It’s Time to Talk About Lord Byron Again: A Review of, Byron’s Letters & Journals: A New Selection
It’s Time to Talk About Lord Byron Again
A Review of,
Byron’s Letters & Journals: A New Selection
Edited by Richard Lansdown, Oxford University Press, 2015
ISBN 978-0-19-872255-7, 518 pp., USA $50.00, hardcover
It’s time to talk about Lord Byron again.
Apart from W.H. Auden, the twentieth century had little favorable to say about Byron. It was a century that privileged obscurity over wit and fragmentation over fluidity. Morally loose and/or politically radical poets were no longer “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”—in fact they became, and remain, rather commonplace.
Of course, the nineteenth century did plenty of talking about Byron, much of it while he was still alive. Enough talking, perhaps, and enough revering to make up for Byron’s hundred-year spell as a second-tier Romantic, less knotty and footnotable than Coleridge, less youthful a corpse than Keats. Selling ten thousand copies of your poetry book is impressive by any standards. Doing it in 1814 London, whose population was no more than that of Dallas today—with a literacy rate a smidge over fifty percent—is even more impressive. To do all that in a single day? No wonder Sir Walter Scott (until Byron, Britain’s bestselling poet) turned to historical fiction.
But Byron’s fame was not merely breathless adulation from ladies of the aristocracy. His most extravagant praise came from extravagantly talented writers, many of them writers whose reputations aged far better than Byron’s. In Conversations with Eckermann, we find Goethe in raptures over Byron’s verse dramas; Keats and Wordsworth hardly registered with the Weimar sage. In a letter to a friend, the young Flaubert placed Byron in the same category as Shakespeare. Byron’s reputation carried ever farther than across the Channel: Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian poetry, had his start as an imitator of Byron in narratives such as “A Prisoner of the Caucasus.”
The twentieth century was not so impressed. Although Byron figured in the aspirations of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, T.S. Eliot accused Byron of possessing an “unphilosophical mind.” Ironically enough, some of the best philosophers disagreed with that pronouncement. Nietzsche composed a whole “Manfred Meditation” for four hands at the piano. In The Dawn, he made no less than five references to Byron, twice mentioning the poet in the same breath as Napoleon. Nietzsche also felt the draw of Byron’s informal prose; two of those five references come from Byron’s diaries. Nietzsche quotes from Manfred in Human, All Too Human, a passage crucial enough for Bertrand Russell to transcribe it in his synopsis of the philosopher. (“The Tree of Knowledge,” in case you’re wondering, “is not the Tree of Life.”) Whether Byron or any poet is truly “philosophical,” we can set aside for now—what he is not is obscure or turgid, two qualities usually associated with “philosophical poetry,” particularly of the Eliotic variety.
Tastes changed, as tastes do, and left Byron behind. In France, Baudelaire’s poète maudit owed more than a little to the Byronic hero, but Symbolism emphasized the very characteristics Byron mocked in Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner.” German taste, especially in the later twentieth century, turned to poets fundamentally un-Byronic, such as Celan.
Oddly, Soviet Russia alone kept alive that old Byronic veneration. Don Juan still enjoys canonical status in Russia, and the epic’s most famous translation was made by one of Stalin’s political prisoners, Tatiana Gnedich—entirely from memory. She was held in the cell alone, but with Byron’s garrulous narrator for company, her confinement was far from solitary.
Don Juan was not Byron’s only tragicomic epic. He wrote a second one, piecemeal, over the duration of his life, a true epic whose plot matches the plot of his own biography. Its hero lives a life more interesting than any Lake Poet’s and dies a death more interesting than Shelley’s. Byron wrote almost all of it down as it came to him. His Letters and Journals constitute, like Don Juan, this incomplete epic, one cut short by the author’s death. A fresh and comprehensive selection, made by Richard Lansdown, is now published by Oxford University Press.
It’s time to talk about Byron again.
Ever since Byron’s friend Thomas Moore published the first extracts from Byron’s Letters in 1830, Byron’s epistolary novel of a life has been best savored in a well-chosen selection. (The same holds true of his poetry; writers as prolific as Byron are never consistent.) The Byron biographer Leslie A. Marchand edited the complete letters for Harvard, but over thirteen volumes, even Byron’s company flags. Marchand himself understood this and also prepared a selection. In fact, Byron’s informal prose has invited scholar after scholar into a collaboration to filter and contextualize it. Lansdown is the most recent in a long line of Byron devotees.
