I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter's wand:
A thousand years, their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O'er the far times, when many a subject land
Look'd to the winged Lion's marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!
Man! I wonder what a man really is! Starting from a single cell, this
seized upon by another, and out of the Eternal comes a particle of the
Divine Energy that makes these cells its home. Growth follows, cell is
added to cell, and there develops a man—a man whose body, two-thirds
water, can be emptied by a single dagger-thrust and the spirit given back
to its Maker.
This being, which we call man, does not last long.
Fifty-seven generations have come and gone since Cæsar trod the Roman
Forum. The pillars against which he often leaned still stand, the
thresholds over which he passed are there, the pavements ring beneath your
tread as they once rang beneath his. Three generations and more have come
and gone since Napoleon trod the streets of Toulon contemplating suicide.
Babes in arms were carried by fond mothers to see Lincoln, the candidate
for President. These babes have grown into men, are grandfathers possibly,
with whitened hair, furrowed faces, looking calmly forward to the end,
having tasted all that life holds in store for them.
And yet Lincoln lived but yesterday! You can reach back into the past and
grasp his hand, and look into his sad and weary eyes.
A man! weighted with the sins of his parents, grandparents,
great-grandparents, who fade off into dim spectral shapes in the dark and
dreamlike past; no word of choice has he in the selection of his father
and mother, no voice in the choosing of environment—brought into life
without his consent and thrust out of it against his will—battling,
striving, hoping, cursing, waiting, loving, praying; burned by fever, torn
by passion, checked by fear, reaching for friendship, longing for
Doctors and priests attend us at both ends of the route. We can not be
born, neither can we die, without consulting the tax-collector, and
interviewing those who look after us for a consideration.
The doctor who sought to assist George Gordon Byron into the world
dislocated the bones of his left foot in the operation. Forsooth, this
baby would not be born as others—-he selected a way of his own and paid
the penalty. "It is a malformation—take these powders—I'll be back
tomorrow," quoth the busy doctor.
The autopsy proved it was not a malformation, but a displacement.
"Doctor, now please tell me just what is the matter with me," once asked
an anxious patient.
"Tut, tut!" replied the absent-minded physician; "can't you wait? The
post-mortem will reveal all that."
The critics did not wait for Byron's death—it was vivisection. And after
his death the dissection was zealously continued. Byron's life lies open
to us in many books. Scarcely a month in the entire life of the man is
unaccounted for, and if a hiatus of a few weeks is found, the men of
imagination fill in and make him a pirate on the Mediterranean coast, or
give him a seraglio in some gloomy old Moorish palace in Venice.
In his lifetime Byron was overpraised and overcensured, and since his
death the dust has been allowed to gather over his matchless books.
Between the two extremes lies the truth; and the true Byron is just now
being discovered. Byron in literature will not die. He is the brightest
comet that has darted into our ken since Shakespeare's time; and as comets
have no orbit, but are vagrants of the heavens, so was he. Tragedy was in
his train, and his destiny was disgrace and death.
And yet as we review the life of this man, "the lame brat" of his mother,
as this mother called him, and behold the whirlwind of passion that swept
him on, the fulsome praise, the shrill outcry of hypocritical prudes and
pedants, the torrent of abuse, and the piling up of sins that he never
committed (and God knows he committed enough!); and yet behold his craving
for tenderness, the reaching out for truth, and hear his earnest and
unquenchable prayer to be understood and loved, we blot out the record of
his sins with our tears. To know the life of Byron and not be moved to
profoundest pity marks one as alien to his kind.
"God is on the side of the most sensitive," said Thoreau. And did there
ever tread the earth a man more sensitive than Byron?—such capacity for
suffering, such exaltation, such heights, such depths! Music made him
tremble and weep, and in the presence of kindness he was powerless. He
lived life to its fullest, and paid the penalty with shortened years. He
expressed himself without reserve—being emancipated from superstition and
precedent. And the man who is not dominated by the fetish of custom is
marked for contumely by the many. Custom makes law, and the one who
violates custom is "bad." Yet all respectable people are not good; and all
good people are not respectable. If you do not know this you are ignorant
So imagine this handsome, headstrong, restless young man, in whose lexicon
there was no such word as prudence, with time and money at his command,
defying the state, society and religion, and listen to the anathemas that
fill the air at mention of his name.
