1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

Robert Southey, Letter to the Editor of The Courier, December 1824; Southey, Life and Correspondence (1849-50) 5:354-60.



Keswick, Dec. 8. 1824.

Sir,

On a former occasion you have allowed me, through the channel of your journal, to contradict a calumnious accusation as publicly as it had been preferred; and though, in these days of slander, such things hardly deserve refutation, there are reasons which induce me once more to request a similar favour.

Some extracts from Captain Medwin's recent publication of Lord Byron's Conversations, have been transmitted to me by a friend, who, happening to know what the facts are which are there falsified, is of opinion that it would not misbecome me to state them at this time. I wish it, however, to be distinctly understood, that in so doing I am not influenced by any desire of vindicating myself; that would be wholly unnecessary, considering from what quarter the charges come. I notice them for the sake of laying before the public one sample more of the practices of the Satanic School, and showing what credit is due to Lord Byron's assertions. For that his lordship spoke to this effect, and in this temper, I have no doubt: Captain Medwin having, I dare say, to the best of his recollection, faithfully performed the worshipful office of retailing all the effusions of spleen, slander, and malignity which were vented in his presence. Lord Byron is the person who suffers most by this; and, indeed, what man is there whose character would remain uninjured, if every peevish or angry expression, every sportive or extravagant sally, thrown off in the unsuspicious and imagined safety of private life, were to be secretly noted down and published, with no notice of circumstances to show how they had arisen, and when no explanation was possible? One of the offices which has been attributed to the Devil, is that of registering every idle word. There is an end of all confidence or comfort in social intercourse, if such a practice is to be tolerated by public opinion. When I take these Conversations to be authentic, it is because, as far as I am concerned, they accord, both in matter and spirit, with what his lordship himself had written and published; and it is on this account only that I deem them worthy of notice — the last notice that I shall ever bestow upon the subject. Let there be as many "More last Words of Mr. Baxter" as the "reading public" may choose to pay for, they will draw no further reply from me.

Now, then, to the point. The following speech is reported by Captain Medwin as Lord Byron's: — "I am glad Mr. Southey owns that article [on Leigh Hunt's] 'Foliage,' which excited my choler so much. But who else could have been the author? Who but Southey would have had the baseness, under pretext of reviewing the work of one man, insidiously to make it a nest-egg for hatching malicious calumnies against others? I say nothing of the critique itself on 'Foliage;' but what was the object of that article? I repeat, to vilify and scatter his dark and devilish insinuations against me and others. Shame on the man who could wound an already bleeding heart — be barbarous enough to revive the memory of an event that Shelley was perfectly ignorant of, and found scandal on falsehood! Shelley taxed him with writing that article some years ago; and he had the audacity to admit that he had treasured up some opinions of Shelley, ten years before, when he was on a visit to Keswick, and had made a note of them at the time."

The reviewal in question I did not write. Lord Byron might have known this if he had inquired of Mr. Murray, who would readily have assured him that I was not the author; and he might have known it from the reviewal itself, wherein the writer declares in plain words that he was a contemporary of Shelley's, at Eton. I had no concern in it, directly or indirectly; but let it not be inferred that in thus disclaiming that paper, any disapproval of it is intended. Papers in the Quarterly Review have been ascribed to me (those on Keats's Poems, for example), which I have heartily condemned both for their spirit and manner. But for the one in question, its composition would be creditable to the most distinguished writer; nor is there anything either in the opinions expressed, or in the manner of expressing them, which a man of just and honourable principles would have hesitated to advance. I would not have written that part of it which alludes to Mr. Shelley, because, having met him on familiar terms, and parted with him in kindness (a feeling of which Lord Byron had no conception), would have withheld me from animadverting in that manner upon his conduct. In other respects, the paper contains nothing that I would not have avowed if I had written, or subscribed, as entirely assenting to, and approving it.

