Lord Byron : Poetic Genius – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers by John Lord
Rousseau : Socialism and Education
Sir Walter Scott : The Modern Novel
Lord Byron : Poetic Genius
Thomas Carlyle : Criticism and Biography
Lord Macaulay : Artistic Historical Writing
Shakspeare or The Poet
John Milton : Poet and Patriot
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe : Germany’s Greatest Writer
Alfred Lord Tennyson : The Spirit Of Modern Poetry
John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers
Difficulty of depicting Byron
Descent; birth; lameness
Schooling; early reading habits
Temperament and character
First publication of poems
Savage criticism by Edinburgh Review
“English Bards and Scotch Reviewers”
Byron becomes a peer
Loneliness and melancholy; determines to travel
Malta; Greece; Turkey
Profanity of language in Byron’s time
Instant fame and popularity
Consideration of the poem
Marries Miss Milbanke; separation
Genius and marriage
“The Corsair;” “Bride of Abydos”
Evil reputation; loss of public favor
Byron leaves England forever
Switzerland; the Shelleys; new poems
Degrading life in Venice
Wonderful labors amid dissipation
The Countess Guiccioli
Two sides to Byron’s character
His power and fertility
Inexcusable immorality; “Don Juan”
“Manfred” and “Cain” not irreligious but dramatic
Byron not atheistical but morbid
Many noble traits and actions
Generosity and fidelity in friendship
Eulogies by Scott and Moore
Byron’s interest in the Greek Revolution
Devotes himself to that cause
Raises £10,000 and embarks for Greece
Collects troops in his own pay
His latest verses
Illness from vexation and exposure
Death and burial
Lord Byron : Poetic Genius
It is extremely difficult to depict Lord Byron, and even presumptuous to attempt it. This is not only because he is a familiar subject, the triumphs and sorrows of whose career have been often portrayed, but also because he presents so many contradictions in his life and character,–lofty yet degraded, earnest yet frivolous, an impersonation of noble deeds and sentiments, and also of almost every frailty which Christianity and humanity alike condemn. No great man has been more extravagantly admired, and none more bitterly assailed; but generally he is regarded as a fallen star,–a man with splendid gifts which he wasted, for whom pity is the predominant sentiment in broad and generous minds. With all his faults, the English-speaking people are proud of him as one of the greatest lights in our literature; and in view of the brilliancy of his literary career his own nation in particular does not like to have his defects and vices dwelt upon. It blushes and condones. It would fain blot out his life and much of his poetry if, without them, it could preserve the best and grandest of his writings,–that ill-disguised autobiography which goes by the name of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” in which he soars to loftier flights than any English poet from Milton to his own time. Like Shakespeare, like Dryden, like Pope, like Burns, he was a born poet; while most of the other poets, however eminent and excellent, were simply made,–made by study and labor on a basis of talent, rather than exalted by native genius as he was, speaking out what he could not help, and revelling in the richness of unconscious gifts, whether for good or evil.
Byron was a man with qualities so generous, yet so wild, that Lamartine was in doubt whether to call him angel or devil. But, whether angel or devil, his life is the saddest and most interesting among all the men of letters in the nineteenth century.
Of course, most of our material comes from his Life and Letters, as edited by his friend and brother-poet, Thomas Moore. This biographer, I think, has been unwisely candid in the delineation of Byron’s character, making revelations that would better have remained in doubt, and on which friendship at least should have prompted him to a discreet silence.
Lord Byron was descended from the Byrons of Normandy who accompanied William the Conqueror in his invasion of England, of which illustrious lineage the poet was prouder than of his poetry. In the reign of Henry VIII., on the dissolution of the monasteries, a Byron came into possession of the old mediaeval abbey of Newstead. In the reign of James I., Sir John Byron was made a knight of the Order of the Bath. In 1784 the father of the poet, a dissipated captain of the Guards, being in embarrassed circumstances, married a rich Scotch heiress of the name of Gordon. Handsome and reckless, “Mad Jack Byron” speedily spent his wife’s fortune; and when he died, his widow, being reduced to a pittance of £150 a year, retired to Scotland to live, with her infant son who had been born in London. She was plain Mrs. Byron, widow of a “younger son,” with but little expectation of future rank. She was a woman of caprices and eccentricities, and not at all fitted to superintend the education of her wayward boy.
Hence the childhood and youth of Byron were sad and unfortunate. His temper was violent and passionate. A malformation of his foot made him peculiarly sensitive, and the unwise treatment of his mother, fond and harsh by turns, destroyed maternal authority. At five years of age, he was sent to a day-school in Aberdeen, where he made but slim attainments. Though excitable and ill-disciplined, he is said to have been affectionate and generous, and perfectly fearless. A fit of sickness rendered his removal from this school necessary, and he was sent to a summer resort among the Highlands. His early impressions were therefore favorable to the development of the imagination, coming as they did from mountains and valleys, rivulets and lakes, near the sources of the Dee. At the age of eight, he wrote verses and fell in love, like Dante at the age of nine.
On the death of the grandson of the old Lord Byron in 1794, this unpromising youth became the heir-apparent to the barony. Nor did he have to wait long; for soon after, his grand-uncle died, and the young Byron, whose mother was struggling with poverty, became a ward of Chancery; and the Earl of Carlisle–one of the richest and most powerful noblemen of the realm, a nephew by marriage of the deceased peer–was appointed his guardian. This cold, formal, and politic nobleman took but little interest in his ward, leaving him to the mismanagement of his mother, who, with her boy, at the age of ten, now removed to Newstead, the seat of his ancestors,–the government, meanwhile, for some reason which is not explained, having conferred on her a pension of £300 a year.
One of the first things that Mrs. Byron did on her removal to Newstead was to intrust her son to the care of a quack in Nottingham, in order to cure him of his lameness. As the doctor was not successful, the boy was removed to London with the double purpose of effecting a cure under an eminent surgeon, and of educating him according to his rank; for his education thus far had been sadly neglected, although it would appear that he was an omnivorous reader in a desultory kind of way. The lameness was never cured, and through life was a subject of bitter sensitiveness on his part. Dr. Glennie of Dulwich, to whose instruction he was now confided, found him hard to manage, because of his own undisciplined nature and the perpetual interference of his mother. His progress was so slow in Latin and Greek that at the end of two years, in 1801, he was removed to Harrow,–one of the great public schools of England, of which Dr. Drury was head-master. For a year or two, owing to that constitutional shyness which is so often mistaken for pride, young Byron made but few friendships, although he had for school-fellows many who were afterwards distinguished, including Sir Robert Peel. Before he left this school for Cambridge, however, he had made many friends whom he never forgot, being of a very generous and loving disposition. I think that those years at Harrow were the happiest he ever knew, for he was under a strict discipline, and was too young to indulge in those dissipations which were the bane of his subsequent life. But he was not distinguished as a scholar, in the ordinary sense, although in his school-boy days he wrote some poetry remarkable for his years, and read a great many books. He read in bed, read when no one else read, read while eating, read all sorts of books, and was capable of great sudden exertions, but not of continuous drudgeries, which he always abhorred. In the year 1803, when a youth of fifteen, he formed a strong attachment for a Miss Chaworth, two years his senior, who, looking upon him as a mere schoolboy, treated him cavalierly, and made some slighting allusion to “that lame boy.” This treatment both saddened and embittered him. When he left school for college he had the reputation of being an idle and a wilful boy, with a very imperfect knowledge of Latin and Greek.
