PERHAPS there is nothing the public enjoys so thoroughly as getting behind the scenes. To sit on the front benches and admire the net result of genius is tame work as compared with the exciting sensation of penetrating into the green-room, and seeing with your own eyes how commonplace after all are the materials by which the most striking effects have been obtained. And this craving to get behind the work at the man who made it, to pry into the most hidden recesses of his life and character, to analyse his motives, to dissect his emotions, and condemn him to a kind of moral vivisection, seems ever on the increase. This appetite, which savours of the morbid, may, however, be due to healthier causes ; partly to the influence of the scientific method on all modern thought, and partly to the levelling tendency of democracy in literature a tendency which must be considered of dubious value till democracy itself shall be educated by the best thought of the best minds of all ages.
Be that as it may, no books now meet with more popular favour than the lives and letters of eminent men and women. Of these there is therefore an inexhaustible supply, and the satisfaction which arises from this sort of reading, although it frequently ministers to mere vulgar curiosity and love of scandal, may, on the other hand, foster a more comprehensive sympathy by initiating the reader into the struggles and privations more or less the portion of all who do something towards increasing the intellectual or moral wealth of the world.
As the letters of great men are not, as a rule, intentionally written for publication, they are among the most valuable sources whence an authentic knowledge of their life and its surroundings may be derived. This is eminently so in the case of Lord Byron, whose correspondence is a faithful reflex of his singularly varied, brilliant, and dramatic career. Born on the 22nd of January 1788, George Gordon Byron, the inheritor of an old historic name, had the good fortune, as a letter-writer, of coming to maturity at a period precisely the most favourable to a fine epistolary style. Letters had never played so important a part in literature as in the century or two preceding his own times ; so much was this the case, that the most memorable novels of the eighteenth century, Clarissa Harlowe, La Nouvelle Heloise, and Werther, had been cast in that favourite mould ; while some of the most exquisite literary workmanship is to be found in the Letters of Madame de Sevigne, of Pope, of Lady Mary Wortley Montague, etc., etc. But it was inevitable that, from having been cultivated too much as a fine art, there should be a corresponding loss of spontaneity and freshness of expression. Now, in comparing Byron’s epistolary style with that of his literary predecessors on the one hand, and of his successors on the other, he seems to us to hit a happy medium between the choice diction and jewel-like periods of the Queen Anne period, and the easy, dressing-gown and slipper style which has come into fashion with the penny post. Byron’s letters are always unmistakably letters, never prose poems or finished essays with a superscription, and of them he might no doubt have said, more truly than he did of Don Juan,
“I rattle on exactly as I’d talk
With anybody in a ride or walk.”
The prose style of Byron is invariably clear, terse, and racy; it is swift and limpid in its flow, like a full river that rolls undeviatingly to its goal, never lured aside into those exquisite little nooks and corners where flower the forget-me-nots of fancy. His is the pungent phrase, the perspicuous narrative, the piercing sarcasm ; in his descriptions he seizes salient points, broad and typical effects, massing them together [vii] with a master hand. Though an indefatigable student of Rochefoucault, he does not seem to have acted on his favourite’s axiom, that language was given us to hide our thoughts; at least, he is always at the pains to express his ideas luminously, never involving his meaning in a verbal labyrinth, in which what thought there may be struggles hopelessly entangled, with as little possibility of being extricated as an unhappy fly caught in the dexterously woven meshes of a spider’s web. Words always stood as signs for things to Byron, his object being to get hold of the one that most adequately expressed the image in his mind : a manner of writing which differs entirely from the aesthetic method, where the luxuriant beauty of expression becomes of such supreme importance that it weakens, undermines, and finally destroys the sap and marrow of thought, as the enlacing ivy the tree that is its stay. A fine specimen of Byron’s prose may be adduced from his ” Letter on Bowles’s Strictures on the Life and Writings of Pope,” which, although a most perverse piece of literary criticism, is a splendid piece of writing :
“The aspect of a storm in the Archipelago is as poetical as need be, the sea being particularly short, dashing, and dangerous, and the navigation intricate and broken by the isles and currents. Cape Sigeum, the tumuli of the Troad, Lemnos, Tenedos, all added to the associations of the time. But what seemed the most ‘poetical’ of all at the moment, were the numbers ( about two hundred ) of Greek and Turkish craft, which were obliged to ‘cut and run’ before the wind, from their unsafe anchorage, some for Tenedos, some for other isles, some for the main, and some it might be for eternity. The sight of these little scudding vessels, darting over the foam in the twilight, now appearing and now disappearing between the waves in the cloud of night, with their peculiarly white sails ( the Levant sails not being of ‘coarse canvas’ but of white cotton ), skimming along as quickly, but less safely, than the sea-mews which hovered over them ; their evident distress, their reduction to fluttering specks in the distance, their crowded succession, their littleness, as contending with the giant element, which made our stout [viii] forty-four’s teak timbers (she was built in India) creak again; their aspect and their motion, all struck me as something far more ‘poetical’ than the mere broad, brawling, shipless sea, and the sullen winds, could possibly have been without them.”
