1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

C. G., "Memoir of Lord Byron" Living Poets of England: Specimens of the Living British Poets (1827) 2:163-68.



Every biographer has traced the genealogy of Lord Byron, and given some account of those who preceded him in the title down to the time when it descended to himself.

George Gordon was born on his mother's estate in Aberdeenshire, on the 22d day of January 1788; and as his mother and himself were soon afterwards deserted by his profligate and dissipated father, the whole care of his infant years devolved upon the mother; and considering the state in which she was left, it is but natural to suppose that she treated the boy with every indulgence within her power. Tenderness and indulgence in his early years were rendered the more necessary, that, besides having one of his feet deformed, he was of a very weakly constitution. For these reasons, he was not quite so early sent to school as is sometimes the case, but allowed to expand his lungs and strengthen his limbs upon the mountains of the North. This initiatory education was evidently the best adapted for giving strength to his bodily frame; and it was far from the worst for giving tone and vigour to his mind. This period of his life passed unheeded; but we find traces of its influence in many parts of his works. The sublime rock, the dark lake, the dim forest, and the dashing stream which the infant bard was allowed to contemplate, without the foolery of man's accompaniment, have in each of them a lyre strung by the hand of nature herself. The single poem of Loch-na-Gair, which, though of course not written in infancy, is yet a recollection of infant impressions, proves that if the author was not then coaxed and courted by some hireling tutor who was drudging for a benefice, he was much better employed.

When a few years bracing upon the mountains had removed the symptoms of weakness with which George Gordon was born, he was sent to school, and there, though still an infant, he showed that he would one day form a character for himself. A school-fellow says that he was naturally kind hearted and generous, though at the same time dignified and reserved.

William, the fifth Lord Byron, died at Newstead Abbey, May 1798; his only son had preceded him to the tomb, in the same year in which George Gordon was born, and as the descent both of the titles and the estates was to heirs male, George Gordon succeeded to the titles and estates of his grand uncle.

Upon this change in his fortune, Lord Byron was removed from the immediate care of his mother, and placed as a ward under the guardianship of the Earl of Carlisle, who had married Isabella, the sister of the late Lord Byron.

When Byron came under the guardianship of his grand uncle, he was first sent to one of the great public schools, and from that to one of the Universities. Harrow was the school which was chosen; and in less than six months after, his unexpected accession to the title, Lord Byron was placed there under the tuition of the Rev. Dr. Drury.

During the six years that Byron remained at Harrow, his poetical powers began to develope themselves a little.

From Harrow he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge; and as he was now considerably older than when he had taken his own way of studying his lessons in Scotland, he seems again to have given offence to the more intolerant part of the doctors, by selecting his own courses of study, as well as his own modes of pursuing them.

When about nineteen years of age, Lord Byron bade adieu to the deans and doctors of the Cam, and took up his residence at the family seat, where, among other and different pursuits, he arranged and had printed at Newark, a small collection of his poems, under the whimsical title of "Hours of Idleness." The apology urged for the appearance of his little volume, was the usual one of the "advice of friends;" and though it has never been stated who those friends were, it is probable that his noble, and as himself says, volunteer guardian was one of them, as the publication is dedicated to him; a circumstance which the noble bard seems afterwards to have regretted. Unpretending however, as was this little volume, and obscure as was the press from which it issued, it appears to have been in a great measure the means of letting his lordship know the vast extent of his powers, and prompting him to the profitable and vigorous use of them, at so early a period of his life.

The Edinburgh Review, which had generally been more anxious to find a victim which it could immolate, than an idol whom it could worship, pounced upon the little volume of the minor Lord, with a fury almost unknown, or at any rate seldom evinced even by itself.

But the bard took his own way of avenging himself, and inflicted more heavy and humiliating chastisement upon the critics than if he had horsewhipped them all, or shot half their number. That pen, with which he had been but dallying in his "Hours of Idleness," he sharpened for business to its keenest point; and in brief space appeared English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.

Lord Byron, so far from making any boast of this great and happy effort, afterwards suppressed it; and up to the time of his majority he continued to prosecute his fancies alternately at Newstead and in the Metropolis. At the former place he spent much of his time alone, or at least in the society, or rather under the care of a great Newfoundland dog, to which he paid great attention while alive, and raised a monument when dead.

