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In the year 1790 a profligate and dissipated captain in the Guards abandoned his wife and a little child of two years in the stony wilderness of London. The officer's name was John Byron; his wife was Catherine Gordon of Gight in Aberdeenshire. He went abroad to die: she went north to Aberdeen with her little lame boy to live as well as she could on £130 a year.
There, in Scottish schools, the boy received his early education, until an announcement reached the small household in the city of granite, that, by the death of his grand-uncle, "Geordie” was a lord,
and owner of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. At 1798 once his weak, capricious mother, was seized with a desperate
horror of her son's lameness, which had existed from his
birth. In vain she tried quacks and doctors. The foot remained unchangeably distorted, and to the last a look at the deformity stabbed Byron like a dagger. Less than two years at a Dulwich boarding-school, and some time at Harrow, prepared the young lord for entering Trinity College, Cambridge, fin 1805. Already the youth of seventeen, thoroughly spoiled by his foolish mother, who flung things at him one moment, and strained him to her breast the next, had been neglecting his regular stþudies, but eagerly devouring other books of every class and kind. Oriental history seems early to have fascinated his taste; and this early love gave its own colouring to his chief poetical works. Already, too, another love than that for books had been tinging his spirit with its
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hues. The lame but handsome boy was only fifteen, when he met that Mary Chaworth, whose coldness towards him was the first rill of lasting bitterness that mingled with the current of his life. The beautiful Dream, which we find among his minor poems, tells the sad story of this boyish love and its results. The young lord's life at Cambridge lasted about two years, during which he made some firm friends among the students, but annoyed and estranged the college Dons by his irregularities. Among other freaks, he kept bull-dogs and a bear in his rooms, the latter of which he introduced to visitors as in training for a fellowship. His lameness did not prevent him from taking a full share in athletic sports. At school he had loved hockey and cricket better than the Latin poets. At college, and during his residence at Newstead, before he came of age, he was passionately fond of boating. A large Newfoundland dog was his invariable companion during the lonely cruisings he enjoyed.” During his leisure hours at school and college he had been penning occasional verses, which appeared at Newark in 1807, in a little volume entitled Hours of Idleness. Very boyish and very weak these verses were, but they hardly merited 1807 the weighty scorn with which an Edinburgh reviewer A.D. noticed them within the year. Stung to the quick by this article, with the authorship of which Lord Brougham is charged, the “noble minor” retorted in a poem, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, which showed the world that the abused versicles were but the languid recreations of a man in whose hand, when roused to earnest work, the pen became a tremendous and destructive weapon. Two years of foreign travel (1809–1811), led the poet through scenes whose beauty and historic interest inspired the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Though Byron was only one-and-twenty when he set out upon this tour of Spain and Turkey, the shadow of disappointed love had long been brooding upon his heart. In spite of his own repeated denials, we cannot
* The Epitaph on this dog, especially the last line, affords a strange glimpse of the poet's misanthropic pride.
help identifying the writer with this gloomy Childe Harold, who had exhausted in revelry and vice the power of enjoying life. Not that Byron at this early stage felt within his breast only the cold and lifeless embers of wild passions, which had burned themselves to death ; but the poor young fellow, smarting sorely under his early sorrow, and feeling that his talents were of no common kind, grew into that diseased state of mind which leads a man to believe that it is a fine thing to hate all the world and care for nothingto be utterly blasé and done-up, and alone and uncared-for. So he pictures Childe Harold to have been; and the same unpleasant character is reproduced in nearly all his portraitures of men. When the first two cantos of this noble poem were published in
1812, the author, who only five years earlier had been 1812 sneered at as a weakling, rose by unanimous consent to
the head of the London literary world. In his own
words, he awoke one morning to find himself famous. As the Ayrshire peasant had been caressed by the fashionables of Edinburgh, the aristocratic and handsome Byron was idolized in the saloons of London.
His life, as a man of fashion and a literary lion, lasted for about three years. During this time he took his seat in the House of Lords, and made three speeches without producing any marked effect.