The result is excellent and—this being the whole point of selection—very readable. Lansdown creates self-contained chapters by arranging most of the Letters geographically. Byron was a wanderer and exile for most of his later life, which fell neatly into phases: England, the Grand Tour, England again; then a series of Italian cities; and, finally, his fatal sojourn in Greece. Lansdown subdivides only where necessary, according to what Byron was writing. This helps him keep any one chapter from getting too long.
Each section is prefaced by a keen summary of the narrative background for the ensuing Letters. Lansdown picks out the best details, the catnip of gossip and coincidence—how Lady Caroline Lamb’s cuckolded husband went on to be Victoria’s first Prime Minister, how the last piece of fan mail Byron received came from none other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. (Byron’s note of thanks was one of the few Letters that Lansdown should have included in its entirety. The irony of that letter was exquisite: Moments before embarking for Greece, Byron wrote that he considered Goethe’s letter a “favourable omen” and promised to visit him in Weimar someday, “if I ever get back.”)
Lansdown himself may be the Byronist to watch. He has written an entire book about the least-read part of Byron’s oeuvre, the historical dramas, as well as work detailing Byron’s involvement with a revolutionary movement in Ravenna, the Carbonari, in the 1820s. His afterword to this volume ends, “Leslie A. Marchand’s . . . 1957 biography of the poet [is] still the best that has been published; perhaps it will not be improved upon.” Based on that sentence, and knowing what I know of filial rivalries in scholarship and art alike, I suspect Mr. Lansdown is contemplating some mammoth biography of Byron that will out-Marchand Marchand. If so, consider my preorder placed.
Are Byron’s Letters as “good” as those of Keats? It depends on what we are looking for. Here we find no great insights into the poetic art and no sighing dreams of poetic fame. In fact, in the latter case, we get the opposite. Byron actually possessed poetic fame on a scale unimaginable beforehand, and he lived long enough to see that fame reverse its polarity and become infamy. As for insights into poetic art, Byron’s Letters provide a corrective to Keats’s: A poet does not have to have any particular insight into what he is doing. Byron, for example, did not know how to improve a poem if it did not come off right the first time: “I am like the tyger (in poesy) if I miss my first spring—I go growling back to my jungle.”
Above all, though, Byron tramples on the hothouse-flower notion of “The Poet,” whether one thinks of the tuberculous nightingale Keats, or Blake or Rilke eavesdropping on angels, or any latter-day botanizing academic. What Byron does is remind us it is possible for poetry to get written in the downtime between pleasure seeking and politicking, cussing and whoring and seeing (and saving) the world.
Byron’s Letters have what you find in the letters of few other poets: Tumult. He sought drama, and drama sought him. A future Prime Minister’s wife, jilted, cuts herself for his sake. A few months later, he’s sleeping with his half-sister. White-water torrents in Switzerland, adultery in Italy; gonorrhea, malaria, indigestion. We read of him stripping off his coat and boots to keep Shelley, who was unable to swim, from drowning in a storm (he managed to pull the boat to shore in the end after vigorous bailing). Random gunshots sound a hundred feet from his door, after which he carries a dying policeman into his room to bleed to death. Enough action for one life, perhaps. Only then he sets off to expel the Turks from Greece . . . Byron may well be the Anti-Keats.
This may, in part, explain Byron’s animus toward Keats and Wordsworth. I say “in part” because the other part seems to have been envy of elite-critical success; Byron’s nastiest remarks about Keats were prompted by the sight of a glowing notice in the Edinburgh Review, which had savaged Byron’s earliest book. “His [Keats’s] is the very Onanism of poetry,” wrote Byron, with the contempt of a man who never had to resort to it much. This sense of Keats as a writer primarily fixated on himself and his feelings, or rather making himself feel things, points up the contrast between the introvert and the extrovert. “O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” wrote Keats in an 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Byron later wrote to his publisher John Murray, defending the profoundly un-Keatsian Don Juan: “Is it not life? Is it not the thing?” And earlier in 1813 Byron had written to Annabella Milbanke, his future wife, that “The great object of life is Sensation—to feel that we exist—even though in pain—it is this ‘craving void’ which drives us to Gaming—to Battle—to Travel—to intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of every description.”
