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
Look'd to the winged Lion's marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!
Man! I wonder what a man really is! Starting from a single cell, this seized upon by another, and out of the Eternal comes a particle of the Divine Energy that makes these cells its home. Growth follows, cell is added to cell, and there develops a man—a man whose body, two-thirds water, can be emptied by a single dagger-thrust and the spirit given back to its Maker.
This being, which we call man, does not last long.
Fifty-seven generations have come and gone since Cæsar trod the Roman Forum. The pillars against which he often leaned still stand, the thresholds over which he passed are there, the pavements ring beneath your tread as they once rang beneath his. Three generations and more have come and gone since Napoleon trod the streets of Toulon contemplating suicide.
Babes in arms were carried by fond mothers to see Lincoln, the candidate for President. These babes have grown into men, are grandfathers possibly, with whitened hair, furrowed faces, looking calmly forward to the end, having tasted all that life holds in store for them.
And yet Lincoln lived but yesterday! You can reach back into the past and grasp his hand, and look into his sad and weary eyes.
A man! weighted with the sins of his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, who fade off into dim spectral shapes in the dark and dreamlike past; no word of choice has he in the selection of his father and mother, no voice in the choosing of environment—brought into life without his consent and thrust out of it against his will—battling, striving, hoping, cursing, waiting, loving, praying; burned by fever, torn by passion, checked by fear, reaching for friendship, longing for sympathy, clutching—nothing.
Doctors and priests attend us at both ends of the route. We can not be born, neither can we die, without consulting the tax-collector, and interviewing those who look after us for a consideration.
The doctor who sought to assist George Gordon Byron into the world dislocated the bones of his left foot in the operation. Forsooth, this baby would not be born as others—-he selected a way of his own and paid the penalty. "It is a malformation—take these powders—I'll be back tomorrow," quoth the busy doctor.
The autopsy proved it was not a malformation, but a displacement.
"Doctor, now please tell me just what is the matter with me," once asked an anxious patient.
"Tut, tut!" replied the absent-minded physician; "can't you wait? The post-mortem will reveal all that."
The critics did not wait for Byron's death—it was vivisection. And after his death the dissection was zealously continued. Byron's life lies open to us in many books. Scarcely a month in the entire life of the man is unaccounted for, and if a hiatus of a few weeks is found, the men of imagination fill in and make him a pirate on the Mediterranean coast, or give him a seraglio in some gloomy old Moorish palace in Venice.
In his lifetime Byron was overpraised and overcensured, and since his death the dust has been allowed to gather over his matchless books. Between the two extremes lies the truth; and the true Byron is just now being discovered. Byron in literature will not die. He is the brightest comet that has darted into our ken since Shakespeare's time; and as comets have no orbit, but are vagrants of the heavens, so was he. Tragedy was in his train, and his destiny was disgrace and death.
And yet as we review the life of this man, "the lame brat" of his mother, as this mother called him, and behold the whirlwind of passion that swept him on, the fulsome praise, the shrill outcry of hypocritical prudes and pedants, the torrent of abuse, and the piling up of sins that he never committed (and God knows he committed enough!); and yet behold his craving for tenderness, the reaching out for truth, and hear his earnest and unquenchable prayer to be understood and loved, we blot out the record of his sins with our tears. To know the life of Byron and not be moved to profoundest pity marks one as alien to his kind.
"God is on the side of the most sensitive," said Thoreau. And did there ever tread the earth a man more sensitive than Byron?—such capacity for suffering, such exaltation, such heights, such depths! Music made him tremble and weep, and in the presence of kindness he was powerless. He lived life to its fullest, and paid the penalty with shortened years. He expressed himself without reserve—being emancipated from superstition and precedent. And the man who is not dominated by the fetish of custom is marked for contumely by the many. Custom makes law, and the one who violates custom is "bad." Yet all respectable people are not good; and all good people are not respectable. If you do not know this you are ignorant of life.
So imagine this handsome, headstrong, restless young man, in whose lexicon there was no such word as prudence, with time and money at his command, defying the state, society and religion, and listen to the anathemas that fill the air at mention of his name.
That a world full of such men would not be at all desirable is stern truth; but that one such man lived is a cause for congratulation. His life holds for us both warning and example.
