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The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 9967

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Effect of the Criticism in the "Edinburgh Review"-"English Bards and Scotch Reviewers"-His Satiety-Intention to Travel-Publishes his Satire-Takes his Seat in the House of Lords-Departs for Lisbon; thence to Gibraltar

The impression which the criticism of the Edinburgh Review produced upon the juvenile poet was deep and envenomed. It stung his heart, and prompted him to excess. But the paroxysms did not endure long; strong volitions of revenge succeeded, and the grasps of his mind were filled, as it were, with writhing adders. All the world knows, that this unquenchable indignation found relief in the composition of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers; a satire which, in many passages, equals, in fervour and force, the most vigorous in the language.

It was during the summer of 1808, while the poet was residing at Newstead, that English Bards and Scotch Reviewers was principally written. He bestowed more pains upon it than perhaps on any other of his works; and, though different from them all, it still exhibits strong indications of the misanthropy with which, after quitting Cambridge, he became more and more possessed. It is painful to reflect, in considering the splendid energy displayed in the poem, that the unprovoked malice which directed him to make the satire so general, was, perhaps, the main cause of that disposition to wither his reputation, which was afterwards so fervently roused. He could not but expect, that, in stigmatising with contempt and ridicule so many persons by name, some of them would retaliate. Nor could he complain of injustice if they did; for his attack was so wilful, that the rage of it can only be explained by supposing he was instigated to "the one fell swoop," by a resentful conviction, that his impillory in the Edinburgh Review had amused them all.

I do not conceive, that the generality of the satire can be well extenuated; but I am not inclined to regard it as having been a very heinous offence. The ability displayed in it is a sufficient compensation. The beauty of the serpent's skin appeases the aversion to its nature. Moreover, a toothless satire is verse without poetry-the most odious of all respectable things.

But, without regard to the merits or delinquency of the poem, to the acumen of its animadversions, or to the polish of the lines, it possesses, in the biography of the author, a value of the most interesting kind. It was the first burst of that dark, diseased ichor, which afterwards coloured his effusions; the overflowing suppuration of that satiety and loathing, which rendered Childe Harold, in particular, so original, incomprehensible, and antisocial; and bears testimony to the state of his feelings at that important epoch, while he was yet upon the threshold of the world, and was entering it with a sense of failure and humiliation, and premature disgust. For, notwithstanding his unnecessary expositions concerning his dissipation, it is beyond controversy, that at no time could it be said he was a dissipated young man. That he indulged in occasional excesses is true; but his habits were never libertine, nor did his health or stamina permit him to be distinguished in licentiousness. The declaration in which he first discloses his sobriety, contains more truth than all his pretensions to his father's qualities. "I took my gradations in the vices," says he, in that remarkable confession, "with great promptitude, but they were not to my taste; for my early passions, though violent in the extreme, were concentrated, and hated division or spreading abroad. I could have left or lost the whole world with or for that which I loved; but, though my temperament was naturally burning, I could not share in the common libertinism of the place and time without disgust; and yet this very disgust, and my heart thrown back upon itself, threw me into excesses perhaps more fatal than those from which I shrunk, as fixing upon one at a time the passions, which, spread among many, would have hurt only myself." This is vague and metaphysical enough; but it bears corroborative intimations, that the impression which he early made upon me was not incorrect. He was vain of his experiments in profligacy, but they never grew to habitude.

While he was engaged in the composition of his satire, he formed a plan of travelling; but there was a great shortcoming between the intention and the performance. He first thought of Persia; he afterwards resolved to sail for India; and had so far matured this project, as to write for information to the Arabic professor at Cambridge; and to his mother, who was not then with him at Newstead, to inquire of a friend, who had resided in India, what things would be necessary for the voyage. He formed his plan of travelling upon different reasons from those which he afterward gave out, and which have been imputed to him. He then thought that all men should in some period of their lives travel; he had at that time no tie to prevent him;

he conceived that when he returned home he might be induced to enter into political life, to which his having travelled would be an advantage; and he wished to know the world by sight, and to judge of men by experience.