Although the two poets agreed about “sensation,” it was in two totally different ways—one focused inward, the other focused outward; one writing the Odes, the other a garrulous satirist. One became the poet of sensation. The other became a sensation himself.
In Keats, the letters seem to precede the poetic development, exhibiting a depth of thought and at times a power of expression in advance of the poetry. Much of our sense of what was lost with Keats’s death is actually the mind we glimpse in the letters, that paradoxically metaphysical sensuality whose poetic expressions are those famous Odes. With Byron, this relationship between the letters and the poetry holds, too, and because Byron’s destiny was toward conversational music (what else is Don Juan?), that is what we get in the Letters.
Consider this phrase tossed off to his half-sister, in which he gives us some double alliteration and slips into iambic meter:
. . . independent as a German Prince who coins his own Cash, or a Cherokee Chief who coins no Cash at all . . .
It is crucial to recall that this letter was written in 1808, almost coevally with his desultory juvenilia, Hours of Idleness. This musical spontaneity will be inaccessible to Byron the versifier for some years yet; a prodigious amount of deliberate, stylized verse will intervene. Only a decade later, in the ottava rima of Don Juan, will the poet Byron catch up and superimpose on the Byron of the Letters. It is in Don Juan, the unfinished poem at the end of Byron’s poetic career, that the qualities on glorious display in the Letters are found from the very start: the dashed-off felicity of phrase, wild tonal variation, irreverence, an omnium-gatherum approach to subject matter and the personal voice. These occur naturally in the Letters, but Byron had to overcome great obstacles to attain them in his poetry.
What were those obstacles? His audience, for one. Contemporary readers in England wanted more Oriental Romances, not the worldly garrulity of Don Juan. From the very beginning, early nineteenth-century assumptions about what a good poem looked like guided (and misguided) Byron’s poetic output. The descriptions of his tour of Albania and Turkey in the Letters show his close observation and knack for matching form to content. Consider the crowd of clauses with which he describes the crowded court of Ali Pasha in Tepelana:
The Albanians in their dresses (the most magnificent in the world, consisting of a long white kilt, gold worked cloak, crimson velvet gold laced jacket and waistcoat, silver mounted pistols and daggers), the Tartars with their high caps, the Turks in their vast pelisses and turbans, the soldiers and black slaves with the horses, the former stretched in groups in an immense open gallery in front of the palace, the latter placed in a kind of cloister below it, two hundred steeds ready caparisoned to move in a moment, couriers entering or passing out with dispatches, the kettle drums beating, boys calling the hour from the minaret of the mosque . . .
Byron uses this raw material when he sets about writing Childe Harold, but instead of being heightened or focused, the scene is rendered diffuse and generic:
Richly caparisoned, a ready row
Of armed horse, and many a warlike store,
Circled the wide-extending court below;
Above, strange groups adorned the corridor;
And ofttimes through the area’s echoing door,
Some high-capped Tartar spurred his steed away;
The Turk, the Greek, the Albanian, and the Moor,
Here mingled in their many-hued array,
While the deep war-drum’s sound announced the close of day.
The wild Albanian kirtled to his knee,
With shawl-girt head and ornamented gun,
And gold-embroidered garments, fair to see:
The crimson-scarfed men of Macedon;
The Delhi with his cap of terror on,
And crooked glaive; the lively, supple Greek;
And swarthy Nubia’s mutilated son;
The bearded Turk, that rarely deigns to speak,
Master of all around, too potent to be meek,
Are mixed conspicuous: some recline in groups,
Scanning the motley scene that varies round;
There some grave Moslem to devotion stoops,
And some that smoke, and some that play are found;
Here the Albanian proudly treads the ground;
Half-whispering there the Greek is heard to prate;
Hark! from the mosque the nightly solemn sound,
The muezzin’s call doth shake the minaret,
“There is no god but God!—to prayer—lo! God is great!”
