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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsLady Byron Vindicated - Part 2 - Chapter 6. Physiological Argument
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Lady Byron Vindicated - Part 2 - Chapter 6. Physiological Argument Post by :andrewteg Category :Nonfictions Author :Harriet Beecher Stowe Date :May 2012 Read :1786

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Lady Byron Vindicated - Part 2 - Chapter 6. Physiological Argument

PART II. CHAPTER VI. PHYSIOLOGICAL ARGUMENT

The credibility of the accusation of the unnatural crime charged to Lord Byron is greater than if charged to most men. He was born of parents both of whom were remarkable for perfectly ungoverned passions. There appears to be historical evidence that he was speaking literal truth when he says to Medwin of his father,-- 'He would have made a bad hero for Hannah More. He ran out three fortunes, and married or ran away with three women . . . He seemed born for his own ruin and that of the other sex. He began by seducing Lady Carmarthen, and spent her four thousand pounds; and, not content with one adventure of this kind, afterwards eloped with Miss Gordon.'--Medwin's Conversations, p.31. Lady Carmarthen here spoken of was the mother of Mrs. Leigh. Miss Gordon became Lord Byron's mother.

By his own account, and that of Moore, she was a passionate, ungoverned, though affectionate woman. Lord Byron says to Medwin,-- 'I lost my father when I was only six years of age. My mother, when she was in a passion with me (and I gave her cause enough), used to say, "O you little dog! you are a Byron all over; you are as bad as your father!"'--Ibid., p.37. By all the accounts of his childhood and early youth, it is made apparent that ancestral causes had sent him into the world with a most perilous and exceptional sensitiveness of brain and nervous system, which it would have required the most judicious course of education to direct safely and happily.

Lord Byron often speaks as if he deemed himself subject to tendencies which might terminate in insanity. The idea is so often mentioned and dwelt upon in his letters, journals, and conversations, that we cannot but ascribe it to some very peculiar experience, and not to mere affectation.

But, in the history of his early childhood and youth, we see no evidence of any original malformation of nature. We see only evidence of one of those organisations, full of hope and full of peril, which adverse influences might easily drive to insanity, but wise physiological training and judicious moral culture might have guided to the most splendid results. But of these he had neither. He was alternately the pet and victim of his mother's tumultuous nature, and equally injured both by her love and her anger. A Scotch maid of religious character gave him early serious impressions of religion, and thus added the element of an awakened conscience to the conflicting ones of his character.

Education, in the proper sense of the word, did not exist in England in those days. Physiological considerations of the influence of the body on the soul, of the power of brain and nerve over moral development, had then not even entered the general thought of society. The school and college education literally taught him nothing but the ancient classics, of whose power in exciting and developing the animal passions Byron often speaks.

The morality of the times is strikingly exemplified even in its literary criticism.

For example: One of Byron's poems, written while a schoolboy at Harrow, is addressed to 'My Son.' Mr. Moore, and the annotator of the standard edition of Byron's poems, gravely give the public their speculations on the point, whether Lord Byron first became a father while a schoolboy at Harrow; and go into particulars in relation to a certain infant, the claim to which lay between Lord Byron and another schoolfellow. It is not the nature of the event itself, so much as the cool, unembarrassed manner in which it is discussed, that gives the impression of the state of public morals. There is no intimation of anything unusual, or discreditable to the school, in the event, and no apparent suspicion that it will be regarded as a serious imputation on Lord Byron's character.

Modern physiological developments would lead any person versed in the study of the reciprocal influence of physical and moral laws to anticipate the most serious danger to such an organisation as Lord Byron's, from a precocious development of the passions. Alcoholic and narcotic stimulants, in the case of such a person, would be regarded as little less than suicidal, and an early course of combined drinking and licentiousness as tending directly to establish those unsound conditions which lead towards moral insanity. Yet not only Lord Byron's testimony, but every probability from the licence of society, goes to show that this was exactly what did take place.

Neither restrained by education, nor warned by any correct physiological knowledge, nor held in check by any public sentiment, he drifted directly upon the fatal rock.

Here we give Mr. Moore full credit for all his abatements in regard to Lord Byron's excesses in his early days. Moore makes the point very strongly that he was not, de facto, even so bad as many of his associates; and we agree with him. Byron's physical organisation was originally as fine and sensitive as that of the most delicate woman. He possessed the faculty of moral ideality in a high degree; and he had not, in the earlier part of his life, an attraction towards mere brutal vice. His physical sensitiveness was so remarkable that he says of himself, 'A dose of salts has the effect of a temporary inebriation, like light champagne, upon me.' Yet this exceptionally delicately-organised boy and youth was in a circle where not to conform to the coarse drinking-customs of his day was to incur censure and ridicule. That he early acquired the power of bearing large quantities of liquor is manifested by the record in his Journal, that, on the day when he read the severe 'Edinburgh' article upon his schoolboy poems, he drank three bottles of claret at a sitting.

