On this day in 1811, our Poet was firing off a letter to his close friend John Cam Hobhouse as he languished inside his crumbling ancestral seat at Newstead Abbey – home to the notorious and profligate Byron family since the Reformation and which lies in the heart of Sherwood Forest in Nottingham.
‘My dear H- Our friend Scrope is a pleasant person, a “facetious companion”, & “well respected by all who know him”, he laughs with the laughing, though he don’t weep with the dead, yet I believe he would do that also, could it do them service, but good or bad we must endeavour to follow his example & return to the dull routine of business or pleasure, though I fear, the more we see of life, the more we shall regret those who have ceased to live….
We will speak of them no more…‘
He had returned hurriedly to Newstead in the dying days of July upon learning that Catherine Gordon Byron, his ‘Most Amiable Mamma’ was seriously ill and arrived only to learn that she had died the day before his arrival on August 2.
Several days later he was also to learn of the death of Charles Skinner Matthews, a close friend from his Cambridge days who had drowned in the Cam and the death in Coimbra of another school friend John Wingfield.
It is hardly surprising that he sounds so desolate in his letter to Hobhouse!
He was also revising the drafts for the publication of a certain poem which would make him famous in the spring of the following year.
The hours he spent immersed in the brooding tenor of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage with lengthy amendments and revisions may not have helped his humour nor the fact that he was preoccupied with the drafting of his Last Will and Testament:
‘The body of Lord B. to be buried in the vault of the garden of Newstead, without any ceremony or burial-service whatever, or any inscription, save his name and age.’
‘His dog is not to be removed from the said vault’
Some years later and with my own life having undergone a recent and dramatic change, I returned to Newstead Abbey on a beautiful September afternoon – albeit with less despondency!
‘..my life is as still as the Lake before the Abbey, till the North-wind disturbs the one, & Fletcher & my learned Thebans break my Pottery, or my tenants or Mr. H ruffle the other….‘
The weather was simply glorious, the visitors were quiet and few in number, the Abbey was silent of ghosts and lost in history I happily forgot myself and my cares for just a little while…
Byron’s Letters and Journals Vol 2 Ed Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray 1973)