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allowed the blisters to be placed on his legs above the knees. It is sometimes said that he had a club-foot, but his deformity has been described as follows:
The right Achilles tendon was so contracted that he could never put the foot flat on the ground, wearing for it a boot made with a high heel, and a padding inside under the heel of the foot; indeed, the tendons of both feet were contracted; he had to walk on the balls and toes of both feet.”
In view of this deformity it can readily be understood why Byron preferred such sports as riding and swimming.
Schooldays.- When Byron was thirteen and a half he entered Harrow, one of the great English schools. Its Headmaster was Dr. Joseph Drury, a man of force and scholarship, whose influence on Byron was wholesome. Dr. Drury gives the following account of his first impressions of his new pupil:
“I took my young disciple into my study, and endeavored to bring him forward by inquiries as to his former amusements, employments, and associates, but with little or no effect, and I soon found that a wild mountain colt had been submitted to my management. But there was mind in his eye; ... His manner and temper soon convinced me that he might be led by a silken string to a point, rather than a cable: on that principle I acted.”
Byron learned to respect the Headmaster very highly, and wrote, later in life, this appreciation:
“He was the best, the kindest (and yet strict, too) friend I ever had; and I look on him still as a father, whose warnings I have remembered too well, though too late, when I have erred, and whose counsel I have but followed when I have done well or wisely."
Like most geniuses, and like thousands who are not geniuses, Byron did not distinguish himself in his school studies; the regular routine work did not attract him; he did no more than he had to do. It is interesting to note that he excelled in oratory and declamation rather than in poetry. Neither in the classics nor in the modern languages was he ever a proficient scholar. Italian is the only modern language in which he excelled, though he had more than a smattering of French and German. But
although he was not of that temperament which leads to scholarship and learning through persistent application to the prescribed studies of the curriculum, he had that enormous appetite for information which is one of the characteristics of genius. He was an omnivorous reader in those early days, and with a memory remarkable for its tenacity he stored away a surprising amount of general knowledge. “I read eating, read in bed, read when no one else reads."
In the University. - In 1805 Byron entered Trinity College, Cambridge, and for about three years kept up an irregular attendance, leaving in 1808. His record at Cambridge is not that of the cloistered scholar quietly and studiously absorbing the wisdom of the past in the dim religious light of consecrated halls, but rather the record of gay sport” whose interests were in shooting, gambling, drinking, swimming, feasting, and, strange to say, fasting. But this is not all of his Cambridge experience. A pleasanter side was the formation of friendships with such men as Matthews and Hobhouse. By common consent Matthews was considered the most brilliant and likable man in University circles. He was drowned in 1811, while swimming alone in the reedy Cam. Hobhouse became the life-long friend of Byron, and was a valued adviser and sturdy helper in time of trouble. Davies was another close friend of whom the following incident is related: “Once when the poet in one of his fits of petulance cried out, trying to produce a terrible impression, 'I shall go mad!' Davies calmly and cuttingly observed, 'It is much more like silliness than madness.'” This friend is said to be the only man who ever placed Byron under serious pecuniary obligation. He loaned Byron £4,800, a sum repaid by Byron in 1814, at which time in celebration of the repayment the pair drank claret and champagne from six till midnight, after which “Scrope (Davies) could not be got into the carriage on the way home, but remained tipsy and pious on his knees.” Another friend was Hodgson, who became a clergyman. Later in life Hodgson was worried by a bad debt of £1,000 which he had inherited. Byron, with one of his characteristic generous impulses, paid off
the debt. It is pleasant to think of the friendships that Byron contracted in his college days, for so much of that time seems to have been wasted in dissipation and in neglecting the opportunities of his vigorous young manhood.