Beneath the strain of the stuff and the onward swirl of his verse we see that this man stood for truth and justice as against hypocrisy and oppression. Folly and freedom are better far than smugness and persecution. Byron stood for the rights of the individual, for the right of free speech and free thought: and he stood for political and physical freedom, long before abolition societies became popular. He sided with the people; his heart went out to the oppressed; and all of his fruitless gropings and stumblings were a reaching out for tenderness and truth, for life and love—for the Ideal.
The father of Byron, the poet, was a captain in the army—a man of small mental ability, whose recklessness won him the sobriquet of "Mad Jack Byron." When twenty-three years of age he eloped to France with the Baroness Conyers, wife of the Marquis of Carmarthen. Happiness, in a foreign country, for a woman who has exchanged one love for another is outside the pale of possibilities. Love is much—but love is not all. Life is too short to break family-ties and adjust one's self to a new language and a new country. The change means death.
Two years and the woman died, leaving a daughter, Augusta by name, afterward Mrs. Augusta Leigh.
Back to England went Mad Jack Byron, broken-hearted, bearing in his arms the baby girl. Kind kinsmen, ready to forgive, cared for the child. Mad Jack didn't remain broken-hearted long—what would you expect from a man? He sought sympathy among several discreet dames, and in two years we find him safely and legally married to Catherine Gordon. Scotch, and heiress to twenty-five thousand pounds. On the occasion of the wedding, Jack informed a friend that the fact of the lady's being Scotch was forgiven in view of the dowry. Most of this fortune went into a rat-hole to help pay the debts of the Mad Jack.
One child was born to this ill-assorted pair—a boy who was destined to write his name large on history's page. But such a pedigree! No wonder the youth once wrote to Augusta, his half-sister, expressing a covetous appreciation of her parentage, even with its bar sinister. In passing, it is well to note the sunshine of this love of brother and sister, which continued during life—confidential, earnest, tender, frank. In their best moods they were both lofty souls, and their mutuality was cemented in a contempt for the man who was their sire. This fine brotherly and sisterly affection comes close to us when we remember that it was our own Harriet Beecher Stowe, with sympathies worn to the quick through much brooding over the wrongs of a race in bondage, who rushed into print with a scandalous accusation concerning this same sweet affection of brother for sister. The charge was brought on no better foundation than some old-woman gossip held over the hyson when it was red, and moved itself aright—all vouchsafed to Mrs. Stowe by the widow of Byron in Eighteen Hundred Fifty-six. If a woman as good at heart as Harriet Beecher Stowe was deceived, why should we blame humanity for biting at a hook that is not baited?
No sane dentist will administer an anesthetic to a woman, without a witness: not that women as a class are dangerous, but because some women can not be trusted to distinguish between their dreams and the facts. Every practising lawyer of insight also knows that a wronged woman's reasons are plentiful as blackberries, and must always be taken with large pinches of the Syracuse product.
Mad Jack followed his regiment here and there, dodging his creditors, and finally in Seventeen Hundred Ninety-one induced his wife to borrow a hundred pounds for him, with which he started to Paris intent on retrieving fortune with pasteboard.
He died on the way, and the money was used to bury him. The lame boy was then three years old, but a few dark memories, no doubt retouched by hearsay, were retained by him of Mad Jack, who in his most sober moments never guessed that he would be known to the ages as the father of the greatest poet of his time.
Mad Jack was neither literary nor psychic.
The widowed mother remained at Aberdeen with her boy, living on the hundred and fifty pounds a year that had been settled on her in a way that she could not squander the principal—all the rest had gone.
The child was shy, sensitive, proud and headstrong.
The mother used to reprove him by throwing things at him, and by chasing him with the tongs. At other times she diverted herself by imitating his limp. And yet again she would smother him with caresses, beseech his pardon for abusing him, and praise the beauty of his matchless eyes.
Children are usually better judges of grown-ups than grown-ups are of children. This boy at five years of age had estimated his mother's character correctly. He knew that she was not his steadfast friend, and that she was unworthy of his confidence and whole heart's love. He grew moody, secretive, wilful. Once, being wrongly accused and punished, he seized a knife from the table and was about to apply it to his throat when he was disarmed. The child longed for tenderness and love, and being denied these, was already taking on that proud and haughty temper which was to serve as a mask to hide the tenderness of his nature.
