« AnteriorContinuar »
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 goodnatured painstaking. 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. . . . Afterwards I had a very serious, saturnine, but kind young man named Paterson for a tutor. good scholar, as is common with the Scotch. him I began Latin in 'Ruddiman's Grammar,' School."
He was the son of my shoemaker, but a He was a rigid Presbyterian also. With and continued till I went to the Grammar
At the Grammar School Byron was more eager to distinguish himself in athletic sports and exercises than in learning. In the summer of 1796, after an attack of scarlet fever, he was taken by his mother to the Highlands for change of air, and amidst their glorious hills formed the strong passion for mountain scenery, which he afterwards so often declared. It was about this time, when he was not quite eight years old, that his baby love for Mary Duff, the end of which he records so strangely, occurred: "Hearing of her marriage several years after" (when he was about sixteen), he says, 'was like a thunderstroke; it nearly choked me, to the horror of my mother, and the astonishment and almost incredulity of everybody." Alfieri tells us that these precocious attachments are a sign of great powers of intellect. "Effetti che poche persone intendono e pochissime provano; ma a quei soli pochissimi è concesso l'uscir dalla folla volgare in tutte le umane arti."* With the memory of Dante's enduring affection for Beatrice at nine years old, and of Canova's first love at five, we may be inclined to credit the Italian dramatist, who himself had been an almost infant lover. In 1798 Byron's grand-uncle, the fifth Lord Byron, died at Newstead, and the little boy succeeded to the title, and became a ward in Chancery under the rather reluctant guardianship of his connection, Lord Carlisle. Mrs. Byron, with her son, then proceeded to Newstead, the family seat, which had been left by the last eccentric peer in a state of neglect and decay.
The next year Mrs. Byron was accorded a Civil List pension of £300 a-year, probably on account of the difficulties of her position.
No one could have been less fitted than this lady for training the childhood of such a She alternately spoiled and irritated him, or exposed herself to his ridicule by undignified fits of rage. To the cruel epithet of "a lame brat," which in one of her fits of passion she applied to him, he ascribed in after years his morbid sensitiveness on the subject of his deformed foot, describing vividly the feelings of horror and humiliation which came over him when he first heard it.
In 1799, Mrs. Byron, finding that a Nottingham practitioner whom she employed to cure her son's lameness had not succeeded, removed with young Byron to London, where, at Lord Carlisle's suggestion, he was put under the care of Dr. Baillie. At the same time he was placed in a quiet school at Dulwich, under a Doctor Glennie, who spoke afterwards in high terms of his pupil's great promise. "He was" (the Doctor says) "playful, good-humoured, and beloved by his companions." His reading in history and poetry was beyond his age, and he was intimately acquainted with the Old Testament histories. But anything like a regular course of study for this gifted boy was rendered impossible by his mother's folly. Residing in Sloane Terrace, she had him home every Saturday till Monday, but frequently kept him at home a week at a time longer, and gathered numbers of young acquaintances round him. In vain Dr. Glennie remonstrated; in vain Lord Carlisle interfered; neither could control or
"Emotions that few persons understand and few experience; but, to those few, it is granted to rise above the vulgar crowd in all the fine arts."
influence Mrs. Byron; remonstrance was vain. It was probably about this time that the future poet fell in love with his cousin, Margaret Parker, a beautiful child about a year older than himself. She died soon after of consumption.
When Byron had been two years at Dr. Glennie's school his mother, discontented at his slow progress (caused undoubtedly by her own conduct), urged Lord Carlisle to have him removed to a public school, and her request was granted. Her son was sent to Harrow. Here, while very young, an incident happened which shows the generous nature of the child. Young Peel (afterwards Sir Robert), was his form-fellow and friend. A tyrant some years older claimed a right to "fag" little Peel, but Peel resisted it. In revenge the tyrant, enraged, inflicted a kind of bastinado on the inner fleshy part of the boy's arm, which he also twisted round so as to render the pain more acute. While poor Peel was writhing under the stripes, Byron, who knew that he himself was not strong enough to fight the oppressor, advanced, and with tears in his eyes and a voice trembling with indignation, asked the tyrant if he 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."
Byron says of this time: "At Harrow I fought my way very fairly. 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. . . . 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 John 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."
The general character Byron bore at Harrow among the masters was that of an idle boy, who could learn, but would not study.
