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Lady Byron Vindicated - Part 3. Documents - Extract From Lord Byron's Expunged Letter Post by :add2it Category :Nonfictions Author :Harriet Beecher Stowe Date :May 2012 Read :677

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Lady Byron Vindicated - Part 3. Documents - Extract From Lord Byron's Expunged Letter



'BOLOGNA, June 7, 1819.

. . . 'Before I left Venice, I had returned to you your late, and Mr. Hobhouse's sheets of "Juan." Don't wait for further answers from me, but address yours to Venice as usual. I know nothing of my own movements. I may return there in a few days, or not for some time; all this depends on circumstances. I left Mr. Hoppner very well. My daughter Allegra is well too, and is growing pretty: her hair is growing darker, and her eyes are blue. Her temper and her ways, Mr. Hoppner says, are like mine, as well as her features: she will make, in that case, a manageable young lady.

'I have never seen anything of Ada, the little Electra of my Mycenae . . . . But there will come a day of reckoning, even if I should not live to see it. I have at least seen ---- shivered, who was one of my assassins. When that man was doing his worst to uproot my whole family,--tree, branch, and blossoms; when, after taking my retainer, he went over to them; when he was bringing desolation on my hearth, and destruction on my household gods,--did he think that, in less than three years, a natural event, a severe domestic, but an expected and common calamity, would lay his carcass in a cross-road, or stamp his name in a verdict of lunacy? Did he (who in his sexagenary . . .) reflect or consider what my feelings must have been when wife and child and sister, and name and fame and country, were to be my sacrifice on his legal altar?--and this at a moment when my health was declining, my fortune embarrassed, and my mind had been shaken by many kinds of disappointment? while I was yet young, and might have reformed what might be wrong in my conduct, and retrieved what was perplexing in my affairs? But he is in his grave, and--What a long letter I have scribbled!' . . .

* * * * *

In order that the reader may measure the change of moral tone with regard to Lord Byron, wrought by the constant efforts of himself and his party, we give the two following extracts from 'Blackwood:'

The first is 'Blackwood' in 1819, just after the publication of 'Don Juan:' the second is 'Blackwood' in 1825.

'In the composition of this work, there is, unquestionably, a more thorough and intense infusion of genius and vice, power and profligacy, than in any poem which had ever before been written in the English, or, indeed, in any other modern language. Had the wickedness been less inextricably mingled with the beauty and the grace and the strength of a most inimitable and incomprehensible Muse, our task would have been easy. 'Don Juan' is by far the most admirable specimen of the mixture of ease, strength, gaiety, and seriousness, extant in the whole body of English poetry: the author has devoted his powers to the worst of purposes and passions; and it increases his guilt and our sorrow that he has devoted them entire.

'The moral strain of the whole poem is pitched in the lowest key. Love, honour, patriotism, religion, are mentioned only to be scoffed at, as if their sole resting-place were, or ought to be, in the bosoms of fools. It appears, in short, as if this miserable man, having exhausted every species of sensual gratification, having drained the cup of sin even to its bitterest dregs, were resolved to show us that he is no longer a human being, even in his frailties, but a cool, unconcerned fiend, laughing with a detestable glee over the whole of the better and worse elements of which human life is composed; treating well-nigh with equal derision the most pure of virtues, and the most odious of vices; dead alike to the beauty of the one, and the deformity of the other; a mere heartless despiser of that frail but noble humanity, whose type was never exhibited in a shape of more deplorable degradation than in his own contemptuously distinct delineation of himself. To confess to his Maker, and weep over in secret agonies the wildest and most fantastic transgressions of heart and mind, is the part of a conscious sinner, in whom sin has not become the sole principle of life and action; but to lay bare to the eye of man and of woman all the hidden convulsions of a wicked spirit, and to do all this without one symptom of contrition, remorse, or hesitation, with a calm, careless ferociousness of contented and satisfied depravity,--this was an insult which no man of genius had ever before dared to put upon his Creator or his species. Impiously railing against his God, madly and meanly disloyal to his sovereign and his country, and brutally outraging all the best feelings of female honour, affection, and confidence, how small a part of chivalry is that which remains to the descendant of the Byrons!--a gloomy visor and a deadly weapon!

