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Chapter 7

HOW COULD SHE LOVE HIM?


It has seemed, to some, wholly inconsistent, that Lady Byron, if this
story were true, could retain any kindly feeling for Lord Byron, or any
tenderness for his memory; that the profession implied a certain
hypocrisy: but, in this sad review, we may see how the woman who once had
loved him, might, in spite of every wrong he had heaped upon her, still
have looked on this awful wreck and ruin chiefly with pity. While she
stood afar, and refused to justify or join in the polluted idolatry which
defended his vices, there is evidence in her writings that her mind often
went back mournfully, as a mother's would, to the early days when he
might have been saved.

One of her letters in Robinson's Memoirs, in regard to his religious
opinions, shows with what intense earnestness she dwelt upon the unhappy
influences of his childhood and youth, and those early theologies which
led him to regard himself as one of the reprobate. She says,--


'Not merely from casual expressions, but from the whole tenor of Lord
Byron's feelings, I could not but conclude that he was a believer in
the inspiration of the Bible, and had the gloomiest Calvinistic
tenets. To that unhappy view of the relation of the creature to the
Creator I have always ascribed the misery of his life.

'It is enough for me to know that he who thinks his transgression
beyond forgiveness . . . has righteousness beyond that of the self-
satisfied sinner. It is impossible for me to doubt, that, could he
once have been assured of pardon, his living faith in moral duty, and
love of virtue ("I love the virtues that I cannot claim"), would have
conquered every temptation. Judge, then, how I must hate the creed
that made him see God as an Avenger, and not as a Father! My own
impressions were just the reverse, but could have but little weight;
and it was in vain to seek to turn his thoughts from that fixed idea
with which he connected his personal peculiarity as a stamp. Instead
of being made happier by any apparent good, he felt convinced that
every blessing would be turned into a curse to him . . . "The worst of
it is, I do believe," he said. I, like all connected with him, was
broken against the rock of predestination. I may be pardoned for my
frequent reference to the sentiment (expressed by him), that I was
only sent to show him the happiness he was forbidden to enjoy.'


In this letter we have the heart, not of the wife, but of the mother,--the
love that searches everywhere for extenuations of the guilt it is forced
to confess.

That Lady Byron was not alone in ascribing such results to the doctrines
of Calvinism, in certain cases, appears from the language of the Thirty-
nine Articles, which says:--


'As the godly consideration of predestination, and our election in
Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly
persons, and such as feel in themselves the workings of the spirit of
Christ; . . . so, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the spirit
of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God's
predestination, is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth
thrust them either into desperation, or into recklessness of most
unclean living,--no less perilous than desperation.'

Lord Byron's life is an exact commentary on these words, which passed
under the revision of Calvin himself.

The whole tone of this letter shows not only that Lady Byron never lost
her deep interest in her husband, but that it was by this experience that
all her religious ideas were modified. There is another of these letters
in which she thus speaks of her husband's writings and character:--


'The author of the article on "Goethe" appears to me to have the mind
which could dispel the illusion about another poet, without
depreciating his claims . . . to the truest inspiration.

'Who has sought to distinguish between the holy and the unholy in that
spirit? to prove, by the very degradation of the one, how high the
other was. A character is never done justice to by extenuating its
faults: so I do not agree to nisi bonum. It is kinder to read the
blotted page.'


These letters show that Lady Byron's idea was that, even were the whole
mournful truth about Lord Byron fully told, there was still a foundation
left for pity and mercy. She seems to have remembered, that if his sins
were peculiar, so also were his temptations; and to have schooled herself
for years to gather up, and set in order in her memory, all that yet
remained precious in this great ruin. Probably no English writer that
ever has made the attempt could have done this more perfectly. Though
Lady Byron was not a poet par excellence, yet she belonged to an order of
souls fully equal to Lord Byron. Hers was more the analytical mind of
the philosopher than the creative mind of the poet; and it was, for that
reason, the one mind in our day capable of estimating him fully both with
justice and mercy. No person in England had a more intense sensibility
to genius, in its loftier acceptation, than Lady Byron; and none more
completely sympathised with what was pure and exalted in her husband's
writings.

There is this peculiarity in Lord Byron, that the pure and the impure in
his poetry often run side by side without mixing,--as one may see at
Geneva the muddy stream of the Arve and the blue waters of the Rhone
flowing together unmingled. What, for example, can be nobler, and in a
higher and tenderer moral strain than his lines on the dying gladiator,
in 'Childe Harold'? What is more like the vigour of the old Hebrew
Scriptures than his thunderstorm in the Alps? What can more perfectly
express moral ideality of the highest kind than the exquisite
descriptions of Aurora Raby,--pure and high in thought and language,
occurring, as they do, in a work full of the most utter vileness?