Young Byron entered Trinity College in 1805, poorly prepared, and was never distinguished there for those attainments which win the respect of tutors and professors. He wasted his time, and gave himself up to pleasures,–riding, boating, bathing, and social hilarities,–yet reading more than anybody imagined, and writing poetry, for which he had an extraordinary facility, yet not contending for college prizes. His intimate friends were few, but to his chosen circle he was faithful and affectionate. No one at this time would have predicted his future eminence. A more unpromising youth did not exist within the walls of his college. He had a most unfortunate temper, which would have made him unhappy under any circumstances in which he could be placed. This temper, which he inherited from his mother–passionate, fitful, defiant, restless, wayward, melancholy–inclined him naturally to solitude, and often isolated him even from his friends and companions. He brooded upon supposed wrongs, and created in his soul strong likes and dislikes. What is worse, he took no pains to control this temperament; and at last it mastered him, drove him into every kind of folly and rashness, and made him appear worse than he really was.
This inborn tendency to moodiness, pride, and recklessness should be considered in our estimate of Byron, and should modify any harshness of judgment in regard to his character, which, in some other respects, was interesting and noble. He was not at all envious, but frank, warm-hearted, and true to those he loved, who were, however, very few. If he had learned self-control, and had not been spoiled by his mother, his career might have been far different from what it was, and would have sustained the admiration which his brilliant genius called out from both high and low.
As it was, Byron left college with dangerous habits, with no reputation for scholarship, with but few friends, and an uncertain future. His bright and witty bursts of poetry, wonderful as the youthful effusions of Dryden and Pope, had made him known to a small circle, but had not brought fame, for which his soul passionately thirsted from first to last. For a nobleman he was poor and embarrassed, and his youthful extravagances had tied up his inherited estate. He was cast upon the world like a ship without a rudder and without ballast. He was aspiring indeed, but without a plan, tired out and disgusted before he was twenty-one, having prematurely exhausted the ordinary pleasures of life, and being already inclined to that downward path which leadeth to destruction. This was especially marked in his relations with women, whom generally he flattered, despised, and deserted, as the amusements of an idle hour, and yet whose society he could not do without in the ardor of his impulsive and ungoverned affections. In that early career of unbridled desire for excitement and pleasure, nowhere do we see a sense of duty, a respect for the opinions of the good, a reverence for religious institutions, or self-restraint of any kind; but these defects were partly covered over by his many virtues and his exalted rank.
Thus far Byron was comparatively unknown. Not yet was he even a favorite in society, beautiful and brilliant as he was; for he had few friends, not much money, and many enemies, whom he made by his scorn and defiance,–a born aristocrat, without having penetrated those exclusive circles to which his birth entitled him. He was always quarrelling with his mother, and was treated with indifference by his guardian. He was shunned by those who adhered to the conventionalities of life, and was pursued by bailiffs and creditors,–since his ancestral estates, small for his rank, were encumbered and mortgaged, and Newstead Abbey itself was in a state of dilapidation.
Within a year from leaving Cambridge, in 1807, Byron published a volume of his juvenile poems; and although they were remarkable for a young man of twenty, they were not of sufficient merit to attract the attention of the public. At this time he was abstemious in eating, wishing to reduce a tendency to corpulence. He could practise self-denial if it were to make his person attractive, especially to ladies. Nor was he idle. His reading, if desultory, was vast; and from the list of books which his biographer has noted it would seem that Macaulay never read more than Byron in a given time,–all the noted historians of England, Germany, Rome, and Greece, with innumerable biographies, miscellanies, and even divinity, the raw material which he afterwards worked into his poems. How he found time to devour so many solid books is to me a mystery. These were not merely European works, but Asiatic also. He was not a critical scholar, but he certainly had a passing familiarity with almost everything in literature worth knowing, which he subsequently utilized, as seen in his “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” A college reputation was nothing to him, any more than it was to Swift, Goldsmith, Churchill, Gibbon, and many other famous men of letters, who left on record their dislike of the English system of education. Among these were even such men as Addison, Cowper, Milton, and Dryden, who were scholars, but who alike felt that college honors and native genius did not go hand in hand,–which might almost be regarded as the rule, but for a few remarkable exceptions, like Sir Robert Peel and Gladstone. And yet it would be unwise to decry college honors, since not one in a hundred of those who obtain them by their industry, aptness, and force of will can lay claim to what is called genius,–the rarest of all gifts. Moreover, how impossible it is for college professors to detect in students, with whom they are imperfectly acquainted, extraordinary faculties, more especially if the young men are apparently idle and negligent, and contemptuous of the college curriculum.
It was a bitter pill for Lord Byron when his juvenile poems, called “Hours of Idleness,” were so severely attacked by the Edinburgh Review. They might have escaped the searching eyes of the critics had the author not been a lord. At that time the great Reviews had just been started; and it was the especial object of the Edinburgh Review to handle authors roughly,–to condemn and not to praise. Criticism was not then a science, as it became fifty years later, in the hands of Sainte-Beuve, who endeavored to review every production fairly and justly. There was nothing like justice entering into the head of Jeffrey or Sydney Smith or Brougham, or later on of Macaulay, whose articles were often written for political party effect. Critics, from the time of Swift down to the middle of the century, aimed to demolish enemies, and to make party capital; hence, as a general thing, their articles were not criticisms at all, but attacks. And as even an Achilles was vulnerable in his heel, so most intellectual giants have some weak point for the shafts of malice to penetrate. Yet it is the weaknesses of great men that people like to quote.
If Byron was humiliated, enraged, and embittered by the severity of the Edinburgh Review, he was not crushed. He rallied, collected his unsuspected strength, and shattered his opponents by one of the wittiest, most brilliant, and most unscrupulous satires in our literature, which he called “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.” At the height of his fame he regretted and suppressed this youthful production of malice and bitterness. Yet it was the beginning of his great career, both as to a consciousness of his own powers and in attracting the public attention. It was doubtless unwise, since he attacked many who were afterwards his friends, and since he sowed the seeds of hatred among those who might otherwise have been his admirers or apologists. He had to learn the truth that “with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again.” The creators of public opinion in reference to Byron have not been women of fashion, or men of the world, but literary lions themselves,–like Thackeray, who detested him, and the whole school of pharisaic ecclesiastical dignitaries, who abhorred in him sentiments which they condoned in Fielding, in Burns, in Rousseau, and in Voltaire.
Before his bitter satire was published, however, Byron took his seat in the House of Lords, not knowing any peer sufficiently to be introduced by him. His guardian, Lord Carlisle, treated him very shabbily, refusing to furnish to the Lord Chancellor some important information, of a technical kind, which refusal delayed the ceremony for several weeks, until the necessary papers could be procured from Cornwall relating to the marriage of one of his ancestors. Unfriended and alone, Byron sat on the scarlet benches of the House of Lords until he was formally admitted as a peer. But when the Lord Chancellor left the woolsack to congratulate him, and with a smiling face extended his hand, the embittered young peer bowed coldly and stiffly, and simply held out two or three of his fingers,–an act of impudence for which there was no excuse.