We are told that seven brothers Byron fought at Edgehill, but when we get down to the time of Mad Jack there was danger of the name being snuffed out entirely. Nature is not anxious to perpetuate the idle and dissipated.
When little George Gordon was ten years old, his mother one day ran to him, seized him in her arms, wept and laughed, then laughed and wept, kissing him violently, addressing him as "My Lord!"
His great-uncle, William, Lord Byron of Rochdale and Newstead Abbey, had died, and the big-eyed, lame boy was the nearest heir—in fact, the only living male who bore the family-name. The next day at school, when the master called the roll and mentioned his name with the prefix "Dominus," the lad did not reply "Adsum"—he only stood up, gazed helplessly at the teacher, and burst into tears.
Even at this time he had given promise of the quality of his nature, by his firm affection for Mary Duff, his cousin. All the intensity of his childish nature was centered in this young woman, several years his senior. To call it a passion would be too much, but this child, denied of love at home, clung to Mary Duff, to whom he went in confession with all his childish tales of woe. When his mother proposed to leave Aberdeen, now that fortune had smiled, the anguish of the boy at thought of leaving his "first love" nearly caused him a fit of sickness.
And all this wealth of love was met with jeers and loud laughter, save by Mary Duff. The vibrating sensitiveness of such a child, with such a mother, must have caused a misery we can only guess.
"Your mother is a fool," said a boy to Byron at college some years later.
"I know it," was the melancholy answer, as the brown eyes filled with tears.
When money came, Mrs. Byron's first move was to take the lad to Nottingham and place him in charge of a surgical quack, who proposed, for a price, to make the lame foot just as good as the other, if not better. To this effect wooden clamps were placed on the foot and screwed down by thumbscrews, causing a torture that would have been unbearable to many.
No benefit was experienced from the treatment, although it was continued by another physician at London soon after. A schoolfellow of Byron's visited him in his room when his foot was encased in a wooden compress. The visitor noted the white face, and the beads of anguish on the boy's forehead, and at last said, "I know you are suffering awfully!"
"You will never hear me say so," was the grim reply.
The emphasis placed on Byron's lameness has been altogether overdone. In fact, as he grew to manhood, it was nothing more than a stiffness that would never have been noticed in a drawing-room. We have this on the testimony of the Countess Guiccioli, Lady Blessington and others. Byron himself made the mistake of referring to it several times in his verse, and doubtless all the torture he had suffered through ill-considered medical counsel, and his mother's taunts, caused the matter to take a place in his sensitive mind quite out of its due proportion. Sir Walter Scott was lame, too, but whoever heard of his discussing it, either by word of mouth or in print?
Of Byron's life at Harrow we have many tales as to his defending his juniors, volunteering to take punishment for them—and of lessons unlearned. He could not be driven nor forced, and pedagogics a hundred years ago, it seemed, was largely a science of coercion. Mary Gray, a nurse and early teacher of Byron's, has told us that kindness was the unfailing touchstone with this boy; no other plan would work. But Harrow knew nothing of Froebel methods, and does not yet.
Byron's first genuine love-affair occurred when he was sixteen. The object of this affection, as all the world knows, was Miss Chaworth, whose estate adjoined Newstead. The lady was two years older than Byron, and being of a lively nature found a pleasant diversion in leading the youth a merry chase. So severe was his attack that he was alternately oppressed by chills of fear and fevers of ecstasy. He lost appetite, and the family began to fear for his sanity. Such a love must find expression some way, and so the daily stealthy notes to the young woman took the form of rhyme. The lovesick youth was revealing considerable facility in this way. It pleased him, and did the buxom young woman no harm.
Beyond the mere prettiness and pinky whiteness of a healthy country lass, Miss Chaworth evidently had no beauties of character, save those conjured forth from the inner consciousness of the poet—a not wholly original condition.
Byron loved the Ideal. And this love-affair with Miss Chaworth is only valuable as showing the evolution of imagination in the poet. The woman hadn't the slightest idea that she was giving wings to a soul—to her the affair was simply funny.