That a world full of such men would not be at all desirable is stern
truth; but that one such man lived is a cause for congratulation. His life
holds for us both warning and example.
Beneath the strain of the stuff and the onward swirl of his verse we see
that this man stood for truth and justice as against hypocrisy and
oppression. Folly and freedom are better far than smugness and
persecution. Byron stood for the rights of the individual, for the right
of free speech and free thought: and he stood for political and physical
freedom, long before abolition societies became popular. He sided with the
people; his heart went out to the oppressed; and all of his fruitless
gropings and stumblings were a reaching out for tenderness and truth, for
life and love—for the Ideal.
The father of Byron, the poet, was a captain in the army—a man of small
mental ability, whose recklessness won him the sobriquet of "Mad Jack
Byron." When twenty-three years of age he eloped to France with the
Baroness Conyers, wife of the Marquis of Carmarthen. Happiness, in a
foreign country, for a woman who has exchanged one love for another is
outside the pale of possibilities. Love is much—but love is not all. Life
is too short to break family-ties and adjust one's self to a new language
and a new country. The change means death.
Two years and the woman died, leaving a daughter, Augusta by name,
afterward Mrs. Augusta Leigh.
Back to England went Mad Jack Byron, broken-hearted, bearing in his arms
the baby girl. Kind kinsmen, ready to forgive, cared for the child. Mad
Jack didn't remain broken-hearted long—what would you expect from a man?
He sought sympathy among several discreet dames, and in two years we find
him safely and legally married to Catherine Gordon. Scotch, and heiress to
twenty-five thousand pounds. On the occasion of the wedding, Jack informed
a friend that the fact of the lady's being Scotch was forgiven in view of
the dowry. Most of this fortune went into a rat-hole to help pay the debts
of the Mad Jack.
One child was born to this ill-assorted pair—a boy who was destined to
write his name large on history's page. But such a pedigree! No wonder the
youth once wrote to Augusta, his half-sister, expressing a covetous
appreciation of her parentage, even with its bar sinister. In passing, it
is well to note the sunshine of this love of brother and sister, which
continued during life—confidential, earnest, tender, frank. In their best
moods they were both lofty souls, and their mutuality was cemented in a
contempt for the man who was their sire. This fine brotherly and sisterly
affection comes close to us when we remember that it was our own Harriet
Beecher Stowe, with sympathies worn to the quick through much brooding
over the wrongs of a race in bondage, who rushed into print with a
scandalous accusation concerning this same sweet affection of brother for
sister. The charge was brought on no better foundation than some old-woman
gossip held over the hyson when it was red, and moved itself aright—all
vouchsafed to Mrs. Stowe by the widow of Byron in Eighteen Hundred
Fifty-six. If a woman as good at heart as Harriet Beecher Stowe was
deceived, why should we blame humanity for biting at a hook that is not
No sane dentist will administer an anesthetic to a woman, without a
witness: not that women as a class are dangerous, but because some women
can not be trusted to distinguish between their dreams and the facts.
Every practising lawyer of insight also knows that a wronged woman's
reasons are plentiful as blackberries, and must always be taken with large
pinches of the Syracuse product.
Mad Jack followed his regiment here and there, dodging his creditors, and
finally in Seventeen Hundred Ninety-one induced his wife to borrow a
hundred pounds for him, with which he started to Paris intent on
retrieving fortune with pasteboard.
He died on the way, and the money was used to bury him. The lame boy was
then three years old, but a few dark memories, no doubt retouched by
hearsay, were retained by him of Mad Jack, who in his most sober moments
never guessed that he would be known to the ages as the father of the
greatest poet of his time.
Mad Jack was neither literary nor psychic.
The widowed mother remained at Aberdeen with her boy, living on the
hundred and fifty pounds a year that had been settled on her in a way that
she could not squander the principal—all the rest had gone.
The child was shy, sensitive, proud and headstrong.
The mother used to reprove him by throwing things at him, and by chasing
him with the tongs. At other times she diverted herself by imitating his
limp. And yet again she would smother him with caresses, beseech his
pardon for abusing him, and praise the beauty of his matchless eyes.