It is difficult to understand why Lord Byron should have had so few friends or even acquaintances at that time among people of his rank. At twenty-one, he was a lonely and solitary man, mortified by the attack of the Edinburgh Review, exasperated by injustice, morose even to misanthropy, and decidedly sceptical in his religious opinions. Newstead Abbey was a burden to him, since he could not keep it up. He owed £10,000. He had no domestic ties, except to a mother with whom he could not live. His poetry had not brought him fame, for which of all things he most ardently thirsted. His love affairs were unfortunate, and tinged his soul with sadness and melancholy. Nor had fashion as yet marked him for her own. He craved excitement, and society to him was dull and conventional.
It is not surprising that under these circumstances Byron made up his mind to travel: he did not much care whither, provided he had new experiences. “The grand tour” which educated young men of leisure and fortune took in that day had no charm for him, since he wished to avoid rather than to seek society in those cities which the English frequented. He did not care to see the literary lions of France or Germany or Italy, for though a nobleman, he was too young and unimportant to be much noticed, and he was too shy and too proud to make advances which might be rebuffed, wounding his amour propre.
He set out on his pilgrimage the latter part of June, 1809, in a ship bound for Lisbon, with a small suite of servants. Going to a land where Nature was most enchanting, he was sufficiently enthusiastic over the hills and vales and villages of Portugal. As for comfort, he expected little, and found less; but to this he was indifferent so long as he could swim in the Tagus, and ride on a mule, and procure eggs and wine. He was delighted with Cadiz, to him a Cythera, with its beautiful but uneducated women, where the wives of peasants were on a par with the wives of dukes in cultivation, and where the minds of both had but one idea,–that of intrigue. He hastily travelled through Spain on horseback, in August, reaching Gibraltar, from which he embarked for Malta and the East.
It was Greece and Turkey that Byron most wished to see and know; and, favored by introductions, he was cordially received by governors and pashas. At Athens, and other classical spots, he lingered enchanted, yet suppressing his enthusiasm in the contempt he had for the affected raptures of ordinary travellers. It was not the country alone, with its classical associations, which interested him, but also its maidens, with their dark hair and eyes, whom he idealized almost into goddesses. Everything he saw was picturesque, unique, and fascinating. The days and weeks flew rapidly away in dreamy enchantment.
After nearly three months at Athens, Byron embarked for Smyrna, and explored the ruins of the old Ionian cities, thence proceeding to Constantinople, with a view of visiting Persia and the farther East. In a letter to Mr. Henry Drury, he says:–
“I have left my home, and seen part of Africa and Asia, and a tolerable portion of Europe. I have been with generals and admirals, princes and pashas, governors and ungovernables. Albania, indeed, I have seen more than any Englishman, except Mr. Leake,–a country rarely visited, from the savage character of the natives, but abounding more in natural beauties than the classical regions of Greece.”
A glimpse of Byron’s inner life at this time is caught in the following extract from a letter to another friend:
“I have now been nearly a year abroad, and hope you will find me an altered personage,–I do not mean in body, but in manners; for I begin to find out that nothing but virtue will do in this d–d world. I am tolerably sick of vice, which I have tried in its agreeable varieties, and mean on my return to cut all my dissolute acquaintance, leave off wine and carnal company, and betake myself to politics and decorum.”
One thing we notice in most of the familiar letters of Byron,–that he makes frequent use of a vulgar expletive. But when I remember that the Prince of Wales, the Lord Chancellor, the judges, the lawyers, the ministers of the Crown, and many other distinguished people were accustomed to use the same expression, I would fain hope that it was not meant for profanity, but was a sort of fashionable slang intended only to be emphatic. Fifty years have seen a great improvement in the use of language, and the vulgarism which then appeared to be of slight importance is now regarded, almost universally with gentlemen, to be at least in very bad taste. How far Byron transgressed beyond the frequent use of this expletive, does not appear either in his letters or in his biography; yet from his irreverent nature, and the society with which he was associated, it is more than probable that in him profanity was added to the other vices of his times.
Especially did he indulge in drinking to excess in all convivial gatherings. It was seldom that gentlemen sat down to a banquet without each despatching two or three bottles of wine in the course of an evening. No wonder that gout was the pervading disease among county squires, and even among authors and statesman. Morality was not one of the features of English society one hundred years ago, except as it consisted in a scrupulous regard for domesticity, truth, and honor, and abhorrence of meanness and hypocrisy.
It would be difficult to point out any defects and excesses of which Byron was guilty at this period beyond what were common to other fashionable young men of rank and leisure, except a spirit of religious scepticism and impiety, and a wanton and inexcusable recklessness in regard to women, which made him a slave to his passions. The first alienated him, so far as he was known, from the higher respectable classes, who generally were punctilious in the outward observances of religion; and the second made him abhorred by the virtuous middle class, who never condoned his transgressions in this respect. But at this time his character was not generally known. It was not until he was seated on the pinnacle of fame that public curiosity penetrated the scandals of his private life. He was known only as a young nobleman in quest of the excitements of foreign travel, and his letters of introduction procured him all the society he craved. Not yet had he expressed bitterness and wrath against the country which gave him birth; he simply found England dull, and craved adventures in foreign lands as unlike England as he could find. The East stimulated his imagination, and revived his classical associations. He saw the Orient only as an enthusiastic poet would see it, and as Lamartine saw Jerusalem. But Byron was more curious about the pagan cities of antiquity than concerning the places consecrated by the sufferings of our Lord. He cared more to swim across the Hellespont with Leander than to wander over the sacred hills of Judaea; to idealize a beautiful peasant girl among the ruins of Greece, than converse with the monks of Palestine in their gloomy retreats.
The result of Byron’s travels was seen in the first two cantos of “Childe Harold,” showing alike the fertility of his mind and the aspirations of a lofty genius. These were published in 1812, soon after his return to England, at the age of twenty-four. They took England by storm, creating both surprise and admiration. Public curiosity and enthusiasm for the young poet, who had mounted to the front ranks of literature at a single leap, was unbounded and universal. As he himself wrote: “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”
Young Byron was now sought, courted, and adored, especially by ladies of the highest rank. Everybody was desirous to catch even a glimpse of the greatest poet that had appeared since Pope and Dryden; any palace or drawing-room he desired to enter was open to him. He was surfeited with roses and praises and incense. He alone took precedence over Scott and Coleridge and Moore and Campbell. For a time his pre-eminence in literature was generally conceded. He was the foremost man of letters of his day, and the greatest popular idol. His rank added to his éclat, since not many noblemen were distinguished for genius or literary excellence. His singular beauty of face and person, despite his slight lameness, attracted the admiring gaze of women. What Abélard was in the schools of philosophy, Byron was in the drawing-rooms of London. People forgot his antecedents, so far as they were known, in the intoxication of universal admiration and unbounded worship of genius. No poet in English history was ever seated on a prouder throne, and no heathen deity was ever more indifferent than he to the incense of idolaters.
