This biography of Lord Byron is taken from Moore’s The Works of Lord Byron: With His Letters and Journals, and His Life. It was originally published by John Murray in 1835.
It has been said of Lord Byron, “that he was prouder of being a descendant of those Byrons of Normandy, who accompanied William the Conqueror into England, than of having been the author of “Childe Harold” and Manfred.” This remark is not altogether unfounded in truth. In the character of the noble poet, the pride of ancestry was undoubtedly one of the most decided features; and, as far as antiquity alone gives lustre to descent, he had every reason to boast of the claims of his race. In Doomsday-book, the name of Ralph de Burun ranks high among the tenants of land in Nottinghamshire; and in the succeeding reigns, under the title of Lords of Horestan Castle (1), we find his descendants holding considerable possessions in Derbyshire; to which, afterwards, in the time of
Edward I., were added the lands of Rochdale in Lancashire. So extensive, indeed, in those early times, was the landed wealth of the family, that the partition of their property, in Nottinghamshire alone, has been sufficient to establish some of the first families of the county.
Its antiquity, however, was not the only distinction by which the name of Byron came recommended to its inheritor; those personal merits and accomplishments, which form the best ornament of a genealogy, seem to have been displayed in no ordinary degree by some of his ancestors. In one of his own early poems, alluding to the achievements of his race, he commemorates, with much satisfaction, those “mail-covered barons ” among them,who proudly to battle Led their vassals from Europe to Palestine’s plain
Near Askalon’s towers John of Horiston slumbers,
Unnerved is the hand of his minstrel by death.
As there is no record, however, as far as I can discover, of any of his ancestors having been engaged in the Holy Wars, it is possible that he may have had no other authority for this notion than the tradition which he found connected with certain strange groups of heads, which are represented on the old panel-work, in some of the chambers at Newstead. In one of these groups, consisting of three heads, strongly carved and projecting from the panel, the centre figure evidently represents a Saracen or Moor, with an European female on one side of him, and a Christian soldier on the other.
In a second group, which is in one of the bedrooms, the female occupies the centre, while on each side is the head of a Saracen, with the eyes fixed earnestly upon her. Of the exact meaning of these figures there is nothing certain known ; but the tradition is, I understand, that they refer to some love-adventure, in which one of those crusaders, of whom the young poet speaks, was engaged.
Of the more certain, or, at least, better known exploits of the family, it is sufficient, perhaps, to say, that, at the siege of Calais under Edward III., and on the fields, memorable in their respective eras, of Cressy, Bosworth, and Marston Moor, the name of the Byrons reaped honours both of rank and fame, of which their young descendant has, in the verses just cited, shown himself proudly conscious.
It was in the reign of Henry VIII., on the dissolution of the monasteries, that, by a royal grant, the church and priory of Newstead, with the lands adjoining, were added to the other possessions of the Byron family.(2) The favourite upon whom these spoils of the ancient religion were conferred, was the grand-nephew of the gallant soldier who fought by the side of Richmond at Bosworth, and is distinguished from the other knights of the same Christian name in the family, by the title of “Sir John Byron the Little, with the great beard.” A portrait of this personage was one of the few family pictures with which the walls of the abbey, while in the possession of the noble poet, were decorated.
At the coronation of James I, we find another representative of the family selected as an object of royal favour, — the grandson of Sir John Byron the Little, being, on this occasion, made a knight of the Bath. There is a letter to this personage, preserved in Lodge’s Illustrations, from which it appears, that notwithstanding all these apparent indications of prosperity, the inroads of pecuniary embarrassment had already begun to be experienced by this ancient house. After counselling the new heir as to the best mode of getting free of his debts, “I do therefore advise you,” continues the writer (3), “that so soon as you have, in such sort as shall be fit, finished your father’s funerals, to dispose and disperse that great household, reducing them to the number of forty or fifty, at the most, of all sorts; and, in my opinion, it will be far better for you to live for a time in Lancashire rather than in Notts, for many good reasons that I can tell you when we meet, fitter for words than writing.”
From the following reign (Charles I.) the nobility of the family date its origin. In the year 1643, Sir John Byron, great grandson of him who succeeded to the rich domains of Newstead, was created Baron Byron of Rochdale in the county of Lancaster ; and seldom has a title been bestowed for such high and honourable services as those by which this nobleman deserved the gratitude of his royal master. Through almost every page of the History of the Civil Wars, we trace his name in connection with the varying fortunes of the king, and find him faithful, persevering, and disinterested to the last. “Sir John Biron,” says the writer of Colonel Hutchinson’s Memoirs, “afterwards Lord Biron, and all his brothers, bred up in arms, and valiant men in their own persons, were all passionately the king’s.” There is also, in the answer which Colonel Hutchinson, when governor of Nottingham, returned, on one occasion, to his cousin-german, Sir Richard Biron, a noble tribute to the valour and fidelity of the family. Sir Richard having sent to prevail on his relative to surrender the castle, received for answer, that ” except he found his own heart prone to such treachery, he might consider there was, if nothing else, so much of a Biron’s blood in him, that he should very much scorn to betray or quit a trust he had undertaken.”
Such are a few of the gallant and distinguished personages, through whom the name and honours of this noble house have been transmitted. By the maternal side also Lord Byron had to pride himself on a line of ancestry as illustrious as any that Scotland can boast, — his mother, who was one of the Gordons of Gight, having been a descendant of that Sir William Gordon who was the third son of the Earl of Huntley, by the daughter of James I.
After the eventful period of the Civil Wars, when so many individuals of the house of Byron distinguished themselves, — there having been no less than seven brothers of that family on the field at Edge-hill, — the celebrity of the name appears to have died away for near a century. It was about the year 1750, that the shipwreck and sufferings of Mr. Byron (4) (the grandfather of the illustrious subject of these pages) awakened, in no small degree, the attention and sympathy of the public. Not long after, a less innocent sort of notoriety attached itself to two other members of the family, — one, the grand-uncle of the poet, and the other, his father. The former, in the year 1765, stood his trial before the House of Peers for killing, in a duel, or rather scuffle, his relation and neighbour Mr. Chaworth; and the latter, having carried off to the Continent the wife of Lord Carmarthen, on the noble marquis obtaining a divorce from the lady, married her. Of this short union one daughter only was the issue, the Honourable Augusta Byron, now the wife of Colonel Leigh.
In reviewing thus cursorily the ancestors, both near and remote, of Lord Byron, it cannot fail to be remarked how strikingly he combined in his own nature some of the best and, perhaps, worst qualities that lie scattered through the various characters of his predecessors, — the generosity, the love of enterprise, the high-mindedness of some of the better spirits of his race, with the irregular passions, the eccentricity, and daring recklessness of the world’s opinion, that so much characterised others.
The first wife of the father of the poet having died in 1784, he, in the following year, married Miss Catherine Gordon, only child and heiress of George Gordon, Esq. of Gight. In addition to the estate of Gight, which had, however, in former times, been much more extensive, this lady possessed, in ready money, bank shares, &c. no inconsiderable property; and it was known to be solely with a view of relieving himself from his debts, that Mr. Byron paid his addresses to her. A circumstance related, as having taken place before the marriage of this lady, not only shows the extreme quickness and vehemence of her feelings, but, if it be true that she had never at the time seen Captain Byron, is not a little striking.
Being at the Edinburgh theatre one night when the character of Isabella was performed by Mrs. Siddons, so affected was she by the powers of this great actress, that, towards the conclusion of the play, she fell into violent fits, and was carried out of the theatre, screaming loudly, “Oh, my Biron, my Biron!”
On the occasion of her marriage there appeared a ballad by some Scotch rhymer, which has been lately reprinted in a collection of the “Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland; ” and as it bears testimony both to the reputation of the lady for wealth, and that of her husband for rakery and extravagance, it may be worth extracting: —
MISS GORDON OF GIGHT .
O whare are ye gaen, bonny Miss Gordon?
O whare are ye gaen, sae bonny an’ braw?
Ye’ve married, ye’ve married wi’ Johnny Byron,
To squander the lands o’ Gight awa’.
This youth is a rake, frae England he’s come ;
The Scots dinna ken his extraction ava;
He keeps up his misses, his landlord he duns,
That’s fast drawen’ the lands o’ Gight awa’.
O whare are ye gaen, &c.
The shooten’ o’ guns, an’ rattlin’ o’ drums,
The bugle in woods, the pipes i’ the ha’,
The beagles a howlin’, the hounds a growlin';
These soundings will soon gar Gight gang awa’.
O whare are ye gaen, &c.
Soon after the marriage, which took place, I believe, at Bath, Mr. Byron and his lady removed to their estate in Scotland; and it was not long before the prognostics of this ballad-maker began to be realised. The extent of that chasm of debt, in which her fortune was to be swallowed up, now opened upon the eyes of the ill-fated heiress. The creditors of Mr. Byron lost no time in pressing their demands; and not only was the whole of her ready money, bank shares, fisheries, &c., sacrificed to satisfy them, but a large sum raised by mortgage on the estate for the same purpose. In the summer of 1786, she and her husband left Scotland, to proceed to France; and in the following year the estate of Gight itself was sold, and the whole of the purchase money applied to the further payment of debts, — with the exception of a small sum vested in trustees for the use of Mrs. Byron, who thus found herself, within the short space of two years, reduced from competence to a pittance of 150l. per annum.(5)
From France Mrs. Byron returned to England at the close of the year 1787; and on the 22d of January, 1788, gave birth, in Holles Street, London, to her first and only child, George Gordon Byron. The name of Gordon was added in compliance with a condition imposed by will on whoever should become husband of the heiress of Gight; and at the baptism of the child, the Duke of Gordon, and Colonel Duff of Fetteresso, stood godfathers.
In reference to the circumstance of his being an only child, Lord Byron, in one of his journals, mentions some curious coincidences in his family, which, to a mind disposed as his was to regard every thing connected with himself as out of the ordinary course of events, would naturally appear even more strange and singular than they are. “I have been thinking,” he says, ” of an odd circumstance. My daughter (1), my wife (2), my half-sister (3), my mother (4), my sister’s mother (5), my natural daughter (6), and myself (7), are, or were, all only children. My sister’s mother (Lady Conyers) had only my half-sister by that second marriage, (herself, too, an only child,) and my father had only me, an only child, by his second marriage with my mother, an only child too. Such a complication of only children, all tending to one family, is singular enough, and looks like fatality almost.” He then adds, characteristically, “But the fiercest animals have the fewest numbers in their litters, as lions, tigers, and even elephants, which are mild in comparison.”
From London, Mrs. Byron proceeded with her infant to Scotland; and, in the year 1790, took up her residence in Aberdeen, where she was soon after joined by Captain Byron. Here for a short time they lived together in lodgings at the house of a person named Anderson, in Queen Street. But their union being by no means happy, a separation took place between them, and Mrs. Byron removed to lodgings at the other end of the street.(6) Notwithstanding this schism, they for some time continued to visit, and even to drink tea with each other; but the elements of discord were strong on both sides, and their separation was, at last, complete and final. He would frequently, however, accost the nurse and his son in their walks, and expressed a strong wish to have the child for a day or two, on a visit with him. To this request Mrs. Byron was, at first, not very willing to accede, but, on the representation of the nurse, that “if he kept the boy one night, he would not do so another,” she consented. The event proved as the nurse had predicted; on enquiring next morning after the child, she was told by Captain Byron that he had had quite enough of his young visitor, and she might take him home again.
It should be observed, however, that Mrs. Byron, at this period, was unable to keep more than one servant, and that, sent as the boy was on this occasion to encounter the trial of a visit, without the accustomed superintendence of his nurse, it is not so wonderful that he should have been found, under such circumstances, rather an unmanageable guest. That as a child, his temper was violent, or rather sullenly passionate, is certain. Even when in petticoats, he showed the same uncontrollable spirit with his nurse, which he afterwards exhibited when an author, with his critics. Being angrily reprimanded by her, one day, for having soiled or torn a new frock in which he had been just dressed, he got into one of his ” silent rages” (as he himself has described them), seized the frock with both his hands, rent it from top to bottom, and stood in sullen stillness, setting his censurer and her wrath at defiance.
But, notwithstanding this, and other such unruly outbreaks, — in which he was but too much encouraged by the example of his mother, who frequently, it is said, proceeded to the same extremities with her caps, gowns, &c., — there was in his disposition, as appears from the concurrent testimony of nurses, tutors, and all who were employed about him, a mixture of affectionate sweetness and playfulness, by which it was impossible not to be attached ; and which rendered him then, as in his riper years, easily manageable by those who loved and understood him sufficiently to be at once gentle and firm enough for the task. The female attendant of whom we have spoken, as well as her sister, Mary Gray, who succeeded her, gained an influence over his mind against which he very rarely rebelled; while his mother, whose capricious excesses, both of anger and of fondness, left her little hold on either his respect or affection, was indebted solely to his sense of filial duty for any small portion of authority she was ever able to acquire over him.
By an accident which, it is said, occurred at the time of his birth, one of his feet was twisted out of its natural position, and this defect (chiefly from the contrivances employed to remedy it) was a source of much pain and inconvenience to him during his early years. The expedients used at this period to restore the limb to shape, were adopted by the advice, and under the direction, of the celebrated John Hunter, with whom Dr. Livingstone of Aberdeen corresponded on the subject; and his nurse, to whom fell the task of putting on these machines or bandages, at bedtime, would often; as she herself told my informant, sing him to sleep, or tell him stories and legends, in which, like most other children, he took great delight. She also taught him, while yet an infant, to repeat a great number of the Psalms; and the first and twenty-third Psalms were among the earliest that he committed to memory. It is a remarkable fact, indeed, that through the care of this respectable woman, who was herself of a very religious disposition, he attained a far earlier and more intimate acquaintance with the Sacred Writings than falls to the lot of most young people. In a letter which he wrote to Mr. Murray, from Italy, in 1821, after requesting of that gentleman to send him, by the first opportunity, a Bible, he adds — “Don’t forget this, for I am a great reader and admirer of those books, and had read them through and through before I was eight years old, — that is to say, the Old Testament, for the New struck me as a task, but the other as a pleasure. I speak as a boy, from the recollected impression of that period at Aberdeen, in 1796.”
The malformation of his foot was, even at this childish age, a subject on which he showed peculiar sensitiveness. I have been told by a gentleman of Glasgow, that the person who nursed his wife, and who still lives in his family, used often to join the nurse of Byron when they were out with their respective charges, and one day said to her, as they walked together, “What a pretty boy Byron is! what a pity he has such a leg!” On hearing this allusion to his infirmity, the child’s eyes flashed with anger, and striking at her with a little whip which he held in his hand, he exclaimed impatiently, “Dinna speak of it!” Sometimes, however, as in after life, he could talk indifferently and even jestingly of this lameness; and there being another little boy in the neighbourhood, who had a similar defect in one of his feet, Byron would say, laughingly, ” Come and see the twa laddies with the twa club feet going up the Broad Street.”
Among many instances of his quickness and energy at this age, his nurse mentioned a little incident that one night occurred, on her taking him to the theatre to see the “Taming of the Shrew.” He had attended to the performance, for some time, with silent interest; but, in the scene between Catherine and Petruchio, where the following dialogue takes place, —
Cath. I know it is the moon.
Pet. Nay, then, you lie, — it is the blessed sun, —
little Geordie (as they called the child), starting from his seat, cried out boldly, “But I say it is the moon, sir.”
