Lord Byron juge par les temoins de sa Vie.
THOSE OF EYE-WITNESSES OF HIS LIFE.
"The long promised work of the COUNTESS GUICCIOLI."—
HARPER & BROTHERS, PUBLISHERS, FRANKLIN SQUARE.
ADVERTISEMENT BY THE ENGLISH PUBLISHER.
The Publisher of this Translation feels authorized to state, that it is the production of the celebrated COUNTESS GUICCIOLI.
THE AUTHOR OF THIS WORK,
HUBERT E.H. JERNINGHAM.
INTRODUCTORY SKETCH OF LORD BYRON Page 9
CHAPTER I. LORD BYRON AND M. DE LAMARTINE 43
CHAPTER II. PORTRAIT OF LORD BYRON 58
CHAPTER III. FRENCH PORTRAIT OF LORD BYRON 70
CHAPTER IV. HIS RELIGIOUS OPINIONS 106
CHAPTER V. HIS CHILDHOOD AND HIS YOUTH 174
CHAPTER VI. HIS FRIENDSHIPS 201
CHAPTER VII. LORD BYRON CONSIDERED AS A FATHER, AS A BROTHER, AND AS A SON—HIS GOODNESS SHOWN BY THE STRENGTH OF HIS INSTINCTIVE AFFECTIONS 232
CHAPTER VIII. QUALITIES OF LORD BYRON'S HEART 245
CHAPTER IX. HIS BENEVOLENCE AND KINDNESS 284
CHAPTER X. LORD BYRON'S QUALITIES AND VIRTUES OF SOUL 305
CHAPTER XI. LORD BYRON'S CONSTANCY 347
CHAPTER XII. HIS COURAGE AND FORTITUDE 361
CHAPTER XIII. HIS MODESTY 372
CHAPTER XIV. VIRTUES OF HIS SOUL 381
CHAPTER XV. HIS GENEROSITY ELEVATED INTO HEROISM 396
CHAPTER XVI. HIS FAULTS 414
CHAPTER XVII. HIS IRRITABILITY 427
CHAPTER XVIII. HIS MOBILITY 450
CHAPTER XIX. HIS MISANTHROPY AND SOCIABILITY 457
CHAPTER XX. HIS PRIDE 484
CHAPTER XXI. HIS VANITY 488
CHAPTER XXII. LORD BYRON'S MARRIAGE AND ITS CONSEQUENCES 504
CHAPTER XXIII. HIS GAYETY AND MELANCHOLY 545
CHAPTER XXIV. HIS MELANCHOLY 563
CHAPTER XXV. ATTRACTION OF TRUTH FOR; OR, CONSCIENCE THE CHIEF QUALITY OF HIS SOUL 631
SEMI-BIOGRAPHY OF BYRON IN MR. DISRAELI'S "VENETIA" 656
MY RECOLLECTIONS, ETC.
"To know another man well, especially if he be a noted and illustrious character, is a great thing not to be despised."—SAINTE-BEUVE.
Many years ago a celebrated writer, in speaking of Lord Byron, who had then been dead some years, said that so much had already been written upon him that the subject had almost become commonplace, but was far from being exhausted. This truth, indisputable when applied to Byron's genius, his works, and to his intellect, was then and still is equally positive when referring to his moral qualities. A subject as well as an object may become commonplace by the quantity, but nevertheless remain new and rare, owing to its quality. A subject can not be exhausted before it has been seen under every one of its various aspects, and appreciated in all its points. If much has been said of Lord Byron, has his truly noble character been fairly brought to light? Has he not, on the contrary, been judged rather as the author than the man, and have not the imaginary creations of his powerful mind been too much identified with reality? In the best biographies of his life do we not meet with many gaps which have to be filled up—nay, worse, gaps filled up with errors which have to be eradicated to make room for the truth? The object of this work is precisely to do away with these errors and to replace them by facts, and to dispel the shadows which fancy has raised around his name. For the old opinions we wish to substitute new appreciations, by weighing exactly the measure of truth which exists in the former; and by the logic of facts we wish to judge fairly so as to prevent posterity from being deceived. In doing this we do not pretend to give England any new information. For a long time, no doubt, error sprang from that country; but years and events have passed since that state of things existed. The liberal and tolerant spirit, enlightened by philosophy, which has spread all over liberal England, has also been reflected in the opinions formed of men, and has modified many pages of biography and history and made Englishmen feel how numerous were the wrongs of which they were guilty toward their illustrious countryman.
It is useless to speak of the national selfishness of England, and pretend that she only appreciates or rewards with her love and esteem such writers as flatter her pride or hide her defects from the eyes of foreigners. This may be true, generally speaking; but Lord Byron's patriotic feelings were of a very different cast. He thought it best to expose to the world at large the faults of his countrymen, in order to correct them. His patriotism was influenced by the superiority of the noble sentiments which actuated his life. Feeling as he did, that he was, above all, a member of the great human community, and declaring it openly; despising popularity, if it cost him the sacrifice of a truth which he deemed it useful and right to proclaim, and thus going against many of the passions, prejudices, and opinions of his countrymen, Byron certainly wounded many susceptibilities; and could we forget all he had to suffer at the hands of the English, we might almost say he was too severe in his judgments upon them. Notwithstanding, however, it is almost impossible to travel in England without meeting everywhere some token of homage paid to the memory of Byron. Scotland, who looks upon him almost as a son, is proud to show the several houses wherein he lived when a child, and preserves his name and memory with love and respect. To have seen him once, is a recollection of which one is proud. A particular charm encircles the places, mountains, rivers, and bridge of Don, of which he speaks, simply because he has mentioned them in his poems. A letter or any thing which has belonged to him is looked upon as a treasure.
At Harrow, the beloved residence of his youth, the growing generation bow with affectionate respect before the pyramid which has been erected to his memory by the love of a former youthful generation. At Cambridge, among all the monuments which recall the glories of the past, Lord Byron's statue commands the rest, and occupies the place of honor. The rooms which he had there are shown and reverenced as places which have harbored genius. In Parliament the same man who formerly, by unjust and unmerited criticisms of the youthful poet, decried his growing genius, and who was guilty of other wrongs against him, has made an act of reparation and of justice by expressing publicly his regret that a grudge of the dean in Byron's time had prevailed to prevent a monument being erected in Westminster Abbey to the memory of the poet. The pilgrimage to Newstead is looked upon as an intellectual feast, if not as a duty, by young Englishmen, and his genius is so much revered by them that they do not admit that he is equalled by any contemporary poet or likely to be surpassed by those who follow. No doubt, therefore, England now-a-days only prefers what formerly she used to exact from her poets. Moore's culpable timidities and Macaulay's declamatory exaggerations must, at least, be looked upon as weaknesses of character, which would have been disowned by themselves, had they lived long enough to witness the change in public opinion.
Although full justice has not yet been done to the noble character of the man, still partial justice has been rendered to Byron's memory by the summary dismissal of the numerous false writings which appeared and which tended to replace the truth by the creations of fancy, and to put into the mouth of the poet the thoughts of their authors and not his own, or to insult him by a magnanimous defense, the honor and glory of which was to redound entirely to the writers. It is necessary to observe, that if Byron was openly calumniated during his lifetime, he was not less so after his death by disguised slander, especially by that kind of absolution which in reality is one of the most odious forms of calumny, since it is the most hypocritical and most difficult to deal with, and least likely to be touched. But England has at last understood the truth and settled all such opinions.
To England, therefore, these pages, which contain the rectification of certain old opinions, will be useless. But can the same be said of other countries, and of France especially? Even now-a-days, we read such fanciful appreciation of Byron's character that we could almost believe that the rumors and calumnies which came from England had never been refuted; and that extraordinary views expressed by Lamartine in beautiful verse are still entertained, and the question still asked, whether Byron was "a devil or an angel?" On reading such appreciations, it seems opportune to present those who admire genius and truth with a very humble but conscientious study of Byron's great mind.
Can it be objected, that the fact of the defense of a foreigner detracts from the interest of the reader? Can a genius be a stranger to man, and does not the earth seem too small to contain such exceptional beings?
Our civilization, which has almost suppressed every physical barrier that exists between the nations of the earth, has still further annihilated those of the intellect: so much so, that Shakspeare, Dante, Goethe, are as much revered in France as in their respective countries, notwithstanding the difference of the idioms in which they have written. The same will occur in respect to Lord Byron, whose name alone opposes every barrier, and against whom the difference of nationality can not form any obstacle. The language of genius is not of one country only, but appertains to humanity in general: and God Himself has implanted its rules in every heart.