Far be it from me to attempt an analysis of the merits of the poem with which the fame of Byron will be forever identified. Its great merits are universally conceded; and while it has defects,–great inequalities in both style and matter; some stanzas supernal in beauty, and others only mediocre,–on the whole, the poem is extraordinary. Byron adopted the Spenserian measure,–perhaps the most difficult of all measures, hard even to read aloud,–in which blank verse seems to blend with rhyme. It might be either to the ear, though to the eye it is elaborate rhyme,–such as would severely task a made poet, but which this born poet seems to have thrown off without labor. The leading peculiarity of the poem is description,–of men and places; of the sea, the mountain, and the river; of Nature in her loveliness and mysteries; of cities and battle-fields consecrated by the heroism of brave and gifted men, in Greece, in Rome, in mediaeval Europe,–with swift passing glances at salient points in history, showing extensive reading and deep meditation.
As to the spirit of “Childe Harold,” it is not satirical; it is more pensive than bitter, and reveals the loneliness and sorrows of an unsatisfied soul,–the unrest of a pilgrim in search for something new. It seeks to penetrate the secrets of struggling humanity, at war often with those certitudes which are the consolation of our inner life. It everywhere recognizes the soul as that which gives greatest dignity to man. It invokes love as the noblest joy of life. The poem is one of the most ideal of human productions, soaring beyond what is material and transient. It is not religious, not reverential, not Christian, like the “Divine Comedy” and the “Paradise Lost;” and yet it is lofty, aspiring, exulting in what is greatest in deed or song, destined to immortality of fame and admiration. It is a confession, indirectly, of the follies and shortcomings of the author, and of their retribution, but complains not of the Nemesis that avenges everything. It is sensitive of wrongs and injustices and misrepresentations, but does not hurl anathemas,–speaking in sorrow rather than in anger, except in regard to hypocrisies and shams and lies, when its scorn is intense and terrible.
The whole poem is brilliant and original, but does not flash like fire in a dark night. It was written with the heart’s blood, and is as earnest as it is penetrating. It does not ascend to the higher mysteries forever veiled from mortal eye, nor descend to the deepest depths of hatred and despair, but confines itself to those passions which have marked gifted mortals, and those questionings in which all thoughtful minds have ever delighted. It does not make revelations like “Hamlet” or “Macbeth;” it does not explore secrets hidden forever from ordinary minds, like “Faust;” but it muses and meditates on what Fate and Time have brought to pass,–such events as have been revealed in history. It invokes the neglected but impressive monuments of antiquity to tell the tales of glory and of shame. In moral wisdom it is vastly inferior to Shakspeare, and it is not rich in those wise and striking lines which pass into the proverbs of the world; but it has the glow of a poetic soul, longing for fame, craving love, and not unmindful of immortality. Its most beautiful stanzas are full of tenderness and sadness for lost or unrequited affections; of reproachless sorrow for broken friendships, in which the soul would fain have lived but for inconsistencies and contradictions which made true and permanent love impossible. The poem paints a paradise lost, rather than a paradise regained. I wonder at its popularity, for it seems to me too deep and learned for popular appreciation, except in those stanzas where pathos or enthusiasm, expressed in matchless language, appeal to the heart and soul.
Of all modern poets, Byron is the most human and outspoken, daring to say what many would fear or blush to meditate upon. He fearlessly reveals the infirmities and audacities of a double and mysterious nature, made up of dust and deity, now grovelling in the mire, then borne aloft to the skies,–the football of the eternal powers of good and evil, enslaved and yet to be emancipated, as we may hope, in the last and final struggle, when the soul is rescued by Omnipotence.
I have alluded to the triumphs of Byron on the publication of “Childe Harold,”–but his joys were more than balanced by his sorrows. His mother died suddenly without seeing him. His dearest friend Mathews was drowned. He was hampered by creditors. He made no mark in the House of Lords, and was sick of what he called “parliamentary mummeries.” His habits became more and more dissipated among the boon companions who courted his society. His reputation after a while began to wane, for people became ashamed of their enthusiasm. Some critics disparaged his poetry, and conventional circles were shocked by his morals. Three years of London life told on his constitution, and he was completely disenchanted. He sought retirement and solitude, for not even the most brilliant society satisfied him. He wearied of such a woman and admirer as Madame de Staël. He went to Holland House–that resort of all the eminent ones of the time–as seldom as he could. He buried himself with a few intimate friends, chiefly poets, among whom were Moore and Rogers. He saw and liked Sir Walter Scott, but did not push his acquaintance to intimacy. The larger part of his letters were written to Murray, the publisher, who treated him generously; but Byron gave away his literary gains to personal friends in need. He seemed to scorn copyrights for support. He would write only for fame.
At the age of twenty-seven, in January, 1815, Byron married Miss Milbanke,–a lady whom he did not love, but to whom he was attracted by her supposed wealth, which would patch up his own fortunes. He had great respect for this lady and some friendship; but with all her virtues and attainments she was cold, conventional, and exacting. A mystery shrouds this unfortunate affair, which has never been fully revealed. The upshot was that, to Byron’s inexpressible humiliation, in less than a year she left him, never to return. No reasons were given. It was enough that both parties were unhappy, and had cause to be; and both kept silence.
But the voice of rumor and scandal was not silent. All the failings of Byron were now exaggerated and dwelt upon by those who envied him, and by those who hated him,–for his enemies were more numerous than his friends. Those whom he had snubbed or ridiculed or insulted now openly turned against him. The conventional public had a rare subject for their abuse or indignation. Proper people, religious people, and commonplace people, joined in the cry against a man with whom a virtuous woman could not live. Indeed, no woman could have lived happily with Byron; and very few were the women with whom he could have lived happily, by reason of that irritability and unrest which is so common with genius. The habits of abstraction and contemplation which absorbed much of his time at home were not easily understood by an ordinary woman, to whom social life is necessary.
Byron lived much in his library, which was his solitary luxury. In the revelry of the imagination his heart became cold. “To follow poetry,” says Pope, “one must leave father and mother, and cleave to it alone,”–as Dante and Petrarch and Milton did. Not even Byron’s intense craving for affection could be satisfied when he was dwelling on the ideals which his imagination created, and which scarcely friendship could satisfy. Even so good a man as Carlyle lived among his books rather than in the society of his wife, whom he really loved, and whose virtues and attainments he appreciated and admired. An affectionate woman runs a great risk in marrying an absorbed and preoccupied man of genius, even if his character be reproachless. Unfortunately, the character of Byron was anything but reproachless, and no one knew this better than his wife, which knowledge doubtless alienated what little affection she had for him. He seems to have sought low company even after his marriage, and Lady Byron has intimated that she did not think him altogether sane. Living with him as his wife was insupportable; but though she separated from him, she did not seek a divorce.
Byron would not have married at all if he had consulted his happiness, and still more his fame. “In reviewing the great names of philosophy and science, we shall find that those who have most distinguished themselves have virtually admitted their own unfitness for the marriage tie by remaining in celibacy,–Newton, Gassendi, Galileo, Descartes, Bayle, Locke, Leibnitz, Boyle, Hume, Gibbon, Macaulay, and a host of others.”