This is early Byron, making all the wrong decisions: syntactical inversions, archaisms, substituting a war-drum for a kettle-drum, making the object harder to visualize; and making sure a muezzin is minaret-shakingly (!) calling Muslims to prayer (which is what English readers expected in a poem about the Islamic world), instead of just “boys calling the hour.”
By Don Juan, the formality would be gone—and the form would be perfected. The familiar and cheeky tone of his letters to college cronies like John Cam Hobhouse would be cast in an ottava rima that swaggered on light feet. Byron’s memory of Turkish dress would find a place there, but in Don Juan such memories would be focused and quickened:
A Candiote cloak, which to the knee might reach,
And trousers not so tight that they would burst,
But such as fit an Asiatic breech;
A shawl, whose folds in Cashmire had been nurst,
Slippers of saffron, dagger rich and handy;
In short, all things which form a Turkish Dandy.
Of course, by the time Byron struck out on his various exiles, he was every inch the aristocrat, a class of people who did not fetch their own coats from the closet. Whether exiled, disgraced, or battling the Turks in the name of Hellas, certain things simply did not change. So Byron, even when thousands of pounds in debt, traveled with his share of servants, and wrote home complaining how their coarseness interfered with his raptures over the Alpine scenery.
He much preferred his animals. Byron had kept a bear on a leash while in college, but by the time of his Italian sojourn, the entourage had grown to include—among other creatures—a badger, a crow, a monkey, an Egyptian crane, and a fox, not to mention the usual cats and dogs. What with the prolific poetizing, the bisexual vortex of his bed set amid the smells and noises of a small zoo, the international fame, the international infamy, the looks, and the wealth, he must have struck people as a monster of nature, possessing a kind of preternaturally intense life-force.
It is hard to put a number on Byron’s women, to tally the wives of all classes, serving-girls, and whores who shared his bed. If we are to believe his reports—in one letter he mentions over a hundred liaisons in a single year—a decade in Italy would have seen him surpassing Don Giovanni’s mille e tre. The promiscuity at times did wax operatic, if only opéra bouffe, complete with shouting matches between the weeping cuckold and the defiant adulteress, whilst the foreign interloper buttoned his breeches. In 1817, one of Byron’s mistresses moved into his house uninvited and refused to leave, even after her husband, her relatives, the police, and Byron himself begged her to go home. (He ended up employing her as a housekeeper-with-benefits; apparently she performed excellently in both her duties, reducing his daily expenses by half.) To gauge how sordid Byron got in those years, we need only go to the Letters of his neighbor and fellow exile, Percy Bysshe Shelley—who, for all his atheism and his shared contempt for British moral cant, was horrified to hear Byron haggle with Italian parents over the price of their daughter.
The safest sex Byron had was with other men’s wives, except for the wildly unstable Lady Caroline Lamb. Speaking of psychiatric pathology, as Byron’s liaisons pile up his promiscuity comes to seem somewhat diseased or sick and not just with the clap (which, admittedly, he did contract). Byron’s behavior exceeds that of the usual “handsome rake” at play among the notoriously louche British aristocracy. Byron had numerous partners of both sexes and all social classes in several countries.
Reading the Letters, it comes across as rather hectic. From the perspective of modern psychiatry, Byron showed the self-endangering hypersexuality often exhibited by victims of childhood sexual abuse. (“Self-endangering,” literally, since homosexuality was a hanging offense in nineteenth-century Britain. Incest, by contrast, got you six months.) It comes as no surprise to learn that Byron was “sexually interfered with” (Lansdown’s phrase) by his nurse, May Gray, over the course of several months. He was nine years old when it started. This underemphasized trauma may be why Byron, years later, inverted the Don Juan myth. His Juan remains an innocent youth, not the seducer but the one seduced; women, frequently older and more experienced ones, are the predators.
That preternatural life-force was always threatening to turn into its opposite. Over-the-top Byronic promiscuity is never far from the blackest depression. (In our day, for example, porn stars attempt or commit suicide more often than the general population.) In Byron, though, the suicide-impulse was matched by an equally powerful joie de vivre. The two reconciled and hybridized into the wish to be reborn.