Yet Byron was so far superior to his times, that some vague impulses to physiological prudence seem to have suggested themselves to him, and been acted upon with great vigour. He never could have lived so long as he did, under the exhaustive process of every kind of excess, if he had not re-enforced his physical nature by an assiduous care of his muscular system. He took boxing-lessons, and distinguished himself in all athletic exercises.

He also had periods in which he seemed to try vaguely to retrieve himself from dissipation, and to acquire self-mastery by what he called temperance.

But, ignorant and excessive in all his movements, his very efforts at temperance were intemperate. From violent excesses in eating and drinking, he would pass to no less unnatural periods of utter abstinence. Thus the very conservative power which Nature has of adapting herself to any settled course was lost. The extreme sensitiveness produced by long periods of utter abstinence made the succeeding debauch more maddening and fatal. He was like a fine musical instrument, whose strings were every day alternating between extreme tension and perfect laxity. We have in his Journal many passages, of which the following is a specimen:-- 'I have dined regularly to-day, for the first time since Sunday last; this being Sabbath too,--all the rest, tea and dry biscuits, six per diem. I wish to God I had not dined, now! It kills me with heaviness, stupor, and horrible dreams; and yet it was but a pint of bucellas, and fish. Meat I never touch, nor much vegetable diet. I wish I were in the country, to take exercise, instead of being obliged to cool by abstinence, in lieu of it. I should not so much mind a little accession of flesh: my bones can well bear it. But the worst is, the Devil always came with it, till I starved him out; and I will not be the slave of any appetite. If I do err, it shall be my heart, at least, that heralds the way. O my head! how it aches! The horrors of digestion! I wonder how Bonaparte's dinner agrees with him.'--Moore's Life, vol. ii. p.264.

From all the contemporary history and literature of the times, therefore, we have reason to believe that Lord Byron spoke the exact truth when he said to Medwin,-- 'My own master at an age when I most required a guide, left to the dominion of my passions when they were the strongest, with a fortune anticipated before I came into possession of it, and a constitution impaired by early excesses, I commenced my travels, in 1809, with a joyless indifference to the world and all that was before me.'--Medwin's Conversations, p.42.

Utter prostration of the whole physical man from intemperate excess, the deadness to temptation which comes from utter exhaustion, was his condition, according to himself and Moore, when he first left England, at twenty-one years of age.

In considering his subsequent history, we are to take into account that it was upon the brain and nerve-power, thus exhausted by early excess, that the draughts of sudden and rapid literary composition began to be made. There was something unnatural and unhealthy in the rapidity, clearness, and vigour with which his various works followed each other. Subsequently to the first two cantos of 'Childe Harold,' 'The Bride of Abydos,' 'The Corsair,' 'The Giaour,' 'Lara,' 'Parisina,' and 'The Siege of Corinth,' all followed close upon each other, in a space of less than three years, and those the three most critical years of his life. 'The Bride of Abydos' came out in the autumn of 1813, and was written in a week; and 'The Corsair' was composed in thirteen days. A few months more than a year before his marriage, and the brief space of his married life, was the period in which all this literary labour was performed, while yet he was running the wild career of intrigue and fashionable folly. He speaks of 'Lara' as being tossed off in the intervals between masquerades and balls, etc. It is with the physical results of such unnatural efforts that we have now chiefly to do. Every physiologist would say that the demands of such poems on a healthy brain, in that given space, must have been exhausting; but when we consider that they were cheques drawn on a bank broken by early extravagance, and that the subject was prodigally spending vital forces in every other direction at the same time, one can scarcely estimate the physiological madness of such a course as Lord Byron's.

It is evident from his Journal, and Moore's account, that any amount of physical force which was for the time restored by his first foreign travel was recklessly spent in this period, when he threw himself with a mad recklessness into London society in the time just preceding his marriage. The revelations made in Moore's Memoir of this period are sad enough: those to Medwin are so appalling as to the state of contemporary society in England, as to require, at least, the benefit of the doubt for which Lord Byron's habitual carelessness of truth gave scope. His adventures with ladies of the highest rank in England are there paraded with a freedom of detail that respect for womanhood must lead every woman to question. The only thing that is unquestionable is, that Lord Byron made these assertions to Medwin, not as remorseful confessions, but as relations of his bonnes fortunes, and that Medwin published them in the very face of the society to which they related.

