LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
Thomas Medwin
Lord Byron, his Biography, &c. [Concluded].
Literary Gazette  No. 765  (11 February 1832)  88-89.
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[Conclusion of Capt. Medwin’s letter.]

His (Lord Byron’s) dramas, highly picturesque, and full of poetry (which should be sparingly used in plays, and only by way of illustration), are failures by reason of the want of that very power of thinking for others, of giving the thoughts of others a local habitation, of making them incarnate as it were. The conspiracy in Marino Faliero (doubtless written in Romagna, during the rebellion of which Byron was one of the springs) has, for an opposite reason, all the force of truth and reality. In the somewhat whining regrets of the young Foscari, at being driven from his native city, he has depicted his own feelings; for he was always sighing in secret for that country whose climate, whose government, and whose people, he made the topic of a bitter satire and continual abuse: and in Sardanapalus, and Zarina, and the Ionian slave, we see typified himself, and Lady Byron, and the Guiccioli. Of Werner I shall not speak. It was an unworthy plagiarism from Miss Lee, and written solely for money, of which, as he became rich, he grew exceedingly fond, promising, had he lived, to realise the prediction (if it was one) of becoming a miser.

I have heard it argued that Lord Byron’s poems owe almost all their interest to the mysterious interweaving of his own story into his compositions, and that his fame will therefore be only temporary, only last as long as that association lasts. There is unquestionably a strong family likeness in almost all his pictures; but has not every poet and painter (Shakespeare and Raphael are out of the argument) some particular style or favourite subject? and does this detract from the individual merit of Salvator Rosa’s landscapes, with their Calabrian and bandit-peopled wildernesses?

A time will come when Byron’s works must be judged of by their intrinsic qualities; for the world, when this generation is past, will cease to think or care about his domestic quarrels—the causes of his separation from Lady Byron—his Fornarinas, or his Guicciolis—more than it now does about Mrs. Milton or Martha Blount. But to return to Mr. Murray: he, in his mock-justification, says, that nothing ever occurred to subvert the friendly sentiments Lord Byron entertained for him. On my quitting Pisa, he gave me a memorandum on an open slip of paper, mixed up with other memoranda, to be read to Mr. Murray or his principal clerk, and which I did so read in Albemarle Street, couched in these words: “Lord Byron wonders he has not heard from Mr. Murray on receipt of his new cantos of Don Juan, and desires him to be less negligent in future.” All I can say is, with regard to Mr. Murray, that every thing I know of him came from Lord Byron; that every word contained in my book respecting Mr. Murray was taken down from the mouth of Lord Byron; and that I will shew that Journal, which has been seen by several of my friends, at any time, to any person whom Mr. Murray may appoint.

A part of Lord Byron’s creed was a belief in the omnipotence of the Quarterly, and in the infallibility of Mr. Gifford. Affecting as he did, through the whole of his poetical career, to despise public opinion, no man was a greater slave to those ghouls and vampires of the press, who prey upon the dead and suck the blood of the living; no writer of the day, however subaltern, held the critics in more sovereign awe. In obedience to the Aristarchus of the day, he gave up the drama; and from an impression, however erroneous it might be, of Mr. Murray’s influence over that review, avoided, for a long time, coming to an open rupture with him. There is one question, and only one, I would put to Mr. Murray. Shortly after, or about the time of, Lord Byron’s difference with him and change of publisher, did he, or did he not, have printed, and circulate among his (Mr. Murray’s) friends, the autograph of a private note, or a very familiar paragraph in one, tending to throw ridicule on Lord Byron? I hope I was misinformed; otherwise, from Mr. Murray at least, the charge of a breach of confidence, from him who has raked together every scrap of correspondence with his noble patron, comes with a bad grace. If conversations are sacred, should not letters be held still more so?

