1901 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Medwin

Rowland E. Prothero, in Byron, Letters and Journals, ed. Rowland E. Prothero (1898-1901) 5:201-02n.



Thomas Medwin (1788-1869) was doubly connected with Shelley. Shelley's grandmother, Mary Mitchell, and Medwin's grandfather were first cousins. Shelley's mother, Elizabeth Pilfold, and Medwin's mother were also first cousins. Four years older than his cousin, Medwin was a big boy at Sion House Academy, Brentford, when Shelley first went there to school, and the two boys often spent their holidays together. Later on they collaborated in literature, working together (1809-10) at the prose romance Nightmare, and the poem of The Wandering Jew. In 1811 Medwin had chambers in Garden Court, in the Temple. There, in March, at four in the morning, Shelley announced his expulsion from Oxford (Dowden's Life of Shelley, vol. i. p. 127). Two years later they parted; not to meet again till 1820. In the interval Medwin had entered the army, become a lieutenant in the 24th Dragoons, served in India, and experienced some of the adventures described in his Angler in Wales (1834). On the title-page of that work he describes himself as "late of the First Life Guards;" Trelawny (Records, p. 7) speaks of him in 1820 as living at the Maison aux Grenades, Geneva, with Williams and another brother-officer, and as being a lieutenant on half-pay, late of the 8th Dragoons. "He talked," says Trelawny, "of nothing but the inspired boy [Shelley], his "virtues and sufferings, so that, irrespective of his genius, we all "longed to know him." Medwin, who thus became the link which associated both Trelawny and Williams with Shelley and Byron, was invited by Shelley to Pisa. He arrived on Sunday, October 22, 1820 (Mary Shelley's Diary: Life and Letters, vol. i. p. 270). At first the visit was a success. Medwin knew Spanish, and read it with Shelley; but he was small-minded, full of tittle-tattle, vain, egotistical, and proved to be, to use Mrs. Shelley's phrase (Dowden's Life of Shelley, vol. ii. p. 365), a "seccatura," in other words a bore. His Memoir of Percy Bysshe Shelley was published in 1833.

Medwin soon attached himself to Byron. "You should know," said Trelawny to Byron (Records, p. 23), "Medwin is taking notes of your talk.... Medwin has no design to lie about you; he is credulous, and will note your idle words." The caution, as Mrs. Shelley warned Trelawny, only made Byron talk more wildly in the company of his would-be Boswell. Lady Blessington told Crabb Robinson (Diary of H. Crabb Robinson, vol. iii. p. 13) that Byron "was aware that Medwin meant to print what he said, and purposely hummed him." It is not unlikely that this was the case.

But Medwin's Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron, noted during a residence with his Lordship at Pisa in the Years 1821 and 1822, published in 1824, is valuable as a record of Byron's random talk, and as a specimen of the evidence on which strangers formed impressions of his character. The good taste of the publication is another question. Scrope Davies, writing to Mrs. Leigh from Ostend, September 22, 1824, says in an unpublished letter, "I have lately met here a Mr. Hay, who was with B. in the affray with the military at Milan (sic). He (Mr. H.) is a dull, but matter-of-fact man, and as such his information is interesting. H. says that the gentleman, whose name is in the papers (it begins with an M) as about to become B.'s Boswell, is a perfect idiot; and he suspects Mr. M. to be the stalking-horse to Mrs. Shelley (Godwin's daughter), whom he describes as not incapable of the task" (Brit. Mus. 31,037, f. 86). As a fact, Medwin asked Mrs. Shelley to help him. "Have you heard of Medwin's book?" she asks Mrs. Hunt, October 10, 1824 (Life and Letters, vol. ii. p. 127). "Notes of conversations which he had with Lord Byron (when tipsy) every one is to be in it; every one will be angry. He wanted me to have a hand in it, but I declined." Murray and Hobhouse both wrote pamphlets contradicting Medwin's statements. To his valet Byron was probably best known, and Fletcher gives his opinion of the book in the following extract from a letter to Mrs. Leigh (Brit. Mus. 35,037, f. 505):—

"I was onley Affraid of Loseing time — And I instantly Set To work the Same evening in marking out Passages which I Could Positively sware being false.... But at the Same time any one must say why this must be onley a Mass of falsehoods Gleaned from one or a Nother, And No Conversation's of my Lord's, Which Mr. Murray says after this appears no one will ever believe a word of it. I think he has used Mr. Murray extreamley ill In Speaking of him in the way he did; for my Lord I have herd him many and many times Speak so very Kind of him in his Greatest Distress, which had not Escaped the Eyes of Mr. Murray while in Piccadilly, which Proved him to be a Reale frind in Need, which onley few Comes forward then. But my Lord Told me he Refused to Except any thing from him but Said he Should ever Remember its has the Kindest Thing he ever Experenced, And not more then a month Before the Fatal Day My Lord was Speaking of him to me in the kindest way. Be Assured, Madam, I will Not Lose one Moment in Doing All that I Can do. In the First Place My Duty Calls for it being done, And In the Seacond Place my Will (or I had not Now been In London). Be Assured, Madam, My Lord's Memory Shall Never be insulted while I Can Do him Justice."