In The Rural Life of England I have already recorded my visits to two of the most interesting haunts of Lord Byron, — Newstead Abbey and Annesley Hall. In this paper we will take a more chronological and consecutive survey of his haunts and abodes.
Lord Byron was, it appears, horn in London, in lodgings in Holles-street, as his mother was on her way from France to Scotland. His mother, whose history and ill-starred marriage are well known through Moore's life of the poet, had accompanied her husband to France soon after their marriage, to avoid the swarm of claimants on her property, the creditors of her dissipated husband, which that marriage had brought upon her. The Byrons, who had inherited the estate of Newstead, in Nottinghamshire, since the reign of Henry VIII, when it was granted to Sir John Byron, generally called The Little Sir John Byron, had distinguished themselves greatly in the civil wars, but had of late years been much more conspicuous for their poverty and eccentricity. Commodore Byron, whose name will always be remembered from the narrative of the sufferings of himself and crew, in consequence of the wreck of the Wager, and who was still better known by the name of "Foul-weather Jack," from the singular fact that he never put to sea, even when holding the rank of admiral, and in command of the fleet for the protection of the West Indies, without encountering the most tempestuous weather, was his grandfather. His father, Captain Byron, appears to have been one of the most unprincipled and dissipated men of his day. He ran off with the wife of Lord Carmarthen to the continent; and this, of course, leading to a divorce, he married Lady Carmarthen, and had by her one daughter, the present Hon. Augusta Leigh, the wife of Colonel Leigh. Lady Carmarthen did not live long; and covered with debt, and pursued by hungry creditors, Captain Byron looked out for some woman of fortune to victimize to his own comfort. This species of legalized robbery, that is, of selecting a simple and unsuspecting woman to plunder under the sanction of the laws, instead of running the hazard of hanging or transportation by the more vulgar method of highway robbery, housebreaking, or forgery, is one so fashionable, that a man like Captain Byron was not likely to boggle at it. Of all species of theft, it is the most dastardly and despicable, because it is performed under the sacred name of affection. The vampire who means to suck the blood of the selected victim, makes his approach with flatteries and vows of the deepest attachment, of the most eternal tenderness, and protection from the ills of life. He wins the heart of the confiding woman by the basest lies, and then deliberately proceeds to the altar to pronounce before the all-seeing God the same foul falsehood, "to love and comfort," and "cherish till death," the helpless creature that is binding herself for life to ruin and deception. One would think it were enough for a man to feel as he stands thus before God and man, that he is a mere seeker of creature comforts and worldly honour while he is wedding a rich wife; but knowingly to have picked out his prey under the pretence of loving her above all of her sex, in order to hand over her estate to his creditors, to defray the scores of his gambling and licentiousness, that characterizes a monster of so revolting a kind, that nothing but the gradual corruption of society through the medium of conventionalism, could save him from the expatriating execrations of his fellows. There are cases of peculiar aggravation of this kind, those where the property of the victim is almost wholly demanded for the liquidation of the demon-lover's debts, and the wife is left to instantaneous beggary. The marriage of Captain Byron was one very much of this kind. His wife's most convertible property, as bank shares, salmon fisheries, money securities, were hastily disposed of; then went the timber from her estates, then the estates themselves, all amounting to probably £30,000, leaving her a mere annuity of £123! The property gone to this mite, the harpy husband still hung upon her, and upbraided her with the want of further means to contribute to his reckless riot. With cash extorted from her now severe poverty, he at length luckily departed again for the continent, and died at Valenciennes, in 1791, when Byron was three years old.
Such were the circumstances in which Lord Byron entered the world. If he were the prey of violent passions; if he, too, had a tendency to dissipation; if he in future years followed his father's example, though not to so culpable a degree, and married an heiress, "And spoiled her goodly lands to gild his waste;" there may be some excuse for him, drawn from hereditary taint. His father was not the solitary instance of irregularity, violent passions, and wastefulness. His great uncle, to whose title and diminished property he succeeded, was of the like stamp. His violence had led to his wife's separation from him; he had killed his next neighbour, Mr. Chaworth, in a duel; he had shot his coachman; he had hewed down extensive plantations on his estate, with the avowed purpose of preventing his son's enjoyment of their profit, because he had offended him. This son, and also his grandson, died before him, and the wifeless and childless old lord had led a moody and solitary life in the decaying abbey of Newstead, which threatened to drop about his ears, feeding a heap of crickets on the hearth, and feared by the whole peasant population of the country round.
Such was the paternal lineage of Lord Byron; his maternal one, if more moral, was not the less fiery and volcanic. His mother, a little fat woman, was a woman of a most excitable temperament, an evil which no doubt was much aggravated by the outrage on her warm affections and trust in her husband, which the base object of his marriage with her revealed in all its blackness to her. She appeared all feeling and passion, with very little judgment to control them. She was fond to distraction of her child, and used to spoil him to the utmost extreme, at the same time that her passions occasionally broke out so impetuously against his freaks, that she would fling the tongs or poker at his head, when a mere child.
At the age of eleven brought to England, and, with all this ancestral fire in him, introduced to the ruinous and gloomy abode of his forefathers, with the stories of their recent doings rife all around him, no wonder that on his peculiarly sensitive mind the impression became deep. He grew up a Byron in the eccentricity and other characteristics of his life; like his father his morals were not very nice, his habits were not very temperate, he too married to repair the waste of his lands, and quitted his wife to live abroad, and die there a comparatively early death. Happily there was implanted in him an ethereal principle, which gave a higher object to the exercise of his passions and energies than had of late distinguished his fathers. He was a born poet, and the divine gift of poetry converted, in some degree, his hereditary impetuosity into an ennobling instrument. His very dissipations extended his knowledge of life and human nature, and if they led him too frequently to seek to embellish sensuality, they compelled him to depict in the strongest terms that language can furnish, the disgust and remorse which inevitably pursue vice, He was a strange mixture of the poet and the man of the world; of the radical and the aristocrat; of the scoffer at creeds, and the worshipper of the Divine Being in the sublimity of his works. Well was it for him and the world, that his early years were east amidst the beauty and the solitude of nature, where he could wander wholly abandoned to the influences of heath and mountain, river and forest; and that the prospect of aristocratic splendour did not come in to disturb those influences till they had acquired a life-long power over him. The grandeur of nature cannot make a poet, thousands and millions live during their whole existences amid its most glorious displays, and are little more sentient than the rocks that tower around them; but where the spark of poetry lies latent, it is sure to call it forth.
They who ever visit, then, the earliest scenes of Lord Byron's life, will not be surprised at the influence which they exercised upon him, nor at the fondness with which he cherished the memory of them. This is strongly expressed in one of his juvenile poems.
Away, ye gay landscapes, ye gardens of roses
In you let the minions of luxury rove;
Restore me the rocks, where the snow-flake reposes,
Though still they are sacred to freedom and love:
Yet, Caledonia, beloved are thy mountains,
Round their white summits though elements war;
Though cataracts foam 'stead of smooth-flowing fountains,
I sigh for the valley of dark Loch na Garr.
Ah! there my young footsteps in infancy wandered;
My cap was the bonnet, my cloak was the plaid;
On chieftains long perished my memory pondered,
As daily I strode through the pine-covered glade:
I sought not my home till the day's dying glory
Gave place to the rays of the bright polar star;
For fancy was cheered by traditional story,
Disclosed by the natives of dark Loch na Garr.
Hours of Idleness, p. 111.
The feeling thus ardent in youth was equally vivid to the last. Only about two years before his death, he wrote thus in The Island:—
He who first met the Highlands' swelling blue
Will love each peak that shows a kindred hue;
Hail in each crag a friend's familiar face,
And clasp the mountain in his mind's embrace.
Long have I roved through lands which are not mine,
Adored the Alp, and loved the Apennine;
Revered Parnassus, and beheld the steep
Jove's Ida, and Olympus crown the deep;
But 'twas not all long ages' love, nor all
Their nature held me in their thrilling thrall;
The infant rapture still survived the boy,
And Loch na Garr with Ida looked o'er Troy;
Mixed Celtic memories with the Phrygian mount,
And Highland linns with Castalie's clear fount.