I have been most furiously handled by the critics, and not very fairly dealt with by Mr. Moore, who says, in speaking of my work, that the Conversations were after-recollections: now, I must have a most miraculous memory if it were so. But, as I said, that Journal is open to the inspection of all the world; besides that Mr. Moore’s book furnishes ample proofs of its authenticity, and how much I really was in the secret. It is indeed strange, that in many passages of Mr. Moore’s Memoirs, whole sentences should be found almost in the identical words Byron used to me. That work of mine had no pretensions to authorship. It occupied me scarcely three weeks, and was taken literally from my diary. Whilst employed in it at Geneva, I had no means of consulting a single English book by way of reference. One of Lord Byron’s biographers laughs at the idea of my quoting Latin; perhaps I might return the compliment, and smile at his translations from the Greek, witness the following specimen of pure Cockneyism:

Λοεσσαμιγαι τιηρα χροτα Γερμισσεις,
Η ίττεν χρηνης η Ολμειον ζαϑιειγ
“Having first been
With their sweet limbs inside of Hippocrene,
Or other sacred waters of the Hill.”*—Leigh Hunt.

Another objection made to my work has been, that I had no right to have divulged conversations, &c. My reply is, that they were not of a private or confidential nature: that Lord Byron made a boast of his early excesses, and was indifferent to the world knowing them: that among all the abuse (now forgotten) lavished on Boswell, it was never made a point of accusation against him that he published Dr. Johnson’s conversations, though his journal was kept expressly for that purpose; whilst mine was made with no such view, and but for the burning of the autograph memoirs, would never have seen the light.

Having been constantly abroad since 1825, and having little access to the periodical publications of the day, I have been ignorant, till very lately, of the extent to which my “good name has been lied away.” I am now inclined to despise the slanderers, though I cannot help considering myself grievously ill used by Mr. Colburn, who left all my letters unanswered, for what purpose is best known to himself—refused to print my answer to Mr. Murray, (this, probably through a brother’s feeling and delicacy of craft,) and though I sent a categorical reply to the knowingly false and malevolent criticism in the Westminster Review,† instead of instantly publishing it, as I earnestly requested, kept it until it would have been useless to have done so; so that I was finally under the necessity of withdrawing it. A vituperative article in Blackwood’s Magazine I have not seen; but it is said to be by the same heavy hand. That person comes down with his ponderous sledge-hammer contradictions as though he were forging a thunder-bolt; and with all his din and smithery, fuss and fury, only displaces a comma, or transposes a date—the date and the comma being alike unimportant:—not so the critic,—whatever he does costs such a prodigious effort that it must be great; and he thinks the ring he collects around him to witness his prowess are admiring his hard hitting, when they are chiefly struck with his want of breath and temper. I could have wished (I speak all this while of the Westminster reviewer) that he had pointed out some graver errors in my work, and had laid less stress on trifles. The charges are in themselves nothing; all that one can distinctly make out is the wonderful air of business, dogmatism, and pedantry, and self-importance with which they are brought forward. Au reste, he has the laugh against me in one or two places for blunders or slips of the pen,—a triumph well suited to his good-nature and magnanimity. I remember laughing very heartily about the Old Bailey— every body knows the anecdote. Tu trembles, Bailli, &c. Lord B. quotes it in Marino Faliero; but it is not at all clear that Byron did not allude to some other trial. Strafford, who fell a victim to Titus Oates (and the race does not seem extinct), asked for a cloak lest he should tremble with cold, and it might be mistaken for fear; and probably some prisoner in the Old Bailey made a similar remark. But even if a blunder, however ludicrous, nothing can more strongly prove the authenticity of the conversation itself. This anonymous writer insists much upon Lord Byron’s extreme love of veracity. We now know how much he is to be relied upon. In a letter (which I am sorry I have not now before me) addressed by Lord Byron many years ago to M. Pichot, the translator of Byron, and author of an admirable essay on his life, and character, and writings, Lord Byron perverts, in a most extraordinary way, the facts respecting William Lord Byron’s duel with Mr. Chaworth, and “Mad Jack

