Till the black slime betray her as she crawls;
If like a viper to the heart she wind,
And leaves the venom there she did not find, —
What marvel that this hag of hatred works
Eternal evil latent as she lurks.'
The noble lord then proceeds to abuse this woman of inferior rank in the language of the upper circles. He thus describes her person and manner: —
'Skilled by a touch to deepen scandal's tints
With all the kind mendacity of hints,
While mingling truth with falsehood, sneers with smiles,
A thread of candour with a web of wiles;
A plain blunt show of briefly-spoken seeming,
To hide her bloodless heart's soul-harden'd scheming;
A lip of lies; a face formed to conceal,
And without feeling mock at all who feel;
With a vile mask the Gorgon would disown, —
A cheek of parchment and an eye of stone.
Mark how the channels of her yellow blood
Ooze to her skin and stagnate there to mud,
Cased like the centipede in saffron mail,
Or darker greenness of the scorpion's scale, —
(For drawn from reptiles only may we trace
Congenial colours in that soul or face,)
Look on her features! and behold her mind
As in a mirror of itself defined:
Look on the picture! deem it not o'ercharged
There is no trait which might not be enlarged.'
The poem thus ends: —
'May the strong curse of crushed affections light
Back on thy bosom with reflected blight,
And make thee in thy leprosy of mind
As loathsome to thyself as to mankind!
Till all thy self-thoughts curdle into hate,
Black – as thy will for others would create;
Till thy hard heart be calcined into dust,
And thy soul welter in its hideous crust.
O, may thy grave be sleepless as the bed,
The widowed couch of fire, that thou hast spread
Then when thou fain wouldst weary Heaven with prayer,
Look on thy earthly victims – and despair!
Down to the dust! and as thou rott'st away,
Even worms shall perish on thy poisonous clay.
But for the love I bore and still must bear
To her thy malice from all ties would tear,
Thy name, – thy human name, – to every eye
The climax of all scorn, should hang on high,
Exalted o'er thy less abhorred compeers,
And festering in the infamy of years.'
March 16, 1816.
Now, on the 29th of March 1816, this was Lord Byron's story. He states that his wife had a truthfulness even from early girlhood that the most artful and unscrupulous governess could not pollute, – that she always panted for truth, – that flattery could not fool nor baseness blind her, – that though she was a genius and master of science, she was yet gentle and tolerant, and one whom no envy could ruffle to retaliate pain.
In September of the same year she is a monster of unscrupulous deceit and vindictive cruelty. Now, what had happened in the five months between the dates of these poems to produce such a change of opinion? Simply this: —
1st. The negotiation between him and his wife's lawyers had ended in his signing a deed of separation in preference to standing a suit for divorce.
2nd. Madame de Staël, moved by his tears of anguish and professions of repentance, had offered to negotiate with Lady Byron on his behalf, and had failed.
The failure of this application is the only apology given by Moore and Murray for this poem, which gentle Thomas Moore admits was not in quite as generous a strain as the 'Fare thee well'.
But Lord Byron knew perfectly well, when he suffered that application to be made, that Lady Byron had been entirely convinced that her marriage relations with him could never be renewed, and that duty both to man and God required her to separate from him. The allowing the negotiation was, therefore, an artifice to place his wife before the public in the attitude of a hard-hearted, inflexible woman; her refusal was what he knew beforehand must inevitably be the result, and merely gave him capital in the sympathy of his friends, by which they should be brought to tolerate and accept the bitter accusations of this poem.
We have recently heard it asserted that this last-named piece of poetry was the sudden offspring of a fit of ill-temper, and was never intended to be published at all. There were certainly excellent reasons why his friends should have advised him not to publish it at that time. But that it was read with sympathy by the circle of his intimate friends, and believed by them, is evident from the frequency with which allusions to it occur in his confidential letters to them.[5 - In Lady Blessington's conversations with Lord Byron, just before he went to Greece, she records that he gave her this poem in manuscript. It was published in her 'Journal.']
About three months after, under date March 10, 1817, he writes to Moore: 'I suppose now I shall never be able to shake off my sables in public imagination, more particularly since my moral – clove down my fame.' Again to Murray in 1819, three years after, he says: 'I never hear anything of Ada, the little Electra of Mycenæ.'
Electra was the daughter of Clytemnestra, in the Greek poem, who lived to condemn her wicked mother, and to call on her brother to avenge the father. There was in this mention of Electra more than meets the ear. Many passages in Lord Byron's poetry show that he intended to make this daughter a future partisan against her mother, and explain the awful words he is stated in Lady Anne Barnard's diary to have used when first he looked on his little girl, – 'What an instrument of torture I have gained in you!'
In a letter to Lord Blessington, April 6, 1823, he says, speaking of Dr. Parr:[6 - Vol. vi. p. 22.]—
'He did me the honour once to be a patron of mine, though a great friend of the other branch of the house of Atreus, and the Greek teacher, I believe, of my moral Clytemnestra. I say moral because it is true, and is so useful to the virtuous, that it enables them to do anything without the aid of an Ægistheus.'
