LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
Mr. Moore’s Life of Lord Byron.
The Times  No. 14,157  (30 January 1830)
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The Times.

No 14,157. LONDON, SATURDAY,  January  30,  1830. Price 7d.


The life of Lord Byron was somewhat more marked by variety of adventure than that of most of the literary men of these later days. Although it was, for this reason, a more interesting subject for biography than is usually presented by such lives, it might have been but little distinguished from the common lot, but for the accident which has placed the task of recording it in the hands of one, who is, of all men, the best qualified to perform it. Mr. Moore’s personal knowledge of the author,—his familiar acquaintance with those who knew him better, and had known him longer, than any others,—the access which these circumstances and his own reputation have given him, to almost every authority and document in existence respecting his noble friend,—have been advantages which perhaps no person besides could have commanded; and all these advantages have been brought to bear in the work before us. Its fidelity and accuracy, as far as facts are related, admit of no dispute; but that which confers on it at once its greatest charm and power,—that which will make it interesting to all classes of readers now, and will keep up that interest as long as the history of letters and of human character shall engage the attention of mankind, is derived from the author. All that in common hands would have been common enough, acquires a new shape under the influence of genius such as his, and the kindred feeling which they possessed in some points has enabled the living poet to shed a lustre on the fame and character of the dead one which could have been produced by scarcely any other means.

This leads us to remark that Mr. Moore has not been able wholly to guard himself against the besetting temptation of all biography. The interest which it is quite natural to feel in the performance of such a duty, combining in this instance with the author’s strong regard for Lord Byron, has engendered such a partiality as induces him often to extenuate faults which, if even justice were done, ought not to escape whipping; and sometimes to ascribe to Lord Byron’s actions motives more exalted than those which really influence him. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to avoid this fault: a thousand things may be said in its favour; and when they are all said and admitted, it is a fault still.

All the early particulars of the life of the poet are collected by Mr. Moore with great care, and the premature death of Lord Byron has left many persons living who are able to verify the facts that are related of him. At school in Scotland, at Harrow, and at college, Lord Byron appears to have been rather under than beyond the mark at which most of his competitors of promise had arrived,—a circumstance which may be accounted for by the early defects of his education, and by that proud intractability of temper which marked his whole life and marred all his happiness. In the part of the book the great (we had nearly said the only) charm is in the writer. The skilful manner in which he has brought together facts trivial in themselves, and has imbued them with an interest and power which the reader involuntarily acknowledges,—the kind solicitude with which he dwells on the development of the better and more amiable traits of Lord Byron’s youthful days, and seeks to refer to circumstances and accident the springs of his future actions, and the acute and judicious observations which accompany the narration, render the work at once the most satisfactory and interesting that has, perhaps, been produced in that class of literature to which it belongs.

It is Lord Byron’s literary character that deserves and has engaged Mr. Moore’s best attention. He has preserved a paper in which his friend had written a list of the authors whose works he had read before he was 20 years old, (a very considerable number, by the way), and the greater part of which were in English. To this list Mr. Moore subjoins the following observation:—

“To this early and extensive study of English writers may be attributed that mastery over the resources of his own language, with which Lord Byron came furnished into the field of literature, and which enabled him, as fast as his youthful fancies sprung up, to clothe them with a diction worthy of their beauty. In general, the difficulty of young writers, at their commencement, lies far less in any lack of thoughts or images, than in that want of a fitting organ to give these conceptions vent, to which their unacquaintance with the great instrument of the man of genius, his native language, dooms them. It will be found, indeed, that the three most remarkable examples of early authorship, which, in their respective lines, the history of literature affords—Pope, Congreve, and Chatterton—were all of them persons self-educated*, according to their own intellectual wants and tastes, and left, undistracted by the worse than useless pedantries of the schools, to seek, in the pure ‘well of English undefiled,’ those treasures of which they accordingly so very early and intimately possessed themselves†. To these three instances may now be added, virtually, that of Lord Byron, who, though a disciple of the schools, was, intellectually speaking, in them, not of them, and who, while his comrades were prying curiously into the graves of dead languages, betook himself to the fresh, living sources of his own‡, and from thence drew those rich, varied stores of diction, which have placed his works, from the age of two-and-twenty upwards, among the most precious depositories of the strength and sweetness of the English language that our whole literature supplies.”

In a memorandum annexed to another list, Lord Byron expresses a very slighting opinion, which perhaps he lived to change, of some of the distinguished English poets. Of Chaucer, he says, “notwithstanding the praises bestowed on him, I think him obscene and contemptible:” the only conclusion to be drawn from which saying is, that he could not read the father of our poetry,—a case by no means uncommon with his countrymen.

