Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
By Robert Southey (17741843)
From Letter Concerning Lord Byron
IT was because Lord Byron had brought a stigma upon English literature, that I accused him; because he had perverted great talents to the worst purposes; because he had set up for pander-general to the youth of Great Britain as long as his writings should endure; because he had committed a high crime and misdemeanour against society, by sending forth a work, in which mockery was mingled with horrors, filth with impiety, profligacy with sedition and slander. For these offences I came forward to arraign him. The accusation was not made darkly, it was not insinuated, nor was it advanced under the cover of a review. I attacked him openly in my own name, and only not by his, because he had not then publicly avowed the flagitious production, by which he will be remembered for lasting infamy. He replied in a manner altogether worthy of himself and his cause. Contention with a generous and honourable opponent leads naturally to esteem, and probably to friendship; but, next to such an antagonist, an enemy like Lord Byron is to be desired, one, who, by his conduct in the contest, divests himself of every claim to respect; one, whose baseness is such as to sanctify the vindictive feeling that it provokes, and upon whom the act of taking vengeance is that of administering justice. I answered him as he deserved to be answered, and the effect which that answer produced upon his lordship has been described by his faithful chronicler, Captain Medwin. This is the real history of what the purveyors of scandal for the public are pleased sometimes to announce in their advertisements as Byrons Controversy with Southey. What there was dark and devilish in it belongs to his lordship; and had I been compelled to resume it during his life, he, who played the monster in literature, and aimed his blows at women, should have been treated accordingly. The Republican Trio says Lord Byron, when they began to publish in common, were to have had a community of all things, like the Ancient Britons to have lived in a state of nature like savages and peopled some island of the blest with children like. A very pretty Arcadian notion! I may be excused for wishing that Lord Byron had published this himself; but though he is responsible for the atrocious falsehood, he is not for its posthumous publication. I shall only observe, therefore, that the slander is as worthy of his lordship as the scheme itself would have been. Nor would I have condescended to have noticed it even thus, were it not to show how little this calumniator knew concerning the objects of his uneasy and restless hatred. Mr. Wordsworth and I were strangers to each other, even by name, at the time when he represents us as engaged in a Satanic confederacy, and we never published anything in common.
Here I dismiss the subject. It might have been thought that Lord Byron had attained the last degree of disgrace when his head was set up for a sign at one of those preparatory schools for the brothel and the gallows, where obscenity, sedition, and blasphemy are retailed in drams for the vulgar. There remained one further shame there remained this exposure of his Private Conversations, which has compelled his lordships friends, in their own defence, to compare his oral declarations with his written words, and thereby to demonstrate that he was as regardless of truth as he was incapable of sustaining those feelings suited to his birth, station, and high endowment, which sometimes came across his better mind.