How often, whilst perusing, with feelings of intense interest and delights the works of some popular or erudite author, have we desired to see their outward and visible appearances. They have informed or delighted us by their productions, and been pleasant mental companions through many an else dreary hour. In our own private and particular image chambers we have hung up what we fancied to be their portraits, coloured and drawn, it is true, as we would have them, and not to be depended on, for that very reason. Occasionally, one of those matter-of-fact men, a Daguerreotypist, has startled us from our dream of fancied physical beauty, by presenting to us a fac simile of some well-known writer, and our own creation has vanished into thin air. Romance would not bear the touch of Reality.
In the course of what is called a literary life — by which I mean a life as much spent in the society of literary men as in the actual "pen occupation," for the "bread which perisheth," — I have scarcely met with half a dozen individuals whose personal appearance and social qualifications at all corresponded with the ideal standard which I had formed; and only in one instance have I known my expectations to be exceeded in beauty by the reality. As this latter instance was both interesting and remarkable, I shall make no apology for a digressional mention of it here.
In the month of July, 1824, the body of Lord Byron was brought from Missolonghi to England, and on being landed from the "Florida," was removed to the house of Sir Edward Knatchbull, who then resided in Great George-street, Westminster. Having availed myself of peculiar facilities, I saw, on one occasion, the corpse of the poet — the lid of the coffin being for some necessary purpose removed.
It was at night that the work of opening the shell commenced. This was soon effected, and when the last covering was removed, we beheld the face of the illustrious dead,
All cold and all serene.
Were I to live a thousand years, I should never, never forget that moment. For years I had been intimate with the mind of Byron. His wondrous works had thrown a charm around my daily paths, and with all the enthusiasm of youth I had almost adored his genius. With his features, through the medium of paintings, I had been familiar from my boyhood; and now, far more beautiful, even in death, than my most vivid fancy had ever pictured, there they lay in marble repose.
The body was not attired in that most awful of habiliments — a shroud. It was wrapped in a blue cloth cloak, and the throat and head were uncovered. The former was beautifully moulded. The head of the poet was covered with short, crisp, curling locks, slightly streaked with grey hairs, especially over the temples, which were ample and free from hair, as we see in the portraits. The face had nothing of the appearance of death about it — it was neither sunken nor discoloured in the least, but of a dead, marble whiteness — the expression was that of stern quietude. How classically beautiful was the curved upper lip and the chin. I fancied the nose appeared as if it was not in harmony with the other features; but it might possibly have been a little disfigured by the process of embalming. The forehead was high and broad — indeed, the whole head was extremely large — it must have been so, to have contained a brain of such capacity.
But what struck me most was the exceeding beauty of the profile, as I observed it when the head was lifted, for the purpose of adjusting the furniture. It was perfect in its way, and seemed like a production of Phidias. Indeed, it far more resembled an exquisite piece of sculpture than the face of the dead — so still, so sharply defined, and so marble-like in its repose. I caught the view of it but for a moment; yet it was long enough to have it stamped upon my memory as
A thing of beauty,
which poor Keats tells us is "a joy for ever." It is indeed a melancholy joy to me to have gazed upon the silent poet. As Washington Irving says of the old sexton, who crept into the vault where Shakspere was entombed, and beheld there the dust of ages, "It was something even to have seen the dust of Byron."
Amongst the persons engaged in the performance of the office of removal, I noticed one — a tall, thin man, who spoke little, and seemed absorbed in grief. He would scarcely allow any one to touch the corpse — and, with his own hands, he composed the head in its new resting-place. The words," My dear Lord!" were frequently uttered by him, whilst performing his melancholy duties. It was Fletcher — Byron's faithful valet. This man afterwards told me the particulars of the noble Poet's death, and gave me a lock of his hair. Fletcher did not long survive his beloved master.