The scandal which Byron’s separation from his wife created, and his known and open profligacy, at last shut him out from the society of which he had been so bright an ornament. It is a peculiarity of the English people, which redounds to their honor, to exclude from public approbation any man, however gifted or famous, who has outraged the moral sense by open and ill-disguised violation of the laws of morality. The cases of Dilke and Parnell in our own day are illustrations known to all. What in France or Italy is condoned, is never pardoned or forgotten in England. Not even a Voltaire, a Rousseau, or a Mirabeau, had they lived in England, could have been accepted by English society,–much less a man who scorned and ridiculed it. Even Byron–for a few years the pet, the idol, and the glory of the country–was not too high to fall. To quote one of his own stanzas,–
“He who ascends to mountain-tops shall find
The loftiest peaks most wrapt in clouds and snow;
He who surpasses or subdues mankind
Must look down on the hate of those below.
Though high above the sun of glory glow,
And far beneath the earth and ocean spread,
Round him are icy rocks, and loudly blow
Contending tempests on his naked head.”
Embarrassed in his circumstances; filled with disgust, mortification, and shame; excluded from the proudest circles,–Byron now resolved to leave England forever, and bury himself in such foreign lands as were most congenial to his tastes and habits. But for his immorality he might still have shined at an exalted height; for he had not yet written anything which shocked the practical English mind. The worst he had written was bitter satire, yet not more bitter than that of Swift or Pope. No defiance, no blasphemous sentiments, or what seemed to many to be such, had yet escaped him. His “Corsair” and his “Bride of Abydos” appeared soon after the “Childe Harold,” and added to his fame by their exquisite melody of rhyme and sentimental admiration for Oriental life,–though even these were tinged with that abandon which afterwards made his latter poems a scandal and reproach. “The disappointment of youthful passion, the lassitude and remorse of premature excess, the lone friendlessness of his life,” and, I may add, the reproaches of society, induced him to fly from the scene of his brilliant successes, filled with blended sentiments of scorn, hatred, defiance, and despair.
In the Spring of 1816, at the age of twenty-eight, Byron left England forever,–a voluntary exile on the face of the earth, saddened, embittered, and disappointed. It was to Italy that he turned his steps, passing through Brussels and Flanders, lingering on the Rhine, enamored with its ruined castles, still more with Nature, and making a long stay in Switzerland. Here he visited the Castle of Chillon, all the spots made memorable by the abodes of Rousseau, Gibbon, and Madame de Staël, and all the most interesting scenery of the Bernese Alps,–Lake Leman, Interlaken, Thun, the Jungfrau, the glaciers, Brientz, Chamouni, Berne, and on to Geneva, where he made the acquaintance of Shelley and his wife. The Shelleys he found most congenial, and stayed with them some time. While in the neighborhood of Geneva he produced the third canto of “Childe Harold,” “The Prisoner of Chillon,” “A Dream,” and other things. In October, he passed on to Milan, Verona, and Venice; and in this latter city he took up his residence.
Oh that we could blot out Byron’s life in Venice, made up of love adventures and dissipation and utter abandonment to those pleasures that appealed to his lower nature, as if he were possessed by a demon, utterly reckless of his health, his character, and his fame! Venice was then the most immoral city in Italy, given over to idleness and pleasure. It was here that Byron’s contempt for woman became fixed, seeing only her weaknesses and follies; and it was this contempt of woman which intensified the abhorrence in which his character was generally held, in the most respectable circles in England. Even in distant Venice his baleful light was not under a bushel, and the scandals of his life extended far and wide,–especially that in reference to Margherita Cogni, an illiterate virago who could neither read nor write, and whom he was finally compelled to discard on account of the violence of her temper, after living with her in the most open manner.
And yet, in all this degradation, he was not idle. How could so prolific a writer be idle! Byron did not ordinarily rise till two o’clock in the afternoon, and spent the interval between his breakfast and dinner in riding on the Lido,–one of those long narrow islands which lie between the Adriatic and the Lagoon, in the midst of which Venice is built, on the islets arising from its shallow waters. Yet he found time to begin his “Don Juan,” besides writing the “Lament of Tasso,” the tragedy of “Manfred,” and an Armenian grammar, all which appeared in 1817; in 1818, “Beppo,” and in 1819, “Mazeppa.” He also made a flying trip to Florence and Rome, and some of the finest stanzas of “Childe Harold” are descriptions of the classic ruins and the masterpieces of Grecian and mediaeval art,–the beauties and the associations of Italy’s great cities.
“I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand!
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying glory smiles
O’er the far times, when many a subject land
Looked to the wingèd Lion’s marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!”
Byron’s correspondence was small, being chiefly confined to his publisher, to Moore, and to a few intimate friends. These letters are interesting because of their frankness and wit, although they are not models of fine writing. Indeed, I do not know where to find any specimens of masterly prose in all his compositions. He was simply a poet, facile in every form of measure from Spenser to Campbell. No remarkable prose writings appeared in England at all, at that time, until Sir Walter Scott’s novels were written, and until Macaulay, Carlyle, and Lamb wrote their inimitable essays. Nothing is more heavy and unartistic than Moore’s “Life of Byron;” there is hardly a brilliant paragraph in it,–and yet Moore is one of the most musical and melodious of all the English poets. Milton, indeed, was equally great in prose and verse, but very few men have been distinguished as prose writers and poets at the same time. Sir Walter Scott and Southey are the most remarkable exceptions. I think that Macaulay could have been distinguished as a poet, if he had so pleased; but he would have been a literary poet like Wordsworth or Tennyson or Coleridge,–not a man who sings out of his soul because he cannot help it, like Byron or Burns, or like Whittier among our American poets.
It was not until 1819, when Byron had been three years in Venice, that he fell in love with the Countess Guiccioli, the wife of one of the richest nobles of Italy,–young, beautiful, and interesting. This love seems to have been disinterested and lasting; and while it was a violation of all the rules of morality, and would not have been allowed in any other country than Italy, it did not further degrade him. It was pretty much such a love as Voltaire had for Madame de Châtelet; and with it he was at last content. There is no evidence that Byron ever afterward loved any other woman; and what is very singular about the affair is that it was condoned by the husband, until it became a scandal even in Italy.
The countess was taken ill on her way to Ravenna, and thither Byron followed her, and lived in the same palace with her,–the palace of her husband, who courted the poet’s society, and who afterward left his young countess to free intercourse with Byron at Bologna,–not without a compensation in revenue, which was more disgraceful than the amour itself. About this time Byron would probably have returned to England but for the enchantment which enslaved him. He could not part from the countess, nor she from him.
The Pope pronounced the separation of the count from his wife, and she returned to her father’s house on a pittance of £200 a year. She sacrificed everything for the young English poet,–her splendid home, her relatives, her honor, and her pride. Never was there a sadder episode in the life of a man of letters. If Byron had married such a woman in his early life, how different might have been his history! With such a love as she inspired, had he been faithful to it, he might have lived in radiant happiness, the idol and the pride of all admirers of genius wherever the English language is spoken, seated on a throne which kings might envy. So much have circumstances to do with human destinies! Since Abélard, never was there a man more capable of a genuine fervid love than Byron; and yet he threw himself away. He was his own worst enemy, and all from an ill-regulated nature which he inherited both from his father and his mother, with no Mentor to whom he would listen. And thus his star sunk down in the eternal shades,–a fallen Lucifer expelled from bliss.