A curious feature of Byron’s letters is that not only do they reflect their writer’s singularly iridescent nature, but also, to a considerable degree, the character of the person he happens to be addressing at the moment. The poet, chameleon-like, seems involuntarily to catch something of his correspondent’s tone of mind, and so impressionable is his temperament, that it would be easy, as a rule, to assign his epistles to the right quarter, supposing the name of the persons they were intended for had been suppressed. Thus his manner when writing to Walter Scott is a happy blending of genuine admiration, affectionate regard, and delicate homage, as when, on addressing him after having allowed a long interval of silence to elapse, he says “Since I left England I have scribbled to five hundred blockheads on business, etc., without difficulty, though with no great pleasure; and yet, with a notion of addressing you a hundred times in my heart, I have not done what I ought to have done. I can only account for it on the same principle of tremulous anxiety with which one sometimes makes love to a beautiful woman of our own degree, with whom one is enamoured in good earnest,” etc., etc. With Moore he is now brother in Apollo, now wit and buffoon, and sometimes, though rarely, the world-weary misanthrope. We find this Protean being entering sympathetically into the pious anxieties of a certain Mr. Sheppard, whose deceased wife, so the husband had told him, besought God for the salvation of the poet’s soul; whereupon the author of the Vision of Judgment writes as follows: “I can assure you that all the fame which ever cheated humanity into higher notions of its own importance would never weigh in my mind against the pure and pious interest which a virtuous being may be pleased to take in my welfare. In this point of view, I would not exchange the prayer of the deceased in my behalf for the united glory of Homer, Caesar, and Napoleon, could such be accumulated on a living head.”
Thus, in turn, Byron is a man of the world, satirist, scoffing profligate, poet, and hero: “whom everything becomes, to chide, to laugh, to weep.” And this infinite variety of humour makes his letters the most amusing and delightful in the language. Apart, too, from their literary charm, they teem with biographical interest; reflecting, as they do, the writer’s varying fortunes through good report and evil ; his fickle loves and restless longings ; his lofty aspirations and low excesses; his reckless selfishness in sexual relations, that yet went hand in hand with a generous devotion to great causes and lofty aims.
With the deduction of seventeen years of Lord Byron’s life, of which the first ten were spent with his mother in Aberdeen, and of his school-life up to the time of leaving Harrow in the autumn of 1805, we can trace in the poet’s letters all the vicissitudes of his chequered and romantic career, from the time when the Cambridge undergraduate is described with bated breath by his tutor as a young man of “tumultuous passions.”
Glimpses may be caught of the young master of Newstead Abbey gathering congenial companions about him in that half-ruined building, ” where,” he writes, ” I had got a famous cellar, and monks’ dresses from a masquerade warehouse. We were a company of some seven or eight, with an occasional neighbour or so for visitors, and used to sit up late, in our friars’ dresses, drinking burgundy, claret, champagne, and what not, out of the skull-cup and all sorts of glasses, and buffooning all round the house in our conventual garments.” But just as the poet’s imaginative faculties were at once vigorously stimulated by his wanderings through Spain and Greece, so his letters gained in vivid colouring and varied interest from the moment he touched foreign soil. And it is noteworthy that although his descriptions of nature are frequently remarkable for their power and beauty, it is the actual world of men and women, their ways and vagaries, their foibles, fashions, and passions, that take hold of him. It was only much later, “when in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” that he rushed into the arms of nature, somewhat in the mood of ” a curled darling,” overmuch praised and petted by a society that [x] suddenly turned from him with loathing and abomination; and strove to find an outlet for the fever and discord of his soul in Alpine storm and ocean solitude.