The fact that Byron's great-uncle, from whom he had inherited his title, had killed the grandfather of Miss Chaworth in a duel, lent a romantic tinge to the matter—the boy was doing a sort of penance, and in one of his poems hints at the undoing of the sin of his kinsman by the lifelong devotion that he will bestow. This calling up the past, and incautious revealing of the fact that the ancestor Chaworth could not hold his own with a Byron, but allowed himself to be run through the body by the Byron cold steel, was not pleasing to Miss Chaworth.
"Don't imagine I am such a fool as to love that lame boy," cried Miss Chaworth to her maid one day.
Unluckily, "the lame boy" was in the next room and heard the remark.
He rushed from the house with a something gripping at his heart. Straightway he would go back to Harrow, which he had left in wrath only a few months before.
So he went to Harrow.
When he next returned home, his mother met him with the remark, "I have news for you; get out your handkerchief—Miss Chaworth is married."
In just another year Byron was home again, and was invited to dine with the Chaworths. He accepted the invitation, and when he was introduced to a baby girl, a month old, the child of his old sweetheart, his emotions got the better of him and he had to leave the room. And to ease his woe he indited a poem to the baby.
Miss Chaworth was not happy with her fox-hunting squire. Her mind became clouded, and after some years she passed out, in poverty and alone. And if there ever came to her mind any appreciation of the greatness of the man who had given her name immortality, we do not know it.
The years from Eighteen Hundred Five to Eighteen Hundred Eight Byron spent at Cambridge. The arts in which he perfected himself there were shooting, swimming, fencing, drinking and gambling.
During vacations, and off and on, he lived at Southwell, a village halfway between Mansfield and Newark. Southwell was sleepy, gossipy, dull—and exerted a wholesome restraint on our restless youth. It was simply a question of economy that took Byron and his mother to Southwell. The run-down estate of Newstead was yielding a meager income, but at Southwell one could be shabby and yet respectable.
At Southwell Byron met John Pigot and his sister—cultured people of a refined and quiet sort. Byron took to them at once, and they liked him.
In a country town the person who thinks, instinctively hunts out the other man who thinks—granting the somewhat daring hypothesis that there are two of them. So Byron and the Pigots often met for walks and talks, and on such occasions the poet would read to his friends the scraps of verse he had written. He had gotten into the habit—he wrote whenever his pulse ran up above eighty—he wrote because he could not help it; and he read his productions to his friends for the same reason. Every one who writes longs to read his work to some sympathetic soul. A thought is not ours until we repeat it to another, and this crying need of expression marks every poetic soul. All art is born of feeling, high, intense, holy feeling, and the creative faculty is largely a matter of temperature. We feel, and not to impart our feelings is stagnation—death. People who do not feel deeply never have anything to impart, either to individuals or to the world. They have no message.
The young man, fresh from the dusty, musty lectures of Cambridge, and out of the reach of his boisterous and carousing companions, grasped at the gentle, refined and sympathetic friendship of this brother and sister. The trinity would walk off across the fields and recline on the soft turf under a great spreading tree, reading aloud by turn from some good book. Such meetings always ended by Byron's reading to his friends any chance rhymes he had written since they last met.
John Morley dates the birth of Byron's poetic genius from his meeting with Miss Chaworth, while Taine names Southwell as the pivotal point. Probably both are right.
But this we know, that it was the Pigots who induced Byron to collect his rhymes and have them printed. This was done at the neighboring town of Newark, when Byron was nineteen years old. Possibly you have a few of these thin, poorly printed, crudely bound little books entitled "Juvenilia" around in the garret somewhere, and, if so, it might be well enough to take care of them. Quaritch says they are worth a hundred pounds apiece, although in the poet's lifetime they were dear at sixpence.
Byron sent copies to all the leading literary men whom he knew, including Mackenzie, the man of feeling. Mackenzie replied, praising the work, and so did several others. All writers of note are favored with many such juvenilia, and usually there is a gracious electrotype reply. A doubt exists as to whether Mackenzie ever read Byron's book, but we know that his letter of stock platitude fired Byron to do still better. It is said that no flattery is too fulsome for a pretty woman—she inwardly congratulates the man on his subtle insight in discovering excellences that she hardly knew existed. This may be so and may not, but the logic holds when applied to fledgling authors. When it comes to praise he is quite willing to take your word for it.