I would not condone the waywardness and vices of Byron, or weaken the eternal distinctions between right and wrong. The impression I wish to convey is that there were two very distinctly marked sides to his character; that his conduct was not without palliations, in view of his surroundings, the force of his temptations, and his wayward nature, uncurbed by parental care or early training, indeed rather goaded on by the unfortunate conditions of his youth to find consolation in doing as he liked, without regard to duty or the opinions of society. Born with the keenest sensibilities, with emotive powers of tremendous sweep and force; neglected, crossed, mortified, with no wise guidance,–he was driven in upon himself, and developed an intense self-will, which would endure no control. Unhappy will be the future of that man, however amiable, affectionate, and generous, who, whether from neglect in youth, like Byron, or from sheer wilfulness in manhood, determines to act as the mood takes him, because he has freedom of will, without regard to the social restraints imposed upon conscience by the unwritten law, which pursues him wherever he goes, even should he fly to the uttermost parts of the earth. No one can escape from moral accountability, whether in a seductive paradise, or in a dungeon, or in a desert. The only stability, for society must be in the character of its individual members. Before pleasure comes duty,–to family, to friends, to country, to self, and to the Maker.
This sense of moral accountability Byron seems never to have had, in regard to anybody or anything, his self-indulgence culminating in an egotism melancholy to behold. He would go where he pleased, say what he pleased, write as he pleased, do what he pleased, without any constraint, whether in opposition or not to the customs and rules of society, his own welfare, or the laws of God. It was moral madness pursuing him to destruction,–the logical and necessary sequence of unrestrained self-will, sometimes assuming the form of angelic loveliness and inspiration in the eyes of his idolaters. No counsellor guided him wiser than Moore or Shelley. Even the worldly advice of Rogers and Madame de Staël was thrown away, whenever they presumed to counsel him. Nobody could influence him. His abandonment to fitful labors or pleasures was alike his glory and his shame. After a day of frivolity he would consume the midnight hours in the intensest studies, stimulated by gin, to awake in the morning in lassitude or pain,–for work he must, as well as play. The consequence of this burning the candle at both ends was failing health and diminished energies, until his short race was run. He had produced more poetry at thirty-four years of age than any other English poet at the age of fifty,–some of almost transcendent merit, but more of questionable worth, though not of questionable power. Aside from the “Childe Harold,” the “Hebrew Melodies,” the “Prisoner of Chillon,” and perhaps the “Corsair,” the “Bride of Abydos,” “Lara,” and the “Siege of Corinth,” the rest, excepting minor poems, however beautiful in measure and grand in thought, give a shock to the religious or to the moral sentiments. “Cain” and “Manfred” are regarded as almost blasphemous, though probably not so meant to be by the poet, in view of the stirring questions of Grecian tragedy; while the longest of his poems, “Don Juan,” is an insult to womanhood and a disgrace to genius; for although containing some of the most exquisite touches of description and finest flights of poetic feeling, its theme is along the lowest level of human passion.
Whatever Byron wrote was unhesitatingly published and read, whether good or evil, whatever were those follies and defiances which excluded him from the best society; and it is a matter of surprise to me that any noted and wealthy publisher could be found, in respectable and conventional England, venal enough to publish perhaps the most corrupting poem in our language,–worse than anything which Boccaccio wrote for his Italian readers, or anything which plain-spoken Fielding and the dramatists of the reign of Charles II. ever allowed to go into print; for though they were coarser in their language, they were not so seductive in their spirit, and did not poison the soul like “Don Juan,” the very name of which has become a synonym for extreme depravity. That abominable poem was read because Lord Byron wrote it, and because its immorality was slightly veiled by the beauty of the language, even when a copy could not be found on the table of any respectable drawing-room, and the name of the author was seldom mentioned except with stern and honest censure. It is perhaps fair to quote Murray’s own words, throwing the responsibility on the public: “They talked of his immoral writings; but there is a whole row of sermons glued to my shelf. I hate the sight of them. Why don’t they buy those?” A fair enough retort; and yet, like the newspaper purveyors of the records of vice in our own day, the publisher was responsible for making the vile stuff accessible, and thus debasing the public taste.
How different was Byron’s painting of Spanish life from that of the immortal Cervantes, whom Lowell places among the five master geniuses of the world! In “Don Quixote” there is not a sentence which does not exalt woman, or which degrades man. A lofty ideal of purity and chivalrous honor permeates every page, even in the most ludicrous scenes. The whole work blazes with wit, and with the wisdom of a proverbial philosophy, uttered by the ignorant squire of a fanatical and bewildered knight; but amidst the practical jokes and follies of all the characters in that marvellous work of fiction, we see also a moral beauty, idealized of course, such as was rivalled only in Spanish art in the Madonnas of Murillo. I believe that in the imaginary sketches of Spanish life as portrayed by Byron, slanders and lies deface the poem from beginning to end. Who is the best authority for truthfulness in the description of Spanish people, Cervantes or Byron? The spiritual loftiness portrayed in the lives of Spanish heroes and heroines, mixed up as it was with the most ludicrous pictures of common life, has made the Spaniard’s work of fiction one of the most treasured and enduring monuments of human fame; whereas the insulting innuendoes of the English poet have gone far to rob him of the glory which he had justly won in his earlier productions, and to make his name a doubt. If, in the course of generations yet to come, the evil which Byron did by that one poem alone shall be forgotten in the services he rendered to our literature by other works, which cannot die, then he may some day be received into the Pantheon of the benefactors of mind.
I would speak with less vehemence in reference to those poems which are generally supposed to be permeated with defiance, scorn, and misanthropy. In “Manfred” and “Cain,” it was with Byron a work of art to describe the utterances of impious spirits against the sovereign rule of God. Had he not fallen from high estate as an interpreter of the soul, the critics might have seen here nothing more to condemn than in some of the Grecian tragedies, many passages in the “Paradise Lost,” and in the general spirit of “Faust.” It is no proof that he was a blasphemer in his heart because he painted blasphemy. To describe a wanderer on the face of the earth, driven hither and thither by pursuing vengeance as the first recorded murderer, the poet was obliged by all the rules of art to put such sentiments into his mouth as accorded with his unrepented crime and his dreadful agonies of mind and soul. Where is the proof that they were his own agonies, remorse, despair? Surely, we may pardon in Byron what we excuse in Goethe in the delineation of unique characters,–the great creations which belong to the realm of the imagination alone. The imputation that the sayings of his fallen fiends were the cherished sentiments of the poet himself, may have been one cause of his contempt for the average intelligence of his countrymen, and for their inveterate and incurable prejudices. Nothing in Dante is more intense and concentrated in language than the malediction of Eve upon her fratricidal son:–
“May the grass wither from thy feet! the woods
Deny thee shelter! earth a home! the dust
A gravel the Sun his light! and Heaven her God!”
Yet the reader feels the naturalness of this bitter cursing of her own son by the frenzied mother. How could a great artist like Byron put sentiments into the mouth of Cain such as would be harmless in the essays of a country parson? If he painted Lucifer, he must make him speak like Lucifer, not like a theological professor. Nothing could be more ungenerous and narrow than to abuse Byron for a dramatic poem in which some of his characters were fiends rather than men. We have no more right to say that he was an infidel because Cain or Lucifer blasphemed, than to say that Goethe was an atheist because Mephistopheles denied God.
