Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 39

No authority whatever — Interference — Wondrous farrago — Brandt and Struensee — What a life! — The hearse — Mortal relics — Great poet — Fashion and fame — What a difference — Oh, beautiful — Good for nothing.

And now once more to my pursuits, to my Lives and Trials. However partial at first I might be to these lives and trials, it was not long before they became regular trials to me, owing to the whims and caprices of the publisher. I had not been long connected with him before I discovered that he was wonderfully fond of interfering with other people’s business — at least with the business of those who were under his control. What a life did his unfortunate authors lead! He had many in his employ toiling at all kinds of subjects — I call them authors because there is something respectable in the term author, though they had little authorship in, and no authority whatever over, the works on which they were engaged. It is true the publisher interfered with some colour of reason, the plan of all and every of the works alluded to having originated with himself; and, be it observed, many of his plans were highly clever and promising, for, as I have already had occasion to say, the publisher in many points was a highly clever and sagacious person; but he ought to have been contented with planning the works originally, and have left to other people the task of executing them, instead of which he marred everything by his rage for interference. If a book of fairy tales was being compiled, he was sure to introduce some of his philosophy, explaining the fairy tale by some theory of his own. Was a book of anecdotes on hand, it was sure to be half filled with sayings and doings of himself during the time that he was common councilman of the City of London. Now, however fond the public might be of fairy tales, it by no means relished them in conjunction with the publisher’s philosophy; and however fond of anecdotes in general, or even of the publisher in particular — for indeed there were a great many anecdotes in circulation about him which the public both read and listened to very readily — it took no pleasure in such anecdotes as he was disposed to relate about himself. In the compilation of my Lives and Trials I was exposed to incredible mortification, and ceaseless trouble, from this same rage for interference. It is true he could not introduce his philosophy into the work, nor was it possible for him to introduce anecdotes of himself, having never had the good or evil fortune to be tried at the bar; but he was continually introducing — what, under a less apathetic government than the one then being, would have infallibly subjected him, and perhaps myself, to a trial, — his politics; not his Oxford or pseudo politics, but the politics which he really entertained, and which were of the most republican and violent kind. But this was not all; when about a moiety of the first volume had been printed, he materially altered the plan of the work; it was no longer to be a collection of mere Newgate lives and trials, but of lives and trials of criminals in general, foreign as well as domestic. In a little time the work became a wondrous farrago, in which Konigsmark the robber figured by the side of Sam Lynn, and the Marchioness de Brinvilliers was placed in contact with a Chinese outlaw. What gave me the most trouble and annoyance was the publisher’s remembering some life or trial, foreign or domestic, which he wished to be inserted, and which I was forthwith to go in quest of and purchase at my own expense: some of those lives and trials were by no means easy to find. ‘Where is Brandt and Struensee?’ cries the publisher; ‘I am sure I don’t know,’ I replied; whereupon the publisher falls to squealing like one of Joey’s rats. ‘Find me up Brandt and Struensee by next morning, or — ’ ‘Have you found Brandt and Struensee?’ cried the publisher, on my appearing before him next morning. ‘No,’ I reply, ‘I can hear nothing about them’; whereupon the publisher falls to bellowing like Joey’s bull. By dint of incredible diligence, I at length discover the dingy volume containing the lives and trials of the celebrated two who had brooded treason dangerous to the state of Denmark. I purchase the dingy volume, and bring it in triumph to the publisher, the perspiration running down my brow. The publisher takes the dingy volume in his hand, he examines it attentively, then puts it down; his countenance is calm for a moment, almost benign. Another moment and there is a gleam in the publisher’s sinister eye; he snatches up the paper containing the names of the worthies which I have intended shall figure in the forthcoming volumes — he glances rapidly over it, and his countenance once more assumes a terrific expression. ‘How is this?’ he exclaims; ‘I can scarcely believe my eyes — the most important life and trial omitted to be found in the whole criminal record — what gross, what utter negligence! Where’s the life of Farmer Patch? where’s the trial of Yeoman Patch?’

‘What a life! what a dog’s life!’ I would frequently exclaim, after escaping from the presence of the publisher.

One day, after a scene with the publisher similar to that which I have described above, I found myself about noon at the bottom of Oxford Street, where it forms a right angle with the road which leads or did lead to Tottenham Court. Happening to cast my eyes around, it suddenly occurred to me that something uncommon was expected; people were standing in groups on the pavement — the upstair windows of the houses were thronged with faces, especially those of women, and many of the shops were partly, and not a few entirely, closed. What could be the reason of all this? All at once I bethought me that this street of Oxford was no other than the far-famed Tyburn way. Oh, oh, thought I, an execution; some handsome young robber is about to be executed at the farther end; just so, see how earnestly the women are peering; perhaps another Harry Simms — Gentleman Harry as they called him — is about to be carted along this street to Tyburn tree; but then I remembered that Tyburn tree had long since been cut down, and that criminals, whether young or old, good-looking or ugly, were executed before the big stone gaol, which I had looked at with a kind of shudder during my short rambles in the City. What could be the matter? just then I heard various voices cry, ‘There it comes!’ and all heads were turned up Oxford Street, down which a hearse was slowly coming: nearer and nearer it drew; presently it was just opposite the place where I was standing, when, turning to the left, it proceeded slowly along Tottenham Road; immediately behind the hearse were three or four mourning coaches, full of people, some of whom, from the partial glimpse which I caught of them, appeared to be foreigners; behind these came a very long train of splendid carriages, all of which, without one exception, were empty.