The short visit of Captain Byron to Aberdeen has already been mentioned, and he again passed two or three months in that city, before his last departure for France. On both occasions, his chief object was to extract still more money, if possible, from the unfortunate woman whom he had beggared; and so far was he successful, that, during his last visit, narrow as were her means, she contrived to furnish him with the money necessary for his journey to Valenciennes (7), where, in the following year, 1791, he died. Though latterly Mrs. Byron would not see her husband, she entertained, it is said, a strong affection for him to the last; and on those occasions, when the nurse used to meet him in her walks, would enquire of her with the tenderest anxiety as to his health and looks. When the intelligence of his death, too, arrived, her grief, according to the account of this same attendant, bordered on distraction, and her shrieks were so loud as to be heard in the street. She was, indeed, a woman full of the most passionate extremes, and her grief and affection were bursts as much of temper as of feeling. To mourn at all, however, for such a husband was, it must be allowed, a most gratuitous stretch of generosity. Having married her, as he openly avowed, for her fortune alone, he soon dissipated this, the solitary charm she possessed for him, and was then unmanful enough to taunt her with the inconveniences of that penury which his own extravagance had occasioned.
When not quite five years old, young Byron was sent to a day-school at Aberdeen, taught by Mr. Bowers (8), and remained there, with some interruptions, during a twelvemonth, as appears by the following extract from the day-book of the school: —
George Gordon Byron.
19th November, 1792.
19th November, 1793 — paid one guinea.
The terms of this school for reading were only five shillings a quarter, and it was evidently less with a view to the boy’s advance in learning than as a cheap mode of keeping him quiet that his mother had sent him to it. Of the progress of his infantine studies at Aberdeen, as well under Mr. Bowers as under the various other persons that instructed him, we have the following interesting particulars communicated by himself, in a sort of journal which he once began, under the title of ” My Dictionary,” and which is preserved in one of his manuscript books.
” For several years of my earliest childhood, I was in that city, but have never revisited it since I was ten years old. I was sent, at five years old, or earlier, to a school kept by a Mr. Bowers, who was called ‘ Bodsy Bowers,’ by reason of his dapperness. It was a school for both sexes. I learned little there except to repeat by rote the first lesson of monosyllables (‘ God made man’ — ‘Let us love him’), by hearing it often repeated, without acquiring a letter. Whenever proof was made of my progress, at home, I repeated these words with the most rapid fluency ; but on turning over a new leaf, I continued to repeat them, so that the narrow boundaries of my first year’s accomplishments were detected, my ears boxed, (which they did not deserve, seeing it was by ear only that I had acquired my letters,) and my intellects consigned to a new preceptor. He was a very devout, clever, little clergyman, named Ross, afterwards minister of one of the kirks (East, I think). Under him I made astonishing progress; and I recollect to this day his mild manners and good-natured pains-taking. The moment I could read, my grand passion was history, and, why I know not, but I was particularly taken with the battle near the Lake Regillus in the Roman History, put into my hands the first. Four years ago, when standing on the heights of Tusculum, and looking down upon the little round lake that was once Regillus, and which dots the immense expanse below, I remembered my young enthusiasm and my old instructor. Afterwards I had a very serious, saturnine, but kind young man, named Paterson, for a tutor. He was the son of my shoemaker, but a good scholar, as is common with the Scotch. He was a rigid Presbyterian also. With him I began Latin in ‘ Ruddiman’s Grammar, and continued till I went to the ‘ Grammar School, (Scoticè, ‘Schule;’ Aberdonicè, ‘Squeel,’) where I threaded all the classes to the fourth, when I was recalled to England (where I had been hatched) by the demise of my uncle. I acquired this handwriting, which I can hardly read myself, under the fair copies of Mr. Duncan of the same city : I don’t think he would plume himself much upon my progress. However, I wrote much better then than I have ever done since. Haste and agitation of one kind or another have quite spoilt as pretty a scrawl as ever scratched over a frank. The grammar-school might consist of a hundred and fifty of all ages under age. It was divided into five classes, taught by four masters, the chief teaching the fourth and fifth himself. As in England, the fifth, sixth forms, and monitors, are heard by the head masters.”
Of his class-fellows at the grammar-school there are many, of course, still alive, by whom he is well remembered (9); and the general impression they retain of him is, that he was a lively, warm-hearted, and high-spirited boy — passionate and resentful, but affectionate and companionable with his school‐ fellows — to a remarkable degree venturous and fearless, and (as one of them significantly expressed it) “always more ready to give a blow than take one.” Among many anecdotes illustrative of this spirit, it is related that once, in returning home from school, he fell in with a boy who had on some former occasion insulted him, but had then got off unpunished — little Byron, however, at the time, promising to ” pay him off” whenever they should meet again. Accordingly, on this second encounter, though there were some other boys to take his opponent’s part, he succeeded in inflicting upon him a hearty beating. On his return home, breathless, the servant enquired what he had been about, and was answered by him with a mixture of rage and humour, that he had been paying a debt, by beating a boy according to promise; for that he was a Byron, and would never belie his motto, “Trust Byron.”
He was, indeed, much more anxious to distinguish himself among his school-fellows by prowess in all sports (10), and exercises, than by advancement in learning. Though quick, when he could be persuaded to attend, or had any study that pleased him, he was in general very low in the class, nor seemed ambitious of being promoted any higher. It is the custom, it seems, in this seminary, to invert, now and then, the order of the class, so as to make the highest and lowest boys change places, — with a view, no doubt, of piquing the ambition of both. On these occasions, and only these, Byron was sometimes at the head, and the master, to banter him, would say, ” Now, George, man, let me see how soon you’ll be at the foot again.” (11)
During this period, his mother and he made, occasionally, visits among their friends, passing some time at Fetteresso, the seat of his godfather, Colonel Duff, (where the child’s delight with a humorous old butler, named Ernest Fidler, is still remembered,) and also at Banff, where some near connections of Mrs. Byron resided.
In the summer of the year 1796, after an attack of scarlet-fever, he was removed by his mother for change of air into the Highlands ; and it was either at this time, or in the following year, that they took up their residence at a farm-house in the neighbourhood of Ballater, a favourite summer resort for health and gaiety, about forty miles up the Dee from Aberdeen. Though this house, where they still show with much pride the bed in which young Byron slept, has become naturally a place of pilgrimage for the worshippers of genius, neither its own appearance, nor that of the small bleak valley, in which it stands, is at all worthy of being associated with the memory of a poet. Within a short distance of it, however, all those features of wildness and beauty, which mark the course of the Dee through the Highlands, may be commanded. Here the dark summit of Lachin-y-gair stood towering before the eyes of the future bard; and the verses in which, not many years afterwards, he commemorated this sublime object, show that, young as he was, at the time, its “frowning glories ” were not unnoticed by him. (12)
Ah, there my young footsteps in infancy wandered,
My cap was the bonnet, my cloak was the plaid ;
On chieftains long perish’d my memory ponder’d
As daily I strode through the pine-cover’d glade.
I sought not my home till the day’s dying glory
Gave place to the rays of the bright polar-star;
For Fancy was cheer’d by traditional story,
Disclosed by the natives of dark Loch-na-gar.
To the wildness and grandeur of the scenes, among which his childhood was passed, it is not unusual to trace the first awakening of his poetic talent. But it may be questioned whether this faculty was ever so produced. That the charm of scenery, which derives its chief power from fancy and association, should be much felt at an age when fancy is yet hardly awake, and associations but few, can with difficulty, even making every allowance for the prematurity of genius, be conceived. The light which the poet sees around the forms of nature is not so much in the objects themselves as in the eye that contemplates them; and Imagination must first be able to lend a glory to such scenes, before she can derive inspiration from them. As materials, indeed, for the poetic faculty, when developed, to work upon, these impressions of the new and wonderful retained from childhood, and retained with all the vividness of recollection which belongs to genius, may form, it is true, the purest and most precious part of that aliment, with which the memory of the poet feeds his imagination. But still, it is the newly-awakened power within him that is the source of the charm ; — it is the force of fancy alone that, acting upon his recollections, impregnates, as it were, all the past with poesy. In this respect, such impressions of natural scenery as Lord Byron received in his childhood must be classed with the various other remembrances which that period leaves behind — of its innocence, its sports, its first hopes and affections — all of them reminiscences which the poet afterwards converts to his use, but which no more make the poet than — to apply an illustration of Byron’s own — the honey can be said to make the bee that treasures it.
When it happen— as was the case with Lord Byron in Greece — that the same peculiar features of nature, over which Memory has shed this reflective charm, are reproduced before the eyes under new and inspiring circumstances, and with all the accessories which an imagination, in its full vigour and wealth, can lend them, then, indeed, do both the past and present combine to make the enchantment complete; and never was there a heart more borne away by this confluence of feelings than that of Byron. In a poem, written about a year or two before his death (13), he traces all his enjoyment of mountain scenery to the impressions received during his residence in the Highlands; and even attributes the pleasure which he experienced in gazing upon Ida and Parnassus, far less to classic remembrances, than to those fond and deep-felt associations by which they brought back the memory of his boyhood and Lachin-y-gair.
He who first met the Highland’s swelling blue,
Will love each peak that shows a kindred hue,
Hail in each crag a friend’s familiar face,
And clasp the mountain in his mind’s embrace.
Long have I roam’d through lands which are not mine,
Adored the Alp, and loved the Apennine,
Revered Parnassus, and beheld the steep
Jove’s Ida and Olympus crown the deep:
But ’twas not all long ages’ lore, nor all
Their nature held me in their thrilling thrall;
The infant rapture still survived the boy,
And Loch-na-gar with Ida look’d o’er Troy,
Mix’d Celtic memories with the Phrygian mount,
And Highland linns with Castalie’s clear fount.
In a note appended to this passage, we find him falling into that sort of anachronism in the history of his own feelings, which I have above adverted to as not uncommon, and referring to childhood itself that love of mountain prospects, which was but the after result of his imaginative recollections of that period.
” From this period ” (the time of his residence in the Highlands) “I date my love of mountainous countries. I can never forget the effect, a few years afterwards in England, of the only thing I had long seen, even in miniature, of a mountain, in the Malvern Hills. After I returned to Cheltenham, I used to watch them every afternoon at sunset, with a sensation which I cannot describe.” His love of solitary rambles, and his taste for exploring in all directions, led him not unfrequently so far, as to excite serious apprehensions for his safety. While at Aberdeen, he used often to steal from home unperceived; — sometimes he would find his way to the seaside; and once, after a long and anxious search, they found the adventurous little rover struggling in a sort of morass or marsh, from which lie was unable to extricate himself.
In the course of one of his summer excursions up Dee-side, he had an opportunity of seeing still more of the wild beauties of the Highlands than even the neighbourhood of their residence at Ballatrech afforded, — having been taken by his mother through the romantic passes that lead to Invercauld, and as far up as the small waterfall, called the Linn of Dee. Here his love of adventure had nearly cost him his life. As he was scrambling along a declivity that overhung the fall, some heather caught his lame foot, and he fell. Already he was rolling downward, when the attendant luckily caught hold of him, and was but just in time to save him from being killed.
It was about this period, when he was not quite eight years old, that a feeling partaking more of the nature of love than it is easy to believe possible in so young a child, took, according to his own account, entire possession of his thoughts, and showed how early, in this passion, as in most others, the sensibilities of his nature were awakened. (14) The name of the object of this attachment was Mary Duff; and the following passage from a Journal, kept by him in 1813, will show how freshly, after an interval of seventeen years, all the circumstances of this early love still lived in his memory: —
“I have been thinking lately a good deal of Mary Duff. How very odd that I should have been so utterly, devotedly fond of that girl, at an age when I could neither feel passion, nor know the meaning of the word. And the effect! — My mother used always to rally me about this childish amour; and, at last, many years after, when I was sixteen, she told me one day, ‘ Oh, Byron, I have had a letter from Edinburgh, from Miss Abercromby, and your old sweetheart Mary Duff is married to a Mr. Coe.’ And what was my answer ? I really cannot explain or account for my feelings at that moment; but they nearly threw me into convulsions, and alarmed my mother so much, that after I grew better, she generally avoided the subject—to me— and contented herself with telling it to all her acquaintance. Now, what could this be ? I had never seen her since her mother’s faux-pas at Aberdeen had been the cause of her removal to her grand‐ mother’s at Banff; we were both the merest children. I had and have been attached fifty times since that period; yet I recollect all we said to each other, all our caresses, her features, my restlessness, sleeplessness, my tormenting my mother’s maid to write for me to her, which she at last did, to quiet me. Poor Nancy thought I was wild, and, as I could not write for myself, became my secretary. I remember, too, our walks, and the happiness of sitting by Mary, in the children’s apartment, at their house not far from the Plain-stones at Aberdeen, while her lesser sister Helen played with the doll, and we sat gravely making love, in our way.
” How the deuce did all this occur so early? where could it originate ? I certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; and yet my misery, my love for that girl were so violent, that I sometimes doubt if I have ever been really attached since. Be that as it may, hearing of her marriage several years after was like a thunder-stroke — it nearly choked me—to the horror of my mother and the astonishment and almost incredulity of every body. And it is a phenomenon in my existence (for I was not eight years old) which has puzzled, and will puzzle me to the latest hour of it; and lately, I know not why, the recollection (not the attachment) has recurred as forcibly as ever. I wonder if she can have the least remembrance of it or me ? or remember her pitying sister Helen for not having an admirer too ? How very pretty is the perfect image of her in my memory — her brown, dark hair, and hazel eyes; her very dress! I should be quite grieved to see her now; the reality, however beautiful, would destroy, or at least confuse, the features of the lovely Peri which then existed in her, and still lives in my imagination, at the distance of more than sixteen years. I am now twenty-five and odd months….
“I think my mother told the circumstances (on my hearing of her marriage) to the Parkynses, and certainly to the Pigot family, and probably mentioned it in her answer to Miss A., who was well acquainted with my childish penchant, and had sent the news on purpose for me, — and thanks to her!
“Next to the beginning, the conclusion has often occupied my reflections, in the way of investigation. That the facts are thus, others know as well as I, and my memory yet tells me so, in more than a whisper. But, the more I reflect, the more I am bewildered to assign any cause for this precocity of affection.”
Though the chance of his succession to the title of his ancestors was for some time altogether uncertain — there being, so late as the year 1794, a grandson of the fifth lord still alive — his mother had, from his very birth, cherished a strong persuasion that he was destined not only to be a lord, but “a great man.” One of the circumstances on which she founded this belief was, singularly enough, his lameness; — for what reason it is difficult to conceive, except that, possibly (having a mind of the most superstitious cast), she had consulted on the subject some village fortune-teller, who, to ennoble this infirmity in her eyes, had linked the future destiny of the child with it.
By the death of the grandson of the old lord at Corsica in 1794, the only claimant, that had hitherto stood between little George and the immediate succession to the peerage, was removed; and the increased importance which this event conferred upon them was felt not only by Mrs. Byron, but by the young future Baron of Newstead himself. In the winter of 1797, his mother having chanced, one day, to read part of a speech spoken in the House of Commons, a friend who was present said to the boy, “We shall have the pleasure, some time or other, of reading your speeches in the House of Commons.” — “I hope not,” was his answer: “if you read any speeches of mine, it will be in the House of Lords.”
The title, of which he thus early anticipated the enjoyment, devolved to him but too soon. Had he been left to struggle on for ten years longer, as plain George Byron, there can be little doubt that his character would have been, in many respects, the better for it. In the following year his grand‐ uncle, the fifth Lord Byron, died at Newstead Abbey, having passed the latter years of his strange life in a state of austere and almost savage seclusion. It is said, that the day after little Byron’s accession to the title, he ran up to his mother and asked her, “whether she perceived any difference in him since he had been made a lord, as he perceived none himself:” — a quick and natural thought; but the child little knew what a total and talismanic change had been wrought in all his future relations with society, by the simple addition of that word before his name. That the event, as a crisis in his life, affected him, even at that time, may be collected from the agitation which he is said to have manifested on the important morning, when his name was first called out in school with the title of “Dominus ” prefixed to it. Unable to give utterance to the usual answer “adsum,” he stood silent amid the general stare of his school-fellows, and, at last, burst into tears.
