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Stanzas to Augusta : “Though the
Stanzas written in passing the Ambra-
expired on the 19th of May 1798; and little “ Geordie,” aged ten, was Baron Byron of Rochdale, master of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, and owner of a large though embarrassed property. He was now made a ward in Chancery, under the guardianship of the Earl of Carlisle. The deceased lord had been a man of vehement passions, who had for more than thirty years lived in a grim retirement at Newstead. This was consequent upon a duel, hardly differing from a mere brawl, with his relative and neighbour Mr Chaworth of Annesley, in which the latter was killed. Lord Byron had then undergone a trial before his peers, in 1765, in which he was acquitted.
A real lord, especially one whose ancestors came in with the Conquest, hardly needs to be assured that he does own that title: but Mrs Byron, fond and foolish as ever, was much addicted to impressing the fact upon her son, and he, in after years, repaid her by uniformly addressing her in writing as “The Honourable Mrs Byron," á distinction to which she had no title whatever. “The canker of aristocracy wants to be cut out” was Shelley’s verdict upon Byron : and much more serious reasons than this childish verbal juggling—though that is symptomatic enough--justified the observation. Byron was indeed an ingrained aristocrat-a liberalthinking one in many respects, but not the less an aristocrat. Hence some of his genuineness; hence also much of his posing and many of his affectations. He hugged his own superiority, adventitious as well as personal, and could not be satisfied with letting other people see the latter, and learn or surmise the former. He must always be abashing them with his distinction from the herd, his scorn for the mass of men ; he could always profess to be distinct and scornful ; and, rather than leave the difference unenforced, he would establish it by lowering himself. The world of readers were to contemplate him as something dark, undefined, and romantic : he must reveal himself a little, and impose upon their imaginations all the more in that the revelation was but partial and fragmentary. In all this, there is no doubt something of personal vanity, and even of that sort of vanity which, had he not been a real unquestionable aristocrat, might rather have been expected of a parvenu. But it is such vanity as rests on a deep and morbid love of artificial distinctions, the corner-stone of aristocracy in its more prosaic and practical developments : and, as Byron was not a parvenu, one can but attribute his weakness in this respect to the fact that, on the subject of aristocracy, he gloated from above upon those vulgarest prepossessions which bedazzle all blinking eyes and stimulate all watering mouths below.
Mrs Byron stayed something less than a year at Newstead, putting her son through a course of Latin, and also, at the hands of a local quack named Lavender, through a course of torture in the futile hope of straightening his right foot. They then removed to London, and Byron went to a boarding-school at Dulwich, where he was well instructed by Dr Glennie. Hence, in less than two years, to Harrow; and then, in 1805, to Trinity College, Cambridge. At Harrow he was irregular and turbulent, but of generous character; he showed no aptitude for verbal scholarship, although he read a great deal in a miscellaneous way. His mother already introduced him to some fashionable amusements, such as masquerades ; and had, at the earlier date, withdrawn him so frequently
from the regulated school-attendance at Dulwich that his transference to Harrow was effected by Lord Carlisle.
The emotion of love had been known to Byron even as a child, and was destined—now as lust, now as intrigue, now as passion, seldom of never perhaps as the purging and spiritualising flame of life-to dominate his whole career. At Aberdeen he had loved a little girl named Mary Duff; about 1800 he was enthralled by his lovely cousin Margaret Parker, who died of a decline within two or three years ; in 1803 he first saw Miss Chaworth, the heiress of Annesley, and a descendant of the gentleman whom his grand-uncle had killed in a duel. She was a beautiful girl, two years older than Byron, whom she regarded and treated as a schoolboy. She was already engaged to a gentleman in the neighbourhood, Mr Musters, whom in 1805 she married. The match proved an unhappy one, and the lady eventually lost her reason. Byron, from the time when he first met Miss Chaworth, fell deeply in love with her, nor was the passion a transitory one: it darkened many an after year with vain longing and yearning protest.