The city of Aberdeen was the place where the chief part of the earlier boyhood of Byron was spent. He went thither as an unconscious infant, and there, and in the neighbouring Highlands, he continued till in his eleventh year, when the title fell to him, and he was brought by his mother to England. Aberdeen is a city which must have been a very charming abode for a boy of Byron's disposition, ready either to mix in the throng of lads of his own age in all their plays, contentions, and enterprises, to shoot a marble, or box out a quarrel, or to stroll away into the country and enjoy nature and liberty with an equal zest. There are people who are inclined to think that a great deal of the sublime tone of some of Byron's poetry, as that of the Childe Harold, of the sentiment, almost sentimentality of his Hours of Idleness, and of many of his smaller poems throughout his works, was put on by him at will and for effect. They do not see how these things could proceed from the same mind as the rhodomontade of many of his most familiar letters, or the slang and wild humour of many parts of Don Juan. How little do such persons know of the human mind! Did not Tam o' Shanter, and Mary in Heaven, and the Cotter's Saturday Night, all proceed from the same mind, and one of the most earnest minds that ever lived? Did not the sublime scenes of the Iliad, and the battle of the beggars in the Odyssey, and the trick of Ulysses in the cave of Polypheme, when he called himself Noman — so that when Polypheme roared out as they put out his eye, and he told his neighbours who came running to enquire what was the matter, that Noman hurt him, they replied, "If no man hurt thee, why dost thou complain?" and marched away without helping him — did not these proceed from the same mind? Did not the puns of Hood, and the sober ballad of Eugene Aram, and the Song of the Shirt, proceed from one and the same mind? Did not John Gilpin and the loftiest strains of pious poetry proceed from that of Cowper? Did not Chatterton write equally Sly Dick, and the tragedy of Ella? In fact, we might run through the whole circuit of poetic and prose literature, and show that the moods of our minds are as various and changeable as those of external nature. The very gravest, the most stedfast of us have our transitions from sad to gay, from frivolous to the highest tone of the highest purpose, with a rapidity that seems to belong to the most changeful of us. There is, in fact, no such chameleon, no such kaleidoscope, as the human mind. Light and shadow pass over us, and communicate their lustres or their glooms. Facts give us a turn up or down, and the images of our brain present new and ever new arrangements. But in all this change there is no mere chance, far less confusion; every movement depends on a fixed principle. Perhaps there have been few men in whom circumstances, — circumstances of physical organization, of life, and education, cherished and made habitual so many varied moods as in Lord Byron. Thrown at a very early age into the bosom of a beautiful and solitary nature, he imbibed a profound and sincere love of nature and solitude. Sent early to public schools to battle his way amongst boys of his own age, and with a personal defect which often subjected him to raillery, his native spirit made him bristle up and show fight, as he did afterwards with his reviewers. Raised to rank and wealth, and, spite of his crooked foot, endowed with, in all other respects, a very fine person, he was led to plunge into the dissipations of young men of his class, and he thus acquired a tone of libertinism that ever afterwards, under the same circumstances, was sure to show itself. Led by his quick sense of right and wrong, and by his shrewd insight into character, to despise priestcraft and political despotism, and spurred on by the spirit of the time, especially abroad where he travelled, he imbibed a spirit of scepticism and radicalism as principles. From these causes he soon began to exhibit the most opposite phases of character. In solitude and nature he was religious in his tone — in society a scoffer; in solitude he was pensive and even sentimental-in society he was convivial, fond of practical jokes, satirical. He wrote like a radical, and spoke like an aristocrat. In him Childe Harold and Don Juan, the sublime and the ludicrous, the noble and the mean, the sarcastic and the tender, the voluptuous and beautifully spiritual, the pious and the impious, were all embodied. He was all these by turns, and in all, for the moment, most sincere. Like an instrument of many strings, each had its peculiar tone, and answered faithfully to the external impulse. Multifarious as were his moods, you might in any given circumstances have predicated which of these would prevail. There would be no sensuality in the face of the Alps, there would be no sublimity in the city saloon. If he had to speak in the House of Lords, his speech by the spirit of antagonism would assuredly be radical; did he come into contact with the actual mob, he would case himself in the hauteur of the aristocrat. With Nature he was ashamed of men and his doings and sayings amongst them, with men he was ashamed of nature and poetry. He would laugh at his own flights of sentiment. He was a many-sided monster, showing now sublime and now grotesque, but with a feeling in the depths of his soul that he ought to be something greater than he was or dared to be.
To go back, however, from his character to himself. Aberdeen presented to the boy ample food for two of his propensities, those towards the enjoyment of nature and society. The country round, though not sublime, is beautiful. The sea is at hand, an ever grand and stirring object. The Dee comes winding from the mountains of the west through a vale of great loveliness, the Don from the north through scenes perhaps still more striking. There is an air of antiquity about the town, with its old churches, colleges, and towers, that is peculiarly pleasing, and the country has likewise a primitive look that wins at once on the spectator. To one of us from the south the approach to it by sea is very striking. I do not mean the immediate approach, for this is flat, but the coast voyage out from Edinburgh. The whole coast is bleak, yet green, and presenting to the sea bold and time-worn rocks. For a considerable part of the way they appear to be of red sandstone, and are therefore scooped out into the boldest caves, hollows, and promontories imaginable. Here and there are deep, dark caverns, into which the sea rushes as into its own peculiar dens, and in other places it has cut out arches and doorways through these rocks where they stand insulated, and you see the light through them displaying other rocks behind. One of these is noted for presenting by effect of light behind it, the appearance of a lady all in white, standing at the mouth of a cave and beckoning with her hand. As you skim along the coasts of Fife, Forfar, Kincardine, and Aberdeen, these rocks and caverns present ever-new forms, while all the country above them is green, smiling, and cultured now, but formerly must have been savage indeed, and giving rise, and no wonder, to strange superstitions and legends. Bleak little towns ever and anon stretch along the shore; though green, the country is very bare of trees. Dundee, Arbroath, Montrose, are good large towns; and there are the ruins of Arbroath abbey and Dunnottar castle, with others of less note. Dunnottar cannot be passed without thinking of Old Mortality, whom Scott found in the churchyard there restoring the inscriptions on the gravestones of the covenanters; nor can Uri, an old-fashioned house on the bare uplands above Stonehaven, as the abode of Barclay, the writer of the celebrated Apology for Quakerism, and in our day for that of his pedestrian descendant, Captain Barclay. How singular are the reflections which arise on human life and its combinations when gazing on such a place as this! What should induce a man at one time to go forth from a remote scene and solitary old house like this, to mingle with the ferment of the times — to become an active apostle of Quakerism and the expositor of its faith; and another, nearly two centuries afterwards, to march out of the same house down into England, not for an exhibition of Quakerism but of Pedestrianism; not of reasoning but of walking powers? Why should that house, just that house and its family, be destined to produce great Quakers, ending in great walkers and great brewers? How often in my boyhood had I read Barclay's preface to his Apology, dated from "Uri in Scotland, the Place of my Pilgrimage," and addressed to King Charles II, by "Robert Barclay, the servant of Jesus Christ, called by God to a dispensation of the Gospel revealed anew in this our age," etc. And there it stood, high, bare, and solitary; eliciting the oddest compound ideas of "hops and heresy," according to the phrase of a clergyman of the time, or rather of Quakerism, London porter, and walking matches against time!
Beyond this, the coast becomes more and more what is called iron-bound, and the rocks — probably of trap, or whinstone — as you advance northward stand up in the sea, black and curdled as it were, and worn into caverns and perpendicular indentures exactly as you see them in Bewick's wood cuts. Stepping then on land at Aberdeen how agreeable is the change! The city, built all of a grey and lustrous granite, has a look of cleanness and neatness almost inconceivable. Since the days of Byron's boyhood great must have been the changes. The main streets are all evidently new; and on advancing into the great street which traverses almost the whole length of the city, Union-street, a mile in length and seventy feet wide, you are struck with a pleasant surprise. The width and extent, the handsome yet plain buildings of clean granite, and the fine public buildings visible in different directions, are far more than you expected in a town so far north. On the river you find an imposing assemblage of ships; you find the Marischal College now built in a very graceful style; and a market-house, I suppose in extent, convenience of arrangement, and supply, inferior to none in the kingdom. The olden streets, such as were in existence in Byron's time, are much more like what you would have looked for, of a narrower and more ordinary character.