The cloud, which, to a certain degree, undeservedly, his unfortunate affray with Mr. Chaworth had thrown upon the character of the late Lord Byron, was deepened and confirmed by what it, in a great measure, produced, — the eccentric and unsocial course of life to which he afterwards betook himself. Of his cruelty to Lady Byron, before her separation from him, the most exaggerated stories are still current in the neighbourhood; and it is even believed that, in one of his fits of fury, he flung her into the pond at Newstead. On another occasion, it is said, having shot his coachman for some disobedience of orders, he threw the corpse into the carriage to his lady, and, mounting the box, drove off himself. These stories are, no doubt, as gross fictions as some of those of which his illustrious successor was afterwards made the victim; and a female servant of the old lord, still alive, in contradicting both tales as scandalous fabrications, supposes the first to have had its origin in the following circumstance: — A young lady, of the name of Booth, who was on a visit at Newstead, being one evening with a party who were diverting themselves in front of the abbey, Lord Byron by accident pushed her into the basin which receives the cascades; and out of this little incident, as my informant very plausibly conjectures, the tale of his attempting to drown Lady Byron may have been fabricated.
After his lady had separated from him, the entire seclusion in which he lived gave full scope to the inventive faculties of his neighbours. There was no deed, however dark or desperate, that the village gossips were not ready to impute to him ; and two grim images of satyrs, which stood in his gloomy garden, were, by the fears of those who had caught a glimpse of them, dignified by the name of ” the old lord’s devils.” He was known always to go armed; and it is related that, on some particular occasion, when his neighbour, the late Sir John Warren, was admitted to dine with him, there was a case of pistols placed, as if forming a customary part of the dinner service, on the table.
During his latter years, the only companions of his solitude — besides that colony of crickets, which he is said to have amused himself with rearing and feeding (15) — were old Murray, afterwards the favourite servant of his successor, and the female domestic, whose authority I have just quoted, and who, from the station she was suspected of being promoted to by her noble master, received generally through the neighbourhood the appellation of ” Lady Betty.”
Though living in this sordid and solitary style, he was frequently, as it appears, much distressed for money ; and one of the most serious of the injuries inflicted by him upon the property was his sale of the family estate of Rochdale in Lancashire, of which the mineral produce was accounted very valuable. He well knew, it is said, at the time of the sale, his inability to make out a legal title ; nor is it supposed that the purchasers themselves were unacquainted with the defect of the conveyance. But they contemplated, and, it seems, actually did realise, an indemnity from any pecuniary loss, before they could, in the ordinary course of events, be dispossessed of the property. During the young lord’s minority, proceedings were instituted for the recovery of this estate, and as the reader will learn hereafter with success.
At Newstead, both the mansion and the grounds around it were suffered to fall helplessly into decay; and among the few monuments of either care or expenditure which their lord left behind, were some masses of rockwork, on which much cost had been thrown away, and a few castellated buildings on the banks of the lake and in the woods. The forts upon the lake were designed to give a naval appearance to its waters, and frequently, in his more social days, he used to amuse himself with sham fights, — his vessels attacking the forts, and being cannonaded by them in return. The largest of these vessels had been built for him at some seaport on the eastern coast, and, being conveyed on wheels over the Forest to Newstead, was supposed to have fulfilled one of the prophecies of Mother Shipton, which declared that “when a ship laden with ling should cross over Sherwood Forest, the Newstead estate would pass from the Byron family.” In Nottinghamshire, “ling” is the term used for heather; and, in order to bear out Mother Shipton and spite the old lord, the country people, it is said, ran along by the side of the vessel, heaping it with heather all the way.
This eccentric peer, it is evident, cared but little about the fate of his descendants. With his young heir in Scotland he held no communication whatever; and if at any time he happened to mention him, which but rarely occurred, it was never under any other designation than that of ” the little boy who lives at Aberdeen.”
On the death of his grand-uncle, Lord Byron having become a ward of chancery, the Earl of Carlisle, who was in some degree connected with the family, being the son of the deceased lord’s sister, was appointed his guardian; and in the autumn of 1798, Mrs. Byron and her son, attended by their faithful Mary Gray, left Aberdeen for Newstead. Previously to their departure, the furniture of the humble lodgings which they had occupied was, with the exception of the plate and linen, which Mrs. Byron took with her, sold, and the whole sum that the effects of the mother of the Lord of Newstead yielded was 74l. 17s. 7d.
From the early age at which Byron was taken to Scotland, as well as from the circumstance of his mother being a native of that country, he had every reason to consider himself — as, indeed, he boasts in Don Juan— “half a Scot by birth, and bred a whole one.” We have already seen how warmly he preserved through life his recollection of the mountain scenery in which he was brought up; and in the passage of Don Juan, to which I have just referred, his allusion to the romantic bridge of Don, and to other localities of Aberdeen, shows an equal fidelity and fondness of retrospect: —
As Auld Lang Syne brings Scotland, one and all,
Scotch plaids, Scotch snoods, the blue hills and clear streams,
The Dee, the Don, Balgounie’s brig’s black wall,
All my boy feelings, all my gentler dreams
Of what I then dreamt, clothed in their own pall,
Like Banquo’s offspring; — floating past me seems
My childhood in this childishness of mine;
I care not — ’tis a glimpse of ” Auld Lang Syne.”
He adds in a note, “The Brig of Don, near the ‘auld town’ of Aberdeen, with its one arch and its black deep salmon stream, is in my memory as yesterday. I still remember, though perhaps I may misquote the awful proverb which made me pause to cross it, and yet lean over it with a childish delight, being an only son, at least by the mother’s side. The saying, as recollected by me, was this, but I have never heard or seen it since I was nine years of age: —
” ‘ Brig of Balgounie, black ‘s your wa’,
Wi’ a wife’s ae son, and a mear’s ae foal,
Down ye shall fa’.’ ” (16)
To meet with an Aberdonian was, at all times, a delight to him; and when the late Mr. Scott, who was a native of Aberdeen, paid him a visit at Venice in the year 1819, in talking of the haunts of his childhood, one of the places he particularly mentioned was Wallace-nook, a spot where there is a rude statue of the Scottish chief still standing. From first to last, indeed, these recollections of the country of his youth never forsook him. In his early voyage into Greece, not only the shapes of the mountains, but the kilts and hardy forms of the Albanese, — all, as he says, “carried him back to Morven;” and, in his last fatal expedition, the dress which he himself chiefly wore at Cephalonia was a tartan jacket.
Cordial, however, and deep as were the impressions which he retained of Scotland, he would sometimes in this, as in all his other amiable feelings, endeavour perversely to belie his own better nature ; and, when under the excitement of anger or ridicule, persuade not only others, but even himself, that the whole current of his feelings ran directly otherwise. The abuse with which, in his anger against the Edinburgh Review, he overwhelmed every thing Scotch, is an instance of this temporary triumph of wilfulness; and, at any time, the least association of ridicule with the country or its inhabitants was sufficient, for the moment, to put all his sentiment to flight. A friend of his once described to me the half playful rage, into which she saw him thrown, one day, by a heedless girl, who remarked that she thought he had a little of the Scotch accent. “Good God, I hope not!” he exclaimed. “I ‘m sure I haven’t. I would rather the whole d—d country was sunk in the sea— I the Scotch accent!”
To such sallies, however, whether in writing or conversation, but little weight is to be allowed, particularly, in comparison with those strong testimonies which he has left on record of his fondness for his early home; and while, on his side, this feeling so indelibly existed, there is, on the part of the people of Aberdeen, who consider him as almost their fellow-townsman, a correspondent warmth of affection for his memory and name. The various houses where he resided in his youth are pointed out to the traveller; to have seen him but once is a recollection boasted of with pride; and the Brig of Don, beautiful in itself, is invested, by his mere mention of it, with an additional charm. Two or three years since, the sum of five pounds was offered to a person in Aberdeen for a letter which he had in his possession, written by Captain Byron a few days before his death ; and, among the memorials of the young poet, which are treasured up by individuals of that place, there is one which it would have not a little amused himself to hear of, being no less characteristic a relic than an old china saucer, out of which he had bitten a large piece, in a fit of passion, when a child.
It was in the summer of 1798, as I have already said, that Lord Byron, then in his eleventh year, left Scotland with his mother and nurse, to take possession of the ancient seat of his ancestors. In one of his latest letters, referring to this journey, he says, “I recollect Loch Leven as it were but yesterday — I saw it in my way to England in 1798.” They had already arrived at the Newstead toll-bar, and saw the woods of the Abbey stretching out to receive them, when Mrs. Byron, affecting to be ignorant of the place, asked the woman of the toll-house — to whom that seat belonged? She was told that the owner of it, Lord Byron, had been some months dead. “And who is the next heir?” asked the proud and happy mother. “They say,” answered the woman, “it is a little boy who lives at Aberdeen.” — “And this is he, bless him!” exclaimed the nurse, no longer able to contain herself, and turning to kiss with delight the young lord who was seated on her lap.
Even under the most favourable circumstances, such an early elevation to rank would be but too likely to have a dangerous influence on the character; and the guidance under which young Byron entered upon his new station was, of all others, the least likely to lead him safely through its perils and temptations. His mother, without judgment or self-command, alternately spoiled him by indulgence, and irritated, or — what was still worse — amused him by her violence. That strong sense of the ridiculous, for which he was afterwards so remarkable, and which showed itself thus early, got the better even of his fear of her ; and when Mrs. Byron, who was a short and corpulent person, and rolled considerably in her gait, would, in a rage, endeavour to catch him, for the purpose of inflicting punishment, the young urchin, proud of being able to outstrip her, notwithstanding his lameness, would run round the room, laughing like a little Puck, and mocking at all her menaces. In a few anecdotes of his early life which he related in his ” Memoranda,” though the name of his mother was never mentioned but with respect, it was not difficult to perceive that the recollections she had left behind — at least, those that had made the deepest impression — were of a painful nature. One of the most striking passages, indeed, in the few pages of that Memoir which related to his early days, was where, in speaking of his own sensitiveness, on the subject of his deformed foot, he described the feeling of horror and humiliation that came over him, when his mother, in one of her fits of passion, called him “a lame brat.” As all that he had felt strongly through life was, in some shape or other, reproduced in his poetry, it was not likely that an expression such as this should fail of being recorded. Accordingly we find, in the opening of his drama, ” The Deformed Transformed,”
Bertha. Out, hunchback!
Arnold. I was born so, mother!
It may be questioned, indeed, whether that whole drama was not indebted for its origin to this single recollection.
While such was the character of the person under whose immediate eye his youth was passed, the counteraction which a kind and watchful guardian might have opposed to such example and influence was almost wholly lost to him. Connected but remotely with the family, and never having had any opportunity of knowing the boy, it was with much reluctance that Lord Carlisle originally undertook the trust; nor can we wonder that, when his duties as a guardian brought him acquainted with Mrs. Byron, he should be deterred from interfering more than was absolutely necessary for the child by his fear of coming into collision with the violence and caprice of the mother.
Had even the character which the last lord left behind been sufficiently popular to pique his young successor into an emulation of his good name, such a salutary rivalry of the dead would have supplied the place of living examples ; and there is no mind in which such an ambition would have been more likely to spring up than that of Byron. But unluckily, as we have seen, this was not the case; and not only was so fair a stimulus to good conduct wanting, but a rivalry of a very different nature substituted in its place. The strange anecdotes told of the last lord by the country people, among whom his fierce and solitary habits had procured for him a sort of fearful renown, were of a nature livelily to arrest the fancy of the young poet, and even to waken in his mind a sort of boyish admiration for singularities which he found thus elevated into matters of wonder and record. By some it has been even supposed that in these stories of his eccentric relative his imagination found the first dark outlines of that ideal character, which he afterwards embodied in so many different shapes, and ennobled by his genius. But however this may be, it is at least far from improbable that, destitute as he was of other and better models, the peculiarities of his immediate predecessor should, in a considerable degree, have influenced his fancy and tastes. One habit, which he seems early to have derived from this spirit of imitation, and which he retained through life, was that of constantly having arms of some description about or near him — it being his practice, when quite a boy, to carry, at all times, small loaded pistols in his waistcoat pockets. The affray, indeed, of the late lord with Mr. Chaworth had, at a very early age, by connecting duelling in his mind with the name of his race, led him to turn his attention to this mode of arbitrament; and the mortification which he had, for some time, to endure at school, from insults, as he imagined, hazarded on the presumption of his physical inferiority, found consolation in the thought that a day would yet arrive when the law of the pistol would place him on a level with the strongest.
On their arrival from Scotland, Mrs. Byron, with the hope of having his lameness removed, placed her son under the care of a person, who professed the cure of such cases, at Nottingham. The name of this man, who appears to have been a mere empirical pretender, was Lavender; and the manner in which he is said to have proceeded was by first rubbing the foot over, for a considerable time, with handsful of oil, and then twisting the limb forcibly round, and screwing it up in a wooden machine. That the boy might not lose ground in his education during this interval, he received lessons in Latin from a respectable schoolmaster, Mr. Rogers, who read parts of Virgil and Cicero with him, and represents his proficiency to have been, for his age, considerable. He was often, during his lessons, in violent pain, from the torturing position in which his foot was kept; and Mr. Rogers one day said to him, “It makes me uncomfortable, my Lord, to see you sitting there in such pain as I know you must be suffering.” — “Never mind, Mr. Rogers,” answered the boy; ” you shall not see any signs of it in me.”
This gentleman, who speaks with the most affectionate remembrance of his pupil, mentions several instances of the gaiety of spirit with which he used to take revenge on his tormentor, Lavender, by exposing and laughing at his pompous ignorance. Among other tricks, he one day scribbled down on a sheet of paper all the letters of the alphabet, put together at random, but in the form of words and sentences, and, placing them before this all-pretending person, asked him gravely what language it was. The quack, unwilling to own his ignorance, answered confidently, “Italian,” — to the infinite delight, as it may be supposed, of the little satirist in embryo, who burst into a loud, triumphant laugh at the success of the trap which he had thus laid for imposture.
With that mindfulness towards all who had been about him in his youth, which was so distinguishing a trait in his character, he, many years after, when in the neighbourhood of Nottingham, sent a message, full of kindness, to his old instructor, and bid the bearer of it tell him, that, beginning from a certain line in Virgil which he mentioned, he could recite twenty verses on, which he well remembered having read with this gentleman, when suffering all the time the most dreadful pain.
It was about this period, according to his nurse, May Gray, that the first symptom of any tendency towards rhyming showed itself in him; and the occasion which she represented as having given rise to this childish effort was as follows: — An elderly lady, who was in the habit of visiting his mother, had made use of some expression that very much affronted him; and these slights, his nurse said, he generally resented violently and implacably. The old lady had some curious notions respecting the soul, which, she imagined, took its flight to the moon after death, as a preliminary essay before it proceeded further. One day, after a repetition, it is supposed, of her original insult to the boy, he appeared before his nurse in a violent rage. “Well, my little hero, my little hero,” she asked, “what’s the matter with you now?” Upon which the child answered, that “this old woman had put him in a most terrible passion — that he could not bear the sight of her,” &c. &c. — and then broke out into the following doggerel, which he repeated over and over, as if delighted with the vent he had found for his rage: —
In Nottingham county there lives at Swan Green,
As curst an old lady as ever was seen ;
And when she does die, which I hope will be soon,
She firmly believes she will go to the moon.