Up to the period at which he published his satire, his life appears to have been passed in mere frivolity, to the recital of which neither his own egotism (a more plentiful share of which never fell to any other mortal, as his letters every where testify), nor the efforts of his friend can give importance, however the latter may have contrived to clothe them with a considerable portion of interest. His letters of this period are sad productions, more like the effusions of a sprightly haberdasher, than of the poet that was to be. They are filled with that sort of pert impertinence that cockneys (to adopt a phrase which belongs to a particular class of professors of modern literature) have been so justly ridiculed for: it would be difficult to point out any recent production in which there is more unworthy variety, more mawkishness and sauciness, than in the letters addressed to a young lady at Southwell. She must be (whoever she is) a model of good temper, to have endured such a correspondent. The publication of his satire, and the consequences which ensued, developed a new feature in his character, and convinced him that he possessed powers which, however he had coveted them, he had never before thought were his own. Mr. Moore’s observations on this event are singularly happy and judicious.

“Great as was the advance which his powers had made, under the influence of that resentment from which he now drew his inspiration, they were yet, even in his Satire, at an immeasurable distance from the point to which they afterwards so triumphantly rose. It is, indeed, remarkable that, essentially as his genius seemed connected with, and, as it were, springing out of his character, the development of the one should so long have preceded the full maturity of the resources of the other. By her very early and rapid expansion of his sensibilities, Nature had given him notice of what she destined him for, long before he understood the call; and those materials of poetry with which his own fervid temperament abounded were but by slow degrees, and after much self-meditation, revealed to him. In his Satire, though vigorous, there is but little foretaste of the wonders that followed it. His spirit was stirred, but he had not yet looked down into its depths, nor does even his bitterness taste of the bottom of the heart, like those sarcasms which he afterwards flung in the face of mankind. Still less had the other countless feelings and passions, with which his soul had been long labouring, found an organ worthy of them;—the gloom, the grandeur, the tenderness of his nature, all were left without a voice, till his mighty genius, at last, awakened in its strength.

“In stooping, as he did, to write after established models, as well in the Satire as in his still earlier poems, he showed how little he had yet explored his own original resources, or found out those distinctive marks by which he was to be known through all time. But, bold and energetic as was his general character, he was, in a remarkable degree, diffident in his intellectual powers. The consciousness of what he could achieve was but by degrees forced upon him, and the discovery of so rich a mine of genius in his soul came with no less surprise on himself than on the world. It was from the same slowness of self-appreciation that, afterwards, in the full flow of his fame, he long doubted, as we shall see, his own aptitude for works of wit and humour,—till the happy experiment of ‘Beppo’ at once dissipated this distrust, and opened a new region of triumph to his versatile and boundless powers.

“But, however far short of himself his first writings must be considered, there is in his Satire a liveliness of thought, and, still more, a vigour and courage, which, concurring with the justice of his cause and the sympathies of the public on his side, could not fail to attach instant celebrity to his name. Notwithstanding, too, the general boldness and recklessness of his tone, there were occasionally mingled with this defiance some allusions to his own fate and character, whose affecting earnestness seemed to answer for their truth, and which were of a nature strongly to awaken curiosity as well as interest.”

The history of his early, and always hopeless, attachment to Miss Chaworth, is very delightfully written. We cannot, however, believe that it was this event which cast a colour over his future life, and occasioned that melancholy and misanthropy of which he afterwards made so abundant a display. What Madame de Stael told him, and what he never forgave her for telling him,—that he had never been in love, and was incapable of feeling that passion,—was perfectly true. The pettiness of his spirit,—which all his pride could not conceal,—and that unjust malignant temper, of which he gave so many proofs, shows itself most disgustingly in every passage of his letters in which he mentions Madame de Stael. In one place he vents coarse, unmanly, inhuman sarcasms against her on an occasion which might have induced his forbearance—the death of her son; and in another his wit helps his spite so feebly that he calls her Madame Stale. It may be said these are passages in private letters, and that therefore they are entitled to indulgence. The folks they concern have been long in their graves, so that indulgence is not worth having; but being the unchecked expression of the writer’s private thoughts, they show pretty satisfactorily the stuff his temper was made of.

Mr. Moore has collected many of Lord Byron’s letters written during his travels in the East; and these are not only interesting and amusing, but they place the writer of them in a better light than he often appears in elsewhere. There is Mr. Hobhouse’s testimony that he was an agreeable companion; he wrote very sprightly amusing letters, with no superabundance of gall, saw a great deal, described it very well, and produced his Childe Harold. That is a very eloquent and beautiful passage of the work in which Mr. Moore, having landed the pilgrim once more in England, considers the effect which his travel must have had upon his mind in maturing and developing the powers that lay within it. We have not room to extract the whole, and to give a part of it would be unjust.

