« PreviousContinue »
was deprived of this restraining and regulating influence, and thus had one chance less of acquitting himself worthily as a man.
Another circumstance which influenced his character, and especially his temper, not a little, was a slight deformity of the right foot, the result of an accident at birth. In after life he became morbidly anxious to conceal the defect, that he might escape the observation of vulgar curiosity, and he alınost entirely succeeded; but it begat in him a lasting grudge towards his mother, whom he held responsible, if not for the accident itself, at least for the negleet of immediate remedies ; and the stimulus which it gave to his desire of excelling was not unaccoinpanied with bitterness. Sometimes he made a jest of his lame foot, and obtruded it on the attention of his friends; for he was consistent in nothing; but the following lines from the “ The Deformed Transformed, may be accepted as fairly representing his general view :
“Deformity is daring.
For stepdame Nature's avariee at first." During the year 1799, spent in Dr Glennie's school at Dulwich, Byron was tortured by mechanical appliances for the rectification of his foot; but to no purpose. Neither was the other object of placing him with this gentleman,—that, namely, of preparing him for a great public school,-attained in any satisfactory degree; for the capricious fondness of his mother continually interfered with the discipline of the school, and, not content with the interval between Saturday and Monday, she would often keep him at home a whole week, It appears that he was known atnongst his Dulwich schoolfellows as “The Old English Baron," a sobriquet suggested by his boastful allusions to his paternal ancestry. The Byrons came over from France at the Conquest, and one Ralph de Burun is mentioned in Domesday Book as a proprietor in Nottinghamshire. Newstead Abbey was a gift from Henry VIII., and the title, conferred by Charles I. in 1643, was the reward of loyalty. His mother's lineage was not unworthy of his father's, for she could trace up her descent to James I. of Scotland: but Byron was of course most interested in the pame which he himself bore. A favourite book among Dr Glennie's boys was a narrative of the shipwreck of the Juno, on the coast of Arracan, in 1795; and the awful scene in Cantó II. of Don Juan is due to the impression which the perusal of this volume made upon Byron's young mind. In one particular, indeed, the horror of Byron's picture falls short of the actual narrative, for, from the lines
" When he himself sank down all dumb and shivering,
And gave no sign of life, save his limbs quivering," one would suppose that the agony of the father was alıpost immediately over, whereas the prose-narrative represents it as lasting several days :-"then, wrapping himself in a piece of canvass (he), sank down and rose no more; though he must have lived two days longer, as we judged from the quivering of his liỉnbs when a wave broke over him.'
While still at Dr Glennie's, Byron dashed off into poetry, the goddess of his inspiration being his own cousin, Margaret Parker. He himself considered the verses made on this occasion as his first ; but his nurse, Amy Gray, whose memory is more to be trusted, represents him as having already, in 1798, when living at Newstead, fired off a rhymed satire at an old lady for whom he had conceived an aversion.
In 1800 Byron was removed to Harrow, which is still visited by his admirers for the sake of a stone in the churchyard, called Byron's tomb, because he used sit upon it musing for hours. Here, as at Aberdeen Grammar School, he was more distinguished in the playground than in the classroom, and the only notable reminiscence of Byron's school appearances which Dr Drury, then head-master at Harrow, has been able to recal, relates to an English declamation. All the other orators delivered precisely what they had written: but Byron, after repeating from his manuscript for a while, diverged from it, breaking out into more brilliant and not less fluent language, and so continued to the end. However slight the attention paid by Byron to strictly scholastic work, his time was not wasted at Harrow. His reading, though miscellaneous, was extensive ; and scholarship was not at all necessary to the poetic reproduction of his materials.
