1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Byron, George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron
BYRON, GEORGE GORDON BYRON, 6th Baron (1788–1824), English poet, was born in London at 16 Holles Street, Cavendish Square, on the 22nd of January 1788. The Byrons were of Norman stock, but the founder of the family was Sir John Byron, who entered into possession of the priory and lands of Newstead in the county of Nottingham in 1540. From him it descended (but with a bar-sinister) to a great-grandson, John (1st Baron) Byron (q.v.), a Cavalier general, who was raised to the peerage in 1643. The first Lord Byron died childless, and was succeeded by his brother Richard, the great-grandfather of William, the 5th lord, who outlived son and grandson, and was succeeded by his great-nephew, the poet. Admiral the Hon. John Byron (q.v.) was the poet’s grandfather. His eldest son, Captain John Byron, the poet’s father, was a libertine by choice and in an eminent degree. He caused to be divorced, and married (1779) as his first wife, the marchioness of Carmarthen (born Amelia D’Arcy), Baroness Conyers in her own right. One child of the marriage survived, the Hon. Augusta Byron (1783–1851), the poet’s half-sister, who, in 1807, married her first cousin, Colonel George Leigh. His second marriage to Catherine Gordon (b. 1765) of Gight in Aberdeenshire took place at Bath on the 13th of May 1785. He is said to have squandered the fortunes of both wives. It is certain that Gight was sold to pay his debts (1786), and that the sole provision for his wife was a settlement of £3000. It was an unhappy marriage. There was an attempt at living together in France, and, when this failed, Mrs Byron returned to Scotland. On her way thither she gave birth to a son, christened George Gordon after his maternal grandfather, who was descended from Sir William Gordon of Gight, grandson of James I. of Scotland. After a while her husband rejoined her, but went back to France and died at Valenciennes on the 2nd of August 1791. His wife was not a bad woman, but she was not a good mother. Vain and capricious, passionate and self-indulgent, she mismanaged her son from his infancy, now provoking him by her foolish fondness, and now exciting his contempt by her paroxysms of impotent rage. She neither looked nor spoke like a gentlewoman; but in the conduct of her affairs she was praiseworthy. She hated and avoided debt, and when relief came (a civil list pension of £300 a year) she spent most of it upon her son. Fairly well educated, she was not without a taste for books, and her letters are sensible and to the point. But the violence of her temper was abnormal. Her father committed suicide, and it is possible that she inherited a tendency to mental derangement. If Byron owed anything to his parents it was a plea for pardon.
The poet’s first years were spent in lodgings at Aberdeen. From 1794 to 1798 he attended the grammar school, “threading all classes” till he reached the fourth. It was a good beginning, a solid foundation, enabling him from the first to keep a hand over his talents and to turn them to a set purpose. He was lame from his birth. His right leg and foot, possibly both feet, were contracted by infantile paralysis, and, to strengthen his muscles, his mother sent him in the summers of 1796, 1797 to a farm house on Deeside. He walked with difficulty, but he wandered at will, soothed and inspired by the grandeur of the scenery. To his Scottish upbringing he owed his love of mountains, his love and knowledge of the Bible, and too much Calvinism for faith or unfaith in Christianity. The death of his great-uncle (May 19, 1798) placed him in possession of the title and estates. Early in the autumn Mrs Byron travelled south with her son and his nurse, and for a time made her home at Newstead Abbey. Byron was old enough to know what had befallen him. “It was a change from a shabby Scotch flat to a palace,” a half-ruined palace, indeed, but his very own. It was a proud moment, but in a few weeks he was once more in lodgings. The shrunken leg did not improve, and acting on bad advice his mother entrusted him to the care of a quack named Lavender, truss-maker to the general hospital at Nottingham. His nurse who was in charge of him maltreated him, and the quack tortured him to no purpose. At his own request he read Virgil and Cicero with a tutor.
In August 1799 he was sent to a preparatory school at Dulwich. The master, Dr Glennie, perceived that the boy liked reading for its own sake and gave him the free run of his library. He read a set of the British Poets from beginning to end more than once. This, too, was an initiation and a preparation. He remained at Dulwich till April 1801, when, on his mother’s intervention, he was sent to Harrow. His school days, 1801–1805, were fruitful in two respects. He learned enough Latin and Greek to make him a classic, if not a classical scholar, and he made friends with his equals and superiors. He learned something of his own worth and of the worth of others. “My school-friendships,” he says, “were with me passions.” Two of his closest friends died young, and from Lord Clare, whom he loved best of all, he was separated by chance and circumstance. He was an odd mixture, now lying dreaming on his favourite tombstone in the churchyard, now the ring-leader in whatever mischief was afoot. He was a “record” swimmer, and, in spite of his lameness, enough of a cricketer to play for his school at Lord’s, and yet he found time to read and master standard works of history and biography, and to acquire more general knowledge than boys and masters put together.
In the midsummer of 1803, when he was in his sixteenth year, he fell in love, once for all, with his distant relative, Mary Anne Chaworth, a “minor heiress” of the hall and park of Annesley which marches with Newstead. Two years his senior, she was already engaged to a neighbouring squire. There were meetings half-way between Newstead and Annesley, of which she thought little and he only too much. What was sport to the girl was death to the boy, and when at length he realized the “hopelessness of his attachment,” he was “thrown out,” as he said, “alone, on a wide, wide sea.” She is the subject of at least five of his early poems, including the pathetic stanzas, “Hills of Annesley,” and there are allusions to his love story in Childe Harold (c. 1 s.v.), and in “The Dream” (1816).
Byron went into residence at Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1805. Cambridge did him no good. “The place is the devil,” he said, and according to his own showing he did homage to the genius loci. But whatever he did or failed to do, he made friends who were worthy of his choice. Among them were the scholar-dandy Scrope Berdmore Davies, Francis Hodgson, who died provost of Eton, and, best friend of all, John Cam Hobhouse (afterwards Lord Broughton). And there was another friend, a chorister named Edleston, a “humble youth” for whom he formed a romantic attachment. He died whilst Byron was still abroad (May 1811), but not unwept nor unsung, if, as there is little doubt, the mysterious Thyrza poems of 1811, 1812 refer to his death. During the vacation of 1806, and in 1807 which was one “long vacation,” he took to his pen, and wrote, printed and published most of his “Juvenile Poems.” His first venture was a thin quarto of sixty-six pages, printed by S. and J. Ridge of Newark. The “advertisement” is dated the 23rd of December 1806, but before that date he had begun to prepare a second collection for the press. One poem (“To Mary”) contained at least one stanza which was frankly indecent, and yielding to advice he gave orders that the entire issue should be thrown into the fire. Early in January 1807 an expurgated collection entitled Poems on Various Occasions was ready for private distribution. Encouraged by two critics, Henry Mackenzie and Lord Woodhouselee, he determined to recast this second issue and publish it under his own name. Hours of Idleness, “by George Gordon Lord Byron, a minor,” was published in June 1807. The fourth and last issue of Juvenilia, entitled Poems, Original and Translated, was published in March 1808.
Hours of Idleness enjoyed a brief triumph. The Critical and other reviews were “very indulgent,” but the Edinburgh Review for January 1808 contained an article, not, as Byron believed, by Jeffrey, but by Brougham, which put, or tried to put, the author and “his poesy” to open shame. The sole result was that it supplied fresh material and a new title for some rhyming couplets on “British Bards” which he had begun to write. A satire on Jeffrey, the editor, and Lord Holland, the patron of the Edinburgh Review, was slipped into the middle of “British Bards,” and the poem rechristened English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (published the 1st of March 1809).