It is possible that these rhymes may have been caught up at second-hand; and he himself, as will presently be seen, dated his “first dash into poetry,” as he calls it, a year later: — but the anecdote altogether, as containing some early dawnings of character, appeared to me worth preserving.
The small income of Mrs. Byron received at this time the addition — most seasonable, no doubt, though on what grounds accorded, I know not of a pension on the Civil List, of 300l. a year. The following is a copy of the King’s warrant for the grant: — (Signed)
” GEORGE R.
“WHEREAS we are graciously pleased to grant unto Catharine Gordon Byron, widow, an annuity of 300l., to commence from 5th July, 1799, and to continue during pleasure : our will and pleasure is, that, by virtue of our general letters of Privy Seal, bearing date 5th November, 1760, you do issue and pay out of our treasure, or revenue in the receipt of the Exchequer, applicable to the uses of our civil government, unto the said Catharine Gordon Byron, widow, or her assignees, the said annuity, to commence from 5th July, 1799, and to be paid quarterly, or otherwise, as the same shall become due, and to continue during our pleasure; and for so doing this shall be your warrant. Given at our Court of St. James’s, 2d October, 1799, 39th year of our reign.
“By His Majesty’s command,
” W. PITT.
” S. DOUGLAS.
” EDW. ROBERTS , Dep. Cler. Pellium.”
Finding but little benefit from the Nottingham practitioner, Mrs. Byron, in the summer of the year 1799, thought it right to remove her boy to London, where, at the suggestion of Lord Carlisle, he was put under the care of Dr. Baillie. It being an object, too, to place him at some quiet school, where the means adopted for the cure of his infirmity might be more easily attended to, the establishment of the late Dr. Glennie, at Dulwich, was chosen for that purpose; and as it was thought advisable that he should have a separate apartment to sleep in, Dr. Glennie had a bed put up for him in his own study. Mrs. Byron, who had remained a short time behind him at Newstead, on her arrival in town took a house upon Sloane Terrace ; and, under the direction of Dr. Baillie, one of the Messrs. Sheldrake (17) was employed to construct an instrument for the purpose of straightening the limb of the child. Moderation in all athletic exercises was, of course, prescribed; but Dr. Glennie found it by no means easy to enforce compliance with this rule, as, though sufficiently quiet when along with him in his study, no sooner was the boy released for play, than he showed as much ambition to excel in all exercises as the most robust youth of the school; — “an ambition,” adds Dr. Glennie, in the communication with which he favoured me a short time before his death, “which I have remarked to prevail in general in young persons labouring under similar defects of nature.”
Having been instructed in the elements of Latin grammar according to the mode of teaching adopted at Aberdeen, the young student had now unluckily to retrace his steps, and was, as is too often the case, retarded in his studies and perplexed in his recollections, by the necessity of toiling through the rudiments again in one of the forms prescribed by the English schools. “I found him enter upon his tasks,” says Dr. Glennie, “with alacrity and success. He was playful, good-humoured, and beloved by his companions. His reading in history and poetry was far beyond the usual standard of his age, and in my study he found many books open to him, both to please his taste and gratify his curiosity; among others, a set of our poets from Chaucer to Churchill, which I am almost tempted to say he had more than once perused from beginning to end. He showed at this age an intimate acquaintance with the historical parts of the Holy Scriptures, upon which he seemed delighted to converse with me, especially after our religious exercises of a Sunday evening; when he would reason upon the facts contained in the Sacred Volume with every appearance of belief in the divine truths which they unfold. That the impressions,” adds the writer, “thus imbibed in his boyhood, had, notwithstanding the irregularities of his after life, sunk deep into his mind, will appear, I think, to every impartial reader of his works in general; and I never have been able to divest myself of the persuasion that, in the strange aberrations which so unfortunately marked his subsequent career, he must have found it difficult to violate the better principles early instilled into him.”
It should have been mentioned, among the traits which I have recorded of his still earlier years, that, according to the character given of him by his first nurse’s husband, he was, when a mere child, “particularly inquisitive and puzzling about religion.”
It was not long before Dr. Glennie began to discover — what instructors of youth must too often experience — that the parent was a much more difficult subject to deal with than the child. Though professing entire acquiescence in the representations of this gentleman, as to the propriety of leaving her son to pursue his studies without interruption, Mrs. Byron had neither sense nor self-denial enough to act up to these professions; but, in spite of the remonstrances of Dr. Glennie, and the injunctions of Lord Carlisle, continued to interfere with and thwart the progress of the boy’s education in every way that a fond, wrong-headed, and self-willed mother could devise. In vain was it stated to her that, in all the elemental parts of learning which are requisite for a youth destined to a great public school, young Byron was much behind other youths of his age, and that, to retrieve this deficiency, the undivided application of his whole time would be necessary. Though appearing to be sensible of the truth of these suggestions, she not the less embarrassed and obstructed the teacher in his task. Not content with the interval between Saturday and Monday, which, contrary to Dr. Glennie’s wish, the boy generally passed at Sloane Terrace, she would frequently keep him at home a week beyond this time, and, still further to add to the distraction of such interruptions, collected around him a numerous circle of young acquaintances, without exercising, as may be supposed, much discrimination in her choice. “How, indeed, could she?” asks Dr. Glennie — “Mrs. Byron was a total stranger to English society and English manners; with an exterior far from prepossessing, an understanding where nature had not been more bountiful, a mind almost wholly without cultivation, and the peculiarities of northern opinions, northern habits, and northern accent, I trust I do no great prejudice to the memory of my countrywoman, if I say Mrs. Byron was not a Madame de Lambert, endowed with powers to retrieve the fortune, and form the character and manners, of a young nobleman, her son:’
The interposition of Lord Carlisle, to whose authority it was found necessary to appeal, had more than once given a check to these disturbing indulgences. Sanctioned by such support, Dr. Glennie even ventured to oppose himself to the privilege, so often abused, of the usual visits on a Saturday; and the scenes which he had to encounter on each new case of refusal were such as would have wearied out the patience of any less zealous and conscientious schoolmaster. Mrs. Byron, whose paroxysms of passion were not, like those of her son, “silent rages,” would, on all these occasions, break out into such audible fits of temper as it was impossible to keep from reaching the ears of the scholars and the servants ; and Dr. Glennie had, one day, the pain of overhearing a school-fellow of his noble pupil say to him, ” Byron, your mother is a fool; ” to which the other answered gloomily, “I know it.” In consequence of all this violence and impracticability of temper, Lord Carlisle at length ceased to have any intercourse with the mother of his ward ; and on a further application from the instructor, for the exertion of his influence, said, “I can have nothing more to do with Mrs. Byron, — you must now manage her as you can.”
Among the books that lay accessible to the boys in Dr. Glennie’s study was a pamphlet written by the brother of one of his most intimate friends, entitled, ” Narrative of the Shipwreck of the Juno on the coast of Arracan, in the year 1795.” The writer had been the second officer of the ship, and the account which he had sent home to his friends of the sufferings of himself and his fellow-passengers had appeared to them so touching and strange, that they determined to publish it. The pamphlet attracted but little, it seems, of public attention, but among the young students of Dulwich Grove it was a favourite study ; and the impression which it left on the retentive mind of Byron may have had some share, perhaps, in suggesting that curious research through all the various Accounts of Shipwrecks upon record, by which he prepared himself to depict with such power a scene of the same description in Don Juan. The following affecting incident, mentioned by the author of this pamphlet, has been adopted, it will be seen, with but little change either of phrase or circumstance, by the poet: —
“Of those who were not immediately near me I knew little, unless by their cries. Some struggled hard, and died in great agony; but it was not always those whose strength was most impaired that died the easiest, though, in some cases, it might have been so. I particularly remember the following instances. Mr. Wade’s servant, a stout and healthy boy, died early and almost without a groan ; while another of the same age, but of a less promising appearance, held out much longer. The fate of these unfortunate boys differed also in another respect highly deserving of notice. Their fathers were both in the fore-top when the lads were taken ill. The father of Mr. Wade’s boy hearing of his son’s illness, answered with indifference, ‘that he could do nothing for him,’ and left him to his fate. The other, when the accounts reached him, hurried down, and watching for a favourable moment, crawled on all fours along the weather gunwale to his son, who was in the mizen rigging. By that time, only three or four planks of the quarter deck remained, just over the weather‐quarter gallery; and to this spot the unhappy man led his son, making him fast to the rail to prevent his being washed away. Whenever the boy was seized with a fit of retching, the father lifted him up and wiped the foam from his lips; and, if a shower came, he made him open his mouth to receive the drops, or gently squeezed them into it from a rag. In this affecting situation both remained four or five days, till the boy expired. The unfortunate parent, as if unwilling to believe the act, then raised the body, gazed wistfully at it, and, when he could no longer entertain any doubt, watched it in silence till it was carried off by the sea; then, wrapping himself in a piece of canvass ,sunk down and rose no more ; though he must have lived two days longer, as we judged from the quivering of his limbs, when a wave broke over him.” (18)
It was probably during one of the vacations of this year, that the boyish love for his young cousin, Miss Parker, to which he attributes the glory of having first inspired him with poetry, took possession of his fancy. “My first dash into poetry (he says) was as early as 1800. It was the ebullition of a passion for my first cousin, Margaret Parker (daughter and grand-daughter of the two Admirals Parker), one of the most beautiful of evanescent beings. I have long forgotten the verses, but it would be difficult for me to forget her — her dark eyes — her long eye-lashes — her completely Greek cast of face and figure! I was then about twelve — she rather older, perhaps a year. She died about a year or two afterwards, in consequence of a fall, which injured her spine, and induced consumption. Her sister Augusta (by some thought still more beautiful) died of the same malady; and it was, indeed, in attending her, that Margaret met with the accident which occasioned her own death. My sister told me, that when she went to see her, shortly before her death, upon accidentally mentioning my name, Margaret coloured through the paleness of mortality to the eyes, to the great astonishment of my sister, who (residing with her grandmother, Lady Holderness, and seeing but little of me, for family reasons,) knew nothing of our attachment, nor could conceive why my name should affect her at such a time. I knew nothing of her illness, being at Harrow and in the country, till she was gone. Some years after, I made an attempt at an elegy — a very dull one. (19)
“I do not recollect scarcely any thing equal to the transparent beauty of my cousin, or to the sweetness of her temper, during the short period of our intimacy. She looked as if she had been made out of a rainbow — all beauty and peace.
” My passion had its usual effects upon me — I could not sleep — I could not eat — I could not rest: and although I had reason to know that she loved me, it was the texture of my life to think of the time which must elapse before we could meet again, being usually about twelve hours of separation! But I was a fool then, and am not much wiser now.”
He had been nearly two years under the tuition of Dr. Glennie, when his mother, discontented at the slowness of his progress — though being, herself, as we have seen, the principal cause of it — entreated so urgently of Lord Carlisle to have him removed to a public school, that her wish was at length acceded to; and “accordingly,” says Dr. Glennie, “to Harrow he went, as little prepared as it is natural to suppose from two years of elementary instruction, thwarted by every art that could estrange the mind of youth from preceptor, from school, and from all serious study.”
This gentleman saw but little of Lord Byron after he left his care; but, from the manner in which both he and Mrs. Glennie spoke of their early charge, it was evident that his subsequent career had been watched by them with interest; that they had seen even his errors through the softening medium of their first feeling towards him, and had never, in his most irregular aberrations, lost the traces of those fine qualities which they had loved and admired in him when a child. Of the constancy, too, of this feeling, Dr. Glennie had to stand no ordinary trial, having visited Geneva in 1817, soon after Lord Byron had left it, when the private character of the poet was in the very crisis of its unpopularity, and when, among those friends who knew that Dr. Glennie had once been his tutor, it was made a frequent subject of banter with this gentleman that he had not more strictly disciplined his pupil, or, to use their own words, ” made a better boy of him.”
About the time when young Byron was removed, for his education, to London, his nurse May Gray left the service of Mrs. Byron, and returned to her as we have seen, the principal cause of it — entreated so urgently of Lord Carlisle to have him removed to a public school, that her wish was at length acceded to; and “accordingly,” says Dr. Glennie, “to Harrow he went, as little prepared as it is natural to suppose from two years of elementary instruction, thwarted by every art that could estrange the mind of youth from preceptor, from school, and from all serious study.”
This gentleman saw but little of Lord Byron after he left his care; but, from the manner in which both he and Mrs. Glennie spoke of their early charge, it was evident that his subsequent career had been watched by them with interest; that they had seen even his errors through the softening medium of their first feeling towards him, and had never, in his most irregular aberrations, lost the traces of those fine qualities which they had loved and admired in him when a child. Of the constancy, too, of this feeling, Dr. Glennie had to stand no ordinary trial, having visited Geneva in 1817, soon after Lord Byron had left it, when the private character of the poet was in the very crisis of its unpopularity, and when, among those friends who knew that Dr. Glennie had once been his tutor, it was made a frequent subject of banter with this gentleman that he had not more strictly disciplined his pupil, or, to use their own words, ” made a better boy of him.”
About the time when young Byron was removed, for his education, to London, his nurse May Gray left the service of Mrs. Byron, and returned to her native country, where she died about three years since. She had married respectably, and in one of her last illnesses was attended professionally by Dr. Ewing of Aberdeen, who, having been always an enthusiastic admirer of Lord Byron, was no less surprised than delighted to find that the person under his care had for so many years been an attendant on his favourite poet. With avidity, as may be supposed, he noted down from the lips of his patient all the particulars she could remember of his Lordship’s early days; and it is to the communications with which this gentleman has favoured me, that I am indebted for many of the anecdotes of that period which I have related.
As a mark of gratitude for her attention to him, Byron had, in parting with May Gray, presented her with his watch, — the first of which he had ever been possessor. This watch the faithful nurse preserved fondly through life, and, when she died, it was given by her husband to Dr. Ewing, by whom, as a relic of genius, it is equally valued. The affectionate boy had also presented her with a full-length miniature of himself, which was painted by Kay of Edinburgh, in the year 1795, and which represents him standing with a bow and arrows in his hand, and a profusion of hair falling over his shoulders. This curious little drawing has likewise passed into the possession of Dr. Ewing.
The same thoughtful gratitude was evinced by Byron towards the sister of this woman, his first nurse, to whom he wrote some years after he left Scotland, in the most cordial terms, making enquiries of her welfare, and informing her, with much joy, that he had at last got his foot so far restored as to be able to put on a common boot, — “an event for which he had long anxiously wished, and which he was sure would give her great pleasure.”
In the summer of the year 1801 he accompanied his mother to Cheltenham, and the account which he himself gives of his sensations at that period shows at what an early age those feelings that lead to poetry had unfolded themselves in his heart. A boy, gazing with emotion on the hills at sunset, because they remind him of the mountains among which he passed his childhood, is already, in heart and imagination, a poet. It was during their stay at Cheltenham that a fortune-teller, whom his mother consulted, pronounced a prediction concerning him which, for some time, left a strong impression on his mind. Mrs. Byron had, it seems, in her first visit to this person, (who, if I mistake not, was the celebrated fortune-teller, Mrs. Williams,) endeavoured to pass herself off as a maiden lady. The sibyl, however, was not so easily deceived ; — she pronounced her wise consulter to be not only a married woman, but the mother of a son who was lame, and to whom, among other events which she read in the stars, it was predestined that his life should be in danger from poison before he was of age, and that he should be twice married, — the second time, to a foreign lady. About two years afterwards he himself mentioned these particulars to the person from whom I heard the story, and said that the thought of the first part of the prophecy very often occurred to him. The latter part, however, seems to have been the nearer guess of the two.
