LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

Memoir of Francis Hodgson
Chapter IX. 1811.

Vol. 1 Contents
Chapter I.
Chapter II. 1794-1807.
Chapter III. 1807-1808.
Chapter IV. 1808.
Chapter V. 1808-1809.
Chapter VI. 1810.
Chapter VII. 1811.
Chapter VIII. 1811.
‣ Chapter IX. 1811.
Chapter X. 1811-12.
Chapter XI. 1812.
Chapter XII. 1812-13.
Chapter XIII. 1813-14.
Vol. 2 Contents
Chapter XIV. 1815-16.
Chapter XV. 1816-18.
Chapter XVI. 1815-22.
Chapter XVII. 1820.
Chapter XVIII. 1824-27.
Chapter XIX. 1827-1830
Chapter XX. 1830-36.
Chapter XXI. 1837-40.
Chapter XXII. 1840-47.
Chapter XXIII. 1840-52.
Creative Commons License

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH

It will have been observed that in the short poems addressed to Byron abroad, Hodgson more than once evinces anxiety on the score of his friend’s religious difficulties. This anxiety was not likely to be lessened by the avowed infidelity expressed in the opening stanzas of the second canto of ‘Childe Harold,’ which Hodgson was now helping to correct for the press. The deep despondency into which the pilgrim had fallen since the rapid succession of deaths by which his return to Newstead had been saddened, seemed, moreover, to point to the abiding sorrow of one who mourned without hope.

Earnestly desirous of establishing sound religious principles in the mind of the young and ardent poet whose future was so full of bright promise for his
country and for himself, while at the same time he offered such permanent consolation as can alone be afforded to the bereaved by the sure and certain hope in the resurrection to eternal life,
Hodgson, who had already begun seriously to contemplate the obligations which ordination involves, wrote, with the affectionate zeal and well-timed consideration of true friendship, directing his friend’s thoughts to the glorious inheritance which Christianity promises to its faithful adherents, in the prospect of a reunion with the departed in a blessed immortality. Byron was widely but not deeply versed in philosophic and religious literature, and had been taught from boyhood, as has before been noticed, to identify Christianity with Calvinism. The point of view from which, about this period of his life, he regarded religious subjects may perhaps be best understood by the perusal of an unfinished letter to Gifford, written two years later, from which the following is a passage: ‘I am no bigot to infidelity, and did not expect that, because I doubted the immortality of man, I should be charged with denying the existence of a God. It was the comparative insignificance of ourselves and our world, when placed in comparison with the mighty whole of which it is an atom, that first led me to imagine that our pretensions to eternity might be overrated. This, and
being early disgusted with a Calvinistic Scotch school where I was cudgelled to church for the first ten years of my life, afflicted me with this malady; for, after all, it is, I believe, a disease of the mind, as much as other kinds of hypochondria.’

This frank avowal proves that Hodgson’s remonstrances, which have unfortunately been lost, but to which the following letters are answers, had, in all probability, a far greater effect upon their recipient than he cared, at the time, to admit; and that it was their powerful, though perhaps unrecognised, influence which induced him ever afterwards to speak in a far more reverent tone of those great subjects, which, whether a man believes, denies, or doubts, must be admitted to be the most sacred of any which can engage his thoughts.

In reading even these letters, deeply interesting and instructive as they are, as throwing light upon the history of such a mind, and as containing the most explicit record extant of its religious sentiments, if such they may be called, some allowance must undoubtedly be made for the love of shocking prejudices, the fondness for making unprecedented statements and startling antitheses, which were so curiously characteristic of their writer. Nor would it be fair to ignore the distinction, which he himself elsewhere lays
down, between a sneering and desponding scepticism. But, when these reservations and explanations have been duly made, it is impossible to condemn too severely the levity of several passages, or to deplore too deeply the pervading spirit of defiant lawlessness which degraded his mighty genius and noble, generous nature to the lowest depths of a despairing doubt.

It will, moreover, be remarked that the observations are sometimes strangely superficial, and that the arguments, though plausible enough, are illogical and inconclusive; and too often proceed upon that unsound system of a priori reasoning, which (as Hodgson frequently observed of scepticism) limits the wisdom of an omnipotent Creator by the ignorance of the imperfect creature.

Newstead Abbey: September 3, 1811.

