1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

Anonymous, "Biographical Memoir of the Right Hon. Lord Byron" New British Lady's Magazine 3 (August 1819) 45-48.



The distinguished subject of our memoir entered at an early age into the service of the muses, and deservedly ranks as one of the first poets of the day. Although the grave and melancholy seem to be his forte, the versatility of his genius has displayed itself in pieces of a light and satirical nature; but, it must be regretted that, whilst his Lordship's style cannot fail, by its vigour and richness, powerfully to attract the attention of readers of every description, his writings too frequently display a bad taste: an admiration of the exaggerated qualities of mysterious robbers, and sentimental murdering sultanas; — of solemn giaours who tell horrid tales on their deathbeds, and of pachas' sons who have a taste for piracy. This is no doubt the result of impetuous feeling in a young man of rank, rather than of calm thinking; but as his Lordship's vivid descriptions of scenery, and the spirited rapidity of his narrative, have raised him to a very high degree of popularity, he has now only to correct his taste for paltry affectations; to forsake his fondness for gigantic achievements; and to impart to his delightful portraitures of female loveliness some feeling of moral ambition; inevitably to secure the admiration of the wise and good, and to ensure a permanent rank among the best, as well as the greatest, poets of the nineteenth century.

Although we do not think Lord Byron happy in the choice of his subjects, he certainty writes under the influence of a strong poetical feeling, and soars to a region that seems peculiarly his own; where, amid glooms and storms, his original and daring spirit finds a sublime refuge from the petty pursuits and gratifications of man. The rays of his genius have so environed and emblazoned the head of deformity, that, like the ugliness of an Eastern idol, we can gaze upon it with pleasure, on account of the costliness and magnificence of the shrine in which it is encased.

The family of Lord Byron is of very ancient descent, and can be even traced as far back as the time of William the Conqueror, being recorded in Doomsday Book as considerable landholders in Lancashire. Two of them fell at the battle of Cressy; one signalised himself in the field of Bosworth, in favour of Henry the Seventh; and several lost their lives in the cause of Charles the First, who conferred on Sir John Byron the barony in 1643.

George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron, the sixth possessor of the title, and grandson of the Hon. Admiral Byron, was born the 22d of January, 1788. His mother, from whom he takes the name of Gordon, was the last of a branch of that family, which descended from the Princess Jane Stuart, daughter of James the Second of Scotland, who married an Earl of Huntley. On the decease of his granduncle, the late Lord, the title devolved upon him, May 19th, 1798. He passed some of his early years in Scotland, but received the principal part of his education at Harrow school, and completed it at the university of Cambridge. He early evinced a poetical taste, and in 1807, published a collection of poems, called Hours of Idleness. This volume was very harshly treated by the Edinburgh Reviewers, on whom his Lordship retorted with great severity in a satirical effusion, entitled English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, which had for some time a very rapid sale, but was suppressed by his Lordship, who prevented a fifth edition from being published, even after it was printed.

In 1809 his Lordship, coming of age, took his seat in the House of Peers; shortly after which he went abroad, visited Spain and Portugal, and remained some time in Greece. and its islands. He was accompanied in part of his travels, by his friend, Mr. Hobhouse.

In 1811 his Lordship returned to England, and in the spring of 1812 published the First and Second Cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. The great poetical merits of this production at once established his fame as a votary of the muses, in defiance of the unamiable character of its hero; and those reviewers who had so harshly treated his juvenile effusions, concurred in the general opinion of its merits.

The Childe was considered by many as an intended portraiture of the author; but surely no writer would speak thus of himself:—

In Albion's isle there dwelt a youth
Who ne'er in virtue's ways did take delight;
But spent his days in riot most uncouth,
And vex'd with mirth the drowsy ear of night.
Ah, me! in sooth he was a shameless wight,
Sore given to revel and ungodly glee;
Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.

His Lordship likewise says, in his preface: "a fictitious character is introduced for the sake of giving some connexion to the piece, which, however, makes no pretension to regularity. It has been suggested to me by friends, on whose opinions I set a high value, that in this fictitious character I may incur the suspicion of having intended some real personage: this I beg leave once for all to disclaim. Harold is the child of imagination, for the purpose I have stated. In some very trivial particulars, and those merely local, there might be grounds for such a notion; but in the main points, I should hope, none whatever."