To the Harrow period belongs that one of all Byron's attachments in which he has ever had most of the world's sympathy. The vacation of 1803 was spent with his mother at Nottingham, near Newstead, and here he fell in love with Miss Chaworth, heiress of Annesley, a property contiguous to his own. He was in his sixteenth year, and she was unfortunately two years older ; so that, instead of regarding him as even a possible candidate for her hand, she thought of him only as a school-boy. “Do you think I would care anything for that laine boy ?” is an expression of her's that was reported to Byron, and which cut deeper into his soul than anything she could have said to himself, in declining his addresses. This unfortunate attachment is celebrated in “ The Dream,” and has been considered by Byron's biographers, as it also was by himself, as having exerted a fatal influence op his whole subsequent career. No doubt a virtuous attachment is the best safeguard of youth, and a happy domestic circle is the sphere most favourable to the development of all that is good in man; but unsuccessful love is often more lasting than love requited; and, considering Byron's peculiar temperament, it is exceedingly doubtful whether, even with Miss Chaworth, he would have been able to fulfil his dream, and would have always remained content with the sober happiness of English domestic life. At all events as Byron would have shown himself more a man by reconciling himself to the disappointment, instead of evermore idly regretting it, and too often wickedly avenging it upon others, so it is better for us, instead of speculating on what might have been had Miss Chaworth returned his affection, to note the fact that he sank under the trial. Religion, which inculcates the unworthiness of the individual, and begets the habit of resignation by the constant reference of events to an All-wise Disposer; or Philosophy, which teaches the littleness of the individual, and the necessity, if not the duty, of submitting to inevitable evils, would have sustained
him ; but the natural imperiousness of his will had not been as yet tamed by either of these wise inistresses. There was rebellion in his very submission; and a disappointment which might have humbled his pride and sweetened his temper, seems rather to have soured him to the world and stung his pride into recklessness. The grave doubt, with which Byron commences the following paragraph in his “Detached Thoughts,” is not to be forgotten over the pensiveness of the conclusion. “I doubt sometimes whether, after all, a quiet and unagitated life would have suited me, yet I sometimes long for it. My earliest dreams (as most boy's dreams are) were martial ; but a little later they were all for love and retirement, till the hopeless attachment to M
began, and continued (though sedulously concealed) very early in my teens, and so upwards, for a time; this threw me out again alone on a wide, wide sea.'
In 1805 Byron entered Trinity College, Cambridge, the proper studies of which were not more attractive to him than had been those of Harrow. He never, indeed, came to entertain either affection or respect for Cambridge, which is probably due to the fact that he was here brought into more immediate contact with the ecclesiastical element, whilst at the same time scepticism was growing up within him, and, not long after his entrance, acquired such consistency as to make him distinctly conscious of its presence. Only those outward things which harmonize with the inward things of a man can command his respect and affec. tion; but to Byron's mind the whole university system bristled with prohibitions and threats, and in opposition to this hostile aspect he assumed a hostile attitude. Neither body nor mind however was allowed to remain inactive ; the former, manifesting already that tendency to corpulence which so greatly annoyed him afterwards, he exercised by athletic sports, particularly swimming and boxing; and the latter he continued to store by miscellaneous reading. His muse, too, became vocal, and his verses began to circulate in private, winning so much approbation, as they passed from hand to hand, that in 1806 he put a small collection of them to the press. He presented the first copy to the Rev. John Becher, Southwell, for whom he entertained a sincere regard ; and, when that gentleinan hastened to expostulate with him on the inexcusable "luxuriousness of colouring” in one of the pieces, Byron iminediately ordered the whole stock to be burnt. This order was easily executed as the volumes were intended only for private circulation ; and in four and twenty hours only two of them remained, viz., Mr Becher's own, and one that had been sent to Edinburgh before that gentleman's criticisın reached the author. In 1807 a purified edition was prepared ; and, not long after, appeared for general circulation the “Hours of Idleness," dedicated to Lord Carlisle, his guardian.
The fierce onslaught which the Edinburgh Review made upon this last production in the spring of 1808, stung Byron to the quick, and, like a challenge addressed to a man of spirit, first inade him aware of his own great resources. Indeed he is said to have looked such fierce defiance after reading the critique, that a friend actually asked him had received a challenge. He resolved upon revenge, and took it, ere a twelvemonth elapsed, by the publication of his “ English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, a satire as fierce, indiscriminate, and unprincipled as he afterwards himself declared it to be. On the first leaf of a copy, which he perused nine years afterwards abroad, the following has been found in his handwriting :-" The binding of this volume is considerably too valuable for its contents. Nothing but the cousideration of its being the property of another prevents me from consigning this miserable record of inisplaced anger and indiscriminate acrimony to the flames."
Some of Byron's eccentricities belonging to this period deserve to be mentioned. Thus, after reading the Edinburgh Review on the “ Hours of Idleness," he is said to have drunk three bottles of claret at dinner; and he celebrated his coming of age in 1809 by dining on eggs and bacon, and a battle of ale. This latter fact he himself records thirteen years afterwards, when writing from Geneva, and adds,-“ but as neither of them agrees with me, I never use them but on great jubilees, once in four or five years or so.” This recurrence after so long a date, to so trivial a circumstance, and the annotation of it, clearly betray an affectation of peculiarity, and a desire to be noticed and wondered at, to which no other name than vanity can be given. There is every reason to believe that Byron said and did many things, and these not always innocent, for the express purpose of making people, especially his own countrymen, stare. Did not vanity combine with incipient misanthropy in dictating the inscription over the tomb of his favourite dog Boatswain in the grounds of Newstead.