My dear Hodgson,—I will have nothing to do with your immortality; we are miserable enough in this life, without the absurdity of speculating upon another. If men are to live, why die at all? and if they die, why disturb the sweet and sound sleep that ‘knows no waking’? ‘Post mortem nihil est, ipsaque mors nihil’—‘quæris quo jaceas post obitum loco?’ ‘Quo non nata jacent.’ . . . As to revealed religion, Christ came to save men; but a
good Pagan will go to heaven, and a bad Nazarene to hell; ‘Argal’ (I argue like the gravedigger1) why are not all men Christians? or why are any? If mankind may be saved who never heard or dreamt, at Timbuctoo, Otaheite, Terra Incognita, &c., of Galilee and its Prophet, Christianity is of no avail; if they cannot be saved without, why are not all orthodox? It is a little hard to send a man preaching to Judæa, and leave the rest of the world—niggers and what not—dark as their complexions, without a ray of light for so many years to lead them on high; and who will believe that God will damn men for not knowing what they were never taught? I hope I am sincere; I was so at least on a bed of sickness in a far distant country, when I had neither friend, nor comforter, nor hope, to sustain me. I looked to death as a relief from pain, without a wish for an after-life, but a confidence that the God who punishes in this existence had left that last asylum for the weary.
όν ό Θεός άγαπάει άποθνήσκει νέος.2
I am no Platonist, I am nothing at all; but I would sooner be a Paulician, Manichean, Spinozist,

1 In Hamlet. 2 He whom God loves dies young.

Gentile, Pyrrhonian, Zoroastian, than one of the seventy-two villanous sects who are tearing each other to pieces for the love of the Lord and hatred of each other. Talk of Galileeism? Show me the effects—are you better, wiser, kinder by your precepts? I will bring ten Mussulmen shall shame you all in good will towards men, prayer to God, and duty to their neighbours. And is there a ———,1 or a Bonze, who is not superior to a fox-hunting curate? But I will say no more on this endless theme; let me live, well if possible, and die without pain. The rest is with God, who assuredly, had He come or sent, would have made Himself manifest to nations, and intelligible to all.

I shall rejoice to see you. My present intention is to accept Scrope Davies’s invitation; and then, if you accept mine, we shall meet here and there. Did you know poor Matthews? I shall miss him much at Cambridge.

The conclusion of this letter is unfortunately lost. Its first sentence seems to supply a most inadequate reason for rejecting the hope of immortality. If, as is implied, we are inevitably miserable in this life,

1 The word here is illegible.

it is surely more consistent with God’s justice and mercy—both of which appear to be admitted—that we should have further opportunities of attaining to happiness. To the alleged improbability that life should be renewed after death, it may be answered with confidence that such a process is not at variance, but quite in harmony, with the known method which the Almighty undoubtedly does adopt in His government of the universe. Purely poetical expressions and allusions to an obsolete system of Pagan ethics are hardly conclusive proofs to the contrary.

The fallacies contained in the succeeding statements are apparent enough. In the first place, it is unduly assumed that Christianity can never prevail among men; inasmuch as statistics plainly prove that from the date of its foundation its influences have been steadily, if slowly, increasing, and as there is every reason to believe that they will continue to increase until ‘the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.’ Secondly, that is emphatically asserted, which no reasonable person could seriously deny, that those to whom the Gospel message has never been offered cannot be considered responsible for its rejection.

What follows is so sadly and strangely prophetic, and so obviously devoid of all logical consistency,
that its only possible answer is a sorrowful and sympathetic silence.

The scathing sarcasm of the next sentence was surely not much more or less justifiable sixty years ago than it is singularly appropriate to the contemptible disunions and controversies on non-essentials which characterise more modern Christianity; but the unfairness of arguing generally against a creed because it necessarily involves abuses, is too manifest to demand serious comment. Of the conclusion it may be noticed that it certainly does not follow from the premisses; but that, even if it did so follow, the premisses having been proved unsound, the conclusion would fall with them. The last words merely repeat the mistakes before pointed out, which ignore the doctrine of the gradual development of Christianity until to all is vouchsafed the opportunity of refusing the evil and of choosing the good.

The only answer from the recipient of these letters is the following fragment of verse, which may be taken as a clue to the spirit of the advice which elicited them:—

