LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron
On the drama; on superstition

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IN THE YEARS 1821 AND 1822.





“I became a member of Drury-lane Committee, at the request of my friend Douglas Kinnaird, who made over to me a share of 500l. for the purpose of qualifying me to vote. One need have other qualifications besides money for that office. I found the employment not over pleasant, and not a little dangerous, what with Irish authors and pretty poetesses. Five hundred plays were offered to the Theatre during the year I was Literary Manager. You may conceive that it was no small
task to read all this trash, and to satisfy the bards that it was so.

William Jerdan?, in Literary Gazette

“When I first entered upon theatrical affairs, I had some idea of writing for the house myself, but soon became a convert to Pope’s opinion on that subject. Who would condescend to the drudgery of the stage, and enslave himself to the humours, the caprices, the taste or tastelessness, of the age? Besides, one must write for particular actors, have them continually in one’s eye, sacrifice character to the personating of it, cringe to some favourite of the public, neither give him too many nor two few lines to spout, think how he would mouth such and such a sentence, look such and such a passion, strut such and such a scene. Who, I say, would submit to all this? Shakspeare had many advantages: he was an actor by profession, and knew all the tricks of the trade. Yet he had but little fame in his day: see what Jonson and his contemporaries said of him. Besides, how few of what are called Shakspeare’s plays are exclusively so!—and how, at this distance of time, and lost as so many works of that period are, can we separate what really is from what is not his own?


“The players retrenched, transposed, and even altered the text, to suit the audience or please themselves. Who knows how much rust they rubbed off? I am sure there is rust and base metal to spare left in the old plays. When Leigh Hunt comes we shall have battles enough about those old ruffiani, the old dramatists, with their tiresome conceits, their jingling rhymes, and endless play upon words. It is but lately that people have been satisfied that Shakspeare was not a god, nor stood alone in the age in which he lived; and yet how few of the plays, even of that boasted time, have survived, and fewer still are now acted! Let us count them. Only one of Massinger’s (New Way to pay Old Debts), one of Ford’s,* one of Ben Jonson’s,* and half-a-dozen of Shakspeare’s; and of these last, ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ and ‘The Tempest’ have been turned into operas. You cannot call that having a theatre. Now that Kemble has left the stage, who will endure Coriolanus? Lady Macbeth died with Mrs. Siddons, and Polonius will with Munden. Shakspeare’s Comedies are quite out of date; many of them are insufferable to read, much more to see. They are gross food, only fit for an English or German palate;

* Of which I have forgot the name he mentioned.

they are indigestible to the French and Italians, the politest people in the world. One can hardly find ten lines together without some gross violation of taste or decency. What do you think of Bottom in the ‘
Midsummer Night’s Dream?’ or of Troilus’ and Cressida’s passion?”

Here I could not help interrupting him by saying, “You have named the two plays that, with all their faults, contain, perhaps, some of the finest poetry.”

“Yes,” said he, “in ‘Troilus and Cressida:’

“———‘Prophet may you be!
If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth.
When Time is old, and hath forgot itself,
When water-drops have worn the stones of Troy,
And blind Oblivion swallow’d cities up,
And mighty states characterless are grated
To dusty nothing,—yet let memory
From false to false, among false maids in love,
Upbraid my falsehood! when they’ve said,—As false
As air, as water, wind, or sandy earth,
As fox to lamb, as wolf to heifers calf,
Pard to the hind, or stepdame to her son;
“Yea, let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood—
As false as Cressid!’”

These lines he pronounced with great emphasis and effect, and continued:

“But what has poetry to do with a play, or in a play? There is not one passage in Alfieri strictly poetical; hardly one in Racine.”

Here he handed me a prospectus of a new translation of Shakspeare into French prose, and read part of the first scene in ‘The Tempest,’ laughing inwardly, as he was used to do; and afterwards produced a passage from Chateaubriand, contending that we have no theatre.

“The French very properly ridicule our bringing in ‘enfant au premier acte, barbon au dernier.’ I was always a friend to the unities, and believe that subjects are not wanting which may be treated in strict conformity to their rules. No one can be absurd enough to contend, that the preservation of the unities is a defect,—at least a fault. Look at Alfieri’s plays, and tell me what is wanting in them. Does he ever deviate from the
rules prescribed by the ancients, from the classical simplicity of the old models? It is very difficult, almost impossible, to write any thing to please a modern audience. I was instrumental in getting up ‘
Bertram,’ and it was said that I wrote part of it myself. That was not the case. I knew Maturin to be a needy man, and interested myself in his success: but its life was very feeble and ricketty. I once thought of getting Joanna Baillie’sDe Montfort’ revived; but the winding-up was faulty. She was herself aware of this, and wrote the last act over again; and yet, after all, it failed. She must have been dreadfully annoyed, even more than Lady was. When it was bringing out, I was applied to, to write a prologue; but as the request did not come from Kean, who was to speak it, I declined. There are fine things in all the Plays on the Passions: an idea in ‘De Montfort’ struck me particularly; one of the characters said that he knew the footsteps of another.*

* “De Montfort.—’Tis Rezenvelt: I heard his well-known foot!
From the first staircase, mounting step by step.
Freberg.—How quick an ear thou hast for distant sound!
I heard him not.”
Act II. Scene 2.