Byron's spirits arose to an ecstacy—he would be a poet.
About this time we find Hydra, as Byron pleasantly called his mother, rushing to the village apothecary and warning that worthy not to sell poison to the poet; and a few moments after her leaving, the astonished apothecary was visited by the poet, who begged that no poison should be sold to his mother. Each thought the other was going to turn Lucretia Borgia, or play the last act of Romeo and Juliet, at least.
There were wild bursts of rage on the mother's part, stubborn mockery on the other, followed up once by a poker flung with almost fatal precision at the poet's curly head.
Upon this he took flight to London and Hydra followed, repentant and lacrimose. A truce was patched up; they agreed to disagree, and coldly shaking hands withdrew in opposite directions.
After this, when the poet wrote he addressed his mother as "Dear Madam," and confined himself to business matters. Only rarely was there any flash in his letters, as when he said, "Dear Mother—you know you are a vixen, but save me some champagne." If Byron's mother had been of the stuff of which most mothers are made, we would have found these two safely settled at Newstead, making the best of their battered fortune, with the son in time marrying some neighbor lass, and slipping into the place of a respectable English gentleman, a worthy member of the House of Lords.
But the boy, now grown twenty, had no home, and either was supplied too much money or else too little. He wasted his substance in London, economized in Southwell, sponged on friends, and borrowed of Scrope Davis at Cambridge. When a remittance again came, he explored the greenrooms, took lessons from Professor Johnson, the pugilist (referred to as "my corporeal pastor"), drank whole companies under the table, bought a tame bear and a wolf to guard the entrance of Newstead, and roamed the country as a gipsy, in company with a girl dressed in boy's clothes, thus supplying Richard Le Gallienne an interesting chapter in his "Quest of the Golden Girl."
But all this time his brain was active, and another book of poetry had been printed, entitled "Hours of Idleness." This book was gotten out, at his own expense, by the same country printer as the first.
Surely the verse must have had merit, or why should Lord Brougham, in the great "Edinburgh Review," go after it with a slashing, crashing, damning criticism?
When Byron read the review, a bystander has told us he turned red, then livid green. He straightway ordered and drank two bottles of claret, said nothing, but looked like a man who had sent a challenge.
A challenge! that was exactly what Byron proposed. He would fight Jeffrey first, and then take up in turn every man who had ever contributed to the magazine—he would kill them all. And to that end he called for his pistols and went out to practise firing at ten paces. Wiser counsel prevailed, and he decided to attack the enemy in their own citadel, and with their own weapons. He ordered ink, and began "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers."
It took time to get this enormous siege-gun into position and find the range. Finally, it was loaded with more kinds of missiles, in the way of what Augustine Birrell has called literary stinkpots, than were ever before rammed home in a single charge.
It was an audacious move—to reverse the initiative and go after a whole race of critics, scribblers and reviewers, who had been badgering honest folks, and blow 'em into kingdom come.
But at the last moment Byron's heart failed him, his wrath gave way to caution, and "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers" appeared anonymously.
The edition was soon exhausted—the shot had at least raised a mighty dust.
The author got his nerve back, fathered the book, made corrections; and this edition, too, sold with a rush. Byron returned to Newstead, invited a score of his Cambridge cronies, who came down, entering the mansion between the bear and the wolf, and were received with salvos of pistol-shots. Here they played games over the spacious grounds, wrestled, boxed, swam, and at night feasted and drank deep damnation out of a skull to all Scotch reviewers.
Probably the acme of this depravity was reached when the young gentlemen began shooting the pendants off the chandelier; then the servants hastily decamped and left the rogues to do their own cooking.
This brought them to their senses, sanity came back, and the company disbanded. Then the servants, who had watched the orgies from afar, returned and found a week's pile of dishes unwashed and a horse stabled in the library.