Hours of Idleness. — In 1807, while Byron was still an undergraduate at Cambridge, he published Hours of Idleness, his first book of poetry. In it were about seventy poems of no unusual merit; just such poetry as any clever collegian with the knack of versification might produce. In the preface he apologizesfor obtruding myself on the world, when, without doubt, I might be, at my age, more usefully employed.” And in the next paragraph he assures us that “These productions are the fruits of the lighter hours of a young man who has lately completed his nineteenth year.” In the concluding paragraph he informs 'us that this is the first and last attempt, and also that he would rather incur the “bitterest censure of anonymous criticism, than triumph in honors granted solely to a title.” If Byron had had any fears that belonging to the House of Lords might silence the voice of sturdy criticism, he was soon undeceived. In March, 1808, the Edinburgh Review appeared with a criticism that drove Byron to three bottles of claret on the evening in which he read the article. The weak are overcome by opposition, the strong are strengthened. It is a favorite theory of Fichte, the great German philosopher, that nations and individuals grow by opposition. Byron is a good illustration of the theory. Later in life, when driven from England by public opinion, he did his best work while an exile in Italy. At this time he showed the mettle of his pasture by writing English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. This bitter satire, modeled on Pope, whom he had studied to good purpose, appeared in the spring of 1809 and was immediately successful. The public enjoyed seeing the professional critic seethed in his own milk. However, Byron in later editions modified his strictest censures, especially those directed against his fellow poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Marriage. — Upon the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold, following two years of travel in which most of
his time was spent in Spain and Greece, Byron, as is so often quoted, “awoke and found himself famous.” Byron became the most popular man in London. He was a handsome man, and in addition was a poet and a peer! To be a handsome peer of the realm would be sufficient to attract the attention of the lion hunters; to be a famous poet, besides, was dangerous for a man of Byron's temperament. Lady Caroline Lamb writes: “The women suffocated him with their adulation in drawing rooms.”
Byron's relationship with the fair sex is open to severe criticism. He had affairs of the heart from his early boyhood, and in many of them he acted selfishly. His ideal of womanhood is not the ideal of a Shakspere or a Tennyson. At one time he wrote of women:
“I look on them as grown-up children; but like a foolish mamma, I am constantly the slave of one of them. The Turks shut up their women, and are much happier; give a woman a looking-glass and burnt almonds, and she will be content.”
On January 2, 1815, Byron and Miss Anne Isabella Millbanke were married; about a year later, with her daughter, about five weeks old, the young wife left her husband, never to return. And ever since the tongues of friends and enemies have been wagging, telling how it came to pass. But thus far no one has been able to give a satisfactory explanation.
“Lady Byron was a clever woman, a philanthropic one. But she was not very magnanimous, not a heroine, not the kind of woman to influence so divergent a character as the man she married, partly hoping to reform him.”
With a knowledge of the austere and conventional character of Lady Byron, and the erratic and inflammable temperament of Lord Byron, it is not difficult to imagine a trivial cause of separation; at least it is unnecessary to advance an act of brutality or abominable scandal as the direct cause. It is well to keep in mind that Byron, again and again, declared that he was in complete ignorance of the cause of separation, and also that for some
time after the separation he spoke of his wife in the kindest terms.
Byron Leaves England. - The British public now poured out the bitterest vials of its wrath upon the luckless head of Byron. In the day of his success he had been over-praised; now he was over-blamed. He was tried, condemned, and executed without a hearing. He was charged with the foulest vices in the catalogue of human depravity. The most profligate and depraved of Roman Emperors were not quite so wicked as this son of Belial who had disgraced the British Peerage. He says:
“I was accused of every monstrous vice by public rumor and private rancor; my name, which had been a knightly or noble one since my fathers helped to conquer the kingdom for William the Norman, was tainted. I felt that if what was whispered, and muttered, and murmured was true, I was unfit for England; if false, England was unfit for me.”
On the 25th of April Byron left England for the Continent. We soon find him at Geneva with Shelley, whose influence on Byron's poetry can be detected in the third and fourth cantos of Childe Harold. It was during this time, while making little excursions about the lake, that Byron wrote the famous Prisoner of Chillon, completing the poem in two days.
“Lake Leman lies by Chillon's walls
A thousand feet in depth below,
In October our poet crosses the Alps to Italy, where the most productive of his poetic years are passed. In Venice he led dissipated life, weakening his constitution, and preparing himself to be a victim of the bad climate and unsanitary conditions of Missolonghi.
The worst of his dissipations were checked by his infatuation for the Countess Guiccioli, or rather by her infatuation for him. She was the daughter of Count Gamba, a poor Italian nobleman, who had married her, when she was but sixteen, to Count Guiccioli, a rich widower of sixty. Moore writes of her meeting Byron: