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The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 13397

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Arrival at Newstead-Find it in Ruins-The old Lord and his Beetles-The Earl of Carlisle becomes the Guardian of Byron-The Poet's acute Sense of his own deformed Foot-His Mother consults a Fortune-teller

Mrs Byron, on her arrival at Newstead Abbey with her son, found it almost in a state of ruin. After the equivocal affair of the duel, the old lord lived in absolute seclusion, detested by his tenantry, at war with his neighbours, and deserted by all his family. He not only suffered the abbey to fall into decay, but, as far as lay in his power, alienated the land which should have kept it in repair, and denuded the estate of the timber. Byron has described the conduct of the morose peer in very strong terms:-"After his trial he shut himself up at Newstead, and was in the habit of feeding crickets, which were his only companions. He made them so tame that they used to crawl over him, and, when they were too familiar, he whipped them with a wisp of straw: at his death, it is said, they left the house in a body."

However this may have been, it is certain that Byron came to an embarrassed inheritance, both as respected his property and the character of his race; and, perhaps, though his genius suffered nothing by the circumstance, it is to be regretted that he was still left under the charge of his mother: a woman without judgment or self-command; alternately spoiling her child by indulgence, irritating him by her self-willed obstinacy, and, what was still worse, amusing him by her violence, and disgusting him by fits of inebriety. Sympathy for her misfortunes would be no sufficient apology for concealing her defects; they undoubtedly had a material influence on her son, and her appearance was often the subject of his childish ridicule. She was a short and corpulent person. She rolled in her gait, and would, in her rage, sometimes endeavour to catch him for the purpose of inflicting punishment, while he would run round the room, mocking her menaces and mimicking her motion.

The greatest weakness in Lord Byron's character was a morbid sensibility to his lameness. He felt it with as much vexation as if it had been inflicted ignominy. One of the most striking passages in some memoranda which he has left of his early days, is where, in speaking of his own sensitiveness on the subject of his deformed foot, he described the feeling of horror and humiliation that came over him when his mother, in one of her fits of passion, called him a "lame brat."

The sense which Byron always retained of the innocent fault in his foot was unmanly and excessive; for it was not greatly conspicuous, and he had a mode of walking across a room by which it was scarcely at all perceptible. I was several days on board the same ship with him before I happened to discover the defect; it was indeed so well concealed, that I was in doubt whether his lameness was the effect of a temporary accident, or a malformation, until I asked Mr Hobhouse.

On their arrival from Scotland, Byron was placed by his mother under the care of an empirical pretender of the name of Lavender, at Nottingham, who professed the cure of such cases; and that he might not lose ground in his education, he was attended by a respectable schoolmaster, Mr Rodgers, who read parts of Virgil and Cicero with him. Of this gentleman he always entertained a kind remembrance. Nor was his regard in this instance peculiar; for it may be said to have been a distinguishing trait in his character, to recollect with affection all who had been about him in his youth. The quack, however, was an exception; whom (from having caused him to suffer much pain, and whose pretensions, even young as he then was, he detected) he delighted to expose. On one occasion, he scribbled down on a sheet of paper, the letters of the alphabet at random, but in the form of words and sentences, and placing them before Lavender, asked him gravely, what language it was. "Italian," was the reply, to the infinite amusement of the little satirist, who burst into a triumphant laugh at the success of his stratagem.

It is said that about this time the first symptom of his predilection for rhyming showed itself. An elderly lady, a visitor to his mother, had been indiscreet enough to give him some offence, and slights he generally resented with more energy than they often deserved. This venerable personage entertained a singular notion respecting the soul, which she believed took its flight at death to the moon. One day, after a repetition of her original contumely, he appeared before his nurse in a violent rage, and complained vehemently of the old lady, declaring that he could not bear the sight of her, and then he broke out into the following doggerel, which he repeated over and over, crowing with delight.

In Nottingham county, there lives at Swan-green,

As curs'd an old lady as ever was seen;

And when she does die, which I hope will be soon,

She firmly believes she will go to the moon.

Mrs Byron, by the accession of her son to the family honours and estate, received no addition to her small income; and he, being a minor, was unable to make any settlement upon her. A representation of her case was made to Government, and in consequence she was placed on the pension-list for £300 a-year.

Byron not having received any benefit from the Nottingham quack, was removed to London, put under the care of Dr Bailey, and placed in the school of Dr Glennie, at Dulwich; Mrs Byron herself took a house on Sloan Terrace. Moderation in all athletic exercises was prescribed to the boy, but Dr Glennie had some difficulty in restraining his activity. He was quiet enough while in the house with the Doctor, but no sooner was he released to play, than he showed as much ambition to excel in violent exercises as the most robust youth of the school; an ambition common to young persons who have the misfortune to labour under bodily defects.

While under the charge of Dr Glennie, he was playful, good-humoured, and beloved by his companions; and addicted to reading history and poetry far beyond the usual scope of his age. In these studies he showed a predilection for the Scriptures; and certainly there are many traces in his works which show that, whatever the laxity of his religious principles may have been in after-life, he was not unacquainted with the records and history of our religion.

During this period, Mrs Byron often indiscreetly interfered with the course of his education; and if his classical studies were in consequence not so effectually conducted as they might have been, his mind derived some of its best nutriment from the loose desultory course of his reading.