More than once—beginning in 1810 with his Childe Harold tourism, actually—he sought a way to erase his past and start over in some new, nobler, purer way. His flight to Italy was another attempt to escape his past, or as he tellingly referred to it, his“life in England” (emphasis mine, deathwish his). Within a year of his ongoing Italian orgy, he started contemplating ways of annihilating himself. Lansdown gives us a long letter in which Byron tries to make the legal and economic arrangements to settle in Bolivar’s South America. The increasingly pudgy aristocrat was many things, but a spade and plow man he was not, and we hear no more about the scheme. Nevertheless, this new identity is not so easily dismissed as fantasy, given what we know about his eventual “rebirth” as a commander of Greek rebel forces. He really was that eager for a new life—that is, for death. Escaping to occupied Greece was one more way for Byron to kill off Byron while still enjoying boys and hock.
And yet. Byron’s self-transformation—his self-overcoming, in Nietzschean terms—seems genuine, judging from the last section of Letters. The jaded, rapidly aging nobleman broke through to actual nobility. These last Letters constitute at once the least salacious and most fascinating group. Gone are the petty sniping, the boastful vulgarity, the self-pity. (His literary productivity, alas, went with them.) In their place, we get instructions to bankers arranging loans for the cause, clear-eyed assessments of Greek mendacity, and accounts of close escapes from capture by the Turkish fleet.
Byron’s problems in Missolonghi seem bitterly familiar: mercenary tribes, more interested in foreign money than national independence; endless internal squabbles among half a dozen would-be George Washingtons; questions of equipment and training and trust. Americans would encounter the same intractable factors when trying to “nation-build” in the fractured, fractious areas of Afghanistan and Iraq—only they had the advantage of being the empire. Byron paid for his weapons and soldiers out of his own pocket.
Shelley, whom Yeats would later compare to an angel, lay decomposing for ten days in the Gulf of Spezia before his body was washed up. The author of Adonais could be identified only by the volume of Keats in his pocket. (An initial report claimed it was a Bible, perhaps to suggest the wild-eyed atheist had been coming around to Christian belief before the end.) The body was cremated on the beach, and Byron reports, with all the deadpan delivery of Gabriel García Márquez, the magical-realist fact of how Shelley’s heart did not burn, “and is now preserved in spirits of wine.”
Shelley took four hours to burn down completely. Byron, as if to undrown his friend, went for a three-mile swim in the sea while the pyre smoked on the shore. Shirtless in the afternoon sun, Byron, too, burned. When he emerged—“scorched and drenched,” as Lansdown points out—he began the slow process of blistering. For days, he could not lay on his back or flank, and eventually the skin sloughed. Byron described himself as “St. Bartholomewed,” referring to the patron saint of the Armenian Church, martyred by being flayed alive. (Among Byron’s more interesting side projects was a collaboration with Armenian monks to produce a grammar of their language.) That image of death was followed, shortly afterward, by an image of rebirth: “But now I have a new skin, though it is * * * * tender.” Byron, the most graphomaniacal of the Romantics, shortly after this self-baptism-cum-sympathetic-cremation, stopped producing.
He did return to writing for the occasional poem, like the much-anthologized one about reaching his thirty-sixth year. Still, the last year of his life, like Shakespeare’s, was mostly one of willed silence, or of the failure to will verse. “Composition,” he wrote in 1823, “is a habit of my mind,” but it proved the first habit he broke to effect his metamorphosis, or his rebirth.
By this time, of course, he had already produced a body of work that, unlike Wordworth’s or Keats’s, remains too various and vast to describe as a whole. Byron the man can be analyzed and generalized about; Byron the writer, the whole writer, defies any critic.
Byron was easily the most ambitious of all the European Romantics—perhaps the most ambitious writer of the nineteenth century, barring Victor Hugo and Goethe, both of whose literary ambition included non-poetic forms (and both of whose lives and Letters are not nearlyas interesting).
Zoom out and observe how, within a mere ten years, Byron stormed almost every imaginable type and genre of poetry: the lyric, the narrative, and the dramatic; within narrative and lyric poetry, both Romance and satire, and within drama, both the history play (like The Two Foscari) and the religious/Biblical mystery.
Dates of composition suggest Cain was composed during a lull between Cantos of Don Juan. This toggling between the worldly-coarse and the mythopoetic would not be seen again until James Joyce, who knew better than to go fully mythic and bring his otherworldly beings onstage, as it were. Joyce kept his mythic material covered with, coded into, his Dublin and his Dubliners. Byron, by contrast, wanted to be everything in full, with no concessions to the expectations of the age.