When Lord Byron says, 'I have seen a great deal of Italian society, and swum in a gondola; but nothing could equal the profligacy of high life in England . . . when I knew it,' he makes certainly strong assertions, if we remember what Mr. Moore reveals of the harem kept in Venice.

But when Lord Byron intimates that three married women in his own rank in life, who had once held illicit relations with him, made wedding-visits to his wife at one time, we must hope that he drew on his active imagination, as he often did, in his statements in regard to women.

When he relates at large his amour with Lord Melbourne's wife, and represents her as pursuing him with an insane passion, to which he with difficulty responded; and when he says that she tracked a rival lady to his lodgings, and came into them herself, disguised as a carman--one hopes that he exaggerates. And what are we to make of passages like this?-- 'There was a lady at that time, double my own age, the mother of several children who were perfect angels, with whom I formed a liaison that continued without interruption for eight months. She told me she was never in love till she was thirty, and I thought myself so with her when she was forty. I never felt a stronger passion, which she returned with equal ardour . . . . . . .

'Strange as it may seem, she gained, as all women do, an influence over me so strong that I had great difficulty in breaking with her.' Unfortunately, these statements, though probably exaggerated, are, for substance, borne out in the history of the times. With every possible abatement for exaggeration in these statements, there remains still undoubted evidence from other sources that Lord Byron exercised a most peculiar and fatal power over the moral sense of the women with whom he was brought in relation; and that love for him, in many women, became a sort of insanity, depriving them of the just use of their faculties. All this makes his fatal history both possible and probable.

Even the article in 'Blackwood,' written in 1825 for the express purpose of vindicating his character, admits that his name had been coupled with those of three, four, or more women of rank, whom it speaks of as 'licentious, unprincipled, characterless women.'

That such a course, in connection with alternate extremes of excess and abstinence in eating and drinking, and the immense draughts on the brain- power of rapid and brilliant composition, should have ended in that abnormal state in which cravings for unnatural vice give indications of approaching brain-disease, seems only too probable.

This symptom of exhausted vitality becomes often a frequent type in periods of very corrupt society. The dregs of the old Greek and Roman civilisation were foul with it; and the apostle speaks of the turning of the use of the natural into that which is against nature, as the last step in abandonment.

The very literature of such periods marks their want of physical and moral soundness. Having lost all sense of what is simple and natural and pure, the mind delights to dwell on horrible ideas, which give a shuddering sense of guilt and crime. All the writings of this fatal period of Lord Byron's life are more or less intense histories of unrepentant guilt and remorse or of unnatural crime. A recent writer in 'Temple Bar' brings to light the fact, that 'The Bride of Abydos,' the first of the brilliant and rapid series of poems which began in the period immediately preceding his marriage, was, in its first composition, an intense story of love between a brother and sister in a Turkish harem; that Lord Byron declared, in a letter to Galt, that it was drawn from real life; that, in compliance with the prejudices of the age, he altered the relationship to that of cousins before publication.

This same writer goes on to show, by a series of extracts from Lord Byron's published letters and journals, that his mind about this time was in a fearfully unnatural state, and suffering singular and inexplicable agonies of remorse; that, though he was accustomed fearlessly to confide to his friends immoralities which would be looked upon as damning, there was now a secret to which he could not help alluding in his letters, but which he told Moore he could not tell now, but 'some day or other when we are veterans.' He speaks of his heart as eating itself out; of a mysterious person, whom he says, 'God knows I love too well, and the Devil probably too.' He wrote a song, and sent it to Moore, addressed to a partner in some awful guilt, whose very name he dares not mention, because

'There is grief in the sound, there is guilt in the fame.'

He speaks of struggles of remorse, of efforts at repentance, and returns to guilt, with a sort of horror very different from the well-pleased air with which he relates to Medwin his common intrigues and adulteries. He speaks of himself generally as oppressed by a frightful, unnatural gloom and horror, and, when occasionally happy, 'not in a way that can or ought to last.'

'The Giaour,' 'The Corsair,' 'Lara,' 'Parisina,' 'The Siege of Corinth,' and 'Manfred,' all written or conceived about this period of his life, give one picture of a desperate, despairing, unrepentant soul, whom suffering maddens, but cannot reclaim.

In all these he paints only the one woman, of concentrated, unconsidering passion, ready to sacrifice heaven and defy hell for a guilty man, beloved in spite of religion or reason. In this unnatural literature, the stimulus of crime is represented as intensifying love. Medora, Gulnare, the Page in 'Lara,' Parisina, and the lost sister of Manfred, love the more intensely because the object of the love is a criminal, out- lawed by God and man. The next step beyond this is--madness.