If Lord Byron wrote this poem merely in a momentary fit of spleen, why were there so many persons evidently quite familiar with his allusions to it? and why was it preserved in Murray's hands? and why published after his death? That Byron was in the habit of reposing documents in the hands of Murray, to be used as occasion offered, is evident from a part of a note written by him to Murray respecting some verses so intrusted: 'Pray let not these versiculi go forth with my name except to the initiated.'[7 - 'Byron's Miscellany', vol. ii. p. 358. London, 1853.]
Murray, in publishing this attack on his wife after Lord Byron's death, showed that he believed in it, and, so believing, deemed Lady Byron a woman whose widowed state deserved neither sympathy nor delicacy of treatment. At a time when every sentiment in the heart of the most deeply wronged woman would forbid her appearing to justify herself from such cruel slander of a dead husband, an honest, kind-hearted, worthy Englishman actually thought it right and proper to give these lines to her eyes and the eyes of all the reading world. Nothing can show more plainly what this poem was written for, and how thoroughly it did its work! Considering Byron as a wronged man, Murray thought he was contributing his mite towards doing him justice. His editor prefaced the whole set of 'Domestic Pieces' with the following statements: —
'They all refer to the unhappy separation, of which the precise causes are still a mystery, and which he declared to the last were never disclosed to himself. He admitted that pecuniary embarrassments, disordered health, and dislike to family restraints had aggravated his naturally violent temper, and driven him to excesses. He suspected that his mother-in-law had fomented the discord, – which Lady Byron denies, – and that more was due to the malignant offices of a female dependant, who is the subject of the bitterly satirical sketch.
'To these general statements can only be added the still vaguer allegations of Lady Byron, that she conceived his conduct to be the result of insanity, – that, the physician pronouncing him responsible for his actions, she could submit to them no longer, and that Dr. Lushington, her legal adviser, agreed that a reconciliation was neither proper nor possible. No weight can be attached to the opinions of an opposing counsel upon accusations made by one party behind the back of the other, who urgently demanded and was pertinaciously refused the least opportunity of denial or defence. He rejected the proposal for an amicable separation, but consented when threatened with a suit in Doctors' Commons.'[8 - The italics are mine.]
Neither John Murray nor any of Byron's partisans seem to have pondered the admission in these last words.
Here, as appears, was a woman, driven to the last despair, standing with her child in her arms, asking from English laws protection for herself and child against her husband.
She had appealed to the first counsel in England, and was acting under their direction.
Two of the greatest lawyers in England have pronounced that there has been such a cause of offence on his part that a return to him is neither proper nor possible, and that no alternative remains to her but separation or divorce.
He asks her to state her charges against him. She, making answer under advice of her counsel, says, 'That if he insists on the specifications, he must receive them in open court in a suit for divorce.'
What, now, ought to have been the conduct of any brave, honest man, who believed that his wife was taking advantage of her reputation for virtue to turn every one against him, who saw that she had turned on her side even the lawyer he sought to retain on his;[9 - Lord Byron says, in his observations on an article in 'Blackwood': 'I recollect being much hurt by Romilly's conduct: he (having a general retainer for me) went over to the adversary, alleging, on being reminded of his retainer, that he had forgotten it, as his clerk had so many. I observed that some of those who were now so eagerly laying the axe to my roof-tree might see their own shaken. His fell and crushed him.'In the first edition of Moore's Life of Lord Byron there was printed a letter on Sir Samuel Romilly, so brutal that it was suppressed in the subsequent editions. (See Part III.)] that she was an unscrupulous woman, who acquiesced in every and any thing to gain her ends, while he stood before the public, as he says, 'accused of every monstrous vice, by public rumour or private rancour'? When she, under advice of her lawyers, made the alternative legal separation or open investigation in court for divorce, what did he do?
He signed the act of separation and left England
Now, let any man who knows the legal mind of England, – let any lawyer who knows the character of Sir Samuel Romilly and Dr. Lushington, ask whether they were the men to take a case into court for a woman that had no evidence but her own statements and impressions? Were they men to go to trial without proofs? Did they not know that there were artful, hysterical women in the world, and would they, of all people, be the men to take a woman's story on her own side, and advise her in the last issue to bring it into open court, without legal proof of the strongest kind? Now, as long as Sir Samuel Romilly lived, this statement of Byron's – that he was condemned unheard, and had no chance of knowing whereof he was accused – never appeared in public.
It, however, was most actively circulated in private. That Byron was in the habit of intrusting to different confidants articles of various kinds to be shown to different circles as they could bear them, we have already shown. We have recently come upon another instance of this kind. In the late eagerness to exculpate Byron, a new document has turned up, of which Mr. Murray, it appears, had never heard when, after Byron's death, he published in the preface to his 'Domestic Pieces' the sentence: 'He rejected the proposal for an amicable separation, but consented when threatened with a suit in Doctors' Commons.' It appears that, up to 1853, neither John Murray senior, nor the son who now fills his place, had taken any notice of this newly found document, which we are now informed 'was drawn up by Lord Byron in August 1817, while Mr. Hobhouse was staying with him at La Mira, near Venice, given to Mr. Matthew Gregory Lewis, for circulation among friends in England, found in Mr. Lewis's papers after his death, and now in the possession of Mr. Murray.' Here it is: —