Then Byron had reached the mature age of twenty-one, he was formally admitted to the House of Lords as a Peer of the realm. His titles and pedigree were so closely scanned on this occasion that he grew quite out of conceit with the noble company, and was seriously thinking of launching a dunciad in their direction. His good nature was especially ruffled by Lord Carlisle, his guardian, who refused to stand as his legal sponsor. The chief cause of the old Lord's prejudice against the young one lay in the fact that the young 'un had ridiculed the old 'un's literary pretensions.
They were rivals in letters, with a very beautiful, natural and mutual disdain for each other.
Lord Byron was not welcomed into the House of Lords: he simply pushed in the door because he had a right to. He thirsted for approbation, for distinction, for notoriety. His sensitive soul hung upon newspaper clippings with feverish expectations; and about all the attention he received was in the line of being damned by faint praise, or smothered with silence. Patriotism, as far as England was concerned, was not a part of Byron's composition.
When all Great Britain was execrating Napoleon, picturing him as a devil with horns and hoofs, Byron looked upon him as the world's hero.
In this frame of mind he went forth and borrowed a goodly sum, and started cut to view the world. He was accompanied by his friend Hobhouse, and his valet, Fletcher.
It was a two years' trip, this jolly trio made—down along the coast of France, Spain, through the Straits of Gibraltar, lingering in queer old cities, mousing over historic spots, alternately living like princes or vagabonds. They frolicked, drank, made love to married women, courted maidens, fought, feasted and did all the foolish things that sophomores usually do when they have money and opportunity.
These months of travel supplied Byron enough in way of suggestion to keep him writing many moons. His active imagination seized upon everything picturesque, peculiar, romantic, sentimental or tragic, and stored it up in those wondrous brain-cells, to be used when the time was ripe.
The disciples of Munchausen, who delight in showing Byron's verse to be only biography, have found a rich field in that two years' travel. One man really did a brilliant thing—in three volumes—recounting the conquering march of the poet, whom he depicts as a combination of Don Juan and Rob Roy.
The probabilities are that the real facts, not illumined by fancy, would be a tale with which to conjure sleep. Foreign travel is hard work. It constitutes the final test of friendship, and to make the tour of Europe with a man and not hate him marks one or both of the parties as seraphic in quality. The best of travel is in looking back upon it from the dreamy quiet and rest of home—laughing at the things that once rasped your nerves, and enjoying, through recollection, the scenes you only glanced at wearily.
Two instances of that trip—when Hobhouse threatened to desert the party and was dared to do so, and Byron slapped Fletcher's face and got himself well kicked in return—will suffice to show how Byron had the faculty of seizing trivial incidents, and by lifting them up and separating them from the mass, made them live as Art.
At Athens the trio made a sudden resolve to be respectable, and practise economy. To this end they hired rooms of a worthy widow, who accommodated travelers with a transient home for a moderate stipend. This widow had three daughters: the eldest, Theresa by name, lives in letters as the Maid of Athens, and the glory that came to her was achieved without any special danger to either her heart or the poet's. The young woman, we know, assisted in the household affairs; and probably often dusted the mantel in the poet's room while he sat smoking with one foot on the table, making irrelevant remarks to her about this or that.
Suddenly he wrote a poem, "Maid of Athens, ere we part, give, O give me back my heart." * * *
With the genuine literary thrift that marked all of Byron's career, he preserved a copy of the lines, and some years after recast them, touched them up a bit, included the stuff in a book—and there you are.
The other incident is that of Hobhouse recording in his journal the bare and barren fact that outside the city wall in Persia they once saw two dogs gnawing a human body. Byron saw the sight, but made no mention of it at the time. He waited, the scene sealed up in his brain-cells. Years after he wrote thus:
"And he saw the lean dogs beneath the wall,
Hold o'er the dead their carnival;
Gorging and growling o'er carcass and limb,
They were too busy to bark at him.
From a Tartar's skull they stripped the flesh,
As ye peel the fig when its fruit is fresh;
And their white tusks crunched on the whiter skull,
As it slipped through their jaws when the edge grew dull."
And this only proves that Hobhouse was not a poet and Byron was. The poet is never content to state the mere facts—facts are only valuable as suggestions for poetry.
