1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

John Taylor Esq., in Records of my Life (1832) 2:349-56.



LORD BYRON. I became acquainted with this nobleman in the green-room of Drury Lane Theatre, at a time when he was one of the committee of management, and, as well as I can recollect, I was introduced to him by Mr. Douglas Kinnaird, who was also a member of the same body. He had so little the appearance of a person above the common race of mankind that, as lawyers were concerned in the affairs of that theatre, I took him for one of that profession, or a clerk; nor when I first saw his features, before I was introduced to him, did I perceive any of that extraordinary beauty which has since been ascribed to him; but soon after, knowing who he was, and gratified by the politeness of his manner, I began to see "Othello's visage in his mind," and, if I did not perceive the reported beauty, I thought I saw striking marks of intelligence, and of those high powers which constituted his character.

I had but little intercourse with him in the greenroom; and as a proof how slight an impression his features made upon me, I was sitting in one of the boxes at the Haymarket Theatre, the partition of the boxes only dividing me from a person in the next box, who spoke to me, and as I did not know who he was, he told me he was Lord Byron. I was much pleased with his condescension in addressing me, though vexed that I did not recollect him; and I then paid more attention to him than to the performance on the stage. We conversed for some time in a low tone, that we might not annoy the people around us, and I was highly gratified in leaving all the talk to his lordship, consistent with the necessity of an occasional answer. I then took care to examine his features well, that, being nearsighted in some degree, I might not forget him.

I still think that the beauty of his features has been much exaggerated, and that the knowledge of his intellectual powers, as manifested in his works, has given an impression to the mind of the observer which would not have been made upon those who saw him without knowing him. The portraits by my friends Mr. Westall and Mr. Phillips, are the best likenesses that I have seen of him; and the prints from other artists have very little resemblance, though some of them have been confidently bruited to the world.

I was in the habit of visiting the green-rooms of both theatres, but went oftener to Drury Lane, in order to cultivate an acquaintanceship with Lord Byron, who always received me with great kindness; and particularly one night when I had returned from a public dinner and met him in the greenroom, though I had by no means drunk much wine, yet, as I seemed to him to be somewhat heated and appeared to be thirsty, he handed me a tumbler of water, as he said to dilute me. Having a short time before published a small volume of poems, I sent them to his lordship, and in return received the following letter from him, with four volumes of his poems, handsomely bound, all of his works that had been published at that time. I took the first sentence of the letter as a motto for a collection of poems which I have since published.

DEAR SIR,

I have to thank you for a volume in the good old style of our elders and our betters, which I am very glad to see not yet extinct. Your good opinion does me great honour, though I am about to risk its loss by the return I make for your valuable present. With many acknowledgements for your wishes, and a sincere sense of your kindness, believe me,

Your obliged and faithful servant,

BYRON.

13, Piccadilly Terrace, July 23rd, 1815.

In addition to this kind and flattering letter, his lordship inscribed the first volume in the following terms:

To JOHN TAYLOR, ESQ.
With the author's compliments and respects,
July 23rd, 1815.

His lordship's volumes, his gratifying letter, and the kind attention which I received from him in the green-room, induced me to express my thanks in a complimentary sonnet to him, which was inserted in The Sun newspaper, of which I was then the proprietor of nine-tenths. The remaining tenth share was to belong to a gentleman, when the profits of that share should amount to a sum which was the assigned price of each share, and at which price I purchased, by degrees, all my shares. By the oversight of the attorney employed, the gentleman alluded to, during the previous proprietorship, was invested with the sole and uncontrolled editorship of the paper, under such legal forms that even the proprietors could not deprive him of his authority. When the former two proprietors, of whom one was the founder of the paper, found into what a predicament they had been thrown, they signified their wishes to withdraw from the concern, and I purchased their respective shares, in addition to what I had bought before at a considerable expense, conceiving that the editor would relax from his authority, and that we should proceed in harmony together. But I was mistaken, and after much and violent dissension between us, I was at last induced to offer him 500 to relinquish all connexion with the paper, which sum he accepted, and it then became entirely my own.

During his control over the paper, the day after my sonnet addressed to Lord Byron appeared, the editor thought proper to insert a parody on my lines in The Sun newspaper, in which he mentioned Lord Byron in severe terms, and in one passage adverted to Lady Byron. Shocked and mortified at the insertion of this parody in a paper almost entirely my own, I wrote immediately to Lord Byron, explaining my situation, and expressing my sincere regret that such an article had appeared in the paper, and stating my inability to prevent it. My letter produced the following one from his lordship, which I lent to my friend Mr. Moore, and which he has inserted in his admirable life of the noble bard.