In April 1808, whilst he was still “a minor,” Byron entered upon his inheritance. Hitherto the less ruinous portions of the abbey had been occupied by a tenant, Lord Grey de Ruthven. The banqueting hall, the grand drawing-room, and other parts of the monastic building were uninhabitable, but by incurring fresh debts, two sets of apartments were refurnished for Byron and for his mother. Dismantled and ruinous, it was still a splendid inheritance. In line with the front of the abbey is the west front of the priory church, with its hollow arch, once a “mighty window,” its vacant niches, its delicate Gothic mouldings. The abbey buildings enclose a grassy quadrangle overlooked by two-storeyed cloisters. On the eastern side are the state apartments occupied by kings and queens not as guests, but by feudal right. In the park, which is part of Sherwood Forest, there is a chain of lakes—the largest, the north-west, Byron’s “lucid lake.” A waterfall or “cascade” issues from the lake, in full view of the room where Byron slept. The possession of this lordly and historic domain was an inspiration in itself. It was an ideal home for one who was to be hailed as the spirit or genius of romance.
On the 13th of March 1809, he took his seat in the House of Lords. He had determined, as soon as he was of age, to travel in the East, but before he sought “another zone” he invited Hobhouse and three others to a house-warming. One of the party, C. S. Matthews, describes a day at Newstead. Host and guests lay in bed till one. “The afternoon was passed in various diversions, fencing, single-stick . . . riding, cricket, sailing on the lake.” They dined at eight, and after the cloth was removed handed round “a human skull filled with Burgundy.” After dinner they “buffooned about the house” in a set of monkish dresses. They went to bed some time between one and three in the morning. Moore thinks that the picture of these festivities is “pregnant in character,” and argues that there were limits to the misbehaviour of the “wassailers.” The story, as told in Childe Harold (c. 1. s. v.-ix.), need not be taken too seriously. Byron was angry because Lord De La Warr did not wish him goodbye, and visited his displeasure on friends and “lemans” alike. May and June were devoted to the preparation of an enlarged edition of his satire. At length, accompanied by Hobhouse and a small staff of retainers, he set out on his travels. He sailed from Falmouth on the 2nd of July and reached Lisbon on the 7th of July 1809. The first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage contain a record of the principal events of his first year of absence.
The first canto describes Lisbon, Cintra, the ride through Portugal and Spain to Seville and thence to Cadiz. He is moved by the grandeur of the scenery, but laments the helplessness of the people and their impending fate. Talavera was fought and won whilst he was in Spain, but he is convinced that the “Scourge of the World” will prevail, and that Britain, “the fond ally,” will display her blundering heroism in vain. Being against the government, he is against the war. History has falsified his politics, but his descriptions of places and scenes, of “Morena’s dusky height,” of Cadiz and the bull-fight, retain their freshness and their warmth.
Byron sailed from Gibraltar on the 16th of August, and spent a month at Malta making love to Mrs Spencer Smith (the “Fair Florence” of c. II. s. xxix.-xxxiii.). He anchored off Prevesa on the 28th of September. The second canto records a journey on horseback through Albania, then almost a terra incognita, as far as Tepeleni, where he was entertained by Ali Pacha (October 20th), a yachting tour along the shores of the Ambracian Gulf (November 8–23), a journey by land from Larnaki to Athens (December 15–25), and excursions in Attica, Sunium and Marathon (January 13–25, 1810).
Of the tour in Asia Minor, a visit to Ephesus (March 15, 1810), an excursion in the Troad (April 13), and the famous swim across the Hellespont (May 3), the record is to be sought elsewhere. The stanzas on Constantinople (lxxvii.-lxxxii.), where Byron and Hobhouse stayed for two months, though written at the time and on the spot, were not included in the poem till 1814. They are, probably, part of a projected third canto. On the 14th of July Hobhouse set sail for England and Byron returned to Athens.
Of Byron’s second year of residence in the East little is known beyond the bare facts that he was travelling in the Morea during August and September, that early in October he was at Patras, having just recovered from a severe attack of malarial fever, and that by the 14th of November he had returned to Athens and taken up his quarters at the Franciscan convent. Of his movements during the next five months there is no record, but of his studies and pursuits there is substantial evidence. He learnt Romaic, he compiled the notes to the second canto of Childe Harold. He wrote (March 12) Hints from Horace (published 1831), an imitation or loose translation of the Epistola ad Pisones (Art of Poetry), and (March 17) The Curse of Minerva (published 1815), a skit on Lord Elgin’s deportation of the metopes and frieze of the Parthenon.
He left Athens in April, passed some weeks at Malta, and landed at Portsmouth (c. July 20). Arrived in London his first step was to consult his literary adviser, R. C. Dallas, with regard to the publication of Hints from Horace. Of Childe Harold he said nothing, but after some hesitation produced the MS. from a “small trunk,” and, presenting him with the copyright, commissioned Dallas to offer it to a publisher. Rejected by Miller of Albemarle Street, who published for Lord Elgin, it was finally accepted by Murray of Fleet Street, who undertook to share the profits of an edition with Dallas.
Meanwhile Mrs Byron died suddenly from a stroke of apoplexy. Byron set off at once for Newstead, but did not find his mother alive. He had but little affection for her while she lived, but her death touched him to the quick. “I had but one friend,” he exclaimed, “and she is gone.” Another loss awaited him. Whilst his mother lay dead in his house, he heard that his friend Matthews had been drowned in the Cam. Edleston and Wingfield had died in May, but the news had reached him on landing. There were troubles on every side. On the 11th of October he wrote the “Epistle to a Friend” (“Oh, banish care,” &c.) and the lines “To Thyrza,” which, with other elegies, were appended to the second edition of Childe Harold (April 17, 1812). It was this cry of desolation, this open profession of melancholy, which at first excited the interest of contemporaries, and has since been decried as morbid and unreal. No one who has read his letters can doubt the sincerity of his grief, but it is no less true that he measured and appraised its literary significance. He could and did turn it to account.
Towards the close of the year he made friends with Moore. Some lines in English Bards, &c. (ii. 466-467), taunting Moore with fighting a duel with Jeffrey with “leadless pistol” had led to a challenge, and it was not till Byron returned to England that explanations ensued, and that the challenge was withdrawn. As a poet Byron outgrew Moore, giving back more than he had received, but the friendship which sprang up between them still serves Byron in good stead. Moore’s Life of Byron (1830) is no doubt a picture of the man at his best, but it is a genuine likeness. At the end of October Byron moved to London and took up his quarters at 8 St James’s Street. On the 27th of February 1812 he made his first speech in the House of Lords on a bill which made the wilful destruction of certain newly invented stocking-frames a capital offence, speaking in defence of the riotous “hands” who feared that their numbers would be diminished by improved machinery. It was a brilliant speech and won the praise of Burdett and Lord Holland. He made two other speeches during the same session, but thenceforth pride or laziness kept him silent. Childe Harold (4to) was published on Tuesday, the 10th of March 1812. “The effect,” says Moore, “was . . . electric, his fame . . . seemed to spring, like the palace of a fairy king, in a night.” A fifth edition (8vo) was issued on the 5th of December 1812. Just turned twenty-four he “found himself famous,” a great poet, a rising statesman. Society, which in spite of his rank had neglected him, was now at his feet. But he could not keep what he had won. It was not only “villainous company,” as he put it, which was to prove his “spoil,” but the opportunity for intrigue. The excitement and absorption of one reigning passion after another destroyed his peace of mind and put him out of conceit with himself. His first affair of any moment was with Lady Caroline Lamb the wife of William Lamb, better known as Lord Melbourne, a delicate, golden-haired sprite, who threw herself in his way, and afterwards, when she was shaken off, involved him in her own disgrace. To her succeeded Lady Oxford, who was double his own age, and Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, the “Ginevra” of his sonnets, the “Medora” of The Corsair.