* Query—Highgate or Helicon?
† To prove the sort of criticism with which I was visited by the Westminster reviewer, I will just give the first twelve objections, by which the rest may be judged of.
1. “The title.” The original title was, “the Conversations of Lord Byron.” Mr. Colburn changed it, as more attractive, without my consent; but the book itself states fully that I never resided with Lord Byron.
2. “That the invitation of Professor Pictet was an impudent liberty of Polidori.” Lord Byron went to a soirée at M. Pictet’s, and thought himself bound to return the civility. This dinner, without Amphytrion, gave great umbrage to the savant, which would not have been the case if as stated by the critic. I have this from one of the professor’s own family.
3. “That Lord Byron never had a boatman.” M. Hentch, the banker, says in a letter to me—“Je donnai le tout en garde au batelier Meurice, compagnon d’eau de votre célebre ami.”
4. “That Lord Byron’s courier did not carry all the eight pairs of pistols.” How important, whether they were carried by one or two servants! The reviewer was born to contradict.
5. “That a picture of Giorgioni’s, at Venice, was not like the Countess Guiccioli.” What a chiaro! as the Romans say.
6. “That Madame Guiccioli was not sixteen, but twenty.”
8. “That the Guiccioli always called her husband Alessandro, not sir.” How tender! See Moore’s Memoirs.
9. “That the count was a notorious carbonaro.” Luckily for him he is dead: but how comes it he was never exiled or imprisoned?
10. “Lord Byron never received any anonymous warnings.” 11. “That he had no stand of arms in the revolution at Ravenna.” See Moore’s Memoirs.
12. “That the Count Gamba’s estates were not confiscated.” He is still a state prisoner, and his estates under sequestration, if not confiscated.
Byron’s conduct and treatment of the
Marchioness of Carmarthen, for the purpose, no doubt, of screening his ancestors from reproach.

I state this as I might do his saying, from motives of vanity, that he was brought up at Mar Lodge, instead of a miserable lodging in Edinburgh, merely to prove that he thought nothing of deviating from the strict line of truth.

There are two subjects on which he was very fond of vapouring—shooting and swimming; and the affair with Sir John Cam Hobhouse, according to the Westminster Review, turns out to have been a kind of bravado at pistol-practice. Was it pure invention on the part of Lord Byron? In his account of the duel between Cecil and Stackpoole, he seems to have taken leave of his memory, or to have been quite misinformed. To shew also how fond he was of throwing doubt even on trifles—I was present when a person asked him how his name ought really to be pronounced: his answer, with one ofhis smiles, was, What does b y spell? Now, as he always called Lady B. Bur-on himself, he was only dealing, of course, in one of his usual mystifications. I have been also taken to task, among other accusations, for not doing justice to Lord Byron’s conversational powers as a reporter. No man was, perhaps, so desultory in conversation. He not only never argued, but rarely reasoned, and flew from topics to topics, like an ignis fatuus, dazzling and astonishing, but throwing no very clear light on any. I have often felt astonishment, after being with him for hours, to find he had said so little worth carrying away,—his talk being about persons and things of no interest;—some illustrious obscure—some gossip of fashionable life, to which he clung with a strange thirst of aristocracy. So much was he embued with this, that I am convinced he would always have preferred the company of the silliest of his brother peers to that of the most enlightened commoner: with one exception, if he had not been Byron, he would have wished to have been Brummel. Shelley sometimes contrived to inveigle him into being serious—in these moments he was really delightful—but they were like angels’ visits, few and far between. Religion he would rarely discuss, and had an evident fear of confessing to himself his unbelief.

It may be thought that my defence now comes late; but on a literary question the lapse of time can make no difference. Though the wounds I have received no longer bleed, the scars remain. The difference between my enemies and myself is, that what I state are facts, positive truths; whilst they endeavoured, by their influence over a venal press, well characterised by that Juvenal of the age, the author of the Tauroboliad,* to injure by falsehoods, known falsehoods, one who was not present to justify himself, who stood single, and was, therefore, a fair mark for detraction and calumny.

The real question before the public is, not whether the facts are true or false in themselves, but whether I had an opportunity of seeing Lord Byron, and reporting his conversations; whether I took down notes of what occurred between us, and whether the result is not a lively and faithful picture of the ordinary mode of passing his time and habits of that very extraordinary man. If I had underrated his tone of conversation, or given a false colour to his character, or misrepresented his estimate of contemporary talent, or taken away the life and spirit of an interesting anecdote by the way of telling it, the public would have had reason to complain; nor would the work be in the repute it is abroad,—have been translated four times into French, and been reprinted so often in France, Germany, and Belgium. All the critiques have had little effect on the material objects of the book; and were the mistakes corrected, it would require the typographical genius of a reviewer to find out the difference. I take this opportunity, once for all, of declaring, that I do not consider myself responsible in any degree for the materials; or liable, in the most distant manner, to be called upon to advocate the authenticity of any one anecdote contained in my volume. These must rest with Lord Byron—must stand or fall on his authority. When I met him at Pisa, I had just returned from India. Many of the topics of his conversation were new to me, most of his contemporaries unknown. It is monstrous to suppose I could have had any interest in libelling them. That unpretending sketch, such as it is, is not altogether valueless. Lord Byron is there seen en deshabille:—with Messrs. Moore and Murray (knowing that all he wrote would appear after his death), he was playing a part. When and where did he not mystify? Did he ever tell a story twice in the same way? But if Lord Byron had no friendship for Messrs. Moore and Murray, it will be evident, from the following anecdote, that one at least of them entertained none for him.