Lord Byron, with a remarkable, but not, in authors, an uncommon mistake in judgment, preferred a satirical poem he had written, called Hints from Horace, to his Childe Harold. Mr. Moore has preserved some of this poem, of which the specimens we have, leave us no room to doubt the suppression of the whole.

It was impossible for the author to avoid a topic which occurs in the life of Lord Byron, and in which he is himself personally concerned; and the manner in which he has treated it entitles him to great credit for frankness and good feeling. We shall be understood to speak of that which has long been sufficiently notorious, but never before fully explained,—Mr. Moore’s quarrel with Lord Byron, occasioned by an unjustifiable allusion which he had made to him in his Satire. It is not possible for a man, the hero of his own tale, and that so delicate a one, to tell it with more perfectly unaffected modesty and manliness. Mr. Moore had required Lord Byron, by letter, to give him satisfaction for the wrong he had done him. By an accident this letter was never delivered according to its address. Soon after it was written Lord Byron went abroad, where he remained some time. Mr. Moore adds—

“During the interval of a year and a half which elapsed before Lord Byron’s return, I had taken upon myself obligations, both as husband and father, which make most men,—and especially those who have nothing to bequeath,—less willing to expose themselves unnecessarily to danger. On hearing, therefore, of the arrival of the noble traveller from Greece, though still thinking it due to myself to follow up my first request of an explanation. I resolved, in prosecuting that object, to adopt such a tone of conciliation as should not only prove my sincere desire of a pacific result, but show the entire freedom from any angry or resentful feeling with which I took the step. The death of Mrs. Byron, for some time, delayed my purpose. But as soon after that event as was consistent with decorum, I addressed a letter to Lord Byron, in which, referring to my former communication and expressing some doubts as to its having ever reached him, I re-stated, in pretty nearly the same words, the nature of the insult, which, as it appeared to me, the passage in his note was calculated to convey.”

Lord Byron replied to this note, and after some coldness (which was perhaps justifiable enough under the circumstances) a satisfactory explanation was arrived at, and that friendship ensued between the poets, which existed without interruption during Lord Byron’s life.

Lord Byron’s fame as a poet, and his rank, carried him now much into society, the best and most brilliant that London contained. Mr. Moore’s account of him here is curious, but it leads us to a conclusion very different from that at which he has arrived. We take the merriment to have been the natural character of the man,—the melancholy mere affectation, and that love of being distinguished, no matter how, which “sicklied o’er” all his existence, and hastened its termination.

“During all this time, the impression which he had produced in society, both as a poet and a man, went on daily increasing; and the facility with which he gave himself up to the current of fashionable life, and mingled in all the gay scenes through which it led, showed that the novelty, at least, of this mode of existence had charms for him, however he might estimate its pleasures. That sort of vanity which is almost inseparable from genius, and which consists in an extreme sensitiveness on the subject of self, Lord Byron, I need not say, possessed in no ordinary decree; and never was there a career in which this sensibility to the opinions of others was exposed to more constant and various excitement than that on which he was now entered. I find in a note of my own to him, written at this period, some jesting allusions to the ‘circle of star-gazers’ whom I had left around him at some party on the preceding night;—and such, in fact, was the flattering ordeal he had to undergo wherever he went. On these occasions,—particularly before the range of his acquaintance had become sufficiently extended to set him wholly at his ease,—his air and port were those of one whose better thoughts were elsewhere, and who looked with melancholy abstraction on the gay crowd around him. This deportment, so rare in such scenes, and so accordant with the romantic notions entertained of him, was the result partly of shyness, and partly, perhaps, of that love of effect and impression to which the poetical character of his mind naturally led. Nothing, indeed, could be more amusing and delightful than the contrast which his manner afterwards, when we were alone, presented to his proud reserve in the brilliant circle we had just left. It was like the bursting gaiety of a boy let loose from school, and seemed as if there was no extent of fun or tricks of which he was not capable. Finding him invariably thus lively when we were together, I often rallied him on the gloomy tone of his poetry, as assumed; but his constant answer was (and I soon ceased to doubt of its truth), that, though thus merry and full of laughter with those he liked, he was, at heart, one of the most melancholy wretches in existence.”