When, on his return to England in 1811, after the publication of “Childe Harold,” he, in his own phrase, awoke one morning and found himself famous ; his brilliant, witty, vivacious letters dashed off to Moore and other friends are a faithful record of the whirl of fashionable dissipation in which he was swept along, as well as of the simultaneous flow of his astonishing poetic productivity. While his “Giaours” and “Corsairs” were going through the press, he would fire off as many as three notes a day, like so many bullets, at his publisher, Murray, wherein, with sublime inconsequence, having previously assured the latter that he does “not care a lump of sugar for his poetry,” he writes immediately afterwards, fuming with rage, concerning some misprint,”–You have looked at it. To much purpose, to allow so stupid a blunder to stand ; it is not ‘courage’ but ‘carnage’; and if you don’t want me to cut my throat, see it altered.”
The letters of this period naturally contain many passages about Miss Milbanke, his future wife, both before and after their ill-starred marriage, which took place on the 2nd of January 1815. In an epistle to Moore, a month after the above event, Byron says, ” Since I wrote last I have been transferred to my father-in-law’s, with my lady and lady’s maid, etc., etc., and the treacle-moon is over, and I am awake and find myself married. My spouse and I agree to and in admiration. Swift says, “No wise man ever married,” but for a fool I think it the most ambrosial of all possible future states. I still think one ought to marry on lease ; but I am very sure I should renew mine at the expiration, though next term were for ninety and nine years. . . . My papa, Sir Ralph, hath recently made a speech at a Durham tax-meeting; and hot only at Durham, but here several times after dinner. He is now, I believe, speaking it to himself (I left him in the middle) over various decanters, which can neither interrupt him nor fall asleep, as might possibly have been the case with his audience.” Very shortly after this remarkable [xi] declaration that he would wish to renew his lease of marriage for ninety and nine years, ” the pilgrim of eternity “showed many signs of restiveness, being continually haunted by visions of foreign travels visions which, apparently, did not include his bride. This seems to have been the first apple of discord between them. But here is not the place to enter into the rights and wrongs of this much-vexed question.
In the letters belonging to the period which succeeded the rupture with his wife and with English society, the violent animosity which he now felt towards his countrymen shows itself in the most opposite ways. Sometimes we may recognise it in the sardonic pleasure with which, in letters addressed to his publisher, he dwells on the vicious connections he formed with a low and degraded class of women, expatiating on their ways with an utter disregard of social decorum, evidently in the expectation of these missives being largely circulated among friends and acquaintances. At other times, again, the same feeling finds vent in a mixture of indignation and pathos, as when he writes to Murray, in June 1819–“I afterwards went to the beautiful cemetery of Bologna, beyond the walls, and found, besides the superb burial-ground, an
original of a Custode, who reminded me of the grave-digger in Hamlet. . . . He told me that he had himself planted all the cypresses in the cemetery ; that he had the greatest attachment to them and his dead people ; that since 1801 they had buried fifty-three thousand persons. In showing some older monuments, there was that of a Roman girl of twenty, with a bust by Bernini. She was a Princess Bartorini, dead two centuries ago ; he said that, on opening the grave, they had found her hair complete, and c as yellow as gold.’ Some of the epitaphs at Ferrara pleased me more than the more splendid monuments at Bologna; for instance:–
” ‘MARTINI LUIGI
IMPLORA ETERNA QUIETE.’
Can anything be more full of pathos ? Those few words say all that can be said, or ought ; the dead had had enough of life: all they wanted was rest, and that they implore! There is all the helplessness, and humble hope, and deathlike prayer that can arise from the grave–‘implora pace.’ I hope, whoever may survive me, and shall see me put in the foreigners’ burying-ground at the Lido, within the fortress by the Adriatic, will see those two words, and no more, put over me. I trust they won’t think of ‘pickling and bringing me home to Clod or Blunderbuss Hall.’ I am sure my bones would not rest in an English grave, or my clay mix with the earth of that country. I believe the thought would drive me mad on my death-bed, could I suppose that any of my friends would be base enough to convey my carcass back to your soil. I would not even feed your worms if I could help it.”