About a mile to the north of the new town lies Old Aberdeen. In advancing towards it you become every moment more aware of its far greater antiquity. It looks as if it had a fixed attachment to the past, and had refused to move. There is a quietness, a stationariness about it. One old house or villa after another stands in its garden or court as it has done for centuries. The country about has an old Saxon look. It carried me away into Germany, with its unfenced fields of corn and potatoes; villages seen in the distance also unfenced, but with a few trees clustered about them, and the country naked except for its corn. To the right lay the sea, to the left this open country, and on before arose, one beyond the other, tower and spire of an antique character, as of a very ancient city. Presently I came to the college — King's College, with the royal crown of Scotland surmounting its tower, in fine and ample dimensions, and its courts and corridors seen through the ancient gateway. Then, on the other hand, the equally antique gateway to the park of Mr. Powis Leslie, with its two tall round towers of most ancient fashion, with galleries and spires surmounted with crescents. Then, onwards, the ancient, massy cathedral, with its two stone spires, and tall western window of numerous narrow windowlets, and ponderous walls running along the roadside, with a coping of a yard high, and stuccoed. Everything had a heavy, ancient, and German character. I could have imagined myself in Saxony or Franconia; and to augment the illusion, a woman at a cottage door inquiring the time of day received the answer, "half twa," as near as possible "half two" in Platdeutsch. Still further to increase the illusion the people talked of the bridge as "she." Truly the repose of centuries, and the fashion of a far gone time so far as relates to our country, lay over the whole place.
I had now to inquire my way to the brig of Balgounie, a spot which makes a conspicuous figure in Byron's boyish history. "The brig of Don," says he himself in a note in Don Juan, Canto X. p. 309, "near the 'auld town' of Aberdeen, with its one arch, and its black deep salmon stream, is in my memory as yesterday. I still remember, though perhaps I may misquote, the awful proverb which made me pause to cross it, and yet lean over it with a childish delight, being an only son, at least by the mother's side. The saying as recollected by me was this, but I have never heard or seen it since I was nine years of age:—
Brig of Balgounie, wight (strong) is thy wa',
Wi' a wife's ae son on a mare's ae foal,
Down shalt thou fa'.'"
How accurate was his recollection of this old bridge; a proof of the delight with which he had enjoyed this scenery. We are told that on holiday afternoons he would get down to the seaside and find great amusement there. Here was the sea just below; and it will be seen that the whole way that he had to come from New Aberdeen was full of a spirit and an aspect to fall deep into the heart of an embryo poet. There is a new and direct way now from the city nearer to the sea, and from the new bridge of Don the view of the old bridge is very picturesque. It is one tall grey pointed arch, with cottages about it on both sides on the high banks of the Don, and mills, with masses of trees. On the low ground below the bridge at the left-hand end stands a white house, and little fishermen's huts or sheds scattered here and there. On the other bank of the river the ground is high and knolly. Clumps of trees seem to close in upon the bridge, and behind and above them is a little group of fishermen's houses called the huts of Balgounie. Below the bridge the river widens out into a broad expanse, and between high, broomy banks, comes down to the new bridge and thence to the sea meadows, where the white billows are seen chasing each other at its mouth. Above the bridge the river is dark and deep, and the high banks are overhung with wood. The valley of the Don above is very picturesque with woods and rocks, and is enlivened with mills and factories.
The view from the bridge itself down into the river is striking. I suppose it must be forty or fifty feet from its centre to the water, yet a man living close by told me that he once saw a sailor leap from it for a wager. The bridge is remarkably strongly built. It is said to have been built in the time of Bruce, yet it has by no means a very ancient look, and being of solid granite is not very likely to fulfil the prophecy of its fall. Yet Mr. Chambers, in his "Picture of Scotland," says this superstition has not always been confined to children, for our late Earl of Aberdeen, who was an only son, and rode a favourite horse, which was "a mare's ae foal," always dismounted on approaching this bridge, and used to have his horse led over at a little distance after him. The people near do not now seem to partake of it. "Fall!" say they, "ay, when the rocks on which it is based fall!" It is, in fact, like a solid piece of rock itself; and is in possession of funds left in 1605, by Sir Alexander Hay, which though then only producing five and forty shillings a year, have so accumulated that they are not only amply sufficient to maintain it in repair, but have built the new brig. At each end of the bridge you see several large iron rings in the wall. These, I was told, were to secure ropes or chains to, from which to suspend scaffolding for the repair of the bridge on the outside. Every care is thus taken of it. "She is verra rich, is the auld brig," said the man before mentioned. "She has been verra useful in her time, for before the new brig was built she was the only means of getting to the north country — there was no fording the river. And the new brig has been built wi' her money, ay every sixpence of it, gran brig as the new on' is with her five granite arches; and the auld brig gives £100 a year to take care of her too. But she's verra well off in the world yet, for all that, she has plenty left for herself." Thus do they talk of the auld brig as if she were a wealthy old lady. If, however, any one should pay her a visit from New Aberdeen, I would counsel them to go by the old road for its picturesque effect, but to be careful to inquire the road in Old Aberdeen down to the brig, for it is particularly obscure. They must ask too for "The auld brig o' Don," for the name of the brig of Balgounie seems known to few of the younger generation.
In New Aberdeen, the admirer of Lord Byron will also naturally seek to take a glance at the different houses in which he lived as a child with his mother. These are in Queen-street, one at nearly each end of the street; one at the house in Broad-street, then occupied by Mr. Leslie, father of the present surgeon of that name; and one in Virginia-street, not far from the docks. The visitor will not be surprised to find that these are but ordinary houses in ordinary streets in general, when he recollects that Mrs. Byron was then reduced by the matrimonial robbery of her husband to an income of £123 a year, and that her effects, that is, the furniture of the lodgings, etc. when sold on her setting out with her boy for England, amounted only to £74 17s. 7d. In these houses she was merely a lodger. The best situation which she occupied was in Mr. Leslie's house in Broad-street, over a shop. All these places are still well known. The schools to which Byron went in Aberdeen are also objects of interest. That in Long-acre, kept by a Mr. Bower, whom he calls Bodsy Bower, a name, he says, given him on account of his dapperness, was a common day school, where little boys and girls were sent principally to be out of the way at home. This school has long been closed. The next school to which he went, and where he continued to go till he left Aberdeen, was the grammar school. This, of course, remains, and though it has been considerably enlarged since Byron was there, that room in which he studied continues exactly as it was at that time. It is an ordinary school-room, with benches and desks cut deep with hundreds of names, and hundreds of other names printed and written over them with ink, and the walls adorned in the like style, as well as with grotesque figures drawn with the pens of schoolboys. Amidst this multitude of names, the Rev. Dr. Melville, the present master, assured me that diligent search had been made to discover that of Byron, but in vain. There are many of his old schoolfellows still living in the place, and all seem to recollect him as "a mischievous urchin." It must, however, be recollected that Byron was little more than ten years of age when he left Aberdeen, and that was forty-seven years ago.
The place to which perhaps still more interest will attach, connected with the poet's boyhood in this part of the country, is Ballater, where his mother was advised to take him on recovering from the scarlet fever, in 1796. It would appear as if Mrs. Byron, as well as her child, was so delighted with the summer residence there, as to return thither the two following summers. These are all the opportunities there could possibly be, for they left for England in the autumn of 1798, on the death of the old Lord Byron. They were the summer residences here, however, that awoke the poetic feeling in him, He was here in the midst of the most beautiful mountain scenery, and so intensely did it operate upon him, that through his whole life he looked back to his abode here as the most delicious period in his memory.
The vale of the Dee, or the Dee-side, as they call it, all the way from Aberdeen, a distance of forty miles, is fine; beautifully wooded by places, the hills as you advance, become more and more striking. You pass the castle of Drum, one of the oldest inhabited castles in Scotland; a seat of the Burnets', of Bishop Burnet's line, finely situated on the right hand on rising ground, and various other interesting places. But it is as you approach Ballater that the scenery becomes most striking. It becomes truly Highland. The hills get lofty, bare, grey, and freckled. They are, in fact, bare and tempest-tinted granite, having an air of majestic desolation. Some rise peaked and splintered, and their sides covered with debris, yet, as it were, bristled with black and sharp-looking pine forests. Some of the hills run along the side of the Dee, covered with these woods, exactly as the steep Black Forest hills are in the neighbourhood of Wildbad.
As you approach Ballater, the valley expands. You see a breadth of green meadow, and a neat white village stretching across it, and its church lifting its spire into the clear air, while the mountains sweep round in a fine chain of peaked hills, and close it in. All up Dee-side there is well-cultivated land, but, with the exception of this meadow, on which Ballater stands, all is now hill, dark forest, and moorland; while below, on the banks of the winding and rapid Dee, birch woods present themselves in that peculiar beauty so truly belonging to the Highlands. On your right first looks out the dark height of Culbleen, mentioned by Byron in his earlier poems:—
When I see some dark hill point its crest to the sky,
I think of the rocks that o'ershadow Culbleen;
then "Morven, streaked with snow;" and Loch-na-garr lifts himself long and lofty over the lower chains that close the valley beyond Ballater.