In 1803 Mrs. Byron took up her abode in lodgings at Nottingham, Newstead Abbey having been let to Lord Grey de Ruthin; and during the Harrow vacations she was joined there by her son. He soon became intimate with his noble tenant, and an apartment at the Abbey was thenceforward always at his service. Here he was thrown into constant association with Miss Chaworth of Annesley, in the immediate neighbourhood. He used at first to refuse to sleep at Annesley, and returned every night to Newstead; alleging as a reason, that he was afraid of the family pictures of the Chaworths, that "he fancied they owed him a grudge on account of the duel, and would come down from their frames at night to haunt him." * He fell desperately in love with the beautiful young heiress, but, alas! hopelessly. She was already engaged to Mr. Musters; moreover, Byron was two years her junior, being then only sixteen. He either heard, or was told, of Miss Chaworth saying to her maid, "Do you think I could care anything for that lame boy?" This speech, he said, was like a shot through his heart. Though late at night when he heard it, he instantly darted out of the house, and never stopped running till he reached Newstead.
In October, 1805, Byron was removed to Trinity College, Cambridge, and entered on a new phase of life.
His mother had now settled at Southwell, where he became acquainted with his friends the Pigots, took part in private theatricals, and joined more in society. His fondness for dogs was then, and throughout his life, remarkable, and Boatswain (whose epitaph is known to all the reading world) was then his favourite.
Of his charity and kindness he left warm remembrances at Southwell. While yet a schoolboy, he happened to be in a bookseller's shop there, when a poor woman came in to purchase a Bible. The price she was told by the shopman was eight shillings. "Ah, dear sir," she
* See 'Siege of Corinth,' "Like the figures on arras," &c.
exclaimed, "I cannot pay such a price: I did not think it would cost half the money." She was then turning away, disappointed, when young Byron called her back and gave her the Bible.
He was quite conscious of his great personal beauty, and was careful and fastidious in his dress. Fearing that he might become enormously fat, he, soon after his entrance at Cambridge, adopted for the purpose of reducing himself a system of violent exercise and abstinence, with the frequent use of hot baths. But the trifling deformity of his foot was a constant source of mortification to him. A clergyman friend of his, a Mr. Becher, finding him one day greatly dejected, endeavoured to cheer him by pointing out the many blessings of his lot, especially the gift he possessed of "a mind which placed him above the rest of mankind." Ah, my dear friend," said Byron mournfully, "if this (laying his hand on his forehead) places me above the rest of mankind, that (pointing to his foot) places me far below them.”
In 1807 Byron's first poems were published, under the title of the Hours of Idleness.' There was much grace and tenderness in them, though they gave little promise of the future wonderful productions which were to stamp him as one of the greatest of England's poets; but he was not yet twenty-one years old; and the poems themselves by no means justify the contemptuous criticism of the 'Edinburgh Review' of March, 1808. The effect it had on him was exasperating. A friend who found him in the first moments of excitement after reading it, asked if he had just received a challenge, so full of fierce defiance was his look. His pride was wounded to the quick; but the reaction against such injustice roused all his still half-dormant powers, and " the pain and shame of the injury," says Moore, were forgotten in the proud certainty of revenge." His first care, however, was to soothe his mother, who was of course greatly pained by the attack.
His life at this period was spent between London and Cambridge, without a home to receive him, or a single relative to welcome him as a guest. Thrown thus on the world in his earliest youth, and surrounded by temptations of all kinds, it is no wonder that he grew wild and extravagant, and ran in debt deeply, nor that he grew weary of, and sated with, a life of reckless dissipation. In the November of 1808 his favourite dog Boatswain died mad. Byron had so little notion of the nature of the illness that he more than once wiped the saliva from the dog's lips with his own hand. It was wonderful that he escaped the disease.
His coming of age in 1809 was celebrated at Newstead with such festivities as his narrow means would permit. During the previous months he had been writing his 'Satire' (begun the very day he read the 'Review '), and now he prepared to take it to London.