His “way of life” was inconsistent with an official career, but there was no slackening of his poetical energies. In February 1813 he published The Waltz (anonymously), he wrote and published The Giaour (published June 5, 1813) and The Bride of Abydos (published November 29, 1813), and he wrote The Corsair (published February 1, 1814). The Turkish Tales were even more popular than Childe Harold. Murray sold 10,000 copies of The Corsair on the day of publication. Byron was at pains to make his accessories correct. He prided himself on the accuracy of his “costume.” He was under no delusion as to the ethical or artistic value of these experiments on “public patience.”
In the summer of 1813 a new and potent influence came into his life. Mrs Leigh, whose home was at Newmarket, came up to London on a visit. After a long interval the brother and sister met, and whether there is or is not any foundation for the dark story obscurely hinted at in Byron’s lifetime, and afterwards made public property by Mrs Beecher Stowe (Macmillan’s Magazine, 1869, pp. 377-396), there is no question as to the depth and sincerity of his love for his “one relative,”—that her well-being was more to him than his own. Byron passed the “seasons” of 1813, 1814 in London. His manner of life we know from his journals. Socially he was on the crest of the wave. He was a welcome guest at the great Whig houses, at Lady Melbourne’s, at Lady Jersey’s, at Holland House. Sheridan and Moore, Rogers and Campbell, were his intimates and companions. He was a member of the Alfred, of Watier’s, of the Cocoa Tree, and half a dozen clubs besides. After the publication of The Corsair he had promised an interval of silence, but the abdication of Napoleon evoked “An Ode,” &c., in his dishonour (April 16); Lara, a Tale, an informal sequel to The Corsair, was published anonymously on August 6, 1814.
Newstead had been put up for sale, but pending the completion of the contract was still in his possession. During his last visit but one, whilst his sister was his guest, he became engaged to Miss Anna Isabella Milbanke (b. May 17, 1792; d. May 16, 1860), the only daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanke, Bart., and the Hon. Judith (born Noel), daughter of Lord Wentworth. She was an heiress, and in succession to a peerage in her own right (becoming Baroness Wentworth in 1856). She was a pretty girl of “a perfect figure,” highly educated, a mathematician, and, by courtesy, a poetess. She had rejected Byron’s first offer, but, believing that her cruelty had broken his heart and that he was an altered man, she was now determined on marriage. High-principled, but self-willed and opinionated, she believed that she held her future in her own hands. On her side there was ambition touched with fancy—on his, a wish to be married and some hope perhaps of finding an escape from himself. The marriage took place at Seaham in Durham on the 2nd of January 1815. Bride and bridegroom spent three months in paying visits, and at the end of March settled at 13 Piccadilly Terrace, London.
Byron was a member of the committee of management of Drury Lane theatre, and devoted much of his time to his professional duties. He wrote but little poetry. Hebrew Melodies (published April 1815), begun at Seaham in October 1814, were finished and given to the musical composer, Isaac Nathan, for publication. The Siege of Corinth and Parisina (published February 7, 1816) were got ready for the press. On the 10th of December Lady Byron gave birth to a daughter christened Augusta Ada. To judge from his letters, for the first weeks or months of his marriage things went smoothly. His wife’s impression was that Byron “had avowedly begun his revenge from the first.” It is certain that before the child was born his conduct was so harsh, so violent, and so eccentric, that she believed, or tried to persuade herself, that he was mad.
On the 15th of January 1816 Lady Byron left London for her father’s house, claimed his protection, and after some hesitation and consultation with her legal advisers demanded a separation from her husband. It is a matter of common knowledge that in 1869 Mrs Beecher Stowe affirmed that Lady Byron expressly told her that Byron was guilty of incest with his half-sister, Mrs Leigh; also that in 1905 the second Lord Lovelace (Lord Byron’s grandson) printed a work entitled Astarte which was designed to uphold and to prove the truth of this charge. It is a fact that neither Lady Byron nor her advisers supported their demand by this or any other charge of misconduct, but it is also a fact that Lord Byron yielded to the demand reluctantly, under pressure and for large pecuniary considerations. It is a fact that Lady Byron’s letters to Mrs Leigh before and after the separation are inconsistent with a knowledge or suspicion of guilt on the part of her sister-in-law, but it is also a fact (see Astarte, pp. 142-145) that she signed a document (dated March 14, 1816) to the effect that any renewal of intercourse did not involve and must not be construed as a withdrawal of the charge. It cannot be doubted that Lady Byron’s conviction that her husband’s relations with his half-sister before his marriage had been of an immoral character was a factor in her demand for a separation, but whether there were other and what issues, and whether Lady Byron’s conviction was founded on fact, are questions which have not been finally answered. Lady Byron’s charge, as reported by Mrs Beecher Stowe and upheld by the 2nd earl of Lovelace, is “non-proven.” Mr Robert Edgcome, in Byron: the Last Phase (1909), insists that Mary Chaworth was the real object of Byron’s passion, and that Mrs Leigh was only shielding her.
The separation of Lord and Lady Byron was the talk of the town. Two poems entitled “Fare Thee Well” and “A Sketch,” which Byron had written and printed for private circulation, were published by The Champion on Sunday, April 14. The other London papers one by one followed suit. The poems, more especially “A Sketch,” were provocative of criticism. There was a balance of opinion, but politics turned the scale. Byron had recently published some pro-Gallican stanzas, “On the ‘Star of the Legion of Honour,’ ” in the Examiner (April 7), and it was felt by many that private dishonour was the outcome of public disloyalty. The Whigs defended Byron as best they could, but his own world, with one or two exceptions, ostracized him. The “excommunicating voice of society,” as Moore put it, was loud and insistent. The articles of separation were signed on or about the 18th of April, and on Sunday, the 25th of April, Byron sailed from Dover for Ostend. The “Lines on Churchill’s Grave” were written whilst he was waiting for a favourable wind. His route lay through the Low Countries, and by the Rhine to Switzerland. On his way he halted at Brussels and visited the field of Waterloo. He reached Geneva on the 25th of May, where he met by appointment at Dejean’s Hôtel d'Angleterre, Shelley, Mary Godwin and Clare (or “Claire”) Clairmont. The meeting was probably at the instance of Claire, who had recently become, and aspired to remain, Byron’s mistress. On the 10th of June Byron moved to the Villa Diodati on the southern shore of the lake. Shelley and his party had already settled at an adjoining villa, the Campagne Montalègre. The friends were constantly together. On the 23rd of June Byron and Shelley started for a yachting tour round the lake. They visited the castle of Chillon on the 26th of June, and, being detained by weather at the Hôtel de l’Ancre, Ouchy, Byron finished (June 27–29) the third canto of Childe Harold (published November 18), and began the Prisoner of Chillon (published December 5, 1816). These and other poems of July-September 1816, e.g. “The Dream” and the first two acts of Manfred (published June 16, 1817), betray the influence of Shelley, and through him of Wordsworth, both in thought and style. Byron knew that Wordsworth had power, but was against his theories, and resented his criticism of Pope and Dryden. Shelley was a believer and a disciple, and converted Byron to the Wordsworthian creed. Moreover he was an inspiration in himself. Intimacy with Shelley left Byron a greater poet than he was before. Byron passed the summer at the Villa Diodati, where he also wrote the Monody on the Death of Sheridan, published September 9, 1816. The second half of September was spent and devoted to “an excursion in the mountains.” His journal (September 18–29), which was written for and sent to Mrs Leigh, is a great prose poem, the source of the word pictures of Alpine scenery in Manfred. His old friend Hobhouse was with him and he enjoyed himself, but at the close he confesses that he could not lose his “own wretched identity” in the “majesty and the power and the glory” of nature. Remorse was scotched, not killed. On the 6th of October Byron and Hobhouse started via Milan and Verona for Venice, which was reached early in November. For the next three years Byron lived in or near Venice—at first, 1816–1817, in apartments in the Frezzeria, and after January 1818 in the central block of the Mocenigo palace. Venice appealed both to his higher and his lower nature. He set himself to study her history, to understand her constitution, to learn her language. The sights and scenes with which Shakespeare and Otway, Schiller’s Ghostseer, and Madame de Staël’s Corinne had made him familiar, were before his eyes, not dreams but realities. He would “repeople” her with her own past, and “stamp her image” on the creations of his pen. But he had no one to live for but himself, and that self he gave over to a reprobate mind. He planned and pursued a life of deliberate profligacy. Of two of his amours we learn enough or too much from his letters to Murray and to Moore—the first with his landlord’s wife, Marianna Segati, the second with Margarita Cogni (the “Fornarina”), a Venetian of the lower class, who amused him with her savagery and her wit. But, if Shelley may be trusted, there was a limit to his candour. There is abundant humour, but there is an economy of detail in his pornographic chronicle. He could not touch pitch without being defiled. But to do him justice he was never idle. He kept his brains at work, and for this reason, perhaps, he seems for a time to have recovered his spirits and sinned with a good courage. His song of carnival, “So we'll go no more a-roving,” is a hymn of triumph. About the middle of April he set out for Rome. His first halt was at Ferrara, which inspired the “Lament of Tasso” (published July 17, 1817). He passed through Florence, where he saw “the Venus” (of Medici) in the Uffizi Gallery, by reedy Thrasymene and Term’s “matchless cataract” to “Rome the Wonderful.” At Rome, with Hobhouse as companion and guide, he stayed three weeks. He returned to Venice on the 28th of May, but shortly removed to a villa at Mira on the Brenta, some 7 m. inland. A month later (June 26) when memory had selected and reduced to order the first impressions of his tour, he began to work them up into a fourth canto of Childe Harold. A first draft of 126 stanzas was finished by the 29th of July; the 60 additional stanzas which made up the canto as it stands were written up to material suggested by or supplied by Hobhouse, “who put his researches” at Byron’s disposal and wrote the learned and elaborate notes which are appended to the poem. Among the books which Murray sent out to Venice was a copy of Hookham Frere’s Whistlecraft. Byron took the hint and produced Beppo, a Venetian Story (published anonymously on the 28th of February 1818). He attributes his choice of the mock heroic ottava-rima to Frere’s example, but he was certainly familiar with Casti’s Novelle, and, according to Stendhal, with the poetry of Buratti. The success of Beppo and a growing sense that “the excellent manner of Whistlecraft” was the manner for him, led him to study Frere’s masters and models, Berni and Pulci. An accident had led to a great discovery.
The fourth canto of Childe Harold was published on the 28th of April 1818. Nearly three months went by before Murray wrote to him, and he began to think that his new poem was a failure. Meanwhile he completed an “Ode on Venice,” in which he laments her apathy and decay, and contrasts the tyranny of the Old World with the new birth of freedom in America. In September he began Don Juan. His own account of the inception of his last and greatest work is characteristic but misleading. He says (September 9) that his new poem is to be in the style of Beppo, and is “meant to be a little quietly facetious about everything.” A year later (August 12, 1819), he says that he neither has nor had a plan—but that “he had or has materials.” By materials he means books, such as Dalzell’s Shipwrecks and Disasters by Sea, or de Castelnau’s Histoire de la nouvelle Russie, &c., which might be regarded as poetry in the rough. The dedication to Robert Southey (not published till 1833) is a prologue to the play. The “Lakers” had given samples of their poetry, their politics and their morals, and now it was his turn to speak and to speak out. He too would write “An Excursion.” He doubted that Don Juan might be “too free for these modest days.” It was too free for the public, for his publisher, even for his mistress; and the “building up of the drama,” as Shelley puts it, was a slow and gradual process. Cantos I., II. were published (4to) on the 15th of July 1819; Cantos III., IV., V., finished in November 1820, were not published till the 8th of August 1821. Cantos VI.-XVI., written between June 1822 and March 1823, were published at intervals between the 15th of July 1823 and the 26th of March 1824. Canto XVII. was begun in May 1823, but was never finished. A fragment of fourteen stanzas, found in his room at Missolonghi, was first published in 1903.
He did not put all his materials into Don Juan. “Mazeppa, a tale of the Russian Ukraine,” based on a passage in Voltaire’s Charles XII., was finished by the 30th of September 1818 and published with “An Ode” (on Venice) on the 28th of June 1819. In the spring of 1819 Byron met in Venice, and formed a connexion with, an Italian lady of rank, Teresa (born Gamba), wife of the Cavaliere Guiccioli. She was young and beautiful, well-read and accomplished. Married at sixteen to a man nearly four times her age, she fell in love with Byron at first sight, soon became and for nearly four years remained his mistress. A good and true wife to him in all but name, she won from Byron ample devotion and a prolonged constancy. Her volume of Recollections (Lord Byron jugé par les témoins de sa vie, 1869), taken for what it is worth, is testimony in Byron’s favour. The countess left Venice for Ravenna at the end of April; within a month she sent for Byron, and on the 10th of June he arrived at Ravenna and took rooms in the Strada di Porto Sisi. The house (now No. 295) is close to Dante’s tomb, and to gratify the countess and pass the time he wrote the “Prophecy of Dante” (published April 21, 1821). According to the preface the poem was a metrical experiment, an exercise in terza rima; but it had a deeper significance. It was “intended for the Italians.” Its purport was revolutionary. In the fourth canto of Childe Harold, already translated into Italian, he had attacked the powers, and “Albion most of all” for her betrayal of Venice, and knowing that his word had weight he appeals to the country of his adoption to strike a blow for freedom—to “unite.” It is difficult to realize the force or extent of Byron’s influence on continental opinion. His own countrymen admired his poetry, but abhorred and laughed at his politics. Abroad he was the prophet and champion of liberty. His hatred of tyranny—his defence of the oppressed—was a word spoken in season when there were few to speak but many to listen. It brought consolation and encouragement, and it was not spoken in vain. It must, however, be borne in mind that Byron was more of a king-hater than a people-lover. He was against the oppressors, but he disliked and despised the oppressed. He was aristocrat by conviction as well as birth, and if he espoused a popular cause it was de haut en bas. His connexion with the Gambas brought him into touch with the revolutionary movement, and thenceforth he was under the espionage of the Austrian embassy at Rome. He was suspected and “shadowed,” but he was left alone.
Early in September Byron returned to La Mira, bringing the countess with him. A month later he was surprised by a visit from Moore, who was on his way to Rome. Byron installed Moore in the Mocenigo palace and visited him daily. Before the final parting (October 11) Byron placed in Moore’s hands the MS. of his Life and Adventures brought down to the close of 1816. Moore, as Byron suggested, pledged the MS. to Murray for 2000 guineas, to be Moore’s property if redeemed in Byron’s lifetime, but if not, to be forfeit to Murray at Byron’s death. On the 17th of May 1824, with Murray’s assent and goodwill, the MS. was burned in the drawing-room of 50 Albemarle Street. Neither Murray nor Moore lost their money. The Longmans lent Moore a sufficient sum to repay Murray, and were themselves repaid out of the receipts of Moore’s Life of Byron. Byron told Moore that the memoranda were not “confessions,” that they were “the truth but not the whole truth.” This, no doubt, was the truth, and the whole truth. Whatever they may or may not have contained, they did not explain the cause or causes of the separation from his wife.
