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The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 15393

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Moral Effects of local Scenery; a Peculiarity in Taste-Early Love-Impressions and Traditions

Before I proceed to the regular narrative of the character and adventures of Lord Byron, it seems necessary to consider the probable effects of his residence, during his boyhood, in Scotland. It is generally agreed, that while a schoolboy in Aberdeen, he evinced a lively spirit, and sharpness enough to have equalled any of his schoolfellows, had he given sufficient application. In the few reminiscences preserved of his childhood, it is remarkable that he appears in this period, commonly of innocence and playfulness, rarely to have evinced any symptom of generous feeling. Silent rages, moody sullenness, and revenge are the general characteristics of his conduct as a boy.

He was, undoubtedly, delicately susceptible of impressions from the beauties of nature, for he retained recollections of the scenes which interested his childish wonder, fresh and glowing, to his latest days; nor have there been wanting plausible theories to ascribe the formation of his poetical character to the contemplation of those romantic scenes. But, whoever has attended to the influential causes of character will reject such theories as shallow, and betraying great ignorance of human nature. Genius of every kind belongs to some innate temperament; it does not necessarily imply a particular bent, because that may possibly be the effect of circumstances: but, without question, the peculiar quality is inborn, and particular to the individual. All hear and see much alike; but there is an undefinable though wide difference between the ear of the musician, or the eye of the painter, compared with the hearing and seeing organs of ordinary men; and it is in something like that difference in which genius consists. Genius is, however, an ingredient of mind more easily described by its effects than by its qualities. It is as the fragrance, independent of the freshness and complexion of the rose; as the light on the cloud; as the bloom on the cheek of beauty, of which the possessor is unconscious until the charm has been seen by its influence on others; it is the internal golden flame of the opal; a something which may be abstracted from the thing in which it appears, without changing the quality of its substance, its form, or its affinities. I am not, therefore, disposed to consider the idle and reckless childhood of Byron as unfavourable to the development of his genius; but, on the contrary, inclined to think, that the indulgence of his mother, leaving him so much to the accidents of undisciplined impression, was calculated to cherish associations which rendered them, in the maturity of his powers, ingredients of spell that ruled his memory.

It is singular, and I am not aware it has been before noticed, that with all his tender and impassioned apostrophes to beauty and love, Byron has in no instance, not even in the freest passages of Don Juan, associated either the one or the other with sensual images. The extravagance of Shakespeare's Juliet, when she speaks of Romeo being cut after his death into stars, that all the world may be in love with night, is flame and ecstasy compared to the icy metaphysical glitter of Byron's amorous allusions. The verses beginning with

She walks in beauty like the light

Of eastern climes and starry skies,

are a perfect example of what I have conceived of his bodiless admiration of beauty, and objectless enthusiasm of love. The sentiment itself is unquestionably in the highest mood of the intellectual sense of beauty; the simile is, however, anything but such an image as the beauty of woman would suggest. It is only the remembrance of some impression or imagination of the loveliness of a twilight applied to an object that awakened the same abstract general idea of beauty. The fancy which could conceive in its passion the charms of a female to be like the glow of the evening, or the general effect of the midnight stars, must have been enamoured of some beautiful abstraction, rather than aught of flesh and blood. Poets and lovers have compared the complexion of their mistresses to the hues of the morning or of the evening, and their eyes to the dewdrops and the stars; but it has no place in the feelings of man to think of female charms in the sense of admiration which the beauties of the morning or the evening awaken. It is to make the simile the principal. Perhaps, however, it may be as well to defer the criticism to which this peculiar characteristic of Byron's amatory effusions gives rise, until we shall come to estimate his general powers as a poet. There is upon the subject of love, no doubt, much beautiful composition. throughout his works; but not one line in all the thousands which shows a sexual feeling of female attraction-all is vague and passionless, save in the delicious rhythm of the verse.