Because he had done the spirit of the age. In his last years, he wanted to become utterly untimely (unzeitgemäße, as Nietzsche used to say). Byron wanted to be a neoclassical satirist like Pope and the Miltonic bard of the Beyond. Granted, Byron succeeded at his satirical project and failed to nail his Miltonic one—but Milton’s Biblical blank verse sublime has escaped everyone, even Milton himself in Paradise Regain’d.
This breadth is what makes generalizing about Byron’s oeuvre so difficult. What can be said of his satires, positive or negative, cannot be said of the blank verse plays; what can be said of the blank verse plays cannot be said of the Oriental Romances. The haunted “Byronic hero” of Manfred is nowhere to be found in Don Juan. The Letters alone, showing us Byron’s rapid-fire multiplicity, possess a breadth and variety equal to the Complete Poems. In fact, his worst poetry seems to be the stuff that has no parallel or context in his life and Letters. You can’t imagine this letter-writer also writing Sardanapalus.
You can, however, imagine the Byron of the Letters writing Don Juan. So readily, in fact, it is hard to understand why his closest associates were so turned off by it.
As for the readership at large, it is rather more understandable. Byron’s reputation followed a few typical patterns of fame. Sudden adulation suddenly reversed its polarity. One month he was the embodiment of Poesy complete with a dimple in the chin; the next he was an incestuous devil, complete with a limp. His contemporaries were utterly incapable of balanced appraisals when it came to him.
The other typical pattern relates to his literary fame, or rather why it cooled: He stayed a bestseller even in disgrace and exile, so long as he kept churning out Oriental Romances, but when he broke with the pattern, no one wanted this new risus sardonicus Byron. Shelley was the one of the few who saw the poem for the masterpiece it was; in fact, the boat that capsized in the Gulf of Spezia was named the Don Juan. Most poets claim indifference to public reaction, then anguish over a nasty review. Byron claimed indifference, too, but as it turns out, he actually meant it. The Letters show us how, just as Byron hit on his true theme and style as a poet, people around him started turning on his masterpiece—even John Murray, who had made a killing off of Byron’s earlier works; even Countess Theresa Guiccioli, who was sleeping with him. This happened while Byron was still writing it. Each set of two or three Cantos met with leery distaste and recommendations for cuts before it even saw print.
Judging from his own testimony, Byron would have left off Don Juan if so many friends and strangers had not booed it. He knocked out sixteen Cantos and the opening part of a seventeenth, admirably self-assured about its worth, channeling perhaps that new kid who had arrived in London years earlier with a Scottish accent and a limp.
I care nothing for what may be the consequence—critical or otherwise—all the bullies on earth shall not prevent me from writing what I like—& publishing what I like—“coute qui coute” [cost what it may]—if they had let me alone—I probably should not have continued beyond the five first—as it is—there shall be such a poem—as has not been since Ariosto—in length—in satire—in imagery—and in what I please.—
Why have the Letters, and Don Juan, aged so much better than vast tracts of Byron’s other poetic work? Like Coleridge, but unlike the other English Romantics, Byron created dramatic scenes and situations that were separable from their language. Compare Keats’s urn, or Wordsworth’s daffodils: there, the beauty of the language is the truth of the poetry, and the two cannot be separated. In much of Byron’s High Romantic work, imaginative force compensated for a lack of linguistic force. The Corsair was written in one hot week, and a reader today can tell. The style and power are in the teller and the tale—not in the telling.
Don Juan, by contrast, has aged so well precisely because of the narrator’s leisurely disinterest in his own story. He is far more interested in his rhymes, digressions, and epigrammatic clinchers—in other words, the words. Byron’s great comic epic was produced just as quickly as his other works, but what makes those other works seem half-thought-out makes Don Juan seem effervescent. Haste and inattention free up his tongue to do what it does best.
The same principle is at play in the Letters, with their incorporation of foreign phrases, associative leaps divided by proto-Dickinsonian dashes, and lucid ludic prowess. In the Letters, too, we find abrupt riffs and dilations where extemporaneous linguistic delight takes over. Associations tumble out of him. When a review expresses distaste for Don Juan’s mode-mixing—“We are never scorched and drenched whilst standing in the same spot”—Byron seizes on the metaphor to accumulate an energetic, profane, chockablock little catalogue.