When his satire was ready for the press, he carried it with him to London. He was then just come of age, or about to be so; and one of his objects in this visit to the metropolis was, to take his seat in the House of Lords before going abroad; but, in advancing to this proud distinction, so soothing to the self-importance of youth, he was destined to suffer a mortification which probably wounded him as deeply as the sarcasms of the Edinburgh Review. Before the meeting of Parliament, he wrote to his relation and guardian, the Earl of Carlisle, to remind him that he should be of age at the commencement of the Session, in the natural hope that his Lordship would make an offer to introduce him to the House: but he was disappointed. He only received a formal reply, acquainting him with the technical mode of proceeding, and the etiquette to be observed on such occasions. It is therefore not wonderful that he should have resented such treatment; and he avenged it by those lines in his satire, for which he afterwards expressed his regret in the third canto of Childe Harold.

Deserted by his guardian at a crisis so interesting, he was prevented for some time from taking his seat in Parliament; being obliged to procure affidavits in proof of his grandfather's marriage with Miss Trevannion, which having taken place in a private chapel at Carhais, no regular certificate of the ceremony could be produced. At length, all the necessary evidence having been obtained, on the 13th of March, 1809, he presented himself in the House of Lords alone-a proceeding consonant to his character, for he was not so friendless nor unknown, but that he might have procured some peer to have gone with him. It, however, served to make his introduction remarkable.

On entering the House, he is described to have appeared abashed and pale: he passed the woolsack without looking round, and advanced to the table where the proper officer was attending to administer the oaths. When he had gone through them, the chancellor quitted his seat, and went towards him with a smile, putting out his hand in a friendly manner to welcome him, but he made a stiff bow, and only touched with the tip of his fingers the chancellor's hand, who immediately returned to his seat. Such is the account given of this important incident by Mr Dallas, who went with him to the bar; but a characteristic circumstance is wanting. When Lord Eldon advanced with the cordiality described, he expressed with becoming courtesy his regret that the rules of the House had obliged him to call for the evidence of his grandfather's marriage.-"Your Lordship has done your duty, and no more," was the cold reply, in the words of Tom Thumb, and which probably was the cause of the marked manner of the chancellor's cool return to his seat.

The satire was published anonymously, and immediately attracted attention; the sale was rapid, and a new edition being called for, Byron revised it. The preparations for his travels being completed, he then embarked in July of the same year, with Mr Hobhouse, for Lisbon, and thence proceeded by the southern provinces of Spain to Gibraltar.

In the account of his adventures during this journey, he seems to have felt, to an exaggerated degree, the hazards to which he was exposed. But many of his descriptions are given with a bright pen. That of Lisbon has always been admired for its justness, and the mixture of force and familiarity.

What beauties doth Lisboa's port unfold!

Her image floating on that noble tide,

Which poets vainly pave with sands of gold,

But now whereon a thousand keels did ride,

Of mighty strength since Albion was allied,

And to the Lusians did her aid afford.

A nation swoln with ignorance and pride,

Who lick, yet loathe, the hand that waves the sword

To save them from the wrath of Gaul's unsparing lord.

But whoso entereth within this town,

That sheening for celestial seems to be,

Disconsolate will wander up and down,

'Mid many things unsightly strange to see,

For hut and palace show like filthily;

The dingy denizens are reared in dirt;

No personage of high or mean degree

Doth care for cleanness of surtout and shirt,

Though shent with Egypt's plague, unkempt, unwash'd, unhurt.

Considering the interest which he afterwards took in the affairs of Greece, it is remarkable that he should have passed through Spain, at the period he has described, without feeling any sympathy with the spirit which then animated that nation. Intent, however, on his travels, pressing onward to an unknown goal, he paused not to inquire as to the earnestness of the patriotic zeal of the Spaniards, nor once dreamed, even for adventure, of taking a part in their heroic cause.

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