In spite of the vehement bitterness of this protest, the outcast poet was destined to rest in his native earth. But at that date his feelings towards his country had softened, as in turn had that of Englishmen towards himself. In the few following years, that is from the beginning of his liaison with the Countess Guiccioli to the time of his departure for Greece, so noticeable a change had taken place in Lord Byron’s life that Shelley, seeing him again in 1821, after an interval of some years, found him greatly improved ” in genius, in temper, in moral views, in health and happiness.”
All his life Byron had felt a glowing sympathy with oppressed nations, and a hatred of their oppressors. To make out, as some of his biographers have done, that his enthusiasm for Greece and active efforts in her behalf were the result of a morbid craving for producing a theatrical effect, is to misapprehend the finest side of a character, which, however mixed its elements, was largely responsive to whatever is best and most glorious in human destinies. Nothing proves more conclusively the genuine nature of his love of liberty than his staunch advocacy of Irish claims a far more crucial test of true liberalism as applied to this English nobleman in 1820 than even his participation in Carbonari risings and revolutions in Greece. Then, his bitter [xiii] indignation at the Austrian occupation of Italy is like a smouldering fire whose flames burst forth in an hundred letters, as when he exclaims, “As for news, the Barbarians are marching on Naples, and if they lose a single battle all Italy will be up. It will be like the Spanish row, if they have any bottom. Letters opened?–to be sure they are, and that’s the reason why I always put in my opinion of the German-Austrian scoundrels. There is not an Italian who loathes them more than I do, and whatever I could do to scour Italy and the earth of this infamous oppression would be done con amore.” And again, ” Here I have my hands full with tyrants and their victims. There never was such oppression, even in Ireland, scarcely! ” Indeed, he was ready to do whatever he could, either by money, means, or person ; and there can be no doubt that had war then broken out in Romagna, he would have taken part in it.
To any candid reader who will fairly study Byron’s letters the expedition to Greece, so far from being the spasmodic clutching at notoriety which it has become the fashion of comfortable home-keeping book-makers to call it, was the crowning sequence of a long chain of previous efforts, all tending in the same direction. It is true that to the superficial observer the casual eddies of the poet’s shifting moods might seem to indicate doubt and vacillation, whereas in reality, deep underneath, his whole life’s current was steadily setting in one direction. And that was to help in the deliverance of a people to whom literature and art had owed their greatest glories ; to whom he himself had owed his first burst of splendid inspiration. And what if, as is hinted, but may be doubted nevertheless, he felt that his energies were sapped, his health impaired, his days numbered? Surely so much the greater the daring and ” pluck ” of his enterprise. Men are not usually eager to rush into difficult and dangerous undertakings because they feel a diminution of health and strength. But in the eyes of some of his biographers this supposititious fact apparently detracts from the glory of his venture. How coolly Byron surveyed the political situation when once settled at Missolonghi, and how unmoved he. was, in [xiv] spite of harassing dissensions and complications, and although his instinct seems but too truly to have foretold that the end was near,. the following letter, written some two months before his
death, on February 5, 1824, seems to indicate:–
“It is perhaps best that I should advance with the troops, for if we do not do something soon we shall only have a third year of defensive operations, and another siege, and all that. We hear that the Turks are coming down in force, and sooner than usual, and as these fellows do mind me a little, it is the opinion that I should go firstly, because they will sooner listen to a foreigner than to one of their own people, out of native jealousies ; secondly, because the Turks will sooner treat or capitulate (if such occasion should happen) with a Frank than a Greek ; and thirdly, because nobody else seems disposed to take the responsibility Mavrocordato being very busy here, the foreign military men too young or not of authority enough to be obeyed by the natives, and the chiefs (as aforesaid) inclined to obey any one except, or rather than, one of their own body. As for me, I am willing to do what I am bidden, and to follow my instructions. I neither seek nor shun that nor anything else they may wish me to attempt. As for personal safety, besides that it ought not to be a consideration, I take it that a man is on the whole as safe in one place as another; and, after all, he had better end with a bullet than bark in his body. If we are not taken off with the sword, we are like to march off with an ague in this mud-basket, and to conclude with a very bad pun, to the ear rather than to the eye, better martially than marsh-ally; the situation of Missolonghi is not unknown to you. The dykes of Holland when broken down are the deserts of Arabia for dryness in comparison.”