A farewell dinner was given to Mr. Moore on his leaving Paris for England. He was the rosy god of the feast—sung his Bacchanalian songs to his own accompaniment on the piano, and improvised (about as much as the French orators do) his speeches piquante as their dishes. The toasts being ended, I was surprised that Lord Byron had been forgotten; and concluding the omission accidental, sent a line to Mr. Moore across the table to that effect. Mr. Moore, strange to say, shook his head, and declined the proposal. Sir Godfrey Webster, one of the vice-presidents, was then applied to, and instantly gave the toast in the handsomest manner.

Why analyse Mr. Moore’s motives for thus publicly disowning one for whom he was daily professing friendship in his letters, and to whom he had lately been indebted for 2000l.? These motives are only to be found in a littleness of spirit unworthy of his genius.* Perhaps he wished to be thought, at least that day, the greatest of living poets. To have named Byron would have reduced him to his proper sphere—his own comparatively diminished standard. Perhaps Lord Byron’s politics were little in unison with those of some of his Amphytrions present. I only state the fact. I have no time to round my periods, or polish my sentences; but being only a dilettante in letters, perhaps this will pass muster, as we say; and, with admiration of your singular magnanimity, in true editorial style, I am, sir,

Your constant reader,
T. Medwin.
London, Jan. 28, 1832.

As the following letter is connected with, the foregoing, and also presents a high foreign opinion on the subject, we have much pleasure in adding it.

To the Editor of the Literary Gazette.

Sir,—Captain Medwin’s merciless exposé of Lord Byron’s character, although it may please some, will displease many. There are few of us who would yield a ready assent to the destruction of an idol we have set up in our hearts, although the destroyer may be able to overwhelm us with the most cogent arguments of its worthlessness. On such occasions we are apt to shift and shuffle, and look about us for some loop-hole or other by which we may creep out, to preserve the object of our worship. This is precisely my case with Byron; and I am therefore delighted to find that many German writers of the modern politico-literary school have set up a plea for his character, which may still enable us to esteem the man whose magnificent strains have so long enchanted us. The following passage, from a recent review of Wilhelm Müller’s works by the celebrated southern critic Wolfgang Menzel, fully illustrates the view which these gentlemen take of the noble bard; and as it has proved a comfort to me, I generously offer it in an English garb to the readers of the Literary Gazette. “He (Müller) condemns, with most recent critics, Byron’s delight in the harsh, the distorted, the disgusting, the horrible, the immoral, and the demoniacal; but he explains this phenomenon solely from the aristocratical caprice of a rich lord; or, at most, from some adverse events of his life, instead of regarding it as connected with the great events of the world, and flowing from ‘the grief of the age,’ which is the only way to account for it. A poet like Byron does not belong to private life, he is a link of the universal history of man. Who can mistake in his fearful lays the old song of the fettered Prometheus, the deep-glowing grief, the mortally wounded pride, the noble madness of the Titan, who sees his creatures in the power of a hostile god, he being bound to the rock, and his heart a prey to the devouring vulture, raves in horrid despair against gods and men? Great men feel such pains; and Byron has too often expressed in his poems his indignation at the pitifulness of our age, to allow us to ascribe his terrible humour to mere family squabbles, or to bare affectation.” I am, &c.

A. B.

* “The press, that monster, in its demon power,
What life; what name is safe a single hour?
Slave of a public craving to be fed
With lies and scandal as with daily bread,
The fiend must cater for its master’s will,
And tear the victim it is train’d to kill.”
* Having accorded a place in the Literary Gazette to Capt. Medwin’s statement, we have felt that it would be injustice to alter it; but we must again repeat, that these sentiments are not ours, and that we much condemn the practice of imputing unworthy motives, where far other considerations might readily explain the course adopted and the things said and done.—Ed. L. G.