To a shy disposition, such as Byron’s was in his youth — and such as, to a certain degree, it continued all his life — the transition from a quiet establishment, like that of Dulwich Grove, to the bustle of a great public school was sufficiently trying. Accordingly, we find from his own account, that, for the first year and a half, he “hated Harrow.” The activity, however, and sociableness of his nature soon conquered this repugnance ; and, from being, as he himself says, “a most unpopular boy,” he rose at length to be a leader in all the sports, schemes, and mischief of the school.
For a general notion of his dispositions and capacities at this period, we could not have recourse to a more trustworthy or valuable authority than that of the Rev. Dr. Drury, who was at this time head master of the school, and to whom Lord Byron has left on record a tribute of affection and respect, which, like the reverential regard of Dryden for Dr. Busby, will long associate together honourably the names of the poet and the master. From this venerable scholar I have received the following brief, but important statement of the impressions which his early intercourse with the young noble left upon him: —
“Mr. Hanson, Lord Byron’s solicitor, consigned him to my care at the age of 13½, with remarks, that his education had been neglected; that he was ill prepared for a public school, but that he thought there was a cleverness about him. After his departure I took my young disciple into my study, and endeavoured to bring him forward by enquiries as to his former amusements, employments, and associates, but with little or no effect; — and I soon found that a wild mountain colt had been submitted to my management. But there was mind in his eye. In the first place, it was necessary to attach him to an elder boy, in order to familiarise him with the objects before him, and with some parts of the system in which he was to move. But the information he received from his conductor gave him no pleasure, when he heard of the advances of some in the school, much younger than himself, and conceived by his own deficiency that he should be degraded, and humbled, by being placed below them. This I discovered, and having committed him to the care of one of the masters, as his tutor, I assured him he should not be placed till, by diligence, he might rank with those of his own age. He was pleased with this assurance, and felt himself on easier terms with his associates; — for a degree of shyness hung about him for some time. His manner and temper soon convinced me, that he might be led by a silken string to a point, rather than by a cable; — on that principle I acted. After some continuance at Harrow, and when the powers of his mind had begun to expand, the late Lord Carlisle, his relation, desired to see me in town ; — I waited on his Lordship. His object was to inform me of Lord Byron’s expectations of property when he came of age, which he represented as contracted, and to enquire respecting his abilities. On the former circumstance I made no remark; as to the latter, I replied, ‘ He has talents, my Lord, which will add lustre to his rank.’ ‘Indeed!!!’ said his Lordship, with a degree of surprise, that, according to my feeling, did not express in it all the satisfaction I expected.
“The circumstance to which you allude, as to his declamatory powers, was as follows. The upper part of the school composed declamations, which, after a revisal by the tutors, were submitted to the master: to him the authors repeated them, that they might be improved in manner and action, before their public delivery. I certainly was much pleased with Lord Byron’s attitude, gesture, and delivery, as well as with his composition. All who spoke on that day adhered, as usual, to the letter of their composition, as, in the earlier part of his delivery, did Lord Byron. But to my surprise he suddenly diverged from the written composition, with a boldness and rapidity sufficient to alarm me, lest he should fail in memory as to the conclusion. There was no failure: — he came round to the close of his composition without discovering any impediment and irregularity on the whole. I questioned him, why he had altered his declamation ? He declared he had made no alteration, and did not know, in speaking, that he had deviated from it one letter. I believed him; and from a knowledge of his temperament am convinced, that, fully impressed with the sense and substance of the subject, he was hurried on to expressions and colourings more striking than what his pen had expressed.”
In communicating to me these recollections of his illustrious pupil, Dr. Drury has added a circumstance which shows how strongly, even in all the pride of his fame, that awe with which he had once regarded the opinions of his old master still hung around the poet’s sensitive mind: —
“After my retreat from Harrow, I received from him two very affectionate letters. In my occasional visits subsequently to London, when he had fascinated the public with his productions, I demanded of him, why, as in duty bound, he had sent none to me? ‘Because,’ said he, ‘you are the only man I never wish to read them:’ — but, in a few moments, he added — ‘What do you think of the Corsair?’ “
I shall now lay before the reader such notices of his school-life as I find scattered through the various note-books he has left behind. Coming, as they do, from his own pen, it is needless to add, that they afford the liveliest and best records of this period that can be furnished.
“Till I was eighteen years old (odd as it may seem) I had never read a review. But while at Harrow, my general information was so great on modern s as to induce a suspicion that I could only collect so much information from Reviews, because I was never seen reading, but always idle, and in mischief, or at play. The truth is, that I read eating, read in bed, read when no one else read, and had read all sorts of reading since I was five years old, and yet never met with a Review, which is the only reason I know of why I should not have read them. But it is true; for I remember when Hunter and Curzon, in 1804, told me this opinion at Harrow, I made them laugh by my ludicrous astonishment in asking them ‘What is a Review?’ To be sure, they were then less common. In three years more, I was better acquainted with that same ; but the first I ever read was in 1806-7.
“At school I was (as I have said) remarked for the extent and readiness of my general information; but in all other respects idle, capable of great sudden exertions, (such as thirty or forty Greek hexameters, of course with such prosody as it pleased God,) but of few continuous drudgeries. My qualities were much more oratorical and martial than poetical, and Dr. Drury, my grand patron, (our head master,) had a great notion that I should turn out an orator, from my fluency, my turbulence, my voice, my copiousness of declamation, and my action. (20) I remember that my first declamation astonished him into some unwonted (for he was economical of such) and sudden compliments, before the declaimers at our first rehearsal. My first Harrow verses, (that is, English, as exercises,) a translation of a chorus from the Prometheus of Æschylus, were received by him but coolly. No one had the least notion that I should subside into poesy.
“Peel, the orator and statesman, (‘that was, or is, or is to be,’) was my form-fellow, and we were both at the top of our remove (a public-school phrase). We were on good terms, but his brother was my intimate friend. There were always great hopes of Peel, amongst us all, masters and scholars — and he has not disappointed them. As a scholar he was greatly my superior; as a declaimer and actor, I was reckoned at least his equal; as a schoolboy, out of school, I was always in scrapes, and he never; and in school, he always knew his lesson, and I rarely, — but when I knew it, I knew it nearly as well. In general information, history, &c. &c., I think I was his superior, as well as of most boys of my standing.
“The prodigy of our school-days was George Sinclair (son of Sir John) ; he made exercises for half the school, (literally) verses at will, and themes without it. * * * He was a friend of mine, and in the same remove, and used at times to beg me to let him do my exercise, — a request always most readily accorded upon a pinch, or when I wanted to do something else, which was usually once an hour. On the other hand, he was pacific and I savage; so I fought for him, or thrashed others for him, or thrashed himself to make him thrash others when it was necessary, as a point of honour and stature, that he should so chastise ;—or we talked politics, for he was a great politician, and were very good friends. I have some of his letters, written to me from school, still. (21)
“Clayton was another school-monster of learning, and talent, and hope; but what has become of him I do not know. He was certainly a genius.
“My school-friendships were with me passions (22) (for I was always violent,) but I do not know that there is one which has endured (to be sure some have been cut short by death) till now. That with Lord Clare begun one of the earliest, and lasted longest — being only interrupted by distance — that I know of. I never hear the word ‘ Clare’ without a beating of the heart even now, and I write it with the feelings of 1803-4-5, ad infinitum.”
The following extract is from another of his manuscript journals: —
“At Harrow I fought my way very fairly. (23) I think I lost but one battle out of seven; and that was to H—; — and the rascal did not win it, but by the unfair treatment of his own boarding-house, where we boxed — I had not even a second. I never forgave him, and I should be sorry to meet him now, as I am sure we should quarrel. My most memorable combats were with Morgan, Rice, Rainsford, and Lord Jocelyn, — but we were always friendly afterwards. I was a most unpopular boy, but led latterly, and have retained many of my school friendships, and all my dislikes — except to Dr. Butler, whom I treated rebelliously, and have been sorry ever since. Dr. Drury, whom I plagued sufficiently too, was the best, the kindest (and yet strict, too,) friend I ever had — and I look upon him still as a father.
“P. Hunter, Curzon, Long, and Tatersall, were my principal friends. Clare, Dorset, C. Gordon, De Bath, Claridge, and J. Wingfield, were my juniors and favourites, whom I spoilt by indulgence. Of all human beings, I was, perhaps, at one time, the most attached to poor Wingfield, who died at Coimbra, 1811, before I returned to England.”
One of the most striking results of the English system of education is, that while in no country are there so many instances of manly friendships early formed and steadily maintained, so in no other country, perhaps, are the feelings towards the parental home so early estranged, or, at the best, feebly cherished. Transplanted as boys are from the domestic circle, at a time of life when the affections are most disposed to cling, it is but natural that they should seek a substitute for the ties of home (24) in those boyish friendships which they form at school, and which, connected as they are with the scenes and events over which youth threw its charm, retain ever after the strongest hold upon their hearts. In Ireland, and I believe also in France, where the system of education is more domestic, a different result is accordingly observable: — the paternal home comes in for its due and natural share of affection, and the growth of friendships, out of this domestic circle, is proportionably diminished.
To a youth like Byron, abounding with the most passionate feelings, and finding sympathy with only the ruder parts of his nature at home, the little world of school afforded a vent for his affections, which was sure to call them forth in their most ardent form. Accordingly, the friendships which he contracted, both at school and college, were little less than what he himself describes them, “passions.” The want he felt at home of those kindred dispositions, which greeted him among “Ida’s social band,” is thus strongly described in one of his early poems (25): —
“Is there no cause beyond the common claim,
Endear’d to all in childhood’s very name?
Ah! sure some stronger impulse vibrates here,
Which whispers, Friendship will be doubly dear
To one who thus for kindred hearts must roam,
And seek abroad the love denied at home:
Those hearts, dear Ida, have I found in thee,
A home, a world, a paradise to me.”
This early volume, indeed, abounds with the most affectionate tributes to his school-fellows. Even his expostulations to one of them, who had given him some cause for complaint, are thus tenderly conveyed: —
“You knew that my soul, that my heart, my existence,
If danger demanded, were wholly your own;
You know me unaltered by years or by distance,
Devoted to love and to friendship alone.
“You knew — but away with the vain retrospection,
The bond of affection no longer endures.
Too late you may droop o’er the fond recollection,
And sigh for the friend who was formerly yours.”
The following description of what he felt after leaving Harrow, when he encountered in the world any of his old school-fellows, falls far short of the scene which actually occurred but a few years before his death in Italy, — when, on meeting with his friend, Lord Clare, after a long separation, he was affected almost to tears by the recollections which rushed on him.
“If chance some well remember’d face,
Some old companion of my early race,
Advance to claim his friend with honest joy,
My eyes, my heart proclaim’d me yet a boy ;
The glittering scene, the fluttering groups around,
Were all forgotten when my friend was found.”
It will be seen, by the extracts from his memorandum-book, which I have given, that Mr. Peel was one of his contemporaries at Harrow ; and the following interesting anecdote of an occurrence in which both were concerned, has been related to me by a friend of the latter gentleman, in whose words I shall endeavour as nearly as possible to give it.
While Lord Byron and Mr. Peel were at Harrow together, a tyrant, some few years older, whose name was ******, claimed a right to fag little Peel, which claim (whether rightly or wrongly I know not) Peel resisted. His resistance, however, was in vain: — ****** not only subdued him, but determined also to punish the refractory slave ; and proceeded forthwith to put this determination in practice, by inflicting a kind of bastinado on the inner fleshy side of the boy’s arm, which, during the operation, was twisted round with some degree of technical skill, to render the pain more acute. While the stripes were succeeding each other, and poor Peel writhing under them, Byron saw and felt for the misery of his friend; and although he knew that he was not strong enough to fight ****** with any hope of success, and that it was dangerous even to approach him, he advanced to the scene of action, and with a blush of rage, tears in his eyes, and a voice trembling between terror and indignation, asked very humbly if ****** would be pleased to tell him “how many stripes he meant to inflict?” — “Why,” returned the executioner, “you little rascal, what is that to you?” — “Because, if you please,” said Byron, holding out his arm, “I would take half!”
There is a mixture of simplicity and magnanimity in this little trait which is truly heroic; and however we may smile at the friendships of boys, it is but rarely that the friendship of manhood is capable of any thing half so generous.
Among his school favourites a great number, it may be observed, were nobles or of noble family — Lords Clare and Delaware, the Duke of Dorset and young Wingfield — and that their rank may have had some share in first attracting hís regard to them, might appear from a circumstance mentioned to me by one of his school-fellows, who, being monitor one day, had put Lord Delaware on his list for punishment. Byron, hearing of this, came up to him, and said, ” Wildman, I find you’ve got Delaware on your list — pray don’t lick him.” — “Why not?” —
“Why, I don’t know — except that he is a brother peer. But pray don’t.” It is almost needless to add, that his interference, on such grounds, was any thing but successful. One of the few merits, indeed, of public schools is, that they level, in some degree, these artificial distinctions, and that, however the peer may have his revenge in the world afterwards, the young plebeian is, for once, at least, on something like an equality with him
miniature portrait of Lord Byron by James Holmes, 1815It is true that Lord Byron’s high notions of rank were, in his boyish days, so little disguised or softened down, as to draw upon him, at times, the ridicule of his companions; and it was at Dulwich, I think, that from his frequent boast of the superiority of an old English barony over all the later creations of the peerage, he got the nickname, among the boys, of “the Old English Baron.” But it is a mistake to suppose that, either at school or afterwards, he was at all guided in the selection of his friends by aristocratic sympathies. On the contrary, like most very proud persons, he chose his intimates in general from a rank beneath his own, and those boys whom he ranked as friends at school were mostly of this description; while the chief charm that recommended to him his younger favourites was their inferiority to himself in age and strength, which enabled him to indulge his generous pride by taking upon himself, when necessary, the office of their protector.
Among those whom he attached to himself by this latter tie, one of the earliest (though he has omitted to mention his name) was William Harness, who at the time of his entering Harrow was ten years of age, while Byron was fourteen. Young Harness, still lame from an accident of his childhood, and but just recovered from a severe illness, was ill fitted to struggle with the difficulties of a public school; and Byron, one day, seeing him bullied by a boy much older and stronger than himself, interfered and took his part. The next day, as the little fellow was standing alone, Byron came to him and said, ” Harness, if any one bullies you, tell me, and I’ll thrash him, if I can.” The young champion kept his word, and they were from this time, notwithstanding the difference of their ages, inseparable friends. A coolness, however, subsequently arose between them, to which, and to the juvenile friendship it interrupted, Lord Byron, in a letter addressed to Harness six years afterwards, alludes with so much kindly feeling, so much delicacy and frankness, that I am tempted to anticipate the date of the letter, and give an extract from it here.
“We both seem perfectly to recollect, with a mixture of pleasure and regret, the hours we once passed together, and I assure you, most sincerely, they are numbered among the happiest of my brief chronicle of enjoyment. I am now getting into years, that is to say, I was twenty a month ago, and another year will send me into the world to run my career of folly with the rest. I was then just fourteen, — you were almost the first of my Harrow friends, certainly the first in my esteem, if not in date; but an absence from Harrow for some time, shortly after, and new connections on your side, and the difference in our conduct (an advantage decidedly in your favour) from that turbulent and riotous disposition of mine, which impelled me into every species of mischief, — all these circumstances combined to destroy an intimacy, which affection urged me to continue, and memory compels me to regret. But there is not a circumstance attending that period, hardly a sentence we exchanged, which is not impressed on my mind at this moment. I need not say more, — this assurance alone must convince you, had I considered them as trivial, they would have been less indelible. How well I recollect the perusal of your ‘first flights!’ There is another circumstance you do not know ; — the first lines I ever attempted at Harrow were addressed to you. You were to have seen them; but Sinclair had the copy in his possession when we went home ; — and, on our return, we were strangers. They were destroyed, and certainly no great loss ; but you will perceive from this circumstance my opinions at an age when we cannot be hypocrites.