But these remarks, though premature as criticisms, are not uncalled for here, even while we are speaking of a child not more than ten years old. Before Byron had attained that age, he describes himself as having felt the passion. Dante is said as early as nine years old to have fallen in love with Beatrice; Alfieri, who was himself precocious in the passion, considered such early sensibility to be an unerring sign of a soul formed for the fine arts; and Canova used to say that he was in love when but five years old. But these instances, however, prove nothing. Calf-love, as it is called in the country, is common; and in Italy it may arise earlier than in the bleak and barren regions of Lochynagar. This movement of juvenile sentiment is not, however, love-that strong masculine avidity, which, in its highest excitement, is unrestrained, by the laws alike of God and man. In truth, the feeling of this kind of love is the very reverse of the irrepressible passion it is a mean shrinking, stealthy awe, and in no one of its symptoms, at least in none of those which Byron describes, has it the slightest resemblance to that bold energy which has prompted men to undertake the most improbable adventures.

He was not quite eight years old, when, according to his own account, he formed an impassioned attachment to Mary Duff; and he gives the following account of his recollection of her, nineteen years afterwards.

"I have been thinking lately a good deal of Mary Duff. How very odd that I should have been so devotedly fond of that girl, at an age when I could neither feel passion, nor know the meaning of the word and the effect! My mother used always to rally me about this childish amour, and at last, many years after, when I was sixteen, she told me one day, 'O Byron, I have had a letter from Edinburgh, and your old sweetheart, Mary Duff, is married to Mr C***.' And what was my answer? I really cannot explain or account for my feelings at that moment, but they nearly threw me into convulsions, and alarmed my mother so much, that after I grew better she generally avoided the subject-to me-and contented herself with telling it to all her acquaintance." But was this agitation the effect of natural feeling, or of something in the manner in which his mother may have told the news? He proceeds to inquire. "Now what could this be? I had never seen her since her mother's faux pas at Aberdeen had been the cause of her removal to her grandmother's at Banff. We were both the merest children. I had, and have been, attached fifty times since that period; yet I recollect all we said to each other, all our caresses, her features, my restlessness, sleeplessness, my tormenting my mother's maid to write for me to her, which she at last did to quiet me. Poor Nancy thought I

was wild, and, as I could not write for myself, became my secretary. I remember too our walks, and the happiness of sitting by Mary, in the children's apartment, at their house, not far from the Plainstones, at Aberdeen, while her lesser sister, Helen, played with the doll, and we sat gravely making love in our own way.

"How the deuce did all this occur so early? Where could it originate? I certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterward, and yet my misery, my love for that girl, were so violent, that I sometimes doubt if I have ever been really attached since. Be that as it may, hearing of her marriage, several years afterward, was as a thunderstroke. It nearly choked me, to the horror of my mother, and the astonishment and almost incredulity of everybody; and it is a phenomenon in my existence, for I was not eight years old, which has puzzled and will puzzle me to the latest hour of it. And, lately, I know not why, the recollection (not the attachment) has recurred as forcibly as ever: I wonder if she can have the least remembrance of it or me, or remember pitying her sister Helen, for not having an admirer too. How very pretty is the perfect image of her in my memory. Her dark brown hair and hazel eyes, her very dress-I should be quite grieved to see her now. The reality, however beautiful, would destroy, or at least confuse, the features of the lovely Peri, which then existed in her, and still lives in my imagination, at the distance of more than sixteen years."

Such precocious and sympathetic affections are, as I have already mentioned, common among children, and is something very different from the love of riper years; but the extract is curious, and shows how truly little and vague Byron's experience of the passion must have been. In his recollection of the girl, be it observed, there is no circumstance noticed which shows, however strong the mutual sympathy, the slightest influence of particular attraction. He recollects the colour of her hair, the hue of her eyes, her very dress, and he remembers her as a Peri, a spirit; nor does it appear that his sleepless restlessness, in which the thought of her was ever uppermost, was produced by jealousy, or doubt, or fear, or any other concomitant of the passion.

There is another most important circumstance in what may be called the Aberdonian epoch of Lord Byron's life.