His guardian, Lord Carlisle, had received the dedication of his first poems with a coldness which had deeply wounded Byron. Since then he had written to remind his guardian that he should be of age at the commencement of the session, thinking that Lord Carlisle would introduce him to the House. A mere formal and cold reply, however, simply telling him the technical mode of proceeding on such occasion, was all the notice taken of his letter; for, in fact, no introduction was necessary, and probably his guardian did not understand that he wished for one. Byron, greatly mortified, removed two laudatory lines from the satire, i. e.,
"On one alone Apollo deigns to smile,
And crowns a new Roscommon in Carlisle,"
to the satirical verses published in it. Not long after, however, the young poet regretted his anger and its utterance.
Almost every second day his relative and new friend, Mr. Dallas, who had undertaken to superintend the passage of the 'Satire' through the press, received fresh additional matter, till Byron wrote, "Print soon, or I shall overflow with rhymes." In like manner, with, all his subsequent productions, as long as he was near the printer he kept adding fresh-coming fancies to the poems. Of the occasional injustice of the 'Satire' he repented afterwards, and recorded his regrets in a copy in the possession of his publisher.
Byron saw Miss Chaworth once again after her marriage, being invited by Mr. Chaworth (Mr. Musters had taken his wife's name) to dine at Annesley, not long before his departure
from England. The little daughter of his hostess was brought into the room, and at the sight of the child he started involuntarily. It was with difficulty that he concealed the feelings, which found expression afterwards in the touching lines, "Well-thou art happy."
On the 30th of June, 1809, Byron started for Lisbon, Malta, Constantinople, &c., the tour to which we owe the two first cantos of his matchless 'Childe Harold.' They were begun at Ioannina in Albania, and ended at Smyrna, 1810.
Like Scott, Byron seems to have endeavoured by strength of will and persevering exercise to atone for the defect of nature in his malformed limb. He was an excellent swimmer, as well as skilful in all athletic exercises, and on the 3rd of May, 1810, he achieved the feat of swimming across the Hellespont from Sestos to Abydos.
A personal description of Byron at this time may not be uninteresting. It was written by a traveller who at this period met the poet at Constantinople. "We were interrupted in our debate by the entrance of a stranger, whom at the first glance I guessed to be an Englishman. He wore a scarlet coat, richly embroidered with gold, in the style of an English aide-de-camp's dress uniform, with two heavy epaulettes. His countenance announced him to be about the age of twenty-two. His features were remarkably delicate, and would have given him an effeminate appearance but for the manly expression of his fine blue eyes. On entering the inner shop he took off his feathered cocked hat, and showed a head of curly auburn hair, which improved in no small degree the uncommon beauty of his face."*
In June, 1811, Byron returned to England. It was but a cheerless prospect which met him on his arrival. "To the dreariness of a home without affection," says Moore, "was added the burden of an establishment without means; and he had thus all the embarrassments of domestic life without its charms. His affairs during his absence had been let fall into confusion.even greater than their inherent tendency to such a state warranted: there had even been, the preceding year, an execution on Newstead for a debt of £1500, owing to the Messrs. Brothers, upholsterers." His friend, Mr. Dallas, saw him soon after his arrival in London, and Byron told him that he had written a paraphrase of Horace's 'Art of Poetry,' to be a good finish to English Bards and Scotch Reviewers'; Dallas offered to superintend the publication, and took the paraphrase home to look over. He was greatly disappointed with it; and breakfasting with the poct the next morning, he could not refrain from expressing surprise that he had produced nothing else during his absence. "Lord Byron," said Mr. Dallas, "told me that he had occasionally written short poems, besides a great many stanzas in Spenser's measure, relative to the countries he had visited. They are not worth troubling you with, but you shall have them all with you if you like. So came I by Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.' He took it from a small trunk with a number of verses. He said they had been read but by one person, who had found very little to commend, and much to condemn; that he himself was of that opinion, and he was sure I should be so too. Such as it was, however, it was at my service; but he was urgent that the 'Hints from Horace' should be immediately put in train, which I promised to have done." Mr. Dallas instantly detected the value of the despised poems, and urged the poet to let him publish them. But Byron was excessively reluctant to do so; and it was not without difficulty that he could be prevailed upon to allow it. "He said again and again that I was going to get him into a scrape with his old enemies, and that none of them would rejoice more than the Edinburgh Reviewers to humble him."