Lord Byron’s marriage was certainly one of the most disastrous events in his life. It was, however, be it remembered, only in consequence of his own imprudence and selfish injustice. Mr. Moore has taken some pains to account for, and by a side-wind to excuse, his conduct; but ingenious as this part of the work is, it has wholly failed to convince us that there is any thing in the temperament of a poet which unfits him for discharging the social duties of a husband and a father. Mr. Moore says—

“‘To follow poetry as one ought (says the authority‖ I have already quoted), one must forget father and mother and cleave to it alone.’ In these few words is pointed out the sole path that leads genius to greatness. On such terms alone are the high places of fame to be won;—nothing less than the sacrifice of the entire man can achieve them. However delightful, therefore, may be the spectacle of a man of genius tamed and domesticated in society, taking docilely upon him the yoke of the social ties, and enlightening without disturbing the sphere in which he moves, we must nevertheless, in the midst of our admiration, bear in mind that it is not thus smoothly or amiably immortality has been ever struggled for, or won. The poet thus circumstanced may be popular, may be loved; for the happiness of himself and those linked with him he is in the right road,—but not for greatness. The marks by which Fame has always separated her great martyrs from the rest of mankind are not upon him, and the crown cannot be his. He may dazzle, may captivate the circle, and even the times in which he lives, but he is not for hereafter.”

It is impossible not to understand the allusion, but we think the writer proves the opposite side of the question. It is mischievous, too, for a person whose opinion is entitled to have such weight as Mr. Moore’s, to express it as he has done; for although he has so qualified and guarded it, that to people of sane minds and honest intentions it contains no harm, there are as abundance of weak folks in the world who will fancy that he means to justify his friend. All that can be said in excuse of Lord Byron’s treatment of his wife is, that he had made a choice by no means calculated to realize the happiness he fancied he should find in wedlock, and that the discovery of his error brought with it bitterness and exasperation on either side, which if left alone, would probably have subsided; but which being inflamed by the malevolent or injudicious persons by whom the parties were surrounded, ended in a lamentable wreck of their mutual comfort and tranquility. To excuse or to account for an event which began only in an erroneous calculation and ill temper, on the score of Lord Byron’s extraordinary mental powers, seems to be incorrect, and may be the means (which Heaven avert!) of many a future coxcomb who scribbles verse, fancying he has found an authority for leaving his wife and children to the parental care of the parish officers, by virtue of his being a genius.

The account which Mr. Moore gives of the Memoirs that were burnt, will be read with interest.

“In those Memoirs (or, more properly, Memoranda) of the noble poet, which it was thought expedient, for various reasons, to sacrifice, he gave a detailed account of all the circumstances connected with his marriage, from the first proposal to the lady till his own departure, after the breach, from England. In truth, though the title of “Memoirs,” which he himself sometimes gave to that manuscript, conveys the idea of a complete and regular piece of biography, it was to this particular portion of his life that the work was principally devoted; while the anecdotes, having reference to other parts of his career, not only occupied a very disproportionate space in its pages, but were most of them such as are found repeated in the various Journals and other MSS. he left behind. The chief charm, indeed, of that narrative was the melancholy playfulness—melancholy, from the wounded feeling so visible through its pleasantry—with which events unimportant and persons uninteresting, in almost every respect but their connexion with such a man’s destiny, were detailed and described in it. Frank, as usual, throughout, in his avowal of his own errors, and generously just towards her who was his fellow-sufferer in the strife, the impression his recital left on the minds of all who perused it was, to say the least, favourable to him;—though, upon the whole, leading to a persuasion, which I have already intimated to be my own, that, neither in kind or degree, did the causes of disunion between the parties much differ from those that loosen the links of most such marriages.

“With respect to the details themselves, though all important in his own eyes at the time, as being connected with the subject that superseded most others in his thoughts, the interest they would possess for others, now that their first zest as a subject of scandal is gone by, and the greater number of the persons to whom they relate forgotten, would be too slight to justify me in entering upon them more particularly, or running the risk of any offence that might be inflicted by their disclosure.”

In 1816 Lord Byron went once more abroad—never to return; and here Mr. Moore’s memoir for the present closes.

* “I took to reading by myself,” says Pope, “for which I had a very great eagerness and enthusiasm; . . . . . I followed every where, as my fancy led me, and was like a boy gathering flowers in the fields and woods, just as they fell in his way. These five or six years I still look upon as the happiest part of my life.” It appears, too, that he was himself aware of the advantages which this free course of study brought with it:—“Mr. Pope,” says Spence, “thought himself the better, in some respects, for not having had a regular education. He (as he observed in particular) read originally for the sense, whereas we are taught, for many years, to read only for words.”
† Before Chatterton was 12 years old he wrote a catalogue, in the same manner as Lord Byron, of the books he had already read, to the number of 70. Of these the chief subjects were history and divinity.
‖ Pope.