind was in him overthrown by poverty! and to see the men with whom he had passed his life, the dark souls whom his genius illumined, rolling in wealth, the Sybarites whose slumbers a crushed rose-leaf would have disturbed, leaving him to die on the pallet of poverty, his last moments disturbed by the myrmidons of the law. Oh! it was enough to disgust one with human nature, but above all with the nature of those who, professing liberality, were so little acquainted with its twin-sister generosity.

“I have seen poor Sheridan weep, and good cause had he (continued Byron). Placed by his transcendent talents in an elevated sphere, without the means of supporting the necessary appearance, to how many humiliations must his fine mind have submitted, ere he had arrived at the state in which I knew him, of reckless jokes to pacify creditors of a morning, and alternate smiles and tears of an evening, round the boards where ostentatious dulness called in his aid to give a zest to the wine that often maddened him, but could not thaw the frozen current of their blood. Moore’s Monody on Sheridan (continued Byron) was a fine burst of generous indignation, and is one of the most powerful of his compositions. It was as daring as my ‘Avatar,’ which was bold enough, and God knows, true enough, but I have never repented it. Your countrymen behaved dreadfully on that occasion; despair may support the chains of tyranny, but it is only baseness that can sing and dance in them, as did the ——’s visit. But I see you would prefer another subject, so let us talk of something else, though this cannot be a humiliating one to you personally, as I know your husband did not make one among the rabble at that Saturnalia.

“The Irish are a strange people (continued Byron), at one moment overpowered by sadness, and the next elevated to joy; impressionable as heated wax, and like it, changing each time that it is warmed. The dolphin, when shone upon by the sun, changes not its hues more frequently than do your mobile countrymen, and this want of stability will leave them long what centuries have found them—slaves. I liked them before the degradation of 1822, but the dance in chains disgusted me. What would Grattan and Curran have thought of it? and Moore, why struck he not the harp of Erin to awaken the slumbering souls of his supine countrymen?”

To those who only know Byron as an author, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to convey a just impression of him as a man. In him the elements of good and evil were so strongly mixed, that an error could not be detected that was not allied to some good quality; and his fine qualities, and they were many, could hardly be separated from the
faults that sullied them. In bestowing on Byron a genius as versatile as it was brilliant and powerful, Nature had not denied him warmth of heart, and the kind affections that beget, while they are formed to repay friendship; but a false beau ideal that he had created for himself, and a wish of exciting wonder, led him into a line of conduct calculated to lower him in the estimation of superficial observers, who judge from appearances, while those who had opportunities of judging him more nearly, and who made allowance for his besetting sin, (the assumption of vices and errors, that he either had not, or exaggerated the appearance of,) found in him more to admire than censure, and to pity than condemn. In his severest satires, however much of malice there might be in the expression, there was little in the feeling that dictated them; they came from the imagination and not from the heart, for in a few minutes after he had unveiled the errors of some friend or acquaintance, he would call attention to some of their good qualities with as much apparent pleasure as he had dwelt on their defects. A nearly daily intercourse of ten weeks with Byron left the impression on my mind, that if an extraordinary quickness of perception prevented his passing over the errors of those with whom he came in contact, and a natural incontinence of speech betrayed him into an exposure of them,—a candour and good-nature, quite as remarkable, often led him to enumerate their virtues, and to draw attention to them. It may be supposed, that with such powerful talents, there was less excuse for the attacks he was in the habit of making on his friends and acquaintances; but those very talents were the cause; they suggested a thousand lively and piquant images to his fancy, relative to the defects of those with whom he associated, and he had not self-command sufficient to repress the sallies that he knew must show at once his discrimination and talents for ridicule, and amuse his hearers, however they might betray a want of good-nature and sincerity.

There was no premeditated malignity in Byron’s nature; though constantly in the habit of exposing the follies and vanity of his friends, I never heard him blacken their reputation, and I never felt an unfavourable impression from any of the censures he bestowed, because I saw they were aimed at follies, and not character. He used frequently to say that people hated him more for exposing their follies than if he had attacked their moral characters, adding, “Such is the vanity of human nature, that men vould prefer being defamed to being ridiculed, and would much sooner pardon the first than the second. There is much more folly than vice in the world (said Byron). The appearance of the latter is often assumed by the dictates of the former, and people pass for being vicious who are only foolish. I have seen such examples (continued he) of this in the world, that it makes one rather incredulous as to the extent of actual vice; but I can believe any thing of the capa-
bilities of vanity and folly, having witnessed to what length they can go. I have seen women compromise their honour (in appearance only) for the triumph (and a hopeful one) of rivalling some contemporary belle; and men sacrifice theirs, in reality, by false boastings for the gratification of vanity. All, all is vanity and vexation of spirit (added he); the first being the legitimate parent of the second, an offspring that, school it how you will, is sure to turn out a curse to its parent.”

Lord Blessington has been talking to me about Mr. Galt (said Lord Byron), and tells me much good of him. I am pleased at finding he is as amiable a man as his recent works prove him to be a clever and intelligent author. When I knew Galt, years ago, I was not in a frame of mind to form an impartial opinion of him; his mildness and equanimity struck me even then; but, to say the truth, his manner had not deference enough for my then aristocratical taste, and finding I could not awe him into a respect sufficiently profound for my sublime self, either as a peer or an author, I felt a little grudge towards him that has now completely worn off. There is a quaint humour and observance of character in his novels that interest me very much, and when he chooses to be pathetic he fools one to his bent, for I assure you the ‘Entail’ beguiled me of some portion of watery humours, yclept tears, ‘albeit unused to the melting mood.’ What I admire particularly in Galt’s works (continued Byron) is, that with a perfect knowledge of human nature and its frailties and legerdemain tricks, he shows a tenderness of heart which convinces one that his is in the right place, and he has a sly caustic humour that is very amusing. All that Lord Blessington has been telling me of Galt has made me reflect on the striking difference between his (Lord B.’s) nature and my own. I had an excellent opportunity of judging Galt, being shut up on board ship with him for some days; and though I saw he was mild, equal, and sensible, I took no pains to cultivate his acquaintance further than I should with any commonplace person, which he was not; and Lord Blessington in London, with a numerous acquaintance, and ‘all appliances to boot,’ for choosing and selecting, has found so much to like in Galt, malgré the difference of their politics, that his liking has grown into friendship.