Alone, my Byron, on Shelfordian plains,
For thee I meditate my careless strains;
Roam, undisturb’d, in free-born thought along,
And yield a day to friendship and to song.
Say, whence thy doubt of God’s o’er-ruling pow’r,
Thou troubled dreamer of a darksome hour?
Is it that, dimly through this veil of sin,
The ray of virtue glimmers from within?
Is it that, soaring to sublimer things,
The flight of mind betrays her feeble wings?
But whence thy right, ephemeral phantom whence,
To purer instinct or to loftier sense?
Would Reason prompt thee louder to complain
If lower link’d in being’s general chain?
She prompts not now thy discontented voice,
Nor bids thee choose where Heaven denies a choice.
What, if surrounded by a drearier shade,
Or by thy fate, or by thy folly made,
No beam of love illumed thy lonely path,
But, wandering on, an outcast child of wrath,
Without a guide, a father, or a friend,
Thy melancholy progress met its end,
Lost in the shoreless floods of silent space,
Thy time an instant, and a speck thy place.
What, if imprison’d in this ruin’d earth,
All traces gone of thy diviner birth,
Scarce could thy shuddering nature bear its doom,
The painful cradle, and the hopeless tomb!
What could’st thou more than blame thy Maker’s plan,
And call His Providence the foe of man?
But praise Him now who gives unbounded scope
For Reason’s honour, and for Virtue’s hope;
Presents a world thy generous strength to try,
And spreads the prize of conquest in the sky.
What prize were that without an effort won?
Or why reward the deed that must be done?
No! to thy choice is offer’d good or ill,
And conscience owns thy liberty of will.
Where then begin, where end, our fruitless strife?
Waive doubt awhile, and purify thy life.
Ask you what land contains the lustral fount?
Behold it flowing from Judæa’s mount!
There weary pilgrims drink at Wisdom’s shrine,
A water spotless from a source divine.
There pining cares and stormy passions rest,
And love dwells happy in the peaceful breast;
There Mercy weeps o’er human faults forgiven,
And Heav’n-born friendship reascends to Heav’n.
Say, can obedience lose the promised bliss?
Can Faith be groundless in a life like this?
No! the cleansed heart assures the doubting eyes,
And new-born hopes to new-born virtues rise.
Then, ranging boundless o’er the Almighty whole
In every part a God! shall strike the soul—
From one vast temple shall a God! be heard;
A God from Judah’s voice, a God! from Nature’s word.
As journeying darkly o’er the midnight heath,
The seeming reign of solitude and death,
Some fainting wretch pursues his fearful way;
Till o’er yon lengthening ocean gleams the day—
Wide and more wide the growing gold expands,
A cloudless glory lightens seas and lands!
Then lovely order through the prospect shines

The remainder of the verses is lost, but it is not difficult to complete the simile.


If the wise counsels of this truest of friends had been allowed their legitimate force, and had exercised a more immediate influence upon the mind of the wayward poet, what a different future might, from that moment, have been opened to him! Untrammelled by the weaknesses of that lower nature which bound him down to earth, his mighty genius would have soared to loftier flights; unfettered by the chains of a morbid self-consciousness, his noble, generous nature would have found scope for its energies in the exercise of the purest philanthropy. That marvellous combination of rank, and talent, and beauty, which made him alternately the idol and the scapegoat of his age, if tempered and guided by religious discipline, would have enabled him to confer incalculable benefits upon his fellow men. All that is grandest and noblest in human nature would henceforth have been inseparably associated with the name of Byron.

It is melancholy, indeed, to turn from the contemplation of such glorious possibilities to the strange reality of mingled faith and doubt which bore such bitter fruit; lamentable, however deeply instructive, to look back upon the perilous rocks and subtly-shifting quicksands upon which so beautiful a bark was wrecked almost at the outset of its voyage.

Newstead Abbey: September 13, 1811.

My dear Hodgson,—I thank you for your song, or, rather, your two songs—your new song on love, and your old song on religion. I admire the first sincerely, and in turn call upon you to admire the following on Anacreon Moore’s new operatic farce,1 or farcical opera—call it which you will:—
Good plays are scarce,
So Moore writes farce;
Is fame like his so brittle?
We knew before
That ‘Little’s’ Moore,
But now ’tis Moore that’s Little.
I won’t dispute with you on the arcana of your new calling; they are bagatelles, like the King of Poland’s rosary. One remark, and I have done: the basis of your religion is injustice; the Son of God, the pure, the immaculate, the innocent, is sacrificed for the guilty. This proves His heroism; but no more does away man’s guilt than a schoolboy’s volunteering to be flogged for another would exculpate the dunce from negligence, or preserve him from the rod. You degrade the Creator, in the first place, by making Him a begetter of

1 The M.P.; or, The Blue Stocking, which, after having been acted for a few nights, disappeared finally from the stage.

children; and in the next you convert Him into a tyrant over an immaculate and injured Being, who is sent into existence to suffer death for the benefit of some millions of scoundrels, who, after all, seem as likely to be damned as ever. As to miracles, I agree with Hume that it is more probable men should lie or be deceived, than that things out of the course of nature should so happen.
Mahomet wrought miracles, Brothers the prophet had proselytes, and so would Breslau, the conjurer, had he lived in the time of Tiberius.

Besides, I trust that God is not a Jew, but the God of all mankind; and, as you allow that a virtuous Gentile may be saved, you do away the necessity of being a Jew or a Christian.

