Books October 2002

The Misfortune of Poetry

Byron's dramatic life has become indissoluble from his work

In Jane Austen's Persuasion, Anne Elliot has a surprising discussion with a shy naval officer about the relative merits of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, and finds Captain Benwick to be "so intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry; and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly."

It is notorious that the Napoleonic Wars seldom achieve even the level of offstage noise in Austen's work, but in Persuasion, which was finished not long after the Battle of Waterloo, there are repeated references to Byron—a figure who in his lifetime was often compared to Bonaparte himself, and who excited similar feelings of fear and loathing, as well as admiration, among his countrymen. Nobody would describe the virgin genius of Hampshire as a romantic, but when she considered the aspect of romance, she found it hard to keep Byron's unwholesome but fascinating visage out of her mind.

By a nice coincidence, when W. H. Auden came to write his "Letter to Lord Byron," he explained that he had originally thought of writing to Jane Austen instead.

There is one other author in my pack:
For some time I debated which to write to.
Which would least likely send my letter back?
But I decided that I'd give a fright to
Jane Austen if I wrote when I'd no right to,
And share in her contempt the dreadful fates
Of Crawford, Musgrave, and of Mr Yates ...
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of 'brass',
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

Written in 1936, as Auden was about to set off for the war in Spain, and cleverly imitating the rhyme of Byron's Don Juan, this poem offers a key with which to decode the relationship between the personal and the poetic in the Byron myth. Byron, as Auden was to say later, "was an egoist and, like all egoists, capable of falling in love with a succession of dream-figures, but incapable of genuine love or fidelity which accepts a person completely ... he was also acutely conscious of guilt and sin." However, "when Byron had ceased to identify his moral sense with himself and had discovered how to extract the Byronic Satanism from his lonely hero and to turn it into the Byronic Irony which illuminated the whole setting, when he realized that he was a little ridiculous, but also not as odd as he had imagined, he became a great poet."

In this way, and employing his gentle style of self-mockery, Auden was able to draw upon Byron in making his own great refreshment of English poetry. What might serve as an apt illustration of "the Byronic Irony"? I propose my favorite example. Byron's "The Isles of Greece" has for years been included in school anthologies, as a hymn to the lost glory of Hellas and an appeal for the noble revival of its epic period. The poet speaks of dying for liberty, and we all know of Byron's "romantic" end at Missolonghi. But if one looks up those celebrated lines in the third canto of Don Juan, one finds them set apart, in a different scheme and meter, as a kind of spoof or knockoff. Juan meets a poet at an Oriental court, a creator of vers d'occasion who is all things to all men and who works on the principle of "when in Rome."

In France, for instance, he would write a chanson;
In England a six canto quarto tale;
In Spain, he'd make a ballad or romance on
The last war—much the same in Portugal;
In Germany, the Pegasus he'd prance on
Would be old Goethe's (see what says De Staël);
In Italy, he'd ape the 'Trecentisti;'
In Greece, he'd sing some sort of hymn like this t'ye:

and off we gallop into the soaring notes of "The Isles of Greece," which can still start a patriotic tear on a manly cheek but which was originally composed and offered as a self-parody. This goes some way toward vindicating Auden's definition of the ironic.

However, Auden was startlingly mistaken when he opined that "Byron was not really odd like Wordsworth; his experiences were those of the ordinary man." And Lord Macaulay, in his famous defense of Byron against the moralists and the censors, was also wrong in believing that a moment would soon come when people would forget the scandals and dramas of the life and pay attention solely to the poetry. Byron's career is more like a comet than the meteor to which it is usually compared: it comes around again and again, to be reviewed and revisited. And his life has become indissoluble from his work.

This is partly because he was an actual aristocrat as well as a natural one. His example, and his leadership, met two of Max Weber's criteria for authority in being simultaneously traditional and charismatic. While he was still at Cambridge University, with a princely allowance and a servant and a horse, he wrote to his half-sister Augusta Leigh to say that he felt "as independent as a German Prince who coins his own Cash, or a Cherokee Chief who coins no Cash at all, but enjoys what is more precious, Liberty." This was having it both ways in a handsome style, and also stating a paradox that would continue to stamp his life. There can be no doubt that a large element in Byron's impact pertained to "the economic basis of society."

Another element has to do with matters that are not treated at all in the work of Jane Austen. John Murray, of Albemarle Street (who was also Austen's publisher), famously destroyed the manuscript of Byron's memoirs and strove, often successfully, to bowdlerize the more profane and obscene passages in the output of his most profitable author—a historical deficit for which Fiona MacCarthy's biography seeks to compensate. This book is awash not just in incest and sodomy but also in fairly graphic mentions of the ravages of the pox, of piles and rectal damage, and of male and female prostitution. She makes a persuasive case for considering Byron's heterosexual promiscuity as at least in part a losing struggle with homosexual pedophilia. And she delivers some strong whiffs of Swiftian disgust. Byron detested the sight of women eating, and was obsessed with what might politely be called bathroom arrangements. He was acutely aware of society's being balanced precariously over a brimming cloaca. His years of innocence were brief: at the age of nine he was subjected to much groping and fondling by his nurse, May Gray, who also used to whip him savagely and to terrorize him with hellfire religious rants. In other words, before he was ten, Byron had been made intimately aware of the relationship between sex and cruelty, and also the relationship between authority and superstition. I once proposed that a search be made for the gravesite of this sordid woman. It should be restored and preserved as a temple of the Romantic movement.

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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