'Those who are acquainted (and who is not?) with the main incidents in the private life of Lord Byron, and who have not seen this production, will scarcely believe that malignity should have carried him so far as to make him commence a filthy and impious poem with an elaborate satire on the character and manners of his wife, from whom, even by his own confession, he has been separated only in consequence of his own cruel and heartless misconduct. It is in vain for Lord Byron to attempt in any way to justify his own behaviour in that affair; and, now that he has so openly and audaciously invited inquiry and reproach, we do not see any good reason why he should not be plainly told so by the general voice of his countrymen. It would not be an easy matter to persuade any man who has any knowledge of the nature of woman, that a female such as Lord Byron has himself described his wife to be would rashly or hastily or lightly separate herself from the love with which she had once been inspired for such a man as he is or was. Had he not heaped insult upon insult, and scorn upon scorn, had he not forced the iron of his contempt into her very soul, there is no woman of delicacy and virtue, as he admitted Lady Byron to be, who would not have hoped all things, and suffered all things, from one, her love of whom must have been inwoven with so many exalting elements of delicious pride, and more delicious humility. To offend the love of such a woman was wrong, but it might be forgiven; to desert her was unmanly, but he might have returned, and wiped for ever from her eyes the tears of her desertion: but to injure and to desert, and then to turn back and wound her widowed privacy with unhallowed strains of cold-blooded mockery, was brutally, fiendishly, inexpiably mean. For impurities there might be some possibility of pardon, were they supposed to spring only from the reckless buoyancy of young blood and fiery passions; for impiety there might at least be pity, were it visible that the misery of the impious soul equalled its darkness: but for offences such as this, which cannot proceed either from the madness of sudden impulse or the bewildered agonies of doubt, but which speak the wilful and determined spite of an unrepenting, unsoftened, smiling, sarcastic, joyous sinner, there can be neither pity nor pardon. Our knowledge that it is committed by one of the most powerful intellects our island ever has produced lends intensity a thousand-fold to the bitterness of our indignation. Every high thought that was ever kindled in our breasts by the Muse of Byron, every pure and lofty feeling that ever responded from within us to the sweep of his majestic inspirations, every remembered moment of admiration and enthusiasm, is up in arms against him. We look back with a mixture of wrath and scorn to the delight with which we suffered ourselves to be filled by one, who, all the while he was furnishing us with delight, must, we cannot doubt it, have been mocking us with a cruel mockery; less cruel only, because less peculiar, than that with which he has now turned him from the lurking-place of his selfish and polluted exile to pour the pitiful chalice of his contumely on the surrendered devotion of a virgin bosom, and the holy hopes of the mother of his child. It is indeed a sad and a humiliating thing to know, that in the same year, there proceeded from the same pen two productions in all things so different as the fourth canto of "Childe Harold" and his loathsome "Don Juan."

'We have mentioned one, and, all will admit, the worst instance of the private malignity which has been embodied in so many passages of "Don Juan;" and we are quite sure the lofty-minded and virtuous men whom Lord Byron has debased himself by insulting will close the volume which contains their own injuries, with no feelings save those of pity for him that has inflicted them, and for her who partakes so largely in the same injuries.'--August, 1819.

* * * * *


'We shall, like all others who say anything about Lord Byron, begin, sans apologie, with his personal character. This is the great object of attack, the constant theme of open vituperation to one set, and the established mark for all the petty but deadly artillery of sneers, shrugs, groans, to another. Two widely different matters, however, are generally, we might say universally, mixed up here,--the personal character of the man, as proved by his course of life; and his personal character, as revealed in or guessed from his books. Nothing can be more unfair than the style in which this mixture is made use of. Is there a noble sentiment, a lofty thought, a sublime conception, in the book? "Ah, yes!" is the answer. "But what of that? It is only the roue Byron that speaks!" Is a kind, a generous action of the man mentioned? "Yes, yes!" comments the sage; "but only remember the atrocities of 'Don Juan:' depend on it, this, if it be true, must have been a mere freak of caprice, or perhaps a bit of vile hypocrisy." Salvation is thus shut out at either entrance: the poet damns the man, and the man the poet.