At the close of 1819 Byron finally left Venice and settled at Ravenna in his own apartments in the Palazzo Guiccioli. His relations with the countess were put on a regular footing, and he was received in society as her cavaliere servente. At Ravenna his literary activity was greater than ever. His translation of the first canto of Pulci’s Morgante Maggiore (published in the Liberal, No. IV., July 30, 1832), a laborious and scholarly achievement, was the work of the first two months of the year. From April to July he was at work on the composition of Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice, a tragedy in five acts (published April 21, 1821). The plot turns on an episode in Venetian history known as La Congiura, the alliance between the doge and the populace to overthrow the state. Byron spared no pains in preparing his materials. In so far as he is unhistorical, he errs in company with Sanudo and early Venetian chronicles. Moved by the example of Alfieri he strove to reform the British drama by “a severer approach to the rules.” He would read his countrymen a “moral lesson” on the dramatic propriety of observing the three unities. It was an heroic attempt to reassert classical ideals in a romantic age, but it was “a week too late”; Byron’s “regular dramas” are admirably conceived and finely worded, but they are cold and lifeless.
Eighteen additional sheets of the Memoirs and a fifth canto of Don Juan were the pastime of the autumn, and in January 1821 Byron began to work on his second “historical drama,” Sardanapalus. But politics intervened, and little progress was made. He had been elected capo of the “Americani,” a branch of the Carbonari, and his time was taken up with buying and storing arms and ammunition, and consultations with leading conspirators. “The poetry of politics” and poetry on paper did not go together. Meanwhile he would try his hand on prose. A controversy had arisen between Bowles and Campbell with regard to the merits of Pope. Byron rushed into the fray. To avenge and exalt Pope, to decry the “Lakers,” and to lay down his own canons of art, Byron addressed two letters to * * * * * * * * * * (i.e. John Murray), entitled “Strictures on the Life and Writings of Pope.” The first was published in 1821, the second in 1835.
The revolution in Italy came to nothing, and by the 28th of May, Byron had finished his work on Sardanapalus. The Two Foscari, a third historical drama, was begun on the 12th of June and finished on the 9th of July. On the same day he began Cain, a Mystery. Cain was an attempt to dramatize the Old Testament; Lucifer’s apology for himself and his arraignment of the Creator startled and shocked the orthodox. Theologically the offence lay in its detachment. Cain was not irreverent or blasphemous, but it treated accepted dogmas as open questions. Cain was published in the same volume with the Two Foscari and Sardanapalus, December 19, 1821. The “Blues,” a skit upon literary coteries and their patronesses, was written in August. It was first published in The Liberal, No. III., April 26, 1823, When Cain was finished Byron turned from grave to gay, from serious to humorous theology. Southey had thought fit to eulogize George III. in hexameter verse. He called his funeral ode a “Vision of Judgment.” In the preface there was an obvious reference to Byron. The “Satanic School” of poetry was attributed to “men of diseased hearts and depraved imaginations.” Byron’s revenge was complete. In his “Vision of Judgment” (published in The Liberal, No. I., October 15, 1822) the tables are turned. The laureate is brought before the hosts of heaven and rejected by devils and angels alike. In October Byron wrote Heaven and Earth, a Mystery (The Liberal, No. II., January 1, 1823), a lyrical drama based on the legend of the “Watchers,” or fallen angels of the Book of Enoch. The countess and her family had been expelled from Ravenna in July, but Byron still lingered on in his apartments in the Palazzo Guiccioli. At length (October 28) he set out for Pisa. On the road he met his old friend, Lord Clare, and spent a few minutes in his company. Rogers, whom he met at Bologna, was his fellow-traveller as far as Florence. At Pisa he rejoined the countess, who had taken on his behalf the Villa Lanfranchi on the Arno. At Ravenna Byron had lived amongst Italians. At Pisa he was surrounded by a knot of his own countrymen, friends and acquaintances of the Shelleys. Among them were E. J. Trelawny, Thomas Medwin, author of the well-known Conversations of Lord Byron (1824), and Edward Elliker Williams. His first work at Pisa was to dramatize Miss Lee’s Kruitzner, or the German’s Tale. He had written a first act in 1815, but as the MS. was mislaid he made a fresh adaptation of the story which he rechristened Werner, or the Inheritance. It was finished on the 20th of January and published on the 23rd of November 1822. Werner is in parts Kruitzner cut up into loose blank verse, but it contains lines and passages of great and original merit. Alone of Byron’s plays it took hold of the stage. Macready’s “Werner” was a famous impersonation.
In the spring of 1822 a heavy and unlooked-for sorrow befell Byron. Allegra, his natural daughter by Claire Clairmont, died at the convent of Bagna Cavallo on the 20th of April 1822. She was in her sixth year, an interesting and attractive child, and he had hoped that her companionship would have atoned for his enforced separation from Ada. She is buried in a nameless grave at the entrance of Harrow church. Soon after the death of Allegra, Byron wrote the last of his eight plays, The Deformed Transformed (published by John Hunt, February 20, 1824). The “sources” are Goethe’s Faust, The Three Brothers, a novel by Joshua Pickersgill, and various chronicles of the sack of Rome in 1527. The theme or motif is the interaction of personality and individuality. Remonstrances on the part of publisher and critic induced him to turn journalist. The control of a newspaper or periodical would enable him to publish what and as he pleased. With this object in view he entered into a kind of literary partnership with Leigh Hunt, and undertook to transport him, his wife and six children to Pisa, and to lodge them in the Villa Lanfranchi. The outcome of this arrangement was The Liberal—Verse and Prose from the South. Four numbers were issued between October 1822 and June 1823. The Liberal did not succeed financially, and the joint menage was a lamentable failure. Correspondence of Byron and some of his Contemporaries (1828) was Hunt’s revenge for the slights and indignities which he suffered in Byron’s service. Yachting was one of the chief amusements of the English colony at Pisa. A schooner, the “Bolivar,” was built for Byron, and a smaller boat, the “Don Juan” re-named “Ariel,” for Shelley. Hunt arrived at Pisa on the 1st of July. On the 8th of July Shelley, who had remained in Pisa on Hunt’s account, started for a sail with his friend Williams and a lad named Vivian. The “Ariel” was wrecked in the Gulf of Spezia and Shelley and his companions were drowned. On the 16th of August Byron and Hunt witnessed the “burning of Shelley” on the seashore near Via Reggio. Byron told Moore that “all of Shelley was consumed but the heart.” Whilst the fire was burning Byron swam out to the “Bolivar” and back to the shore. The hot sun and the violent exercise brought on one of those many fevers which weakened his constitution and shortened his life.