That Byron, in his boyhood, was possessed of lively sensibilities, is sufficiently clear; that he enjoyed the advantage of indulging his humour and temper without restraint, is not disputable; and that his natural temperament made him sensible, in no ordinary degree, to the beauties of nature, is also abundantly manifest in all his productions; but it is surprising that this admiration of the beauties of Nature is but an ingredient in Byron's poetry, and not its most remarkable characteristic. Deep feelings of dissatisfaction and disappointment are far more obvious; they constitute, indeed, the very spirit of his works, and a spirit of such qualities is the least of all likely to have arisen from the contemplation of magnificent Nature, or to have been inspired by studying her storms or serenity; for dissatisfaction and disappointment are the offspring of moral experience, and have no natural association with the forms of external things. The habit of associating morose sentiments with any particular kind of scenery only shows that the sources of the sullenness arose in similar visible circumstances. It is from these premises I would infer, that the seeds of Byron's misanthropic tendencies were implanted during the "silent rages" of his childhood, and that the effect of mountain scenery, which continued so strong upon him after he left Scotland, producing the sentiments with which he has imbued his heroes in the wild circumstances in which he places them, was mere reminiscence and association. For although the sullen tone of his mind was not fully brought out until he wrote Childe Harold, it is yet evident from his Hours of Idleness that he was tuned to that key before he went abroad. The dark colouring of his mind was plainly imbibed in a mountainous region, from sombre heaths, and in the midst of rudeness and grandeur. He had no taste for more cheerful images, and there are neither rural objects nor villagery in the scenes he describes, but only loneness and the solemnity of mountains.

To those who are acquainted with the Scottish character, it is unnecessary to suggest how very probable it is that Mrs Byron and her associates were addicted to the oral legends of the district and of her ancestors, and that the early fancy of the poet was nourished with the shadowy descriptions in the tales o' the olden time;-at last this is manifest, that although Byron shows little of the melancholy and mourning of Ossian, he was yet evidently influenced by some strong bias and congeniality of taste to brood and cogitate on topics of the same character as those of that bard. Moreover, besides the probability of his imagination having been early tinged with the sullen hue of the local traditions, it is remarkable, that the longest of his juvenile poems is an imitation of the manner of the Homer of Morven.

In addition to a natural temperament, kept in a state of continual excitement, by unhappy domestic incidents, and the lurid legends of the past, there were other causes in operation around the young poet that could not but greatly affect the formation of his character.

Descended of a distinguished family, counting among its ancestors the fated line of the Scottish kings, and reduced almost to extreme poverty, it is highly probable, both from the violence of her temper, and the pride of blood, that Mrs Byron would complain of the almost mendicant condition to which she was reduced, especially so long as there was reason to fear that her son was not likely to succeed to the family estates and dignity. Of his father's lineage few traditions were perhaps preserved, compared with those of his mother's family; but still enough was known to impress the imagination. Mr Moore, struck with this circumstance, has remarked, that "in reviewing the ancestors, both near and remote, of Lord Byron, it cannot fail to be remarked how strikingly he combined in his own nature some of the best, and perhaps worst qualities that lie scattered through the various characters of his predecessors." But still it is to his mother's traditions of her ancestors that I would ascribe the conception of the dark and guilty beings which he delighted to describe. And though it may be contended that there was little in her conduct to exalt poetical sentiment, still there was a great deal in her condition calculated to affect and impel an impassioned disposition. I can imagine few situations more likely to produce lasting recollections of interest and affection, than that in which Mrs Byron, with her only child, was placed in Aberdeen. Whatever might have been the violence of her temper, or the improprieties of her after-life, the fond and mournful caresses with which she used to hang over her lame and helpless orphan, must have greatly contributed to the formation of that morbid sensibility which became the chief characteristic of his life. At the same time, if it did contribute to fill his days with anguish and anxieties, it also undoubtedly assisted the development of his powers; and I am therefore disposed to conclude, that although, with respect to the character of the man, the time he spent in Aberdeen can only be contemplated with pity, mingled with sorrow, still it must have been richly fraught with incidents of inconceivable value to the genius of the poet.

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