It was fortunate that he had such a friend as Mr. Dallas by him, or that detestable Review' might have silenced for ever the strains which showed the real genius of the poet. The MS. was placed in the hands of Mr. Murray, then of Fleet Street; but before proceeding further Byron was called suddenly to Newstead by the news of his mother's dangerous illness. Though he started instantly from town he arrived there too late. Mrs. Byron had expired before he reached the Abbey. In spite of her temper, and of the cruel taunts in which she had indulged on his lameness, Byron had always treated his mother with respect and attention. He felt her death
Moore's 'Life of Byron,' vol. i. p. 332.
deeply. "On the night after his arrival at Newstead," says Moore, the waiting-woman of Mrs. Byron, in passing the door of the room where the deceased lady lay, heard a sound as of some one sighing heavily within, and on entering the chamber found, to her surprise, Lord Byron sitting in the dark beside the bed. On her representing to him the weakness of thus giving way to grief, he burst into tears and exclaimed, "Oh, Mrs. By, I had but one friend in the world, and she is gone!" But with strange eccentricity, he refused the next day to follow his mother to the grave, and when the funeral had moved off, told young Rushton to fetch the sparring gloves, and proceeded to his usual exercise of boxing; but at last the struggle against feeling was too much for him, he flung down the gloves, and retired to his room.
During Byron's absence from England a challenge had been sent to him by Tom Moore, on account of some lines and a note in the English Bards and Scotch Reviewers'; this challenge was (in a manner) repeated after the death of Byron's mother; but the matter was made up amicably in the end, and at Rogers the poet's house the two bards met, and a lifelong friendship ensued between them.
On the 27th of February, 1812, Lord Byron made his first speech in the House of Lords; the reception he met with was most flattering. He was complimented by the Speaker and his own side very warmly as a promising orator. Two days afterwards Childe Harold' appeared. "The effect," says Moore, "was electric: his fame had not to wait for any of the ordinary gradations, but seemed to spring up like the palace of a fairy tale-in a night." As he himself briefly described it in his memorandum: "I awoke one morning and found myself famous." The first edition was instantly sold off. From morning till night flattering testimonies of his success reached him; the highest in the land besieged his door, and he who had been so friendless found himself the idol of London society. The copyright of the poem was purchased by Mr. Murray for £600; Byron instantly presented the money to Mr. Dallas, declaring that he never would receive payment for his writings-a resolution he afterwards wisely abandoned. Among other tributes to his fame the Prince Regent desired that he might be presented to him, and expressed his admiration in so delightful a manner that the poet was fascinated; as Scott, with whom he became acquainted soon after, also was.
Early in the spring of 1813 he brought out his poem on 'Waltzing,' and in the month of May his beautiful fragment, 'The Giaour,' suggested by an incident which had occurred at Athens while the writer was there, and which (at Byron's request) was afterwards related by his friend, Lord Sligo, who had been with him. Byron, it seems, had saved a girl, who (sewn up in a sack) was about to be thrown into the Pireus, and had sent her off safely to Thebes, where she found a refuge. In the autumn a fifth edition of 'The Giaour' was called for, and of course received beautiful additions. The Bride of Abydos' appeared also this year; the 'Corsair' and 'Lara' in 1814. In the latter year he proposed a second time to Miss Milbanke-a future heiress, and a woman of talent. The offer was this time accepted, and they were married January 2nd, 1815. The marriage proved a very unhappy one. Lord Byron was deeply in debt, and his increased expenses, with but very little increase of means to meet them, pressed heavily on him during the first year of his marriage. He was even driven to the necessity of parting with his books to meet these demands. The fact coming to Mr. Murray's notice, the generous publisher instantly forwarded to him £1500, with an assurance that the same amount should be at his service in a few weeks; and that if such assistance should not be sufficient, he (Murray) was ready to dispose of the copyrights of all Lord Byron's past works for his use. Very gracefully and gratefully the poet refused the gift. Thus sorely perplexed about pecuniary matters (for his creditors believed he had married an heiress), the young husband was also much engrossed by his duty as a member of the Committee of Management of Drury Lane Theatre. He was also writing the 'Siege of Corinth.' Lady Byron, no doubt, was greatly tried by their money difficulties, and by the executions in the house: while the morbid disposition of the poet was roused and irritated. His wife had no sympathy with him: her character, her acquirements, her nature, were utterly opposed to his. The birth of a daughter-Augusta Ada-in 1816, nearly a year after his marriage, did not draw the wedded pair together. On the contrary, then Lady Byron determined