The Austrian government would not allow the Gambas or the countess Guiccioli to remain in Pisa. As a half measure Byron took a villa for them at Montenero near Leghorn, but as the authorities were still dissatisfied they removed to Genoa. Byron and Leigh Hunt left Pisa on the last day of September. On reaching Genoa Byron took up his quarters with the Gambas at the Casa Saluzzo, “a fine old palazzo with an extensive view over the bay,” and Hunt and his party at the Casa Negroto with Mrs Shelley. Life at Genoa was uneventful. Of Hunt and Mrs Shelley he saw as little as possible, and though his still unpublished poems were at the service of The Liberal, he did little or nothing to further its success. Each number was badly received. Byron had some reason to fear that his popularity was on the wane, and though he had broken with Murray and was offering Don Juan (cantos vi.-xii.) to John Hunt, the publisher of The Liberal, he meditated a “run down to Naples” and a recommencement of Childe Harold. There was a limit to his defiance of the “world’s rebuke.” Home politics and the congress of Verona (November-December 1822) suggested a satire entitled “The Age of Bronze” (published April 1, 1823). It is, as he said, “stilted,” and cries out for notes, but it embodies some of his finest and most vigorous work as a satirist. By the middle of February (1823) he had completed The Island; or Christian and his Comrades (published June 26, 1823). The sources are Bligh’s Narrative of the Mutiny of the Bounty, and Mariner’s Account of the Tonga Islands. Satire and tale are a reversion to his earlier method. The execution of The Island is hurried and unequal, but there is a deep and tender note in the love-story and the recital of the “feasts and loves and wars” of the islanders. The poetic faculty has been “softened into feeling” by the experience of life.
When The Island was finished, Byron went on with Don Juan. Early in March the news reached him that he had been elected a member of the Greek Committee, a small body of influential Liberals who had taken up the cause of the liberation of Greece. Byron at once offered money and advice, and after some hesitation on the score of health, determined “to go to Greece.” His first step was to sell the “Bolivar” to Lord Blessington, and to purchase the “Hercules,” a collier-built tub of 120 tons. On the 23rd of July the “Hercules” sailed from Leghorn and anchored off Cephalonia on the 3rd of August. The party on board consisted of Byron, Pietro Gamba, Trelawny, Hamilton Browne and six or seven servants. The next four months were spent at Cephalonia, at first on board the “Hercules,” in the harbour of Argostoli and afterwards at Metaxata. The object of this delay was to ascertain the real state of affairs in Greece. The revolutionary Greeks were split up into parties, not to say factions, and there were several leaders. It was a question to which leader he would attach himself. At length a message reached him which inspired him with confidence. He received a summons from Prince Alexander Mavrocordato, a man of birth and education, urging him to come at once to Missolonghi, and enclosing a request from the legislative body “to co-operate with Mavrocordato in the organization of western Greece.” Byron felt that he could act with a “clear conscience” in putting himself at the disposal of a man whom he regarded as the authorized leader and champion of the Greeks. He sailed from Argostoli on the 29th of December 1823, and after an adventurous voyage landed at Missolonghi on the 5th of January 1824. He met with a royal reception. Byron may have sought, but he did not find, “a soldier’s grave.” During his three months’ residence at Missolonghi he accomplished little and he endured much. He advanced large sums of money for the payment of the troops, for repair and construction of fortifications, for the provision of medical appliances. He brought opposing parties into line, and served as a link between Odysseus, the democratic leader of the insurgents, and the “prince” Mavrocordato. He was eager to take the field, but he never got the chance. A revolt in the Morea, and the repeated disaffection of his Suliote guard prevented him from undertaking the capture of Epacto, an exploit which he had reserved for his own leadership. He was beset with difficulties, but at length events began to move. On the 18th of March he received an invitation from Odysseus and other chiefs to attend a conference at Salona, and by the same messenger an offer from the government to appoint him “governor-general of the enfranchised parts of Greece.” He promised to attend the conference but did not pledge himself to the immediate acceptance of office. But to Salona he never came. “Roads and rivers were impassable,” and the conference was inevitably postponed.
His health had given way, but he does not seem to have realized that his life was in danger. On the 15th of February he was struck down by an epileptic fit, which left him speechless though not motionless. He recovered sufficiently to conduct his business as usual, and to drill the troops. But he suffered from dizziness in the head and spasms in the chest, and a few days later he was seized with a second though slighter convulsion. These attacks may have hastened but they did not cause his death. For the first week of April the weather confined him to the house, but on the 9th a letter from his sister raised his spirits and tempted him to ride out with Gamba. It came on to rain, and though he was drenched to the skin he insisted on dismounting and returning in an open boat to the quay in front of his house. Two hours later he was seized with ague and violent rheumatic pains. On the 11th he rode out once more through the olive groves, attended by his escort of Suliote guards, but for the last time. Whether he had got his deathblow, or whether copious blood-letting made recovery impossible, he gradually grew worse, and on the ninth day of his illness fell into a comatose sleep. It was reported that in his delirium he had called out, half in English, half in Italian, “Forward—forward—courage! follow my example—don't be afraid!” and that he tried to send a last message to his sister and to his wife. He died at six o’clock in the evening of the 19th of April 1824, aged thirty-six years and three months. The Greeks were heartbroken. Mavrocordato gave orders that thirty-seven minute-guns should be fired at daylight and decreed a general mourning of twenty-one days. His body was embalmed and lay in state. On the 25th of May his remains, all but the heart, which is buried at Missolonghi, were sent back to England, and were finally laid beneath the chancel of the village church of Hucknall-Torkard on the 16th of July 1824. The authorities would not sanction burial in Westminster Abbey, and there is neither bust nor statue of Lord Byron in Poets’ Corner.
The title passed to his first cousin as 7th baron, from whom the subsequent barons were descended. The poet’s daughter Ada (d. 1852) predeceased her mother, but the barony of Wentworth went to her heirs. She was the first wife of Baron King, who in 1838 was created 1st earl of Lovelace, and had two sons (of whom the younger, b. 1839, d. 1906, was 2nd earl of Lovelace) and a daughter, Lady Anne, who married Wilfrid S. Blunt (q.v.). On the death of the 2nd earl the barony of Wentworth went to his daughter and only child, and the earldom of Lovelace to his half-brother by the 1st earl’s second wife.
Great men are seldom misjudged. The world passes sentence on them, and there is no appeal. Byron’s contemporaries judged him by the tone and temper of his works, by his own confessions or self-revelations in prose and verse, by the facts of his life as reported in the newspapers, by the talk of the town. His letters, his journals, the testimony of a dozen memorialists are at the disposal of the modern biographer. Moore thinks that Byron’s character was obliterated by his versatility, his mobility, that he was carried away by his imagination, and became the thing he wished to be, or conceived himself as becoming. But his nature was not chameleon-like. Self-will was the very pulse of the machine. Pride ruled his years. All through his life, as child and youth and man, his one aim and endeavour was the subjection of other people’s wishes to, his own. He would subject even fate if he could. He has two main objects in view, glory, in the French rather than the English use of the word, and passion. It is hard to say which was the strongest or the dearest, but, on the whole, within his “little life” passion prevailed. Other inclinations he could master. Poetry was often but not always an exaltation and a relief. He could fulfil his tasks in “hours of gloom.” If he had not been a great poet he would have gained credit as a painstaking and laborious man of letters. His habitual temperance was the outcome of a stern resolve. He had no scruples, but he kept his body in subjection as a means to an end. In his youth Byron was a cautious spendthrift. Even when he was “cursedly dipped” he knew what he was about; and afterwards, when his income was sufficient for his requirements, he kept a hold on his purse. He loved display, and as he admitted, spent money on women, but he checked his accounts and made both ends meet. On the other hand, the “gift of continency” he did not possess, or trouble himself to acquire. He was, to use his own phrase, “passionate of body,” and his desires were stronger than his will. There are points of Byron’s character with regard to which opinion is divided. Candid he certainly was to the verge of brutality, but was he sincere? Was he as melancholy as his poetry implies? Did he pose as pessimist or misanthropist, or did he speak out of the bitterness of his soul? It stands to reason that Byron knew that his sorrow and his despair would excite public interest, and that he was not ashamed to exhibit “the pageant of a bleeding heart.” But it does not follow that he was a hypocrite. His quarrel with mankind, his anger against fate, were perfectly genuine. His outcry is, in fact, the anguish of a baffled will. Byron was too self-conscious, too much interested in himself, to take any pleasures in imaginary woes, or to credit himself with imaginary vices.