Ballater, though a neat village now, did not exist when Byron was here. There were a few cottages for the use of visitors, near the other side of the present bridge, but those who came to drink the waters, generally located themselves in farm-houses as near as they could to "the wells," which are two miles down the opposite bank of the Dee. Mrs. Byron chose her summer residence in one of the most thoroughly secluded and out-of-the-world spots which it was possible to find, perhaps, in the whole island. It lies four miles below Ballater, on the same side of the river as the spring, that is, two miles beyond "the wells" as they call them, some chalybeate springs which issue from the hills, and which now bring many people to Ballater in summer. You proceed to them along the feet of the hills, and at the feet also of a dark pine wood. The river is below you; above you are these mountain forests, and the way lies sometimes through the wood. Under beeches, which shade the way, there are benches set at intervals, so that a more charming walk, with the noble mountain views opposite to you, cannot well be conceived. At about two miles on the road, after passing under stupendous dark cliffs that show themselves above the craggy and steep forest, you find a couple of rows of houses, and here are the waters issuing out of pipes into stone basins. Going still forwards you come out upon the wild moorlands. Above you, on the right hand, rise the desolate hills; below, on the left, wanders on the Dee, amid its birch woods; and the valley is one of those scenes of chaotic beauty, which perhaps the Highlands only show. It is a sea of heath-clad little hills, sprinkled with the light green birch trees, and here and there a dark Scotch fir. It is a fairy land of purple beauty, such as seems to belong to old romance, and where the people of old romance might be met without wonder. And through all goes the sound of the river like a distant ocean. Those who have been in the Highlands know and recollect such scenes, so carpeted with the crimson heather, so beautified with the light-hued fairy birch woods. Still the way leads on till you come down to the Dee, where it makes a wide and splendid sweep deep below the bank on which you are, and then you wonder where can be Bellatrich, the house you seek, for you see no house at all! In the birch wood, however, you now discern one white cottage, and that must be it. No! To that cottage I went, and out came a woman with spectacles on and her Bible open in her hand. I asked if she could tell me where Bellatrich was, and I expected her to say — "Here!" but she replied in a low, quiet voice — "I will show you, for it is not easy to find." And so on we went for another quarter of a mile; when coming to a little hidden valley running at right angles from the river up into the moorlands, she showed me a smoke rising above the trees, and told me there I should find the house.
And here was the place to which Byron's mother used to retire in the summer months from Aberdeen with her boy. The valley is divided by a wild brook hidden among green alders, and its slopes are hung with the native birch and a few oaks. At the upper end stands a farm-house, but this is new, and the farmer to show me the house in which Byron lived, took me into his farm yard. The house Mrs. Byron inhabited is now a barn, or sort of hayloft rather, in his yard. It was exactly one of the one-storied, long Highland huts, and is now included in the quadrangle of his farm-yard; but the bed in which Byron used to lie is still there. It is one of the deal cupboard sort of beds that are common in Highland huts. There it stands amongst his straw. He says many people come to see the place, and several have tried to buy the bed from him, but that he should think it quite a shame to sell it.
Imagine then, Mrs. Byron living here upwards of forty years ago, and Byron a boy of about ten years of age; soon after which he left for England to be converted out of a poor Highland boy into a lord. There was probably another hut or so near, as there is now, but that was all. The house they lived in was but a hut itself. There was no Ballater then. That has sprung up under the management of Mr. Farquarson, the laird of Ballater. There as only the water issuing from the moorland rocks, and no house at it, but those few huts near Ballater bridge, where Lords Panmure and Kennedy, and some of their jovial companions, notorious up here, used to come and to drink the waters, in order to remedy their drinking too much whisky. There was no carriage road then. There was no cultivated meadow. All was moorland, and woods, and wild mountains. There was a rude road at the margin of the river, but so stony that no carriage could exist upon it. Nay, this present farmer says, that when he came to live here within these ten years, there was no road into this little hidden valley. There was no bridge over the brook, but they went through amid the great stones, and that without taking any trouble to put them aside. There was no garden, and there was no field. Around rose, as they do now, dark moorland mountains, and the little black-faced sheep, and the black cattle roamed over the boggy, heathery, and birch scattered valley, as they do still, except within the little circle of cultivation that the present tenant has made.
What a place for a civilized woman and her only son! How he got so far around as he did is to me a miracle. He got up the valley quite to Braemar, and there was no carriage road thither! There was no turnpike road from Aberdeen further then to Banchory, half way to Ballater, forty-six years ago, and that then made, was the first turnpike road in Aberdeenshire. So a gentleman of Aberdeen assured me. Further, all was a mere track, in which a horse could go. Yet the boy Byron, with his lame feet, and very lame he was, according to those who knew him, and plenty of such remain, rambled all about this wild region. The passion with which he traversed those scenes is expressed in his poem to Mary Duff, the equally beloved object of his boyish heart.
When I roved a young Highlander on the dark heath,
And climbed thy steep summit, oh Morven! of snow,
To gaze on the torrent that thundered beneath,
Or the mist of the tempest that gathered below
Untutored by science, a stranger to fear,
And rude as the rocks where my infancy grew,
No feeling, save one, to my bosom was dear,
Need I say, my sweet Mary, 'twas centred in you?
Yet it could not be love, for I knew not the name,—
What passion can dwell in the heart of a child?
But still I perceive an emotion the same
As I felt, when a boy in the crag-covered wild.
One image alone on my bosom impressed,
I loved my bleak regions, nor panted for new;
And few were my wants, for my wishes were blessed,
And pure were my thoughts, for my soul was with you.
I arose with the dawn; with my dog as my guide,
From mountain to mountain I bounded along:
I breasted the billows of Dee's rushing, tide,
And heard at a distance the Highlander's song, etc.
That he was intensely happy here the poetry and memories of his whole life testify. That he must have strolled far and wide, and, as he says, with his dog for his guide, is no doubt true; but, lame as he was, it appears little less than miraculous. "I mind him weel," said a shepherd still living in the valley near the farm, "He was just such a boy as yon," pointing to a boy of eleven or twelve; "and used to play about wi' us here. His feet were both turned in, and he used to lift one over the other as he walked; and when he ran he would sometimes catch one against the other, and tumble over neck and heels. We heard that in England he had got his feet straightened."
How such a boy could get about there, over the rough heath and up the distant mountains, is strange enough. We do not hear that he had any pony, and there was only his mother or the maid to accompany him. Mrs. Byron, by all accounts, was not well-fitted for much walking, far less climbing up hills; yet it is quite certain that he rambled far and wide, and, it is most probable, alone. Loch-na-garr, Morven, and Culbleen, are the grand features of the mountain scenery, and it is evident that the wild and beautiful solitudes of the Dee-side, and the mountains around, had made a deep and indelible impression on his imagination. It is just the scenery to awake the poet, where the soul and the organization of the poet exist. The deep solitude; the stern mountains, with all their changes of storm and sunshine — now blazing and burning out in all the brightness of a clear sun, now softly beaming beneath the slanting light of evening, and now black as midnight beneath a gloomy sky, looking awfully forth from their sable and yet transparent veil of shadow. These, and the sound of waters, and the mild beauty of the low, heath-clad hills and soft glens, where the birch hangs its weeping and fragrant branches over the lovely harebell and the secret nest of the grouse, were the imagery which surrounded the boy Byron during the summer months; and the boy "was father to the man," seeking out ever afterwards, from land to land, all that was lovely and sublime in nature.
But he was now called upon to say—
Adieu, then, ye hills, where my childhood was bred,
Thou sweet flowing Dee, to thy waters adieu!
and the scene changed to England; solitude to cities; poverty to fortune; and the nameless obscurity of the juvenile mountain wanderer to title and unimagined fame.
Before, however, quitting this favourite scene of the early life of Byron, which he never again visited, I must notice it under the aspect which it happened to present to me from the particular time of my arrival. It was on the 18th of August, just one week after the commencement of the grouse-shooting season, and every inn on the road was crowded with sportsmen and their servants. Lord Castlereagh, on his way to his shooting ground in Braemar, was my next neighbour on the mail from Aberdeen; and his wide acquaintance with the sports of various countries, the capercailize and bear-shooting of the north of Europe, in particular of Russia, made his descriptions of them, as well as of the deer-shooting of Braemar — his particular sport — very interesting. But the weather of that wet summer was at this time outrageously rainy, and from every wayside inn the lugubrious faces of sportsmen were visible. As we drew up at the village of Banchory, the window was thronged with livery servants, and a gentleman at an open upper window, eyeing anxiously the showery clouds hanging upon the hills, caught sight of Lord Castlereagh, and called out, in a tone of momentary animation quickly relapsing into melancholy, — "Ha! Cass! are you there? Here I have been these four days, and nothing but this confounded rain. Not a foot have I yet been able to set upon the heath. There are six of us."