This book is not a regular nor a methodical biography. Nor is it an apology; but rather a study, an analysis, the portrait of a great mind seen under all its aspects, with no other decided intention on the part of the writer than to tell the truth, and to rest upon indisputable facts and rely upon unimpeachable testimony.
The public now, it is said, can not bear eulogy, and cares only to know the weak points of great men. We do not believe this to be the case. It would be too severe a criticism of human nature in general, and of our times in particular. In any case, we can not accept the statement as correct, when applied to noble characters to whom we especially dedicate this work. It may be, the reader will find in our essay beauties which he had not yet observed, which have hitherto been disputed in the original, and which less sympathetic natures than ours might term complacent eulogies; but the fear of being blamed and of being unpopular shall not deter us from our intention of bringing them forth. No criticism can prevent our praising, when he deserves it, the man who never knew the weaknesses of jealousy, and who never failed to bestow eulogy upon every kind of talent without ever claiming any in return. In publishing the book we are, moreover, certain that what to-day may appear praise, to-morrow will be termed justice.
Lord Byron shone at a period when a school called Romantic was in progress of formation. That school wanted a type by which to mould its heroes, as a planet requires a sun to give it light. It took Byron as that type, and adorned him with all the qualities which pleased its fancy, but the time has more than arrived when it is necessary that truth should reveal him in his true light. My book is not likely to dispel every cloud, but a few shades only add to the lustre and brilliancy of a landscape.
"Others form the man: I tell of him."—MONTAIGNE.
At all times the world has been very unjust; and (who does not know it?) in the history of nations many an Aristides has paid with exile the price of his virtues and his popularity. Great men, great countries, whole nations, whole centuries, have had to bear up against injustice; and the truth is, that vice has so often taken the place of virtue, evil of good, and error of truth, some have been judged so severely and others so leniently, that, could the book of redress be written, not only would it be too voluminous, but it would also be too painful to peruse. Honest people would feel shame to see the judgments before which many a great mind has had to bend; and how often party spirit, either religious or political, moved by the basest passions—such as hatred, envy, rivalry, vengeance, fanaticism, intolerance, self-love—has been a pretext for disfiguring in the eyes of the public the greatest and noblest characters. It would then be seen how some censor (profiting by the breach which circumstances, or even a slight fault on the part of these great minds, may have made, and joining issue with other inferior judges of character) has often succeeded in throwing a shade on their glorious actions and in casting a slur upon their reputation, like those little insects which from their number actually succeed, notwithstanding their smallness, in darkening the rays of the sun. What is worse, however, is, that when history has once been erroneously written, and a hero has been put forward in colors which are not real, the public actually becomes accessory to the deception practiced upon it: for it becomes so enamored of the false type which has been held out to its admiration that it will not loosen its hold on it. Public opinion, once fixed, becomes a perfect despotism.
Never, perhaps, has this phenomenon shown itself more visibly and more remarkably than in the case of Lord Byron. Not only was he a victim of these obstinate prejudices, but in his case the annihilation of truth and the creation of an imaginary type have been possible only at the cost of common sense, and notwithstanding the most palpable contradictions. So that he has really proved to be one of the most curious instances of the levity with which human judgments are formed.
We have elsewhere described the various phases of this phenomenon, one of the principal causes of which has been the resolution to identify the poet with the first heroes of his poems. Such a mode of proceeding was as disloyal as it was contrary to all the received rules of literature. It was inspired by hatred and vengeance, adopted by an idle and frivolous public, and the result has proved to be something entirely opposed to the truth.
As long as such a whimsical creation was harmless, it amused Byron himself and his friends; but the day came when it ceased to be harmless without ceasing to be eccentric, and became to Byron a true robe of Nessus.
At his death the truth was demanded of his biographers; but the puppet which had been erected stood there, and amazed the good, while it served the malice of the wicked. His genius was analyzed, but no conscientious study of his character was made, and Byron, as man, remained an unknown personage.
Yet among his biographers there were men of upright and enlightened minds: they did not all seek to raise themselves at the cost of depreciating him, nor to gain popularity by sparing individuals at the expense of Lord Byron.
If among them many proved to be black sheep, there were several, on the other hand, who were sincere, and even kindly disposed. Yet not one did full justice to Byron, not one defended him as he deserved, not one explained his true character with the conscientious energy which in itself constitutes authority. We shall speak elsewhere of the causes which gave rise to this phenomenon. We shall mention the part which public opinion played in England when suddenly displeased with a poet who dared sound the deepest recesses of the human heart; and who as an artist and a psychologist was interested in watching the growth of every passion, and especially that of love, regardless of the conjugal felicity which that public wished him to respect. It began to fear that its enthusiasm for Lord Byron was a national crime, and by degrees became accessory to the calumnies which were heaped upon his noble character, on account of his supposed want of patriotism, and his refusal to be blind to the defects of the mother-country. We shall see how his biographers, preferring invention to strict adherence to the truth, compounded a Lord Byron such as not to be any longer recognizable, and to become even—especially in France—a caricature. Of all this we shall speak hereafter. We shall now rather point to the curious than to the unjust character of this fact, and notice the contradictions to which Byron's biographers have lent themselves.
All, or nearly all, have granted to him an infinity of virtues, and naturally fine qualities—such as sensitiveness, generosity, frankness, humility, charity, soberness, greatness of soul, force of wit, manly pride, and nobility of sentiment; but, at the same time, they do not sufficiently clear him of the faults which directly exclude the above-mentioned qualities. The moral man does not sufficiently appear in their writings: they do not sufficiently proclaim his character—one of the finest that was ever allied to a great intellect. Why? Are these virtues such that, like excellent and salutary substances, they become poisoned when placed in contact within the same crucible?
In this refusal to do justice there is contradiction; and as error exists where contradiction lies, it is precisely in that contradiction that we must seek the means of refuting error and assert the power of truth.
Nature always proceeds logically, and the effect is always in direct analogy with its cause. Even in the moral world the precise character of exact sciences must be found. If in a problem we meet with a contradiction, are we not certain that its solution has been badly worked out, and that we must begin it over again to find a true result? The same reasoning holds good for the moral spheres. When a judgment has been wrongly formed, that is, when there appears to be contradiction between various opinions, that judgment must be remodelled, the cause of the error must be looked for, truth must be separated from falsehood, and regard must be had to the law which obliges us to weigh impartially every assertion, and to discuss equally the ayes and noes. Let this be done for Lord Byron. Let us analyze facts, question the eye-witnesses of his life, and peruse his admirable and simply-written letters, wherein his soul has, so to say, photographed itself. Acts are unquestionably more significative than words; yet if we wish to inquire into his poetry, not by way of appreciating his genius (with which at present we have nothing to do), but the nature of the man, let us do so loyally. Let us not attribute to him the character which he lends to his heroes, nor the customs which he attributes to them, simply because here and there he has given to the one something of his manner, to the other some of his sentiments; or because he has harbored them, in the belief that hospitality can be extended to the wicked without the good suffering from it.
Let us first examine "Childe Harold,"—the poem which principally contributed to mystify the public, and commenced that despotic type of which we have already spoken.
Childe Harold does not tell his own story. His life is told by a poet. There are, therefore, two well-marked personages on the scene, perfectly distinct and different from one another. The first is the young nobleman in whom Byron intended to personify the precocious perversion of mind and soul of the age, and in general the blased existence of the young men of the day, of whom he had met many types at Cambridge, and on his first launch into society. The second is the minstrel who tells his story.
The heart of the former is closed to all joy and to all the finest impulses of the soul; whereas that of the other beats with delight at the prospect of all that is noble, great, good, and just in the world. Why identify the author rather with the one than with the other—with the former rather than with the latter? Why take from him his own sentiments, to give him those of his hero? That hero can not be called mysterious, since in his preface Byron tells us himself the moral object for which he has selected him. If Childe Harold personifies Lord Byron, who will personify the poet? That poet (and he is no other than Lord Byron) plays a far greater part than the hero. He is much oftener on the scene. In the greater part of the poem the minstrel alone speaks. In the ninety-three stanzas of which the first canto is composed, Harold is on the scene during nineteen stanzas only, while the poet speaks in his own name during the seventy-four other stanzas, displaying a beautiful soul under various aspects, and exhibiting no melancholy other than that inherent to all elevated poetry.