It is not true that Shelley ever inquired of me whether I was the author of that paper, which purporting, as it did, to be written by an Etonian of his own standing, he very well knew I was not. But in this part of Lord Byron's statement there may be some mistake, mingled with a great deal of malignant falsehood. Mr. Shelley addressed a letter to me from Pisa, asking if I were the author of a criticism in the Quarterly Review, upon his Revolt of Islam, not exactly, in Lord Byron's phrase, taxing me with it, for he declared his own belief that I was not, but adding, that he was induced to ask the question by the positive declaration of some friends in England, that the article was mine. Denying, in my reply, that either he or any other person was entitled to propose such a question upon such grounds, I, nevertheless, assured him that I had not written the paper, and that I had never, in any of my writings, alluded to him in any way.

Now for the assertion, that I had the audacity to admit having treasured up some of Shelley's opinions, when he had resided at Keswick, and having made notes of them at the time. What truth is mixed up with the slander of this statement, I shall immediately explain, premising only, that, as the opinion there implied concerning the practice of noting down familiar conversation, is not applicable to me, I transfer it to Captain Medwin for his own especial use.

Mr. Shelley having, in the letter alluded to, thought proper to make some remarks upon my opinions, I took occasion, in reply, to comment upon his, and to ask him (as the tree is known by its fruits) whether he had found them conducive to his own happiness, and the happiness of those with whom he had been most nearly connected? This produced a second letter from him, written in a tone, partly of justification, partly of attack. I replied to this also, not by any such absurd admission as Lord Byron has stated, but by recapitulating to him, as a practical illustration of his principles, the leading circumstances of his own life, from the commencement of his career at University College. The earliest facts I stated upon his own authority, as I had heard them from his own lips; the latter were of public notoriety. Here the correspondence ended. On his part it had been conducted with the courtesy natural to him; on mine, in the spirit of one who was earnestly admonishing a fellow-creature.

This is the correspondence upon which Lord Byron's misrepresentation has been constructed. It is all that ever passed between us, except a note from Shelley, some years before, accompanying a copy of his Alastor and one of mine in acknowledgment of it. I have preserved his letters, together with copies of my own; and, if I had as little consideration for the feelings of the living as Captain Medwin has displayed, it is not any tenderness towards the dead* that would withhold me now from publishing them.

It is not likely that Shelley should have communicated my part of this correspondence to Lord Byron, even if he did his own. Bearing testimony, as his heart did, to the truth of my statements in every point, and impossible as it was to escape from the conclusion which was then brought home, I do not think he would have dared produce it. How much or how little of the truth was known to his lordship, or with which of the party at Pisa the insolent and calumnious misrepresentations conveyed in his lordship's words originated, is of little consequence.

The charge of scattering dark and devilish insinuations is one which, if Lord Byron were living, I would throw back in his teeth. Me he had assailed without the slightest provocation, and with that unmanliness, too, which was peculiar to him; and in this course he might have gone on without giving me the slightest uneasiness, or calling forth one animadversion in reply. When I came forward to attack his lordship, it was upon public, not upon private, grounds. He is pleased to suppose that he had mortally offended Mr. Wordsworth and myself many years ago, by a letter which he had written to the Ettrick Shepherd. "Certain it is," he says, "that I did not spare the Lakists in it, and he told me that he could not resist the temptation, and had shown it to the fraternity. It was too tempting; and as I could never keep a secret of my own (as you know), much less that of other people, I could not blame him. I remember saying, among other things, that the Lake poets were such fools as not to fish in their own waters. But this was the least offensive part of the epistle." No such epistle was ever shown to Mr. Wordsworth or to me; but I remember (and this passage brings it to my recollection) to have heard that Lord Byron had spoken of us in a letter to Hogg, with some contempt, as fellows who could neither vie with him for skill in angling nor for prowess in swimming. Nothing more than this came to my hearing; and I must have been more sensitive than his lordship himself could I have been offended by it. But if the contempt which he then expressed had equalled the rancour which he afterwards displayed, Lord Byron must have known that I had the "flocci" of his eulogium to balance the "nauci" of his scorn, and that the one would have "nihili-pilified" the other, even if I had not well understood the worthlessness of both.

