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The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 11001

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Libel in "The Scourge"-The general Impression of his Character-Improvement in his Manners, as his Merit was acknowledgement by the Public-His Address in Management-His first Speech in Parliament-The Publication of "Childe Harold"-Its Reception and Effect

During the first winter after Lord Byron had returned to England, I was frequently with him. Childe Harold was not then published; and although the impression of his satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, was still strong upon the public, he could not well be said to have been then a celebrated character. At that time the strongest feeling by which he appeared to be actuated was indignation against a writer in a scurrilous publication, called The Scourge; in which he was not only treated with unjustifiable malignity, but charged with being, as he told me himself, the illegitimate son of a murderer. I had not read the work; but the writer who could make such an absurd accusation, must have been strangely ignorant of the very circumstances from which he derived the materials of his own libel. When Lord Byron mentioned the subject to me, and that he was consulting Sir Vickery Gibbs, with the intention of prosecuting the publisher and the author, I advised him, as well as I could, to desist, simply because the allegation referred to well-known occurrences. His grand-uncle's duel with Mr. Chaworth, and the order of the House of Peers to produce evidence of his grandfather's marriage with Miss Trevannion; the facts of which being matter of history and public record, superseded the necessity of any proceeding.

Knowing how deeply this affair agitated him at that time, I was not surprised at the sequestration in which he held himself-and which made those who were not acquainted with his shy and mystical nature, apply to him the description of his own Lara:

The chief of Lara is return'd again,

And why had Lara cross'd the bounding main?-

Left by his sire too young such loss to know,

Lord of himself; that heritage of woe.

In him, inexplicably mix'd, appear'd

Much to be loved and hated, sought and fear'd,

Opinion varying o'er his hidden lot,

In praise or railing ne'er his name forgot.

His silence form'd a theme for others' prate;

They guess'd, they gazed, they fain would know his fate,

What had he been? what was he, thus unknown,

Who walk'd their world, his lineage only known?

A hater of his kind? yet some would say,

With them he could seem gay amid the gay;

But own'd that smile, if oft observed and near

Waned in its mirth and wither'd to a sneer;

That smile might reach his lip, but pass'd not by;

None e'er could trace its laughter to his eye:

Yet there was softness, too, in his regard,

At times a heart is not by nature hard.

But once perceived, his spirit seem'd to hide

Such weakness as unworthy of its pride,

And stretch'd itself as scorning to redeem

One doubt from others' half-withheld esteem;

In self-inflicted penance of a breast

Which tenderness might once have wrung from rest,

In vigilance of grief that would compel

The soul to hate for having loved too well.

There was in him a vital scorn of all,

As if the worst had fall'n which could befall.

He stood a stranger in this breathing world,

An erring spirit from another hurl'd;

A thing of dark imaginings, that shaped

By choice the perils he by chance escaped.

Such was Byron to common observance on his return. I recollect one night meeting him at the Opera. Seeing me with a gentleman whom he did not know, and to whom he was unknown, he addressed me in Italian, and we continued to converse for some time in that language. My friend, who in the meanwhile had been observing him with curiosity, conceiving him to be a foreigner, inquired in the course of the evening who he was, remarking that he had never seen a man with such a Cain-like mark on the forehead before, alluding to that singular scowl which struck me so forcibly when I first saw him, and which appears to have made a stronger impression upon me than it did upon many others. I never, in fact, could overcome entirely the prejudice of the first impression, although I ought to have been gratified by the friendship and confidence with which he always appeared disposed to treat me. When Childe Harold was printed, he sent me a quarto copy before the publication; a favour and distinction I have always prized; and the copy which he gave me of The Bride of Abydos was one he had prepared for a new edition, and which contains, in his own writing, these six lines in no other copy:

Bless'd-as the Muezzin's strain from Mecca's wall

To pilgrims pure and prostrate at his call,

Soft-as the melody of youthful days

That steals the trembling tear of speechless praise,

Sweet-as his native song to exile's ears

Shall sound each tone thy long-loved voice endears.

He had not, it is true, at the period of which I am speaking, gathered much of his fame; but the gale was rising-and though the vessel was evidently yielding to the breeze, she was neither crank nor unsteady. On the contrary, the more he became an object of public interest, the less did he indulge his capricious humour. About the time when The Bride of Abydos was published, he appeared disposed to settle into a consistent character-especially after the first sale of Newstead. Before that particular event, he was often so disturbed in his mind, that he could not conceal his unhap

piness, and frequently spoke of leaving England for ever.

