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The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 10558

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


State of Byron in Switzerland-He goes to Venice-The fourth Canto of "Childe Harold"-Rumination on his own Condition-Beppo-Lament of Tasso-Curious Example of Byron's metaphysical Love

The situation of Lord Byron in Switzerland was comfortless. He found that "the montain palaces of Nature" afforded no asylum to a haunted heart; he was ill at ease with himself, even dissatisfied that the world had not done him enough of wrong to justify his misanthropy.

Some expectation that his lady would repent of her part in the separation probably induced him to linger in the vicinity of Geneva, the thoroughfare of the travelling English, whom he affected to shun. If it were so, he was disappointed, and, his hopes being frustrated, he broke up the establishment he had formed there and crossed the Alps. After visiting some of the celebrated scenes and places in the north of Italy he passed on to Venice, where he domiciled himself for a time.

During his residence at Venice Lord Byron avoided as much as possible any intercourse with his countrymen. This was perhaps in some degree necessary, and it was natural in the state of his mind. He had become an object of great public interest by his talents; the stories connected with his domestic troubles had also increased his notoriety, and in such circumstances he could not but shrink from the inquisition of mere curiosity. But there was an insolence in the tone with which he declares his "utter abhorrence of any contact with the travelling English," that can neither be commended for its spirit, nor palliated by any treatment he had suffered. Like Coriolanus he may have banished his country, but he had not, like the Roman, received provocation: on the contrary, he had been the aggressor in the feuds with his literary adversaries; and there was a serious accusation against his morals, or at least his manners, in the circumstances under which Lady Byron withdrew from his house. It was, however, his misfortune throughout life to form a wrong estimate of himself in everything save in his poetical powers.

A life in Venice is more monotonous than in any other great city; but a man of genius carries with him everywhere a charm, which secures to him both variety and enjoyment. Lord Byron had scarcely taken up his abode in Venice, when he began the fourth canto of Childe Harold, which he published early in the following year, and dedicated to his indefatigable friend Mr Hobhouse by an epistle dated on the anniversary of his marriage, "the most unfortunate day," as he says, "of his past existence."

In this canto he has indulged his excursive moralizing beyond even the wide licence he took in the three preceding parts; but it bears the impression of more reading and observation. Though not superior in poetical energy, it is yet a higher work than any of them, and something of a more resolved and masculine spirit pervades the reflections, and endows, as it were, with thought and enthusiasm the aspect of the things described. Of the merits of the descriptions, as of real things, I am not qualified to judge: the transcripts from the tablets of the author's bosom he has himself assured us are faithful.

"With regard to the conduct of the last canto, there will be found less of the pilgrim than in any of the preceding, and that little slightly, if at all, separated from the author speaking in his own person. The fact is, that I had become weary of drawing a line, which every one seemed determined not to perceive: like the Chinese, in Goldsmith's Citizen of the World, whom nobody would believe to be a Chinese, it was in vain that I asserted and imagined that I had drawn a distinction between the author and the pilgrim; and the very anxiety to preserve this difference, and the disappointment at finding it unavailing, so far crushed my efforts in the composition, that I determined to abandon it altogether-and have done so."

This confession, though it may not have been wanted, gives a pathetic emphasis to those passages in which the poet speaks of his own feelings. That his mind was jarred, and out of joint, there is too much reason to believe; but he had in some measure overcome the misery that clung to him during the dismal time of his sojourn in Switzerland, and the following passage, though breathing the sweet and melancholy spirit of dejection, possesses a more generous vein of nationality than is often met with in his works, even when the same proud sentiment might have been more fitly expressed:

I've taught me other tongues-and in strange eyes

Have made me not a stranger; to the mind

Which is itself, no changes bring surprise,

Nor is it harsh to make or hard to find

A country with-aye, or without mankind.

Yet was I born where men are proud to be,

Not without cause; and should I leave behind

Th' inviolate island of the sage and free,

And seek me out a home by a remoter sea?