If Byron had avowed atheistical opinions in letters or conversations, that would be another thing; but there is no evidence that he did, and much to the contrary. A few months before he died he was visited by a pious crank, who out of curiosity or Christian zeal sought to know his theological views. Byron treated him with the greatest courtesy, and freely communicated his opinions on religious subjects,–from which it would appear that he differed from church people generally only on the matter of eternal punishment, which he did not believe was consistent with infinite love or infinite justice. Perhaps it would have been wiser if he had not written “Cain” at all, considering how many readers there are without brains, and how large was the class predisposed to judge him harshly in everything. No doubt he was irreligious and sceptical, but it does not follow from this that he was atheistical or blasphemous.
There is doubtless a misanthropic vein in all Byron’s later poetry which is not wholesome for many people to read,–especially in “Manfred,” one of the bitterest of his productions by reason of sorrows and disappointments and misrepresentations. It was Byron’s misfortune to appear worse than he really was, owing to his unconcealed contempt for the opinions of mankind. Yet he could not complain that he reaped what he had not sown. Some of his biographers thought him to be at this time even morbidly desirous of a bad reputation,–going so far as to write paragraphs against himself in foreign journals, and being filled with glee at the joke, when they were republished in English newspapers. He despised and defied all conventionalities, and conventional England dropped him from her list of favorites.
The life of Byron, strange to say, was less exposed to scandal after he made the acquaintance of the countess who enslaved him, and who was also enslaved in turn. His heart now opened to many noble sentiments. He returned, in a degree, to society, and gave dinners and suppers. He associated with many distinguished patriots and men of genius. He had a strong sympathy with the Italians in their struggle for freedom. One quarter of his income he devoted to charities. He was regular in his athletic exercises, and could swim four hours at a time; he was always proud of swimming across the Hellespont. He was devoted to his natural daughter, and educated her in a Catholic school. He studied more severely all works of art, though his admiration for art was never so great as it was for Nature. The glories and wonders of Nature inspired him with perpetual joys. There is nothing finer in all his poetry than the following stanza:–
“Ye stars! which are the poetry of Heaven,
If in your bright leaves we would read the fate
Of men and empires,–‘t is to be forgiven
That in our aspirations to be great
Our destinies o’erleap their mortal state,
And claim a kindred with you; for ye are
A beauty and a mystery, and create
In us such love and reverence from afar,
That fortune, fame, power, life, have named themselves a star.”
There never was a time when Byron did not seek out beautiful retreats in Nature as the source of his highest happiness. Hence, solitude was nothing to him when he could commune with the works of God. His biographer declares that in 1821 “he was greatly improved in every respect,–in genius, in temper, in moral views, in health and happiness. He has had mischievous passions, but these he seems to have subdued.” He was always temperate in his diet, living chiefly on fish and vegetables; and if he drank more wine and spirits than was good for him, it was to rally his exhausted energies. His powers of production were never greater than at this period, but his literary labors were slowly wearing him out. He could not live without work, while pleasure palled upon him. In a letter to a stranger who sought to convert him, he showed anything but anger or contempt. “Do me,” says he, “the justice to suppose, that Video meliora proboque, however the deteriora sequor may have been applied to my conduct.” Writing to Murray in 1822, he says: “It is not impossible that I may have three or four cantos of ‘Don Juan’ ready by autumn, as I obtained a permission from my dictatress [the Countess Guiccioli] to continue it,–provided always it was to be more guarded and decorous in the continuation than in the commencement.” Alas, he could not undo the mischief he had done!
About this time Byron received a visit from Lord Clare, his earliest friend at Cambridge, to whom through life he was devotedly attached,–a friendship which afforded exceeding delight. He never forgot his few friends, although he railed at his enemies. He was ungenerously treated by Leigh Hunt, to whom he rendered every kindness. He says,–
“I have done all I could for him since he came here [Genoa], but it is all most useless. His wife is ill, his six children far from tractable, and in worldly affairs he himself is a child. The death of Shelley left them totally aground; and I could not see them in such a state without using the common feelings of humanity, and what means were in my power, to set them afloat again…. As to any community of feeling, thought, or opinion between him and me there is little or none; but I think him a good-principled man, and must do as I would be done by.”
Toward Shelley, Byron entertained the greatest respect and affection for his suavity, gentleness, and good breeding; and Shelley’s accidental death was a great shock to him. Among his other intimate acquaintances in Italy were Lord and Lady Blessington, with whom he kept up a pleasant correspondence. The most plaintive, sad, and generous of all his letters was the one he wrote to Lady Byron from Pisa, in 1821, in acknowledgment of the receipt of a tress of his daughter Ada’s hair:–
“The time which has elapsed since our separation has been considerably more than the whole brief period of our union and of our prior acquaintance. We both made a bitter mistake; but now it is over, and irrecoverably so…. But this very impossibility of reunion seems to me at least a reason why on all the few points of discussion which can arise between us, we should preserve the courtesies of life, and as much of its kindness as people who are never to meet may preserve more easily than nearer connections…. I assure you I bear you now no resentment whatever. Whether the offence has been solely on my side, or reciprocal, or on yours chiefly, I have ceased to reflect upon any but two things,–that you are the mother of my child, and that we shall never meet again.”
At this period, about a year before Byron’s death, Moore thus writes:–
“To the world, and more especially England, he presented himself in no other aspect than that of a stern, haughty misanthrope, self-banished from the society of men, and most of all from that of Englishmen. The more beautiful and genial inspirations of his muse were looked upon but as lucid intervals between the paroxysms of an inherent malignancy of nature. But how totally all this differed from the Byron of the social hour, they who lived in familiar intercourse with him may be safely left to tell. As it was, no English gentleman ever approached him with the common forms of introduction, that did not come away at once surprised and charmed by the kind courtesy of his manners, the unpretending play of his conversation, and on nearer intercourse the frank, youthful spirits, to the flow of which he gave way with such zest as to produce the impression that gaiety was after all the true bent of his disposition.”
Scott, writing of him after his death, says,–
“In talents he was unequalled; and his faults were those rather of a bizarre temper, arising from an eager and irritable nervous habit, than any depravity of disposition. He was devoid of selfishness, which I take to be the basest ingredient in the human composition. He was generous, humane, and noble-minded, when passion did not blind him.”
About this time, 1823, the great struggle of the Greeks to shake off the Ottoman yoke was in progress. I have already in another volume attempted to give the facts in relation to that memorable movement. Christendom sympathized with the gallant but apparently hopeless struggle of a weak nation to secure its independence, both from a sentiment of admiration for the freedom of ancient Greece in the period of its highest glories, and from the love of liberty which animated the liberal classes amid the political convulsions of the day. But the governments of Europe were loath to complicate the difficulties which existed between nations in that stormy period, and dared not extend any open aid to struggling Greece, beyond giving their moral aid to the Greek cause, lest it should embroil Europe in war, of which she was weary. Less than ten years had elapsed since Europe had combined to dethrone Napoleon, and some of her leading powers, like Austria and Russia, had a detestation of popular insurrections.
