LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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The Life of Lord Byron
Chapter VIII

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First acquaintance with Byron.—Embark together.—The voyage.

It was at Gibraltar that I first fell in with Lord Byron. I had arrived there in the packet from England, in indifferent health, on my way to Sicily. I had then no intention of travelling. I only went a trip, intending to return home after spending a few weeks in Malta, Sicily, and Sardinia; having, before my departure, entered into the Society of Lincoln’s Inn, with the design of studying the law.

At this time, my friend, the late Colonel Wright, of the artillery, was secretary to the Governor; and during the short stay of the packet at the Rock, he invited me to the hospitalities of his house, and among other civilities gave me admission to the garrison library.

The day, I well remember, was exceedingly sultry. The air was sickly; and if the wind was not a sirocco, it was a withering levanter—oppressive to the functions of life, and to an invalid denying all exercise. Instead of rambling over the fortifications, I was, in consequence, constrained to spend the hottest part of the day in the library; and, while sitting there, a young man came in and seated himself opposite to me at the table where I was reading. Something in his appearance attracted my attention. His dress indicated a Londoner of some fashion, partly by its neatness and
simplicity, with just so much of a peculiarity of style as served to show, that although he belonged to the order of metropolitan beaux, he was not altogether a common one.

I thought his face not unknown to me; I began to conjecture where I could have seen him; and, after an unobserved scrutiny, to speculate both as to his character and vocation. His physiognomy was prepossessing and intelligent, but ever and anon his brows lowered and gathered; a habit, as I then thought, with a degree of affectation in it, probably first assumed for picturesque effect and energetic expression; but which I afterwards discovered was undoubtedly the occasional scowl of some unpleasant reminiscence: it was certainly disagreeable—forbidding—but still the general cast of his features was impressed with elegance and character.

At dinner, a large party assembled at Colonel Wright’s; among others the Countess of Westmorland, with Tom Sheridan and his beautiful wife; and it happened that Sheridan, in relating the local news of the morning, mentioned that Lord Byron and Mr. Hobhouse had come in from Spain, and were to proceed up the Mediterranean in the packet. He was not acquainted with either.

Hobhouse had, a short time before I left London, published certain translations and poems rather respectable in their way, and I had seen the work, so that his name was not altogether strange to me. Byron’s was familiar—the Edinburgh Review had made it so, and still more the satire of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, but I was not conscious of having seen the persons of either.

On the following evening I embarked early, and soon after the two travellers came on board; in one of whom I recognised the visitor to the library, and he proved to be Lord Byron. In the little bustle and process of embarking their luggage, his Lordship affected,
as it seemed to me, more aristocracy than befitted his years, or the occasion; and I then thought of his singular scowl, and suspected him of pride and irascibility. The impression that evening was not agreeable, but it was interesting; and that forehead mark, the frown, was calculated to awaken curiosity, and beget conjectures.

Hobhouse, with more of the commoner, made himself one of the passengers at once; but Byron held himself aloof, and sat on the rail, leaning on the mizzen shrouds, inhaling, as it were, poetical sympathy, from the gloomy Rock, then dark and stern in the twilight. There was in all about him that evening much waywardness; he spoke petulantly to Fletcher, his valet; and was evidently ill at ease with himself, and fretful towards others. I thought he would turn out an unsatisfactory shipmate; yet there was something redeeming in the tones of his voice, when, some time after he had indulged his sullen meditation, he again addressed Fletcher; so that, instead of finding him ill-natured, I was soon convinced he was only capricious.

Our passage to Sardinia was tardy, owing to calms; but, in other respects, pleasant. About the third day Byron relented from his rapt mood, as if he felt it was out of place, and became playful, and disposed to contribute his fair proportion to the general endeavour to wile away the tediousness of the dull voyage. Among other expedients for that purpose, we had recourse to shooting at bottles. Byron, I think, supplied the pistols, and was the best shot, but not very pre-eminently so. In the calms, the jolly-boat was several times lowered; and, on one of those occasions, his Lordship, with the captain, caught a turtle—I rather think two—we likewise hooked a shark, part of which was dressed for breakfast, and tasted, without relish; your shark is but a cannibal dainty.

