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

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Placed at Harrow.—Progress there.—Love for Miss Chaworth.—His reading.—Oratorical powers.

In passing from the quiet academy of Dulwich Grove to the public school of Harrow, the change must have been great to any boy—to Byron it was punishment; and for the first year and a half he hated the place. In the end, however, he rose to be a leader in all the sports and mischiefs of his schoolfellows; but it never could be said that he was a popular boy, however much he was distinguished for spirit and bravery; for if he was not quarrelsome, he was sometimes vindictive. Still it could not have been to any inveterate degree; for undoubtedly, in his younger years, he was susceptible of warm impressions from gentle treatment, and his obstinacy and arbitrary humour were perhaps more the effects of unrepressed habit than of natural bias; they were the prickles which surrounded his genius in the bud.

At Harrow he acquired no distinction as a student; indeed, at no period was he remarkable for steady application. Under Dr. Glennie he had made but little progress; and it was chiefly in consequence of his backwardness that he was removed from his academy. When placed with Dr. Drury, it was with an intimation that he had a cleverness about him, but that his education had been neglected.


The early dislike which Byron felt towards the Earl of Carlisle is abundantly well known, and he had the magnanimity to acknowledge that it was in some respects unjust. But the antipathy was not all on one side; nor will it be easy to parallel the conduct of the Earl with that of any guardian. It is but justice, therefore, to Byron, to make the public aware that the dislike began on the part of Lord Carlisle, and originated in some distaste which he took to Mrs. Byron’s manners, and at the trouble she sometimes gave him on account of her son.

Dr. Drury, in his communication to Mr. Moore respecting the early history of Byron, mentions a singular circumstance as to this subject, which we record with the more pleasure, because Byron has been blamed, and has blamed himself, for his irreverence towards Lord Carlisle, while it appears that the fault lay with the Earl.

“After some continuance at Harrow,” says Dr. Drury, “and when the powers of his mind had begun to expand, the late Lord Carlisle, his relation, desired to see me in town. I waited on his Lordship. His object was to inform me of Lord Byron’s expectations of property when he came of age, which he represented as contracted, and to inquire respecting his abilities. On the former circumstance I made no remark; as to the latter, I replied, ‘He has talents, my Lord, which will add lustre to his rank.’ ‘Indeed,’ said his Lordship, with a degree of surprise that, according to my feelings, did not express in it all the satisfaction I expected.”

Lord Carlisle had, indeed, much of the Byron humour in him. His mother was a sister of the homicidal lord, and possessed some of the family peculiarity: she was endowed with great talent, and in her latter days she exhibited great singularity. She wrote beautiful verses and piquant epigrams; among
others, there is a
poetical effusion of her pen addressed to Mrs. Greville, on her Ode to Indifference, which, at the time, was much admired, and has been, with other poems of her Ladyship’s, published in Pearch’s collection. After moving, for a long time, as one of the most brilliant orbs in the sphere of fashion, she suddenly retired, and like her morose brother, shut herself up from the world. While she lived in this seclusion, she became an object of the sportive satire of the late Mr. Fox, who characterized her as
Carlisle, recluse in pride and rags.
I have heard a still coarser apostrophe by the same gentleman. It seems they had quarrelled, and on his leaving her in the drawing-room, she called after him, that he might go about his business, for she did not care two skips of a louse for him. On coming to the hall, finding paper and ink on the table, he wrote two lines in answer, and sent it up to her Ladyship, to the effect that she always spoke of what was running in her head.

Byron has borne testimony to the merits of his guardian, her son, as a tragic poet, by characterizing his publications as paper books. It is, however, said that they nevertheless showed some talent, and that The Father’s Revenge, one of the tragedies, was submitted to the judgment of Dr. Johnson, who did not despise it.

But to return to the progress of Byron at Harrow; it is certain that notwithstanding the affectionate solicitude of Dr. Drury to encourage him, he never became an eminent scholar; at least, we have his own testimony to that effect, in the fourth canto of Childe Harold; the lines, however, in which that testimony stands recorded, are among the weakest he ever penned.
May he who will his recollections rake
And quote in classic raptures, and awake
The hills with Latin echoes: I abhorr’d
Too much to conquer, for the poet’s sake,
The drill’d, dull lesson forced down word by word,
In my repugnant youth with pleasure to record.
And, as an apology for the defect, he makes the following remarks in a note subjoined:—

“I wish to express that we become tired of the task before we can comprehend the beauty; that we learn by rote before we can get by heart; that the freshness is worn away, and the future pleasure and advantage deadened and destroyed by the didactic anticipation, at an age when we can neither feel nor understand the power of compositions, which it requires an acquaintance with life, as well as Latin and Greek, to relish or to reason upon. For the same reason, we never can be aware of the fulness of some of the finest passages of Shakspeare (‘To be, or not to be,’ for instance), from the habit of having them hammered into us at eight years old, as an exercise not of mind but of memory; so that when we are old enough to enjoy them, the taste is gone, and the appetite palled. In some parts of the continent, young persons are taught from mere common authors, and do not read the best classics until their maturity. I certainly do not speak on this point from any pique or aversion towards the place of my education. I was not a slow or an idle boy; and I believe no one could be more attached to Harrow than I have always been, and with reason: a part of the time passed there was the happiest of my life; and my preceptor, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Drury, was the best and worthiest friend I ever possessed; whose warnings I have remembered but too well, though too late, when I have erred; and whose counsels I have but followed when I have done well and wisely. If ever this imperfect record of my
feelings towards him should reach his eyes, let it remind him of one who never thinks of him but with gratitude and veneration; of one who would more gladly boast of having been his pupil if, by more closely following his injunctions, he could reflect any honour upon his instructor.”