"Who is that who addresses you so familiarly?"
"Oh! it is Sir John Guest!" Poor Sir John! What a purgatory!
On went the coach. At Ballater again thronged was the door with livery servants; the rain was falling in torrents; there were nine shooting gentlemen in the house, not one of whom could stir out. After taking luncheon, Lord Castlereagh went with the mail to Braemar, and I, with expanded umbrella, issued forth to explore the neighbourhood as well as I might, but was speedily driven back again by the deluging rains, which made every highway an actual river. The next day was Sunday, and the sun rose with a beauty and warmth which seemed to say — "Gentlemen sportsmen, you shall at least have fair weather for church." A more glorious day never was sent down over mountain and moorland; and few are the scenes on which fine summer weather confers a greater beauty than on those around Ballater. Along these fine valleys the country people, all health and animation, in cordial conversation streamed along to and fro from church. I climbed the dark moorland hills, where the wild flocks scudded away at the presence of a stranger, and the grouse rose up in whole coveys, with a startling whirr and strange cries, and gazed down into the vales on the most lovely little homesteads, on their crimson heathery knolls, amid their beautiful little woodlands of birch. Above arose on every side the solemn and dreary bulks of Loch-na-garr, Morven, and Culbleen. It was a day and a scene amongst a thousand. Night fell; morning again rose — Monday morning! Hundreds of anxious sportsmen throughout the Highlands, and thousands of their anxious attendants, eager for a chance for the hills — "And the rain fell as though the world would drown!" When I looked out of my bedroom window, there were men and boys standing in front of the inn, casting dreary looks at the ragged and low-sweeping curtains of clouds that shrouded every hill, and then longing looks at the windows, if the slightest possible breaks in those clouds occurred, hoping to be called and engaged as guides and game-carriers on the hills. Keepers were walking about, and bringing bags of shot in. Men and boys, already looking wet and dirty, as if they had tramped with their strong shoes some distance out of the country to come hither, asked them if they thought it would take up; and they cast knowing looks at the clouds and shook their heads. But anon! as if in very desperation, there were dogs let loose, which ran helter skelter over the bridge towards the hills, full of eager life for the sport; and gigs full of gentlemen, three or four together, packed close, in white hats, or glazed and turned-up wide-awakes, and thick shooting jackets close buttoned up, with their guns erect at their sides, setting off for their shooting grounds. They were determined to be at their stations, perhaps some ten miles off, and take the chance of a change in the weather. Good luck to them!
I took my way back again to Aberdeen; and lo! at Banchory the inn door still crowded with livery servants, and poor Sir John Guest still seated at the selfsame window, with long and melancholy face watching the clouds! Truly the sporting, not less than the Christian life, has its crosses and its mortifications.
Lord Byron's first journey in England was with his mother, to see his ancestral abode — his abbey and estate of Newstead. It was a considerable step from the rooms over the shop at Aberdeen, or the little hut at Ballatrich, with £123 a year. But yet for a lord it was no very magnificent subject of contemplation. The estate had been dreadfully denuded of wood, and showed a sandy nakedness of meagre land, the rental of a great part of which would be high at ten shillings an acre. The old abbey was dilapidated, and menacing in various places to tumble in. The gardens were a wilderness of neglect.
Through thy battlements, Newstead, the hollow winds whistle;
Thou, the hall of my fathers, art gone to decay;
In thy once smiling garden, the hemlock and thistle
Have choked up the rose which late bloomed in the way.
The place was, after a time, let to Lord Grey de Ruthyn, who let ruin take its course, as the old lord had done. When the old lord died, the host of crickets which he had fed are said to have taken immediate flight, issuing forth in such a train that the servants could scarcely move without treading on them. When Lord Grey's lease was out, he and his hounds took their flight in like manner, but this was some years afterwards, and for the present Mrs. Byron betook herself to Nottingham, and placed her son under the care of Mr. Rogers, the principal school-master there, and under that of a quack, one Lavender, to straighten his feet. Thence they removed to London, where they resided in Sloane-terrace, and Byron was sent to Dr. Glennie's school at Dulwich. Thence he was removed to Harrow, and during the years he spent there, Mrs. Byron went to reside again at Nottingham, and afterwards at Southwell, with occasional visits to Bath and Cheltenham. Harrow and Cambridge were, of course, for the chief part of the years of his minority, his proper homes, but the vacations were chiefly spent at Southwell, with frequent visits to Newstead and Annesley. Before his minority, however, expired, Lord Grey de Ruthyn had quitted Newstead, leaving it in a deplorable state of dilapidation, and Lord Byron incurred great expense in repairing the abbey, much indeed beyond the reach of his resources. His income was small, for the best part of his ancestral property had been sold by the late lord, especially the Rochdale estate, which was afterwards recovered. The allowance for his education was all that he could claim from his trustees, and his mother's small income was eked out by a pension of £300 per annum. The debts incurred by him for the repairs of Newstead not being legally recoverable, as they were incurred by a minor, remained for years unpaid; and the importunities of his creditors were one of the strongest motives for his early travelling abroad. The failure of his hope of marrying Miss Chaworth, and adding her estate, which adjoined his own, to Newstead, was both in affection and in point of fortune, a severe blow. His embarrassments finally compelled him to sell Newstead, and to make a "marriage de convenance," which, to a person of his peculiar temperament, habits, and opinions, was certain to result in trouble and disunion. From these causes his life became unsettled and embittered, and scarcely had he reached the period at which his fame ought to have made his native land the proudest and happiest of all lands to him, when he abandoned it for ever, and
In the wilds
Of fiery climes he made himself a home,
And his soul drank their sunbeams: he was girt
With strange and dusky aspects: he was not
Himself like what he had been: on the sea
And on the shore he was a Wanderer.
The Dream, vol. x. p. 249.
Of Newstead and Annesley I have given a particular account in the Rural Life of England. To those I must refer, and have only to add that, in the hands of Lord Byron's old school-fellow Colonel Wildman, Newstead is restored and maintained as all lovers of English genius would wish it to be, and is ever open to their survey. Since that account, too, the old hall of Annesley has undergone a renovation, and that scene of melancholy desertion and decay there described, exists now only in the volume which recorded it. In the present paper Southwell and Harrow will chiefly demand our attention.
Southwell, during the period of his Harrow school life, became a most favourite resort of his. His mother had settled down there. Body and mind were now in progress of expansion towards manhood. His relish for society, his love of fame, and his love of poetry, were every day more and more developing themselves. But his world yet was only the school world. He was shy in general society. Here, however, he formed a group of friends of superior taste and education, in whose quiet little circle he became speedily at home, and for a time into this circle he seemed to throw himself, with all his heart and youthful enthusiasm. The Pigotts, the Beechers, the Leacrofts, etc. were his friends. Here he used to spend his summer vacations; here it seems he spent nearly the whole of one year. His dogs, his horses, firing at marks, swimming, and private theatricals were his amusements, and for a time Southwell was his world. The Pigotts were his great friends, and there he went in and out, spent his evenings or spent his days, to his great contentment. A wider and a gayer world had not yet opened upon him, and for a season Southwell and his friends there were everything to him. Of course, in this little circle he was the great hero; it is not often that a little cathedral town can catch a live lord; nothing could be done without him, every flattering attention awaited him, and for a time he was not too conversant with the great world, for the little one of Southwell to be spoiled to him. Hence he made occasional visits to Newstead and Annesley, with whose heiress he had fallen deeply in love. Here he began to cultivate more sedulously the composition of poetry, in which he was warmly encouraged by his most intimate friends, the Pigotts and Mr. Beecher, all persons of very refined taste, and here, eventually, he put his first volume to press, with Ridge, a printer at Newark. It was from Southwell that he made an excursion to Scarborough with his young friend Mr., since Dr. Pigott, and was much smitten with a fair quakeress, to whom he addressed the verses published in his Hours of Idleness. But he had not been long at Cambridge, and seen something too of London, before the charm of Southwell had vanished, and we find him protesting that he hated Southwell. "Oh! Southwell, Southwell, how I rejoice to have left thee, and how I curse the heavy hours I dragged along, for so many months, among the Mohawks who inhabit your kraals!" During the time that he spent there, his hours certainly did not drag very heavily. It was only on looking back from a gay scene that they appeared so to him. No one who now visits that quiet village will be surprised that a scene so still, though so naturally pleasant, could not long hold a spirit of so restless a caste. For, by his own experience, "Quiet to quick spirits is a hell."