He passed two years at Trinity College, studious by fits, but mostly idle and dissipated : swimming, boxing, fencing, and pistol-practice, were among his favourite diversions: he also showed—what he ever afterwards retained-a great love of animals, and kept at Cambridge a bear and several bull-dogs, and in after years a wolf. His love for his Newfoundland dog Boatswain, which he finally buried in a vault at Newstead, and wrote an epitaph upon, is well known. In 1809, having shot an eaglet on the shore of the Gulf of Lepanto, he felt so much compunction that he resolved never again to shoot a bird. His great friend and admiration at college was Charles Skinner Matthews, a Herefordshire gentleman's son, who died in 1811, drowned while bathing in the Cam. Lord Clare and Mr Hobhouse (ultimately Lord Broughton) were also early friends for whom Byron ever afterwards entertained a warm regard. It has been said, indeed, that he never lost a friend: and no intimacy of later years, not even that with Moore or with Shelley, took such hold of him as these youthful associations. Another of his amiable traits was his kind feeling for his servants, who very generally became much attached to him.
Matthews was a sceptic, or more than a sceptic-Lord Byron has termed him an atheist. His lordship also was, from a very early period of youth, a sceptic, and remained such to the end of his life. He had a certain powerful sense of religion-of its majesty, its hold upon the heart, and more especially perhaps its terrors : at times even he half professed himself a Christian, tending towards Roman-Catholicism, and he is said, for the last several years of his life, to have made a practice of fasting on Fridays, and kneeling at the passing of any religious processionperhaps La Guiccioli rather than orthodoxy had to do with this result. Shelley considered that Byron was by no means a firm unbeliever : on one occasion he shrieked to Trelawny, with the introversion of a holy horror, “By God! he's no better than a Christian !” It is, I think, quite open to surmise that Byron, had he lived out an ordinary length of days, might have dictated or dubitated himself into Christianity: but, as a matter of fact, he was and always remained a sceptic-a non-believer or doubter, often a sarcastic and defiant, seldom a resolved and unchafing
one. In truth, Byron was not a man of opinions at all, whether on religious or other subjects, but of impulses, aspirations, and a temperament at once versatile and uncertain on the surface, and dogg-dly obdurate at the core. There was a great deal of boyishness in his character from first to last; and he was singularly incapable of any reticence, whether himself or other people were affected. He was personally_brave, free from fear of death, but somewhat easily daunted by pain. Friends and acquaintances could do anything, and also nothing, with him : he was the slave and the despot of women, their adorer and their contemner. The twig could at most moments be bent-never the tree inclined.
Byron's first recorded “poem was written at the mature age of tena satire on some old lady who had raised his bile : he afterwards wrote some poetry to his cousin Miss Parker. In January 1806 he had a volume of miscellaneous verses printed : but, one of the compositions being objected to as unchaste by the Rev. John Becher, of Southwell, a friendly Mentor whom he respected, he in November destroyed the edition, after two, or perhaps three, copies had been issued. In March 1807 he published his Hours of Idleness. Some critic in the Edinburgh Review, reputed to have been Brougham, was discerning enough to see that the poems were rubbish, and Whig enough to write on them a critique such as would now be termed “chaffy” rather than actually severe; he was not discerning enough to foresee that there was the making of a real and great poet in the fledgeling author. Indeed, to have divined this would have amounted to a sort of critical second sight; the poems being, in the amplest sense of the term, poor stuff.
This was the turning-point of Byron's career, and the beginning of his fame. Even before the appearance of the snubbing critique, he had commenced a satire on the writers of his day : this he now took up with centupled ardour, and produced (not without considerable obligations to Gifford's Baviad and Mæviad) his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. It was published on the 16th of March 1809, three days after he had taken his seat in the House of Lords. On that occasion he was left entirely to his own resources, without any countenance or introduction from his late guardian the Earl of Carlisle or other noble connections—a circumstance which long embittered his mind. About this time he had entered upon a settled residence at Newstead Abbey, and played some pranks there, with monkish costumes, skull-cups (if not skulls) as drinking-cups, and so on, which may have been more vivacious than decorous. At one time Byron had serious thoughts of coming forward in political life. He spoke thrice in the House of Lords, with no discouraging result : Sheridan even thought he would become a distinguished speaker. His first speech (on the 27th of February 1812) was on the Nottingham Frame-bre ng Bill; but he did not persevere on this tack.
The English Bards and Scotch Reviewers could not fail to make a stir, consisting as it did of a rolling fire of abuse against nearly all the most conspicuous literary men of the time. Byron, however, left it very much to take care of itself. An eagerness for travelling had seized him ; and on the rith of June he quitted London, and sailed from Falmouth on the 2d of July, in company with his friend Hobhouse. He landed at Lisbon on the 5th ; crossed Spain ; went on to Prevesa (in Albania),