Lady Byron's hopes for her husband fastened themselves on all the noble
fragments yet remaining in that shattered temple of his mind which lay
blackened and thunder-riven; and she looked forward to a sphere beyond
this earth, where infinite mercy should bring all again to symmetry and
order. If the strict theologian must regret this as an undue latitude of
charity, let it at least be remembered that it was a charity which sprang
from a Christian virtue, and which she extended to every human being,
however lost, however low. In her view, the mercy which took him was
mercy that could restore all.

In my recollections of the interview with Lady Byron, when this whole
history was presented, I can remember that it was with a softened and
saddened feeling that I contemplated the story, as one looks on some
awful, inexplicable ruin.

The last letter which I addressed to Lady Byron upon this subject will
show that such was the impression of the whole interview. It was in
reply to the one written on the death of my son:--


'Jan. 30, 1858.

'MY DEAR FRIEND,--I did long to hear from you at a time when few knew
how to speak, because I knew that you had known everything that sorrow
can teach,--you, whose whole life has been a crucifixion, a long
ordeal.

'But I believe that the Lamb, who stands for ever "in the midst of the
throne, as it had been slain," has everywhere His followers,--those
who seem sent into the world, as He was, to suffer for the redemption
of others; and, like Him, they must look to the joy set before
them,--of redeeming others.

'I often think that God called you to this beautiful and terrible
ministry when He suffered you to link your destiny with one so
strangely gifted and so fearfully tempted. Perhaps the reward that is
to meet you when you enter within the veil where you must so soon pass
will be to see that spirit, once chained and defiled, set free and
purified; and to know that to you it has been given, by your life of
love and faith, to accomplish this glorious change.

'I think increasingly on the subject on which you conversed with me
once,--the future state of retribution. It is evident to me that the
spirit of Christianity has produced in the human spirit a tenderness
of love which wholly revolts from the old doctrine on this subject;
and I observe, that, the more Christ-like anyone becomes, the more
difficult it seems for them to accept it as hitherto presented. And
yet, on the contrary, it was Christ who said, "Fear Him that is able
to destroy both soul and body in hell;" and the most appalling
language is that of Christ himself.

'Certain ideas, once prevalent, certainly must be thrown off. An
endless infliction for past sins was once the doctrine: that we now
generally reject. The doctrine now generally taught is, that an
eternal persistence in evil necessitates everlasting suffering, since
evil induces misery by the eternal nature of things; and this, I fear,
is inferable from the analogies of Nature, and confirmed by the whole
implication of the Bible.

'What attention have you given to this subject? and is there any fair
way of disposing of the current of assertion, and the still deeper
under-current of implication, on this subject, without admitting one
which loosens all faith in revelation, and throws us on pure
naturalism? But of one thing I always feel sure: probation does not
end with this present life; and the number of the saved may therefore
be infinitely greater than the world's history leads us to suppose.

'I think the Bible implies a great crisis, a struggle, an agony, in
which God and Christ and all the good are engaged in redeeming from
sin; and we are not to suppose that the little portion that is done
for souls as they pass between the two doors of birth and death is
all.

'The Bible is certainly silent there. The primitive Church believed
in the mercies of an intermediate state; and it was only the abuse of
it by Romanism that drove the Church into its present position, which,
I think, is wholly indefensible, and wholly irreconcilable with the
spirit of Christ. For if it were the case, that probation in all
cases begins and ends here, God's example would surely be one that
could not be followed, and He would seem to be far less persevering
than even human beings in efforts to save.

'Nothing is plainer than that it would be wrong to give up any mind to
eternal sin till every possible thing had been done for its recovery;
and that is so clearly not the case here, that I can see that, with
thoughtful minds, this belief would cut the very roots of religious
faith in God: for there is a difference between facts that we do not
understand, and facts which we do understand, and perceive to be
wholly irreconcilable with a certain character professed by God.

'If God says He is love, and certain ways of explaining Scripture make
Him less loving and patient than man, then we make Scripture
contradict itself. Now, as no passage of Scripture limits probation
to this life, and as one passage in Peter certainly unequivocally
asserts that Christ preached to the spirits in prison while His body
lay in the grave, I am clear upon this point.

'But it is also clear, that if there be those who persist in refusing
God's love, who choose to dash themselves for ever against the
inflexible laws of the universe, such souls must for ever suffer.

'There may be souls who hate purity because it reveals their vileness;
who refuse God's love, and prefer eternal conflict with it. For such
there can be no peace. Even in this life, we see those whom the
purest self-devoting love only inflames to madness; and we have only
to suppose an eternal persistence in this to suppose eternal misery.

'But on this subject we can only leave all reverently in the hands of
that Being whose almighty power is "declared chiefly in showing
mercy."'


Harriet Beecher Stowe

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