By HAROLD NICOLSON
ON this day, May 14th, one hundred and nineteen years ago, the news reached London that Byron had died at Missolonghi. A messenger from Corfu had arrived the night before, *ringing with him a packet of letters, addressed to Douglas Kinnaird, at Messrs. Ransome's. Among them was an envelope to be forwarded urgently to John Cam Hobhouse. That envelope and its contents are still preserved among the rich archives of John Murray in Albemarle Street. It is a blue official envelope, franked by Lord Sidney Osborne, who was then in the employment of the British High Commissioner in the Ionian Islands ;. it bears the official red seal of the Commission and added to it Lord Sidney's private seal in black wax. It contains several documents in different handwritings. There is an almost illegible scrawl written from the death-chamber by Pietro Gamba. There is a long and painstaking letter from Byron's servant, Fletcher. They had been written at Missolonghi on April 2ISt. There is also a dignified letter from Sidney Osborne stating the bald facts. In "an agony of grief" Hobhouse read these letters in his rooms at the Albany. In a few hours the news of Byron's death had spread through London and beyond. Alfred Tennyson, then a lad of fourteen, heard* the news at Somersby Rectory ;. he ran in dismay to a neighbouring quarry and scratched the words " Byron is dead " upon the sandstone. Alexander Pushkin heard of it in exile in Southern Russia ; he instructed the village priest to conduct a memorial service in honour of " the great man Georgios " ; the young Pushkin, his head bowed in grief, for a man whom he had never known, paid honour to the hero of Missolonghi by this remote and lonely panikhida. The word spread in ever- widening circles through Europe and the world. In Germany, in America men told each other the dread news: it was as if some t)eacon had been suddenly dimmed.
* * * * It is difficult for us who live in an age of diffused and superficial emotions, to realise the quality of Byron's immense renown. I recall a story which Edmund Gosse once told me, and which I find it difficult to adjust to the proportions and probabilities of the world I know. Gosse had had the story from Lord John Manners, and was prepared to vouch for the accuracy of every detail. In May, 1824, Lord John, at the time a child of six, was allowed as a treat to be present at a dinner given at the Castle to the gentlemen of the Belvoir Hunt. The dinner had reached the stage at which the port began to circulate and at which Lord John himself ought to have been taken up to bed. A letter was handed to the Duke of Rutland, who, having read it, called for order and rose in his place. " Gentlemen," he said, " grave news has just been brought to me. Lord Byron has died in Greece." A sudden hush fell on all those sporting gentlemen and their expected conviviality was stilled. A low murmur of regret spread round the table, and ther,eafter several of the hunting squires started to recite their favourite passages from Byron's work. Lord John was allowed to remain and witness this decorous and unforeseen ceremony. The party dissolved with un- accustomed sobriety, and the little boy went back to bed. I have always been puzzled by this story, since it is inconceivable that the death of any poet, indeed the death of any private individual, could today cast a similar gloom over any assembly. Nor can one suppose that when the death of Tennyson or Kipling was announced there would be men who would either wish, or be able, to recite poetry at a hunt dinner. The quality of Byron's renown was clearly different from anything that we have known. What was that quality?
* * * * People of my generation know far too much about Byron. We know the nature of his relationship, both with Lady Oxford and with Mrs. Mule. He was never a reticent person, and in the last forty years we have had full opportunity to witness the pageant of his bleeding heart. He was a man who was so passionately interested in his own -biography that, in spite of his nomadic existence, he preserved an inconceivable number of relics from his own past. He was one of those egoistic men who try to every letter which they receive. Among the papers, for instan_ which were found in his room at Missolonghi there is a note very slight importance written to him by a French Levantine a Athens thirteen .years before. It would be possible with this vas documentation to reconstruct a diary covering almost every day of Byron's adult life. The result has been that for the present genera- tion Byron the man has completely overshadowed Byron the poet. We have become so fascinated by his character that we tend to forget not only his poetry but even his legend. Yet it was that legend t which gave to the Pilgrim of Eternity a fame such as no other c English poet has achieved during his own lifetime. Goethe, for instance, who had no illusions at all regarding Byron's intellectual capacity, assured Eckermaon that "a character of such eminence has never existed before and probably will never come again." Lamartine, as we know, regarded Byron as the symbol of his age.
And even Stendhal, who was not given to facile enthusiasms and who had been disconcerted by Byron when he met him in Milan, refers to his " Apollonic quality." How can so subtle a psychologist as Stendhal have discovered this Olympian radiance in a man whom we regard as a weak, humorous, touchy, unscrupulous but on the whole agreeable hedonist? - * * * *
We can understand, of course, the " Byron fever" which swept through London drawing-rooms of atz. It was entrancing to discover that the " man of loneliness and mystery " Was, in fact, a young, peer of really astonishing good looks who could be seen leaning aloof against a column in Melbourne House. We can understand how the apparent anarchism of Byron's earlier poems appealed to a generation which was bored by the eighteenth century and disillusioned by the reaction against it. We can understand how his excessive individualism delighted an age which was dis- gusted both by the old order and the new. We can understand how the British aristocracy (who had for so many years been deprived of their accustomed solace of foreign travel) enjoyed the guide-book element in Byron's poetry, and how the romantic sensi- bilities of the time relished these strongly-coloured pictures of primitive, although contemporarys conditions. We can well under- stand why Byron became fashionable ; what we do not understand is why his earlier poems made so lasting appeal to men of deep intelligence and wide culture. It is not sufficient to attribute the whole Byronic legend to the maladie du siècle, or to rest content with Taine's dictum that " no more illustrious prey was ever sacrificed to the century's disease." Such explanations account for much, but they do not account for Goethe's admiration, for Stendhal's famous phrase, or for the fact that a hundred Midland squires should have been hushed to awed silence in the dining-room at Belvoir. We finds it difficult to recapture the state of mind, the serious receptiveness, of so diverse an audience.
* * * * The answer is, I think, that Byron's poetry appealed to the sophisticated and to the unsophisticated for different reasons. ' The latter enjoyed it partly because it was descriptive, and therefore easily recognisable, and partly because it was rhetorical, and there- fore easily memorised. Moreover, they mistook Byron's vehemence for virility ; in his poems their own physical energy became articulate. But what on earth was the quality of pleasure which Goethe derived? Not intellectual, assuredly. " Once he starts thinking," Goethe said to Eckemiana, "he becomes a child." For Goethe and his fellow-intellectuals Byron was predominantly a symbol- Euphorion or,Apollo—a figure of statuesque serenity shining through the mists of a disillusimed world. Was that conception wholly fantastic? Byron, was a man of many attitudes, but his death at Missolonghi was not a pose. Nor need we wonder that this shining sacrifice should, on that morning of May 14th, 1824 have sent dark ripples of distress throughout the world.