“I have dwelt longer on this theme than I intended, and I shall now conclude with what I ought to have begun. We were once friends, — nay, we have always been so, for our separation was the effect of chance, not of dissension. I do not know how far our destinations in life may throw us together, but if opportunity and inclination allow you to waste a thought on such a hare-brained being as myself, you will find me at least sincere, and not so bigoted to my faults as to involve others in the consequences, Will you sometimes write to me ? I do not ask it often; and, if we meet, let us be what we should be, and what we were.”
Of the tenaciousness with which, as we see in this letter, he clung to all the impressions of his youth, there can be no stronger proof than the very interesting fact, that, while so little of his own boyish correspondence has been preserved, there were found among his papers almost all the notes and letters which his principal school favourites, even the youngest, had ever addressed to him; and, in some cases, where the youthful writers had omitted to date their scrawls, his faithful memory had, at an interval of years after, supplied the deficiency. Among these memorials, so fondly treasured by him, there is one which it would be unjust not to cite, as well on account of the manly spirit that dawns through its own childish language, as for the sake of the tender and amiable feeling which, it will be seen, the re-perusal of it, in other days, awakened in Byron: —
“TO THE LORD BYRON, &c. &c.
” Harrow on the Hill, July 28, 1805.
“Since you have been so unusually unkind to me, in calling me names whenever you meet me, of late, I must beg an explanation, wishing to know whether you choose to be as good friends with me as ever. I must own that, for this last month, you have entirely cut me, — for, I suppose, your new cronies. But think not that I will (because you choose to take into your head some whim or other) be always going up to you, nor do, as I observe certain other fellows doing, to regain your friendship; nor think that I am your friend either through interest, or because you are bigger and older than I am. No, — it never was so, nor ever shall be so. I was only your friend, and am so still, — unless you go on in this way, calling me names whenever you see me.
I am sure you may easily perceive I do not like it; therefore, why should you do it, unless you wish that I should no longer be your friend ? And why should I be so, if you treat me unkindly? I have no interest in being so. Though you do not let the boys bully me, yet if you treat me unkindly, that is to me a great deal worse.
“I am no hypocrite, Byron, nor will I, for your pleasure, ever suffer you to call me names, if you wish me to be your friend. If not, I cannot help it. I am sure no one can say that I will cringe to regain a friendship that you have rejected. Why should I do so? Am I not your equal? Therefore, what interest can I have in doing so? When we meet again in the world, (that is, if you choose it.) you cannot advance or promote me, npr I you. Therefore I beg and entreat of you, if you value my friendship, — which, by your conduct, I am sure I cannot think you do, — not to call me the names you do, nor abuse me. Till that time, it will be out of my power to call you friend. I shall be obliged for an answer as soon as it is convenient; till then
I remain yours,
“I cannot say your friend.”
Endorsed on this letter, in the handwriting of Lord Byron, is the following: —
“This and another letter were written at Harrow, by my then, and I hope ever, beloved friend, Lord**, when we were both school-boys, and sent to my study in consequence of some childish misunderstanding, — the only one which ever arose between us. It was of short duration, and I retain this note solely for the purpose of submitting it to his perusal, that we may smile over the recollection of the insignificance of our first and last quarrel.
In a letter, dated two years afterwards, from the same boy (26), there occurs the following characteristic trait: — “I think, by your last letter, that you are very much piqued with most of your friends; and, if I am not much mistaken, you are a little piqued with me. In one part you say, ‘ There is little or no doubt a few years, or months, will render us as politely indifferent to each other as if we had never passed a portion of our time together.’ Indeed, Byron, you wrong me, and I have no doubt — at least, I hope — you wrong yourself.”
As that propensity to self-delineation, which so strongly pervades his maturer works is, to the full, as predominant in his early productions, there needs no better record of his mode of life, as a school-boy, than what these fondly circumstantial effusions supply. Thus the sports he delighted and excelled in are enumerated: —
“Yet when confinement’s lingering hour was done,
Our sports, our studies, and our souls were one:
Together we impell’d the flying ball,
Together join’d in cricket’s manly toil,
Or shared the produce of the river’s spoil;
Or, plunging from the green, declining shore,
Our pliant limbs the buoyant waters bore;
In every element, unchanged, the same,
All, all that brothers should be, but the name.”
The danger which he incurred in a fight with some of the neighbouring farmers — an event well remembered by some of his school-fellows — is thus commemorated: —
“Still I remember, in the factious strife, The rustic’s musket aim’d against my life; High poised in air the massy weapon hung, A cry of horror burst from every tongue: Whilst I, in combat with another foe, Fought on, unconscious of the impending blow. Your arm, brave boy, arrested his career —Forward you sprung, insensible to fear; Disarm’d and baffled by your conquering hand, The grovelling savage roll’d upon the sand.”
Some feud, it appears, had arisen on the subject of the cricket-ground, between these “clods” (as in school-language they are called) and the boys, and one or two skirmishes had previously taken place. But the engagement here recorded was accidentally brought on by the breaking up of school and the dismissal of the volunteers from drill, both happening, on that occasion, at the same hour. This circumstance accounts for the use of the musket, the butt end of which was aimed at Byron’s head, and would have felled him to the ground, but for the interposition of his friend Tatersall, a lively, high-spirited boy, whom he addresses here under the name of Davus.
Notwithstanding these general habits of play and idleness, which might seem to indicate a certain absence of reflection and feeling, there were moments when the youthful poet would retire thoughtfully within himself, and give way to moods of musing uncongenial with the usual cheerfulness of his age. They show a tomb in the churchyard at Harrow, commanding a view over Windsor, which was so well known to be his favourite resting-place, that the boys called it “Byron’s tomb (27) ” and here, they say, he used to sit for hours, wrapt up in thought, — brooding lonelily over the first stirrings of passion and genius in his soul, and occasionally, perhaps, indulging in those bright forethoughts of fame, under the influence of which, when little more than fifteen years of age, he wrote these remarkable lines: —
” My epitaph shall be my name alone;
If that with honour fail to crown my clay,
Oh may no other fame my deeds repay ;
That, only that, shall single out the spot,
By that remember’d, or with that forgot.”
In the autumn of 1802, he passed a short time with his mother at Bath, and entered, rather prematurely, into some of the gaieties of the place. At a masquerade given by Lady Riddel, he appeared in the character of a Turkish boy, — a sort of anticipation, both in beauty and costume, of his own young Selim, in ” The Bride.” On his entering into the house, some person in the crowd attempted to snatch the diamond crescent from his turban, but was prevented by the prompt interposition of one of the party. The lady who mentioned to me this circumstance, and who was well acquainted with Mrs. Byron at that period, adds the following remark in the communication with which she has favoured me: — “At Bath I saw a good deal of Lord Byron,— his mother frequently sent for me to take tea with her. He was always very pleasant and droll, and, when conversing about absent friends, showed a slight turn for satire, which after-years, as is well known, gave a finer edge to.”
We come now to an event in his life which, according to his own deliberate persuasion, exercised a lasting and paramount influence over the whole of his subsequent character and career.
It was in the year 1803 that his heart, already twice, as we have seen, possessed with the childish notion that it loved, conceived an attachment which — young as he was, even then, for such a feeling — sunk so deep into his mind as to give a colour to all his future life. That unsuccessful loves are generally the most lasting, is a truth, however sad, which unluckily did not require this instance to confirm it. To the same cause, I fear, must be traced the perfect innocence and romance which distinguish this very early attachment to Miss Chaworth from the many others that succeeded, without effacing it in his heart; — making it the only one whose details can be entered into with safety, or whose results, however darkening their influence on himself, can be dwelt upon with pleasurable interest by others.
On leaving Bath, Mrs. Byron took up her abode, in lodgings, at Nottingham,— Newstead Abbey being at that time let to Lord Grey de Ruthen,—and during the Harrow vacations of this year, she was joined there by her son. So attached was he to Newstead, that even to be in its neighbourhood was a delight to him; and before he became acquainted with Lord Grey, he used sometimes to sleep, for a night, at the small house near the gate which is still known by the name of ” The Hut.” (28) An intimacy, however, soon sprung up between him and his noble tenant, and an apartment in the abbey was from thenceforth always at his service. To the family of Miss Chaworth, who resided at Annesley, in the immediate neighbourhood of Newstead, lie had been made known, some time before, in London, and now renewed his acquaintance with them. The young heiress herself combined with the many worldly advantages that encircled her, much personal beauty, and a disposition the most amiable and attaching. Though already fully alive to her charms, it was at the period of which we are speaking that the young poet, who was then in his sixteenth year, while the object of his admiration was about two years older, seems to have drunk deepest of that fascination whose effects were to be so lasting; — six short summer weeks which he now passed in her company being sufficient to lay the foundation of a feeling for all life.
He used, at first, though offered a bed at Annesley, to return every night to Newstead, to sleep; alleging as a reason that he was afraid of the family pictures of the Chaworths, — that he fancied “they had taken a grudge to him on account of the duel, and would come down from their frames at night to haunt him.” (29) At length, one evening, he said gravely to Miss Chaworth and her cousin, ” In going home last night I saw a bogle;” — which Scotch term being wholly unintelligible to the young ladies, he explained that he had seen a ghost, and would not therefore return to Newstead that evening. From this time he always slept at Annesley during the remainder of his visit, which was interrupted only by a short excursion to Matlock and Castleton, in which he had the happiness of accompanying Miss Chaworth and her party, and of which the following interesting notice appears in one of his memorandum-books: —
“When I was fifteen years of age, it happened that, in a cavern in Derbyshire, I had to cross in a boat (in which two people only could lie down) a stream which flows under a rock, with the rock so close upon the water as to admit the boat only to be pushed on by a ferryman (a sort of Charon) who wades at the stern, stooping all the time. The companion of my transit was M. A. C., with whom I had been long in love, and never told it, though she had discovered it without. I recollect my sensations, but cannot describe them, and it is as well. We were a party, a Mr. W., two Miss W.s, Mr. and Mrs. Cl—ke, Miss R. and my M. A. C. Alas! why do I say MY? Our union would have healed feuds in which blood had been shed by our fathers, — it would have joined lands broad and rich, it would have joined at least one heart, and two persons not ill matched in years (she is two years my elder), and — and — and — what has been the result?”
In the dances of the evening at Matlock, Miss Chaworth, of course, joined, while her lover sat looking on, solitary and mortified. It is not impossible, indeed, that the dislike which he always expressed for this amusement may have originated in some bitter pang, felt in his youth, on seeing “the lady of his love ” led out by others to the gay dance from which he was himself excluded. On the present occasion, the young heiress of Annesley having had for her partner (as often happens at Matlock) some person with whom she was wholly unacquainted, on her resuming her seat, Byron said to her pettishly, “I hope you like your friend?” The words were scarce out of his lips when he was accosted by an ungainly-looking Scotch lady, who rather boisterously claimed him as “cousin,” and was putting his pride to the torture with her vulgarity, when he heard the voice of his fair companion retorting archly in his ear, “I hope you like your friend?”
His time at Annesley was mostly passed in riding with Miss Chaworth and her cousin, sitting in idle reverie, as was his custom, pulling at his handkerchief, or in firing at a door which opens upon the terrace, and which still, I believe, bears the marks of his shots. But his chief delight was in sitting to hear Miss Chaworth play; and the pretty Welsh air, ” Mary Anne,” was (partly, of course, on account of the name) his especial favourite. During all this time he had the pain of knowing that the heart of her he loved was occupied by another; — that, as he himself expresses it,
“Her sighs were not for him; to her he was
Even as a brother — but no more.”
Neither is it, indeed, probable, had even her affections been disengaged, that Lord Byron would, at this time, have been selected as the object of them. A seniority of two years gives to a girl, “on the eve of womanhood,” an advance into life with which the boy keeps no proportionate pace. Miss Chaworth looked upon Byron as a mere school-boy. He was in his manners, too, at that period, rough and odd, and (as I have heard from more than one quarter) by no means popular among girls of his own age. If, at any moment, however, he had flattered himself with the hope of being loved by her, a circumstance mentioned in his ” Memoranda,” as one of the most painful of those humiliations to which the defect in his foot had exposed him, must have let the truth in, with dreadful certainty, upon his heart. He either was told of, or overheard, Miss Chaworth saying to her maid, “Do you think I could care any thing for that lame boy?” This speech, as he himself described it, was like a shot through his heart. Though late at night when he heard it, he instantly darted out of the house, and scarcely knowing whither he ran, never stopped till he found himself at Newstead.
The picture which he has drawn of his youthful love, in one of the most interesting of his poems, “The Dream,” shows how genius and feeling can elevate the realities of this life, and give to the commonest events and objects an undying lustre. The old hall at Annesley, under the name of “the antique oratory,” will long call up to fancy the ” maiden and the youth” who once stood in it: while the image of the “lover’s steed,” though suggested by the unromantic race-ground of Nottingham, will not the less conduce to the general charm of the scene, and share a portion of that light which only genius could shed over it.
He appears already, at this boyish age, to have been so far a proficient in gallantry as to know the use that may be made of the trophies of former triumphs in achieving new ones ; for he used to boast, with much pride, to Miss Chaworth, of a locket which some fair favourite had given him, and which probably may have been a present from that pretty cousin, of whom he speaks with such warmth in one of the notices already quoted. He was also, it appears, not a little aware of his own beauty, which, notwithstanding the tendency to corpulence derived from his mother, gave promise, at this time, of that peculiar expression into which his features refined and kindled afterwards.
With the summer holidays ended this dream of his youth. He saw Miss Chaworth once more in the succeeding year, and took his last farewell of her (as he himself used to relate) on that hill near Annesley (30) which, in his poem of “The Dream,” he describes so happily as “crowned with a peculiar diadem.” No one, he declared, could have told how much he felt — for his countenance was calm, and his feelings restrained. “The next time I see you,” said he in parting with her, “I suppose you will be Mrs. Chaworth (31),” — and her answer was, “I hope so.” It was before this interview that he wrote, with a pencil, in a volume of Madame de Maintenon’s letters, belonging to her, the following verses, which have never, I believe, before been published (32) —
“Oh Memory, torture me no more,
The present’s all o’ercast;
My hopes of future bliss are o’er,
In mercy veil the past.
Why bring those images to view
I henceforth must resign ?
Ah ! why those happy hours renew,
That never can be mine?
Past pleasure doubles present pain,
To sorrow adds regret,
Regret and hope are both in vain,
I ask but to — forget.”
In the following year, 1805, Miss Chaworth was married to his successful rival, Mr. John Musters; and a person who was present when the first intelligence of the event was communicated to him, thus describes the manner in which he received it. — “I was present when he first heard of the marriage. His mother said, ‘ Byron, I have some news for you.’ — ‘Well, what is it?’ — ‘Take out your handkerchief first, for you will want it.’ — ‘Nonsense!’ — ‘Take out your handkerchief, I say.’ He did so, to humour her. ‘ Miss Chaworth is married.’ An expression very peculiar, impossible to describe, passed over his pale face, and he hurried his handkerchief into his pocket, saying, with an affected air of coldness and nonchalance, ‘Is that all?’ — ‘Why, I expected you would have been plunged in grief!’ — He made no reply, and soon began to talk about something else.”