Blessings on his experience! Ask him these questions about “scorching and drenching.” Did he never play at cricket, or walk a mile in hot weather? Did he never spill a dish of tea over himself in handing the cup to his charmer, to the great shame of his nankeen breeches? Did he never swim in the sea at noonday with the sun in his eyes and on his head, which all the foam of ocean could not cool? Did he never draw his foot out of too hot water, damning his eyes and his valet’s? Did he never tumble into a river or lake, fishing, and sit in his wet clothes in the boat, or on the bank, afterwards “scorched and drenched,” like a true sportsman?
Shakespeare, too, suffered the disapproval of later critics for mixing comedy and tragedy. Byron’s Letters from day to day, like Shakespeare’s dramas from scene to scene, vary genres and moods. Byron the letter-writer was not above skipping up into rhymes, just as Shakespeare did not hesitate to dash off a scene in prose. Both writers approximate the alternations of life as it is lived.
That riff I quoted, triggered by a trivial critique, is not the sort of thought, tone, or blithe vulgarity that could be cast in a conventional nineteenth-century English poem. Or a poem in any tradition, really, save the comic/bawdy tradition (which is not quite the same as “light verse”). This tradition, often linked to satire, can be found in parts of Chaucer, in those bits of Shakespeare most often cut by directors, and in the bawdy doggerel of many an otherwise prim poet’s private letters, including T.S. Eliot’s. In Don Juan, a comic, bawdy, inspired vulgarity surfaced shamelessly. It dove to wait out the Victorians, and then made a verbal spectacle of itself again in Joyce’s Ulysses.
Byron had something in his nature that was alien to the Ode or the blank verse meditation or sighing romance—yet it was not something “unpoetic,” or rather, only the poetic culture deemed it so (and still does). While he expressed it immortally in Don Juan, he expressed it first in the Letters.
The risk of reading a poet’s biography or Letters is that you may discover things about the poet that make you hate him. As Victorian England became even more prudish and pious, Byron fell into disrepute as a womanizer and a godless type. He had heroized Cain and given English literature its first and, to my knowledge, only sympathetic treatment of incest—Manfred is tormented, yes, but you’re still meant to feel for him. The Letters don’t contradict these impressions. Once, severely ill on his first visit to Greece, he scared off the priests and their extreme unction by threatening to “turn Mussalman if they come again.” And his half-sister Augusta seems to be one of the few women he truly loved, both as a brother and as something more.
Byron’s anticlericalism is rather commonplace among contemporary intellectuals, and his doomed relationship with his half-sister seems more tragic than shocking. And so we can see through to a different Byron in these Letters. Take his relationship with Coleridge, for example. In a letter soliciting Byron’s help, Coleridge compared Byron to a swan and himself to a cygnet taken under Byron’s wing. He wanted Byron to lean on his publisher, John Murray, to give him a publishing contract. Byron’s reply was full of generous praise, and sure enough, Murray ended up publishing Christabel and Other Poems the next year. Coleridge’s next volume was no great score for the publisher of Scott and Austen, but Murray could afford to do Byron this favor: Murray paid Byron well for rights to his poems, but his star author, even when in debt (and he was always in debt), steadfastly refused to accept royalty checks for his bestsellers.
Byron did not stop there. Within a few days, he was urging his friend Thomas Moore, the once-bestselling, now-forgotten Irish poet, to review Coleridge favorably on the book’s release: “I do think he [Coleridge] only wants a Pioneer and a sparkle or two to explode most gloriously.” While Byron the satirist made the occasional quip at the Ancient Mariner’s expense—“I wish he would explain his explanation”—Byron the man proved supportive and generous, and Coleridge remained grateful. Decades later, Coleridge’s grandson went on to coedit Byron’s thirteen-volume Complete Works.
Coleridge was not the only poet he helped. After the Don Juan capsized in the Gulf of Spezia, Byron wrote, aristocrat to aristocrat, to Shelley’s estranged father, securing an allowance for the poet’s widow.