Whether he told the whole truth is another matter. He was naturally a truthful man and his friends lived in dread of unguarded disclosures, but his communications were not so free as they seemed. There was a string to the end of the kite. Byron was kindly and generous by nature. He took pleasure in helping necessitous authors, men and women, not at all en grand seigneur, or without counting the cost, but because he knew what poverty meant, and a fellow-feeling made him kind. Even in Venice he set aside a fixed sum for charitable purposes. It was to his credit that neither libertinism nor disgrace nor remorse withered at its root this herb of grace. Cynical speeches with regard to friends and friendship, often quoted to his disadvantage, need not be taken too literally. Byron talked for effect, and in accordance with the whim of the moment. His acts do not correspond with his words. Byron rejected and repudiated bath Protestant and Catholic orthodoxy, but like the Athenians he was “exceedingly religious.” He could not, he did not wish to, detach himself from a belief in an Invisible Power. “A fearful looking for of judgment” haunted him to the last.
There is an increasing tendency on the part of modern critics to cast a doubt on Byron’s sanity. It is true that he inherited bad blood on both sides of his family, that he was of a neurotic temperament, that at one time he maddened himself with drink, but there is no evidence that his brain was actually diseased. Speaking figuratively, he may have been “half mad,” but, if so, it was a derangement of the will, not of the mind. He was responsible for his actions, and they rise up in judgment against him. He put indulgence before duty. He made a byword of his marriage and brought lifelong sorrow on his wife. If, as Goethe said, he was “the greatest talent” of the 19th century, he associated that talent with scandal and reproach. But he was born with certain noble qualities which did not fail him at his worst. He was courageous, he was kind, and he loved truth rather than lies. He was a worker and a fighter. He hated tyranny, and was prepared to sacrifice money and ease and life in the cause of popular freedom. If the issue of his call to arms was greater and other than he designed or foresaw, it was a generous instinct which impelled him to begin the struggle.
With regard to the criticism of his works, Byron’s personality has always confused the issue. Politics, religion, morality, have confused, and still confuse, the issue. The question for the modern critic is, of what permanent value is Byron’s poetry? What did he achieve for art, for the intellect, for the spirit, and in what degree does he still give pleasure to readers of average intelligence? It cannot be denied that he stands out from other poets of his century as a great creative artist, that his canvas is crowded with new and original images, additions to alreadytypes of poetic workmanship. It has been said that Byron could only represent himself under various disguises, that Childe Harold and The Corsair, Lara and Manfred and Don Juan, are variants of a single personality, the egotist who is at war with his fellows, the generous but nefarious sentimentalist who sins and suffers and yet is to be pitied for his suffering. None the less, with whatever limitations as artist or moralist, he invented characters and types of characters real enough and distinct enough to leave their mark on society as well as on literature. These masks or replicas of his own personality were formative of thought, and were powerful agents in the evolution of sentiment and opinion. In language which was intelligible and persuasive, under shapes and forms which were suggestive and inspiring, Byron delivered a message of liberation. There was a double motive at work in his energies as a poet. He wrote, as he said, because “his mind was full” of his own loves, his own griefs, but also to register a protest against some external tyranny of law or faith or custom. His own countrymen owe Byron another debt. His poems were a liberal education in the manners and customs of “the gorgeous East,” in the scenery, the art, the history and politics of Italy and Greece. He widened the horizon of his contemporaries, bringing within their ken wonders and beauties hitherto unknown or unfamiliar, and in so doing he heightened and cultivated, he “touched with emotion,” the unlettered and unimaginative many, that “reading public” which despised or eluded the refinements and subtleties of less popular writers.
To the student of literature the first half of the 19th century is the age of Byron. He has failed to retain his influence over English readers. The knowledge, the culture of which he was the immediate channel, were speedily available through other sources. The politics of the Revolution neither interested nor affected the Liberalism or Radicalism of the middle classes. It was not only the loftier and wholesomer poetry of Wordsworth and of Tennyson which averted enthusiasm from Byron, not only moral earnestness and religious revival but the optimism and the materialism of commercial prosperity. As time went on, a severer and more intelligent criticism was brought to bear on his handiwork as a poet. It was pointed out that his constructions were loose and ambiguous, that his grammar was faulty, that his rhythm was inharmonious, and it was argued that these defects and blemishes were outward and visible signs of a lack of fineness in the man’s spiritual texture; that below the sentiment and behind the rhetoric the thoughts and ideas were mean and commonplace. There was a suspicion of artifice, a questioning of the passion as genuine. Poetry came to be regarded more and more as a source of spiritual comfort, if not a religious exercise, yet, in some sort, a substitute for religion. There was little or nothing in Byron’s poetry which fulfilled this want. He had no message for seekers after truth. Matthew Arnold, in his preface to The Poetry of Byron, prophesied that “when the year 1900 is turned, and our nation comes to recount the poetic glories in the century which has then just ended, her first names with her will be those of Byron and Wordsworth.”That prophecy still waits fulfilment, but without doubt there has been a reconsideration of Byron’s place in literature, and he stands higher than he did, say, in 1875. His quarrel with orthodoxy neither alarms nor provokes the modern reader. Cynical or flippant turns of speech, which distressed and outraged his contemporaries, are taken as they were meant, for witty or humorous by-play. He is regarded as the herald and champion revolt. He is praised for his “sincerity and strength,” for his single-mindedness, his directness, his audacity. A dispassionate criticism recognizes the force and splendour of his rhetoric. The “purple patches” have stood the wear and tear of time. Byron may have mismanaged the Spenserian stanza, may have written up to or anticipated the guide-book, but the spectacle of the bull-fight at Cadiz is “for ever warm,” the “sound of revelry” on the eve of Waterloo still echoes in our ears, and Marathon and Venice, Greece and Italy, still rise up before us, “as from the stroke of an enchanter’s wand.” It was, however, in another vein that Byron achieved his final triumph. In Don Juan he set himself to depict life as a whole. The style is often misnamed the mock-heroic. It might be more accurately described as humorous-realistic. His “plan was to have no plan” in the sense of synopsis or argument, but in the person of his hero to “unpack his heart,” to avenge himself on his enemies, personal or political, to suggest an apology for himself and to disclose a criticism and philosophy of life. As a satirist in the widest sense of the word, as an analyser of human nature, he comes, at whatever distance, after and yet next to Shakespeare. It is a test of the greatness of Don Juan that its reputation has slowly increased and that, in spite of its supposed immoral tendency, in spite of occasional grossness and voluptuousness, it has come to be recognized as Byron’s masterpiece. Don Juan will be read for its own sake, for its beauty, its humour, its faithfulness. It is a “hymn to the earth,” but it is a human sequence to “its own music chaunted.”