Am

ong the books to which the boys at Dr Glennie's school had access was a pamphlet containing the narrative of a shipwreck on the coast of Arracan, filled with impressive descriptions. It had not attracted much public attention, but it was a favourite with the pupils, particularly with Byron, and furnished him afterwards with the leading circumstances in the striking description of the shipwreck in Don Juan.

Although the rhymes upon the lunar lady of Notts are supposed to have been the first twitter of his muse, he has said himself, "My first dash into poetry was as early as 1800. It was the ebullition of a passion for my first cousin, Margaret Parker. I was then about twelve, she rather older, perhaps a year." And it is curious to remark, that in his description of this beautiful girl there is the same lack of animal admiration which we have noticed in all his loves; he says of her:-

"I do not recollect scarcely anything equal to the transparent beauty of my cousin, or to the sweetness of her temper, during the short period of our intimacy: she looked as if she had been made out of a rainbow, all beauty and peace." This is certainly poetically expressed; but there was more true love in Pygmalion's passion for his statue, and in the Parisian maiden's adoration of the Apollo.

When he had been nearly two years under the tuition of Dr Glennie, he was removed to Harrow, chiefly in consequence of his mother's interference with his studies, and especially by withdrawing him often from school.

During the time he was under the care of Dr Glennie, he was more amiable than at any other period of his life, a circumstance which justifies the supposition, that, had he been left more to the discipline of that respectable person, he would have proved a better man; for, however much his heart afterwards became incrusted with the leprosy of selfishness, at this period his feelings were warm and kind. Towards his nurse he evinced uncommon affection, which he cherished as long as she lived. He presented her with his watch, the first he possessed, and also a full-length miniature of himself, when he was only between seven and eight years old, representing him with a profusion of curling locks, and in his hands a bow and arrow. The sister of this woman had been his first nurse, and after he had left Scotland he wrote to her, in a spirit which betokened a gentle and sincere heart, informing her with much joy of a circumstance highly important to himself. It was to tell her that at last he had got his foot so far restored as to be able to put on a common boot, an event which he was sure would give her great pleasure; to himself it is difficult to imagine any incident which could have been more gratifying.

I dwell with satisfaction on these descriptions of his early dispositions; for, although there are not wanting instances of similar warm-heartedness in his later years, still he never formed any attachments so pure and amiable after he went to Harrow. The change of life came over him, and when the vegetable period of boyhood was past, the animal passions mastered all the softer affections of his character.

In the summer of 1801 he accompanied his mother to Cheltenham, and while he resided there the views of the Malvern hills recalled to his memory his enjoyments amid the wilder scenery of Aberdeenshire. The recollections were reimpressed on his heart and interwoven with his strengthened feelings. But a boy gazing with emotion on the hills at sunset, because they remind him of the mountains where he passed his childhood, is no proof that he is already in heart and imagination a poet. To suppose so is to mistake the materials for the building.

The delight of Byron in contemplating the Malvern hills, was not because they resembled the scenery of Lochynagar, but because they awoke trains of thought and fancy, associated with recollections of that scenery. The poesy of the feeling lay not in the beauty of the objects, but in the moral effect of the traditions, to which these objects served as talismans of the memory. The scene at sunset reminded him of the Highlands, but it was those reminiscences which similar scenes recalled, that constituted the impulse which gave life and elevation to his reflections. There is not more poesy in the sight of mountains than of plains; it is the local associations that throw enchantment over all scenes, and resemblance that awakens them, binding them to new connections: nor does this admit of much controversy; for mountainous regions, however favourable to musical feeling, are but little to poetical.

The Welsh have no eminent bard; the Swiss have no renown as poets; nor are the mountainous regions of Greece, nor of the Apennines, celebrated for poetry. The Highlands of Scotland, save the equivocal bastardy of Ossian, have produced no poet of any fame, and yet mountainous countries abound in local legends, which would seem to be at variance with this opinion, were it not certain, though I cannot explain the cause, that local poetry, like local language or local melody, is in proportion to the interest it awakens among the local inhabitants, weak and ineffectual in its influence on the sentiments of the general world. The "Rans de Vaches," the most celebrated of all local airs, is tame and commonplace,-unmelodious, to all ears but those of the Swiss "forlorn in a foreign land."

While in Cheltenham, Mrs Byron consulted a fortune-teller respecting the destinies of her son, and according to her feminine notions, she was very cunning and guarded with the sybil, never suspecting that she might have been previously known, and, unconscious to herself, an object of interest to the spaewife. She endeavoured to pass herself off as a maiden lady, and regarded it as no small testimony of the wisdom of the oracle, that she declared her to be not only a married woman, but the mother of a son who was lame. After such a marvellous proof of second-sightedness, it may easily be conceived with what awe and faith she listened to the prediction, that his life should be in danger from poison before he was of age, and that he should be twice married; the second time to a foreign lady. Whether it was this same fortune-teller who foretold that he would, in his twenty-seventh year, incur some great misfortune, is not certain; but, considering his unhappy English marriage, and his subsequent Italian liaison with the Countess Guiccioli, the marital prediction was not far from receiving its accomplishment. The fact of his marriage taking place in his twenty-seventh year, is at least a curious circumstance, and has been noticed by himself with a sentiment of superstition.

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