Travel often excites the spirit to the point of expression. Good travelers carry pads and pencils. Byron reached England with fragments of marbles, skulls, pictures, shells, spears, guns, curios beyond count, and many manuscripts in process.
Upon arriving on the English coast the first news that reached him was that his mother had just died. He hastened to Newstead and reached there in time to attend the funeral, but refrained from following the cortege to the grave because he could not master his emotions. Their quarrels were at last ended.
A diversion to his feelings came soon after, in the way of a blunt letter from Tom Moore demanding if Lord Byron was the author of "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers."
Byron replied very stiffly that he was, but he really had intended no insult to Mr. Moore, with whom he had not the honor of being acquainted. Furthermore, if Mr. Moore felt himself aggrieved, why, the author of "English Bards" was at his service to supply him such satisfaction as he required.
The irate Irishman accepted "the apology," a genial reply followed, and soon the poets met at the house of a friend, and there began that lifelong friendship, with the result that Moore wrote Byron's "Life" and used much needless whitewash.
While abroad Byron had gotten into shape for publication one piece of manuscript. This was "Hints From Horace," and the matter was placed in the hands of Mr. Dallas, his businessman, very soon after his arrival. Dallas read the poem and did not like it.
"Haven't you anything else?" asked Dallas.
"Oh, nothing but a few stanzas of Spenserian stuff," was the answer.
Dallas asked to see it, and there were placed in his hands rough drafts of the first and second cantos of "Childe Harold." This time Dallas was better suited, and to corroborate his judgment the matter was submitted to Murray, the publisher.
Murray thought the matter had more or less merit, and arrangements were at once made for its publication. And so it came out, hammered into shape while in the printer's hands.
"Childe Harold" was an instantaneous, brilliant success—a success beyond the publisher's or author's expectations. The book ran through seven editions in four weeks, and Lord Byron "became famous in a night."
London society became Byron-mad. The poet was feted, courted, petted.
He indulged in much innocent and costly dissipation, and some not so innocent.
Finally all this began to pall upon him. When twenty-six we find him making a bold stand for reform: he would get married and live a staid, sober, respectable life. His finances were reduced—all the money he had made out of his books had been given away, prompted by a foolish whim that no man should take pay for the product of his mind.
Now he would marry and "settle down"; and to marry a woman with an income would be no special disadvantage. To sell one's thoughts was abhorrent to the young man, but to marry for money was quite another thing. Morality depends upon your point of view.
The paradox of things found expression when Byron the impressionable, Byron the irresistible, sat himself down and after chewing the end of his penholder, wrote a letter to Miss Milbanke, with whom he was only slightly acquainted, proposing marriage. The lady very properly declined. To be courted with a fresh-nibbed pen, and paper cut sonnet-size, instead of by a live man, deserves rebuke. Men who propose by mail to a woman in the next town are either insincere, self-deceived, or else are of the sort whose pulse never goes above sixty-five, and therefore should be avoided.
Byron was both insincere and self-deceived. He had grown to distrust the emotions of his heart, and so selected a wife with his head. He chose a woman with income, one who was strong, cool-headed, safe and sensible. Miss Milbanke was the antithesis of his mother.
The lady declined—but that is nothing.
They were married within a year.
In another year the wife left her husband and went back to her mother, carrying in her arms a girl baby, only a few weeks old.
She never returned to her husband.
What the trouble was no one ever knew, although the gossips named a hundred and one reasons—running from drunkenness to homicide. But Byron, the world now knows, was no drunkard—he was at times convivial, but he had no fixed taste for strong drink. He was, however, peevish, impulsive, impetuous and often very unreasonable.
Byron, be it said to his credit, brought no recriminating charges against his wife. He only said their differences were inexplicable and unexplainable.
The simple facts were that they breathed a different atmosphere—their heads were in a different stratum. His normal pulse was eighty; hers, sixty-five.
What do you think of a spiritual companionship where the wife demands, "How much longer are you going to follow this foolish habit of writing verses?"
They did not understand each other. Byron uttered words that no man should voice to a woman, and his outbursts were met with a forced calmness that was exasperating. The lady sat down, yawned wearily, and when there came a lull in the gentleman's verbal pyrotechnics, she would ask him if he had anything more to say.