Most of his old friends have long left the place. Dr. Pigott, to practise at Nottingham; others are dead. Miss Pigott still lives in the house which her society and music made so agreeable to him. Mr. Beecher too still lives, and has not lived without setting the stamp of his mind on the age. To him we are, in fact, indebted for the New Poor Law. Long before the old act was rescinded, he resolved to test its powers, and he proved that if exerted they were equal to the utmost necessity of the country. He and his friend the Rev. Mr. Lowe of Bingham, enforced these powers in their respective parishes, where the poor's rates had grown to an equality with the rental, and the spirit of pauperism showed itself in its worst shape, that of the demoralized indolence and insolence of the young and able-bodied labourers. These gentlemen began by adopting the plan of refusing any relief to such except in the shape of labour. They insisted on all such as they pleased coming into the house, and there carried out the plan of separating husbands, wives, and children. The uproar that this produced was terrible. The people threatened to destroy the authors of this scheme, and demolish their property. Soldiers were obliged to be called in at Bingham, and finally the magistrates triumphed. The paupers were reduced to obedience, and the parish rates fell to a nominal sum. These facts and results were published by Mr. Beecher in a pamphlet which, falling into Lord Brougham's hands, became the seed of the New Poor Law. The merits of that law do not claim discussion here; it was only necessary to point out this great fact of the life of that early friend of Lord Byron, whose influence was so great with him, as to induce him to commit his first volume to the flames.
In the summer of 1845, I paid a visit to Southwell. The day, for a wonder, was fine, for a more rainy or cold June never passed. The little town looked very pleasant in its quietness. Every one knows how a cathedral town does look; all asleep in the sunshine, if sunshine there be. A few shops, that seem to be expecting customers sometime; a large inn that must, too, have visitors sometimes, or it could not exist. A number of pleasant villas in their pleasant gardens, full of roses, and green plots not shaven quite so close as in greater and smarter places, amid a great deal of greenness everywhere in gardens, crofts, and meadows. The old minster standing aloft in venerable, and profoundly silent majesty, in its ample green burial-ground.
The minster at Southwell is much finer than I had supposed. It has three square towers; two at the west end, and one, I think, near the east. It is Saxon; has fine zigzag archway doors, at the west, and also at the north and south porches. In the north porch, each side is lined with those crossed arches, which form pointed arches, and are supposed to have first discovered them to the builders. The outer walls have also zigzag bands. The windows have been inserted, many of them, since the minster was built. Some are Early English; some of the Perpendicular Order; but there are also round-headed ones, and round-headed blank arches on the walls of the tower. All is in perfect taste, according to the time in which the work was done, and is kept in excellent preservation. The inside is particularly neat, and the reading-desk is a brass eagle, which, having been found at the bottom of the lake at Newstead, where it is supposed to have been thrown at the dissolution of the abbey by the monks, would be an object on which Lord Byron would look with great interest. It contained writings connected with the estate, which the angry monks might wish to destroy.
We looked into the ruins of the old palace adjoining the minster yard, where Cardinal Wolsey was entertained on his last journey to York, and found ourselves in a lovely garden, the walls of which were the grey and irregular ruins of this ancient fabric, and the house running along one side of it, evidently though old, built partly up out of its material. Every one knows how charming such an old house looks. Its low range, its irregular windows, its front partly overhung with roses, jasmines, and figs; the open porch, and the peeps of goodly pictures, or rather the frames of the pictures, rich curtains, and furniture, — the attributes of wealth; and the greensward of the court garden, filling with its velvet the area between the old and rugged walls.
Under the obliging guidance of Dr. Calvert, I went round to see the people with whom Byron used to associate; unfortunately, Miss Pigott was in London. We had a glimpse of her entrance-hall, and that was all. The house is one of those old-fashioned, rather darkish houses, that one sees in such places, and in the hall were heaps of busts, apparently phrenological specimens, and so on.
We went then to the house where Byron's mother lived. It is at the opposite end of the town, or village. It is called Burgage Manor, and stands on the top of a sloping green, called Burgage Green, very pleasantly, and at the back looking over a pleasant stretch of country towards Farnsfield. The house is a good, large, and pleasant house, but has, it seems, been considerably enlarged since Mrs. Byron lived in it; in fact, another half built to it in front. Unluckily the lady who now inhabits it was absent too, so that we could learn nothing particular about it. It was undergoing painting, and we entered it, and walked about the lower rooms, which are just good, pleasant, modern rooms. The hall has a number of middling portraits, apparently belonging to the lady's family. A Mary Childers; several ladies of the name of Mace, a Rev. Jackson, without a Mr., a John, or Thomas to his name, just thus, — Rev. Jackson, a sandy-haired schoolmaster-looking man, leaning on his elbow, and apparently trying to look very full of calculation. One picture was very funny. It was that of a little girl of about five or six years old, in an old-fashioned dress, and her hair dressed in a very wiggish fashion, and apparently powdered. She occupied the centre of the picture, and stood facing you, and on each hand a white rabbit was partly rearing up and looking at her, and under the three figures stood their names: — MARY MACE, MARY BURTON, and MARY BEECHER. No doubt there was some story connected with them. I suppose Mary Mace and Mary Beecher were play-fellows of the little girl, and that she had called her two white rabbits after them.
Near this house, but on the opposite side of the green, or rather of this corner of the green, is the house of Major Leacroft. This is the house where Byron used to join in private theatricals. The family which he was acquainted with is gone; the proprietor dead; and this Major Leacroft is another sort of man, a wealthy recluse, and collector of pictures.
In going from one place to another, we went round by the Greet, the stream in which Byron used to bathe, and where he dived for a lady's thimble, which he took from her work-box and threw in. The Greet is a mere brook, and for the most part so shallow that a man would much sooner crack his skull in it than dive very deep, unless it were above the mill, where the water is dammed up, or just below the mill-wheel by the bridge, but that is too public, being in the high road. Such is Southwell, in Nottinghamshire, which will always be livingly associated with one of the happiest periods of the life of Lord Byron.
Harrow being so near the metropolis, will naturally draw many visitors, as another of the happiest scenes of Byron's youthful life. Here he represents himself to have been eminently happy, and always looked back to this period of his youth with particular affection. The schoolroom where he studied, the tomb where he used to sit in the churchyard, and the spot where his natural daughter, Allegra, is buried, will always excite a lively interest. This tomb is still called by the boys at Harrow, "Byron's tomb," and its identity is very accurately fixed by himself in a letter to Mr. Murray, when giving direction for the interment of his daughter. "There is a spot in the churchyard, near the footpath, on the brow of the hill looking towards Windsor, and a tomb under a large tree, bearing the name of Peachie or Peachy, where I used to sit for hours and hours when a boy. This was my favourite spot; but as I wish to erect a tablet to her memory, the body had better be deposited in the church. Near the door on the left hand as you enter there is a monument, with a tablet containing these words:—
When Sorrow weeps o'er Virtue's sacred dust,
Our tears become us, and our grief is just
Such were the tears she shed, who grateful pays
This last sad tribute of her love and praise.
I recollect them after seventeen years, not from anything remarkable in them, but because from my seat in the gallery, I had generally my eyes turned towards that monument. As near as convenient I could wish Allegra to be buried, and on the wall a marble tablet placed, with these words:—
In Memory of
Daughter of G. G. Lord Byron,
Who died at Bagna Cavallo,
In Italy, April 20th, 1822,
aged five years and three months.
'I shall go to her, but she shall not return to me.'
2nd Samuel, xii. 23."
These are interesting landmarks to the visitor, who will find the path to the tomb beneath the large elm well tracked, and the view there over the far stretching country, such as well might draw the musing eyes of the young poet. Captain Medwin says he saw the name of Byron "carved at Harrow, in three places, in very large characters — a presentiment of his future fame, or a pledge of his ambition to acquire it." The play-ground and cricket ground, will also be visited with equal interest. There we see in these a new and eager generation of fine lads at play, and then have a lively idea of what Byron and his cotemporaries were at that time — now no less than forty years ago. No one was a more thorough schoolboy, in all the enjoyment of play and youthful pranks, than Lord Byron, as he himself in verses addressed to one of his school-comrades shows us; and as all his schoolfellows testify of him.