“I must say that I never saw the milk of human kindness over-flow in any nature to so great a degree, as in Lord Blessington’s (continued Byron). I used, before I knew him well, to think that Shelley was the most amiable person I ever knew, but now I think that Lord B. bears off the palm, for he has assailed by all the temptations that so few can resist, those of unvarying prosperity, and has passed the ordeal victoriously, a triumphant proof of the extraordinary goodness of his nature, while poor Shelley had been tried in the school of adversity only, which is not such a corrupter as is that of prosperity. If Lord B. has not the power, Midas-like, of turning what-
ever he touches into gold (continued Byron), he has at least that of turning all into good. I, alas! detect only the evil qualities of those that approach me, while he discovers the good. It appears to me, that the extreme excellence of his own disposition prevents his attributing evil to others; I do assure you (continued Byron,) I have thought better of mankind since I have known him intimately.” The earnestness of Byron’s manner convinced me that he spoke his real sentiments relative to Lord B., and that his commendations were not uttered with a view of gratifying me, but flowed spontaneously in the honest warmth of the moment. A long, daily and hourly knowledge of the person he praised, has enabled me to judge of the justice of the commendation, and Byron never spoke more truly than when he pronounced Lord B.’s a faultless nature. While he was speaking, he continually looked back, for fear that the person of whom he spoke should overhear his remarks, as he was riding behind, at a little distance from us.

“Is Lady —— as restless and indefatigable as ever? (asked Byron)—She is an extraordinary woman, and the most thorough-paced manœuvrer I ever met with; she cannot make or accept an invitation, or perform any of the common courtesies of life, without manœuvring, and has always some plan in agitation, to which all her acquaintance are subservient. This is so evident, that she never approached me that I did not expect her to levy contributions on my muse, the only disposable property I possessed; and I was as surprised as grateful at finding it was not pressed into the service for compassing some job, or accomplishing some mischief. Then she passes for being clever, when she is only cunning, though her life has been passed in giving the best proof of want of cleverness, that of intriguing to carry points not worth intriguing for, and that must have occurred in the natural course of events without any manœuvring on her part. Cleverness and cunning are incompatible—I never saw them united; the latter is the resource of the weak, and is only natural to them: children and fools are always cunning, but clever people never. The world, or rather the persons who compose it, are so indolent, that when they see great personal activity, joined to indefatigable and unshrinking exertion of tongue, they conclude that such effects must proceed from adequate causes, never reflecting that real cleverness requires not such aids; but few people take the trouble of analyzing the actions or motives of others, and least of all when such others have no envy-stirring attractions. On this account Lady ——’s manœuvres are set down to cleverness; but when she was young and pretty they were less favourably judged. Women of a certain age (continued Byron) are for the most part bores or méchantés. I have known some delightful exceptions, but on consideration they were past the certain age, and were no longer, like the coffin of Mahomet, hovering between heaven and earth, that is to say, floating between maturity and
age, but had fixed their persons on the unpretending easy chairs of Vieillesse, and their thoughts neither on war nor conquest, except the conquest of self. Age is beautiful when no attempt is made to modernize it. Who can look at the interesting remains of loveliness without some of the same tender feelings of melancholy with which we regard a fine view? Both mark the triumph of the mighty conqueror Time; and whether we examine the eyes, the windows of the soul, through which love and hope once sparkled, now dim and languid, showing only resignation, or the ruined casements of the abbey or castle through which blazed the light of tapers, and the smoke of incense offered to the Deity, the feelings excited are much the same, and we approach both with reverence,—always (interrupted Byron) provided that the old beauty is not a specimen of the florid Gothic,—by which I mean restored, painted, and varnished,—and that the abbey or castle is not whitewashed; both, under such circumstances, produce the same effect on me, and all reverence is lost; but I do seriously admire age when it is not ashamed to let itself be seen, and look on it as something sanctified and holy, having passed through the fire of its passions, and being on the verge of the grave.

“I once (said Byron) found it necessary to call up all that could be said in favour of matured beauty, when my heart became captive to a donna of forty-six, who certainly excited as lively a passion in my breast as ever it has known; and even now the autumnal charms of Lady —— are remembered by me with more than admiration. She resembled a landscape by Claude Lorraine, with a setting sun, her beauties enhanced by the knowledge that they were shedding their last dying beams, which threw a radiance around. A woman (continued Byron) is only grateful for her first and last conquest. The first of poor dear Lady ——’s was achieved before I entered on this world of care, but the last I do flatter myself was reserved for me, and a bonne bouche it was.”

I told Byron that his poetical sentiments of the attractions of matured beauty had, at the moment, suggested four lines to me, which he begged me to repeat, and he laughed not a little when I repeated the following lines to him:—
“Oh! talk not to me of the charms of youth’s dimples,
There’s surely more sentiment centred in wrinkles.
They're the triumphs of time that mark beauty’s decay,
Telling tales of years past, and the few left to stay.”