Children are usually better judges of grown-ups than grown-ups are of
children. This boy at five years of age had estimated his mother's
character correctly. He knew that she was not his steadfast friend, and
that she was unworthy of his confidence and whole heart's love. He grew
moody, secretive, wilful. Once, being wrongly accused and punished, he
seized a knife from the table and was about to apply it to his throat when
he was disarmed. The child longed for tenderness and love, and being
denied these, was already taking on that proud and haughty temper which
was to serve as a mask to hide the tenderness of his nature.
We are told that seven brothers Byron fought at Edgehill, but when we get
down to the time of Mad Jack there was danger of the name being snuffed
out entirely. Nature is not anxious to perpetuate the idle and dissipated.
When little George Gordon was ten years old, his mother one day ran to
him, seized him in her arms, wept and laughed, then laughed and wept,
kissing him violently, addressing him as "My Lord!"
His great-uncle, William, Lord Byron of Rochdale and Newstead Abbey, had
died, and the big-eyed, lame boy was the nearest heir—in fact, the only
living male who bore the family-name. The next day at school, when the
master called the roll and mentioned his name with the prefix "Dominus,"
the lad did not reply "Adsum"—he only stood up, gazed helplessly at the
teacher, and burst into tears.
Even at this time he had given promise of the quality of his nature, by
his firm affection for Mary Duff, his cousin. All the intensity of his
childish nature was centered in this young woman, several years his
senior. To call it a passion would be too much, but this child, denied of
love at home, clung to Mary Duff, to whom he went in confession with all
his childish tales of woe. When his mother proposed to leave Aberdeen, now
that fortune had smiled, the anguish of the boy at thought of leaving his
"first love" nearly caused him a fit of sickness.
And all this wealth of love was met with jeers and loud laughter, save by
Mary Duff. The vibrating sensitiveness of such a child, with such a
mother, must have caused a misery we can only guess.
"Your mother is a fool," said a boy to Byron at college some years later.
"I know it," was the melancholy answer, as the brown eyes filled with
When money came, Mrs. Byron's first move was to take the lad to Nottingham
and place him in charge of a surgical quack, who proposed, for a price, to
make the lame foot just as good as the other, if not better. To this
effect wooden clamps were placed on the foot and screwed down by
thumbscrews, causing a torture that would have been unbearable to many.
No benefit was experienced from the treatment, although it was continued
by another physician at London soon after. A schoolfellow of Byron's
visited him in his room when his foot was encased in a wooden compress.
The visitor noted the white face, and the beads of anguish on the boy's
forehead, and at last said, "I know you are suffering awfully!"
"You will never hear me say so," was the grim reply.
The emphasis placed on Byron's lameness has been altogether overdone. In
fact, as he grew to manhood, it was nothing more than a stiffness that
would never have been noticed in a drawing-room. We have this on the
testimony of the Countess Guiccioli, Lady Blessington and others. Byron
himself made the mistake of referring to it several times in his verse,
and doubtless all the torture he had suffered through ill-considered
medical counsel, and his mother's taunts, caused the matter to take a
place in his sensitive mind quite out of its due proportion. Sir Walter
Scott was lame, too, but whoever heard of his discussing it, either by
word of mouth or in print?
Of Byron's life at Harrow we have many tales as to his defending his
juniors, volunteering to take punishment for them—and of lessons
unlearned. He could not be driven nor forced, and pedagogics a hundred
years ago, it seemed, was largely a science of coercion. Mary Gray, a
nurse and early teacher of Byron's, has told us that kindness was the
unfailing touchstone with this boy; no other plan would work. But Harrow
knew nothing of Froebel methods, and does not yet.
Byron's first genuine love-affair occurred when he was sixteen. The object
of this affection, as all the world knows, was Miss Chaworth, whose estate
adjoined Newstead. The lady was two years older than Byron, and being of a
lively nature found a pleasant diversion in leading the youth a merry
chase. So severe was his attack that he was alternately oppressed by
chills of fear and fevers of ecstasy. He lost appetite, and the family
began to fear for his sanity. Such a love must find expression some way,
and so the daily stealthy notes to the young woman took the form of rhyme.
The lovesick youth was revealing considerable facility in this way. It
pleased him, and did the buxom young woman no harm.
Beyond the mere prettiness and pinky whiteness of a healthy country lass,
Miss Chaworth evidently had no beauties of character, save those conjured
forth from the inner consciousness of the poet—a not wholly original
Byron loved the Ideal. And this love-affair with Miss Chaworth is only
valuable as showing the evolution of imagination in the poet. The woman
hadn't the slightest idea that she was giving wings to a soul—to her the
affair was simply funny.