As for the second canto, it opens with a monologue of the minstrel, and Harold is forgotten until the sixteenth stanza. Then only does the melancholy hero appear, to disappear and reappear again for a few moments. But he rather seems to annoy the minstrel, who finishes at the seventy-third stanza by dismissing him altogether; and from that moment to the end of the canto the wretched and unamiable personage does not reappear. To whom, then, belong all the admirable sentiments and all the virtuous aspirations which we read of toward the end of the canto?—to whom, if not to the minstrel himself? that is, to Lord Byron. What poet has paid so noble a tribute to every virtue? Could that vigor and freshness of mind which breathe upon the lips of the poet, and which well belonged to him, suit the corrupted nature of Harold? If Byron dismisses his hero so often, it is because he experiences toward him the feelings of a logical moralist.
Why then identify Lord Byron with a personage he himself disowns as his prototype, both in his notes, in his preface, in his conversations; and who is proved by facts, by the poem itself, and by the poet's logical and moral reasoning, to be entirely different from his creation? It is true that Byron conceived the unfortunate idea of surrounding his hero by several incidents in his own existence, to place him in the social circle to which he himself belonged, and to give him a mother and a sister, a disappointed love, a Newstead Abbey like his own, and to make him travel where he had travelled and experience the same adventures.
That is true, and such an act of imprudence can only be explained, by the confidence on which he relied that the identification could never have been thought of. At twenty-one conscience speaks louder than experience. But if we can justify the accusation of his having been imprudent, can we justify his having been calumniated?
Eight years after the publication of the second canto, Byron wrote the third; and here the pilgrim occasionally appears, but so changed that he seems to have been merged into the poet, and to form with him one person only. Childe Harold's sorrows are those of Lord Byron, but there no longer exists any trace of misanthropy or of satiety. His heart already beats with that of the poet for chaste and devoted affections, for all the most amiable, the most noble, and the most sublime of sentiments. He loves the flowers, the smiling and glorious, the charming and sublime aspect of nature.
"Yet not insensible to all which here Awoke the jocund birds to early song In glens which might have made even exile dear; Though on his brow were graven lines austere, And tranquil sternness, which had ta'en the place Of feelings fiercer far but less severe, Joy was not always absent from his face, But o'er it in such scenes would steal with transient trace."
No longer, then, is satiety depicted upon the pilgrim's brow, but "lines austere;" and the poet seems so desirous of proving to us that Harold is metamorphosed, that when he expresses sentiments full of sympathy, humanity, and goodness, his horror for war and his dislike for the beauties of the Rhine, because—
"A thousand battles have assail'd thy banks,"
he takes care to add—
"Thus Harold inly said"....
Harold, then, has ceased to be the weary blase pilgrim of twenty-one, who in the first canto remains unmoved in presence of the attractions of Florence the beautiful, who inspired the poet with such different sentiments that in the midst even of a storm which threatens to swallow him up he actually finds strength enough to express his sentiments of real love for the lovely absent one—of a love, indeed, which is evidently returned. His heart, like the poet's, now beats with a pure love, and causes him to chant the absence of his friend in the most beautiful strain. Where is the old Harold? It would seem as if the poet, tired of a companion so disagreeable and so opposed to his tastes, and wishing to get rid of him but not knowing how, had first changed and moulded him to his own likeness by giving him his own sentiments, his own great heart, his own pains, his own affections, and, not finding the change natural, had dismissed him altogether. And so it appears, for after the fifty-fifth stanza of the third canto, Childe Harold disappears forever. Thus at the beginning of the fourth canto, which was published a year after, under the auspices of an Italian sky, the reader finds himself in the presence of the poet only. He meets in him a great and generous soul, but the victim of the most odious and unmerited persecution, who takes his revenge in forgiving the wrongs which are done to him, and who reserves all his energies to consecrate them to the love of that which is lovable, to the admiration of that which calls for it, and who at twenty-nine years of age is imbued with Christian and philosophical qualities, which his wearied hero could never have possessed.
Why then again have identified Byron with Childe Harold? For what reason? It strikes us, that the simplest notions of fairness require us at least to take into account the words of the author himself, and to listen to the protestations of a man who despised unmerited praise more than unjust reproof.
"A fictitious character," says Byron, "is introduced for the sake of giving some connection to the piece....
"It had been easy to varnish over his faults, to make him do more and express less, but he never was intended as an example, further than to show that early perversion of mind and morals leads to satiety of past pleasures and disappointment in new ones, and that even the beauties of nature and the stimulus of travel are lost on a soul so constituted, or rather misdirected.
"It has been suggested to me by friends, on whose opinions I set a high value, that in this fictitious character, 'Childe Harold,' I may incur the suspicion of having intended some real personage: this I beg leave once for all to disclaim—Harold is the child of imagination, for the purpose I have stated. In some very trivial particulars, and those merely local, there might be grounds for such a notion: but in the main points, I should hope, none whatever."
Warned by his friends of the danger which there was for him being identified with his hero, he paused before publishing the poem. He had written it rather by way of recreation than for any other motive; and when Dallas expressed to him his great desire to see the works published, Byron told him how unwilling he was that it should appear in print, and thus wrote to him, after having given way to Dallas's wishes in the matter:—
"I must wish to avoid identifying Childe Harold's character with mine. If in certain passages it is believed that I wished to identify my hero with myself, believe that is only in certain parts, and even then I shall not allow it. As for the manor of Childe Harold being an old monastic residence, I thought I might better describe what I have seen than what I invent. I would not for worlds be a man like my hero."
A year after, in writing to Moore on the occasion of dedicating his "Corsair" to him, after saying that not only had his heroes been criticised, but that he had almost been made responsible for their acts as if they were personal to himself, he adds:
"Those who know me are undeceived, and those who do not I have little interest in undeceiving. I have no particular desire that any but my acquaintance should think the author better than the beings of his imagining; but I can not help a little surprise, and perhaps amusement, at some odd critical exceptions in the present instance, when I see several bards in very reputable plight, and quite exempted from all participation in the faults of their heroes, who nevertheless might be found with little more morality than the Giaour; and perhaps—but no—I must admit Childe Harold to be a very repulsive personage, and as to his identity, those who like it must give him whatever alias they please."
And in order to embrace the whole of his life in these quotations, we will add what he said at Cephalonia, to Dr. Kennedy, shortly before his death:—
"I can not conceive why people will always mix up my own character and opinions, with those of the imaginary beings which, as a poet, I have the right and liberty to draw."
"They certainly do not spare your lordship in that respect," replied Kennedy; "and in 'Childe Harold,' 'Lara,' the 'Giaour,' and 'Don Juan,' they are too much disposed to think that you paint in many instances yourself, and that these characters are only the vehicles for the expression of your own sentiments and feelings."
"They do me great injustice," he replied, "and what was never before done to any poet.... But even in 'Don Juan' I have been misunderstood. I take a vicious and unprincipled character, and lead him through those ranks of society whose high external accomplishments cover and cloak internal and secret vices, and I paint the natural effects of such characters, and certainly they are not so highly colored as we find them in real life."
"This may be true," said Kennedy, "but the question is, what are your motives and object for painting nothing but scenes of vice and folly?"
"To remove the cloak which the manners and maxims of society," said his lordship, "throw over their secret sins, and show them to the world as they really are. You have not," added he, "been so much in high and noble life as I have been; but if you had fully entered into it, and seen what was going on, you would have felt convinced that it was time to unmask the specious hypocrisy, and show it in its native colors!"
Kennedy having then remarked that the lower and middling classes of society never entertained the opinion that the highest classes exhibited models of piety and virtue, and were, indeed, disposed to believe them worse than they really were, Byron replied:—
"It is impossible you can believe the higher classes of society worse than they are in England, France, and Italy, for no language can sufficiently paint them."
"But still, my lord, granting this, how is your book calculated to improve them, and by what right, and under what title do you too come forward in this undertaking?"
"By the right," he replied, "which every one has who abhors vice united with hypocrisy. My plan is to lead Don Juan through various ranks of society and show that wherever you go vice is to be found."
The doctor then observed, that satire had never done any good, or converted one man from vice to virtue, and that while his satires were useless, they would call upon his head the disapproval both of the virtuous and the wicked.
"But it is strange," answered Byron, "that I should be attacked on all sides, not only from magazines and reviews, but also from the pulpit. They preach against me as an advocate of infidelity and immorality, and I have missed my mark sadly in having succeeded in pleasing nobody. That those whose vices I depicted and unmasked should cry out is natural, but that the friends of religion should do so is surprising: for you know," said he, smiling, "that I am assisting you in my own way as a poet, by endeavoring to convince people of their depravity; for it is a doctrine of yours—is it not?—that the human heart is corrupted; and therefore if I show that it is so in those ranks which assume the external marks of politeness and benevolence,—having had the best opportunities, and better than most poets, of observing it,—am I not doing an essential service to your cause, by first convincing them of their sins, and thus enabling you to throw in your doctrine with more effect?"
"All this is true," said Kennedy; "but you have not shown them what to do, however much you may have shown them what they are. You are like the surgeon who tears the bandages from the numerous wounds of his ulcerated patients, and, instead of giving fresh remedies, you expose them to the air and disgust of every bystander, who, laughing, exclaims, 'How filthy these fellows are!'"
"But I shall not be so bad as that," said Lord Byron; "you shall see what a winding up I shall give to the story."
The end was to justify and give a moral to every thing. While reproving, however, this system of identification, which not only leads to error but also to calumny, can it, however, be denied that there was not some reason, if not to justify it, at least to explain it? To deny that there is, would, we think, be to commit another error. The nature of Lord Byron's genius, the circumstances of his life, the innate qualities of his heart and soul, were unquestionably aids to his detractors.
Upon the measure of the relations which existed between reality and fiction in his poems, and especially as applied to his own history, here are the words of Moore:—
"As the mathematician of old required but a spot to stand upon, to be able, as he boasted, to move the world, so a certain degree of foundation in fact seemed necessary to Byron, before that lever which he knew how to apply to the world of the passions could be wielded by him. So small, however, was, in many instances, the connection with reality which satisfied him, that to aim at tracing through his stories these links with his own fate and fortunes, which were after all, perhaps, visible but to his own fancy, would be a task as uncertain as unsafe; and this remark applies not only to the 'Bride of Abydos,' but to the 'Corsair,' 'Lara,' and all the other beautiful fictions that followed, in which, though the emotions expressed by the poet may be in general regarded as vivid recollections of what had at different times agitated his own bosom, there are but little grounds, however he might himself occasionally encourage such a supposition, for connecting him personally with the groundwork or incidents of the stories."
To analyze the analogies and differences which existed between the personal character of Byron and that of the poet would form a very curious psychological study. It would be even an act of justice toward his memory, but one which would prove too long, and would ill suit these pages. Let us merely declare, that both analogies and differences have existed, and that if the same can not be said of him as has been said of men of less renown, "the poet is different from the man," it must be allowed that in Byron the two characters were associated without being coupled. This association did not exist between himself and the creatures of his fancy, but merely with the principal features of his poetry, their energy and sensitiveness. As to certain analogies between his heroes, or between them and himself, when they really exist, they should be pointed out; the duty of criticism being to discern and to point to the nature and limits of these analogies.
When Byron began his travels, his genius ever sought an outlet. Too young to have as yet much experience, he had only made known what were his tendencies.
The education of his genius began in his childhood, on the romantic banks of the Dee and on the shores of the ocean; in the midst of the Scottish firs, in the house of his mother, which was peopled with relics of the past; and at Newstead Abbey, situated in the heart of the romantic forest of Sherwood, which is surrounded by the ruins of the great Norman abbeys, and teems with traditional recollections of Robin Hood. The character of that sympathetic chief of the outlaws, who was a nobleman by birth, and who was always followed by the lovely Marian, dressed up as a page; his generosity, his courage, his cleverness, his mixture of virtue and vice, his pride, his buoyant and chivalrous nature, his death even, which was so touching, must, to our mind, have produced a powerful impression upon one who, like Byron, was gifted with as much heart as imagination. At least the poet's fancy, if not the acts of the man himself, must have been influenced by these early impressions; and, no doubt, Conrad, and other heroes of his early poems, must have sprung from the poet's recollections of the legendary stories in the midst of which he had been nursed. In any case, however, the impressions which he had received did not affect his nature.
He had, notwithstanding his youthful years, been able to show the measure, not the tendency of his genius, as well as his aversion for all that is artificial, superficial, insipid, and effeminate; and he had proved that the two great characteristics of his nature were energy and sensitiveness.
An education thus begun was to be continued and matured during his first voyage among scenes the most poetical and romantic in the world; in the glorious East, where there exists a perpetual contrast between the passionate nature of man and the soft hue of the heavens under the canopy of which he lives.
The manners, character, ideas, and singular passions of those races, which civilization has not yet tamed down; their energy, which often betrays itself in the perpetration of the greatest crimes, and as frequently in the practice of the finest qualities; and the life which Byron was forced to lead among them, all produced a great impression upon his mind, and became precious materials to help the development of his intellect. In the same way that, as it has been said, Salvator Rosa's encounters with bandits contributed to the development of his talent, so did the adventures of Lord Byron during this first journey contribute to form his particular taste. Had he always remained in the midst of extremely civilized nations, in which poetry and the great passions are lost, and the heart too often becomes cold, his mind might have developed itself in a less brilliant and original manner.
It was this extraordinary union of energy and sensitiveness in Byron which was to determine the choice of subjects. No doubt the desire to produce an effect had a part in the selection, especially at the dawn of his genius; and this would seem evident in the picture of satiated pleasure as represented by Childe Harold, and in the strange nature of Manfred. But this is only a portion of the reality. His principal qualities were the real arbiters in the selection of subjects which he made. God has not given to us all the same voice. The largest trees—the oaks—require the help of storms to make their voices heard, while the reed only needs the help of the summer breeze.
Byron's attention was ever directed to what was uncommon, either in nature or in the human heart; either in good or in evil, either in the ordinary course of things or beyond its limits. To the study of placid nature he preferred that of that soul which, though less well regulated, yet rises superior to fortune by its energy and will.
The spark which lit up his genius could not live in that goodness which constituted the groundwork of his nature, but in passion, called forth by the sight of great misfortunes, great faults, great crimes, in fact, by the sight of all which attracted or repelled him, which was most in harmony with his energetic character, or at greatest variance with his sensitive nature. One of the motives which actuated his mind was sympathy—the other, antipathy; which exercised over him the same kind of fascination which the bird feels whom the serpent's glance has fascinated, or like the unaccountable impulse which causes a man to throw himself down the precipice on the verge of which he stands.
The various aspects of nature exercised a similar influence over him. With his exquisite sense of their beauties, Byron no doubt often described the enchanting climates in the midst of which he placed the action of his poems; but his pen had always a manly action, with a mixture of grace and vigor in it quite inimitable. His descriptions, however, always appeared to be secondary objects in his mind, and rather constituted the frames which encircled the man whom he wished to depict.
One would say that the soft beauties of a landscape and the playful zephyrs which caress the crests of little waves were too effeminate subjects for him to dwell upon. His preferences evidently point to the savage side of nature, to the struggles between physical forces, to the sublimities of the tempest, and almost, I would say, to a certain disorganization of nature; provided, of course, all is restored to order the moment such a disorganization threatens the existence of beauty in art or in the moral world.
At that time, what Byron could not find in his real and historical subject, he took from another reality, which was himself,—that is, his own qualities, the circumstances of his life, his tastes; without ever inquiring whether Conrad's fear at the sight of the mysterious drop of blood on Gulnare's forehead was that of Byron, whether the Venetian renegade Alp could really experience the horror which Byron did at Constantinople at the sight of dogs feasting upon human carcasses; or whether the association of the qualities with which he idealized his heroes would not induce psychologists to accuse him of sinning against truth, of destroying the unity of a Corsair's nature.
In this Lord Byron confided in his powers. He felt that the love of truth, and of what is beautiful, was too strong in him ever to depart from or cause him to violate the essential rules of art; but he wished to remain a poet while trusting in reality.
When he went to the East, and found himself there in contact with outward circumstances so in harmony with the natural bent of his views, and in presence of men like Ali Pasha, of whose victims he could almost hear the moans and the screams "in the clime"
"Where all save the spirit of man is divine; Where wild as the accents of lovers' farewell Are the hearts which they bear and the tales which they tell,"
he felt that he was at last in the land most likely to fire his natural genius, and to permit of his satisfying the imperious want which his observing mind constantly experienced of resting upon reality and upon truth. The terrible Ali Pasha of Yanina was especially the type which attracted his notice. "Ali Pasha," says Galt, "is at the bottom of all his Oriental heroes. His 'Corsair' is almost the history of Ali Pasha."