Perhaps I lov'd it well, and should I lay

My ashes in a soil which is not mine,

My spirit shall resume it-if we may,

Unbodied, choose a sanctuary. I twine

My hopes of being remember'd in my line,

With my land's language; if too fond and far

These aspirations in their hope incline-

If my fame should be as my fortunes are,

Of ha

sty growth and blight, and dull oblivion bar

My name from out the temple where the dead

Are honour'd by the nations-let it be,

And light the laurels on a loftier head,

And be the Spartan's epitaph on me:

"Sparta had many a worthier son than he";

Meantime I seek no sympathies, nor need;

The thorns which I have reap'd are of the tree

I planted-they have torn me-and I bleed:

I should have known what fruit would spring from such a seed.

It will strike the reader as remarkable, that although the poet, in the course of this canto, takes occasion to allude to Dante and Tasso, in whose destinies there was a shadowy likeness of his own, the rumination is mingled with less of himself than might have been expected, especially when it is considered how much it was a habit with him, to make his own feelings the basis and substratum of the sentiments he ascribed to others. It has also more than once surprised me that he has so seldom alluded to Alfieri, whom of all poets, both in character and conduct, he most resembled; with this difference, however, that Alfieri was possessed of affections equally intense and durable, whereas the caprice of Byron made him uncertain in his partialities, or what was the same in effect, made his friends set less value on them than perhaps they were entitled to.

Before Childe Harold was finished, an incident occurred which suggested to Byron a poem of a very different kind to any he had yet attempted:-without vouching for the exact truth of the anecdote, I have been told, that he one day received by the mail a copy of Whistlecraft's prospectus and specimen of an intended national work; and, moved by its playfulness, immediately after reading it, began Beppo, which he finished at a sitting. The facility with which he composed renders the story not improbable; but, singular as it may seem, the poem itself has the facetious flavour in it of his gaiety, stronger than even his grave works have of his frowardness, commonly believed to have been-I think, unjustly-the predominant mood of his character.

The Ode to Venice is also to be numbered among his compositions in that city; a spirited and indignant effusion, full of his peculiar lurid fire, and rich in a variety of impressive and original images. But there is a still finer poem which belongs to this period of his history, though written, I believe, before he reached Venice-The Lament of Tasso: and I am led to notice it the more particularly, as one of its noblest passages affords an illustration of the opinion which I have early maintained-that Lord Byron's extraordinary pretensions to the influence of love was but a metaphysical conception of the passion.

It is no marvel-from my very birth

My soul was drunk with love, which did pervade

And mingle with whate'er I saw on earth;

Of objects all inanimate I made

Idols, and out of wild and lovely flowers,

And rocks whereby they grew, a paradise,

Where I did lay me down within the shade

Of waving trees, and dream'd uncounted hours.

It has been remarked by an anonymous author of Memoirs of Lord Byron, a work written with considerable talent and acumen, that "this is so far from being in character, that it is the very reverse; for whether Tasso was in his senses or not, if his love was sincere, he would have made the object of his affection the sole theme of his meditation, instead of generalising his passion, and talking about the original sympathies of his nature." In truth, no poet has better described love than Byron has his own peculiar passion.

His love was passion's essence-as a tree

On fire by lightning; with ethereal flame

Kindled he was, and blasted; for to be

Thus enamour'd were in him the same.

But his was not the love of living dame,

Nor of the dead who rise upon our dreams,

But of ideal beauty, which became

In him existence, and o'erflowing teems

Along his burning page, distemper'd though it seems.

In tracing the course of Lord Byron's career, I have not deemed it at all necessary to advert to the instances of his generosity, or to conduct less pleasant to record. Enough has appeared to show that he was neither deficient in warmth of heart nor in less amiable feelings; but, upon the whole, it is not probable that either in his charities or his pleasures he was greatly different from other young men, though he undoubtedly had a wayward delight in magnifying his excesses, not in what was to his credit, like most men, but in what was calculated to do him no honour. More notoriety has been given to an instance of lavish liberality at Venice, than the case deserved, though it was unquestionably prompted by a charitable impulse. The house of a shoemaker, near his Lordship's residence, in St Samuel, was burned to the ground, with all it contained, by which the proprietor was reduced to indigence. Byron not only caused a new but a superior house to be erected, and also presented the sufferer with a sum of money equal in value to the whole of his stock in trade and furniture. I should endanger my reputation for impartiality if I did not, as a fair set-off to this, also mention that it is said he bought for five hundred crowns a baker's wife. There might be charity in this, too.

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