I do not believe in any revealed religion, because no religion is revealed; and if it pleases the Church to damn me for not allowing a non-entity, I throw myself on the mercy of the ‘Great First Cause, least understood,’ who must do what is most proper; though I conceive He never made anything to be tortured in another life, whatever it may in this. I will neither read pro nor con. God would have made His will known without books, considering how very few could read them when Jesus of Nazareth lived, had it been His pleasure to
ratify any peculiar mode of worship. As to your immortality, if people are to live, why die? And our carcases, which are to rise again, are they worth raising? I hope, if mine is, that I shall have a better pair of legs than I have moved on these two-and-twenty years, or I shall be sadly behind in the squeeze into Paradise. Did you ever read ‘
Malthus on Population?’ If he be right, war and pestilence are our best friends, to save us from being eaten alive, in this ‘best of all possible worlds.’

I will write, read, and think no more; indeed, I do not wish to shock your prejudices by saying all I do think. Let us make the most of life, and leave dreams to Emanuel Swedenborg.

Now to dreams of another genus—poesies. I like your song much; but I will say no more, for fear you should think I wanted to coax you into approbation of my past, present, or future acrostics. I shall not be at Cambridge before the middle of October; but, when I go, I should certes like to see you there before you are dubbed a deacon. Write to me, and I will rejoin.

Yours ever,

In this second letter, the first point to be noticed
is that the word ‘injustice’ is here used simply from a human point of view; and in discussing subjects which, from the very fact that they are still subjects of discussion, are proved to be beyond the comprehension of man’s finite intelligence, it is important that we lose not sight of the evident probability that God has fuller, wider notions of justice than man, by the circumstances of his constitution, can possibly entertain; that His judgments are inscrutable, and His ways past finding out. Again, the voluntary character of the sacrifice of Him, who took upon Him our nature, is virtually ignored; while the tangible and visible effects of Christianity throughout the world are also completely set aside or forgotten.

The great subject of miracles is dismissed in so summary a manner as to render a distinct refutation of the opinion definitely expressed impossible, without an exhaustive inquiry into the credibility of witnesses such as is to be found in Paley’sEvidences;’ or a comprehensive consideration of the whole subject of God’s omnipotence, and consequent power to change for a specific and unique purpose the laws which He has made, such as is amply afforded by Butler’sAnalogy.’

To the truism that God is the God of all man-
kind, it may be answered that the doctrines of Christianity are in no way really antagonistic to such a notion; but that, as was noticed in answer to a similar statement in the former letter, only those are condemned who persistently reject a religion which not only promises present and future happiness, but which is proved by constant experience to have a power to guide and assist its faithful adherents to happy and honourable lives, and to assure them of calm and peaceful deaths. In the next place, when it is asserted that no religion is revealed, it is necessary to inquire what is the exact sense in which the word is used, and to bear in mind the fact that the natural processes, the results of which we daily see and feel, are certainly not clearly revealed to us; that revelation, however applied, is a relative term, and involves questions of degree. For that the world in which we live and move and have our being is full of hidden mysteries, will hardly be denied even by those who are most sceptical on the subject of revealed religion. And the positive fact that prayer is constantly answered is not more miraculous or less mysterious than many of the natural events by which we are surrounded, but for which we cannot fully account. Nor is it more consistent with the idea of God’s merciful justice to suppose that He would
allow His creatures to be deceived into the false belief that they will be punished hereafter, than to imagine Him determined to punish hereafter those who resolutely resist His will, and often go unpunished here. But the words which follow may fairly be considered to contain the clue to much which precedes them. ‘I will read neither pro nor con.’ Does not this plainly point to the predetermined resolve of one whose wish was father to his thought, and who preferred to make his principles tally with his practice, rather than to adopt such religious tenets as would inevitably lead to the necessity of an unwelcome discipline of life.

That God did make His will known without books, as well as through them, is proved by the unprecedented and unparalleled effects of the Apostles’ teaching, and to the widespread influences of oral instructions and traditions throughout the early ages of the Church’s history.

The painfully irreverent allusion to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is an instance of the determination (so characteristic of its writer) to press forcibly to their natural conclusion any opinions which arrested his attention. But it is strange that he should have altogether overlooked the Christian belief that the natural body which dies is raised a
spiritual body; that there are bodies terrestrial and bodies celestial.

In these days of universal inquiry and rigid criticism, the consideration of the religious sentiments of so powerful a thinker as Byron, if conducted in a conscientious spirit, cannot be devoid of useful interest. For the necessary conviction which such a consideration will inculcate is obviously this: that if such a mind could find no stronger arguments than these in favour of scepticism, Christianity, however it might suffer temporarily from the insensibility of its opponents, would be in no danger of ultimate suppression even if it depended solely upon human agencies for its support; while the fatal influences of such self-reliant speculations are strikingly exemplified in the hapless life and premature death of the greatest poet of his age.