steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Great Uncle Pomposus

I've mentioned here that my great-great-great grandfather taught the young Isambard Kingdom Brunel at the school he ran in Cheyne Walk. What I hadn't realised was that a few years earlier his younger brother George had been Lord Byron's headmaster at Harrow. And they did not get on. In 1805, George's appointment to the headship caused a furore among the pupils, who had liked the former head and favoured his nephew as successor. Leading the charge (who else?) was that other George, Lord Byron, who wrote the following poem to his school when he was seventeen:

Where are those honours, Ida! once you own,
When Probus fill’d your magisterial throne?
As ancient Rome, fast falling to disgrace,
Hail’d a barbarian in her Cæsar’s place,
So you, degenerate, share as hard a fate,
And seat Pomposus where your Probus sate.
Of narrow brain, yet of a narrower soul,
Pomposus holds you in his harsh control;
Pomposus, by no social virtue sway’d,
With florid jargon, and with vain parade;
With noisy nonsense, and new-fangled rules,
Such as were ne’er before enforced in schools
Mistaking pedantry for learning’s laws,
He governs, sanction’d but by self applause;
With him the same dire fate attending Rome,
Ill-fated Ida! soon must stamp your doom;
Like her o’erthrown, for ever lost to fame,
No trace of science left you, but the name.

One of the rebels' plans was apparently to blow up the Headmaster's study, but this was luckily called off. Byron recalls the campaign in 'Childish Recollections', written a year or so after the event:

Here, first remember'd be the joyous band,
Who hail'd me chief, obedient to command;
Who join'd with me, in every boyish sport,
Their first adviser, and their last resort;
Nor shrunk beneath the upstart pedant's frown,
Or all the sable glories of his gown;
Who, thus, transplanted from his father's school,
Unfit to govern, ignorant of rule--
Succeeded him, whom all unite to praise,
The dear preceptor of my early days,
PROBUS, the pride of science, and the boast--
To IDA now, alas! for ever lost!
With him, for years, we search'd the classic page,
And fear'd the Master, though we lov'd the Sage:
Retir'd at last, his small yet peaceful seat
From learning's labour is the blest retreat.
POMPOSUS fills his magisterial chair;
POMPOSUS governs,--but, my Muse, forbear:
Contempt, in silence, be the pedant's lot,
His name and precepts be alike forgot;
No more his mention shall my verse degrade,--
To him my tribute is already paid.

I've been trying to discover what I can about George's character, but it's hard to find a witness who isn't hopelessly swayed by partis pris. He was at any rate no beard-wagging Holofernes, but a man in his twenties at the time of his appointment, a mathematician (he had been Senior Wrangler), fencer, athlete and skater, as well as a cleric. Is it possible to skate pompously, in fact? Alas, I try to picture Mr Collins doing it, and am forced to confess that it is. I do have a memory, although now I cannot find the source, that George once saved someone from drowning, which while it may not be quite as spectacular an athletic achievement as swimming the Hellespont is arguably more useful.

It seems that George and Byron reached some kind of accommodation afterwards, but I've no idea whether this was more than skin deep. It needs looking into...
Tags: family history
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