“There are four words in Alfieri that speak volumes. They are in ‘Don Carlos.’ The King and his Minister are secreted during an interview of the Infant with the Queen Consort: the following dialogue passes, which ends the scene. ‘Vedesti? Vedi. Udisti? Udi.’ All the dramatic beauty would be lost in translation—the nominative cases would kill it. Nothing provokes me so much as the squeamishness that excludes the exhibition of many such subjects from the stage;—a squeamishness, the produce, as I firmly believe, of a lower tone of the moral sense, and foreign to the majestic and confident virtue of the golden age of our country. All is now cant—methodistical cant. Shame flies from the heart, and takes refuge in the lips; or, our senses and nerves are much more refined than those of our neighbours.

“We should not endure the Oedipus story, nor ‘Phèdre.’ ‘Myrrha,’ the best worked-up, perhaps, of all Alfieri’s tragedies, and a favourite in Italy, would not be tolerated. ‘The Mysterious Mother’ has never been acted, nor Massinger’s ‘Brother and Sister.’ Webster’sDuchess of Malfy’ would be too harrowing: her madness, the dungeon-scene, and her grim talk with her keepers and coffin-bearers, could not be borne: nor Lillo’s ‘Fatal
Marriage.’ The ‘Cenci’ is equally horrible, though perhaps the best tragedy modern times have produced. It is a play,—not a poem, like ‘Remorse’ and ‘Fazio;’ and the best proof of its merit is, that people are continually quoting it. What may not be expected from such a beginning?

“The Germans are colder and more phlegmatic than we are, and bear even to see ‘Werner.’

“To write any thing to please, at the present day, is the despair of authors.”

It was easy to be perceived that during this tirade upon the stage, and against Shakspeare, he was smarting under the ill-reception ‘Marino Faliero’ had met with, and indignant at the critics, who had denied him the dramatic faculty. This, however, was not the only occasion of his abusing the old dramatists.

Some days after I revived the subject of the drama, and led him into speaking of his own plays.

“I have just got a letter,” said he, “from Murray. What
do you think he has enclosed me? A long dull extract from that long dull Latin epic of
Petrarch’s, Africa, which he has the modesty to ask me to translate for Ugo Foscolo, who is writing some Memoirs of Petrarch, and has got Moore, Lady Dacre, &c. to contribute to. What am I to do with the death of Mago? I wish to God, Medwin, you would take it home with you, and translate it; and I will send it to Murray. We will say nothing about its being yours, or mine; and it will be curious to hear Foscolo’s opinion upon it. Depend upon it, it will not be an unfavourable one.”

In the course of the day I turned it into couplets, (and lame enough they were,) which he forwarded by the next courier to England.

Almost by return of post arrived a furiously complimentary epistle in acknowledgment, which made us laugh very heartily.

“There are three good lines,*” said Lord Byron, “in Mago’s speech, which may be thus translated:

* Ugo Foscolo afterwards took them for his motto.

“‘Yet, thing of dust!
Man strives to climb the earth in his ambition,
Till death, the monitor that flatters not,
Points to the grave where all his hopes are laid.’”

“What do you think of Ada?” said he, looking earnestly at his daughter’s miniature, that hung by the side of his writing-table. “They tell me she is like me—but she has her mother’s eyes.

“It is very odd that my mother was an only child;—I am an only child; my wife is an only child; and Ada is an only child. It is a singular coincidence; that is the least that can be said of it. I can’t help thinking it was destined to be so; and perhaps it is best. I was once anxious for a son; but, after our separation, was glad to have had a daughter; for it would have distressed me too much to have taken him away from Lady Byron, and I could not have trusted her with a son’s education. I have no idea of boys being brought up by mothers. I suffered too much from that myself: and then, wandering about the world as I do, I could not take proper care of a child; otherwise I should not have left Allegra, poor little
thing!* at Ravenna. She has been a great resource to me, though I am not so fond of her as of Ada; and yet I mean to make their fortunes equal—there will be enough for them both. I have desired in my will that Allegra shall not marry an Englishman. The Irish and Scotch make better husbands than we do. You will think it was an odd fancy, but I was not in the best of humours with my countrymen at that moment—you know the reason. I am told that Ada is a little termagant; I hope not. I shall write to my sister to know if this is the case: perhaps I am wrong in letting Lady Byron have entirely her own way in her education. I hear that my name is not mentioned in her presence; that a green curtain is always kept over my portrait, as over something forbidden; and that she is not to know that she has a father, till she comes of age. Of course she will be taught to hate me; she will be brought up to it. Lady Byron is conscious of all this, and is afraid that I shall some
day carry off her daughter by stealth or force. I might claim her of the
Chancellor, without having recourse to either one or the other. But I had rather be unhappy myself, than make her mother so; probably I shall never see her again.”

Here he opened his writing-desk, and shewed me some hair, which he told me was his child’s.