The fact that Byron's great-uncle, from whom he had inherited his title,
had killed the grandfather of Miss Chaworth in a duel, lent a romantic
tinge to the matter—the boy was doing a sort of penance, and in one of his
poems hints at the undoing of the sin of his kinsman by the lifelong
devotion that he will bestow. This calling up the past, and incautious
revealing of the fact that the ancestor Chaworth could not hold his own
with a Byron, but allowed himself to be run through the body by the Byron
cold steel, was not pleasing to Miss Chaworth.
"Don't imagine I am such a fool as to love that lame boy," cried Miss
Chaworth to her maid one day.
Unluckily, "the lame boy" was in the next room and heard the remark.
He rushed from the house with a something gripping at his heart.
Straightway he would go back to Harrow, which he had left in wrath only a
few months before.
So he went to Harrow.
When he next returned home, his mother met him with the remark, "I have
news for you; get out your handkerchief—Miss Chaworth is married."
In just another year Byron was home again, and was invited to dine with
the Chaworths. He accepted the invitation, and when he was introduced to a
baby girl, a month old, the child of his old sweetheart, his emotions got
the better of him and he had to leave the room. And to ease his woe he
indited a poem to the baby.
Miss Chaworth was not happy with her fox-hunting squire. Her mind became
clouded, and after some years she passed out, in poverty and alone. And if
there ever came to her mind any appreciation of the greatness of the man
who had given her name immortality, we do not know it.
The years from Eighteen Hundred Five to Eighteen Hundred Eight Byron spent
at Cambridge. The arts in which he perfected himself there were shooting,
swimming, fencing, drinking and gambling.
During vacations, and off and on, he lived at Southwell, a village halfway
between Mansfield and Newark. Southwell was sleepy, gossipy, dull—and
exerted a wholesome restraint on our restless youth. It was simply a
question of economy that took Byron and his mother to Southwell. The
run-down estate of Newstead was yielding a meager income, but at Southwell
one could be shabby and yet respectable.
At Southwell Byron met John Pigot and his sister—cultured people of a
refined and quiet sort. Byron took to them at once, and they liked him.
In a country town the person who thinks, instinctively hunts out the other
man who thinks—granting the somewhat daring hypothesis that there are two
of them. So Byron and the Pigots often met for walks and talks, and on
such occasions the poet would read to his friends the scraps of verse he
had written. He had gotten into the habit—he wrote whenever his pulse ran
up above eighty—he wrote because he could not help it; and he read his
productions to his friends for the same reason. Every one who writes longs
to read his work to some sympathetic soul. A thought is not ours until we
repeat it to another, and this crying need of expression marks every
poetic soul. All art is born of feeling, high, intense, holy feeling, and
the creative faculty is largely a matter of temperature. We feel, and not
to impart our feelings is stagnation—death. People who do not feel deeply
never have anything to impart, either to individuals or to the world. They
have no message.
The young man, fresh from the dusty, musty lectures of Cambridge, and out
of the reach of his boisterous and carousing companions, grasped at the
gentle, refined and sympathetic friendship of this brother and sister. The
trinity would walk off across the fields and recline on the soft turf
under a great spreading tree, reading aloud by turn from some good book.
Such meetings always ended by Byron's reading to his friends any chance
rhymes he had written since they last met.
John Morley dates the birth of Byron's poetic genius from his meeting with
Miss Chaworth, while Taine names Southwell as the pivotal point. Probably
both are right.
But this we know, that it was the Pigots who induced Byron to collect his
rhymes and have them printed. This was done at the neighboring town of
Newark, when Byron was nineteen years old. Possibly you have a few of
these thin, poorly printed, crudely bound little books entitled
"Juvenilia" around in the garret somewhere, and, if so, it might be well
enough to take care of them. Quaritch says they are worth a hundred pounds
apiece, although in the poet's lifetime they were dear at sixpence.
