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The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 9416

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


A Miff with Lord Byron-Remarkable Coincidences-Plagiarisms of his Lordship

There is a curious note in the memoranda which Lord Byron kept in the year 1813, that I should not pass unnoticed, because it refers to myself, and moreover is characteristic of the excoriated sensibility with which his Lordship felt everything that touched or affected him or his.

When I had read The Bride of Abydos, I wrote to him my opinion of it, and mentioned that there was a remarkable coincidence in the story, with a matter in which I had been interested. I have no copy of the letter, and I forget the expressions employed, but Lord Byron seemed to think they implied that he had taken the story from something of mine.

The note is:

"Galt says there is a coincidence between the first part of The Bride and some story of his, whether published or not, I know not, never having seen it. He is almost the last person on whom any one would commit literary larceny, and I am not conscious of any witting thefts on any of the genus. As to originality, all pretensions are ludicrous; there is nothing new under the sun."

It is sufficiently clear that he was offended with what I had said, and was somewhat excited. I have not been able at present to find his answer to my letter, but it would appear by the subjoined that he had written to me something which led me to imagine he was offended at my observations, and that I had in consequence deprecated his wrath.

"Dec. 11, 1813.

"MY DEAR GALT,-There was no offence-there could be none. I thought it by no means impossible that we might have hit on something similar, particularly as you are a dramatist, and was anxious to assure you of the truth, viz. that I had not wittingly seized upon plot, sentiment, or incident; and I am very glad that I have not in any respect trenched upon your subjects. Something still more singular is, that the first part, where you have found a coincidence in some events within your observations on life, was drawn from observation of mine also, and I meant to have gone on with the story, but on second thoughts, I thought myself two centuries at least too late for the subject; which, though admitting of very powerful feeling and description, yet is not adapted for this age, at least this country. Though the finest works of the Greeks, one of Schiller's and Alfieri's, in modern times, besides several of our old (and best) dramatists, have been grounded on incidents of a similar cast, I therefore altered it as you perceive, and in so doing have weakened the whole, by interrupting the train of thought; and in composition I do not think second thoughts are the best, though second expressions may improve the first ideas.

"I do not know how other men feel towards those they have met abroad, but to me there seems a kind of tie established between all who have met together in a foreign country, as if we had met in a state of pre-existence, and were talking over a life that has ceased; but I always look forward to renewing my travels; and though you, I think, are now stationary, if I can at all forward your pursuits there as well as here, I shall be truly glad in the opportunity. Ever yours very sincerely,

"B.

"P.S. I believe I leave town for a day or two on Monday, but after that I am always at home, and happy to see you till half-past two."

This letter was dated on Saturday, the 11th of December, 1813. On Sunday, the 12th, he made the following other note in his memorandum book:

"By Galt's answer, I find it is some story in real life, and not any work with which my late composition coincides. It is still more singular, for mine is drawn from existence also."

The most amusing part of this little fracas is the denial of his Lordship, as to pilfering the thoughts and fancies of others; for it so happens, that the first passage of The Bride of Abydos, the poem in question, is almost a literal and unacknowledged translation from Goethe, which was pointed out in some of the periodicals soon after the work was published.

Then, as to his not thieving from me or mine, I believe the fact to be as he has stated; but there are singular circumstances connected with some of his other productions, of which the account is at least curious.

On leaving England I began to write a poem in the Spenserian measure. It was called The Unknown, and was intended to describe, in narrating the voyages and adventures of a pilgrim, who had embarked for the Holy Land, the scenes I expected to visit. I was occasionally engaged in this composition during the passage with Lord Byron from Gibraltar to Malta, and he knew what I was about. In stating this, I beg to be distinctly understood,

as in no way whatever intending to insinuate that this work had any influence on the composition of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which Lord Byron began to write in Albania; but it must be considered as something extraordinary, that the two works should have been so similar in plan, and in the structure of the verse. His Lordship never saw my attempt that I know of, nor did I his poem until it was printed. It is needless to add, that beyond the plan and verse there was no other similarity between the two works; I wish there had been.

His Lordship has published a poem, called The Curse of Minerva, the subject of which is the vengeance of the goddess on Lord Elgin for the rape of the Parthenon. It has so happened that I wrote at Athens a burlesque poem on nearly the same subject (mine relates to the vengeance of all the gods) which I called The Atheniad; the manuscript was sent to his Lordship in Asia Minor, and returned to me through Mr Hobhouse. His Curse of Minerva, I saw for the first time in 1828, in Galignani's edition of his works.

In The Giaour, which he published a short time before The Bride of Abydos, he has this passage, descriptive of the anxiety with which the mother of Hassan looks out for the arrival of her son:

The browsing camels' bells are tinkling-

His mother look'd from her lattice high;

She saw the dews of eve besprinkling

The parterre green beneath her eye:

She saw the planets faintly twinkling-

'Tis twilight-sure his train is nigh.

She could not rest in the garden bower,

But gazed through the grate of his steepest tower:

Why comes he not-and his steeds are fleet-

Nor shrink they from the summer heat?

Why sends not the bridegroom his promised gift;

Is his heart more cold or his barb less swift?

His Lordship was well read in the Bible, and the book of Judges, chap. 5, and verse 28, has the following passage:-

"The mother of Sisera looked out at a window, and cried through the lattice, Why is his chariot so long in coming; why tarry the wheels of his chariot?"

It was, indeed, an early trick of his Lordship to filch good things. In the lamentation for Kirke White, in which he compares him to an eagle wounded by an arrow feathered from his own wing, he says,

So the struck eagle, stretch'd upon the plain,

No more through rolling clouds to soar again,

View'd his own feather on the fatal dart

And winged the shaft that quivered in his heart.

The ancients have certainly stolen the best ideas of the moderns; this very thought may be found in the works of that ancient-modern, Waller:

That eagle's fate and mine are one,

Which on the shaft that made him die,

Espied a feather of his own

Wherewith he wont to soar on high.

His Lordship disdained to commit any larceny on me; and no doubt the following passage from The Giaour is perfectly original:

It is as if the dead could feel

The icy worm around them steal;

And shudder as the reptiles creep

To revel o'er their rotting sleep,

Without the power to scare away

The cold consumers of their clay.

I do not claim any paternity in these lines: but not the most judicious action of all my youth was to publish certain dramatic sketches, and his Lordship had the printed book in his possession long before The Giaour was published, and may have read the following passage in a dream, which was intended to be very hideous:

Then did I hear around

The churme and chirruping of busy reptiles

At hideous banquet on the royal dead:-

Full soon methought the loathsome epicures

Came thick on me, and underneath my shroud

I felt the many-foot and beetle creep,

And on my breast the cold worm coil and crawl.

However, I have said quite enough on this subject, both as respects myself and his seeming plagiarisms, which might be multiplied to legions. Such occasional accidental imitations are not things of much importance. All poets, and authors in general, avail themselves of their reading and knowledge to enhance the interest of their works. It can only be considered as one of Lord Byron's spurts of spleen, that he felt so much about a "coincidence," which ought not to have disturbed him; but it may be thought by the notice taken of it, that it disturbs myself more than it really does; and that it would have been enough to have merely said-Perhaps, when some friend is hereafter doing as indulgently for me, the same kind of task that I have undertaken for Byron, there may be found among my memoranda notes as little flattering to his Lordship, as those in his concerning me. I hope, however, that friend will have more respect for my memory than to imitate the taste of Mr Moore.

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