Page images
PDF

his privilege as & peer, and was in consequence discharged. He died at Newstead, in 1798. John, the next brother to Lord William, and born in the year after him, that is, in 1723, was a man of a very different disposition, although his career in life was almost one succession of misfortunes. The hardships which he met with, while accompanying Commodore Anson in his expedition to the South Seas, are well known, from his own highly popular and affecting narrative; and his grandson, the poet, is supposed to have had some of the sufferings of the honourable John, afterwards Commodore and Admiral Byron, in his mind, when he gave some of the most exquisite touches to his admirably painted picture of the storm and shipwreck, in Don Juan. So unfortunate was he, in regard to weather, that he was known throughout the fleet by the name of "Soul weather Jack,” and the sailors had great reluctance to go to sea under his command. Against the enemy he had equally bad success ; not that he was deficient either in bravery or in skill, but the weather was always between him and the enemy. Still he was a man who deserved and enjoyed the esteem of all about him, and was reckoned one of the best natal officers of his time. His only son, born in 1751, was known by the name of "mad Jack Byron.” He was one of the handsomest men of the time; but his character was so notorious, that his father, who had procured for him a commission in the guards, was soon obliged to desert Lin; to be but seen in his company was considered a stain. In his twentysetenth year he found means to seduce Amelia marchioness of Carmarthen, to had been but a few years married to a husband with whom she had hed in the most happy state until she formed this most unfortunate

inexion. The noise which this faux pas occasioned was very great, as well on account of its own enormity, as of the perfect happiness which had previously subsisted between the husband and the wife, and of the Teat reluctance which the husband had to believe in her guilt. That, bowever, was ultimately proved in a manner but too convincing; and after ze fruitless attempt at reclaiming the lady, she was divorced by her basband and abandoned to her fate. That fate was both hasty and hard. The friends brought about a marriage between her and her seducer, which iler the most brutal conduct on his part, and the greatest misery and be keenest remorse on hers, was dissolved in two years by her sinking la the grave of a broken heart. In about three years after, Captain Byron laught to patch up his broken fortunes by matrimony; and having made i conquest of Miss Gordon, an Aberdeenshire heiress, he spent her forhe in a few years, and left her and her only child, the subject of this Memoir, in a destitute and defenceless state. He went to France, to avoid lills treditors, and died at Valenciennes in 1791, little more than three pears after the birth of his son, to whom, in the meantime, was given bis mother's name of Gordon.

GEORGE GORDON was born on his mother's estate in Aberdeenshire, on le 22d day of January 1788. As his mother and himself were soon Herwards deserted by his father, the whole care of his infant years beolved upon the mother; and considering the state in which she was Lit is but natural to suppose that she treated the boy with every Mulgence within her power. Tenderness and indulgence in his early as were rendered the more necessary, as, besides having one of his

deformed, he was of a very weakly constitution. For these reasons was not quite so early sent to school as is sometimes the case, but med to expand his lungs and strengthen his limbs upon the mountains the North. This period of his life passed unheeded; but we find trace

of its influence in many parts of his works. The grandeur of nature around him; the idea that he was upon mountains which had never been permanently trod by the foot of a conqueror; the conversation of a people whose amusements at that time consisted in a great measure of the recital of heroic exploits against invaders, feats of strength, and demonstrations of independence, mingled with all the wild goblin-stories usual among such a people and in such a place; and, above all, the being left at leisure and without dictation, to contemplate those scenes and listen to those recitals, afforded an initiatory education for Byron, far more poetical than that which he could have obtained, had he been nursed at the Abbey of Newstead, and nurtured after the fashion of its lords, in the proudest times of that high spirited, but latterly wild and wayward family. It may be true, that the licence of his infant years may have given to Byror some of those faults of which he has been accused, as well as many of those peculiarities which dulness, to say nothing worse, has considered as faults; but it is equally true, that to the same origin must be attributed those transcendent qualities which must throw all the blamed peculiarities of his character into the shade. The sublime rock, the dark lake, the dim forest, and the dashing stream which the infant-bard was allowed to contemplate, without the foolery of man's accompaniment, have in each of them a lyre strung by the hand of Nature herself; and how well he found out their tones, and thought of modulating their sweetness was well proved by the event.

When a few years' bracing upon the mountains had removed the symp toms of weakness with which George Gordon was born, he was sent to school, and there, though still an infant, he showed that he would on day form a character for himself. A school-fellow says, that he was naturally kindhearted and generous, though at the same time dignified an reserved. The class used to jeer him, as boys are often in the habit a doing, upon the natural deformity of his foot; but though it was obviou that he felt keenly upon these occasions, and had spirit sufficient t chastise, when he chose, the impertinence of boys much older and stronge than himself, his feeling toward them had more of contempt than a anger or peevishness. During play-hours he was often apart, and seeme to be following trains of speculation which had no connexion either wit the class or the school-exercises; although, when he pleased, he entere into their sports with an ardonr and a zest far surpassing any of his fel lows. As a scholar, there was nothing remarkable about him exceptin that, though he sought no assistance from his teacher or his class-fellow and seemed to derive as little from the ordinary modes and means study, he was not in the least deficient in his tasks, especially those part of them that depended more upon perception and judgment than upa mere memory.

