LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron
On religion and religious epics

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IN THE YEARS 1821 AND 1822.





Review in The New Times

It is difficult to judge, from the contradictory nature of his writings, what the religious opinions of Lord Byron really were. Perhaps the conversations I held with him may throw some light upon a subject that cannot fail to excite curiosity. On the whole, I am inclined to think that if he were occasionally sceptical, and thought it, as he says,
——“A pleasant voyage, perhaps, to float,
Like Pyrrho, on a sea of speculation,”*

* Don Juan, Canto IX. Stanza 18.

yet his wavering never amounted to a disbelief in the divine Founder of Christianity.

“I always took great delight,” observed he, “in the English Cathedral service. It cannot fail to inspire every man, who feels at all, with devotion. Notwithstanding which, Christianity is not the best source of inspiration for a poet. No poet should be tied down to a direct profession of faith. Metaphysics open a vast field; Nature, and anti-Mosaical speculations on the origin of the world, a wide range, and sources of poetry that are shut out by Christianity.”

I advanced Tasso and Milton.

Tasso and Milton,” replied he, “wrote on Christian subjects, it is true; but how did they treat them? The ‘Jerusalem Delivered’ deals little in Christian doctrines, and the ‘Paradise Lost’ makes use of the heathen mythology, which is surely scarcely allowable. Milton discarded papacy, and adopted no creed in its room; he never attended divine worship.


“His great epics, that nobody reads, prove nothing. He took his text from the Old and New Testaments. He shocks the severe apprehensions of the Catholics, as he did those of the Divines of his day, by too great a familiarity with Heaven, and the introduction of the Divinity himself; and, more than all, by making the Devil his hero, and deifying the daemons.

“He certainly excites compassion for Satan, and endeavours to make him out an injured personage—he gives him human passions too, makes him pity Adam and Eve, and justify himself much as Prometheus does. Yet Milton was never blamed for all this. I should be very curious to know what his real belief was.* The ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Regained’ do not satisfy me on this point. One might as well say that Moore is a fire-worshipper, or a follower of Mokanna, because he chose those subjects from the East; or that I am a Cainist.”

Another time he said:

* A religious work of Milton’s has since been discovered, and will throw light on this interesting subject.


“One mode of worship yields to another; no religion has lasted more than two thousand years. Out of the eight hundred millions that the globe contains, only two hundred millions are Christians. Query,—What is to become of the six hundred millions that do not believe, and of those incalculable millions that lived before Christ?

“People at home are mad about Missionary Societies, and missions to the East. I have been applied to, to subscribe, several times since, and once before I left England. The Catholic priests have been labouring hard for nearly a century; but what have they done? Out of eighty millions of Hindoos, how many proselytes have been made? Sir J. Malcolm said at Murray’s before several persons, that the Padres, as he called them, had only made six converts at Bombay during his time, and that even this black little flock forsook their shepherds when the rum was out. Their faith evaporated with the fumes of the arrack. Besides, the Hindoos believe that they have had nine incarnations: the Missionaries preach, that a people whom the Indians only know to despise, have had one. It is nine to one against them, by their own shewing.


“Another doctrine can never be in repute among the Solomons of the East. It cannot be easy to persuade men who have had as many wives as they pleased, to be content with one; besides, a woman is old at twenty in that country. What are men to do? They are not all St. Anthonies.—I will tell you a story. A certain Signior Antonio of my acquaintance married a very little round fat wife, very fond of waltzing, who went by the name of the Tentazione di Sant’ Antonio. There is a picture, a celebrated one, in which a little woman not unresembling my description plays the principal role, and is most troublesome to the Saint, most trying to his virtue. Very few of the modern saints will have his forbearance, though they may imitate him in his martyrdom.

“I have been reading,” said he one day, Tacitus’ account of the siege of Jerusalem, under Titus. What a sovereign contempt the Romans had for the Jews! Their country seems to have been little better than themselves.

Priestley denied the original sin, and that any would be damned. Wesley, the object of Southey’s panegyric, preached the doctrines of election and faith, and, like all the sectarians, does not want texts to prove both.


“The best Christians can never be satisfied of their own salvation. Dr. Johnson died like a coward, and Cowper was near shooting himself; Hume went off the stage like a brave man, and Voltaire’s last moments do not seem to have been clouded by any fears of what was to come. A man may study any thing till he believes in it. Creech died a Lucretian, Burckhardt and Browne were Mohammedans. Sale, the translator of the Koran, was suspected of being an Islamite, but a very different one from you, Shiloh*, (as he sometimes used to call Shelley.)

“You are a Protestant—you protest against all religions. There is T—— will traduce Dante till he becomes a Dantist. I am called a Manichaean: I may rather be called an Any-chaean, or an Anything-arian. How do you like my sect? The sect of Anything-arians sounds well, does it not?”

Calling on him the next day, we found him, as was sometimes the case, silent, dull, and sombre. At length he said:—

* Alluding to the ‘Revolt of Islam.’


“Here is a little book somebody has sent me about Christianity, that has made me very uncomfortable: the reasoning seems to me very strong, the proofs are very staggering. I don’t think you can answer it, Shelley; at least I am sure I can’t, and, what is more, I don’t wish it.”

Speaking of Gibbon, he said:—

L—— B—— thought the question set at rest in the ‘History of the Decline and Fall,’ but I am not so easily convinced. It is not a matter of volition to un-believe. Who likes to own that he has been a fool all his life,—to unlearn all that he has been taught in his youth? or can think that some of the best men that ever lived have been fools? I have often wished I had been born a Catholic. That purgatory of theirs is a comfortable doctrine; I wonder the reformers gave it up, or did not substitute something as consolatory in its room. It is an improvement on the transmigration, Shelley, which all your wiseacre philosophers taught.

“You believe in Plato’s three principles;—why not in the Trinity? One is not more mystical than the other.
I don’t know why I am considered an enemy to religion, and an unbeliever. I disowned the other day that I was of
Shelley’s school in metaphysics, though I admired his poetry; not but what he has changed his mode of thinking very much since he wrote the Notes to ‘Queen Mab,’ which I was accused of having a hand in. I know, however, that I am considered an infidel. My wife and sister, when they joined parties, sent me prayer-books. There was a Mr. Mulock, who went about the Continent preaching orthodoxy in politics and religion, a writer of bad sonnets, and a lecturer in worse prose,—he tried to convert me to some new sect of Christianity. He was a great anti-materialist, and abused Locke.”