'Nobody will suspect us of being so absurd as to suppose that it is possible for people to draw no inferences as to the character of an author from his book, or to shut entirely out of view, in judging of a book, that which they may happen to know about the man who writes it. The cant of the day supposes such things to be practicable; but they are not. But what we complain of and scorn is the extent to which they are carried in the case of this particular individual, as compared with others; the impudence with which things are at once assumed to be facts in regard to his private history; and the absolute unfairness of never arguing from his writings to him, but for evil.

'Take the man, in the first place, as unconnected, in so far as we can thus consider him, with his works; and ask, What, after all, are the bad things we know of him? Was he dishonest or dishonourable? had he ever done anything to forfeit, or even endanger, his rank as a gentleman? Most assuredly, no such accusations have ever been maintained against Lord Byron the private nobleman, although something of the sort may have been insinuated against the author. "But he was such a profligate in his morals, that his name cannot be mentioned with anything like tolerance." Was he so, indeed? We should like extremely to have the catechising of the individual man who says so. That he indulged in sensual vices, to some extent, is certain, and to be regretted and condemned. But was he worse, as to such matters, than the enormous majority of those who join in the cry of horror upon this occasion? We most assuredly believe exactly the reverse; and we rest our belief upon very plain and intelligible grounds. First, we hold it impossible that the majority of mankind, or that anything beyond a very small minority, are or can be entitled to talk of sensual profligacy as having formed a part of the life and character of the man, who, dying at six and thirty, bequeathed a collection of works such as Byron's to the world. Secondly, we hold it impossible, that laying the extent of his intellectual labours out of the question, and looking only to the nature of the intellect which generated, and delighted in generating, such beautiful and noble conceptions as are to be found in almost all Lord Byron's works,--we hold it impossible that very many men can be at once capable of comprehending these conceptions, and entitled to consider sensual profligacy as having formed the principal, or even a principal, trait in Lord Byron's character. Thirdly, and lastly, we have never been able to hear any one fact established which could prove Lord Byron to deserve anything like the degree or even kind of odium which has, in regard to matters of this class, been heaped upon his name. We have no story of base unmanly seduction, or false and villainous intrigue, against him,--none whatever. It seems to us quite clear, that, if he had been at all what is called in society an unprincipled sensualist, there must have been many such stories, authentic and authenticated. But there are none such,--absolutely none. His name has been coupled with the names of three, four, or more women of some rank: but what kind of women? Every one of them, in the first place, about as old as himself in years, and therefore a great deal older in character; every one of them utterly battered in reputation long before he came into contact with them,--licentious, unprincipled, characterless women. What father has ever reproached him with the ruin of his daughter? What husband has denounced him as the destroyer of his peace?

'Let us not be mistaken. We are not defending the offences of which Lord Byron unquestionably was guilty; neither are we finding fault with those, who, after looking honestly within and around themselves, condemn those offences, no matter how severely: but we are speaking of society in general as it now exists; and we say that there is vile hypocrisy in the tone in which Lord Byron is talked of there. We say, that, although all offences against purity of life are miserable things, and condemnable things, the degrees of guilt attached to different offences of this class are as widely different as are the degrees of guilt between an assault and a murder; and we confess our belief, that no man of Byron's station or age could have run much risk in gaining a very bad name in society, had a course of life similar (in so far as we know any thing of that) to Lord Byron's been the only thing chargeable against him.

'The last poem he wrote was produced upon his birthday, not many weeks before he died. We consider it as one of the finest and most touching effusions of his noble genius. We think he who reads it, and can ever after bring himself to regard even the worst transgressions that have been charged against Lord Byron with any feelings but those of humble sorrow and manly pity, is not deserving of the name of man. The deep and passionate struggles with the inferior elements of his nature (and ours) which it records; the lofty thirsting after purity; the heroic devotion of a soul half weary of life, because unable to believe in its own powers to live up to what it so intensely felt to be, and so reverentially honoured as, the right; the whole picture of this mighty spirit, often darkened, but never sunk,--often erring, but never ceasing to see and to worship the beauty of virtue; the repentance of it; the anguish; the aspiration, almost stifled in despair,--the whole of this is such a whole, that we are sure no man can read these solemn verses too often; and we recommend them for repetition, as the best and most conclusive of all possible answers whenever the name of Byron is insulted by those who permit themselves to forget nothing, either in his life or in his writings, but the good.'--(1825.)

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