While George Gordon was occupied in this, William, the fifth Lor Byron, departed, at Newstead Abbey, that life which had for so man years been rendered disagreeable by his want of temper. As the son Lord William had died in the same year in which George Gordon w born, and as the descent both of the titles and the estates was to heir male, George Gordon succeeded to the titles and estates of his grand uncle. The old Lord died on the 17th of May 1798; and thus the sta and prospects of the heir were completely changed, when he was litt more than ten years old. Upon this change in his fortune, Byron w removed from the immediate care of his mother, and placed as a wa under the guardianship of the Earl of Carlisle, who had inarried Isabell the sister of the late Lord Byron. It was immediately resolved upon, that he should receive the usual education which England bestows upon her titled sons: he was first sent to one of the great public schools, and from that to one of the universities. Harrow was the school which was chosen. He remained there during six years and then proceeded to Trinity-College, Cambridge. By this time his observation of the errors and absurdities of many of the usual systems pursued by men, and the inefficiency of the common means adopted for their removal, induced him to turn satirist; the bolt of his first effort fell upon the deans and doctors of Cambridge with a severity and a truth, which there is too much reason to believe has obtained for him their implacable enmity, and still continues to make them groan in anguish and growl for revenge.

When about nineteen years of age, Lord Byron bade adieu to the university and took up his residence at the family-seat, where he arranged, and had printed at Newark, a small collection of his poems, under the title of “Hours of Idleness." The apology urged for the appearance of this little volume, was the usual one of the "advice of friends ;” and though it has never been stated who those friends were, it is probable that his noble, and, as himself says, volunteer, guardian was one of them, as the publication is dedicated to him; a circumstance which the noble bard seems afterwards to have regretted. This volume is not very remarkable for its power; but still, although he had published nothing more, it would have ranked bin in the catalogue, and high in the catalogue, of those lost literati, do would have been men of genius had it not been for the weight of k coronet. Unpretending, however, as was this little volume, and obscure i was the press from which it issued, it appears to have been in a great measure the means of letting its author know the vast extent of his powers, and prompting him to the profitable and vigorous use of them, at

early a period of his life. This was effected too, in a way which would bare for ever silenced one of a less daring and undaunted mind. The Minburgh-Review, then in all the life and greenness of youth, had, by

of the most bold and daring evolutions which ever was played off a the literary world, taken the top-seat upon the bench of criticism by Bom, and was condemning by wholesale; while authors of all classes ud all descriptions, except the chosen few who composed or were known bits coterie, carried their wares to market with fear and trembling. This Review, which had generally been more anxious to find a victim which It could immolate, than an idol whom it could worship, pounced upon the "Hours of Idleness” with a fury almost unknown, or at any rate feldon evinced even by itself. Genius, learning, spirit, everything wood, was denied him, and the fact of his having ventured to set forth a book, in however humble and unpretending a manner, was held up as the fety acme of impudence and effrontery. The critic had his day; and the worshippers at the counter of Archibald Constable and Company were dauekling and saying to each other, “Well, we have done for this same Berge Gordon, Lord Byron, a minor. He won't tell us any thing more Bart his “Hours of Idleness.” We have given him work for twelve baths at the least, in repenting of what he has already done.” Such were the exultations, as stated by one who heard them at the time; but They were not without an admixture of fear. They had succeeded in conbeing at least themselves that Lord Byron had no talent and no taste poetry; but if they had heard of him at all, they must have heard he was a youth of great spirit; and hence, though they might reckon meeltes quite safe from the racing of Pegasus, there might still be some danger of that which drives forward his winglese namesake apoi earth: they were not over fond of the whip; and though one of thei number had recently come scratch-free out of a duel in consequence on a stipulated charging with paper-bullets, it was by no means clear tha Byron, gratuitously and wantonly as he had been attacked, would be s tender of the critical flesh. But the bard took his own way of avengin himself, and in his vindication inflicted more heavy and humiliatin chastisement upon the critics than if he had horsewhipped them all, o shot half their number. That pen, with which he had been dallying in his “Hours of Idleness," he sharpened for business to its keenest point and in brief space appeared “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers," ir which, by the power and polish of his verses, he not only established hi own claim to all those excellences of which the critics had noted hin destitute; but covered them with ridicule and confusion which they have never been able to shake off. Nor was this all; for amid the chastise ment of his unprovoked personal enemies, there was formed a genera attack upon the faults, and a general scorn of the meannesses of huma nature, which would have done credit to a writer of matured experience and confirmed reputation. It is true, that in this satire he attacked some whom he afterwards found did not deserve it; but it is equally true tha he attacked more upon whom it was well bestowed, both at the time and since; and there is not, in the whole annals of satirical writing, any in stance of a satire written by so young a man, which is so perfect in it form and so correct in its application. Lord Byron, so far from makin any boast of this great and happy effort, afterwards suppressed it. Up to the time of majority he continued to prosecute his fancies alternately a Newstead and in the metropolis. At the former place he spent mucho his time alone, or at least in the society, or rather under the care of great Newfoundland dog, to which he paid great attention while alive, an raised a monument when dead. During the whole of this period of hi life,-a period which, under his circumstances, was exposed to peculia dangers and temptations,—there is nothing which appears to bring hin out from the usual character of young noblemen, unless it be higher menta endowments, and a more dignified use of them; and much as he has bee blamed by wholesale and in the abstract, none of his calumniators hav been able to adduce the requisite tale of well authenticated particular