In his own lifetime Byron stood higher on the continent of Europe than in England or even in America. His works as they came out were translated into French, into German, into Italian, into Russian, and the stream of translation has never ceased to flow. The Bride of Abydos has been translated into ten, Cain into nine languages. Of Manfred there is one Bohemian translation, two Danish, two Dutch, two French, nine German, three Hungarian, three Italian, two Polish, one Romaic, one Rumanian, four Russian and three Spanish translations. The dictum or verdict of Goethe that “the English may think of Byron as they please, but this is certain that they show no poet who is to be compared with him” was and is the keynote of continental European criticism. A survey of European literature is a testimony to the universality of his influence. Victor Hugo, Lamartine, Delavigne, Alfred de Musset, in France; Börne, Müller and Heine in Germany; the Italian poets Leopardi and Giusti; Pushkin and Lermontov among the Russians; Michiewicz and Slowacki among the Poles—more or less, as eulogists or imitators or disciples—were of the following of Byron. This fact is beyond dispute, that after the first outburst of popularity he has touched and swayed other nations rather than his own. The part he played or seemed to play in revolutionary politics endeared him to those who were struggling to be free. He stood for freedom of thought and of life. He made himself the mouthpiece of an impassioned and welcome protest against the hypocrisy and arrogance of his order and his race. He lived on the continent and was known to many men in many cities. It has been argued that foreigners are insensible to his defects as a writer, and that this may account for an astonishing and perplexing preference. The cause is rather to be sought in the quality of his art. It was as the creator of new types, “forms more real than living man,” that Byron appealed to the artistic sense and to the imagination of Latin, Teuton or Slav. That “he taught us little” of the things of the spirit, that he knew no cure for the sickness of the soul, were considerations which lay outside the province of literary criticism. “It is a mark,” says Goethe (Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, 1876, iii. 125), “of true poetry, that as a secular gospel it knows how to free us from the earthly burdens which press upon us, by inward serenity, by outward charm.” Now of this “secular gospel” the redemption from “real woes” by the exhibition of imaginary glory, and imaginary delights, Byron was both prophet and evangelist.
Byron was 5 ft. 8 in. in height, and strongly built; only with difficulty and varying success did he prevent himself from growing fat. At five-and-thirty he was extremely thin. He was “very slightly lame,” but he was painfully conscious of his deformity and walked as little and as seldom as he could. He had a small head covered and fringed with dark brown or auburn curls. His forehead was high and narrow, of a marble whiteness. His eyes were of a light grey colour, clear and luminous. His nose was straight and well-shaped, but “from being a little too thick, it looked better in profile than in front face.” Moore says that it was in “the mouth and chin that the great beauty as well as expression of his fine countenance lay.” The upper lip was of a Grecian shortness and the corners descending. His complexion was pale and colourless. Scott speaks of “his beautiful pale face—like a spirit’s good or evil.” Charles Matthews said that “he was the only man to whom he could apply the word beautiful.” Coleridge said that “if you had seen him you could scarce disbelieve him. . . his eyes the open portals of the sun—things of light and for light.” He was likened to “the god of the Vatican,” the Apollo Belvidere.
The best-known portraits are: (1) Byron at the age of seven by Kay of Edinburgh; (2) a drawing of Lord Byron at Cambridge by Gilchrist (1808); (3) a portrait in oils by George Sanders (1809); (4) a miniature by Sanders (1812); (5) a portrait in oils by Richard Westall, R.A. (1813); (6) a portrait in oils (Byron in Albanian dress) by Thomas Phillips, R.A. (1813); (7) a portrait in oils by Phillips (1813); (8-9) a sketch for a miniature, and a miniature by James Holmes (1815); (10) a sketch by George Henry Harlow (1818); (11) a portrait in oils by Vincenzio Camuccini (in the Vatican) c. 1822; (12) a portrait in oils by W. H. West (1822); (13) a sketch by Count D’Orsay (1823). Busts were taken by Bertel Thorwaldsen (1817) and by Lorenzo Bartolini (1822). The statue (1829) in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, is by Thorwaldsen after the bust taken in 1817.
Authorities.—The best editions of Lord Byron’s poetical works are: (1) The Works of Lord Byron with his Letters and Journals and his Life, by Thomas Moore (17 vols., London, John Murray, 1832, 1833); (2) The Works of Lord Byron (1 vol., 1837, reissued, 1838–1892); (3) The Poetical Works of Lord Byron (6 vols., 1855); (4) The Works of Lord Byron, new, revised and enlarged edition, Letters and Journals, edited by G. E. Prothero, 6 vols., Poetry, edited by E. H. Coleridge (7 vols., 1898–1903); (5) The Poetical Works of Lord Byron, with memoir by E. H. Coleridge (1 vol., 1905).
The principal biographies, critical notices, memoirs, &c., are:—Journey through Albania. . . with Lord Byron, by J. C. Hobhouse (1812; reprinted in 2 vols., 1813 and 1855); Memoirs of the Life and Writings of . . . Lord Byron [by Dr John Watkins] (1822); Letters on the Character and Poetical Genius of Lord Byron, by Sir E. Brydges, Bart. (1824); Correspondence of Lord Byron with a Friend (3 vols., Paris, 1824); Recollections of the Life of Lord Byron, by R. C. Dallas (1824); Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron, by Capt. T. Medwin (1824); Last Days of Lord Byron, by W. Parry (1824); Narrative of a Second Visit to Greece, by E. Blaquiere (1825); A Narrative of Lord Byron’s Last Journey to Greece, by Count Gamba (1825); The Life, Writings, Opinions and Times of Lord Byron (3 vols., 1825); The Spirit of the Age, by W. Hazlitt (1825); Memoir of the Life and Writings of Lord Byron, by George Clinton (1826); Correspondence of Byron and some of his Contemporaries, by J. H. Leigh Hunt (2 vols., 1828); Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, with Notices of his Life, by Thomas Moore (2 vols., 1830); The Life of Lord Byron, by J. Galt (1830); Conversations on Religion with Lord Byron, by J. Kennedy (1830); Conversations of Lord Byron with the Countess of Blessington (1834); Critical and Historical Essays, by T. B. Macaulay, i. 311–352 (1843); Lord Byron jugé par les témoins de sa vie (1869), My Recollections of Lord Byron, by the Countess Guiccioli (1869); Lady Byron Vindicated, A History of the Byron Controversy, by H. Beecher Stowe (1870); Lord Byron, a Biography, by Karl Elze (1872); Kunst und Alterthum, Goethe’s Sämmtliche Werke (1874), vol. xiii. p. 641; Memoir of the Rev. F. Hodgson (2 vols., 1878); The Real Lord Byron, by J. C. Jeaffreson (2 vols., 1883); A Selection, &c., by A. C. Swinburne (1885); Records of Shelley, Byron and the Author, by E. J. Trelawny (1887); Memoirs of John Murray, by S. Smiles (2 vols., 1891); Poetry of Byron, chosen and arranged by Matthew Arnold (preface) (1892); The Siege of Corinth, edited by E. Kölbing (1893); Prisoner of Chillon and other Poems, edited by E. Kölbing ( ); The Works of Lord Byron, edited by W. Henley, vol. i. (1897); A. Brandl’s “Goethes Verhältniss zu Byron,” Goethe Jahrbuch, zwanzigster Band (1899); Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature, by G. Brandis (6 vols., 1901–1905), translated from Hauptströmungen der Literatur des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, 4 Bde. (Berlin 1872–1876); Chambers’s Cyclopaedia of English Literature, vol. iii. (1903) art. “Byron,” by T. Watts Dunton; Studies in Poetry and Criticism, by J. Churton Collins (1905); Lord Byron, sein Leben, &c., by Richard Ackermann; Byron, 3 vols. in the Biblioteka velikikh pisatelei pod redaktsei, edited by S. A. Vengesova (St Petersburg, 1906): a variorum translation; Byron et le romantisme français, by Edmond Estève (1907). (E. H. C.)
- An anonymous work entitled The Life, Writings, &c. of . . . Lord Byron (3 vols., 1825) purports to give “Recollections of the Lately Destroyed Manuscript.” To judge by internal evidence (see “The Wedding Day,” &c. ii. 278-284) there is some measure of truth in this assertion, but the work as a whole is untrustworthy.