Yet when confinement's lingering hour was done,
Our sports, our studies, and our souls were one
Together we impelled the flying ball,
Together waited in our tutor's hall;
Together joined in cricket's manly toil,
Or shared the produce of the river's spoil;
Or plunging from the green declining shore,
Our pliant limbs the buoyant waters bore:
In every element, unchanged, the same,
All, all that brothers should be, but the name.
But the whole of this poem, called Childish Recollections, published in the Hours of Idleness, is filled by the charms of recollected school delights at Harrow. Here his schoolfellows, amongst others, were Lord Clare, for whom through life he retained the warmest attachment, Lord Delaware, the Duke of Dorset, to whom he addressed one of his early poems, Colonel Wildman, who afterwards purchased Newstead, Lord Jocelyn, the Rev. William Harness, etc. He says, "P. Hunter, Curson, Long, Tattersall, were my principal friends. Clare, Dorset, Colonel Gordon, De Bath, Claridge, and John Wingfield, were my juniors and favourites." Last, and not least, Sir Robert Peel was his cotemporary, and it is now with very odd feelings that we read the anecdote in Byron's life, that when a great fellow of a boy-tyrant, who claimed little Peel as a fag, was giving him a castigation, Byron came and proposed to share it. "While the stripes were succeeding each other, and poor Peel writhing under them, Byron saw and felt for the misery of his friend; and although he knew that he was not strong enough to fight * * * * * * with any hope of success, and that it was dangerous even to approach him, he advanced to the scene of action, and with a blush of rage, tears in his eyes, and a voice trembling between terror and indignation, asked very humbly if * * * * * would be pleased to tell him 'how many stripes he meant to inflict?' — 'Why,' returned the executioner, you little rascal, what is that to you?' — 'Because, if you please,' said Byron, holding out his arm, 'I would take half.'"
With Harrow, we take leave of the years of innocent boyhood. His removal to Cambridge, and his now long residences in London led him into those dissipations and sensualities which continued to cast a sad foil on the greater part of his after life. To Cambridge he never appeared much attached, and rather resided there occasionally as a necessity for taking his degree, than from any pleasure he had in the place. His rooms in Trinity College, Cambridge, are nearly the sole locality which will there attract the attention of the admirers of the poet, except the Commoners' hall, in which now the long tossed about statue of him by Thorwaldsen is about to be erected.
It was during his being a student of Cambridge, that Newstead abbey fell into his hands by the expiration of Lord Grey de Ruthyn's lease, and that he went thither, and repaired it to a certain extent, and furnished it at an expense far beyond his resources at the time. Here, with half a dozen of his fellow-collegians, amongst whom was the very clever, and early lost Charles Skinner Matthews, he spent a rackety time. He had got a set of monks' dresses from a masquerade warehouse in London, and in these they used to sit up all night, drinking and full of uproarious merriment. "Our hour of rising," says Mr. Matthews himself, "was one. It was frequently past two before the breakfast party broke up. Then for the amusements of the morning, there was reading, fencing, singlestick, or shuttle-cock, in the great room; practising with the pistols in the hall; walking, riding, cricket, sailing on the lake, playing with the bear, or teasing the wolf. Between seven and eight we dined; and our evening lasted from that time till one, two, or three in the morning. The evening's diversions may easily be conceived. I must not omit the custom of handing round, after dinner, on the removal of the cloth, a human skull, filled with burgundy. After revelling on choice viands and the finest wines of France, we adjourned to tea, where we amused ourselves with reading, or improving conversation, each according to his fancy; and after sandwiches, etc. retired to rest."
It may well be imagined what a scandal this occasioned in the neighbourhood. During this time, there were still workpeople employed in the repairs of the house, and I recollect a master plasterer, who at the same time was doing work for my father a dozen miles off, relating to our astonishment the goings on of these gay roisterers. Byron himself says, that
Where Superstition once had made her den,
Now Paphian girls were known to sing and smile.
And the person here referred to, particularly mentioned one young damsel dressed in boy's clothes that Byron had there, no doubt the same who about the same time lived with him at Brompton, and used to ride about on horseback with him at Brighton. Here at this time his dog Boatswain died, and had the well-known tomb raised for him in the garden where the poet himself proposed to lie. Here he employed himself with writing his scarifying English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, which appeared about the time that he came of age, and so amply avenged him of the Edinburgh reviewers. Being, as he informs us, about ten thousand pounds in debt, he left his mother in possession of Newstead and set out on his foreign tour. In two years he returned to England, not only triumphant by the great popularity of his satire over all his enemies, but having in his portfolio the two first cantos of his inimitable Childe Harold. From this moment he was the most celebrated man of his age, and that at the age of twenty-four. At one spring he ascended above Walter Scott with all his well-earned honours. From the most solitary and friendless, because unconnected man of his rank, living about town in clubs and lodgings, for his few college friends were scattered abroad in the world, he became at once the great lion of all circles. Lord Holland, Rogers, Moore, etc. were his friends. He was besieged on all sides by aristocratic bluestockings and givers of great parties. His life was for four or five years that of the most perfect Circean intoxication of worship and dissipation; yet during this period he poured out the Giaour, the Bride of Abydos, the Corsair, and Lara, poems of great vigour and beauty, and new in scene and spirit, but by no means reaching that height of poetical wealth and glory which he afterwards mounted to. Then came his ill-starred marriage, and in one short year his utter and lasting separation from his wife. This unfortunate marriage, against which he was strenuously warned by his most experienced friends, became the blight of his whole life. To the last he persisted in protesting that he never knew the cause of his wife's withdrawal from him; but Lady Byron, in a paper addressed to his biographer since his decease, has assigned as the reason that she believed him insane, or if not insane, not safe to live with. No wonder that his excitable temperament was lashed to a pitch of frenzy little short of madness, when such were his pecuniary embarrassments that in the one year of his living with his wife, nine executions were levied on his goods, his rank only saving him from a prison. It is easy to perceive the effect of this on the proud and sensitive mind of Lord Byron; and when the hand that should have soothed him was coolly withdrawn from him on the occasion, the finish was put to mortal endurance. Banished as it were by the abhorrence of his country, of that country which, from worshipping him, turned as suddenly to denounce him, believing that in the abandonment by a wife there must be some hideous cause, he went forth never to return.
The limits of this work will necessarily confine any minute account of the homes and haunts of our poets, to those only which he within the British isles; I shall, therefore, only summarily trace the progress of Byron's wanderings and abodes from this period; and before doing this, I will point out in a few lines the residences which he occupied during the five years of his London life. Before he went abroad, Gordon's hotel, Durant's hotel, both in Albemarle-street, and 8, St. James's-street, were his homes. On his return from his first tour he took on a lease for seven years a suite of rooms in the Albany, of Lord Althorpe. The year of his married life was chiefly spent at 13, Piccadilly-terrace. The clubs which he frequented were the Alfred, the Cocoa Tree, Watier's, and the Union.
In his first tour he traversed Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Turkey, tracking his way in light, by the composition of Childe Harold. Now, abandoned by the one heart that he had chosen to be his domestic stay and solace through life, assailed bitterly by that public which had so recently devoured with avidity his splendid poems, regarded as an infidel and a desperado, he went from the field of Waterloo across Belgium, along the Rhine, through Switzerland into Italy, which became his second country, retaining him till a few months before his death. Every step of his progress was illustrated by triumphs of genius still more brilliant than before. From the moment that at Waterloo he exclaimed "Stop, for thy tread is on an empire's dust," till that in which he concludes with his sublime apostrophe to the Ocean, he advances from Alp to Alp in the regions of genius. Every one that traces the banks of the Rhine is made to feel what additional charms he has scattered along them; and how infinitely inferior are all, even the most enthusiastic and elaborate descriptions of its scenery from other pens.
The castled crag of Drachenfels
Frowns o'er the wild and winding Rhine,
Whose breast of waters broadly swells
Between the banks which bear the vine,
And hills all rich with blossomed trees,
And fields which promise corn and wine,
And scattered cities crowning these,
Whose fair white walls along them shine.
And peasant girls, with deep blue eyes,
And hands which offer early flowers,
Walk smiling o'er this paradise;
Above, the frequent feudal towers
Through green leaves lift their walls of grey,
And many a rock which steeply lowers,
And noble arch in proud decay,
Look o'er this vale of vintage bowers.