Byron sent copies to all the leading literary men whom he knew, including
Mackenzie, the man of feeling. Mackenzie replied, praising the work, and
so did several others. All writers of note are favored with many such
juvenilia, and usually there is a gracious electrotype reply. A doubt
exists as to whether Mackenzie ever read Byron's book, but we know that
his letter of stock platitude fired Byron to do still better. It is said
that no flattery is too fulsome for a pretty woman—she inwardly
congratulates the man on his subtle insight in discovering excellences
that she hardly knew existed. This may be so and may not, but the logic
holds when applied to fledgling authors. When it comes to praise he is
quite willing to take your word for it.
Byron's spirits arose to an ecstacy—he would be a poet.
About this time we find Hydra, as Byron pleasantly called his mother,
rushing to the village apothecary and warning that worthy not to sell
poison to the poet; and a few moments after her leaving, the astonished
apothecary was visited by the poet, who begged that no poison should be
sold to his mother. Each thought the other was going to turn Lucretia
Borgia, or play the last act of Romeo and Juliet, at least.
There were wild bursts of rage on the mother's part, stubborn mockery on
the other, followed up once by a poker flung with almost fatal precision
at the poet's curly head.
Upon this he took flight to London and Hydra followed, repentant and
lacrimose. A truce was patched up; they agreed to disagree, and coldly
shaking hands withdrew in opposite directions.
After this, when the poet wrote he addressed his mother as "Dear Madam,"
and confined himself to business matters. Only rarely was there any flash
in his letters, as when he said, "Dear Mother—you know you are a vixen,
but save me some champagne." If Byron's mother had been of the stuff of
which most mothers are made, we would have found these two safely settled
at Newstead, making the best of their battered fortune, with the son in
time marrying some neighbor lass, and slipping into the place of a
respectable English gentleman, a worthy member of the House of Lords.
But the boy, now grown twenty, had no home, and either was supplied too
much money or else too little. He wasted his substance in London,
economized in Southwell, sponged on friends, and borrowed of Scrope Davis
at Cambridge. When a remittance again came, he explored the greenrooms,
took lessons from Professor Johnson, the pugilist (referred to as "my
corporeal pastor"), drank whole companies under the table, bought a tame
bear and a wolf to guard the entrance of Newstead, and roamed the country
as a gipsy, in company with a girl dressed in boy's clothes, thus
supplying Richard Le Gallienne an interesting chapter in his "Quest of the
But all this time his brain was active, and another book of poetry had
been printed, entitled "Hours of Idleness." This book was gotten out, at
his own expense, by the same country printer as the first.
Surely the verse must have had merit, or why should Lord Brougham, in the
great "Edinburgh Review," go after it with a slashing, crashing, damning
When Byron read the review, a bystander has told us he turned red, then
livid green. He straightway ordered and drank two bottles of claret, said
nothing, but looked like a man who had sent a challenge.
A challenge! that was exactly what Byron proposed. He would fight Jeffrey
first, and then take up in turn every man who had ever contributed to the
magazine—he would kill them all. And to that end he called for his pistols
and went out to practise firing at ten paces. Wiser counsel prevailed, and
he decided to attack the enemy in their own citadel, and with their own
weapons. He ordered ink, and began "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers."
It took time to get this enormous siege-gun into position and find the
range. Finally, it was loaded with more kinds of missiles, in the way of
what Augustine Birrell has called literary stinkpots, than were ever
before rammed home in a single charge.
It was an audacious move—to reverse the initiative and go after a whole
race of critics, scribblers and reviewers, who had been badgering honest
folks, and blow 'em into kingdom come.
But at the last moment Byron's heart failed him, his wrath gave way to
caution, and "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers" appeared anonymously.
The edition was soon exhausted—the shot had at least raised a mighty dust.
The author got his nerve back, fathered the book, made corrections; and
this edition, too, sold with a rush. Byron returned to Newstead, invited a
score of his Cambridge cronies, who came down, entering the mansion
between the bear and the wolf, and were received with salvos of
pistol-shots. Here they played games over the spacious grounds, wrestled,
boxed, swam, and at night feasted and drank deep damnation out of a skull
to all Scotch reviewers.
Probably the acme of this depravity was reached when the young gentlemen
began shooting the pendants off the chandelier; then the servants hastily
decamped and left the rogues to do their own cooking.