In the "Bride of Abydos" the old Giaffir is again Ali. As for "Lara," it is thought that Byron conceived him on being very strongly impressed by the sight of a nobleman who was accused of murder, and who was pointed out to him at the Cagliari theatre. "I always thought," says Galt, who was present on the occasion, "that this incident had a share in the conception of 'Lara,' so small are the germs which fructify genius." The "Giaour" is due to a personal adventure of Byron's, in which he played, as was his wont, a most energetic and generous part. The origin of "Manfred" lies in the midst of sublime Alpine scenery, where, on a rock, Byron discovered an inscription bearing the names of two brothers, one of whom had murdered the other at that spot. The history of Venice inspired him with Alp the renegade, who, disgusted with the unjust severities of his countrymen, turned Mohammedan and swore vengeance against the land of his birth.
It is, however, indispensable to remark, that in each of these characters there are two distinct realities. The one tries, by a display of too much energy, to overstep the limits of the natural; the other brings the subject back to its true proportions by idealizing it. The first is the result of the poet's observations of men and their customs, or of his study of history; the other, by the impossibility which he knows to exist in him of departing from the rules of art by pushing reality to the point of making of it a positive suffering. In the first case his heroes are like one another by their analogy in the use and abuse of strength; in the other they are like Byron, because he has almost instilled a portion of his own life into them, in order to idealize them.
Conrad is the real pirate of the AEgean Sea: independent, haughty, terrible in battle, full of energy and daring such as becomes the chief of corsairs, and such as Byron's study of the country where the action lies pointed out to him that such a man should be placed. But the poet describes himself when he makes Conrad, at the risk of his own life, save women from a harem, or shudder at the sight of a drop of blood on the brow of a lovely maiden. The spot on Gulnare's forehead, while causing him to suspect some crime, banishes all her charms in his eyes, and inspires him with the greater horror from the fact that the love which she had sworn him probably inspired her with the foul act, to save his life and restore him to liberty. He accuses himself with having been the involuntary cause of it, and feels that his gratitude will be a torture; his former love for Gulnare an impossibility. We find Byron's own nature again in the ascetic rule of life to which Conrad has subjected himself, and in his passionate and ideal tenderness for Medora, whose love, in his eyes, surpasses all the happiness of this world, and whose death plunges him into irretrievable despair.
In the "Siege of Corinth," Alp is the real type of the historical Venetian renegade, who is incapable of forgiveness, and who makes use of all his energies to gratify his revenge. But he represents Byron when he speaks of the impressions which he felt under the starry canopy of heaven the night before the battle, when his imagination, taking him back to the happy, innocent days of his childhood, he contrasts them with the present, which for him is one of remorse, and when there glimmer still in his soul faint lights of humanity which make him turn away from the horrible sight of dogs devouring the dead bodies of men.
Byron speaks in his own person in the introduction of the "Giaour," which is replete with most exquisite beauty. In it he opens to the reader unexplored fields of delight, leads him through delicious countries where all is joy for the senses, where all recollections are a feast for the soul, and where his love of moral beauty is as strongly marked in his praise of olden Greece, as is his condemnation of modern degraded Greece. Byron speaks again in his own name when he puts invectives in the mouth of the Mussulman fisherman, and makes him curse so strongly the crime of the Giaour and the criminal himself, whose despair is the expiation of his crimes and the beautiful triumph of morality.
In the "Bride of Abydos" (where the terrible Ali again comes forward in the shape of the old Giaffir) the amiable and unfortunate Selim and the poet share the real sentiments of Byron. Byron is also himself when he adorns his heroine with every grace and perfection of body and soul, and also whenever it is necessary to idealize in order that a too rigorous imitation of reality may not offend either the laws of art or the feelings of the reader. As for "Don Juan," it is only fair to say that he in a measure deserved the persecution which it brought upon him. Yet, if we judge the poem with no preconceived severity, we shall find that, with the exception of certain passages where he went beyond the limits prescribed to satire, from his hatred of hypocrisy, and also at times as a revenge against his persecutors, the poem is charming. These passages he intended to suppress, but death prevented him. This is greatly to be regretted, for otherwise "Don Juan" would have been the most charming satirical poem in existence, and especially had not the last four cantos, written in Greece, been destroyed. The scene lay in England, and the views expressed in them explained many things which can never now be known. In allowing such an act to be committed for the sake of sparing the feelings of some influential persons and national susceptibilities, Byron's friends failed in their duty to his memory, for the last four cantos gave the key to the previous ones, and justified them. From the moment Byron conceived "Don Juan" he steeled his heart against feeling; and he kept to his resolution not to give way to his natural goodness of disposition, wishing the poem to be a satire as well as an act of revenge. Here and there, however, his great soul pierces through, and shows itself in such a true light that Byron's portrait could be better drawn from passages of "Don Juan," than from any other of his poems. We have sufficiently proved, we think, that the uniform character of Byron's heroes, which has been blamed by the poet's enemies, was merely the reflection of the moral beauty which he drew from himself. It might almost be said that the qualities with which he had been gifted by Heaven conspired against him.
We have been led to dwell upon this phase of his literary career, at the risk even of tiring the patience of the reader, from the necessity which we believe exists to destroy the phantom of identification which has been invoked, and to explain the moral nature of Byron in its true light before analyzing the poet under other aspects. It is not in "Harold" or in "Conrad," nor in any of his Oriental poems, that we are likely to trace the moral character of Byron, for, although it would be easy to detach the author's sentiments from those of the personages of these poems, yet they might offer a pretext of blame to those who hate to look into a subject to discover the truth which does not appear at first sight. Nor is it in "Manfred"—the only one of his poems wherein, perhaps, reason may be said to be at fault, owing to the sickness under which his soul labored at the time when it was written, and to his diseased imagination, produced by solitude and unmerited grief. In his lyrical poems Byron's soul must be sought. There he speaks and sings in his own name, expresses his own sentiments, breathes his own thoughts; or, again, in his elegies and in his miscellaneous poems, in his dramas, in his mysteries, nay, even in his satires—the noble and courageous independence of which has never been surpassed by any satirist, ancient or modern—and generally in all the poems which he wrote in Italy, and which might almost be called his second form. In these poems no medium is any longer required between his soul and that of the reader. It is not possible any longer to make any mistake about him in these. The melancholy and the energy displayed in them can not serve any more to give him the mask of a Conrad, or of a Harold, or of a misanthrope, or of a haughty individual, but they place in relief what there is of tender, amiable, affectionate sublime in those chosen beings whom God occasionally sends upon earth to testify here below of the things above:—
"Per far di colassu fede fra noi."—PETRARCH.
Thus, in his elegy upon the death of Thyrza, "far too beautiful," says Moore, "and too pure to have been inspired by a mortal being," what pathos, what sensitiveness! What charm in his sonnets to Guinevre! What soft melancholy, what profound and intimate knowledge of the immortality and spirituality of our soul, in his Hebrew melodies! "They seem as though they had been inspired by Isaiah and written by Shakspeare," says the Very Rev. Dr. Stanley, Dean of Westminster. What touching family affection in his domestic poems, and what generosity in the avowal of certain wrongs! What great and moral feeling pervade the two last cantos of "Childe Harold," melancholy though they be, like all things which are beautiful! How one feels that the pain they tell of has its origin in unmerited persecution, and how his intellect came to his aid, and enabled him to bear with calmness the uncertainties incident to our nature! What greatness of soul in the forgiveness of what to others would seem unpardonable! What love of humanity and of its rights! What hatred of injustice, tyranny, and oppression in the "Ode to Venice," in "The Lament of Tasso," in "The Prophecy of Dante," and in general in all his latter poems, even in the "Isle," a poem little known, which was written a short time before he left Genoa for Greece. Here, more than in any other of his poems, we see the admirable peace of mind which he had created for himself, and how far too high his great intellect soared to be any longer moved by the world's injustice.
Quotations from his poems would be impossible. How choose without regretting what has been discarded? They must be read; and those must be pitied who do not feel morally better after having read them.
This is precisely what has been least done up to the present time: people have been content with reading his early poems, and with seeking Byron in "Childe Harold" or in the heroes of his Oriental poems; which is about as just as to look for Shakspeare in Iago, Milton in Satan, Goethe in Mephistopheles, or Lamartine in the blasphemies of his ninth Meditation.
Thus French critics,—disposed to identify the man with the imaginary beings of his poems, and neglecting to seek him where they could have found him, relying upon judgments formed in England, and too often by people prejudiced against Byron,—have themselves adopted false views with respect to the author and his works. Thus, again, poetry—which without any preconceived teaching or any particular doctrine of its own, without transgressing the rules laid down by art, moved the soul, purified and elevated it, and taught it to despise the base and cowardly desires of nature, and excited in it the admiration of all that is noble and heroic,—was declared to be suspicious even in France, because too often it had proclaimed openly the truth where one would have wished truth to have been disguised. Many would fain have thought otherwise, but they preferred remaining silent, and to draw from that poetry the poetical riches of which they might be in want.