It was because Lord Byron had brought a stigma upon English literature that I accused him; because he had perverted great talents to the worst purposes; because he had set up for pander-general to the youth of Great Britain as long as his writings should endure; because he had committed a high crime and misdemeanour against society, by sending forth a work in which mockery was mingled with horrors, filth with impiety, profligacy with sedition and slander. For these offences I came forward to arraign him. The accusation was not made darkly, it was not insinuated, nor was it advanced under the cover of a review. I attacked him openly in my own name, and only not by his, because he had not then publicly avowed the flagitious production by which he will be remembered for lasting infamy. He replied in manner altogether worthy of himself and his cause. Contention with a generous, honourable opponent leads naturally to esteem, and probably to friendship; but, next to such an antagonist, an enemy like Lord Byron is to be desired, — one who, by his conduct in the contest, divests himself of every claim to respect; one whose baseness is such as to sanctify the vindictive feeling that it provokes, and upon whom the act of taking vengeance is that of administering justice. I answered him as he deserved to be answered, and the effect which that answer produced upon his lordship has been described by his faithful chronicler, Captain Medwin. This is the real history of what the purveyors of scandal for the public are pleased sometimes to announce in their advertisements as "Byron's Controversy with Southey!" What there was "dark and devilish" in it belongs to his lordship; and had I been compelled to resume it during his life, he who played the monster in literature, and aimed his blows at women, should have been treated accordingly. "The Republican Trio," says Lord Byron, "when they began to publish in common, were to have had a community of all things, like the Ancient Britons, — to have lived in a state of nature, like savages, and peopled some island of the blest with children in common, like —. A very pretty Arcadian notion!" I may be excused for wishing that Lord Byron had published this himself; but though he is responsible for the atrocious falsehood, he is not for its posthumous publication. I shall only observe, therefore, that the slander is as worthy of his lordship as the scheme itself would have been. Nor would I have condescended to have noticed it even thus, were it not to show how little this calumniator knew concerning the objects of his uneasy and restless hatred. Mr. Wordsworth and I were strangers to each other, even by name, at the time when he represents us as engaged in a Satanic confederacy, and we never published anything in common.

Here I dismiss the subject. It might have been thought that Lord Byron had attained the last degree of disgrace when his head was set up for a sign at one of those preparatory schools for the brothel and the gallows, where obscenity, sedition, and blasphemy are retailed in drams for the vulgar. There remained one further shame, — there remained this exposure of his private conversations, which has compelled his lordship's friends, in their own defence, to compare his oral declarations with his written words, and thereby to demonstrate, that he was as regardless of truth, as he was incapable of sustaining those feelings suited to his birth, station, and high endowments, which sometimes came across his better mind.

ROBERT SOUTHEY.

* In the preface to his Monody on Keats, Shelley, as I have been informed, asserts that I was the author of the criticism in the Quarterly Review upon that young man's poems, and that his death was occasioned by it. There was a degree of meanness in this (especially considering the temper and tenour of our correspondence) which I was not then prepared to expect from Shelley, for that he believed me to be the author of that paper, I certainly do not believe. He was once, for a short time, my neighbour. I met him upon terms, not of friendship indeed, but, certainly, of mutual good will. I admired his talents; thought that he would outgrow his errors (perilous as they were); and trusted that, meantime, a kind and generous heart would resist the effect of fatal opinions which he had taken up in ignorance and boyhood. Herein I was mistaken. But when I ceased to regard him with hope, he became to me a subject for sorrow and awful commiseration, not of any injurious or unkind feeling; and when I expressed myself with just severity concerning him, it was in direct communication to himself. — R. S.