And with an ague, sure enough, Byron was marched off on the 19th of April 1824, at the age of thirty-six, having compressed within that comparatively short space an incredible amount of life-work, and adding by his death a fresh consecration to the Greek cause, whose success he had so much at heart. That the glory of his name did much to form public opinion on that subject, and so eventually helped in bringing about that combination of European powers at Navarino, without which Greece could not have effected her liberation, there is little cause to doubt.
Now if, bearing in mind the general tone of Byron’s correspondence, we ask ourselves what are its most salient characteristics, we should answer, a manly vigour of tone, sound common sense, and unerring gifts of observation, a generous impulsiveness of disposition contrasted with a corroding cynicism, an ineradicable yearning for what is great, good, and beautiful at war with a mocking spirit of negation within; in fact, nothing short of the problem of Faust tied to Mephistopheles, moments of devoutest awe still checkmated by the fiend’s
reminder that man is after all but “an abortion of filth and fire.” It is this painful discord of a spirit divided against itself “imploring peace, ” yet ever impelled to revolt against all constituted authorities of heaven and earth that seems the clue to Byron’s defiance and despair. Yet this despair is not of the whining sort. And Carlyle never blundered more lamentably than, when sneering at the author of “Cain,” he says, ” A strong man of recent times fights little for any good
cause anywhere, works weakly as an English lord, weakly delivers himself from such working, with weak despondency endures the cackling of plucked geese at St. James’, and sitting in sunny Italy in his coach-and-four, writes over many reams of paper the following sentence with variations, ‘Saw ever the world one greater and unhappier?’”
Truly it would be instructive to institute a comparison between the letters of this weak English lord and those penned by the strong Scotch peasant’s son. The result, perhaps, would be surprisingly different from what might have been anticipated. Where shall we look for the expression in all possible and impossible forms of fulminant eloquence of the very genius of grumbling, groaning, and gnashing of teeth over private and public grievances, if not in the voluminous correspondence of the apostle of silence? Whereas in Byron, if there is a haunting world-sorrow, an all-pervading sense of the power of evil in the world, a fiery scorn for the unctuous hypocrisies of the respectable classes by whom he has been spurned, and whose vice and wickedness he unsparingly lashes in Don Juan if there is all this wrath, gloom, and indignation, it has, at least, something [xvi] of an epical nature, and never meddles with trifling personal causes of complaint. How impervious Byron was to the kind of physical discomforts which would have driven the stoical Carlyle wildly frantic is shown by a curious anecdote in Trelawny’s picturesque Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author. On their sail to Greece, Fletcher the poet’s servant, in describing his former travels with his lordship in Albania, is overheard saying of Greece : “It’s a land of lies, and lice, and fleas, and thieves. What my Lord is going there for the Lord only knows, I don’t.” Then seeing his master was looking, he said, ” And my master can’t deny what I have said is true.” ” No,” said Byron, ” to those who look at things with hog’s eyes, and can see nothing else. What Fletcher says may be true ; but I didn’t note it.” Travellers had to rough it in those countries, lords or no lords, and Byron unquestionably underwent much hard riding, coarse living, and general discomfort, both at that time and on his last expedition, but he never as much as wasted a word on these minor evils ; whereas to Carlyle, enjoying English home comforts, the barking of dogs, the grinding of barrel-organs, not to speak of the ” little creatures ” so frequently mentioned in his wife’s letters, became like very nightmares, making life hideous, and wringing from him pages on pages of execration and anathema. Who, one may well ask, is the strong man here? The sage, who, living to be eighty-four, fussed and fumed for over fifty years about such an ordinary complaint as dyspepsia, or the poet starving himself systematically (to keep from fattening, and so rendering his malformed feet incapable of supporting him) and who, suffering from wasting fevers and agues, never wrote otherwise than jokingly of his bodily ailments, and who, only too truly foreboding his early death, treated that but as a trifling matter compared to the serious issues for which he was prepared to sacrifice life. Truly, if Byron had not the strength of endurance, he who runs may read in his letters that he had the strength to dare, to defy, to do a strength which did mighty good service in times such as those in which his lines had fallen.