Our intention being to consecrate a chapter to the examination of the moral tendency of Byron's poetry, we will not now say more. We must add, however, that these views which had been so easily adopted in France were not those of the majority of right-thinking persons in England, although they dared not proclaim their opinions then as they can now.
I shall only quote the opinion of two Englishmen of great merit (Moore and Sir Egerton Brydges), who can neither one nor the other be suspected of partiality; the first, on account of his great fear of ever wounding the susceptibilities of his countrymen, the other by the independence and nobility of his character.
"How few are the pages in his poems," says Moore, "even if perused rapidly, which by their natural tendency toward virtue, or some splendid tribute to the greatness of God's works, or by an explosion of natural piety more touching than any homily, do not entitle him to be admitted in the purest temple of which Christianity may have the keep!"—Moore, vol. ii.
Sir Egerton Brydges, after having fully appreciated the poems of Lord Byron, says:——
"They give to the reader's best instincts an impulse which elevates, purifies, instructs, charms, and affords us the noblest and purest of joys."—Sir E. Brydges, vol. x. p. 141.
These quotations perhaps will be found too many, but are they not necessary? Is truth which can be so easily changed equally easy to re-establish? Are not a thousand words wanted to restore a reputation which a light word or, may be, slight malice has tarnished? If the author of these pages only expressed individual opinions without adducing any proof, that is to say, without accompanying them with the disinterested and enlightened testimonies of people who have known Byron personally, these volumes might gain in interest by being condensed in a shorter space.
But in shortening the road would the author attain the desired end? would the self-imposed task be fulfilled? would his or her own convictions become those of others? Should not authors sacrifice themselves to their subject in all works inspired by a devoted spirit? Shall it be said that oftentimes one has wished to prove what had already been conceded by every body? that the value of the proofs adduced is lessened by the fact that they are nearly all already known? In answer, and without noticing the words "nearly all," he might say that, as truth has several aspects, one may almost, without mentioning new facts, arrive at being what might be called the guide in the tour round the soul, and fathom its depth in search of the reality; just as when we have looked at all the sides of a picture, we return to it, in order to find in it fresh beauties which may have escaped our notice on a first inspection. There are certain souls, to fathom which it is absolutely necessary to employ a retrospective method; in the same way that the pictures, for instance, of Salvator Rosa enchant on close inspection of the great beauties which in some lights seem hid by a mass of clouds.
"One can hardly employ too many means," says Ste. Beuve, "to know a man; that is, to understand him to be something more than an intellectual being. As long as we have not asked ourselves a certain number of questions about such and such an author, and as long as they have not been satisfactorily answered, we are not sure of having completely made him out, even were such questions to be wholly irrelevant to the subjects upon which he has written.
"What did he think upon religious matters?
"How did the aspect of nature affect him?
"How did he behave in regard to women?
"How about money?
"What rules did he follow?
"What was his daily life? etc., etc.
"Finally, what was his peculiar vice and foible? Every man has one.
"Not one of these questions is unimportant in order to appreciate an author or his book, provided the book does not treat of pure mathematics; and especially if it is a literary work, that is to say, a book wherein there is something about every thing."
Be this opinion of an eminent critic our rule and an encouragement to our efforts.
We are well aware that in France, now-a-days, writers do not like to use the same materials in describing a character as are used by other nations, and especially by England. A study of this kind in France must not be a judgment pronounced upon the individual who is the object of it, and still less an inquiry. The qualities and defects of a man of genius do not constitute the principal business of the artist. Man is now rather examined as a work of art or as an object of science. When reason has made him out, and intellectual curiosity has been satisfied, the wish to understand him is not carried out further. The subject is abandoned, lest the reader may be tired.
This may be good reasoning in many cases; but in the present perhaps the best rule is "in medio tutissimus." When a good painting is spoilt by overpolish, to wash the polish off is not to restore it to its former appearance. To arrive at this last result, however, no pains should be spared; and upon this principle we must act with regard to Byron. In psychological studies the whole depends upon all the parts, and what may at first seem unimportant may prove to be the best confirmation of the thesis. To be stopped by details (I might almost say repetitions) would therefore be to exhibit a fear in adducing proof.
Can it be said that we have not sufficiently condemned? To add this interest to the volume would not have been a difficult task.
To attack is easier than to defend; but we should then have had to invent our facts, and, at the same time, to add romance to history.
The world, says a great moralist of our times, prefers a vice which amuses it rather than a virtue which bores it; but our respect for the reader convinces us that the adoption of such a means of arriving at success would forfeit their respect for us and be as repugnant to their sense of justice as to our own. As regards Byron, the means have more than once been employed, and with the more success by those who have united to their skill the charms of style.
But in claiming no talent, no power to interest, and in refusing to appear as an author from motives of pusillanimity, idleness, or self-love, is one less excusable for hiding the truth when one is acquainted with it?
If it is the duty of a man of honor and a Christian to come to the rescue of a victim to violence when it is in one's power, is it not incumbent upon one to raise a voice in the defense of those who can no longer resent an insult, when we know that they are wrongly accused? To be silent under such circumstances would be productive of remorse; and the remorse is greater when felt on the score of those whose genius constitutes the monopoly of the whole world, and forms part of the common treasure of humanity, which enjoins that it should be respected.
Is not their reputation a part of the inherited treasure? To allow such reputation to be outraged would, in our minds, be as culpable as to hide a portion of a treasure which is not our own.
"Truth," says Lamartine, "does not require style. Its light shines of itself; its appearance is its proof."
In publishing these pages, written conscientiously and scrupulously, we confide in the opinion expressed above in the magic language of the man who can create any prestige. If the reader finds these guarantees of truth sufficient, and deigns to accept our conscientious remarks with indulgence and kindness; if, after examining Byron's character under all its aspects, after repeating his words, recalling his acts, and speaking of his life—especially of that which he led in Italy—and mentioning the various impressions which he produced upon those who knew him personally, we are justified in the reader's opinion in having endeavored to clear the reality from all the clouds which imagination has gathered round the person of Byron, and in trying to earn for his memory a little sympathy by proclaiming the truth, in place of the antipathy which falsehood has hitherto obtained for him, our object will have been obtained.
To endeavor to restore Byron's reputation is the more necessary, since Moore himself, who is his best biographer, failed not only in his duty as a friend, but as the historian of the poet's life: for he knew the truth, and dared not proclaim it. Who, for instance, could better inform us of the cause which led to Byron's separation from his wife? And yet Moore chose to keep the matter secret.
Who was better acquainted with the conduct of Byron's colleagues at the time of his conjugal differences—with the curious proposals which were made to him by them to recover their good graces—with his refusal to regain them at such a cost—with the persecution to which he was, after that, subjected—with the names of the people who instigated a popular demonstration against him—with all the bad treatment which obliged him to quit England? And yet has Moore spoken of it?
Who, better than Moore, could tell of the friends on whom Byron relied, and who at the time of his divorce sided with Lady Byron, and even went so far as to aggravate the case by falsely publishing reports of his having ill-treated Lady Byron and discharged loaded guns in order to frighten her?
Who was better acquainted with the fact that the last cantos of "Don Juan," written in Greece, had been destroyed in England, and that the journal which he kept after his departure from Genoa had been destroyed in Greece? Moore knew it very well, and did not reveal these facts, lest he should create enemies for himself. He actually went so far as to pretend that Byron never wrote any thing in Greece.
Who better than Moore knew that Byron was not irreligious?—And yet he pretended that he was. And finally, Who was better aware that Byron's greatest aim was to be useful to humanity, and yet encouraged the belief that Byron's expedition to Greece was purely to satisfy the desire that people should speak of him as a superior man? In a few words, Moore has not made the best of Byron's qualities, has kept silence over many things which might have enhanced his character in public opinion; and wished, above all, to show the greatness of his poetical genius, which was never questioned. One would almost say that Moore did not like Byron to be too well spoken of: for whenever he praises, he ever accompanies the praise with a blame, a "but" or an "if;" and instead of openly contradicting accusations which he knew to be false, and honestly proclaiming the truth, he, too, preferred to excuse the poet's supposed shortcomings. Moore was wanting in courage. He was good, amiable, and clever; but weak, poor, and a lover of rank—where, naturally, he met with many political enemies of Byron. He, therefore, dared not then tell the truth, having too many interests to consider. Hence his concessions and his sluggishness in leaving the facts as they were; and in many cases, when it was a question between the departed Byron and one of his high detractors, the one sacrificed was the dead friend who could no longer defend himself. All such considerations for the living were wrongs toward the memory of Byron.
