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The Silent Isle - Chapter 47 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :3254

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 47

CHAPTER XLVII

There can surely be few pieces of literary portraiture in the world more unpleasant than the portrait drawn of Byron in 1822 by Leigh Hunt. It gave great offence to Byron's friends, who insisted upon his noble and generous qualities, and maintained that Leigh Hunt was taking a spiteful revenge for what he conceived to be the indignity and injustice with which Byron had treated him. Leigh Hunt was undoubtedly a trying person in some ways. He did not mind dipping his hand into a friendly pocket, and he had a way of flinging himself helplessly upon the good nature of his friends, a want of dignity in the way he accepted their assistance, which went far to justify the identification of him with the very disagreeable portrait which Dickens drew of him, as Harold Skimpole in _Bleak House_. But for all that he was an affectionate, candid, and eminently placable person, and if it is true that he darkened the shadows of Byron's temperament, and insisted too strongly on his undesirable qualities, there is no reason to think that the portrait he drew of Byron was not in the main a true one; and it may be added that a vast amount of generosity and nobility require to be thrown into the opposite scale before Byron can be rehabilitated or made worthy of the least admiration and respect.

Byron had invited Leigh Hunt out to Italy, with the design of producing, with his assistance, a monthly Review of a literary type. Leigh Hunt came out with his wife and family, and accepted quarters under Byron's roof. Byron had already tired of the scheme and repented of his generosity. Leigh Hunt avers that Byron was an innately avaricious man, and that, though he occasionally lavished money on some favourite scheme, it was only because, though he loved money much, he loved notoriety more. The good angel of the situation was Shelley, who really made all the arrangements for Hunt's sojourn and presented him with the necessary furniture for his rooms. Shelley was certainly entirely indifferent to money, and profusely generous. He had begun by admiring Byron, with all the enthusiasm of hero-worship, but a closer acquaintance had revealed much that was distasteful and even repugnant to him, and it may safely be said that if he had lived he would soon have withdrawn from Byron's society. Shelley's ideas of morality were not conventional; his affection and enthusiasm for people burnt fiercely and waned, yet when he sinned, he sinned through a genuine passion. But Byron, according to Leigh Hunt, was a cold-blooded libertine, and had no conception of what love meant, except as a merely animal desire, which he abundantly gratified.

The awkward _menage was established. Byron was at the Casa Lanfranchi at Pisa, and gave Leigh Hunt the ground floor. Leigh Hunt describes him as lounging about half the day in a nankeen jacket and white duck trousers, singing in a swaggering fashion, in a voice at once "thin and veiled," a boisterous air of Rossini's, riding out with pistols accompanied by his dogs, and sitting up half the night to write _Don Juan over gin and water. He was living at the time with the Countess Guiccioli, who had married a man four times her age, had obtained a separation, and now lived as Byron's mistress, with her father and brother in the same house.

That Hunt should have been willing to bring his wife and a growing family under the same roof does not reflect much credit on him, especially when he found that Byron was not averse to saying cynical and even corrupting things to Hunt's boys, when Hunt himself was absent. Mrs. Leigh Hunt took a stronger line; she cordially disliked Byron from the first. On one occasion when Byron said to her that Trelawny had been finding fault with his morals, Mrs. Leigh Hunt said trenchantly that it was the first time she had ever heard of them.

Leigh Hunt soon perceived that he and Byron had very little in common. Byron disliked his familiarity and his airs of equality; while he himself was not long in discovering Byron to be egotistical to the verge of insanity, childishly vain of his rank, ill-natured, jealous, coarse, inconsiderate, disloyal, a blabber of secrets, mean, deceitful. But the glamour of Byron's fame, the romance that surrounded him, his rank, which Leigh Hunt valued almost pathetically, kept the amiable invalid--for such Leigh Hunt was at this time--hanging on to Byron's skirts and claiming his protection. The Review began with a flourish of trumpets, but soon broke down; and finally the very uncongenial partnership was dissolved.

One cannot pardon Leigh Hunt at any stage. He ought never to have accepted the original invitation; he ought never to have retained the undignified position of a sort of literary parasite. He endeavoured to protect his own self-respect by adopting a tone of easy familiarity with Byron, which only resulted in galling his host; and he ought not to have written his very damaging reminiscences of the period, though it is quite clear that he felt under no obligation whatever to Byron.

Still it is a deeply interesting piece of portraiture, and probably substantially accurate. The painful fact is that Byron was a very ill-bred person. He had drawn a prize in the lottery of life, and had obtained, so to speak, by accident of birth, a position that gave him fortuitously the consequence which numbers of ambitious men spend their lives in trying to obtain. And then, too, we must not lose sight of Byron's genius, though it is abundantly clear that all there was of noble and beautiful in Byron's nature was entirely given to his art, and that outside of his art there remained nothing but a temperament burdened with all the ugliest faults of the artistic nature, artificially forced and developed by untoward circumstance. There remains the perennial mystery of genius, which can put into glowing words and exquisite phrases emotions which it can conceive but cannot feel. Leigh Hunt's deliberate view of Byron is that he did everything for effect, that his vanity was boundless and insatiable, and that even his raptures were stage raptures. There is little reason to doubt it. Byron's tumultuous agonies of soul were little more than the rage of the spoilt child, who cannot bear that things should go contrary to its desires. Byron, by concealing the causes of his melancholy, and attaching to it a nobler motive, made himself into a Hamlet when he was in reality only a Timon. What view are we to take of Byron's intervention in the affairs of Greece? To fling oneself into a revolutionary movement, to sacrifice money and health, to suffer, to die, is surely an evidence of enthusiasm and sincerity? Leigh Hunt would have us believe that this, too, was nothing but a pose. He tells us how the gift of ten thousand pounds to the Greek Revolutionaries, which was publicly announced by Byron's action, was reduced to a loan of four thousand. He tells the story of the three gilded helmets, bearing the family motto, "Crede Byron," which the poet offered to show him, that he had had made for himself and Trelawny and Count Pietro Gamba. The conclusion is irresistible that there was a large infusion of vanity in the whole scheme, and that Byron had his eye upon the world, here as elsewhere. The Greek expedition would exhibit him in a chivalrous and romantic light; it might provide him with some excitement, though Leigh Hunt maintains that Byron was physically and morally a coward; and indeed, judging from what one knows of Byron, it is hard to believe that his enthusiasm was an unselfish one, or that he was deeply stirred with patriotic emotions, though he was perhaps swayed by a certain artistic sympathy.

It may be asked, is it not better to put the most generous construction upon Byron's acts, to believe that his was a nature of high enthusiasms as well as of violent passions, and that the needle fluctuated between the two?

All depends upon the mood in which one approaches a character. I confess myself that the one thing which seems to me important and interesting is to get at the truth about a man. In the investigation of character there is nothing to be said for being a partisan and for indulging in special pleading, so as to minimise faults and magnify virtues. My own belief is that Byron was an essentially worthless character, the prey of impulse, the slave of desire, thirsting for distinction above everything. There is nothing in his letters or in his recorded speech that would make one think otherwise; his life was devoted to the pursuit of pleasurable excitement, and he cared little what price he paid for it He never seems to me to have admired gentleness or self-restraint or modesty, or to have desired to attain them. Indeed, I think he gives the lie to all the theories that assert that genius and influence must be based on some essential worthiness and greatness of soul.

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