In this complicated state of political affairs, when any indiscretion on the part of friendly governments might kindle anew the flames of war, Lord Byron was living in Genoa, taking such an interest in the Greek struggle that he abandoned poetry for politics. He had always sympathized with enslaved nations struggling for independence, and was driven from Ravenna on account of his alliance with the revolutionary Society of the Carbonari. A new passion now seized him. He entered heart and soul into the struggles of the Greeks. Their cause absorbed him. He would aid them to the full extent of his means, with money and arms, as a private individual. He would be a political or military hero,–a man of action, not of literary leisure.
Every lover of liberty must respect Byron’s noble aspirations to assist the Greeks. It was a new field for him, but one in which he might retrieve his reputation,–for it must be borne in mind that his ruling passion was fame, and that he had gained all he could expect by his literary productions. Whether loved or hated, admired or censured, his poetry had placed him in the front rank of literary geniuses throughout the world. As a poet his immortality was secured. In literary efforts he had also probably exhausted himself; he could write nothing more which would add to his fame, unless he took a long rest and recreation. He was wearied of making poetry; but by plunging into a sea of fresh adventures, and by giving a new direction to his powers, he might be sufficiently renovated, in the course of time, to write something grander and nobler than even “Childe Harold” or “Cain.”
Lord Byron at this time was only thirty-five years old, a period when most men begin their best work. His constitution, it is true, was impaired, but he was still full of life and enterprise. He could ride or swim as well as he ever could. The call of a gallant people summoned him to arms, and of all nations he most loved the Greeks. He was an enthusiast in their cause; he believed that the day of their deliverance was at hand. So he made up his mind to consecrate his remaining energies to effect their independence. He opened a correspondence with the Greek committee in London. He selected a party, including a physician, to sail with him from Geneva. He raised a sum of about £10,000, and on the 13th of July, 1823, embarked with his small party and eight servants, on board the “Hercules” for Greece.
After a short delay at Leghorn the poet reached Cephalonia on the 24th of July. He was enthusiastically received by the Greeks of Argostoli, the principal port, but deemed it prudent to remain there until he could get further intelligence from Corfu and Missolonghi,–visiting, in the interval, some of the neighboring islands consecrated by the muse of Homer.
The dissensions among the Greek leaders greatly embarrassed Byron, but did not destroy his ardor. He saw that the people were degenerate, faithless, and stained with atrocities as disgraceful as those of the Turks themselves. He dared not commit himself to any one of the struggling, envious parties which rallied round their respective chieftains. He lingered for six weeks in Cephalonia without the ordinary comforts of life, yet, against all his habits, rising at an early hour and attending to business, negotiating bills, and corresponding with the government, so far as there was a recognized central power.
At last, after the fall of Corinth, taken from the Turks, and the arrival at Missolonghi of Prince Mavrocordato, the only leader of the Greeks worthy of the name of statesman, Byron sailed for that city, then invested by a Turkish fleet, and narrowly escaped capture. Here he did all he could to produce union among the chieftains, and took into his pay five hundred Suliotes, acting as their leader. He meditated an attack on Lepanto, which commanded the navigation of the Gulf of Corinth, and received from the government a commission for that enterprise; but dissensions among his men, and intrigues between rival generals, prevented the execution of his project.
It was in Missolonghi, Jan. 22, 1824, that, with the memorandum, “On this day I completed my thirty-sixth year,” Byron wrote his latest verses, most pathetically regretting his youth and his unfortunate life, but arousing himself to find in a noble cause a glorious death:–
“The fire that in my bosom preys
Is like to some volcanic isle;
No torch is kindled at its blaze,–
A funeral pile.”
“Awake!–not Greece: she is awake!–
Awake, my spirit! think through whom
Thy life-blood tastes its parent lake,
And then strike home!”
“Seek out–less often sought than found–
A soldier’s grave, for thee the best;
Then look around, and choose thy ground,
And take thy rest!”
Vexations, disappointments, and exposure to the rains of February so wrought upon Byron’s eager spirit and weakened body that he was attacked by convulsive fits. The physicians, in accordance with the custom of that time, bled their patient several times, against the protest of Byron himself, which reduced him to extreme weakness. He rallied from the attack for a time, and devoted himself to the affairs of Greece, hoping for the restoration of his health when spring should come. He spent in three months thirty thousand dollars for the cause into which he had so cordially entered. In April he took another cold from severe exposure, and fever set in,–to relieve which bleeding was again resorted to, and often repeated. He was now confined to his room, which he never afterwards left. He at last realized that he was dying, and sent incoherent messages to his sister, to his daughter, and to a few intimate friends. The end came on the 19th of April. The Greek government rendered all the honor possible to the illustrious dead. His remains were transferred to England. He was not buried in Westminster Abbey, however, but in the church of Hucknal, near Newstead, where a tablet was erected to his memory by his sister, the Hon. Augusta Maria Leigh.
“So Harold ends in Greece, his pilgrimage
There fitly ending,–in that land renowned,
Whose mighty genius lives in Glory’s page,
He on the Muses’ consecrated ground
Sinking to rest, while his young brows are bound
With their unfading wreath! To bands of mirth
No more in Tempe let the pipe resound!
Harold, I follow to thy place of birth
The slow hearse,–and thy last sad pilgrimage on earth.”
I can add but little to what I have already said in reference to Byron, either as to his character or his poetry. The Edinburgh Review, which in Brougham’s article on his early poems had stung him into satire and aroused him to a sense of his own powers, in later years by Jeffrey’s hand gave a most appreciative account of his poems, while mourning over his morbid gloom: “‘Words that breathe and thoughts that burn’ are not merely the ornaments but the common staple of his poetry; and he is not inspired or impressive only in some happy passages, but through the whole body and tissue of his composition.” The keen insight and exceptional intellect of the philosopher-poet Goethe recognized in him “the greatest talent of our century.” His marvellous poetic genius was universally acknowledged in his own day; and more than that, so human was it that it attracted the sympathies of all civilized nations, and, as Lamartine said, “made English literature known throughout Europe.” Byron’s poetry was politically influential also, by reason of its liberty-loving spirit,–arousing Italy, inspiring the young revolutionists of Germany, and awaking a generous sympathy for Greece. Without the consciousness of any “mission” beyond the expression of his own ebullient nature, this poet contributed no mean impulse to the general emancipation of spirit which has signalized the nineteenth century.
Two generations have passed away since Byron’s mortal remains were committed to the dust, and the verdict of his country has not since materially changed,–admiration for his genius alone. The light of lesser stars than he shines with brighter radiance. What the enlightened verdict of mankind may be two generations hence, no living mortal can tell. The worshippers of intellect may attempt to reverse or modify the judgment already passed, but the impressive truth remains that no man, however great his genius, will be permanently judged aside from character. When Lord Bacon left his name and memory to men’s charitable judgments and the next age, he probably had in view his invaluable legacy to mankind of earnest searchings after truth, which made him one of the greatest of human benefactors. How far the poetry of Byron has proved a blessing to the world must be left to an abler critic than I lay claim to be. In him the good and evil went hand in hand in the eternal warfare which ancient Persian sages saw between the powers of light and darkness in every human soul,–a consciousness of which warfare made Byron himself in his saddest hours wish he had never lived at all.
If we could, in his life and in his works, separate the evil from the good, and let only the good remain,–then his services to literature could hardly be exaggerated, and he would be honored as the greatest English poet, so far as native genius goes, after Shakespeare and Milton.