This brought them to their senses, sanity came back, and the company
disbanded. Then the servants, who had watched the orgies from afar,
returned and found a week's pile of dishes unwashed and a horse stabled in
Then Byron had reached the mature age of twenty-one, he was formally
admitted to the House of Lords as a Peer of the realm. His titles and
pedigree were so closely scanned on this occasion that he grew quite out
of conceit with the noble company, and was seriously thinking of launching
a dunciad in their direction. His good nature was especially ruffled by
Lord Carlisle, his guardian, who refused to stand as his legal sponsor.
The chief cause of the old Lord's prejudice against the young one lay in
the fact that the young 'un had ridiculed the old 'un's literary
They were rivals in letters, with a very beautiful, natural and mutual
disdain for each other.
Lord Byron was not welcomed into the House of Lords: he simply pushed in
the door because he had a right to. He thirsted for approbation, for
distinction, for notoriety. His sensitive soul hung upon newspaper
clippings with feverish expectations; and about all the attention he
received was in the line of being damned by faint praise, or smothered
with silence. Patriotism, as far as England was concerned, was not a part
of Byron's composition.
When all Great Britain was execrating Napoleon, picturing him as a devil
with horns and hoofs, Byron looked upon him as the world's hero.
In this frame of mind he went forth and borrowed a goodly sum, and started
cut to view the world. He was accompanied by his friend Hobhouse, and his
It was a two years' trip, this jolly trio made—down along the coast of
France, Spain, through the Straits of Gibraltar, lingering in queer old
cities, mousing over historic spots, alternately living like princes or
vagabonds. They frolicked, drank, made love to married women, courted
maidens, fought, feasted and did all the foolish things that sophomores
usually do when they have money and opportunity.
These months of travel supplied Byron enough in way of suggestion to keep
him writing many moons. His active imagination seized upon everything
picturesque, peculiar, romantic, sentimental or tragic, and stored it up
in those wondrous brain-cells, to be used when the time was ripe.
The disciples of Munchausen, who delight in showing Byron's verse to be
only biography, have found a rich field in that two years' travel. One man
really did a brilliant thing—in three volumes—recounting the conquering
march of the poet, whom he depicts as a combination of Don Juan and Rob
The probabilities are that the real facts, not illumined by fancy, would
be a tale with which to conjure sleep. Foreign travel is hard work. It
constitutes the final test of friendship, and to make the tour of Europe
with a man and not hate him marks one or both of the parties as seraphic
in quality. The best of travel is in looking back upon it from the dreamy
quiet and rest of home—laughing at the things that once rasped your
nerves, and enjoying, through recollection, the scenes you only glanced at
Two instances of that trip—when Hobhouse threatened to desert the party
and was dared to do so, and Byron slapped Fletcher's face and got himself
well kicked in return—will suffice to show how Byron had the faculty of
seizing trivial incidents, and by lifting them up and separating them from
the mass, made them live as Art.
At Athens the trio made a sudden resolve to be respectable, and practise
economy. To this end they hired rooms of a worthy widow, who accommodated
travelers with a transient home for a moderate stipend. This widow had
three daughters: the eldest, Theresa by name, lives in letters as the Maid
of Athens, and the glory that came to her was achieved without any special
danger to either her heart or the poet's. The young woman, we know,
assisted in the household affairs; and probably often dusted the mantel in
the poet's room while he sat smoking with one foot on the table, making
irrelevant remarks to her about this or that.
Suddenly he wrote a poem, "Maid of Athens, ere we part, give, O give me
back my heart." * * *
With the genuine literary thrift that marked all of Byron's career, he
preserved a copy of the lines, and some years after recast them, touched
them up a bit, included the stuff in a book—and there you are.
The other incident is that of Hobhouse recording in his journal the bare
and barren fact that outside the city wall in Persia they once saw two
dogs gnawing a human body. Byron saw the sight, but made no mention of it
at the time. He waited, the scene sealed up in his brain-cells. Years
after he wrote thus:
"And he saw the lean dogs beneath the wall,
Hold o'er the dead their carnival;
Gorging and growling o'er carcass and limb,
They were too busy to bark at him.
From a Tartar's skull they stripped the flesh,
As ye peel the fig when its fruit is fresh;
And their white tusks crunched on the whiter skull,
As it slipped through their jaws when the edge grew dull."
And this only proves that Hobhouse was not a poet and Byron was. The poet
is never content to state the mere facts—facts are only valuable as
suggestions for poetry.