His pursuits at Harrow continued to be of the same truant description during the whole of his stay there; — “always,” as he says himself, “cricketing, rebelling (33), rowing, and in all manner of mischiefs.” The “rebelling,” of which he here speaks, (though it never, I believe, proceeded to any act of violence,) took place on the retirement of Dr. Drury from his situation as head master, when three candidates for the vacant chair presented themselves, — Mark Drury, Evans, and Butler. On the first movement to which this contest gave rise in the school, young Wildman was at the head of the party for Mark Drury, while Byron at first held himself aloof from any. Anxious, however, to have him as an ally, one of the Drury faction said to Wildman — ” Byron, I know, will not join, because he doesn’t choose to act second to any one, but, by giving up the leadership to him, you may at once secure him.” This Wildman accordingly did, and Byron took the command of the party.
The violence with which he opposed the election of Dr. Butler on this occasion (chiefly from the warm affection which he had felt towards the last master) continued to embitter his relations with that gentleman during the remainder of his stay at Harrow. Unhappily their opportunities of collision were the more frequent from Byron’s being a resident in Dr. Butler’s house. One day the young rebel, in a fit of defiance, tore down all the gratings from the window in the hall; and when called upon by his host to say why he had committed this violence, answered, with stern coolness, “Because they darkened the hall.” On another occasion he explicitly, and so far manfully, avowed to this gentleman’s face the pique he entertained against him. It has long been customary, at the end of a term, for the master to invite the upper boys to dine with him ; and these invitations are generally considered as, like royal ones, a sort of command. Lord Byron, however, when asked, sent back a refusal, which rather surprising Dr. Butler, he, on the first opportunity that occurred, enquired of him, in the presence of the other boys, his motive for this step: — ” Have you any other engagement?” — “No, sir.” — “But you must have some reason, Lord Byron.” —”have.’ —”What is it?”—”Why, Dr. Butler,” replied the young peer, with proud composure, ” if you should happen to come into my neighbourhood when I was staying at Newstead, I certainly should not ask you to dine with me, and therefore feel that I ought not to dine with you.”
The general character which he bore among the masters at Harrow was that of an idle boy, who would never learn anything; and, as far as regarded his tasks in school, this reputation was, by his own avowal, not ill-founded. It is impossible, indeed, to look through the books which he had then in use, and which are scribbled over with clumsy interlined translations, without being struck with the narrow extent of his classical attainments. The most ordinary Greek words have their English signification scrawled under them, showing too plainly that he was not sufficiently familiarised with their meaning to trust himself without this aid. Thus, in his Xenophon we find υεοι, young σωμασΛν, bodies — ανθρωποΛς τοΛς αγαθοΛς, good men, &c. &c.—and even in the volumes of Greek plays which he presented to the library on his departure, we observe, among other instances, the common word χρωσος provided with its English representative in the margin.
But, notwithstanding his backwardness in the mere verbal scholarship, on which so large and precious a portion of life is wasted (34), in all that general and miscellaneous knowledge which is alone useful in the world, he was making rapid and even wonderful progress. With a mind too inquisitive and excursive to be imprisoned within statutable limits, he flew to subjects that interested his already manly tastes, with a zest which it is in vain to expect that the mere pedantries of school could inspire ; and the irregular, but ardent, snatches of study which he caught in this way, gave to a mind like his an impulse forwards, which left more disciplined and plodding competitors far behind. The list, indeed, which he has left on record of the works, in all departments of literature, which he thus hastily and greedily devoured before he was fifteen years of age, is such as almost to startle belief, — comprising, as it does, a range and variety of study, which might make much older “helluones librorum ” hide their heads.
Not to argue, however, from the powers and movements of a mind like Byron’s, which might well be allowed to take a privileged direction of its own, there is little doubt, that to any youth of talent and ambition, the plan of instruction pursued in the great schools and universities of England, wholly inadequate as it is to the intellectual wants of the age (35), presents an alternative of evils not a little embarrassing. Difficult, nay, utterly impossible, as he will find it, to combine a competent acquisition of useful knowledge with that round of antiquated studies which a pursuit of scholastic honours requires, he must either, by devoting the whole of his attention and ambition to the latter object, remain ignorant on most of those subjects upon which mind grapples with mind in life, or by adopting, as Lord Byron and other distinguished persons have done, the contrary system, consent to pass for a dunce or idler in the schools, in order to afford himself even a chance of attaining eminence in the world.
From the memorandums scribbled by the young poet in his school-books, we might almost fancy that, even at so early an age, he had a sort of vague presentiment that everything relating to him would one day be an object of curiosity and interest. The date of his entrance at Harrow (36), the names of the boys who were, at that time, monitors, the list of his fellow pupils under Doctor Drury (37) — all are noted down with a fond minuteness, as if to form points of retrospect in his after-life; and that he sometimes referred to them with this feeling will appear from one touching instance. On the first leaf of his ” Scriptores Græci,” we find,in his schoolboy hand, the following memorial: — ” George Gordon Byron, Wednesday, June 26th, A. D. 1805, 3 quarters of an hour past 3 o’clock in the afternoon, 3d school, — Calvert, monitor; Tom Wildman on my left hand and Long on my right. Harrow on the Hill.” On the same leaf, written five years after, appears this comment: —
” Eheu fugaces, Posthume! Posthume!
“B. January 9th, 1809. — Of the four persons whose names are here mentioned, one is dead, another in a distant climate, all separated, and not five years have elapsed since they sat together in school, and none are yet twenty-one years of age.”
The vacation of 1804 he passed with his mother at Southwell, to which place she had removed from Nottingham, in the summer of this year, having taken the house on the Green called Burgage Manor. There is a Southwell play-bill extant, dated August 8th, 1804, in which the play is announced as bespoke ” by Mrs. and Lord Byron,” The gentleman, from whom the house where they resided was rented, possesses a library of some extent, which the young poet, he says, ransacked with much eagerness on his first coming to Southwell; and one of the books that most particularly engaged and interested him was, as may be easily believed, the life of Lord Herbert of Cherbury.
In the month of October, 1805, he was removed to Trinity College, Cambridge, and his feelings on the change from his beloved Ida to this new scene of life are thus described by himself: —
“When I first went up to college, it was a new and a heavy-hearted scene for me: firstly, I so much disliked leaving Harrow, that though it was time (I being seventeen), it broke my very rest for the last quarter with counting the days that remained. I always hated Harrow till the last year and a half, but then I liked it. Secondly, I wished to go to Oxford, and not to Cambridge. Thirdly, I was so completely alone in this new world, that it half broke my spirits. My companions were not unsocial, but the contrary — lively, hospitable, of rank and fortune, and gay far beyond my gaiety. I mingled with, and dined, and supped, &c., with them ; but, I know not how, it was one of the deadliest and heaviest feelings of my life to feel that I was no longer a boy.”
But though, for a time, he may have felt this sort of estrangement at Cambridge, to remain long without attaching himself was not in his nature; and the friendship which he now formed with a youth named Eddleston, who was two years younger than himself, even exceeded in warmth and romance all his school-boy attachments. This boy, whose musical talents first drew them together, was, at the commencement of their acquaintance, one of the choir at Cambridge, though he afterwards, it appears, entered into a mercantile line of life; and this disparity in their stations was by no means without its charm for Byron, as gratifying at once both his pride and good-nature, and founding the tie between them on the mutually dependent relations of protection on the one side, and gratitude and devotion on the other; — the only relations (39), according to Lord Bacon, in which the little friendship that still remains in the world is to be found. It was upon a gift presented to him by Eddleston, that he wrote those verses entitled “The Cornelian,” which were printed in his first, unpublished volume, and of which the following is a stanza: —
“Some, who can sneer at friendship’s ties,
Have for my weakness oft reproved me;
Yet still the simple gift I prize,
For I am sure the giver loved me.”
Another friendship, of a less unequal kind, which had been begun at Harrow, and which he continued to cultivate during his first year at Cambridge, is thus interestingly dwelt upon in one of his journals: —
“How strange are my thoughts ! — The reading of the song of Milton, ‘ Sabrina fair,’ has brought ack upon me — I know not how or why — the hapiest, perhaps, days of my life (always excepting, here and there, a Harrow holiday in the two latter summers of my stay there) when living at Cambridge with Edward Noel Long, afterwards of the Guards, — who, after having served honourably in the expedition to Copenhagen (of which two or three thousand scoundrels yet survive in plight and pay), was drowned early in 1809, on his passage to Lisbon with his regiment in the St. George transport, which was run foul of in the night by another transport. We were rival swimmers — fond of riding — reading — and of conviviality. We had been at Harrow together; but — there, at least — his was a less boisterous spirit than mine. I was always cricketing — rebelling — fighting — rowing (from row, not boat-rowing, a different practice), and in all manner of mischiefs; while he was more sedate and polished. At Cambridge — both of Trinity — my spirit rather softened, or his roughened, for we became very great friends. The description of Sabrina’s seat reminds me of our rival feats in diving. Though Cam’s is not a very translucent wave, it was fourteen feet deep, where we used to dive for, and pick up — having thrown them in on purpose — plates, eggs, and even shillings. I remember, in particular, there was the stump of a tree (at least ten or twelve feet deep) in the bed of the river, in a spot where we bathed most commonly, round which I used to cling, and ‘wonder how the devil I came there.’
“Our evenings we passed in music (he was musical, and played on more than one instrument, flute and violoncello), in which I was audience; and I think that our chief beverage was soda-water. In the day we rode, bathed, and lounged, reading occasionally. I remember our buying, with vast alacrity, Moore’s new quarto (in 1806), and reading it together in the evenings.
“We only passed the summer together; — Long had gone into the Guards during the year I passed in Notts, away from college. His friendship, and a violent, though pure, love and passion — which held me at the same period — were the then romance of the most romantic period of my life.
“I remember that, in the spring of 1809, H * * laughed at my being distressed at Long’s death, and amused himself with making epigrams upon his name, which was susceptible of a pun — Long, short, &c. But three years after, he had ample leisure to repent it, when our mutual friend and his, H * *’s, particular friend, Charles Matthews, was drowned also, and he himself was as much affected by a similar calamity. But I did not pay him back in puns and epigrams, for I valued Matthews too much myself to do so; and, even if I had not, I should have respected his griefs.
“Long’s father wrote to me to write his son’s epitaph. I promised — but I had not the heart to complete it. He was such a good amiable being as rarely remains long in this world; with talent and accomplishments, too, to make him the more regretted. Yet, although a cheerful companion, he had strange melancholy thoughts sometimes. I remember once that we were going to his uncle’s, I think—I went to accompany him to the door merely, in some Upper or Lower Grosvenor or Brook Street, I forget which, but it was in a street leading out of some square, — he told me that, the night before, he— ‘had taken up a pistol — not knowing or examining whether it was loaded or no — and had snapped it at his head, leaving it to chance whether it might or might not be charged.’ The letter, too, which he wrote me, on leaving college to join the Guards, was as melancholy in its tenour as it could well be on such an occasion. But he showed nothing of this in his deportment, being mild and gentle; — and yet with much turn for the ludicrous in his disposition. We were both much attached to Harrow, and sometimes made excursions there together from London to revive our schoolboy recollections.”
These affecting remembrances are contained in a Journal which he kept during his residence at Ravenna, in 1821, and they are rendered still more touching and remarkable by the circumstances under which they were noted down. Domesticated in a foreign land, and even connected with foreign conspirators, whose arms, at the moment he was writing, were in his house, he could yet thus wholly disengage himself from the scene around him, and, borne away by the current of memory into other times, live over the lost friendships of his boyhood again. An English gentleman (Mr. Wathen) who called upon him, at one of his residences in Italy, having happened to mention in conversation that he had been acquainted with Long, from that moment Lord Byron treated him with the most marked kindness, and talked with him of Long, and of his amiable qualities, till (as this gentleman says) the tears could not be concealed in his eyes.
In the summer of this year ( 1806) he, as usual, joined his mother at Southwell, — among the small, but select, society of which place he had, during his visits, formed some intimacies and friendships, the memory of which is still cherished there fondly and proudly. With the exception, indeed, of the brief and bewildering interval which he passed, as we have seen, in the company of Miss Chaworth, it was at Southwell alone that an opportunity was ever afforded him of profiting by the bland influence of female society, or of seeing what woman is in the true sphere of her virtues, home. The amiable and intelligent family of the Pigots received him within their circle as one of themselves : and in the Rev. John Becher (40) the youthful poet found not only an acute and judicious critic, but a sincere friend. There were also one or two other families — as the Leacrofts, the Housons — among whom his talents and vivacity made him always welcome; and the proud shyness with which, through the whole of his minority, he kept aloof from all intercourse with the neighbouring gentlemen seems to have been entirely familiarised away by the small, cheerful society of Southwell. One of the most intimate and valued of his friends, at this period, has given me the following account of her first acquaintance with him: — ” The first time I was introduced to him was at a party at his mother’s, when he was so shy that she was forced to send for him three times before she could persuade him to come into the drawing-room, to play with the young people at a round game. He was then a fat bashful boy, with his hair combed straight over his forehead, and extremely like a miniature picture that his mother had painted by M. de Chambruland. The next morning Mrs. Byron brought him to call at our house, when he still continued shy and formal in his manner. The conversation turned upon Cheltenham, where we had been staying, the amusements there, the plays, &c.; and I mentioned that I had seen the character of Gabriel Lackbrain very well performed. His mother getting up to go, he accompanied her, making a formal bow, and I, in allusion to the play, said, “Good by, Gaby.” His countenance lighted up, his handsome mouth displayed a broad grin, all his shyness vanished, never to return, and, upon his mother’s saying ‘ Come, Byron, are you ready?’— no, she might go by herself, he would stay and talk a little longer; and from that moment he used to come in and go out at all hours, as it pleased him, and in our house considered himself perfectly at home.”
To this lady was addressed the earliest letter from his pen that has fallen into my hands. He corresponded with many of his Harrow friends, — with Lord Clare, Lord Powerscourt, Mr. William Peel, Mr. William Bankes, and others. But it was then little foreseen what general interest would one day attach to these school-boy letters; and accordingly, as I have already had occasion to lament, there are but few of them now in existence. The letter, of which I have spoken, to his Southwell friend, though containing nothing remarkable, is perhaps for that very reason worth insertion, as serving to show, on comnaring it with most of its successors, how rapidly his mind acquired confidence in its powers. There is, indeed, one charm for the eye of curiosity in his juvenile manuscripts, which they necessarily want in their printed form; and that is the strong evidence of an irregular education which they exhibit, — the unformed and childish handwriting, and, now and then, even defective spelling of him who, in a very few years after, was to start up one of the giants of English literature.
1. In the park of Horseley,” says Thoroton, “there was a castle, some of the ruins whereof are yet visible, called Horestan Castle, which was the chief mansion of his ( Ralph de Burun’s) successors.”
2. The priory of Newstead had been founded and dedicated to God and the Virgin, by Henry II.; and its monks, who were canons regular of the order of St. Augustine, appear to have been peculiarly the objects of royal favour, no less in spiritual than in temporal concerns. During the lifetime of the fifth Lord Byron, there was found in the lake at Newstead, — where it is supposed to have been thrown for concealment by the monks, — a large brass eagle, in the body of which, on its being sent to be cleaned, was discovered a secret aperture, concealing within it a number of old legal papers connected with the rights and privileges of the foundation. At the sale of the old lord’s effects in 1776-7, this eagle, together with three candelabra, found at the same time, was purchased by a watch‐ maker of Nottingham (by whom the concealed manuscripts were discovered), and having from his hands passed into those of Sir Richard Kaye, a prebendary of Southwell, forms at present a very remarkable ornament of the cathedral of that place. A curious document, said to have been among those found in the eagle, is now in the possession of Colonel Wildman, containing a grant of full pardon from Henry V. of every possible crime (and there is a tolerably long catalogue enumerated) which the monks mght have committed previous to the 8th of December preceding: — “Murdris, per ipsos post decimum nonum diem Novembris, ultimo præteritum perpetratis, si quæ fuerint, exceptis.”