Ye who perchance behold this simple urn,
Pass on — it honours none you wish to mourn:
To mark a friend's remains these stones arise,
Who never knew but one; and here he lies.

The story of the skull which, about this time, he had mounted, as a drinking cup, is well-known and has been cited by the suffering enemies of the bard, as a proof of early misanthropy.

When the term of his minority had expired, he resolved to improve his knowledge of the earth and of mankind, by travelling abroad; and his thoughts were directed to the classic land of the east, to that land and that people, which, to the shame of christian states, amid all their missions of peace and crusades of war, has been allowed to remain under the usurped and grinding dominion of the slaves of Mahomet. Selecting as his companion John Cam Hobhouse, Esquire, whose love of liberty and literature seemed somewhat congenial with his own, although their powers were of a very different order, he sailed from Falmouth for Lisbon, and having landed there, he first examined all that was worthy of remark in that neighbourhood, and then proceeded, by the southern provinces of Spain, for the Mediterranean, where he landed first on the wild mountains of Albania, whose bold scenery and bolder inhabitants appear to have made a deep and permanent impression upon his mind. Having traversed the classic land of Greece, in almost every direction, and studied its scenery, with the eye of a poet and a painter, — he returned to England, better furnished in all the substantial fruits of travelling than perhaps any other man who ever returned to the shores of the same or of any other country.

Soon after his Lordship's return from the Continent, the first and second cantos of Childe-Harold made their appearance; and never did poetic work excite greater astonishment, or receive more universal attention or more general praise. The Edinburgh Reviewers, finding that their own consciences were in unison with the common feeling, hastened to pay their tribute to the giant intellect which this poem evinced.

From the time of Harold's making its appearance, Lord Byron was, by universal consent, and without so much as an effort or even a wish upon his own part, considered as the first poet of the age.

The keen and scrutinizing glance which Lord Byron had, during his travels, cast upon the scenery and manners of the East, and the deep impression which these had made upon him, were not confined to those touches of exquisite painting, of indignant anger, of unutterable despair, and of shadowy and almost viewless hope, which burst forth in the novel and terrible strains of Childe-Harold; for they soon took a more complete body and a form more perfectly oriental, in the tales and fragments of tales which now followed each other, varied in their style, but rapid in their succession, and having a sort of family likeness in the daring of their sentiments and the dreadful fire of their colouring.

On the second day of January 1815, Lord Byron was married to the only daughter of Sir Ralph Milbank Noel, Bart., in the county of Durham; but this marriage, though it will bring a very considerable addition of fortune to the orphan daughter of the bard, "Ada, sole daughter of his house and heart" brought no substantial or permanent happiness to the hard himself. The cause of their separation has never been fully explained.

The verses which Lord Byron wrote upon this occasion were well known and generally remembered. He left England; traversed the battle scene of Waterloo, contemplated the majesty of the Alps, and the beauty of the lake of Geneva; and soon after, the third canto of the pilgrimage of Harold made its appearance.

About this time, he had, besides some minor pieces, favoured the world with the Prisoner of Chillon, Manfred, and the Lament of Tasso.

During his residence in Italy, Byron completed the pilgrimage of the Childe, in a poem of the most tender feeling, and the most exquisite taste. Under the genial sky of Italy, his mind became a little playful, and he published in a new and lighter stanza, the tale of Beppo, and the more wild and romantic one of Mazeppa. Here too, he planned that, which, had he lived to complete it, must have been considered as the most daring and the most wonderful of all his works, — Don Juan.

Alternately with Don Juan, a new species of writing, or at least one which was new to his Lordship, made its appearance, in the shape of a considerable number of dramatic poems and "mysteries," — that is, sacred dramas. These, with a continuation of Don Juan, as far as sixteen cantos, and sundry communications to The Liberal, a work begun by Byron and some literary friends of reputation, whom he had formed into a society in Italy, were the last poetical works of this illustrious bard.

The circumstances which induced him to embark in the Greek cause, it would be idle to investigate.

Lord Byron, while entering with much ardour, and with well organized assistance, into the service of his favourite people, the Greeks, then engaged in a struggle for liberty, to which every well constituted mind wished success, was seized with a rheumatic fever at Missolonghi (a place where he had once before been seriously indisposed) on the ninth day of April 1824, and after ten days of severe indisposition, he yielded to the universal lot of man, upon the 19th day of the same month.

No man could have been more lamented than he was by the leading men among the Greek patriots.