Travel often excites the spirit to the point of expression. Good travelers
carry pads and pencils. Byron reached England with fragments of marbles,
skulls, pictures, shells, spears, guns, curios beyond count, and many
manuscripts in process.
Upon arriving on the English coast the first news that reached him was
that his mother had just died. He hastened to Newstead and reached there
in time to attend the funeral, but refrained from following the cortege to
the grave because he could not master his emotions. Their quarrels were at
A diversion to his feelings came soon after, in the way of a blunt letter
from Tom Moore demanding if Lord Byron was the author of "English Bards
and Scotch Reviewers."
Byron replied very stiffly that he was, but he really had intended no
insult to Mr. Moore, with whom he had not the honor of being acquainted.
Furthermore, if Mr. Moore felt himself aggrieved, why, the author of
"English Bards" was at his service to supply him such satisfaction as he
The irate Irishman accepted "the apology," a genial reply followed, and
soon the poets met at the house of a friend, and there began that lifelong
friendship, with the result that Moore wrote Byron's "Life" and used much
While abroad Byron had gotten into shape for publication one piece of
manuscript. This was "Hints From Horace," and the matter was placed in the
hands of Mr. Dallas, his businessman, very soon after his arrival. Dallas
read the poem and did not like it.
"Haven't you anything else?" asked Dallas.
"Oh, nothing but a few stanzas of Spenserian stuff," was the answer.
Dallas asked to see it, and there were placed in his hands rough drafts of
the first and second cantos of "Childe Harold." This time Dallas was
better suited, and to corroborate his judgment the matter was submitted to
Murray, the publisher.
Murray thought the matter had more or less merit, and arrangements were at
once made for its publication. And so it came out, hammered into shape
while in the printer's hands.
"Childe Harold" was an instantaneous, brilliant success—a success beyond
the publisher's or author's expectations. The book ran through seven
editions in four weeks, and Lord Byron "became famous in a night."
London society became Byron-mad. The poet was feted, courted, petted.
He indulged in much innocent and costly dissipation, and some not so
Finally all this began to pall upon him. When twenty-six we find him
making a bold stand for reform: he would get married and live a staid,
sober, respectable life. His finances were reduced—all the money he had
made out of his books had been given away, prompted by a foolish whim that
no man should take pay for the product of his mind.
Now he would marry and "settle down"; and to marry a woman with an income
would be no special disadvantage. To sell one's thoughts was abhorrent to
the young man, but to marry for money was quite another thing. Morality
depends upon your point of view.
The paradox of things found expression when Byron the impressionable,
Byron the irresistible, sat himself down and after chewing the end of his
penholder, wrote a letter to Miss Milbanke, with whom he was only slightly
acquainted, proposing marriage. The lady very properly declined. To be
courted with a fresh-nibbed pen, and paper cut sonnet-size, instead of by
a live man, deserves rebuke. Men who propose by mail to a woman in the
next town are either insincere, self-deceived, or else are of the sort
whose pulse never goes above sixty-five, and therefore should be avoided.
Byron was both insincere and self-deceived. He had grown to distrust the
emotions of his heart, and so selected a wife with his head. He chose a
woman with income, one who was strong, cool-headed, safe and sensible.
Miss Milbanke was the antithesis of his mother.
The lady declined—but that is nothing.
They were married within a year.
In another year the wife left her husband and went back to her mother,
carrying in her arms a girl baby, only a few weeks old.
She never returned to her husband.
What the trouble was no one ever knew, although the gossips named a
hundred and one reasons—running from drunkenness to homicide. But Byron,
the world now knows, was no drunkard—he was at times convivial, but he had
no fixed taste for strong drink. He was, however, peevish, impulsive,
impetuous and often very unreasonable.
Byron, be it said to his credit, brought no recriminating charges against
his wife. He only said their differences were inexplicable and
The simple facts were that they breathed a different atmosphere—their
heads were in a different stratum. His normal pulse was eighty; hers,
What do you think of a spiritual companionship where the wife demands,
"How much longer are you going to follow this foolish habit of writing
They did not understand each other. Byron uttered words that no man should
voice to a woman, and his outbursts were met with a forced calmness that
was exasperating. The lady sat down, yawned wearily, and when there came a
lull in the gentleman's verbal pyrotechnics, she would ask him if he had
anything more to say.