The material gathered during his travels being yet far from exhausted, he wrote those fine Turkish tales, which kindled in the public mind of England an enthusiastic feeling towards modern Greece. The Giaour and The Bride of Abydos appeared in 1813; The Corsair and Lara, in the following year. The two former are written in that eight-syllabled line which suits so well the narration of stirring and romantic adventures. In the latter he adopted the rhyming pentameters of Dryden and Pope, but gave them a music and a colour all his own. In all four the inevitable and unwholesome Byronic hero,—sallow, wasted, dark-haired, mysterious, ill-humoured,-casts bis chill upon us. Childe Harold has wound a crimson shawl round his high, pale brow, has donned the snowy capote, has stuck ataghan and silver-mounted pistols in his belt, and in full Greek dress glooms at us with his melancholy eyes.
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Byron's marriage with Miss Milbanke took place in 1815. Almost from the beginning there were disagreements, and in a twelvemonth the union was dissolved. One daughter, Ada, to whom are addressed the touching lines which open the third canto of “Childe Harold,” reminded the unhappy parents of what their home might have been. Having produced The Siege of Corinth and Parisina amid the miseries of his last months in London, where he was abused in the papers and hissed in the streets for his conduct to his wife, he left England in disgust in the spring of 1816, and never saw his native land again. Restless and miserable years they were that filled up the allotted span of poor Byron's life. He passed—alonely wanderer, with many a poisoned arrow rankling in his memory and heart—over the blood-stained ground of Waterloo, amid the snowy summits of the Jura echoing with frequent thunder, into the beautiful Italian land, to find in the faded palaces of Venice and the mouldering columns of Rome fit emblems of his own ruined life, but, alas! not to read these lessons of the dead past with a softening and repentant soul. At Wenice, at Ravenna, at Pisa, and at Rome, he lived a wicked and most irregular life, writing many poems, for which he received many thousand pounds, but descending, as he sank morally, into a fitful and frequently morbid style, too often poisoned with reckless blasphemy and unconcealed licentiousness. His greatest work, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage,” was finished in 1818. The third canto was written at Geneva; the fourth and last, chiefly at Venice. The Spenserian 1818 stanza takes a noble music in the skilful hand of Byron. A.D. The view of modern Rome, the starlight vision of the bleeding Gladiator, and the address to the Ocean, which no familiarity can ever rob of its sublime effect, are the finest passages of the closing poem. Of course Byron tried his pen at dramatic writing. Almost every poet does. But the author of “Childe Harold” and the
* Childe is an old English word, signifying a knight. Byron at first intended to give an antique cast to the diction of the poem.
“Corsair” had not the power of going out of himself, which a successful dramatist must possess. That dark and morbidly romantic figure, of whom we have spoken before, haunts us through all the Mysteries and Tragedies which this unhappy genius produced in the later years of his shadowed life. Cain and Manfred are the most powerful of these works; but they afford, especially the former, a terrible view into the workings of a mind steeped in rebellious pride and misanthropy. Marino Faliero, The Two Foscari, Sardanapalus, Werner, Heaven and Earth, and The Deformed Transformed, are the principal remaining dramas from Byron's pen.
His last great literary effort was the composition of his most dangerous work, Don Juan. Dangerous, we say, because it is draped and garlanded with passages of exceeding beauty and sweetness. It stands, a fragment of unfinished toil, a sad memento of lofty genius debased to the foulest use.
Never were shining gold and black mire so industriously heaped together. It seems as if the unhappy bard, tired of hating his fellow-mortals, had turned with fierce mockery upon himself, to degrade and trample on that very genius upon which was based his only claim to admiration, and which alone can save from ridicule his scornful isolation of himself.
Byron's last enterprise flings a somewhat pathetic light upon his closing days. The Greece whose ancient glories and whose lovely shores had formed a chief theme of his earlier
had risen at length from her ignoble bondage. The War of Independence had begun. Sailing from Leghorn in 1823, Byron landed in Cephalonia, and soon passed to Missolonghi. With money, with advice, with encouragement, and with bodily service, he began to work eagerly in the cause of his adopted land. Difficulties were thick around him; for wild lawlessness was everywhere, and fierce quarrels occurred in the Greek army every day. In a few months he did much to overcome these troubles, and was looking forward with eagerness to leading an attack on Lepanto, when fever, rising from the marshes of Missolonghi, seized in its deadly gripe his enervated and toil-worn frame.