Byron also seems free of the prejudices, like anti-Semitism, typical of his time and class. His Scottish ancestry, his clubfoot, and his bisexuality seem to have immunized him against such things. In 1814, at the height of his fame, Byron collaborated with two Jewish musicians, eventually publishing the volume Hebrew Melodies. “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” a common classroom text, emerged from this collaboration. A few days before Byron—in disgrace, messily separated from his wife, barred from seeing his baby daughter—was driven out of Britain, the composer Isaac Nathan sent him, as a gift for his journey, a package of matzos.
Byron wanted to be buried in Greece, but his companions brought his body back to England. In one of those symbolic details that would look terribly heavy-handed in a novel, the sexual sinner was buried at the church of St. Mary Magdalene.
He had been famous during his lifetime, but fame does not quite describe what happened to him after his death. Byron went from Britain’s most famous poet to a pan-European phenomenon. He crossed over from literary history into the history of history books, as the countless comparisons between him and Napoleon reveal. How did this come about?
His backstory and his looks did not have as much to do with it as one would think. Paradoxically, it was the writing—even some of the worst writing. Notice that many of his most enthusiastic admirers among other writers were writers from other languages. Only Shakespeare traveled better. Both poets crossed languages and cultures so well because their effects were not limited to nuances of language alone—that is, their poetry derived its effect from elements that were not lost in translation. The histrionics of Hamlet leaping into Ophelia’s grave, or Othello stabbing Desdemona, have their counterparts in the Byronic hero springing a princess from a Turkish harem, or Manfred brooding on a mountaintop. Such scenes and situations, products of Byron’s highly dramatic imagination, could be shelled from their original language and still captivate.
So a year after Giuseppe Verdi made a grand opera out of Macbeth, he made one out of Byron’s The Corsair (Il corsaro, 1848). So did Berlioz, incidentally; Adolphe Adam, better known as the composer of Giselle, made a ballet of it. All three Corsair-based productions premiered between 1844 and 1856, defying the usual pattern in which a famous writer’s reputation declines after his death. 1844 also witnessed the publication of the bestseller by Alexandre Dumas in which Edmund Dantès returns as the Count of Monte Cristo—a rich and haunted nobleman who loves dressing in Turkish clothes and is repeatedly compared to Byron, both by the author himself and by fascinated characters in the book.
As the century progressed, Byron’s lineage hurled forth larger-than-life figures whose lives and careers, consciously or unconsciously, paralleled or reflected elements of Byron’s. The Byron who fought alongside natives in native dress, for freedom from the Ottoman Empire, had a human echo one hundred years later in T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence even shared Byron’s philhellenism, translating the Odyssey while on campaign.
Lawrence’s great difference with Byron was his sexually repressed lifestyle; some of his contemporaries believed him to be asexual. The European seducer in dashing exotic garb, however, rode again as Rudy Valentino as The Son of the Sheikh. One Western cultural infatuation echoed the other. Simply compare photographs of Valentino as an Arab with Thomas Phillips’s portrait of Byron in Albanian costume, which happens to be on the cover of Lansdown’s selection. You will see how Byron settled into the collective memory of the West.
The Byron whose unapologetic sexual deviance flaunted British mores and British law, resulting in disgrace and exile, lived and loved again in Oscar Wilde. Both men, neither one an Englishman, died in exile from the London that had toasted their brilliance. Wilde’s talent, like Byron’s, flourished when he pursued art forms that showcased wit and epigrammatic flair. Like Byron, Wilde utterly underperformed the moment he attempted a Poetic Drama on a Religious Theme (in Wilde’s case, Salomé).
Among contemporary poets, it is hard to find a single poet whose life or work has anything Byronic about it. Partly this has to do with how poetry, generally, has turned inward and rather solemn. We are, in this respect, the descendants of Wordsworth and Keats. The unifying characteristic of Byron’s poetry in any of his genres—lyric, narrative romance, satire—is that it’s freewheeling. This is why, at its worst, it is slapdash, while at its best, it has spontaneity, serendipity, sprezzatura.
We have had no Byronic poet for a few generations now, and we are the duller for it. Luckily for us, this situation is not without remedy. It is time to talk about Lord Byron again. It is also time to read him again, and I recommend Lansdown’s Selected Letters and Journals as an excellent place to start.