3. The Earl of Shrewsbury.
4. Afterwards Admiral.
5. The following particulars respecting the amount of Mrs. Byron’s fortune before marriage, and its rapid disappearance afterwards, are, I have every reason to think, from the authentic source to which I am indebted for them, strictly correct: —
“At the time of the marriage, Miss Gordon was possessed of about 3000l. in money, two shares of the Aberdeen Banking Company, the estates of Gight and Monkshill, and the superiority of two salmon fishings on Dee. Soon after the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Byron Gordon in Scotland, it appeared that Mr. Byron had involved himself very deeply in debt, and his creditors commenced legal proceedings for the recovery of their money. The cash in hand was soon paid away, — the bank shares were disposed of at 600l. now worth 5000l.) — timber on the estate was cut down and sold to the amount of 1500l. — the farm of Monkshill and superiority of the fishings, affording a freehold qualification, were disposed of at 480l.; and, in addition to these sales, within a year after the marriage, 8000l. was borrowed upon a mortgage on the estate, granted by Mrs. Byron Gordon to the person who lent the money.
” In March, 1786, a contract of marriage in the Scotch form was drawn up and signed by the parties. In the course of the summer of that year, Mr. and Mrs. Byron left Gight, and never returned to it; the estate being, in the following year, sold to Lord Haddo for the sum of 17,850l., the whole of which was applied to the payment of Mr. Byron’s debts, with the exception of 1122l., which remained as a burden on the estate, (the interest to be applied to paying a jointure of 55l. 11s. 1d. to Mrs. Byron’s grandmother, the principal reverting, at her death, to Mrs. Byron,) and 3000l. vested in trustees for Mrs. Byron’s separate use, which was lent to Mr. Carsewell of Ratharllet, in Fifeshire.”
” A strange occurrence,” says another of my informants, ” took place previous to the sale of the lards. All the doves left the house of Gight and came to Lord Haddo’s, and so did a number of herons, which had built their nests for many years in a wood on the banks of a large loch, called the Hagberry Pot. When this was told to Lord Haddo, ha pertinently replied, ‘ Let the birds come, and do them no harm, for the land will soon follow;’ which it actually did.”
6. It appears that she several times changed her residence during her stay at Aberdeen, as there are two other houses pointed out, where she lodged for some time; one situated in Virginia Street, and the other, the house of a Mr. Leslie, I think, in Broad Street.
7. By her advances of money to Mr. Byron (says an authority I have already cited) on the two occasions when he visited Aberdeen, as well as by the expenses incurred in furnishing the floor occupied by her, after his death, in Broad Street, she got in debt to the amount of 300l., by paying the interest on which her income was reduced to 135l. On this, however, she contrived to live without increasing her debt; and on the death of her grandmother, when she received the 1122l. set apart for that lady’s annuity, discharged the whole.
8. In Long Acre. The present master of this school is Mr. David Grant, the ingenious editor of a collection of “Battles and War Pieces,” and of a work of much utility, entitled “Class Book of Modern Poetry.”
9. The old porter, too, at the College, “minds weel ” the little boy, with the red jacket and nankeen trowsers, whom he has so often turned out of the College court-yard.
10. “He was,” says one of my informants, “a good hand at marbles, and could drive one farther than most boys. He also excelled at ‘ Bases,’ a game which requires considerable swiftness of foot.”
11. On examining the quarterly lists kept at the grammar school of Aberdeen, in which the names of the boys are set down according to the station each holds in his class, it appears that in April of the year 1794, the name of Byron, then in the second class, stands twenty-third in a list of thirty-eight boys. In the April of 1798, however, he had risen to be fifth in the fourth class, consisting of twenty-seven boys, and had got ahead of several of his contemporaries, who had previously always stood before him.
12. Notwithstanding the lively recollections expressed in this poem, it is pretty certain, from the testimony of his nurse, that he never was at the mountain itself, which stood some miles distant from his residence, more than twice.
13. The Island.
14. Dante, we know, was but nine years old when, at a Mayday festival, he saw and fell in love with Beatrice; and Alfieri, who was himself a precocious lover, considers such early sensibility to be an unerring sign of a soul formed for the fine arts: — “Effetti,” he says, in describing the feelings of his own first love, “che poche persone intendono, e pochissime provano: ma a quei soli pochissimi è concesso l’ uscir dalla folla volgare in tutte le umane arti.” Canova used to say, that he perfectly well remembered having been in love when but five years old.
15. To this Lord Byron used to add, on the authority of old servants of the family, that on the day of their patron’s death these crickets all left the house simultaneously, and in such numbers, that it was impossible to cross the hall without treading on them.
16. The correct reading of this legend is, I understand, as follows: —
” Brig o’ Balgounie, wight (strong) is thy wa';
Wi’ a wife’s ae son on a mare’s ae foal,
Down shalt thou fa’.”
17. In a letter addressed lately by Mr. Sheldrake to the editor of a Medical Journal, it is stated that the person of the same name who attended Lord Byron at Dulwich owed the honour of being called in to a mistake, and effected nothing towards the remedy of the limb. The writer of the letter adds that he was himself consulted by Lord Byron four or five years afterwards, and though unable to undertake the cure of the defect, from the unwillingness of his noble patient to submit to restraint or confinement, was successful in constructing a sort of shoe for the foot, which in some degree alleviated the inconvenience under which he laboured.
* “Quoique,” says Alfieri, speaking of his school-days, “je fusse le plus petit de tous les grands qui se trouvaient au second appartement où j’étais descendu, c’était précisement mon inferiorité de taille, d’age, et de force, qui me donnait plus de courage, et m’engageait à me distinguer.”
18. The following is Lord Byron’s version of this touching narrative; and it will be felt, I think, by every reader, that this is one of the instances in which poetry must be content to yield the palm to prose. There is a pathos in the last sentences of the seaman’s recital, which the artifices of metre and rhyme were sure to disturb, and which, indeed, no verses, however beautiful, could half so naturally and powerfully express: —
” There were two fathers in this ghastly crew,
And with them their two sons, of whom the one
Was more robust and hardy to the view,
But he died early; and when he was gone,
His nearest messmate told his sire, who threw
One glance on him, and said, ‘ Heaven’s will be done,
I can do nothing,’ and he saw him thrown
Into the deep without a tear or groan.
” The other father had a weaklier child,
Of a soft cheek, and aspect delicate ;
But the boy bore up long, and with a mild
And patient spirit held aloof his fate ;
Little he said, and now and then he smiled,
As if to win a part from off the weight
He saw increasing on his father’s heart,
With the deep, deadly thought, that they must part.
” And o’er him bent his sire, and never raised
His eyes from off his face, but wiped the foam
From his pale lips, and ever on him gazed,
And when the wish’d-for shower at length was come,
And the boy’s eyes, which the dull film half glazed,
Brighten’d, and for a moment seem’d to roam,
He squeezed from out a rag some drops of rain
Into his dying child’s mouth — but in vain.
“The boy expired — the father held the clay,
And look’d upon it long, and when at last
Death left no doubt, and the dead burden lay
Stiff on his heart, and pulse and hope were past,
He watch’d it wistfully, until away
‘Twas borne by the rude wave wherein ’twas cast:
Then he himself sunk down all dumb and shivering,
And gave no sign of life, save his limbs quivering.”
DON JUAN, CANTO II.
In the collection of ” Shipwrecks and Disasters at Sea,” to which Lord Byron so skilfully had recourse for the technical knowledge and facts out of which he has composed his own powerful description, the reader will find the account of the loss of the Juno here referred to.
19. This elegy is in his first (unpublished) volume.
20. For the display of his declamatory powers, on the speech days, he selected always the most vehement passages, — such as the speech of Zanga over the body of Alonzo, and Lear’s address to the storm. On one of these public occasions, when it was arranged that he should take the part of Drances, and young Peel that of Turnus, Lord Byron suddenly changed his mind, and preferred the speech of Latinus, — fearing, it was supposed, some ridicule from the inappropriate taunt of Turnus, “Ventosâ in linguâ, pedibusque fugacibus istis.”
21. His letters to Mr. Sinclair, in return, are unluckily lost, — one of them, as this gentleman tells me, having been highly characteristic of the jealous sensitiveness of his noble school‐ fellow, being written under the impression of some ideal slight, and beginning, angrily, “Sir.”
22. On a leaf of one of his note-books, dated 1808, I find the following passage from Marmontel, which no doubt struck him as applicable to the enthusiasm of his own youthful friendships : — “L’amitie, qui dans le monde est à peine un sentiment, est une passion dans les cloîtres.” ? Contes Moraux.
23. Mr. D’Israeli, in his ingenious work ” On the Literary Character,” has given it as his opinion, that a disinclination to athletic sports and exercises will be, in general, found among the peculiarities which mark a youthful genius. In support of this notion he quotes Beattie, who thus describes his ideal minstrel: —
“Concourse, and noise, and toil, he ever fled,
Nor cared to mingle in the clamorous fray
Of squabbling imps, but to the forest sped.”
His highest authority, however, is Milton, who says of himself,
“When I was yet a child, no childish play
To me was pleasing.”
Such general rules, however, are as little applicable to the dispositions of men of genius as to their powers. If, in the instances which Mr. D’Israeli adduces, an indisposition to bodily exertion was manifested, as many others may be cited in which the directly opposite propensity was remarkable. In war, the most turbulent of exercises, Æschylus, Dante, Camoens, and a long list of other poets, distinguished themselves ; and, though it may be granted that Horace was a bad rider, and Virgil no tennis‐ player, yet, on the other hand, Dante was, we know, a falconer as well as swordsman; Tasso, expert both as swordsman and dancer ; Alfieri, a great rider; Klopstock, a skaiter; Cowper, famous, in his youth, at cricket and foot-ball; and Lord Byron, pre-eminent in all sorts of exercises.
24. “At eight or nine years of age the boy goes to school. From that moment he becomes a stranger in his father’s house. The course of parental kindness is interrupted. The smiles of his mother those tender admonitions, and the solicitous care of both his parents, are no longer before his eyes — year after year he feels himself more detached from them, till at last he is so effectually weaned from the connection, as to find himself happier any where than in their company.” — Cowper, Letters.
25. Even previously to any of these school friendships, he had formed the same sort of romantic attachment to a boy of his own age, the son of one of his tenants at Newstead; and there are two or three of his most juvenile poems, in which he dwells no less upon the inequality than the warmth of this friendship. Thus: —
” Let Folly smile, to view the names
Of thee and me in friendship twined;
Yet Virtue will have greater claims
To love, than rank with Vice combined.
“And though unequal is thy fate,
Since title deck’d my higher birth,
Yet envy not this gaudy state,
Thine is the pride of modest worth.
“Our souls at least congenial meet,
Nor can thy lot my rank disgrace;
Our intercourse is not less sweet
Since worth of rank supplies the place.
” November, 1802.”
26. There are, in other letters of the same writer, some curious proofs of the passionate and jealous sensibility of Byron. From one of them, for instance, we collect that he had taken offence at his young friend’s addressing him “my dear Byron,” instead of “my dearest;” and from another, that his jealousy had been awakened by some expressions of regret which his correspondent had expressed at the departure of Lord John Russell for Spain: —
” You tell me,” says the young letter-writer, “that you never knew me in such an agitation as I was when I wrote my last letter; and do you not think I had reason to be so ? I received a letter from you on Saturday, telling me you were going abroad for six years in March, and on Sunday John Russell set off for Spain. Was not that sufficient to make me rather melancholy? But how can you possibly imagine that I was more agitated on John Russell’s account, who is gone for a few months, and from whom I shall hear constantly, than at your going for six years to travel over most part of the world, when I shall hardly ever hear from you, and perhaps may never see you again ?
“It has very much hurt me your telling me that you might be excused if you felt rather jealous at my expressing more sorrow for the departure of the friend who was with me, than of that one who was absent. It is quite impossible you can think I am more sorry for John’s absence than I shall be for yours; — I shall therefore finish the subject.”
27. To this tomb be thus refers in the ” Childish Recollections,” as printed in his first unpublished volume: —
“Oft when, oppress’d with sad, foreboding gloom,
I sat reclined upon our favourite tomb.”
28. I find this circumstance, of his having occasionally slept at the Hut, though asserted by one of the old servants, much doubted by others.
29. It may possibly have been the recollection of these pictures that suggested to him the following lines in the Siege of Corinth: —
“Like the figures on arras that gloomily glare,
Stirr’d by the breath of the wintry air,
So seen by the dying lamp’s fitful light,
Lifeless, but life-like and awful to sight;
As they seem, through the dimness, about to come down
From the shadowy wall where their images frown.”
30. Among the unpublished verses of his in my possession, I find the following fragment, written not long after this period: —
” Hills of Annesley, bleak and barren,
Where my thoughtless childhood stray’d,
How the northern tempests, warring,
Howl above thy tufted shade !
“Now no more, the hours beguiling,
Former favourite haunts I see;
Now no more my Mary smiling,
Makes ye seem a heaven to me.”
31. The lady’s husband, for some time, took her family name.
32. These stanzas, I have since found, are not Lord Byron’s, but the production of Lady Tuite, and are contained in a volume published by her Ladyship in the year 1795. — ( Second edition notation.)
33. Gibbon, in speaking of public schools, says— “The mimic scene of a rebellion has displayed, in their true colours, the ministers and patriots of the rising generation.” Such prognostics, however, are not always to be relied on; — the mild, peaceful Addison was, when at school, the successful leader of a barring-out.
34. It is deplorable to consider the loss which children make of their time at most schools, employing, or rather casting away, six or seven years in the learning of words only, and that very imperfectly.” — Cowley, Essays.
“Would not a Chinese, who took notice of our way of breeding, be apt to imagine that all our young gentlemen were designed to be teachers and professors of the dead languages of foreign countries, and not to be men of business in their own?” — Locke on Education.
35. “A finished scholar may emerge from the head of Westminster or Eton in total ignorance of the business and conversation of English gentlemen in the latter end of the eighteenth century.” — Gibbon.
36. Byron, Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, Alumnus Scholæ Lyonensis primus in anno Domini 1801, Ellison Duce.”
“Monitors, 1801. — Ellison, Royston, Hunxman, Rashleigh, Rokeby, Leigh.”
37. ” Drury’s Pupils, 1804. — Byron, Drury, Sinclair, Hoare, Bolder, Annesley, Calvert, Strong, Acland, Gordon, Drummond.”
38. During one of the Harrow vacations, he passed some time in the house of the Abbé de Roufigny, in Took’s-court, for the purpose of studying the French language; but he was, according to the Abbé’s account, very little given to study, and spent most of his time in boxing, fencing, &c. to the no small disturbance of the reverend teacher and his establishment.
39. Between superior and inferior, “whose fortunes (as he expresses it) comprehend the one and the other.”
40. A gentleman who has since honourably distinguished himself by his philanthropic plans and suggestions for that most important object, the amelioration of the condition of the poor.
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "The Life of Lord Byron by Thomas Moore, 1835" http://englishhistory.net/byron/life-lord-byron-thomas-moore-1835/, February 22, 2015