‘Whose body is in that hearse?’ said I to a dapper-looking individual, seemingly a shopkeeper, who stood beside me on the pavement, looking at the procession.

‘The mortal relics of Lord Byron,’ said the dapper-looking individual, mouthing his words and smirking — ‘the illustrious poet, which have been just brought from Greece, and are being conveyed to the family vault in — shire.’

‘An illustrious poet, was he?’ said I.

‘Beyond all criticism,’ said the dapper man; ‘all we of the rising generation are under incalculable obligation to Byron; I myself, in particular, have reason to say so; in all my correspondence my style is formed on the Byronic model.’

I looked at the individual for a moment, who smiled and smirked to himself applause, and then I turned my eyes upon the hearse proceeding slowly up the almost endless street. This man, this Byron, had for many years past been the demigod of England, and his verses the daily food of those who read, from the peer to the draper’s assistant; all were admirers, or rather worshippers, of Byron, and all doated on his verses; and then I thought of those who, with genius as high as his, or higher, had lived and died neglected. I thought of Milton abandoned to poverty and blindness; of witty and ingenious Butler consigned to the tender mercies of bailiffs; and starving Otway: they had lived neglected and despised, and, when they died, a few poor mourners only had followed them to the grave; but this Byron had been made a half god of when living, and now that he was dead he was followed by worshipping crowds, and the very sun seemed to come out on purpose to grace his funeral. And, indeed, the sun, which for many days past had hidden its face in clouds, shone out that morn with wonderful brilliancy, flaming upon the black hearse and its tall ostrich plumes, the mourning coaches, and the long train of aristocratic carriages which followed behind.

‘Great poet, sir,’ said the dapper-looking man, ‘great poet, but unhappy.’

Unhappy? yes, I had heard that he had been unhappy; that he had roamed about a fevered, distempered man, taking pleasure in nothing — that I had heard; but was it true? was he really unhappy? was not this unhappiness assumed, with the view of increasing the interest which the world took in him? and yet who could say? He might be unhappy, and with reason. Was he a real poet after all? might he not doubt himself? might he not have a lurking consciousness that he was undeserving of the homage which he was receiving? that it could not last? that he was rather at the top of fashion than of fame? He was a lordling, a glittering, gorgeous lordling: and he might have had a consciousness that he owed much of his celebrity to being so; he might have felt that he was rather at the top of fashion than of fame. Fashion soon changes, thought I, eagerly to myself — a time will come, and that speedily, when he will be no longer in the fashion; when this idiotic admirer of his, who is still grinning at my side, shall have ceased to mould his style on Byron’s; and this aristocracy, squirearchy, and what not, who now send their empty carriages to pay respect to the fashionable corpse, shall have transferred their empty worship to some other animate or inanimate thing. Well, perhaps after all it was better to have been mighty Milton in his poverty and blindness — witty and ingenious Butler consigned to the tender mercies of bailiffs, and starving Otway; they might enjoy more real pleasure than this lordling; they must have been aware that the world would one day do them justice — fame after death is better than the top of fashion in life. They have left a fame behind them which shall never die, whilst this lordling — a time will come when he will be out of fashion and forgotten. And yet I don’t know; didn’t he write Childe Harold and that ode? Yes, he wrote Childe Harold and that ode. Then a time will scarcely come when he will be forgotten. Lords, squires, and cockneys may pass away, but a time will scarcely come when Childe Harold and that ode will be forgotten. He was a poet, after all, and he must have known it; a real poet, equal to — to — what a destiny! Rank, beauty, fashion, immortality, — he could not be unhappy; what a difference in the fate of men — I wish I could think he was unhappy . . . .

I turned away.

‘Great poet, sir,’ said the dapper man, turning away too, ‘but unhappy — fate of genius, sir; I, too, am frequently unhappy.’

Hurrying down a street to the right, I encountered Francis Ardry.

‘What means the multitude yonder?’ he demanded.

‘They are looking after the hearse which is carrying the remains of Byron up Tottenham Road.’

‘I have seen the man,’ said my friend, as he turned back the way he had come, ‘so I can dispense with seeing the hearse — I saw the living man at Venice — ah, a great poet.’

‘Yes,’ said I, ‘a great poet, it must be so, everybody says so — what a destiny! What a difference in the fate of men; but ’tis said he was unhappy; you have seen him, how did he look?’

‘Oh, beautiful!’

‘But did he look happy?’

‘Why, I can’t say he looked very unhappy; I saw him with two . . . very fair ladies; but what is it to you whether the man was unhappy or not? Come, where shall we go — to Joey’s? His hugest bear — ’

‘Oh, I have had enough of bears, I have just been worried by one.’

‘The publisher?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then come to Joey’s, three dogs are to be launched at his bear: as they pin him, imagine him to be the publisher.’

‘No,’ said I, ‘I am good for nothing; I think I shall stroll to London Bridge.’

‘That’s too far for me — farewell.’

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32