Although few men were more under the impulses of passion than Lord Byron, there was yet a curious kind of management about him which showed that he was well aware how much of the world's favour was to be won by it. Long before Childe Harold appeared, it was generally known that he had a poem in the press, and various surmises to stimulate curiosity were circulated concerning it: I do not say that these were by his orders, or under his directions, but on one occasion I did fancy that I could discern a touch of his own hand in a paragraph in the Morning Post, in which he was mentioned as having returned from an excursion into the interior of Africa; and when I alluded to it, my suspicion was confirmed by his embarrassment.

I mention this incident not in the spirit of detraction; for in the paragraph there was nothing of puff, though certainly something of oddity-but as a tint of character, indicative of the appetite for distinction by which, about this period, he became so powerfully incited, that at last it grew into a diseased crave, and to such a degree, that were the figure allowable, it might be said, the mouth being incapable of supplying adequate means to appease it-every pore became another mouth greedy of nourishment. I am, however, hastening on too fast. Lord Byron was, at that time, far indeed from being ruled by any such inordinate passion; the fears, the timidity, and bashfulness of young desire still clung to him, and he was throbbing with doubt if he should be found worthy of the high prize for which he was about to offer himself a candidate. The course he adopted on the occasion, whether dictated by management, or the effect of accident, was, however, well calculated to attract attention to his début as a public man.

When Childe Harold was ready for publication, he determined to make his first appearance as an orator in the House of Lords: the occasion was judiciously chosen, being a debate on the Nottingham frame-breaking bill; a subject on which it was natural to suppose he possessed some local knowledge that might bear upon a question directed so exclusively against transactions in his own county. He prepared himself as the best orators do in their first essays, not only by composing, but writing down, the whole of his speech beforehand. The reception he met with was flattering; he was complimented warmly by some of the speakers on his own side; but it must be confessed that his début was more showy than promising. It lacked weight in metal, as was observed at the time, and the mode of delivery was more like a schoolboy's recital than a masculine grapple with an argument. It was, moreover, full of rhetorical exaggerations, and disfigured with conceits. Still it scintillated with talent, and justified the opinion that he was an extraordinary young man, probably destined to distinction, though he might not be a statesman.

Mr Dallas gives a lively account of his elation on the occasion. "When he left the great chamber," says that gentleman, "I went and met him in the passage; he was glowing with success, and much agitated. I had an umbrella in my right hand, not expecting that he would put out his hand to me; in my haste to take it when offered, I had advanced my left hand: 'What!' said he, 'give your friend your left hand upon such an occasion?' I showed the cause, and immediately changing the umbrella to the other, I gave him my right hand, which he shook and pressed warmly. He was greatly elated, and repeated some of the compliments which had been paid him, and mentioned one or two of the peers who had desired to be introduced to him. He concluded by saying, that he had, by his speech, given me the best advertisement for Childe Harold's Pilgrimage."

It is upon this latter circumstance, that I have ventured to state my suspicion, that there was a degree of worldly management in making his first appearance in the House of Lords, so immediately preceding the publication of his poem. The speech was, indeed, a splendid advertisement, but the greater and brighter merits of the poem soon proved that it was not requisite, for the speech made no impression, but the poem was at once hailed with delight and admiration. It filled a vacancy in the public mind, which the excitement and inflation arising from the mighty events of the age, had created. The world, in its condition and circumstances, was prepared to receive a work, so original, vigorous, and beautiful; and the reception was such that there was no undue extravagance in the noble author saying in his memorandum, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous."

But he was not to be allowed to revel in such triumphant success with impunity. If the great spirits of the time were smitten with astonishment at the splendour of the rising fire, the imps and elves of malignity and malice fluttered their bat-wings in all directions. Those whom the poet had afflicted in his satire, and who had remained quietly crouching with lacerated shoulders in the hope that their flagellation would be forgotten, and that the avenging demon who had so punished their imbecility would pass away, were terrified from their obscurity. They came like moths to the candle, and sarcasms in the satire which had long been unheeded, in the belief that they would soon be forgotten, were felt to have been barbed with irremediable venom, when they beheld the avenger

Towering in his pride of place.

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