The work of Dr. Forbes Winslow on 'Obscure Diseases of the Brain and Nerves' {258} contains a passage so very descriptive of the case of Lord Byron, that it might seem to have been written for it. The sixth chapter of his work, on 'Anomalous and Masked Affections of the Mind,' contains, in our view, the only clue that can unravel the sad tragedy of Byron's life. He says, p.87,-- 'These forms of unrecognised mental disorder are not always accompanied by any well-marked disturbance of the bodily health requiring medical attention, or any obvious departure from a normal state of thought and conduct such as to justify legal interference; neither do these affections always incapacitate the party from engaging in the ordinary business of life . . . . The change may have progressed insidiously and stealthily, having slowly and almost imperceptibly induced important molecular modifications in the delicate vesicular neurine of the brain, ultimately resulting in some aberration of the ideas, alteration of the affections, or perversion of the propensities or instincts. . . .

'Mental disorder of a dangerous character has been known for years to be stealthily advancing, without exciting the slightest notion of its presence, until some sad and terrible catastrophe, homicide, or suicide, has painfully awakened attention to its existence. Persons suffering from latent insanity often affect singularity of dress, gait, conversation, and phraseology. The most trifling circumstances stimulate their excitability. They are martyrs to ungovernable paroxysms of passion, are inflamed to a state of demoniacal fury by the most insignificant of causes, and occasionally lose all sense of delicacy of feeling, sentiment, refinement of manners and conversation. Such manifestations of undetected mental disorder may be seen associated with intellectual and moral qualities of the highest order.' (Note 258: The article in question is worth a careful reading. Its industry and accuracy in amassing evidence are worthy attention.)

In another place, Dr. Winslow again adverts to this latter symptom, which was strikingly marked in the case of Lord Byron:-- 'All delicacy and decency of thought are occasionally banished from the mind, so effectually does the principle of thought in these attacks succumb to the animal instincts and passions . . . .

'Such cases will commonly be found associated with organic predisposition to insanity or cerebral disease . . . . Modifications of the malady are seen allied with genius. The biographies of Cowper, Burns, Byron, Johnson, Pope, and Haydon establish that the most exalted intellectual conditions do not escape unscathed.

'In early childhood, this form of mental disturbance may, in many cases, be detected. To its existence is often to be traced the motiveless crimes of the young.'

No one can compare this passage of Dr. Forbes Winslow with the incidents we have already cited as occurring in that fatal period before the separation of Lord and Lady Byron, and not feel that the hapless young wife was indeed struggling with those inflexible natural laws, which, at some stages of retribution, involve in their awful sweep the guilty with the innocent. She longed to save; but he was gone past redemption. Alcoholic stimulants and licentious excesses, without doubt, had produced those unseen changes in the brain, of which Dr. Forbes Winslow speaks; and the results were terrible in proportion to the peculiar fineness and delicacy of the organism deranged.

Alas! the history of Lady Byron is the history of too many women in every rank of life who are called, in agonies of perplexity and fear, to watch that gradual process by which physical excesses change the organism of the brain, till slow, creeping, moral insanity comes on. The woman who is the helpless victim of cruelties which only unnatural states of the brain could invent, who is heart-sick to-day and dreads to-morrow,--looks in hopeless horror on the fatal process by which a lover and a protector changes under her eyes, from day to day, to a brute and a fiend.

Lady Byron's married life--alas! it is lived over in many a cottage and tenement-house, with no understanding on either side of the cause of the woeful misery.

Dr. Winslow truly says, 'The science of these brain-affections is yet in its infancy in England.' At that time, it had not even begun to be. Madness was a fixed point; and the inquiries into it had no nicety. Its treatment, if established, had no redeeming power. Insanity simply locked a man up as a dangerous being; and the very suggestion of it, therefore, was resented as an injury.

A most peculiar and affecting feature of that form of brain disease which hurries its victim, as by an overpowering mania, into crime, is, that often the moral faculties and the affections remain to a degree unimpaired, and protest with all their strength against the outrage. Hence come conflicts and agonies of remorse proportioned to the strength of the moral nature. Byron, more than any other one writer, may be called the poet of remorse. His passionate pictures of this feeling seem to give new power to the English language:--

'There is a war, a chaos of the mind,
When all its elements convulsed--combined,
Lie dark and jarring with perturbed force,
And gnashing with impenitent remorse,
That juggling fiend, who never spake before,
But cries, "I warned thee!" when the deed is o'er.'


It was this remorse that formed the only redeeming feature of the case. Its eloquence, its agonies, won from all hearts the interest that we give to a powerful nature in a state of danger and ruin; and it may be hoped that this feeling, which tempers the stern justice of human judgments, may prove only a faint image of the wider charity of Him whose thoughts are as far above ours as the heaven is above the earth.

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