DEAR SIR,

I am sorry that you should feel uneasy at what has by no means troubled me. If your editor, his correspondents, and readers, are amused, I have no objection to be the theme of all the ballads he can find room for, provided his lucubrations are confined to me only. It is a long time since things of this kind have ceased to "fright me from my propriety," nor do I know any similar attack which would induce me to turn again, unless it involved those connected with me, whose qualities, I hope, are such as to exempt them, even in the eyes of those who bear no good will to myself. In such a case, supposing it to occur, to reverse the saying of Dr. Johnson, "What the law cannot do for me, I would do for myself," be the consequences what they might. I return you, with many thanks, Colman and the letters. The poems I hope you intend me to keep, at least I shall do so, till I hear the contrary.

Very truly yours,

BYRON.

13, Terrace, Piccadilly, Sept. 25th, 1815.

In a subsequent letter from his lordship to me, referring to the same subject, there is the following postscript. "P.S. Your best way will be to publish no more eulogies, except upon the 'elect;' or if you do, to let him (the editor) have a previous copy, so that the compliment and the attack may appear together, which would, I think, have a good effect."

This last letter is dated Oct. 27th 1815, more than a month after the other, so that it is evident the subject dwelt upon his lordship's mind, though in the postscript he has treated it jocularly. The letter dated Sept. 25th, is interesting, because it shows, that though his lordship was indifferent to any attacks on himself, he was disposed to come resolutely, if not rashly, forward in defence of Lady Byron, of whose amiable qualities he could not but be deeply sensible, and it is therefore a lamentable consideration, that a separation should have taken place between persons so eminently qualified to promote the happiness of each other.

Before her marriage, Lady Byron was the theme of universal esteem and admiration to all who had the pleasure of being acquainted with her, and there can be no doubt that in her matrimonial state she fully maintained her pretensions to the same favourable estimation, though untoward circumstances, unfortunately too common in conjugal life, may have occasioned the melancholy event of a separation.

I remember that soon after the marriage I dined with Mrs. Siddons, and know no person who was better able to appreciate character, and to pay due homage to personal worth than that lady. Referring to the recent marriage, she said, "If I had no other reason to admire the judgment and taste of Lord Byron, I should be fully convinced of both, by his choice of a wife."

It is impossible to review the character and talents of Lord Byron without entertaining a high respect for his memory. That he possessed strong passions is too evident; but they were accompanied by a generous and forgiving disposition, as my friend Mr. Moore's valuable life of him demonstrates. His poetical powers, though certainly of a high order, have perhaps, like the beauty of his person, been represented in too favourable a light. They were chiefly of a satirical and descriptive kind. He could draw characters with great force and beauty, as well those of masculine and ferocious energy, as of female softness, delicacy, and exquisite feeling; but perhaps if we were to search in his works for that species of poetical excellence which is denominated the sublime, and which is the essence of true poetry, we should be disappointed.

I feel somewhat abashed at thus venturing to criticise the works of so popular a writer; but much as I respect his memory, and feel sensible of his kindness to me, I may be permitted to express my opinion, considering the high reputation which he acquired, and the great poets who do honour to the literary character of the country, and whose names seem to have sunk into comparative oblivion.

As Lord Byron made so conspicuous a figure in society, and will always remain so in the literary world, it may not be an incurious speculation to reflect on what he might have been if he had not been born to rank and affluence. That he possessed great poetical talents, nobody can deny; and it must be equally admitted that he was born with strong passions. It is hardly to be doubted, that whatever had been the condition of his parents, they would have discovered uncommon qualities of mind in him, and would have afforded him as good an education as their means would have allowed. Born in humble life, he would not have been exposed to the flattery of sycophants, which always surround the inheritor of title and wealth, and his talents would have taken the direction which nature might have suggested, and his passions have been restrained from extravagance and voluptuousness. He would have been free from the provocation of captious criticism, and therefore would probably have employed his muse in description, sentiment, and reflection, rather than in satire and licentiousness.

That Lord Byron was generous and affectionate, is evident from Mr. Moore's masterly biographical work; and this temper, influenced by his situation among persons in ordinary life, would probably have operated with benevolence and philanthropy. His faults may therefore he conceived to have been the consequence of the rank in which he was born, and the allurements, as well as provocations, to which he was exposed. It has been said that the deformity of his foot contributed to sour his temper, but if he had been obliged to support himself by his talents, his chagrin on that account might have passed from him "like dew-drops from the lion's mane." In my opinion Lord Byron was naturally a kind, good-hearted, and liberal-minded man; and, as far as he was otherwise, it was the unavoidable result of the rank to which he was born, and its incidental temptations.