The gravest accusation, however, to which Moore is open is, that he did not preserve the Memoirs which Byron gave him on the sworn condition that nothing should prevent their publication. The promise thus given had restored peace to Byron's mind, so confident was he that it would be fulfilled. To have broken his word is a crime for which posterity will never forgive Moore. Can it be alleged, by way of excuse, that he gave extracts from it? But besides the authenticity of the extracts, which might be questioned, of what value can be a composition like Moore's in presence of Byron's very words? No one can pretend to be identified with such a mind as Byron's in the expression of his own feelings; and, least of all, a character like Moore's.
The "Memoirs," then, which were the justification of Byron's life; the last cantos, which were the justification of the poet and of the man; the journal, which showed his prudence and sagacity beyond his age, which by the simple relation of facts proved how he had got rid of all the imperfections of youth, and at last become the follower of wisdom, so much so that he would have been one of the most virtuous men in England—all have been lost to the world: they have descended with him into the tomb, and thus made room for the malice of his detractors. Hence the duty of not remaining silent on the subject of this highly-gifted man.
In restoring, however, facts to their true light, we do not pretend to make Byron appear always superior to humanity in his conduct as a man and a poet. Could he, with so sensitive and passionate a nature as his was, and living only that period when passions are strongest, have always acted as those who from age no longer are affected by them? If it is easy not to give way to our passions at seventy, is it equally so at twenty or at thirty?
Persecuted as he was, could Byron be expected to remain unmoved? If his passion for truth made him inexorable in some of his poems; if his passion for justice allowed his pen at times to go beyond the limits which it should have respected; if even at times he was unjust, because he had been too much injured and irritated,—he undoubtedly would have compensated for his involuntary and slight offenses, had he not been carried off so early.
As for the imperfection of these pages,—once we have dissipated error, and caused truth to be definitely received as regards Byron,—an abler pen can easily correct it, and do away with the numberless repetitions with which we are aware we shall be reproached. We could not do otherwise, as we wished to multiply proofs. Others, some day, will achieve what we have been unable to perform.
Our work is like the stream which falls from the mountain and is filled with ooze: its only merit is to swell the river into which it runs. But, sooner or later, a stronger current will purify it, and give clearness and brilliancy to it, without taking from it the merit of having increased the bulk of the waters.
Such as it is, we dedicate this humble work to the noble souls who worship truth. They will feel that we have been able to place them in a more intimate connection with another great mind, and thus we shall have gained our reward.
[Footnote 1: He often told and promised his friends at Genoa that he would alter the passages which are unjust and reprehensible, and that, before it was finished, "Don Juan" would become a chaste and irreproachable satire.]
"His manner was perhaps the more seductive, Because he ne'er seemed anxious to seduce; Nothing affected, studied, or constructive Of coxcombry or conquest: no abuse Of his attractions marr'd the fair perspective, To indicate a Cupidon broke loose, And seem to say, 'Resist us if you can'— Which makes a dandy while it spoils a man.
"Don Juan was without it; In fact, his manner was his own alone: Sincere he was——
"By nature soft, his whole address held off Suspicion: though not timid, his regard Was such as rather seem'd to keep aloof, To shield himself than put you on your guard.
"Serene, accomplish'd, cheerful, but not loud, Insinuating without insinuation; Observant of the foibles of the crowd, Yet ne'er betraying this in conversation; Proud with the proud, yet courteously proud, So as to make them feel he knew his station And theirs:—without a struggle for priority He neither brook'd nor claim'd superiority.
"That is with men: with women he was what They pleased to make or take him for."—Canto xv.
"There was the purest Platonism at bottom Of all his feelings."—Canto x.]
[Footnote 3: Ste. Beuve, "Nouveaux Lundis," vol. iii. p. 28.]
[Footnote 4: When the persecution to which Lord Byron was exposed by his separation had attained its greatest height, an influential person—not belonging to the peerage—came to visit him, and told him that, if he wished to see how far the folly of men went, he had only to give orders for having it shown that nothing said against him was true, but that then he must change politics and come over to the Tory party. Lord Byron replied that he would prefer death and all kinds of tortures to such meanness. Hereupon the person in question said that he must suffer the consequences, which would be heavy, since his colleagues were determined on his ruin, out of party spirit and political hatred. It was at this time that, going one day to the House, he was insulted by the populace, and even treated in it like an outlaw. No one spoke to him, nor approached to give any explanation of such a proceeding, except Lord Holland, who was always kind to him, and indeed to every one else. Others—such as the Duke of Sussex, Lord Minto, Lord Lansdowne and Lord Grey—would fain have acted in a like manner; but they suffered themselves to be influenced by his enemies, among whom more than one was animated by personal rancor because the young lord had laughed at them and shown up their incapacity.
Lord Byron, finding himself received in this way by his colleagues, pretended not to see it, and after a few moments quitted the House, never more to set foot within it.]
[Footnote 5: Lord Byron's mind, incapable of idleness, was constantly at work, even despite himself and amid pressing active occupations. During his stay in the Ionian Islands, Missolonghi, he wrote five cantos of Don Juan. The scene of the cantos that followed was laid first in England and then in Greece. The places chosen for the action naturally rendered these last cantos the most interesting, and, besides, they explained a host of things quite justifying them. They were taken to England with Lord Byron's other papers; but there they were probably considered not sufficiently respectful toward England, on which they formed a sort of satire too outspoken with regard to living personages, and doubtless it was deemed an act of patriotism to destroy them. And so the world was deprived of them.
Lord Byron had also kept a journal since the day of his departure from Genoa up to the time when illness made the pen drop from his hand. To it he had consigned his most intimate thoughts; and we may well imagine how full of interest it must have been, written amid all the emotions agitating his soul at that time. This journal was found among his papers by a personage of high standing in Greece, who was the first to inspect them, and who, seeing his own name and conduct mentioned in no flattering terms, destroyed them in order to hide from England the unvarnished truth told of himself. Count Gamba often speaks of this journal in the letters addressed at this period to his sister.
We leave the reader to make his own comments on these too regrettable facts.]
LORD BYRON AND M. DE LAMARTINE.
To Count de ——.
Paris, 17th June, 1860.
MY DEAR COUNT,—Confiding in your willingness to oblige, I beg to ask a favor and your advice. I received, a short time ago, a prospectus of a subscription to be raised for a general addition of the works of M. de Lamartine. You are aware that when it is a question of showing my sympathy for M. de Lamartine I would never miss the opportunity of doing so; but on this occasion I see on the programme the promise of a Life of Lord Byron. Such an announcement must alarm the friends of that great man; for they remember too vividly the sixteenth number of the "Cours Litteraire" to subscribe hastily to a work when they have not more information than is therein given. You, who forget nothing, must probably remember the strange judgment of Byron formed by M. de Lamartine in that article. Identifying the man with the poet, and associating his great name with that of Heine on account of some rather hazardous lines in "Don Juan," and forgetting the license allowed to such poetry—an imitation of the Italian poets Berni, Ariosto, Pulci, Buratti—M. de Lamartine did not forget a few personal attacks upon himself, and called Byron the founder of the school for promoting satanic laughter, while he heaped upon him the most monstrous accusations. M. de Lamartine ventured to say of Byron things which even his greatest enemies never dared to utter at that time when in England it was the custom to revile him. Although the time has not yet come when Lord Byron's life should be written, since the true sources of collecting information respecting him are unattainable so long as the people live to whom his letters were addressed, still it is easy to perceive that the time has at length arrived when in England the desire to do him justice and fairly to examine his merits is felt by the nation generally. Moore, Parry, Medwin, etc., have already attempted to make known the character of the man as distinct from that of the poet. They no longer sought to find in him a resemblance with Childe Harold, or the Corsair, or Manfred, or Don Juan, nor to judge of him by the conversations in which he sought to mystify those with whom he conversed; but they judged him by his acts and by his correspondence.