One day she varied the program by packing up her effects and leaving him.
Of course, it is easy to say that had this woman been wise she would have stood the childish outbursts and endured the peevish tantrums, for the sake of the hours of tenderness and love that were sure to follow. By right treatment he would have been on his knees, begging forgiveness and crying it out with his head in her lap very shortly. But all this implies a woman of unusual power—extraordinary patience. And this woman was simply human. She left, and then in order to justify her action she gave reasons. Our actions are usually right, but our reasons for them seldom are.
Mrs. Byron made no concealment of her troubles. Society had occasion for gossip and the occasion was improved. Stories of Byron's cruelty and inhumanity filled the coffeehouses and drawing-rooms; and the hints at crimes so grave they could not even be mentioned gave the gossips their cue.
The press took it up, and the poet was warned by his friends not to appear at the theater or upon the street for fear of the indignation of the mob. The spoilt child of London was paying the penalty of popularity. The pendulum had swung too far and was now coming back.
Byron, hunted by creditors, hooted by enemies, broken in health, crushed in spirit, left the country—left England, never to return alive.
When Byron trod the deck of the good ship bound for Ostend, and saw a strip of tossing, blue water separating him from England, his spirits rose. He was twenty-eight years old, and the thought that he would yet do something and be somebody was strong in his heart. All the old pride came back.
The idea that he would not sell the product of his brain for hire was abandoned, and soon after arriving in Holland he began to write letters home, making sharp bargains with publishers.
Further than this, his attorneys, on his order, made demand for a share of his wife's estate. And erelong we find Byron, the wasteful, cultivating the good old gentlemanly habit of penuriousness. He was making money, and had he lived to be sixty it is probable he would have evolved into a conservative and written a book on "Getting on in the World, or Success as I Have Found It."
Byron's pilgrimage down through Germany, along the Rhine to Switzerland, was one of rest and recreation. At Berne, Basle, Lausanne and Geneva he found food for literary thought, and many instances in his writings show the reflected scenes he saw. No visitor at Lausanne fails to visit the Castle of Chillon, and all the guides will recite you these sweeping lines, so surcharged with feeling, beginning:
"Lake Leman lies by Chillon's walls;
A thousand feet in depth below,
Its many waters meet and flow."
At Geneva began the most interesting friendship between Byron and that other young man, so like and yet so unlike him.
Only a few years and Byron was to search the shores of the Mediterranean for Shelley's dead body, and finding it, be one of the friends who reduced it to ashes.
Tiring of Geneva and the tourists who pointed him out as a curiosity, we find Byron and his little party making their way across the Simplon, to cross which is an epoch in the life of any man, and then down by the Lago Maggiore to Milan.
"The Last Supper" of Leonardo da Vinci did not impress Byron—the art of painting never did—this was his most marked limitation. From Milan they wandered down through Italy to Verona and Venice.
The third Canto of "Childe Harold," "Manfred," and dozens of shorter poems had been sent to Murray. England read and paid for all that Byron wrote, and accepted it all as autobiography. Possibly Byron's defiant manner lent an excuse for this, but by applying similar rules we could convict Sophocles, Schiller and Shelley of basest crimes, put Shakespeare in the dock for murder, Milton for blasphemy, Scott for forgery, and Goethe for questionable financial deals with the devil. Byron's sins were as scarlet and the number not a few, but the moths that came just to flit about the flame were all of mature age. Byron set no snares for the innocent, and in all of the man's misdoings, he himself it was who suffered most.
The Countess Guiccioli, it seems, was the only woman who comprehended his nature sufficiently to lead him in the direction of peace and poise. With her, for the first time, he began to systematize his life on a basis of sanity. They lived together for five years, and from the time he met her until his death no other love came to separate them.
Throughout his life Byron was a man in revolt; and it was only a variation of the old passion for freedom that led him to Greece and to his grave. The personal bravery of the man was proven more than once in his life, and on the approach of death he was undismayed. When he passed away, April Nineteenth, Eighteen Hundred Twenty-four, Stanhope wrote, "England has lost her brightest genius—Greece her best friend."
His body was returned to England, denied burial in Westminster, and now rests in the old church at Hucknall, near Newstead.