In an after edition he further observed, "I now leave Childe Harold to live his day, such as he is; it had been more agreeable, and certainly more easy to have drawn an amiable character. It had been more easy to varnish over his faults, to make him do more and express less, but he never was intended as an example, farther than to shew that early perversion of mind and morals leads to satiety of past pleasures, and disappointment in new ones, and that even the beauties of nature, and the stimulus of travel, (except ambition, the most powerful of all excitements) are lost on a soul so constituted, or rather misdirected."

In 1813 appeared The Giaour, a Fragment of a Turkish Tale. This poem like Childe Harold, abounds in sad and solitary musings, but is fraught with strong poetic feeling. Giaour signifies infidel, and a note at the close of the poem gives the fact on which it is founded,

"The circumstance to which the above story relates, was not very uncommon in Turkey. A few years ago, the wife of Muchtar Pacha complained to his father of his son's supposed infidelity. He asked with whom? and she had the barbarity to give in a list of the twelve handsomest women in Yanina. They were seized, fastened up in sacks, and drowned in the lake the same night! One of the guards who was present, informed me, that not one of the victims uttered a cry, or shewed a symptom of terror, at so sudden a 'wrench from all we know, from all we love.' The fate of Phrosine, the fairest of this sacrifice, is the subject of many a Romaic and Arnaut ditty. The story in the text is one told of a young Venetian, many years ago, and now nearly forgotten. I heard it by accident recited by one of the coffee-house story-tellers, who abound in the Levant, and sing or recite their narratives."

The same year also produced The Bride of Abydos, a Turkish Tale, in which our author imposed upon himself the ungracious task of obtaining, by fine writing, mastery over a very objectionable story.

Early in the following year appeared the Corsair, a story, as the name imports, of a pirate chief, who had for his hold, from whence he and his gang issued out on their depredations, one of the Egean islands. This chief "was a man of loneliness and mystery,"—

Scarce seen to smile, and seldom seen to sigh,
Whose name appals the fiercest of his crew,
And tints each swarthy cheek with sallower hue.

On the 2d of January, 1815, his Lordship married Miss Milbanke, sole daughter and heiress of Sir Ralph Milbanke.

We regret to state that although this union, suitable as it was in age, fortune, birth, and acquirements, seemed fondly to promise many years of uninterrupted happiness, some dissensions arose not long after the birth of their only child, a daughter, which led to a separation. On this unfortunate affair appeared in April, 1816, a short poem from his Lordship's pen, entitled, 'Fare-thee-well,' addressed to her Ladyship, shortly after which he quitted England, and has not since returned. On this subject we wish to touch lightly, and would scarcely have adverted to it, had it been less public, for we yet hope that a reconciliation may not be very distant.

Early in 1816, The Siege of Corinth and Parisina were published; two poems conveying the least interest of any of his Lordship's productions.

His Lordship this year added a third canto to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, in which the fiction of the character of Harold is considerably dropped; it is clear that his Lordship merely introduced him for the sake of giving connexion to the several descriptions. He appears on the plains of Waterloo, where Lord Byron had been, and he keeps to the side of his Lordship wherever he roamed, whether on the banks of the Rhine, or over the spots immortalized by Rousseau, — or to the Alps, — or when sailing in a stormy night from "Meillerie to St. Gingo." And the feelings of the vagrant Childe may always be traced to the bosom of the noble author. It is not so gloomy as most of his Lordship's productions, and contains some of his best poetry.

At the same time appeared the Prisoner of Chillon, and other Poems. They are a very feeble collection, and add nothing to his lordship's fame.

In 1817 our author published a a most extravagant dramatic poem called Manfred; and, in 1818, appeared the fourth and concluding canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which has been noticed at some length in our first volume.

In this year his Lordship also produced a satirical poem called Beppo, written in a new and pleasing style.

Two poems from his Lordship's prolific pen have also recently appeared, called Mazeppa and Don Juan; the latter is published without his name.

Numerous as are the productions we have already noticed, we have yet to mention Hebrew Melodies, Lara, Lament of Tasso, Ode to Napoleon, Monody on Sheridan, and several minor poems, although his Lordship stated in a preface about four years since, that it was his determination to write no more for a considerable time, from which period his pen has been unceasingly employed.

It has been the lot of Lord Byron, like many other popular writers, to have many productions ascribed to his pen which he never saw before they appeared in print. But to this his Lordship has somewhat exposed himself, by frequently sending forth his pieces anonymously.

The various idle reports of his Lordship's habits abroad, we can scarcely deem worthy of any notice. An account of his residence in the island of Mitylene was published with some appearance of authenticity, but contradicted by his Lordship.

It is a singular coincidence that his Lordship and Mr. Walter Scott, unquestionably the two greatest poets of the day, have both been lame from their birth.