Byron was just twenty when this monument was erected ; and the misanthropy of an English nobleman at that early age is on the first view surprising. In Byron's case, however, the explanation is at hand. Let a man be out of harmony with the social system into which he has been born, let him be prevented from expending on any object in heaven or on earth that power of love which nature gives in greater or less measure to us all, and let hiin lose even his own self-respect, then the most natural issue is misanthropy. These fatal data were already present in Byron. His scepticism brought him into discord with the institutions of his country, and deprived him, in his solitary musings, of man's “last appeal from fortune and from fate :" the Edinburgh Review had stung him into insurrection against the whole literary world, where, if anywhere, he might have expected to meet with kindred spirits : his love had gone out to a worthy object, and had returned to his bosom with the poison of rejection and disdain: filial piety offered him no refuge, for his inother had forfeited his respect by the vulgar extremes to which she went in her fits of passion, throwing even the poker at his head; nor could he dwell peacefully with his own thoughts,- for there he was encountered by the fre-h memory of his youthful excesses. Had Byron's spirit broken, one of two issues was before him,-either the paralysis of despair, or complete regeneration; but, as it resisted the pressure, nothing remained but to go out of himself in hate, and wage war with mankind.
It is much to be regretted that Byron was taken by his peers just for what he was, or rather for what he gave himself out to be, which, by a strange perversity, was even worse thay the reality. They all stood aloof, even his guardian Lord Carlisle ; and when, on the 13th March 1809, Byron took his seat in the House of Lords, not a single pobleman was there to introduce him. Had his faults been generously overlooked, had he been accepted as a better man than he actually was, it is possible that this more than hun an charity might have bent a pride which could not be broken, and that he might have made it a point of honour to merit a confidence gratuitously afforded. As it was, he felt deeply the negleet; and, not having the humility to acknowledge the equity of the retribu. tion which so quickly visited his early sins, he seems to have resolved upon justifying the evil impressions which attended his entrance into public life.
Byron now concerted a scheme of foreign travel with Mr John Cam Hobhouse, afterward Lord Broughton; and it may be easily conceived that, besides the attractions which foreign travel presents to all young men of intelligence and spirit, it had a peculiar fascination for him, as promising some relief from that social isolation and antagonism in England, which he could neither remedy por endure. Scotchmen, they say, are most at home when abroad, that is a satire ; but it is always true of the man who is not in harmony with things at home. He may not be a whit more in harmony with things abroad, but then he does not feel himself called upon to be so; no one expects him to be a participator there, and the position of an onlooker, which would have been false at home, becomes true and natural abroad. Already in the autumn of 1808, Byron had taken up his residence at Newstead Abbey; and he now left his mother in possession of it, assigning her at the same time a suitable income. His last act, however, before leaving England, was one of defiance. The first edition of "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers," which had appeared only a few days after he took his seat in the House of Lords, was exbausted in six weeks: be prepared a second edition for the press. and immediately after started on his travels, sailing from Falmouth on the 20 July 1809.
Touching at Lisbon, Cadiz, Gibraltar, and Malta, he landed at Prevesa in Albania, on the 29th September, and prosecuted a tour through that and the adjacent Turkish provinces, arriving towards the end of the year at Athens, where he spent ten weeks. Here he lodged with the widow of the English vice-consul, one of whose daughters, Theresa Macri, is the “ Maid of Athens," celebrated in song. This lady became afterwards the wife of a stalwart Englishman, Mr Black, till lately teacher of English in the Gymnasium of Athens; she is still alive, the mother of very handsome sons and daughters.
On the 5th March 1810, Byron sailed from the Piræus to Smyrna, and thence to Constantinople. The ship had to wait in the Dardanelles for a favourable wind; and it was on this occasion that Byron swam across the Hellespont in imitation of Leander. The actual distance across is only about a mile; but the swimming distance is upwards of three, owing to the strength of the current towards the Archipelago, and he was not unjustly proud of this feat, as demonstrating both his own prowess and the credibility of classic story. It is true that Leander's performance was greater still, because he crossed both ways as often as he visited Hero, whereas Byron crossed only the