As we approached the gulf, or bay, of Cagliari, in
Sardinia, a strong north wind came from the shore, and we had a whole disagreeable day of tacking, but next morning, it was Sunday, we found ourselves at anchor near the mole, where we landed.
Byron, with the captain, rode out some distance into the country, while I walked with Mr. Hobhouse about the town: we left our cards for the consul, and Mr. Hill, the ambassador, who invited us to dinner. In the evening we landed again, to avail ourselves of the invitation; and, on this occasion, Byron and his Pylades dressed themselves as aides-de-camp—a circumstance which, at the time, did not tend to improve my estimation of the solidity of the character of either. But such is the force of habit: it appeared a less exceptionable affectation in the young peer than in the commoner.

John Cam Hobhouse to John Galt

Had we parted at Cagliari, it is probable that I should have retained a much more favourable recollection of Mr. Hobhouse than of Lord Byron; for he was a cheerful companion, full of odd and droll stories, which he told extremely well; he was also good-humoured and intelligent—altogether an advantageous specimen of a well-educated English gentleman. Moreover, I was at the time afflicted with a nervous dejection, which the occasional exhilaration produced by his anecdotes and college tales often materially dissipated, though, for the most part, they were more after the manner and matter of Swift than of Addison.

Byron was, during the passage, in delicate health, and upon an abstemious regimen. He rarely tasted wine, nor more than half a glass, mingled with water, when he did. He ate little; no animal food, but only bread and vegetables. He reminded me of the ghoul that picked rice with a needle; for it was manifest, that he had not acquired his knowledge of the world by always dining so sparely. If my remembrance is not treacherous, he only spent one evening in the cabin with us—the evening before we came to anchor at Cagliari; for, when the lights were placed, he made him-
self a man forbid, took his station on the railing between the pegs on which the sheets are belayed and the shrouds, and there, for hours, sat in silence, enamoured, it may be, of the moon. All these peculiarities, with his caprices, and something inexplicable in the cast of his metaphysics, while they served to awaken interest, contributed little to conciliate esteem. He was often strangely rapt—it may have been from his genius; and, had its grandeur and darkness been then divulged, susceptible of explanation; but, at the time, it threw, as it were, around him the sackcloth of penitence. Sitting amid the shrouds and rattlins, in the tranquillity of the moonlight, churming an inarticulate melody, he seemed almost apparitional, suggesting dim reminiscences of him who shot the albatross. He was as a mystery in a winding-sheet, crowned with a halo.

The influence of the incomprehensible phantasma which hovered about Lord Byron has been more or less felt by all who ever approached him. That he sometimes came out of the cloud, and was familiar and earthly, is true; but his dwelling was amid the murk and the mist, and the home of his spirit in the abysm of the storm, and the hiding-places of guilt. He was, at the time of which I am speaking, scarcely two-and-twenty, and could claim no higher praise than having written a clever worldly-minded satire; and yet it was impossible, even then, to reflect on the bias of his mind, as it was revealed by the casualties of conversation, without experiencing a presentiment, that he was destined to execute some singular and ominous purpose. The description he has given of Manfred in his youth was of himself.

My spirit walk’d not with the souls of men,
Nor look’d upon the earth with human eyes;
The thirst of their ambition was not mine;
The aim of their existence was not mine.
My joys, my griefs, my passions, and my powers,
Made me a stranger. Though I wore the form,
I had no sympathy with breathing flesh.
My joy was in the wilderness—to breathe
The difficult air of the iced mountain’s top.
Where the birds dare not build, nor insect’s wing
Flit o’er the herbless granite; or to plunge
Into the torrent, and to roll along
On the swift whirl of the new-breaking wave
Of river, stream, or ocean, in their flow—
In these my early strength exulted; or
To follow through the night the moving moon,
The stars, and their development; or catch
The dazzling lightnings till my eyes grew dim;
Or to look listening on the scatter’d leaves,
While autumn winds were at their evening song;—
These were my pastimes—and to be alone.
For if the beings, of whom I was one—
Hating to be so—cross’d me in my path,
I felt myself degraded back to them,
And was all clay again.