When the term of his minority had expired, he resolved to improv his knowledge of the earth and of mankind, by travelling abroad; and a the state of the middle and western parts of Europe was such that h could not conscientiously examine them, and as the information whic! these countries were calculated to afford, was not exactly that whic suited the high and poetic turn of his mind, his thoughts were directe to the classic land of the east. Selecting as his companion, John Hob house, whose love of liberty and literature seemed congenial with hi own, although their powers were of a very different order, he sailed fror Falmouth for Lisbon, and having landed there, he first examined all tha was worthy of remark in that neighbourhood, and then proceeded, by th southern provinces of Spain, for the Mediterranean, where he lande first on the wild mountains of Albania, whose bold scenery and bolde inhabitants appear to have made a deep and permanent impression upo his mind. Having traversed the classic land of Greece, in almost ever direction, and studied its scenery, with the eye of a poet and a painter and its people with the head of a sage and the heart of a patriot, h returned to England, better furnished in all the substantial fruits of travel

LIFTEHTUURI

[ocr errors]

IN

ling than perhaps any other man who ever returned to the shores of the same or of any other country.

Soon after his return from the Continent, the first and second cantos of Childe Harold made their appearance; and never did poetic work excite greater astonishment, or receive more universal attention or more general praise. The Edinburgh Reviewers, finding that their own consciences were in unison with the common feeling, forgot the mud in which they had been rolled, and hastened to pay their tribute to the giant intellect which this poem evinced, considering that it was the work of one whom the doctors had set down as being idle and dissipated, and who, when composing it, had not completed his twenty-third year. From the time of Harold's making its appearance, Lord Byron was, by universal consent, and without so much as an effort or even a wish upon his own part, considered as the first poet of the age, not only in his own country, but in the world. Fastidious persons, indeed, showed some alarm at the boldness of some of his doctrines, and many who believed in secret, cried shame at the publication of that which, though they felt it to be true in itself, they did not like to see proclaimed to the world.

The keen and scrutinizing glance which Lord Byron had, during his travels, cast upon the scenery and manners of the East, and the deep impression which these had made upon him, were not confined to those teaches of exquisite painting, of indignant anger, of unutterable despair,

of shadowy and almost viewless hope, which burst forth in the novel and terrible strains of Childe Harold; for they soon took a more complete was and a form more perfectly oriental in the tales and fragments of tabs which now followed each other, varied in their style, but rapid in their succession, and having a sort of family likeness in the daring of their sentiments and the dreadful fire of their colouring. Of those four poems,-the Giaour, the Bride of Abydos, the Corsair, and Lara—the most temarkable quality is the vast creative power which they display: not out of them, if done into prose, would make a couple of readable pages, und yet there is not one of them but contains genuine poetry, and images tlich lodge upon the memory in spite of it, and will not quit for any warning. The daring positions, as rapid and as vast as the darting of katning from cloud to cloud, or the starting of a meteor from sky to sky, shich hurry one from the sweetness of affection to the harshness of eruelty, and from the height of tenderness to the depth of crime; the barbarous and cold blooded deeds of the oppressor; the dark and secret merkings of revenge in the oppressed, with the fearful form which that tula when desperation and opportunity give it utterance; and, above all, be exquisitely affecting sketches of the clay-cold form of that Greece which was animated by the soul and warmed by the life-blood of freewan, while man and while liberty were yet fresh and young, have a vome and a power of poetry in them nowhere else to be found in ten tahes the same compass. In each of those four poems the noble bard else a different structure and modulation of verse, each differing from at in Childe Harold; but he proved himself equally a master and at time in them all. On the second day of January 1815, Lord Byron was married to the

daughter of Sir Ralph Milbank Noel, Bart., in the county of Dur..; but this marriage, though it will bring a very considerable addition u lortune to the orphan danghter of the bard, brought no substantial or manent happiness to the bard himself. To be united to such a man Lord Byron was no doubt a proud distinction for any lady; but it was

« PreviousContinue »