If so happy a reaction, however, is visible in England the same can not be said of France, where there being no time to read what is published elsewhere, an error is too soon embraced and ingrafted on the mind of the public as a consequence of a certain method which dispenses with all research. Hence the imaginary creation which has been called Byron, and which has been maintained in France notwithstanding its being wholly unacceptable as a portrait of the man, and totally different from the Byron known personally to some happy few who had the pleasure of beholding in him the handsomest, the most amiable of men, and the greatest genius whom God has created.
But M. de Lamartine, who wishes particularly to show the character of the man, instead of adding to the numerous proofs of courage and grandeur of mind which he has personally shown to the world—that of confessing that he has erred in his judgment of Byron—endeavors to study him only in his works. But in doing this, and even though a moral object may be found in each of Byron's works, it strikes us that M. de Lamartine would have done better to pursue this line in the analysis of the intellectual part of the man, and not the moral side.
"You err" (wrote Byron to Moore on the occasion of the latter saying that such a poem as the "Vision of Judgment" could not have been written in a desponding mood): "a man's poetry is a distinct faculty or soul, and has no more to do with the every-day individual than the inspiration of the Pythoness when removed from her tripod." To which Moore observes: "My remark has been hasty and inconsiderate, and Lord Byron's is the view borne out by all experience. Almost all the tragic and gloomy writers have been, in social life, mirthful persons. The author of the 'Night Thoughts' was a fellow of infinite jest; and of the pathetic Otway, Pope says, 'He! why, he would laugh all the day long; he would do nothing but laugh!'"
It is known that many licentious writers have led very regular and chaste lives; that many who have sung their success with women have not dared to declare their love to one woman; that all Sterne's sentiment was perfectly ideal, and proceeded always from the head and never from the heart; that Seneca's morality was no barrier to his practicing usury; and that, according to Plutarch, Demosthenes was a very questionable moralist in practice. Why, then, necessarily conclude that a moralist is a moral man, or a sarcastic satirist a deceitful one, or the man who describes scenes of blood and carnage a monster of cruelty? Does not Montaigne say of authors that they must be judged by their merits, and not by their morals, nor by that show of works which they exhibit to the world? Why, then, does M. Lamartine appreciate Byron according to his satirical works, when all those who knew him assert that his real character was very different to his literary one? He did not personify, but create his heroes; which are two very different things.
Like Salvator Rosa, who, the meekest of men in private life, could only find a vent to his talent by painting scenes of brigandage and horror, so did Byron's genius require to go down into the darkest recesses of the passions which generate remorse, crime, and heroism, to find that spark which fired his genius. But it must be owned, that even his great qualities were causes of the false judgment of the world upon him. Thus, in describing Childe Harold, he no doubt wished to paint a side of nature which had not yet been seen. At the scenes of despair, at the scenes of doubt which assail him, the poet assists rather as the historian than as the actor. And the same holds good for other poems, where he describes those peculiar diseases of the mind which great geniuses alone can comprehend, though they need not have experienced them. But it was the very life which he infused into his heroes that made it appear as if they could not personify any one but himself. And as to their faults, because he was wont to give them his qualities, it was argued, that since the latter were observable to be common to the author and the creations of his fancy, the faults of these must likewise be his. If only the faults, why not also the crimes? Thus it came that, caring little for their want of argument, Byron's enemies erected themselves into avengers of too much talent bestowed upon one single man.
Byron might have taken up his own defense, but did not care to do so, or did it carelessly in some letters written to intimate friends. To Moore he wrote:—"Like all imaginative men, I, of course, embody myself with the character while I draw it; but not a moment after the pen is from the paper." He always, however, begged that he might be judged by his acts; and a short time before he died at Missolonghi, after recommending Colonel Stanhope to desist from then pressing the necessity of giving liberty to the press, and from recommending the works of Bentham to a people who could not even read, Byron replied to the colonel's rather hasty remarks, "Judge me by my acts." This request he had often repeated, as his life was not one of those which fear the light of day. All in vain. His enemies were not satisfied with this means of putting an end to their calumnies.
Where does M. de Lamartine find the truth which he proposes to tell the world about Byron? Not surely among the writers whose biographies of Byron were either works of revenge or of speculation, and sometimes both. Not in the conversations which Byron had with several people, and on the credulity of whom he loved to speculate. It can not, therefore, be in the biographies of men who have written erroneously, and have not understood their subject; but in Moore, in Parry, in Count Gamba's works, and, may be, in a few others. I am, however, far from saying, that Moore has acted toward Lord Byron with all that friendly feeling which Byron recommended to him on asking him to write the Life of Sheridan, "without offending the living or insulting the dead." Quite the contrary. I take it that Moore has wholly disregarded his duties as a true friend, by publishing essentially private letters, by introducing into his books certain anecdotes which he might, if even they were true, have advantageously left out; and in failing, from fear of wounding living susceptibilities, to assert with energy that which he knew to be the real case with Byron. More than any one, Moore experienced the fatal influence which injures independence in aristocratic England. An Irishman by birth, and a commoner, Moore was flattered to find himself elevated by his talents to a position in aristocratic circles which he owed to his talents, but which he was loath to resign. The English aristocracy then formed a kind of clique whose wish it was to govern England on the condition that its secret of governing should not be revealed, and was furious with Byron, who was one of them, for revealing their weaknesses and upbraiding their pretensions. Moore wished to live among the statesmen and noblemen whose despotic views and bad policy Byron had openly condemned, and among those lovely islanders in whose number there might be found more Adelinas than Auroras, and to whom Byron had preferred foreign beauties. Moore, in short, wished to live with the literary men whom Byron had ridiculed in his satires, and among the high clergy, then as intolerant as they were hypocritical, and who, as Byron said, forgot Christ alone in their Christianity. Moore, whose necessity it had become to live among these open revilers and enemies of Byron, after allowing the memoirs of Byron to be burnt, because in them some of the above-named personages were unmasked, this Moore was weak enough not to proclaim energetically that Byron's character was as great as his genius, but to do so only timidly. By way of obtaining pardon even for this mite of justice to the friend who was gone, Moore actually condescended to associate himself with those who pleaded extenuating circumstances for Byron's temper, like Walter Scott and other poets. But truth comes out, nevertheless, in Moore; and in the perusal of Byron's truthful and simple letters we find him there displayed in all his admirable and unique worth as an intellectual and a moral man. We find him adorned with all the virtues which Heaven gave him at his birth; his real goodness, which neither injustice nor misfortune could alter; his generosity, which not only made him disbelieve in ingratitude, but actually incited him to render good for evil and obliged him to own that "he could not keep his resentments;" his gratitude for the little that is done for him; his sincerity; his openness of character; his greatness and disinterestedness. "His very failings were those of a sincere, a generous, and a noble mind," says a biographer who knew him well. His contempt for base actions; his love of equity; his passion for truth, which was carried almost to a hatred of cant and hypocrisy, were the immediate causes of his want of fairness in his opinion of himself and of his self-accusation of things most contrary to his nature.
So singular a trait in his character was by no means the result of eccentricity, but the result of an exceptional assembly of rare qualities which met for the first time in one man, and which, shining in the midst of a most corrupt society, constituted almost more an anomaly which became a real defect, hurtful, however, to himself only. His ideal of the beautiful magnified weaknesses into crimes, and physical failings into deformities. Thus it is that with the saints the slightest transgression of the laws appears at once in the light of mortal sin. St. Augustin calls the greediness of his youth a crime. The result of all this was that his very virtues mystified the world and caused it to believe that the faults which he attributed to himself were nothing in comparison of those which he really had.
Byron, however, was indignant at being so unfairly treated. He treated with contempt the men who calumniated him, and as if they were idiots. He can safely, therefore, be blamed for not urging enough his own defense. This, to my mind, constitutes his capital fault, unless one considers defects of character those changes of humor which rapidly passed from gayety to melancholy, or his pretended irritability, which was merely a slight disposition to be impatient. These were all the result of his poetical nature, added to the effects of early education and to those of certain family circumstances. It would be too hard and too unfair to attribute these slight weaknesses of character proper to great genius to a bad nature or to misanthropy.
Had Lord Byron not been impatient he must have been satisfied with his own condition and indifferent to that of others. In other words, he must have been an egotist, which he was not. He was gay by nature, and repeatedly showed it; but he had been sorely wounded by the injustice of men, and his marriage with Miss Milbank had undermined his peace and happiness. How, then, could he escape the occasional pangs of grief, and not betray outwardly the pain which devoured him inwardly. In such moments it was a relief to him to heave a sigh, or take up a pen to vent his grief in rhyme. His misanthropy was quite foreign to his nature. All those who knew him can bear testimony to the falseness of the accusation.