Volumes of description could not give you so vivid a feeling of the characteristic features of the valley of the Rhine as these lines. And thus through the Alps, "The palaces of Nature," Byron advanced into Italy, the land of ancient art, heroic deeds, and elysian nature. At Geneva he fell in with Shelley for the first time, and henceforth these two great poets became friends. At Diodati, on the lake of Geneva, he spent the autumn, then advanced to Italy, and took up his abode in Venice, where, in the palace Mocenigo, on the Canal Grande, he lived till December, 1819, i.e. about three years. His next remove was to Ravenna, where he had splendid apartments in the Guiccioli palace. In the autumn of 1821 he quitted Ravenna, having resided there not two years, and took up his residence in the Lanfranchi palace on the Arno, which he describes as large enough for a garrison. In the autumn of 1822 he quitted Pisa for Genoa, having resided at Pisa a year. At Genoa he inhabited the villa Saluzzo at Albaro, one of the suburbs of that city, where he continued to live till the July of 1823, not quite a year, when he set sail for Greece, where in a few mouths his existence terminated.
Of Lord Byron's abodes and modes of life we have some graphic glimpses in Moore's life, in Shelley's and Captain Medwin's notices. Everywhere he remained true to his schoolboy habits of riding on horseback, swimming, firing with pistols; to his love of bull and Newfoundland dogs. Moore describes his house in Venice as a damp-looking mansion, on a dismal canal. "As we groped our way after him," he says, "through the dark hall, he cried out, 'Keep clear of the dog;' and before we had proceeded many paces farther, 'Take care, or that monkey will fly at you,' a curious proof of his fidelity to all the tastes of his youth, and of the sort of menagerie which visitors at Newstead had to encounter in their progress through his hall." Soon after he adds, "The door burst open, and at once we entered an apartment not only spacious and elegant, but wearing an aspect of comfort and habitableness which, to a traveller's eye, is as welcome as rare." Captain Medwin somewhere mentions meeting Lord Byron, travelling from one of his places of abode to another, with a train of carriages, monkeys, and whiskered servants, a strange procession; and Shelley, visiting him at Ravenria, says, — "Lord Byron has here splendid apartments in the palace of his mistress's husband, who is one of the richest men in Italy. There are two monkeys, five cats, eight dogs, and ten horses, all of whom, except the horses, walk about the house like the masters of it. Tita, the Venetian, is here, and operates as my valet — a fine fellow, with a prodigious black beard, who has stabbed two or three people, and is the most good-natured fellow I ever saw."
Of his house at Pisa, Byron himself says: — "I have got here a famous old feudal palazzo, on the Arno, large enough for a garrison, with dungeons below and cells in the walls; and so full of ghosts, that the learned Fletcher, my valet, has begged leave to change his room, and then refused to occupy his new room, because there were more ghosts there than in the other. It is quite true that there are most extraordinary noises, as in all old buildings, which have terrified the servants so as to incommode me extremely. There is one place where people were evidently walled up; for there is but one possible passage, broken through the wall, and then meant to be closed again upon the inmate. The house once belonged to the Lanfranchi family, the same mentioned by Ugolina in his dream, as his persecutor with Sismondi, and has had a fierce owner or two in its time."
The mode of spending his time appears by all accounts to have been pretty much the same everywhere. Rising about one o'clock at noon, taking a hasty breakfast, often standing. "At three or four," says the Guiccioli, "at Ravenna and Pisa, those who used to ride out with him agreed to call, and after a game at billiards they mounted and rode out." At the two latter places his resort was generally the forests adjoining the towns. At Ravenna, that forest rendered so famous by Dante and Boccaccio, especially for the story of the spectre huntsman in the Decamerone; and at Pisa the old pine forest stretching down to the sea. Latterly he used to proceed to the outside of the city, to avoid the staring of the people, especially English people, then mounted his horse, and rode on at a great rate. In the forest they used to fire with pistols at a mark. The forest rides of Byron near Pisa and Ravenna will always be scenes visited with deep interest by Englishmen, and Shelley's description of themselves, the two great poets, in Julian and Maddalo, as they rode
Upon the bank of land which breaks the flow
Of Adria towards Venice, a bare strand
Of hillocks, heaped from ever-shifting sand,
Matted with thistles and amphibious weeds,
is one of everlasting value. Returning to dinner at six or seven, he conversed with his friends till midnight, and then sat down to write.
Thus we have traced this great and singular man from the mountains of the Scottish Highlands, where he roamed as a boy, from land to land, till he stood as a liberator on the shores of Greece, and was seen for a few months riding forth with his long train of Suliote guards, and then was at once lost to Greece and the world. In no short life was there ever more to applaud and to condemn, to wonder at and to deplore. From those hereditary and other causes which we have already noticed, the temperament of Byron was passionate to the excess; but this extreme sensibility, which was the food and foundation of his splendid genius, was at the same time the torture of his existence. Misunderstood where he ought to have been soothed with the deepest tenderness, attacked by the public where he should have been most closely sympathised with, he went forth, as it were, reckless of peace or of character. A series of adulterous connexions darkened his glorious reputation, and served to justify in the eyes of the public the accusations of those who had goaded him to these very excesses. But spite of the censures of the world, and reproaches of his own conscience, the powers of his genius continually grew till they even forced into the silence of astonishment the most heartless of his detractors. To say nothing of those grand and sombre metaphysical dramas, Manfred, Cain, and the rest which he wrote in Italy, the poem alone of Childe Harold, ever ascending in magnificent strength, richness, and beauty, as it advanced, was sufficient to give him an immortality second to no other. The wide and superb field of its action, — that of all the finest countries of Europe; the great events, those of the most stirring and momentous age of the whole world; and the illustrious names which it wove into its living mass; the glorious remains of art, and the still more glorious features of nature in Italy and Greece; — all combined to render Childe Harold the great poem of his own and the favourite of every after age. Totally different as he was under different impressions, Childe Harold had the transcendent advantage of being the product of that mood which was inspired only by the contemplation of every object calculated to draw him away from the seductions of society, and the lower tones of his mind; — the mood inspired by the most august objects of heaven and of earth, — the midnight skies, the Alpine mountains, the sublimities of mighty rivers and oceans, the basking beauties of southern nature, and the crumbling but unrivalled works of man. Filled with all these images of nobility and greatness, he gave them back to his page with a tone so philosophically profound, with a music so thrilling, with a dignity so graceful and yet so tender, that nothing in poetry can be conceived more fascinating and perfect. Every thought is so clearly and fully developed, every image is so substantial and so strongly defined, and the very scepticism which here and there betrays itself, comes forth so accompanied by a pensive, earnest, and an intense longing after life, that it resembles the melancholy tone which pervades the book of Job, and some of the prophets, more than that of any other human, much less modern composition. We may safely assert that there are a hundred combining causes, in the subjects and the spirit of Childe Harold, to render it to every future age the most lovely and endearing gift from this. Don Juan, the reflex of Byron's ordinary, as this was of his solitary and higher life, — his life alone with Nature and with God, has its wonderful and inimitable passages; but Childe Harold is one woven mass of beauty and intellectual gold from end to end.
In judging the errors of Lord Byron there is one consideration calculated to disarm severity perhaps more than all others. The excesses in which he had indulged were made by Providence the means of the severest punishment that could befall him. The cause of Greece aroused his spirit, at that period of life when life should have been in its prime, and a new scene of most glorious ambition was spread to him, that of adding to the unrivalled renown of the poet the still more grateful renown of becoming the saviour of a country and a people, whom the triumphs of ancient art, science, liberty, and literature, had made as it were kindred to the whole world. This august prospect was unveiled to him, and he rushed forward to secure it, but his constitution, sapped by vicious indulgence, gave way; — the brilliant promise of new and loftiest glories was snatched from him; — he sunk and perished. Reflecting on this — the hardest moralist could not desire a sadder retribution; and they who love rather to seek in the corrupt mass of humanity for the original germs of the divine nature, will turn with Mr. Moore to the fair side, and acquiesce most cordially in the concluding words of his biography. "It would not be in the power, indeed, of the most poetical friend to allege anything more convincingly favourable of his character than is contained in the few simple facts, that, through life, with all his faults, he never lost a friend; that those about him in his youth, whether as companions, teachers, or servants, remained attached to him to the last; that the woman to whom he gave the love of his maturer years idolizes his name; and that, with a single unhappy exception, scarce an instance is to be found of any one once brought, however briefly, into relations of amity with him, that did not feel towards him a kind regard in life, and retain a fondness for his memory."