One day she varied the program by packing up her effects and leaving him.
Of course, it is easy to say that had this woman been wise she would have
stood the childish outbursts and endured the peevish tantrums, for the
sake of the hours of tenderness and love that were sure to follow. By
right treatment he would have been on his knees, begging forgiveness and
crying it out with his head in her lap very shortly. But all this implies
a woman of unusual power—extraordinary patience. And this woman was simply
human. She left, and then in order to justify her action she gave reasons.
Our actions are usually right, but our reasons for them seldom are.
Mrs. Byron made no concealment of her troubles. Society had occasion for
gossip and the occasion was improved. Stories of Byron's cruelty and
inhumanity filled the coffeehouses and drawing-rooms; and the hints at
crimes so grave they could not even be mentioned gave the gossips their
The press took it up, and the poet was warned by his friends not to appear
at the theater or upon the street for fear of the indignation of the mob.
The spoilt child of London was paying the penalty of popularity. The
pendulum had swung too far and was now coming back.
Byron, hunted by creditors, hooted by enemies, broken in health, crushed
in spirit, left the country—left England, never to return alive.
When Byron trod the deck of the good ship bound for Ostend, and saw a
strip of tossing, blue water separating him from England, his spirits
rose. He was twenty-eight years old, and the thought that he would yet do
something and be somebody was strong in his heart. All the old pride came
The idea that he would not sell the product of his brain for hire was
abandoned, and soon after arriving in Holland he began to write letters
home, making sharp bargains with publishers.
Further than this, his attorneys, on his order, made demand for a share of
his wife's estate. And erelong we find Byron, the wasteful, cultivating
the good old gentlemanly habit of penuriousness. He was making money, and
had he lived to be sixty it is probable he would have evolved into a
conservative and written a book on "Getting on in the World, or Success as
I Have Found It."
Byron's pilgrimage down through Germany, along the Rhine to Switzerland,
was one of rest and recreation. At Berne, Basle, Lausanne and Geneva he
found food for literary thought, and many instances in his writings show
the reflected scenes he saw. No visitor at Lausanne fails to visit the
Castle of Chillon, and all the guides will recite you these sweeping
lines, so surcharged with feeling, beginning:
"Lake Leman lies by Chillon's walls;
A thousand feet in depth below,
Its many waters meet and flow."
At Geneva began the most interesting friendship between Byron and that
other young man, so like and yet so unlike him.
Only a few years and Byron was to search the shores of the Mediterranean
for Shelley's dead body, and finding it, be one of the friends who reduced
it to ashes.
Tiring of Geneva and the tourists who pointed him out as a curiosity, we
find Byron and his little party making their way across the Simplon, to
cross which is an epoch in the life of any man, and then down by the Lago
Maggiore to Milan.
"The Last Supper" of Leonardo da Vinci did not impress Byron—the art of
painting never did—this was his most marked limitation. From Milan they
wandered down through Italy to Verona and Venice.
The third Canto of "Childe Harold," "Manfred," and dozens of shorter poems
had been sent to Murray. England read and paid for all that Byron wrote,
and accepted it all as autobiography. Possibly Byron's defiant manner lent
an excuse for this, but by applying similar rules we could convict
Sophocles, Schiller and Shelley of basest crimes, put Shakespeare in the
dock for murder, Milton for blasphemy, Scott for forgery, and Goethe for
questionable financial deals with the devil. Byron's sins were as scarlet
and the number not a few, but the moths that came just to flit about the
flame were all of mature age. Byron set no snares for the innocent, and in
all of the man's misdoings, he himself it was who suffered most.
The Countess Guiccioli, it seems, was the only woman who comprehended his
nature sufficiently to lead him in the direction of peace and poise. With
her, for the first time, he began to systematize his life on a basis of
sanity. They lived together for five years, and from the time he met her
until his death no other love came to separate them.
Throughout his life Byron was a man in revolt; and it was only a variation
of the old passion for freedom that led him to Greece and to his grave.
The personal bravery of the man was proven more than once in his life, and
on the approach of death he was undismayed. When he passed away, April
Nineteenth, Eighteen Hundred Twenty-four, Stanhope wrote, "England has
lost her brightest genius—Greece her best friend."
His body was returned to England, denied burial in Westminster, and now
rests in the old church at Hucknall, near Newstead.