Men, Women, and the Byron-Complex

"In the nonacademic world of letters no one, apparently, either knows or cares whether Byron was a great poet. After a hundred years, the sole question that impassions people is: 'Just how much of a cad was he?'"  

By Katherine Fullerton Gerould
Ninety-eight years ago, in April, Lord Byron died at Missolonghi. Astarte has, within the year, been publicly reissued; two volumes of new Byron letters have been put forth by John Murray within a few months. It is natural that the files of the recent British reviews should be full of him. Natural, indeed, that ever since 1905 (when Lord Lovelace first made his extraordinary gesture of publication), any index of periodical literature should have been studded with Byron's name.

Yet out of all the welter of articles and essays resultant upon Astarte and the new Letters, one curious fact emerges, dominant, obtrusive. As it was through all the nineteenth century, so now in the twentieth. None of the recent critics (unless it be Lord Ernle) cares a hang about Byron's poetry, or his prose. Mr. Percy Lubbock says frankly—too frankly, if that be his real opinion,—that everyone will read the Hobhouse collection of letters with only one purpose: to see if anything new can be gathered about the Byron-Augusta scandal. There is nothing new about Byron and Augusta in the Hobhouse collection, and therefore it is worth nothing. We would give it all for a slim volume of Keats's letters. Thus Mr. Lubbock. Mr. Maurice Hewlett, reviewing the volumes in the London Mercury, never hints at whether or not they sustain Byron's reputation as one of the great English letter-writers. He uses his three pages to vilify Byron the man, as far as his vocabulary will allow. After a hundred years, one ought to be able to consider a man's poetry on its merit. But in the nonacademic world of letters no one, apparently, either knows or cares whether Byron was a great poet. No one except Lord Ernle either knows or cares, as we have said, whether he was a better or a worse letter-writer than we had thought. After a hundred years, the sole question that impassions people is: 'Just how much of a cad was he?'

One looks in vain for another instance quite like this. Lord Byron was not a king, not a great warrior or a great statesman; he was not the leader of a cause, the founder of a party, the winner or loser of a battlefield. His one adventure into public affairs—the espousing of the Greek cause—came late, and amounted to little. He was never, to any group of enthusiasts, a symbol; his name was never the equivalent of a theory or an ideal. He 'stood for' nothing, and therefore gathered no loyalties about him like a borrowed garment.

His poetry and his personality were all that he had to make him significant. Scandal about Shelley has never been wanting; and we have recently acquired a scandal (God save the mark!) about Wordsworth. Yet people go on estimating the Lyrical Ballads and Prometheus Unbound much as they did before. Critics, however, persist still in abandoning criticism when they speak of Byron. You search their pages for any hint that he wrote Lara, The Bride of Abydos, or The Giaour; and when they mention Don Juan, their sole interest seems to lie in being able to name the woman he was living with when he produced a particular canto. The sequence of his works serves as a mere corroborative footnote to the chronique scandaleuse of his life.

Scandals a hundred years old usually lack spice for anyone save the antiquary. But, though no one since Matthew Arnold, except Paul Elmer More, has bothered much about Byron's poetry, they are bothering still about Lord Byron and his amours. One would think he was a sufficiently great poet to be spoken of as such. Or Mr. Lubbock or Mr. Hewlett—since they were supposed to be reviewing the Murray volumes—might have thrown in a word or two about Byron's letters, which, as letters, are among the best we have. But no: Byron still arouses an emotion purely personal. People persist in taking him as if he were the defendant in a criminal suit. They are as passionately partisan as if he had not, for years, been dust beneath the stones of Hucknall Torkard church.

This cannot be mere love of scandal; because, as we have said, scandal about other Romantic poets—Shelley or Wordsworth—leaves people able, still, to estimate them as poets. Certainly it is not natural preoccupation with great figures of English literature because they care nothing about 'placing' Byron's work in the magnificent sequence of English verse. No: they are simply squabbling over George Gordon, the sixth Lord Byron; adoring or detesting him precisely as did those people who stood by him, or cold-shouldered him, at Lady Jersey's famous party. The simple fact is this: no woman has ever been able to keep her head about Byron; and now that he is dead, the men seem to be as bad as the women. What other private personality, in our Anglo-Saxon world, has ever been so persistent as this?

It is easy to find excuses: easy to say that Harriet Beecher Stowe, in 1869 (for she was the first cause of most of the modern talk), kindled the dying embers, and lit such a candle as, she trusted, should never be put out; easy to say that Lord Lovelace had a grandmother-complex, and felt constrained to produce the worst-written book of the century to vilify his grandfather. Even Lord Lovelace and Mrs. Stowe, who were two as good Byron-haters as you can find anywhere—but we shall come to that later. Easy to say that the controversy over Byron and Augusta dealt (to put it mildly) with peculiarly intriguing possibilities. Yet one must remember that, as Professor Strahan has just pointed out, at the time when Byron left England for Continental exile, there was sympathy abroad for Byron and none for Shelley, and that probably his going to the Shelleys was the coup de grace to Byron's reputation. In the minds of the British public, that is, even after the separation, Byron was a sinner, but Shelley was scum. There is something there, other than scandal,— other, even, than monstrosity of scandal,—to account for this clamor that bursts out, even to-day, about Byron—both for and against him—on the slightest excuse.

That something is personality. Byron is so real, so vivid, so persistent, as a human being, that you cannot down him. Lucian makes Diogenes in Hades greet Alexander with: 'Dear me, Alexander, you dead like the rest of us?' Byron is not dead like the rest of them. He evokes the same kind of adoration, of contempt, of loyalty, that he would evoke if he walked down Piccadilly to-day. People either shed tears over him or spit when his name is mentioned. At least, Mr. Hewitt, K.C., is not far from tears; and Mr. Hewlett's pages come as near the gesture of expectoration as print can come.

No woman, I said earlier, has ever been able to keep her head about Byron, living or dead. Miss E. C. Mayne, in her two-voume life, comes fairly near it; yet even Miss Mayne lapses from the judicial temper. Being a woman, I should not attempt, myself, to weigh evidence that concerned Byron. It is unfortunate that the man who had access to more facts about him than anyone else—Lord Lovelace, namely—should have been as incapable of either assembling, presenting, or weighing evidence, as any woman. For some years, I have hoped that some man with a judicial mind and an urbane temper would come forward and do us a new book about Byron. But one is constrained to believe that even men encounter a peculiar difficulty in dealing with him. Miss Mayne warns the women 'who are in love with Byron's ghost' that the Byron they love is the Byron his male friends saw and knew, and that, if they had known him in the flesh, they would have fared no better than Annabella Milbanke or Caroline Lamb. That will not prevent women from being in love with Byron's ghost, or even from writing love-letters to it. All women who have ever been in love with Byron are disqualified, naturally. But, curiously enough, the people who are not in love with him are equally disqualified.

I do not know who was editing the Atlantic Monthly in 1869. [See endnote*

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