During our drive and ride this evening, he declined our usual amusement of pistol-firing, without assigning a cause. He hardly spoke a word during the first half-hour, and it was evident that something weighed heavily on his mind. There was a sacredness in his melancholy that I dared not interrupt. At length he said:

“This is Ada’s birthday, and might have been the happiest day of my life: as it is ——!” He stopped, seemingly ashamed of having betrayed his feelings. He tried in vain to rally his spirits by turning the conversation; but he created a laugh in which he could not join, and soon relapsed into his former reverie. It lasted till we came within a mile of the Argive gate. There our silence was all at once interrupted by shrieks that seemed to proceed
from a cottage by the side of the road. We pulled up our horses, to enquire of a contadino standing at the little garden-wicket. He told us that a widow had just lost her only child, and that the sounds proceeded from the wailings of some women over the corpse. Lord Byron was much affected; and his superstition, acted upon by a sadness that seemed to be presentiment, led him to augur some disaster.

“I shall not be happy,” said he, “till I hear that my daughter is well. I have a great horror of anniversaries: people only laugh at, who have never kept a register of them. I always write to my sister on Ada’s birthday. I did so last year; and, what was very remarkable, my letter reached her on my wedding-day, and her answer reached me at Ravenna on my birthday! Several extraordinary things have happened to me on my birthday; so they did to Napoleon; and a more wonderful circumstance still occurred to Marie Antoinette.”

The next morning’s courier brought him a letter from England. He gave it me as I entered, and said:

“I was convinced something very unpleasant hung over
me last night: I expected to hear that somebody I knew was dead;—so it turns out! Poor
Polidori is gone! When he was my physician, he was always talking of Prussic acid, oil of amber, blowing into veins, suffocating by charcoal, and compounding poisons; but for a different purpose to what the Pontic Monarch did, for he has prescribed a dose for himself that would have killed fifty Miltiades’,—a dose whose effect, Murray says, was so instantaneous that he went off without a spasm or struggle. It seems that disappointment was the cause of this rash act. He had entertained too sanguine hopes of literary fame, owing to the success of his ‘Vampyre,’ which, in consequence of its being attributed to me, was got up as a melo-drame at Paris. The foundation of the story was mine; but I was forced to disown the publication, lest the world should suppose that I had vanity enough, or was egotist enough, to write in that ridiculous manner about myself.* Notwithstanding which, the French editions still persevere in including it with my works. My real ‘Vampyre’ I gave at the end of ‘Ma-

* He alluded to the Preface and the Postscript, containing accounts of his residence at Geneva and in the Isle of Mitylene.

zeppa,’ something in the same way that I told it one night at Diodati, when
Monk Lewis, and Shelley and his wife, were present. The latter sketched on that occasion the outline of her Pygmalion story, ‘The Modern Prometheus,’ the making of a man (which a lady who had read it afterwards asked Sir Humphrey Davy, to his great astonishment, if he could do, and was told a story something like Alonzo and Imogene); and Shelley himself, or ‘The Snake,’ (as he used sometimes to call him,) conjured up some frightful woman of an acquaintance of his at home, a kind of Medusa, who was suspected of having eyes in her breasts.

“Perhaps Polidori had strictly no right to appropriate my story to himself; but it was hardly worth it: and when my letter, disclaiming the narrative part, was written, I dismissed the matter from my memory. It was Polidori’s own fault that we did not agree. I was sorry when we parted, for I soon get attached to people; and was more sorry still for the scrape he afterwards got into at Milan. He quarrelled with one of the guards at the Scala, and was ordered to leave the Lombard States twenty-four hours after; which put an end to all his Continental schemes, that I had forwarded by re-
commending him to Lord ——; and it is difficult for a young physician to get into practice at home, however clever, particularly a foreigner, or one with a foreigner’s name. From that time, instead of making out prescriptions, he took to writing romances; a very unprofitable and fatal exchange, as it turned out.

“I told you I was not oppressed in spirits last night without a reason. Who can help being superstitious? Scott believes in second-sight. Rousseau tried whether he was to be d—d or not, by aiming at a tree with a stone: I forget whether he hit or missed. Goëthe trusted to the chance of a knife’s striking the water, to determine whether he was to prosper in some undertaking. The Italians think the dropping of oil very unlucky. Pietro (Count Gamba) dropped some the night before his exile, and that of his family, from Ravenna. Have you ever had your fortune told? Mrs. Williams told mine. She predicted that twenty-seven and thirty-seven were to be dangerous ages in my life.* One has come true.”

* He was married in his twenty-seventh, and died in his thirty-seventh year.


“Yes,” added I, “and did she not prophecy that you were to die a monk and a miser? I have been told so.”

“I don’t think these two last very likely; but it was part of her prediction. But there are lucky and unlucky days, as well as years and numbers too. Lord —— was dining at a party, where —— observed that they were thirteen. ‘Why don’t you make us twelve?’ was the reply; and an impudent one it was—but he could say those things. You would not visit on a Friday, would you? You know you are to introduce me to Mrs. ——. It must not be to-morrow, for it is a Friday.”