Lord Byron, however, is not singular in his opinion of the inutility of premature classical studies; and notwithstanding the able manner in which the late Dean Vincent defended public education, we have some notion that his reasoning upon this point will not be deemed conclusive. Milton, says Dr. Vincent, complained of the years that were wasted in teaching the dead languages. Cowley also complained that classical education taught words only and not things; and Addison deemed it an inexpiable error, that boys with genius or without were all to be bred poets indiscriminately. As far, then, as respects the education of a poet, we should think that the names of Milton, Cowley, Addison, and Byron would go well to settle the question; especially when it is recollected how little Shakspeare was indebted to the study of the classics, and that Burns knew nothing of them at all. I do not, however, adopt the opinion as correct; neither do I think that Dean Vincent took a right view of the subject; for, as discipline, the study of the classics may be highly useful, at the same time, the mere hammering of Greek and Latin into English cannot be very conducive to the refinement of taste or the exaltation of sentiment. Nor is there either common sense or correct logic in the following observations made on the passage and note, quoted by the anonymous author of Childe Harold’s Monitor.

“This doctrine of antipathies, contracted by the impatience of youth against the noblest authors of antiquity, from the circumstance of having been made the vehicle of early instruction, is a most dangerous doctrine indeed; since it strikes at the root, not only
of all pure taste, but of all praiseworthy industry. It would, if acted upon (as Harold by the mention of the Continental practice of using inferior writers in the business of tuition would seem to recommend), destroy the great source of the intellectual vigour of our countrymen.”

This is, undoubtedly, assuming too much; for those who have objected to the years “wasted” in teaching the dead languages, do not admit that the labour of acquiring them either improves the taste or adds to the vigour of the understanding; and, therefore, before the soundness of the opinion of Milton, of Cowley, of Addison, and of many other great men can be rejected, it falls on those who are of Dean Vincent’s opinion, and that of Childe Harold’s Monitor, to prove that the study of the learned languages is of so much primary importance as they claim for it.

But it appears that Byron’s mind, during the early period of his residence at Harrow, was occupied with another object than his studies, and which may partly account for his inattention to them. He fell in love with Mary Chaworth. “She was,” he is represented to have said, “several years older than myself, but at my age boys like something older than themselves, as they do younger later in life. Our estates adjoined, but owing to the unhappy circumstances of the feud (the affair of the fatal duel), our families, as is generally the case with neighbours, who happen to be near relations, were never on terms of more than common civility, scarcely those. She was the beau ideal of all that my youthful fancy could paint of the beautiful! and I have taken all my fables about the celestial nature of women from the perfection my imagination created in her. I say created, for I found her, like the rest of the sex, anything but angelic. I returned to Harrow, after my trip to Cheltenham, more deeply enamoured than ever, and passed the next holidays at Newstead. I now began to fancy
myself a man, and to make love in earnest. Our meetings were stolen ones, and my letters passed through the medium of a confidant. A gate leading from Mr. Chaworth’s grounds to those of my mother, was the place of our interviews, but the ardour was all on my side; I was serious, she was volatile. She liked me as a younger brother, and treated and laughed at me as a boy; she, however, gave me her picture, and that was something to make verses upon. Had I married Miss Chaworth, perhaps the whole tenor of my life would have been different; she jilted me, however, but her marriage proved anything but a happy one.” It is to this attachment that we are indebted for the beautiful poem of
The Dream, and the stanzas beginning
Oh, had my fate been joined to thine!

Although this love affair a little interfered with his Greek and Latin, his time was not passed without some attention to reading. Until he was eighteen years old, he had never seen a review; but his general information was so extensive on modern topics, as to induce a suspicion that he could only have collected so much information from reviews, as he was never seen reading, but always idle, and in mischief, or at play. He was, however, a devourer of books; he read eating, read in bed, read when no one else read, and had perused all sorts of books from the time he first could spell, but had never read a review, and knew not what the name implied.

It should be here noticed, that while he was at Harrow, his qualities were rather oratorical than poetical; and if an opinion had then been formed of the likely result of his character, the prognostication would have led to the expectation of an orator. Altogether, his conduct at Harrow indicated a clever, but not an extraordinary boy. He formed a few
friendships there, in which his attachment appears to have been, in some instances, remarkable. The late
Duke of Dorset was his fag, and he was not considered a very hard taskmaster. He certainly did not carry with him from Harrow any anticipation of that splendid career he was destined to run as a poet.