LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron
Matthew Gregory Lewis

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IN THE YEARS 1821 AND 1822.





Talking of romances, he said:

“‘The Monk’ is perhaps one of the best in any language, not excepting the German. It only wanted one thing, as I told Lewis, to have rendered it perfect. He should have made the dæmon really in love with Ambrosio: this would have given it a human interest. ‘The Monk’ was written when Lewis was only twenty, and he seems to have exhausted all his genius on it. Perhaps at that age he was in earnest in his belief of magic wonders. That is the secret of Walter Scott’s inspiration: he retains and encourages all the superstitions of his youth. Lewis caught his passion for the marvellous, and it amounted to a mania with him, in Germany; but the groundwork of ‘The Monk,’ is neither original nor German: it is derived from the tale of ‘Santon Barsisa.’ The episode of ‘The Bleeding Nun,’ which was turned into a melo-drama, is from the German.


“There were two stories which he almost believed by telling. One happened to himself whilst he was residing at Manheim. Every night, at the same hour, he heard or thought he heard in his room, when he was lying in bed, a crackling noise like that produced by parchment, or thick paper. This circumstance caused enquiry, when it was told him that the sounds were attributable to the following cause:—The house in which he lived had belonged to a widow, who had an only son. In order to prevent his marrying a poor but amiable girl, to whom he was attached, he was sent to sea. Years passed, and the mother heard no tidings of him, nor the ship in which he had sailed. It was supposed that the vessel had been wrecked, and that all on board had perished. The reproaches of the girl, the upbraidings of her own conscience, and the loss of her child, crazed the old lady’s mind, and her only pursuit became to turn over the Gazettes for news. Hope at length left her: she did not live long,—and continued her old occupation after death.

“The other story that I alluded to before, was the original of his ‘Alonzo and Imogene,’ which has had such a host of imitators. Two Florentine lovers, who had been
attached to each other almost from childhood, made a vow of eternal fidelity. Mina was the name of the lady—her husband’s I forget, but it is not material. They parted. He had been for some time absent with his regiment, when, as his disconsolate lady was sitting alone in her chamber, she distinctly heard the well-known sound of his footsteps, and starting up beheld, not her husband, but his spectre, with a deep ghastly wound across his forehead, entering. She swooned with horror: when she recovered, the ghost told her that in future his visits should be announced by a passing-bell, and these words, distinctly whispered, ‘Mina, I am here!’ Their interviews now became frequent, till the woman fancied herself as much in love with the ghost as she had been with the man. But it was soon to prove otherwise. One fatal night she went to a ball:—what business had she there? She danced too; and, what was worse, her partner was a young Florentine, so much the counter-part of her lover, that she became estranged from his ghost. Whilst the young gallant conducted her in the waltz, and her ear drank in the music of his voice and words, a passing-bell tolled! She had been accustomed to the sound till it hardly excited her attention, and now lost in the attractions of her fascinating partner, she heard
but regarded it not. A second peal!—she listened not to its warnings. A third time the bell, with its deep and iron tongue, startled the assembled company, and silenced the music! Mina then turned her eyes from her partner, and saw reflected in the mirror, a form, a shadow, a spectre: it was her husband! He was standing between her and the young Florentine, and whispered in a solemn and melancholy tone the accustomed accents, ‘Mina, I am here!’—She instantly fell dead.

Lewis was not a very successful writer. His ‘Monk’ was abused furiously by Matthias, in his ‘Pursuits of Literature,’ and he was forced to suppress it. ‘Abellino’ he merely translated. ‘Pizarro’ was a sore subject with him, and no wonder that he winced at the name. Sheridan, who was not very scrupulous about applying to himself literary property at least, manufactured his play without so much as an acknowledgment, pecuniary or otherwise, from Lewis’s ideas; and bad as ‘Pizarro’ is, I know (from having been on the Drury-Lane Committee, and knowing, consequently, the comparative profits of plays,) that it brought in more money than any other play has ever done, or perhaps ever will do.


“But to return to Lewis. He was even worse treated about ‘The Castle Spectre,’ which had also an immense run, a prodigious success. Sheridan never gave him any of its profits either. One day Lewis being in company with him, said,—‘Sheridan, I will make you a large bet.’ Sheridan, who was always ready to make a wager, (however he might find it inconvenient to pay it if lost,) asked eagerly what bet? ‘All the profits of my Castle Spectre,’ replied Lewis. ‘I will tell you what,’ said Sheridan, (who never found his match at repartee,) ‘I will make you a very small one,—what it is worth.’”

I asked him if he had known Sheridan?

“Yes,” said he. “Sheridan was an extraordinary compound of contradictions, and Moore will be much puzzled in reconciling them for the Life he is writing. The upper part of Sheridan’s face was that of a God—a forehead most expansive, an eye of peculiar brilliancy and fire; but below he shewed the satyr.

Lewis was a pleasant companion, and would always have remained a boy in spirits and manners—(unlike me!) He was fond of the society of younger men than him-
self. I myself never knew a man, except
Shelley, who was companionable till thirty. I remember Mrs. Pope once asking who was Lewis’s male-love this season! He possessed a very lively imagination, and a great turn for narrative, and had a world of ghost-stories, which he had better have confined himself to telling. His poetry is now almost forgotten: it will be the same with that of all but two or three poets of the day.

Lewis had been, or thought he had been, unkind to a brother whom he lost young; and when any thing disagreeable was about to happen to him, the vision of his brother appeared: he came as a sort of monitor.

Lewis was with me for a considerable period at Geneva; and we went to Coppet several times together; but Lewis was there oftener than I.

Madame de Staël and he used to have violent arguments about the Slave Trade,—which he advocated strongly, for most of his property was in negroes and plantations. Not being satisfied with three thousand
a-year, he wanted to make it five; and would go to the West Indies; but he died on the passage of sea-sickness, and obstinacy in taking an emetic.”